Authors: Ian J. Malone
By: Ian J. Malone
Copyright © 2009 Sharkflight Media, LLC
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
This story is dedicated to the two most incredible women I have ever known: my “kid” sister, who urged me to take this journey and my adoring wife, who pushed me to finish it. Mine is a world of imagination divine… mostly because you were just you.
Expeditionary Log: Day 203
ASC Senior Science Advisor
Supplemental Entry: P-2 (Personal)
I watched as another 16 squadrons fell today. Add those to the growing list of MIAs and that brings this week’s total to 49, and it’s only Wednesday. I shudder to think what the annual numbers look like already.
We were supposed to have something by now, anything… a single shred of a lead, for god’s sake. It’s been nearly seven months since we arrived and despite the thousands of man hours that my staff and I have poured into this project, we still have nothing to show for it. All the while, our people are dying by the score back home, holding out hope that by some miracle, we find the answers we seek here.
Being completely truthful, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe the sergeant major isn’t right… maybe our lack of results to date is my fault. Granted, I could never admit that to the rest of the crew, but ultimately I was responsible for designing the software. I wrote the protocols, I set the OS parameters, I laid the traps… hell, I decrypted the data that brought us here in the first place, and for what? To see just how many subjects I could use up and wash out of the program in a half a year’s time?
Maybe I did make it too difficult. Maybe I did use too much detail, but there was just no other way. To do anything less would’ve radically diminished the significance of our findings, which goes against everything that this project stands for. That’s assuming of course that we have somewhere to report back to once this is all over.
Honestly, I don’t know anymore. I only know that our entire way of life could inevitably hinge on this program’s success, and as of right now, we don’t have a single, viable candidate, much less the collective pilot sample we require.
Still, there may be one possibility, a new group based on the East Coast. True, they only enlisted a month ago so they’re still predominately untested, but they have shown flashes of promise thus far. Commitment, resilience, innovative thinking; they’re a bit unorthodox, to be sure, but they’re getting results. Mind you, some of that has been blind luck, but the raw potential is very much present in this bunch. Their squad leader has shown some real strategic creativity—far more than the average Top. Precision, execution, the ability to adapt; it’s all there. Furthermore, his skills behind the stick are growing by the day, though from the looks of things, his Com-Spec isn’t far behind. Again, they’re most definitely green, and if history is any indication, they’ll wash out in the next few missions. But for lack of anything else, I’ve flagged them for further observation anyway.
Less than six months remain on the clock for this project. After that, we’ll have no choice but to pack up and return home. The only question then is: will there be anything left when we do? If our last communication with command was any indication, the war is not going well, and while the admiral remains adamant that the lines are holding, I’ve known him entirely too long to not know when he’s holding something back. He looked exhausted in yesterday’s briefing—absolutely exhausted—and his body language alone told me all I needed to know. We’re losing, badly.
In closing, I myself am no stranger to exhaustion these days. I honestly can’t remember the last time I managed more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep, plus my knee is killing me. To her credit, Dr. Reynolds has done everything she can to keep the replacement functioning, but she lacks the components necessary for an actual repair. That means until we get home, all she can do is manage the pain, not that this is of any real importance in the grand scheme of things.
Alas, the war rages on and as the enemy draws ever closer to our shores, our time, both as a project and a people, may soon be at an end.
Chapter 1: New Beginnings
Savoring every last sizzling degree of the warm North Florida sun on his shoulders, Lee Summerston sliced his way through yet another pass of the choppy Atlantic surf—his body awash in its cool, salty mist as his secondhand short-board chattered, unimpeded, over the emerald waters at his feet. Granted, the surfing on Jacksonville Beach had never been known for the types of towering curls and mammoth shoots like those found on the West Coast, but they still served to feed the adrenaline rush he’d always craved, in addition to being a quality means of keeping him physically fit and off the couch—something he’d desperately needed for a while now. On a more practical note, it had barely been a year since he’d picked up the sport and the area’s three- to five-foot waves were about all he could handle at such an early stage of his surfing career. Still, in that time he’d become proficient enough that he no longer looked like a total scrub when he hopped on his board, and given the number of bruises he’d sustained in those early weeks—to both his body and his pride—he was pretty happy about that.
