In celebration of the release of the my new scifi thriller novel, The Auriga Project, here’s an excerpt from the book, the complete first chapter.
The Auriga Project
Eliana tried her best to look elegant in a black cocktail dress as she drifted across the lawn to greet arriving guests. When her cheeks ached from smiling, and the portion of the quad decorated for the demonstration began to fill up, she adjusted centerpieces and worried the back of one hand with the thumb of the other. Everything had been cross-checked and triple-confirmed: the catering, the press arrangements, the invite-only guest list. Eliana didn’t mind the intensive planning required for a big event like this. Organizing and fitting came fairly naturally to a trained archaeologist—she could make sense of that kind of chaos, the kind you could cut and move and change and see.
But all that work was done now. And despite hiring the most capable event planner she could find in Austin, Texas—who at this very moment directed her staff through a wireless microphone like a conductor commanding an orchestra—Eliana fidgeted nervously. How her hands could remain so steady holding ancient fossils yet shake in the presence of her husband’s colleagues, she would never understand.
A few pointedly underdressed venture capitalists, several politicians with plastic smiles, and a group of Fisk Industries’ brightest minds lounged against the open bar. Above them, a wide screen played clips of rocket launches from the Lunar Terraform Alliance’s early missions, the ones that had established the Lunar Station and begun construction of the first biodome. Amon had chosen the launch clips as an homage to the halcyon early days of the international organization, when everything was possible and physical limitations were taken as challenges to be bested—the days before the energy crisis, before the failed resupply missions, before the primary biodome ruptured in a series of violent explosions that set the terraform initiative back years and cost dozens of lives.
The Auriga Project was a rallying cry for a return to those early days, her husband, Amon, had explained. His radical invention was a way back for the organization, a renewed hope representing a brighter future.
“Hallo,” a portly gentleman said. The heavily accented greeting pulled Eliana back to the present. She smiled as she recognized him from the guest list she had memorized. He was the president of Hermann Buch, GmbH, a major stakeholder in Amon’s project.
“Guten Abend, Herr Buch,” Eliana said.
“Ah!” he replied, his bristle brush mustache wiggling with excitement. “Sprechst du Deutsch?”
“Viel bisschen,” Eliana said. She struggled through rusty German phrases she hadn’t practiced since the year she’d spent abroad in Europe during her undergraduate studies. She’d had reason to use other languages in her travels since, but German wasn’t one of them. Meanwhile, Diane, the event planner, weaved toward her through the crowd. She mouthed “five minutes” to Eliana over the old German’s shoulder. When the director of the Lunar Terraform Alliance, Dr. Carl Badeux, approached them, Herr Buch switched to English, the common language between them. Eliana excused herself a moment later and walked across the quad toward the engineering building where Amon was getting ready.
The Fisk Industries campus consisted of half a dozen buildings of vastly different architectural styles, arranged in a semicircle around a central lawn. In a former life, a small private university had called the campus home, and the lawn was known as a quad. When the university filed for bankruptcy, Amon purchased the land and decided to keep the old Gothic Revival-era buildings. They were made of gray stone with vaulted doorways, carved balustrades, and faux ramparts. Green vines crawled up them, carefully maintained so as not to cause structural damage to the aging stone. Belying their outward appearances, the buildings’ innards had been modernized and ran on completely renewable energy—mostly solar, fitting for the largest researcher and manufacturer of consumer-friendly solar generation technology in the United States.
In stark contrast to the Gothic style, the headquarters building stood at the north end of the quad, imposing and modern. Two sheer glass walls swept inward and met at steel-framed double doors. Bold silver letters atop the entryway spelled the name of the company, Fisk Industries.
Eliana was within sight of the lobby entrance when Senator Caldwell parted ways with a straight-mouthed, short-haired woman to intercept her.
“Mrs. Fisk,” the senator said, pocketing the woman’s business card. Eliana caught a glimpse of the name on the front of the card as it disappeared into his pocket. It read, HAWKWOOD. “Quite the event! You look splendid, by the way.”
She thought she looked nice as well, but she recognized his compliment as a strategic opening. “Thank you,” she said.
“Wes McManis tells me you’re an accomplished archeologist.”
