Saturday, October 31, 2015
(Author's Note: Had to use the words tunnel, measure, eyebrow, corporation and cuff in the story. They're all in there, I just haven't highlighted them like I did in the past. Here's the link to the Flash Fiction Friday site.)
The cruise ship, Ocean Wanderer was already docked at its Port Canaveral terminal when I arrived and still in the process of disembarking over two thousand irate passengers. The basis for their anger was that the ship was back in port three days early from what was supposed to be a week long Caribbean cruise.
As I walked up the gangway, many of the departing could be heard on their cell phones talking about suing the corporation that owned the ship. Their anger was reasonable given that the official reason for cutting the cruise short was an engine problem requiring immediate repairs. Had they known what really happened I could only guess at the panic that might have ensued.
“Mr. Jonathon Carter?” The man with bushy eyebrows and dressed in the white suit yelled from across the grand entrance lobby as I stepped onto the ship. I stopped and waited as he quickly threaded through the thinning crowd leaving the boat. “You are the federal agent sent to examine our shipboard problem? He asked leaning in close to me.
“Yeah,” I said being careful not to pull out my badge and ID and alert the departing passengers that something had gone gravely wrong while out at sea. “I'm guessing you must be Thomas Sullivan, the ship's purser.”
“Yes agent, the captain has instructed me to escort you to the cabin in question.”
Sullivan then did an almost military-style about face and began walking away. I followed behind and began checking out the surroundings along the way. Before the divorce, my now ex-wife and I did a lot of cruises but the Ocean Wanderer was one of the newer and very upscale ships people like me only saw on television. The designers had gone with the ultra modern look making the ship seem like something from a science fiction movie. My one off the cuff criticism though was that the passageways looked more like tight, foreboding tunnels.
I followed Sullivan for several long minutes trying to memorize all the twists and turns as we worked our way through the ship. As Sullivan and I approached the cabin in question I wondered how the crew had gotten the passengers out of this area without alerting them that a crime had been committed. I didn't have time to ask before Sullivan walked right up to the door and lightly tapped it three times.
Waiting inside for me was the ship's captain, Nathan Anfinson, and the safety officer, Catherine Hammon. The briefing I read on the drive down said Anfinson was in his early sixties and a retired veteran of the Swedish Navy. On first glance I could tell the life as a cruise ship captain agreed with him. Anfinson was tan, physically fit, and except for the pitifully thin array of gray hair on his head looked fifteen years younger than his actual age.
Catherine Hammon on the other hand looked like all sorts of trouble. My guess was that she was in her late-thirties, a few years younger than me, and with a body men would definitely kill for the chance to touch. While both Anfinson and Sullivan wore the official, and out of date white suit that was standard uniform for the cruise line, Hammon's version had obviously been tailored to fully display her body in all its glory. As a counterpoint to the uniform, her blond hair was neatly bundled up in professional style but that just had me imaging her pulling out a couple of pins and allowing it to freely fall about her shoulders.
Both Anfinson and Hammon shook my hand and then showed me the reason for my presence aboard the ship. Anfinson pulled back a blanket that had been thrown over the bed to reveal the body of Mr. Ernest Kenward. The murderer had tied Kenward's arms and legs to different corners of the bed then slit his throat. The silk sheets still gleamed with the look of the blood puddling around the body.
“Ms. Hammon,” I said, “the report you sent stated Mr. Cohen's companion, a Joanna Hilbert, discovered the body around three o'clock in the morning. The followup report also states that you allowed her to disembark just after docking. Can you explain why you allowed her to leave?”
“Agent Carter,” Hammon said in a sultry voice as smooth as silk, “you have to understand the nature of our cruise line. We cater to a select clientele who cherish their privacy. Mr. Kenward was an investment manager for a major American bank in New York and Ms. Hilbert is a federal judge. Given her stature and obvious reaction to Kenward's body I used my authority as chief security officer to released her. Given the trauma she endured, I can't imagine what might have happened had she been forced to stay any longer and answer questions that might humiliate in front of her colleagues.”
It didn't take a rocket scientist for me to recognize the implied warning. “Okay, your report also left out where Ms. Hilbert was during the time Mr. Kenward was murdered.”
Catherine Hammon just smiled, “She was being entertained elsewhere.” She said with a look that suggested far more than I was authorized ask.
The cabin was large and roomy, a given when you consider the abundant wealth of an investment manager, and even possessed a balcony allowing the privileged to sit outside and enjoy the ocean. “Captain Anfinson,” I said, “doesn't the Ocean Wanderer have an elaborate camera system that records the passengers in the corridors?”
“Yes Agent Carter, and we reviewed the tapes. It only shows an obviously drunk Mr. Kenward entering the cabin and no one else until Ms. Hilbert several hours later.”
I stepped around all three and walked over to the sliding glass doors. They were unlocked and easily slid open. I stepped out on the balcony and took some deep breaths “How about the camera system mounted on the side of the ship to detect someone falling overboard? No one on the bridge saw anyone climbing up or down the side of the ship to reach Mr. Kenward's cabin?”
Anfinson now looked obviously upset, “No agent, the system went down late yesterday and has yet to be repaired. Why are you asking questions that will embarrass my cruise line. The murder happened in international waters and the Ocean Wanderer is a ship registered to the nation of Panama. Our calling the FBI was just a courtesy, one you seem to take enjoyment in abusing.”
I admit Catherine Hammon was good, it took less than a minute for her to whip out a cell phone and dial my boss. He promptly reminded me about the nature of cruise ships and how the investigation of the murder was something the cruise line and government of Panama would have to pursue. I was new to the Port Canaveral area and had little expertise in how relations between the FBI and these foreign-registered cruise ships worked so I measured my next words carefully.
“I apologize Captain Anfinson, I meant no disrespect. Thank you for being patient and I will file your report just like I was briefed by my predecessor.” With that I allowed Sullivan to guide me back out.
That night I'm back in my apartment when I heard a knock on my door. It was after midnight and as a precaution, I reached over for my pistol. When I opened the door, I was somewhat surprised to see Catherine Hammon standing there wearing a silky black dress.
“You were good, Jonathon,” she said walking in, “even I almost believed you didn't know what was going on.”
“Well, this was the first time I had to cover for your kind, although you went a little overboard with all the animal blood on the bed. And at least I didn't ask whether or not there was any blood left in Kenward's body.” I said feeling my lust growing.
“Yes,” Catherine said as she casually pulled loose the straps on her dress and let it drop to the floor. “Anfinson is a good man who is easily managed, I wouldn't want anything unfortunate happening to him, or you.”
She then rushed towards me and we kissed. It was pure animalistic passion devoid of any higher emotion. When we finally broke apart she smiled and I could see that her upper and lower fangs were exposed.
“You might want to call in sick tomorrow morning, Jon,” she said smiling like a wolf. “We're going to have a busy night.”
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Idle Speculations on Alien Intelligence and the star KIC 8462852.
This is just a personal observation subject to error but as someone far more interested in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) than the average person I have noticed something over the last few years. While all the excellent and totally professional science guys and gals still say we are only now reaching the technological level that could allow us to gleam an artificial signal out of all the normal background static I sometimes detect a hint of uncertainty in their voices concerning their research.
Don't misunderstand me, I totally support SETI and do believe that our galaxy does host some number of intelligent, technological advanced alien species. The chief debate to me centers on just how many stars have planets that can spawn and then support for extended periods of time lifeforms that evolve into intelligent creatures. Current research suggests habitable planets are plentiful but whether or not the circumstances that allow intelligence to evolve and then survive are common is still a huge unknown.
For further, and sadly, just as needed clarification. NO, I do not put any stock in all the UFO reports and alien abduction stories that have made it to the popular media over the last fifty to sixty years. On the rare occasions I get to have an reasonable conversation about the possibility of intelligent alien life, someone nearly always chimes in about Roswell, Area 51, or some other tripe about UFO's and the government covering up their existence.
As much as I dream of manned interstellar flight being possible, right now it looks incredibly hard and so expensive it would take a truly prolonged global effort to pay for the project and build. We naked primates are still fighting over religion and whose nation is most special, the idea of us working together to cross the distance between stars is lubricious. Of course, a totally unexpected and out-of-left-field technological breakthrough could change the equation but that is just wishful thinking on my part.
Getting back on point, it seems some of the SETI folks are getting a little worried. For the last twenty years or so we have been scanning huge swaths of the galaxy and millions of frequencies and except for periodic false alarms and the rare and mysterious burp that doesn't repeat, come up with nothing. This has lead some in the biological sciences to suggest that complex life might be quite rare. They point out that while Earth has been around for over 4 billion years it was only 542 million years ago during the Cambrian Explosion that complex life appeared in the fossil record. Before that, all the evidence suggests that life on this planet was limited to single-cell organisms. These “Rare Earth” types argue that there are a complex array of interlocking conditions required before life can move beyond simple organisms and that if you remove a few from the equation further development is stymied.
Even if some complex organisms on an alien world evolves into an intelligent species there is a whole host of different disasters that might drive them extinct before reaching the technological point where they can hope to make their presence known to the wider galaxy. The late, and great, Carl Sagan speculated that all intelligent species might go through a cultural adolescence where their moral and ethical development is outpaced by their technological abilities. In short, they might nuke themselves into oblivion over inconsequential things like religion, nationalistic bullshit, resources, or whose penis is bigger.
(Important side note: Let me go on the record to state I not just talking about us arrogant Americans. At least here in the United States many of us blow off this “Exceptionalism” bullshit. I frankly find Russians more obnoxious with their ethnic based belief that their shit doesn't stink which is made worse by the chip they perpetually carry on their shoulder. It also appears that the Chinese harbor grand ideas of taking charge of the world and get quite upset when everyone doesn't go along with what they consider promotes harmony, which they define as anything that advances their national interests.)
It was the author and astrophysicist David Brin who in his book Existence upped the ante on intelligent species survival by mentioning there are a multitude of cosmic booby traps just waiting to cause an extinction level event for the members of any unwary civilization. These traps ranged from the known threats of a major asteroid or comet impact to being too close to a star going supernova or a passing neutron star. He also included “man-made” disasters such as a genetically created pandemic, the release of nano-sized robots that consume all matter, to climate disaster, which might be the one that already has our name.
Despite the fact that I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his buddy Bill Nye I highly disagree with their skepticism when it comes to talk about the near-term human colonization of Mars. They tend to think colonization requires a planet with a breathable atmosphere, and while that would be nice such worlds are in short supply in our solar system. I would much rather deal with domed or underground cities on Mars if it meant the survival of the human race in the face of some man-made extinction event.
Long story short, when you take into consideration all the possible disasters-- or filters-- awaiting to befall intelligent species not only do they need to damn near be saints but extremely lucky as well to survive much beyond our current technological level. None of this bodes well for us humans looking to find other intelligent life in our galaxy.
