Book: Twilight Earth

Twilight Earth

Bedouin’s Travels

Twilight Earth – Book I

By Ben Winston

Copyright © 2015 Ben Winston

Published by Blue Space Publications, LLC.

Table of Contents

Copyright Page


Author’s Note

Twilight Earth – Book I

About the Author

Connect with the author or Blue Space Publications, LLC.

Books Published by Blue Space Publications, LLC.


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed by a newspaper, magazine, or journal.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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Author’s Note

In the following book, there are a lot of celestial references that may sound real, but they are not. In order to establish the proper ‘ambiance’ for the situation, the astronomical objects and phenomena exist only in the author’s mind.

Twilight Earth – Book I

Bedouin Residence

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

"Hey Ben, do you have a minute?" Tom Bedouin asked his son.

"Sure Dad, what's up?" Ben said, looking up from the book he was reading.

"You know I haven't been feeling so hot lately, right?" Tom said.

"Yeah, it's getting worse, isn't it?" Ben asked.

"Uh, yeah. That's kinda what I wanted to talk to you about." Suddenly, Tom looked very old to his son. They had been pretty good friends growing up, and Tom had always made sure to make time for his kids. They had a great relationship. But suddenly, it was like Ben was looking at a different person.

"How bad is it? You really don't look so good," Ben said after thinking about it for a minute.

"I'm dying, it doesn't get much worse than that, Ben. The doctors told me I don't have much time left." Seeing the tears forming in his son's eyes prompted his own.

"Damn, I didn't want to cry." Ben had started crying, but he was trying to be strong. "Did they give you a time frame?"

Tom nodded. "Sort of. Because of the nature of the tumor, I could go anytime. When it happens it could be slow, I'll just go downhill and then die. Or I could have an aneurysm and just fall over. They couldn't tell me which. I got the feeling that they were surprised I was still going." He paused. "I did get everything set up. For the time being, Deirdre will have custody of your sister, Kaitlin. Since you're already eighteen, I didn't have to do much for you."

Ben looked down at his hands. "No, I don't suppose you did."

"Look here, this is important," Tom said. "Bob Gilly has the will, but there is a lot of other stuff you don't know about. Deirdre knows some of it, but she's been sworn to secrecy. I left a letter for you in my safe, she has the combination and will open it for you when its time."

Deirdre was the young woman Tom had taken in to help care for the kids. She was only a couple of years older than Ben, and it was obvious Tom didn't so much as hire the orphan so much as take her in under the guise of a job. Tom adopted her. She finished high school and Tom had told her she could go to college as well, but she hadn't chosen one yet.

He took off his wedding ring and handed to his son. "Take this. I was really hoping I would see the day that Jorga put this on your hand, but I don't think I'm gonna make it."

"Sure you will, Dad! The doctors have been wrong so far, you'll still be here when we get married!" Ben replied

"No Ben, I won't. I can feel it. These damn pain meds they gave me aren't really working anymore," Tom replied. "I don't want to be an invalid, Ben. I couldn't stand it!" very softly, he continued. "I won't let it happen.

"Marcy and Kaitlin are going out tonight, Ben. I'd like it if you would take Jorga and Deirdre out to a movie and a nice dinner," Tom replied.

"You want everyone out of the house? Why?" Ben asked suspiciously.

"There's one last thing I need to take care of Ben and then I'll be ready. In order to do that, I'll need everyone to be gone. Can you do that for me?" Tom asked, ignoring Ben's question.

"Sure Dad, I'll give Jorgie a call right now, then I’ll talk to Deirdre," Ben asked.

Tom rose to his feet feeling a little dizzy from the morphine and nodded. "Thank you, Ben. I love you, you know. I'm so proud of the man you've become. I know your Mom would feel the same."

"Thanks Dad, I love you too," Ben replied. "Are you sure this is the right choice?"

"Yeah, I am. I've been having episodes of blindness, paralysis and seizures. There is a very good chance the next episode will be permanent, and by then it'll be too late for me to do this without any help. I won't ask any of you to do that for me," Tom explained.

"Kaitlin's not going to understand. You've done a good job of getting us prepared for the end, but I think she honestly believes it'll never come," Ben replied.

"I know and I'm sorry for that. I want her to remember me as I am now and have been, I don't want her to remember the old invalid, hooked up to machines just to keep him alive." He sighed. "Take care of our family, Ben," Tom said, as he turned and left the room.

"Hi Jorga, Dad asked us to take Deirdre out tonight, and I need some ideas for the date," Ben asked after his girlfriend answered. He didn’t sound as excited as he usually did, but Jorga let it slide for the time being.

"Really? This should be fun. Let's leave about four, go over to Bentonville and walk around the mall for a while, then go to dinner at Shenanigan's. We can catch a movie or something when we get back," Jorga suggested.

"I still don't understand how she doesn't have a boyfriend at least. She said she isn't gay, so I just don’t get it. It's not like she's ugly!" Ben asked.

Jorga laughed. "No, she definitely isn't ugly. She just doesn't want a relationship right now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to stay single." Jorga replied. "Now are you going to tell me why the prospect of a date with two beautiful woman is depressing to you?"

"It's Dad. I think the reason he wants us all out of the house is because... he's really hurting, Jorgie," Ben said, not able to bring himself to say that his dad was going to kill himself.

Her normally joyful, buoyant personality was subdued when he mentioned his father. "Ben, you remember my grandmother, right? I think I can understand what he's going through." She paused, trying very hard to not tell him too much. "If it were me, I think I'd feel pretty much the same way. You think he's going to... uh, leave tonight?"

Ben nodded, but she couldn't see that. "Yeah, he all but told me when we talked earlier. He told me about all the preparations he has made, and how he hoped he hadn't overlooked anything. He took off his wedding ring and gave it to me before apologizing that he wouldn't be there to see us get married."

"That does sound pretty dire. But, the question is, do we respect his wishes, or do we stop him from doing what he plans?" Jorga said. "I love you Ben, but if it were me, I would hope you'd let me go."

"That's what's tearing me up Jorga, I'm having a hard time letting him go. I just can't imagine life without him."

For a moment, Jorga was silent. "Does Kaitlin know yet?"

"No, and she won't until after it's over. She won't be able to let him go," Ben replied. "He's been getting us ready for his eventual death, but I don't think she really believes it. Look, I don't want her to overhear us, so why don't I go talk to Deirdre, and then we’ll get ready to go. We can talk more after we leave."

"Yeah, that's a good plan. I take it Deirdre is aware of his plan as well?"

"Honestly I don't know for certain, but even if he hasn't told her I'd be surprised if she didn't know. Not much happens here that she isn't aware of," Ben replied. "She's a little creepy like that at times."

"Maybe, but not really in a bad way. She just cares about all of you," Jorga said. "Go talk to her. I'll see you both in a little while." Jorga finished.

Ben nodded to himself. "Okay, I'll go talk to her. I love you and I'll see you later."

"I love you too, see you then."

Ben found Deirdre in her room, reading a book. After knocking, she asked him to come in. She was lying on her bed on her tummy. Ben was struck by how beautiful she was and not for the first time wondered why she didn't have a boyfriend. At twenty years old, she was five feet, five inches tall. Weighed no more than a hundred and twenty pounds, had dark hair and sea-foam colored eyes. She had a sweet personality that had captured more than one heart in their small town. Yet, she was still single.

"Hey Dee, how are you doing?" Ben asked, trying to be cheerful.

"About as well as can be expected I guess. How are you doing?" She replied.

"I'm holding it together, barely. Dad would like Jorga and me to take you out to dinner tonight. He, uh, thinks that would help with some of the stress," Ben said.

"So he's settled on tonight then?" Deirdre asked and nodded. "Yes, I'll go with you. What time do you want to leave?"

"Jorga wants us to pick her up around four. Is that enough time for you to get ready?" Ben asked.

Deirdre put a bookmark in the novel she was reading and sat up, placing the book on her nightstand. "Yeah, I can be ready by then. Where are we going to dinner at?"

"Jorga suggested Shenanigan's over in Bentonville and maybe a movie after," Ben said.

Deirdre smiled sadly. "That sounds good." She stood and looked him in the eyes. "Do you know where Tom is? I'd like to say good-bye."

Ben could tell she was really fighting tears, and trying very hard to hold it together. He got up and put his arms around his adopted sister.

When they finally parted, Deirdre looked up into his eyes. "Thank you Ben, I really needed that."

"I just want to make sure you know you're loved, sis," Ben said.

She smiled up at him sadly. "I have been feeling a little like an outsider, thanks."

Not knowing what else to say, Ben chose to answer her question. "I think Dad's in his office. He said something about needing to take care of a few things." He paused as they parted. "Deirdre, Jorga and I will always be here for you, no matter what."

"I think I'm starting to understand that, Ben. It's just kind of sad that it took something like this for me to see it," she said. She patted his shoulder as she slipped past him to find Tom.

Kaitlin was Ben's sixteen-year-old little sister. She was growing up to be a pretty young lady, and she resembled the pictures of their mother that they had on the walls. Her best friend was Marcy Simms, and the pair of them could almost always be found in the other's company.

Ben found the two in Kaitlin's room getting ready to go out. He had to wait after knocking, since someone may not have been decent. When he was finally allowed in, he saw it had been his sister who was now wearing a bra and panties. Ben blushed and turned around. "Jesus Kait! You could have put a little more on!"

"What, and miss out on making you blush?" Kaitlin teased. "Whatcha need?"

"I wanted to make sure you got your homework finished, to see what you had planned for the evening and to make sure you had everything you need," Ben replied still looking at the back of the door.

"You can turn back around now, you big dope," Kaitlin said.

He turned and saw she was now wearing a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. Marcy had been wearing a housecoat, but was now also dressed. "Thanks. It's not that I mind, you're both very pretty, but..."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm sure there's someone else you'd rather see naked, right?" Kaitlin teased.

"Yeah, like a certain Jorga somebody?" Marcy added. "She's so beautiful I guess we just don't compete, Kat."

"I refuse to comment! Your evil Jedi mind tricks won't work on me!" Ben replied. That was his standard answer when the girls in his life tried to put him in one of those no-win situations females excel at.

Kaitlin did a near-perfect 'Master Yoda' imitation. "Learning you are, young Padawan. Understanding to you will come."

Ben chuckled. "So, what are the two of you going to do tonight?"

"The Mall. Shopping and a movie most likely," Marcy replied. "Kat might change her mind, though."

"About shopping? I didn't think women ever changed their minds about that," Ben replied, grinning. "What about the homework?"

"You know, you're more of a homework-nazi than dad ever was. Just like the last time you asked; we are both still way ahead in all of our classes," Kaitlin answered. "In fact, we're ready for finals, but have to wait until next month for that."

Ben frowned. "That might not be a good thing. I'll ask Deirdre to speak to the Principal to see if you can test out early. If you have all the assignments finished you should test on it before you forget it."

"I'd appreciate it, Ben. Marcy won't forget it, but I might," Kaitlin replied.

"The curse of an eidetic memory," Marcy shrugged. "I can still remember the books my Mom read to me as a little girl."

"Ben, what's wrong? You don't seem as happy as you are normally?" Kaitlin asked.

Ben shook his head. "Don't worry about it, sweet-pea. Call it adjustment difficulties."

"Dad's sick again, isn't he?" Kaitlin asked. When Ben just nodded. She tried to cheer him up. "Don't worry, he'll come out of it. He always does."

"Kait, you know that won't always be the case, right? He's dying and there isn't a treatment for it," Ben explained. "One of these days he won't be able to come out of it."

"Maybe, but that's a long ways off. Dad's a fighter, look how long he's been able to fight it so far?" Kait said as she looked in the mirror to brush her hair. Marcy was looking at him curiously, but Ben looked at Kaitlin meaningfully and shook his head at Marcy. She seemed to deflate a little but covered it quickly for Kaitlin's sake.

"Anyway, you guys need anything for tonight?" Ben asked. "I need to start getting ready for my own date."

"Oh? Where are you taking Jorga tonight?" Kait asked.

"Actually, Jorga and I are taking Deirdre with us tonight. Probably dinner and a movie or something else fun," Ben replied.

"Really?" Kaitlin said. "Deirdre would like that. I think she's been getting a little lonely lately."

"Yeah," Ben said. "I got that feeling too, besides, Dad asked us to take her along tonight." Ben sighed. "Anyway, you two have fun tonight."

"You too!" Kaitlin said.

Ben smiled and headed for his room to get ready to go out.

After getting ready for the date, Ben decided he wanted to talk to Tom again before they left for the night. He found the man in his den, working on his computer.

"Hey Ben, give me just a moment. I want to get this finished. Okay?" Tom said when Ben entered.

Ben nodded and got a soda from the small wet-bar Tom had built then took a seat to wait. After about five minutes, Tom reached up and turned his monitor off. "There, that should take care of the last of it. Now, what can I do for you, Ben?"

"Dad, are you going to take all your pain killers tonight?" Ben asked bluntly. "Please, no more hinting or pussy-footing around. I would like some straight answers."

Tom nodded. He was blinking a lot and his motions were slowed and exaggerated as if he were drunk. Ben knew that it was the very powerful painkillers he had to take in order to live with the tumor. "I was beginning to wonder how long you'd put up with the bullshit. I never could stand it very much either." He paused. "Yes Ben, I'm planning on ending my life tonight. That's what I've been working on, making sure everything is set up so you won't have to worry about anything during the transition.

"Like I tried to tell you earlier, I just can't stand the pain anymore, I'm blind more often than I can see, and I'm having trouble walking. I will not go to a hospice and I really don't want you kids to see me like that," he finished.

"You've never been a quitter, Dad. It's hard for me to accept you doing this," Ben said.

"Ben, I know it looks like I'm quitting, or giving up, and in a way I suppose I am. In my defense, I would like to say that I just couldn’t find the strength to fight anymore. You, Kaitlin and Deirdre have been that strength in the past, but it is time for me to let go. You're a grown man, about to start your own life with Jorga. Kaitlin is not only one of the smartest people I know, she's also very mature. Deirdre is also taken care of, so I know I can let go and you'll be just fine. Ben, there's a ton of stuff I've never told you about and after I'm gone, you'll get hit with it. I'd tell you all about it, but I honestly don't remember a lot of it anymore. That's another reason I want to put an end to this pain. I'm losing my mind; I can feel it. I've had Bob double checking me on everything and he's been catching more and more stuff I've screwed up." He sighed and continued.

"Money will never be a problem for you or the girls. I've seen to that. I've also set up scholarships for all of you that can be transferred to any University you choose for anything you may wish to learn to any level. That includes Marcy and Jorga. By the way, I've asked Deirdre to investigate the possibility for Kait and Marcy to test out of high school so they can get to their real educations." Tom blinked a couple more times and put his head in his hands. "Damn, blind again, I'm going to have to ask you to help me back to my room, Ben."

Ben nodded and stood. "Marcy and Kait have already left for the mall. They should be gone the rest of the day."

As Ben helped Tom stand up, Tom asked. "When are you and Deirdre leaving?"

"In a little bit. We're picking Jorga up around four at her place," Ben replied.

"You should ask Jorga to move in here, Ben. You'll need each other more often now. Besides, it would be better to have all of you in one place," Tom said.

"I'll talk to her about it Dad," Ben said.

"Be sure to do it tonight," Tom said, it seemed to Ben he was getting weaker.

"The drugs are really doing a number on you tonight, aren't they?" Ben asked.

Tom nodded. "It's not just the drugs Ben. This grenade in my head is pressing on a lot of stuff and that isn't helping either." His speech was getting very slurred.

Ben got him to his room, got him in bed and made sure he was comfortable.

"Make... sure... I can get... to... pills...... please," Tom said, obviously in pain. His nose was starting to bleed as well.

"I will, Dad. Hang on, your nose is bleeding, I need to get a washcloth," Ben said and ran to his bathroom.

When he got back, Tom was motionless and had stopped breathing. Ben checked for a pulse and found none. Tom Bedouin, Ben's father and best friend, was gone.

Bedouin Residence

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

Ben took a moment to let himself cry. He took out his cell phone and called his girlfriend.

"Hey Ben, has something changed?" Jorga asked as she answered the phone.

"Dad just passed away, Jorgie. I'm sorry, but I think I need to cancel our date tonight. Do you think you and your Dad could come over? I'm supposed to call him as well as Doctor Lyam," Ben replied sadly. Jorga's Dad was a Deputy Sheriff for their county, and Dr. Jon Lyam was not only a family friend, but also the family doctor.

"I'm so sorry, hon. Yeah, I'll get Daddy and come over as soon as we can. How are Deirdre and Kaitlin holding up?" Jorga asked.

"I haven't told them yet. Kait and Marcy already left for the mall and Deirdre is still getting ready for our date. I was talking to him when he got a nosebleed, when I got back with a washcloth he was gone," Ben replied. It was clear to Jorga that Ben was only barely holding it together.

"Okay Ben. Go tell Deirdre before you call Doctor Lyam. I'll call Marcy and Kaitlin and have them come home. Help is on the way baby, just hold it together for a while longer," Jorga said.

