Alien Contact

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Chapter One

“Remind me to tell the commander we need more recruits from the Navy,” Torin muttered, checking the seals on Binti’s HE suit.

“That a comment about my piloting?” Craig asked as he maneuvered the Promise into position, carefully avoiding the line of sight from both Mictok Station Trilik and the pirate ship tucked between the station and the gas giant.

“You’re the best damn pilot I ever saw,” Torin told him, “but a boarding party says Navy to me.”

“A serley small boarding party,” Werst grumbled as Ressk checked his seals. “We need more recruits. Period. I’m not saying we aren’t the definition of kickass,” he continued, “but there’s only the four of us going in.”

“There’s only six non-Mictok on the station and two on the ship,” Alamber pointed out. “I’ll be into the system as soon as you’re inside, Craig will take the ship, and—given you’re facing less than two-to-one odds—I don’t understand why Binti and Ressk are going.”

Werst’s nostril ridges flared. “When you put it like that, it does seem like overkill.”

“No one dies,” Torin reminded them, using the pressure of her chin against the suit’s wide collar to turn the magnetic plates in her boots on, then off again. “Pirates may be a waste of oxygen, but I’m not spending the better part of a tenday filling out paperwork before having my ass hauled before the Rehabilitation Committee so I can explain why social expectations weren’t met.”

Binti grinned. “By us or by them?”

“Either. Or.”

The Hazardous Environment suits were bright orange, di’Taykan danger orange, although the color had been chosen for its visibility rather than any cultural reason. “The Marines don’t leave people behind,” Staff Sergeant Beyhn had told Torin’s group of recruits, as he’d told a hundred groups before and would tell a hundred after. “If you have one of these on,” he’d added before the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging had faded, “we’ve got a chance of finding your body even if the beacon craps out.”

The suits worn by Strike Team Alpha were Marine Corps suits, or as ex-Marine as Torin, Werst, Ressk, and Binti Mashona. The Warden’s insignia on the center chest was less overt than the Justice Department preferred, but as the Strike Teams were considerably more overt than the Justice Department preferred, Torin figured it balanced in the end. The helmet made use of H’san technology and held two different shapes; down the back like an empty bag and snapped up over the head into a rigid polarized sphere. Helmet up, the suit could support the tanks by filtering any combination of external oxygen and nitrogen into something essentially breathable. It recycled all fluids almost indefinitely. Self-contained, the suits were comfortable for six hours, livable for eight, and, if breathing remained an option, became progressively nastier after that.

If all went well, they’d be out of the suits before the plumbing had a chance to recycle the morning’s pouch of coffee.

Torin didn’t expect it to go well. Precedent aside, the anticipation of all hell breaking loose helped keep her people alive. Suits secured, she checked with Binti and the two Krai, then turned toward the control panel. “Ready when you are.”

“We’ll be in position in five,” Craig told her. “Opening inner airlock door.”

The airlock opened into the control room. Back when Craig Ryder had been a Civilian Salvage Operator, the control room had been the Promise’s single cabin, the greater part of the ship the Susumi drive. Justice had upgraded and expanded the Promise when she’d nearly been destroyed by pirates, adding the ability to attach packets as needed, but she remained Craig’s ship. The other Strike Team pilots flew decommissioned Navy Corvettes—the smallest Naval vessel with a Susumi drive. The other Strike Team pilots would have shit themselves before ghosting into docking position on a gas giant mining station using momentum and air jets and hard-earned skill.

“We’re still a surprise, Boss,” Alamber called from the second seat as the inner door opened and Torin led the four suited members of her team into the airlock. “Speed matched to within five point seven kilometers an hour. Exit in seven minutes . . . mark.”

The countdown appeared on the lower right curve of her helmet.

The inner door sealed, and the pressure began to equalize.

“You really think we can take back the station with six people, Gunny?”

“How many people do we have?”

Behind the lightly polarized surface of her helmet, Binti’s brows rose. “Six.”

“Then we’ll take back the station with six people.”

There’d been a rise in violence in Sector Seven—in MidSector as well as OutSector—spreading the Strike Teams thin, preventing them from doubling up. Torin would have preferred to take more Wardens into the pirate-held station, but as there weren’t any available, her preferences were moot.

The six of them, in pre-Strike Team Alpha days, had taken down an entire pirate fleet. A single ship draining the tanks at a Mictok-run mining station should be a walk in the cake. Torin frowned. Maybe not cake. Pie? Not for the first time, she missed the late Sergeant Hollice and his command of oldEarth idiom.

