THE CENTRAL RACE
An Excerpt from Capacities of Self-Creation, Decoded from Chamber 17
The excavation team had made camp in the outer cavern, and Neruda was dimly aware that he was the last one left in the chambers. He glanced at his wristwatch and sighed. Eleven o'clock. No wonder he was tired. He stood and stretched his legs and arms hoping to find new energy to continue his analysis of the glyphs.
"Anyone here?" he shouted, poking his head into the corridor and facing downward toward the entrance.
Silence rejoined the corridor and chambers, the halogen light-pods inside each chamber and at each chamber entrance being his only reassurance of humanity. Other than that, he might as well have been on some other planet in some other galaxy. He collected his notebook of sketches, returned to the center of chamber seven, and sat down, cross-legged.
"Jamisson, are you in here?" a faint voice drifted into the chamber.
Emily, he thought. "In here. Chamber seven."
He listened for the approaching footsteps the way he imagined a blind person might focus on an unfamiliar soundscape. Voices revealed that Emily wasn't alone, or else she was talking to herself - something entirely possible, he reminded himself.
"Time for coffee and cookies," Emily's voice promised.
Neruda's heart gladdened at the prospects of coffee and some joy-food, not to mention, company. "You didn't," he exclaimed to the ceiling, knowing that the sound of his voice would find her ears.
"I did," she replied. "You said chamber seven, didn't you?"
"You heard right."
A moment later she appeared with Samantha in tow, both wearing blue jeans and carrying backpacks. Samantha had her hair up in a bun and was wearing a green turtleneck sweater that perfectly complemented her striking red hair. Emily wore a white cardigan sweater against the chill in the chambers, which made sweaters and long pants a necessity.
"It's good to have some company," Neruda said. "I was beginning to feel a little too isolated in here. These chambers can get creepy when no one else is around."
"Anything new?" Emily asked as she opened her pack and withdrew a thermos of hot coffee.
Neruda shook his head. "Not really."
"What're you working on tonight?" Samantha asked.
"We're just beginning to analyze the glyphs in the context of the inscriptions. We're looking for clues as to the spelling system and language structure."
"The paintings are so luminous," Samantha said, as if ignoring his explanation. "It's so strange to be looking at paintings by beings from a different galaxy. It's -"
"Unbelievable," Emily added, completing her sentence.
Neruda smiled. "Their application technique defines the word permanence. That's why the paintings are so luminous after some twelve hundred years."
"Whatever it is," Samantha remarked, "I've never seen such brilliant colors before. They literally glow as if they emit light, not merely reflect it."
"I agree," Emily said. "They're almost eerie... in an uncomfortable way."
Emily poured three cups of coffee from a vacuum flask and handed one each to Neruda and Samantha. Curls of steam rose up, filling the sterile atmosphere of the chamber with the aroma of coffee. Neruda warmed his hands on his cup and thanked Emily. He leaned back on the floor on one side, propped up with his right elbow, his one leg bent up and the other straight out. He was dressed in khaki pants and a black sweater with a white T-shirt poking out around his neckline. "This'll keep me going for another hour or two. It is regular, isn't it?"
"Yes," Emily assured him.
Samantha sat down next to Emily, still staring at the painting. "You know, the people they draw in these paintings don't look that alien. Some could pass as humans, others as angelic."
"They're a bit too abstract for me to judge that," Neruda replied. "Besides, they could represent the Anasazi Indians, and not necessarily themselves."
"What's the chance that a race from another galaxy would look like ourselves?" Samantha asked, turning from the wall painting to look into Neruda's eyes, her face as open and trusting as a child's.
"Excellent?" Emily returned in disbelief.
"Well, I'm not suggesting they'd be carbon-copies, but look at the Zetas and Corteum, they certainly bear a resemblance to us. The humanoid genotype varies, but the basic shape and structure is essentially the same."
"Can you tell me something?" Samantha asked. "Why haven't we been given the green light to RV the creators of this site?"
Neruda stared back with a blank expression as if her question completely surprised him. "I don't know. I've been too involved with the optical disc and now the site itself to make it a priority."
"So no one's made a conscious decision not to RV the creators?" Samantha ventured.
"Do you want to?"
"Now?" Neruda asked.
"Yes, now," Samantha replied eagerly.
"I suppose we... we could," he replied hesitantly, his mind calculating all the ramifications. He had monitored dozens of RV sessions in the recent past, so he knew the procedure well.
"I'll need a pad of paper and a pen or pencil," Samantha said.
"Right here? Now?" Emily questioned.
"Might as well," Neruda said, offering his notebook and pen to Samantha.
"You've done this before?" Emily asked turning to Neruda.
"Okay if I watch?" Emily asked. "I've never actually seen one of these sessions live and in person."
Samantha straightened her back and crossed her legs Indian style. "It's fine with me."
"I assume you didn't bring RePlay," Neruda said.
"No, I wasn't planning this. Am I outside protocol?"
"I haven't officially established RV protocol, so we'll make it up as we go. I'll record your findings exactly as you relate them, don't worry."
Samantha closed her eyes. Her face went blank. "Could you move the space heater a little closer? I always get cold when I do this."
Neruda got up and adjusted the heater. "Anything else before we get started?"
"More coffee anyone?" Emily asked.
"I'll take a refill," Neruda replied. "Just half a cup."
Samantha shook her head. "I'll be ready in less than a minute."
Neruda got his refill and sat back down. He drank greedily, anticipating that he'd have little time to drink once they started. Fortunately, the coffee had cooled down enough.
"Samantha, are you ready?" Neruda asked.
"I'd like you to move to a L-2 survey of the ETC site. Point of creation time frame."
"I'm there," Samantha reported, her voice strangely distant sounding.
Samantha's hand began to draw something on the notebook in her lap.
"I'm detecting creatures of some kind, tall... no, very tall -"
"Are they corporeal?"
"Yes, but less dense than we, as if they're only partly there," Samantha replied. A rough sketch showed slender, humanoid creatures with long heads. "They seem like angels -"
"Why?" Neruda interrupted, "What makes you say that?"
"Their heads possess a light around them... like angels... or... or saints. Like I've seen in paintings. Their skin is almost translucent, as if light was being cast outward."
"I'll record angels as an analytic," Neruda said. "What're they doing?"
"They're designing something... something of critical importance... to them and to us."
"Okay, Samantha, look at the design," Neruda suggested. "What do you see?"
