Infinity 7 (Part 3)

Space stattion

Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved

 

3

 

John stares sullenly at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He’s hardly touched his vegetables since the conversation started. His daughter, Sarah, doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other, about anything he says. Not about the mission to Metis 3, the possibility of alien life, none of it. Now, a three-inch yellow ball fluoresces above the table. Shimmering beams of light pulsate as it slowly expands, then shrinks back down. Brilliant rainbow colors dance off the ball and illuminate his daughter’s face, accenting her delicate, preteen features in a multicolored glow.

He glares at her. “You know how I feel about that game at the table. It’s distracting.”

She gazes into the orb’s core. Spiraling rays spread out, long spindly tentacles from its circumference, then begin a rapid-fire reproduction of themselves. Beams of red, yellow, and orange spring from the sphere in long sparkling arches then fall back onto themselves, creating tiny rippling explosions when they impact the orb. Tracers of missiles in an atomic annihilation. The war, in miniature, has begun. The streams fade to white, and intensify as more rays fall back onto the planet, exploding reds and blues and pink conflagrations.

“Sarah, can you please answer me?”

She glances up at him, her eyes glassy, unfocused as she searches the dark area at the end of the table where his voice emanated from.

“Sarah, for cripes’ sake, put that thing down!”

“Just a sec,” she yells, and reaches up and spreads the ball out even wider. The sparkling fireworks and spraying lines of color grow in intensity. The orb begins to pulsate, vibrate, emitting a low rumble born of destruction.

John takes a mouthful of mashed potato and waits for it to dissolve on his tongue. The lumps don’t melt and he swallows hard, feeling them slide down his throat. Has she always been this way? No, he doesn’t think so. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She has worked hard in school, done well on tests, works well with others. Her mother’s death has changed her. She’s more distant now. Almost resigned…but, to what? Life sucking? He remembers her saying her life sucked, offhandedly, the way kids do. Things have changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. He’s well acquainted with being resigned to the darkness. Being totally resigned. Not to life sucking, but to the fragility of it. Life is but “a dream, within a dream…”

He has goals. Had personal goals. The old ones are gone now, either by meeting them or disillusionment. Death does that. Priorities change…

“Sarah!” he yells, trying to shake her from her trance. She scowls at him, her eyes dark, but alive with fear. Or is that contempt? “Put that thing away!”

“But Dad, the battle just started!”

“I don’t care. Save it for later.”

She grabs the sizzling orb and compresses it to the size of a pea, then slips it into a small blue pouch dangling from her chair. Immediately, her hands prop up her head, as if she’s been in hyper-sleep for six months, the weight of her skull too much to bear.

He takes a sip of wine and carefully places the glass next to his plate. “So, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“Haven’t you been listening?”

“If that’s what you want…” She listlessly pokes at her food. The peas roll into the potatoes. She quickly herds them away. Each vegetable must maintain separation. Contamination is not acceptable.

“I don’t have much choice, Sarah. The funding just isn’t there for a full team.”

He tries to lock eyes with her, but she avoids his stare, holds her head with her right hand and pushes her food with her left. A blank stare of resignation contrives her face.

“It’s a family decision. I want to discuss it.” They both know the decision has already been made, but he persists with the charade. “I’m the only one qualified in engineering and crew psychology. It’s only a short month. Grandma—”

“Great,” she interrupts.

“It’s a family decision—”

“Sure, a family decision. Chance to go to the moon. Why not?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is orbiting the moon. I won’t be setting foot on the surface. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I know, Dad. I’m just being incorrigible. Oh my God, how can you stand it? Enjoy your research. Can I go now?” Sarcasm drips from her as she stands, and snatches the still glowing orb from the bag. A few seconds of silence pass as he tries to think of what to say to soothe the situation, but nothing comes. The explosion of Karen’s booster rocket flashes into his mind, and for an eternity he feels the sharp pain of losing her all over again. Guilt from that event hangs over him like a shroud. Sadness takes hold and he sinks into his chair, unintentionally mimicking Sarah’s usual posture.

He tries to read his daughter’s expression. Could she be thinking the same thoughts right now? The interminable sadness of losing someone you love. The pain rises from deep within. “Go,” he says, resigned to his melancholy. Sarah throws the tiny ball up into the air. It expands and radiates brilliant yellow as the planetary battle continues, illuminating the way to her bedroom.

He sits alone in front of a cold dinner. Another sip of wine offers no resolution.

“Cleans-All, clear the plates.”

The portable Cleans-All rolls in from the kitchen and stops next to John. The waste port opens. John gazes at the contraption, thinking how much better constructed it could have been. Its appearance is that of a great green toad with amber eyes lit up like Christmas in July. The only thing missing is a vocal sac for croaking. John dumps the recyclable plates into the smiling, open-mouthed bin and presses the consume button. The machine masticates the meal and turns toward Sarah’s plate. John stares at the flashing amber light, pulsing almost in rhythm to his heartbeat.

The machine emits a low hum as it waits for him to load the plates, but he doesn’t want to move. Rather, he lets melancholy spread up from some unimaginable depth and slither through him, the emptiness momentarily blanketing out all thought. He’s naked and alone. Then Karen comes to him. She smiles, her eyes alive with empathy. He can smell her perfumed skin and soft breath. He reaches to touch her face. The Cleans-All beeps, and the past is interrupted by blinking lights. He gets up and, one by one, hurls plates into the open bin. The machine receives the ferocity with grace, rocking as each discard hits, its smile unwavering, as if understanding this as an isolated event. John launches a bowl, then a cup, a saucer, the knives. The table is cleared, and the machine stands, quietly consuming. The playful frog eyes continue to flash.

“Finished,” he whispers. The open mouth closes, and it turns and removes itself to the kitchen.

John walks into the living room and sits in his favorite levitating chair. It cradles his body like a warm glove, then ascends a few feet off the floor. Calculated to imitate the rocking motion of a calm sea, designed to lull the occupant, the chair sways in mild oceanic rhythm.

“Scotch on the rocks.”

Another machine, similar to the Cleans-All, aptly named Serves-All, springs to life from across the room. A bright yellowish light leads the way as it rolls forward. A tray pops open in front of the assembly, and a glass of single-malt Scotch slides towards John. He removes the glass from the tray and the Serves-All waits.

“Go away.”

The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.

“Memories, Karen.”

A three-dimensional holographic image of Karen illuminates the center of the room. She wears a flight suit. The hologram expands to reveal she is about to board a Metis mission spacecraft. John takes a sip of Scotch. Karen, a pretty, athletic woman in her late thirties, smiles for the camera, then moves toward the rocket. A new shot of her standing on a rocket platform. She’s decked out in a full flight suit. She stops and turns, waving unabashedly. A new series of moving images appear, spliced together in similar fashion to an old-time newsreel. The rocket lifts off, surrounded by gaseous smoke, ice, and debris as it climbs into the stratosphere. A tiny nugget in the sky now. John watches through watery eyes. He knows what’s coming. He takes another sip of Scotch, longer this time. A horrendous explosion rocks the image. The rocket has scattered into bundles of fiery debris. Part of the booster spirals off out of frame, trailing a cloud of billowing smoke. John chews on a piece of ice, mashing chunks into cold slush, until his teeth ache. He tells himself it wasn’t his fault, but ultimately, that doesn’t help. Ultimately, it was his decisions that caused the accident. He was the one who worked the numbers with the manufacturer. He was the one who, against advice, approved the cheaper, inferior paneling for the boosters. He was the one who bet the life of his wife and crew for the savings of $350,000. Guilt runs through him like dirty water. Some days it’s a river, other days a stream, but the cesspool of guilt never dries up.

The image changes. Still photos of the mission crew, his wife’s picture among the line of five lost souls.

“Freeze frame.”

The life-sized ultra-high resolution, 3D photo of his proud astronaut wife is frozen above his chair. Her pride, hard work, sacrifice, success, and heartbreak all etched on his heart, in sentences only he can read.

“Hello, Babe…” He reaches out, his hand slipping through the image. “I think of you every hour of every day.” Her eyes sparkle. How can you ever live down betrayal? “Remember Coronado…” Her left eye winks, and his heart skips a beat. But he knows it’s not real. His mind is playing tricks again.

Every heartbeat of her life has synthesized into one blistering, visual memory. The crack that led to the leak. The communion of flame and fuel. The explosion. The searing inferno. Karen’s agonized face as she is consumed in super-heated molten metal and flame. Her eyes are pools of watery viscera as they beg for his help.