She tried to keep her face neutral. And how much I’d rather be on the coast of Turkey dusting off the ruins of Ephesus than talking to you! No, she reprimanded herself. She had chosen to leave that life behind. She had volunteered for this job. She forced a smile. “That’s correct.”
“I’d love to tell you about our efforts to raise money for the Young Scholars Association, if you’re interested. It would be great to have someone like you involved.”
She barely repressed a sigh. Wes McManis had a big mouth. One of these days, someone would want her for her own work, and not for her husband’s money. It seemed that day was not today.
“I’d love to hear more,” she said. “But I really must be going. The demonstration is about to begin.”
“No worries! No trouble at all, don’t let me hold you up.” The senator smiled.
She’d be fooling herself to think that would discourage him from trying again later.
Several more people took the opportunity to intercept Eliana, fishing for hints of the demonstration to come. She carefully parried their questions. The only facts Fisk Industries had confirmed in the press releases leading up to the event were that Amon’s invention was the result of ten years of work, and that it would “change the face of space travel forever.” The PR agency’s words, not hers. She would have been more subtle.
Finally, she strode past the portable stage and crossed to the glass-fronted face of the headquarters building. As her quick steps rang on the tile floors, she checked the clock on the lobby wall.
Crap, she thought. Late already.
She rotated her wedding band on her finger. Normally, she wore her diamond engagement ring to a big event like this—Amon’s mother’s ring, a family heirloom. But she’d lost that classic gem in Cairo last year along with the tattered shreds of her once-promising career.
She didn’t realize the ring was missing until the plane lifted from the runway in Cairo.
She begged the flight attendants to halt the plane. They seemed to be sympathetic to her situation and relayed the message to the cockpit, but the pilot refused to turn around.
When she got home, Eliana dropped her bags in her room and collapsed onto the bed. She pulled the blanket over her head to close out the world.
By the time Amon returned from his business trip to New York, Eliana was a complete wreck. Rock ‘n’ roll blared from the house-wide speaker system. Her suitcase and purse seemed to have exploded in their bedroom, and the trail of debris led him to the master bath.
Amon turned down the music as he entered. He sat on the edge of the tub. “Sweetheart,” he said. “The water is freezing.”
She tipped a wine bottle to her mouth and took a swig without lifting her head from the porcelain edge of the tub. “Still feels pretty nice to me,” she slurred.
“How long have you been in here?”
“An hour or six, who cares?”
The tears she’d managed to fend off with the wine and rock ‘n’ roll came rushing back. Amon’s face went all blurry. His warm, rough hands caressed her damp cheeks. She lifted her free hand from the tub and clutched his fingers.
“I lost your mother’s ring,” she sobbed against his chest. “I called the hotel a million times, but they can’t find it.”
“It’s just a ring,” he said, his voice thick. “I’ll buy you a new one. Tell me what happened in Cairo.”
She took a big, shaking breath. “All the supposed cultural heritage organizations in the Middle East care about are their tourist traps. Whatever. I’m tired of the desert anyways.”
“What about your connections in Belize? Have you reached out to any of your old professors? I’m sure something will come up if you keep looking.”
She sniffed. “I’m not sure I want to.”
“Come on,” he said, lifting her by the elbow. “Let’s get you into something warm.” He helped her out of the tub, across the cold bathroom floor, and into bed.
The next morning, Amon insisted on going out for brunch. His cell phone rang in the car on the way to the restaurant. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Lucas said. His voice came through the phone, tinny and small but discernible. “How’d your meeting with the LTA go?”
“Yeah, it went great. Thanks for checking in.”
“Good to hear. Negotiations are progressing quickly on my end as well. This week, I spoke to Audi, GE, Hawkwood, and Facebook about the design for the new industrial solar cells. They all seem very interested in what we’re developing.”
“Excellent. I knew you were the right man to put in charge.”
“Thanks,” Lucas said.
“Listen, I’m on my way out to eat with Eliana. Can we catch up later?”
“You bet,” Lucas said. “Bye for now.”
At brunch, Eliana drank black coffee and nibbled at a bagel while Amon gestured excitedly across the table. “The LTA fast-tracked the real-world trials,” he said. “We have a timeline now. If everything goes smoothly, we’ll be able to announce the program in six months. A year, tops.”
“Wow,” she said. “That’s great news.”
