Critique of the novel THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS I. GENERAL COMMENTS 1. I liked this novel a lot… The plot of this novel is its strongest element… The author can put together a very strong plot, with plenty of twists and turns, and a good ending. There are some very suspenseful moments, and levels of tension are created which at their best evoke the sensations of a fine horror story. And the author, by and large, appears to have done his/her homework. The novel also has sociological touches which work well, especially its view of futuristic mega-capitalism. The venality, blindness, and excess of Udell Whittaker and his flunkeys is very believable, and adds depth to the story. The manner of day to day life, both in space and on the "colonies" of Mars seems well-researched and is often fascinating to the lay reader… January 26, 2010 The Alpha Centaurians, Copyright Trung Nguyen Below is a book that I wrote when I was 21 years old. The book is approximately 68,000 words and 222 pages long (edited down from 364). I recently polished it up a bit. Time permitting, I’ll try to polish it some more and get it published. If you read it, please give some feedback www.facebook.com/prokopton The comments above were from a published author from the Writers Guild of Alberta. 1 "My opinion is that the asteroid belt is a zoo of rare animals captured from all different parts of the solar system." --Eugene Shoemaker, U.S. Geological Survey Planet Earth, SOLAR SYSTEM, TIME-LIFE BOOKS Kendrick Frazier, page 154 HE PLOPPED HIS feet beside the computer screens and closed his eyes to boredom. The weather in the shuttle cabin was a tad colder than home, but after 15 years of towing asteroids he was used to it. This was only the second job Brown Arbon has had since graduating from school. He didn't mind it because the earning was enough to make a trip back to Earth on his four month holiday. Extreme boredom was what bothered him. Brown Arbon's partner was a young man of twenty-two years old, fresh out of school and eager for the adventures of space and Mars. Everything about Gust Hein looked out of place—the sleek black hair, big brown eyes, and innocent look of youth. Brown couldn’t figure out what a handsome and intelligent young man was doing as a Hauler. It was an unused life, thought Brown, for a youth to be spending so much time in isolation. But Brown took a liking to the kid when he discovered how quickly Gust learned procedures. And there was something blunt about Gust that Brown admired. "How long, Mr. Arbon?" Gust asked, approaching from behind. The shuttle's engine was humming with dark space circumventing the windows. "What was that?" Brown was startled. He dropped his feet from the panels and lifted the cap off his eyes to face Gust. In the middle of the cap were the words WHTTTAKER RESOURCES and below them were Mineral Suppliers to the Universe. "How long till we reach Phobos?" Gust repeated, already knowing the answer. Just making mandatory small talk. "Oh, the arrival. I am sorry, son. My mind was wandering off." "I know how it is out here," Gust agreed, and sat beside Brown. He dreamily gazed out the port window at vast, monotonous space. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Yes, it can get lonely. Back to your question—half day. You can get a good view of Deimos pretty soon. According to this orbit stuff, Deimos should be close to our path. Do you have your telescope handy?" Deimos was the second and smaller moon of Mars and Gust had never observed it at close range. They had missed it during their departure from Phobos. Deimos was in conjunction with Phobos at the time, on the other side of Mars. It was too far and Mars had obstructed the view. "It's in my chamber. You've been to Deimos a few times, how does it compare with its brother?" Gust asked. "Brother?" Brown looked at him awkwardly. Gust took the extra step of explaining. "Mars was named for a Roman war god and Phobos and Deimos were the sons of Mars. So, Phobos and Deimos, Fear and Terror, are considered brothers to this day." "Mars, named for a war god and he had two sons named Fear and Terror? That figures. It’s unbelievably cold and the soil is blood-ish red. There won’t be much happening on Deimos anytime soon." "It's improving gradually, though," Gust said. "Yes it is. There isn’t much to do on it, though… I can hardly wait to see my wife and kids.” "Only hours, Mr. Arbon. Only hours." Gust reached over and patted Brown on his beefy shoulders, then walked back to his chamber and took a nap. Their official job title was Mineral Retrieval Personnel, but were commonly referred to as “Haulers.” Their job was to fetch an asteroid from the Asteroid Belt and tow it to Phobos, one of Mars' two moons. The Asteroid Belt was between Mars and Jupiter and made a circle around the sun. Only one person was needed for the job but a second was necessary to keep the other sane during the long trip. One of Gust Hein's hobbies was astronomy and with access to open space with no atmosphere to obstruct the view, the stars were for his eyes’ delight. The information on every known star was on the shuttle’s computer, but Gust wanted to use his telescope to map them himself—like astronomers did in the days before computers. He toiled for eight months, the length of the trip, and took five notebooks to record his observations. 4 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS The first star system he mapped was the Alpha Centauri, which was the closest star system to Earth. The Alpha Centauri system was made of three known stars. The two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, were binary stars. The third star of the system, Alpha Centauri C, was smaller but was the closest star to Earth at 4.27 light years. The transport shuttle would be here soon and Brown was anxious to arrive on Mars. He could relax for a week or two and then make his way back to Earth to see his wife and kids again. Then two months later, come back to Mars with his family where they would see him off on another trip. Gust was drawn to Mars and didn’t want to go back to Earth. All the excitement had moved from Earth to the Red Planet. His parents were on Earth along with his sweetheart, Christy, who was due to arrive in two weeks—Gust had wanted some alone time after the long trip. Then his scheme was to make love to her under one of the small private domed hotels in the middle of the red dust plains and admire her in his protective suit. Then take her to the Olympus Hilton, the most expensive hotel on the Red Planet. Cost was of no concern since Whittaker Resources paid for all expenses after the first week of his return. All Whittaker Resources Mineral Retrieval Personnel had this privilege. It was hard to go anywhere on Mars without seeing the name “Whittaker.” It was synonymous with Mars. Twelve hours later, an alarm alerted them on the approach of Phobos. Brown waddled to the controls with Gust in tow. They could see the transport shuttle inching up now. There was a loud thud as the two shuttles locked. Thirty feet away the port door clanged open. Brown and Gust jumped off their seats and saw two men in blues suites entering the shuttle. Finally, other people. From now on, the computer and ground control would take over the logistics. Brown turned to Gust. "Well, son, aren't you glad we're leaving this cramped box for awhile?" Brown chuckled. "More than glad, Mr. Arbon," Gust wearily answered. He stuffed his books on astronomy and science into his black duffle bag. He glanced over his shoulders to check if he had left anything behind. Nothing. As the men led them to the transport shuttle, Brown and Gust examined the shuttle interior. The flashing lights, red and blue, on the panels seemed to be beckoning 5 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS them. They would never see the gigantic asteroid they had towed back again. The asteroid would be extracted for its valuable metals and minerals by other divisions of Whittaker Resources. The door loudly hissed behind them as it closed and they were on their way to Mars. 6 2 THE VALUE OF each asteroid towed back to Phobos was worth approximately one hundred billion dollars. But as a big chunk of rock the asteroid wasn’t of much value. Many tedious extraction steps were required to draw out the rare metals and minerals. Whittaker Resources was the only rich and powerful enough company to do it. The asteroid was towed from Phobos' orbit and placed at either Whittaker Extraction Facility I, II or III, depending on the type of metals and minerals it contained. The first extraction step was to break the asteroid into smaller, manageable pieces. There were three main classes of asteroids, with the S-type being the most prized. The S-type had a high content of silicate materials, and was extracted at Whittaker Extraction Facility I. Demand for it on Mars was at a peak due to the relentless construction of glassed-domed buildings and biospheres. The asteroids that passed through Whittaker Extraction Facility II were of the M- type, which had a high metallic content, mostly in the form of nickel and iron. The third type, the C-type asteroids, were composed mostly of carbon materials. They were being extracted by the WEF III on the most isolated region of Phobos. After the asteroid was broken down into manageable chunks, endless columns of blue rovers moved in and scooped the chunks and placed them onto huge moving platforms nearby. The platforms themselves were bigger than one hundred yards in width and stretched for miles down unlit tunnels and domes. As the platforms snaked farther down the tunnels, they were filled with breathable air. RANDAL UNGER WIPED his forehead clean of sweat—sometimes it got hot underground. Beside him was his partner, Kurdick Stengel. They were working the night shift at Platform II. The two sat on the edge of their seats and watched as the asteroid rocks glided past in front of them on the rumbling platform. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Randal and Kurdick were young men in their late twenties. Not long ago they had heard how vibrant Mars was and wanted to be a part of it. They were Platform II Extraction Personnel of Whittaker Resources. Although they worked on Phobos, their home, like everyone else’s, was on Mars. Phobos was only a refueling and extraction facility. All the dirty work was done here. "Everything looks good, Kurdick," Randal commented as he took a sip of water. "Yep. As it should be," Kurdick said. Small talk was mandatory at this isolated job. It was a comfortable job with no nagging managers looking over their shoulders. Platform II was mostly underground. By the time the rocks arrived here from Platform I they had to be the correct size. If anything was too big, Kurdick and Randal would halt the platform, use the large overhead pulleys and hoist it out and send it back to Platform I. If they were the correct size, the rocks continued to Platform III, then eventually to Platform IV, where the final extraction process took place. Randal sank into his snug seat, almost to a lying position and focused on the moving platform in front. He was looking for irregular sized rocks, ice or unidentified objects. Randal was telling Kurdick about his family on Earth when something striking on the platform caught Kurdick’s attention. "Wait a second, Rand." Kurdick put a hand up to Randal's face. "What the hell is that?" Kurdick was mesmerized by the object on the platform. He slowly slid off his chair, his face in awe. Randal turned his body to the platform. He slowly said under his breath, drawing out every syllable, "What in the Lord’s name?" He gently set his drink down by the flashing panel lights. Awestruck Kurdick hit the bulging HALT button. The platform made a screeching noise and stopped. Randal jumped off the chair and walked to the wide platform leg. On the stationary platform was a large object glowing brightly among the 8 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS asteroid rocks. "What do you think it is?" Randal asked in awe. "I don’t know,” Kurdick said with his mouth half-open. It looks like ice chunks?" Kurdick's eyes widened at the awesome object. He quickly moved ahead and left Randal behind. Randal was still too far to ascertain what it was, but Kurdick could see that it wasn't ice after all. It looked like crystal or diamond. The object shone brightly in his eyes and the closer he got to it, the brighter it shone. Kurdick put his hands to his eyes to shield them from the glare. They both leaned on the wide platform leg, eyes slowly adjusting to the light emitting from the object. "What is it?" Randal asked for the third time. "Looks like jewels, worth billions of dollars by the looks of it," Kurdick said in awe again. "Let’s see if we can find out." They couldn't make out the object’s exact shape because most of it was still tangled in chunks of rock. But whatever part was visible was glowing brilliantly. Kurdick was the first to reach the controls. He punched the LEFT button and other symbols on the panel. The crane whirred and slowly lowered over the platform and picked up the big glossy slab. Kurdick and Randal watched the crane as it lowered the slab onto one of the railcars nearby. "Should we tell Platform III now?" Randal asked, sounding a bit worried. "Not yet. Let's see what it is first." "Are you sure?" "Yes. Go get the Lift Car." Kurdick pointed to the back wall of Platform II. The Lift Car was a small vehicle used to lift people and objects to high places. The railcar which the crane had placed the slab in was too high for them to see. They had to get a top view looking down at it. Five minutes later, Randal returned with the Lift Car. Kurdick climbed on the left 9 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS seat and drove toward the railcar. He pressed the brakes, they climbed out and mounted themselves to the Car's crane seat. Kurdick quickly socked buttons and like an unfolding ladder, the Lift Car elevated them above the railcar. "No good! We need to see it from another angle," Kurdick said. He still couldn't figure out what it was but it was unlike anything he'd seen before. "Too many rock scraps stuck to it. We need the laser drill from Platform III to cut the outer layer.” Kurdick punched in more buttons on the Lift Car's panel and the lengthy arms slowly folded into smaller sections and set them on the ground. He made his way to the controls, and was about to call Platform III when he saw a message flashing on the deskscreen: "Why is the platform off? Is there an emergency?” Randal told Platform III they had found an unidentified object and asked them to bring the laser drill. Ten minutes later, three people from Platform III arrived with three transport vehicles, which were used to carry equipment around the tunnels and platforms. One of the transports had a laser drill on its back. The three vehicles whizzed passed Kurdick and Randal and parked by the railcar. Randal noticed that the team leader was Epson Rebus. Not long ago, the two had worked together at Platform III before Epson Rebus was promoted. Epson turned to Randal and asked, “I understand there’s an unidentified object here?” Epson hopped out of the transport, looked around and immediately saw the shiny object. He shook his head in admiration. "That doesn’t begin to explain it," Randal said. "Use the crane and place it on the ground over there." Epson pointed to an open space on the floor. "Johnny and Kenny, you guys set the markers and try not to put any holes on the floor.” “Kurdick, you just stand there and tell me what a great job I am doing,” Epson joked. Kurdick grinned. Epson grinned back, then yelled instructions and pointed his 10 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS finger to where he wanted the laser drill. Johnny and Kenny from Platform III placed blue markers in a big circle and Randal lowered the slab in the middle of it. Kurdick stood near the controls and watched as the four men went about their business. He felt left out. "Watch the surface with the drill, boys,” Epson pleaded. "You got it, Eps," one of them assured him. Johnny and Kenny moved the drill to the center of the circle, placed it on the ground, and moved the transport far away. They slipped on the dark protective glasses over their heads and started the flow of red laser lights. Slowly but surely the laser stripped the rock fragments from the shiny block. Small thudding sounds were heard as the fragments hit the ground and more and more of the dazzling object revealed itself. It was big, rectangular and extremely shiny. Johnny and Kenny finished with one side and moved the drill to the other side. "What do you suppose it is?" Randal asked Epson. "Rare jewels or minerals. This stuff can be worth millions or billions of dollars. Mr. Whittaker is going to be one happy man.” Epson was sure of it. “If the man doesn’t already have enough,” Randal said and they both shared a grin. Ten minutes later, John hollered as he removed his face guard, “All done, Eps!” “Get the drill out of the circle,” Epson ordered. Kurdick approached the shiny object in measured steps. He was almost used to the brightness now. The length of it lay parallel to the floor. Everyone skimmed it with their hands to feel the alien texture. Epson stood completely still while he admired the huge diamond-like object. "I can see a small bonus for us, boys.” "It's got to be at least four feet deep, fifty feet in length, and what? About six feet wide?" Kenny asked. 11 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "I’m guessing that’s about the correct size," Randal said. The object was mostly opaque but they were able to see the inside wherever there was a liquid layer swirling. Kurdick moved away from Epson and walked around it. He glided his hand along it as he paced to the other side and noticed something about its geometry. It was evenly divided into four sections. The light from the high canopied- roof reflected off the bright object so he was unable to see it at the previous angle. But from where he stood it was evident. A noticeable air gap separated each of the four sections. He saw a small portion of the ground through the gaps. There were also markings and lines running around it near the top. "Randal, come and have a look at this," Kurdick grunted excitedly and waved a hand. Randal, Epson, and the two cutters jogged to where Kurdick was standing. They formed a broken circle around the astounding object. Kurdick pointed to the gaps that gave perfect symmetry to the four sections. "You see those," Kurdick said and gestured a hand toward the lines in the object. "I think we can break it up. This thing for some reason is in four parts. If we break it up, we might be able to see what's inside." "Yes, I know," Epson snapped as though he developed the idea. What a boss. "Guys, go get the drill and break it up where the lines are. Let's see what's inside." The two cutters hurriedly grabbed the drill. Randal ran to the controls and had the crane tilt the object on its side and a smaller crane to hold it steady. It took another twenty minutes and the object was split into four identical, perfect crystal-like rectangles. Each tomb-shaped block was about twelve feet long, six feet wide and four feet deep. Now, they had to cut the top of each block open along the lines near the top of each one to see what was inside. Slowly but surely, the top of one tomb was cut. John hit a button on the drill and the intense red light stopped. Kenneth and John jumped off the floor and proceeded to the 12 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS tomb. Kurdick followed. They circled the tomb and stared at it in utter amazement. There was no denying how bright and awesome it was. Epson moved to the top of the tomb and wiggled his fingers, getting ready to open it. He slowly, inch by inch, slithered off the top. At five inches, all he could see was more bright light from the thing. Epson inhaled deeply, paused and looked at each one of his co-workers. They each returned his stare, as if to say, “Hurry it up, boss!” Epson continued, this time a little faster, and at ten inches down he saw symbols inside. There were six of them adjacent to one another. They were big and ran the width of the tomb. One of the letters looked like an inverted triangle and another looked like a Greek Alpha letter turned ninety-degrees. The remaining four letters looked like chicken scratch to Epson. He was excited and awed. For a moment he could see his face on the evening news on Mars and Earth. The man who discovered… The