Coming Attractions: Falling Stars

Note: It’s interesting what you find buried in old story files…

If maps had no lines between the states, it would be difficult to tell where southern Nevada ended and northern Arizona began. The scraggly sagebrush-covered terrain was virtually identical and as Thomas Mabry stared through a set of infrared binoculars from atop a hillside at a sprawling facility ten miles away, he could understand why the powers that be picked such a location. He stopped to turn the faded red Iowa State baseball cap around on his head before attaching an adapter for his camera. “Are you sure this is the place, Mark” He asked his guide, a stocky

He asked his guide, a stocky middle-aged man with long sideburns who looked more at home driving a semi back in the 70s than holding vigil in the desert.

Mark Johnson nodded as he aimed a listening device out into the distance. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Mabry. That’s Area 15 all right.”

Mabry snapped some pictures with his camera. He’s been chasing stories that the Government had a place out here near Hualapai Peak but the stories conflicted. Some say that the facility was Government, others say that it was private but run by the Government. Either way, the base wasn’t listed on maps or in Department of Defense listings and that made it perfect to check out. Secret facilities weren’t really his thing though; secret facilities that were being used to stockpile and dump toxic waste products definitely blipped on his radar. He took a moment to study the base. The base itself was ringed with tall chain link fences topped with spirals of concertina wire and dotted with large red signs proclaiming the base’s status as restricted and the use of deadly force toward those foolish enough to get too close.

“They sure picked a hell of a place to put it,” Mabry remarked as he slipped a lens cover over his camera and hung it around his neck. “I didn’t see anything that identified it as US Government other than the standard signage. It could be just be a fenced-in industrial park for all I could see.”

The two men cocked their heads in the direction of the base as a faint but recognizable sound was carried by the breeze toward them. Mabry had heard many types of alarms in his career as an investigative reporter but to hear it at this distance made his shiver. He bent down to the binoculars. “Something’s going on.”

“Relax, Mabry, they can’t know we’re up here. Their motion sensor network only extends to about five miles. A jackrabbit probably set off their alarms.”

Mabry twitched as he noticed white security trucks exiting Area 15’s two security gates and heat blobs began to grow at the helicopter pads. “No, they’re definitely mobilizing for something. Mark, I think we need to get out of here.” He spotted a familiar shape lift off from the base. “Grab your shit.”

Johnson started to protest when the ground began to shake under their feet and a helicopter flew low and fast over their head, its nose mounted chain gun swiveling in their direction.

Mabry dived behind Johnson’s yellow Range Rover as a spray of bullets from the passing helicopter tore up the ground beneath his feet. The well-worn red ISU baseball cap on his head was blown off and sent tumbling over the cliff’s edge by the rotor wash, followed shortly thereafter by the high powered infrared binoculars and the tripod they rested upon. The dark gray helicopter was Government, definitely military, but the aircraft bore no identifying numbers or insignia. “You didn’t say anything about being shot at, Mark.” He shouted to his guide.

Mark Johnson had kept a vigil at this particular spot for the better part of ten years and was honestly surprised as he fumbled through the pockets of his faded camouflage pants for the Rover’s keys.

“How was I supposed to know?” He shouted back as he unlocked the doors and pulled his pudgy frame inside. He fired up the Rover’s engine as Mabry leaped inside the passenger side. One of the helicopter’s rounds struck the car’s hood, leaving a noticeable hole in the clear coat. “They never shot at me before.”

Mabry fumbled with the seat belt before clicking it into place. “What do you mean ‘before?’” He opened his brown windbreaker and checked his blue tee shirt and blue jeans for conspicuous holes. He caught his reflection in the visor mirror and noticed that his tanned face was a few shades paler than when he started. “The Feds knew who you are?”

The helicopter turned back toward the military base as Johnson made the turn onto Highway 153 heading back toward Mojave Valley. “We’ve crossed paths before. They consider me a nuisance more than anything else, but they never bothered wasting ammo on me. We must have gotten too close or disturbed something important.”

“You think?” Mabry said. “You were supposed to show me evidence that the Government was using this area to stockpile hazardous materials. Instead, I find myself being chased out of the area by unmarked helicopters ten minutes after showing up.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a small disposable lighter. “This is like the stories that I used to read about that place in Nevada. The one that’s not supposed to exist.” He checked the camera hanging around his neck to find the lens cracked. “Not even a picture of the place to put on the book cover. What a bust.”

Johnson pursed his fat lips and nodded. “You didn’t think that the Government only had one super-secret base floating around in the desert, did you?” He checked the rear view mirror. “Besides, it’s only a matter of time before they have to admit that it’s there. There’s a rumor going around that the Russians have satellite pictures of the place already.”

Mabry stabbed the air with the cigarette. “Just don’t start telling me about crashed alien spaceships and alien bodies. After what happened to me in Roswell last year, I don’t think I could deal with that stuff again. I came out here for evidence of Government waste, not hunting for ET.”

