Off the coast of Kenya, within sight of the lights of Takaungo, a cofferdam the size of a football stadium surrounds a top secret archeological excavation of three distinctly alien spacecraft—six legged beetle-shaped vessels with black chrysalis hulls. Over five hundred years have passed since the three Enferian troop carriers inexplicably landed in the sea. Now, with the Earth Confederation and the Enferian Empire at war, these long-forgotten sunken relics may hold the key to victory.
The man behind the project, Yang Han, son of American astronaut Wendy Nagumo and Chinese taikonaut Yang Zintao, hopes the spacecraft will yield intelligence information vital to the war effort, like the secrets of Enferian gravity-wave communications and Galactic wormhole navigation.
When he receives word one of the Enferian warriors on board may still be alive, the project takes on historic proportions. If true, this would be the first live subject ever obtained. The Enferian is taken to an isolation chamber for further study, an autopsy if necessary, its features hidden beneath an opaque membrane.
As the membrane dissolves, Han begins to see the truth about himself and the Enferian. He sets out on a journey that not only gives him the answers he seeks and more, but also pits him against the Enferians and treacherous elements of the Confederation itself in a do or die battle that could alter the future of the Galaxy.
Yang Han, Director of the Earth Confederation Office of Alien Affairs, pulled up the collar of his jacket and sipped at the hot coffee in a vain effort to ward off the chill from the stout wind blowing from the northeast. Sunrise was still to come and it had been a good hour since the motor launch got underway from the Kenyan Navy Harbor. Another hour like this and he would be frozen solid.
The radio blared. “This is KNS Shujaa. You are about to enter a quarantine area. Identify yourself.” Han spotted the Kenyan Navy Shupavu-class patrol boat about two thousand meters off their starboard beam.
The ranking officer aboard the motor launch, a young Sub-Lieutenant named Njenga, responded. “This is vessel Kilo Alpha.”
“State the authorization code.”
“Whiskey bravo, two three zebra.”
After a moment's delay, the radio blared, “Proceed.”
“Have you had much trouble enforcing the quarantine?” Han said.
“No Sir. Mostly curious locals worried about radiation poisoning.”
Han nodded knowingly.
Six months previously, the Kenyan Navy announced the discovery of the U764, a World War II-era German U-boat sunk while en route to Japan with a cargo of enriched uranium. The announcement went to great lengths to assure the public that no radiation leaks had been detected but cautioned that the entire area was being quarantined during the salvage operation as a safety precaution. Like most quarantine pronouncements involving public safety, this one was designed to scare the population away by pointing out that the age of the hull and the corrosive effects of seawater may have weakened the uranium containment vessel or the hull itself to the point that, if subjected to the stresses of a conventional salvage lift, a radiation leak was a distinct possibility. Consequently, the announcement concluded, the salvage operation would be conducted inside of a cofferdam, an extraordinary measure under the circumstances, that would allow the use of sophisticated radiation detection and abatement equipment.
The story was a total fabrication.
The lights of the cofferdam were in sight now, about a quarter of a kilometer distant. Takaungo was visible to the west. From his vantage point at sea level, the cofferdam reminded Han of the log forts that once dotted the American West--crude but effective. Corrugated vertical pilings set in the seabed side-by-side formed the wall.
He flexed his right leg, if for nothing else than reassurance the exoskeleton was ready for the task ahead. After spending so many years on the Moon, every time he returned to Earth from his home in Clavius Station, he had to wear one until his body reacclimatized to the Earth's gravity. In his younger days, he'd been able to discard the exoskeleton after a few days. Now it was more like one to two weeks, and then he struggled with excessive tiredness and muscle pain. Age and stress were taking their toll. At this rate, it wouldn't be long before travel to Earth would no longer be possible, even with the aid of an exoskeleton.
Strangely enough Han had mixed feelings about that day. On one hand, he prayed it would be a long time coming. There was so much he had to do. Part of him, however, yearned for a return to his roots – his family, research and writing. He already had more than enough material for his memoirs and several lucrative publishing contracts in the offing if and when he desired to devote the time to writing. Then there was the Yang Jin Memorial Library, a project close to his heart.