"Okay, I'll do that. Thank you Jorga. I'll see you in a few minutes," he replied and hung up the phone. It was a sign of how upset he was that he hadn't told her he loved her. He got up woodenly and went to Deirdre's room.

She answered the door in a robe, but it was clear she had been getting ready to go out. "Ben? What's wrong?"

He hugged her and started crying. "Dad's gone. He just died."

"How? He wasn't going to take the pills until later!" Deirdre asked as tears began forming in her eyes.

"His nose started bleeding and that was it. He didn't take any pills," Ben said between sobs. He fought hard and managed to pull himself back together. "I've already called Jorga and canceled our date tonight. I asked her to come over and bring her Dad. I still need to call Doctor Lyam," Ben said, as he pulled away from the woman slightly. She was still hanging onto him and put her forehead against his chest.

"What about Kaitlin and Marcy?" Deirdre asked.

"Jorga said she'd call Marcy and have them come home. I think we're going to have a house full of people pretty quickly," Ben replied.

Deirdre nodded and leaned back. "I'll get some clothes on and come out to help. After you call the doctor, could you put on a pot of coffee?"

"Yeah, I will," Ben replied and left the room.

After calling Doctor Lyam, who expressed his condolences and replied he would be over in a few minutes, Ben made a fresh pot of coffee and set out plenty of mugs. Just as he was finishing, Jorga arrived.

"Dad said he would be over here as soon as he could. He'll bring an ambulance and the needed paperwork. Did you call Doctor Lyam?" The young woman asked.

Ben nodded like he was on autopilot. Jorga realized he probably was and moved to hold him in her arms. Tom Bedouin had been a very well respected and influential man in their small city. Jorga knew he had a lot of business contacts since he owned a very successful investment firm. He had also been very active in the community and had been a major motivator on any project that helped to improve the lives of the people. She was also one of the few people that knew that he had been the money behind a reclamation project that had taken two old, abandoned grain storage facilities, as well as an old brewery and turned them into the town's newest, and largest park. She knew that the entire town would feel his loss.

"Okay, is Deirdre still in her room?" she asked letting him go for the moment.

Again, Ben only nodded. "She's taking it pretty hard, I..." he paused to keep from crying again. ”I guess I am too."

Jorga nodded. "I would be surprised if you weren't, love. Why don't you go put some sweats or something on? I'll go check on Deirdre. I'll order dinner even though I'm sure none of you will feel much like eating."

"Okay, thank you Jorga," Ben replied and walked to his room. He was definitely on autopilot.

When Ben returned to the living room, he was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. Jorga and Deirdre were also in the living room, and Deirdre was dressed in sweats and a tank top. Jorga was wearing a pair of shorts and a tank top. Ben briefly wondered how she had changed clothes, but before he asked, the doorbell rang.

Ben answered the door to Jorga's father and the two paramedics behind him. "Deputy Lowe, thanks for coming," Ben said and stepped aside.

"I'm really sorry to hear about your father, Ben," Jorga's father, Bill Lowe, replied. "Have you called Doc Lyam yet?"

Ben nodded. "Yeah, shortly after I called Jorga. He said he'd be over in a few minutes, so he should be here any time. While you wait, would any of you like a cup of coffee?"

One of the ladies had carried the pot and cups out to the living room before Ben came back from his room.

"Thank you Ben, I will, but I do need to see the body first," Bill replied, sadly.

"Of course, follow me," Ben replied and looked at Jorga, who was holding a crying Deirdre. "Could you get these gentlemen some coffee, please?"

She nodded at him as Ben led her father back to Tom's room. "Your father was a good man, Ben. One of the few truly good men left. He'll be sorely missed."

"Thank you Sir, I know he had a lot of friends around town. Which reminds me that I need to call Bob Gilly and let him know as well. Dad made sure I knew what to do when he passed," Ben said sadly.

Bill nodded. "That's probably a good idea. Bob will be a good person to handle all the legal stuff that comes with this." Bill once again checked for a pulse and verified that Tom was indeed deceased. Ben saw him glance at the pills on the nightstand and frown.

"I know what you’re thinking, Sir. No, he didn't get the chance to take them. I will tell you that he had planned on it; the pain had gotten so bad and he didn't want to go into hospice, but he... died before he could follow through with it." Ben explained.

Bill nodded. "I understand. I think we can leave that part out of the official report. Once Doc Lyam gets here and does his thing, I'll have the EMT's transport him to the morgue."

"He had an inoperable brain tumor, Bill," Doctor Jon Lyam said from the door behind Ben. "I thought he might have been planning something, but couldn't have been sure." He looked at Ben. "Were you with him at the end, Ben?"

Ben nodded. "We were talking in his den when he said he'd lost his sight again. He asked me to help him in here. I did and got him in bed. He tried to ask me to make sure he could get to his pills when his nose started bleeding. I went to get a washcloth and when I got back, he was gone."

Doc Lyam nodded. "That's not surprising considering his circumstances. He most likely died of an aneurysm, but I'll have to do a postmortem to be certain. I really don't feel that's necessary in this case though."

Bill nodded. "Okay, I have the paperwork downstairs Doc. Do you want him sent to the morgue or County General?"

"County General please, I know he had arrangements made with a funeral home, and they are to pick him up from there," Jon replied.

"Okay, let's go back to the living room and we can let the EMTs do their work," Bill replied.

When the three men returned to the living room, Bill took the paramedics aside and spoke to them briefly. They nodded and left to get their equipment. Bill and Jon sat down with the family, which now included a heavily crying Kaitlin being held by an also crying Marcy.

"This'll only take us a few moments, Ben. Why don't you call Mr. Gilly to let him know of Tom's passing," Bill suggested sadly.

Ben nodded and went to Tom's den to get the number. While he was in there, he called Bob Gilly, Tom's best friend and personal attorney.

"Good evening, Tom. What do you need help with?" The man asked, pleasantly.

"Mr. Gilly, this is Ben. I'm afraid my father passed away a little while ago," Ben said.

"Oh damn! I'm so very sorry, Ben. Is there anything I can do for you? Do any of you need anything?" Bob replied. The man truly had been Tom's friend.

"I don't think so, Sir. Both Doctor Lyam and Deputy Lowe are here right now, Deputy Lowe brought two paramedics with him to take the body," Ben replied.

"Okay, can you make sure they take him to County General? Tom had planned for this and the funeral home will pick up his body from there," Bob replied.

"I'm pretty sure that's where Doc Lyam told them to take him."

Bob sighed. "Good, it's not really a big deal, since they could get him from where ever he gets sent to, but that was the plan. I'll start on the legal work right away. There is a Will, but your father also left pretty explicit instructions for you for when he passed. I'll wait a few days before I bring the Will over to read it. I'll also need your signature on a few things. However, until then, if any of you need anything; and I mean anything, let me know and I'll try to make it happen. Okay?"

"Okay, Mr. Gilly. We'll call you," Ben said. He was starting to lose it again; he could feel it.

"All right, please ask Deputy Lowe to give me a call when he finishes with you folks. I'll check on you guys in a couple of days. Thank you for calling me, Ben. I'll miss your father too," Bob said as his voice cracked.

"I know, Sir. I think we all will," Ben said not knowing how to reply.

"Go be with Kaitlin and Deirdre, Ben. They need you and Jorga right now," Bob said. "I'll talk to you again tomorrow and please, call me Bob."

"Thank you, Bob. I'll talk to you then," Ben said and hung up. He got up and returned to the living room.

The night that Tom passed away, unknown to Ben and his family, another event took place. While studying a formation called the ‘pillars of heaven’ in the Eagle Nebula, the aging Hubble Space Telescope, or HST, detected a cloud of thousands of objects. They were still over two light years from Earth, and well below the plane of the ecliptic. It was thought that the rapidly moving debris field was the remnants of a destroyed planet possibly ejected from a nova or some other cataclysm. Based on the observed speed of the objects it was calculated that it would take twelve to fifteen years for the objects to get close enough to Earth for study.

Scientists all over the world were very excited over this discovery since the projected path of the objects was going to be relatively close to Earth. Plans and funding requests for hundreds of projects were sent to almost every governing body on the planet.

Fearing the general public would panic with fears of asteroid collisions, it was decided that further news of the pending event be kept from the public at large. The original report of the 'Wilcox-Locke Asteroid cluster' was downplayed in the media. Further information releases could be done later, when the trajectory of the objects was better known.

However, the major governments of the planet had already begun working on disaster shelters as well as other preparations for a worst-case scenario. More funding and manpower was covertly diverted to the project, as well as an increase in private funding. The original plan for these shelters had been designed and implemented by Tom Bedouin. 'Operation Bedouin's Hope' had originally received less than enthusiastic support from the major powers of the world, citing the need for resources to be used elsewhere.

Several of the smaller nations embraced the plan, and did all they could to assist the undertaking. At first it had been for purely selfish reasons, the jobs and income created by the construction efforts was very welcome to most third world countries. When the world's so-called super powers moved to block operations and construction in some countries, the UN had been called on to intervene. While negotiations happened in New York, the companies founded and funded primarily by Tom Bedouin covertly continued their tasks.

Unknown to many of the governments of the world, Tom had done far more for the people of the planet than any of them would ever know.

The next morning, Ben had Deirdre help him to open the family safe. Ben took out the manila envelope and sat at Tom’s desk. Everyone was still there, so he opened it.

Inside were documents and powers of attorney. Ben set those aside for when Bob Gilly came over. He also found a typed letter, which he opened right away. He took a drink of coffee and began to read out loud.

“Ben, if you’re reading this then I’m gone. If they’re not with you already, I ask that you gather the rest of the family, which to me includes Jorga Lowe and Marcy Carmichael. Please stop reading this if they are not here too.

“I’ve tried to keep this letter updated as often as I can, but my handwriting has become unreadable and it’s getting too difficult to look at the screen of the computer. However, every person here is a member of this family; in case all of you haven’t figured it out yet.

“I’m going to break one of my own rules just this once because this is important. I don’t know if Sandra will allow it and I didn't get a chance to ask her, but if the girls agree; Marcy should live here with Kait. Though it may change from time to time, I feel that these two will always be together.

“There’s plenty of money for you five to live the way you want, wherever you want. The corporation I formed years ago has grown far more rapidly than even I thought it would. However, even with all the boards of directors, in all the diverse subsidiaries we own, Ben will become the sole owner of the master corporation. I want you all to understand one very important thing; no matter whose name is on everything, you are all the owners.

“Now, one other thing. If you dig very far into the business, you’ll find that huge amounts of money are being pumped into a very hush-hush project. Please leave it alone and let it run. At the first of the year, you’ll receive a file outlining the entire project. Once you’ve read the whole file, I would ask that you consider just letting it continue as is. I've made lots of notes in it as to what I'm trying to accomplish and what I hope to have happen. You’ll understand better once you read the file.

“I should also warn you that shortly after I pass, one of a myriad of federal agencies will attempt to seize all our assets and confiscate all my old stuff here in the house. Bob Gilly will take care of my computer, which is where the information is that the agencies want. Don’t worry about the loss of data, it’s all backed-up in a secret, ultra-secure place. Bob can make sure you regain access to it once the smoke clears from my death and you read that file I mentioned before. Just let Bob do his thing in my study and everything else will be handled. By the way, you don’t have to allow anyone onto our property no matter who they are. When they show up with the warrant, Call Bob and tell them to leave. You won’t get into trouble.

“One final thing; if any of you are approached by someone in a black suit and they tell you ‘stage one is now active’ please follow their instructions and trust them. They are trying to save your life.

“I love all of you, your friend and father, Tom.”

Ben took a minute to swallow the lump in his throat and to try to regain control over his emotions. Jorga had tears in her eyes and was holding a softly crying Deirdre. Marcy was holding Kaitlin on her lap, and both young women were crying softly. After a few minutes, Ben sniffed, handed out tissues, and then took a seat by Jorga and Deirdre.

“So, I guess we all need to talk about what we do now. Do we move after the funeral? Do we stay here for a while? What do you ladies think?” Ben asked.

“I really don’t want to leave. I really like living here; this area is beautiful and there’s always something to do or see," Kaitlin said.

“I honestly don’t care, as long as we’re together; that’s where I'll be,” Marcy said.

Jorga nodded in agreement. “I agree; staying together is what’s important. I should mention that I made a commitment to my mom to help her with an experiment she’s been working on.”

Ben looked at Deirdre. “You're pretty quiet, what do you think?”

“I think we should stay here, at least for now. I would like to look for a new house for us. We’re starting a new life we should do it completely. Perhaps something in the country this time,” she replied.

Kaitlin nodded. “If we’re as well off as Daddy said, maybe we could just have a house built.”

“That’s a good idea, that way all of us could have a say in how it gets built,” Ben offered.

By mostly silent agreement the family decided to put off further discussion on the subject until after the reading of the Will, and Tom’s funeral. None of them mentioned the strange instructions at the end of the message. They needed to deal with their grief first.

Bedouin Residence

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

Ben was amazed by the fact that there didn’t seem to be any adjustment period for Jorga and Marcy. Considering how much time Marcy spent at the house with Kaitlin, that really wasn’t a huge surprise. However, there was no adjustment for Jorga either. She belonged with them as part of their lives, that’s all there was to it.

Ben still thought his head was going to explode from stress. Deirdre and the rest of the girls tried to help as much as they could but Mr. Gilly had dumped a large bombshell on the entire family, mostly on Ben. Mr. Robert Gilly, Tom’s personal attorney, wasn’t actually to blame, but it is difficult to separate the message from the messenger.

Tom had warned the family about their money. The fact that he’d created a corporation and hinted at a conglomeration hadn't helped. No one suspected how big it actually was. How Tom had managed to keep it secret was anyone’s guess, but he had.

When Bob Gilly arrived at the Bedouin home, he looked much older than Ben remembered and it was obvious he’d been grieving as well. Deirdre, who was the only person in the room that was familiar with him, gave him a hug and guided him to a chair in the living room.

As he sat down, he smiled up at Deirdre. “Thank you, I know this is very unprofessional of me, but Tom was probably my closest friend.”

Deirdre sat beside me on the couch while Jorga and Kaitlin brought in coffee and soda.

“Besides Jorga, Kaitlin and Deirdre, he was mine too,” Ben replied.

Bob smiled at Ben sadly and nodded. “He was a good man that will be sorely missed.” Setting his briefcase on the coffee table, he opened it and took out a file folder. He pulled a document out of it, sat it on top of the folder and leaned back.

“Before I begin, I must stress the importance of keeping the majority of this information just between us. Before tonight, only two people knew of the relative extent, intent, and purpose of what Tom has built.” He paused to take another sip of coffee.

“He wanted me to tell all of you that he believed that a secret known by two people is already compromised. The only reason he didn’t tell any of you about this was only to control knowledge of it. So, in order for you all to understand what I'm going to be talking about in the will, you need to know part of it.

“Tom was the sole owner of a small investment corporation. That small corporation owned a few other corporations that, in turn, owned other corporations, and so on. Though it’s well hidden by multiple layers of smoke and mirrors, Tom owned one of, if not the biggest, corporate conglomerates on the planet.”

“Not that I doubt your word or anything Bob, but if that were true, why were we like this? Although I like our lives and I think the others do too, wouldn’t he have had us in a bigger house, sent Ben and Kaitlin to private school, things like that?" Deirdre asked.

Bob smiled. “Can you image Tom wanting to live in a mansion, or sending his kids to a private school so they can learn to be the spoiled, rich, snobs he hated?”

Deirdre nodded. “You’re right; he wouldn’t do that. He did make sure we had everything we needed, and he didn’t spoil any of us too much. But I can’t ever remember him worrying about a bill. He did worry about work things, but he wouldn’t talk about those.”

“Dad left us a letter in his safe. In it he told us that I would be replacing him as owner of the company. He did mention subsidiaries, but it sure as hell didn’t sound like what you’re describing,” Ben replied. “I have no idea what to do, or how to run this. He didn’t teach me any of this!”

“He didn’t need to. Other than special projects the whole mess runs itself. Tom set very strict guidelines for every aspect that has a bearing on the primary objective. For now, all you really need to do is deal with Tom’s passing. Tom wanted me to wait until the end of the year before I gave you the master file. If you want to take a more active role, then that would be a good time to get a feel for the business.”

He looked at the file in his lap and sighed in sadness. “Tom’s Will says pretty much what we’ve been talking about. It just has all the legalese the courts like to see. After the January briefing, my duties as Executor will be completed. At that time, if you would like to get a new attorney, I would be happy to assist him in...”

“I don’t think that’ll be happening. If Dad liked you, we like you. Even if for some reason we don’t get along, I still wouldn’t replace you. You know more about all of this than I’ll probably ever learn,” Ben said with the rest of the family either nodding or otherwise indicating agreement. “Unless, of course, you don’t want to continue as the family attorney?”

Bob smiled tiredly at Ben and the girls. “I would very much like to continue. The truth is I’ve been a personal attorney for so long, I’d probably have a hard time changing my focus.”

“Tom was your only client?” Deirdre asked.

Bob nodded. “It really is a full time job and it seems like it’s growing every month. I was going to ask Tom if I could bring in an intern or assistant after the first of the year.”