It’s as if he is there, watching from a safe distance, held back by time itself, and sees the whole thing from the start. There is nothing he can do but watch. A small fragment of superheated metal has lodged in the fuselage, burning through the exposed polymers and melting into the aluminum alloys and steel beneath. The flames snake into the inner skin of the vehicle, fueled by the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the command capsule, and race throughout the ventilation systems. The inferno, led by thick smoke, snakes its way through the cockpit and ignites the instrument panels. Karen is strapped in her chair. She cannot move. The catastrophic assent is punishing, shaking her as she absorbs 3 g. At the same time, flames race through the command module, igniting the console and electrical systems. Jolted by the explosive energy beneath her, she screams as the flames lick at her flight suit. Her face is wet with sweat. Then somehow, her helmet is off, her sweat-drenched hair whips around, flying free, like in one of those shampoo ads, only it’s flames, not water, flying free from her locks, tiny orange flames consuming her hair, like a fuses leading to her brain. The flames reach her face. Pink skin bubbles up, consumed utterly, transforming into black, crusty carbon. The outline of her delicate features is traced in flakes of ash. The most dreadful horror of all—her final expression—quizzical shock and wonder as her ashes crumble into her fire-retardant suit.

She is so much dust.

John blinks this image away, but he cannot fully un-see what his mind has to offer. And the guilt slowly simmers down, back into its bottomless pit.

He strides to Sarah’s bedroom and knocks on the door. After a few seconds, he enters and stands in the doorway. She is lying on the bed, watching a bright hologram above her head, her ears covered in sound patches.

“What is it, Dad?” she asks, her voice loud, agitated.

“Done your homework?”

“Yes.”

“That was quick.”

“I’m kind of a genius.”

He smiles, pleased by her familiar sense of humor. A feeling of warmth wraps around him and he wants to hug her, but he stops himself. She wouldn’t like it. Not anymore. Not today.

“Sarah, I…” he starts, but there’s nothing behind his words. The explosion still occupies his thoughts, and for a split second Karen’s tortured face blinds him. He pushes the memory aside. “As much as I loved your mother, and she loved us—”

“Did she?” Sarah snaps, still staring at the music video above her head.

“What makes you say that?”

“Forget it.” Her face is lit in unsaturated hues. A band, live on stage in front of thousands of fans, hovers in a hologram above her head. The singer screams into the mic but John hears only the cold hum of the house. He takes a few steps into the room.

Sarah glances up, then turns back to the video. “I’m trying to watch this, do you mind?”

“I miss her like crazy, Sarah. You know that. I know you do too.” She tries not to look at him, but he can tell he’s getting through. He sits on her bed. “Turn that off a second, will you?”

She rolls her eyes, but silently complies. She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself for what’s coming, and removes the small mesh patches from her tragus.

“You know I would never do anything to hurt you or us as a family. But the funding isn’t there for a full team to go on a mission right now. We’re on the verge of losing everything I’ve worked for, Sarah.”

“So don’t go.”

“You don’t understand, there’s something…” He almost says wrong, there’s something wrong on board Metis 3, but that would only worry her. It wasn’t her problem. He doesn’t want to drag her into it. Wanting to minimize her fears, he says, “Besides, how often do I have the opportunity to go into space?”

“You mean like Mom’s great opportunity to be killed? Yeah, hope it works out for you.”

Her sharp words cut into him, but only he is allowed to turn that dagger. “Hey, what is this? Explain yourself.”

She stares straight ahead as she speaks, as if the air will understand. “Her future was so important. Look what it got her. Where is she? We don’t even know, do we? Where is she?”

“You know where she is.”

He thinks of the small urn he keeps next to her holographic image, but he knows what she’s saying. Cinders from the crash make for a lousy memorial. “I know it’s hard to understand now, but if we don’t do what we have to in life, if we don’t challenge ourselves and try to achieve all that we can, then what’s the point? You want to just sit around all day until you’re too old to get up anymore? What would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning?”

She continues to stare straight ahead. “There isn’t any.”

“Look, I need to get this resolved between us—”

“You’ll go no matter what I say.”

“That’s not true.”

She stares up at the ceiling, then at her blue painted fingernails. “Fine,” she says.

“No, no. I don’t accept fine. Fine is not an answer. You’re either okay with this or you’re not.”

“She loved us, all right? So much, she was willing to go into space and get killed.”

He practically shudders at the comment. If she only knew how he blamed himself. “Sarah. It was the accident, not the mission that killed your mother.” He reaches out and strokes her hair, expecting her to pull back, but she doesn’t. “It can’t be undone. God knows I’ve gone over every bit of footage from that day. There was nothing to warn us. We just didn’t see it. A defect in the shielding. It sucks, Sarah. I miss her…every day, every minute.”

Huge tears roll down Sarah’s cheeks. He touches his forehead to hers, then collects himself.

A small 3D photo of Karen floats above the bedside table. John reaches for it, then stops himself. He’s had enough wallowing for one night. He can’t afford to be dragged down into total depression. Next to the photo of Karen sits a static 2D photo of a smiling middle-aged man, his arm slung around a young boy. They stand on a grassy lawn.

“I was your age here, I think.” He picks up the framed photo. “You know, when this picture was taken, I didn’t even know my father. Not really. Oh, he came home at night, usually sober and would eat dinner with us and then…I don’t know what he did. It was like he disappeared. He used to yell quite a bit, I remember that.”

“I know, and he was mean and never gave you anything.”

“Hey, I’m telling the story.”

A twinkle lights her eye.

“Right?”

“Again and again. Yes, I think I’ve heard this one before.”

A practiced tone of capitulation. A routine they had settled into during his many teaching talks. He fixes a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. “Part of the reason we have what we have is because he never gave me anything. Not a smile, not a nod, not a whisper. I was made to feel I was a burden. I vowed to never, ever be like him.”

The anger rises, like it always does, from wounds deep and long scabbed over, but never fully healed. After workday’s end, with the setting sun, this vague pain rises from his gut, and he touches it, just as a reminder. Even though he assumed the old man had died years earlier (he hadn’t seen him for twenty-seven years), the father he could never please was always there, lurking behind every decision, every failure, every triumph, standing in the shadows of his mind, waiting to pounce, deny, ignore, deflect, and neglect by omission, his only son. Why was he never good enough? Had he genuinely disliked his own child? Sometimes John wondered what he looked like in his old age, the silent, brooding man at the end of the dinner table. A man whose eyes came to you only in rebuke. He wondered if he was going to look like him and it plagued him to see glimpses of his father reflected in himself. Mostly because he feared the physical similarities would carry with them his father’s lack of compassion. His fingers, at certain angles, reminded him of his father’s. And sometimes, when he was feeling low, he’d avoid looking at them all together, placing them in the nearest pocket, or if he was wearing a jersey, rolling them up in the bottom of his shirt as he sat.

John looks at his girl, the smart young woman she is becoming, and smiles. “If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I wouldn’t go. You know that.” He stares at the photo of himself, his father’s arm draped over his own small shoulders, the lost look in his dark, young eyes, the emptiness behind that smile. He could never initiate that photo into 3D. He feels sorry for the boy standing next to that stranger. Examining the lines of his father’s face, the square smile, the deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, he wonders, as he often does when contemplating this photo, what his father was looking at to make him smile with such warmth. That elusive, unseen element of the photo, hidden just out of view, is as real to him as the teeth in his father’s mouth.

He turns to his daughter. “I love you, Sarah. I will say it until I die. You are special to me, and if you don’t want me to go on this mission, by God, I will not go.”

A smile eases her tight lips, followed by a heavy sigh, the way she always sighs when he pays special attention to her, like when he used to tuck her into bed, or read to her. Just being close, in a quiet moment such as this, fans that faint flame of joy.

“I want you to go on the mission, Dad.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I guess, because you want it. That makes me think it’s okay.”

He replaces the photo back on the night table. “The day this photo was taken I said to myself, Who is this man with his arm around me? I couldn’t understand all the attention. Then later, I swore I wouldn’t be like him, the type of father he was.”

“And you’re not, Dad, okay? Can we drop it now?”

After getting to his feet, he stops at the doorway and turns back. “Hey, remember that time on Coronado? The cottage on the beach?”

She looks up. “Yeah?”

“I never saw you or your mother so happy. Remember? The white sands. Feet in the water.”

She shrugs. “Sure.”

“One day you’ll look back and realize how special that was.”

Her eyes have glazed over. She’s not listening anymore. John realizes he’s reached his parenting limit for the day.

She replaces the sound patches and throws the sphere into the air. It spreads out into a panoramic vision of a planet in turmoil. Nukes spiral out from every side of the globe and hit with devastating force, creating luminous mushroom clouds. The room brightens with the intensity of the explosions.

“What happened to the concert?” he asks.

She looks up at him again. “What?”

John gives her a last, barely acknowledged nod, and quietly shuts the door.

In the living room, holding the same glass of single malt Scotch, he stares out the window at the darkening sky. Billowing clouds reflect the last pink and yellow rays of the sun. He closes his eyes. A face appears in front of him, but he cannot tell whose it might be, until it resolves into his father. The forty-something man stands in a doorway, his arm up against the frame for support, as he sips from a highball glass. Two teenage boys stare at the man.

