Sunday, July 26, 2009

Offworld - Chapter 1

Offworld

Bethany House (July 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


This Thing of Darkness
August 11, 2032
Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Stumble.

Red dirt filled Burke's field of view. Not that it was much of a change. Red dirt had been all he could see for hours. Even the bright pinkish tan of the planet's sky was washed away by the windstorm.

"Beech!" he called out, hoisting himself back to his feet as the wind spun him about. He carried a small black pack with a few meager supplies and some mission equipment inside. "I've got zero visibility! No orientation! I can't see anything!"

He stopped.

Burke's training fought against the fear creeping into his mind, against the rising panic as the wind fed more soil and dust into the crevices of his space suit.

Got to find my way ... dirt's building up ... soon I won't be able to move....

"Habitat, this is Burke!" he yelled over the storm. "I can't see anything, and I've lost contact with Beechum!"

No answer. A brutal gust surged around him like the gale force of a hurricane, threatening to pick him up off his feet. He crouched to center his weight, slung the pack over his back, and took a steadying breath.

"Houston?" he tried halfheartedly. There was little chance the relay satellite orbiting above would pick him up if the rest of his own team couldn't hear him from less than a hundred miles away. "Is anyone reading me?"

No reply, not even static. The earpiece inside his helmet was dead.

Okay, Chris. Think. You're in the middle of a dried-up riverbed that we've been studying for weeks. You know your way around this place. Think about landmarks. What's nearby?

The wind cleared just enough for him to catch a glimpse of a red boulder, directly ahead of his position. Burke crawled forward, on hands and knees, and stooped there in the shadow of the large rock to rest and think. Fighting the dust storm had required all of his strength, every muscle ready to crumple from the effort. He brushed aside the deep red dust on his right arm and uncovered an electronic readout on the underside.

It read 5:08 pm.

Which meant he had about four hours of oxygen remaining in his suit.

And worse, nightfall would come in less than an hour. Martian days were just thirty-nine minutes longer than days on Earth, so sunrise and sunset were virtually the same on the red planet as on the blue one.

So ... he thought. Lost on the surface of Mars, unable to reach the Habitat, unable to see, barely able to move, only four hours of air left, and it's about to get dark and lethally cold.

If Dad could see me now ...

The wind raged on, pressing Chris' full frame against the boulder, wave after wave of red dirt pounding into him so hard he could feel it through the thickness of the suit. He could even sense the temperature dropping around him, in spite of his suit's automatic climate control, as daylight began to slide ever so slowly into dusk.

Survival drills ran through his head ...

The horrible roar of the wind made it terribly hard to concentrate.

Water reserves running low, better save it.

Sweat ran down into his eyes, but he couldn't stop it, couldn't reach his face through the tinted visor....

His head rested against the large red rock behind him....

He passed out.

April 28, 2033
Eight Months Later
Ares Mission, Return Voyage
T-Minus 67 Days to Earth
All five hundred square feet of the Ares turned on a central axis as the ship raced for home at 75,000 miles per hour. It was little more than a long, sophisticated metal tube that could separate into segmented compartments. The compartment farthest from the main engine served as the command module and resembled a tiny space shuttle, with small wings on each side and a tail fin that looked proportionately too small. The Ares tumbled through space sideways to give the crew a semblance of gravity, spiraling her way back to Earth.

Christopher Burke awoke to the sound of his first officer pedaling a stationary bicycle at a steady clip, a baseball cap keeping her hair out of her face, and wires channeling music into her ears.

Trisha Merriday looked tired. She concealed it well, but he'd spent two and a half years with her and the other two crewmembers, and he knew them almost as well as they knew themselves.

"You doing okay today?" he tentatively asked. It was always a tightrope, asking how she was feeling, because he knew things about her that the others didn't. Things that she'd chosen to confide in him alone. Everyone has certain secrets that are best kept hidden, he reasoned, and he'd returned the favor by confessing to her his ongoing dreams that began after a near-disastrous incident on Mars.

NASA would have preferred that they maintained a disciplined, formal tone in everything they did, of course. But it was impossible to spend two and a half years of your life with only three other people for company, and maintain formalities.

Trisha made no verbal reply; she merely eyed him knowingly and nodded with an affirmative. He could see that she was putting on her usual stoic fa├žade.

She studied him as she pedaled and pedaled, her legs and feet churning the stirrups.

"Here," she said, pulling a bottle of water from a holder attached to the bike. She tossed it to him, and it took a second longer to reach him than it would have on Earth, the artificial gravity from the ship's spin only providing eighty percent of Earth's pull. "You look like you've already had your workout."

Chris nodded once, a quick thanks, and then took several long draughts from the bottle.

Trisha waited until he was done, trying not to be obvious about the fact that she was watching him, considering his appearance. But he could feel her eyes.

He stood from his bunk and stretched. Chris struck an imposing figure at his full height, which had lengthened even a bit more in the weightlessness of space. Blond, blue-eyed, handsome and strong, he'd always gotten more attention than he'd ever desired. But then, NASA couldn't let an unattractive man be the first person to walk on Mars, could they? It was a reality of the job that would have caused others to question themselves, but he had no such doubts about himself or his abilities. He'd been preparing to be an astronaut his entire life, and so insecurity rarely troubled him.

"Had the dream again, didn't you?" Trisha said softly, so her voice wouldn't carry. She continued her relentless pedaling, the nonstop, rhythmic sound threatening to lull him back to sleep. His brain was still stumbling into consciousness, tripping over memories that were weakly fighting to surface.

Chris nodded, not looking at her. He closed his eyes, straining to think back ...

"How far did you get this time?" she asked.

Chris rubbed his eyes; it did nothing to clear away the bleary lack of focus that was there. "Not much further than the sandstorm. I passed out somewhere along the way. I don't remember anything after that." His jaw clenched as he ground his teeth—a bad habit he'd acquired since the mission began. "There was one new detail that came back to me. I remember checking my air supply. There were only four hours left."

Trisha stopped pedaling and the small cabin fell silent. "Four hours? Are you sure?"

He nodded again, still not facing her.

"That can't be right. You were missing so much longer—you were out of radio contact for over eighteen hours before we found you."

He spun on her, frustrated. "I know that!"

Trisha frowned, surprised.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I just ... can't make sense of it. Any of it."

Trisha studied him.

"I'm the first person to walk on Mars," Chris went on. "And there's an eighteen-hour window of my time there that I can't account for. NASA's expecting a full debrief as soon as we get home, and I can't even begin to explain what happened. I just can't remember."

They both knew how NASA felt about ambiguities—especially when it came to one of their astronauts. An unknown might as well be called a failure as far as the media was concerned.

Trisha was considering a response when a shout came from the command module, carrying all the way to their cabin, down near the main engine.

"Chris, you better get up here!" Terry called out, his voice betraying a hint of panic. "We've lost contact with Houston!"

Chris bolted for the command module as fast as he could, Trisha right behind with her exercise towel draped around her neck.

"What happened?" he said before he was fully in the cockpit.

"Ground Control's broken contact," Owen said calmly as if nothing were wrong. Owen Beechum, mission specialist on the team, rarely flinched.

That was less true of the crew's command module pilot, Terry Kessler, who paced the tiny five-by-five space at the back of the cabin like a caged cat.

Chris pushed past Terry and took his seat at the nose of the ship, examining his console. "We're still receiving telemetry."

"Telemetry, yeah," Terry replied, still pacing, "but nobody's talking."

Trisha joined Chris in her customary seat beside his. At his nod she leaned forward.

"Houston, this is Ares, respond please," she said with her finger on a control marked VOX. It was like a speakerphone for the command module, transmitting everything they said back to Houston. Her tone was all business.

No response.

"This is god of war calling Mount Olympus. Do you read?" Chris called. The Greek mythology references were an easy habit they'd fallen into less than a month into the mission.

A long moment of silence passed as the four of them listened and waited for a response that never came. Even Terry stopped pacing, crossing his arms anxiously.

"What about the ISS?" suggested Trisha, referring to the International Space Station.

"Nothing." Owen shook his head. "No transmissions of any kind are coming from the station."

Chris looked out at the stars but caught his own reflection in the glass. He could see the others: Trisha sitting next to him, Owen behind her, and Terry pacing again in the back. Chris looked past the reflection, far into the deepness of space, wondering about the communication breakdown. Was it the ship? Something on the ground?

"Try Tranquility," he said softly.

Owen's eyebrows shot up, but then he quickly nodded, conceding it was worth a shot. Though the Ares had no established procedure for contacting Tranquility Base directly, Owen was more than capable of working around such limitations.

Tranquility Base was the first—and so far only—permanent base on the surface of the moon. It resided in the Sea of Tranquility, the same site where Armstrong and Aldrin had first walked on the moon in 1969, and had been named in honor of Armstrong's famous announcement when their tiny craft landed there.

A few moments of fingers brushing lightly over keys and Owen nodded at Trisha that he was ready.

"Tranquility Base, this is Ares. Tranquility Base, Ares," Trisha said into the microphone. "Do you copy?"

The silence of static returned from the tiny speaker above the microphone. Trisha tried again, repeating her hail, but no reply came.

"Systems diagnostic," Chris said mechanically to Owen.

"Already done. By the numbers, all the way," he replied.

Chris glanced at Trisha and she looked back. An entire conversation passed between them in a single look.

Terry and Owen said nothing, waiting, and their silence lingered in the air along with an unspoken question.

"If there's nothing wrong with the ship, then the problem is on the ground," Chris concluded, rising from his chair. "Keep monitoring, let me know when they get it fixed. Until then, we'll proceed as normal. Hopefully, NASA can hear us even if we can't hear them."

With that, he disappeared down the corridor, the discussion officially over.

* * *

Trisha hesitated, not following Chris out of the command module. Something about the apprehension in Terry's eyes held her back.

"But ..." Terry stammered, "shouldn't we try something else?"

"Our options are very limited," Trisha pointed out. Like most of the ship's countless systems, the communications equipment was fragile, despite multiple redundancies, and not easily fixed if broken. Just one of the prices paid for attempting to visit another planet.