"They're blueprints that represent a massive construction project that they're going to place on Earth -"
"Why Earth, Samantha?"
"They're the original planners who genetically seeded Earth with higher life-forms like humans, apes, dolphins, whales, dinosaurs, and so on. They wanted to create a genetic library of DNA-related, interdependent life forms. They wanted a repository... or library in the galaxy that they could draw from for their future creations."
She paused and took in a deep breath. "We're like a genetic reference library to them."
"Okay, cue on the design blueprints, but move forward in time one year," Neruda said. "What do you see?"
"A... a huge three-dimensional sphere - maybe fifty meters in circumference. It's suspended from a domed ceiling that's equally vast - like a huge cathedral, but much larger than any cathedral I've ever seen."
"What is this sphere?"
"I'm feeling that it's earth, but it doesn't look like earth exactly. No, it's earth... it's primordial earth. I'm looking at a model of Earth maybe a billion years ago."
"Sketch what you see. Pay particular attention to the land masses and where they are."
Neruda paused for a moment, catching Emily's eyes, wide open in amazement. Samantha was busy drawing what she saw. Her eyes remained narrowed slits with an almost imperceptible tremor.
"Cue on the purpose of the sphere," Neruda ordered.
"It's a representation or model... no, it's a holographic photograph of some kind. Wow, there're other planets in this building -"
"For now, keep your focus on the sphere that represents Earth," he said. "What's the purpose? Why do they have this on display?"
Samantha was quiet for a few seconds as if she was observing something too immense to put into words. "It's not a cathedral, it's a... a warehouse of some kind... no, I'm getting the analytic that it's a computer database, but that doesn't make sense -"
"Stay in observation mode," Neruda commanded. "Cue on the purpose of the sphere."
"I get a strong sense that this sphere is in a database... like an information catalog of potential life-bearing planets. These beings are like genetic planners, and they're assessing which genetics should go to which planet. Yes, that's the purpose of this place. It's a repository of all life-bearing planets within our galaxy!"
"And what do these planners want to do with these planets?" Neruda asked, striving to maintain an even tone despite his rising excitement.
"They're selecting which planet will be the genetic library for our sector of the galaxy."
"I'm struggling here," Samantha whispered tensely. "Someone is approaching. He... or she... no, it's a he... he knows I'm here. They can sense RV observation. He's contacting me. He wants to know why I'm here."
"Do not respond," Neruda ordered. "Move to point of creation relative to the ETC site in New Mexico."
Samantha's face relaxed noticeably. "I'm in a building of some kind. It reminds me of a large monastery. Everything is quiet. Peaceful. The smell is somewhat salty like it's near an ocean. I can't see anything outside... but it's gotta be near an ocean."
"What do you see inside?"
"I'm in a room - fairly large, like a conference room. There're at least twelve of these same beings. They speak telepathically. I can't understand them, but I know they're talking with one another. There's a large table in the middle of the room, and in the middle of the table is a beam of light coming from some source... from above. It's like a projector. The light is illuminating an image - no, it's creating the image of a three-dimensional helix. It's the ETC site. It's a holographic cross-section of the site. I see it!"
"Good," Neruda said. "Now, look closely at the image, what's its purpose?"
Samantha's face tensed up as furrows suddenly spread across her forehead like ripples in a pond. "Again they sense me. They're trying to ask me something... I'm not sure what I should do, they're probing me... they want to -"
"Do not respond, Samantha! Focus on my voice! What's the purpose of the ETC site?"
"I can't," Samantha whispered. "I can't ignore them. Their minds are too powerful -"
"Samantha, listen to my voice. Do you hear me?"
"Yes," her voice trailing off.
"Okay, go to point of first contact between these beings and humans." She remained silent.
"Samantha, can you hear me?"
Again, she didn't respond, her face completely relaxed.
"Should we wake her?" Emily asked, concern showing in her voice.
Neruda ignored Emily's question. "Samantha, if you can hear me, acknowledge. Now!"
Neruda stood and shook Samantha's shoulders firmly. "Wake up!" Her eyes flew wide open and she shivered as if she were both cold and afraid.
"Are you okay?" Emily asked.
Neruda moved the space heater closer to Samantha.
"I'm okay," she said, "just a little scared."
"What happened?" Neruda asked.
"I've never done an RV session where my presence was detected. It's a very uncomfortable feeling. These beings just wanted to know why I was there. They didn't feel threatened. They just don't like deception. I feel as though they scolded me."
"Did you communicate with them?" Neruda asked.
"I'm ... I'm not sure," Samantha stuttered, her voice quivering from body chills. "I felt their minds probing me, and then I heard your voice. That's... that's all I remember."
"Do you remember anything else before that?" Neruda asked.
"I remember everything," Samantha said. "It was one of the most vivid RV sessions I've ever had. I saw primordial Earth - or at least a holographic model of it. It was incredible! You realize what this means?"
"What?" Emily and Neruda asked in unison.
"It means that Earth was seeded by these beings. They're the mythical Life Carriers."
Neruda returned to his original position on the floor. "It's possible, but I wouldn't necessarily assume that that's their identity."
"What else could they be?" Samantha protested, shocked that Neruda could doubt her.
"The Corteum always portrayed Life Carriers as subspace beings. I doubt they exist in corporeal form. Also, your description infers they might be more related to the Shining Ones - also mythical beings - but less obscure."
"Shining Ones?" Samantha thought aloud.
"They're also known as the Virachoca, sometimes the Kukulcan, and more commonly as the Elohim. There are even a few brave scholars that believe our angel mythology stems from their involvement in our planet's prehistory."
"And what do the Corteum say about the Shining Ones?" Samantha asked.
"Very powerful beings," he replied, "who've mastered how to disguise their influence. They keep a low profile by being incomprehensible."
"They keep a low profile by being incomprehensible?" Emily echoed in frustration. "What does that mean?"
"The Shining Ones, according to the Corteum, are the Central Race, the original race of beings that evolved in the centermost galaxy of the universe. As the universe expanded and created ever-increasing space, energy and matter, these beings expanded into the other galaxies as the creator gods or galactic planners who exported the master DNA templates from the more evolved, ancient galaxies to those that were in development or incubation."
"I've never heard of the Central Race -"
"It's not exactly taught in school," Neruda said, smiling. "They're not unlike the Central Cell. This is the original cell that comes into existence when the father's sperm unites with the mother's egg. From this Central Cell, all of your other eighty trillion cells spring. Your other cells are differentiated; the Central Cell is not. It holds the master blueprint of your physical, emotional, and mental make-up. It lives in the pineal gland.