“Walk for me, will yah?” his father says. “Go ahead, take a few steps, let me see those bow legs of yours.” Laughter cuts through John’s head like a knife and his eyes blink open. How much damage could one man do? He closes his eyes again and his father emerges from the shadows, smiling at a boy walking up and down the hallway. He sips a glass of scotch-on-the rocks, and titters while sucking an ice cube. “Look at those bow legs!”

“Leave Andy alone, Dad!”

His father stands upright and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “What? I just want to see him walk.”

The two boys leave the room. Young John turns in time to see his father flick ashes into his empty glass and smirk. “They’re not so bad, kid. I’ve seen worse legs…”

John opens his eyes and takes another sip of his drink. The physical memory of his father usually doesn’t enter his mind unless his stress level gets burdensome, as it is now. He has vague apprehension about his trip to Metis 3. Outside the window, the wind pushes tree limbs, cloud formations darken, fading into the blue-black twilight, and he wonders where the old man is now, if he is still alive.

 

 

Infinity 7…continued…

earth_soil_creep_moon_217170

 

Copyright 2017 by C R Hinckley All Rights Reserved

In the conference room, Dr. Michael Lee, a man of distinction with dark rimmed glasses, sits at the end of the table opposite John. To his left is Dr. Beck. Next to him is Dr. Elaine Susman, and across from her is Dr. Andrew De Flanders, who sits stroking his mustache. All the scientists are middle-aged, with graying hair.

The red ball that hovered over John’s desk now floats ten inches above the long conference table. “Read Level 3 communiqué. Authorization: Collins.” The ball opens up, a bright and dazzling holographic light brightens the room, then resolves into the ghostly image of a female head, over which layers of deep-red liquid spreads down into a cascade of dripping goo. The liquid quickly solidifies and coalesces onto the face of a beautiful woman with cherry red skin, flaming red hair and dark blue eyes. The woman blinks a few times, then opens her mouth to speak.

“Freeze message.” John turns to Dr. De Flanders and smiles. “Dr. De Flanders, your three-dimensional holoskin looks fantastic. Do you anticipate a breakthrough in the skin tones?”

“They shall be resolved soon,” De Flanders replies in a thick French accent. “We don’t want anything too human, but subtle enough to not be a distraction.”

“Well, it is a bit distracting.”

To John’s alarm, De Flanders looks crestfallen. “Well, these things take time,” he says hastily. “I’m loving it so far. Shall we have her pick up something from the table?”

De Flanders turns a pale shade of high-blood-pressure red and shifts in his chair. “Yes, by all means. Have her pick this up.” He tosses a small I.D. card onto the table.

“Messenger, please pick up that card.” John points to the thin plastic object on the table.

The holographic image, who now has half a body and two arms covered in the shiny red holoskin, reaches out and fumbles the card in her fingers. The scientists eye the hologram in worried anticipation. She tries again to retrieve the card, this time firmly grasping it, then holding it up in front of her face.

“Incredible!” says John. “Your formula and software are almost complete, Doctor?”

De Flanders, who is now almost as scarlet as the hologram’s hair, clears his throat and says, “Indeed. With your permission, John, I have software ready to be uploaded to Metis 3. Also, a canister of holoskin to be used in trial. I’d like to see what they can do with it, in practical terms.”

“Absolutely, Doctor. As would we all. Tech Greely would love to get her hands on your prototype.”

More excited murmurings arise from the group.

“Indeed, indeed,” says De Flanders, who nods and smiles, taking in the group’s adoration. He hands John the small metallic square containing the prototype holoskin and John places it on the table in front of him.

“Excellent. So, now that this incredible demonstration is complete…” John turns to De Flanders, who is still beaming with pride, and nods, then looks to the others, his smile instantly falling away. “The reason we are called…the message from Metis 3. I have to confess: I’ve already watched it. Without the skin, of course.” De Flanders chuckles and appreciative murmurs arise from the group. “However, before we watch, I want you all to consider our current financial situation, which no doubt may soon change if this holoskin is practicably marketable. Let’s dim the lights, shall we?”

The scientists look at each other in bewilderment, a faint grumbling rising as the lights fade.

John nods at the holographic woman. “Continue message.”

The eyes of the beautiful face above the table blink twice, then begins to speak in a calm, serene voice of harmonic triads so musical, it immediately relaxes the gathering. “The crystalline organisms found on the lunar surface at 4.59 degrees south, 137.44 degrees east, in Crater 255, may be active. Metis 3 requests investigative analysis team on board. Further onsite testing requested, within strict stabilization parameters.”

The scientists glance at each other. Dr. Lee smiles. “Organisms? Can you be specific?”

“Crystalline structures similar to the ones found on Asteroid 752 last year.”

A projection of several small, blueish crystals appears above the table.

“Ahhh…more crystals,” says Beck, a tinge of excitement in his voice.

“And they want us to send up a team?” asks Susman.

The hologram’s eyes blink twice, then it turns to face Susman, who leans back in her chair, somewhat flustered by a three-dimensional newly skinned hologram staring at her. “Metis 3 Space Station has requested a team arrive as soon as convenient.”

“What makes the Metis 3 crew think these are living organisms?” Susman asks. “Did they indicate if these specimens could just be more potential fossils?”

“I am not programmed with that information.”

Dr. Lee clears his throat. “What tests do they want to run? They have a full complement of protocols there already.”

The holographic woman’s eyes enlarge until they appear as projections of the testing procedures. A list of requested names and protocols is superimposed over an image of scientists in white lab coats performing tests.

Dr. Susman addresses the group. “A full team is out of the question. Our budgets are tight now; we all know this. Why the urgency?”

The hologram appears to think for a second, then turns to Susman. “I do not have that information.”

Dr. De Flanders clears his throat. “I understood, John, that all messages would include biomedical information of the crew. I am not seeing this.”

John responds directly to the hologram. “Give me the biological data of the crew.”

“All crewmember biosigns are within normal parameters.”

De Flanders has a look of concern. “That’s rather a broad statement. Who sent this message?”

“Metis 3 Space Station.”

“Yes, yes, but who among the crew sent this message?” asks Susman, her cheeks flushing.

“I do not have that information.”

“This is highly irregular,” Susman continues. “Why the urgent request for a team?”

“This request comes from Dr. Brie Thompson.”

Susman shakes her head. “I don’t understand the meaning of this. We speak with the crew weekly. Why this strange message? What specifically requires this breach of protocol?”

“I do not have that information.”

John says, “I would suspect, Dr. Susman, that secrecy is the motive for this mode of messaging. We all know our communications are monitored by outside entities.”

De Flanders chews on a laser pen, then points it at the hologram. “But this is shit, John! All samples are to be properly transported here, to this lab. And a blanket statement of the crew’s health is absurd.”

The scientists stir in their chairs and talk to each other in low tones. John raises a hand to stop the chatter. “I’ll go to Metis 3. And I want Dr. Lee to come with me.” He looks at Dr. Lee, who sits up. “A two-man team is better than no team at all.”

Lee taps his hand on the table. “I agree.”

Dr. Beck leans forward. “I understand the latest search for indicator minerals for gold—arsenic, antimony, tellurium, and selenium—have been found in Area 19. What are we doing about that?”

John feels his pulse surge and his face flush. “We’re talking about alien life here, Beck. Not your search for gold.”

“My search, as you so dismissively argue against, time after time I might add, is what pays the bills around here. I think it best you keep that in mind on your trip to Metis 3.”

“How can I forget it, Dr. Beck? This miserable reality stares me in the face at every meeting.”

Beck’s eyes widen. “I will not be insulted by—”

“Easy, Beck.” Dr. Lee places a hand on Beck’s shoulder.

Beck stands and addresses the group. “A full report of the trace minerals and indicator minerals must be sent to Plutus Mining as soon as possible. I’m sure they will want to have a hand in your latest adventure to Metis 3. In the meantime, I want all mineral reports on my desk forthwith. This alien thing, which I’m sure we all know is another false alarm, is simply just another excuse to delay exploratory excavation efforts.” Beck straightens his tie, pulling it off his ample belly and smoothing it with his hands. “Presently, I have a conference call with Plutus. Good day.” He leaves the room with hurried steps.

The remaining members of the group sit in silence. Dr. Lee smiles at John and says, “I think the hand that feeds us needs a few strokes, John.”

John can’t help but smile. “Indeed…We all know Beck is a company spy for the mining interests, brought on board at their insistence when they took on a substantial amount of our budget. I can barely stand to look at him, not only because he is a spy, but because he’s an over-educated social disaster. An unlikeable fellow with a perpetual sneer on his lips.” John looks around the table. Reading his colleagues’ reactions of shock and astonishment, he hastily admonishes himself. “I’ve wanted to say that for months. Forgive me.”

But each member of the group is smiling now. John can hardly contain his excitement. So many emotions are rifling through him, it’s hard to pin one down. He finally settles on happy. The excitement of getting back into space and the prospect of finding alien life are simply overwhelming.