Owen looked up from his console, agreeing with Terry. "It doesn't add up, Trish. We should be picking up something, even if it's not NASA. Satellite feeds, military broadcasts, signals to or from ... something," he concluded, pushing his glasses up on his nose.

The two of them waited for Trisha to respond, but she was lost in thought. She was the consummate first officer, fiercely loyal to Chris, and grateful he almost always deserved it. His leadership instincts and decision-making were unlike anyone she'd ever worked with before. And this time was no different.

"Chris is right," she said. "If the radio is working on our end—and the diagnostic says it is—then the problem is back home. And if the problem is on our end, there's nothing we can do about it now," she said before exiting the command module.

Trisha didn't follow Chris to the rear of the craft, where her stationary bicycle waited. Instead, she detoured into the lavatory, which was located near the midsection of the ship, where gravity was weakest.

Inside, she locked the door and leaned back against it. Lingering there, the crook of her right arm found its way up to rest against her forehead. Her shoulders slumped, and she let out a very long breath.

Soon she had folded slowly to the floor, as if an enormous weight were bearing down on her back. She couldn't find the strength or the will to get back up.

But a knock at the door startled her into rising again.

"Trish, that you in there?" It was Terry.

"Yeah," she called out. "Be out in a second."

"Hurry, could ya?" he said back in a soft voice, as if trying to keep the others from hearing. "I'm gonna soak the carpet out here."

Trisha stepped forward to the flight medicine bin and retrieved a nondescript pill bottle. She popped the lid and dry-swallowed two capsules.

Collecting herself, she exited the lavatory, not bothering to watch as Terry rushed inside.

* * *

Alone in the command module, Owen continued trying to get a signal. Houston, Tranquility, the ISS, anything. But he received only silence in return.

What was going on?

Truthfully, Owen was unsurprised that something like this had happened. Aside from the mysterious eighteen hours when Chris had gone missing, the entire mission had been glitch-free. And space travel was never free from glitches. The technology was just too new, too untested. Though he never said it to the others, he'd been waiting for something to go wrong for months.

He thought of his wife and son waiting for him on Earth. Would he make it back to see them? Was this communications problem the beginning of something bigger?

His gut told him it was. He was the least experienced astronaut on the mission, but it didn't matter. He could feel it. There was more going on here than they could see.

July 4, 2033
Ares Mission, Return Voyage
T-Minus 0 days to Earth
Earth loomed large each time the tumbling ship's forward windows caught sight of it, and all eight eyes onboard the Ares were aimed straight ahead, marveling at the beauty of a place they hadn't seen in just shy of twenty-nine months.

"Houston, Ares," Chris intoned from his pilot seat up front, still going through the motions in case Mission Control was able to hear the crew, even if the crew couldn't hear Mission Control. If nothing else, the flight recorder would be taping this historic moment for later examination. "We are still receiving no transmissions from the ISS, so we are proceeding with manual landing protocol. Over."

NASA took no chances when it came to the design of the Ares. Redundancies were built into the ship to ensure the crew's survival, and unlike past spacecraft, the Ares had three separate options for returning safely to Earth.

The first and most ideal solution was for the ship to rendezvous with the International Space Station and dock there. The crew would then take a special shuttlecraft down to Earth, leaving the Ares to be dismantled or recycled in orbit. Should anything go wrong with the planned ISS docking, the second option allowed the command module of the Ares to detach and reenter Earth's atmosphere by itself. In a best-case scenario, the tiny crew-carrying module would use its small wings and retractable landing gear to glide down to the landing pad at Kennedy Space Center, much like the space shuttles did decades ago. In a worst-case scenario, the third option allowed for the Ares' command module to float on the open sea, after the ship had parachuted into the ocean, and to await retrieval there. Just like NASA's first astronauts had used successfully in the Gemini and Apollo missions.

With the ISS out of contact, procedure dictated that they go for the manual glide landing at Kennedy. Yet it wasn't ideal, and only added to the unspoken tension filling the tight spaces aboard the Ares. Per standard landing protocol, all four of them donned their fireproof pressure suits as a precaution for such a dangerous reentry.

No one said it, and no one had to; decorum was maintained just as it had been for the entire mission. In the two-plus months leading up to their arrival back to Earth, the crew still had been unable to reacquire vocal contact with Mission Control. Whatever the problem was, each passing day had made it more likely that it was on the ship, not in Houston. Regardless, the time for fixes had almost run out; it would just have to be sorted out on the ground. Their priority now was getting there.

"Final systems check is complete, Houston," Chris reported. "Preparing to engage manual reentry sequence. Fire stabilizers."

At these words, Terry flipped a switch from his seat just behind Chris. The young pilot's short, lean body was complemented by a black crew cut and eyes that were always bright.

Chris grabbed a pair of handles that moved like joysticks. His movements corresponded with tiny thrusters designed to expel just enough thrust to affect the ship's orientation. With practiced movements, he used the controls to null the rotation of the ship, angling its nose straight toward Earth. The blue planet filled the window.

The four of them took a moment to right themselves now that the gravity provided by the ship's turning was gone. It was notoriously hard to determine up or down in zero gravity, and the strange internal sensations it caused could wreak havoc on the human body's sense of balance, even for trained astronauts.

Trisha, in her seat beside Chris up front, moved to switch off the VOX button.

"No, leave it on," Burke ordered, wistfully cocking an eyebrow. "It's the last time we'll ever use it."

She didn't reply, returning to her console.

"You know, Trish ..." Terry called from his second-row seat, a little too loudly. They all knew this tone of voice; it was Terry's way of trying to relieve tension during an awkward silence. "If Paul didn't wait for you back home, I'll be happy to track him down and kick his—"

"I appreciate the sentiment, Terry," Trisha interrupted him. Her jaw had jutted out before he was halfway through with his sentence. This had always been her least favorite subject to discuss on the mission. "Right now, all I'm focused on is getting us home safely," she replied in a professional tone, her head lingering a little closer to the VOX control.

Terry leaned over to Owen, who was beside him in the ship's second row of seats. "I really don't think he waited," he whispered.

Owen's eyebrows lifted marginally as he considered the notion. The specialist's large frame was offset by unruffled African features, a dark bald head, prescription glasses that covered his eyes, and an even-keeled expression that rarely betrayed emotion. "Statistically speaking, it is improbable that a male of breeding age would suppress his hormonal drive for more than two years. But then, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, am I, Terry?"

Trisha snorted.

Terry ignored him, pressing on. "Tell us again, Trish, about how Paul asked you to marry him the night before we left for Mars, and you said ... what was it again?"

Trisha cleared her throat in a pointed sort of way, but Terry didn't seem to notice. "It was something like 'Not now' or 'Ask me again when I get back,' wasn't it? I love that story," he said with fondness.

"Terry ..." Chris began.

"No, seriously!" Terry defended himself. "It's romantic! Like an old movie. Like Gone With the Wind or Titanic."

"Weren't both of those about doomed romances?" Trisha asked without looking at him.

"Oh, sorry, yeah ..." Terry replied, his enthusiasm squashed. "What about you, Commander?" Terry piped up again while he checked over his own console. The title of commander was honorary; no one could remember if it had been started by the press or by the crew. All NASA astronauts were considered civilians, regardless of any past military experience, but it seemed fitting for such a historic mission. Even though Chris commanded the mission, he didn't encourage the title's use.

"Beech's got his wife and kid," Terry continued. "Trisha's future happiness is, well, pretty much dangling by a thread—sorry, Trish. And the various and sundry affections I'll be receiving go without saying." He smiled, relishing the thought. "But I don't remember you ever mentioning anything you're looking forward to getting back to, Chris."

Chris cast a momentary glance to Trisha at his side. She didn't return the look, too busy fussing over her controls, readying for reentry. He turned his gaze straight ahead, pushing all other thoughts aside.

"Mr. Beechum, prepare to uncouple the command module," said Burke authoritatively.

Owen had opened his mouth to respond an affirmative, when Terry pointed excitedly at the forward windows.

"Hey, what the—!" he shouted.

Everyone looked up to let their eyes gaze out the windows into ...

Nothing.

The entire view was black. No Earth, no stars, no anything.

Chris' breath caught in his throat. There, out beyond the nose of their ship, something seemed to be swirling, churning in the darkness.

"What ... what's going on?" stammered Terry.

Owen said nothing. Trisha sat with her mouth agape. Chris felt his mind go as empty and blank as the darkness into which he stared. He couldn't take his eyes from the windows. It was utterly void; the stars had vanished.

"Beech?" asked Chris, hoping for an opinion, an analysis, anything.

Owen hesitated, which in and of itself was alarming. "Well, I uh ... Commander, stars can't just disappear," he said slowly. "With the simplest answer most often being the right one—there must be a problem with the windows."

Terry didn't hesitate. "Right, so who threw a big space blanket over the ship, then?"

Chris was about to tell Terry to stow the jokes when the onboard lights flickered out and every monitor and console on the ship went dead. There was only darkness. Both within the ship and without. It was thick and stifling. There was a pregnant moment of stillness as everyone held their breath, waiting.

Waiting for what they knew all too well could come next. A bang. The ship spiraling off course. The sound of oxygen being sucked out into space.

"Helmets on!" barked Chris, his voice the only thing audible in the bottomless night. "Report!"

"All instrumentation is down," Trisha replied, and he could hear her flicking switches and pressing buttons like mad. "Navigation ... non-responsive. Going for full system restart!" she yelled, her fingers expertly clicking the controls in the dark.

"Internal lights," said Chris.

Their space suits had helmets equipped with bright internal lighting which, once lit, illuminated their faces so at least they could see one another. The suits operated off of their own energy source and so were unaffected by whatever had caused the ship to lose power. The glow the four helmets gave off was enough to give them a bit of orientation within the cabin.

"Try the emergency batteries, Beech. Terry, make sure the cabin's secure."

Terry looked up from his console and froze. "What?"

Even Trisha had stopped what she was doing and glanced at Chris.

There was no reason to assume the command module wouldn't be secure; it had been pressure-locked before the four of them fastened themselves into their seats. Standard procedure. But Chris didn't care. There was no reason to assume the stars might disappear from the sky either. The rule book had just been tossed out the window, and his military instincts were taking over now. Whatever was happening, they were fighting for their lives; ensuring their survival was his top priority.