Just speaking for myself, I was quite happy to hear last week that researches have spotted a strange star that does something none of the science types have ever seen before. The star, KIC 8462852, located about 1400 lightyears away dims in way never seen in any of the other stars observed by the famous Kepler orbiting telescope.
The Kepler space observator was designed to monitor the brightness of stars and detect when a body, such as a planet passes in front. Since its launch, the Kepler spacecraft has detected over a thousand confirmed exoplanets with some believed to be close to the size of Earth and orbit in the habitable zone of their parent star where water could exist as a liquid.
In the case of KIC 8462852 what has everyone buzzing is that Kepler detected two massive dips in the brightness of the star roughly every 750 days. One dimming event blocked up to 15 percent of the star's brightness with a later event blocked up to 22 percent. These changes in brightness are consistent with many small masses orbiting the star in tight formation. One thing seems to be clear, that whatever is causing this bizarre event is not a planet. Something the size of our Jupiter would only block 1 percent of our star's light. Whatever is blocking the light of KIC 8462852 is covering half the width of the star.
The overwhelming possibility of what we are seeing is either a cloud of disintegrating comets, essentially a bunch of massive balls of ice and dirty involved in a cosmic-level traffic pileup. Or a recently captured asteroid field kind of like the one Han Solo had to navigate through to escape the clutches of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.
KIC 8462852 does have a close by stellar companion that might have stirred up the cloud of comets that surround all stars, sending them crashing inward and after 1400 years of its light traveling our way screw with H. sapien astronomers here on Earth desperate to make a first contact with aliens. And while we believe it to be an older star it's possible KIC 8462852 is actually young and still has a lot of primordial junk floating around it. For this one I guess the best analogy would be your average teenager's room.
There is another possibility that is only barely mentioned in passing and only half seriously. What we might be seeing is evidence of an artificial construction called a Dyson Sphere. The idea being that stars put out a lot of free energy and that if an advanced race built a shell around it they could collect all that light and use it for some super advanced purpose.
Needless to say, I hope we have found evidence of an alien civilization that has somehow found a way to survive all the natural and self-inflicted wounds an uncaring universe can throw on an intelligent lifeform. I'm not looking for some event that knocks humanity out of its tried and true combination of ignorance and apathy. Just a flicker of some awareness that we are not alone in the universe could be enough to defer our appointment with extinction.
One final note, as of this writing the Allen Telescope Array is even now scanning KIC 8462852 for signs of artificially generated radio signals. No, I'm not optimistic but when you're playing this type of game patience is a vital element in this research.
For further reading see: Popular Science-Have We Just Detected Megastructures Built By Aliens Around A Distant Star.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
(Author's notes: Jump over to the Flash Fiction Friday website and read the other, better crafted stories. The theme this week was broken promises.)
Make no mistake, Captain Jeffery Hawthorne was an incompetent dick. I first met the guy during the final phase of ROTC out at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was part of a group of over two-hundred cadets being run ragged by the most sadistic collection of NCO's and commissioned officers ever to wear an army uniform. Before the first week was over thirty of the cadets had quit from either injuries or simple fear of the staff. I almost quit twice myself figuring I'd rather deal with the nightmarish complications of failing than have to go through one more day of such demeaning and dangerous behavior by the instructors.
It didn't take long for those of us working together to survive that Hawthorne somehow seemed immune to all the crap coming down on our heads. On those rare occasions when the instructors would actually give us a few hours to rest it was damn near normal to see Hawthorne walking around still looking like a fresh, clean flower while the rest of us were dead tired with our bodies and uniforms caked in mud or something worse. It didn't take much to realize that Hawthorne had the type of personality that allowed him to bullshit his way out if nearly all the instructors had planned for us. Making matters worse, Hawthorne could even shuck and jive a good number of fellow cadets into doing what dirty, strenuous, or monotonous work did come his way.
As anyone who has ever encountered such person could guess, Hawthorne had those dubious combinations of good looks, extreme but easy-going charisma, and slightly above average intelligence that allowed him to pretty much write whatever ticket he wanted in life. It didn't take to long before someone learned that Hawthorne came from a rich and well connected Georgia family hoping to break into the realm of politics and the easiest way to do that was have one family member join the military. The fact that Jeffery was the vanguard of such dynastic aspirations actually made me question my commitment to serving in the armed forces.
Yeah, the rest of us loathed Hawthorne but quite frankly we didn't have time to do much about it other than harbor a smoky hatred and hope the bastard fell down a deep but camouflaged hole in the ground. It all seemed beside the point once we graduated. For the most part we went our separate ways, as much as you can in the United States Army, with the new Second Lieutenant Jeffery Hawthorne utterly disappearing as if he was just some figment of our collective sleep-depraved imaginations. All that changed for me two years later when my platoon sergeant walked into the tiny office I shared with fellow First Lieutenant Nathan Riggs, a survivor of that awful period out at Fort Knox.
By that time Nathan and I were platoon officers in the 4th Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Tanner, Texas. A nice place if you liked desolate prairie that was broiling hot in the summer and Siberia-like in the winter. Throw in the occasion rainstorm and on the warmer days we all got to play in waist deep mud for up to a month.
“Hey Lieutenant Bryant,” SFC Taylor said coming in and sitting down in a chair next my desk, “just got word from battalion who our next CO is going to be, and I believe you might know him.”
Sergeant First Class Mike Taylor was probably the best NCO I had ever met in my short career but he often treated me like a slightly mentally deficient kid brother, which irritated they crap out of me. Truthfully, I realized that was generally how all platoon sergeants thought of their lieutenants but I still didn't like it.
“What's the guy's name?” I asked with the faces of about ten to fifteen guys quickly running through my head.
“His name is Captain Jeffery Hawthorne and if I remember correctly he graduated from ROTC about the same time you did.” Taylor said absentmindedly while grabbing a copy of the Army Times newspaper off my desk.
Not only did I almost fall out of my chair upon hearing that news. My stomach turned so abruptly I about puked up the macaroni salad and turkey sandwich I had for lunch less than an hour before in the mess hall. Several hours later Nathan and I were sitting on the little patio balcony of my apartment chugging down cheap beer and wondering about the nature of a cruel universe.
“How in the hell did the slimy bastard make captain before either of us?” Nathan said finishing off another bottle of Rolling Rock beer.
“Connections my friend,” I said feeling the slightest tingling of an alcohol induced buzz “our great nation may not be as corrupt and despotic as say Russia or Nigeria or any other second rate country but we're trying.”
“Seth, you know Hawthorne is a disaster waiting to happen. He's going to get people killed.” Nathan said to me with a dire look on his face. “Dude, he continued, “given what we already know about the guy we've got to promise each other to expose him if people die for his incompetence.”
“Damn straight,” I said as I gently put a now finished bottle on the floor beside fifteen other of his empty comrades. Somehow I slightly knocked that bottle over causing a chain reaction of all the others to fall down like bowling pins. The alcohol running through my system almost allowed me to ignore the possible allegory to our future.
Fifteen months later we're all in Afghanistan with the battalion broken up occupying little outposts on top of mountains. For most of our deployment us and the Taliban had an unspoken agreement, they halfheartedly attack us twice a day and with the exception of patrols we didn't willingly bother the local too much. This arrangement worked too, until intel got word that a new guy had taken over as leader of the Taliban units in our area. This fellow had same commitment to God as a preacher I knew back in my home state of South Carolina. So no one will misunderstand me, I considered that a bad thing.
It was a Tuesday when the shit absolutely hit the fan. The Taliban decided to assault the outpost where Nathan's and my platoons were located. Twenty minutes into the battle it was clear that their intention was to overrun the place and everyone of my fellow Americans knew what would happen if they did.
Making matters worse good old Captain Jeffery Hawthorne had picked that day to visit. Up until then the little weasel had holed up exclusively at Headquarters making his presence known through daily inspirational speeches over the radio. For reasons none of us ever could figure out about a week before he had started flying to the mountain outposts to visit. I guess for photo-ops and to shake a few hands for his future political campaigns. Truthfully things had been going good for the guy. Our deployment had just passed the halfway mark and with an experienced First Sergeant to back him up Hawthorne hadn't yet made a fool of himself or our unit until then.
Forty minutes into the attack the mortars and RPG's started pounding and everyone of our guys were either at their positions or running ammo. When the two guys tasked with resupplying ammo to the others in my platoon were taken out I took up the job. That was when I saw Nathan, he had caught a round in the chest and while he had a couple of medics working on him there was just too much blood soaking the ground underneath his body.
The Apaches gunships flew in at the last minute and ended the siege. As the bodies and injuries were being counted I found Captain Hawthorne inside one of the bunkers underneath a table. The smell of piss and shit signifying his actions during the battle. I wanted to kill him but my better judgment only allowed me to cut the bastard down his face and forcing him to promise to leave the army once we returned home.
When we returned to the States I left the army myself. I never realized it during the worst of the battle but a piece of shrapnel had gone through my left knee and while it seemed minor it had nicked several tendons and they eventually popped due to the wear and tear. The operations to repair them was a bitch and because I would never get full use of my left knee I jumped at the chance to return to civilian life.
After that I tuned out from the world and left it all behind me. I rode a motorcycle across the country, joined the crew of a fishing boat in Alaska, and eventually made my way down to Costa Rica to work at one of those high class resorts Americans and Europeans like to go for that rain forest experience without forgoing full service spas and room service. That was when I learned about Jeffery Hawthorne's senate campaign.
I immediately wanted to kill Hawthorne out of simple spite. But I had begun to build a real life in a place that made me happy and it was stupid to do anything that might threaten this existence. Of course, I soon remembered my promise to Nathan, that I would expose Hawthorne as the incompetent and cowardly fool if he got people killed. The fact that Nathan had been my best friend pushed me over the edge. I was on a flight a couple of days later, whether it was just to expose Hawthorne or kill him was something I hadn't yet decided.
I arrived in Atlanta with a campaign rally already in progress. As luck or fate would have it I bumped into an attractive campaign worker and began talking with her. Somehow I let it slip that I had served in Afghanistan with Hawthorne and the next thing I know she is introducing me to the bastard's mother.
“I have no idea what Jeffery went through in that godforsaken country, but he was a changed man after leaving the service.” His mother confided in me as if I didn't already know. She was clearly from one of those aristocratic Southern families who obsess over such things as heritage and history. She smelled of old money and privilege and I hated every part of her down to the DNA in her cells.
“Jeffery's father and I had such high hopes for him,” she continued. “We had already lined up millions in campaign funds and all he had to do was agree to help our longtime friends. But the ungrateful twit rejected all that, he said he was going to chart a different course for himself and that he would do it alone if forced. Never since the day he was born did he show such a backbone, of course my husband washed his hands of the boy but I found Jeffery's change refreshing. You know he actually wants to help the workers and immigrants and says we've been all wrong about poor people. Poor Jeffery almost sounds like a Roosevelt socialist my grandfather use to rail against.
