This Friday, the third book in the Translocator Trilogy, The Ares Initiative, comes out, so I thought I’d give those of you who are excited about the upcoming release a chance to get started early with some snippets from the book.
I’ll post a chapter a day until Friday.
I posted Chapter 1 yesterday. Here’s Chapter 2…
THE ARES INITIATIVE
by M.G. Herron
Chapter 2 – The Ares Initiative
Five days after Amon Fisk first spotted the alien spacecraft entering the solar system, three unmarked Black Hawk helicopters landed on his campus. The choppers thundered out of the north through a fading blue sky and came down inside the high barbed-wire fences. He’d forgotten to eat dinner again and the sight of their matte black hulls, strangely unmarked, made his empty stomach turn.
He glanced at Dr. Enzo Badeux, who stood next to him wearing creased khakis with brown loafers. His expression was unreadable.
Five days. It had been five days since he watched the spacecraft skip past Pluto and appear inside the orbit of Mars in the blink of an eye. Amon had been subconsciously bracing for impact ever since. That level of sustained stress diminished one’s appetite significantly. A dull ache had also appeared between his shoulder blades.
Due to what they had seen, everyone assumed the vessel was of alien origin. Astronomers at the SOLARPulse-1 detection array on the lunar base clocked the unidentified spacecraft traveling at nearly two hundred and fifty thousand miles per hour, over four times the maximum speed any human spacecraft had ever achieved.
The secret had moved quickly through the organization, but thanks to protocols put in place by Dr. Badeux after they first discovered the Translocator could transport people and objects not only to the moon, but with a little modification, to distant planets, they had managed to keep the information out of the media’s hands.
Keeping knowledge of the spacecraft away from his wife was a simpler matter. Seven days ago—two days before they spotted the spacecraft—she had taken her team back to Kakul via the Translocator to do more archaeological research on the stone temple. The Lunar Terraform Alliance had greenlighted a two-week exploratory mission, and apart from sending an encoded signal daily to let the LTA know they were safe, Eliana and her team were effectively cut off from communications.
Doubt gnawed at his empty stomach.
“Do you think it was a good idea to leave the exploratory team on Kakul?”
“I assure you,” Enzo said. “Eliana is perfectly safe. Signals indicate they are even ahead of schedule.” Enzo’s perfectly relaxed manner gave him an aloof charm that rarely cracked, even under the kind of stress he’d endured since two days ago, when they took a preliminary analysis of the spacecraft to NASA, who then ran it up the chain to the proper governmental authority.
Now, that authority was here, landing on his campus. The campus’s official name had been changed to the “Austin Lunar Research Center,” but since Amon had purchased the land and buildings over fifteen years ago for Fisk Industries, it was difficult to give up the habit of thinking that the sprawling grounds, Gothic buildings, and research labs belonged to him.
Old habits died hard.
“Who do you think is in charge?” Amon yelled over the roar of the rotor blades as a pilot centered the first helicopter over a bright yellow H surrounded by a circle.
Dr. Enzo Badeux shrugged. “I am merely the director of the Lunar Terraform Alliance, an international research organization. They, are the U.S. military,” he shouted back, as if that explained things to his American friend.
When Enzo noticed the serious expression on Amon’s face, he added, “They called thirty minutes ago to tell us they were coming, but failed to specify who was on board. I assume it was for security reasons. It is not my place to ask such questions.”
Amon grunted. “You Europeans are too concerned with protocol. Anyway, we’ll know soon enough. I hope they’re here to help.”
“I refuse to let anyone shut down the project, Amon. Do not worry. We have already received your president’s blessing.”
Amon gritted his teeth. That was a factual statement. They had received President Roscoe’s blessing to keep the Translocator operational, if under the watchful eyes of a battalion of U.S. Army soldiers with high security clearances. That was why the campus was no longer his. It was at the president’s suggestion (read: orders) that the LTA had transformed the former campus of Fisk Industries—his campus—into the military installation it was today, complete with a gate that could be defended easily, and guard towers spaced every hundred yards along the barbed wire-topped walls.