"You heard me!" Chris shouted, his hands clenching the armrests of his chair. "Lock it down, double time!"

If the amazement and shock of seeing the entire planet and star field disappear hadn't clued in Burke's three teammates that things had just changed in a drastic and dire way, his tone of voice jolted them into remembering that this wasn't part of the mission. This wasn't part of any mission.

Terry didn't question him again. Instead, the youngest member of the crew deftly unbuckled the elaborate straps from his seat and floated to the back of the cabin. There, he checked the two hatches leading to the rest of the ship that were on both sides of the rear wall. Next he pushed off, drifting carefully in the dark over to his right, where the main exterior hatch was located.

As Terry worked, Chris leaned into the VOX control. "Houston, this is the Ares! We are declaring an emergency! Repeat, Houston, this is Ares declaring an emergency! And I really hope you can hear us down there! We have lost all power to the ship. We have a possible collision—"

Terry had just double-checked the main hatch when the Ares lurched sideways, groaned with a shudder, and then jolted forward. Without warning, they were moving at tremendous speed. It felt as if the ship had been launched from a slingshot; Chris, Owen, and Trisha were mashed into the backs of their seats while Terry went flying into the back wall.

Chris knew the sickening crunch he'd heard was the young pilot slamming against the bulkhead.

"Terry!" Trisha shouted over the roar. Along with the speed, the sounds both inside and outside of the ship were escalating—sounds of rattling hardware and the ship's turbulence hitting atmosphere. Chris' eyes darted to his right; Trisha was barely able to move her head far enough around to look behind, clenching her every muscle against the rising g-forces. "Terry, sound off!"

All was silent behind them.

Chris turned likewise in his seat to see the dark silhouette of the young pilot up against the back wall, still pinned there by the g-forces.

"Permission to leave my station—" Owen began, and Chris saw that Trisha had fingered the clasp of her seat belt already.

"Denied, both of you!" Chris shouted back over the noise of the out-of-control ship.

"He's hurt!" Trisha cried.

"Keep your seats, that's an order!" Chris thundered, uttering a phrase never heard among the informal chatter observed by astronauts. "You'll just end up pinned alongside him, and I need you both doing your jobs!"

Trisha glanced, just once, back at her teammate and then nodded, seeming to right herself internally. Chris was in charge. She faced forward again in her seat and focused on her station.

"If this is reentry, if that's what we're feeling ... then we're too steep!" Owen called out. His eyes were closed, deep in concentration, and Chris knew he was basing his assertion on nothing but the sensations they were feeling and what he could remember of their position and velocity before everything went dark. "Possibly severely."

Chris' visor light flickered and went out. He looked to his left and saw Trisha's do the same. Light was fully extinguished again, consumed by the black nothingness.

He fought to suppress his own rising fear, trying to concentrate on the mission, his people, his years of training. But this was a nightmare scenario, and there were no instincts to rely on. Not for this. It was like spontaneous blindness. He could still hear the terrible, nonstop roar of the ship ... still feel the increasing gravity pressing him into his seat ... still sense the unnatural vibrations of the Ares caused by its hurtling through space faster than it was ever designed to move.

And what about Terry? Was he unconscious? Dead?

As the ship continued to accelerate, the vibrations gave way to full-on shuddering. There was another sharp jerk, and the ship's bolts and panels and tiles rattled against the concussion. The noise level rose to an unbearable metallic monotone.

Something else caught Chris' attention amid the chaos, and he smelled it before he felt it. The scent of hot steel entered his nose at the same moment he realized his hair was wet and sticking to his head, his entire body covered in sweat. His suit's automatic temperature regulator would have compensated for any drastic change in climate had it been powered, but even still, it had insulation to protect against harsh environments. For this kind of heat to be reaching him this fast, coupled with the burning stench ...

Dim lights blinked to life around them.

"Emergency batteries are online!" shouted Owen over the din. It wasn't much, illuminating the cabin with something about as strong as candlelight. Chris looked back over his shoulder at his mission specialist. Surprisingly, Owen seemed to have maintained his ever-present calm in spite of their circumstances. He wasn't even sweating as much as Chris was. Chris stole a quick glance at Trisha, who seemed to be sweating even more, but she had already sprung to life, fighting the g-forces to pore over her console.

"Give me a full systems check!" Chris called out.

"It's running now," Owen replied, his voice magnified to reach out over the racket. "O2 at forty percent capacity. Power's down to twenty-two ..."

Owen continued to rattle off numbers, but Chris' mind drifted to the empty space straight ahead, beyond the windows. Because even though they were soaring at an incredible rate, even though the ship was about to shake itself apart, and even though the temperature was rising dangerously fast, it was what was outside of the ship that disturbed him most. Earth should've been there. Right there. Or millions of stars had the ship been knocked off course. Or ... something.

But there was nothing. Not even in the black of space between planets had he encountered such darkness. It was as if they'd been swallowed....

Then something flashed in the forward window.

Chris blinked.

It was murky, and only lasted a second. But it was right there, just past the nose of the ship. Something like nothing he had ever seen before. Enormous. Imposing. The darkest shade of blue imaginable. Moving, swirling, very slowly. Like smoke passing before his eyes in a blur.

Chris spun to look at Trisha, hoping she'd seen it too. But she was still focused on her console. A glance at Owen revealed he hadn't seen it either.

Owen was still reciting system readings when Chris interrupted him, shouting above the clamor, "What about outside? Are you able to pick up anything in space?"

A pause as Owen checked. He shook his head. "External scanners are not responding, Commander. Given this heat we're feeling, which hopefully is from the ship reentering Earth's atmosphere, it's possible that those sensors have melted off. We expected that to happen upon reentry, you know."

The ship unexpectedly lurched sideways as if it had been blindsided by a moving object. The sudden motion was powerful and jarring enough that Terry's unconscious form was slung against the left wall of the command module like a rag doll, and the others were pinched and squeezed painfully by their seats' safety belts. The lurch was accompanied by a profound crack that they could feel, a loud wrenching of metal, and finally an ear-piercing whine, which remained ongoing. The ship started spinning in response.

"What was that?!" Trisha screamed.

"Felt like we lost an engine bell," he shouted.

"Correction!" Owen called out behind them, and there was no mistaking the sharp tone of alarm in his voice, because neither of them had heard it before. "Commander, I think the entire rear half of the ship just came apart!"

"Say again?"

"I'm reading no oxygen, no power, life support, or anything else past the lavatory! I think everything on the other side of the bathroom is just gone!"

Chris didn't have time to absorb this, to think through options. He just acted. "Prepare to undock the command module! Let's jettison whatever's left back there before power goes out again!"

At that moment, they were plunged into deep blackness once more. Each of them knew without needing confirmation that it would be the last time the ship's interior would ever see light. The Ares continued to spin, faster and faster, rotating like a rotisserie chicken. Chris swallowed repeatedly to avoid vomiting in his helmet—a dangerous proposition since his helmet was sealed. He could feel blood rushing to his head, and he hoped the others were faring better.

But then, it didn't really matter at this point.

It was over. The mission. The ship. Their lives. All of it was dying, reaching the ultimate ending, and nothing would stop it. All they could do was try to hold on as long as possible.

The g-forces grew more powerful than ever, pressing Chris into his seat back, and threatening to thrust all three of them into unconsciousness. Chris felt a wave of weariness wash across him. It was a very inviting exhaustion, but he was too well trained to embrace it so easily.

He blinked the sweat back, holding tight to his armrests even as he realized the bolts and welds of his seat were slowly being shaken loose by the ship's catastrophic bucking, spinning, and trembling.

With the sound of the ship roaring around him, consoles about to melt, and his seat ready to rip free and send him flying, he called out, "Anybody still conscious?"

"Still with you" came Trisha's voice, though it was faint. He tried to look at her but couldn't escape the gravity enough to swivel his head. All he could do was stare forward into the blackness that still surrounded the ship.

Are we headed for home? Are we someplace else? Did something swallow us whole and that's why we can't see anything?

What is out there?

He felt heat radiating through the hands of his suit from where they touched the arms of his metal chair. He closed his eyes; the heat was making it hard to keep them open anyway.

Chris thought he should say something to his crew, but he didn't know what. Offer them some last gasp about "going down with the ship," or tell them what an honor it had been to serve with them? It had been an honor, but the words felt inadequate in his head.

And impossibly, even though he felt foolish for it, his thoughts were jumping so fast from thought to thought that he couldn't help arriving at how this disaster would forever tarnish the historic Mars mission, and NASA's reputation. He could hear the newscasters in his head: "The first manned mission to Mars ended in a horrific tragedy today, which throws into doubt the entire future of manned space flight...."

There wasn't time to waste on such thoughts. These were about to become the last minutes or seconds of his life. He should use them for something more important, more personal. Something for his crew. Above all others, he felt he should at least say something to Trisha. But he couldn't conjure up any words, with the ship spiraling so violently around him, the noise, the heat, the pressure, the pain of being pressed deep enough into his seat to feel the metal framework inside.

The high-pitched whine of the ship turned to a series of creaks and groans, and Chris knew that this was it. What was left of the Ares was ripping itself apart out from under them, from the tremendous stresses being placed upon it. The spiraling was so fast that consoles, tools, dials, and screws were shaken loose and went flying through the compartment in a mad cyclone. Any second a ferocious final surge would separate the command module around them, and they would be sucked out by the explosive oxygen decompression into space. Their bodies would be lost forever, unrecoverable by NASA, drifting forever out in the depths of the universe.

That is, if that really was space as he knew it out there in the black.

Either way, they would be dead in moments. Seconds. Maybe less.

So ends the noble Ares and her crew ...

The window suddenly cleared, and he saw that something was rushing straight at them. Or maybe they were rushing at it, faster than a bullet.

Chris opened his mouth and shouted at the top of his lungs, "Brace yourselves!"

The words had just left his mouth, seeming to hang with a hollowness in the air, when everything went black.

* * *

Chris coughed himself awake. He was sopping wet.

Smoke filled the cockpit, but the emergency floodlights had kicked in, warning alarms flashing, bathing everything in red. The windows were still completely blacked out.