“What brought about this change?” I asked actually quite puzzled for a moment.
“It was something in Afghanistan,” his mother whispered as if she was talking about a disabled child. “He doesn't actually come out and say what happened but whenever he talks about charting a different and better course for himself I always see him touching that scar running down his face.”
I stayed a few more minutes but eventually slipped out before Hawthorne's mother forced me to see him. I know what I had promised Nathan but somehow that didn't seem to matter anymore. The war in Afghanistan was a huge cluster fuck and would continue that way for decades to come. It had killed and wounded far too many good and decent people, both locals and Americans. But somehow it seems one man walked out of the place changed for the better and I felt he should have a chance to make the most of that new perspective.
Sunday, October 11, 2015
(Author's notes: This is the second attempt at Star Trek fan fiction using characters I have created. The first story, "Out of the Darkness", seemed okay after near countless hours of me fixing the damn thing. Unfortunately, since this went far longer than I wanted it's part one of a multi-part story.)
The Freedom-class starships that served during the Dominion War can directly trace their linage back to the similar Saladin-class vessels first constructed by Starfleet in the early 2240s. Designated as destroyers meant to provide cover for larger Starfleet ships in times of conflict, Saladin-class vessels proved extremely versatile for planetary survey, short to mid-range exploration, and convoy security missions in unsecured sectors of Federation space. However it was during the Four-Years War between the Federation and the Klingon Empire that the Saladin and her sister ships proved their worth by being able to take heavy damage and continue on with their missions. For that reason alone the basic Saladin design has seen only relatively minor changes from its initial construction to the Freedom-class. The chief design upgrades starting in the late twenty-third century, were the elimination of the main deflector and the adoption of navigational shields along with far superior off-axis maneuvering field generators.
Like their predecessors, Freedom-class starships were able to blunt numerous Klingon attacks during the short but intense conflict of 2372. Klingon K'vort and Tha'linn-class light cruisers (both Birds-of-Prey designed ships) were totally ineffective when they faced Freedom-class vessels. During the Dominion War though, Freedom and her sister ships took heavy losses against both Jem'Hadar fighters and Cardassian gunboats armed with Dominion weapons allowing them to breakthrough and attack the heavier Starfleet and allied vessels they were supposed to protect. It took Starfleet months to develop countermeasures and defensive upgrades before they were able to meet the enemy on equal terms.
After the end of the Dominion War the Freedom-class vessels, along with nearly every other space-worthy Federation and allied ship, no matter how small or lightly armed, found themselves occupying numerous Cardassian star systems and facilities. All in an effort to contain any possible rogue elements or outside force from gaining access to to enough resources and ships to restart a war even the Klingons were happy had ended.
Mandith System, deep inside Cardassian space
7.2 lightyears away from the Cardassian homeworld
“Occupation duty is vilest and most degrading type of service you can ask any Starfleet officer to perform.” Commander Mya Farias exclaimed from the operations duty station situated beside Lieutenant Joshua Curtis who was manning the helm of the Freedom-class, USS Justice.
“That may be the case commander,” Captain Ubaid Sallem said sitting in the command chair, “but I would rather avoid anyone getting their appendages on all the weapons stored at these shipyards. The Orion Syndicate alone is crazy enough to attempt a raid ”
On the main bridge viewscreen was a constantly updating tactical display of the Mandith system. At the center was the system's only star, a dim and unremarkable red dwarf orbited by two Class-K, Mars-like planets and a couple of billion kilometers beyond them, a Class-T super gas giant. What made the Mandith system vital to the Cardassians during the war and important enough for Starfleet to secure now that the conflict was over was the massive asteroid belt between the inner and outer portions of the star system. Consisting of thousands of proto-planets rich in vital strategic metals, the Cardassians had long ago built huge shipyards in the system along with other facilities including weapons factories and dilithium crystal extraction plants to take advantage of the resources.
With the successful allied invasion of the Cardassian homeworld, the Mandith system was quickly taken since the only real personnel left were military support and thousands of civilians living in the giant habitat cylinders. Cardassian resistance forces were in nominal control of everything but the Federation and Klingons had about a thousand Marines and warriors scattered in all the facilities making sure no one in the previous Dominion-allied regime attempted anything. Securing the system were three Starfleet vessels, the Justice, and two Steamrunner-class ships, the Hummingbird and Kraken.
“Any idea when Starfleet will redeploy or reassign us?” Curtis asks without taking his eyes away from his station.
“That's easy,” Captain Sallem said, “as soon as the allies stabilize the Cardassian homeworld including making sure the new government has control of most its territory. The Klingons, Romulans, and us want the Cardassians to stay a major player in galactic affairs. With the Breen still a mystery and the possibility the Dominion might sneak back through the Bajoran wormhole, no one wants a lot of fragmented space and disgruntled former Cardassian military types without something to do. No one is stupid enough to cut them all loose, while there will be exceptions it's far better to embrace as many of our former enemies as possible. Were we to completely wash away the old regime and try to rebuild Cardassian society would be playing occupier for decades. At least the way the allies and the Cardassian provisional government are trying to work it, our stay will be considerably shorter than if we try the alternative, ”
“So in other words,” the Lieutenant said, “we're here until they tell us not to be, which could be awhile.”
“That about covers it.” The captain said grinning.
“Captain,” The Vulcan tactical officer, Ensign T'roe said suddenly breaking the easy going mood of the bridge crew, “incoming transmission to all Starfleet vessels from the central civilian habitat, it's Gul Burrid and General Kartan.”
Ubaid Sallem frowned, Gul Burrid, a Cardassian captain in the resistance was also the provisional leader of all the system's civilian habitats and had told Starfleet that he wanted to keep some distance between him and the occupying forces to avoid looking like a puppet. If he was making a system wide call to Starfleet ships something quite bad was about to happen. Given that Burrid was making the announcement with Kartan, the Klingon commander of all the marines and warriors stationed on the facilities only made the situation worse.
As soon as Gul Burrid signaled the beginning of his transmission, Ensign T'roe switched the main viewer over to him. “To all Starfleet vessels, my security detail stopped an attempt to disable all the facility defenses in the Mandith system. The culprits were captured and after a search of their quarters and property we have determined they were agents for insurgents tied to the old Dominion-controlled regime. While the facility defenses are under our control and still functional in twenty-four hours three Keldon-class battleships and three Galor-class cruisers will arrive in an attempt to steal weapons supplies and even as many of the fifty unmanned and powered down warships currently in the Mandith system. General Kartan has already signaled the joint allied commands stationed around Cardassia Prime and informed them of our immediate need for massive reinforcements. Until they arrive we are on our own, but this system must not fall to the insurgents. As provisional director of the Mandith system I am prepared to enable the general self-destruct of all system wide facilities. Given the nature of how the shipyards, factories, and civilian habitats are constructed it would mean the deaths of over sixty-two thousand Cardassian civilians.”
Gul Burrid fell silent for several seconds and just looked at the camera. Showing Cardassians have a talent for understatement he added one last part. “This war has caused enough deaths, I'd rather avoid detonating the power cores and adding that number to the butcher's bill.”
General Kartan then took over looking severely grim in the face of yet another battle and what it meant if the insurgents gained access to the weapons and unmanned ships. “Captain Sallem, given the tactical superiority of your ship you are in overall command defending the space around the established facilities. I'll lead the marines and warriors and try to slow the insurgents down once they transport over to their intended targets. None of my warriors mind dying captain, but I rather not take any civilians with me and the other under my command. You know even going at maximum warp we'll have to hold the system for close to three hours before we can expect relief.”
“Understood general,” Sallem said, “we'll make it work.”
The viewscreen then went blank and the bridge of the Justice was quiet. It was Lieutenant Joshua Curtis who finally broke the silence. “If the insurgents get even ten of those unmanned ships they could restart the war.”
“That's their entire plan.” Captain Sallem said as he pushed a button on his command chair. “All hands this is the captain go to red alert and battle stations.”
Sallem caught Commander Mya Farias looking at him, while showing visible concern was out of the question he knew her well enough to know what was going through her head. Given the three Cardassian battleships and three heavy cruisers on their way to the Mandith star system the ships Starfleet had on hand didn't stand a chance.
Commander Connor Douglas stepped back from working on a field-deployable replicator and looked up to see what seemed a never ending line of Cardassian survivors patiently waiting for their small daily ration of food and water.
“Here's the problem Ensign Hasegawa,” he said handing the junior officer the burnt out transitional relay, “all the toxins in the source material are overloading replicator's ability to break them down. They buildup in the phase coils until the transitional relays overload. Might want to have the ship send down a couple of dozen extras and immediately have the old ones rebuilt.”
“Aye sir,” the young officer said before rushing off to the local Tactical Operation Center to have Douglas' orders implemented.
All around Connor hundreds of Starfleet personnel and Federation Marines were scrambling to feed and keep order in an attempt to prevent anymore death. A battalion of the Starfleet Corp of Engineers were stretched thin clearing rubble and building medical stations and temporary housing for Cardassian survivors. Medical personnel were either treating the injured or making the dying comfortable in their last few moments. It was utter chaos on a scale that defied the imagination of most civilized beings. And that was just in Connor's area of responsibility, some places on the planet were far worse.
It was noontime in the city of Pogar, at least what was left of it after the Jem'Hadar had followed the orders of their Changeling masters and began to lay waste to the Cardassian homeworld once the planet-wide resistance became so widespread and open that their control was in real jeopardy.
Most of Pogar was in ruins with smoke still rising from many of the hundreds of burnt and shattered high rise buildings. What was worse for the survivors though was that the Jem'Hadar troops had paid special attention to the city's power, medical, water, and waste reprocessing facilities making sure they were utterly destroyed. For a city with a prewar population of over fifteen million the destruction of the supporting civil infrastructure amounted to an attempt at genocide. Throw in the all the hazardous chemicals released from the fires and Pogar was the epitome of an Apocalyptic wasteland. The environmental situation was so bad Starfleet Command had issued orders for all planet-side personnel to wear hazard suits as well as breathing filters.
The terms of surrender forced all Dominion and Breen forces off Cardassia immediately, not that they wanted to stay around, they were on the verge of being massacred by an enraged population. On the other hand that left it to the allies to pick up the shattered pieces. Jem'Hardar forces were still in the process of leaving when relief and reconstructions teams began to be deployed. Despite the best efforts of everyone it was taking all the resources Starfleet, the Klingons, and even the Romulans could muster to stop the slide to utter collapse.
