An Excerpt from The Function of the Wholeness Navigator, Chamber 15
"Hey, bossman," Andrews said, "does Fifteen know what we've found here?"
"He knows," Neruda replied.
"So where is he?"
"He had meetings all day. He's also aware that I'll brief him Monday morning."
"Shit, man," Andrews said, "if I ran this place, I'd be here."
"If you ran the place, we'd all be designing James Bond's techno toys," Emily quipped.
Andrews grunted in disagreement.
"David, I know it's late," Neruda said, turning to the monitor, "but could you try one last time to discern any repetitions in the text that could be construed as a section heading or title?"
"Using what criteria?" David asked.
"Let's try repeating glyph strings of up to thirty signs that repeat twenty-three or twenty-four times over the course of the text, and have a similar number of characters before and / or after them."
A moment later David's voice came over the intercom. "We've identified something that meets that criteria. There're twenty-four repetitions and the sign-strings vary from four to twelve characters. It'll be onscreen in just a moment. Hold, please."
Neruda grinned and turned to Andrews. "We may have just found our first clue to their language structure."
The computer monitor flickered for a moment, and then text began to scroll over the screen.
PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS: THESE SIGNS REPRESENT FULL WRITING, AND ARE NOT PICTOGRAPHIC IN NATURE. THERE ARE A TOTAL OF 46 UNIQUE SIGNS, AND 49,721 UNIQUE SIGN-STRINGS, PRESUMABLY WORDS. VARIATIONS SEEM LIMITED TO 210 SIGN-STRINGS.
THE 24 SIGN STRINGS THAT YOU SPECIFIED HAVE - WITHIN A SEVEN-PERCENT MARGIN - 100,000 SIGN-STRINGS EITHER BEFORE AND / OR AFTER THEIR APPEARANCE. THIS DENOTES A STRUCTURE WITH HIGH PROBABLE COMPLIANCE TO THE 24 INDEX TRACKS FOUND ON THE OPTICAL DISC.
A LIST OF THESE 24 SIGN-STRINGS FOLLOWS WITH PAGE MARKERS. PROBABILITY IS 97.6% THAT THESE 24 SIGN-STRINGS ARE THE EQUIVALENT OF SECTION HEADINGS RELATED TO THE INDEX TRACKS.
THE MASTER SYMBOLS CONTAINED IN THE PAINTINGS, USED TO ACCESS THE OPTICAL DISC, ARE NOT REPLICATED IN THIS TEXT. THEREFORE, IT IS PROBABLE THAT THIS LANGUAGE STRUCTURE USES BOTH PICTOGRAPHS AND FULL WRITING IN SOME INTERACTIVE RELATIONSHIP. THIS RELATIONSHIP SHOULD BE FURTHER STUDIED. IT MAY BE THE KEY TO DECIPHERING THE TEXT. END.
Neruda finished reading before the others. "Thanks, David. Hold one second."
He turned to Andrews and Emily who were still reading from the screen.
"I need you to leave for a few minutes."
"Now?" Andrews asked. "I'm not finished reading."
"Should we start a fresh pot of coffee?"
"I think we're done for the night," Neruda said.
"Okay, then, we'll see you in the morning," Emily said, standing to her feet and stretching her arms and legs. "Don't stay up too late. It's almost midnight."
"It's twenty after," Andrews said.
Emily glanced at Neruda, who nodded.
Emily looked at her watch again, thumping it a few times on its crystal. "Must be time for a new battery."
"Rolex is so overrated," Andrews said.
"As much as I like Mickey Mouse," Emily sighed, "I have a hard time trusting a cartoon character for my time."
"Hey, don't knock'um, at least my watch works."
"Goodnight," Neruda said in the unmistakable tone of a parent reminding their children to go to bed.
"We're out of here," Andrews said. "I can tell when we're not wanted."
Emily looked over her back and waved. "Goodnight."
Andrews and Emily left the room without another word. As the door closed behind them, Neruda flicked on the intercom. "Have you done any comparative analysis with the thirteen digit number Samantha picked up in our last RV session against this text?"
"Can you indulge me one last time?"
"Sure," David said. "Analysis is coming online."
Neruda glanced at the display of text as it scrolled across the monitor screen.
ANALYSIS: EACH SIGN IN THE THIRTEEN-DIGIT SIGN-STRING IS REPLICATED IN THE TEXT (DETAILED ANALYSIS AVAILABLE ON REQUEST). THERE IS ONLY ONE PLACE IN THE TEXT WHERE IT IS REPRESENTED IN EXACTLY THE SAME ORDER, PAGE 121, LINE EIGHT.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS (34.3% CERTAINTY): IF THIS NUMBER DOES REPRESENT THE SERIAL NUMBER OF PLANET EARTH, IT IS LOGICAL THAT IT WOULD BE CONTAINED IN THE FRONT SECTION OF THE TEXT. IT IS PROBABLE THAT THIS SECTION DESCRIBES THE COSMOLOGICAL STRUCTURE OF THE CENTRAL RACE'S BELIEF SYSTEM AND ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH EARTH AND HUMANITY. END.
"David, cross-check the numbers against the twenty-four sign-strings. Let's see what the overlap is," Neruda requested.
"Do you want redundancies filtered?"
"Analysis complete," David said. "Should be on the monitor momentarily."
ANALYSIS: THERE ARE ELEVEN NUMBERS FROM THE THIRTEEN-DIGIT SIGN-STRING THAT MATCH THE 24 SIGN-STRINGS FROM THE TEXT, PRESUMED TO BE SECTION HEADINGS. ASSUMING THAT THEIR NUMBER SYSTEM IS HOMOLOGOUS TO OURS, AND BASED ON THE SEQUENCE OF THE THIRTEEN-DIGIT SIGN STRING, THE SERIAL NUMBER OF OUR PLANET - ACCORDING TO THE CENTRAL RACE - IS 5,342,482,337,666. END.
Neruda collected his thoughts with a long, drawn-out sigh. His mouth formed the number again, silently. "David, ask ZEMI what the serial number means."
The screen scrolled a single line of new text.
ANALYSIS: THERE ARE AT LEAST 5,342,482,337,666 INHABITED AND / OR POTENTIALLY INHABITABLE PLANETS IN THE UNIVERSE. END.
"David, I'd like an interpretative analysis even if it's below ten-percent certainty levels," Neruda announced.
"Onscreen," David replied.
INTERPRETATIVE ANALYSIS (8.5% CERTAINTY): ACCORDING TO OUR OWN DATA, THERE ARE APPROXIMATELY 1.2 TRILLION INHABITABLE PLANETS WITHIN THE UNIVERSE. HOWEVER, THAT ASSUMES THAT THE UNIVERSE IS SINGULAR. IF EARTH IS PLANET NUMBER 5,342,482,337,666 THEN IT SUGGESTS THAT THERE ARE MULTIPLE UNIVERSES AS PROPOSED BY THE CORTEUM IN THEIR MANIFESTO, LIMINAL COSMOGONY. END.
"Just when you thought you had everything figured out," Neruda whispered to himself. "David, I'll put together some decipherment strategies and send them to you tomorrow morning around 1100 hours. For now, let's call it a night."
"Agreed," David replied. "Signing off, then. Have a good night."
Neruda electronically pasted the analyses from ZEMI to his personal knowledge management system, and then tidied up the office area, knowing that Fifteen might wander by in the morning before he got in.
He picked up a section of the text - presumably the first section, which he assumed was a good place to start the deciphering process. He packed the 341 pages of alien script into his briefcase, waved at the security camera, and turned off the lights. His legs ached from sitting all day and it felt good to be walking, even in the sterile corridors of the lab.
Monday morning Neruda was preparing for his briefing meeting with Fifteen. A knock on his door distracted him.
"Yes?" he said.
The door swung open and Donavin invited himself in. "I can see you were expecting someone else."
"Actually, I wasn't expecting anyone at this hour," Neruda said. "What can I do for you?"
"I was hoping you'd return my questionnaire," he replied. "Completed of course."
Neruda motioned him to a chair. "Can I get you anything to drink? Some coffee or a soda?"
"Coffee'd be good," Donavin answered, his voice warming a bit.
Neruda opened his thermos and poured a cup of coffee into a Styrofoam cup, handing it to Donavin. "I tend to make my morning java a little strong. My apologies."
"Don't worry," Donavin said, "I could use a good jolt this morning." He took a sip and winced. "I see what you mean. Yikes, how do you stand it?"
"Years of practice. And growing up Bolivian," Neruda said, smiling.
"How's your project progressing so far?"
"Great, except for one thing. No one's ever around to talk with," Donavin lamented. "Don't you guys ever just sit and chew the fat?"
"We're understaffed, Mr. McAlester -"
"Please, call me Donavin," he interrupted.
"As you wish. But we are," Neruda continued, "we're terribly understaffed and have no time for the pleasantries of a normal office environment. Unfortunately, this must appear to you as if we're avoiding you, but I assure you, we're not. It's just a question of priority."
"Isn't everything," Donavin said, more as a statement than a question.
Neruda smiled. "You want your questionnaire, and you want it today. Right?"
Donavin smiled in return, nodding.
Neruda unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a file folder. "Here's your questionnaire, completely filled out."
Donavin couldn't hide his amazement. "Thanks. I'm a little surprised." He thumbed through the pages quickly, noticing the level of detail to the answers. "This looks great."
"Was there anything else?" Neruda inquired.
"No, no, I think that was the main thing," he said. "Can I take a look at this and get back to you later, just in case something isn't clear to me?"
"Great," Donavin said standing to his feet and taking one last sip of coffee. "But next time, the coffee's on me."
Donavin stopped. "By the way, is Evans back in the office today?"
"I believe so," Neruda said.
"He's harder to catch then you are," Donavin said, closing the door behind him.
Neruda smiled to himself, knowing his responses to the questionnaire would undoubtedly fester in Donavin's mind, and a return visit was certain.
"You've seen these?" Li-Ching said as she placed the transcripts on Fifteen's desk, his office door clicking shut behind her.