Over the last five tendays, three other mining stations had been hit, quick and quiet, the Wardens informed after the fact. The violence had been minimal by Torin’s standards, but two Mictok and a Bril had been killed. The Elder Races hadn’t fought back because the Elder Races didn’t fight back, which was one of the reasons the strike teams existed—the Younger Races cleaning up the damage done to their three species over the long years of the war. That said, everyone agreed the Bril’s death had been accidental. They were a strangely fragile species with some of their important parts in unexpected places. Informed of the previous attacks, the manager of Mictok Station Trilik had adopted the very non-Mictok attitude of assuming the worst and had deployed long-range scanners. The moment the scanners had picked up an unscheduled tanker in-system, they’d sent a message to Berbar Station, the Justice headquarters in Seventh Sector and evacuated all but essential personnel, fully aware that had they waited until the tanker came close enough to identify, it would have been too late. The pirates would have blocked the signal.

Having noticed ships leaving the station en masse, smart pirates would have headed for home. Perhaps the pirates thought the Mictok—who had close to a monopoly on mining the Confederation’s gas giants—hadn’t shared information about the previous attacks. Perhaps they thought the Mictok would be embarrassed to send for help before they knew for certain they needed it. Perhaps they’d never actually spoken to a Mictok, as Torin didn’t think it was possible to embarrass one of the giant spiders. Perhaps, after three successful robberies, they’d gotten cocky. There hadn’t been resistance, so there wouldn’t be resistance.

Wrong.

Three minutes.

With the pressure equalized, the outer airlock door opened.

One minute.

“Speed matched to within six meters per hour. Five. Four. Three . . .”

“On my word.” Torin watched the seconds count down.

“Speed matched.”

Three. Two . . .

“Go! Go! Go!”

The Promise was one hundred and one meters from the station—one meter closer and the station’s docking computers would have taken over, announcing their approach. Craig could have nestled his ship up to the airlock—to any airlock—without help, but the Mictok insisted on safety first, most likely because a good seventy percent of the gas they mined was combustible. Thirty percent of the seventy was highly combustible. The potential for disaster put the docking arm used for the arrival and departure of personnel on the opposite side of the station from the gas giant, the bulk of the station a shield against the planetary storms and the tanks filled with potential explosives. This also put the airlock the Strike Team was heading for on the opposite side from the tanks and the pirates emptying them.

On the one hand, they were less likely to be seen.

On the other, they had the entire width of the station to cross once inside.

Torin unmagged her boots three meters before she hit metal, twisting and allowing the much less powerful magnets in her gloves to make first contact, preventing eighty-six accelerating kilograms from slamming into the station and setting off an impact alarm. The piercing, panic-inducing nature of the alarm meant no one, on any station, wanted the sensors reacting to every passing piece of space debris so only those large enough, fast enough, or solid enough to damage the outer hull set off the klaxons. These large, fast, and solid measurements were consistent across the Confederation and, for all Torin’s comments about the Navy, the entire boarding party had done this before. A few meters to the right, Ressk filled her peripheral vision. Werst touched down above them, his head to theirs. Binti’s aim had put her close enough to the airlock controls she had to shift to the left when Ressk hand-walked over.

No one expected people to cross vacuum and open the door. No one set alarms for the unexpected.

On the other hand, as no one wanted personnel trapped outside a station should the worst happen, the emergency access codes for the airlocks were also consistent across the Confederation.

Torin believed the definition of the worst needed changing.

By the time Ressk had keyed in the access codes and the outer door had begun to open, they’d all moved close enough to quickly slip inside.

The inner door opened automatically when the pressure equalized, reminding Torin of how few Primacy attacks had come this far into the MidSectors.

*All life signs still gathered at the tanks, Boss—six Human, two Miktok.*

Humans had been the only species positively identified by survivors at the other stripped stations. “Please tell me the two life signs still on the pirate ship aren’t Human.”

*Wish I could, Boss, but the ship has a hard shell up and I can’t get more than the basics. The happy making news is that I’ve got clean air and, even happier, no one’s monitoring the station sysop. You’re clear to advance.*

“You heard him, people.” Torin unsealed her helmet, rigidity releasing as it dropped down her back. “Let’s go.”

Sergeants and above came out of both branches of the military with communication implants set into their jawbone. About two thirds of the Strike Team personnel had arrived with implants, and Justice had offered installations to the rest. Weapons used during the thefts at the earlier stations raised the odds the pirates were ex-military although there’d been no other identifiers. Once they had the stations locked down, they transferred the contents of the storage tanks, and were gone—no images, no sounds, no DNA left behind. If the assumption of a military background was correct, a percentage of the pirates had to have implants, opening a way for the Strike Teams to eavesdrop or jack in and use the technology as a weapon.

This trip out, Alamber had been unable to locate a signal.