“I’ll have to talk it over with the ladies, but I think you can probably plan on it. We’re gonna need some time to get our collective heads around this," Ben said. “This is getting to be too much in too short a time.”

Bob nodded understanding. “Well, you don’t really need to worry about anything too much. Tom did state in his will that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes ‘returned to the Earth’. Tom had a great many friends, so I would recommend two separate ceremonies; one for the public and one for family.” He pulled a business card out of the folder, and handed it to Ben. “Just have the bills sent here and they’ll be taken care of.”

“What about the household bills?” Ben asked.

Deirdre sniffed. “Tom had them all set up to be automatically paid through our checking account. Although I am curious why we had a mortgage if we have that much money.”

“Tom wanted to make sure you were all set up. One of the things you’ll need is good credit. So, in order to create that, he had the corporation guarantee certain loans in all of your names. He then set up accounts to automatically make your payments on time, every month. So, you don't have to worry about any of that,” Bob explained.

“What happens if we want to buy a new big-ticket item; for example, a new house?” Ben asked. “We were discussing having one built."

“Those are actually two different things. However, in either case, just call me and I’ll get it handled. I do need to get signatures from all of you before I leave so we can have credit cards issued for you.”

Bob asked to see Tom’s computer in the study. Ben took him to it and he typed in a few commands. Satisfied that he had done what he needed to do, he left shortly after that. Ben checked the computer and saw that Bob had triggered a secure erasure program; destroying all the data Tom had on the computer, reformatting it, and restoring it to the original factory set-up.

Ben and the girls planned and held Tom’s memorial services and were amazed by the number of people that came to the public service. There were so many Government, Military, Corporate and Celebrity VIPs, the Secret Service and UN Marines that it all but closed down the entire town. Ben overheard Jorga asking Deirdre if she thought the President would show up.

The fact of the matter was that they had to plan an additional service just for the local townsfolk. There had been so many other VIPs at the first public service that none of the local people had been allowed to attend. The degree of mourning for Tom frightened the small family. They’d had no idea of the scale of his professional life; he'd managed to keep all of it hidden from his family. They were shocked when they began receiving notes of condolence from several world leaders, some of them from ‘hostile’ nations.

The biggest surprise came when several men in black suits showed up the day after the local public memorial service with a federal warrant to seize all of Tom’s business related items. As if psychically summoned, Bob arrived with a platoon of armed Marines wearing the armbands of UN troops.

“Mr. Gilly, I’m afraid you cannot interfere here; we are executing a federal seizure warrant. We’ve already frozen Mr. Bedouin's assets. He and his family are suspected of espionage and...”

“Agent Thoms, since when does the NSA handle domestic investigations? Isn’t that the FBI’s purview? By the way, you better check with your bosses; you haven’t seized or frozen anything. You also have no jurisdiction here,” Bob said smiling softly. He really disliked this particular agent ever since the man had started trying to investigate the private side of Operation Bedouin’s Hope.

“Really? I don’t see how I don’t have jurisdiction; I’m a federal agent serving a federal warrant on United States soil,” Thoms replied eying the Marines that now surrounded his agents.

“There! Proof that you have no idea what you’re talking about! But that’s to be expected since you don’t have clearance to know. But before you say another word to either myself or my clients I suggest you check in with your boss,” Bob said.

As Agent Thoms snarled at Bob and pulled out his cellphone. Bob decided to ‘hit him’ one more time. “Oh! By ‘your boss’, I meant your boss at the NSA, not the venerable Senator Carlyle. This little stunt is going to cost him this time.”

Thoms made the call and snarled at the person that answered and waited to be transferred.

“Director, this is Agent John Thoms, I’m sorry to bother you, Sir, I was supposed to be transferred to my supervisor, SSA Clements.”

Thoms paled as he listened to the Director of the NSA. Bob couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could hear the yelling. John slowly shrank in upon himself as if someone were letting all the air out of a tire. With a final ‘yes Sir' he hung up the phone.

He turned to the closest agent and handed her his phone. He unclipped his gun and holster and handed that to her as well, closely followed by his agency credentials. “Agent Sempis, by the order of the Director of the NSA, acting on behalf of the President of the United States of America, you are to immediately take me into custody pending a full investigation of my actions and relationship to former United States Senator Gustav Carlyle. Further, you are to issue an official apology on behalf of the NSA and the nation of the United States for our unsanctioned invasion of their sovereign territory to the Bedouin family.”

The shocked and confused junior agent looked at her former superior. “Agent Thoms?”

“It’s just Mr. Thoms, Agent Sempis. I’ve been declassified. I am also to inform you that, once the apology is made, you are to immediately return to United States soil," Thoms said resignedly.

Bob approached Thoms. “For what it’s worth John, I did try to warn you. I’m sorry it came to this.”

Thoms looked at Bob closely and nodded. “Yeah, you did. I was way too cocky, and I thought I was untouchable because of the Senator. My first warning should have been the fact that I had to get special permission to even find out the operational name.”

Bob nodded agreement. “Any idea what they’re going to do to you?”

“Since my actions constitute treason as defined under a special invocation of the war powers act, I can be executed if found guilty. The Director said they would commute the death penalty if I provided testimony against the Senator. I can only hope I know enough for them to do that.” He frowned.

“Mr. Gilly... Uh, Robert, I want you to know I honestly thought I was on the side of the angels in this. I smelled a huge conspiracy, and when the Senator showed up with more info and told me it had no congressional oversight at all......” He shrugged. “From that point on, no matter what proof I found to the contrary, I knew I was right. I am guilty of the charges being leveled against me. Just because I believed I was acting in the best interests of the United States doesn’t absolve me of it. I had plenty of evidence showing me I was wrong and the Senator was the bad guy. My fucking ego wouldn’t let me admit it. Now it’s time to pay for that.”

Bob nodded. “Have your counsel call me. I can’t make any promises John, but I’ll try to help.”

“I will, thank you. I, uh... I’m sorry, Robert,” John replied.

Bob shook his head. “You’re a rat-catcher, John. You don’t need to apologize for thinking you smelled a rat.”

After getting the rest of the agents back to the sidewalk, Agent Sempis and another agent walked up to take John into custody. As John was led away, the young woman offered her hand to Bob. “Mr. Gilly, I’m Agent Sandra Sempis, National Security Agency. May I impose on you to introduce me to your clients?”

Ben never did get a good explanation from Bob as to why the NSA was trying to confiscate Tom’s stuff or how they were stopped. However, Ben forgot all about it until two weeks later when the doorbell rang shortly after lunch. Kaitlin answered the door to a very serious looking, large gentleman in a black suit.

“Good afternoon, Miss Bedouin. Is the rest of your family here?” The strange man asked.

"Yes they are; may I help you?”

The man nodded. “Yes Miss, you and your family need to come with me; stage one is now active.”

Location Unknown

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

The gentleman introduced himself as Ed and waited while they packed some clothes for the ‘trip’. Ben tried to get some answers out of him, but found out that the man was under orders not to say anything until they got to where they were going; the location of which he couldn’t say either.

Once the family was loaded into the big SUV, Ed drove them downtown to an out-of-business gas station that had been empty for as long as Ben could remember. As they approached, Ed touched a garage door opener and one of two bay doors began opening for them.

Once inside and the big door was once again closed, the whole SUV began to lower on what must have been a huge elevator. There were no points of reference, but based on the speed of the elevator and the distance traveled, Ben guessed they had gone down at least a hundred feet before they stopped.  Ed drove the truck to a parking space, and shut it off. The elevator began rising as soon as the SUV was clear of it.

"Please follow me," Ed instructed once the family got out of the truck.

"Can you tell us where we are yet?" Ben asked.

"Other than the obvious, no," the big man replied. "I will tell you everything I can as soon as I can Sir. Until then, please continue to follow instructions."

"It's not like we can run away at this point, so we don't have much of a choice," Kaitlin said, sarcastically.

"You always have a choice Miss Bedouin. If you do not wish our help, we will return you to the surface and never bother you again," Ed replied.

"Tom asked us to trust him, Kait," Deirdre said. "Because he is 'trying to save our lives'. Although I'm not too crazy with the situation either, I think we should trust Tom."

Kaitlin nodded agreement and the family continued to follow their guide toward a heavy, vault style door at one end of the 'garage'.

Ed remained as stoic as a statue. "We’ll enter a short stairway that goes down to another security door. Once past the door, we will follow a short hallway around a guard station enclosed in bulletproof glass. At each corner there is a secure door that, like this door, can only be opened from inside the guard station. Our immediate destination is an elevator on the far side."

Ed led the family through the door and down the stairs.

Ben looked at Deirdre. “I don’t know what thought is scarier; the way we were brought here or what this high-tech bomb shelter was built for.”

“I’m just wondering what Tom was involved in. The fact that he never told us about any of this kind of hurts. I mean, didn’t he trust us?" She asked.

They worked through security hallways and made it to the elevator. As soon as the last security door was closed, the doors to the lift slid open. It struck Ben as odd that the lift car was so big; it resembled a large cargo elevator that had a set of doors on both ends. Ed didn’t offer an explanation either; he just made sure everyone was in before pressing and holding the down button until the beeping became a solid tone.

"This is not your normal cargo elevator. Where the hell are we going?" Jorga asked.

"Still classified, Ma'am. I'm sorry," Ed replied.

"I understand, Ed," Jorga replied. "It was a rhetorical question."

"If it is any consolation, I would be nervous as well. However, I can assure all of you is that no harm will come to you and we are indeed attempting to save your lives," Ed replied.

"Can you tell us from what threat?" Marcy asked.

"I honestly do not know Miss Carmichael. We are discouraged from speculation and rumor at this point," Ed replied. "Perhaps you will be able to ascertain that information once we arrive at our destination."

Since the elevator was still going down and was not moving slowly, Ben asked. "Can I ask how deep we are going?"

"About two thousand feet. The reason for the size of the elevator is because it has multiple uses," Ed explained.

Stepping out of the over-sized elevator, the family entered a huge cavern that was hundreds of yards wide. The walls and ceiling were covered in some strange-looking gray stuff that didn't feel like concrete. The floor of the enormous cavern bore a striking resemblance to a building roof, except for its size, this building would have covered several city blocks.

Looking around, Ben asked. “What is this place?”

“As it was explained to me it’s kind of like an ark, or a life boat if you will. The Corporation has been working on this project, in secret, for years,” Ed answered.

“This project? Tom never even hinted at something like this,” Deirdre said looking around her.

Ed guided the family over to the stairs leading down. “What we are about to enter is called a pod. It’s a self-contained living environment for about three-dozen families. Scattered around all over the world are thousands of these pods, of varying sizes. They've been prepared as insurance against a mass extinction event. These units represent long-term survival and will be completely unknown to anyone that will be remaining on the surface. Not even the governments know of these pods.

“Further preparations, with the assistance of the countries in which they reside, have also been undertaken. What could only be called huge underground military bases have been built in the event of circumstances requiring military protection,” Ed explained. "There is one being completed that is near here."

Turning to Jorga, he said, “Your family is being taken to another pod close by.” He turned to Marcy. “I’m afraid your mother was disqualified for pod residency. However, we have insured that she, as well as her life partner, will be taken to our closest base. I’m afraid that the ability to procreate is a requirement for pod residency. Tom bent more than a few rules just to get her a spot in the base.”

Marcy swallowed hard. “I understand, Ed. But are you certain that we’re facing a Mass Extinction?”

“The decision isn’t mine of course, but the conditions must now exist for it. I would imagine the probability is still rising or at the least hasn't changed. That’s the reason for our stage one condition; which is getting the selected families into the pods and bases,” Ed answered. He’d led the small family to a door panel without a handle. “Each of you needs to place your hand on the door only once. If you touch it twice, it will exit programming mode and open.”

“You mentioned ‘stage one condition’ that implies more stages. Can you tell us what they are?” Ben asked.

Ed nodded, still stone-faced. “Stage two means that the event is in progress. Elevators are sent to the bottom of the shafts and those shafts are sealed. Stage three means that more than forty-five percent of those left on the surface and in the shallower, sub-surface bunkers have died or been killed. Pod inhabitants are ordered to the hyper-sleep chambers and the pods themselves are lowered to the bottoms of their shafts. The pod shaft is sealed two hundred feet above the pod and those shafts are then collapsed.”

“Okay, now that’s scary sounding. How deeply are you going to bury us? How long until the chambers open and how are we supposed to get out?” Kaitlin asked.

Ed looked frustrated, but continued. “The pods are lowered an additional three thousand feet. If the hyper-sleep chambers are used, they will revive specific occupants in two hundred fifty years. If conditions on the surface are still hostile to human life, hyper-sleep may be re-entered, this time the span will be a thousand years. At that time everyone will be awakened, the chambers will deactivate and may be salvaged, but they can’t be used for hyper-sleep again.

“As for getting out, there is a transit system connecting all the pods and several very secret escape routes. There are also robotic tunneling machines that are more than capable of reaching the surface if no other way is found.”

“You’ll be joining us then?” Deirdre asked.

Ed slowly shook his head. “No ma’am. I had a vasectomy when I was twenty-one. ALS runs in my Father’s family and Parkinson's in my Mother’s. As soon as I was old enough, I made sure I couldn’t pass them on. As soon as this pod has all its occupants, I’ll be changing into a uniform and reporting to the same base as Miss Marcy’s mother.”

Marcy cocked her head at the man. “I mean no offense, but if you have a vasectomy, how did you get a spot in the base?”

“A fair question,” Ed nodded. “When my sisters and I made the decision to sterilize ourselves, we became foster families. Between the kids we adopted, and our foster kids, we have nineteen young people between the ages of seventeen and five. My kids got accepted; I get to go along as one of their parents. I also have some specialized skills that may be useful.”

“Okay, so what do you need us to do next?” Ben asked.

“Just get settled into your new apartment and watch the TV.” He indicated the huge, wall-mounted LCD screen. “That’s how you’ll get news and information. We hope that we made sure that you can get to all the information you need as well.” He opened a compartment on the end of the coffee table and took out a keyboard and mouse. “The TV is multipurpose. It’s a broadcast display, videophone, music center, and computer terminal. Each room has one, as well as each of you having your own new laptops.” He held up a small one inch by two inch burnished metal 'chip’ that was about three-fourths of an inch thick. “You’ll need instructions to use those as well. Just request the info from your terminal,” Ed explained. “We ask that, for now, you please stay in your apartment so the other families coming in can get settled faster.”

“One last question then?” Deirdre asked, poking her head out of the kitchen.

Ed nodded to her.

“It’s getting on toward dinner time, I don’t see a fridge or even a pantry in here. How do we get food?”

Ed walked into the ‘kitchen’ with Deirdre. “As I said, you can get the full explanation for how all the tech works from the terminal, but I doubt you'll want to dig for it before you eat.”

He moved over to a section of counter that had a touchpad next to a rectangular outline. “This is a new gadget called a replicator. I have no idea how it works, but basically, it creates food from molecules in the air.” He touched the smaller touchpad. "What would you like to eat?”

“Pizza!” Marcy and Kaitlin yelled.

“I guess that settles that. What kind of pizza would you two like?” Deirdre asked chuckling.

“Cheese please!” Marcy asked.

Kaitlin sat next to her nodding vigorously. “Don’t forget the diet root beer!”

Ed almost cracked a smile at the girls’ antics, especially when he saw Jorga shudder at the mentioned addition. He touched the ‘order’ button. "One large, cheese pizza from Giovanni’s in Manhattan. Also one, two-liter bottle of diet A&W root beer, cold.” He pressed the ‘end’ button as the pizza began to form in the rectangle.

“You can either order plates and utensils from the replicator, or keep them on hand.” He indicated the cupboards around the kitchen. He then turned back and ordered the plates, cups, utensils, and a roll of paper towels.

When the pizza had formed, it was on a wooden platter. Sitting beside the pizza was a shaker of peppers, a shaker of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Kaitlin carried the pizza out to the table, while Marcy grabbed the condiments. Kait returned for the plates and utensils, and Marcy grabbed what was left.

“Clean-up is easier, just set the dirty dishes and leftovers back in the rectangle, and press the ‘reclaim’ button. I would however, recommend reading up on this device. It does have a few rather frustrating glitches in the system.” Ed said and walked back out to the door.

“There is an instruction program waiting for you when you finish eating. Please view it as soon as you can. I hope to see you all again in a few days, good luck.” He nodded to Ben and the girls and left.

Jorga turned to the girls. “Cheese pizza and diet root beer sounds horrible!” Kaitlin stuck her tongue out at her from the table. Jorga returned the salute. “Could we get something else?”

After dinner, the big TV in the living room announced an incoming call. Ben looked at his family in surprise as he told it to accept the call. A haggard looking Bob Gilly appeared on the screen. “Good evening, Ben, Ladies.”

“Good evening, Bob. What can we do for you?” Ben replied.

“Well, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, you’re standing in the middle of the big secret project Tom was working on. I was calling to try to fill in the blanks," Bob replied. “Do you have time for that this evening?”

“It would appear we have time to spare Bob. However, we haven’t had time to go over the video Ed told us about; we just finished dinner,” Deirdre answered.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve had a tiring day and would like nothing more than to relax, but you do need to know this information before the rest of this starts happening."