It had been over ten years since that fateful day on Mars and not a day had gone by when Han failed to think about his older brother. The pain had subsided but not the sense of loss, like a piece of him was missing. He'd lost track of the number of nights he had lain awake, replaying the fateful events that led up to Jin's death, wondering what, if anything, he might have done differently and each time he came up wanting. The trip to Mars; the search for the lost Nzuri Mars colony; the foolish descent into the bowels of the Nzuri installation, - all of it was Han's idea. Which made Jin's death all the more poignant. Without Jin, Han would never have discovered the Nzuri Fighting Sphere or the chilling message from the man named Issa, claiming he and a handful of survivors were headed for the planet he called “Sol-3”.
Through his research into the Fighting Sphere's crystalline memory, Han had unlocked the secrets of the Nzuri's advanced technology and weapons, knowledge that would later prove vital to Earth's initial victory over the Enferians in what became known as the “Battle of Near Earth.” That alone earned him a place in history. But there was more, much more, stored in the craft's memory, most notably the Chronicles, the detailed account of all things about and related to the Nzuri. It was a rich history, more than a life's work for an ordinary scholar. He had quickly become the world's leading authority on the Nzuri's technology, history and culture. Yet he knew he'd only scratched the surface.
There was so much more to discover about the Nzuri. Foremost in his mind was the ultimate fate of Issa and the other survivors of the Nzuri Mars colony. Did they reach Earth? Were they rescued? Every time he replayed Issa's recorded message, the questions haunted him. He vowed he would learn the truth, if for no other reason than to celebrate Jin and all that he had done.
Han took a sip of coffee and spat it over the side. It was cold, like the sky at dawn. He looked up, knowing full well Vega wasn't visible this far south, but he turned to the north anyway, like he had so many other times and pictured a Galaxy without the Enferians. It was teaming with life, with thousands of space-faring races bound together by shared economic and cultural interests, where emerging civilizations were encouraged to join the Galactic community. The thought was inspiring, made all the more compelling by the stark reality revealed by modern celestial astronomy.
Observations by the Hubbell Space Telescope and other observatories found no planet resembling Bantu in the Vega system. What was discovered was a ring that circled Vega at a distance a planet with a climate profile similar to Bantu's would have occupied. It was widely assumed that the ring was the result of the collision of the planet and a passing asteroid. Han knew better. He was convinced the Enferians had destroyed the Nzuri home world and ended the lives of ten billion poor souls purely as an act of genocide. He had no doubt that other worlds had met similar fates with the absence of inhabited planets anywhere in the vicinity of Earth as a witness. The Enferians were a scourge on the Galaxy.
Which is why he hated them.
The walls of the cofferdam towered over the motor launch as it pulled alongside and tied up to the sea level egress platform. Han stepped onto the platform and mounted the steeply inclined flight of stairs that ran up the outside of the cofferdam with the nimbleness of a cat. He reached the top in record time, feeling quite smug. This was one of the few times he enjoyed wearing the exoskeleton. It allowed him the momentary illusion that he possessed physical prowess beyond those of a slug.
Han was greeted at the top of the stairway by Dr. M. Robert Lewis, PhD. “Welcome to the Big Hole, Dr. Yang.” The good doctor had not changed much since their last meeting in the McGregor Industries Developmental Center in Seattle, Washington. He still looked like he was too young to shave. Back then, he was a member of the team that developed the Stiletto, the near light-speed attack vehicle that had wreaked havoc on Enferian defense shields. A child prodigy whose social development was stunted by accelerated academic achievement, Rob tended to be abrupt in conversation, intolerant of stupid people, whom he defined as anyone with an IQ less than 150, and annoyingly arrogant.
Han still had no idea why Rob had ever been selected to escort the President that day. The child prodigy had managed to piss off the Commandeer-in-Chief almost immediately. Fortunately, the President had kept his cool and once Rob revealed the full extent of his knowledge of anti-gravity drives, his churlish first impression was forgotten. The visit had ended as a resounding success.
Han offered his hand in greeting and said, “It's good to be here. I think the next time I'll take the chopper.” He was about to ask for a cup of hot soup or coffee, anything to warm up his core temperature, until he gazed down at what lay inside the cofferdam. “My God.”
