Authors: Christopher Forrest
Beneath Mount Whitney
Titan Global Engineers had worked overtime to create a mobile operations center in a cavernous vault that was SURP Station 112. Prefab units had been joined to create a circular room seventy feet in diameter. The room was high-tech, with a chrome rail circling the room behind the twelve leather seats where Titan support staff manned their telemetry stations. Xenon lights cast a faint blue glow over the room as Catherine Caine walked behind her team, each member working at a station with multiple keyboards beneath wall-mounted flat-panel screens. Video and data feeds from around the world scrolled across the majority of screens, while some displayed biometric data from Titan Six.
Touchdown was flanked by Quiz and DJ, while Joshua Ambergris occupied a station on the opposite side of the circular ops center.
“Titan Six, do you read?” Touchdown said into his headset.
There was no reply.
Touchdown repeated his call several more times, but silence claimed the center’s audio speakers. He checked his monitors, ran a systems check, and turned to face Caine.
“I’m showing Titan Six as unconscious,” Touchdown said. “Their metabolism is very low. No indication of an attack, however.”
Grace Nguyen stepped forward. “Try administering a little adrenaline and dopamine via their BioMEMS.”
“How are the engineers back at the Alamiranta?” Caine asked.
“No longer hallucinating,” Nguyen answered. “But I still don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’m waiting for some lab values to come back. My medical team will contact me as soon as they know anything.”
“I’m showing a high-speed monorail in the SURP system traveling towards Colorado,” Touchdown said. “One hundred life readings aboard. If it’s not the feds, who else is using SURP?”
“That’s what I intend to find out,” Caine replied resolutely. “Let me know when Titan Six regains consciousness.”
“And if they don’t?” Touchdown said.
“Then we send in a rescue team. Who’s up next?”
“Contact the Alamiranta and tell them to stand by.”
SURP Station 872
Tank regained consciousness first. He propped himself on his elbows and looked around the car, dizzy and disoriented.
“What happened?” asked Gator, shaking his head groggily.
“High frequency sound,” Hawkeye said. “It can overwhelm certain areas in the cerebral cortex. It’s an easy way to knock someone out.”
Shooter stood and put on her backpack, then grabbed her rifle. “Still have a wicked headache, but it’s passing.”
“The train is starting to move!” Aiko cried, also donning her gear.
“I thought the maglev was under Touchdown’s control,” Tank said.
“It’s supposed to be,” Hawkeye said.
The voice of Touchdown came through the COM sets of each Titan Six helmet.
“Get out of the car!” Touchdown said. “Somebody’s commandeered the train, even if remotely.”
“Override!” Caine ordered. “Stop that maglev!”
“Doors are jammed,” Hawkeye said.
“Can’t stop the train,” Touchdown said, “but I may be able to open the doors, which are operated by a subsystem that may still be accessible.”
The maglev was traveling at fifteen miles per hour and accelerating.
The doors slid open, and Titan Six tumbled into the dim cavern of Station 872 as the maglev’s taillights disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel ahead.
“Rough landing,” Gator said. “No wonder Disneyworld tells patrons to keep their hands in the car at all times.”
“Ops, we’re okay, but our ride seems to have left,” Hawkeye said.
“Our engineers are already working on making additional trains operational,” Caine said. “Proceed with your mission.”
“Roger that,” Hawkeye said.
* * *
Hawkeye led Titan Six down the unmapped tunnel leading to the cube.
“Is everybody okay?” he asked.
“Our BioMEMS must be overriding whatever the cube is giving off,” Tank said.
“For now,” cautioned Shooter. “It sure as hell did a number on us in the train.”
“Since we managed to get here,” Tank said, “maybe it wants to know what our intentions are. Maybe it’s withholding its mojo for a while.”
The team looked at each other uneasily.
The five lights on Titan Six’s helmets played across the walls of the tunnel as they advanced, gradually coming to the corridor section that now opened up into Titan Global’s excavation that had unearthed a large section of the cube.
“Unbelievable,” said Shooter, beholding the metallic wonder before her.
“What in God’s name did this have to do with nuclear missiles and the Cold War?” Tank asked.
“Maybe it’s a bunker of sorts?” Shooter said. “For the president and his cabinet in case of war.”
“That would be the most plausible explanation,” Hawkeye agreed. “But our engineers said this wasn’t built by any known technology of the sixties.”