“Beck is a spy sent by greedy landlords to highjack our mission to the moon. But Beck can be handled. Perhaps he is nothing more than an irritation to be salved and smoothed over. However…finding alien life…now that changes things!” He pauses and looks round, seeing his own enthusiasm mirrored in his colleagues’ eyes. “Funding from the government will return. Private money will no longer be an undue influence. The Metis Foundation will prosper. The real mission, the one that inspired The Metis Program some thirteen years ago, to explore our solar system, will continue as intended. After all, space exploration and the development of scientific investigation are our founding principles.”

The group bursts into spontaneous applause. Dr. Lee leaps to his feet and pumps John’s hand with vigor.

As John basks in the moment, the contents of the hidden coded message remains troubling. The part of the message he hadn’t shown the committee was most troubling indeed, and must remain a secret, for now. He’d be damned if he was going to see his course changed by a lack of funds.

“Beck needs his reports, Dr. Susman. Make sure you give him everything…related to minerals. The other information, anything along the lines of say, alien life, omit from his reports. Understood?”

Susman smiles and nods her approval.

John leans in toward the group. “Our mission has not changed. The spark that lit this company has grown into a flame. I’ll not see it extinguished by greed.”

They all nod. The electricity in the room is palpable.

“Yes, we have an obligation to Plutus Mining. But that cannot, will not shape our future.” John stands and the others follow suit. “We leave as soon as practicable.”

John looks at the hologram above the table. She is frozen in an obsequious smile.

“Message received.”

The woman blinks twice and vanishes in a brilliant flash of lightening. A snapping thunderclap quickly follows, leaving small bits of translucent holoskin on the table.

Dr. Susman frowns. “Who the hell set that contraption to those ridiculous settings?” She looks around the room to vague smiles from the men.

Lee finally says, “I think he already left the room.”

*** ***

In his private office, John sits behind his huge blonde maple desk. Dr. Lee sits off to the side in a rather uncomfortable white plastic polymer chair. They both stare at the equation as it floats above the desk.

4Al + 3O₂ = 2Al₂O₃

Lee points at the hologram with his unlit pipe. “What’s this, again?”

“This is the rest of the Level 3 message, Dr. Lee. I wanted to share it with you privately.”

“Oh.” Lee leans in toward the image, hesitates, then leans back. “And the others?”

“They will know. Eventually. However, you may not reveal anything you see here until I give clearance, understood?”

Lee nods. “What’s going on, John? Secret messages?”

“The moon rover problem, Doctor. You remember the beating we took on our funding after that fiasco. If the press gets a hold of the real reason we are going to Metis 3, it could spell disaster for future funding.”

“Has something gone wrong on the station?”

John nods at the holographic equation. “Does it look familiar?” The equation slowly rotates left to right, above his desk.

“Not really. It’s an equation. But why?”

“I wanted a code word to be sent by the Metis 3 mainframe the minute it detected something wrong with one of the onboard systems.”

“Which system?”

“Have you reviewed any recent orbital path reports from Metis Command?”

“Yes, but I haven’t noticed anything out of the norm. I thought all systems—”

“Variations in the Metis trajectory reports and ground trajectory reports are…troubling.”

Lee shakes his head, and clenches the unlit pipe in his teeth. “I see. But I haven’t seen anything—”

“I’ve intentionally kept it quiet. Not a huge problem. But, one that needs resolution.”

“I see. And this message?”

“It arrived today with the other one.”

“No, I mean, which system is malfunctioning?”

“Well, this particular equation is an indication of a navigation problem.”

“The mainframe sent this?”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps it’s the mainframe that’s malfunctioning?”

John stands and walks to the large window overlooking the parking lot. The sun is bright. The grass is lush and green. The sky is clear. It’s a beautiful, cloudless spring day. “Think of this message as my version of Amazonian frogs.”

“Frogs?”

“A canary in a coal mine, as it were.” John turns to Dr. Lee. “There’s something going wrong on Metis 3. I chose you because you are a medical doctor as well as a top-notch engineer. Not a word of this to anyone, Dr. Lee.”

Lee nods his head. “Of course.”

John frowns. “I think the orbital reports we’ve been getting are inaccurate.”

“How so?”

“Computer, show me the telemetry reports for Metis 3’s last dozen lunar orbits.”

Above the desk, next to the equation, a five-inch diameter holographic moon appears, then a smaller Metis 3 Space Station appears in orbit. As the space station moves, a series of three-dimensional lines trail from it, tracing the lunar orbit. The yellow lines are wide enough to display trajectory data, illuminated in small black font on each trail.

“Rather dramatic visual…What am I supposed to be seeing, John?”

“Computer, starting with this month’s calculations, speed up the orbit and align the data for the third day of this month with each day of this week, and overlay those numbers on the graph.”

The moon and Metis 3 appear at eye level above the desk. The hologram representing Metis 3 rapidly orbits the faux moon. Each orbit lines up with the next until a single yellow line appears to ring the moon. They match up precisely, indicating no variation or orbital decay.

“They appear together, as one,” says Dr. Lee.

John looks concerned. “Precisely. Now watch this: Computer, match all identical data in telemetry reports from Metis 3 for the past month. Increase speed by ten.”

As the holographic Metis 3 Space Station moves furiously around the moon, more orbital data aligns until it is apparent most of the orbits are identical, wrapped like a single yellow ribbon of overlapping data.

John leans in toward the hologram and points. “The orbits appear identical because they are. Most of these yellow lines are repeated calculations. No new orbital data has come through in weeks. This…glitch, for lack of a better term, is apparent in most of the navigational reports.”

“But our tracking—”

“Granted, these are the figures from Metis 3 only. Our Earth tracking station has the more accurate telemetry data, but I won’t bother superimposing those now. Most of the differences are nominal, but they are there.”

“What does Command have to say?”

“We’ve had several meetings. Maneuverability tests show she’s in great shape. There doesn’t seem to be a major concern at this time. It’s just a strange anomaly we need to investigate.”

“I see. So, you’ve spoken directly with Mission Commander Davies?”

“Of course, and I’ve noted this information to him personally. We’ve gone over it several times with no absolute conclusions. He seems to think it’s a simple systems failure and offered to have it fixed in a day or two. That was two weeks ago. The reports are still the same. Since then, I’ve spoken to him and gotten a similar response.”

“And you’re thinking he’s doing this intentionally?”

“I don’t know what to think.” John looks again at the hologram, then sighs. “Perhaps.”

“For what purpose?”

“To cover something up. A problem with navigation, the thrusters perhaps. As of now, not life-critical, but he knows our funding is at a crucial stage. If this mission does not succeed in all respects, we’re done.”

“I see. So, you think it’s a matter of self-preservation on his part…”

“And now we get this urgent request for additional team members to analyze potential alien life forms.”

Lee rubs the side of his face and frowns. “Do you think the request is genuine?”

“Our daily communications, as you know, have been limited due to various glitches, sunburst activity, and hardware issues. At this point, I can only take the request at face value.”

Lee pulls the pipe from his mouth and examines it, as if looking for answers.

“I want you on board, Doctor. For the crew’s sake.”

“So, you think Dr. Kern is…what, unreliable?”

“On the contrary. She’s been a formidable team asset, up until now. But, I want all her records examined. Currently, her medical reports are within standard protocol, just like the orbital reports. The crew appears to be in fine health.”

“Appears? Are you saying the medical reports are duplicated as well?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t know what purpose that may serve, but I was hoping you’d have a close look at them.”

“Yes, of course. I understand.” Lee sits up in his chair. Sweat beads on his forehead.

“I want you ready by Thursday, next week.”

“That soon, huh? That gives me what, seven days?” Lee removes a hanky from his back pocket and wipes his face.

“Are you all right, Michael? You seem a bit unnerved.”

“No, no, it’s just…”

“Look, I know this is short notice. It can’t be helped. Your readiness reports are all good. You’re in excellent physical health.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“But?” John sits on his desk, and stares at Dr. Lee. “It’s Aiko, isn’t it?”

“She’s having a tough pregnancy. Her delivery date is only a few months away. She’s going to be very upset.”

“I understand…” John’s voice trails off.

Visions of his own wife’s smiling face pop into his head. She’s in her spacesuit, ready to head into the Source 1 capsule. She turns to him, a broad smile upon her face as she mouths the words, I love you. Her lovely lips form the words as if captured by a slow-motion camera. But she’d actually said it that slowly. Or was that just in his mind? Perhaps she hadn’t said it at all. It was just a memory and memories can be unreliable, haunting. This one usually comes to him at night, as he lies in bed. He imagines her as she died, engulfed in flames, her smile melting like wax. He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the image, and nods, as his focus returns to Dr. Lee. “I’ll ask Dr. Harper, she’s ready—”

“No, no. I’ll go. I want to go.” Lee’s eyes shine with the same intensity John saw when he first interviewed Lee for the program. The burning hunger is still there. “Of course I’ll go. She’ll be upset for a time, but this is…”

“Important.” John says finally.