fame, the fame, he thought. With a hard thrust of both hands , he pushed the top half ways down, looked inside and— Jumped back! What he saw packed his face with horror. "Awwww!" he shrieked and bolted back. "God!" He wasn't religious until now. Epson jumped away from the tomb with his face in utter fear. It took him a few seconds to recover from what he saw. The other four just stared at the thing in admiring awe. Their mouths were partially open; words failed them for a long, long time. It was the most awesome sight. Astonishing. It was humanoid , maybe android. No one knew for sure. But it looked like a gigantic human male. "Look at the size of that chest," Kenneth finally stuttered in awe. The creature was completely bald. Its arms were crossed in front of its robust chest in a crude X, in a mummified position like that of ancient Egyptian mummies. It was completely naked. Immense, was the only word Kurdick could find to describe its physique. Its chest bulked with muscles. Herculean. Its face was leathery and scaly with 13 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS crisscrossing lines like a jigsaw puzzle. Its eyes were tightly sealed. Just as Randal was about to touch the creature on the face, Epson said, "That might not be a good idea." He stepped forward and pulled Randal's hand away. "Let’s remove the top and put it on the floor." The four each grabbed a piece of the top and placed it on the ground. The tomb was now completely open. Epson eased up and leaned on its edge, peering into the tomb. He noticed the colossal legs bulging with muscles. From Epson's estimate the creature was at least seven feet tall. Whatever it was, he was frightened and awed at the same time. His hands trembled slightly. He cleared his throat. Kurdick wasn't quite sure what to make of it. "What if the other three blocks contain the same thing?" he asked quietly, with a touch of fear. "They probably do. All four look identical," Randal said under his breath. Epson was five inches away staring at the alien directly in the eyes. But the creature had its eyes closed and couldn't return his curious stare. Epson dangerously ran his index finger to the creature's face, down its gigantic neck. Its flesh was hard and colder than the surrounding air. "A work of art," Epson muttered. He inched his body ever closer, closer, until his chest rubbed against its chest. He was in total awe at the creature before him. He thought about appearing on every deskscreen tomorrow. He would be famous as reporters asked him how it felt to be the first human to make contact with an alien race. He thought about the fame. It was going to his head. Only the fame now. What a wonderful day it’s going to be, he thought. A cold and strong hand snatched his puny neck. The grip tightened—tighter, tighter, and tighter. Epson's horror stricken face turned dark red. He wanted to yell profanities but couldn't exhale or inhale any air out of his lungs. Still in its tomb, the creature bolted to a sitting position and lifted him off the ground effortlessly with one hand. His legs kicked furiously in midair. The creature tightened its grip with such force 14 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS that blood throbbed out Epson’s throat, squirting in every direction. It then tossed him aside like a ragged doll. Epson's body lay twenty feet away, motionless, with blood leaking from his throat. But Epson died quickly, without long, agonizing pain. Total panic set in but no one thought about escaping. They all wanted to play hero—wanted to see their faces on deskscreens tomorrow. Kenneth was furious and yelled curses at the creature. He clenched a tight fist, raised it above his head, and lunged forward like an idiot, driving his fist at its enormous chest. Nothing. It didn't even blink. It gave Kenneth a toothless, menacing grin, then its eyes glowed red. Eyes of the Devil. With its right hand, the creature seized Kenneth's left arm. With its left hand, the creature wrenched his elbow and held it firm. Kenneth struggled to free his arm. Then, crack, it twisted his arm in a circle. Kenneth wailed in pain. Then it clamped both hands over Kenneth's ears, held it in place, and effortlessly turned his head in the most grotesque way. It released its grip and Kenneth dropped to the ground like a puppet without strings. John dashed to the nearby laser drill. His legs buckled with fear as he ran. He glanced back at the muscular creature as his face reddened with horror. He saw it leaping out of the tomb. Those glowing electrified eyes saw right through him. Apocalyptic eyes. Randal and Kurdick frantically ran to the controls. "Get the transport! Get the transport!" Kurdick clamored to Randal. "I'll call Platform III." John punched a button and the laser drill kicked to life. He aimed it at the approaching creature. A red line of laser darted from the nozzle and violently struck it in the chest. Nothing. John aimed for the face this time. Still nothing. The creature kept advancing. John slapped and cursed the drill repeatedly. It was coming, with red eyes glowing in satisfaction. John kept on firing but couldn't do any damage. The alien kicked the drill aside and it tumbled to the ground and the red light stopped. John crawled backwards on his hands and feet, keeping his terrified eyes on the 15 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS alien. It caught up and hovered above him, coolly walking the same pace he was crawling, glaring downward at him with that menacing grin. "You sonofabitch! We should've left you to die in space!" John cried. He thought it useless and stopped crawling. "Call the MP! Call the MP!" he cried violently to Kurdick and Randal. The creature stood over him and with an evil snicker, kicked him in the stomach with its enormous leg. It took one blow and John lay in silence. His eyes remained eerily open looking into the white lights above. The creature paused above John's dead body, clenched two fists, and slowly turned its head in Randal's direction, who was coming with the transport. Randal stepped on the accelerator as he watched the heated-red eyes closely watching his own. At three seconds to his target Randal noticed the creature didn’t even flinch. It stood motionless and fully erect with clasped fists. No matter how big it was, Randal thought, it will be injured by the speed of the vehicle. He aimed the transport between its legs. Then, bang, a direct hit. Randal felt the vehicle shake but kept on driving. He whipped his head back and noticed it was stumbling backwards on its feet, tottering, trying desperately to maintain its balance. He spun the transport around for another run. “You bastard!" Drops of sweat dripped furiously down his forehead. The creature waved its broad arms wildly in the air to maintain its balance. It managed to stay upright. Again, Randal slammed the gas. It was the same thing this time—the creature stood firm as though wanting to be hit. Maybe it was just too stupid, he thought. He grinned in satisfaction. It was going to pay for what it did to his friends. Their dead bodies were on the blood-stained floor. Randal grinned again and howled. For a moment he was having fun. He tightly grabbed the stirring wheel with both hands and braced for another impact. Two seconds later, a meter away from the hit, the creature sidestepped and the transport missed its 16 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS target. With one hand the alien snatched the rear of the transport and raised it above the ground. Randal violently cried, punching the gas with his foot. The front wheels screeched as smoke poured from them as the back wheels continued their rapid spin in mid-air. It grabbed the back of the transport with both hands and slowly dragged it back. Randal whipped his head back and saw the glowing red eyes. His face quivered with fear and he spat. He was about to jump from the seat, but it was too late, the creature had him in a firm hold. It released the transport and snatched Randal with both hands, one around his neck and the other around his legs. It raised him above its head as though he were weights. Randal desperately screamed for help. His legs kicked ferociously in mid-air while his hands fluttered up and down, laboriously trying to escape the incredibly tight hold. It was no use. The creature raised its left knee, and with tremendous force, smashed his body onto its knee. After a loud cracking noise, the creature threw his body to the ground like a sack. Randal lay on the ground with his spine broken in half. His body was curled like a fetus in a womb. His eyes were chillingly open. "Bastard!" Kurdick screamed as he sobbed. His voice echoed throughout the gigantic complex. It had happened so quick. He had watched it helplessly by the controls while warning Platform III. There was only one way out of this. Kurdick darted to tunnel entrance. He did not want to meet the same fate as the other four. He glanced over his shoulders about every fifteen steps, watching the massive creature pursue him. It was big but its motions were catlike, very graceful and smooth. He saw it accelerate from a walk to a powerful run in one smooth motion, almost unnoticeable. He was almost in the tunnel now. The tunnels were the first thing he saw at work everyday and he knew them well. Safety was only meters away. As he entered the mouth of the tunnel, he looked back. The creature was still far behind and probably wouldn't catch him. Once he entered the tunnel there were manifolds of twists and turns, each of 17 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS which he knew like the back of his hand. He took three big strides and ducked around a corner. Safety at last. He looked around the maze of tunnels and smiled weakly to himself. No beginner could find their way. Twenty meters into the tunnel his heart sank with fear. The alien was closing in. Its speed was increasing almost exponentially. He tried a few awkward turns, left, right, left, left, right. He needed to get outside to the shuttlepads. Ten seconds later, he looked over his left shoulder to see how close it was. He saw nothing. He wanted to make sure so he checked his right shoulder. And still saw nothing. The sonofabitch got lost in the maze of turns, he thought. He stopped and turned backward, fearfully