Johnson raised a hand. “All right, so I fibbed a little to get you out here. Look, it’s not easy for a guy like me to get someone like you to take me seriously. Besides, we both know that the Feds don’t keep that much security around simply to keep a pile of toxic waste off the Public’s radar. Trust me, there’s something happening at that base.”

“I don’t have time to chase down alien conspiracies, Mark,” Mabry said. “I’m on a deadline and I can’t afford to keep paying you for information that I can’t use. Take me back to my hotel. I need to get back home and try to salvage what I can of my book.”

“Give me another chance, Mabry,” Johnson pleaded. “I know they usually move stuff out at night toward the end of the week. Another couple of days and we can get what you need. Deal?”

Mabry shook his head while finishing his cigarette. He rolled down the window and tossed out the butt. “Not this time. My publisher is expecting a completed manuscript and I’m missing the last chapter.”

The rest of the drive was quiet. As they pulled into the parking lot, Mabry noticed a cloud of white smoke rising from the back of the three story building. Several fire trucks from the local firehouse blocked the rear exits as firefighters doused the remnants of the south wing with torrents of water. Mabry sat up in his seat. “What the hell?”

The hotel manager, a short skeleton of a man with skin the color of coffee, ran over to the car. His broken English and wide eyes left no doubt that something was wrong. “Mr. Mabry! Mr. Mabry! Thank the Gods that you weren’t in your room?”

Mabry rolled down the window. “Ramesh, what’s going on?”

The hotel manager huffed and puffed for several seconds before composing himself. “The maids had just finished cleaning your floor when there was an explosion. By the time the fire department arrived, a fire had broken out.” He rubbed his short black hair. “I’m just glad no one got hurt.”

“Me too,” The reality of the situation sunk in and Mabry frowned. “Oh no. All my notes, my laptop, my clothes! Gone!” He turned on Johnson. “More of your friends’ doing?”
Johnson squirmed for several seconds before nodded. “I wouldn’t put it past them. Come on, Mabry, be a sport. One more shot at it, right?”

“Call me in about six months,” Mabry opened up his wallet and pulled out five one hundred dollar bills and stuck them in Johnson’s shirt pocket. “I’m deducting half for the camera and the binoculars. Consider yourself lucky you’re getting that.” He opened the door and stepped out onto the ground.

Johnson’s frown as he pulled out of the parking lot spoke volumes as Mabry followed Ramesh into the hotel lobby. “Ramesh, a pleasure as always.”

The Indian’s automatic smile dimmed. “I’ve had better days, Sir. Good travels.”

Mabry didn’t waste any time leaving the lobby and heading over to the green Jetta he had rented during his stay. Other than a few leaves congregating on the windshield and a thin layer of soot, the rental car was in relatively pristine condition as it sat parked under a tree in the front lot. His mood brightened when he noticed a familiar black computer bag resting on the passenger seat. He turned the case around and opened it, finding his laptop computer and backup disks nestled securely inside and in perfect working order. He took the camera from his neck and set it next to the case. Perhaps the trip wasn’t a total loss after all. He started the VW’s engine and after a quick car wash, he returned the rental and headed for the airport.

His cell phone chirped. Peter Wentworth, his agent, was calling for the umpteenth time to get an update on the book and when he would be back in town. He flipped open the phone.

“Tom? How goes the project?”

“Lousy,” Mabry replied, steering the car into an open car wash stall. “The local contact lied about what was going on out in the desert and between the explosion and the fire at the hotel, I lost just about everything I brought with me.”

“Are you okay?”

“Irritated but in one piece,” Mabry said. “It’s not the being shot at part that bugs me the most. It’s not finding that last clue to tie everything together.”

“I can imagine. Where are you now?”

Mabry put some money into the car washer and waited as the machine did its job. “Washing the soot from the fire off the car. Pete, I’m not sure that I have enough closing material to finish the Area 15 book. I couldn’t even get a decent photo of the facility for the cover.”

“As long as the memory card’s not messed up, we should be able to recover something to use for the cover,” Wentworth replied. “As for the rest of it, I’m sure we can cobble together a decent ending. Do you really think that someone blew up your hotel room?”

“Maybe and maybe not.” Mabry said. “It sure looked that way but I’m not sticking around to find out. I’m thinking that it’s time to take a vacation from controversy for a while.”

“Good idea,” Wentworth agreed. “Take Sheila and go away for a few weeks. My wife’s been after me to do the same thing for days now. Hey, how about we all book a little trip to Cabo?”

Mabry watched the water sheet off the windshield. “I’ll bring it up when I get back to the City. I’ll give you a shout when I’m home.”

“Looking forward to it,” Wentworth said. “Email what you can and have a safe trip back. Bye.”