“Yes. Of course it is,” Dr. Lee offers, somewhat unconvincingly. “She knew I was an astronaut…”

“You are my first choice. My only real choice, Michael, actually. Dr. Harper has never been in space. I need your expertise in evaluating the crew in their current environment.”

Lee sucks on the unlit pipe, a look of concern etched on his face.

“Honestly, Michael, when I speak with my chief science officer, Dr. Thompson, she says it’s all fine, but I know the navigation/telemetry reports were generated, then sent as duplicates. The Metis programming has so many fail-safes. I find it impossible to believe the computer could or would generate these duplicate reports without a human hand involved.”

“So, you think Commander Davies is hiding something. What about this message? There are no alien life forms, then? The message was a fake in order to get you up there?”

“Oh, no. That message is very real. They do believe they may have found alien life. Although the message, as you saw, was vague. Again, everything is vague. Not like the crew at all. Completely unacceptable.”

Dr. Lee stands up slowly, as if the gravity of the information is weighing him down. He turns toward the window. John joins him, and they stand side by side looking out at the parking lot. A small, sleek podcraft pulls into the lot. Its aerodynamic egg shape and clear polymer dome allow the passengers little privacy. An attractive young woman and a toddler get out of the craft. The little boy stoops to pick up something off the fresh green grass. On the curb, walking a few steps ahead, the woman stops and encourages the child to hurry. The boy stands up, delighted by something he holds in his hand. The mother leans down and speaks and the child releases a butterfly into the air. They both look on in amazement as the insect flutters away.

“Alien life,” says Dr. Lee. “Amazing…”

John puts his hand on Lee’s shoulder. “The mission stress studies you’ve authored in the past are crucial to informing our crew re-evaluations.”

“Thank you. And thanks for your vote of confidence. I’ll begin preparations immediately.”

“One other thing, Michael.” John stands directly in front of Lee and looks him in the eyes. “This is classified information. The telemetry, the crew evals, all of it is top secret. No one is to know of our deeper concerns.”

“Yes, of course.”

“That includes the Committee.”

Lee nods. “I understand, John. You can count on me.” His face brightens. “I do have a question, though.”

“Yes, I’m sure you do.”

“About my filming the mission. I have an idea. You know I’m an amateur documentary filmmaker? I’d like to take a new camera I’ve been using. To document our journey.”

“A new camera, huh?”

“This thing is amazing, John. I call it Smarteye. It does every type of filming you could ask, and it downloads directly into an editing program, even making the edits on its own, if you want that. I prefer to edit things myself, of course.”

“I’d have to give approval before any recordings go public.”

“Of course. Who knows, if there is alien life aboard Metis, it would be a huge media event, and we’d already have a good visual document.”

“You realize Metis is already loaded with visual and audio equipment? Each compartment is covered.”

“I guarantee you, Smarteye will amaze you.”

“Smarteye, huh? Well, I can see you’re enthused by the idea. How can I say no to that?”

“Thank you, John. You won’t regret it.”

“Excellent. Your new camera may record, but only I can approve what will be released.”

Lee nods.

“And say hello to Aiko for me.”

“I will.” Dr. Lee walks to the door. Not bothering to look back, he adds without a hint of cynicism in his voice, “She’ll appreciate that.” But John knows it’s there. He knows Aiko didn’t want Dr. Lee to go on any of the three missions he’s already undertaken in the last five years. Lee stops and turns, looking again at the holograms. “So, that equation. Are you going to tell me what it is for, or am I supposed to work that out for myself?”

John smiles and says, “Besides it being an alarm code, you mean? I’ll tell you when we’re aboard Metis 3.

 

                                            To Be Continued…

 

 

Infinity 7

space

Infinity 7 is a science fiction novel involving space travel in the near future and first contact with strange aliens in a most unexpected way.

I am posting it in installments for all to read. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Metis 3 Communications Center, San Diego, CA

Assistant ground controller, Hailey Cantwell, stands in front of a command-and-control screen in the sterile communications room at the Metis Communications Center. The plain white carbon reinforced polymer and steel box is adorned with Roman Tuscan architectural columns, intended to create spatial tension, and as an artistic distraction from its tepid decor. Hailey wears a heavy cardigan under a white knee-length lab coat to help keep herself from shivering in the cool environment. All rooms are kept at sixty-seven degrees Fahrenheit to insure the computers run at maximum efficiency.

In front of her is a free-floating hologram. The image depicts a brightly lit black box, about three inches square, slowly rotating from left to right. She touches the space bar on the air keyboard and the box stops spinning. It begins to pulsate, expanding and contracting at regular intervals, as if breathing.

“Hey, Jeb. Come here and look at this.” A similarly dressed man wearing black-rimmed glasses walks over to her console.

“What have you got?”

“It’s a message from Metis 3.”

“Odd. When is our next scheduled communications link-up?”

“Not until 10.00 a.m. tomorrow.”

“That’s what I thought.” He leans in closer to inspect the holographic image. “That looks like an old-fashioned screen saver.”

“Yes, but it came in from Metis.”

“Why would they send that in a communiqué?”

“I was about to ask you that question.”

“Whose signature is on it?”

“There isn’t one.”

“There has to be.” He punches in a few more commands on the airboard. The box begins pulsating more quickly now, turning purple and expanding in size. “Is this a joke?”

Hailey laughs, as if suddenly getting it. “It’s Forrest. Forrest has to have sent this.”

“Or Greely. He’s a joker.”

Hailey rolls her eyes. “She’s a joker. She’s a she.”

Jeb hits the space bar again. “Of course. I know that…”

The box turns scarlet, then bright yellow. Hailey smiles. “Rainbows.”

Jeb types in a few more commands, but the box is unaffected. “Are you sure it’s from Metis 3?”

“I’ve checked the frequency twice.”

A miniscule signature code appears at the bottom of the box. “There it is. But, I don’t recognize the point of origin.” He tries to magnify the image, but the font remains small and illegible.

The box continues to expand, evolving into a shade of dark blue. As it reaches about ten-inches in diameter, there is a sudden and colorful explosion. The box fragments into a thousand miniature slow-motion fireworks streaming and falling, then fading away. As the dots dissolve, tiny red numbers emerge from the bottom of the message. As the numbers grow in size, it becomes clear they are an equation.

Jeb runs his hand through his well-trimmed hair. “This is a bad joke. A waste of time!” He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and adjusts his glasses. Finally, he stands back from the screen and sighs. The equation grows until the font is about eight inches high, transitioning from blue to yellow to orange.

4Al + 3O₂ = 2Al₂O₃

The equation rotates, like a roast on a spit. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Hailey punches a few keys on the airboard. “Computer. What is the origin of the equation in this communiqué?”

Jeb scribbles on a small airpad with his finger. “O usually stands for Oxygen…The A means…”

A soft, feminine voice fills the room. “The communiqué originates from Metis 3 Space Station.”

Jeb rolls his eyes. “We realize that. Who on board sent it?”

“The message originates from the Metis 3 Space Station mainframe.”

“The Metis 3 computer sent this?”

“That is correct.”

Hailey looks at Jeb, who shrugs. “What’s with the equation?”

“That is not within my knowledge base.”

Hailey keys in more commands. “It’s definitely a formula, but for what?”

Jeb scribbles furiously on his airpad, as if an unspoken rivalry between them spurs him on to finish first. “It’s an equation. It has an equals sign.”

Hailey clears her throat. “Right. I knew that. Computer, who at Command has authorization to read this communiqué?”

“Level 3 clearance and password is required.”

Jeb frowns. “I’ve never heard of it.”

Hailey smirks at her coworker. “Computer, who’s authorized at Level 3?”

The computer voice drones, “I do not have that information.”

“You don’t know who is at Level 3?” Hailey asks.

“That is correct.”

Jeb runs his hand through his hair. “Damn it. Computer, forward this communiqué to command headquarters…and stop wasting my time.”

“I am not authorized to forward Level 3 communiqués.”

“More craziness.” Jeb clears his throat. “Computer, connect me to Metis Program Headquarters.”

Almost instantly, a young woman’s face appears in the center of the room. The computer-generated communication hologram turns clockwise until it faces them.

“Metis Program Headquarters, how may I be of assistance?” The young woman speaks in a pleasant, but obviously artificial tone.

“This is Jeb Craine at Communications. Badge number 314159. I need to speak to…” he turns and frowns sarcastically at Hailey, “…a Level 3 person.”

The woman’s eyes blink twice. “Please repeat?”

“I have a Level 3 communiqué from Metis 3. I need to know where to direct this.”

The holographic face freezes momentarily, obviously running through her data files, then smiles. “Hold, please.” The face fades into a relaxed expression, and her eyes go dark.