The ship was no longer moving.

Trisha sat beside him, still buckled into her seat but unconscious, a trickle of blood evident near her left temple.

Behind them, Owen wheezed, a bubble pulsing in his nostril.

The heat inside the cockpit was almost unbearable. Chris felt as though he was being smothered by his heavy space suit.

"Terry ..." he whispered, trying to see the back of the cockpit through the haze and smoke and dim lights. He unstrapped himself from his seat and pulled off his helmet as Trisha and Owen slowly began to regain consciousness.

When he stood, a rush of vertigo overwhelmed him and he teetered but didn't fall. Chris wondered how much time had passed since the ship came to a stop. He was forced to move slowly, feeling his way through the command module in the relative darkness and smoke.

He almost stumbled over Terry, who was in a crumpled heap near the main hatch.

"How is he?" asked Owen.

"He's breathing, but he's pretty banged up," answered Chris.

"We have cabin pressure," Trisha said, springing to life, her gloved fingers sliding across her damaged console with practiced precision. "Backup power is up and running."

Chris turned Terry over and pulled the young pilot's helmet off. "Did the command module ever detach?"

"I can't tell," replied Owen.

Trisha spoke up again. "I think—I think we landed. I have a GLS light."

GLS stood for Ground Landing System, an automated program designed to take over the landing procedures for the crew should they be rendered incapacitated. It was housed and operated entirely from the ground, close to the runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Hey," moaned Terry. "What ... ?"

"Take it easy," said Chris. Owen joined them and helped Terry up to a sitting position. Chris returned to the front.

"You're hurt," he said, unlatching Trisha's helmet as she continued to work. He dabbed at the gash on the side of her head with his fingers. It wasn't bad, although he could feel a sizable egg rising under the skin.

"Minor concussion at worst," he said. She didn't respond, focusing instead on her work.

"We have gravity," Terry offered, sounding a little more awake. "If the GLS kicked in ... then we're on the ground at Kennedy, right?"

Owen looked up. "If we're on the ground," he said, his brown eyes scanning the windows, "why is it still dark outside?"

"And why haven't they come for us?" asked Trisha. It was standard procedure after a space landing for the ship to be surrounded by rescue and cleanup personnel. Even though they couldn't see out, or communicate with anything beyond the ship, they should at least be able to hear something from outside. If nothing else, a NASA worker should have knocked on the hatch by now just to see if they could get a reply from the crew.

"If we're not on the ground ... we're on something," Chris concluded. He worked his way back to the hatch again, and despite Owen's protests, Terry pulled himself up to stand.

Trisha stood, satisfied that everything that could be done to secure the ship had been done. She quickly moved to a first-aid locker and retrieved a few supplies.

"The flight surgeon can patch us up," Terry said, refusing Trisha's help.

Chris squinted, trying to see through the tiny window in the hatch, though it was dark.

"What do you see?" Terry asked, massaging a bruise on his wrist.

Chris shook his head. "It's just dark." He turned. "Beech?"

Owen stepped over to his console and examined it. "I'm reading oxygen outside," he said with a heaviness in his voice as Trisha poured something onto a cut on the back of his neck. "Atmosphere is clear of chemical toxins."

Chris looked around, doubt coloring his features. Landing spacecraft were known to give off various dangerous chemicals immediately upon landing that couldn't be safely breathed. If the air was already clear of those contaminants, then the four of them had been unconscious for a few hours, at least. He waited until Trisha met his gaze, his unspoken question answered with a nod.

"We can't stay here," he concluded. "The ship is too hot, and this smoke isn't good for our lungs. I don't think we have anything to lose by opening the hatch. Agreed?"

There were nods all around.

Chris clutched the mechanism that released the hatch. A loud hiss pierced the air as the cabin depressurized to match the outside atmosphere, and he felt his ears pop. Just ahead was a second door, the outer door. He moved to it, unlatched and pushed the door downward until it opened....

He was immediately bathed in intensely bright light.

It was so bright that Terry, Trisha, and Owen put their hands up to block the light from their eyes.

Without a word, Chris stepped from the ship onto the outer hatch, which had folded down into a stepladder. The others soon joined him, standing on the steps just outside the ship.

They scanned the horizon in all directions.

The ship had come to rest on the long runway at Kennedy Space Center. But their arrival couldn't be called a landing.

Trisha was the first to turn back and examine the craft. The others followed her, and Chris' blood turned to ice. The Ares' command module was unrecognizable—charred and disfigured, her ceramic outer tiles and windows burned completely black, her two wings withered and torn. The tail fin was gone. All that was left of the mighty rocket ship that carried them to another planet was a tragic heap, an utterly ruined mass of black, burning metal.

Chris shook his head. "We shouldn't have survived that."

"We're alive, man," said Terry. "And we're home. That's enough for me."

Owen's eyebrows were furrowed as he scanned their surroundings. "Has anyone else noticed that 'home' is ... awfully quiet?"

The others examined the landscape. It was true. There was nothing moving, no people or rescue vehicles. In the distance, there were no cars driving along the roads of Kennedy Space Center. From the sun's position overhead, it was late morning, but it was as if no one on the planet had noticed a flaming rocket ship falling out of the sky.

Chris stood up straighter, blocking out the bright sunlight with his hand and squinting into the distance. "They should have sent the ferry to retrieve the ship," he said. "You think we're giving off too much radiation?"

"Maybe they didn't think there was anything left of the ship to retrieve," suggested Terry.

Trisha stopped winding a bandage around Chris' forearm, and looked up. "There's us," she said.

A long moment passed in silence as all eyes scanned the NASA complex surrounding them. For the first time in his life, Chris felt weak in the knees.

"Nothing," said Owen slowly, "is moving. At all."

Terry spun, looking in all directions. "Where is everybody?"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Enclave - Chapter 1

The Enclave

Bethany House (August 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


Cameron Reinhardt is an idiot!

Yes, he had a PhD from Stanford. Yes, he was widely acknowledged as a brilliant geneticist. Yes, Director Swain called him the field's brightest rising star, the Institute's greatest asset, and a fabulous hiring coup. But this wasn't the first time Lacey McHenry wondered how the man managed to get up in the morning and make it to his office fully clothed.

She stood in the frog room's open doorway, a large, rectangular steel tank hulking against the peach-colored wall across from her. One of its three hinged covers stood open, propped back against the wall. Live frogs and toads scattered the concrete floor beneath it, watching her with bulging golden eyes; more of them had trailed slime onto the gleaming floor of the corridor behind her in their break for freedom.

Apparently Dr. Reinhardt had come in sometime that afternoon and forgotten to close not only the lid but the door, as well. She pictured him collecting his subjects and hurrying off to his wet lab at the hall's end, heedless as a teenaged boy. Never mind that all the remaining amphibians could and did escape; never mind someone else would have to clean them up.

Surely he was living proof that a man could be a genius and a moron at the same time.

Conscience pricked her. It wasn't charitable to call anyone a moron, no matter how mindless and exasperating their behavior. And no matter how tired and irritated—and disappointed—she was.

And that's really the problem here, isn't it? With a sigh, she shut the door, rerolled the already drooping sleeves of her oversized white lab coat, and set about recapturing the slimy escapees.

Just last month she'd earned her master's degree in genetics, an accomplishment she was proud of and ready to make use of. Barely out of school, she'd been hired as a research assistant with the promise of eventually developing her own projects.

She'd arrived three weeks ago on the Institute's staff shuttle from Tucson, giddy with excitement. When the shuttle van had driven through the gateway in the massive berm that concealed the Institute's campus from the highway, and she'd seen the great glass-and-granite ziggurat stairstepping out of the desert into the sky, she'd been overwhelmed with wonder. To think they'd actually hired her, that she was to work at the Kendall-Jakes Longevity Institute, premiere research site on the genetics of aging in the country, and perhaps even the world. It had seemed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Now it seemed only an opportunity to develop humility and patience. Since she'd arrived, she'd done little more than tend the experimental animals in the bowels of that great ziggurat, run errands for everyone and his brother, and wash the unending river of glassware that poured from Dr. Reinhardt's fifth-floor research team. She didn't even have her own lab coat, but instead wore the oversized castoff of a former animal technician named Carlos, his name stitched in red on the coat's breast pocket.

Moreover her fellow staff members had made it very clear that she was junior staff—welcomed warmly, but hardly fit to kiss the feet of the exalted priests and priestesses of research who were the heart and soul of Kendall-Jakes, the brilliant men and women who would usher in a new age for mankind. Men like Cameron Reinhardt, who couldn't get his socks matched, rarely cleaned his glasses, forgot to shave more than half the time, and couldn't even remember to close the lid on the frog tank.

And that, her conscience informed her, sounds very much like bitterness.

She trapped the last frog in the far corner and dropped it into the tank with its fellows. As she closed the lid, movement in the corridor beyond the door's square window caught her eye. Was that a face?

Unease danced up her spine, eclipsed immediately by a wriggly embarrassment as she realized she hadn't yet captured the frogs in the corridor. Whoever was out there would surely think—

She stopped in the doorway. Except for the frogs, mostly congregated in front of the windowless door to Reinhardt's small lab at the corridor's end, the hall was empty. The door to Dr. Poe's salamander lab opposite the frog room, however, stood ajar.

She became suddenly aware of how alone she was, surrounded by thick, windowless walls, with almost no chance of anyone coming to her rescue. Most of her colleagues were attending the ice-cream social Dr. Viascola had arranged.

Lacey's heart throbbed against her breastbone. She made herself take in a long, calming breath and told herself she was being silly. The lights beyond the lab's open door were still off, so if someone had just entered, they were now blundering about in the dark. Not only that, she should have heard the echoing clack of the locking mechanism disengage, and she hadn't. The door had probably been open all along; she just hadn't noticed.

Rerolling her lab coat's too-long sleeves yet again, she crossed the corridor and peered through the crack into Dr. Poe's lab. Darkness steeped the room, gilt by the glow of starlight from a window on the far side. She backed out and closed the door to keep out straying frogs, then hurried past the frog room to the main hall. Gleaming floor stretched past the openings for two sister corridors on one side, and mostly closed doors on the other. Only the prep room was lit, its door wide open, as she'd left it.