Connor had seen holographic displays of what the city looked like years before during that all too short a peaceful period between the end of the First Cardassian War and the start of the Dominion conflict. It had been a sparkling jewel situated by the Krill ocean, a place of sophisticated arts and sciences. Now most of its surviving population had been reduced to just this side of savagery with former enemies doing everything in their power to save them.
The formal surrender of both the Dominion and Cardassian forces may have ended the devastating armed conflict that engulfed much of the galaxy. But to Connor it was clear that like in all previous conflicts the innocent were going to have to pay the price for the few who started the war. A bit of bile rose up in Connor's stomach as he remembered reading about how his own species had once justified war because of all the technological progress it brought never once thinking of all the innocent men, women, and children it killed in the process.
A chirp from his combadge forced Connor back to the present. “Connor here,” he said after tapping the device located on the left side of his uniform.
“Commander,” the voice said coming tiny speaker, “ this is Chief Huang at the TOC, priority incoming message from Captain Thrawn for your eyes and ear only.”
“Acknowledged chief, I'm on my way.” Douglas answered breaking into a run wondering what in the name of the Great Bird of the Galaxy had gone wrong now.
Connor arrived at the perimeter of the TOC ten minutes later but was forced to wait as a marine sentry did the required security scan before letting him inside. The prefab building was one of the first things constructed on site as the recovery efforts quickly ramped up. Insider were over two dozen Starfleet and marine personnel coordinating efforts in the area surrounding Pogar city. From the moment it had become fully operational, it had immediately went to a full twenty-seven hour Cardassia day work schedule with all indication the pace would only get worse before things even hinted at getting better.
While Starfleet personnel from the lowest enlisted to the most senior admiral on site would have bristled at being called a military occupation force with the Cardassians considered a defeated enemy, commonsense still required that certain operations be classified. One of those operations included high-level communications that had to be received in a secure environment.
After being cleared to enter the TOC, Connor proceeded to the second floor of the building and entered a small room. To Connor, all the skulduggery was taking vital moments away from him receiving the message but he had to figure that if the odorous organic waste had hit the air recirculation and filtration device Captain Thrawn would have had him beam over to his current location.
The small room was actually a type of holodeck and within seconds an entirely different location coalesced around Connor. The image that took shape was of a large office dominated by an impressively carved table with his Andorian captain the lone person sitting at it. Behind him were several windows showing another shattered city. Connor immediately recognized it as the Cardassian capital where his captain was assisting diplomatic negotiations in establishing a new government for their former enemy.
“Captain Thrawn,” Connor said, “I'm afraid this has to be extremely bad news to pull me away from relief efforts but I'm at a loss as to why you didn't have the Saratoga just beam me to you.”
“You're correct Connor,” Thrawn said, “but this situation requires I talk with you personally, if you can call a holo-conference such a thing. First thing, the Federation State Department has offering me the position of ambassador to Cardassia and I have accepted. Of course given the current situation, this means I will be relinquishing my command of the Saratoga immediately. Secondly, I have recommended to Starfleet Command that they promote you to the rank of captain and that, naturally, you assume command of our ship. You have been with her from the moment she first left dry dock and through the long repair and refit after the Battle of the Tyra System. You have shed enough blood on the Saratoga's decks that you might as well consider it a blood relation.”
Connor held up his hand,”What do you mean current situation captain?” He asked feeling as if Thrawn was about to reveal the real reason the formal ceremonies associated with a major change in command were going to be skipped.
“The Cardassian in charge of the Mandith system, a little over seven lightyears away from here, has learned that rogue elements of the previous regime are en route and are going to to try and seize the fifty deactivated warships currently sitting in dry dock. If they capture even a small number of those warships and can establish an independent government, it will throw our section of the galaxy back into chaos. It is believed they will arrive in about twenty-four standard hours and given the distance from here to Mandith our forces will have to hold the system for at least three hours before reinforcements can arrive. Starfleet is now organizing a relief force and it will leave within minutes. Your first mission as captain of the Saratoga will be as part of that armada.”
Thrawn hesitated for a second before he continued and Connor knew this last piece of news would be the worst. “Connor, there are only three starships holding the system, two Steamrunner-class starships and the USS Justice.”
Connor tried to ignore the news that is former fiance and former best friend were about to engage in a near hopeless battle. But Thrawn had served around humans long enough to see the look of shock and concern on his friend's face.
“I know my duty as a Starfleet officer, Captain Thrawn,” Connor said. “And I'll make sure the Saratoga and her crew live up to those standards.”
The meeting with Thrawn ended abruptly without the two men saying any other words. Time and circumstance just wouldn't allow that luxury. Connor just left the small holographic conference room and exited the building. Standing outside of the TOC, Connor Douglas gave himself a moment to organize his thoughts. He had joined Starfleet to explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations, not prattle about playing the same game that almost drove humans extinct back on Earth. It was there he made a promise to himself, that after this last battle he would do everything possible to see his ship returned to that mission.
“Saratoga,” Connor said after tapping his combadge, “this is Captain Douglas, beam me up to Transporter Room One and prepare all hands for emergency departure.”
|What Cardassians look like.|
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
While some people around this poor misbegotten planet, mostly stupid Americans, still want to debate the facts about human-induced climate change, there are a few groups trying to limit the overall damage our species is causing. One group at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are using the National Sea Simulator to manually breed enhanced corals that can survive in an ocean damaged by the effects of climate change.
Their chief worry is the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef located just off the northeast coast of Queensland, for the geographically impaired that is one of the states of making up the Commonwealth of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef is quite frankly the largest living thing on Earth. It stretches 2300 kilometers long and is made up of thousands of reefs and hundreds of islands made up of over 600 types of hard and soft coral. The number of species that are connected to that ecosystem is probably incalculable ranging from various jellyfish and other mollusks to cephalopods, along with all manner of sharks, and marine mammals.
Despite it obvious importance to the health of the planet over the last twenty-seven years half of the coral cover has died from various reasons with climate change being one of the chief factors in its destruction. However over the next five years the scientists working at the National Sea Simulator are going breed corals that can withstand the stress caused by warmer temperatures and increased oceanic acidity.
Using several of the thirty-three tanks at the facility they will alter the salinity, temperature, and pH in the water to see which of the coral test subjects can adapt to the changing environment. A few of the tanks will even be setup to simulate the oceanic conditions we will almost certainly face at the end of the twenty-first century. The specimens most tolerate the worsening conditions will then be crossbreed with others down the years to further strength them, a process called “Assisted Evolution.”
It goes without saying that some are troubled with the idea of breeding “supercorals” that just might overrun the unaltered native species. Yeah, there are plenty of examples of humans, with the best intentions, totally screwing things up beyond all recognition. But the fact remains that climate change will more than likely wipe out the vast majority of the world's coral reefs, even if our species magically woke up tomorrow morning and ended all use of fossil fuels. Not only has the proverbial bus left the freaking station but the bridges of commonsense have been long burned.
Not to sound alarmist, but realizing that is how this will come off, those fighting to mitigated climate change are now just trying to prevent a global holocaust with the human species a possible victim of its own shortsightedness. So I have no trouble with a few decent people trying to save one of the living wonders of the planet. This is now not just a race against reef extinction but of Homo sapiens as well.
At 135,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef reigns as the world's largest living structure. Located off the northeastern coast of Australia, it houses more than 600 species of coral and thousands of other types of marine animals, too. Yet the reef's future looks bleak. In the 27 years from 1985 to 2012, half of its coral cover vanished. A significant proportion of the loss is attributable to climate change, which has strengthened destructive tropical cyclones and made surrounding waters warmer and more acidic. Conservation efforts alone, including protected zones and water-quality improvements, will not do the job. To further combat coral loss, marine biologists at a new research facility in Australia, called the National Sea Simulator (above), have devised a more radical approach: they are manually breeding supercorals capable of living in the increasingly inhospitable sea.
Monday, October 5, 2015
The phone started ringing a few minutes after two o'clock in the morning. Jack Harper immediately woke up but just stared at the landline phone silently cursing the old girlfriend whose suggestion it had been to add a 24/7 emergency contact number on both his website and yellow page listing. She had been a blond television reporter working at one of the local Denver stations. Despite being an excellent television journalist most of her colleagues at the station thought her ability to draw viewers came from her piercing green eyes and superbly athletic body. This conspiracy of small-minded and jealous people lead to her being assigned light, human interest stories that did nothing for her career. Jack never admitted to anyone, including himself, but their relationship for him had long moved beyond her obvious physical qualities and talents between the sheets.
It still hurt that they had parted ways after she received a lucrative job offer at a television station down in sunny Miami. She left Jack and cold and snowy Denver behind so fast it caused the windchill factor to drop an extra ten degrees that winter morning.
For the two years after she had driven off to pursue her career while enjoying colorful drinks and tropical breezes the only phone calls Jack got were from cranks trying to be funny and more than a few drunks who for some reason thought the number was for a taxi service. Several times Jack thought about having the line removed but only while busy doing other things, and of course during those idle moments the task completely escaped his mind.
After ten rings the answering machine picked up and played the message Jack had recorded telling the caller to leave their name and number and that he would get back to them shortly. Jack continued to look at the compact device sitting on his nightstand with a combination of indifference and slight irritation waiting for the caller to say something. Even though the line remained open allowing him to hear background noises that suggested a major highway was nearby the caller said nothing. Just before Jack was about to hit the button that would sever the connection the caller spoke.
“Hello...Mr. Harper you don't know me but my name is Carol Briggs and I found your number in the phone book and I desperately need your help.” After years of being a private investigator Jack could tell this Carol was scared and probably alone. After making the first statement she fell silent again creating an eerie state of tension with Jack unconsciously moving closer to the phone. Something inside Jack's mind loudly whispered to him that this woman was indeed in great danger.
“My family,” she began again, “went missing eight days ago and now I know someone is after me. For reasons I can't explain over the phone I don't trust the police so I ran but I need help. Please pick up, I know my life is in danger.”
Without really thinking about it, Jack snatched the remote phone off the main answering machine portion of the device. “Yeah, this is Jack Harper. Where are you now?” He asked while creating a mental checklist of things to bring to meet this woman.
“Thank God,” Carol Briggs said breathlessly. “I'm at an abandoned gas station off Interstate 25 near Heritage Hills.” She then went on to tell Jack the number of the exit she took to leave the interstate.
“Please tell me you're talking from a pay phone.” Jack said accepting the woman's statement that she was being followed and that her life was in danger.
“Yes, and I've parked my car behind the station.”
“Great, I'm on the way but it will take me close to an hour to get to your location. Now this is going to sound crazy and I know it's cold but I want you to find another place to hide nearby. I'll be driving a blue Mustang and I'll blink my lights after I pull into the parking area. Don't expose yourself until I get out of the car.”