Housed inside a metal scaffolding was an alien spacecraft like none he'd ever seen. It resembled a giant beetle, with a black chrysalis-like hull and six spindly legs. Excavations on the far side of the cofferdam had exposed the hulls of two more of the alien craft.
“I had no idea there was more than one,” Han said.
“We call this one 'Craft 1.' The other two are Craft 2 and Craft 3.”
“This is not a crash site. It looks more like a deliberate landing attempt.”
“Precisely. We think these landed in the water by mistake, perhaps because their sensors mistook seawater for dry land.”
“Have you any idea what sort of craft these are?” Han was familiar with the large starfish-shaped vehicles that served as the primary attack force in the Battle of Near Earth. He'd called them “battleships” for lack of a better term. The spacecraft here were far smaller.
A chill shot down Han's spine. “You mean there are Enferian soldiers on board?”
“We may have recovered one.”
Han was excited. “May I see it?” If Rob was correct, this would be the first instance in which an Enferian body had been recovered intact.
“Come with me. The isolation chamber is over here.”
Rob led the way along the narrow catwalk that ran along the entire inner circumference of the cofferdam. At regular intervals, metal stairways descended to prefabricated utility modules tucked against the cofferdam wall and, in some cases, extended all the way to ground level. He stopped at the stairway marked “Isolation Chamber.”
“Watch your step. Sometimes the stair grating gets pretty slippery.”
“It won't be a problem.” Han slowly shifted his weight from one foot to the other, causing the exoskeleton's servo actuators to click and whir.
“My apologies, Dr. Yang. For a moment there, I forgot you're wearing an exoskeleton. For you to lose your footing while wearing one of those would be highly unusual, but it has happened.” Rob continued talking over his shoulder as he descended. “I'm afraid I've become a bit of a nag when it comes to workplace safety. Did you know slips and falls are the main reason our lost work day stats are so poor?”
“I'm not surprised.”
Rob disappeared through a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Han joined him inside a small L-shaped ante-room, featuring a large pressure door at one end and a floor-to-ceiling window at the other. A man in a white lab coat with “Jian” stenciled on it stood next to him with an expectant air about him. Rob made the introductions.
“This is Dr. Xi Jian, the head of our Extraterrestrial Study Team.”
“It's an honor to meet you, Dr. Yang,” Jian said. “I’ve read all of your papers on the Nzuri.”
“I’m flattered. I’ve been most impressed with your work on alien biodegradation.” When Han had visited the Cleveland crash site of the North American battleship just forty-eight hours after the battle, the remains had largely turned into putrid smelling globs through a process that resembled bio-degradation. Early responders reported observing a metallic sheen covering the wreckage. Similar findings arose from the other alien crash sites. In his landmark paper on Enferian forensics, Jian theorized that the sheen was caused by an extracellular surfactant secreted by an alien microorganism that consumed all bio-matter within hours of death.
“Then you must appreciate the urgency of the situation. We must perform the autopsy immediately.”
“I concur,” Han said.
Gesturing toward a glass wall off to the right, Jian said, “Come with me.”
Han stepped up to the wall and felt his heart skip a beat. On the other side of the ten-centimeter-thick glass, the Enferian lay prone on a make-shift examining table—a large door supported at each end by cinder blocks. Some sort of membrane stretched over the alien's entire body and head, making it all but impossible to discern details of either. About all Han could tell was that the Enferian possessed a large head, two arms, two legs, and a barrel-like torso. Overall it was far larger than the average human, perhaps three meters in height with a girth at least half that.
“This is extraordinary,” Han said.
“Indeed,” Jian said. “Would you like to assist, Dr. Yang?”
“I’ll observe from here.”
“As you wish. Now if you will excuse me, I must prepare.” Jian bowed politely and hurried off toward the pressure door.
“Dr. Xi is the best,” Rob said.
“I hope so,” said Jian. “The fate of mankind may hinge on what he discovers.”