Amon leaned in. “And then they want to do a public demonstration, to rekindle positive interest in the organization. After waiting so long, I can’t say I’m not relieved. Though it’s surreal. I’ve been working on it for so long that I forget the rest of the world doesn’t even know it exists. You and I do, but they don’t. There’s probably going to be some pushback from the media, at least initially.”
“I bet,” she said.
“We need a code name for the announcement—something that captures the imagination and gets people talking about it without revealing what it is. I want it to sound heroic.”
“Hmm. How about the Auriga Project?”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means charioteer in Latin. In Greek mythology, it’s named after the ruler of ancient Athens, King Erichthonius, a famous charioteer. Also, the Chinese incorporated the stars of Auriga into several constellations, among them the celestial emperor’s chariots.”
“That’s perfect,” Amon said. He hesitated for a moment then whispered. “The idea of all the media attention makes me nervous.”
“I think you can handle it.”
He paused. A smirk spread across his face.
“I know that look,” she said. “What?”
“I want you to be a part of it.”
“Of course I’ll be there.”
“Not simply be there,” he said. “Be involved. I’ve been thinking, how would you like to help me plan the event? God knows we could use you right now; the company is growing faster than ever. Hey, maybe it would even help get your mind off other things?”
Where Latin words came easy, this suggestion sank slowly into Eliana’s hungover brain. When it did, a smothering foam of disappointment pressed against her diaphragm. She was momentarily thankful she didn’t have much of an appetite this morning.
I’m well into my thirties, she mused bitterly, and I’ve failed to make any important discoveries in my field. No hominid remains for me, no discoveries that change the way the scientific community interprets our ancient past. My legacy consists of many long, hot dig trips and one struggling field research organization that can’t get funded.
People didn’t seem to care about historical monuments or ancient artifacts like they used to. The sense that there was nothing left to discover permeated the field of archaeology. She and her colleagues all knew there was more money in tearing down ancient buildings than preserving or studying them. Each year, a few more said goodbye.
Amon knew better than to offer her money. He’d done so before, several times; she always turned him down. He proved himself once again to be too clever for his own good by offering her a job instead. She saw the warmth in his eyes. He really meant it. So she didn’t give him a straight answer.
“I’ll consider it,” she said, knowing that it would mean taking a sabbatical of sorts, a leave of absence, if not giving up on her fund-raising efforts altogether. She knew from watching her colleagues’ lives diverge how easily that could turn into giving up on the field entirely.
“You plan amazing parties.”
“I wouldn’t call getting your Stanford buddies drunk on the weekends ‘amazing,’ but I’ll take the compliment.”
They laughed. He took her hand and stroked the tan line on her finger where her wedding ring used to be.
After giving herself a few more days of moping around, she walked into Amon’s office at Fisk Industries and announced that she’d be taking the job. “Part time,” she insisted. “To see if Fisk Industries a good fit for me.”
But Eliana could never do anything by halves. She immersed herself in VIP guest lists, interviews with event planning companies, and press releases—giving herself to the new role completely.
She found Amon, Lucas, and Reuben talking business in the middle of the marble-floored lobby.
“Ah, here she is,” said Lucas Lamotte, chief financial officer of Fisk Industries. His immaculate three-piece charcoal suit was as finely tailored as his beard, sharp-edged against his smooth skin. “We were keeping your husband company until you arrived.”
“Lucas,” Eliana said, inclining her head in greeting. His hair was a shade darker than the last time she saw him. He must have dyed it fresh for the cameras, a habit he’d recently acquired to hide the salt and pepper that had begun to creep in.
Gray had begun to fleck her husband’s hair as well. The last two years had been hard on them both.
“Hullo, Mrs. Fisk,” Reuben rumbled from her right. Smile lines creased the old engineer’s face, radiating out from his mouth and the corners of his warm, green eyes. She enjoyed Reuben’s company, and reminded herself once again to come up with an excuse to spend time with him outside of work-related functions.
“Reuben, you look handsome,” she said.
“Thank you, dear,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. His normally wild and unkempt gray-blond strands were slicked back for the occasion.
“We’ll leave you to it then,” said Lucas, clapping his hands together.
Reuben nodded to the couple and followed Lucas out, but at his own pace.