After a few minutes, the woman’s face lights up. She smiles and turns toward Jeb, who is now sitting behind a white desk across the room. “The Director’s Office asks that you download the encrypted message into a holovessel and hand deliver it to Metis Command. You are to arrive in person, no later 3:30 p.m. today to deliver this vessel. Thank you for calling Headquarters. How may I further assist you?”

“Okay, that’s fine. End communication,” he says. The face fades away. Jeb takes off his glasses and wipes the lenses with a white hanky. “I guess I’ll have to run this over myself.”

“I’ll go, if you like,” Hailey says, trying to contain her enthusiasm.

Jeb looks at his airpad, busying himself with the equation. “All right. You go.” After a slight pause, as if reading a cue card, he adds, “But I want a full report. And come right back.”

“It’s a long ride up the La Jolla, Jeb. Heavy traffic. How about I just head home after I report?”

Jeb sighs and looks up at her. “Fine. But first thing in the morning let me know exactly what they said.”

“You got it, boss.” She winks at him, and his pale putty face reddens.

 

2

Metis Mission Headquarters

Mission Director Dr. John Collins, PhD in astrophysics, stands on a small stage in Lecture Hall 1. He’s finishing up a promotional lecture on the Metis Program. The room is darkened. His handsome face is bottom-lit from a screen in front of the podium, giving him an ethereal orange glow. Behind him is an enlarged three-dimensional holographic image depicting carbonate globules attached to a moon rock. Various speckles of colored shapes dotting a forest-green rock surface shimmer like fool’s gold. The same image hovers in front of each seated audience member, their eager faces aglow from the visuals before them.

“Various structures we’ve identified, tiny carbonate globules, are indications that some form of life did exist in these rocks, it is estimated as long as thirty thousand years ago. We’ve found many types of magnetites in several morphologies. But these in particular,” the scientist points to a few gold-colored globules in the slide, “were found on the first dig by Metis Team 1, near Theophilus on the moon’s surface. As you may know, Theophilus is a huge crater near the center of the moon’s disk.”

A holographic image of Theophilus appears and rotates above them, revealing various angles illuminated in shimmering sunlight.

“Sixty-four miles in diameter, the crater is enclosed by peaks of eighteen thousand, and sixteen thousand feet. The circumference is nearly three hundred square miles. A little too much for us to explore at present,” polite laughter ripples from the audience, “however, by the end of next fiscal year, our Heavy Equipment Dig Program will be in full operation.”

The image changes to a full shot of the moon from space, then resolves onto the moon’s surface, looking across a huge desert expanse, luring the viewer’s eye up to the rugged mountains resting beneath an inky-black sky.

The next hologram reveals heavy mining equipment. Colossal drills and excavators hover a few feet off the ground on the moon’s surface. Near the equipment, troughs of ore move through the center of a large, clear tubular structure. Sparkling debris glitters as it passes through the tunnel. “Of course, with any luck, this computer-generated mining equipment will soon be replaced by the real thing.” More chuckles emanate from the captive audience.

A 3D holographic image of Metis 3 Space Station materializes into view, replacing the moon hologram. It has an appearance similar to a slowly spinning spoked wheel. “Metis 3 Space Station. She’s approximately one hundred-seventy meters in length, comprised of specialized modules.” In the center of the station is a core module to which all other modules are attached, linked together by a tubular outer walk.

Dramatic music resonates as the station glides effortlessly in lunar orbit. “Metis 3 has reached our moon in record time and will continue to probe the mysteries of its mineral-rich soil. And now, with the advent of the Heavy Equipment Dig Program, we will begin to excavate even further below the surface, eventually branching out further into the mountainous regions.”

The image behind the doctor changes to that of a vast, colorful space nebula. Its black heart is reminiscent of the pupil of a gigantic eye. Blue hues of variable chromatic tonalities, surrounding and uniformly shooting out from the dark center, complete the impression of the iris in a colossal human eyeball.

“It’s our mission, as it was in the beginning, and always shall be, to explore our universe, search for evidence of life forms, and comprehensibly study them. And, of course, ultimately share those discoveries with you.” He pauses, stares into the darkened auditorium until he has everyone’s full attention, then continues. “In knowing what’s out there, we can learn more about our origins, and the planet we call home. Remember, the Metis motto: Discovery is Our Business.”

The familiar image of Earth; the white and blue marble surrounded by the blackness of space, appears behind him.

The lights come up. The audience enthusiastically applauds, then begins to disperse.

A voice emerges from the exiting attendees. “Dr. Collins, isn’t it true that the mission statement you just read is only partially accurate, since most of your funding now comes from mining interests?” A few attendees linger to hear a response.

John has heard this question every day for two years, ever since his private foundation became partially endowed by the Plutus Mining Company. After a small glitch in the moon rover set back the project, and tragically resulted in a fatality involving one of the mission crew, the funding began to dry up. The money has to come from somewhere, and off-world mineral extraction is a very real and profitable challenge. John considers it inevitable that the search for natural resources would fund a portion of the Metis missions. However, off-world mining capabilities are still in their infancy, and something he doesn’t expect to come to full fruition in his lifetime.

“Our mission has not changed.” John smiles. “Science and exploration are our top priorities.” Amid enthusiastic follow-up questions, he heads upstage and ducks out a back entrance to the service area.

In the hallway leading to his office, he is assaulted by the shrill voice of Dr. Beck. “John, John!” He turns to see Beck blustering down the hall, his puffed-up belly leading the charge, his unfashionable tie swinging like a pendulum.

John stops and asks, “What is it, Dr. Beck?”

“Something is happening on Metis 3.”

Beck stares at John, waiting for his cue. Beck always does this: makes him wait, then wring it out of him. John wants to shake him. He takes a deep breath and takes the bait. “What’s happening on Metis 3, Dr. Beck?”

“We’ve received a coded message.”

John lifts an eyebrow. “Coded?”

“Level 3, they said. I’m not aware of a Level 3. What is that? Why don’t I know about it?”

“Not here. In my office.” Beck’s eyes flutter and his mouth gapes open. John ignores these facial tics. “Come.” The men turn together and stride purposely down the hall.

A conference room attached to John’s office holds a long, thick glass table surrounded by six chairs. There awaits the woman from Communications. John glances into the room and recognizes Hailey Cantwell. Her evaluations, he recalls, reveal her to be smart, ambitious, and loyal. Mandatory qualities for consideration at Metis. John and Beck enter. Hailey practically bows to John as they approach. This amuses him slightly, but that amusement is quickly displaced by concern. “I hear you have a Level 3 communiqué?”

“Yes, sir. We received it this morning.” She hands him a small metallic ball. John looks at it, then walks to his desk and plugs it into a slot. A hologram of a red ball appears, hovering approximately eight inches above the desk. This ball has a crystalline quality to it, smooth and reflective with cut edges.

“You may leave now. Thank you.” John nods to Hailey and she turns hesitantly, as if not sure where to find the door. “Is there something else?” he asks her.

She turns to him. “No, no, I…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing, sir, thank you. It’s just…” Again, she hesitates. “I’ve never heard of a Level 3, and…”

“Hailey, I want to thank you again for this, and for alerting me to the anomalies you observed in Metis Station’s recent lunar orbit reports. Your initiative and loyalty will not go unrewarded.” Hailey beams. He walks over to her, extending his hand, which she takes. “We need to set up a meeting. I would like to discuss your future here.” He shakes her hand while leading her to the door.

“Thank you, sir.” She nods and bows, walking backward out the door. “I’ll stay on top of those trajectory reports…” She continues to stick her head inside the breach, pulling it back just in time.

“Thank you, Hailey. Thank you.” When the door finally latches, the smile quickly falls from his face, as he turns to Beck. “Call the Committee. They should see this.”

Beck nods and scurries from the room.

To be continued…

Dreaming Wide Awake, Chapter 8 excerpt

mystery

As I drew closer to my apartment, I noticed a dark herringbone sleeve protruded from the shade my doorway. I tried to see who it may be, but a cold breeze whipped around the building and hit me in the face. I zipped up my spring jacket and closed my eyes against the onslaught of street dust. As I drew closer, I saw a man standing near my vestibule. He had a large flattened nose and heavy jaw. A thin mustache lined the area above his narrow upper lip. I expected him to dash away, but he simply smiled. He was chilled and swayed from foot to foot. “A little late in spring to see your breath, eh?” he said, and blew on his massive hands before shoving them deep into his coat pockets.

Recognizing him as the man who stared at me from the car in Connecticut, I was unsure whether to run or punch him in the nose. “You shaved your beard.” I said.

His black eyes narrowed. “Having trouble sleeping through the night lately, Gus?”

“Congratulations, you know my name.” I slipped by him and stood near the trash cans, ready to push him into the bins if he made a move.

“I just want to talk,” he said.

“What about?”

“I apologize for the way I’ve been…how shall I say it?”

“Stalking me?”