Unfortunately, that knowledge did nothing to assuage Amon’s fear that the arrival of this alien spacecraft was no mere coincidence. This problem was too big for a little barbed wire.
And it was probably his fault, too.
For that reason, the presence of the Black Hawks brought him a faint sense of hope—news had traveled up the chain to someone important. Someone who was in a position to take action.
But who? Was it the president? Was it someone he could trust?
Ten Marines rushed from the first Black Hawk and fanned out, their postures relaxed but alert. They wore black body armor and cradled carbine rifles in their arms. This was a secure area, yet they were still on their guard. Smart and cautious. The huge squad leader, a man with a white scar along the jutting edge of his chin, made a circular motion with one hand. The other two choppers came down, one on the left and one on the right.
A second squad of Marines indistinguishable from the first hopped out of the chopper on the left. Instead of rifles, they carried crates and heavy black duffel bags. The last two men to jump out of the chopper balanced between them a thin, transparent rectangle that Amon instantly recognized as a slab of tempered hologlass. That explained what some of the extra luggage was for. A holo that big still wasn’t an easy machine to port around.
The last man to get out wore fatigues and a matching camouflage patrol cap, but carried no weapon. His face was deeply tanned, lined with age, and perfectly inscrutable. He spotted Amon and Enzo and made a B-line for where they stood. A small retinue of assistants, also wearing military uniforms but carrying clipboards and phones and laptops instead of firearms, followed in his wake.
“This looks promising,” Amon said to Enzo out of the corner of his mouth.
Enzo lifted one shoulder in a nearly imperceptible shrug. “We’ll know soon enough,” he said, parroting Amon’s words back to him.
“Gentlemen,” the distinguished man said when he finally reached them. He spoke with a lazy drawl, dragging out the word and betraying his southern heritage. “Good evening. I’m General Joseph Wade.”
“Hello, sir,” Amon replied. “Nice to meet you.”
“Bonjour, Général,” Enzo said. “Welcome to the Austin Lunar Research Center.”
Amon had to admit the new name had a nice ring to it. Everything always sounded so elegant coming from Enzo.
General Wade inclined his head. He was tall man, six foot three with salt-and-pepper hair in a high and tight, and a clean-shaven face showing a five-o-clock shadow. He wore no jewelry of any kind, not even a wedding band.
“Thank you, Enzo. Amon, it’s good to meet you in person finally. You’re…not as tall as I thought you would be.”
Amon barked out a laugh. It felt good to laugh. “I’ll take that as a compliment. We have much to discuss. Director Badeux was wise to suggest we prepare a room.”
The Marines insisted on sweeping the building ahead of the general’s entry. Amon hid his frustration while they accomplished the task. Was it not enough that the building was in the middle of a military base?
When they determined it was clear, Amon strode into the vast lobby of the headquarters building, then up the stairs across from the indoor waterfall, which burbled calmly, unfazed by the unusual activity. “This way, please.”
Amon led the group to a large conference room that could seat about fifty. Several tables, dozens of chairs, and a folding stage were all pushed against the left wall. The Marines swept the room and then took up posts outside the door and at all three of the building’s exits. The leader of the first squad of Marines returned to the conference room a minute later to join Amon and Enzo, the general, and his retinue.
“I’d like you to meet Major Bautista,” General Wade said. “He’s the platoon leader of the Ares Initiative strike forces, and will be coordinating efforts on the ground.”
Amon really looked at the major for the first time. He was a few inches taller than the general even, which meant he towered over Amon. He had light brown skin and a brooding All-American look about him—thick jaw, low brow, handsome in an I-can-pull-you-apart-like-a-rotisserie-chicken kind of way. A pale scar across the bottom of his jawline stood out from his skin. His left ear had the faintest trace of cauliflower ear, the result of too much time spent with your ear pressed to the wrestling mats. Major Bautista inclined his head to Amon and Enzo.