looking down the tunnel. He still saw nothing and heard nothing. He turned around and made his way to the shuttlepads. The maze of tunnels was too complex for beginners. Ten more meters down, Kurdick stopped and inhaled a load of air. His heart wasn’t pounding against his chest anymore. He cleared his throat and breathed evenly. He bent down and rested both hands on his knees. "No one's gonna believe this shit," he whispered to himself, smiling, thinking of the fame now. The only survivor of an alien invasion, he thought. Ten seconds later, he straightened up and walked forward. Two meters ahead, and smack, something stopped him dead in his tracks. He couldn't figure it out but he had just walked into something solid but he couldn't see what it was. He waved his hands experimentally in front to feel the object. It was bulky and rigid, almost steel-like. He retreated a step backward, waved his hands, and felt something cold. He did the same for the front, and again his hand felt a solid object. He waved his hands experimentally in all directions. Nothing on the sides, nothing on the back, but there was something in the front. It was invisible and yet solid. He paced to the side and took two steps forward, there was something. He paced four more steps in the other direction and two more forward. There was something solid there. It seemed to be mimicking his movements, preventing him from moving forward. "What the hell?" he whispered in fear. Again he stepped forward but couldn't 18 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS progress. It was like an invisible brick wall that mimicked his moves. He had to find another way to the shuttlepad. Kurdick turned and sprinted in the other direction. He glanced back as he ran but couldn't see anything. As he ran, a frigid hand clutched his shoulders bringing him to a dead stop. He whipped his head back and saw nothing. But he felt a cold and beefy hand gripping tightly on his shoulders. He stood there motionless with fear gushing in his eyes. Beads of sweat ran down his eyebrows. Then the cold hand gradually moved toward his face, softly stroking it, pinching his cheek skin into folds and squeezing his lips as though he were a lab animal. His face was pale and his cheeks shook involuntarily. He wanted to scream but fear him back. Slowly, ever slowly, the cold hand reached the other cheek, pinching a little skin here and there. His legs buckled as though they were about to collapse. Then the skin pinching stopped. For a second he thought about breaking into a run. There were now two hands on his face, one in each cheek. They felt like the hands of a dead person, cold and never moving; just resting on his cheeks. As if it attained pleasure from his fear. Kurdick broke into a sprint. Ten meters away, an invisible hand grabbed his head and lifted his feet from the tunnel floor. He hollered as loud as he could, his eyes wildly sweeping the tunnel. He saw no alien. But something was holding him up, something invisible to the eyes. Then with a mighty force, that something violently threw his delicate body against the metal wall. His body slid to the floor, dripping with blood. Kurdick never saw his killer. The tunnel was eerily quiet. 19 3 EVERY TWO METERS apart stood a tall and green leafy plant. Some of them were rare and they were abundant here. The room itself was larger than most dwellings on this thriving colony. The wide, transparent windows and roof provided unobstructed views of Mars in every direction. The walls were art deco and the reddish floor matched the surrounding soil. Outside sat two gigantic parabolic disks that transmitted financial information to and from Earth. If one squinted hard enough from the living the hustle and bustle of Mars’ vibrant economy could be seen—forty story cranes in the sky and shuttles ferrying supplies from Earth. From the den, the private shuttlepad could be seen. People never got closer than two hundred meters of the mansion. It was well guarded by shuttles hovering above and rovers on the ground. The mansion belonged to Udell Whittaker, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Whittaker Resources. Udell Whittaker usually had the alarm set for 08:00, at which time all the lights in the mansion came on. But today was going to be different. He wasn’t expecting this emergency call. The face flickered to life on the huge wallscreen directly in front of his bed. "My apologies for waking you up, Mr. Whittaker," the voice cracked over the speaker by the bed. It was 06:55. Whittaker tapped a button and turned the speaker to minimum. "Did the markets crash again, Rafal?" Whittaker asked, ever the tycoon. It was Rafal Neiman, his closest business confidante. The fifty year old had only a few hair mercifully hanging above his floppy ears. He paused and breathed deeply before answering. "There is a major situation developing at one of our extraction facilities on Phobos, specifically platform two at extraction site one..." Rafal couldn't bring himself to finish. The markets didn’t crush. So far so good, Whittaker thought. He wearily rubbed his eyes and waited a long moment. "Go on," Whittaker requested. Rafal looked pale and properly sad on the wallscreen. He spoke slowly, "Our THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS chemical team and the MPs are on it as we speak.” MP was the abbreviation for Mars Police. It was the sole law enforcement agency on Mars. "This, this, this situation, is it covered by insurance?" Whittaker asked calmly, ever the tycoon. "I won’t be able to give you an answer as I was not provided with enough information myself, sir. I will tell you what I know and that is five extraction personnel were killed last night at WEF I, Platform II." Whittaker’s eyes lit up in disbelief. "Killed?” Whittaker asked coldly. “Is Xavier and his religious lunatics behind this?” "That has been ruled out, sir.” Xavier and his crazy theory of aliens frozen in the polar region, Whittaker thought. He rubbed his temple and exhaled through his mouth. "When did all this happen?" "Roughly four hours ago.” "All right," Whittaker sighed heavily. "Have you made proper arrangements with their respective families?" “Yes, we have.” "Have they figured out any motives?" Whittaker interrogated. "We only know bits and pieces as the MP is very selective with what they’re releasing and who they’re releasing it to.” "All right. Arrange a meeting at the office for 09:00." "Yes, sir. I’ll do my best to tell you everything we know then. " There was a soft chime and the wallscreen flickered off. Udell Whittaker was a scion of a vast fortune. He was a hard working, perfectionist who had married only once. He was also handsome, calm, and very intelligent with distinct features. His wife and three children, two girls and one boy, were still on Earth. The family visited him three times a year and was due for another visit soon. Whittaker was by far the richest man on Mars, with full ownership of Whittaker Resources. It was the foundation in which all his other companies were built. After a quick shower, Whittaker stepped inside his elegant, semi-dark office. He 21 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS softly tapped a button on his desk and about eighty inches of the wall panel turned and a monitor revealed itself. Whittaker admired the twinkling stars decorating the large picture windows for a long moment before speaking at the wallscreen. "Call Rafal Neiman." The wallscreen flickered and a moving picture of Rafal came on. Whittaker spoke first, "Rafal, there’s been a change in plan. I am going to Phobos so cancel the 09:00 meeting. Have all the appropriate people on Shuttle Four at 09:00 instead.” "Understood," Rafal obediently replied. "But may I ask why you are going to Phobos?" "We will lose a significant amount of money if the extraction facilities are closed. Did you say five men died?” "Yes, five." Rafal paused on the wallscreen. "There is something else I wanted to tell you, sir." "What is it? Are we being sued?" "No. Four tombs were found in Platform II." Whittaker looked shocked. He eased closer to the wallscreen and looked hard at Rafal. "Tombs? Any bodies found in those tombs?" "Not any that we are aware of. The best guess right now is that the tombs were encased in the asteroid that we pulled in.” "Have you discussed this with Rhinehart? This is getting quite elaborate." "I couldn’t find the director. But Ellis is on it, I think. I've talked with Loren a few times but she’s not dishing out much either and Callen hasn't been able to get access to Platform II all morning." Whittaker rubbed his temple and looked at the stars with reflective eyes. After a long silence, he glanced at his gold watch. "It's too sketchy right now. We have tombs, deaths, and too many assumptions. I am heading to Shuttle Four." Whittaker hit a button and the screen flipped and camouflaged itself in the wall. Although the staff could escort him to his office forty miles away, he wanted to do it himself at sixty-two. It was one of the few things he's had to do himself nowadays. At 08:40, Whittaker’s personal shuttle hovered over Whittaker Tower. The dome folded overtop and the shuttle eased down with swirling smoke. The engine hissed fumes from its rear, then fell silent. The door automatically opened and Whittaker 22 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS ducked out and walked down the slanting ramp. Rafal and three executives stood waiting. Whittaker walked straight up to Rafal. "Any new development while I was on my here?" Whittaker asked. Rafal walked alongside Whittaker. "Nothing, sir. The MPs are very adamant about keeping this low-key.” "And our chem people? Have they been able to dig up anything?" Whittaker asked as he approached Shuttle Four twenty meters away. The other three executives followed closely with hands stuck deep in their pockets. "They have not been permitted to access the facility. You might be the only person that Rhinehart would consider giving access to," Rafal said. "A mystery to unravel," Whittaker said. They climbed onto the slanting ramp of the larger Shuttle Four and ducked in. The door seethed shut as the dome above opened once again. A red flame shot from the shuttle’s tail as it took off. Phobos was 9, 350 km from the center of Mars and Whittaker's personal shuttle took over four hours for the trip. Shuttle Four was designed for long distance flights and took under an hour. Once it cleared the dome, the shuttle made a sharp turn and headed to Phobos. 