“Ha! Stalking… No, I’ve got much better things to do. Let’s just say I’ve been observing.”

Observing, my ass, I thought. I know a loon when I see one. His shabby coat told a story too tedious to care about. “I’m already on a case,” I said. “Can’t take on anything new.”

“Ah, yes. The convicted murderer in Connecticut. How’s that going? You know how many murder convictions get overturned or even re-tried in the United States?” I stood ready to jam him into the bins and run, put his gray herringbone coat back where it belonged. He continued his discourse. “Of course, it depends on which state we’re talking about. Conviction-happy, some states. Take Texas for example—”

“I’m tired and I’m cold,” I said. “I’m going inside. Call my office if you want a meeting.”

I unlocked the vestibule door. He took a step closer.

“Seeing a lot of lines and rectangles, lately?” He asked.

His knowing tone reminded me of a malevolent teacher grilling a student. His eyes lit-up with expectation. Moisture collected on his wiry mustache. The spark in his irises told me he was about to move in for a strike.

“Stop right there,” I said, and held up my hand.

He took a step back, but held his ground, still too close for comfort. I tried to avoid smelling his breath and cologne, but there it was, hanging in the air, a repugnant fog of Old Spice (or something similarly quaint) from the bowels of some ancient vanity. No doubt slapped on his newly shaven face.

“Out with it. What do you want?” I said.

“I’d like to…” He turned slowly toward neighborhood foot traffic, then watched a slow moving cab roll past. “…to buy you a cup of coffee.” His head snapped back to mine, and he smiled. His teeth, what I could see of them below his mustache, were small and yellowed from coffee and cigarettes.

“Not now,” I said.

“A drink, then? I need fifteen minutes of your time. It will change your life, I promise you.”

“A disease will change your life. Death will change your life.” I breathed through my mouth to avoid offensive odiferous inhalation.

“Gus,” he said, in a chastising tone, and butted a size-twelve, extra-wide, wingtip up against my big toe. “I promise you’ll not regret it.”

“I’ve got things to do.” I said, about to unleash my anger.

“I’ll give you a retainer of three hundred dollars right now.”

“No.”

“One thousand, then.” He pulled out a wad of cash and started flipping through hundred dollar bills. My temper quieted down. Was I that shallow, money could dissuade me so easily? I didn’t know or care. “Okay, I’ll give you ten minutes,” I said, eyeing the bills. “The pizza joint, over there.” I nodded toward the corner store.

 

We sat in a small table in the back room. I ordered a slice with everything, and a coke. He stared at me as I took a large bite, wiping grease from the corner of my mouth with a paper napkin. After a few seconds, he pulled a small white business card from his pocket and handed it to me. It read, Porter Grossman, MEd. An out of state phone number was printed below his name.

“Okay, Mr. Grossman, what’s on your mind?”

“Have you ever heard of a government project called…Stargate? The Stargate Project?”

“No,” I lied. I’d heard something about it, but wasn’t sure if it had to do with aliens, UFO’s or psychics. I took a sip of coke. “Enlighten me.”

He opened his mouth to speak and my stomach turned over. A picture lit in my mind; A long, straight white line leading into a rectangle. In an instant the image was gone, but it left an indelible impression. It was like when you stare at a white image against a back background and the ghost images light-up when you turn away. This is what I’d been dreaming for the past few weeks. He noticed my unease and stopped what he was about to say.

“Stargate,” I said, finally, shaking off my unease. “Go on…”

He squinted at me, and took a miniature notebook out of his coat pocket, the kind that leaves no room for more than five lines a page. He glanced at the tiny handwriting, all neatly slanted to the right, like trees in the wind. “I’ve been conducting a little experiment.”

“Experiments?”

“One experiment.” Held help up a gloved hand and pointed his index finger at me.

“On me?” I asked. He nodded. “Does it have anything to do these white lines and rectangles?”

“Mmm. Yes, something like that.”

“So, are you saying those are from you, your little experiment?”

“Yes.”

I sat back and wondered what the hell was going on. Was he invading my sleep? And if so, how the hell was that happening?

“How?” I asked.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t know what to believe. Explain yourself.”

“Well,” he said taking a sip of his coffee, “That’s what this little meeting is about.”

“Why me?”

“Obvious reasons.”

“To you. Enlighten me.”

“Well, one of my jobs is to scour the media, print, TV, internet, etcetera. Read about any potential talent out there in the world. I happened upon your psychic exploits, your dream state, and found it quite intriguing. Although, I didn’t believe for a second someone could be that psychic.”

“Am I?”

“I decided to see how talented you truly are. By the wide-eyed look on your face when I mentioned the lines and rectangle dreams you’ve been having, I take it the experiment was a success.”

I took a sip of soda and looked around the joint. Nobody had come in since we sat down. It was quiet. A young couple held hands and sipped drinks in front dining area. I didn’t know what I was expecting, a crew of secret agents descending upon us maybe, but I felt uneasy. Digestively compromised. I put the pizza down. “Are you telling me, you invaded my dreams?”

“Invaded? Hmm. I suppose you could say that. I sent you signals and you picked them up. White lines and rectangles. They weren’t random. They were a map of a particular area I was concentrating on.”

“I’m supposed to believe you sent me signals?”

“That’s right.”

“In my sleep.”

“Yes.”

“From your psychic brain?”

“Well, at first, yes. Later, when I was sure you were tapped into these images, I merely looped a video on my computer and played that. All night long.”

“Your computer? I was picking up signals from…and my normal dreams were…”

“Blocked, I presume. Or severely interfered with.”

I sat back, staring at this strange man. He looked like he hadn’t enough money to buy a TV, never mind have the resources to tail me for days.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I told you.”

The sparkle in his eyes told me he was lying, or at the very least leaving a big truth out. I didn’t mind so much, but my stomachache was getting worse. I took a long sip of soda and loosened my belt. “What do you want?” I asked.

“I want your help. Your cooperation in a little experiment.”

“I thought I already was your guinea pig?”

“That was a small test.”

I frowned, thoroughly confused.

“Let’s back up a bit. We were talking about Stargate.”

“So?”

“May I continue?”

“Hey, it’s your dime. Knock yourself out.”

He nodded and took another sip of coffee. “The project was disbanded. That’s the official story at least, after the CIA report disparaging remote viewing became public. They declared the program a failure, called it useless for spying purposes, etc.” A look of ironic humor animated his face. He was enjoying the story. His smile turned to a grimace and he cleared his throat.

“Not true?” I asked.

He snorted and touched a finger to the side of his nose. “It was a public report…”

“Why would I care?”

“Why should you care? A psychic with extraordinary gifts like yours, why indeed?”

I took another sip of soda and stared at him.

He continued. “The report was a cover, the program officially disbanded.”

“Okay, but—“

“And then came the Orenda Project. Much more secret and sinister, born in its place.”

“You work for them?”

He chuckled. “Oh, no. No. Not at all.” He peered into the front dining room, then at the back exit. His cold eyes met mine. His smile was replaced by a tight lipped frown. “I have been authorized to offer you a place within our group.”

The nausea started again. I could smell fruitcake all around me. I hate fruitcake.

“Your group. A boy band?”

He sat back. “You’re a complex character, Gus. We like that. Our group is made up of twelve distinguished scientists, psychics and lawyers, all former government contractors, all aimed at blocking or destroying the inner workings of the Orenda Project.”

“You want to destroy the Orenda Project?”

“Yes.”

I wanted to call for the check, just to have someone normal near us, but I’d already paid. I stood up.

“You can’t leave.” I held the back of my chair and his frown turned to a smile. “I haven’t finished.”

“That’s okay. I get the picture.”

“The Orenda Project was designed to control the leaders of the world.”

I laughed while putting on my coat, but his eyes told me he was deadly serious.

“Gus, I’m telling you…no more free elections. No more representation. All of it controlled by a small group within the Orenda Project. Billionaires vying for complete control of world finances and governments, through mind control.”

I was going to ask him to show me his tin foil hat, then I figured he might just have one. Then I remembered the many times I’d tried to warn people I’d seen die in my dreams, convince them of their impending doom. They had no reason to believe me and usually didn’t, but I wouldn’t give up. I stalked, cajoled, sent notes indicating the time and place of their death, and still they wouldn’t respond…right up until the moment they were killed. Out of respect for his sincerity, and the thousand bucks, I sat back down.

“Aren’t billionaires already doing just that, controlling the world?”

“Ahhh, you would think so, but not in the sense I’m talking about. Of course, captains of industry maintain a certain hold on the political system, by means of lobbyists, money changing hands in a back room deals, promises of riches when retired, etcetera. I’m not talking about that.”

“Oh?”

“I’m talking about direct control of governments through mind control.” He stared at me expectantly. I frowned. He continued. “Those dreams you were having, lines and rectangles, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine being able to convince a world leader to change his mind on a subject simply by bombarding his dreams with the outcomes you want? Imagine if you could do that?”