“The Ares Initiative?” Amon asked. “What’s that?” He managed to sneak a glance at the director. His unflappable expression of studied indifference was marred only by a slight crease between his eyebrows.
So he’s never heard of the organization either. That’s odd.
“In due time,” General Wade said calmly, brushing off the question. “Sorry to drop in on you like this, but it was a necessary precaution. Only a few people know I’m here right now, and I’d like it to stay that way. The public will know what you found soon enough, and then where I am and what I’m doing won’t be such a big story.” The general met Amon’s eyes. “I know you have questions. Just hold onto them for a moment longer. The mobile command center is almost ready. Tammy?”
One of the assistants had already begun to assemble the holodisplay and other equipment the Marines dropped off. The sheet of hologlass went horizontal over the conference table.
“Almost ready, sir,” responded an Asian woman in her late thirties. “Just need to seal the room and authorize the encryption.”
She set a device the size of a hockey puck on the table and clicked a small button on its side. Amon felt his ears pop as the room was sealed, like a bubble, from prying ears.
“Interesting,” Amon said, reaching for the device.
Tammy rapped the back of Amon’s hand with her knuckles.
Enzo and the general both smirked. Major Bautista just quirked one eyebrow slightly before settling back into stone impassivity.
Gadgets were almost irresistible to Amon. He itched to dissect tools and electronics, and as a wealthy inventor was not used to being denied. But he had learned better than to mess with territorial women—learned slowly, as the distant and fraught relationship with his wife continued to remind him of late. She still hadn’t forgiven him for trying to keep her from returning to Kakul.
He contented himself by studying the pocket-sized jamming device with his eyes. When the woman gave him a severe look, Amon showed her his palms. “I’m not going to touch it. Just looking.”
While they waited for the final preparations to be made, the general unbuttoned his jacket, laid it over the back of a chair, and seated himself at the head of the table.
“Ready, sir,” Tammy said.
“Excellent. Gentlemen, if you’ll join me, please. Tammy, go ahead and connect the call.”
Major Bautista sat on the general’s right, Enzo on his left. Amon took the chair next to Enzo. No one had mentioned a call, but he supposed he should have expected it. The lights in the conference room dimmed slightly, and the holo screen came to life with a soft internal glow, like someone turned a light bulb on and held it under water.
Precise figures of a dozen more people flickered into existence around the table. There was suddenly a stern-looking white woman across from Amon. A genial African man sat to her right, and a dapper gent with eyeglasses next to him. They kept appearing until the whole table was populated.
Amon recognized none of them. Each sat in their own chairs that were transferred with the hologram, as if they had been sitting at the table with them but invisible all along. The colors of their images were slightly paler than they would have been in real life, and their forms flickered just slightly when they moved. Even Amon, who had been working with sophisticated and expensive holos for over a decade, was impressed by the image clarity.
“Thank you all for your patience,” General Wade said. “As we discussed previously, I am now located at the Austin Lunar Research Center with Amon Fisk and Director Badeux, of the Lunar Terraform Alliance.”
A dozen heads inclined politely.
Amon put one hand in the air and waved at them. “Uh, hello. Didn’t know this was going to be a group chat.”
A few faces smiled or grimaced. Most of them glared. Amon put his hand down, swallowing hard.
“As you both know,” General Wade continued, addressing Amon and Enzo directly this time, “the Lunar Terraform Alliance was formed as a collective initiative with cooperation from over a hundred countries. However, the initial discussions that led to the alliance were not as smooth as they might have been. There were, shall we say, disagreements among certain parties about what the funding should be used for. For example, it was the opinion of the American leadership, as well as Mexico, the UK, Russia, and China”—the general nodded around the table to several different representatives—“that some of the funding be directed toward planetary defense.”