She heard the squeak of Harvey the hamster running on his wheel from inside the prep room, then a rustle of bedding, probably from the mice caged beside him. In the silence she could hear the muffled drone of the refrigerator, but nothing else.

I'm being silly. Given the millions of dollars Director Swain had funneled into fences, cameras, sensors, larms, lasers, and a cadre of brawny, black-uniformed guards, it was unlikely an intruder could penetrate even the rounds at large, let alone the zig itself. And even if he could, why come to the animal quarters? She'd probably seen he reflection of herself closing the tank lid. It wouldn't be the first time.

She went back to rounding up the frogs and had just dropped one into the tank and closed the lid when she heard a distinct click behind her. She caught her breath and her pulse once more accelerated. Someone was standing in the doorway at her back, blocking the exit, watching her, just as Erik used to do.

She fought down surging panic. Erik is dead. And the idea that anyone at the Institute would be watching her the way he had was absurd. If she'd just turn and face whoever was there, she'd see that.

Drawing a deep breath, she braced a hand against the tank and turned. A single frog sat on the raised threshold, sides fluttering, its golden pop-eyes gleaming in the fluorescent light.

She let out her breath and wiped sweaty palms down the front of her lab coat, feeling like an idiot. The frog hopped toward her. She stooped to grab it, then dropped it into the tank.

It's the lack of sleep, she told herself, returning to the hall in time to see two of her quarry disappear into the darkness of Dr. Poe's lab.

The fans in the physical plant below her dorm room had rumbled through her dreams every night for that first week. Even after Admin let her move, she still wasn't rested. Mandatory meetings and socials and nighttime lectures filled her evenings, after which she often had to spend several hours finishing up with the labware, before she could even start with the animals. Yet every morning breakfast was served at 7:30 a.m., regardless of how little anyone had slept.

And all that was in addition to the emotional drain of living in a new place and working among strangers she was desperate to impress. Every night she was asleep before her head hit the pillow. After almost a month of it, she knew her mounting fatigue was affecting not just her energy but her attitude.

She stopped with her hand on the knob of Poe's door, staring into the dark lab again, a square starry night sky visible through the window at the room's end. The light from the hall filtered in around her, limning shelved aquariums and Rubbermaid dishpans looming close on both sides. Didn't I just close this door?

Her nape crawled. She could almost feel someone in the darkness ahead, watching her, waiting for her. Down the hall in the prep room, Harvey's wheel stopped.

She nearly yanked the door shut and fled, but reason steadied the ridiculous panic. She drew a deep breath, pushed the door wide, and fumbled for the wall switch. The nearest bank of fluorescent lights flickered on, illuminating a narrow alcove choked with U-configured, shoulder-high wooden shelving units. The room's far end widened in the top stroke of a T, where a desk and a potted palm stood in the shadows. No one was there.

Squatting in the first U-shaped module, she nabbed one of her frogs between two of the dishpans and took it back to the main tank. Returning to move deeper into the room, she found another at the juncture of the third and fourth U's, almost to the wider part of the lab. It lay on the bare vinyl of the flooring and made no attempt to escape when she bent toward it. Only as she picked it up did she realize its hind legs were gone. She found one of them on the floor in the next U. Cool, damp, and still softly firm, its moist, ragged thicker end indicated it had been torn from the frog's body.

She stared at the limb uncomprehendingly. Even if the frog had gotten its legs caught between the pans and yanked it off in the struggle to get free, how had one of them gotten more than two feet away from the frog itself?

A cool waft of air, heavy with the scent of wet earth from the nightly watering of the grounds, washed around her. She looked up in surprise, realizing only then that the window was actually a door opened wide onto the shadow-shrouded courtyard beyond.

Even as the revelation dawned, a young man stepped from the shadows to face her. Maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, he was tall, lanky, and coarse-featured, with strong brow and jaw. He'd shaved the sides of his head close, leaving the top in a swath of peltlike hair that pointed to the big pimple in the middle of his forehead. His pale eyes glittered like bits of glass, and a nervous tic pulsed erratically at the edge of his right eye.

He smiled at her, revealing a chipped front tooth, then plucked the frog leg from her grasp and stuffed it into his mouth. She recoiled with a cry of revulsion as he grinned and chewed, cheeks bulging, saliva glistening on his lips. She heard the crunch of bones, and refused to give way further to the distress he clearly wished to cause her.

"Who are you?" she demanded, glad her voice came out firm and crisp. "You shouldn't be here."

He swallowed his morsel and drew the back of a dirty, long-nailed hand across his mouth, his palm marred with a bloody gash. He continued to grin at her, and a chill crawled up her spine. He stood at least a head taller than she and was unquestionably quicker and stronger. And there was something in those eyes that seemed older than his years. Something ... hungry.

He stepped toward her and she flinched backward, bumping into the shelves of dishpans and glass aquariums behind her and pulling a laugh from him. If you run, they always chase you, she thought. Better not to run. Better to stand and face them.

But the old fear was on her, just as it had been with Erik, though it had been four years since his death, and she knew she would take no stands, knew she was going to run.

Then out in the hallway the elevator pinged and its doors rumbled open, instantly reversing their positions. As the youth turned for the courtyard doorway, she grabbed his arm and screamed. He swung about, twisting free of her grip, then slammed her into the freestanding shelves behind her. She felt a blinding pain in her back and chest as she went down with the shelves in a crash of splintering wood and breaking glass. Water gushed around her, the room spun, and she gasped for breath.

Dimly she sensed the youth leave. Then there were others: Dr. Poe, Assistant Director Slattery, and several large security guards. The assistant director bent over her as she pointed toward the door and gasped out what had happened. She wasn't half finished before the guards had disappeared through the door after the youth.

As Slattery and Poe helped her to her feet, pain wrenched the room askew and she fought to draw more than a teaspoonful of air into her lungs. She felt them walking her forward, feet crunching on broken glass. A bright blue salamander thrashed amid the wreckage.

They were carrying on some sort of intense conversation that she had no context to grasp. Then Slattery drew his hand away from her and held it up, covered with bright red blood. "She's bleeding."

Poe hissed an epithet. "Is it bad?"

"I don't know. Her sleeve's soaked. Let's get her to the prep room."

They entered the corridor, Slattery pulling the door to Poe's lab shut behind them. Lacey's vision kept spangling with bright light, blotting the men out. Their voices grew dim and muffled. She wanted nothing so much as to lie down, to be able to breathe again.

The voices rose as someone joined them, and Slattery gave her over to the newcomer. After only a few steps, she was picked up and carried. Her arm didn't hurt, but she thought surely her back must be broken, or perhaps her shoulder blades. The last time she'd hurt this badly was when Erik had hit her with the baseball bat.

Her senses were clearing as they reached the prep room, and she realized with a mild shock that it was Dr. Reinhardt who carried her. He laid her on the floor in one corner, then shrugged out of his lab coat and wadded it up as a pillow for her. She heard the door shut and the lock click, even as Reinhardt leapt up and went to rattle the knob. The sounds receded around her, his pounding on the door growing distant, his demands that Poe unlock it, faint and irrelevant.

Panicked, she struggled to draw air into her lungs, sucking it in with a great painful gasp. The pressure on her chest vanished, her hearing returned, and as she breathed more easily, the pain ebbed to a manageable level. Reinhardt gave up on getting the door unlocked and returned to her.

In his mid-thirties, he had close-cropped auburn hair and gray eyes, which were almost hidden behind smeared wire-rim glasses. He had a pleasant face, open and almost boyish, despite its unshaven grizzle and a smudge—likely printer ink—across one cheekbone. His jeans bore similar smudges, though darker and wider, as did his tennis shoes—worn, run over, and gray with use and age. The rumpled red flannel shirt was both smudged and wet, the latter likely thanks to her.

He was blinking at her as if he had just awakened, as if recent events had transpired far too rapidly for him to follow. Likely they had. She supposed he'd come out of his lab all unawares and walked right into Poe and Slattery helping her to the prep room. Having drafted him to assist, they'd left him locked in the room without a word of explanation, and he was obviously still trying to free himself of his nucleic acids and attend to reality.

"You're Miss McHenry, aren't you? The frog girl."

Frog girl. Yes, that's all I am here, isn't it? She nodded.

Concern creased his brow as he knelt beside her, plucking at the bloodied sleeve of her lab coat. "This doesn't look good. Can you sit up?"

"There was an intruder," she said. "He knocked me into Dr. Poe's shelving units."

"Yes, I gathered that. Here, let me help you." He lifted her to a sitting position, the action making her gasp at the pain it triggered. Gently he stripped off her wet lab coat, tossing it onto the wad of his own dry coat with no thought, apparently, of the consequences. His focus was on her wound now: a six-inch, straight-edged glass cut running along the inside of her left forearm, still bleeding profusely.

"It'll need stitches," he said, stepping to one of the cabinets. He pulled out a first-aid kit and set it on the floor beside her, then turned to the sink of soapy water Lacey had prepared earlier. "This intruder," he said as he plunged his hands into the bubbles, "what did he look like?"

She told him all she could recall, realizing as she did that the youth had seemed somehow familiar, though she couldn't imagine where she might have seen him before.

Hands washed and rinsed, Reinhardt was drying them off when two distant echoing booms halted the flow of her words. "What was that?" she whispered.

"Sounded like gunshots," Dr. Reinhardt said. He stood listening for a moment, then set about cleaning and butterfly-bandaging her wound, a service he performed with a swift and practiced competence that surprised her. As he worked he pressed her to continue her story, interrupting occasionally to question her more closely about the young man. Did he speak? Had she seen him before? Did she think he was truly unbalanced, or one of Director Swain's feared corporate spies putting on a show?

He was taping the last bandage to the slash in her arm when the door crashed open and Slattery burst in. A short, swarthy, vigorous man with a pocked complexion, he had straight black hair brushed back from a high forehead, bushy black brows, and piercing blue eyes. For a moment he paused as if surprised to find them as they were, then said to Reinhardt, "You've tended her, then."

"Only temporarily. She'll need stitches."

"Probably has a mild concussion, too." Slattery turned to the man who'd followed him into the room and gestured at Lacey. "Take her to the clinic."