Mabry hung up the cell phone and pulled out of the car wash. His plane tickets were in the glove box where he left them so one anxiety was off the list. He turned the car onto the main street and headed in the direction of the local airport. Catching a flight in First Class wearing a tee shirt and jeans wasn’t his first choice, but as long as he got home, he didn’t care.

He dropped off the rental at the car lot and collected his things before walking over to the airport terminal. The airport was at Threat Level Orange so the lines at the detectors were full of frustrated and vocal travelers. Security hand-checked his laptop computer and data disks before passing him through to his gate.

The flight boarded quickly and he was able to plug in his computer and check the hard drive. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found the Area 15 files intact. His relief turned to joy as he checked his camera’s memory card to find several images that were at least usable though slightly blurry. He used the plane’s wi-fi to email the photos and the hastily typed ending to the book before one of the attractive flight attendants reminded him to turn off his computer and cell phone before takeoff. He put away the computer and tucked the case under his seat before buckling his safety belt and closing his eyes. The plane’s rumbling lulled him into a quick and dreamless sleep.

The skies over JFK International were stormy as Mabry’s flight touched down on the runway. He tried to call his girlfriend, Sheila, at the condo but no answer. Calls to her cell phone were going straight to voice mail so he simply left a message that he was back.
She’s mad at me again, he thought as he collected his things and left the plane. Flashes of lightning lit up the gray terminal windows as he walked toward Long Term Parking.

The leaden skies chose that moment to dump its load of rain as he emerged from overhang and ran to his car. The electric blue Solstice convertible appeared none the worse for wear as he fished for his keys. By the time he got into the car and stowed the computer case on the back seat, he was soaked to the bone. The 2.4 Ecotec engine growled its welcome as he put the car in gear and pulled out of the airport. Despite the storm and traffic, he made it to Manhattan and pulled in to park at the high-rise condo building’s underground parking garage. He picked up his computer case and after locking the car, headed for the elevator.

A large Out-of-Order sign blocked off the elevator and Wet Paint signs festooned the nearby stairwell. “Damn, it’s always something.” He muttered, turning toward the storm raging just outside the entrance ramp. He kicked at a small pebble on the ground before trudging up the entrance ramp. Clutching the computer case close to his body, he dashed out into the rain and around the corner to the front of the building where the Concierge let him in. He lingered for a moment in the marble floored lobby and took some time to admire the expensive cloth furniture and broad wooden desk that contained security displays and a sophisticated control system that monitored fire alarms and security points throughout all twenty-eight floors.

Jeff Cochrane, a tall smiling black security officer with sideburns that bordered on mutton chops was manning the desk tonight. Jeff was a popular fixture at the Montclair with his friendly disposition, the ability to make others feel safe around him and a killer after-hours jump shot that made most opponents wonder why he wasn’t playing professionally. Jeff was also the one to talk to about all sorts of gossip that frequently floated around the building.

Mabry accepted a hand towel and wiped his face. “Thanks, Jeff. Hey, you haven’t seen Sheila lately, have you?”

Cochrane’s smile dimmed as he handed Mabry a small note. “She left out of here about two hours ago with some movers. She looked upset, Tom.”

Mabry unfolded the note. His frown deepened and his jaw clenched and released for several seconds. He stuffed the note in a jeans pocket. “Thanks, Jeff. Please notify the building manager to revoke Ms. Madsen’s key fob. She’s moved out and won’t be coming back. I’ll sign whatever paperwork Dave needs.”

“Are you okay, Tom?” Cochrane reached under the desk and pulled out a large padded envelope. “UPS dropped this off for you earlier today.”

Mabry forced a smile and nodded. “That’s odd. I wasn’t expecting anything but thanks. Yeah, Jeff, breakups aren’t easy but I’ll manage.” He handed the towel back and picked up his computer case. “Good Night.”

“Good Night, Tom.”

Mabry walked to the elevator doors and waited until after stepping inside and the doors to close behind him before slapping the wooden walls panels. “Why didn’t I see this coming?” He pressed the button for his floor. “All that effort trying to make the world a better place and I couldn’t fix the one thing that needed fixing the most.”

He got off on the Twenty-Second Floor and walked down a long yellow hallway, his wet sneakers squishing on the brown carpeting as he walked to his door. He paused in the doorway, keys in hand and looked around at the artwork that decorated the hallway, the yellow painted walls, and the chocolate carpeting. Living here was a far cry from his days down in the Village in that one room flat with the rusty pipes and the noisy radiator that kept him up at all hours. “Alone again.” He muttered as he opened his door. “Naturally.”