"One of the perks of having complete access to ZEMI and the knowledge network," he replied. "Why, is there something wrong?"
"You know I'm just playing with him," she said.
"He means absolutely nothing to me," Li-Ching said, "I'm just trying to keep him preoccupied with the travails of an office romance. You even suggested it, remember?"
"Do I detect guilt," Fifteen said. "Or are you angry that I take an interest in your affairs?"
"Neither!" she said. "I don't like the insinuation that I'm doing this for any other reason than to protect you!"
Fifteen leaned back in his chair and removed his reading glasses. His desk was scattered with a variety of newspapers including the New York Times, London Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Dressed in a navy blue suit with a satin white pinpoint shirt, and yellow tie with pastel accent colors, his normally commanding presence was amplified.
"Let's both calm down," he said. "I haven't accused you of anything, nor, as best I can tell, have you done anything worthy of an accusation. Let's start with these assumptions."
He started to clear his desk of the newspapers, stacking them as if he had just noticed the untidy state of his office.
Li-Ching sat down and crossed her legs and then her arms. Her lips were pursed as if she were holding back a torrent of expletives.
"Good, now that we've both calmed down," Fifteen said, "let's try to sort this out. You're angry because I reviewed the transcripts of Donavin's recent... exploits -"
"No! I'm mad because you insinuate that I've chosen this course of action because I have real feelings for him. And you damn well know that I don't."
"And how have I insinuated any such thing?"
"You reviewed the PM transcripts using keywords that clearly indicate a lack of trust."
"And how do you know this?"
"I'm the Director of Communication, have you forgotten?"
Fifteen made a mental note to delete the digital signature requirement to review PM transcripts via key word search. At least for him. "Okay, let's assume what you say is true -"
"No, let's admit that it is."
"Okay, I admit that I reviewed the transcripts, and yes, I did use key words that could be construed as untrusting. But in my defense, I'm not comfortable with Donavin. He could be more troublesome than we think."
"I love the way you can rationalize your irrational actions," she said. "You're not worried about Donavin any more than I am. You just want to spy on me to make sure that I'm not swept away by his rugged good looks and obvious physical charms."
"You find him physically attractive?"
"That's not the point!" Li-Ching said, almost screaming.
"Then what is the point?"
"Your lack of trust in my judgment," she said, softening her voice.
He stood from his chair and sat down next to Li-Ching, putting his arm around her shoulder. "My trust in you has never diminished, it's Donavin I don't trust." He raised his hand to his lips as Li-Ching started to speak, silencing her. "And it's not a rationalization. It's just that I care deeply about you and want to make sure that you're okay."
Li-Ching's pupils were like black holes absorbing light. "That's all this is?" she finally managed to ask. "You want me to believe that that's all this is about?"
"Yes," Fifteen replied.
"You trust me completely? Even if I choose to continue this trumped up affair with Donavin?"
"And do you want me to continue to seduce him and then push him away?"
"If that's what you want," Fifteen said. "It's probably the best way to keep him distracted. I know it'd work on me."
"You want to be distracted?" she said, her tone seductive.
"I already am."
They began to kiss one another passionately just as a knock on the door interrupted. "Who is it?" Fifteen asked curtly.
"It's Jamisson," said the muffled voice from behind the door. "We had a meeting scheduled."
"One moment," Fifteen shouted, standing to his feet. He lowered his voice and turned to Li-Ching. "If you like, you can stay and hear his report."
"That's okay, I saw your email this morning. Sounds like we have a whole new project on our hands. Are you going to leave Neruda in charge of it?"
"For now," Fifteen answered. "He's doing an exemplary job."
"You know that Whitman wants this project under him in the worst way. Expect to be lobbied hard, especially now that we've opened up the disc."
"Let's just hope we didn't open Pandora's Box," Fifteen said as he escorted her to the door. With his hand on the doorknob, he kissed her again.
As she pulled away, her thumb wiped across his bottom lip. "Are you too busy tonight with Echelon, or can you spare some time with me? I'll be home all night. Alone."
"Alone? I hardly think so," Fifteen whispered.
"How'd your briefing go with Fifteen?" Emily asked.
"It went well," Neruda answered, joining Emily, Andrews, Samantha, and Collin in the Hylo Conference Room for their ritual project meeting. David was also present - on the monitor screen - tethered as always to ZEMI.
"Any changes to plan?" Emily asked.
"The good news, is that he's very impressed with our progress," Neruda said, pouring himself a glass of water. "A sign that he trusts our team's resourcefulness."
"And the bad news?" Andrews said.
"He changed the security level of the project to SL-Twelve."
"Shit," Andrews exclaimed. "So you and David get all the fun and glory."
"Why?" Samantha asked. "Why'd he decide this?"
"Let me finish my explanation," Neruda said, trying his best to look optimistic. "Everyone will be amply rewarded for their work to date, which will include a fifty thousand dollar bonus, and a promotion, one level up, Samantha being the only exception since she's already received her promotion.
"Fifteen's also granted that each of you can take next week off so you have an opportunity to spend and enjoy your bonus."
"That's great," Samantha said, "but what happened that required us to be pulled off the project?"
"He can't tell us," Andrews interrupted. "Give it up. It's time to take the money and run, unless you wanna visit the MRP lab."
Neruda sat down. He was dressed in khaki pants and a denim shirt with its sleeves rolled up just beneath his elbows. He looked well rested, but a little jittery - a combination of the caffeine and having to deliver bad news to his project team. He raked his hand through his straight, black hair. "I know you're disappointed. So am I, but Fifteen feels very strongly that this is in the best interests of the ACIO and each of you individually."
"Now what?" Emily asked.
"You'll each get new assignments after you return from your vacation," Neruda said.
"And in the meantime?" Collin asked.
"In the meantime, you'll be involved in organizing the existing database for the project."
"Geez, it looks like I finally got my wish," Andrews said. "A nine-to-five job."
"You mean semi-retirement," Collin chimed in.
"It's not so bad," Neruda said. "You'll have some downtime, relax. It's not the worst thing that could happen."
"Are we going to have to undergo MRP regarding our involvement to date?" Emily said.
"No MRP will be required," Neruda replied.
Relief could be seen on the faces of the team.
"Your bonus was transferred to your accounts this morning," Neruda said. "I'm sorry the four of you can't remain on the project. I'm truly sorry. Li-Ching and Evans will handle security dispositions. They've scheduled a meeting at 1400 hours in the Literati Room. Should only take an hour, afterwards you can take the rest of the day off and get your heads clear. Any other questions?"
"Will we get updates on the project?"
"According to your security level, yes, you'll get weekly updates."
A knock on the door startled the group, and Fifteen entered with a grave, but friendly look on his face. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, "but I wanted to convey my appreciation for your hard work on this project, and extend my personal thanks for all your contributions."
Everyone smiled in return of his praise.
"One thing you can all be assured of is that the directors and I will do everything in our power to provide you with rewarding assignments when you return from your vacations. We have several exciting projects that are ready to commence, and you can be involved at the ground level."
He stopped, looked around the table, assessing each person individually. "I hope you enjoy your well-earned break and return rested and ready for a new project."
Neruda wanted to read Fifteen's eyes, but he was too self-conscious to look. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on his hands before him on the table. He was anxious for Fifteen to leave. "Thank you for stopping by, sir."
A chorus of thanks joined Neruda's, and Fifteen left without another word.
"If there's no further questions, I think we're adjourned here," Neruda said, standing to his feet. "Oh, David, if you could stay a while, I have a few things I need to go over with you."
"No problem," David replied.
The rest of the team picked up their papers and notebooks and filed out of the conference room. The mood was mixed, half-elated and half-depressed. No one wanted off the project, but they understood that Fifteen must have reasons. Good reasons. Everyone within the ACIO respected his intellect and judgment.
Neruda waited for the door to close shut. "David, I have some decipherment strategies that Fifteen and I talked about this morning. I'd like you to try these this afternoon if you can and let me know what you find. Okay?"
"First, let's take their numbering system and apply it across all of the text -"
"Actually," David said, "we did that this morning already."
"Good. What's the numeric density across all the text?"
"Fractional, if you want an exact number, I can get it for you in a moment -"
"No, it's okay," Neruda said, "I'm actually more interested in applying the chamber and ETC site glyphs to the text. I know the master symbols aren't replicated, but what about the others? Have you done any analysis yet in this area?"
"Let's get that done. Also, several of the technology artifacts have glyphs on their body - including the homing device that blew up. All of these glyphs are recorded in file number AAP-787990A. I'd like ZEMI to include these in the analysis."
"Understood," David replied. "Anything else?"
"We have a parent language archive in the morphology database, file number AAP-1290B. I'd like an exhaustive comparative analysis performed against this database. Use a ten percent variant margin to sort matches."
"One last thing," Neruda said. "I was looking through the first section of the text last night. Have you made a note of the digital artifacts that came off the printer?"
"Yes, they're very odd."
"Are they actually artifacts or a separate language structure?" Neruda asked.
"We did our standard quality tests on other printers and replicated the results precisely every time. They're not, technically speaking, digital artifacts, though they sure look like it.
"What does ZEMI make of it?"
"We think it's a different language structure."
"Mathematics?" Neruda asked.
"We have no way of knowing at this time. Mathematics, music, and geometry are at the top of our list, but it's impossible to be any more definitive."
"We need to include these in our language analysis process. The morphology database includes abbreviated music and mathematics tables. I trust that you can locate them."
"We already did," David said with a not too subtle grin on his face.
"Great," Neruda said. "That's all for now, David. Thanks for your help on this. Oh, and I assume you'll contact me as soon as you have the analysis. Any time estimates?"
"I'll have something for you this afternoon."
"No problem," David said.
The monitor screen returned to its normal blackish-green color, and Neruda suddenly felt very alone in the conference room. He gathered his papers and tidied up the room a bit.
As he left the conference room, he steered a course by Fifteen's office, hoping that the sunroom wasn't being used for a private meeting. He needed to fill his eyes with the sights of something natural, something curved by the hand of a creator he was all too anxious to find.