"In the case of the Central Race, they're the original humanoid genotype, and everything of a humanoid existence stems from their DNA structure."
"Are you implying these beings are the ancestors of every humanoid life form in the universe?" Emily asked slowly, weighing each word as she spoke.
"According to the Corteum, yes." Neruda replied, "And they're also our Gods."
"Gods?" Emily mirrored.
"That's not necessarily what they are," he explained, "it's what they've been dubbed by individuals who've somehow managed to come in contact with them."
"Like who?" Emily asked.
"Like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, to name a few."
"So now you're going to tell me that our spiritual leaders were fooled by these beings - our distant genetic forebearers - into thinking they were God?" Samantha looked distraught.
"I'm only relating the Corteum perspective. Their cosmology is much more developed than our own, and they don't distinguish between spirituality and cosmology. To them, cosmology is spiritual study."
"But fooled?" Samantha asked again.
"I'm not saying they were fooled by these beings," Neruda replied. "It's not like these beings masquerade as Gods. They make no such claims. According to the Corteum, the Central Race possesses what looks to us as God-like powers only because their evolutionary timeline is so vast."
"So," Emily ventured, "if these beings are the Shining Ones, the Central Race, as you put it, then all the religious references to God or... or Gods... are really about them?"
"Again, according to the Corteum, yes."
Emily let out a long sigh. "So who created them?"
"As far as I know, no one knows," he replied.
"It still doesn't make sense to me," Samantha blurted. "Why would such highly evolved beings essentially be in the business of exporting DNA from galaxy to galaxy?"
"There's nothing more important - physically speaking - than DNA structures. The Central Race is essentially charged with the administration of humanoid genotypes. The human genotype of today is dramatically different from that which dominated Earth a million years ago. The Corteum view is that this didn't happen due to evolutionary development, but through the intervention of the Central Race - the Shining Ones."
"So our Gods are geneticists?" Emily said. "It leaves me cold." She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them.
Neruda shrugged. "I'm not stating this as the infallible truth. It's the opinion of the Corteum. It's their cosmology. Not mine."
"So you don't believe it?" Samantha asked.
"I try not to think about it too much. But I find it interesting and entirely plausible."
"So you do believe it?"
"I don't know," he answered, picking at the heel of his hiking boot. "We know that the universe started with a relatively small number of galaxies, and has expanded into about a hundred billion galaxies. It seems plausible that somewhere in the center of the universe, a race of humanoids could have evolved or been created. This race could be the progeny of God and the progenitors of humanity - here, everywhere."
Neruda stood and stretched his legs. "It's getting late, maybe we should go."
"I can't leave until you answer one more question," Samantha stated. "If the Central Race constructed this site, then wouldn't it be logical that it has something to do with genetics?"
"It's completely logical," Neruda replied. "I'll update Fifteen tomorrow on our return. We'll see what he thinks. We could be way off base on this. It's too early to extrapolate anything more than alternative hypotheses."
"Will we be doing additional RV sessions?" Samantha asked.
"That'll be up to Fifteen. It's worrisome that they can detect us, especially if they can probe us through our RV inquiry. It makes us vulnerable. We'll see what Fifteen wants to do. Okay?"
"Why the concern about communication?" Emily asked. "I mean why not just ask them who they are, what they want with us, and why they left this site behind?"
"Remember the timeline she was on?"
"Yeah," Emily answered.
"When you move into the past or future with an RV session, protocol dictates that the session remain in observation mode only," he said. Neruda squatted to organize his notebooks and return them to his backpack. "It's dangerous because our interaction could somehow change a past event which could have a catastrophic impact in our time. So, until we know with some certainty that a change is in our best interest, it's better to remain incommunicado."
"I hope he approves further contact," Samantha said. "I think it's essential to understanding this site and all it contains."
"We'll see," Neruda said. "But don't get your hopes up too high. He's very skittish when it comes to alien communication, particularly if it's with a more advanced race. And I'm hard-pressed to imagine a race more advanced than the Central Race."
"Whatever happened to the notion that the more advanced a race is the more spiritually inclined they are?" Samantha asked.
"The fear has to do with manipulation," Neruda explained. "An advanced race can manipulate the perceptions of a less advanced race. In other words, they could make themselves appear as the Central Race or another benign, spiritually advanced race of beings, and be something altogether different. And we couldn't tell the difference."
"Sounds a little paranoid to me," Samantha said.
"There's good reason to be paranoid, if that's what you wish to call it. Especially when you're dealing with timelines that stretch back a billion years -"
"But that's just it," Emily interrupted. "If this race had holographic databases a billion years ago, wouldn't that make them extremely advanced. Our evolutionary equivalent of a great, great, great grandfather? And if they were so advanced, wouldn't that make them spiritual benefactors, and not potential adversaries?"
"Yes, but only assuming that RV technology is flawless and perfect. And I'm sorry to report, it isn't. The mere fact that they could detect Samantha indicates that they could also be in a position to conceal their identity. In effect, manipulate her perception for their own agenda."
Neruda ran his hands through his hair. "I know this sounds paranoid, but trust me, there are good reasons for caution. Be patient. I'll talk with Fifteen and we'll see what he says. Can we go now?" he asked, with a hint of growing impatience. "I still need to draft a report before I turn in."
They packed up and made their way back down the sloping corridor to the campsite in the outer cavern. The Handlers had already left earlier in the evening with all of the artifacts. Most of Security had also left, having finished securing the secrecy of the site. Only the Research team remained with one security attachment.
Like a sleek cat, Li-Ching slid out of her car. As she closed the door, Donavin appeared, clothes disheveled, as if he'd dressed in a hurry. His normally neat hair was mussed, victim to the high winds following last night's storm.
"Everything okay?" Li-Ching asked.
"Fine, just fine," he said. "And you?"
"I'm doing well, thank you."
"Thought we should talk," he said. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee on the way down to the office?"
"I'm a little late for a meeting -"
"Please," he pleaded, taking her hand.
Li-Ching quickly glanced around the parking lot, assuring herself that they were alone. "If this is about last night, don't worry about it -"
"I didn't mean to assume anything... I thought you were coming on to me. That's all."
"Trust me, Mr. McAlester, you'll know if and when I ever come on to you," she said, walking away.