With Mictok held hostage, they were left with no option but to put boots on deck and do it the hard way.

Out of the docking arm, the corridors through the station were wide and well lit, the bulkheads covered in the art the Mictok were admired for throughout the Confederation. Considering that a high percentage of Confederate species were mammals and the Mictok most decidedly were not, that either made art a universal language or art critics as a subspecies listened to their hindbrains and refused to piss the Mictok off. Torin glanced over at the thick ridges of color and decided it was likely six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Excluding the tanks and the docking arms, the station was round; eight main corridors headed diagonally from the rim into a central space. Their path took them in, across the center, and out. Fast and easy. Except that the central space had been filled with webbing. Going around meant backtracking and making their way through side corridors that hadn’t been designed for the convenience of bipedal visitors.

“Fuk me,” Werst muttered.

As they approached, Torin studied the thick white cables laid out in an obvious path through the middle of the web and knew if she stopped on the edge, she might not get going again. Knew that if she kept running, so would her team.

“You know, without boots,” Ressk began just behind her left hip.

“No.” Krai feet were almost as flexible as their hands, and Ressk wasn’t wrong; without their boots they could cross the webbing as quickly as a Mictok, but no one skimmed out of an HE suit. If they’d had that kind of time, they could’ve gone around.

The web flexed as Torin landed on it, one boot on one cable, the other on an identical cable fifteen centimeters away. A continuation of the main corridor design for visiting bipeds, the cables had been connected by a thinner cable in a pattern woven too closely to slip through. Slipping off didn’t appear to have been considered. Mictok didn’t slip. The cables rose and fell under Torin’s boots, the undulations rhythmic enough she could keep her balance.

Until Ressk joined her. Just over a meter high, he was heavier than he looked, and his shorter stride on the cables set up a competing rhythm. When Binti joined them, the cable went up where a stride before it had gone down. Torin’s right leg sank knee-deep into the interior webbing before springing back up again with enough force her knee nearly smacked her in the chin. She’d have fallen had the gravity not been a third less than she was used to and had Ressk not grabbed the loop of strapping at her hip and thrown his weight against it.

The whole web rippled.

“Werst . . .” She swayed, but regained her balance. “. . . implant cadence. Double-time.”

From the back of the march—historically, pre-implant, the position most likely to be heard, codified over the centuries by the militaries of all three Younger Races—Werst began a mouth-closed hum, laying down a rhythm they’d all been trained to follow. A rhythm that let their feet move without any interference from their brains.

It’s too narrow.

It’s wobbling.

It’s a web!

Which was not to say Torin’s brain, at least, didn’t try.

“That was fun,” Binti forced out through clenched teeth as she reached the other side. “I vote we strip to our skivvies and travel through the cold, merciless vacuum of space on the way back.”

“Be a lot easier without boots,” Ressk agreed.

“Missing my point,” Binti told him. “It’s a spider thing.”

“Human spider thing,” Werst grunted, jumping up onto the deck beside his bonded.

*I saw that vid. I didn’t get how they could have missed the obvious thing to do with eight arms.*

“Alamber . . .” A di’Taykan could turn anything to innuendo. And, if given the chance, usually did. That said, he had a point about the eight arms.

*Still a clear run to the tanks, Boss.*

“Let’s go, people.”

The control room for the mining operation took up about a third of the arc facing the gas giant and overlooked the two docking positions on either side of the stacked tanks. The pirates, plus the Mictok hostages, were currently in the control room. It being unlikely they’d surrender without a fight, Torin wanted the pirates in one of the docking arms, an area designed to deal with explosive decompression.

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Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart

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A Peace Divided
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
“GUNRUNNERS,” Werst snarled, sliding over the almost buried shell of the APC as rounds impacted against the metal. “Gunrunners, they told us, not users.”
“Logical progression.” Ressk fired a quick burst through one of the second-floor windows on the ruined anchor, in­terrupting the gunrunners’ fire long enough for Werst to get to cover. “Especially if they knew we were coming.”
 
“How could they know we were coming?” Werst de­manded.
 
“The Justice Department has a leak.”
 
“A leak?” Werst leaned around the back end of a de­stroyed APC. “You think that’s possible, Gunny?”
 
“They were a little too prepared,” Torin admitted, hel­met scanner registering heat signatures at the windows where they’d already identified shooters through the less technical method of being shot at. Unfortunately, if a scan­ner existed that could see through walls built to withstand both the rigors of space and an atmospheric entry, she hadn’t been issued one. The building at the center of ev­ery new colony, the anchor, was a cross between a Marine Corps Susumi packet and a large vacuum-to-atmosphere transport. Thirty meters by twenty meters by six meters, it held everything the colony needed to get started and once emptied became a community center, a hospital, and— if necessary— fortress. Designed to be nearly indestructible, it was part of the Confederation’s promise to the Younger Races that they’d be supported as they spread out through known space. Nearly indestructible hadn’t been enough for this particular anchor to entirely survive a Primacy landing force during the last year of the war.
 