23 4 SHUTTLE FOUR LANDED gently on the farthest shuttlepad from the entrance to Platform II. The closest pads were occupied by Mars Police shuttles. As the shuttle landed, the transparent dome above it collapsed. Whittaker was the first to duck out of the shuttle’s slanting ramp. The head of the Chemical Division of Whittaker Resources walked up and greeted him. He was a burly man in his late thirties, clean shaven with little hair. His name was Dittmar Callen. "Good morning, Mr. Whittaker," Callen greeted and thrust out a hand. Whittaker firmly shook it. "Callen, I haven’t heard any good news all morning. Do you have any to report?" Whittaker asked. Callen walked beside Whittaker. "Nothing for now, sir. The MP has denied us all access to the platform until they’re satisfied with their investigation." Callen's voice was hard to hear over the circulating air. Whittaker led the way into the tunnel with Callen beside him. The other executives followed with hands stuck deep in their coat pockets. The wide tunnel was divided like a road with a yellow line split down the middle. On the walls were mesh barriers of steel, and inside them, invisible to the eyes, were pipes that powered the platform. Lining the tunnels were knots of people in black uniforms with rifles strapped to their backs. Whittaker’s entourage moved against the wall to let a transport vehicle pass. When they approached Platform II, it was sealed off. Two men with rifles guarded the entrance with stern faces. "Hello, gentlemen," Whittaker said and stood in front of them. The guards stood firmly and stared at him, expressionless. "No unauthorized personnel allowed beyond this point," one guard said firmly. Whittaker stood and returned their soldierly stare. "Look, son. This facility is the THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS property of Whittaker Resources and I’m Udell Whittaker.” "We know, Mr. Whittaker. But we have our orders," the same guard spoke again. “That is understandable then. Is Donald Ellis inside?" “Lieutenant Ellis is inside.” “Please inform the Lieutenant that I’m here to see him,” Whittaker said politely. One guard swung a small receiver under his ear to his mouth and spoke in it, "Don, Mr. Whittaker is waiting outside. Should I send him in?" "No," the voice on the receiver flashed back. "I'll be right out." The guard flipped the receiver back under his ear and addressed Whittaker. "Lieutenant Ellis said he'll-" "Be right out," Whittaker finished for him. “We will wait. Thank-you.” Ten minutes later, a well-built man over six feet tall with brown hair wearing a black uniform came bolting through the tunnel in a transport. He parked it on the side and hopped out gracefully and cordially shook hands with Whittaker. Whittaker’s entourage watched in silence. "I’m Lieutenant Ellis," Ellis unnecessarily introduced himself. They had met on several occasions. Ellis’ boss, William Rhinehart and Whittaker were the closest of friends. "There are some ground rules that we need to establish because the severity of the matter," Ellis continued. His voice was strong and confident. “It is very hectic in there and we don't want to disturb the crime scene. Mr. Whittaker, you can choose one, and only one, person from Whittaker Resources to go inside. I hope that is understandable.” “It is. That person will be me,” Whittaker said, to no one’s surprise. He continued, “I would like my own team to evaluate the situation at the earliest possible time.” "Arrangements can be made for that as soon as we’re done. Let me assure you that we're not hiding anything from your company, Mr. Whittaker.” 25 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS “I just want to get to the bottom of this, I’m sure as you do considering five men were killed.” Ellis paused and looked at Whittaker’s entourage. "That's why we are treating it as a very unique and significant case. One of our main priorities is not to spread fear to the people of Phobos or Mars until we ourselves know exactly what happened here. I’m hoping that this was an isolated incident." Whittaker sighed. "It would be a shame for this wonderful colony if it weren’t and I don’t have a stomach for murders." Whittaker motioned his head toward Rafal and instructed, "Rafal, bring the boys back to the shuttle and wait for me.” "Yes, sir," Rafal said and walked back to the shuttlepad amidst the crowd of Mars Police officers. Whittaker continued, “Callen, assemble a team of the best and brightest from our chemical division. Have them analyze this place thoroughly when the MPs give us permission." "Yes, Mr. Whittaker," Callen said. Whittaker eased in the passenger seat of the transport with Ellis on the driver's side. Ellis slowly drove to Platform II and did not tell Whittaker that in the adjacent tunnel was the dead body of Kurdick Stengel ,which was still being examined. Ellis took a roundabout way to the platform in order avoid the gruesome sight he knew Whittaker would rather not see. When he arrived at Platform II Whittaker saw rock debris scattered all over the floor. The immense complex was jammed with people and equipment from different divisions of the Mars Police. The people from the Chemical Division wore red with white gloves and the ones from the Enforcement Division wore black. Blue transports loaded with weapons, tools, and medical equipment were whizzing everywhere. Ellis pulled up near the makeshift command post cluttered with deskscreens and 26 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS jumped out. He yanked out a chair and Whittaker slowly lowered himself on it while admiring the hustle of the Mars Police. He took particular interest in a group not far away gathered in a circle round one tomb. Ellis sat down and watched the side of Whittaker's face. "Would you like coffee or something to drink, Mr. Whittaker?" "I’m perfectly good, Lieutenant," Whittaker said as he turned away from cluster of red suited people. "Have you determined the cause of deaths? Those five men were very good employees of the company." Ellis gulped on the coffee and stared Whittaker in the eyes. He wasn’t sure how to say this to the great man. "Let’s just say that they weren’t accidents. At this time we believe a group of people is responsible." "It has to do with the four tombs?" "It does." Ellis rose to his feet and pointed toward the tombs. Whittaker slowly rose and followed. While they walked to the tombs, Ellis studied the side of Whittaker’s face. The great man was completely composed. If he was concerned, Ellis could not tell. As they neared the tombs, a knot of red-suited MPs cleared a path for Ellis and Whittaker to walk through. Ellis stepped aside for Whittaker to examine the tombs. The covers of all four tombs were now opened. The MP had found them like that when they arrived. The first thing that caught the tycoon’s eyes was the brightness of the tombs. Whittaker inched up and stood above the opened one. He peered in carefully and studied its humanoid contours. But he had no interest in its shape, only the material it was made of. Diamond, Whittaker thought. He veered to Ellis. "What's it made of?" Ellis knew it was coming. “It's not diamond," Ellis said, to Whittaker’s great dismay. "Its index of refraction is slightly greater than diamond. It's a material unknown to us at the moment. If you look closely there is a layer of liquid inside. We have not 27 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS been able to figure out what the inner layer is." The liquid layer had become more noticeable. Earlier the MP’s chem team had tested for the refractive index of the tombs and found that the index was greater than diamond. The refractive index of diamond was supposed to be absolute like the speed of light. But the tombs were harder than diamond, which had utterly puzzled everyone. The chem team also found the atoms of the tombs were smaller than any known crystal, which was another mystery to everyone. Whittaker stood directly over the first tomb and slid his hand along its side. He leaned down at the tomb without protecting his eyes. No one knew the tombs had a brilliant shine. By the time the MPs had arrived, the tombs had lost some of their brightness. Whittaker studied the humanoid contouring intensely. He gave Ellis a sidelong glance and asked, "Have you spotted them?" “No.” "What about the markings? Anyone know what they mean?” Whittaker pointed to the six foreign characters near the top. Ellis glided his hand over the characters and replied, "We are still trying to decipher them." "A mystery on top of an enigma," Whittaker mumbled. “There’s something about the tombs that you might find interesting." Ellis pointed behind to the other three tombs. "And that is?" "The first four characters of every tomb are identical and the last two are different. We are not sure what the first four are but we believe the last two are numbers used for identification." They stood in silence as the cluster of red ran more tests around them with speculative and overly excited voices floating around. The tomb they 28 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS were hovering over was the same one Epson had opened. They stared at each other for a long moment. Whittaker was aware that for the tombs to have had reached Platform II, they first have had to pass Platform I. He was also aware that before anything could pass Platform I, it had to originate from space. In the Asteroid Belt. "Where?" Whittaker broke the silence. "The best guess right now, and it’s a wild guess, is somewhere in our solar system.” "Have necessary procedures been taken to capture them?" "That task has been assigned to me. Our records indicate that no shuttle has left this moon since the incident.” “So they’re still on Phobos?" Whittaker asked. “Every indication tells us they are still here.” "I’m sure that you will do your best, lieutenant, to see to it that they do not reach Mars," Whittaker said, looking at the huge contouring. "We have a good thing going on Mars and we do not need any unwanted distractions.” "I will do my best," Ellis assured him. Whittaker checked his gold watch. "William chose the right man when he picked you for his Lieutenant, Don. I’m sure that you will not disappoint him or the good people of Mars." What a burden. They exchanged handshakes, and Ellis offered the tycoon a ride back to the shuttlepad but Whittaker insisted he knew his tunnels. Ellis watched Whittaker disappear into the crowd of MPs. He eased through the thick crowd and sat down at his work table. He stroked his chin as he watched his officers hustle in the distance. Should he wait until they’re captured before breaking the news to the inhabitant of Mars or do it now and cause unnecessary panic? He would first have to consult with his immediate boss, William Rhinehart. 