“It wouldn’t have been the first time the government was using unknown technology,” Gator said. “Hell, remember our foray to Area 51?”
“Fan out,” Hawkeye ordered. “We need to find an entrance.”
Shooter stumbled and fell to her knees.
“I’ve tripped over a couple of skeletons,” she said.
Hawkeye joined her and knelt by the bare bones. They were pure white, as if they’d been bleached by a sun that could never penetrate the layers of rock above the classified underground network.
“Get a video shot of the skulls,” DJ said from the Ops Center. “Maybe we can get an ID from their dental profile.”
Hawkeye aimed his helmet’s video cam at the skulls. “They were unarmed, whoever they were. A lot of ashes scattered about. Five will get you ten that these are the remains of the bodies Mrs. Caine spoke of. Something fried these two pretty badly.”
“ID confirmed,” DJ said. “You’re kneeling next to the bones of Durangue and Wallace.”
A rectangular band of light appeared thirty feet high on the face of the cube. It moved sideways, left to right, much like a stock market crawl in Times Square.
“Step back and regroup, everyone,” Hawkeye said. “Let’s observe.”
Within the moving band of light were symbols: squares, triangles, pentagons, circles, and plus signs. The most unusual symbol was a small dot rapidly circling a larger one.
“That’s the symbol for hydrogen,” Quiz chimed in. “One electron orbiting one proton. What you’re seeing is some kind of code. Analyzing now.”
Suddenly, a powerful beam directly below the scrolling symbols shone on Titan Six.
“Everybody stay perfectly still,” Hawkeye ordered. “Let’s not give anyone cause to think we have hostile intentions.”
“We also need to empty our minds,” Aiko suggested. “Think of nothing.”
“You heard the lady,” said Hawkeye. “Do it.”
The bright beam disappeared a minute later.
“What just happened?” asked Gator.
“We were being probed,” Hawkeye said.
“I thought it might regard us as benign if we emptied our thoughts,” Aiko said.
“Good call, Aiko,” Hawkeye said.
“How come it didn’t incinerate us like our two bony friends on the ground?” Shooter asked.
“Just speculation,” Hawkeye said, “but I’m guessing that it has a special interest in us because we’re soldiers — and armed. The cube, or whatever’s inside, may be processing what to do with us next, so we’re not home free yet. We need to get inside before that thing decides its unhappy with our presence.”
Hawkeye glanced at the bones of Durangue and Wallce, then up at the cube. Its sheer mass made it appear impenetrable.
“Notice the symbols on the illuminated crawl,” Quiz said. “The symbol for hydrogen comes at specific intervals, while the other shapes appear randomly. It skips one symbol, then three, then five, then seven, then nine. Then the pattern repeats.”
“Prime numbers,” said Ambergris. “Numbers that are divisible only by themselves and one — one, three, five, seven, and nine.”
“Over here,” said Tank, who had moved twenty steps to the right. “On the outer wall. The hydrogen symbol. A small dot is orbiting a larger one.”
“Try pushing on it,” Quiz said.
“I’m starting to feel my flesh crawl,” Gator said. “My entire body itches.”
“I feel scared out of my wits, and I don’t know why,” Shooter declared.
Hawkeye pressed the hydrogen symbol once. “Nothing’s happening, Ops.”
“Now press it three times,” said Quiz.
“Still nothing,” Hawkeye said.
“Press it five times. Then seven and nine.”
“Whoa there,” Hawkeye said, having completed the sequence. “The ninth time’s a charm.”
An arched corridor opened up in the face of the cube, which was now glowing a hazy blue.
“Let’s move in, people,” Hawkeye said, “before this thing changes its mind. Shooter, you take point. Gator, bring up the rear.”
Titan Six entered the cube, walking slowly down the passageway.
“What’s this hall made of?” Tank asked. “Stainless steel? Chrome?”
“I’m reading small amounts of titanium,” Touchdown said, “but I can’t get a clear read on the structure at all. The metal alloys are . . . ” He paused. “Well, I’m not sure what they are. The readings are conflicting.”
It was the sage voice of Joshua Ambergris that dropped the bomb: “I’m reading trace amounts of nickel, iron, copper, chromium, and zinc. All found in human blood. Also, I’m detecting strange chemical activity in the walls of the cube. It retains structural integrity, although I believe it’s molecular structure is constantly changing.”