Although, to be fair to the anchor’s designers and en­gineers, it also had to survive the Confederation Marine Corps retaking the colony and no one had yet come up with anything— buildings, transportation, tech— that was Marine proof. Marine resistant, yes. Proof, no.
 
Again, to be fair, the anchor was in better shape than the rest of the colony.
 
Sh’quo Company, Torin’s old unit, hadn’t been part of the attack that had driven the Primacy out of Three Points, but she could read the story of the battle on the ruins and debris and she knew the weight of the senior NCO’s vest, heavy with the number of bodies they’d carried out. Bodies reduced to their basic components for ease of transport and stored in small metal cylinders. No Marine left behind.
 
Her hands were steady on her KC-7, the familiar weight of the Corps primary weapon canceling the twitch toward the places on her own vest where her dead had rested. The combat vest was a recent addition to the Warden’s uniform, as was the KC. Change came slowly to the Wardens, to the entire Confederation, but change came whether the Elder Races welcomed it or not.
 
Not that Torin expected anyone to welcome the need for armed response teams.
 
Gunny, I’ve got hostiles on the roof. Two, no three . . . moving a large rectangular crate up through the trap.”
 
Boots on the ground, the angle kept Torin from picking up any of the action two stories up. In place on one of the re­maining rock formations that had given Three Points its name, Binti Mashona had a clear line of sight. “Do you have a shot?”
 
No. They’ve got a good idea of where I have to be, and they’re using the crate to . . . Fuk me sideways, it’s a mortar.”
 
Specs flashed along the lower edge of Torin’s visor as the mortar came on line.
 
“Well, that answers a question we didn’t give a shit about,” Werst muttered. “One of the dirtbags was artillery.”
 
“Not likely,” Ressk argued as Torin squeezed off two quick shots— one to herd, one to hit. A di’Taykan screamed. “We’re almost in the building with them and their structural integrity was breached before we got here.”
 
“The glass was broken,” Werst interjected.
 
“That’s what I said. If one of this lot was artillery, they’d have known to open with the mortar.”
 
Torin’s team had almost reached the building, using the cover of darkness and the surrounding ruins, when the gun­runners had opened fire. They hadn’t tripped a perimeter alert, and there’d been no sentries set to give the alarm. They might have been spotted through a second-floor win­dow, but Torin doubted it. The response had been too fast, too accurate. For variable definitions of the word accurate given they had zero casualties to two gunrunners bleeding. Selling illegal weapons had taken precedence over practic­ing with them.
 
“I have a clear shot on the mortar, Gunny, targeting and ignition.”
 
“Can you take it out?”
 
“Please, this close I could hit it with a rock.”
 
“Take the shot.”
 
Profanity followed close behind the impact of high speed metal on metal.
 
Ressk fired at the flicker of a shadow in one of the win­dows. “I was hoping for an explosion.”
 
“Weren’t we all.”
 
Mashona fired again. “Careless. One down. The other two hauled her back inside.”
 
Three gunrunners bleeding.
 
“All right, enough. Quick and quiet is a bust. Craig.”
 
“Torin.”
 
“Land it. Alamber, distraction on contact.”
 
“You got it, Boss.”
 
“Ressk, Werst, heat imaging off and get ready to move. Plan B.” Her own scanner back to neutral, her eyes readjusting to the night, Torin adjusted both her weight and her grip on her weapon, ready to run. Shifting in place, she leaned away from the spray of dirt thrown up by a missed shot. It had missed by a smaller margin than previous shots— odds were good any ex-Marines in the anchor had begun to remember their training. On the one hand, it was about time; up until now, their aim had been embarrassing. On the other hand, as she was one of the targets they were aiming at . . .
 
She felt the shuttle’s approach as much as heard it, a deep hum in her bones that announced Craig was fighting gravity with everything the VTA had. The Navy surplus vacuum-to-atmosphere shuttle provided by the Justice Department had been straight up and down, sturdy enough to save their lives when it crashed, but with the flight capability of a brick. The Taykan-designed VTA they’d acquired next was faster, significantly less sturdy, and had been built with the added feature of horizontal travel at the bottom of a gravity well. It wasn’t an attractive feature, she noted, as the VTA came into sight, but it got the job done.
 