As the hands on his silver dive watch ticked carelessly by, Lee continued his tranquil cruise up and down the shoreline, soaking up every last second of the peaceful serenity that had always brought him back here. He loved it on the coast—always had. No matter how stressful or chaotic his life had become in recent years, there had always just been something about the sun, the sand, and the surf that had put him at ease, and if for no other reason, he’d have happily taken up surfing—or fishing, for that matter—as an excuse to spend more time on the water. Sadly though, surfing wasn’t nearly the only thing on today’s itinerary, and as the hour crept past 7:15, the real world began to beckon. Lee dreaded it too, but that was life for a barely employed history professor at the less-than-prestigious Layne State College.
Stopping past the pier-side shower for a quick rinse of his hair, skin, and swimsuit, Lee gathered his belongings and cut through the parking lot toward his arguably most prized possession: a mint-condition Jeep CJ-7, classically restored in its original Mist Silver Met and toplessly slumbered at the far end of the gravel. Cutting a quick swath through the clutter of textbooks, file folders, and paper coffee cups that littered the back seat, he slid the surfboard to rest there and fastened it down with a bungee cord before retrieving the tattered, olive duffel containing his clothes for the day. In line with his usual wardrobe, they consisted of a faded pair of jeans (which he shimmied into under his towel), a navy blue t-shirt, and a beige overshirt that was already rolled up at the sleeves. Were it up to him, he’d have opted to skip the latter article. However, school policy was very clear about exposed body art and piercings when it came to faculty members, and given the rather sizable tattoo that now covered the bulk of his upper right arm, a short-sleeved tee alone simply wouldn’t do the job.
Slipping his hands through the wrinkled tan fabric, Lee used the Jeep’s rear tire to beat the last of the sand from his flip-flops and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Day one of fall semester already,” he frowned, with a quick check of his stubbly reflection in the rearview mirror. “Ain’t that just grand.” Then, running a set of fingers through his damp, disheveled hair, he dug his shades from the center console and heaved a deep, soulful sigh as the rebuilt, four-cylinder engine sputtered to life for another sanity-testing experience in the A1A morning traffic.
Following a quick pit stop at Bella’s Corner Coffee Bean, a locally owned coffeehouse which he’d recently discovered had a fantastic cinnamon-spice breakfast blend, Lee hung a left toward campus and lamented the fact that he’d been stuck with 8 a.m. classes every day of the week this semester—as if this job didn’t suck enough as it was. True, he loved the content, particularly as it pertained to military history, where he’d focused the bulk of his grad studies; but the goal had always been to work as a field researcher, not a third-tier college instructor whose nights and weekends were spent buried under mountains of Christmas-treed exams, mindless essays, and half-baked term papers.
On the other hand, as much as Lee hated the job, he couldn’t not give it his all, in part because he’d been brought up believing that you always gave your employer your best, though mostly because, for every three snot-nosed punks who wobbled into his classroom, there was always that one who actually showed up to learn something, and far be it from him to shortchange that.
“Damned if you care, dammed if you don’t,” he thought miserably.
That was the way of things when one was the new man on the faculty totem pole, and a lowly adjunct at that. But in this economy, a paycheck was a paycheck, scheduling preferences or not, even if it was barely enough to pay the rent—though of late, mounting issues with the Jeep and an impromptu trip to the ER after a nasty run-in with a reef off of Cedar Point had made even that a stretch. Then, of course, there was also the powerful need to eat.
Still, looking through the Jeep’s roll cage at the breathtaking coastal scene surrounding him—its tall, arching palm trees and lush green shrubs swaying in the breeze beneath a brilliant Florida sky—Lee fought hard to swallow his chagrin and count his blessings. Never mind that he’d mortgaged his entire future—professionally, personally, and financially—on a Ph.D. which apparently wasn’t worth spit in an anemic job market… or that his career as a legitimate researcher was headed straight down the toilet without so much as a whiff of publication since his dissertation. At least he had his beloved ocean, and given that he could’ve just as easily landed at a frozen junior college in Syracuse, New York; that, to him, was definitely something.
Hearing the Jeep’s radio crackle out of its latest commercial break—ironically enough with an ad for a local debt counselor—Lee reached for the volume dial just in time to hear the opening acappella bars of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son.” Amused, he labored a crooked smile, cranked it, and turned left onto San Pablo for the Layne campus, and what he hoped would be a halfway bearable semester.