Jian entered the chamber in full isolation gear. He spoke over the intercom, “As you can see, the subject is encased in a form-fitting membrane. In all the other subjects recovered thus far, eleven as I recall, the membranes were hard, like sarcophagi. Initially, I thought perhaps they were escape pods, but after opening several using an industrial laser cutter, I came up with a new theory. When the subject is deceased, the armor loses its resilience, hardens and the body rapidly decomposes.” Jian bent down for a closer look at the alien's neck, or at least what Han thought should be a neck.
“No sign of hardening,” he said, gently probing with the scalpel. He probed again. “That's odd, the harder I push the more resistance I get from the suit. It's almost as if there is some sort of force field built into it.” The next time he bore down hard, trying to make an incision. He grunted, straining to cut through the mysterious material. “It feels like steel.” Withdrawing the scalpel, he pressed down on the spot where he'd attempted the incision with his forefinger. “I've never seen anything like it. It's like it was before.”
“There must be some sort of release mechanism,” Rob said.
“I don't see one,” Jian said.
“Check out its left wrist,” Han said, pointing at the creature's left upper appendage, what Han would call an arm. “Is that some kind of device?”
Jian studied it carefully, first by eye and then with the aid of a magnifier. “There is a square with some sort of alien script inside.” He pressed it.
The armor became an inky liquid that gradually lightened and disappeared altogether, like a polarizer being slowly turned. The creature came into view.
“My God, it’s a cockroach,” Han said.
“A very large cockroach,” Rob said.
Han's skin crawled. The sight of the hideous brown shell, the roach trademark, brought back long buried memories of the roach-infested apartment he lived in while attending graduate school. The filthy creatures had a way of turning up in the most unexpected places, like in his shoes when he put them on or next to the toilet in the middle of a good crap. Night time was the worst. Every time he turned on the kitchen light, at least one or two of the little buggers would scurry for cover beneath the fridge or slip through a gap in baseboards. Poisons and sprays failed to rid the place of them. He'd gone mad with anxiety. Luckily, a friend convinced him to seek therapy. It turned out he suffered from Kastaridaphobia.
Han turned his back to the glass and inhaled deeply while hunching his shoulders. After holding his breath for a second, he relaxed his shoulders and exhaled. He repeated the exercise several times until he felt the anxiety begin to melt out of him.
“I suspected they were an insect species all along,” Jian said. “Why not a roach? That explains the myth an Enferian warrior cannot be killed with a single shot. The roach nervous system is spread throughout the body through a series of segmentally arranged ganglia. In theory, you could remove this guy's head and he could still function. He'd die eventually . . . of starvation.”
Han forced himself back to the glass and tuned Jian out. As a mind-diversion, he counted the small holes along the sides of the creature's abdomen that served as breathing passages. One, two, three . . . “I count ten spiracles on the left side.”
“Are you alright Dr. Yang?” Rob said.
“I'm fine. Just a little jet lag.”
“Check out the head.”
Han peered at the creature's head. The bulbous compound eyes, the triangular head, the trap-like mouth, all fit the insect physiology. It took him a moment before he realized what was missing. “It has no antennae. How do you explain that Dr. Xi?”
“The creature possesses other sensory organs, like the maxillary palps, the labial palps and the anal cerci, that apparently have replaced the cranial antennae. That may explain why the anterior portion of the head capsule is so distended.” He paused to study something on the back of the alien's head. “How odd. There is some sort of device embedded in the subject's neck.”
“What kind of device?” Han stood on his tiptoes, trying for a better look. The air suddenly felt charged with electricity.
Jian began to probe. “There is a flap of skin partially covering the device. If I can just move it aside . . .”
The Enferian reared back its head, screeched, and broke free of the restraints. It reared up on its hind legs, towering over Jian. It lashed out with one foreleg and then the other, each brandishing a hook-shaped claw. Jian backpedalled, his eyes wide with fear.
“Run!” Rob yelled, pointing to the pressure door.
The Enferian spun around at the sound of Rob’s voice. Its mouth flared open with a menacing hiss.
Jian lunged for the pressure door.
In two kangaroo-like hops, the Enferian blocked his escape.
Both of its foreclaws retracted, exposing articulated manipulators, two fingers and an opposing thumb. Holding Jian by the scruff of his lab coat, it dragged him to the glass, jerked him off his feet, and slammed him face first against the glass, directly in front of Han.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Han said.