29 5 THE MP’S LEAD patrol shuttle flew over the jutting and dipping landscape of Phobos with its beaming spotlights scanning the surface below. Diane Loren was the pilot and her partner was Leonard Merck. Diane was thirty one years old and Leonard was two years her junior. Both were born and raised on Mars and they worked for the Enforcement Division of the Mars Police. Their task was to scour Phobos for the now officially declared alien convicts. While Loren navigated the shuttle, Leonard looked for unusual radiation patterns from the heat detector and movements from the motion detector. "There’s nothing out of place so far," Merck said with his eyes intensely on the screen. The shuttle engine was humming around them. "The other nine Birds haven’t picked up anything, either," Loren said. The MP patrol shuttles were often referred to as birds by those who flew them due to their beak-nosed fronts and eagle-like wings. There were ten shuttles flown in formation. Loren's was the lead shuttle. She was the third in command and Ellis had personally assigned her the task of hunting the aliens. The shuttle flew past a high jutting region of Phobos’ terrain, scarred with cragged rocks. "Keep a close watch on the pipes," she instructed Merck. "Will do.” Loren admired the craters below as she thought out loud over the shuttle engine’s rhythmic hum. “They’re not roaming the pipes and nothing has left Phobos and there’s no sign of them outside. Where does this leave us?” “Persistence often pays off,” Merck encouraged. Then added, “My guess is that they’re in the pipes.” On the surface of Phobos laid intricate pipes which cropped up from the natural THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS landscape. They were gigantic, circular and half-buried beneath ground. Most believed that was where the aliens were taking refuge. After a fifty mile radius search around Platform II, there was no sign of the aliens and Ellis ordered all the birds back to Platform II. As Loren’s shuttle was hovering above the colossal WEF I, Whittaker Extraction Facility I, Leonard noticed an unusual reading below. The shuttles had not scanned WEF I since the ground troops had thoroughly inspected it on foot earlier. Loren turned and faced the monitor. She spoke to the air-traffic controller on the ground. "Ten to land. Ten to-" Leonard jabbed an elbow at her. On the screen, he saw a blob twisting and curling inside the facility. Loren’s eyes widened in amazement as she watched the glowing image on the screen changing shape. "What is that?" Loren asked with a perplexed look. Leonard shook his head, bewildered. He punched a button on the shuttle panel and a female MP from the chemical division in Platform II flickered into view on the screen. Leonard said, "Chemical, we’re getting a very unusual reading up here.” “What sort of reading?” the female MP in Platform II below asked. “You’d have to see it yourself to believe it. This is the first time I have seen anything like this. The radiation, ahem, is, ahem…” “The radiation is what?” “The radiation is actually changing shape, if you can believe that.” Loren listened intently as she watched the infrared reading on the screen. The dark spots were coiling. She watched it as she radioed the second shuttle and requested another scan. There had to be a mistake, she thought. The second shuttle radioed back and told her he was getting the same reading—an unknown class of radiation emitting in Platform II, where the aliens were found. “What are you reading up there?” the chemical personnel below asked. 31 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Loren stood over Leonard's shoulder and said, "Unknown radiation in Platform II. I think you should have the ground crew examine it." "I'll do that. Thanks," the female MP said and cut the transmission. Her face disappeared from the screen. Loren steadied the shuttle above the shuttlepads of the massive WEF I facility. She ordered the other nine shuttles to land. She would monitor the situation from above with Leonard. She watched as the blob of radiation filled half the screen. All they could do now was wait for instructions from Ellis. The shuttle's engine was humming softly in the background as an update flashed on the screen. "They are reading what we are reading," Loren said, tapping on the monitor. “This should be fun,” she gamely said. WHEN ELLIS WAS informed of the unusual radiation, he gathered thirty officers from the Enforcement Division and three from the Chemical Division to analyze it. The thirty MPs, all equipped with laser rifles, gathered in a group and chatted anxiously among themselves. The lead job of analyzing the radiation went to John Lawrence, a thirty-four year old man who wore large, round glasses around his small eyes. Lawrence sat on the chair at the makeshift command post where Whittaker had sat earlier. From there, he studied the five coffins of the employees who had died earlier. The coffins were scheduled to be flown back to Mars for a proper burial soon. Ellis looked at Lawrence across the table. Anxious and speculative voices were floating around them. "Our shuttles have detected some unknown radiation near the platform." Ellis pointed toward to the gigantic platform, which was now still. “We need to identify what it is and locate its exact source.” "That should not be a problem. We have some handscreen infrareds available. But the source could be coming from the tombs since they have been reacting with our oxygen environment.” 32 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS “Unlikely. It’s near the platform we’ve been told. Follow me.” Ellis rose from his chair and Lawrence followed. They hopped on a transport and Ellis weaved to the tombs. The transport stopped beside the tombs with smoking tires and they hopped out. The other two chem men were already studying the strange radiation with their handscreen infrareds. Ellis walked around and asked two of his officers to set up six cameras around the platform. He wanted all this to be on record. The first human to kill aliens, caught on film! He was very confident in his ability to apprehend or kill these aliens. After the cameras were set up, Lawrence approached the radiation, holding his handscreen infrared with both hands. He inched toward it with a frown on his face. "I am not getting anything," he said. His handscreen infrared only showed white spots. "Are you guys reading anything?" Lawrence asked the other chem men. "Nothing," one of them muttered. "What happened to it?" Ellis asked from behind. "Your guess is as good as mine, Don," Lawrence answered. "It can’t disappear just like that." "Let me make some adjustments," Lawrence said, looking perplexed. He walked forward in measured steps. His handscreen infrared began to darken as he advanced. "There's your radiation. It's near the platform," Lawrence said as he watched the handscreen. There was nothing near the platform, at least not visible to the eyes. Ellis shook his head in disbelief. "I don’t see anything." Ellis was shocked. "Computers don't lie. It's right here." Lawrence rapped a finger on his handscreen. He turned the screen upward and showed Ellis the darkening spots. It got darker and darker as he inched closer. "Are you guys getting the same reading?" Lawrence asked his two partners. The dark spots on his handscreen were twisting and coiling. "It's somewhere by the platform," one of them replied and gestured to the 33 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS platform. Incredible, Ellis thought. There was nothing where Lawrence claimed the radiation spot was except the wide leg of the platform and the huge crane stationed high above. "Could it be the asteroid scraps you’re reading?" Ellis pointed out. “Those don’t change shape.” Lawrence was mesmerized by the dark twisting blobs on his handscreen. He couldn’t take his eyes off the handscreen infrared. He tensed up. His palms and fingers began to sweat. Lawrence said nervously, “Whatever is in front of us is changing shape. Believe me, there is something invisible in front of us and it is trying to morph. I have never seen anything like this in my life.” Ellis ordered, "All three of you stop. Don’t go any farther.” He turned around and gave some hand signals. Before Lawrence could turn around, a dozen or so transports with MPs onboard had gathered behind him. The thirty MPs jumped out and took swat team positions. Lawrence felt like a criminal about to get arrested. Ellis eased up to him, waved his hand for the other two chem men to come, and instructed them, "Get as much information as possible but don't risk your lives. Clear?" The three nodded in agreement. Risk our lives? One chem man asked himself. What is that all about? Lawrence led the way to the radiation source in small, deliberate steps. Holding the handscreen infrared in his left hand, he slowly inched toward it. Every couple of steps he looked back at the group and smiled nervously. He didn't know why he was scared, the group was only yards behind. Maybe having analyzed the body of Kurdick Stengel in the tunnel scared him. He was the person who had found the radiation on Kurdick's body, and that scared him. The part about “don't risk your lives” scared him. What did Ellis mean by that? This unknown radiation suddenly scared him. Don’t risk your lives? Nervous and anxious voices were floating around Platform II. 34 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Lawrence frowned at his handscreen. "It's getting stronger," he said and paced closer. At fifteen feet he noticed something peculiar on his handscreen. He shook his head