“Okay Bob, go ahead,” Ben replied as the family took seats around the room.

Bob took a deep breath. “I would be doing this in person except that I’m in another pod much like yours only larger, and for now we can’t leave." He glanced down at his notes.

“For the last thirty years, Delphi Systems Inc. has been working closely with several governments and private agencies around the world to construct large underground bunkers. These bunkers will hold a substantial portion of the human race, almost indefinitely, in their own semi-sealed biospheres.

“This was decided by the United Nations and a few of those nations that were not actually members. This precaution was initiated by a multi-national scientific report that outlined exactly what we could expect to happen should any extinction level event befall our planet.

“In all of the theoretical scenarios, the human race ended. Since we have yet to develop space travel, this plan was developed in an effort to ensure the survival of our species and the several other animal species that have genetic material stored in these bunkers.

“Now, I won’t go into detail about those bunkers because Tom took the opportunity to create and execute his own plans. You see the governments, especially the US government, had preselected candidates based on how much money the people had donated to campaign funds and how politically connected someone was.

“In addition to the 'large underground bunkers' I have spoken of, a series of smaller, ‘shallow’ bunkers were built in the event that word leaked out, and it was discovered that no preparations had been made for the masses. All of those bunkers are 'shallow' compared to the ones Tom built for the rest of humanity.

“Although he couldn’t do much for the general public, Tom did create as many of the ‘pods’ as he could. He also kept them updated with the latest technology and amenities, to ensure the occupants survival. His selection criteria for the pods was strict, and he, himself, didn’t qualify, but through his efforts, the human race will survive,” Bob paused to take a drink of water.

“There are literally thousands of pods scattered all over the planet. We can all communicate with each other, and in a lot of cases, visit, once the emergency is over. There are warehouses of tools, weapons, and anything we’ll need to start over. All stored in a sealed stasis environment......”

“Bob? Sorry to interrupt, but might I ask what happened to move all of us down here now?” Ben asked.

“Sure. Events are in motion that could end quickly in a world-altering event. So, the precautions were triggered,” Bob replied. “A...... uh...close pass by a meteor, I think.” He was looking through his paperwork.

“A meteor?” Marcy asked, suddenly far more interested. “Did you get a name? I don’t remember any being close enough, and I should have heard.”

“It was Wilcox-something, I think,” Bob muttered to himself.

“Wilcox-Locke?” Marcy asked.

“That’s it!” Bob said. “Wilcox-Locke. They said something about a near-Earth event. All I know is the threat analysis computer triggered Condition One as soon as the data was input.”

Marcy looked confused. “The Wilcox-Locke Meteor swarm is over two light-years away. They won’t even enter our solar system for thirteen years. There is no way any of them could be close enough to be considered ‘near-Earth’.”

Bob shrugged. “That’s what we were told. JPL and NASA are both sealed up tighter than a politician’s personal wallet. So we can't get independent confirmation. We can only act on the information they give us. I did hear from a friend at space command; he told me that they had been placed on high alert and were tracking, I quote, ‘rather large, fast moving objects’, unquote.

“None of that makes any sense, Bob. Once I figure out how to use them, I’ll jump on the computer, and see what I can find out from here,” Marcy replied.

“We would really appreciate it, Marcy, Thank you.” Bob said. "One of the deciding factors was the relocation of the President and other heads of state to the shallow bunkers. Currently, our entire government and all their rich ass-hole buddies are in the bunkers. Civil Service officials are stuffing the other bunkers full with anyone they can grab off the street. They are literally kidnapping people, whole families, and getting them down to the bunkers as fast as they can. There has been no public announcement, and I doubt there will be. The government decided to not tell anyone about what's happening as they would panic and that would hamper emergency measures."

"They must be pretty convinced that there is a viable threat if they are kidnapping people. If they weren't sure of it, then they just let the cat out of the bag as far as the secret survival bunkers are concerned," Deirdre said.

Bob nodded his agreement with her. "Oh, there is a real threat. Our threat analysis computer has been very well programmed and it is convinced this is real. But, I couldn't tell you what information it's basing its decision on. All I know is that there is a very high probability the surface of the planet will be hostile to human life very shortly. We don't know how long it will remain that way."

Survival Pod 0001a

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

Ben and his family discovered that the designers had gone to great lengths to help pod occupants keep their sanity. Considering they were living far underground, Ben appreciated it.

On the lowest two levels of the pod, the designers had included a park that would mimic the normal seasonal cycle of the surface far above. There were trees and grass, flowers and brush. There were even birds and insects. Ben had no doubt that if he dug into the soil, he’d find some really confused Earthworms.

Ben discovered the park two days after arriving and after the pod was sealed. They also discovered an old family friend in the group. Dr. Jon Lyam and his family were the last family brought down before the pod sealed. Deirdre invited the family over for dinner the following evening since they’d arrived late at night.

Looking for something to do, Marcy discovered she could participate in an online lecture being given by Dr. Harold Wilcox of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lecture he was giving was on the impending astronomical event; which he co-discovered. The people on the surface were still being told that they were safe, and the meteors would pass-by at a range of well over a million miles. Which in astronomical terms was damn close.

A good portion of the lecture was interactive, and attendees were allowed to ask relevant questions. The professor was explaining how, once again, Jupiter’s mass was pulling the deadly projectiles off-course so the majority wouldn’t impact our planet. What would make it to the planet would be too small to make it to the ground.

Marcy looked confused a minute, and used her laptop to pull up the information she remembered seeing earlier. The initial sighting by the HST placed the objects well outside the Oort cloud, which meant they would have to be at least two years away at light speed.

She indicated that she had a question for the professor. When he finished his immediate topic, he looked up, into the camera. “Yes, Miss Carmichael?”

“Thank you, Professor," Marcy said in reply. "I must have missed something, so please forgive my ignorance...”

Dr. Wilcox smiled. “Would that we all could be forgiven that, Miss Carmichael. Please continue.”

“The original HST sighting had the entire event well outside our Oort cloud and far below the plane of the ecliptic, far outside of the gravitational influence of any planets in our system. How is this major discrepancy explained?” Marcy finished.

Dr. Wilcox nodded like he’d been expecting this question. “Excellent question and one I’d be curious about as well. The information wasn't released to the public in order to avoid a loss of confidence in the HST program or those of us at JPL.

“The original report and findings of the HST at the time were believed to be accurate. However, we have since discovered that a non-ecliptic, high-intensity, solar event caused the image of the objects to be reflected off of the high-energy solar particles. If you’ll remember, all the original images were blurry? That’s because we were trying to get the HST to focus on the reflected image. Think of the whole episode like a hologram being reflected off of a cloud of smoke.”

“So basically you’re saying ‘Objects in Mirror are closer than they appear’?” Marcy asked.

Wilcox chuckled at the reference. “Exactly, thank you for the layman’s description, Miss Carmichael. Ah, excuse me a moment.” He leaned over to listen to an aide whisper urgently in his ear. Dr. Wilcox gave some urgent instructions before the aide all but ran out of the room. Dr. Wilcox turned back to the audience and the cameras.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I must apologize. Something very pressing has come up that requires my immediate attention. Miss Carmichael, I hope to meet you one day. Please excuse me.” He turned and hurried for the door and the two men in familiar looking black suits.

“What was that all about?” Jorga asked from the easy chair she’d been reading in.

“Have you ever seen a highly respected Scientist and Nobel Laureate knowingly lie through his teeth?” Marcy asked.

Jorga raised an eyebrow. “No...”

The younger girl looked at her friend and snorted. “You have now.” Marcy started typing furiously on the keyboard for the big screen, and then started working on her laptop. She stopped to look over some information, before typing into the terminal. Going back to her laptop, Marcy started chasing down more information.

Jorga was just starting to get back into her story, when she heard Marcy say “Oh shit!” softly, then chanting ‘please be wrong' over and over again. Marking her page, Jorga set her book down and moved closer to Marcy to see what the girl was working on.

Both screens seemed to be filled with rapidly changing numbers as Marcy typed and chanted. When Marcy stopped typing to watch the results of the data she just entered, Jorga put her arm around her.

“Marcy, honey? Do I need to get Kaitlin for you? What’s wrong?” Jorga asked.

Marcy just shook her head. “No, thanks. We are so screwed. Let me get all this put into an understandable format and I’ll explain it all after dinner, Okay?”

“Sure Sweetheart. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Nope, just get ready for a really long nap,” Marcy said sadly.

Jorga spread the word to try not to disturb Marcy while she was working. Marcy herself made that easier by moving her whole project into her and Kaitlin’s room. Finally, Jon, his wife Ellie, and their twin twelve-year-old girls arrived for dinner. Deirdre and Ben visited with Jon and Ellie while Kait and Jorga took off with the Lyam youngsters.

Ben explained that Marcy was busy with something she discovered earlier and wanted to share it with everyone. Ben warned them it had something to do with what was going on above and that it was most likely bad news.

When Marcy finally reappeared, the girls were sent for and the table was set. Marcy said she’d show everyone after dinner.

Dinner proceeded and finally it was time for Marcy to share what she’d learned. With after dinner drinks, both families gathered in the living room. Marcy called Bob so she could fill him in as well, then she began.

“Before I get too far into this, I think I should tell everyone that I’ve always been a major geek, I love science and math, especially math. More specifically, the area that’s called astrophysics. Well, I got to attend, via our terminal system, a lecture being given by the foremost Astrophysicist in the country, Dr. Harold Wilcox of the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

“As you all know, a few weeks ago, the ‘Wilcox-Locke meteor swarm’ was sighted by the Hubble Space Telescope. At that time, it was believed their course would have brought them through our solar system outside the orbit of Jupiter, in thirteen point six years. The probability of a near-Earth event was so low it didn’t even register on the scale.

“The scientific community was very excited because it presented a once in a thousand lifetimes opportunity for study. However, most of the hype was held to a dull roar so as not to get the general population panicking.

“Anyway, as I was listening to Dr. Wilcox today it was like he was talking about something completely different! He tried to tell me that the original sighting was actually a reflection of light off of a solar wind!

“That’s complete and utter bullshit! Photons are either absorbed or negated by high-energy particles. Also the images he was using supposedly are from three days ago. However, if the initial trajectory plot was a mistake, why would the more current images have the same background?

“I used our terminal’s special access to get into the real images and data; the original images were completely accurate and so was the original estimation of time. However, both were based on an erroneous assumption; that the objects in the image were naturally-occurring, planetary fragments.” She paused to let her audience’s minds catch up.

“You’re saying they’re artificial? Spaceships?” Jon asked.

“I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m saying, Doctor."

“Let’s see whatcha got, Marcy,” Ben asked kindly.

Marcy nodded and began typing on the keyboard. “I used all the data that JPL still had and cross checked with the observatories at Arecibo and the VLA at Socorro, New Mexico. This animation is a compilation of all the data, from all three sources.”

A graphic of the solar system quickly zoomed out to show a cluster of objects a great distance away. Marcy narrated. “This is where they were first detected, by accident, when the Hubble telescope was on a different mission. These objects simply crossed the field of vision. On the left is the actual video captured by the Hubble.”

A bright, clear image of a nebula appeared on the screen. It took the watchers a moment, but they all saw something moving across the frame. It appeared as little more than an area of distortion moving across the image of the nebula.

Suddenly, the nebula lost focus, and the areas of distortion slowly became clearer as the big telescope readjusted its focus. It revealed a huge cloud of what looked like small objects. Once again, Marcy picked up her narrative.

“This is what was originally believed to be the remnants of a planet that was destroyed in some type of event millions of years ago. As you can see, they look exactly like what you would expect a meteor swarm to look like. Please let me draw your attention to this star; please remember its relationship to the objects.

“NASA, JPL, and a good portion of the planet’s astrological community spent the next three days intently watching these objects and, based on distance and direction traveled, concluded that the objects would pass through the outer solar system in roughly thirteen and a half years. That may seem like a long time, but considering that at this point they are almost three light years away, it means they are really moving.

“Three days ago the images of the ‘swarm’ were mostly obscured by an object appearing between the Hubble and the swarm. Once again the Hubble was adjusted, this time to almost its closest foci, what it found had to have given the astronomers a heart attack and almost panicked the governments.

“Before we get there though, this is the first pucker-causing event. I asked you to remember the star and its relationship to the swarm? Take another look,” Marcy paused so everyone could see that the star was now on the other side of the swarm.

“There are only two explanations for that star to appear to be on the other side. One – the HST is looking from a different angle. Two – The objects being observed have altered course. The first thing I checked when I noticed this was the Hubble’s position; there was only a four-degree orbital rotation difference between the first image and this one. That means that those ‘inanimate’ objects, somehow made a course correction that put Earth dead center in their flight path.

“Now, just as a point of reference; a light-year is a unit of measure for how far light travels in one year. Therefore, the images we just looked at are really almost three years old. Is everyone still with me?” Marcy asked.

The twins looked confused, but Jorga and Kaitlin were quietly explaining it. When they looked up they nodded, but still looked confused.

“I’m getting there girls, just hang on. Three days ago, something else obscured the ‘swarm’. After refocusing the telescope, and a hell of a lot of computer analysis, it was found that the new, closer objects were in fact the same ones as the originally observed swarm.

“Now, here is where Einstein has a stroke. How did those objects travel such distance in so short of an amount of time? Since we can still see them at their original location, they had to have traveled at an average of close-to-light-speed. Something we know can’t happen. The kicker is, the longer we can see them at the original position, the higher their speed of travel to get here.

“This next image is of one of the larger objects that ‘appeared’ about the same distance from our planet as Saturn is." The image that came up was of an obviously artificial construction. It was a ship, albeit a very large one.

“If that image isn’t enough to convince you; then consider that all of the roughly two-thousand, five-hundred objects in the... fleet, have been decelerating at well over a thousand gravities since their arrival here, late last night.” Marcy concluded.

“A thousand gravities? That means we’re either being invaded by bacteria, or they have artificial gravity,” Jon added quietly.

“I’ve heard of artificial gravity on some TV shows and books and stuff, but I never really understood what the big deal about it was,” one of the twins, Olivia, said from beside Kaitlin.

“Think of it this way, Sweetheart; at one gravity, like we are now, you weigh one-hundred-twenty pounds. Those ships are decelerating so fast, that if you were on one, you would weigh one-hundred-twenty thousand pounds. Basically, your own body weight would shatter your bones and crush you into a reddish goo,” Jon replied.

“Gross!” Persephone, the other twin replied. “Nice visual, Dad!”

Marcy smiled at the girl. “He is, unfortunately, correct. The ‘big deal’ is that somehow, these aliens have figured out how to artificially create and regulate the forces of gravity on objects that have mass. Like faster-than-light travel, it’s supposed to be physically impossible. I should mention though that researchers in certain secret government facilities have supposedly made a break-through in artificial gravity. There is also a rumor that NASA and JPL had a working theory on faster than light travel too. However, there is no official proof of any of that."

“I hate to point this out, but I don’t think they took physics,” Olivia said.

“At least not at any of our schools.” Persephone added.

“Are you still with us, Bob?” Ben asked since they couldn’t actually see him.

“Yes I am, I just had my microphone muted. I’ve been acting on Marcy’s information and made a few discoveries of my own. First of all, if Marcy is trying to get more images out of the Hubble, she should probably stop trying; it’s been destroyed along with most of the satellites in orbit. CNN is completely off the air. It looks like the attack started about an hour ago,” Bob said sadly. "Orbital bombardment started in Asia. All the major cities have been hit with high-yield nuclear weapons and some sort of beam weapon fired from orbit. Millions of people have already died."

The quiet discussion was interrupted by the sustained irritating noise of the National Emergency Broadcast System or NEBS. “Ladies and Gentleman, this is not a test, I repeat this is not a test. By order of the President of the United States, The National Emergency Broadcast System has been activated. At this time, you are advised to proceed immediately to the nearest Civil Defense Bunker. Leave immediately, the nation is under attack. I say again, leave now. Get to the nearest Civil Defense Shelter and prepare for nuclear attack. Remember, if you see a detonation, immediately take cover and shield your eyes...”

Ben muted the terminal. “Idiots, that detonation will be the last thing you’ll ever see.”

“I guess that answers the question about their intentions,” Deirdre said. “Now what’re we going to do?”

“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Carla and the kids are freaking out and calling for me. I’m gonna go try to calm them down. Remember, we’re as safe as we can be down here. Talk to ya later,” Bob said.

Ben nodded and said ‘Take care’ as the call ended.

A warning chime was heard, and the border of the terminal screen flashed yellow. The words ‘Condition Two’ scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The whole room lurched slightly and a hum could be heard from all around.

“The pod is being lowered!” Jorga cried.

Survival Pod 0001a

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

United States

Marcy sat down and started typing very quickly. “I’m asking why the pod is being lowered prior to Condition Three.”

NBC Protocols now in effect.

Nuke: zero-one.

Bio: zero-one, alpha.

Chem: zero-two.

Status: Condition two NBC

Marcy typed again; Define condition two NBC.

Condition Two NBC; see Condition Three-Modified.