The Enferian tossed Jian's body to one side and hissed.
“Don't be a hero, doc. I'm calling Security,” Rob said.
“Wait. Where's the emergency fail-safe?” All alien decontamination chambers included equipment for rendering its occupants unconscious or helpless in the event of an emergency.
“That’s it,” Rob said, pointing to a red switch box on the back wall. On the wall above the switch box, a crude stencil read, “Emergency Use Only.”
Something crashed against the glass wall. Han spun around in time to see the Enferian slam the examining table against the glass a second time. The glass showed no signs of breaking. The alien made one more unsuccessful attempt to break through before throwing the improvised battering ram aside. It hopped toward the pressure door.
Han rushed to the red switch box, lifted the switch box cover and pulled down on the toggle inside. Almost immediately, an alarm sounded and high-pressure nitrogen containing a powerful neurotoxin blasted into the isolation chamber.
Han returned to the observation window and peered into the isolation chamber. Had he begun the emergency procedure in time? It was hard to tell. White vapor obscured the view. The green light above the door indicated the inner door to the isolation chamber was sealed shut. That meant the Enferian had not managed to open the inner pressure door before it succumbed to the effects of the neurotoxin.
Han slumped against the wall and exhaled deeply. He'd misjudged the Enferian, perhaps because of his own emotional baggage. It never occurred to him that the Enferian might still be alive, much less able to stand erect and move with an incredible cat-like nimbleness that belied its size. All that would have to be taken into account in the alien profile.
Where the hell was Security? They knew how to turn off the alarm and vent the isolation chamber. Time was of the essence. Han suspected Jian was dead of a broken neck. Even if he had miraculously survived, however, every bone in his face had to be broken. Jian needed medical attention, now.
A section of the glass wall exploded outward, showering Han with bits of tempered glass. He turned his head to one side, shielding his face with one arm, and lurched to his feet as the Enferian leapt into view. Crouching on its hind legs, the alien quickly zeroed in on Han. It charged, claws fully bared, mouth opened wide.
Han sidestepped the onrushing beast, narrowly avoiding one of its razor-sharp claws. As the Enferian spun around, Han chopped hard against its right foreleg, breaking it in two. With a savage hiss the Enferian charged, slashing wildly with its other foreclaw. Han fell back, eluding the deadly claw once and then again, thanks to the heightened reactions afforded by his exoskeleton.
The alarm klaxon abruptly ceased.
The Enferian paused, swiveling its triangular head from side-to-side.
Han lowered his head and charged, smashing into the Enferian's abdomen, the only part of its body that was not protected by the interlocking plates that made up its outer shell. The alien doubled over, apparently stunned, as Han's legs churned. It staggered backwards, crashed through the door to the outside, and fell onto the catwalk, taking Han with it. Han landed hard on the creature's chest. Just as his hands closed about the alien's neck, it spat greenish spittle in his face.
Almost immediately, his eyes blurred and began to burn.
The Enferian’s left foreleg smashed into the side of Han’s head, sending him sprawling.
The Enferian then leaned down until its head was practically touching Han's nose, so close the he could see the individual elements in its compound eyes and hear the whistle of air passing in and out of its spiracles. Extending its left foreclaw, it placed the knife edge across his throat.
“I used to kill your cousins with a shoe.”
The claw slowly withdrew.
Han blinked several times and partial vision returned, enough to see the Enferian rise up on its hind legs. Its cerci, the fine hairs near its rear end that served as motion sensors, twitched with increasing intensity.
Shouts and the sound of boots treading on metal gratings grew louder.
The Enferian spread its leathery fore wings, exposing its opaque, almost membrane-like hind wings. These quickly extended, fluttering slightly.
“There it is,” shouted the first of the Security team to arrive.
The Enferian's cerci twitched violently.
It's triangular head turned toward the Security, its mouth open, exposing fleshy pink inner lips. The lips moved in staccato fashion, forming a melodic series of clicks like the sound of a pencil raked quickly across a corrugated wash board. With a final almost contemptuous hiss, it leapt off the catwalk, dove toward the floor of the cofferdam to gain speed, arced upward, its hind wings thrashing, and headed west.