Donavin stood motionless watching her walk away. Her short, blue skirt revealed her perfectly turned legs, and he momentarily forgot his rehearsed speech. "Look, when you decide what you want, tell me. In the meantime, I'll keep a professional distance."
Li-Ching stopped, turned and walked back to him, stopping with her face just inches from his. "If I decide what I want, there'll be no telling. I'll show you. And if you intend to keep your professional distance, you'll need regular cold showers. Do you understand, Mr. McAlester?"
Feeling her warm breath on his face, Donavin swallowed hard, and struggled to regain composure. "Fine, so what do you want me to do?" he asked meekly as Li-Ching spun and walked away.
"I think you can decide that on your own," she said, tossing the words over her shoulder, and continuing her path to the ACIO entrance.
Donavin adjusted his sunglasses and glanced at his watch, trying to look cool despite his discomfort. Why does she have to be so damn complicated, he thought? But he knew full well that this was exactly what attracted him.
Neruda had met briefly with Fifteen the night before and updated him on the RV session at the ETC site. Fifteen had scheduled a priority interrupt meeting for Saturday at 0900 hours. Neruda was early for the meeting because of the location. The sunroom was his favorite, and today was a beautiful one in all respects, as large, billowy clouds waltzed across a royal blue sky. Dressed in navy blue slacks and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up casually, he relaxed comfortably in a rattan rocking chair. As he scanned his notes in preparation for the meeting, the aroma of fresh coffee permeating the sunroom enhanced his already pleasant, well-rested mood.
Samantha and Branson had also been summoned, and she was the next to arrive. "I was surprised the elevator worked for me," she said, gingerly entering the room. "I've never been in here before."
Her eyes scanned around the room, eager to spy something unusual or secretive.
"You'll be disappointed if you expect to find anything extraordinary here," Neruda commented. "Fifteen was in charge of the decorating and he's a minimalist at heart."
"Actually I like his taste in interior design," she replied. "Besides, the view outside is what counts."
"Did you see Branson or Fifteen downside?" Neruda asked.
"No. Do you think they'll want to do an RV session?"
Neruda put the cap back on his pen and returned it to his shirt pocket. "I met briefly with Fifteen last night and gave him a quick update. He was very interested in our session and asked some good questions -"
"Who does he think they are?" she asked in a flurry.
"Even if he drew any conclusions, he didn't tell me anything."
Neruda shook his head.
Samantha walked over to a set of shelves that housed a variety of beautiful and exotic shells and crystals. "He collects these things?"
"Yeah, he'll collect anything as long as its organic, untouched by human hands, and conveys a uniquely beautiful energy."
"So I shouldn't touch these?"
"I meant manufactured by human hands," Neruda laughed. "You can touch them."
Samantha picked up a crystal and examined it with rapt interest. "These are the most unusual things I've ever seen."
"That's because they're gifts from the Corteum," Fifteen said as he came off the elevator with Branson. "When the Corteum built their underground cities, they found pockets of crystals that even they had never seen before. What you're holding is completely uncut, they grow that way like organic fractals."
"They're remarkable," she said.
"Pick one out that you like and it's yours," Fifteen offered.
His eyes held an uncommon brightness that attracted everyone who met him, and Samantha stared at him for a long moment, drawn into those eyes, as she searched for the right thing to say. "Thanks, but ... but I couldn't."
"No, I mean it, take one," Fifteen said. "I might not offer again." He winked and whispered something to Branson, who smiled in return.
Samantha bent over to examine the crystals more closely. She took one of the smallest, and cradled it in her hand like a child might do with a baby bird. "I'll take this one. It's perfect."
"They literally are perfect," Fifteen said. "I mean that in a mathematical sense."
"Thank you so much," Samantha said.
"You're very welcome, but I should tell you one thing about these crystals, there're none on Earth except what you see right here, so I need you to keep it in your office if you don't mind."
"I understand," Samantha said.
Fifteen sat down in his favorite chair and stared out the windows at the high desert flora and gray canyon walls that surrounded the east end of the ACIO compound. Branson and Samantha also sat down in the chairs that encircled a round marble coffee.
"Jamisson tells me you made a breakthrough," Fifteen said, suddenly turning to Samantha, catching her off guard.
She fidgeted in her chair with embarrassment. "I'm not sure it was a breakthrough, sir, but we did find it extremely interesting."
"Would you like to try again?" Fifteen asked.
"You mean another RV session on the ETC site?"
Samantha's eyebrows rose slightly and her eyes widened. "You mean communicate with them?"
"Perhaps," Fifteen said, not wanting to get her hopes up too high.
"You'll be the monitor?" she asked.
"Would you prefer someone else?" Fifteen replied.
"No, no," Samantha answered, shaking her head vigorously. "It would be great to have you monitor, sir."
"Good, then we've established our agenda for the morning."
"So ... er ... you believe the creators of the ETC site are the Central Race?" Samantha asked hesitantly.
"I believe we'll know more after our session," Fifteen replied smoothly.
"Perhaps we'll be convinced, perhaps not. We'll see."
Fifteen hit a button on a console next to his chair. "We'll have no interruptions from below. Now, are you ready to get started?"
"One thing before we start," Neruda said. "In the last segment of our RV session, Samantha was probed by these beings. We don't know to what degree, but they may already know something of our activities. Also, I couldn't monitor Samantha during the probe. She was uncommunicative. I would assume she might -"
"We'll handle it a little differently then," Fifteen said. "Everyone ready?"
"Do you still want RePlay on?" Branson said, as he leaned over to open up his briefcase.
"Yes," Fifteen replied, "unless you think it would hinder you in any way, Samantha."
"I don't think so," she said.
Branson unpacked the device and handed it to Samantha. He plugged one of the leads into the console next to Fifteen.
"See if David's ready," Fifteen said, turning to Branson, who flicked a switch. An overhead computer monitor crackled on. He flicked another switch and window shades silently covered the windows, bringing the room to a comfortable darkness.
"David, this is Branson, we're ready on this end, are you live?"
David's implacable face appeared on the overhead monitor, and nodded. "I'm good to go, sir."
Fifteen turned his attention to Samantha, who looked increasingly uncomfortable. "Samantha, we're going to have ZEMI monitor the RV session through David. It'll prompt me if it sees something that I might miss. Think of it as insurance. Are you comfortable with that?"
"Of course, sir," she replied, trying to sound indifferent.
"Good, let's begin," Fifteen said. "David, I'm going to put ZEMI on text scroll outputs. Bill, can you put the text scroll on the bottom third of the screen?"