“Blocking team implants in three, two, now,” Alamber an­nounced as the VTA descended toward the roof, his voice in her PCU barely audible over the roar. “Distraction in three, two . . .”
 
The raised metal edge crumpled under the weight, but the roof held as Craig set her down.
 
“. . . boned the bad guy, Boss.”
 
Sergeants and above came out of the military with jaw implants, full comm units set into the bone. The Justice De­partment had provided implants for their Strike Teams, but the expense of installation and upkeep prevented most ci­vilians from using the tech. Including those civilians who used to be enlisted Marines. Odds were high that the pulse Alamber had sent over the most common military frequen­cies had knocked the fight out of the people making the decisions inside the anchor.
 
“Move!” Torin broke into a run, head down to protect her face from the airborne debris. Craig had brought the shuttle up on their one eighty using the anchor to block the exhaust, but it had still thrown an impressive amount of heated grit into the air. The grit would nullify the gunrun­ners’ heat imaging, had any of them managed to keep their attention on the job at hand while a few metric tons of VTA landed on the roof and their leaders writhed on the floor.
 
She was close enough now to hear the screaming.
 
Human, very probably male, and a Krai, no idea of gen­der. Eleven years on various battlefields had allowed her to add can identify species by sounds of pain to her skill set. Three years out of the Corps and it remained useful.
 
The air lock on the narrow end of the anchor had been blown apart either by the Primacy or the Confederation or a combination of both. The reality of war meant the winner often held real estate that had been destroyed in the taking or in the retaking. The first-floor common room had long, narrow windows, an obvious entry point given the lack of glass, but the gunrunners had reinstalled the exterior shut­ters that essentially made the wall a spaceship hull. Impen­etrable to anything Torin’s team had with them.
 
Except . . .
 
During destruction of the air lock, the end wall had buckled enough to twist the nearest window a centimeter off square, the shutter not entirely secure, a triangle of light visible at the upper right and lower left corners.
 
Torin pulled the coil of wire from her vest as she ran, whipped it out to its two-meter length as she reached the anchor, dropped to one knee to slide it through the lower gap, and thumbed the release on the capacitor before shov­ing it through hard enough to clear the interior sill. Then she stood and braced her forearms against the wall.
 
“Distraction’s shut down, Boss.”
 
They’d spent part of the trip out here arguing the fine line between pain as distraction and pain for the sake of causing pain. None of them had much sympathy for the gunrunners; they spent too much time dealing with their customers.
 
Using fingers and prehensile toes, Werst reached the second-floor window as the wire ignited.
 
“Hope they weren’t stupid enough to store their ord­nance in the unstable corner,” Ressk muttered as his foot gripped her shoulder.
 
Torin hoped so too. The Justice Department insisted that property damage be kept to a minimum, and Torin didn’t want to spend another afternoon justifying an accidental explosion. When Ressk pushed off, she caught the line Werst sent down and went up hand over hand until she could grab the windowsill and haul herself over.
 
“Almost Krai-like,” Ressk told her as her boots hit the floor.
 
“I can fake anything for two meters.” Torin resettled the weight of her vest on her shoulders, swung her KC back around, and waved the two Krai toward the door.
 
The room was still configured as a barracks, Three Points having barely moved beyond the entire colony living in the anchor when they were attacked. Given that space was large enough to keep any one system in the OutSector from having much of a strategic significance in an inter­stellar war, the Confederation had assumed the attack had been over real estate with a proportionate nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, a gravity within specific tolerances, and read­ily available water. Turned out, the assumption had been incorrect. There’d been no logical reason for the attack as the war had been run as a social experiment by sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes— a discovery no one would have believed had Torin not got the shape-shifting, organic plastic hive mind to admit it on camera moments before they departed known space to ana­lyze the accumulated data. She’d been cleaning up the mess they’d left behind ever since.
 
The second-floor hall was empty. Scanners showed two thermal signs behind the closed door of the anchor’s infirmary— one Human, one di’Taykan— and the blood that had drawn a dotted line between the stairs leading to the roof and the infirmary suggested they weren’t doing what a Human and the most enthusiastically indiscriminate species in known space were usually doing behind a closed door. Torin pointed at the lock. Ressk moved forward, touched his slate to it, and rewrote the code. The coiled spring latches rang out as they slammed into place, metal against metal— not a lot of what went into space could be called delicate, and that included most of the people.
 
At the clang Torin switched her attention to the main stairs, but it seemed no one on the lower level had heard the clang over the shouting. For the most part, they were shouting about the explosion as well as someone named Ferin’s inabil­ity to keep watch, summed up at high volume. “. . . lazy, blind, serley chrika! Get your head out of your own ass!”
 