“It’s time,” Eliana said once she was alone with her husband.
“Thank God,” said Amon. “I can’t wait to get this over with. I sweated through my tuxedo ages ago.”
“Don’t worry, you look great.” Eliana took a blue handkerchief from Amon’s breast pocket and dabbed at his neck.
Amon wore a tuxedo they had purchased especially for tonight. It was the only tux he had ever owned. Like Reuben, Amon was a man of science, and formal dress remained firmly outside of his comfort zone. Eliana loved how he looked in the fitted attire, bow tie and all.
“Do you want to go over the stage directions one more time?” she asked.
“I have something for you.”
“What? Now?” Eliana said, distracted from her original intention.
“We’ve waited years for this, what’s another five minutes?” He withdrew something from his coat pocket—a velvet box that fit in the palm of his hand.
Eliana took it with shaking hands and eased open the lid. She gasped. “Amon…my God, it’s beautiful.”
Amon carefully lifted a silver ring with a large diamond, black as night, from the velvet cushion. He slipped it onto her finger.
She tilted her hand this way and that. It fit perfectly. The smoky translucence of the stone gave it a deceptive depth: she gazed into it and saw tiny stars, microscopic galaxies, swimming in its core.
“It looks just like your mother’s ring, except for the gemstone…how did you find a diamond this color?”
Amon’s mouth turned up at one corner. “I saw how upset you were after you lost the ring in Cairo, so I had it remade from old photographs of my parents. Except for the carbonado—that’s what the black diamond’s called. It was harvested from a meteorite.”
“It’s incredible,” she said. “Thank you.”
Amon gathered her into his arms. “It’s I who should be thanking you. For being here with me tonight, and for working so hard to put this whole thing together. It means so much to me.”
“Please. I had help! Diane is a miracle worker, I’m telling you.” Her heart warmed at his praise. And yet, deep down, she did not register contentment. Putting together the party did not give her satisfaction she had expected, merely relief that it would soon be over. She missed the rich history of archaeology work, the possibility of joy that lay dormant in even the most tedious excavation.
“You’re being modest, as usual,” Amon said. “Without you, none of this would have been possible.” He gestured not merely to the party outside, but to the lobby, the building, the campus and everything it represented.
Eliana smiled and took a deep breath. A curious thing had happened while she adjusted to working as a Fisk Industries employee over the past while. For one, she was glad she was to be able to spend more time with Amon after being on the road so often. Her travels and his work schedule had been erratic before.
More importantly, their careers had never crossed paths until now. Working with him every day introduced a new aspect to a ten-year-old marriage that had grown, if not stale, then perhaps complacent. She supposed both of them were at fault to a certain extent.
She forgot all that when she saw how Amon’s employees smiled when he walked into a room, how his team of engineers looked up to him, and how the new hires—especially the interns—spoke together in hushed whispers after a chance meeting with “Amonfisk,” and how they always called him “Amonfisk”—one word—like he was a rock star.
Their adoration for him had ignited a spark of passion in her heart again, something she hadn’t felt in recent years of their marriage.
And yet some part of her knew she would never be content if her life revolved around planning events—even important ones like this. It wasn’t enough to make her truly happy.
“I love you, Amon,” Eliana said. “And I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
“But I miss my job. It’s been so great getting to spend time together for a change, but I’m not ready to give up on it yet.”
“I would never ask you to.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course. I’ll fire you right now, put you on a plane to Greece…or Turkey! I’ll buy a pyramid and ship it home brick by brick if that’s what you want, darling.”
Eliana laughed. In that moment, she fell in love with him all over again. “I know you would.”
She stepped back out of his embrace and rotated the new ring on her finger, thoughtful this time instead of anxious. She imagined how, once the media got over the initial shock of Amon’s announcement, their lives might once again return to normal. Eliana would step down from her role as professional wife and resume her hunt for grant money to build a new organization. Though her life had taken a yearlong detour, she felt a passion for dig trips and old ruins and unanswered questions about ancient cultures resurfacing. She was excited and scared and in love, and it made her feel alive.
“Well,” she said when she remembered to breathe. “Are you ready?”
“No way,” Amon said. “Once I get out there, I’ll be fine. It’s this next part I hate.” He tugged at his damp collar with one finger.
“I know.” She took his hand.