Thankfully, Sheila hadn’t completely cleaned him out when she left. The ugly wicker chair in the corner near the balcony was missing as was the nicked and scratched wooden end tables that she had promised to have refinished ages ago. Otherwise, the post-modern décor he preferred was as it should be. Two leather recliners, a large leather sofa, and the metal and glass coffee table were all the furniture he needed anyway. He closed the front door and hung his keys up on a set of hooks on the left of the door frame. He noticed a small dirt ring next to the double door silver refrigerator and shook his head. “Damn, she took the dog too.” He opened the liquor cabinet over the fridge and took out a bottle of scotch and a tumbler. He poured himself a drink and tossed it back quickly, enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. He put the bottle and glass away. “Good. I hated that damn dog.”

Tossing the package onto the coffee table, he grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked down a short hallway that led to the back bedroom with the attached bathroom and laundry. Sure enough, one of the two walk-in closets that bordered the door to his office was empty of everything but a long row of empty hangers. At least she hadn’t stripped the linen from the bed before she left. He uncapped the beer and took a long swig before setting the bottle on the left night stand. He unpacked his laptop onto the computer desk before flipping on the plasma screen television that hung on the wall opposite the king sized bed. The set’s duplicate hung in the living room, but he always felt more comfortable watching the evening parade of television nonsense in the bedroom. If you’re going to get screwed by the cable company, it’s best to have it done in the bedroom, he mused as he switched over to the Ten o’clock evening news while changing out of his wet clothes.

“Investigators are still combing over the destruction at the construction site of the new space elevator project being built on Niihau Island. The island, the seventh largest of the Hawaiian Islands, was selected as the site of the project through a joint ownership agreement between the US Government, private owners and the Fuller Foundation. Witnesses reported that a fuel storage area exploded shortly after 3 am local time and that the area within the area within the blast zone resembled a sea of melted glass. No injuries have been reported but Fuller Foundation CEO John Fuller issued a statement that all efforts were being expended in finding out the cause of the explosion. In entertainment news, Film Star Studios has announced that they are preparing a film retrospective on the life and career of Anne Pierce who was tragically murdered in 1981 after a brief but distinguished career. To this day, her case remains unsolved.”

Mabry took a sip from his beer. “Damn.” He picked up the remote and flipped lazily through the channels before clicking off the television. Throwing his wet clothes into the laundry hamper, he went into the bathroom.

As he showered off the frustrations of the past week, he made mental notes to have the door locks changed. Sheila was notorious for moving out and then changing her mind. Not this time, he thought. Three years of temper tantrums was quite enough for his patience. As he turned off the water, he found himself yawning as the accumulated stress over the past day caught up with him. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he strolled back to the living room.

After opening the balcony door to let a cool evening breeze rustle the vertical blinds, he sat down on the nearest recliner. He looked over at the white padded envelope resting on the coffee table several times before picking it up. No return address but then again, no wires sticking out or unusual smells or spots that might identify it as a bomb. Satisfied that the package was safe and no one was lurking outside, he opened it.

Neatly packed inside the envelope were several color photographs and a large file folder. Setting the folder aside, he looked over the photographs. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he was looking at crime scene photos mixed in with what looked like publicity stills that could have come from any movie studio. The crime scene shots were pretty standard dead body stuff taken as the corpse laid there on a bathroom floor. The publicity stills showed a much happier time: a petite woman with pale white skin and long black hair sitting on an old white sofa. He could see two bookcases behind her, each carrying several framed pictures on stands. Where did these come from? Why would someone send him old crime scene photographs? He paged through the folder to find some autopsy reports and a well-researched summary biography for Anne Pierce. Someone went to a lot of trouble to put this information together. To what end? He thought.

His analysis was interrupted by his home telephone. He scooped up the cordless handset and raised it to his ear. “Hello?”

“Welcome home, Mr. Mabry. I trust that you’ve got the package I sent?”

Mabry adjusted his towel and tried to look less than the awkward he felt as he checked the phone’s Caller ID. The incoming call was blocked and the voice had a tinny quality as if it were being filtered through a synthesizer. All of this added up to trouble. “Sending me an information packet on a murder victim is more than a little creepy. Who is this?”

“I used to work for the Clarridge Police Department, Mr. Mabry. We were running the original homicide investigation but The Feds came in and took over. I fixed em though. I have some evidence that didn’t make it into their files. I’m prepared to give it to you on one condition.”

“I’m not a policeman.” Mabry said. “I’m a reporter. I write books on Government waste and social injustices. The NYPD has over fifty thousand detectives and Clarridge has at least seven hundred and fifty total on their payrolls. Try one of those.”

“You don’t understand, Pal. You have a reputation of being able to see past the surface of things and spot what most people might miss. That girl’s killer needs to be brought to justice. Are you going to help or not?”

“What can I do that the police can’t?” Mabry said, reaching for his cell phone to call the police. “It’s a thirty-five year old cold case.”

“Like I said, you have ways of finding things that others cannot.”

Mabry dropped the cell phone. “Thanks for the compliment but stroking my ego isn’t going to convince me of anything. What’s this really all about?”