Two locked in the infirmary, four downstairs standing, three on the ground. All nine gunrunners accounted for.
 
Except . . .
 
The infirmary windows faced away from Mashona’s po­sition.
 
“Craig, keep an eye on the north side of the building. We’ve got two hostiles locked in the infirmary and the odds are good the more mobile will make a run for it.”
 
“No honor among thieves?”
 
She could hear the smile in his voice and answered it with one of her own. “Not that I’ve ever noticed.”
 
“Only four dirtbags left to take out.” Werst drew his lips back off his teeth. “Hardly worth a team effort. Want us to wait up here, Gunny?”
 
In answer, she started down the stairs, and they fell into position behind her.
 
Their orders were to apprehend the gunrunners. Where apprehend meant bring them in alive or face the staggering amount of paperwork required to document every corpse. Their task made more difficult given that the people they were trying to apprehend shot to kill.
 
“Ferin, Yizaun, check the weapons are secure. Mack, get that shutter dogged in. Shiraz, you’re bleeding all over the fukking floor, do something about it.”
 
“Who put you in charge, Harr?”
 
Harr paused at the foot of the stairs, facing back into the community hall. “That’d be when those fuktards took the chief out.”
 
Torin could see a line of blood running from the corner of his mouth where he’d driven his teeth through his lower lip, but a Krai jawbone was one of the toughest organic sub­stances in known space and the pulse Alamber had sent through his implant had done a lot less damage than it would have to a Human or di’Taykan. It had done enough damage, however, that Harr was on the bottom step before he noticed them pressed along the right wall.
 
His eyes widened, his nostril ridges began to close, and Torin grabbed him around the throat, yanking him forward into the butt of Werst’s KC. She’d stepped out into the com­munity hall before he hit the floor.
 
Shiraz, slumped against the wall, awkwardly trying to wrap a blood-soaked cloth tighter around her shoulder, Torin ignored. Mack, his broad back toward her, muscle straining the seams of his shirt, was going to be more of a problem.
 
She couldn’t shoot a man in the back.
 
So she shot him in the back of the knee.
 
He screamed, hit the floor, rolled, and came up holding . . .
 
Torin had no idea what it was, but she’d looked down enough muzzles while in the Corps and after to recognize one now. It was small, dwarfed further by Mack’s hand, and it was definitely a weapon. An easy to conceal and therefore illegal weapon. His first shot hit the wall behind her and ricocheted, drawing an impressive string of profanity from Werst. Pain had Mack’s arm shaking like a recruit’s knees, and Torin figured if he hit her at all, he’d hit her by accident. As it happened, it was an accident she didn’t want to have.
 
“Rehab can rebuild your knee,” she snapped, “not your head.”
 
Might’ve been the threat, might’ve been the pain— the odds were about even as his arm dropped to the floor with an impressive thud.

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Pretend to Feel

Pretend to Feel

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Sleeping Giants
Excerpt

PART ONE

Body Parts

File No. 003

Interview with Dr. Rose Franklin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Enrico Fermi Institute

Location: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL

—How big was the hand?

—6.9 meters, about twenty-three feet; though it seemed much larger for an eleven-year-old.

—What did you do after the incident?

—Nothing. We didn’t talk about it much after that. I went to school every day like any kid my age. No one in my family had ever been to college, so they insisted I keep going to school. I majored in physics.

I know what you’re going to say. I wish I could tell you I went into science because of the hand, but I was always good at it. My parents figured out I had a knack for it early on. I must have been four years old when I got my first science kit for Christmas. One of those electronics kits. You could make a telegraph, or things like that, by squeezing wires into little metal springs. I don’t think I would have done anything different had I listened to my father and stayed home that day.

Anyway, I graduated from college and I kept doing the only thing I knew how to do. I went to school. You should have seen my dad when we learned I was accepted at the University of Chicago. I’ve never seen anyone so proud in my life. He wouldn’t have been any happier had he won a million dollars. They hired me at the U of C after I finished my Ph.D.

—When did you find the hand again?

—I didn’t. I wasn’t looking for it. It took seventeen years, but I guess you could say it found me.

—What happened?

—To the hand? The military took over the site when it was discovered.

—When was that?

—When I fell in. It took about eight hours before the military stepped in. Colonel Hudson—I think that was his name—was put in charge of the project. He was from the area so he knew pretty much everyone. I don’t remember ever meeting him, but those who did had only good things to say about the man.

I read what little was left of his notes—most of it was redacted by the military. In the three years he spent in charge, his main focus had always been figuring out what those carvings meant. The hand itself, which is mostly referred to as “the artifact,” is mentioned in passing only a few times, evidence that whoever built that room must have had a complex enough religious system. I think he had a fairly precise notion of what he wanted this to be.