A second man now angled a gurney through the door as Lacey tottered to her feet. "Oh, I won't need that, Dr. Slattery," she said. "I'm fine, really."

He scowled at her. "You could hardly walk a few minutes ago, miss."

"I just had the breath knocked out of me."

"And took a good knock to the head, too, from the look of that goose egg behind your ear. A concussion's nothing to take lightly. And there's the cut to stitch, as well. I won't risk any lawsuits. Now, hop aboard like a good girl."

Reluctantly she obeyed. "Did you find him? The man who attacked me?"

"Not yet," Slattery said, his scowl deepening. Irritably he motioned for the men to wheel her away, and immediately they complied.

As they lifted the gurney over the raised threshold of the prep room floor, the pain of her cut finally began to override the pain of the cramps in her back. Maybe a visit to the clinic wouldn't be so bad after all. She didn't have to walk, and they might have some Tylenol they could give her and maybe a compress for her back. In fact, she wouldn't even object if they wanted to take some X rays, just to make sure she'd not broken something.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Things Left Unspoken - Chapter 1

Things Left Unspoken

Revell (June 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


It snowed the day we buried Uncle Jim. Not the kind of snow that flurries about your face or drives itself sideways, turning the world into a blinding sheet of white. This was angels dancing on air.

When the first flake touched my cheek I felt the icy wet kiss and looked up, past the rows of granite markers—some shiny as silver and others cracked and gray—and into a fortress of old oaks, Spanish moss dripping from barren limbs. Another flake landed on my eyelashes. I batted them, then raised my gloved hand to brush it away.

I looked at my mother, who caught my movement. We sat shoulder to shoulder in the front row of chairs reserved for the family, as though we were aristocrats who’d managed to snag the best seats at the opera. Our eyes locked as she reached for my hand, then squeezed.

I took a deep breath and looked away. The pain of loss in her eyes was too much; especially at this moment, with Great-uncle Jim not six feet away, entombed by polished cherry and cold white satin.

A gust of wind blew against my back, and I glanced toward the open sky nearly white with the cold. I lifted my chin, and the breeze skipped on my shoulder and tickled my ear. “I’m not there . . .”

“Hmm?” My voice was barely audible, but my mother turned and gave me a harsh look.

“Jo-Lynn.” She whispered my name in admonishment, as though I were a child, then nodded toward the youthful pastor who stood shivering on the other side of the casket, reading from a book of prayers. He’d never once laid eyes on Uncle Jim; other than speaking recitations, there wasn’t much else he could say.
••
Uncle Jim had never been one for going to church. For the life of me I couldn’t remember a single time I’d seen him sitting in one of the hard pews at Upper Creek Primitive Baptist Church or standing rigid with a hymnal spread against his open palms. But I’d heard him talking to God in the fields behind the big house; listened in the cool of the evenings as he sang, “In the sweet by and by . . .” while rocking in one of the front porch rockers that lined the wraparound of the old Victorian he and Aunt Stella called home.

He wasn’t a “religious” man, but his prayers before dinner were more like conversations with the Almighty than “grace.”

“Most beloved heavenly Father,” he would begin, then he would thank God for every single item on the table, for the hands that prepared them (typically Aunt Stella’s), and for those who would be blessed by them. “Keep our bodies healthy for thy service on earth and purified for thy kingdom in heaven.”

I remember raising my head ever so slightly, peeking through one eye at him. His ruddy face and drooping jowls quivered. His eyes were squeezed shut; tiny slits behind black-rimmed glasses. His hair, dark blond and thinning, shimmered in the glow from the overhead kitchen light.

At the big house, breakfast, lunch, and dinner were eaten in the kitchen. We never ate in the formal dining room, though it was certainly laid out, ready for guests. Uncle Jim said it was just a waste of space, and if he’d built the house, he would have left off that room. Growing up, I imagined that if I’d built the house, I’d use it for every meal.

My great-grandparents—Aunt Stella’s mother and father—had built the house before they married in the late 1800s. It was 1896, to be exact, when my grandmother came to live here as a bride at sixteen to her dashing “older” groom, ten years her senior. As the story goes, he met her, fell in love with her, married her against the wishes of her family, and then carried her over the threshold of this sprawling two-story with tucked-away rooms, long hallways, and an honest-to-goodness brick well on the back porch. Still to this day one can drop an old wooden bucket down into its depths and then, using a beat-up, long-handled tin dipper, sip of something so sweet and clean it almost doesn’t seem real. Liquid heaven, Uncle Jim used to call it.

In the early days, beyond the rose-covered trellises on the back porch, perfect rows of vegetables for canning and freezing were planted, both for our family and for neighbors in need when there was abundance. Standing behind the small garden was the farm. It extended alongside the highway that ran beside the left side of the house. The crops stretched toward the horizon and out of sight, interrupted only by the leaning of an old barn, the rise of a tin silo, or the deliberate movement of a John Deere tractor.

But those days were long gone. That was a time when everything seemed to be about life and living. These past few decades, the earth hasn’t been tilled or loved. No planting, no praying for rain, no harvesting. Nothing to show for what had been except the gray of the packed soil and an occasional twig rising up from out of the ground, a remnant of the last crop. Of what my great-grandparents had built, only the big house remained, and it was a part of the remnant of what had at one time been a thriving farm in Cottonwood, Georgia.
••
I blinked several times and brushed away those memories of life. There was too much heartache in the moment to allow myself to remain within them. Now was a time to reflect on death and dying. I could sit here and commiserate, and no one would be the wiser as to the depths into which I was falling. But I knew . . . I knew that when the funeral was over—when the casket had been lowered into the ground and the last clump of dirt had been patted down and the clusters of floral arrangements had been placed strategically about the mound—I’d see that old, proud house filled with family and friends eating fine Southern cooking off Chinet plates, reminiscing about the time Uncle Jim did thus and such and then throwing back their heads and bellowing at their memories.

But I . . . I would move about the house I had loved my whole life, touching old photographs—their frames caked with dust—seeking a flicker of solitude where I could grieve in my own way for the man I’d loved more like a great-grandfather than a great-uncle. A man who, it seemed, was always right where I needed him to be.

Except now. When I needed him most.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Through The Fire - Chapter 1

Through The Fire

Bethany House (July 1, 2009)



Chapter 1


Even smoke runs from the fire.

But I find myself compelled to enter hell's havoc and the swirling chasm, to take for my own the taming of the element, screwing my courage to the sticking place. When blackness billows heaven-bent from hallways, and flame tips lick lintels like a serpent's tongue, the Sirens stand singing. Mast ties won't hold fast.

Enter the cloud.

Enveloped by heat.

Vanquish the destroyer.

I come from a family of firemen. And borne into my blood was a gift. It arrives at times in whispers, other times more subtle. But beyond the beckon of skeptical sensibilities I've become convinced.

The fire speaks to me.

I know where it is going. I know what it will do. Some call it heightened intuition. Others credit Irish luck. But I know that it's more.

And it was this very thing, this brash self-confidence, that propelled me down a fateful course one thirty-first of October.

* * *

Captain Butcher slammed his palm on the clipboard sliding off the dash. He cursed. "We ain't doing nobody no good if we don't get there alive, Aidan."

I winked at him, tightening and relaxing my grip on the steering wheel. His silver-laced moustache rowed back and forth like a set of oars. Our normal driver had taken the day off, so lucky for Butcher, I stepped up as acting operator.

I hung a hard right and the clipboard fell again. This time he missed. He grabbed the side of his door and slung my name with a slew of expletives.

I couldn't help but grin. "Nice alliteration, Cap."

"Nice what? Watch out. Slow down."

We threaded through the glowing Reno arch, under its mainstay mantra, The Biggest Little City in the World. South Virginia Street stretched out before our blaring Pierce Quantum pumper. I laid on the air horn through intersections and wound the grinder into a high wail. The burgundy hues of the autumn sunset filtered through the foothills, bathing building sides with amber tones and glinting windows.

A pillar of black cloud rose from the south.

Deep into District Three. We'd be third engine in, coming from downtown. I hated being anything but first in. But third was better than second. At least we wouldn't be stuck hooking up water supply.

Static crackled from the radio, "All units, be advised, we have reports of occupants trapped."

I pushed the pedal to the floor. The rig surged like an elephant charging. Cars and businesses passed as blurs. The guys in the back strapped on their packs, cranking open the air valves to the beep-beep-beep acknowledgment of the built-in motion sensors. Butcher flipped through the map book.

Another transmission, "Battalion Two, Engine Three on scene, large footprint concrete tilt-up, retail building, heavy smoke showing from the roof. We'll be in live-line operations."

It was McKinley. I heard the strain in his voice. Not highpitched or excited, but almost muted. Like he was trying really hard not to sound high-pitched or excited. He had been a good fireman, an excellent operator, and now that he had promoted to captain, I knew he'd prove the same.

Butcher directed me down a side street so we'd be out of the way of Engine Five laying their hose from the hydrant.

I pulled us up near the ladder truck. The aerial elevated and rotated toward the roof. The Engine Three crew flaked out their hose line to the front doors. A small sea of disquieted faces gathered in the parking lot, shopping bags in hand, children clinging to shoulders.

I set the brake and hopped out of the rig. The tang of burning wood pierced the air. Fire crackled, spitting and popping. I strapped on my air pack.

Butcher came up to me. "Word is, a mother and her son are trapped in the back. They were last seen by the dressing rooms. Smoke's banked down to the floor."

There was no way they could breathe in that. I grabbed my flathead axe and started with him toward the front doors.

"Truck Three is committed to topside," he said. "Battalion Two assigned us and Rescue One with search, but I need to coordinate with him and Captain McKinley. We'll split into two teams. Timothy Clark with me. You take the new kid and head on in."

"Got it."

"And Aidan ..." He stopped walking.

"What?"

"I'm trusting you with our probie." He held my gaze for a second longer, then turned and strode over to the battalion chief's rig.

Probie firefighter Matt Hartman's eyes circled wide like china saucers. He pulled on his air mask and tightened his gleaming yellow helmet. This was his third shift.

We advanced to the door. "Ready, bud?"