The computer monitor went blank except for a thin, blue line, about two-thirds down.
"Samantha, whenever you're ready, we'll begin," Fifteen said.
Samantha made final adjustments on the harness straps of the RePlay headgear, sat back in her chair, and folded her hands in her lap. With a fleeting look at Neruda, she closed her eyes. A minute passed. "I'm ready," she said with a whisper.
The top part of the monitor screen began to flicker as a hazy image began to form.
"Samantha, go to point of creation of the ETC site, L4 survey mode, and cue on the planetary database," Fifteen said. "Report your findings when you're ready."
Samantha's face was expressionless as she began to report what she saw.
"I'm in a huge auditorium... its dimensions would measure in kilometers, not meters. Intricate patterns cover the walls, floors, and ceilings - more intricate than I can describe... the colors are browns, yellows, blues, and black.
"I see three beings... similar to the ones I saw before. They're walking inside this huge interior space like tiny ants in a huge field. One of them is carrying a device of some kind. He's pointing it at these spheres or... or what I believe are holographic representations of planets. There're thousands of these things... spheres I mean, but I get the impression that there're many more rooms like this one. This building is unbelievably huge."
The monitor screen showed a blurry depiction of what Samantha saw. It looked like the first images of television, except there were color tones, albeit faint.
"Okay, good, now I want you to look around in this building, but do not stay in any POV for longer than about ten seconds. I'll remind you to switch POV. Report."
"The planets are holograms... I can see through them when I'm up close. From a distance they appear to be solid representations. I'm looking at one that's completely water, no... no there's a small landmass at its southernmost pole -"
"Change POV, Samantha," Fifteen ordered.
"This planet is large, it's also mostly water... I'm getting the analytic that it's a very young planet. It has no life, but it's being cultivated to have life. Its weather is very volatile -"
"Samantha, change POV. Cue on the device that the three beings are using. Report."
Her face showed some strain as she focused her attention on the object. "It appears to be an activation device... yes, they use it to activate the database. As before, I get the strong impression that this entire structure is part of a three-dimensional, holographic database."
"Go to the model representing earth," Fifteen ordered.
"I see it. It's smaller than most of the other planets represented here. It's also bluer in color..."
"Samantha, I want you to go inside the hologram of earth," he said. "Do you understand my directive?"
"Yes," she replied. "I'm there. It's an amazing mixture of colors and patterns."
"Can you locate their source?"
Samantha's face remained expressionless as she paused for a few seconds. "I see a cord of light... something inexplicable... it seems like an umbilical cord..."
"Follow it to its source," Fifteen said.
"I'm inside something - maybe a room... maybe a... computer, I'm not sure. It feels like architecture. I see thousands, no, millions of these cords converging into something... it almost looks like a nebula. I don't know how else to describe it."
"We can see it, too," Fifteen reassured her. "Don't worry about descriptions. Cue on the purpose of this room."
"I'm getting the strong analytic that the room is non-physical. It only appears physical. It's a generator of some kind. It's like the central energy system for this building where the planets are represented. Perhaps it's a holographic generator, but it seems more like an organic computer."
"Good, Samantha," Fifteen said. "Now, cue on the generator into which these cords of light converge. Report."
"I'm not getting anything... oh, wait, these cords... they're like miniature filaments that conduct something... energy or... or maybe a life-giving substance of some kind. I'm not sure -"
"Stay in observation mode," Fifteen directed. "Can you locate their original source of energy?"
"No, everything here seems like a pattern that's been replicated billions of time over. There's no original structure that I can feel. Suddenly, I'm getting the analytic that this room is the planet. That I'm inside this planet in which the building is situated."
On the bottom third of the monitor a message began to scroll from ZEMI.
PROBABLE HYPOTHESIS (10.0% CERTAINTY RANGE): THIS PLANET IS A CONSTRUCTED SATELLITE DESIGNED TO HOUSE A LIFE-BEARING PLANETARY DATABASE. INSUFFICIENT DATA TO DETERMINE PURPOSE OF THE DATABASE. PLEASE DIRECT RV TO ESTABLISH THIS PURPOSE. END.
"Samantha, return to the room where the earth hologram is represented. Exterior view. Hover above it ten meters. Are you there?"
"Good, can you see any of the beings you saw before?"
"Yes, there are three of them walking below me, perhaps five hundred meters away."
"Do you sense they have detected you?"
"Good, now move within several meters of these beings. I'd like to get a close view of them, but return to your present station on my cue. Okay?"
"Go," Fifteen commanded.
Samantha's forehead crinkled up and her closed eyes squinted as if some sand had been blown in her face. "They see me. They're asking me questions about my purpose -"
"Return to your station, now."
The image on the screen remained for a few more seconds. Three ghostly shapes in long, white robes could be seen. They were looking directly in Samantha's direction, so their faces could be seen. Large, oval heads with flowing white hair and beards. All three looked similar in appearance, and projected a diffuse but nonetheless bright light from the top of their heads that seemed to connect them. The image was slowly replaced by a distant view looking down on them from Samantha's previous position above the hologram of earth.
A new message from ZEMI scrolled across the monitor screen.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS: 65%+ PROBABILITY THAT THESE BEINGS ARE WHAT THE CORTEUM REFER TO AS THE CENTRAL RACE. FURTHERMORE, DATA FROM THE SAME ARCHIVE STRONGLY SUGGESTS THAT THE THREE BEINGS ARE ACTUALLY ONE PERSONALITY. THE CENTRAL RACE HAS EVOLVED INTO A TRIUNE PERSONALITY WITH MIND, EMOTIONS, AND SPIRIT ESSENCE REPRESENTED EQUALLY IN APPEARANCE. THIS WOULD INDICATE THAT THE PLANETARY DATABASE IS CONNECTED WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING. END.
"Samantha, do you sense they can detect you from your current position?" Fifteen asked.
"Yes," she replied like an automaton. "They know I'm still here. I can feel their minds probing me. They seem impatient to talk with me."
"Samantha, resist their probes," Fifteen ordered, his voice commanding and resolute. "I want you to remain at your present POV but to move your TOV into the future by the equivalent of one year of our time. Report."
"No detectable change," she said.
"Do you see the three beings?" Fifteen inquired.
"I don't sense anyone in the room with me. I feel alone."
"Examine the holographic model of earth carefully. Report your findings."