To Carol, the truck stop diner Jack brought her to was like something from the family vacations she and her siblings suffered through as children. Instead of her family going to such places like Disney World or other huge theme parks her father and mother took their three children on long road trips exploring every cheesy roadside attraction and state park they encountered. Likewise, they would invariably stop at seedy little diners to eat while mom and dad sat together plotting some new course towards another bizarre but boring destination. Carol could still feel the childhood resentment at being hauled around hundreds of back roads, but now as an adult she actually missed those times.
Several minutes passed before the waitress showed up to serve some much needed coffee and to take their order. For whatever reason the waitress seemed intent in engaging Carol in small talk despite the fact it should have been clear to a blind person that she clearly didn't want to be bothered with idle conversation. This allowed Jack a moment to ponder the differences between the two women.
The waitress looked like a true long-time food service warrior. Jack figured she was in her mid-forties and given the ease she poured his coffee without spilling a drop while listening to Carol give her food order she had probably worked here for at least a decade. A wide but lackluster smile totally devoid of feeling along with tired and haunted eyes all but confirmed her life had been a long, weary struggle.
On the other hand, Carol Briggs basic appearance, if you discounted the recent turn of events, screamed mindless but ultimately an unremarkable and mundane suburban life. She was in her mid to late thirties and had the soft hands and nails of someone who used various household rubber gloves for working in a flower garden to washing dishes. While the waitress had the look of someone used to long struggles Carol's eyes couldn't contain the look of utter and unbelievable shock at the recent events that had befallen her. Carol's clothes also spoke volumes about her lifestyle. They could have come from any number of slightly upper end department stores nominally catering to white suburban dwellers who wanted to look unique but yet not exceed neighborhood standards of decorum. When you added everything up Carol was one of those decent, pleasant but not highly educated individuals whose exposure to strange and tragic events came strictly from a television drama.
“Now, tell me why I left my warm bed in the middle of the night and raced down a good portion of Colorado and why you drove all the way from Colorado Springs to call me” Jack said smiling as he grabbed the mug of coffee the waitress had just filled.
Carol took a sip of her own coffee savoring its almost Herculean strength letting its warmth invade her body. “Like I said in the car, I was scared. Eight days ago I left the hospital where I work and return home to find my family missing.”
“You said the house was in perfect order?” Jack asked purposely interrupting her train of thought.
“Yes, at first I just thought that Michael, my husband, must have cleaned up but it was early evening and he and my son would have, should have actually, been long home. When I couldn't reach Michael on his cell, I phoned his work to see if he was on a service call and decided to take our son, Paul, with him. He's a copier technician and occasionally has to go repair some client's equipment after normal business hours. They're usually pretty routine, so once and awhile he'll take Paul for a little father and son outing.”
“And your husband's employer told you he wasn't on a service call.” Jack said repeating the rushed story she had told him as they sped south on Interstate 25.
“Yes, so I called several friends and neighbors searching for them. No one had seen them since Michael left to take Paul to school that morning. By this time I was getting scared, so I called the police but they immediately told me there was nothing they could do until the next day.”
“Now tell me again what made you think you were in danger and that the police couldn't be trusted?”
“The next morning two police detectives show up at my door asking questions about my husband. They were in plain clothes but presented badges and official looking identification so I let them in figuring someone decided to look into his and my son's disappearance early. They asked simple questions about whether my husband might have been having an affair, suffered from mental health issues, or had an enemy who might want to hurt him or our son. A few of the questions irritated me but none of them seemed out of bounds. Things became weird when the one who called himself Barnes received a phone call on his cell. The call was brief but something was said that caused Barnes to tell his partner, Wilson, they had to leave immediately. They didn't ask for my husband or son's picture nor did they leave me a business card, say when they would return, or even give me a phone number so I could call them. As I am opening the front door to let them out Wilson asks his partner if they should go ahead and take me.”
“Take you?” Jack repeats looking at Carol. “Could they have meant to the police station?”
Carol takes a deep breath staring down into her coffee. “I don't think so,” she says, “there was a strange look on this Wilson's face that scared me. More to the point, Barnes was beginning to nod his head yes and was reaching for something under his sports coat when several of my neighbors walk up on my front steps. They were there to see if I needed anything and probably to learn something about Michael and Paul. This Barnes and Wilson then run out the house covering their face with their hands and get in their car and drive away.”
As he listened to her story, Jack begins to feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. “You told me in the car that you then called the cops and reported the incident with them telling you that they hadn't sent anyone to your house?”
“Yes, they said since twenty-four hours hadn't really passed yet they weren't going to send anyone till that evening. By this time I am beyond terrified, so I ask a few of my neighbors to stay with me. After that, three further events begin to suggest that I have fallen into a surreal nightmare. The first being the arrival of Mrs. Carter to my house, she's an old widow woman who lives at the end of my street. The neighborhood grapevine being what it is, she had heard what was going on and came down to tell me she saw Michael talking with a man the day before in the parking lot of the shopping mall close to our house. She then told me this unknown man showed Michael something that flashed and seemed to stun him for a moment. Michael apparently quickly recovered because about a minute of so later Mrs. Carter said my husband and son were willingly leaving with the man in his car. Just seconds after that she sees Michael's car leaving the parking lot but not the person driving it. Mrs. Carter admitted the encounter looked strange but it all happened so fast and no one seemed in distress she didn't think anything of it until she heard neither had returned home.”
“Tell me about the second thing that pushed you over the edge to call me.” Jack said finding himself actually perplexed.
“When the police finally arrive at my house to gather information on Michael and Paul they show up in force. I am interviewed for several hours and asked hundreds of questions with a team combing through my house as if they were searching for drugs. During all this one of the police technicians hooked the digital answering machine up to a laptop and started retrieving deleted messages. One of them was a person who didn't give a name but wanted to meet Michael and me in the shopping mall parking lot the next morning and that we had to bring Paul. Just as soon as the person stopped talking a high pitched noise started blaring from the answering machine speaker that sounded like cats being tortured. It was so bad it gave everyone nearby a headache.”
“And you said this message was addressed to Michael and you?”
“Yes, but there was staffing issues at the hospital and I had to go in early. The answering machine time stamp had the message being recorded thirty minutes after I left the house.”
Jack didn't know what to make of the answering machine but the third item Carol mentioned in the car was the one that worried him. “Tell me about the man who showed up at the hospital.”
“I had walked down to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast when my cell phone rings. It one of my friends on the floor I was working, she said a strange man had just left the nurse's station asking for me. She described him as this amazingly good looking but a hulking and intimidating figure. When asked his name I was told he said Joaquin Weiss. I go back up to meet him and while he is pleasant and friendly claiming to be a long lost friend of my husband's he gave me the creeps. There were a lot of people on the floor then and I could tell it bothered him. He soon left and I largely forgot about the event, a nurse is always busy at work, but I saw him again a couple of days after Michael and Paul disappeared. I was at the grocery store and I caught him staring at me. I dropped everything and ran to my car. When I pulled out into the street I had to stop momentarily because of traffic, it was then I glanced over and saw this figure come running out of one of the grocery store side doors. This person was sprinting towards my car inhumanly fast.”
Carol stops for a moment as the memory of events begin to overwhelm her. “ I didn't know what to do, the police didn't seem trustworthy and this strange man seemed like something from a bad spy movie. So I drove until I believed myself far enough away to be safe for a couple of minutes. It was then I looked for a pay phone. I began searching through the phone book when I stumbled across your listing. Something compelled me to call even though the advertisement seemed cheesy.”
Jack is quiet for several second, so much Carol begins to think she might have offended the man.
“Describe this Joaquin Weiss to me,” Jack said suddenly and looking agitated.
“He looked a little younger than me and was at least six-foot, four inches, with a muscular body, the type an Olympic athlete might have after years of training. He wore his brown hair like someone in the military, short but with style. The face was chiseled and intense, like an evil Brad Pitt.”
Jack just stared out towards the diner entrance for a moment and began slowly reaching for his pistol concealed underneath his jacket. “That man just entered the building,” he said to Carol, “get ready to run.”
Because of the nearby and constantly busy interstate the diner was crowded despite the ungodly early morning hour so Jack didn't want to pull out his pistol. Luckily, Carol's back was facing her stalker so this Joaquin Weiss didn't immediately notice her as he scanned everyone in the dining area. This allowed Jack to tell Carol to carefully stand up without exposing her face and then maneuver her towards a rear exit.
“Lean heavily on me like you're tired or sick,” he whispered to Carol. A further piece of luck had the diner's restrooms situated down a short hall that had a ninety-degree turn with two other doors, one an emergency exit and the other leading to a store room with yet another door leading outside. That is where Jack and Carol's luck ran out. Both had door latches with automatic alarms that would sound if a key wasn't used to deactivate them first. And as expected, there was never an employee around when you desperately needed one.
Stymied for a moment not wanting to trigger either alarm, Jack tried to look casually around the corner to find out what Joaquin was doing. Sure enough, he was coming straight towards them with only a couple of waitresses and customers walking around to slow him down. For a second Jack was overwhelmed with the utter certainty that this was a very bad man and that if Carol fell into her hands a immense amount of poop would massively impact a huge fan affecting far more people than seemed believable.
“He's coming towards us, right,” Carol said leaning up again the wall trembling.
“Yeah,” Jack said ignoring the question as to how Joaquin found them in the first place,” but I don't want to go through those doors just yet. He's probably got backup covering every exit. I want to give his people something else to think about for a few seconds.”
Once clear of other people Joaquin's pace picked up and he stepped into the short, straight segment of the hallway. Jack then suddenly turned the corner and fired two rounds into their pursuer's chest then one into his right leg just above the kneecap. A head shot would have been ideal but somehow Jack knew their stalker's reflexes wouldn't have allowed him to raise his weapon up enough to cleanly fire off the round. Jack settled for possibly fatal chest wounds and if that didn't work the slug going through Joaquin's leg would prevent him from running for a good while.
Both doors offering escape for Carol and Jack were the heavily reinforced type made of steel and it was Jack's hope that whoever was working with Joaquin would dash to the front entrance to find out what had happened instead of trying to beat down a huge chunk of metal. After the shots, the diner itself dissolved into a state of chaos with patrons running for the most obvious door. Carol herself was shaking life a leaf ready to bolt with only Jack's firmly holding onto her arm preventing a premature exit.
Glancing down at Joaquin, Jack saw the man-thing writhing in pain on the floor with blood seeping around his wounds. But one thing was clear, it wasn't dying, if anything he was trying to stand up and probably would have if his right knee and upper leg was in anyway capable.
“One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi...now!” Jack yelled, pushing Carol towards the rear stockroom door.
After busting through the door the only thing that greeted them was the cold early morning air and just a hint of light coming from the eastern horizon.