—What do you think that was?

—I have no idea. Hudson was career military. He wasn’t a physicist. He wasn’t an archaeologist. He had never studied anything resembling anthropology, linguistics, anything that would be remotely useful in this situation. Whatever preconceived notion he had, it must have come from popular culture, watching Indiana Jones or something. Fortunately for him, he had competent people surrounding him. Still, it must have been awkward, being in charge and having no idea what’s going on most of the time.

What’s fascinating is how much effort they put into disproving their own findings. Their first analysis indicated the room was built about three thousand years ago. That made little sense to them, so they tried carbon-dating organic material found on the hand. The tests showed it to be much older, somewhere between five thousand and six thousand years old.

—That was unexpected?

—You could say that. You have to understand that this flies in the face of everything we know about American civilizations. The oldest civilization we’re aware of was located in the Norte Chico region of Peru, and the hand appeared to be about a thousand years older. Even if it weren’t, it’s fairly obvious that no one carried a giant hand from South America all the way to South Dakota, and there were no civilizations as advanced in North America until much, much later.

In the end, Hudson’s team blamed the carbon dating on contamination from surrounding material. After a few years of sporadic research, the site was determined to be twelve hundred years old and classified as a worship temple for some offshoot of Mississippian civilization.

I went through the files a dozen times. There is absolutely nothing, no evidence whatsoever to support that theory, other than the fact that it makes more sense than anything the data would suggest. If I had to guess, I would say that Hudson saw no military interest whatsoever in all this. He probably resented seeing his career slowly wither in an underground research lab and was eager to come up with anything, however preposterous, just to get out of there.

—Did he?

—Get out? Yes. It took a little more than three years, but he finally got his wish. He had a stroke while walking his dog and slipped into a coma. He died a few weeks later.

—What happened to the project after he died?

—Nothing. Nothing happened. The hand and panels collected dust in a warehouse for fourteen years until the project was demilitarized. Then the University of Chicago took over the research with NSA funding and somehow I was put in charge of studying the hand I fell in when I was a child. I don’t really believe in fate, but somehow “small world” doesn’t begin to do this justice.

—Why would the NSA get involved in an archaeological project?

—I asked myself the same question. They fund all kinds of research, but this seems to fall outside their usual fields of interest. Maybe they were interested in the language for cryptology; maybe they had an interest in the material the hand is made of. In any case, they gave us a pretty big budget so I didn’t ask too many questions. I was given a small team to handle the hard science before we handed everything over to the anthropology department. The project was still classified as top secret and, just like my predecessor, I was moved into an underground lab. I believe you’ve read my report, so you know the rest.

—Yes, I have read it. You sent your report after only four months. Some might think it was a little hasty.

—It was a preliminary report, but yes. I don’t think it was premature. OK, maybe a little, but I had made significant discoveries and I didn’t think I could go much further with the data that I had, so why wait? There is enough in that underground room to keep us guessing for several lifetimes. I just don’t think we have the knowledge to get much more out of this without getting more data.

—Who is we?

—Us. Me. You. Mankind. Whatever. There are things in that lab that are just beyond our reach right now.

—Ok, so tell me about what you do understand. Tell me about the panels.

—It’s all in my report. There are sixteen of them, approximately ten feet by thirty-two feet each, less than an inch thick. All sixteen panels were made around the same period, approximately three thousand years ago. We .?.?.

—If I may. I take it you do not subscribe to the cross-contamination theory?

—As far as I’m concerned, there’s no real reason not to trust the carbon dating. And to be honest, how old these things are is the least of our problems. Did I mention the symbols have been glowing for the last seventeen years, with no apparent power source?

Each wall is made of four panels and has a dozen rows of eighteen to twenty symbols carved into it. Rows are divided into sequences of six or seven symbols. We counted fifteen distinct symbols in total. Most are used several times, some appear only once. Seven of them are curvy, with a dot in the center, seven are made of straight lines, and one is just a dot. They are simple in design but very elegant.

—Had the previous team been able to interpret any of the markings?

—Actually, one of the few sections of Hudson’s report left intact by the military was the linguistic analysis. They had compared the symbols to every known writing system, past or present, but found no interesting correlation. They assumed each sequence of symbols represented a proposition, like an English sentence, but with no frame of reference, they couldn’t even speculate as to their interpretation. Their work was thorough enough and documented at every step. I saw no reason to do the same thing twice and I declined the offer to add a linguist to the team. With nothing to compare this to, there was logically no way to arrive at any sort of meaning.

Perhaps I was biased—because I stumbled onto it—but I felt drawn to the hand. I couldn’t explain it, but every fiber of my being was telling me the hand was the important piece.