"Why are you whispering?" Samantha asked softly.
"It's prudent," Neruda said. "We can take my car, and then I'll drop you off later."
"Okay, but I could follow you if you'd prefer."
"No, that's all right, I'd prefer to go in the same car so we can talk," Neruda replied. "Evans will know anyway."
Neruda and Samantha pushed through the double doors after waving goodnight to the security guards. It was early evening, and Neruda had a dull headache that didn't seem to want to go away. Samantha had left him an urgent voice message earlier in the day, but he had been too busy to meet with her. The comparative analysis had come in from ZEMI, and the data had consumed his entire afternoon and part of his evening as well.
What had troubled him about the message was her tone of voice and the fact that she had found a document that used the term, Central Race.
They got into his Honda sedan, feeling oddly conspicuous as they drove through the security gate at the front entrance. An elderly guard named Curtis waved them on from his glass booth, but not before carefully scrutinizing Neruda's passenger. Neruda had known Curtis for almost twenty years, but trust didn't come easy for Evans' security team, who were carefully cultivated to be paranoid. In the worst way.
Once they got past the final security check - a dozen, secret video cameras installed inside a metal arch that overhung the entrance to the compound - Neruda visibly relaxed. "So what's the document you found?"
"I've had an MRP, haven't I?" she stated, ignoring his question.
Neruda took a quick glance at her face and then returned his attention to the road. He hated to lie. "What makes you think you've had an MRP?"
"Please, just answer my question truthfully," she pleaded.
Samantha's red hair was accented by the red glow of the setting sun. She was dressed in a sleeveless, white cotton dress cut just below her knees, and trimmed in iridescent turquoise.
Neruda glanced regularly in his rearview mirror; his paranoia bubbling to the surface of his mind for reasons he couldn't pin down. He blamed it on his concentration, which was waning because of his headache and the ups and downs of the workday.
He forced himself to look relaxed and sound casual, preparing to answer her questions exactly how he had been trained. "If I answer your question... truthfully, I might compromise project security. It would be a blemish on both our records, and could require serious remedies."
He turned to look at her eyes to see what affect his words were having. Her eyes were closed.
"When I was recruited to this place," she said, "one of the things Branson assured me was that I'd never have to worry about anyone misusing or abusing my special abilities. Ethical dilemmas - should they ever arise - would be sorted out with my involvement and cooperation."
She opened her eyes and stared at Neruda. "Someone's lying to me. I was taken off of this project for reasons I don't fully understand," she paused, her hands trembling slightly. "I know I was given an MRP."
"What exactly leads you to that conclusion?" Neruda asked.
She sighed at his evasion. "This afternoon I was organizing some of my project notes. In the margins of my project book, I found scribbled - in my handwriting - the phrase; it was the Central Race who were the creators of the seven ETC sites.
Neruda felt an adrenaline shot to his gut. He mentally scrambled to recover. "Samantha, maybe you're just reacting to something you wrote as speculation -"
"Speculation?" she exclaimed. "I've never heard of the term Central Race, nor was I aware that there were seven ETC sites! How can this be speculation?"
Neruda remained silent, his eyes glued to the staccato white line that divided the gray, endless road.
"There's more," she said, her voice softening. "After reading this, I immediately had an image form in my mind of three beings. The image triggered something... fragments of an RV session that I had with you, Branson, and Fifteen. There're jumbled images to be sure, but I remember enough to know that I interacted with this race. Didn't I?"
Neruda was cornered. He suddenly turned off the two-lane county road onto a gravel road he'd never been on before.
"Where're we going?" Samantha asked, alarm showing in her voice.
"I need to get out of the car," he replied. "I need to feel the sky. I've been cooped up in the office too long."
She nodded with understanding.
Two miles down the gravel road, they came to a washed out gully where Neruda pulled the car over and turned the engine off. "Let's take a walk."
The air held the faint aroma of pine needles from some nearby trees that hid them from the setting sun. They followed the dry riverbed as their walking path, the setting sun at their back.
Neruda kept his eyes straight ahead, glancing occasionally to the sky in search of emerging stars in the growing twilight. Venus was already casting her silver charms.
"What I said before," Neruda admitted, "wasn't exactly the truth, but I... no, we, have a real dilemma." He stooped to pick up a stone that had caught his eye, tossing it back down after a quick look. "You've stumbled upon the very thing that caused you to have an MRP and be removed from the project."
"What's so secretive about the Central Race or the fact that there're seven ETC sites?" she asked.
Neruda stopped. "I'm not sure how to answer you, Samantha. There's a part of me that sympathizes with you, and wants to tell you everything. But there's also this rational side of me that knows protocol and knows I should follow it."
"And what is protocol in this situation?"
Neruda knew he was talking with the best RV within the ACIO, perhaps since RVs were first used 22 years ago. He either had to openly bullshit his way through the situation, or tell the truth. He chose the latter. An indelible instinct from somewhere deep inside told him to protect his credibility. "I'm supposed to sympathize with you, while at the same time deny your claim based on the probable implausibility of the given situation."
"Sounds like something Evans would write," Samantha said, her quiet sarcasm belying her feeling of total helplessness.
Neruda chuckled to himself, glad that for the first time in a long while he was following his instincts and not his training.
"So who's the Central Race and why's their identity so protected by Fifteen?" Samantha asked.
"I know you want to know, but you need to be clear about the consequence of this knowledge."
"Fifteen has ordered that no one under SL-Twelve know of the Central Race and its creation of the seven ETC sites. If you have this information, you'll be subject to another MRP, and this time he'll probably be inclined to extract your memory of the entire project. I can't, in good conscience, let you have this knowledge and not tell Fifteen."
"I understand," Samantha said, "but maybe we could convince Fifteen that I'm an asset to the project instead of a liability."
"We could try," Neruda said. "But I have to tell you, Samantha, it's a slim possibility that he could be convinced of such a thing unless we had a watertight rationale. Do you have something in mind?"
"I don't know enough of the story," Samantha replied. "Tell me."
"Are you willing to risk a radical memory replacement of eighteen days?"
"It's my only real option... I mean... I have to know. It's just the way I'm wired," she said.
"You're quite certain?"
"I'm quite certain," she said, her voice firm.
"This procedure can have residual effects ranging from mild paranoia to fugal depression, which are usually temporary, but can last for months, even years in some sensitive types."
"And you're implying I'm a sensitive type, aren't you?" Samantha said with a hint of bitterness.
"I just want to make sure that you're aware of the consequences of what you're asking." He quickly glanced back at his car. His paranoia was as high as it had been for nearly a decade. "Right now, this very instant, it's quite probable that Evans or Jenkins are aware that we're having this meeting out in the middle of nowhere. Given who you are and the fact that you underwent an MRP yesterday, they'd assume that we're discussing your situation. I'll have to file a report in the morning and you'll fall under Fifteen's scrutiny."
"If you're trying to make me nervous," Samantha said, "you're succeeding in spades."
Neruda saw a large rock outcropping. "Let's sit down over there so we can talk."
They walked to a group of stones that looked like bones of earth bleached white from the desert sun, and sat on opposing boulders, the size of small cars. Neruda faced the final remnants of the setting sun, his dark skin saturated in the blood red glow that bathed the western sky.
"You know this is an all or nothing situation?"
"I tell you all, and if Fifteen decides you retain nothing, you willingly submit to a radical MRP." Neruda paused, looking deep into her eyes. "I have your word?"
"You have my word."
"Okay," he said, shifting his legs to find a more comfortable position. He took a deep breath. "We've had two RV sessions within the last week. In both instances, you were probed by representatives of the Central Race."
Samantha began to interrupt, but Neruda held up his hand to silence her. "The Central Race is the most ancient of all races, their evolutionary timeline being something on the order of twelve billion years. They're considered by the Corteum to be the Creator Gods of all beings in the universe -"
"They're our gods?" her voice quivered.
"No one knows exactly who they are," he replied. "There're a few ancient scripts that refer to them. The Sumerian, Mayan, and Dogon cultures all had interactions with these beings that were recorded. We have the original texts in our database, and there're a few contemporary, channeled manuscripts that refer to them as well.
"But the Central Race has never been described in detail because no one really understands their unique consciousness, way of life, and culture, except presumably their creator. They are truly mythic beings. And, yes, they are, according to the Corteum, our gods - at least as it pertains to our physical bodies and minds."
"So what happened to God? The God?" Samantha asked.
"The Central Race was created by God as the original humanoid soul carriers. They could be likened to the first version of humanity who ultimately evolved into the elder race that engineered and refined the DNA of higher life forms or soul carriers. God endowed a fragment of itself into this genetically engineered soul carrier or what we call the physical body, so, you could say it was a joint venture between God and the Central Race. Again, this is according to the Corteum, who seem to have more insight into this race than any other source that we've found."
"Okay, for the moment," she said, "I'll go along with you as to the identity of the Central Race, but why is it such a big problem that I know about this?"
"I'm only relating the background story," Neruda replied. "The real issue is that the Central Race created the ETC sites, which are seven in number, to defend the planet against an ancient enemy of theirs that's prophesied to visit Earth in 2011 and take it over."
"You mean literally?"
"Okay, I'm still with you," she said. "When do we get to the part that I shouldn't know about? Because I've heard about a dozen doom and gloom prophecies for the turn of the millennium."
Neruda smiled. "Globally, there's not a lot of attention paid to these prophecies of Armageddon and the rise of the Antichrist. The real story's a little too graphic and frightening to convey to the public, but watered down versions are allowed to circulate. And with them the persistent belief that religious prophesy has no real relevance or bearing in today's society."
He paused and swallowed hard. "But the prophecies that we have access to convey a tragic and overwhelming take-over of Earth by a race of synthetic beings from outside our galaxy. We now have confirmation from the ETC site that this galaxy is M51, some thirty-seven million light years away."
"How's that possible?" Samantha asked. "I mean, even traveling at the speed of light, it'd take them thirty-seven million years to get here."
"They're synthetics from an ancient race of beings, not associated with our human genotype," he said. "That's all we know. Even the Corteum haven't encountered them nor anyone who ever has."