Old habit had Jack park his Mustang in the rear of the diner parking lot, and it served him well allowing the two quick access to the car. Unfortunately a clean getaway wasn't possible, as Jack opened the driver's side door he heard the pounding of footsteps coming towards him. Working only on years of training and instinct he turned, raised his pistol, and fired at the person coming towards them. Jack had time to register the sight of his round going through the skull of a hulking blond, Nordic type throwing him backward. The massive creature fell to the ground and it was immediately clear that at least he would never get up again.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?” Carol asked as Jack quickly settled into the driver's seat, started the car, and drove away.
“I'm former FBI, didn't you see that mentioned on my phone book listing?” Jack said while accelerating out of the parking lot and towards the interstate.
Carol didn't answer because she had turned around in the passenger seat and was trying to see if anyone was following them. “How did they find me? Carol asked more to herself than Jack but the question was valid.
“You said your first encounter with Joaquin was on the hospital floor you worked and then at the grocery store you shopped? Jack asked back. “Any chance he tagged you with some sort of tracking device, like dropping something in your pocketbook?”
Carol turned around in the seat and looked back at Jack as if he said the most astonishing thing imaginable. “When I introduced myself I first put my food next my pocketbook.” She went silent after that staring off into the space realizing how she had exposed herself.
Jack could tell she was starting to go into shock. “Hey, stay with me now!” He said reaching over and grabbing her shoulder. “I'm assuming we've skipped the interview part and that you have decided to hire me.”
Carol turned to look at him without saying anything, she was a totally lost soul who understood she had become involved in something she couldn't begin to comprehend. “What are we going to do? I have no money beyond what I have with me, how am I going to pay you?”
Jack just grimaced as he began to slow down the car. “First thing, and you're probably not going to like this, we have to lose the pocketbook and everything in it except you identification and pictures of your family. As for the second question, that Joaquin has seen me, I'm just as involved in whatever this is as you, so money is not an issue now.”
After slowing down, Jack stopped the car on the side of the interstate pleased that for the moment traffic was non existent. Carol willingly handed over the pocketbook except for the items he said she could keep. He quickly left the car and threw the purse off into an empty field and was back in the car and heading south again in less than a minute.
“Where are we going now?” Carol asked more than a little nervous now after realizing that while people were apparently out to capture or kill her, she now was depending on a complete stranger for her safety and to help find the answers as to why this was happening.
“I have a friend of a friend who owns a cabin high in the mountains, it's about as far off the grid it can be and still have power. We'll be safe there for at least a few days. From there we will begin to play forty questions to try and find out why this is going on. Needless to say you'll have to be patient and completely honest with everything I ask you because I will be getting very personal.”
Carol looked over at Jack and nodded, it was the first time she really examined the man who had already done so much for her. He appeared to be in his mid-forties and could best be described as your average American male. Her best guess was that he was a few inches over six-feet with sandy blond hair that was beginning to thin. And while he was obviously fit, it was clear middle-age was slowly encroaching on him. It was slightly disconcerted to Carol that her possible savior didn't readily fit the mold of the standard movie action hero.
“You said you're former FBI, tell me why you left the bureau.” Carol asked not sure she wanted him to answer honestly.
“Nothing really spectacular or scandalous,” Jack said, “my marriage went to hell and not long after that I was reassigned to a department that investigated white collar crime. The only thing more boring and depressing than listening to continuous wiretaps of Wall Street bastards bragging about the super model they're about to bang or the newest yacht they've purchased is how they get away with robbing billions from the government or small-time investors. In that line of work you quickly realize most of those expensively dressed and styled leeches don't view anyone but their own kind as human beings deserving of respect. To them the middle and working classes are at best a resource like iron, timber, or any other commodity to be used then tossed away.”
“So you became a private investigator?” Carol said more to herself than Jack, subconsciously happy that his departure wasn't for some moral failing or corruption. Seconds later Carol leans over towards the passenger side car door resting her head on the window and falls fast asleep.
Jack looked over at Carol and almost decided to wake her back up, but didn't. For the briefest moment he actually considered dropping Carol off at some bus stop leaving to her to her own devices. Whatever was going on here was totally out of his league. His usual cases involved divorces stained in bad blood, running surveillance on possible corrupt business partners, insurance fraud, child custody, and the occasional missing person. He had no idea how to deal with indestructible, human-looking monsters that for some reason wanted to capture a suburban housewife and mother.
While in the FBI, Jack had heard rumors of two agents who specialized in bizarre cases but he never believed the incredible stories. But deep down he knew it was impossible for him to abandon Carol, despite her outwardly placid suburban demeanor there was something about her that didn't make sense. More to the point, surreal and quite dangerous events were going on behind the scenes of normal life and people in power were apparently doing their best to hide it from a distracted and incurious population. If one thing constantly drove Jack, it was mysteries and one of the biggest had landed firmly in his lap.
Despite the bitter cold of the early Colorado morning, Jack Harper sat outside on the porch of the cabin he and Carol Briggs had taken refuge two days before after fleeing the roadside diner and the human-looking monsters that were pursuing them. Next him was a table where two legals pad lay containing all the information about Carol and her family that he had gathered after long drawn out hours of questioning the woman. Just a few inches after that was his pistol, fully loaded, with a round in the chamber and the safety off.
After arriving at the cabin Jack started interviewing Carol about her husband working on the theory that he was hiding something in his past that including human-looking creatures with incredible strength and stamina. But after hours of intense questioning Jack was dealing with the disturbing possibility that Michael Briggs was just the suburban living, copier technician, middle class guy she claimed. This prompted Jack to change tactics and start reviewing Carol's life for anomalies that might suggest she or someone in her family might have a hidden past.
There was one relatively minor inconsistency both Carol and her husband shared, neither had any close family members. Carol did have siblings but had not seen or talked to any of them since their parents had passed away in a car crash about ten years before. Supposedly there was some extreme bad blood concerning the disposition of her parents' estate resulting in Carol and her siblings all taking legal action against the others. As for her husband, Michael spent his childhood being raised by his maternal grandparents who had long since passed away. Neither instance was that out of the ordinary, Jack himself didn't have any close family. But in Carol and Michael's case, he couldn't help but feel it was all a little too convenient as far as past histories were concerned, hence the reason he was now keeping his pistol within easy reach. Carol Briggs continued to have that “deer caught in the headlights” look of someone barely dealing with the both the tragic and surreal aspects of recent events but Jack was now harboring a nagging suspicion about his middle class client.
Jack knew this particular case had long since passed the point were he should have punted it to a person in actual authority, something inside him couldn't quite yet allow him to take that course of action. While Jack had expended everything he could do while hiding in a cabin on the side of a heavily wooded mountain, he had contacts who could do more.
“Hey Jack,” Carol said after cracking open the front door, “you want some breakfast?”
Jack knew Carol was puttering around the small kitchen so he didn't react suddenly. “Yeah that would be great,” he said. Since coming to the cabin Carol had alternated between becoming totally distraught, fearful of what had become of her husband and son to being consumed in any activity she could find. Which usually meant cooking meals or cleaning the cabin.
The cabin itself was exactly as Jack expected, it was less a survivalist hideaway but more than a simple retreat for someone wanting to get away from the city. The actual owner lived in Denver and made his living as an investment banker who fancied himself as a bit of a master playboy. Jack knew the guy used the place mainly for seclusion for both professional and personal reasons. The former being the times he needed to review financial data and the later so he could entertain the latest in a series of married women he liked to seduce. The small sanctuary was isolated on the side of a heavily-wooded mountain and boasted a plentiful supply of canned goods, dried meats, and a private well. Despite the amenities favoring those inclined to leave civilization behind it was still attached to the local electrical grid which allowed the banker to access the internet.
Thirty-minutes later Jack is back inside and sitting on the couch gulping down a plate full of re-hydrated scrambled eggs watching the television. By this time the morning news is on and both Jack and Carol found it quite disturbing. Not for the news items they reported but for the things they barely or didn't mention at all. The restaurant Jack and Carol shot their way out of two days before had long since been forgotten. Given the number of people that were in the building it would have been impossible for the news services not to learn of it, but the official story reported on the news was that it was a gang-related shooting involving a bad drug deal.
The basic report was vague but what details the news agencies did report strongly suggested that someone with influence was doing their best to cover everything up with a huge pile of disinformation. Even more disturbing was that Carol's disappearance, occurring after that of her husband and son had never been mentioned on the television news or newspapers. All this told Jack was that before he could turn Carol over to some authority he would have to find one that could be trusted.
“What are we going to do Jack?” Carol asked from the small kitchen where she was eating her breakfast.
“I've got some feelers out with people who can help us.” Jack said leaving out the part that these feelers was a computer hacker acquaintance that was delving far deeper into Carol and her husband's past than he could personally hope to accomplish. Jack watched Carol's carefully crafted brave face quickly begin to crumble to the point she excused herself and retreated to the cabin's small bedroom. Jack thought to himself that if she was willfully hiding something linking her to the creatures her despair was the best acting job he had ever seen.
With Carol in the bedroom Jack took a few moments to clean everything up and think. The thing that scared him most of all was the memory of the security cameras looking over the parking lot of the restaurant they had to flee. Any decent investigator could do much to find their quarry with that little bit of information. The fact that Jack and Carol were dealing with some sort of super-human only meant they would have to move that much sooner.
This raised the question as to what he would do if in fact Carol was somehow connected to the creatures that were certainly looking for him now just as much as his client. The creature going by the name Joaquin Weiss, he had shot twice in the stomach and once in the knee, didn't seem the type that would easily bury the hatchet. After Jack shot Joaquin and watched it fall to the floor of the restaurant it looked at him with a hate that was all consuming. It was only the severity of the bullet wounds that prevented Joaquin from standing up and killing Jack right there.
As Jack put the last dish away he heard a beeping noise coming from one of the pockets of leather jacket. He immediately knew it was his the special encrypted satellite cell phone he used for calls he wanted to make sure were heard only between him and the caller, in this case the computer hacker looking into Carol's family. He moved swiftly and quietly snatching up the jacket and going outside before answering the call.
“Yeah this is Jack Harper,” he said, “what have you got for me Roy?”
Roy Hernandez was a thirty-something computer geek who desperately wanted to go back in time and live like the hippies of the 1960's. The few times Jack had actually been face to face with Roy it was clear that while the man was certainly a computer genius he was also dealing with several severely loose screws in his head. Besides his long hair and unkempt beard the guy wore only raggedy tie-dye t-shirts and cut off blue jeans. Adding to the persona was the overwhelming smell of marijuana that hung over him like a cloud. These traits all added up to a guy who while possessing a master's degree from MIT was extremely paranoid of all authority figures. Roy's appearance, demeanor, and opinions about authority figures seemed so over the top that Jack actually considered the possibility that it was all an act meant to make him easy to disappear into the background static of the rest of humanity if the need to arose.