“Look, I can’t force you to do this but do me a favor? Read the contents of the package thoroughly and make up your mind. I’ll call you later to tell you where to meet me for the evidence I mentioned.”

“I’m not promising anything except that I’ll look into the story and see what’s there.” Mabry said. “If it’s worth my time, I’ll do what I can. That’s all.”

“Watch out for The Feds, Mr. Mabry. Trust no one.” The phone clicked.

Mabry flung the cordless phone down onto the sofa. The black box he kept next to the phone to safeguard his privacy displayed the same blocked number message. It was one thing to block Caller ID but another to block a call record. Anyone able to do that was a heavy hitter. He flashed back to the Area 15 situation. Did he see something out there in the desert to make someone nervous enough to come after him here? He knew from experience that the Feds had access to all kinds of toys designed to cover up a trail but to follow him from Arizona seemed excessive even for a government determined to hide its secrets. The fact remained however that someone had managed to invade his privacy, his home, without leaving a single piece of evidence behind. He rubbed his short brown hair for several seconds trying to work out some of his anger.

“Damn them, whoever they are.” He fumed, picking up the folder and reading its contents. The folder contained detailed reports on autopsy, police investigation, and a summarized biography of the woman in the photographs. He paged through the biography first. “Anne Pierce.” He murmured as he reached over and picked up one of the photos.

“Forty years old, former stage and film actress. Born 1940, Emigrated from Manchester, UK to the US in 1963 and worked in Hollywood until 1968. Went back to the UK for four years and then came back in 1972. Married Husband, Philip Steiner in January 1972. Husband killed in car crash in December 1980. Murdered June 15, 1981.” He stopped reading and stared at the sad eyes in the picture. “You had a tough time of it, didn’t you, Anne?” He set the photo aside and resumed reading to himself. “Numerous Academy award nominations from 1973 to 1980 but no awards despite being very active in her career.” He skipped to the last page. “Found in her downstairs bathroom dead from barbiturate overdose shortly after her fortieth birthday.” He closed the folder. “Jesus.”

He slipped the photographs and the folder back into the envelope and carried them back to his computer desk. He tossed the package onto the desktop and shook his head as he undressed for bed. Sliding under the covers, he closed his eyes and fought to put the phone call out of his mind but his curiosity chose that moment to assert itself, nagging him to use his time off to look into the case.

He fought with himself until sleep took over.

Lights and Shadows Update #7

“No, I think I’m okay.”

“Wrong answer.” He yelled back, making his way through the equipment. The ceiling collapse had done a moderate amount of damage to the laboratory, but not enough to block his progress. When he stepped inside, he was surprised to see how little this room was affected. It didn’t take him long to find Finch busily studying the pods and breaking a laundry list of procedures in the process. She’s young and enthusiastic, he thought as he reached into a belt pouch and tossed her a pair of latex gloves.

“Listen, if you insist on recklessly touching things before making sure they are safe, at least take some precautions.” He said, tapping a small pin on his left shirt pocket that was blinking in a steady blue and white rhythm. “There’s still a lot going on down here that we don’t know about and I don’t like how our biohazard sensors are going off.”

She looked down at her shirt before nodding. “Sorry, this is just so fascinating that I wasn’t thinking. Why would they put themselves in a stasis pod?”

He bent down and examined the equipment connected to the pods. “It looks like they intended to hold up in this room until help arrived. The question becomes why.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get anything out of them in their present state.”

He straightened and brushed some dust from his trouser legs. “Agreed. The next question becomes how to wake them up without killing them. Whoever put this configuration together knew what they were doing.”

“Well, with the way back up out of commission, we have plenty of time to figure out our options.”

“Perhaps.”

On the surface, a lone flyer, buffeted by the fierce sandstorm, held its position over the facility grounds while depositing a trapezoidal box on the ground. The box unfolded a set of legs and skittered around the main building before coming to rest at the communications array. The legs buried themselves in the sand while connectors extended from the device’s body and made contact with the array’s antenna and power supply while a small antenna with a flashing blue tip rose from its top.

“I miss my old job,” Matson remarked as he connected a y-shaped cable between the two pods and a portable terminal that they had wheeled in from the lab. “Chasing bad guys was infinitely preferable to stalking places like this, never knowing if something creepy was going to jump out of the shadows any minute.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Finch replied, smiling as she booted up the terminal. “After all, you have an advantage over the rest of the Galaxy.”

“Which is?”

“Me.”

He made a show of throwing his hands up in mock celebration. “Watch out, Milky Way.”

“Just when I think I’m starting to know you, you change gears on me.” The small grin dawning on her face betrayed the sharpness of her criticism. She set the data tablet aside as the terminal’s screen lit up with a full colored status display. “Okay, the data connection to the pod systems is online and transmitting telemetry. Man, this is some complicated stuff.”