"The planet appears normal. All of the continents - geographically speaking - appear to be in order. I can see location markers on the continents -"
"Cue on the purpose of these markers," Fifteen said.
"I get the sense that they're construction sites -"
"I can't tell, yet," she replied.
"Samantha," Fifteen said. "I need you to slowly circle the planet so we can record the site locations. You don't need to describe anything; RePlay is providing a satisfactory image."
The computer monitor showed North America and a red circle denoting the New Mexico ETC site. Another in South America, near Cusco, Peru. Next, the monitor displayed an area in north central Africa in the vicinity of Lake Chad. An area north of Helsinki, Finland was the next location marker. Another location marker could be seen in southern China, near Canton. The sixth marker could be seen in south central Australia.
All of the markers where the same color and size with one exception, the New Mexico site had a yellow dot, blinking in the center of the red location marker.
"Samantha, I need you to provide us with a top and bottom view of the planet as well."
"Understood," she replied.
The monitor picked up a blurry image of Antarctica in Wilkes Land where the final location marker could be seen near Vostok.
"That makes seven location markers," Fifteen said. "Stop for a second, what's that?"
The monitor showed a hieroglyphic string of symbols of some kind at the bottom of the sphere.
"Samantha, I'd like you to cue on this name. What is it?" Fifteen asked.
"I don't have a sense of a name," she answered.
"David, anything?" Fifteen asked.
The monitor began to scroll text.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS: THE HIEROGLYPHS ARE NUMERIC VALUES. THERE ARE THIRTEEN DIGITS, AND THE NUMBER IS THEREFORE BETWEEN 1,000,000,000,000 AND 9,999,999,999,999. IT IS HIGHLY PROBABLE THAT THE NUMBER REPRESENTS OUR PLANET'S SERIAL NUMBER IN THEIR DATABASE. END.
"Samantha, I'd like you to once again cue on the purpose of these location markers. Report."
"They're constructing a security system on the planet. They want to protect earth."
She paused. "From... its destruction."
"I'm... I'm not sure -"
"Human or alien?" Fifteen asked, "Concentrate, Samantha."
"I feel these sites are part of a weapon of some kind. They want to protect their genetic library. They know that they must be vigilant and prepare for all eventualities. It's happened before."
"What's happened before?"
"These beings have deposited their genetics on countless other planets, and something has come along bent on destroying these genetic libraries... it's... it's a very ancient enemy, but not human."
"Okay, Samantha, return to the sunroom. You've done an exemplary job."
Moments later, Samantha opened her eyes, blinking them to adjust to the light. She instinctively removed her RePlay headset.
Fifteen stood and helped her to her feet. "It's good to walk right after an intense session like this. Gets you grounded again." Fifteen held her by her arm, helping her get steadied. He walked her to the elevator, which opened up as they came near. "I think we'll stay awhile and chat about our next steps," he said. "Why don't you get some rest and relax for about twenty minutes and then rejoin us?"
Samantha could only mumble in agreement as she was escorted inside the elevator. The doors closed and Fifteen returned to his chair.
Neruda and Branson were already in a deep discussion. The full-screen version of David was on the computer monitor listening to the conversation.
Neruda leaned forward to pour some coffee as Fifteen sat down. "You stopped pretty abruptly," Neruda said. "Did you sense something was wrong?"
"No, I just wanted Samantha to rest," he replied. "I know how exhausting these sessions are, and when you're tired, you're easier to probe."
"What did you think?" Branson asked, eyeing Fifteen.
"I think we found the Central Race," Fifteen said. "To me, it feels authentic, which puts this discovery on a whole new playing field."
"I agree," Branson offered.
"Why'd you choose not to communicate with them?" Neruda asked.
"I think we did," Fifteen replied. "They've clearly probed Samantha - at least twice. They know something of what we're doing."
Neruda leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. "Are you opposed to a more direct communication?"
"What do you know about the Central Race?" Fifteen asked, looking over his cup of coffee.
"I know they're purported to be our ancestors," Neruda replied, "at least according to the Corteum -"
"Correction, they're everyone's ancestors - at least those of the humanoid persuasion," Fifteen interjected.
"Right, but doesn't that make them friendly to our cause?"
Fifteen shook his head slowly from side to side. "Our cause is BST, the most powerful technology in the universe, and therefore, the most controlled. Guess who regulates such a technology?"
"The Central Race," Neruda answered.
"Precisely," Fifteen said. "They're well aware that BST can be a powerful defensive weapon, as well as an indefensible offensive weapon if utilized with evil intent. They undoubtedly possess this technology, but they'd never place it on our planet. Too risky. It would assuredly fall into the wrong hands. So, instead, they've installed these seven sites, which somehow constitute our defensive posture against an alien invasion."
"So you think the Central Race would prevent us from developing BST if they knew our agenda?" Neruda asked.
"I have no doubt of it," Fifteen responded. "And I have no doubt of their capability to prevent us should they learn of our agenda."
"How do we know their technology is inferior to BST?" Neruda asked. "If their goal is to protect Earth isn't it logical to assume they'd protect it with their best technology?"
"No," Fifteen answered. "It's logical to assume they'd use a benign defensive system like stealth technology. And how do we know this would be sufficient against this alien invasion? Because they say so from their safe perch in the central universe? This is their ancient enemy as Samantha put it. An enemy of the Central Race must be extremely sophisticated, or it would be vanquished. And how many genetic library planets have fallen prey to them, I wonder?"
Fifteen shifted in his chair searching for a comfortable position. "I don't mean to argue with you, Jamisson, but if you believe in the prophecies and our RV reconnaissance, it's hard to dispute that this invasion, if it should take place, will be a ruthless takeover of Earth. All we know is that the invading force is from M51 - some thirty-seven million light years away, and without doubt, a primeval galaxy. HST pictures have revealed that this galaxy may have star systems that go back fourteen billion years. Do you really think these races will have primitive invasion technology?"
Neruda remained silent; knowing the question was rhetorical.
"I don't believe we can afford to rely on anyone, even the Central Race, for our protection and survival." Fifteen set his coffee cup down, and smoothed his pants with his hands, as if signifying his need to remain calm and collected.
Branson hit a button on the console and the shades opened up again, allowing natural light to pour into the room. "Is it possible that the Central Race left behind these sites for more than just defensive purposes? Surely the paintings don't have any defensive purpose," Branson said.
"It's another reason why I believe this defensive system is benign," Fifteen replied. "The ETC structure seems to be the result of competing objectives. This would weaken it."