"Have we RV'd them?"
"Yes, many times."
"I can't tell you," Neruda replied. "But Fifteen's convinced the threat is real and that they have the technology to travel inter-galactically."
"You said you'd tell me all," she reminded him.
"You shouldn't take me literally. I only meant I'd tell you all of what you need to know relative to the Central Race and why you were taken off the project and subjected to an MRP."
Her face wrinkled in frustration.
The sun was now completely below the horizon, and the stars were visible, their pinpricks of light, poignant reminders of the universe's enormous scale.
Samantha tucked her legs under her. She felt a little light-headed, as if she had just come out of a RV session. "So the Antichrist is a synthetic, soulless race from some other galaxy?"
Samantha shook her head from side-to-side and stared at the ground. She had wrapped her arms around her to fend off the chill that suddenly possessed her. Her hands were cold and she blew on them - her warm breath reminding her of her humanity.
"Okay, so back to my problem," she said. "Why was I taken off the project and given an MRP?"
"Fifteen felt that you had been probed by the Central Race, and he doesn't want them to know about our capabilities and objectives relative to the defense of the planet."
"You're telling me that the ACIO has a weapon to guard the planet against these... these synthetic aliens?"
"It's developing such a weapon or defensive system."
"What is it?"
"Again, I can't tell you," Neruda answered, aware of Samantha's building frustration.
"Shit," she whispered under her breath. "Can you at least answer my questions with a yes or no?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, sorting through the order of her questions. "The Central Race designed seven ETC sites and installed them on Earth sometime in our distant past?"
"And they intended these sites to be an integrated force to protect our planet?"
"Earth is important to them because we have human DNA that is unique... or... or perhaps highly valued for some reason?"
"We're not sure, but we think it has something to do with genetics. In one of your RV sessions, you referred to the Earth as a genetic reference library for this sector of our galaxy. We assume they're protecting these libraries by installing a planetary defensive weapon."
"So this weapon conflicts with the weapon that the ACIO is developing?"
"We don't know," Neruda said.
"But it might?"
She stopped and gathered her thoughts. "Representatives from the Central Race detected my presence during an RV session and probed me?"
"Fifteen fears that they'll find out about our weapon... that they're in a position to prevent us from using it?"
"Something like that," he replied.
"That's it! That's it, isn't it?" she exclaimed. "Fifteen doesn't want any of us below SL-Twelve or -Thirteen to know of the Central Race and the fact that they've installed a defensive weapon on Earth that competes with our own. Right?"
Neruda looked away and sighed.
"Right?" she asked again.
"That's part of it."
"And," she continued like Sherlock Holmes, "he doesn't want us to have any further RV sessions because he's afraid that the Central Race has the capability to intervene in the deployment of our own weapon."
"I'm not sure that I'd use the word 'afraid'. I've never known Fifteen to be fearful. I think he's more concerned that the Central Race wouldn't like our choice of weaponry."
"I can't tell you."
"Because our weapon is so powerful that it could destroy the planet?" she asked.
"In a manner of speaking, but it's a completely defensive weapon as Fifteen envisions it."
"Shit," she said in a whispered voice.
Samantha stood to stretch her legs and arms. Her head arched back to look at the sky. "I'm in over my head," she said.
"Maybe we all are," Neruda said. "We're not infallible in our approach, Samantha, but the ACIO has the best technology on the planet and is quite literally the only organization with knowledge of the 2011 invasion. If anyone is to stop this takeover, it will be us."
"I'd put my dollars on the Central Race, if they are who you say they are. How could we hope to have a more advanced defensive technology than the beings that... that created us?"
"It's not that our technology is more advanced than what the Central Race has because we assume they have this capability as well. It's that the Central Race, at least in Fifteen's opinion, wouldn't place this technology on the planet to be discovered by humans, especially if their ancient enemy could somehow secure it."
"Then wouldn't it make sense that they'd do this for a good reason?"
"No," Neruda replied. "It's assumed that they'd restrict the use of this technology without knowing that the ACIO is in a position to properly utilize it and secure it."
"So, we have this weapon at our disposal right now?"
She stopped, and sat back down. "Everything you've told me is all based on assumption. For all you know, the seven ETC sites are exactly what we're trying to build. And for all you know, the Central Race would protect its genetic library with its best defensive weapon."
"Samantha, you must know that I can't tell you all the reasons for our assumptions," Neruda said. "Believe me, we arrived at these conclusions by a thorough analysis given the available information."
"Then why doesn't Fifteen desire to interact with the Central Race? What's he afraid of? That they'll dismantle his incomplete and unproven technology?"
"Fifteen is a visionary far beyond what the world has ever seen before," Neruda confided. "He was planning this technology before you were born. When most kids are worried about pimples, he was designing the blueprints of this system. At the time, he didn't know anything about this impending alien invasion. He simply wanted to create this vision... to re-create time -"
Neruda stopped in mid-sentence, aware that he had said too much.
"So that's what this technology is about." Samantha interrupted. "Time travel."
"I can't tell you."
"Why? I'm going to have this memory cleared anyway," she argued.
"I've said enough."
"Great! Now what do we do? I'm caught in the crossfire of the ACIO's secret weapon and the Central Race. How do I save myself? How do I convince Fifteen to spare my memory?"
The desert was morphing from heat to cold, light to dark, and sound to silence. As they paused momentarily, Neruda could hear the muffled and somewhat annoying ring of his cell phone in his car. Apart from that, silence honored the light jewels of the deep, blue-violet sky. Samantha shivered in the evening chill, standing with her back to him as if she was absorbed in the sanctity of something unobservable.
"Maybe we should be getting back," he said.
"You have no ideas?" she pleaded, her voice struggling to find its normal tone.
"My mind is perfectly empty in this regard."
Samantha nodded faintly, her eyes staring deep inside herself.
Neruda admired her more than he ever expected. He had never been that fond of RVs. They spooked him. Maybe his Mayan roots made him fear anything that seemed like magic or sorcery. But he could see that Samantha was authentic and vulnerable at the same time, traits he was attracted to, and this attraction wasn't easy to suppress. He felt a strong moral obligation to help, but he felt equally powerless to protect her. In fact, he may have signed her expulsion papers, if not her death warrant.
"What do you think I should do?"
"I think we should go," he answered. "Let's meet again in the morning - before work - at this very same spot. 0700 hours. Maybe with fresh minds, we'll be able to come up with something."
"I'll bring the coffee," she offered.
"You're from the Midwest, aren't you?"
"I'll bring the coffee," he smiled. "You bring the pastries. Deal?"
They walked the hundred meters back to Neruda's car and rode back to the compound in silence. They were both tired, and their minds reeled from the decision that awaited them only ten hours away.
Evans opened his front door, startled to see Jenkins. "This better be good," he said as he walked away, leaving the door open and Jenkins standing at its threshold. "Yes, you can come in," Evans said over his shoulder.
Jenkins was a tall man, lanky build with wiry muscles that seemed ready to snap like a bear trap. He was widely regarded within the ACIO as the heir apparent to Evans, and for good reason. He was extremely competent. His dark eyes always seemed to be searching for clues as to a person's weakness or vulnerabilities, a trait that endeared him to Evans.
"I thought you should be aware of something. Can you open up PV?"
PV, or PansoVision, was the Security department's internal network, and was only accessible to SL-12 personnel through permission from both Evans and Fifteen. The only ACIO personnel who could use the system were the seven directors, Jenkins, and Fifteen.
"It's open, it's just on standby mode," Evans replied. He was in his robe, barefoot, and his hair was slicked back. "Can I get you anything?" he offered as he walked into his kitchen.
"No thanks," Jenkins replied. "I just wanted you to see this." Jenkins brought PV to operational mode and with a few keystrokes the monitor displayed a video picture of Neruda's profile in the driver's seat, next to him was Samantha. He clicked a button and freeze-framed the image. In the lower right corner was a date and time stamp.
Evans walked into the living room with a glass of white wine. "Are you sure?" he asked, lifting his glass.
"No, really, I'm fine, thanks," Jenkins answered.
"So what do we have here?" Evans asked, looking at the monitor for the first time.
"An anomaly," Jenkins said. "Neruda and Samantha Folten left the office together a little past nineteen hundred hours and drove to this site. A detailed photograph replaced the image of Neruda and Samantha. In the lower right corner was the phrase, Archived EITS Photograph 091092: 1721 PST.
"EITS was out of range?" Evans asked.
"Yes, by only twenty minutes," Jenkins replied. "He accessed our scheduling charts."
"Or got lucky," Evans remarked.
Jenkins hit a key and two red lines of code could be seen overlaying the satellite map. "They stopped here and talked for twelve minutes."
"Romance?" Evans asked.
"Can't say for sure, but the terrain was rocky and it was only twelve minutes."
"Not a very likely location for a lovers' tryst, then," Evans said with a grin.
"Samantha had an MRP yesterday per Fifteen's order," Jenkins said.
"Since she's an RV, she may have some memory bleed."
"What's the time-mark on their return?"
Jenkins hit a few keys and an image with Neruda and Samantha in the car displayed on the monitor, returning to the ACIO compound. "They were gone forty-two minutes."
"Current status?" Evans asked.
"They're both in their respective homes."
"Okay, we'll see what he does tomorrow," Evans said. "He knows we know. He's too smart."
"Do you want me to forward anything to Fifteen?" Jenkins asked.
"No, I'll handle it myself. I'm glad you brought it to my attention though. Keep me informed if there's any change. Let's switch to Theca Five for the next forty-eight hours, and watch these two as carefully as we can. He'll probably file a report in the morning and no harm done, but I want to make sure he knows we've turned up the heat, so let's leave no doubt."
"She wouldn't know the difference," Evans said.
"But she's an RV."
"Shit, I don't care, Jenkins. I was just trying to save you the time and effort. If you want to fuck with her head, too, be my guest."
"Okay, I'll be on my way," Jenkins said.
"You bet. Goodnight, then."