“What are you getting at, Joshua?” asked Caine.
“That the cube may be alive.”
There was silence in the Ops Center as well as in the arched corridor.
Titan Six wheeled around to see that the opening behind them had closed. Indeed, no seams indicating the existence of a portal of any kind could be detected. The metallic wall was totally smooth.
“We’re in,” Hawkeye said, “but the downside is that we appear to be a captive audience.”
“Just like Jonah in the Bible,” Shooter said. “We’ve been swallowed by a whale. A really big whale.”
Central Intelligence Agency
Gwen Moss sat in the CIA cafeteria for sector G, located on the second level beneath the main Agency building. Picking through a salad shortly after the nuclear attack simulation, Gwen wasn’t overly surprised to see Admiral Grady McManus deposit his tray on her table and take a seat opposite hers. He was, after all, hitting on her, although military and Agency decorum thankfully kept his advances very discreet and open to interpretation. In the area of flirting, even spies could be more subtle than the rest of the population.
McManus was dressed in his dark blue uniform, the breast of his coat heavy with colorful metal decorations representing years of military service. Gwen had to admit that he was attractive, with a mature and confident demeanor usually carried by slightly older men. He had salt and pepper hair, short and combed to the side, and penetrating blue eyes. It was obvious that he worked out at the gym on a regular basis. It was rumored that he was unbeatable at tennis.
“So, Gwen,” McManus said, “how are Ben and the children?”
How predictable, Gwen thought. His opening move on this particular day was to innocently — and wisely — inquire after her family. He spoke loudly enough so as to be heard by diners at the adjoining tables.
Clever bastard. He wants witnesses in case he loses control at a later date and I try to smack him down with some harassment charge.
“They’re fine, Admiral,” Gwen said with a weak, forced smile.
“Oh please,” McManus said as he speared a piece of grilled salmon with his fork. “I think we can relax a bit over an informal lunch. ‘Admiral’ seems a bit stiff, doesn’t it? Call me Fletch. It’s my nickname, so we won’t really be on a first name basis.”
He smiled, then looked down at his plate.
He’s smooth, this one. Too smooth.
“Thank you, Admiral, but I think I’d feel a bit awkward using nicknames with superiors.”
“Of course,” McManus said, unruffled. “I understand completely. Admirable sentiment, excuse the pun. So, how did you like the simulation?”
“We almost got to launch phase,” Gwen said. “Wasn’t that cutting it a little too close?”
“All of the failsafe protocols were in place. We can take such simulations even farther and actually have the computers announce a launch. For drills, failsafe measures disengage our computers in the Sit Room from those at NORAD and the Pentagon. My golden retriever Nimitz could have jumped on every button in the room and no birds would have been launched.”
Gwen nodded. She noticed that Admiral McManus had a manila folder next to his lunch plate. The word SENEX was printed in small letters on the side tab.
McManus noted Gwen’s eyes shifting to the folder. “I should leave business in the office,” he said, picking up the folder and smiling as he held it at arm’s length, as if to playfully say, “What’s this doing here?”
He placed the folder back on the table, although Gwen was intrigued that the tab was now facing down. Additionally, she saw a gold cufflink on the end of his white shirt protruding beyond the dark blue sleeve of his coat, which had four gold bands circling its circumference. A capital C was engraved on the cufflink. Well, she thought, that was probably owing to the fact that his real middle name was Charles. She had no idea how he’d earned the moniker Fletch, nor did she care.
“I really have to be going, Admiral,” Gwen said. “I have a briefing in ten minutes.”
McManus, chewing a bite of salmon, waved his hand upwards in a gesture of understanding. “Duty always seems to call, doesn’t it,” he said when he’d swallowed his fish. “Don’t let me keep you, and give my regards to Ben.”
Ben and McManus had met only once, at a backyard barbecue in Alexandria at the Moss home. Several times that evening, McManus had let his eyes linger on Gwen a split second too long, but Ben, busy with grilling burgers and playing host, hadn’t noticed.
But not much escaped Gwen’s eye. As special ops Spider, she’d been well trained by Titan Global, especially the talented Michael Hawke. Her skills had continued to develop at the Company in Virginia.
She walked back to her office, thinking of the Admiral’s cufflink.
C for Charles? Maybe, maybe not.