"But isn't it reasonable to assume that the Central Race would have the ability to protect their genetic warehouses?" Neruda asked.
Fifteen furrowed his brow for a moment and made a quick assessment of Neruda from the corner of his eyes. "The beautiful thing about our predicament," he began, "is that we know so little of the facts. It provides us the luxury of speculation. Speculation and nothing more. As for me, when I find myself in this mode, I always prefer to create the solution rather than wait for some unknown benefactor to present it to me."
"Why?" Neruda asked. "I mean why not evaluate the defensive quality of this system before we write it off as benign and ineffective?"
"I never suggested that we wouldn't evaluate it! We absolutely must examine it and determine its usefulness. I only meant that we wouldn't rely upon it. We won't let it deter us from creating our own solution with BST. We're only weeks away from our first round of preliminary tests of interactive time travel! It's conceivable, if everything goes well that we'll be ahead of schedule by five to seven years."
Neruda stood up and walked to one of the large windows overlooking the juniper trees, wild flowers, and sagebrush in the garden beneath the sunroom. In order to concentrate, he had to avoid eye contact with Fifteen.
"The blinking light inside the red location marker of the New Mexico site, it could only mean the homing artifact. Right?"
"That's my interpretation," Fifteen said.
"So why aren't other homing devices identified? The homing device for the Chaco Canyon site blew up. We have no way of finding the other sites without a homing device, unless we choose to interact with the Central Race through an RV session."
"I understand," Fifteen said. "You want Samantha to interact with these beings so we can find the location of the other sites -"
"You agree that it's an interconnected system?" Neruda said. "That it'd only operate if all seven sites were online or activated?"
"It would be logical," Fifteen replied.
"So how else would we find the other sites to activate the system?"
Fifteen chuckled. "There may be location markers imbedded in the site, on the optical disc, in every chamber painting. They wanted us to find this site first. There's probably an activation sequence, which would make good sense if it were an integrated technology. Hear me well, Jamisson, I will not authorize any further RV inquiries, especially involving interaction with representatives of the Central Race."
Neruda stared at the landscape, his back the target of Fifteen eyes. He could feel them. There was something strange about this sparse, desert flora. It reminded him of an alien world for reasons he couldn't sort out. He had vague recollections of his home in Bolivia, surrounded in lush tropical foliage, warm rains, and the smell of earth rising from each footstep he took. The two worlds were so settled in their differences.
Fifteen's voice stirred him from his reverie. "I understand your interest in this race. They're undoubtedly one of the most fascinating discoveries we've encountered, but also the most potentially dangerous to our mission. And there's nothing more important than the creation of BST."
"Then we'll concentrate our efforts on decoding the optical disc," Neruda said as he turned around to face Fifteen and Branson. "We'll keep our focus on trying to discover the other six sites and learning all we can about the purpose of the defensive system."
"Very well," Fifteen said. "And one more thing, Jamisson, this encounter will remain SL-Twelve only. He turned to Branson. "We'll need Samantha to submit to an MRP this morning. I'd like David to personally take care of the matter. Okay with you, David?"
"Of course, sir," David replied without a change in expression. "Did you want to specify time coordinates or event coordinates?"
"We'll use event coordinates," Fifteen answered. "Neruda can provide those."
Neruda looked to Branson, hoping for a more sympathetic audience. "Can we limit our MRP to this singular event, or do you want to erase both sessions?"
Branson opened his mouth, but it was Fifteen who answered. "We need to erase both sessions and any prior or subsequent dialogue related to the event coordinates," Fifteen said. I want the key word, Central Race, erased completely. The identity of these beings must be contained within the Labyrinth Group. Understood?" Fifteen looked from Branson to Neruda, searching for compliance. Branson nodded, while Neruda sighed in restlessness.
"Is something wrong?" Fifteen asked, directing his full attention to Neruda.
"There's one thing I failed to mention to you last night. Emily Dorrian observed the first RV session. She's also aware of the identity of the site creators, or at least she's aware that I thought they might be the Central Race."
"Might?" Fifteen queried.
"I didn't say anything definitively, but I did mention the Central Race and some of the mythology that we've learned from the Corteum. I didn't go into any detail -"
"Emily is SL-Seven," Fifteen said, "she'll need to undergo the same procedure as Samantha. You need to handle the arrangements with David, and I'd like it completed this weekend - this morning if possible."
"I understand," Neruda said.
"I'll have project protocols on your desks Monday morning," Fifteen said, "especially with regard to RV inquiries. In the meantime, nothing, I repeat, nothing, of this project can be shared with anyone outside of the Labyrinth Group. Understood?"
David, Neruda, and Branson nodded in unison.
"Then we're finished here," Fifteen decreed, picking up the crystal that Samantha had selected from his collection, and placing it back on his display shelf. "She would have liked this crystal," he said, mostly to himself.
"So what's the emergency?" Emily asked as she walked into Neruda's office. It was Saturday afternoon, and she was dressed in casual, cream-colored shorts and a sleeveless cotton blouse with flower patterns in navy blue and beige. Her hair was tied back in a single ponytail, and she looked to all the world like a schoolgirl on summer vacation.
"Remember our RV session in the ETC site last Thursday night with the Central Race?"
"Yeah," she replied.
"You need to submit to a single event MRP," Neruda said, trying to sound casual.
"Why? What happened?"
"I wish I could tell you, but I'm not able to explain the exact circumstances. It's in your own best interest to remain uninformed."
"That's an interesting way of putting it," she said with a sigh. "What happened? Come' on, tell me."
"Emily, I can't. Just trust me on this, it's in your best interest. It'll only take a few minutes, David's all set-up and ready to go -"
"Does Samantha have to go through this as well?"
"She's already had her MRP," he replied.
"And did everything turn out okay?"
"I've heard that some don't," she said.
Neruda focused his full attention on Emily, turning off his computer monitor and sitting forward in his chair. "In the last nine years, every MRP has been successful and permanent. The fact is that almost seventy percent of personnel have had at least one MRP, they just don't remember it. The procedure is that good."
"What about me?"
"In what respect?" he asked.
"Have I had an MRP before?"
"You know I can't tell you that."
"But you know?"
She sat down with a sudden thud. Her facial expression caught Neruda's attention as he watched for signs of her acceptance level. He knew from experience that this was one of the most difficult procedures to explain to personnel - regardless of their loyalty. It was exceedingly invasive, and he knew from personal experience that it was unpleasant to willingly submit to such an invasion of one's private world of memories.