Condition Three-modified;

Pod descent: engaged

Pod ascension: disabled

Sealed biosphere: enabled

Hyper-sleep: recommended (chambers activated)

Define protocol series ‘bio’ and ‘chem’. Marcy typed.

Ben felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand-up when the answers were displayed.

‘Bio’ is used to denote the use of biological weapons. Numerical code designates percentage of lethality. Zero-zero is one hundred percent, zero-one is ninety percent, zero-two is eighty percent, and so on. Alphabetical code designates proximity to local surface marker. Alpha is less than a kilometer; beta is between one and two kilometers, etc. No alpha designator indicates detection at another installation.

‘Chem’ is used to denote the use of chemical weapons. Numerical code designates percentage of lethality. Zero-zero is one hundred percent, zero-one is ninety percent, zero-two is eighty percent, and so on. Alphabetical code designates proximity to local surface marker. Alpha is less than a kilometer; beta is between one and two kilometers, etc. No alpha designator indicates detection at another installation.

“You should ask the fucking thing how we’re supposed to get back to the damn surface!” Jon said angrily.

“Jon! Language! The girls can hear you!” Ellie said, scolding her husband.

Jon tried to look sheepish. “Sorry Ell, I guess I’m just frustrated. Billions of people are dying up there and I can’t help them!"

“I think that’s the point, Jon. I understand how you feel and I’m sorry for it. But I believe the job on the surface has fallen to your brethren and the care of us has fallen to you. I know it may not seem fair; but if the human race is to have a future, we’re going to need skilled professionals like you,” Ben replied, calming the doctor.

Jon looked at Ben in confusion. “I think there is more of Tom in you than any of us knows. He would have told me exactly that sort of thing to put me at ease. Thank you, Ben.”

“Well, now that we all know the bad news and we’re scared to death. I think we should get the girls home just in case they upgrade to condition three,” Ellie said. "It’s getting kinda late anyway.”

Jon agreed and shortly the small family left for the short walk back to their apartment.

After everyone had left, the small family sat back down in the living room. “What do you think is going on up there right now?” Kaitlin asked softly.

Ben moved over to sit next to her and put his arm around her. “Try not to think about it,


About then, the pod stopped moving. Shortly after that, a soft rumbling could be heard along with the shaking of the pod as the shaft above it collapsed, sealing them in.

It was an uneasy night for the Bedouin family. They all shared one bed for comfort, making their family bond grow even deeper. By the next morning, tension was building quickly. Most news sources had stopped broadcasting, or were no longer able to keep people informed. Ben felt the need to try to comfort at least his fellow pod-mates. So he had the main terminal in his living room ask everyone to meet him in the park for a ‘town meeting’ and to bring a picnic lunch.

Deirdre and the girls thought it was a grand idea and changed into sundresses while Ben got busy making up the lunch. Jorga felt weird wearing a sundress, so she put on a pair of denim shorts, and a tank top.

Most of the people in the pod responded to Ben’s message and showed up in the park ready for a picnic. With a little help from Marcy, everyone heard his voice whether they had come or not.

“Folks, I know news from the surface is getting, at best, spotty. I also know that all of us left someone we know or care about up there. It’s even harder to know that they are probably dying or at the very least fighting for their lives while we sit down here and do nothing. As hard as it is to accept, we have to.

“The whole reason we’re down here to begin with is to insure that the human race survives what’s happening to it. Although it may seem cowardly, think of this as our part of the fight, or perhaps more accurately, as our lifeboat.

“Now, I know it may sound like playing the fiddle while Rome burns, but I suggested we all have a picnic lunch so we can talk and get to know one another. In order for this to work, we are going to need to trust and respect each other. We need to start on that now." He paused and turned to the closest person and held out his hand. "Good afternoon, my name is Ben Bedouin."

Jon’s wife, Ellie happened to be the person, and she immediately caught on to his ploy. She took his hand and introduced herself. “Good afternoon, Ben, I’m Ellie Lyam. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

As he’d intended, the rest of the people also began introducing themselves, and relaxing. As the afternoon progressed, more people came to the park, and joined the picnic.

Later that night, when the notification came for condition three, the residents of the pod were more accepting of what was about to happen to them. None of them wanted to go into the stasis chambers, but there were no problems getting them to go in either. So after a moment of silence for the massive loss of life that had brought them this situation, Ben verified that everyone had indeed entered the chambers before doing so himself.

He found that it unnerved him to see all those people in the small glass coffins of the chambers. It especially bothered him to see Deirdre, Jorga, Kaitlin and Marcy in them. With a deep breath, he lay back in his own chamber and pulled the door closed.

Waking up was a slow, disjointed process. The first thing he noticed was the cold. It was weird, he felt like he’d been outside in the winter, naked, and just came back inside. Ben noticed that he couldn’t see through the door of his chamber anymore, so he had to assume he’d been out for some time.

Checking the panel for a reading outside the chamber, he saw that it was safe for him to open the door. According to the instructions the pod doctor, in this case Jon, would also be waking up. It would be his job to make sure everyone was still okay while Ben checked on the outside world. They were the only two that would be waking up for now. If the world above was still in trouble, Jon and Ben would get back in the chambers for a thousand-year sleep. Something Ben wasn’t in a hurry to do.

While he’d been sleeping, another experimental project went to work to teach him while in cryo-sleep. Ben thought it odd that they would even attempt such a thing, but they must have, because he now knew how to access the surface sensors from his terminal, as well as a bunch of other stuff he hadn't known before going into the chambers.

He climbed out of his chamber and grabbed a jumpsuit before heading out to find the doctor. Jon and his family had been assigned the bay next to his, so Ben knocked politely before going in.

“Come in, Ben. You know, I’m happy as a clam that these ‘coffins’ work, but waking up is a real mother,” Jon said. “Do you think we slept the full two-hundred-fifty years?”

“That was the plan, no matter how strange that question sounds,” Ben chuckled. “You about ready to get started?”

Jon nodded. “But before you run off, let me take a look at you. If these damn machines have any adverse side effects, I’d like to know.”

The two men walked to the small medical area, which was just off of the chamber ‘hall’. Jon had Ben take his jumpsuit back off for the examination. While Ben stripped, Jon got them both coffees from the medical replicator.

After a no-nonsense and very thorough physical, (including blood and urine samples) Jon pronounced him healthy and kicked him out of the small medical area so he could get busy checking the systems of all the hibernators. Ben headed for his office that was near his apartment to begin his checks.

After the first half-hour, he knew that they would be going back into the chambers. Two hundred and fifty years had indeed passed. All the new and experimental equipment that had been installed in the pods seemed to be working perfectly. That, however, was the extent of the good news.

Accessing the log files from the closest military base almost reduced Ben to tears, but he needed the information stored there. Listening to the calm voice of the commanding officer and then his replacement and her replacement, brought home to Ben just how many and how hard those left behind died.

“Friday, April twenty-first. Brigadier General William Rice, Commander American-Pacific Defense Forces. Guardian Shield Main Marine Depot, Leavenworth, Kansas, United States.

“At zero-one-twenty-five this morning, the approaching fleet began its attack by taking out most of our satellites, then beginning a massive orbital bombardment. In the first hour of this war, most of the major cities of Asia and Europe have been destroyed with nuclear weapons. The progression of the attack is moving faster than our orbital rotation, indicating that more ships are joining the attack as they arrive in orbit. The destruction has been massive, but not total. We have received reports that there are survivors in isolated groups. While very powerful, their weapons are not killing everyone.

“A note about those weapons; my geeks are telling me they don’t think those were normal nukes. Although the destructive force was in the hundred-plus megaton range, the residual radiation is far, far lower than it should be. They believe that the area will be safe for habitation within a year. Dr. Thorenson believes they might have been using anti-matter, but the rest of the Geeks seem widely divided on that.

“The Invaders are also using high powered beam weapons, again fired from low orbit, against the shallow, and hardened bunkers. Early intel is telling us that they are skipping about half of the shallow bunkers.

“This could mean one of two things; they lack the ability to detect the underground facilities, or (we feel this is more likely) they are intentionally leaving those bunkers alone. What they want with us can’t even be guessed at this point, but we're hoping they’re planning on taking slaves.

“Counter to the belief that they are intentionally skipping the Bunkers, is the fact that they seem to be using chemical weapons as well. We have reports of people near the attack sites simply collapsing into a coma. Again, the Geeks are working on it, but as with all things, it takes time we don’t have.

“Command launched our ICBMs and nuclear tipped Pegasus missiles against the enemy in orbit, but the missiles and the bombers were shot down. Those missiles that did manage to get through, encountered some sort of defensive shield covering the hulls of the enemy ships. They detonated, but failed to do significant damage.

“A few moments ago, Intel reported to me that indications are that the enemy is preparing to deploy on the planet. This information comes to me from Command, along with the order not to engage. I don’t understand the order, but I will obey it. I’ve sent a query back to Command and as a precautionary measure, ordered my forces to stand-by.”

Ben skimmed through the reports and logs, noticing that there seemed to be a huge database of information. That was when the last log file got his attention. The voice was of a very young-sounding girl.

“Marsch thirty-second, year seventeen, Deri Meril, Recorder. In the wake of the last attack, the count is only two hundred twenty thousand remaining. The Council has ordered full evacuation. Even though the Sal'andori and the Lizards have left, the planet isn’t for us anymore.

“Handed down from Master to Prentice since the year one; we’ve been told to finish the last message so:

“’Bedouin travelers, Sal'andori know about you and will be waiting at your first stop. Take the long ride for safety, good luck and may all the gods and Goddesses watch over all of you.’

“This is the final entry for the Guardian. I am leaving for my ship from here. If anyone ever finds this record, know that the human race has abandoned Earth so she can heal. Perhaps, one day, our mother will forgive us and once again welcome us home.”

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Ben tried to access the satellite feed, but wasn’t surprised when it failed. So he accessed the stored data from it, and had better luck.

Although the bombardment didn’t yield a lot of radiation, it still threw a tremendous amount of dust into the air; enough that it triggered a nuclear winter. From there the ecological situation got bad.

A massive tectonic event had been building along the eastern Pacific Rim and the bombing of Honolulu, Seattle, Portland, and all the major cities of California ended up doing far more damage than intended.

The damage to the pod network was frightening. The earthquakes severed ground communications and collapsed the transport tubes, but telemetry said that with the exception of the mid-pacific pods, the rest of the pods were still intact and functioning.

Pulling up the remote telemetry screen, Ben saw that the former west coast was back in the network, except for the six large pods in Hawaii; they had red X’s behind them indicating that they’d been destroyed. Sixty thousand lives had been ended while they slept due to the eruption of the volcano that had formed the Hawaiian atoll.

Going back to the stored data from the satellite, it confirmed the complete destruction of the Hawaiian Islands.

Similar issues had developed all over the rest of the planet, but none of the other pods were listed as destroyed. Currently, the network reported that it was complete and functional. Apparently the repair robots were working very well.

The words ‘polar shift’ caught his eye then, and he quickly skipped to that part. The data didn’t say why, but roughly nine years after the initial attack, the planet once again moved the poles. Looking at pictures of the planet didn’t help; it was completely covered by clouds.

It hadn’t really shifted much, which was why the satellite had been able to stay in orbit. But the North Pole was now in the center of what used to be the Russia. None of their maps were really valid anymore since the east coast had dropped under the ocean and the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions had done pretty much the same to the west coast.

Most importantly, right now, most of the planet was in a minor ice age. Ben only hoped it would be habitable when they once again awoke.

Cleaning up the remnants of the meal he’d been unable to finish, Ben made his way back down to the medical bay.

“I was about to come looking for you,” Jon said. “I’ve lost the data feeds from the Hawaiian pods.”

Ben nodded sadly. “That’s because Hawaii no longer exists.”

“No! That’s not even possible is it?” Jon asked.

“Yeah, it is. Between the bombing, Mauna Loa and the earthquakes, it’s just... gone.”

“How bad is it?” Jon asked.

Ben snorted. “We’re going back into the freezers. That’s how bad it is. The war is over; we lost, but it also left the planet in an ice age. Even if we all woke up now, we’d need to stay down here. Besides, someone left a warning that the enemy knows about us and they’re most likely waiting for us.”

“If they know about us, what’s to stop them from digging us out?” Jon asked.

“Both the ‘Sal'andori’ and the survivors abandoned the planet two hundred and thirty years ago. There’s a ton of data, but from what I can gather, neither race could live here anymore. There was a mention of a third race called Lizards, but I had trouble finding data on them. What I did find indicated that they were fighting the Sal'andori as well as us. The report said they left the same time as the Sal'andori.

“I can’t reach the satellite to confirm surface conditions, but I am going to take the warning seriously. I got the impression they knew about the first awakening, but not the second,” Ben replied.

“What if they do?” Jon asked.

Shrugging, Ben answered. “It won’t matter; we can’t sleep more. Once we all awaken, we’ll stay down here until we can figure out what’s happening on the surface and take the appropriate action from there.”

“Ben, we’ll go insane down here. I love my family and the rest of the folks seem real nice, but we’re gonna need to get outta here, or people will start to flip-out.”

“Is that the clinical term for it?” Ben asked smiling slightly.

“Damn right it is, now answer the question!”

“We’re not isolated down here. Every pod is connected through a transport system that is constantly maintained. There is also the communication network and the entertainment database. Don’t worry, with the replicators and the hydroponics, we could live down here for a very long time,” Ben explained.

“It sure seems like we’re relying on the technology more than we should,” Jon said halfheartedly. He knew that they were relying on it completely. If any of it failed, people were going to die. Jon knew that as well as Ben. Jon just needed to complain about something.

“Did you get to eat something?” Ben asked.

“First thing I did. Damn, I was hungry! Damn freezers don’t feed you like they should.”

Ben chuckled at his friend. “Come on then, let’s go take our last nap. A whole new world awaits us.”

“Provided we live long enough!”

Survival Pod 0001a

Fulton's Prairie, Missouri

Former United States

Even in the best computers systems, or the best designed equipment, there is always the possibility for failure of some kind. Someone once said, the more complex the piece of equipment, the more likely the event of failure.

The most complex computer system ever built was the one developed as the master computer for the Pods. Each pod had redundant systems of course, and multiple safety protocols to ensure that the chance for loss of life was reduced to the absolute minimum. But failure is always an option.

When the primary computer went down due to component failure, the back-up system immediately came online to assume control of the network, but the original failure took place during a data back-up to the memory store, which corrupting the data.

The new system did the best it could with the information at hand and successfully assumed control of the network and all the smaller computers connected to it; including the ones controlling the Hibernation Chambers.

The new computer was intelligent enough to realize some of the data was bad and corrected it, but since it was unable to contact the surface, or the satellite to verify the date, it was forced to accept that the current date was accurate and proceed from there. It had no way to know the date wasn’t June 23rd 5235 BC.

Since the computer could only use that date as a reference, it waited until the originally programmed released date arrived. Finally, April the twenty-second, 3020 AD arrived; it began the long awaited process of awakening the remaining members of the human race on the planet.

Waking up was far more difficult than it had been the first time. Again, the first thing Ben noticed was the cold. This time though, he felt like he imagined he would feel after being rescued from freezing. He felt like his blood was only slowly beginning to flow in his body. Making his extremities burn and hurt.

He was stiff. He tried to lift one hand to look at his fingers and it was like trying to pull it out of concrete. When he did get it high enough for him to see it, it took a few moments to realize the reason his fingers hurt so much was because his fingernails had grown so long.

He pushed on the door to the chamber and it opened slowly. Ben honestly couldn't tell if the door was resisting his push, or if he was just that weak. However, the air smelled a little stale and he thought he saw some dust as he opened the pod door. His first impression was that it had been longer than the programmed one-thousand-year sleep.

He groaned as he all but fell out of the pod and sat on the bench immediately in front of it. After he mustered the energy, he turned slightly at the sound of another groan. Jorga had managed to push the pod door open and was blinking her eyes repeatedly.

Ben got up and pulled the pod doors open for the remaining three chambers. He smiled at Deirdre when she opened her eyes. Marcy and Kait groaned like it was a school morning.

Jorga kissed him when he offered and he took the time to hold her for a moment before helping the rest of his family out of the high tech coffins. He gave each woman a hug to let her know he cared for her.

Beside each pod was a small locker that held the clothes that each person had taken off before getting into the pods. The instructions had suggested everyone change into utility coveralls before coming to the facility, which is how Ben had coveralls on hand when he woke before.

He pulled out the clothes and soft-soled shoes and began the task of trying to remember how to put them on. He grinned to himself as he remembered an old joke about writing TGIF on the shoe. (Toes Go In First)

“I don't know if we're the first ones to awaken, or not, but if the Doctor is up, we should try to help the others after getting checked out ourselves. Marcy, after you wake up fully, would you check with the computer to make sure of the date? Granted, it was a bitch waking up after two hundred and fifty years, but nothing like this,” Ben said.

After they all got dressed, Ben led the girls to the small medical facility were Jon was just finishing up with his own family.

“Am I imaging it, or was that way worse than the first time?” Jon asked when he saw Ben.

“I didn't get up the first time, but I can safely tell you I'm glad we can't use those again,” Jorga offered.