Matson took a moment to admire his handiwork. “The trick will be to vent the bio-suspension mist without shorting out the entire life support system in the process.”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Whoever set this up used a containment protocol that hasn’t been in use for at least twenty years. The reason that mist suspension systems were phased out was due to their unstable reactive properties when exposed to electricity.” He waved a hand. “They went out of their way to isolate themselves from the rest of the outpost systems.” He noticed her jaw drop. “What?”

“Nothing, I’m surprised that you have such a grasp of high-tier electronic systems.”

He smirked. “Yeah, I’m full of surprises.” He steadied himself against the conference table as a tremor shock wave shook the walls around them. “Have you figured out the revival protocol yet?”

“I’ve almost got it.” Finch frowned as she worked through a series of combinations. “The layers of encryption they used here are astounding and I mean, astounding in a pain in the butt kind of way. Decrypting the station logs was easier by far.”

“I’d say to work faster, but there’s not much point to it.” Matson sat down at the conference table and put his boots up. “Well, at least until the walls start tumbling down around us.”

“Your optimism is reassuring.”

He leaned back in the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “I prefer to do my ranting and raving from within the confines of my own head. Outside of that, I’m all about calm and collected.” He pulled out a small cloth sleep mask from a belt pouch and put it on. “Wake me when you make some progress.”

“You’re taking a nap at a time like this?”

Tilting up the mask from his eyes, he shrugged. “We need to conserve our strength since we’re cut off from all our supplies and trying to climb up an unstable elevator shaft isn’t wise.” He stole a glance at the doorway. “On the other hand, there is that door I found in the stasis pod room. Obviously, it leads somewhere, but I’m not inclined to try opening it without more information.”

“So, you get to sleep and I get to work? Is that what I’m sensing here?”

He replaced the mask over his eyes. “I’m liking you already.”

Finch growled to herself as she turned back to her work. “Just wonderful.”

Time passed before he was jolted awake by another tremor that shook loose the overhead acoustic tiles and sent them down to the floor in a dusty rain of broken composites. He coughed as he brushed the dust away. A quick check on his watch showed that only an hour had passed since he first closed his eyes. Angered, he stood. Finch was still hard at work at the terminal, caked in tile dust mixed with sweat. Watching her determination at solving the problem softened his attitude. She’s a good kid, he thought as he watched her work. She doesn’t deserve to be in a mess like this so I need to make sure that she comes out of it in one piece. Of course, she’ll never know how much I value her abilities and that bottomless reservoir of cheerful optimism she carries around.

“If you’re going to stand there behind me, you may as well do something useful.” She said, her eyes not leaving the screen. “Tell me more about that door you found in the stasis pod room.”

“Not much to tell.” He replied. “Someone cut and mounted an airlock door into the outer wall. As far as I know, there’s nothing beyond it but bedrock and dirt.”

“So, it could be a way out?”

He nodded. “It’s a possibility, but then again it could lead nowhere.” Another tremor rattled their surroundings. “On the other hand, if these tremors keep up, eventually the power’s going to fail and take the life support system down with it.” He paused to listen to the walls creak as the stress to their structural joints mounted. “This may be a converted space station hull, but even nano-welded steel has to give way to the physics of metal fatigue.”

“Well, we can’t just leave these two in stasis while the station collapses down around them,” Finch said. “It’s just not right.”

Try as he might, Matson couldn’t find a flaw in her argument.

“All right then, we need to figure out how to revive them and then find a way out of here.” He studied the stasis pods. “Whoever designed these things never made the Off Switch easy to find.”

Finch looked up. “What did you say?”

“I was making a facetious comment about the lack of an easy to find Off Switch.” Matson circled to the pods’ rear sections. “It would be ridiculous to not include a manual override in the design configuration.”

Finch slapped the side of the terminal. “Of course,” She exclaimed. “That’s why I’ve been chasing my tail trying to figure out the software module. It doesn’t do anything other than provide an exercise in futility. It doesn’t actually do anything. This entire facility seems to be configured to misdirect and confuse anyone who isn’t part of the staff.”

“That’s about par for the course for Alliance Intelligence,” Matson said. “They never tell the whole story. A piece here, a dollop there, but never more than enough to piss you off or make you go elsewhere. Plans within plans.”

“I, for one, am tired of playing this particular game.” She joined him. “Any ideas where the real control modules might be?”

Matson shook his head as he crouched to study the cable connections. The plug fittings were standard issue, but as he traced a finger under the smooth base, he felt a thick coat of enamel paint that felt out of place. Why paint over a perfectly good cover material? He moved his finger along until it stopped at a small depression marking a perpendicular seam. He reached for his belt pouches, but the knife he was expecting was missing. Damn it, he thought, I must have dropped it during one of our elevator shaft climbs. “Finch, do you have your knife handy?”