sideways very slowly, utterly bewildered. He peered up at the air in front of him. "Something’s wrong with this reading," he said nervously. He took two more steps, then paused, and looked down at his handscreen. What he saw sent sheer terror through his body. He stuck his handscreen forward and it shook involuntarily in his hands. The one black spot of radiation slowly diverged as he stepped foreword. The thing was actually moving apart. The glowing blob was slowly twisting and coiling into four radiation spots on his handscreen. Lawrence completely froze in his footsteps. He bit his lips and beads of sweat dripped down his forehead. He stood there motionless and watched the handscreen, almost paralyzed. Slowly now, the splotch of radiation coiled into a recognizable form. The shape was small on his handscreen, but the features were distinct. The arms. The legs. The head. The movements. They were humanoid. Lawrence peered up with sheer terror in his eyes. His heart stopped and he had difficulty breathing. He clenched his left fist and raised it in the air. The signal for danger. The air in front of him moved, fluttering back and forth, up and down, like swirling dust. Then the air sizzled and popped with electric sparks—red, green, blue, then all the colors of the rainbow. Like firecracker. Two enormous creatures appeared directly in front of Lawrence. The four sinister eyes glowed downward at the helpless man. He nearly wet his pants at the sight. Then with a Herculean force, one of the aliens picked him up and hurled him through the air. The other two chem men dropped their handscreens and ran to the back, away from the platform. Lawrence convulsed on the ground to his death. 35 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Jesus Christ!" someone hollered from the back. Ellis frantically scrambled off a transport. He watched as his officers opened with a barrage of lasers. Ellis yanked the rifle from his back and aimed it at one of the aliens. He couldn't believe his eyes as he saw it advance despite being hit with lasers. One alien coolly walked to an MP and gamely grinned. Its eyes flashed red. It was the most awesome creature with clumps of muscles protruding all over. The MP furiously fired his rifle. But it was no use. It towered over him, snatched his laser rifle and whacked him across his temple with it. The MP laid in a puddle of his own blood, moaning in excruciating pain. His legs stopped moving and he died. Ellis hopped on the transport and weaved it to the alien. In total chaos, he slowed down behind a line of transports. The laser firing grew more intense. Platform II became a war zone with blazes of red light zipping in all directions and transports spinning wildly to get in shooting position. Some MPs actually relished the danger. They leaped and rolled wildly between steps, got up, and leaped and rolled again as to evade enemy fire which wasn’t there. One of the aliens leaped fifteen feet in the air and landed on a transport. The transport flipped and cracked in pieces. The alien stood still for a second and watched six MPs in front of it fiercely firing away. The lasers had no effect, it was like throwing toothpicks in wet cement. Everything was being absorbed. The alien changed colors in the parts where the lasers hit it. But the un-hit parts remained fleshy with muscle bulging all over. More MPs clustered around and fired at it mercilessly. It casually walked forward while its body glowed red from the intense firing. Six feet away from the MP group, the alien staggered backwards on the balls of its feet. Then it shifted colors and vanished. Invisible. Gone. The air was shifting. Forty meters away, the laser fire also had little effect on the other alien. Three 36 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS brave female MPs gunned three transports right at it. Just before the collision, they jumped out and rolled on the ground. They scrambled to their feet and watched in awe as it kicked each transport aside as though it were swiping mosquitoes. The three hurried back to the main group and fired continuously. The alien tottered back, sneered sinisterly, then collapsed on its back with a loud thudding sound. The MPs rushed forward with laser fire darting from their rifles. The alien was trying to lift itself off the ground but the fire was too intense. Its naked body flared with colors of the rainbow. Just as the MPs hovered over it, the alien gradually shifted colors. Then it disappeared. The air was rippling where it once lay, then nothing was there. The fire raged on, then a total confusion set in. The laser didn't hit the ground as it should have, but it was hitting something between the ground and the MPs. An invisible object. They kept firing and got the same result. The streams of laser never reached the ground. One MP moved his aim three meters sideways, and the beam of laser scorched a hole in the ground. It didn't take long for the MPs to realize that that alien was lying at their feet. Invisible and probably hurting. Then an earsplitting, boisterous scream shattered across Platform II. Ellis shook his head in amazement as he watched. Seconds later, the firing found its way to the ground and scorched a crater. Everyone fired in a different direction hoping for a blind hit to reveal its whereabouts. Only two managed, but it didn't last long. Seconds later, all the firing found its target on the far wall of Platform II. Ellis weaved his transport to where the alien had disappeared and yelled, "Get the infrared! They're still here!" The MPs assembled in two groups as the two chem men sprang to their feet and stared at their handscreen infrareds. They walked in opposite directions clutching the handscreens in front of them. Their hands and legs trembled uncontrollably with fear. 37 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS One chem man tightly grabbed his handscreen to end the nervous shakes, but his legs would not stop. "Over there!" one of them bellowed. "The other ones over there!" He pointed wildly with his index finger. The MPs fired wherever his finger pointed. "Over there! No over there! No, no, over there." He changed the direction of his finger with every word, so did the firing. Ellis gunned the transport to his command post and jumped out before the transport came to a full stop. He punched a button on his deskscreen and yelled at it. "All patrol shuttles takeoff! All patrol shuttles takeoff!" He didn't want to take a chance of these aliens getting a hold of the patrol shuttles with their heavy weaponry. Also, the shuttles were their only ticket to Mars, and he wasn’t going to let that happen. He hopped on his transport and darted back to the main group. "Damn! I can't keep up. There’s too much movement!" one chem man shouted. The other chem man expressed the same words. The glowing spots were jumping furiously across his handscreen. His fingers couldn't keep up with the random movements. The infrared images even leaped out of his screen several times. All the MPs could do was fire blindly at unseen targets. In the next minute, Ellis watched helplessly as the two chem men were struck down along with thirteen of his officers. He painfully stared at the sixteen bodies, including Lawrence’s, scattered on the ground, lying in puddles of blood. They had met the same fate as Kurdick Stengel. Killed by invisible aliens. The aliens were already responsible for the death of twenty-one Martians. The remaining MPs hopped frantically on transports and fled through the tunnels. Ellis rushed back to his makeshift command post and pounded the table in disgust as he watched the disorder. Loud, horrified screams hammered his ears. He stood and listened, powerless to intervene. Ellis punched the deskscreen on his table and it flickered to life. It was Loren on her shuttle. Ellis's face twisted in anger, and he spoke angrily. "Listen 38 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS carefully. Keep the shuttles up there. Do not bring them down. Do not bring them down.” “Roger that.” “Ellis out." He didn't have time to explain. He then ordered the officers guarding the tunnels to retreat to Platform III and wait there. Then he had every entrance to the remaining platforms sealed. There were at least one hundred employees trapped in the complex. He watched in anger and disgust as transports frantically darted pass. He studied the platform and saw no aliens, and wondered where they were. Perhaps they were standing next to him, waiting for the perfect moment like they did with Lawrence to strike. "Move it, Ellis! Wrong time to meditate!" one MP wailed as she passed Ellis on a transport. Ellis snapped out of his thoughts and hopped into his transport. He drove it through the crowd like crazy. One transport stopped and let him into the tunnel first. Ellis waved a thank-you and headed to the shuttlepad. He wanted to return and continue the battle. The sixteen officers who lay in pools of blood were his responsibility. And more might die in the future, but he knew he couldn't kill what he couldn't see. When Ellis reached Shuttlepad I, he jumped out, looked beyond the glass dome and saw the ten patrol shuttles overhead. Good, they had followed his instructions and took off. The rest of the MPs rushed clumsily to the waiting transport shuttles. Ellis dashed to the slanting ramp and ushered his officers through. He climbed aboard when he saw no one was left behind. "Go!" he shouted to the pilot. The shuttle's ramp hissed and vertically closed. The glass dome above opened like a flower and let the shuttle out. High above Whittaker Exaction Facility One, hovered a flock of twelve shuttles. Ellis sat beside the pilot and set his rifle down. The breathing was heavy, loud and labored. The engine's hum was drowned out by it. 39 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS On the screen in front of the pilot, Loren’s face came on. Her lips were just about to move when Ellis beat her to the words, "Are there any readings on the shuttle or in the platform?" Ellis panted. "Nothing. They disappeared. Just like that," Loren said and snapped her fingers for effect. Ellis sat still and stared at the black sky of Phobos. He didn’t move for a few seconds. He needed to get back to Mars and formulate a plan now that he knew what he was up