“How are your girls, Jon?” Ben asked.

“About like yours and everyone else; groaning, but alive. Some of the other pods aren't so lucky,” Jon replied quietly.

“What? How many did we lose?” Ben asked while Jon began checking him over.

“About two-hundred and fifty, not counting the loss of the Hawaiian Pods of course. Ben, the cryo computer is reporting an overage alarm, but the clock is correct. It would have awakened us, but the master computer overruled it, it reset the clock, but couldn't reset the alarm in my logs,” Jon reported. “Something wonky happened.”

“I asked Marcy to look into it. Are the rest of the pods waking up?” Ben asked.

Jon nodded. “Yeah, right now, we are all taking care of our own. There will be a medical staff meeting in twenty-four hours. Luckily, none of the medical personnel were among the casualties.”

“I guess that's a relative observation, Jon. The human race is on the endangered species list. We can't afford any losses,” Ben said grimly.

“What about the evacuees? Don't you think any of them made it?” Jon asked hopefully.

“I certainly hope so, Doctor, but we can't bank on it. According to that report, there had only been two hundred thousand of them. Besides, after all this time, I really doubt most of them even remember the Earth,” Ben replied. “Let's just hope they weren't the only ones to forget about us.”

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

Addson Dee was very excited. She had just discovered the ruins of another ancient city. She had been lucky in that. She happened to catch a glimpse of a hard trail in the shallows between small islands that lead out into the northern barrier sea.

She flew all the way up to the face of the glacier, and saw the remnants of a building falling out of the ice and into the ocean. Taking a great risk, the young prospector landed her skipper in the rough water, and took a few sonograms of the bottom.

At first, she thought she had only found a small village that the glacier hadn't wiped away, but then she started getting larger and larger readings from structures still in the ice! She moved a mile to the east then a mile to the west, just so she could get an idea of how large this find actually was.

The elders would pay greatly for the salvage if she could just lay claim to it before anyone else found it. Of course, then there was the problem of getting to it. The Northern Barrier was an unforgiving sea. It was notorious for blowing up freakish storms, or becoming suddenly, eerily calm. The latter being far more unnerving to her than the storms. Then there were the giants that lived here.

Huge black and white demons that lived in the water. Addson had heard of a major find to the west that was supposedly protected by the great menaces. There were also the pack hunters. Easily half the size of the skipper she flew, the intelligent denizens only had fear for the bigger killers. No, the waters on this planet were no place for young scavengers like Addson. However, a person had to make a living doing something, and getting killed in space didn't appeal to her.

She spent the rest of the day mapping the parts of the underwater city she had found, before heading back to the Aerie. She set her course, and followed the same track as she did on her way out this morning. Even though she was low to the surface of the water, she missed the surfacing of a small buoy.

The sensor pod, however, didn't miss her. Had she been equipped with the instrumentation to detect it, she would have been frightened being scanned this far away from the Aerie. However, she flew on, blissfully unaware that she had been observed.

As she flew south through the mountain range called the Wall, she tried to contact her home base.

“Great Falls Aerie, this is prospector three-nine-four, over.”

The name Great Falls was adopted from a piece of heavily corroded metal that was found near the base of the Aerie. The 'story files tell of a city that once stood very close to where the Aerie was placed a thousand years ago. The city ruins had been one of the ancients, so it was even older still.

Addson had once heard that someone discovered ruins on the Aramic Plateau that were older than even the ancients’ ruins. She was one of the few that agreed with the archaeologists that had flocked to the Aramic site; the human race had begun on this world. However, no matter the amount of proof recovered, it still hadn't been enough to press a claim with the Consortium.

“Great Falls Aerie, this is prospector three-nine-four, over.” Addson repeated. This time she got an answer.

“Three-nine-four, this is Great Falls, What can we do for you, Addson?” a male voice replied.

“Great Falls, I'm approaching from the north, and request landing clearance.”

“You're still an hour away, Addson. Why are you calling in this soon? Did ya find something?”

“What I find or don't find is none of your business, Billy! I'm calling in this early because control wants all returning prospector flights to call in as soon as they can establish contact because of the pirate raids,” Addson replied.

“I bet you found something. You never come back this early unless you think you have something,” Billy replied.

“Look, can I land when I get there or not?” Addson asked, clearly getting irritated with the young man.

“Where else can you go? If I tell you can't land, you're just gonna have to sit out there and wait. Now, tell me what you found, and I'll think about letting you land,” Billy replied.

“Billy, there are four other Aeries on Usa (she pronounced it Oosa) Major that I can reach, I can also make it to StarDock down on Usa Minor. So, unless you want to explain all this to Howath, you better give me a landing pad!”

“Okay, okay, sheesh! I was only playin'! No need to get yer panties in a knot,” Billy replied, and assigned pad fourteen to Addson's skipper. “I put you on pad fourteen; don't forget to decon!”

“You're a real pal, Billy. One of these days, I'm going to bring you along, and drop you off out here somewhere. Then you can tell us what you found!”

“Good luck with that, the home office is suspending all prospecting permits. Once you land, that's it, you won't be going back out for a while,” Billy replied grinning. If she wanted to be a shit, fine, he could be a shit too.

“Why? There's still a lot of stuff out there to find!” Addson replied.

“I think they've finally came to the conclusion that there's nothing of value left. At least nothing worth risking credits on. I'd have to agree with them; those people didn't have much that is of value to the here and now. After ten thousand years, what they did have has crumbled away to dust.”

“I think we still have a lot to learn from them. For example, did you know that these people were actually our ancestors, and we originated here?” Addson replied.

“Oh that's just bullshit! Think about it, if they were our ancestors, then how did they breathe? What did they eat? Most of the plants here are poisonous to us. No, I'd believe the Hyclerians rescued us from slavery before I'd believe we started out here,” Billy replied.

“There was a great war that changed the planet, which is why we left. Too much time has passed, and both our race, and the planet have changed too much, but we did start out here. At least, that's what those archaeologists on the Aramic Plateau are saying,” Addson countered.

“They'll say anything in order to keep the credits flowing for their research. Either way, all prospecting has come to a halt. I think they're going to re-task you to anti-piracy duty. The damn pirates have been getting more aggressive lately. They intercepted our supply tram and stole all the cargo.”

Addson and Billy talked and discussed pirates and the new assignments until she landed.

Survivor Pod 0001a

3 Apr. 8255 CE

Location Unknown

Planet Earth, Sol System

“So, have you figured anything out, Marcy?” Ben asked. “I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes and people are going to want some answers.” He grinned. “Okay, mostly I do.”

Jon was with Ben and Jorga since they were going to attend the ‘meeting’ together, down in the main atrium and via the large monitors to the other pods. He nodded agreement with Ben.

Deirdre and Kaitlin had begun a community support group to reach out to the other pods to organize inventories and to plan trade systems between the different pods.

Marcy just sighed. “We are so lucky. First off, about six hundred years into our cryo-sleep the main computer crashed due to a hardware failure. Now, that had been planned for, so by itself, it was no big deal. However, the failure happened at the absolute worst possible moment; it happened during a data backup and synchronization cycle.

“What happened was that the backup computer system immediately took over from the main system, but the data that it had was corrupted. Most of it was obvious and the new system repaired what it could, but there was one thing it had no way of knowing was wrong: The system date.

“It loaded the system data from the main machine as its own and proceeded from there. We were in cryo for eight thousand, two hundred and forty-six years. The exact current date is April the third, eighty-two-fifty-five,” she finished.

“Well, that would certainly explain the deaths, their cryo-chambers failed. At least they died in their sleep,” Jon said, sadly.

“Good work, Marcy. I’m sure that will be the first question I’ll be called on to answer, followed by an explanation for the deaths," Ben said.

“Ben, did your father ever explain to you why he made sure you were the one in charge of this mess?” Marcy asked.

“No, but I did learn a great deal about negotiation and diplomacy, economics and management. I also have a complete list in my head of all the assets we should have available to us once we figure out what kind of condition the planet is in,"

“It’s not the same planet we knew,” Marcy added softly. “I got on the network with some of the other scientists. The main Seattle Pod, which is only a few hundred meters below the ocean floor now, set up a small sensor buoy and launched it so we could get a reading on a few things. I know we didn’t ask, but there was no way, unless someone was right on top of it, it could have been detected and we really needed those answers."

She blinked as she changed mental gears. “The northern pole is in what used to be Siberia. Most of greater Seattle is still covered by a receding glacier and the water is almost two kilometers deep.

“By adjusting for the shift in the poles, we were able to pinpoint our date by calculating the amount of galactic shift in the visible stars. We also sampled the air and the water. However, the part you’ll want to know about is, we're not alone here.”

The men were still in shock at what Marcy said, but Jorga wasn’t. “What did you say? How do you know?”

“Right after the buoy surfaced, a strange aircraft was seen flying away to the south at high speed. We’re sure it didn’t see our sensor because it didn't turn around to investigate...” Marcy said rushing to explain.

“Stop!” Ben said, holding up a hand to Marcy. “Why didn’t you tell me that part first?”

“I didn’t want you to get mad. I know we took an awful risk, but we also knew you’d need information to make decisions. The computers told us about the earthquakes, so we figured Seattle would be the safest since it should have been a few miles out to sea,” Marcy tried to explain. "Uh, it isn't as far out as we thought."

Again, Ben had to stop her. “Relax Marcy, you’re not in trouble, but please don’t risk our lives again without asking first, okay?"

A relieved looking Marcy nodded agreement. “Uh, Jorga? Your Mom asked me to pass along a request for you to call her as soon as you have the time.”

Jorga nodded. “I will, Thanks. What did you find with the atmosphere and water?”

Marcy got excited now. “That’s the most interesting! The atmosphere is almost ideal for human life! CO2 is a little high, but that can be explained by the presence of the glacier. Other than that it’s a perfect mix of Oxygen, Nitrogen and all the other trace gasses we need to thrive! There is no trace of pollution at all! Even that craft left only a faint hydrogen trace!

“The first things we checked for were the stuff reported to us in the logs of the people that stayed to fight. Seattle was one of the major cities that got nuked, but there was no trace of radiation or any residue of the chemical weapons that were used. The planet’s been healed!"

“After the better part of ten thousand years, you’d think it should be healed!” Jon commented.

“Well, considering the damage we humans did even before the war, most thought it would take the planet hundreds of thousands of years to do this,” Marcy replied excitedly.

“Well, this is a discussion for another time. We need to get to that meeting. Thank you Marcy and good work,” Ben stood and took Jorga’s hand, pulling her to her feet. “So, should we go see how the rest of the folks are doing?” He pulled Marcy to her feet as well and kissed her on the cheek. Jorga winked at the girl.

When they got to the atrium, there was already a large gathering in deep discussion. Deirdre seemed to be moderating it, and after a few minutes of watching and listening, it was clear that the meeting was very large.

Ben just stepped to the side to get out of the way of more people that were arriving. As they arrived everyone would greet them as neighbors.

“Thank you, Rashiem. I see our time is up for today. Please send me a copy of your supply inventories and requests as soon as you can get them finished. I’ll have Kaitlin send you all an email with our next meeting date, as soon as we can get it all worked out.

“I would like to thank all of you for attending today, you folks are all great! We made some good progress today. Yes we need to get more finalized and discussed, so the next meeting will be as soon as we can swing it. Remember, none of us are alone. If you need help, ask for it. If someone asks, give it. I’ll see you all later, Good Day,” Deirdre finished as everyone stood and clapped. The atmosphere was one of happy industry and cooperation. Nationalities were gone now, everyone was finally united and working together.

As Ben worked his way to the middle of the room, he greeted the people that were staying for the next meeting. When he got to the middle, he gave Deirdre and Kait hugs and said thank you to both of them before they sat down yielding the floor to him.

The big monitors and the global connection were still active and Ben could see much the same scene on all the monitors.

Ben smiled at the red light that marked the camera. “Hello everyone, I am, as most of you know, Benjamin Bedouin. It has been given to me to serve as your coordinator as we move forward and begin our new lives. It is a duty that I promise to fulfill to the best of my ability. With your help, I know that we can succeed.

“Now, before we begin today, I have a couple of items to tell you about. I’m sure a good share of you would like to know why we lost people during cryo-sleep.” He then told everyone what Marcy had told him, like her, he withheld the sighting until the last.

“Now, don’t panic, but when the survey buoy broke the surface, it did so as it was being overflown by some sort of aircraft.” Ben had to wait for the hubbub from that comment as the rest of the people all speculated on who it could be. From the sound of it, it had to be the invaders that made them all hide down here to begin with.

“People! Order please!” Ben shouted and was surprised when people did calm down and listen again. “If you think about this logically, the odds do not favor a Sal'andori occupation. From the records left for us, we already know that they left even before the last of the surface population did.

“Therefore, we cannot make any assumption about the current surface occupants. We cannot even assume that they’re hostile; at least they breathe our air! Honestly, it could be the remnants of the human race that abandoned the surface thousands of years ago. So much time has passed, any assumptions without further investigation would be fruitless, and only serve to breed fear and uncertainty. We have no shortage of either of those currently,” Ben paused for one of the ladies to grab something for him to drink.

Before any of them could get up, he was handed a cup of coffee. “Ahh, thank you! I forgot to bring something to drink.” He sipped the hot beverage, and felt the fluid flow through his body like a restorative.

“Now, before we get too far into this, I would propose we appoint a temporary Recorder in each of our pods to ensure that accurate records are being kept of all official meetings. After we adjourn for the day, each Pod can hold elections for a local government. The job descriptions for each position are listed in the information section of the voting program on every computer.

“The whole system should be kept as simple as possible. Volunteers accepted unless there are more than one volunteer for a position. So let’s take a few moments for each pod to make the appointment for a recorder. Please ‘set green’ when you are ready.”

Ben smiled and looked at those before him. “Any volunteers?”

Deirdre spoke. “Ben, Kait was fulfilling that function for me in the earlier meeting.”

He raised an eyebrow at his little sister. “Would you be willing to do that for us too, at least until we can elect someone?”

“Sure Ben. But I think I’m going to have my hands full working with Deirdre, so I don’t want to do it permanently,” Kaitlin answered.

“Fair enough,” Ben nodded as Kaitlin reopened her laptop.

Movement at the back of the large atrium caught his attention. He’d seen them leave, but Jon’s girls were now pushing carts into the room. One had three big, yellow and red coolers of the type you would have seen at a construction site, with cups on the lower shelf. The other had two large, insulated urns, and two trays of coffee cups on the lower shelf.

“Everyone, it looks like there are refreshments at the rear of the area near the stairs. Thank you, Ladies!” Ben said, nodding to the two now blushing girls. As they made their way back to their parents, several people quietly thanked them as well.

The two carts were a big hit as people got coffee and juice before returning to their seats.

“Ben, everyone’s green,” Kaitlin reported.

“Thanks, sis.” He looked back into the camera and began the first meeting of the Grand Council of Terra.

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

As Billy predicted, Addson had been re-tasked to piracy control almost as soon as she landed. She’d been ordered to gather her belongings and report to Aerie Argassi, several hundred ticks to the southwest. Unlike the Great Falls Aerie, Argassi was in full production mode.

The Aeries had been designed to extract an element called ‘ohto’ from the atmosphere of the planet. During extraction, compartmentalized ‘doxin', which had been filtered out of all the various atmosphere processors in the Empire, was released since the flora of this planet naturally converted doxin back into ohto.

The Aeries were systematically getting rebuilt and updated since they had been in almost continuous operation for ten centuries. In fact, the last time they had been shut down was when a new power plant had been designed, five hundred cycles ago. Addson had heard a rumor that the newly upgraded Aeries would be able to extract ohto from the oceans as well. She wondered if that meant the processing storm would be worse.

When Aeries were in production, the release of the other elements mixing back in to the atmosphere created a localized low-pressure cell, which meant the Aerie created and maintained a storm around itself. The massive electrical discharges from these storms, while helping to supplement their power requirements, usually served to protect the weaponless Aeries from the well-armed pirates.

Weaponless did not mean defenseless by any means. Aeries did have shields and the massive extractor vents. Rumor held that the pirates could actually breathe this atmosphere, so getting stuck in the jet wash from a vent would be all but lethal, provided the eight-hundred twenty knot exhaust wind didn’t get them first. No, the Aeries might not be armed, but they weren't defenseless either.

“Aerie Argassi, this is Prospector three-nine-four, over.” Addson looked out of her canopy at the lush rain forest passing beneath her hull. It was beautiful in its own deadly way. Away to the north, she could just make out the elevated track of the monorail. No one liked to travel on that remotely controlled bullet. They were the pirates’ prime targets. The pirates had yet to kill anyone directly, but they were responsible for the deaths of thirty-two people that had been forced to ground level while the pirates raided the tram. They had emergency respirators, but the forest was just like the oceans. People had no place there.

“Prospector three-niner-four, this is Argassi Anti-Piracy Command. Your designation has been changed to scout three-nine-four, please make note of this in your log. You are instructed to alter coarse and get a complete scan of sector thirty-four eight ninety-two, quads alpha and delta. Be advised that heavy pirate activity has been monitored in the area, so be careful.”