Jenkins left the image of Neruda and Samantha - frozen in time like Bonnie and Clyde - on the monitor. Evans took one last look before putting his system on standby. He toasted his glass of wine, looking at the monitor screen. "Don't blow it, man. We need you clean."
Samantha heard his footsteps before she saw him. Her heart jumped as he scaled the rock. "You scared the hell out of me!" she exclaimed.
"Sorry," Neruda said, holding up his coffee thermos and two Styrofoam cups. "I wasn't trying to scare you."
"It's okay, I'm just a little wound up."
"Under these circumstances," Neruda said, "you'd have to be tranquilized not to be wound up. My morning brew should relax your jangled nerves."
"I've heard about your morning brew," she laughed. "Does it really come out in lumps?"
"Rumors. Only rumors," he grinned, sitting down next to her.
"Did you notice anything unusual last night when you got home?" Samantha asked, her tone serious and soft.
"Like my phone has a carrier signal now, and my home terminal has a different hum that pulses almost imperceptibly, but I can feel it.
"They've placed us both in Theca Five," Neruda answered matter-of-factly.
"They know we met yesterday and they want me to know they know. It's their not so subtle way of saying either you come forward and report what you know, or we'll assume your loyalty and intelligence are compromised to such a degree that you're no longer useful to our purposes. Something like that."
"How can you manage to joke about this?"
"I'm not joking," Neruda corrected her. "I'm lightening the situation so it's easier to cope." He flashed his smile.
"So they're watching us right now?"
"No. I checked the Eye-in-the-Sky schedule before we met yesterday. We have," he glanced at his watch, "about forty minutes, but to be safe, I'd prefer to be out of here in thirty."
Samantha stared at him. "There's no privacy, is there?"
"You're an RV," Neruda laughed. "You of all people should know that."
"RVs are never used against ACIO personnel," Samantha said.
"True, but every other technology we have is, particularly if the personnel in question are meeting out in the desert the day after an MRP session."
"Have you talked with Evans or anyone yet?" she asked.
"Don't need to," he replied. "They have exception algorithms that monitor our Body Prints and report any anomalous activity like this." His arms stretched out like a priest in communion with the Holy Spirit.
Samantha relaxed her face and let out a long sigh. "Okay, I have an idea to get us both out of this situation." She paused, as if on some dramatic cue. "What if we did an RV session right now, at point of creation of their weapon system?"
Neruda remained silent, his eyes staring at his hands. Samantha continued, taking his silence as a good sign. "If we could determine the nature of their defensive system, perhaps we could convince Fifteen that they could be allies and not foes."
Neruda rubbed the back of his neck. "I haven't even had my coffee yet. Can we wait a few minutes?"
"There's no time if we have to leave in less than thirty minutes!" she said with an intensity that surprised Neruda.
He stood, surveying the landscape. "I'd be guilty of insubordination. Insubordination of a direct order from Fifteen, I might add. It would only worsen our situation, or at least mine."
"I know it's risky, but without this, how else do we convince him I should stay on the project and keep my memory?"
"Do you have anything to eat in that thing, or is it only your RePlay headgear?" Neruda said, pointing to a dark green shopping bag sitting at Samantha's feet.
"I do," she said.
"I'll take whatever you have that isn't RePlay. Please."
Samantha opened the bag, and pulled out a store-bought assortment of pastries, while Neruda opened his thermos and poured coffee.
"Two lumps or one," he asked.
"You're talking sugar aren't you?"
"Very funny," Samantha said, "but no lumps of either kind, thanks."
Neruda handed her a cup and they both settled into a quick breakfast. Samantha pointed to the sky with her free hand. "If Evans knows we're already here, why do we need to avoid detection from EITS?"
"The 'E' stands for more than Eye," Neruda explained.
"You mean they can hear our conversation... thirty... forty... however many miles up the thing is?"
"When EITS launched in seventy-five, the technology wasn't available for audio transmission... that was added in ninety-one when the system was upgraded."
"They can hear our conversation?" she repeated softly. "They can," he said.
"Remember how you were required to have a security implant when you started?"
"Yes, but I thought these were for tracking purposes -"
"-That's their main purpose, but they also have the ability to transmit audio to EITS. It's one of the most sophisticated technologies in our entire arsenal. And it'll be used on us in some thirty minutes if we're not careful."
"But these things were placed in my neck -"
"They transmit voice resonance, which the computer enhances, and they're so good, they can eavesdrop on a whisper."
"Wish I knew sign language," Samantha lamented under her breath. "I assume that they don't tell personnel about this technology on purpose."
"So, what do you think about my plan?" she asked.
"It's too dangerous to disobey a direct order from Fifteen. But I know another way we could do it."
"Our goal is to present the facts to Fifteen. He'd know any deception, so it's not an option to tell anything but the full and complete truth. The facts are that you've had significant memory bleed in the span of twenty-four hours following your MRP. Obviously it wasn't successful. The memories were too powerful."
Samantha nodded while Neruda paused to take a bite of his pastry.
"The problem is," he continued, "is that you're the only one who's seen these beings and communicated with them. You were the one who guided the original exploration team to the site. You're somehow connected into their frequency."
"Okay," Samantha asked, "so you're suggesting that I represent myself as a liaison to the Central Race?"
"Sort of," he replied. "We don't know if any other RV can make contact with this race. You've been the sole contact thus far. Perhaps we can convince Fifteen that your memory shouldn't undergo a radical MRP until we've made sure that a different RV can make the same connection. This would buy us time and provide a reason for your continued involvement in the project."
"You're saying that Fifteen will want to retain the option of contact with the Central Race in order to find out certain things in the future?"
"Correct," he replied. "When we first heard about the Central Race from the Corteum, Branson conducted several experiments to see if contact could be made, but nothing worked."
"Give me an example of something he might want to investigate in the future?" she asked.
"We have strong reasons to assume that the seven ETC sites are linked together through some means. We also know that there was only one homing beacon, which has since self-destructed, so we really don't know how to get to the other sites. You could help us determine how to access the other six sites."
"Do you think he'll buy this approach?" Samantha asked.
"I don't know," Neruda said, taking his last bite of pastry. "But it's an honest approach to our dilemma. It's the best option I can think of."
"Okay, then. When do we confront him?"
"I think it's best if I talk with him alone," Neruda answered. "He'd be much more close-lipped if you were in the room. We need him to be candid; he might just come up with a better solution."
Samantha nodded and began to gather up the pastries and put things away. "One more thing before we go," she said. "If you were planning to report the truth to Fifteen all along, why'd you go out of your way to elude EITS?"
"It's intelligent to retain control of your options. Fifteen and Evans respect that. Perhaps more than anything else. You don't want to make a habit of displaying any weakness or error in judgment to either of them."
"I'll keep that in mind," Samantha said.
The two quickly packed up their belongings and walked to their cars. Samantha couldn't stop thinking about EITS coming into position overhead. She could almost feel its prying eyes and ears, and once she settled into her car and watched Neruda pull away, she yelled several times at the top of her lungs, "Screw your EITS!"
She immediately felt better.
"Good morning, Jamisson," Fifteen said. "Are you looking for me?"
Neruda was on his way to Fifteen's office when he almost bumped into him as he turned a corner in the hallway. "Do you have a few minutes you could spare? It's important."
Fifteen motioned with his arm to his office door. "Of course. Go on in. I'll be right there."
Neruda sat down at a small conference table next to Fifteen's desk. The office had a way of making him feel vulnerable. It was so sparse that Neruda felt there was nowhere to hide, particularly when he had to deliver bad news.
The sound of the door closing startled him. Neruda turned to see Fifteen, Li-Ching, and Evans all joining him at the table. "We're all aware of your meeting with Samantha," Fifteen said. "We just want to hear your report. I invited Li-Ching and Evans so I don't have to repeat myself. Okay?"
Neruda nodded, though he'd preferred to meet alone with Fifteen. He began to feel that his actions might have been a more serious breach of security and protocol than he had thought.
"As you know," Evans began, "We're aware of your actions of yesterday evening and again this morning. You're fully aware that these actions subvert protocol and -"
"Now, now," Fifteen interrupted. "We don't need to be so hard-nosed about this. I'm sure that Jamisson has an excellent reason for his behavior." Fifteen put his hands flat on the table, and paused. "What we have I'm sure is just a misunderstanding. You have the floor, Jamisson. We'll simply listen and ask questions."
Neruda looked with searching eyes to his colleagues, careful not to betray his nervousness. "I had every intention of telling you exactly what happened," he said, looking directly at Evans. "Samantha had some memory bleed. Her memories of the RV sessions were too powerful to suppress."
"What triggered it?" Li-Ching asked.
"She was organizing her project materials and found a notation - in her own handwriting - about the Central Race and the seven ETC sites."
Fifteen pulled on a console that he slid from underneath the table and pushed a button. "I want Branson in here as soon as possible."
"Yes, sir," came his assistant's voice.
Fifteen turned to Neruda, his eyes serious and sympathetic at the same time. "And what did Samantha want from you?"
"She wanted to know whether she had undergone an MRP," he replied. "And she wanted to know who the Central Race is."
"And you told her?" Fifteen inquired.
"Why?" Evans asked.
"Because she's the best RV we have, and my choices were to lie and alienate her, or speak truthfully and secure her trust. I chose the latter."
"What does she want?" Fifteen asked.
"She wants to remain on the project. She feels that her skills may prove valuable later on."
"And you agree with her?" Fifteen asked.
For the first time that morning, Neruda locked eyes with Fifteen. "We don't know if any of our SL-Twelve RVs can contact the Central Race and perform RV reconnaissance, which could prove vital to the project later on. Samantha, I'm convinced, has a special connection with this race."
Evans stirred. "Can you think of a reason we'd want to contact or observe the Central Race?"
"No, Jamisson is right," Fifteen interjected. "We don't know if anyone else could successfully make contact. We tried when the Corteum told us about their existence, and we had no success."
"But that was before we had any physical connection," Li-Ching said. "Samantha had the artifacts and ETC site. It's not a fair comparison."
"But that's the point," Neruda said. "She has had an advantage, and her advantage could be - sometime in the future - used to our advantage."