Han ran his finger over the surface cut left by the Enferian's claw and wondered why it had let him live. Had it spoken to him? The entire experience had been so strange, so non-human, that it frightened him. The evolutionary differences between humans and Enferians were so vast, how could the two races ever truly communicate, much less understand one another?
Although few and far between, there were times when Rob actually looked up to and admired Han as a visionary and a great leader, a privilege he accorded only a handful of people, given the fact that he regarded himself as intellectually superior to everyone else on the planet, except Steve Jobs perhaps, and he was dead. So, when the resident physician, a German by the name of Reinhardt Scholz, asked Rob to make sure Han remained in the infirmary flat on his back while his eyes were treated for acid burns, Rob saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the man who many revered as the savior of Earth.
“Do you really think that Issa and the other survivors actually made it to Earth and landed somewhere around here?”
“Have you seen Issa's message?”
“I've seen an edited version with an English soundtrack. Your experience was a little different, wasn't it?”
“Issa spoke in his native tongue but in my mind I understood his words in English. Did you know that Swahili and Nzuri Standard share many of the same linguistic roots?”
“I read that somewhere. If the landing occurred in 1527 AD, as you surmised, it's hard to imagine how the Nzuri could have influenced the tribal language so fundamentally in a relative brief period of time. After all, the British arrived only a few hundred years later.”
“So how do you explain away the linguistic similarities between the two languages? For instance, did you know that Issa is a common Swahili name for boys? It stands for 'Opportunity.'“
“Without other compelling evidence, like artifacts, I have to chalk it up to cosmic coincidence. Show me something tangible. Is that unreasonable?”
Jack Steele, the head of Security, burst through the door to the Infirmary.
“I've got great news,” he said breathlessly.
“You spotted the Enferian, didn't you?” Han said.
“Yes. You'll never guess where.”
“How did you know where it was going?”
“The landing site coordinates that Issa left behind were in East Africa, precisely where Lake Victoria is today.” Han reached for the saline dressings covering his eyes.
“You're supposed to leave those on for another two hours, doctor's orders,” Rob said.
“Nonsense. If I did everything the doctors told me to do I'd never get anything done. Besides, my eyes are fine now.” Han got out of bed and walked straight into the four-wheeled cart containing the defibrillator. His exoskeleton powered past it, sending the cart spinning into the wall.
“You never saw that, did you?”
“That's it, you're going back to bed,” Rob said, taking Han by the arm.
“Jack, have you put together a recovery team?” Han said.
Jack cleared his throat, “Over here, Sir.” Han was speaking to the mirror over the wash basin.
“Oh yes, of course,” Han said, turning toward the sound of Jack's voice. “Are you prepared to go after it?”
“The team is assembling now. We depart in five.”
“I’m going with you,” Han said.
“Are you sure that is a good idea?” Rob said.
“Yes. The Enferian may lead us to the truth about Issa and the other survivors.”
“And get yourself killed. If you ask me, you're in no shape to go anywhere but back to bed.”
The signature THUMP THUMP THUMP of a V-22 Osprey drowned out further conversation.
“Our ride is here,” Jack said.
“Then let’s go,” Han said.
Jack looked back at Rob with a quizzical expression.
“He's the boss,” Rob said with a shrug. He liked his job and the money too much to put them at risk for the sake of an old fool who wanted to get himself killed. He walked out onto the catwalk in time to see a mottled, gray-colored V-22 Osprey with no identification markings touch down on the helipad. The antennae bristling from the stubby fuselage and the chin turret under the nose, an infra-red night vision sensor he guessed, earmarked it as a covert operations aircraft. With twin Rolls-Royce AE 1107C engines, each sporting a three-bladed rotorprop far longer than those found on comparably sized conventional propeller driven aircraft, the aircraft was a cross between an airplane and a helicopter.
Rob got one final glimpse of Han as he boarded the aircraft. He looked disoriented, unsure which way to go. A moment later the Osprey's engines roared and the ungainly craft rose above the parapet, slowly at first and then moving forward as the engine pods rotated from their vertical to horizontal cruise positions. Punctuated by the THUMP THUMP THUMP of its rotorprops, the Osprey quickly disappeared into the distance.
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