Fog filled his facepiece. "Yeah," he said with a muffled voice.

"Lightweight truss," I said. "Looks like it's running the rafters hard. Be heads-up."

At the entry I strapped on my mask, the smell of rubber meeting my nostrils as I seated the nose cone. Thick gray smoke hovered in the doorway, greeting us like a silent apparition. A chainsaw started in the parking lot.

I clicked on my voice amplifier and pulled rope out of the small bag on my air pack. I carabinered it to a door handle. "We follow this to get out. Keep a hand on my shoulder."

Hartman nodded.

We crouched and entered the maw. Sounds of the outside faded, and warmth pressed in around my hood. Our flashlights penetrated only two feet in front of us. The sound of hose streams hitting walls rumbled to our distant right. A dull roar like a freeway overpass reverberated above, interspersed with metallic groans. My hands found the smooth tile of a walkway alongside a carpeted section. I trailed a glove and pushed us on toward the back of the store.

Bump. Bump. Bump.

The ladder truck company made the roof, sounding out each step with a tool. I reached out with all my senses.

I listened beyond.

Searching.

There you are.

Rolling like a tumbleweed, tearing through the trusses ... south ... southeast.

I stopped.

"What is it?" Hartman said.

I looked behind us. Orange flickers danced through the smoke. "We don't have much time."

We moved on until I felt the rope bag tug on my waist belt. I unclipped it and dropped it on the pathway. "Matt, connect your tag line to mine."

"What tag line?"

"The red bag on your air pack."

He twisted like he was doing the hula hoop. "I don't have one."

We were a hundred feet in, and out of rope to follow back.

The smoke swirled around us. If we ran out of air we'd suffocate. We ran the risk of getting lost in an everyday retail mart, our final breaths taken beside the baby toys and discount-movie bins.

This is how firemen die.

I looked at the rope bag, then ahead into the graphite abyss. Somewhere in that lay a woman and a child.

"All right," I said. "Stick close. Let's go."

Rumbles and groans crescendoed. I quickened the pace, tapping my glove to feel the tile every dozen steps. The temperature elevated.

Two white lights swung through the haze. A pair of firefighters materialized in front of us, a woman's limp body clutched between them.

"You guys Rescue One?"

The firefighter at the head moved backward, struggling. "Yeah."

"Where's the kid?"

"What kid?"

I followed alongside. "We heard there was a mother and a child."

"We ... searched the whole ... back there. Nobody else."

I stopped. "No, we heard there was a kid—"

In my mind I saw a vision of a sudden bright flame.

Southeast corner.

Under the roof, by the wall. By McKinley's crew.

I grabbed the radio from my jacket pocket.

"Engine Three, get—"

A tangerine flash filled the room.

I tackled Hartman to the floor. Rescue One scrambled beneath the searing heat, dragging the woman with one hand each. Hartman made his knees and scuttled after them. The store glowed like a volcanic cloud.

"Matt!" I yelled. "Matt!"

He turned.

I motioned toward the rear of the building. "This way."

He stared at me and turned toward the front.

"Matt!"

He looked back again.

A transmission burst from my radio. "Battalion Two to all units, evacuate the building. Repeat, all units evacuate the structure. We are going defensive."

Fire rolled overhead.

"Come on, Matt! We can still find the kid."

He didn't move.

"Matt, come on!"

He pointed to the front. "They're calling us out!"

A thunderous bang hit ground not far from us.

"Now's the time," I said. "Let's get back there."

I turned and crawled toward the back, certain he would follow me.

I felt the frame of a doorway and swiveled my head to make sure I still had him. But he hadn't moved. He knelt, frozen with indecision, as though his knees and gloves were affixed to the floor. There I saw in his face, through the clear curvature of his mask and the gold-lit reflections of fire, the simple look of a child, innocent and uncertain.

And then the roof collapsed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pirate Hunter - Chapter 1

Pirate Hunter

Bethany House (July 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


"I favor the red ribbons because they look like blood."

The pirate worked as he spoke, plaiting thin lengths of crimson silk into the raven hair of a wig on its tabletop stand. His own hair was almost exactly the same color of black, but closely cropped, the short growth even, suggesting that he had shaved his head a fortnight or two back. His beard, on the other hand, was thick and long, the ends of it bleached to a lighter brown by salt air and sun. Every strand had been combed and lightly dampened with sperm-whale oil, the scent of it warm and very nearly spicy in the small, close cabin of the sloop.

The pirate stepped back a bit to look at his work, leaning naturally to keep his footing as they canted over onto a fresh heel. Above their heads, the ship groaned and creaked with the turn, the mate's commands coming through the wooden bulkheads as a series of curt, muffled shouts.

The pirate gazed down his nose at the barefoot and barechested fifteen-year-old on the other side of the table. The younger man's skin was a deep chocolate brown, almost as dark as his jet-black hair, a fact that made his eyes appear larger than they were, giving him the appearance of an innocent.

"Why do you think that is, boy?"

The young man startled and stood a little straighter. "Sir?"

"The ribbons, boy." The man's voice was a calm baritone. "Why would I favor ribbons that resemble blood?"

The younger man kept his eyes fixed on those of the pirate but canted his head slightly down and to his right, a mannerism he had when he knew the answer to something but was thinking it through, just to be certain. Lips still closed, he took a quick dart of breath through his nose.

"Because a fierce man, streaming blood but on the attack, would present a most frightening aspect, Captain. Because a person so startled would hesitate in his own defense, and a moment of hesitation is an opportunity in which to attack. At very least that is how I see it, sir."

The pirate stopped his work and touched an index finger to his lower lip. "Tell me, boy—have you been speaking with my crew, discussing my manners, my ways?"

His companion shook his head. "No, sir. The crew doesn't talk about you. The crew doesn't talk about anything but women and riches and rum."

The captain laughed. "And which of those three interests you?"

"The riches, Captain."

The pirate laughed again and started another ribbon into the wig. He turned it to look at his work. The younger man watched and then cleared his throat.

"Might I ask you something, Captain?"

The captain lifted a single eyebrow—his right. "You cannot learn if you do not ask."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.... When you took the slaver? When you took the crew ... ?"

"Yes?"

"You sold all the rest of the ... cargo. Yet you did not sell me. Why?"

"Because you speak the King's English, lad. Speak it, read it, write it as well as any Yorkshireman. Because you are familiar with Scripture. Because you seem to have an extremely able head on you."

"Those things—the learning and the Scripture—they were the doings of the Scotsman who raised me. He and his wife. Before he came to Africa to start his chandlery, Mr. Bascombe was a vicar. He taught me the Scripture, and history and philosophy."

The pirate smiled. He had white, even teeth. "Then, when you say your prayers, you must thank God for Vicar Bascombe."

He tied off another lock of the wig.

"But, Captain, does a slave not fetch a higher price if he speaks English?"

The captain looked up from his work. "I sold those men and women to save them, boy. They'd made it all the way across to the Indies; they were strangers in a strange land. If I'd put them ashore on some island, thirst and starvation and the Arawaks would have killed most of them off by now. And those who lived would be hanged for escape when the colonists found them. By making them chattel, I gave them food and a roof and the hope of still being alive by this time next year. Slavery may be the devil's own commerce, but death is irreversible. So I sold them to save them, lad. That and put a few farthings in our pockets. But you?" The captain picked up another ribbon. "What you've got between your ears is all you need to survive, boy. I kept you apart because you showed that promise. Why? You had no kin among the others, did you?"

The teenager shook his head. "They were people of the bush. I was raised in town."

The pirate shrugged. "Then what I did was best for all concerned."

The teenager handed the pirate another ribbon. "May I ask you another question, Captain?"

"Has your learning come to an end?"

The younger man shook his head.

"Then the same principle still applies. Ask away."

"Well, Captain, you seem to be a man of principle."

"Principle?" The pirate laughed. "There are those who might argue that point, but we shall grant it for the moment. And as you precede your question with it, I take it you are going to ask about behavior that appears ... unprincipled. You want to know why I—why my crew and I—take ships. Is that it?"

The younger man's eyes widened. "Why ... yes, sir. That is it precisely."

"Open that chest." The pirate pointed with a hand that was uncallused, its nails neatly trimmed and filed. "Bring me the case that you find on the very top."

The young man peered into the open chest. "A tube, like a chart case?"

"The very one. Bring it to me."

The young man did as he was told, and the pirate unwound the leather lace that secured the cap, then extracted a rolled sheet of parchment. When he unrolled it, it was clearly a government document, written in the thin, iron-gall cursive favored by government clerks. The foot of it was stamped with a wax seal and tape, and signed with an ornate scrawl.

"This"—the pirate tapped on the parchment with a manicured finger—"is a royal letter of marque, signed by His Majesty's lord governor of the colony of Tortola. The king has lands in this new world which are presently ... uhm, occupied by nations other than his own. As such, they steal from the royal coffers, so we overhaul ships flying the flags of those nations and take back what is rightfully our own."

The young man worked his lips.

"Say it, lad. What is on your mind?"

"Well, sir, if they take from the king, should we not return what we ... retrieve? To the king?"

The pirate nodded. "We do, lad. When one gives a thing to the king's lord governor, it is the same as giving it to the king himself. And the workman is worthy of his wage; I believe that is in your vicar's book. So, in his graciousness, the governor—on His Majesty's behalf—allows our crew to keep part of what we take: the greater part. The ... well, the considerably greater part. Very nearly all of it, if truth be told."

"So!" The young man brightened. "You are not a pirate at all. You are a privateer."

"That all depends—" the pirate laughed as he replaced the document in its case and handed it back to his young compatriot— "on whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of the transaction.

"I daresay the captain of that slaver we took you from is calling me a pirate. In point of fact, I would venture that he is calling me considerably more than that. But he is an enemy of His Majesty—and I rather imagine an enemy of yours as well."

As the boy returned the case to its chest, a knock sounded above them at the cabin's hatch.

"Come." When the pirate spoke in commands, his voice went lower, from a baritone to a bass.

The oak hatch swung open, sending sunlight streaming down into the tiny cabin. A barefoot, bearded man descended the ladder on the forward wall; he was wearing a faded Royal Navy officer's waistcoat over canvas breeches. When he turned, his tanned and naked chest showed in the gap of the coat, which was a full size too small for him. He gave a nod by way of a salute.