“Understood Argassi Command. Be advised that I'm rigged for underwater work,” Addson replied a little worried. The pirates had never attacked a prospector’s skipper, at least not yet; there was always a first time.

“Understood three-nine-four. That sector is in the middle of the Great Inland Sea. Also, during unsecured communications, retain your prospector call sign. That way, if they are listening, they shouldn’t be interested in you. We’ll retool and activate your weapons when you get back. Good luck, and good hunting, three-nine-four.”

As she altered coarse, she thought that things must have certainly changed at Argassi. She had been born there. When she was barely ten cycles old, her parents had moved them to Great Falls Aerie for a change of scenery. At the time she wondered why they needed a change; Argassi sat on a beautiful sandy beach in the tropical zone of the planet. Aside from the perpetual processing storm, Argassi was as close to paradise as the young Addson could imagine.

That lasted until her first look at the peaks of The Wall Mountains. That massive northern range with a huge glacial sea on one side and lush hardwood rain forests on the other. That wondrous vista made her decide to become a prospector. Even though the atmosphere had far too much ohto and not nearly enough 'hellum' for her to breath without a respirator, she knew she simply had to get out of the Aerie and roam the planet to see what other wonders it held. As soon as she was old enough, she signed up as a prospector and dove into her studies with abandon.

Almost an hour after being ordered to change course, she flew out over the glittering waves of the Great Inland Sea. In all the time the ohto mines had been here, no one had bothered to give a name to this tropical sea.

“Argassi Control, this is prospector three-nine-four. I’ve crossed the shore and am proceeding out over the sea, as per flight plan. Nothing to report,” Addson called just as if she were on a normal prospecting run.

“Understood prospector three-nine-four, be advised Met-Com has issued a gale watch for your target area. Please record all surface conditions as well, they would like to develop a better system for issuing storm warnings,” a female voice answered. "I didn’t get a chance to meet you yet, but I’m Carn and I’ll be your controller for the next shift."

“Hi Carn, I’m Addson Dee, late of Great Falls Aerie. Sorry I missed you,” Addson replied, even though she had not gone to the Aerie, it was an unsecured channel.

“Wow, you sound pretty!” There was a pause and Addson could imagine the controller typing furiously to find Addson’s public bio. “I was right! You are very beautiful. From the looks of it, we have a lot in common. Would you like to grab a drink when you get back so we can get to know each other better?”

“I’d love to Carn, but I think I should warn you; I’m hetro. I’m not opposed to a new friend though,” Addson replied in a friendly manner. This sort of thing was considered normal banter and was very common between the isolated prospectors, and their controllers. It helped keep the prospectors sane on long runs.

“Celestial! The first round’s on me!” Carn said, not deterred by Addson’s admission at all.

“I need to finish getting my gear ready for this new area, or I’ll be out here longer than I really want to be. I’ll give you a call back as soon as I get to my prospecting area. I hope I have better luck down here than I did in Great Falls area,” Addson replied, although she had been credited with the northern find, she needed to maintain a cover story.

“I’m sure you will, Addson. Talk to you soon! Argassi control, omega-zeta-one-oh-one-nine, clear.”

“Three-nine-four, out.”

Sector 34892 Beta Quadrant

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

“Sir, just like we were told, we have a skipper inbound to the decoy position. Are you sure we have to kill her? I’ve been listening in to her radio chatter and she sounds really cute.” Amerath asked.

“Jesus, 'Rath! Are you so lonely that you’re warming up to a voice? We need to get you some companionship next time we’re in StarDock. Yes, the order came from the Duke himself, we’re to blow that skipper out of the air.”

“I’ll do as you order, Sir, but I don’t feel very good about it. We’ve never killed anyone before. I don’t like the idea of doing it now,” Amerath replied. “I’m not exactly an upright citizen, but I ain’t no murderer.”

The Commander, Elrond, nodded. “I know what you mean, 'Rath, but the Duke'll have us shot if we don’t follow orders. It’s our job to create enough of an uproar so the Duke can justify placing the planet under martial law. That way, he can bring in troops and finally stop paying the miners. Although we’ve been raisin' holy hell with shipments and stuff, he said it’s only a nuisance. We need to create a public outcry. Killing a supposed innocent will do that."

“What the hell does he need more troops for?” Amerath asked.

“What’d ya mean? There aren’t any troops here.”

Amerath snorted. “Next time we deliver a stolen cargo, come with us; you’ll see what I mean.”

“How many do you think are here? Where are they hiding their ships?” Elrond asked.

“I’m not sure; but there has to be a good amount. That ‘small base’ is getting bigger all the time and last time I was there, it looked like it was standing room only. From what the cargo mate said they was more getting here every day.”

Elrond just shook his head. “This whole deal just keeps getting worse and worse all the time. No one’s said a word to me about troops already being here!”

“So, do I still launch the missile?” Amerath asked.

Elrond was thoughtful for a few moments as he watched the screen with the skipper on it. “Yeah, but make sure you set it to optical search mode and retard the warhead. This is only a skipper, we don't need to vaporize it,” Elrond specified. Optical mode was far more accurate in the atmosphere, but if a pilot could break the initial target lock, then they stood a better chance of survival. Of course, they would have to fire another missile when she evaded, but perhaps by then, she would be smart enough to head back to Argassi. After all, scaring her off should accomplish the same panic in the citizenry and get the ‘anti-piracy command’ looking in the completely wrong place.

“Optical mode? But won’t that...” Amerath turned and got a look at the face of his superior. He grinned himself as he turned back around and began programming the search modes for the missiles. “Warhead set to thirty percent. Optical search mode set. All other modes are locked out. Activating tracking... and Lock! Firing Missile!”

Sector 34890 Alpha Quadrant

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

“Holy Shit! Argassi Control! Someone just fired a missile at me!” Addson called as she put the skipper into a nosedive for the waves.

“Addson? Somebody did what?” Carn asked in shocked reply.

“Fired a missile at me! It’s locked on! I’m on the deck and heading back to you, but I sure could use some help out here!" Addson said as she focused on flying at max speed only few feet above the waves. The idea was to be low enough that once the missile gets closer, she could drop and pull up a tail behind her. Once she was obscured from the missile, she would reverse power, and shear off. It meant pulling a ton of gravities, but it was better than getting blown into fish food.

“I’ve notified defense command and they’re getting a couple of armed skippers launched. Did you see where it came from?" Carn asked.

“Kinda busy here, Carn; gimme a tick or two,” Addson replied. She had been watching the inbound missile and a couple of seconds before impact, she slammed the skipper down onto the waves, kicking a solid wall of water ten meters into the air. She pulled the throttle all the way back and threw the control yoke all the way over to the left. If the maneuver itself didn’t rip the skipper apart, she should have evaded the missile.

“The DC skippers are on their way, Addson, but they can’t get to your location for almost an hour! We don’t have anything else close to you either. I just don't believe they have missiles! They’re going to be attacking the Aeries themselves next!” Carn said sounding close to panic.

After ensuring the missile was pulled into the sea, Addson stayed low, but kept on her course for the Aerie. “Relax Carn, why would they want to attack an Aerie? They’re pirates; all they want is the ohto.” The threat detector interrupted her again.

“Damn! These guys really don’t like me. They just fired another missile. I’m continuing to evade!” Addson finished.

“I don’t know how you can be so calm, Addson! I’d be insane from fear by now!” Carn replied.

“It helps that I can hear you, but really, if I panic, I’m dead. I can panic later, once the emergency’s over.”

Addson knew that a second missile meant it was going to be smarter than the last one, since most missiles learned from the mistakes of previous missiles. The same tactic she used wouldn’t work this time.

Suddenly, she got a surface contact on her scanner. She clicked on it and was surprised to see it was a huge cargo floater. She immediately changed course for the big ship and dropped low enough to pull up the tail again. She tried to push the throttle further forward and alarms started sounding warning of the reactor overheating.

As she calculated the distance to the ship verses the speed of the missile, she didn’t think she’d make it this time. Her water plume slowed the missile somewhat, but would it be enough? She took her eyes off the missile and watched the fast approaching ship. The cargo floaters had cryo-steel armor to protect them in storms. If she could lead the missile into the ship, it should forget about her. But in order to do that, Addson was going to have to ‘leap’ the ship at full throttle.

As soon as she got within a hundred meters of the floating brick, she moved the lever to turn her thruster vents to vertical lift and the skipper began to leap. Scant centimeters below her hull, the missile shot past her and impacted the ship now only twenty meters in front of her unarmored canopy.

Sector 34871, Beta Quadrant

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

The various alarms going off in her cockpit awakened Addson. Blinking bleary eyes at the rain spattered windscreen she noticed it was cracked. Briefly, she’d wondered how that had happened.

Slowly coming back to her senses, she began to realize that several alarms were screaming to get her attention. Reaching out her hand, she tapped the screen that should have the skipper’s status report on it; it remained blank. She stared at it blankly for a moment before she realized that the indicator denoting system power was unlit. She looked around the cockpit and realized that everything was powered down; everything but those thrice-damned alarms.

Carefully twisting around in her seat, she noted it hurt to breath, so she knew her ribs were at least bruised, possibly cracked, she looked for the main power breaker for the craft, and saw that it had been tripped. She’d never even heard of that happening before, so she knew whatever happened had to have been bad.

She tried to reach for it, and a wave of dizziness washed over her, momentarily dimming her vision. She sat back, closed her eyes, and concentrated on breathing. Either that crack was bleeding her atmosphere out or she whacked her head on something and gave herself a concussion. ‘Could be a bit of both,’ she said to herself.

Once she felt stable again, she reached down and manually released the controls on her seat allowing it to recline all the way back. This was how she operated her equipment and managed to sleep on long trips. Setting the seat into couch mode would give her more room to work. Catching a bright flash reflected on the waves outside gave her the first good news; at least her beacon was working. The rescue team from the Aerie would be able to find her now. Not to mention, the robotic cargo ship would have called in the incident.

Very slowly and carefully, she tried to pull her legs up so she could turn around and reset the main breaker. As she started to bend her left leg, she screamed in pain and once again almost blacked out. Her left leg, below the knee was visibly out of alignment with the rest of the leg. It was either broken, or the knee was badly dislocated.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to accomplish much in her present condition, so she opened the emergency panel just under her right side console. Since the emergency panel had its own power system, it lit up as soon as she opened the door.

“Sensors indicate we have crashed. If you are injured please list your symptoms,” a voice issued from the small speaker on the unit.

“Dizziness, nausea, occasional blurry vision. My chest hurts on both sides, and I think I’ve bruised or cracked ribs. It is difficult to breath. My left leg is either broken or the knee is dislocated. I’m in a lot of pain. I can’t initiate repairs without treatment first,” Addson replied.

“Understood. Please retrieve the injector in this unit and inject yourself three to four inches above the knee on the left leg. Once that has been done return the injector to its position in the unit.”

Addson did as she was instructed, and immediately felt the injury begin to numb. She returned the injector.

“Now, as soon as the injury is numb enough for you to move, I need you to lie back on the couch so I may get an accurate scan of you.”

“Primary systems power is offline. The cockpit systems are dead,” Addson replied.

“Understood. If you can, please restore system power before the scan.”

“I’ll try.”

She scooted herself back a little, lifting and pulling her injured leg so she wouldn’t have to twist as much, she managed to push the large green reset button, but the pain in her chest was incredible, and she felt herself getting dizzy again, and her vision began to dim. She quickly lay back, luckily in the correct position for the computer to scan her. "I think I’m losing consciousness.”

“Please try not to. There is a very high probability that you have a concussion that I will not be able to treat you for without your assistance.”

Addson tried as hard as she could to remain awake, and to increase her blood pressure. She still felt herself slip into unconsciousness for a short period of time.

“I’m sorry, I tried. How long was I out?”

“Not long, I actually hadn’t noted it. You are doing very well. Now, try to hold still while I scan you to see if you need more help,” the limited AI of the medical unit replied.

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to need more help. The question is will I still be here when they get here?” Addson asked rhetorically.

The literal minded AI answered the question anyway. “I am unable to respond accurately.  The crash destroyed my external emergency pod. No repair is possible. Replacement is required. The emergency beacon is not functioning.”

“It has to be, I saw the light reflected on the waves outside!”

“It is possible the visual beacon survived; however, the transmitter is NSL and will not respond to self-diagnostic requests,” the A.I. replied.

NSL generally stood for ‘Non-Serviceable eLectronics’, but Addson knew the techs called it ‘No Signs of Life’.

“Atmospheric pressure inside the cabin is decreasing, and ohto content is rising. You will begin to feel intoxicated soon,” the AI said. “The right side of your torso seems to have taken the brunt of the damage. You have two cracked ribs and a severely bruised collarbone. There are bruised ribs on both sides, but it is the collarbone and the cracked ribs that are hampering your movements.

“The pain in your neck and head is from the strained muscle groups in your neck. Luckily, you do not have a concussion. Normally, I would have you wrap your chest with compression tape to help hold the ribs in place. However, because of the atmosphere in the cabin, that could prove to be potentially fatal until the atmosphere issues are resolved."

“Isn’t ohto poisoning fatal? If I can’t move to make the repairs to restore the atmosphere I’m going to die. Not much of a choice,” Addson countered.

“Your information is not completely accurate. There is no such thing as ohto poisoning. Physiological difficulty arises because your system is not accustomed to processing ohto at these levels. Current atmospheric restrictions are artificially imposed,” The AI replied.

“So you’re saying that I can breathe the atmosphere of this planet?” Addson asked.

“Correct. The ability to process atmospheres rich in ohto is leaving your race, due to an artificial restriction imposed by the Consortium. However, you still retain the ability, although you will need to adjust to it. As I warned you before, you will begin to feel intoxicated soon. Actually, considering the ohto levels in here already, I am surprised you are not."

“I feel lightheaded, but I thought that was because of the pain I’ve been feeling,” Addson replied.

“It could be a combination of the atmosphere as well as your pain. I hope you understand, I would give you a pain reliever, but that would interfere with your respiration. If you move slowly, you should be able to do some things. However, do not twist, do not stretch, do not lift more than a half-kilo,” the AI instructed.

Addson chuckled and immediately regretted it. Through gritted teeth, she replied, “In other words, don’t fuckin’ move!"

“My advice is, since we are not in danger of sinking at this point, simply stay reclined and get used to breathing. Once you are acclimated, then I can inject you with a pain killer, and you can wrap your ribs, prior to initiating repairs.”

“Before we crashed, control issued a storm warning for this area. We are already in the beginning of it. The natural storms on this planet can be very nasty. I really should try to seal the breach in the canopy. That way, we can at least remain afloat if it gets really bad,” Addson countered. “I will have to stretch a little in order to reach the breach.”

The medical A.I. paused a moment during which it proffered the injector again. “Before you begin, inject this into your arm. It will help with the pain by stimulating your natural endorphins, and it should keep you from passing out again.”

Doing as the medical A.I. directed her, she put the injector to her arm and pulled the trigger. In seconds, her heart was racing and the pain felt dulled. She replaced the injector, and lifted herself into a sitting position. She opened another cabinet to retrieve a can of sealant, and the extra respirator she kept there.

Survivor Pod 0001a

6 Apr. 8255 CE

Location Unknown

Planet Earth, SOL system.

Ben was just beginning to look over the report from the transportation group on the safety of the tunnels and transit system when Marcy burst into his office.

“Ben! There was a really big explosion above us on the surface! Our sonar says there’s wreckage on its way down!”

“Is there anyone alive in there?” Ben asked.

“Not as far as we can tell. But there is a larger target still on the surface; it could be a lifeboat, or pod or something. I think you should know, there is a really bad storm brewing. The low pressure system to the south is huge, and it’s sucking up moisture like a sponge," Marcy explained. “If this were the old ecology, I would say it’s well on the way to becoming a hurricane. As it is, it’s a tropical storm and heading straight for us. If there is a survivor up there, he’s a dead man.”

“Do we have a way to assist him? I mean we’re pretty deep out here, and I don’t remember a DSRV as being in the inventory," Ben said, thoughtfully. “Have you found anything in our military depot?”

“Well, yes and no, I can only wonder at the conditions after so many years of war, but there are several ... vessels, for the lack of a better description, so, for at least part of the war, the base had to have been underwater. We could use one of those to recover any survivors, if we knew how to drive/fly/operate them. I should mention that all of them seem to be armed. There is a lot of technology there that we simply don’t understand yet.”

“How long would it take you to figure it out?” Ben asked.

“Well, we called on a couple of former pilots from our sister pods, and a few ex-military to help us go over them. One of the pilots says she thinks she could fly it, but wouldn’t feel comfortable or certain until she had some time behind the controls. As soon as we get power back to the base, we should be able to supply power to the simulators we found. That way, they should be able to safely get some flying time in,” Marcy explained.

Ben seemed disappointed. “So, not for a month or so. I don’t think this guy’ll have that long. Maybe someone will find him before the storm kills him. Besides, a technologically advanced society should be able to locate a life boat, right?”

“I would think so, Ben, but how long should we let him float up there?” Marcy asked.

Instead of answering her, he was thoughtful for a moment. “Could you send that pilot to see me please? I’d like to talk to him.”