A knock on the door distracted them. Branson stepped into the office slightly out of breath. "You wanted me?" he asked.
"Yes, come on in and join us," Fifteen said. "Samantha's MRP failed."
"In what way?" Branson asked as he sat down at the table next to Neruda.
"In every way," Fifteen replied.
"Shit," Branson said under his breath. "I'm not completely surprised."
"Let's assume that her memories can't be suppressed by MRP... that... that they're too powerful as Jamisson suggests," Fifteen said. "We have two options. We can perform a radical MRP and eliminate the entire project experience, or we can retain her services for the project and isolate her from sensitive information as best we can."
Fifteen glanced at Neruda out of the corner of his eye. "How much classified information did you provide her - in addition to information about the Central Race and the seven ETC sites?"
Neruda could tell that Fifteen sensed something. His voice tightened as he felt Fifteen's intuitive powers begin to reach inside his mind. "A little bit about EITS... I... I explained our rationale as to why we had to shut down her contact with the Central Race -"
"You told her about BST?" Fifteen asked, alarm showing in his voice.
"No, I didn't explain anything about BST, only that we had a defensive weapon... nothing more of consequence," Neruda answered defensively.
Evans couldn't restrain himself any further. "So now she knows about EITS and BST? We don't know how she'll handle this information. She's too wet behind the ears. I can't imagine how any payoff in this matter could outweigh the risks."
"She is the best RV we've ever had," Branson said. "The best. Jamisson couldn't have bullshit her anymore than he could bullshit us. At least he managed to retain his credibility with her, which could prove more valuable to us than anything else, at least in dealing with Samantha."
Silence hung over the conference table for a few moments. Neruda kept his eyes cast on the tabletop, wishing the meeting was over, but knowing it may have just begun.
Li-Ching fidgeted with one of the buttons on her blouse. "Why can't we take her off the project and give her a radical MRP?"
"I think Jamisson is implying that we need her," Fifteen replied. "We need her RV skills to accelerate our understanding of the seven ETC sites and how they interrelate... assuming they do."
Evans turned to Branson. "Are you sure we couldn't make contact with the Central Race using one of our SL-Twelve RVs?"
"We didn't have any success in our last attempts eleven years ago, but then we didn't have any artifacts or materials to establish contact either. We might be able to now."
"All I was suggesting," Neruda interjected, "was that we retain Samantha on the project until we know whether she has a unique capability to contact and communicate with the creators of these sites."
"Are you suggesting the creators of these sites are not the Central Race?" Fifteen asked.
"No," Neruda replied. "But we really don't know who they are within the Central Race. I just think we should retain her skills and knowledge base until we've determined that we have a redundant reconnaissance strategy and equally competent RV."
Fifteen sighed and turned to Branson. "Your succession plan for her is still seven years out. We don't want to do anything to jeopardize her leadership abilities. We want her to be a director. Given that, what's your recommendation?"
"She's retained on the project with full access to the SL-Twelve knowledge base - concerning Ancient Arrow only. She'll remain SL-Seven in all other respects."
"Evans?" Fifteen asked.
"I think the risks are too great to keep her on the project," Evans replied. "Any more contact with the Central Race, or any faction therein, could bring unwanted scrutiny to our own projects, particularly BST. I think a radical MRP and Theca Five containment for a period of time... perhaps three months thereafter, is the best course of action."
Fifteen turned to Li-Ching. "And you?"
"In general, I agree with Evans," she answered. "The risks do seem to outweigh the rewards. However, I can also see the possible advantage of having an RV reconnaissance strategy that gives us the flexibility to probe the creators of these sites... who knows what we'll want to know in the future."
Fifteen leaned back in his chair, spread his fingers apart and put his hands together fingertip-to-fingertip. "First of all, we know the Central Race, or some subset of the Central Race, created the ETC sites, of which we have good reason to believe are seven in number. These beings can probe Samantha. This means that they may be able to access her entire memory structure, which means that if she knew about BST, they might be able to learn of our plans regarding BST.
"If we want only SL-Twelve personnel involved in this project, no RV reconnaissance can be performed. However, if we kept Samantha on the job, they could only probe to the level of SL-Seven, which may be an acceptable risk so long as she knows nothing about BST."
He turned to Neruda with an intensity that Neruda had only seen once before. "I will only ask this one more time, Jamisson. How much does she know about BST?"
"She knows we have a defensive weapon that the Central Race may not sanction. She's aware that the ACIO - at a high level - is engaged in protecting Earth from the 2011 invasion... And she's aware that our weapon may have a connection to time travel."
"Nothing more?" Fifteen asked.
Neruda shook his head and looked down to his hands folded in his lap.
Fifteen took a deep breath and released it slowly. "She knows too much to be our RV. Any of our SL-Twelve RVs have the same dilemma - they know too much. These beings will probe any RV we use and they may very well, as a consequence, know our plans for BST. It's too dangerous to interact any further with representatives of this race. In this matter, I agree with Evans."
He paused long enough to shift positions in his chair, his back continued to bother him, despite the acupuncture that Li-Ching had prescribed. "However, I think that if we performed a radical MRP on Samantha, we would risk both her state-of-mind and possibly Branson's succession plan. If Samantha wants to stay on the project, I will grant her request, on one condition. She must refrain from any RV sessions with the Central Race."
Fifteen turned to Neruda. "You agree?"
"In what capacity would she operate if not an RV?" Neruda asked, after nodding agreement.
"Whatever role she desires as long as it doesn't include RVing the Central Race... I don't really care." Fifteen looked to Branson. "We'll do as you say. She'll be permitted SL-Twelve access on the Ancient Arrow project and remain SL-Seven on everything else."
"Okay," Branson replied. "Effective?"
"Now," Fifteen said. "Evans, are you okay with this? I want your support, too."
"You have it," Evans answered, "but I'd like to keep her in Theca Five for another few weeks if you don't mind."
"Done," Fifteen said. "Anything else?"
Silence hung in the air long enough for Fifteen to call the meeting adjourned. "Jamisson, could you stay behind for just a few minutes?"
Neruda nodded and sat back down in his chair while the others filed out of Fifteen's office. At the sound of the closing door, Fifteen sat down, his face solemn. "You're thinking you made the right choice by opening up to Samantha, aren't you?"
"I'm not sure what I think," Neruda replied. "I feel like I did the right thing -"
"Rest assured that you did not," Fifteen asserted with finality.
Neruda's internal composure crumbled at the words, though his physical presence was unshaken. "In what way?" The question left his mouth before his mind could censor it.
Fifteen shrugged. "You know. You already know. I just wanted you to be sure that I also know. And if you ever take liberty, as you did in this case, with another subordinate, you will most certainly be without subordinates. Do I make myself clear, Jamisson?"
"Very clear, sir."
"One question, though, if... if I may," Neruda said tentatively.
"Go ahead," Fifteen said.
"If we hit an impasse in decoding the material on the optical disc, or the other artifacts prove unyielding to our probes, doesn't it make sense that RV may be our only hope? And if that's true, isn't Samantha our best bet?"
Fifteen's face softened with an eloquent smile. "It's the only reason you weren't taken off the project. It's the silver lining in the breakdown of your behavior. We'll see if your actions pay off in the future, but in the present, they unequivocally do not."
Fifteen stood and looked down on Neruda. "That's all, for now." He walked away without another word, opening his office doors and walking out. Neruda slowly stood from his chair. He felt chilled to his bones, knowing that he'd come as close as he ever had before to being terminated from the ACIO.
He felt like he had betrayed his father, his hero, his mentor, and his future.
Neruda got to his office and found Samantha waiting in one of his desk-side chairs, her face a collision of worry and hope.
"How'd it go?" she asked, trying to sound calm.
"You're still on the project," he smiled, "but on the condition that we perform no RV with the Central Race."
"Fifteen ordered that?"
"What else?" Samantha asked.
"You need to talk with Branson," he replied. "I'm not sure there's much else I can tell you."
"You got in trouble, didn't you?"
"I'm sorry to have dragged you into this whole mess," she said. "Is there anything I can do?"
Neruda sat down at his desk and turned on a lamp, leaned back in his chair, and finally looked at Samantha. She was wearing white, cotton pants and a sky-blue blouse. Her red hair was tied up tightly behind her head.
"Just talk with Branson and stay away from the Central Race," Neruda replied. "That's all. You can do that, can't you?"
"Yes, but how will the others take this news?"
"Don't worry about them," Neruda answered. "Fifteen's decisions - though there're not always understood - are always respected."
"But will they hate me for being allowed back on the project?"
"No, of course not," Neruda answered. "You're an RV... a specialist. Everyone involved in this project knows that you had some special connection with the creators of the ETC site, so don't worry about it."
"Okay," she said softly. "So how do we know for sure that the Central Race created the ETC sites?"
Neruda could feel his mind being tossed on some inner wave. He felt an invisible tide pulling him further and further from the safety of shore.
"Please trust me on this, just talk with Branson."
He took out a piece of paper from his notebook, and began writing.
YOU'RE IN THECA 5 FOR ANOTHER 2 WEEKS. CAN'T DISCUSS THESE MATTERS WITH YOU - OFFICE BUGGED - THEY'RE LISTENING. SORRY.
He handed the note to Samantha, which she quickly read. A troubled expression came over her face as she recognized the grave situation she was in.
"Okay, then," she said. "I'll talk with Branson. Thanks for all your help."
Samantha stood. "I need to talk with you," she mouthed the words silently to Neruda.
Neruda shook his head. "I'll see you later, Samantha."
"Thanks again," she said.
She left his office frustrated at her loss of freedom, but gratified that she'd remain on the project and retain her memory, such as it was.
A banging on his door woke him. Neruda checked his bedside clock, unsure if he was still dreaming or it was real. It was just after 1am, and the alarm clock's luminescent dial assured him it was real. His intuition went on alert, trying to sense who it was.
He quickly put on his bathrobe and trudged downstairs to the front door, where he could see a shadowy figure waiting. "I hear you, Samantha," he hollered. "Just give me a few seconds to turn the security system off."