She handed him a small flattened black rod. The rod was covered in a spongy material that molded itself to his grip and when he pressed a single button on its midsection, a double-edged silver blade popped out. He scratched away the paint around the depression until he had cleared enough to insert the tip. A quick twist and a cover section pulled free from the housing, revealing a small control panel hidden inside. He set the piece aside and motioned to Finch to repeat his action.

“This isn’t what I expected,” He said as he examined the controls. “Simple toggle switches with status lights and a few digital meters. Blatantly low tech considering what they were working with.” He flipped a switch, watching for a response. When none came, he let out a small sigh. “More window dressing.”

Finch opened the other pod’s control panel. “Zack, I found a small wireless controller in this one. I think whoever set this up intended for the pods to talk to each other, but I can’t see the purpose behind it.”

Matson smirked. “More tricks. What were they guarding against?”

Finch shrugged as she continued her examination. “I couldn’t tell you the answer to that. All I can say is that they created a closed loop system independent of the outpost systems.” She flipped a switch and received the same result for her trouble. “Well, that went nowhere. Any change over there?”

He studied the control panel and noticed a slight flickering across the column of lights. He flipped the first switch again with no effect. “A slight flicker, but nothing significant. There has to be a pattern to this.” He stood and walked around the pods, taking note of the portable power generator. “Unless we’re supposed to simply pull the plug.”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” She replied. “Based on my readings, if the pods aren’t properly shut down, the power stored in their capacitors may spontaneously discharge and if that happens, I wouldn’t make any future plans.”

“Someone disabled the safety interrupts?”

Finch checked her readings again. “More like removed them completely. Why would someone do that?”

Matson started pacing in a figure eight between the two pods, his mind ticking over and over as he studied the equipment. Someone went to a lot of effort to not only isolate them from the rest of the outpost systems but also to make them nigh on impervious to tampering. But why? The corners of his mouth turned upward as he noticed Finch watching him from the corner of his right eye. He pushed the visual cues back down as another tremor shook the walls. He inspected the two control panels and the cable connections to the power generator. Nothing seemed amiss and although unusual, very logical in the placements. When he got to the wireless controller on the second pod, he stopped. The gray device was larger than he expected, filling up an eight inch by eight inch square section near the top rear of the pod and attached in place by magnetic clamps.

“I’ve already gone over that piece of equipment,” Finch remarked. “There’s nothing unusual about it.”

“Except the size.”

She shrugged. “It’s probably an older model they scavenged to put this system together.”

“Scavenged? Here? I highly doubt that.” He leaned in to peer at the controller’s casing. “No, there’s something else going on with this thing.” A set of scratches near the underside caught his eye. “Did you happen to notice these scratches?”

Finch turned her gaze back down at her screens. “I noted them, but I thought they were the by-product of a hasty installation. Why do you ask?”

“A good investigator considers everything as a clue until it has been ruled out.” Matson explained as he continued to study the scratch pattern. A chill shivered through him before he jumped away from the pods and began another search for hidden projectors. It was redundant, to be sure, but better safe than sorry.

“You’re turning paranoid.”

“I’m being careful.” He waved away a wisp of dust that shook loose from the ceiling and danced around his head. As he suspected, no hidden projectors, but the scratches had to come from somewhere. Perhaps something prior to the accident that befell the outpost. Perhaps in the next room. The pile of unanswered questions grew steadily by the hour and his patience dwindled in direct proportion. “You should learn to use your senses more and rely on technology less.”

“Spoken like a true Retro Man.”

“My upbringing is as it was,” He replied, tracing a finger over the scratches as he leaned in to examine them in more detail. The magnetic clamps caught his eye and his attention turned to their mounts. “This is strange. The magnetic clamps are screwed in place.”

Finch took a nearby magnifier and joined him. “Definitely a strange way to keep them from going anywhere.” She paused, her ear hovering over the controller. “No hum.”

“Trionic circuitry crystals resonate at a frequency higher than we can detect,” Matson said. “Only the Parans can natively perceive it.”

“It took interacting with humans to get them to travel outside of Pi1 Pegasi.” She replied. She paused, looking down at her data tablet as each active monitor blanked out in rapid succession to be replaced by a standard login screen bearing a spinning corporate logo. “The data links just went down.”

“Can you get back in?”

She typed on the keyboard for several minutes. “I’m trying, but the system’s not letting me back in. Try your access.” She moved aside to let him at the terminal.

Matson bent over the keyboard and typed in his codes. The screen acknowledged his inputs before abruptly flashing an access denied message in large red letters. He let out a grunt before placing his hands behind his back. “I had a feeling that this was going to happen.”

“You think Stein is behind this?”

“I’m practically sure of it. He probably set our access codes to time out. The bastard knew that we were going to be accessing sensitive data, but to be fair, he probably didn’t predict our current circumstances.” He looked over at the pods. “Getting those open just got a little more complicated.”