—Quite a contrast from your predecessor. So what can you tell me about it?

—Well, it’s absolutely stunning, but I assume you’re not that interested in aesthetics. It measures 22.6 feet in length from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger. It seems to be solid, made of the same metallic material as the wall panels, but it’s at least two thousand years older. It is dark gray, with some bronze overtones, and it has subtle iridescent properties.

The hand is open, fingers close together, slightly bent, as if holding something very precious, or a handful of sand, trying not to spill it. There are grooves where human skin would normally fold, others that seem purely decorative. All are glowing the same bright turquoise, which brings out the iridescence in the metal. The hand looks strong, but .?.?. sophisticated is the only word that comes to mind. I think it’s a woman’s hand.

—I am more interested in facts at this point. What is this strong but sophisticated hand made of?

—It proved nearly impossible to cut or otherwise alter by conventional means. It took several attempts to remove even a small sample from one of the wall panels. Mass spectrography showed it to be an alloy of several heavy metals, mostly iridium, with about 10 percent iron and smaller concentrations of osmium, ruthenium, and other metals of the platinum group.

—It must be worth its weight in gold?

—It’s funny you should mention that. It doesn’t weigh as much as it should so I’d say it’s worth a lot more than its weight, in anything.

—How much does it weigh?

—Thirty-two metric tons .?.?. I know, it’s a respectable weight, but it’s inexplicably light given its composition. Iridium is one of the densest elements, arguably the densest, and even with some iron content, the hand should easily weigh ten times as much.

—How did you account for that?

—I didn’t. I still can’t. I couldn’t even speculate as to what type of process could be used to achieve this. In truth, the weight didn’t bother me nearly as much as the sheer amount of iridium I was looking at. Iridium is not only one of the densest things you can find, it’s also one of the rarest.

You see, metals of this group—platinum is one of them—love to bond with iron. That’s what most of the iridium on Earth did millions of years ago when the surface was still molten and, because it’s so heavy, it sunk to the core, thousands of miles deep. What little is left in the Earth’s crust is usually mixed with other metals and it takes a complex chemical process to separate them.

—How rare is it in comparison to other metals?

—It’s rare, very rare. Let’s put it this way, if you were to put together all the pure iridium produced on the entire planet in a year, you’d probably end up with no more than a couple metric tons. That’s about a large suitcaseful. It would take decades, using today’s technology, to scrounge up enough to build all this. It’s just too scarce on Earth and there simply aren’t enough chondrites lying around.

—You lost me.

—Sorry. Meteorites; stony ones. Iridium is so rare in Earth rocks that it is often undetectable. Most of the iridium we mine is extracted from fallen meteorites that didn’t completely burn up in the atmosphere. To build this room—and it seems safe to assume that this is not the only thing they would have built—you’d need to find it where there are a lot more than on the Earth’s surface.

—Journey to the center of the Earth?

—Jules Verne is one way to go. To get this type of metal in massive quantities, you’d either have to extract it thousands of miles deep or be able to mine in space. With all due respect to Mr. Verne, we haven’t come close to mining deep enough. The deepest mines we have would look like potholes next to what you’d need. Space seems much more feasible. There are private companies right now hoping to harvest water and precious minerals in space in the very near future, but all these projects are still in the early planning stages. Nonetheless, if you could harvest meteorites in space, you could get a lot more iridium, a whole lot more.

—What else can you tell me?

—That pretty much sums it up. After a few months of looking at this with every piece of equipment known to man, I felt we were getting nowhere. I knew we were asking the wrong questions, but I didn’t know the right ones. I submitted a preliminary report and asked for a leave of absence.

—Refresh my memory. What was the conclusion of that report?

—We didn’t build this.

—Interesting. What was their reaction?

—Request granted.

—That was it?

—Yes. I think they were hoping I wouldn’t come back. I never used the word “alien,” but that’s probably all they took out of my report.

—That is not what you meant?

—Not exactly. There might be a much more down-to-earth explanation, one I just didn’t think of. As a scientist, all I can say is that humans of today do not have the resources, the knowledge, or the technology to build something like this. It’s entirely possible that some ancient civilization’s understanding of metallurgy was better than ours, but there wouldn’t have been any more iridium around, whether it was five thousand, ten thousand, or twenty thousand years ago. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t believe humans built these things. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from that.

I’m not stupid; I knew I was probably putting an end to my career. I certainly annihilated any credibility I had with the NSA, but what was I going to do? Lie?

—What did you do after you submitted your report?

—I went home, to where it all began. I hadn’t gone home in nearly four years, not since my father died.

—Where is home?

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True Believers

True Believers

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