Neruda pushed a few buttons and then opened the door to the distraught face of Samantha. Her eyes were red from crying. "What's wrong?" he asked, inviting her in with his arm.
As if a damn broke, she wrapped her arms around him and began to cry. Neruda stood still and tried his best to comfort her, eyeing the street and neighborhood for any signs of onlookers. It seemed quiet and he felt safe, so he remained at the doorway, comforting her while she sobbed uncontrollably.
"Tell me what's wrong. Please."
"I'm sorry... I'm... I'm sorry to burst in on you... like this," she said, letting go of him and walking toward a chair in his living room. "Can I sit down for a minute?"
"Of course," he said. "Can I get you anything?"
"Maybe a Kleenex... or two."
"Sure, hold on a moment."
Neruda left for the kitchen and pulled several tissues from the dispenser and poured a glass of water. When he returned to the living room, Samantha was sitting in a chair, staring at the ceiling, tears streaming down her face.
"What's wrong?" Neruda asked as he handed her the tissues and placed a glass of water on the coffee table in front of her chair.
"Thanks," she said, blowing her nose. "I had a visitor tonight."
"Who?" Neruda asked, the news jolting him awake like a shot of caffeine.
"Before I tell you, is... is your home wired - I mean, can we talk?"
"Yes we can talk here. They already know you're here."
"Can EITS pick up on our conversation even inside your home?"
"It can pick up yours, not mine."
"You mean I have a different implant than you?" she asked.
"Mine was installed nineteen years ago, before we had the BP resonance broadcast technology."
"Once again, I'm the problem." Her face looked completely distressed. "So, they can only hear my side of the conversation?"
He nodded. "We're okay, Samantha, but if you don't mind, before you get started with your story, let me quickly change into some clothes and get some coffee on. Okay?"
"Yeah, that's fine. It'd give me some time to compose myself."
Neruda put some fresh coffee on and then changed into a pair of jeans, a white sweater, and quickly donned his Rolex. He splashed some cold water on his face and combed his hair. Five minutes later, he was serving coffee. "It's essentially decaf, so don't worry," he said, handing a cup to Samantha.
"Essentially decaf? You mean it's normal coffee, don't you," she said, forcing a smile to her lips.
"You were about to tell me about your visitors..." He commented, ignoring her remark and sitting in a chair opposite hers.
"It's okay? You're sure?" Samantha asked.
"I know the schedule for EITS, we're okay... for at least another ten minutes."
"But you said earlier that they already know we're here, so how can they know this if EITS isn't overhead?"
"The ACIO has twenty-eight satellites that comprise the EITS system, only nine have the updated technology for resonance broadcast, and the closest of those nine satellites is about ten minutes away from intercept range."
"How? I mean how... how do you know this for sure?"
"I have a photographic memory, remember?" Neruda explained.
"Must be nice," she laughed nervously.
"Tell me what happened, Samantha."
She took a sip of coffee and let out a deep breath. "I was in my bedroom tonight... around nine o'clock, and decided to do some meditation because I was so wound up after the day's events."
She closed her eyes as if she was watching something on her inner screen. "I had just started and was trying to drain my body of tension, when a light... a green and yellow colored light passed through my body. It was kind of like when the sun goes behind a cloud, you know, when it passes over you and you feel the difference, but you know the source of the shadow is a long ways away."
Neruda nodded. "You mean you saw it with your eyes, or you felt it within you?"
"Both, actually. The light source felt familiar, but I also knew it came from a great distance away. I watched it interact with my mind. It was a very gentle and peaceful experience."
Samantha leaned forward and set her coffee cup down, and folded her legs underneath her. Her face was slightly swollen and reddish in color. "And then this light somehow took hold of my mind and began to... to reconnect me... or my memory."
"In what way?" Neruda asked, leaning forward.
"The light was like a conduit... or portal. It had a magnetic pull and either I went to it or it came to me... I'm not even sure which -"
"It?" Neruda asked impatiently.
"It was a being," she replied. "An intelligence..."
"Did it have a shape?" Neruda asked.
"Not really, but I felt its presence and it scared the hell out of me."
"I don't know," she replied. "I... I've done meditations before and I've felt... or... or least seen lights, but I've never had the light become something intelligent."
"In what way was it intelligent?"
"It restored my memories of the RV sessions with the Central Race." Samantha let her words hang in the air for a few seconds while she took another sip of coffee. "I have complete recall of my experiences, more now than before the MRP."
"How?" Neruda asked, knowing he sounded incredulous.
"I don't know how, but it happened. I remember everything as if it happened a few moments ago. And there's something more," she said, her voice suddenly quiet. "It activated all of my experiences with them, including the time I was scanned inside the first cavern and... and earlier when I lost consciousness trying to communicate with the homing device."
"I know more about the plans of the ETC site's creators," Samantha said. "But I don't know if I should tell anyone."
"Because Fifteen'll want to take away all my memories, if not my life," she said, as tears formed in her eyes. She dabbed the corners of her eyes with a Kleenex. "There's no doubt in my mind."
"Because I know too much, and for some reason, the creators of this site embedded something inside me that they use to contact me... or... or activate me to do certain things."
"Look," she whispered, "you said that we had ten minutes before EITS would be in range. I'm completely spooked. I don't know whom I can trust... other than you."
"EITS can only pick up your voice," he said, glancing at his watch. "Let me ask questions and you can either write the answers down or just nod yes or no. Okay?"
"And you're sure that you have no other listening devices in your house?"
"Okay. I'll tell you, but only if you'll agree to keep this conversation strictly between you and I. Okay?"
"Agreed," he replied.
Neruda stood to gather his thoughts. The living room was spacious with a grand piano in one corner silhouetted by a large picture window. A floor-to-ceiling, sand-colored flagstone fireplace dominated the far end of the room where he began to pace back and forth.
He stopped pacing and turned to Samantha. "So, a light entered your body and reconnected all of your memories concerning your interactions with the ETC site, RV sessions with the Central Race, and the homing device. Correct?"
Samantha nodded, and then blew her nose.
"It was like being re-wired by a remote source that you took to be a representative technology or force from the creators of the ETC site?"
Samantha's face froze for a few moments as if she was debating Neruda's question inside her own mind. Finally, she nodded again, but motioned for something to write with. Neruda responded with a pen and pad of paper from a nearby desk. She scribbled something and handed the pad back to Neruda, pointing to her comments.
IT WASN'T A TECHNOLOGY OR FORCE; IT WAS AN INTELLIGENCE WITH THE SPECIFIC PURPOSE OF ACTIVATING MY MEMORY.
Neruda nodded. "And this intelligence, it only reconnected your memories... it... it didn't communicate anything of its own?"
Samantha looked at Neruda and nodded.
"However," he continued, "the memories of your experience with the homing device are intact, and they somehow gave you an expanded view of the creator's plans for the ETC site. Correct?"
"Do you know what the purpose of the ETC sites is?"
She shook her head, and began to write something and handed it to Neruda when she was done. Neruda took it and walked away, reading it out loud. "Not sure, but it's not a weapon. It has more to do with raising the consciousness of the planet."
He turned around and locked eyes with Samantha. "Do you know how it will do this?"
She began to write.
I'M NOT POSITIVE, BUT SOMEHOW THE 7 ETC SITES COMBINE TO FORM A TECHNOLOGY THAT RAISES THE MOLECULAR VIBRATION OF THE PLANET AND EVERYONE ON IT. THIS TECHNOLOGY MODIFIES THE DNA STRUCTURE, NOT ONLY OF HUMANS, BUT ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET. IT WAS DESIGNED TO MAKE US UNDETECTABLE TO THE INVADING ALIENS - I MEAN THE ENTIRE PLANET!
His lips moved almost imperceptibly as he read her note. "This light, or intelligence, as you refer to it, is it from the creators of the ETC site?"
"And you know this because it activated your memories. Are there other reasons you feel this way?"
She nodded again, and started to write another note.
I ASSUME IT WAS IMPLANTED IN ME WHEN I CAME INTO CONTACT WITH THE HOMING DEVICE, BUT IT FELT LIKE IT CAME FROM AN INCREDIBLE DISTANCE AWAY. IT FELT ANCIENT. IT FELT ETERNAL. IT FELT LIKE GOD.
Neruda nodded as he read the note. "Do you know how we'll be able to locate the other six ETC sites?"
Samantha nodded, but then shook her hand as if she were erasing something from the air. She wrote in a flurry of motion.
DON'T KNOW HOW TO LOCATE THE SITES, BUT I KNOW THAT WE'RE NOT THE ONES WHO'LL FIND THEM.
His face instantly looked puzzled as he read the note. "Someone else is going to make the discovery?" Neruda asked, his voice sharp with surprise.
"Yes," she said, her hand moving to her mouth as if she wanted to recapture her word. Neruda waved her inadvertent remark away; assuring her it was no big deal.
"Do you know who?"
She shook her head.
"But you're quite certain that it will not be the ACIO who discovers these other sites?"
Neruda sighed and sat down in the chair opposite Samantha.
"You're telling me," he began, sweeping his hand through his hair, "that you know with certainty that the ACIO will not discover the other six sites before someone else does. Correct?"
She nodded, her face showing signs of frustration at not being able to explain with speech. She began writing another note.
THIS DISCOVERY HAS BEEN CAREFULLY ORCHESTRATED DATING ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE ANASAZI INDIANS WHO FIRST DISCOVERED IT. WE PLAY A VERY CRITICAL ROLE, BUT THERE'S SOMEONE ELSE WHO'LL FIGURE OUT HOW TO ACCESS THE OTHER SITES. OUR ROLE - I MEAN THE ACIO'S ROLE - IS TO FIND THE OTHERS WHO'LL HELP US FIND THE OTHER SIX SITES.
Neruda lost his patience half way through her writing of the note and stood behind her reading over her shoulder as she wrote. When she finished the last few words, he walked back to his chair and sat down in frustration.