“Jack,” Roy said, “I'm not sure what you've gotten yourself into this time but this woman Carol Briggs is probably very bad news. I snooped around the usual sites like birth records, educational history, the IRS, and even the Colorado DMV and it all looked normal for both her and her husband. But then on a whim I backtracked and looked at the code surrounding those records. Jack up until eight years ago this Carol Briggs you're involved with nor her husband existed.”
“Wait a minute Roy,” Jack said wanting him to confirm what he thought Roy had just stated. “Tell me that again slowly so I fully understand.”
Roy signed heavily, “Jack old buddy, the records I found are fully authorized by the various agencies and they go back to the birth dates you gave me. But someone inserted them into the databases just over eight years ago, what I'm saying is prior to that Carol and Michael Briggs must have dropped out of the sky.”
“Are we talking witness relocation and new identities created by some federal agency?” Jack asked.
“Here's the real puzzle Jack, I can't honestly answer that. I've played around in all the federal databases that do that sort of thing so I know how the DEA, CIA, ATF, or even your FBI create new identities. Whoever did these used a completely different method, if fact I've got to skip town now because I believe they noticed me poking around.”
Roy stopped briefly to catch his breath. “Jack I'm not only skipping town, I'll being changing my own identity so don't try and contact me again. I'd advice you to disappear as well, this whole situation sticks like shit with a bad case of gangrene.” Immediately after that the line was cut leaving Jack's worst fears confirmed.
“Just what in the hell have I gotten myself involved with,” Jack said out loud to no one but the trees. For the first time since receiving the early morning phone call from Carol, he was now feeling all the possible available courses of action had been narrowed down to none. Jack had long since conceded to himself that one of his worst flaws was an innate stubbornness that bordered on the extreme. It was this flaw that had ultimately created a massive chasm between him and his former boss in the FBI who had become close to a father figure for him.
To Jack, he seemed programmed to solve mysteries and when one fell into his lap he naturally wanted to ride it to the end. And the strange circumstances surrounding Carol Briggs only made his desire to find out what the hell was going on that much stronger. Despite it all, Jack was now faced with the certainty that his innocent-looking and visibly terrified client was in fact hiding something that could ultimately endanger millions of innocent people. He knew it was time to quickly build a bridge with the only person he knew he could trust. It still took him a couple of minutes to build up the nerve to dial the long unused number on the satellite phone.
“Mitch,” Jack said when the call was answered, “I've gotten involved in a very strange case and I need your help. Something very bizarre is going on and a lot of peoples live will ultimately be at risk.”
Carol was still in the bedroom when he came back into the cabin. Part of Jack wanted to burst into the room and demand answers to why her current identity magically popped into existence just eight years ago and why she was being chanced by enhanced humans. But Jack knew the better course of action was to play along with her act and see where it took them both, especially since Mitch had promised that the he would mobilize the needed personnel and resources to take over.
Even with this knowledge, it was difficult for Jack to do nothing except wait for the proverbial cavalry to come to the rescue. With no other choice, he fell down on the cabin's couch with every intention to catch a nap. A couple of seconds later his other cell phone rang three times and then stopped.
The nearest town to the cabin Jack and Carol were hiding was a minuscule one stop-light place called Decker. Once a mining town that could boast ten high class brothels during the 1880's during its mining town heyday, Decker's claim to fame was now that an accident at the Colorado Topographical Office had left it off all state maps for several years. This bureaucratic accident made the place difficult find for anyone who didn't already know of its existence. All told, that was probably why the owner of the cabin, and several other individuals, had built their special hideaways among the mountains.
While essentially lost to the greater mass of people living in Colorado, Decker the main hub of activity for the fifty or so permanent residents of the village was the grocery/ hardware store. The proprietor of that store had long since made it his occupation to keep track of everyone that walked through his door. Something he saw as a civic service while everyone else considered it borderline obnoxious.
With the store's central location, Jack quickly figured that anyone looking for him or Carol would stop by there first so he gave the owner a hundred bucks to call him if strangers came by looking for them. Jack's actual instructions to the overly curious businessman and self-described civic hero was to tell whomever came by asking of them about them the location of the cabin. Once they were safely away he was then supposed to call Jack's regular cellphone three times and then forget about the whole thing.
“Carol!” Jack yelled jumping up from the couch and walking over to the bedroom door. “Time to move now!” He said beating on the door, then barging in to find setting up in bed with her patented expression of full-fledged fear mixed with a heavy dose of panic.
Jack didn't take three steps after turning around before his cell phone started chiming again. Bile rose up in his stomach while an overwhelming and instinctive sense of dread ran down his spine. He looked down at the phone in his hand, his facial expression not to dissimilar from one a person might have if they had just found out if he or she had mistakenly picked up a highly radioactive object. Jack's first thought was that the old buzzard must have jumped the gun and called with Joaquin and his super monkeys still in the store.
“Oh God, they found us.” Carol said scrambling off the bed and grabbing her shoes.
The phone eventually stopped chiming only to restart a second later. Left with no choice, and dealing with the idea that he was a trapped rat, Jack answered the call.
“Hello,” Jack said, “I figure this has to be the infamous Joaquin Weiss.”
The first response was a slow chuckle. “Yes Mr. Harper, you have guessed correctly. I must admit I am rather impressed with your ability to avoid my capture as well as your shooting. It took me far longer to uncover your trail than I ever expected. As for your shooting, you have no idea of the pain I went through as my body repaired itself.”
“Well you know, the FBI has quite the training program for its agents.” Jack said hoping his voice sounded far more confident than he felt. “Enough of the chitchat, just what do you want Weiss?” Jack asked while motioning Carol to hurry up and get ready to leave.
“Oh please Mr. Harper, Joaquin said in dismay, “you already know that. I want Carol Briggs, and the sooner I safely have her the easier your death will be.”
“You'll have to catch us first you mutant bastard!” Jack didn't give Weiss time to respond by ending the call and tossing the cell phone into the garbage. “We've got to go now, Carol!” he yelled.
As the two ran out of the small cabin to the car, Jack figured he and Carol still had a better than even chance to escape since there was only one road to their location coming from the town of Decker. There were two other roadways down the mountain both leading to separate highways. Once out on the open road d moving Jack would then contact his old boss again and figure out a new plan.
The two ran out of the cabin towards the car. By this time the sky was a serene pale blue accompanied with a bright, seemingly overactive sun that provided no real warmth. The mountain air was bitterly cold and still, to Jack it felt as if Death was nearby waiting to announce itself. As these thoughts went through his head, Carol had already jumped in the car and was waiting as Jack just stood by the driver's side door.
“You are good, Mr. Harper,” a voice from behind Jack said.
“Please tell me you didn't kill the old man at the grocery store.” Jack said slowly turning to face Joaquin and several of his cohorts emerging from the woods beyond the cabin. “I told him to tell anyone looking for us exactly where we were at, hurting him would have served no purpose.”
“Come now Mr Harper, is it now you finally underestimate us mutants.” Joaquin said walking up to stand in front of Jack examining him as if he was looking at a curious new form of bacteria. “That simple man did exactly as you asked, he told us where you and Mrs. Briggs were located but from facial expressions I easily discerned he was hiding additional instructions you gave him. A normal human wouldn't have noticed the tiny facial ticks and the slight smell of fear he produced but for me it was enough. As for killing him, no he isn't dead but I did have to teach him a lesson.”
Jack quickly turned and glanced down at Carol, who looked almost catatonic sitting in the passenger seat with three of Joaquin's men standing next her door. “Well now,” Jack said looking back at Joaquin, “I know I'm dead but could you at least tell me Carol's connection to you guys. I'm curious, just call it a human fault.” Jack finished implying his interest was something Joaquin might not understand because he wasn't the same.
Jack saw the enhanced human smile, seemingly getting the insult. That was when Joaquin punched him in the head, after that everything went black.
The place Joaquin and his minions were using as their headquarters was a small operating room. Jack didn't remember much of the ride down the mountain and then the trip to what he believed was Denver but he had to admit to himself that using an operating room for a torture chamber didn't require much in the way of a redesign. Jack had his hands tied together with a piece of rope that was secured to a support beam above one of the tiles making up the drop ceiling. Jack had just enough of his feet on the floor so he could stand as long as he concentrated on just that one thing. Joaquin had used Jack's arms being tied above his head and out of the way to afflict several hours worth of carefully placed blows on his torso and legs. After such intense beatings there wasn't a spot on his body that didn't scream in pain.
Proving that Carol meant something important to the fifteen or so genetically enhanced humans Jack was able to count, she was strapped to an exam table and appeared to be sedated. What bothered him the most however was the strange looking helmet they had placed on her head that had numerous thin fiber-optic wires leading off to what looked to be a normal laptop. Given the position Joaquin had Jack tied up he was able to see the screen and recognized what appeared to be EEG wave pattern which was certainly Carol's. The laptop screen also showed Carol's EKG and several other bio-metric readings that were totally unknown to him. Whatever the ultimate purpose was for the helmet and elaborate software, Jack was positive the result would not be good for anyone.
“Well Mr. Harper,” one of Joaquin's lieutenants said coming back into the operating room. “Weiss will be quite happy you're awake. I believe he wants one more session with you before he ends your life. Who knows, you might even be conscious when Mother awakens, I'm sure she will like to see you put down.”
Jack just grunted something close to a “fuck you” as the Hispanic looking female creature walked by and checked on the readings scrolling across the laptop. Everyone of the human-creatures had quickly left the O.R. a few hours before after receiving some sort of important news. As soon as they left, Jack desperately yanked at the ropes that bound him but they refused to give even a centimeter.
With nothing to do but hang around, Jack noticed one curious detail about these monsters. This was not some racist Caucasian wet-dream come to life. The augments came in an assorted ethnic variety running from Northern and Southern European, to African, to Asian, and even Australian Aborigine. The one unifying belief Jack noticed was that to them anyone not sharing their genetic enhancements were less than human. Another factor that he also saw was that they were all extremely arrogant, to the point he easily overheard several conversations as various ones left and entered the room concerning how thing would be better off if they themselves were running the show. The most mysterious thing though was that they all loved, or feared, some leader who wasn't on site.
Apparently things were coming to a head because the Hispanic augment quickly ran out of the room after reviewing the readings on the laptop. The entire group soon followed back in, including Joaquin who looked over at Jack with a smugness that suggested he wouldn't not be breathing in a few minutes.
“It's almost time Mr. Harper,” Joaquin said, “Mother will soon be returned to us and our plans will finally be back on track. I've decided that she deserves to meet you in person. I imagine she may even want to inflict the killing blow since you held up her reunion with her children.”