Amon’s ears perked up at the last bit. He’d asked Enzo once about using the LTA’s resources for planetary defense, and learned that it was a sensitive subject best left untouched due to strained international relations. He took a second to be grateful it had not been an original thought.
“But when agreement could not be reached on that subject, defense was left out of the alliance we ended up with.” This time the general held an open hand in Enzo’s direction.
“The smaller countries banded together to oppose the idea,” Enzo said, picking up the thread of the story with ease. “They worried that if things were to go wrong in some way—say, if tensions ramped up between the United States and Russia—they would get caught in the crossfire of any weapon systems developed by the LTA for the purposes of planetary defense.”
“Which I can understand,” General Wade said. “But once the can of worms was opened, we couldn’t very well ignore it. When our military strategists war-gamed the problem of planetary defenses with the capabilities we had at the time, it became clear that too many possible edge cases resulted in unacceptable outcomes. As a result, President Roscoe was able to convince a select few of those who were interested in authorizing LTA funds for planetary defense to form a separate, more covert alliance.”
Amon finally understood. “The Ares Initiative.”
“That’s right, Mr. Fisk. The Ares Initiative. Welcome aboard, gentlemen. This is the first time a Class 1 emergency meeting has ever needed to be called. I think it goes without saying that what we say here does not leave the room. Understand?”
“Good. And now, Amon, I believe you were the first to make the discovery. Would you please inform the rest of the group?”
All eyes turned to Amon.
Oh, Amon thought. Oh, God. He didn’t tell them. No wonder they hadn’t found his sense of humor very amusing. They had a good idea of the stakes, but it seemed to be up to him to relay the specifics.
The old fear of public speaking came back in a flash of cold sweat. He gripped the arms of his chair under the table, and wished Eliana were here at his side. Though things had been tense between them lately, she was the only one who truly knew his fear and could help him overcome it. He took a shaking breath and paused for a second, thinking of her warm presence, imagining her reassuring hand on his arm. Slowly, he grew calmer, and got the old fear under control.
Enzo seemed to notice Amon’s hesitation. He opened his mouth to stall for him, or maybe tell the story in his place, but Amon reached a hand out to grip his friend’s arm. “It’s my fault. I’ll tell them. They deserve to know. And if they can help then it doesn’t matter who’s to blame.”
Enzo gave him a look they had shared many times since the discovery of the spacecraft. The “I know it’s not your fault” look. Amon ignored his friend and continued.
“As I’m sure all of you know, the SOLARPulse-1 detection array went online at the Lunar Base last week. Dr. Badeux and I went up there to see it for ourselves. It’s got predictive modeling capabilities we’ve only dreamed of. It can map the dance of objects in our solar system and beyond, practically in real time. Part of the reason the array was built is to identify what we call Near Earth Objects, or NEOs. Usually this means asteroids and large comets. This time we discovered something else—an alien spacecraft.”
A few pairs of eyebrows around the table shot up. Most took deep, steadying breaths and leaned back in their chairs.
“What is the danger?” a dark-skinned man asked. Amon couldn’t place his accent specifically, but guessed by that and his brightly-patterned shirt that he was from somewhere in Africa.
“Well, we don’t know,” Amon said. “What we do know is that it seems to be on a course to intercept Earth in about eighteen hours.” One or two people cursed under their breath. More than a few crossed themselves as their lips worked in prayer. “It’s got a strange design, more like an insect than a spaceship like we think of them, and we can’t tell if it’s carrying weapons systems of any kind. It’s massive, easily ten times the size of our largest ships, and moving at a remarkable speed.
“It gets weirder. We don’t actually know how it got here. According to Stanis Rachmaninoff, the lead astronomer in charge of SOLARPulse-1, it ‘skipped’ into our solar system. The first time our systems detected the spacecraft was inside the orbit of Pluto. The next time, inside the orbit of Mars. It hasn’t skipped since then. Maybe it can’t, now that it’s so close to the gravity well of the planets.”