"We'll never convince Fifteen to take this discovery outside of the ACIO," Neruda lamented. "He won't allow the NSA to know anything substantive about this discovery, let alone publish anything about this discovery in a scientific journal. Do you know anything about who this outsider might be?"
Samantha's face was downcast and showed the telltale signs of uncertainty.
"Do you know if it's a person or an organization?" he asked. She shook her head from side-to-side, and mouthed the words, "I'm not sure."
"Write down your explanation for why you're convinced that the other six sites will be discovered by someone or... or some group outside of the ACIO?"
Her pen was instantly in motion as Neruda finished his last word. She wrote without hesitation for about a minute, and then handed a sheet of paper to Neruda.
ONE OF MY MOST VIVID, RESTORED MEMORIES HAD TO DO WITH A GIRL - MAYBE FIFTEEN OR SIXTEEN YEARS OLD - WHO WAS ABLE TO FIND THESE SITES AND ACTIVATE THEM THROUGH A MEANS I DON'T UNDERSTAND. IT HAD TO DO WITH HER MIND. SOMETHING SHE HAD BEEN BORN WITH. SHE'S FROM THE CENTRAL RACE. SHE'S ONE OF THE ORIGINAL CREATORS OF THESE SITES, BUT NOW LIVES INSIDE A HUMAN BODY. HER FACE IS NOT FAMILIAR TO ME. BUT SHE'S THE ONE WHO'LL OPEN THIS THING UP. I DON'T THINK SHE'S AWARE OF HER ROLE YET. WE HAVE TO FIND HER. I'M SURE OF THIS. WITHOUT HER, WE'LL NEVER ACCESS THE OTHER SITES, AND WITHOUT THE OTHER SITES, THIS TECHNOLOGY WILL NEVER OPERATE AS IT WAS INTENDED.
Neruda read the explanation and looked up. "How do we locate this girl?"
"You have no idea?"
She shook her head, wrote a quick note, and passed it to Neruda.
IT'S ALL ORCHESTRATED. IT'LL HAPPEN IF WE GET THE WORD OUT ABOUT THE ETC SITE. SOMEHOW THIS GIRL WILL STEP FORWARD WHEN SHE HEARS ABOUT THE DISCOVERY.
It was Neruda's turn to shake his head. He looked up at Samantha. "There's no way this discovery will see the light of day. The chance that Fifteen would authorize such a thing is nil. It won't happen. Is it possible that the girl you recollect from your memory is related to something else?"
Samantha shook her head and frowned at the suggestion that she could be mistaken.
"Explain again the source of this vision or memory," Neruda requested, sitting up in his chair and taking a sip of coffee.
Samantha began writing immediately.
IT WAS A VISION THAT WAS PLANTED IN MY MIND BY THE HOMING DEVICE WHEN WE WERE IN THE FIRST CAVERN. I SAW THIS GIRL VERY CLEARLY, AND SHE LOOKED COMPLETELY HUMAN, BUT I WAS TOLD THAT HER SOUL IS VERY ANCIENT AND THAT SHE WAS ONE OF THE ORIGINAL PLANNERS OF THE ETC SITES. SHE WOULD BE THE ONE TO ACTIVATE THIS SYSTEM. THEY NEEDED TO HAVE ONE OF THEIR OWN ARCHITECTS INCARNATE AS A HUMAN IN ORDER TO ACTIVATE THE SYSTEM. IT HAD TO BE AN INSIDE JOB, SO TO SPEAK.
Neruda groped for the right words. "You believe that these beings... the creators of these seven sites... that they're going to make this discovery public... a public event?"
She nodded in agreement.
"But nowhere in your memory do you see how they will orchestrate this?"
Samantha formed the word "no" with her lips and shook her head in slow motion.
"Do you have any sense of how far in the future your vision was? I mean months, years, decades?"
She scribbled something quickly and handed it to Neruda.
IT FELT LIKE ONE, MAYBE TWO YEARS IN THE FUTURE, BUT I'M NOT SURE.
"We have a major dilemma, Samantha. I have to report this to Fifteen first thing tomorrow. I have no choice -"
Samantha stood up and stormed away to the other side of the room. She was furious and didn't hide it. She turned around and walked back within a few feet of Neruda's chair. He watched her as she silently mouthed the words "you promised!" twice.
"I know," he said, "but I didn't realize the gravity of the situation like I do now. I'm sorry, Samantha. I'm really sorry, but I don't have any choice."
Samantha sat back down and grabbed her pen and paper and wrote like an imprisoned martyr to her tormentors.
IF YOU TELL FIFTEEN HE'LL NOT ONLY TAKE ME OFF THE PROJECT, HE MIGHT REMOVE ME FROM THE ACIO ALTOGETHER. YOU PROMISED NOT TO DIVULGE THIS TO ANYONE ELSE!
"Samantha, I can't stay quiet on this issue," he said. "You pose a security risk to the project and to the ACIO. You either believe this discovery should be published and shared with the world, or you don't. There's no middle ground."
She began to write, stopped, and then crossed out what she had written. She closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. Her face trembled with confusion. Tears were beginning to flow from her eyes, but she began to write anyway, brushing her eyes and cheeks with a tissue.
I'M NOT PLANNING TO TELL ANYONE OTHER THAN YOU. I KNOW THE RISKS I'D BE TAKING IF I TOOK THIS STORY PUBLIC. I DON'T HAVE THE COURAGE... ALL I CAN TELL YOU IS THAT THIS IS NOT IN MY HANDS. I BELIEVE THE CREATORS OF THESE 7 SITES ORCHESTRATE THIS ENTIRE SERIES OF EVENTS. I'M JUST THE MESSENGER, DON'T SHOOT ME! I NEED YOUR HELP, PROTECTION, ADVICE. WHATEVER YOU CAN PROVIDE. HELP ME, PLEASE!
He looked up at her just as she closed her eyes to blow her nose. Even in her disheveled state of mind, her face held a regal poise and grace that attracted him. He felt a brotherly love for her. Something he couldn't exactly explain, or deny. "If you want my help, you can't expect me to lie on your behalf. I can't do that."
Samantha shook her head, showing her agreement. A flicker of hope crossed her face.
"If I tell Fifteen the truth, our only hope is that he's convinced that we'll not be the ones who take this discovery public. And the only way we could convince him of that is if we're convinced of it ourselves. Are you?"
Samantha froze for a few moments. She looked down at her pad of paper unsure of what to write. Then:
I'M CONVINCED THAT SOMEONE WILL MAKE THIS DISCOVERY PUBLIC, AND I'M CONVINCED IT WON'T BE ME. THAT'S ALL I CAN TELL YOU.
"Who? Who would make this public?" Neruda asked in a grave tone of voice. "Not McGavin. Certainly not Fifteen. It'd have to be someone who'd defect. There's no other way. And if we kept this to ourselves, it would have to be you or I. And... and you just said you wouldn't do it. So that leaves me..."
Samantha waved her arms as if motioning him to stop. She began writing again, her intensity rising like a spiraling hawk.
I HAVE THIS STRONG FEELING THAT THIS DISCOVERY IS OF EXTREME IMPORTANCE TO THE PLANET, EVEN THOUGH I CAN'T EXPLAIN WHY. IT MUST BE SHARED. IF IT ISN'T, WE WON'T BE PREPARED FOR THE INVASION OF 2011. AND WHAT IF THE ACIO CAN'T, FOR WHATEVER REASON, BUILD OUR DEFENSIVE WEAPON IN TIME? THIS MAY BE OUR ONLY HOPE. I'M SUPPOSED TO CARRY THIS MESSAGE. I'M THE MESSENGER. YOU HAVE TO HELP ME. I CAN'T CHANGE FIFTEEN'S MIND BY MYSELF.
Neruda read the note twice, stalling his response. He could only see one road ahead, and it scared the hell out of him. He couldn't champion this public disclosure with the Labyrinth Group's cooperation. He'd have to defect. There was no other way.
"If I bring this dilemma to Fifteen, he'll think I'm crazy if I advocate a public disclosure based on your vision, no matter how revered you are as an RV. The only help I can offer is to explain to Fifteen your experience and the reason for your visit, and downplay the whole thing. It'll buy us some time, and give us an opportunity to decode some of the material from the optical disc. Maybe something'll show up that'll add credibility to your vision."
Samantha had begun writing before Neruda finished his comment. She tossed him her note with a curtness that surprised him. She stood, whispered "goodbye", and walked out the door before Neruda could even object. He read her note with a chord of fear reverberating through his body.
SO I'M GOING TO BE MADE TO LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT. MY CREDIBILITY WILL BE UNDERMINED IN ORDER TO PRESERVE YOUR OWN. THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP. I WAS HOPING FOR MORE.
The sound of her car screeching out of his driveway brought him to his feet. He watched her drive away, while his heart sunk to a depth he'd not felt for many years. His choices unsettled him. He knew he'd have to talk with Fifteen in the morning, and he needed to give careful thought to how much he'd disclose.
Neruda picked up the coffee cup and discarded the tissues that Samantha had carefully placed on her saucer. He could only imagine her frustration and fear. But he felt as trapped as she, perhaps more so, because he was the only one who could take the Ancient Arrow project public. And somewhere in his heart, beneath all of the disquiet he felt, he knew this path lay ahead of him, and that his life had just changed irrevocably.
He hit the "call" button on his phone and heard the telltale carrier signal that told him he was once again in Theca Five. He hated the efficiency of Evans and his technologies. He flicked on his computer terminal to check email. David had left him a message about a breakthrough that they'd made. A ray of light moved over him as he read one of David's comments over and over.
WE FOUND AN ACCESS POINT CONSISTING OF A MAXIMUM OF 23 CHARACTERS IN WHAT WE PRESUME IS A 52-CHARACTER ALPHABET. IT'S AN INTERACTIVE PASSWORD. WE'RE ON OUR WAY.
Neruda's mind couldn't concentrate on the breakthrough, though he felt some relief that progress was being made. He could only think about Samantha and how he'd explain what she had told him to Fifteen. He knew that Samantha was her own worst enemy right now, and was almost capable of anything. Perhaps he was, too.