“Are you saying they’re doing that now, these billionaire, these Orenda people?”

“They’d like to. I mean, that is their goal.”

“So, they really can’t do it?”

“Something is blocking their efforts, Gus.” He sat back, pleased with himself and winked.

“So, the dream blocking images you sent to me…”

“Not the ones I targeted you with, but similar ones are helping slow their progress.”

“But don’t the leaders of the free world…I’m assuming that’s their target?”

He nodded. “Wouldn’t they have to be psychic in order to receive these signals?”

“Normally, I’d say yes. But we, each of us, have a certain amount of psychic ability already, Gus. We’re all born with it. They’ve simply found a way to tap into that natural ability.”

“How?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

I nodded, and stood up.  I reassessed Grossman, and his old coat, and he came up wanting. I still smelled a fruitcake. “Well, that’s all very informative, Mr. Grossman. I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got my own business to attend to. I can’t be joining any groups right now.”

“We’re running out of time, Gus.”

I pull the wad of money he’d given me out of my pocket and tossed it on the table. “What do you want from me, exactly?”

He didn’t seem to notice. “You have the strongest natural psychic ability I’ve ever seen. We need you.”

“To send signals?”

He leaned toward me. “To infiltrate their group, through psychic visions.”

“I’m not a spy.”

“You’re a detective, what’s the difference?”

He got to his feet and faced me, then looked past me to the window that overlooked 92nd street. His focus was drawn to a parked car, then at a couple walking our way, and he took step back. “I wanted to…”

“What?” I asked.

He seemed suddenly up-side-down about something. “I’ll get back to you soon.”

He dashed outside and headed toward 2nd avenue. I picked up the cash and followed him out the door. He walk at a good clip toward the corner, turned and shouted, “You’ll sleep better, I promise!” He crossed Second Avenue and sauntered up the hill toward Third. I noticed a car parked on the curb with two men in it. They both stared in my direction. After a few seconds, they turned toward Grossman. Then the black sedan abruptly lurched forward, turned right and headed down Second Avenue.

 

I slowly walked back into my building, wondering how the anything he said could be true.

 

 

A Precog Dream

pexels-photo-356147.jpegI thought I’d share a passage from Dreaming Wide Awake. Poor Gus Chase is dreaming again…
                                                              Chapter 2
She places the apples into the plastic bag. Her smile is white, and straight. Healthy teeth. She’s a happy girl. He notes the little curl of hair as it rounds her ears, her delicate hands and slender fingers, as she rings-up the goods. He is thinking, Not at all like the digits of an athleteNot at all rough, as you might expect. He smiles and they lock eyes. When she touches her nose, he takes hold of her wrist and twists it violently to the left, pulling her close. Her eyes widen. Her pupils explode in gaps of fear. His skin tingles from her smell, forever linking that scent with her contorted expression. He feels her warm breath on his face and involuntarily closes his eyes and he takes her in; frozen memories of sharp images locked forever in the soft part of his brain. Clutching tight the blade, he neatly slits her throat. He lets go and she grabs the wound with both hands, but can do nothing to stop the bleeding. He takes a step back to observe his masterpiece. Her head falls sideways onto her shoulder, her perfect teeth clutched in grimace, the gaping wound spurting a fountain of red.
I’m next at the checkout. The girl looms helplessly in front of me, her wound spraying blood onto my face and hands. I cover my head with my shopping bag, but my face is bathed in blood, welling in my eyes. Through a lens of deep red she dances like a cut chicken, grabbing my collar and pulling me close, her head dangling loosely, the wound gurgling. Slowly it moves into the shape of a mouth, aspirating breath and blood as it tries to form words, her mouth-wound, widening and closing, like a gaping fish’s mouth when pulled from the deep. But she can make no sound. pexels-photo-356147.jpeg

Kirkus Review

DREAM STATE Charles R. Hinckley Mad Drummer (279 pp.)

Print and e-book October 16, 2016
BOOK REVIEW
A man capable of precognition via dreams tries to use this power to solve a murder or two in Hinckley’s debut thriller and start of a proposed series.
When New Yorker August Chase first dreams of Emma Donati, he assumes she’s only in his head. But once Emma’s brutal murder becomes a recurring dream, August verifies that she’s a living person and tracks her down. Not surprisingly, she ignores his warning and sadly meets her apparent fate. A similar set of events occurs with Pablo Carrillo, who dies in a car accident. August decides he’ll be more productive as a private investigator and runs a classified ad offering his services as a psychic detective. His first client is Frank Cosh, a recommendation from August’s friend Millar “Mill” Milford. Frank, claiming he’s worried about his sister, Carly, is stingy with details. The stranger following August makes the new PI nervous; he’s sure that Frank’s spying on him. August invests more time with Carla Donati, who wants help finding sis Emma’s killer. He relies on details from his dreams about Emma, as well as the resourceful and exceptional researcher Mill, to unravel a conspiracy, including a possible link between Emma and Carrillo. Meanwhile, a new dream reveals that someone else is in danger, and August is determined to save this potential victim. Hinckley’s novel features a protagonist with more than a few hiccups. August, for one, acknowledges he can’t control his precognitive visions, and he’s neither licensed nor experienced. His gradual development, however, is the real fun. He not only learns to use his dreams more effectively, but smartly enlists Mill, who has a cop cousin and is the self-proclaimed “Hacker King.” Each case, too, spotlights a different phase of August’s education in unraveling mysteries.
Even if August isn’t the most proficient detective, it’s a pleasure watching him work out his kinks.

Precog?

Precog: Okay, here goes…When I was about 21, I took my car off road to paint Plein Aire. It was a side road, off a fairly busy main road, leading into Worcester, Mass., where I was living at the time. I was a huge fan of the Impressionists and was thinking about them as I was setting up my easel to paint. I remember someone telling me, (or did I read this?) that you should try and conjure the spirit of your inspiration as you worked. So I started to think about Van Gogh, asking him to help guide me, etc. I painted a landscape rather quickly. A young kid, maybe around 11 years old, came by and said, “Good job.” He kept walking and I didn’t think anything of it. Then a while later, I realized I had overworked the painting and it was losing some of its charm. The kid came back by and looked at the painting and said, “You overworked it.” It thought it odd that he would know this. But he kept walking.

As I started to pack up my oils, I got a notion that my car was in jeopardy. Perhaps being stolen. I packed up my easel and the painting and quickly started up the hill toward my car. As I walked, I had a vision of a couple of kids in white T-shirts trying to steal my car. In my vision, I picked up a rock and threw it at them.

When I caught sight of my actual car, about a hundred yards away, I was relieved it appeared unmolested. Then I saw a kid in a white T shirt on the passenger side of my car. The door was open. I yelled, “Hey!” And picked up a rock and threw it at them, even though it was way too far to reach. As I threw the rock, I realized it was exactly like I’d envisioned. Then I saw the other kid on the driver’s side door, also in a white T. They saw me and ran. As I approached the car, I envisioned the cops coming, and as I put the painting in my trunk, the cop saying, “Hey, that’s pretty good, how much do you get for one of those?”

When I got to the car, I realized they had jammed the collar where the key goes with a dent puller, and had emptied my glove box. Papers were strewn all over my front seat and the ground. I ran across the street to call the cops at a store. When they arrived, and as I was explaining what had happened, I opened the trunk to place the painting in, and the cop said, “Hey, that’s pretty good, how much do you get for one of those?”

Of course, it hit me as this was happening that it was all as I had envisioned it. And I always wondered if the trance-like state I achieved while painting, the strange kid who knew how to paint, had something to do with it. Was he a young Van Gogh in spirit, come back young and happy, before all his problems, or was I just being imaginative? Either way, the kid was very strange, indeed.

That was my one big precognitive experience.

I have also had precognitive dreams that have come true, exactly as I’d dreamt them. I dreamed the New England Patriots were going to beat the Steelers in the playoffs back in 1999. Tom Brady would injure his ankle, and Drew Bledsoe would come in at quarterback and win the game. And that’s exactly what happened. They went on to win the Super Bowl, as I knew they would. I wish I had put money on that game, but I didn’t pursue it, as gambling is illegal in CA. Much like August, I shy away from the occult, so I never tried to pursue it further. If it happens it happens. I haven’t had a strong one in a while, which is actually the way I prefer it.

Anyway, these episodes, in particular, gave me the ideas and inspiration for Dream State, my first published novel.

Dream State now on Kindle

August Chase is an ordinary man plagued by extraordinary precognitive dreams. When he foresees the brutal murder of a young woman, he tracks her down to warn her. His warnings go unheeded, and the dreamed murder becomes a reality. The victim’s sister, frustrated by slow police work, enlists August’s help, and he is launched into his first case as a private investigator. Delving deep into the victim’s life, he soon discovers a common thread in the shadowy world that may have claimed her. This is book One of the August Chase Mystery Series.

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