“Sure, I’ll send her to see you as soon as I get back to the base. It’ll be nice when we get that reactor up and running. Then we could just call over there,” Marcy said as she left.

He was distracted now and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of a person or people might be in the lifeboat. He imagined they were scared no matter what else was going on. They had to have known about the storm and that they were in very deep water.

But what about the explosion that stranded that lifeboat? Was it simply an accident, or had it been deliberate? Was there still war in the outside world? Should he plan to keep the people safely hidden? He didn’t know and he desperately needed more information about the outside world. The survivors of that accident could certainly provide that information. However, was it worth risking the life of one of their pilots to find out?

Forcefully controlling his thoughts, he set the dilemma aside so he could finish the report he had started. He needed to decide if they could use the transportation system for long distance travel between pods.

When he finished the report, he ordered the replacement of several important sensors, as well as the servicing of all the emergency shelters before he would approve the use of the system.

He was about to read about the progress made in the hydroponics areas when there was a discrete knock on his door.

“Come in!” Ben replied automatically.

An athletic woman in her mid-twenties entered and smiled at him. “You asked to see me, Sir?”

Ben grinned at the ‘Sir'. It was going to take some getting used to. “Please call me, Ben,” he said as he stood and held out his hand. When she shook it, she introduced herself as Gail Greenwold. He asked her to sit. “Can I get you anything? Something to drink perhaps, coffee? Tea?”

“Just water, please. I forgot to grab a bottle when I got here.”

He got a bottle of cold water from the replicator and got himself a cup of mocha before he sat back down. “I assume you are aware of the situation above us?”

“Yeah, I was one of the ones standing there when Marcy got the news. I was in the cockpit of one of the ships when she came back and asked me to come see you,” Gail replied.

Ben nodded. “Sorry to take you away, but I need to ask; if it comes to it, do you think you could safely take the ship out and rescue any survivors in that lifeboat?”

The woman frowned slightly. “Sir, any rescue is inherently dangerous simply because of the nature of the situation. If you meant to ask if I could drive the ship safely, I believe I could. The controls are not very different from the helicopters I flew in the military. I would call them a mix of Apache, Comanche, and Chinook, with a bit of Blackhawk thrown in for good measure.

“They do have weapons as well. I’m not so sure about those, but if I needed to use them chances are the mission would be a failure anyway. I’d need time in the simulators before I could comfortably say I could fight the ship too. However, I feel confident I could do what was needed to get a team up to the surface and back safely,” she finished.

“Who would you need for a team and do you have any suggestions?” Ben asked.

She paused thoughtfully. “When we ran combat med-evac ops, we had two medics and four armed grunts. I think for this, we’d need the two medics, and at least six grunts. After all, we have no idea what caused the explosion.”

“So, two doctors, yourself, and four others with guns?” Ben asked.

“No sir, the medics shouldn’t be doctors. It’s too dangerous to risk them. My whole squadron, except for the doctors, was assigned to the pods, Sir. I can call up my flight crew and we can do this,” Gail said.

Ben went through the lists of the local pods and didn’t find any military included. “I don’t understand, there are no military units on the population lists for our pods."

“As I understand it Sir, we were listed as civilians since the military dropped us when we were assigned to the project. Ours was the last pod sealed, since we were handling transportation for those too far away for ground transport to recover,” Gail explained.

“So then the other pilots Marcy mentioned ...” Ben began and Gail nodded.

“They are the other pilots from my old squadron. I would imagine there are others that were included as well, spread out all over the world. A lot of the folks helping out at the base are ex-military.”

Ben snorted. “I hate surprises; at least this one was a good one.”

She chuckled and nodded agreement. “No leader likes surprises; it’s inherent to the job. Would you like me to get my old team together, Sir?”

“I told you; call me Ben!”

“With respect, Sir, you are my Commander, addressing you any other way would just be wrong!” Gail replied.

“Okay, okay! I’ll surrender for now. Are all your pilots’ rotary wing only?” Ben asked.

“No, Sir. We are all qualified on fighters, attack helos and even passenger jets. Our medics are PA’s certified in combat and emergency procedures, and our grunts are mostly navy SEALs or delta. All of us can teach our skills to others as well," Gail replied proudly.

Ben nodded, grinning. “I guess Dad really did think of everything. Yes, please assemble your team and do what you need to do to get ready for the rescue mission. If we need to do this it’ll be in the next day or so I think. We’re waiting for someone else to recover them, but if this storm gets worse, we’ll have to do it.”

“Again, with respect Sir, we need to go now or not at all. If that storm gets much worse it’s gonna make the surface impossible to work in. We could lose the lifeboat as well as my team,” Gail explained. "I understand your desire to keep us a secret, but if we are going to do this, it has to be now.”

“Can you tell me what you think your odds of success are?” Ben asked.

“I’d say about eighty percent and dropping every minute.”

Ben made the decision. “Go. But if you feel it’s too dangerous or there are unacceptable risks, abort. I don’t want to lose any of you, understood?"

Gail stood and saluted. “Understood, Sir.”

Ben clumsily returned the salute and she was gone so fast he wondered if she could teleport.

Sector 34871, Beta Quadrant

Planet Terral III

Cassian March

Duchy of Cassias

Hyclarion Imperial Consortium

Addson relaxed back into the reclined couch. The simple task of applying the sealant to the cracked canopy had taken all her energy and hurt tremendously. The medical computer had even warned her, twice, that she needed to hurry because she was most likely making things worse.

“So, since I don’t have a concussion, does that mean I can safely take a nap?” Addson asked, slurring her words.

“Do you believe that your current pain level will allow for you to sleep?” The computer asked.

“Probably not, but I am feeling sleepy. I think it might be that intoxication thing you were talking about earlier. So I thought I would ask, just in case.”

“Understood. If you can sleep, I would recommend you do so. When you sleep your respiration slows, which would allow your body to re-acclimate to this atmosphere easier,” the computer replied. “I will monitor you and the status of the ship. If something changes I will awaken you.”

“Thanks, I think I will just lie here quietly and see what happens,” Addson replied with a sigh.

The medical computer remained quiet while Addson rested. It was pleased that once she had lain there for a time she did indeed fall asleep. While the ohto levels in the cabin continued to rise and finally matched those of the outside, the computer once again checked Addson’s breathing.

She was still breathing, but the computer also knew that although her lungs had accepted the new atmosphere, the rest of her body might be a little slower. Her body had originally been designed to function in an atmosphere very much like this, but since humans had joined the consortium, it had been required of them to adjust to a much thinner atmosphere in order to survive on a mixed race ship in space.

Although there were no records to support it, Addson’s race had to have originated either on this world or on one very environmentally close to it. Since ohto producing worlds were not that abundant, the choices were rather limited. Unfortunately, when the race fled their planet many thousands of cycles ago, they did so as refugees and all of their records were lost.

As the computer sat contemplating these thoughts, the barely functioning survey equipment bleeped out a warning; something was coming up from the far distant bottom. Something bigger than the skipper.

With no other recourse, no weapons and no way to hide, the small AI did the only thing it knew of to do. It began waking Addson.

Addson groaned after the third mild jolt from the computer. “What?” she finally said.

“Sensors have detected a large metallic object coming up from below us. It will surface near us in a few minutes. I awakened you as per our agreement."

That announcement made Addson’s eyes open wide. Was it the same people that had fired those missiles? No, why would they need to travel under the water? Then who could it be? In the records for this planet, there has never been a case of anything surfacing without assistance.

Well, regardless of who was about to surface, there was very little that Addson would be able to do about it. She only hoped they would help her instead of finishing off the job and kill her. She knew the object was under intelligent control since it seemed to be changing course and maneuvering so as not to surface directly under her.

It had to be the Pirates. There was no one else on the planet that needed to hide like that. The thought filled her with dread. She knew the Pirates didn’t take prisoners and had killed anyone unlucky enough to get in their way.

Addson wasn’t sure who it was once the craft did break the surface. Granted, she hadn’t known what to expect, but whatever the hell that craft was, it sure wasn’t what she expected. If these were the pirates, then they were using completely unfamiliar tech.

When the hatch opened she was shocked that the people were moving about without respirators. Suddenly, she remembered hearing that the Pirates didn’t need respirators and her fear returned full force.

The people threw a line to what was left of her skimmer and pulled her and the cockpit section into the hold of the small vessel. She could hear them talking and yelling at each other, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. She did feel a little better when one of the people wiped off a part of the canopy and peered inside. Addson saw it was a woman who smiled and waved at her, making Addson feel a little better.

“Although they appear to be human, I do not recognize the language they are speaking. I would have to connect with the main planetary data net to do more research, however,” offered the computer.

“Gods, it feels like I’m encased in ferrocrete and my head is pounding. I could have sworn you just said that you didn’t recognize the language they're speaking,” Addson replied, slowly blinking her eyes. The lights outside the pod were bright and made her head throb worse.

“I did say that. However, I would recommend you release the canopy latch before they begin ripping this hull open trying to get you out,” suggested the computer. “Not all of the equipment is damaged. Control would be grateful if we could return at least some of the equipment for salvage.”

“Somehow, I don’t think getting you back to Control will be all that easy. I don’t think these folks are the Pirates, but I don't think they want their presence known just yet either. However, before you freak out, let me try to figure out what’s going on here, okay?” Addson asked.

“In truth, there is nothing to be done anyway. The self-destruct was completely destroyed in the crash,” the AI said. “Besides, this might be an interesting adventure."

Addson released the canopy latch, and it hissed open. The woman who had waved at her, very carefully stepped inside. She was trying not to jostle Addson as well as not touch any of the equipment in the tightly packed cabin.

The woman asked her a question. Her voice was almost musical and for a brief moment, Addson thought she was beautiful. Giving herself a slight shake, she told herself that it was the drunken feeling that the computer had told her about.

Assuming the question had been either ‘How do you feel?’ or ‘Where does it hurt?’ Addson pointed to her knee and then her ribs and finally her head.

Someone asked another question and this time Addson had no idea what was asked. She shook her head, which was a bad idea and groaned as she felt herself spin and the nausea got worse. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”

The woman cocked her head to one side and slowly nodded her understanding. She put her hand to her own breast and said, slowly, ‘Sophia’.

Addson aped the woman and said her name as well.

Sophia smiled and said something that sounded a lot like ‘Greetings, Addson’

Smiling, Addson sighed and rested her head on the cushion of her seat. Sophia spoke to someone outside the pod and soon, people started handing her supplies.

Addson looked at the supplies curiously, and then decided to ask the computer if it knew what was going on.

“It appears that this woman, Sophia, is going to place a pressure splint on your knee to immobilize it. Try to assist her in this. It will help you greatly in the long run, although it might be painful to begin with since she will have to set it.” The injector slot opened once again and Addson took the offered injector. “As before, please inject this three to four inches above the broken area. It will help with the pain.”

Addson noticed that Sophia was watching her and had been listening, although it was clear she hadn’t understood all of the conversation. Addson smiled at her and tried to hold the injector against her leg. She was having a hard time since every time she would get it into place; she began shaking too badly to pull the trigger.

Sophia touched Addson’s hand to get her attention. When Addson looked up, Sophia gently took the injector and placed it against the leg. She looked to Addson for confirmation of the placement and Addson moved her hand a little further down, before nodding.

There was a slight hiss from the injector and Addson felt her leg from the knee down going numb again. Addson nodded to the splint and laid her head back.

Sophia very carefully lifted the broken leg up, onto the couch where she had prepared the splint. Once she had gotten it into position, she reset the bones, locked the stabilizing bars, closed the plastic and neoprene wrapping, and then triggered the CO2 inflating canister. The splint held the leg from mid-thigh, all the way down to the ankle and would make removing Addson from the pod much less painful for her.

However, those ribs were going to cause a problem getting her out of there. Her team would need to tape the ribs, but even then, they were going to hurt like a bitch. This person seemed like a sweet girl and Sophia really didn’t want to cause her any more pain than was absolutely necessary.

Sophia wondered what kind of machine that was that gave the girl the analgesic. The language she and the machine had been speaking seemed close to Latin, but there were a lot of differences that made understanding unreliable.

Correctly assuming that she had been addressing some kind of medical computer system, Sophia addressed it, speaking Latin, to hopefully try to get a treatment plan figured out for her new patient.

After a few minutes of listening to Sophia, the PA was surprised when the computer answered her in passable Latin and letting her know the patient's name was Addson. They discussed Addson’s condition and the best way to get her out of the pod and into the infirmary.

Sophia smiled to herself. That emergency AI would certainly come in handy when trying to talk to the girl, with its knowledge of the systems that had been aboard Addson’s ship. However, the important thing was getting Addson down to the infirmary.

The fact that the occupant of the escape pod was human was a relief to the rescuers. Up to the point where they actually saw her, there had been no guarantee that she would be. It was also very obvious she was hurt badly, and the PA did everything she could to help and make her as comfortable as possible.

The technology in the pod was pretty advanced and the crew felt it would help the people to learn more about the new world they found themselves in. The fact that the girl did not speak English would hinder them, but not for long. This girl was very important to the survivors. She represented knowledge that they desperately needed in order to decide how to proceed; do they stay hidden? Is it safe for them to come out? Where the survivors in danger?

There were so many questions they needed answers to. The rescuers would report that the damage and wreckage they saw looked more like an accident than an attack, since there did not appear to be any blast damage. However, the bases sensors registered an explosion, although this wreckage did not show any signs of it. So, what caused the explosion? Was there war on the surface of the planet still? Had the human race indeed returned home only to have someone try to take it away from them?

So many questions and no answers. That was the reason the Prime Councilor had sent them to rescue this girl. He hoped to be able to learn something of the world they have found themselves in. The possibilities seemed endless. Did the Sal'andori return to make war on the human race? What about that other race the records mentioned; the lizards? When humanity left the planet, they had been poorly equipped to defend themselves; fleeing defeat and the loss of their home world. Where had they gone? Who had they met?


They needed answers, and needed them badly. The girl they had pulled from the wreckage didn't seem all that old, but she seemed calm enough. Considering her injuries and the fact that she had to be in a lot of pain, the rescuers felt a grudging respect for her and a little protectiveness. The PA told them that the computer in her pod said she wasn't used to this atmosphere would appear to be drunk until she got used to it. The girl had become used to more helium, CO, and other trace gasses that simply didn't exist in those quantities in normal Earth air. So how and more important, why did she breath a different atmosphere than they did? That didn't make sense at all. The PA shrugged her ignorance of the answer. It was just another question to add to the pile already awaiting the girl once they got her back to base.

Where to take her had never been a question to the team. Ben was the Prime Councilor and he needed the answers this girl had, so she would be taken to the Command Pod Medical Unit. There she would be allowed to heal before she was questioned for her knowledge. At least the girl didn't seem dangerous. Two of the grunts said they would stay with her and provide a guard detail while she was being treated. They would be protecting her as much as they would be protecting the survivors.

Yes, this girl would be questioned, because they all desperately needed her knowledge; with any luck at all the people of the surface world would think the young girl to have drown and not come looking for her.

About the Author

Ben Winston (1965 - ?) was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota on the family dairy farm. Upon reaching adulthood, he joined the United States Army as a communications technician. Before getting out of the military, he decided to go to school for computer electronics.

Shortly after getting out of the military, and after getting a new job with an over-seas company, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. A month after beginning the new job, he was laid off due to budget over-runs on the project he was hired for. Upon returning to the United States, he had difficulty maintaining employment because of the chronic illness.

He began writing as a form of stress release, from being home bound and not being able to work, and found he liked writing erotica. Ben wrote a trilogy called the Talosian Chronicles (Currently in rewrite to remove the graphic sex and finalized his vision of the story). The first book, Star Dancer, won awards and was nominated for many others by the online communities where it was posted.

Ben Winston returned to school for literature, after completion, he began writing professionally. Being an avid fan of science fiction he focused on this genre. He was, and still is, influenced and inspired by Gene Roddenberry, Anne McCaffery, David Weber, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. Some of his favorite movies and TV shows are; Battlestar Galactica (both versions), Andromeda, Star Trek, Firefly, Star Wars, and many of the B-rated movies that were actually box-office bombs.

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Ben Winston


Blue Space Publications, LLC.






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Books Published by Blue Space Publications, LLC.

by Ben Winston

Pollux Paradox

Tides of Mars

Tides of Mars (Omnibus)

Ascension – Book I

Conflict – Book II

Talosian Chronicles

Olympus – Book I

Star Dancer – Book II

Talosian Alliance – Book III

*Neptune’s Massif – Book IV (Upcoming)


Book of the Guardian

Home – Part One

Pest Control – Part Two

The Last Mission – Part Three

Resolution – Part Four

Bedouin’s Travels

Twilight Earth – Book I

*A Long, Dark Night – Book II (Oct 2015)

*Terra Dawning – Book III (Upcoming)


Temple of S.A.R.A.H.

Prototype – Episode I

Subroutines – Episode II

Base Functions – Episode III

*Hard Wired – Episode IV (Sept 2015)

by Michael McClain

Chronicles of Atlantis Series

Chronicles of Atlantis (Omnibus)

Atlantis Rising – Book I

Euthara – Book II

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