Seconds ticked by like some frozen glacier patiently marching towards the sea. One of the augments administered a couple of shots to Carol's arm while the others stood around her clearly worshiping the woman on the table. It totally escaped Jack as to how a terrified middle-class housewife could have genetically enhanced, psychotic children but that was knowledge he expected to never find out.
When Carol finally opened her eyes and looked at all the people standing around her the response was not fear but one of joy. The creatures in turn cheered and hurried to release the straps that held her to the operating table. That's when the explosions began with heavily armed men in extensive body armor emerging from both ceiling and newly opened holes in the walls. By chance, one of the explosions sent a piece of shrapnel through the ropes that held Jack allowing him to fall to the floor. The blackness that engulfed him was actually a welcomed relief.
Jack's sudden return to consciousness was prompted by a nightmare. Like most dreams, once Jack realized he was awake it immediately evaporated leaving little hint that it ever existed except for a sinking feeling of dread. For one fleeting moment though, Jack lay in his hospital bed with the insane idea that he was a different person. As he took stock of his surroundings even that minuscule remnant disappeared leaving him feeling slightly confused and, strangely, ashamed.
Jack was able to lift his head and look around and was more than a little surprised to realize he was in just a basic inpatient suite and not some intensive care ward. Given the beating Joaquin Weiss had inflicted on him the bigger surprise was that he was not dead.
“Good to see you return to the land of the living.” Mitch Lawson said standing in the doorway of his room.
“How the hell did you find me after Joaquin and his crew took us from the cabin, Mitch?” Jack said spurting out the first question that came to his mind.”
“Once you hung up, I immediately called some friends at the Bureau to hijack the GPS function on your satellite cell. Since secrecy is their byword, we ran on the assumption that Joaquin and his crew would gather up all your belongings.”
“Okay, that sort of makes sense, my next question is why am I alive?” Jack said though his voice broke twice because of his injuries.
“Well, that's a fine way to say hello after so many years.” Lawson said walking over to a chair and taking a seat. “As for your question, what can I say? You know Joaquin wanted to make you pay for shooting him. He tortured you for over eighteen hours making sure never to inflict too much on your body. I have to admit his technique was a quite bit more advanced than what those bastard Russians developed. They're more than the acknowledged experts, to them torture is as natural as water is wet but Weiss is a freaking Rembrandt, makes those CIA boys down in Gitmo and the other black sites look like sad amateurs.”
Lawson had the unfortunate duty once in the early 1990's to work with the Russians. It had been during the early post-Soviet period when their country was prostrate and trying to reorganize. Mitch had found that they proudly proclaimed themselves “realists” on how the world worked. That by itself was all well and good to Mitch, but what bothered him was the extremity of their professed realism. It didn't take Mitch long to understand their viewpoint came from a barely concealed anger at having so utterly lost the Cold War that they longed for some way to make the United States pay for the collapse of their beloved empire. It was his experience that such realists could rationalize any number of crimes and atrocities because it served some higher purpose directly related to them. After reporting his findings to his superiors Mitch quickly sought reassignment and prayed to a god he didn't really believe exist that he would never have to interact with anyone like that again.
“Okay,” Jack said, “I'm alive because I was a science experiment in modern forms of torture. Please tell me what the hell I got myself involved with and don't give me any national security bullshit.”
That was when Mitch Lawson began to tell the story that challenged Jacks perceptions of the world. It all started in the mid 1960's when a collection of biologists formed a secret group dedicated to the advancement of the human species. Their idea was to create a new form of human with enhanced intelligence and physical attributes and then have these augments dispersed throughout the rest of the species uplifting everyone. This group approached several national governments but with the memory of extremely racist eugenic experiments performed all over the Western world still reverberating through the collective consciousness they all declined.
This group then approached several billionaires and even corporations that were far more receptive. The infusion of an unlimited amount of cash did much not only for the ultimate goals but kick-started the entire bio-tech industry creating a whole spectrum of new drugs, disease-resistant crops, and even therapies for inherited disorders that genuinely helped billions of people across the world.
Even though their initial efforts were actually beneficial the leaders of the Eugenics movement soon saw how their work could be twisted. The first problem came as the second generation of researchers took over for the founding scientists. Their chief concern was not for humanity but how the real goal might serve the people and corporations supplying the money. Whatever the case, it was during the late 1980's the first generation of augments were born. The betas, as they came to be called, grew to adulthood quickly while immediately showing signs of significantly enhanced intelligence. Their other enhancement soon became apparent to the scientists overseeing their development. It was a dangerously level or ambition and utter disdain of “normal humans.” So much that the betas escaped the laboratory after killing off their parents and stealing billions from the project's backers.
Almost immediately the betas began a two-pronged attack on the rest of humanity during the 1990's by continuing the research on the ultimate super humans and promoting unrest and even wars all over the planet in an attempt to destroy civilization. Their reasoning being that once the “alphas” were born they would pickup all the shattered pieces.
Normal humans and their governments soon understood the nature of the threat and secretly worked together to defeat the human-looking monsters running roughshod over the planet. The results were mixed, most of the betas were eventually captured or eliminated. That left a couple of thousand of young alphas running wild and they proved to be far harder to capture until someone from American intelligence came up with a plan.
“So you're telling me Carol Briggs is a beta!” Jack exclaimed to Mitch who just sat back in his chair and smiled. “I understand her identity and that or her husband was created just eight years ago but the woman was terrified of her own shadow.”
“Once Carol and her associated were captured,” Mitch said, “we imprinted a new personality on them all and set them up among the general population. The idea being that they would be extensively watched as we waited for the alphas to come find their creators. See Jack, even above taking control of the planet the alphas wanted their parents back, and we used that to our advantage.”
“How did you imprint a new personality on Carol and the other betas?” Jack asked.
"We used a monstrous piece of technology developed during the Cold War. Who makes a better spy than someone who has no idea there is a whole other personality inside their mind working for the enemy? Truthfully Jack, I shouldn't mention this but there is a great deal of technology kept secret from the world because the general population and hell, our lawmakers just couldn't handle the implications if they knew it existed.”
“What is Carol's real name and what did she do for the project?” Jack asked changing the conversation after becoming overwhelmed at how his understanding of reality was meaningless.
“Carol's real name is not important,” Mitch said, “she will be wiped again and placed back into society. You helped capture over two dozen of the alphas and we have strong leads on over a hundred more. To make a long story short, they are now a very endangered species.”
“No matter,” Jack said shaking his head, “I want to see Carol. I want to look the real person in the eye.”
“You deserve that much,” Mitch admitted, “I'll see what I can so.”
It took four days but when Jack was finally released from what turned out to be a secret section of an Air Force hospital Mitch Lawson drove him to the building on base that houses what he termed were “special guests” of the government.
While Mitch was able to arrange a method for Jack to see the person who once answered to the name Carol Briggs, he would be limited to seeing her from the other side of a two-way mirror. Harper wasn't happy about the strings that higher-ups had attached but in the end it didn't really matter.
The woman he knew as Carol Briggs was currently in an interrogation room with shackles confining her hands to the top of a steel table bolted to the floor. While he couldn't see her feet, it was a certainty they were being restrained as well. The two agents in the room with her kept asking questions concerning the location of the funds her comrades used to finance their various ventures. The agents also asked about where Joaquin Weiss might run since he was the only one of the alphas to escape capture.
Jack watched as “Carol” thrashed about promising that her children would make sure the people holding her captive would be killed slowly and painfully. The timid and overwhelmed woman who had first called him in the middle of the night was totally gone. With her normal personality restored it was clear she was a monster who would have slit the throats of babies without a moments hesitation if it advanced her agenda.
After sitting in the room for a hour watching Carol do everything but spin her head a full 360 degrees Jack had enough. “Okay I'm done Mitch, when can I leave and go home?”
Mitch Lawson watched Jack Harper drive off with mixed feelings. Despite his past history, the guy had gone way above what anyone would consider their duty. Lawson was almost sad that he couldn't truly call the individual known as Jack Harper a friend. An incoming text message on Lawson's cell phone returned his thought to things he could change for the better. The message told him to report for debriefing immediately. Knowing the nature of the person who sent it, the message was a rather terse way of reminding him exactly who was the final authority on everything he and many others hoped to accomplish.
Minutes later Mitch was allowed to enter a highly secured room deep in a building that was supposed to house only employees of the United States Department of the Interior. The room was a little to dark for his liking but he remained silent and took a seat at the large oval conference table.
“Just what does Jack Harper now know Mr. Lawson?” Asked the blond woman with penetrating green eyes who while never formally named the leader of the group leading the fight against the alphas, that was the general assumption of everyone up to the various national heads of state belonging to the loose alliance fighting them. What was never mentioned was that she was a beta herself, who turned on both her people and the children they created.
“Just what I was supposed to tell the guy. That there is a secret war being fought against genetically enhanced creatures that look like humans. As far as Jack is concerned he still believes his is just a former FBI agent who through random chance had a desperate woman stumble upon his emergency contact number.”
“The Harper identity has proved quite useful,” the blond woman said. “For the time being we will let him go on living it, although I want surveillance on him upgraded just to be sure. While the leader of the alphas is still on the run and causing trouble, all told there are only about a hundred left alive. After this defeat our best intelligence say they have abandoned the idea of recovering the betas and are concerned only for their own survival.” The blond woman finished before going on to other matters.
What still astounded Mitch was the knowledge that at one time the person known as Jack was not only a beta himself but the mate of the blond woman. That when the blond woman defected to the cause of regular humans she then personally lead the effort to capture him because he was none other than the leader of the entire Eugenics movement. The blond woman then went on to develop the plan where captured betas were given new personalities and then placed in society as bait for the alphas. The best part of her plan to defeat the alphas was the creation of Jack Harper. After installing a new personality, the new Jack Harper also received operations that changed the appearance of his face and body. That way none of the rogue alphas would know that one of their fathers was out to destroy them.
Lawson realized that none of it really mattered as long as the the threat of the alphas was eliminated. That was why he reported to the group some vague intelligence he had uncovered suggesting the alphas were looking for ways of leaving the planet. He had no idea how that information might play out in the coming years but having them anywhere but on Earth seemed like a good idea.
(Author's note: Yes, this turned into a Star Trek fan fiction story. However due to my changes on how the Eugenics Wars transpired it of course takes place in an alternate universe, but not the damned JJ-verse. I read somewhere that the producers of the Original Series chose the 1990's as the time for the WW3-like Eugenics Wars because to them that was "far in the future." Well the 90's came and went and the massive history altering conflict never happened leaving a couple of REAL authors to pen novels saying the conflict took place in the shadows. This is just my sad but fun version.
Originally this was just supposed to be an X-files type of story inspired after a weekend of binge watching X-Files reruns on Netflix. In a couple of places you will see a few hints at Scully and Mulder's existence.)