"Don't take this personally," she said, "but how do I know that the only memory that's being extracted is the RV session?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, after you told me about how Fifteen got rid of that... woman friend of yours, how do I know that you're not going to tamper with other memories as well?"
Neruda could tell she was only trying to steer the conversation to their personal relationship. She didn't actually distrust him. "Emily, I'll be there. I've already determined the event coordinates, the missing time will be explained with our standard illness scenario, and you'll feel absolutely no ill effects. I'll personally see to it."
"Okay, okay," she said. "But isn't there a way to insert a different scenario other than an illness memory? Something like good sex?" she smiled seductively.
Neruda stood from his chair with a chuckle. "I'll see what I can do."
As they walked together to the Memory Restructure Procedure lab, Neruda had a strange sense of déjà vu. He knew this was Emily's third MRP. He wasn't sure how many he had had, but he assumed at least a half dozen. He handed Emily's file to David when they entered the prep room. Emily was immediately escorted to a private room and asked to sit in a comfortable chair whose back was tilted at a 45° angle. Neruda watched from a glass window in the control room while David carried out the preparations. Emily seemed at ease and was joking with David, something Neruda marveled at, since David wasn't known for his sense of humor. After a few minutes of adjustments to the MRP headset, David joined Neruda in the control room.
"What are the margin key words for today?" he asked.
"Central Race," Neruda replied.
"And the time marks?"
"1420 hours and whenever you start the MRP," Neruda said.
David donned his ZEMI interface and flicked the intercom switch. "Emily, we're just about ready. Any questions?"
"Just be gentle," she said with a snicker.
"One more minute," David announced, closing his eyes to mentally access the command structure of the MRP program.
"You still there?" Emily called.
"I'm not going anywhere," Neruda replied. "Don't worry, David's the best MRP operator we have."
"I'm really very calm," Emily said. "I'm surprised."
Neruda knew that part of the prep was to release a relaxation inhalant in the room called Paratodolin. It was so subtle that most never suspected their state of relaxation was artificially induced. David opened his eyes for a moment reading all of the various monitoring data. "We're good to go," he said, turning to Neruda. His hand flicked the intercom switch one last time.
"Emily, we're ready to start. Central Race."
Emily immediately fell into an unconscious state. Her eyes moved wildly beneath closed eyelids, but otherwise her body seemed relaxed and comfortable.
"We're done," David said moments later.
Neruda flicked on a different intercom switch. "We have about five minutes to move her in position. Let's go."
Within ten seconds, two assistants entered the MRP room, removing Emily's headgear and easing her onto a sleek, stainless steel gurney. David looked on, his face unperturbed. "The seamless activation phrase is, 'Emily, are you okay?'"
"Thanks for everything, David. I really appreciate your help," Neruda said.
"It's no problem."
The assistants wheeled Emily to an examining room inside the health office through a secret hallway that connected the two departments. Neruda followed.
Once inside the examining room, Emily was moved to an examining table, and Dr. Stevens appeared. "This is scenario seven, correct?"
"Correct," Neruda said, shaking his hand.
"And she's never had this scenario before?"
"All the watches have been set back twenty minutes?"
"Shit, I forgot my own," Neruda said. He quickly set his watch back accordingly.
"Are you ready, then?" Dr. Stevens asked.
"On your word."
Neruda took Emily's hand in his and looked down at her expressionless face. "Emily, are you okay?"
Her eyes opened, blinking in rapid succession. "What happened?"
"You fainted," Neruda replied.
"How... why... why did I faint?"
Dr. Stevens stepped forward, peering over Neruda's right shoulder. "Emily, your blood sugar level is alarmingly low. I think it's why you fainted. How's your diet been the past few weeks?"
"Normal... I think," she said, trying to get up. Neruda helped her sit up. She rubbed her eyes. "I feel so groggy... like I need about another two hours of sleep."
"That's normal for your condition," Stevens said. "Have you ever suffered from hypoglycemia before?"
"I don't think I've ever fainted before in my life," she said.
"No, I mean have you ever been diagnosed with hypoglycemia? It doesn't show up in your medical records."
"No," she replied, still trying to regain her composure.
"Emily, can you try standing?" Dr. Stevens asked. "It may help to move around a bit."
Neruda helped her off the examining table, and she leaned against him for stability for a few moments, then walked around the room on her own for a few seconds, returning to the table next to Neruda. "I feel better." She glanced at her watch, "How long was I out?"
"A short time, but you were really out cold," Neruda said. "We were just lucky that Dr. Stevens was in on a Saturday."
"Thank you," Emily said, looking to Stevens.
"You're very welcome, Emily," he replied. "I'd like you to take a few of these tablets twice daily over the next four days. They'll help you to stabilize your blood sugar levels. Also, eat lots of fruit - apples, pears, grapes, that sort of thing. Okay?"
"You got it," she said, taking the small plastic container of pills.
She and Neruda walked slowly out of the health office. "I vaguely remember you called me into the office, on some emergency. What was it?" she asked.
Neruda stopped dead in his tracks. His face began to light up like a child just before opening a birthday present. "I think I found the access point of the optical disc!"
"You're kidding," she said. "What is it?"
"Each of the chamber paintings has a master symbol. I asked David if he could replicate the symbols in a three-dimensional hologram and input them into the optical disc when it reached its optimal resonance, in the exact same order as the chambers."
"We have, as of this morning at 1100 hours, over two thousand pages that have been printed out!"
Emily gave him a big hug and then quickly pulled away. "Wow, what incredible news! What's the format?"
"Mostly hieroglyphs, some star charts, digital artifacts that we can't begin to make sense of, and a sense that the information is organized in the same structure as the chambers, namely twenty-three sections, but we won't know that for sure until we've finished printing. And that'll take another few hours we think."
They began walking again. "Let's go and check on the print-outs. I want to see what they look like. Okay?" Emily asked.
"I was already on my way when you fainted," Neruda grinned. "Do you think you can manage to stay conscious this time?"
"Very funny," she said, a smile curling around her mouth. "By the way, did you actually carry me all the way to the health office?"
"I'm not incapable of heavy lifting, you know," Neruda replied. "Not that you're heavy, mind you."
"Careful," Emily warned. "You're treading on dangerous ground."
"I'm just glad you're okay," he said.
"You're very welcome."
The two walked side-by-side to the Computer Analysis Lab, careful to keep their hands from touching what their hearts already knew.