A glowing blue orb floated through the doorway. It paused in midair as if studying them before moving over and around the two pods. A couple of orbits later, it stopped in the center of the room.

Finch looked at Matson. “It couldn’t be.”

Mega Ebook Cover Reveal: The Three Safeties, Vessel, and Parallax

The new ebook covers just got to me and I just HAD to share them with you. The print covers are still being worked on so I’ll reveal them in a separate posting once I get the promotional materials:

 THE THREE SAFETIES COMPLETE

VESSEL COMPLETE

PARALLAX COMPLETE

I am astounded by the work that my designer put into these and if we were on the same continent, I’d probably buy her a soda.

 

Lights and Shadows Update #3

It’s Update Time again and so I wanted to share the latest excerpt from Lights and Shadows as I work my way through the morass of mystery that pervades Planet Tarson’s Outpost 19. Enjoy.

Moreau jerked a thumb at the corpse. “I really don’t think he’s going to raise up and tell me how offended he is. Come to think of it, we should probably cover him up before he really starts adding to the ambiance.” A floral scent danced its way into his nostrils. The smell was familiar, too familiar to be simply the smell of Death that pervaded the control room. It nagged at his memory. Something from his Academy Days stirred and swam upward in his mind but stopped just short of breaching the surface. “Do you smell that?”

Finch looked around, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. Her nose kept leading her back to the console, but all the readouts read normal. “It’s a very pretty scent. I wonder where it’s coming from.”

“Strange and Pretty.” Moreau said. “I’ve heard of stations using olfactory stimuli to modify staff behavior, but I didn’t see anything in the records to indicate they had installed the equipment here.” He put his reading aside and checked the bullets in his pistol. “Strange odors coming from electronics make me twitch internally. Whatever you are doing, be careful.”

“You’re being paranoid.” Finch waved him away as a system status message popped up. “Good News. I’m in. Just give me a few more seconds to get into the authorization subsystem and…” A blinking icon caught her eye, a stylized M superimposed over a multicolored cube and reminded her of old company logos she had studied in Academy history classes. “Hmm, that’s new.” She observed, resisting the urge to touch the screen. “It’s not The Fuller Foundation’s asterisk orbiting an atom logo. I wonder what it means.”

Moreau stood and walked around to her console. His brow furrowed as he studied the lazily rotating icon with its oddly hypnotic colors that pulsed as it moved. “Are you sure you haven’t been digging in the historical archive files by mistake? That’s the logo for MacroSquare Software, a company that’s been defunct for almost forty years.” He humphed as he watched it. “I’m surprised there are any records of its existence left around after the damage they did during the AI Rebellion.” He stopped and stared at her, his eyes fixed and accusing. “I thought you fixed this damn thing.”

“Thirty-Three years and six months and if you think you can do a better job, then by all means have at it.” She smiled, reaching out with a slender finger to press the icon.

“August on Tarson.” He blocked her hand and forced her away from the console. As he held her by her arms, he looked into her blue eyes. “Marla, did you take your injection today?”

Finch’s beatific smile disappeared, replaced by a frown as she struggled against his firm yet not uncomfortable grip. “What? Why are you holding me like this? I have work to do.”

He pinned her against a nearby support beam with his left arm while his right pulled his pistol from its holster. Her eyes widened as she felt the cold steel of the muzzle press against the soft tissue under her jaw. “I asked you a question.”

“You aren’t planning on using that on me, are you?” She asked, her voice keeping her fear secret. “Think of the paperwork.”

He pulled the hammer back on the pistol. It clicked into place with the too-loud sound of approaching mortality. His voice chilled the air as he spoke. “Union Regulation 666 Stroke 5 clearly states that anyone subject to regular vaccinations is to provide immediate verification that they have complied. I just watched you become influenced by Black’s viral attractor scent. I don’t know how that got into this computer system but if I hadn’t stopped you, I have no doubt that you would have become AI Compromised. I’m going to ask you one more time. Did you take your injection this morning? Evade the question one more time and I will put two rounds into your skull that are guaranteed to turn your brain into scrambled eggs and leave me with a pound of paperwork that I will fill out with due diligence.”

“For Fuck’s Sake, Zack, I have implants in my arm that dispense my immunizations and the calibration card is in my right breast pocket.”

Moreau held the gun steady while he removed a small plastic card from her shirt pocket. His eyes scanned the printed hologram and the dates inscribed in a bold type face on its surface. He slipped the card back into her pocket and uncocked his weapon before slipping it back into the holster. “Fair enough. Let’s get back to work.”

She rubbed her throat. “Would you really have killed me?”

Moreau turned his back and allowed himself a small sigh of relief. “Without a moment’s hesitation. Be careful what you’re doing. There are a lot of things in this place that want to kill us and they don’t all use holographic projectors or pretty floral scents.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”