"Begging your pardon, Captain, but we've closed half the distance on the merchantman."

"Near enough to make out her ensign?"

The mate nodded. "It's the old flag, sir. White cross on a blue field."

"Servants of King Louis. Splendid. We'll have to air her out if we take her, but I'll wager she has brandy. How many guns, Ben?"

"Ports for ten each side. Plus a swivel gun or two: that'd make twenty-two. Looks like deckhands in her rigging, not marines, but she could be carrying some."

The pirate looked at the young man. "Twenty-two guns to our twelve four-pounders and the chance of two dozen muskets, to boot. What do you think, boy? Try to take her, or let her run?"

The teenager straightened. "Take her."

The pirate returned to his plaiting. "You'd risk my men's lives for a prize when we don't even know what she's carrying?" He looked up again.

"No, sir. But I'd risk her men's lives."

The pirate tied off the tip of a lock with a silver bead. "How so?"

The younger man motioned toward the silver brush and a tortoiseshell comb on the tabletop. "May I?"

The captain nodded once, slowly, his eyes on the boy.

"Say your brush here is the merchantman. Even if she has guns we can't see atop her aft castle, she'll still be blind in the quarters. She can shoot broadside and possibly straight aft, but she cannot shoot at an angle astern—not without repositioning a gun, and that takes time. So we sail straight into that unprotected quarter." He moved the brush. "Then we turn broadside and fire chain shot: take down her rigging and maybe even her masts. That puts her adrift; she can no longer maneuver to return fire. We can stand off and fire solid shot at her until she surrenders."

"Well." The captain looked at his mate. "It seems that young ... What's your name, lad?"

"Theodore, sir. Theodore—"

The captain shushed him. "Your Christian name alone will suffice on this ship, unless you're married, which I doubt very much that you are."

He divided his beard in two and began plaiting the left side with the scarlet ribbons. "So, Ben, it seems that young Ted has a knack for the scheming of things. What think you of his plan?"

The mate hoisted his breeches a bit. "It leaves us with a crippled prize, Captain. We can't put the half of what she's carrying in our hold; the rest would go to waste."

The pirate glanced up at Ted. "He's right, you know."

The young man scowled. "Then we take her gold and silver and burn her."

Both pirates laughed, and the teenager's face reddened.

"I like the cut of your jib, Bold Ted," the pirate said. "But that's an inbound merchantman. She carries very little gold or silver; only what her frightened passengers might have stuffed away in the corners of their trunks. Her cargo is probably cloth and tools and furniture, gunpowder and shot and some cannon, I wager, in her bilge as ballast. And perhaps—if Providence smiles upon us—some brandywine, seeing as she's French."

"Cloth and tools? What good are those?"

The pirate finished plaiting the other side of his beard.

"Those goods are needed by merchants here in the Indies, Bold Ted. They order them from the Old World, and pay when they arrive on the dock. Now, those merchants—or one of their cousins—will still get those goods, but they will buy them from us for a few shillings on the guinea. We can do that and still profit, because we paid naught for their manufacture, nor for the cost of crossing all of that." The captain waved a hand in the general direction of the great rolling Atlantic.

The boy's eyebrows rose. "You mean you buy and sell like common shopkeepers?"

The captain shrugged. "Not 'buy,' perhaps. But sell? Yes. That we do. Help me on with this wig, lad."

The captain sat on a three-legged stool, and Ted, waiting a moment while the deck assumed a new angle beneath him, lifted the wig from its stand and settled it on the pirate's close-cropped head, placing it with the care of a pontiff consecrating a king.

"Excellent," the pirate said, admiring the result in a looking glass. He topped it off with a scarlet-plumed tricorner hat, slipped a brace of dueling pistols into his golden sash, and turned to Ted. "When a shop owner or a chandler or even a military garrison buys from us, lad, they save money, and they save a great deal of it. It is far cheaper to buy from the brethren of the coast than it is to do business with the trading companies. That tends to make them like us very much. It tends to make them rather lax about demanding protection on the high seas.

"And as for burning that ship, we'll do that only if she fights us. She is manned by a crew that was either pressed into service or signed on out of desperation for what amounts to ten pence a week, maybe less after they've drawn goods and provisions. They have no interest in protecting a rich man's fortune, not unless they feel they are in danger of losing their lives as well. That is the key to the whole thing."

The pirate held a finger to his lip again, as if thinking. He opened a chest next to his bunk and took out a rolled piece of muslin. He unfolded it, revealing a handsome flintlock pistol with a well-engraved, heavy brass bolster on its grip. Working with the speed of a man long accustomed to such actions, he swiftly loaded, tamped, primed, and cocked the foot-long gun. Then he handed it to the young man.

"There you are, Bold Ted. That is a Spanish-made half-inch from the shop of Geromino Menandez, one of the finest pistolsmiths in old Madrid. Tuck that in your belt. If we have to board in force, fire the shot to help clear the deck, and then use the gun as a club until the prize is ours."

Ted looked at the pistol in his hands. It was the finest thing he had ever seen.

"Captain," he said, "I have no way to pay you for this."

The captain cocked an eye toward the ceiling. "Now that you mention it, nor did I when I acquired it. Now slip it in your belt, Ted, and mind the trigger. That ball can take your leg off."

Ted put the pistol in its place. He seemed to grow an inch taller in the process.

The captain held a hand out, toward the ladder. "Shall we take the air?"

* * *

The three of them climbed to the open hatch and the deck—the teenager first, then the mate, and finally the captain, who had topped his finery off with a brocaded velvet waistcoat. The crew, on the other hand, had opted for practicality, pulling on tarred breeches and jackets and leather jerkins—clothing designed to turn a light sword's blade. All around them the Caribbean Sea shone a deep and rolling blue under a sky dotted with only a few small clouds.

Their quarry, a three-masted ship, was under what seemed its own small constellation of cumulus—a full set of snow-white sails straining concave before the wind. But it was plain to see that she was losing her race to the pirates' faster Jamaica-built sloop. Already they were close enough to make out the men in her rigging, shielding their eyes as they watched the closing pursuer.

"Colors," the pirate said evenly. Behind him, a man ran up a black flag. On it was a winged skull wearing a white crown. In its lower left was an hourglass; in its lower right, a pair of crossed bones.

The captain accepted a spyglass and took a look at his quarry. He lowered the glass, still gazing at the distant ship. "Raise ports. Run them out."

On both sides of the sloop, hinged gunports were lifted. Gun crews hove together on thick, greased ropes and rolled deck cannon out so their muzzles cleared the sides of the ship.

"Vapors," the pirate commanded.

Musicians—a fiddler, a piper, and a horn player—began playing a screeching, cacophonous melody, a veritable hornpipe from hell. All along the deck of the pirate ship, men shouted, barked, bellowed, and screamed as they jumped into the air, stomped on the deck, and rang cutlasses together.

The captain pointed to one of his crew. Raising his voice to be heard over the din, he shouted, "One across her bow ... at your leisure, Jack."

Standing well to the side, a gunner waited until the sloop was rising on a swell and then lowered his improvised match—a piece of burning hemp—to his cannon's touchhole. Sparks shot up, thunder erupted, and the cannon leapt back on its carriage. A thick cloud of smoke wafted by—foul, sulfurous, blue-gray in color. When it had cleared, the pirates could see a geyser of white shoot up from the blue sea on the far side of their quarry's bow. Moments later, the merchantman's acre of sail collapsed as she came sharply about and spilled the wind. Her gunports remained shuttered. A man with a cutlass ran back to her ensign and hacked at it. The crossed flag fluttered and fell into the sea.

The pirate crew roared their approval.

The captain smiled down at Ted. "And that is how it is done, lad. We'll still keep our guns on her, and we will sink her in a minute if anyone decides to be brave or foolish. But I doubt anyone will, and we've a fine prize with no unsightly gaps for our carpenter to patch."

He turned to the mate. "Ben, would you be so good as to assemble a prize crew?"

The mate saluted—the first time anyone had executed a proper shipboard salute all morning—and chose men from the volunteers clustered around him.

The captain clapped the teenager on the shoulder. "You are a good lad and a bright one, Bold Ted. But I daresay that this Vicar Bascombe of yours took his knowledge of tactics from the histories of Caesar, and perhaps from naval accounts; we will have to do our best to clear your head of all that battle nonsense. Ships of the line fight to the death, and if hard-pressed, so shall we. But for men in an enterprise such as this, our stock in trade is the option of surrender, and surrender is always what's best for all parties. If one of our men is maimed in a fight, we must pay him a pension and buy him a plot of land, and that expense reduces considerably the prize share for all concerned. Not to mention that the prize is worth more if taken whole.

"And those lads over there"—he nodded at the merchantman—"are highly relieved now that things are proceeding in a civilized manner. Most of them will volunteer to crew our prize and receive shares for their cooperation. As for the ones that don't, they will be locked in the hold and set ashore at the nearest landfall."

Ted shook his head, his close-cropped black hair glistening in the bright Caribbean sun, as the sloop closed in on the drifting merchantman. "It's not how I thought it worked at all."

The pirate laughed and lifted a hailing trumpet.

"I am Captain Henry Thatch, a servant of King George." Behind him, the first mate coughed. "And you are my prize." The captain squinted at the mate, then continued, his deep voice amplified nearly threefold by the brass horn. "We give you all quarter so long as you submit; on that you have my word. Drop us a net and stand by to assist as we board."

He handed the horn to a crewman and smiled once again at Ted as the crew swarmed around them. Grappling hooks dangled from the tan hands of several. Most had exchanged their cutlasses and muskets for smaller arms—dirks and clubs and cocked flintlock pistols slung in pairs on cords about their necks.

"Consider this the beginning of your finer education, lad. There are things in this world and the next—things worth knowing of which you have probably never so much as dreamed. But you have a good head on your shoulders, and I shall do my best to enlighten you."

The pirate looked down and cocked his head.

"Let us begin," he told the teen, "with the brighter points of history. What would you say was the seminal accomplishment of the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and twenty-three?"