“How is this possible?” asked a severe blond woman in a suit tailored in a classic London style. Apparently the fashion had come back around.
“That doesn’t matter,” Amon said. “What matters now is that we take steps to mitigate the problem.”
The dapper-looking gent on the left across from Amon leaned forward, setting his forearms down on a table in his own office that was higher than the level of the conference table, giving him the impression of leaning on air. “But where did it come from? Who’s piloting it?”
Amon took a deep breath and sighed. “All good questions.”
The man licked his lips and glanced around the room before speaking softly. “We heard of the incidents at Fisk Industries, including what happened to your wife. Her publications have been noticeably absent of certain details. Is this related?”
“That’s not been confirmed,” Amon said, filing away their detailed attention to his wife’s career for deeper examination later.
“Amon, you have every right to be protective, but please make an effort to cooperate,” General Wade said. “I already told you, nothing leaves this room. I promise. Now, tell us what you know. It could be important.”
Amon clenched his jaw. Eliana was still on Kakul. He didn’t want to say anything that could jeopardize her safe return. But they had him backed into a corner, and truthfully, he wanted to help. He built the Translocator, which led to all of this in the first place. He couldn’t escape his responsibility now.
“When my wife went to that other planet, she encountered an alien known as Xucha. The natives think he’s some kind of god. Whatever he is, he’s dangerous. He proved as much to us when he commandeered the Translocator and came to Earth through a wormhole for a brief period of time. He stole the star shard from the lab here.”
Someone let out a low whistle from between their teeth. All eyes were watching Amon intently now.
“During that…encounter, Eliana went back through the wormhole to Kakul. This alien took her. We were able to rescue her with the help of the native warriors, some of whom she befriended. The alien’s lair was located and destroyed in that mission. Of that much I am certain. I thought he was killed, but we never found a body. So it stands to reason that this spacecraft could belong to him.”
“The other thing we know for certain is the timetable,” General Wade said. “As Amon relayed, the spacecraft will reach Earth in eighteen hours. But we can’t afford to wait until that happens. Our deadline for a decision is thirteen hours from now. That’s 0800 tomorrow morning.
“How is that possible?”
Over a dozen pairs of eyes bore holes into Amon. He squirmed in his chair. Then they each turned away from the table and spoke to invisible people apparently standing behind them.
“What if the spacecraft is bringing an army?” the African man asked.
“What if it’s carrying a plague?” said the dapper gent.
“It could be carrying any number of things,” General Wade said in his cool drawl. “Let’s not create complications that don’t exist yet.”
“Do we have the capability to destroy it?” asked the blond woman in the London-style suit.
General Wade glanced at Major Bautista, who leaned forward and spoke for the first time. “Cruise missiles are in place and standing by. One of them is a nuclear device.”
General Wade looked back at Amon and Enzo. “Does the spacecraft have any weapons? Shields?”
“We don’t know,” Enzo said. “But I will try to find out.”
“Please do. I want to know everything we can,” General Wade said. “Speaking of which, Amon, I need you to do something else for us.”
“If your wife has any more information on this alien or his technology, we must know about it. You said she spent time with him, when she was being held captive.”
All eyes snapped to him. Amon bit the inside of his lower lip hard. With Eliana on the mission, he had been hoping to keep her out of this. Hadn’t he already put her life in enough danger? “She’s back on Kakul, sir. Doing more archaeological research. Her team isn’t scheduled to return for another week.”
“Amon,” General Wade said, rocking back in his chair slightly. “The fate of the world is at stake. Surely you can convince her to return early.”
Or let Earth get blown to smithereens and leave her safely on Kakul, he thought bitterly. Wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Amon glanced at Enzo as his stomach tied itself up in a complicated knot.
“Yes, sir,” Amon said, though he didn’t feel the certainty his words conveyed. “I’ll see what I can do.”