against. Quietly, he said "Jim, take us home. Loren, you stay here until the next birds arrive." He sank back on his chair and dropped his arm beside his thighs to release the tension. The two transport shuttles headed back to Mars while the ten patrol shuttles remained on Phobos to continue the search and hunt. 40 6 AT FORTY STORIES Whittaker Tower was the tallest structure on Mars. It was originally designed for sixty stories but the Mars Zoning Board had warned of marsquakes since the tower sat dangerously near the equator. The building was nestled between several mountains with its sides protruding from all angles. Udell Whittaker occupied the penthouse three floors beneath the shuttlepad. His office was insulated from the roaring shuttle engines passing by the large picture windows. The three story picture windows were separated into triangular sections, perfectly aligned to one another. He had a commanding view of the busiest streets in the air, however narrow they may be. Furniture was scant for a large office—several deskscreens and wallscreens to receive the latest financial news from Earth and Mars, an enormous fish tank mounted on the side wall and several exotic plants spiraling from the entrance to the marble office table. Whittaker had spent the last several hours with Rafal monitoring the situation on Phobos on his deskscreen. To Rafal’s surprise Whittaker did not show any emotions, even when the deaths of Mars Police officers were reported. Whittaker had become preoccupied with the material the tombs were made of. If it was something harder than diamond, there was no telling how much they were worth. Whittaker slid low on the big chair with his chin resting on his fist. He had requested a meeting with Ellis after he heard the lieutenant was coming back to Mars. He was adamant that this meeting took place in person and not over deskscreens. Similar with his maids at home, his secretaries were all female and beautiful. Whittaker liked variety, so there were two, a blonde and a brunette. They wore dresses with above the knee cut, revealing slender, silky legs. He once remarked a report wouldn't have the same content if it was handed to him by a man with husky legs and mustache. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "The Lieutenant is here to see you, Mr. Whittaker," the brunette said and steered Ellis inside. Whittaker was staring out the picture window, which was opaque and brown with nothing to see. "Thank-you, Margaret," Whittaker said and turned his chair to face Ellis. "You're welcome," Margaret said and winked. She strutted elegantly out and closed the large door behind her. "Have a seat, Lieutenant" Whittaker motioned to one of the many chairs. He made a subtle gesture with his eyes and Rafal took a hike. "Thank-you." Ellis walked a few meters across the dimly lit room and sat on a chair farthest from the tycoon. “I understand that you wanted to see me, Mr. Whittaker.” Whittaker fumbled his fingers on the marble table. "Yes, Lieutenant. There are a few things I wanted to ask you. How long did it take?" Whittaker interrogated. “Not more than five minutes.” “What do they look like?” “Humanoid with no facial or body hair. No teeth. Red glowing eyes and at least seven feet in height. Extremely muscular." "Anything else?” "They seem to have this unique ability." Ellis looked down at his hands, he could feel Whittaker staring intensely at him. He was supposed to be meeting with William Rhinehart, Director of the MP, at this very moment but Whittaker pressed Rhinehart and here he was sitting with the richest man on Mars. "And that ability is?" "They can appear and disappear, that is turn invisible and they seem to have a passion for killing.” "What is the status of WEF I now?” "We have ten patrol shuttles monitoring it and more arriving as we speak.” "Excellent, Lieutenant. How long do you think it will take to apprehend them?” 42 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS “Another day. I hope.” "Too long." Whittaker tapped a button on the table and the opaque window turned transparent, allowing the glaring sunlight to penetrate and illuminate the room. Ellis shielded his eyes with both hands from the sudden rush of sunlight. "There is something I find a bit troubling," Whittaker continued, "that you only saw two aliens, yet, there are four tombs.” "The other two tombs might be empty." "They could be. I’ll leave it to your discretion to make that assumption," Whittaker said and turned his chair to the large picture window. Two passenger shuttles flew by, followed by a cargo shuttle. Whittaker turned back to face Ellis, then reached down and pulled a cigar out of the drawer and lit it. He offered Ellis one but Ellis declined. A long, uneasy silence passed the room as Whittaker puffed his cigar. Thick smoke clouds swirled and curled in the air. Ellis, still in his black uniform, loosened his turtle neck collar and exhaled quietly. He turned his head and saw a big oil painting of Kirk Whittaker hanging on the dark-brown marble wall. Like father like son, he thought. Originally, it was Kirk Whittaker’s idea to start a mining corporation on Mars. A great deal of Udell’s wealth was inherited from his father. Whittaker exhaled a heavy cloud of smoke. "Are the four tombs still in Platform II?" “They are.” “What are your plans for them, Lieutenant?” “We plan to study them after we retrieve them.” Whittaker's voice hardened. “You mean possibly bringing them back to Earth, studying their composition, or putting them in a museum for academic idiots to admire?" Ellis began in an apologetic tone, “Mr. Whittaker, I understand there could be great value in those tombs. I’m sorry for the loss Whittaker Resources is taking because 43 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS of this. We have put our best efforts forward and we will continue to do so. All we ask is that you remain patient until our work is done. We have the best interest of everyone at heart.” “Whoever they are, they come from another world, kill my men, wreck my facility. I don't know them, they don't own any stocks in my company. I want them dead." "It could be a misunderstanding since there is no way to communicate. To them we could be just as hostile. Would you not do the same under the same situation?" Ellis said. He remained still in his seat, frowning and reflecting for a second. He couldn't believe what he had just said. He had actually defended the aliens who had killed sixteen of his officers. Then he thought, perhaps the aliens were misunderstood, lost in a foreign world. After all, the tombs were found in space, in an asteroid. They could have been floating in space for years, decades, millenniums, or even eons. Whittaker let all that pass. He suddenly rose from his chair and walked across the table toward Ellis. He slouched over with one hand and leaned against the table to support his weight. "Back to the tombs, there are four of them?" "Yes, four." “I feel strongly, since they were found on private property, that Whittaker Resources should retain possession of them after they are retrieved.” "You are looking too far ahead, Mr. Whittaker. That is an issue that will be sorted out when the time comes. That is not even a priority for us at the moment." Whittaker took another puff of his cigar and stubbed it on the table. He leaned closer to Ellis and said, "I would like you to either capture or destroy them in one week’s time, Lieutenant. Whittaker Resources cannot continue to absorb the financial losses because the facilities are shut down. As for the tombs, they belong to their rightful owner—that is the owner of the property they were found on.” All he wants are precious the tombs, Ellis thought. “Yes, the tombs. We'd like to do several experiments on them before letting the Director make his decision." 44 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Rhinehart, Rhinehart, the Director. I haven't been able to get a hold of that rascal all morning. Where is he?" Whittaker asked. "At headquarters monitoring the situation." "I’ll try again later. Ellis, have no illusion about it. Those tombs were found on private property. Dittmar said that their index of refraction is larger than diamond. He said they might have tremendous monetary value, which can be used to compensate for the losses we’re taking right now as the result of this fiasco.” "You will have to discuss it with the Director. He has more say than I do on that matter." "I was afraid of that." Whittaker detested asking old chums for favors. He had known Rhinehart for thirty five years. Ellis ignored the remark, sat in silence and stared out the window. Another passenger shuttle flew by with bright orange flares perilously touching the window. It was carrying tourists from Earth. "Mr. Whittaker," Ellis began as he rose to his feet. "I have to be on my way. The Director is expecting me soon." Just as Ellis was leaving, Whittaker said, "Tell that little rascal Rhinehart I said hello." 45 7 THE SKY OVER Whittaker Extraction Facility I, WEF I, was crowded with patrol and transport shuttles. Diane Loren looked outside her shuttle window and saw another group of shuttle arriving in a V-shaped formation. Two things troubled her as she peered down at the gigantic WEF I complex below. For one, why weren’t they detecting any radiation anymore? If the aliens were dead, where were their bodies? Also, there were four opened tombs, why were there only two aliens seen? The shuttle engine was humming. “Something seems out of place,” she said to Leonard. She had read the report that warned her about their unnatural ability to turn invisible. The report also warned everyone to avoid contact with them because of the possible hazards of the unknown radiation. She was most impressed with the line in the report that read: "Aliens able to apply force to any object when invisible." And oh yes, those glowing, electrified eyes were mentioned. Leonard broke the silence. “Do you think they are in platforms one, three or four?” "Unlikely," Loren said. "Unless they can walk through ten inch metal doors and the report indicates they can’t go through solid objects. But nothing would surprise me anymore.” As they spoke, the latest report flashed over the screen. Loren stood over Leonard’s shoulder. The report said that the second group had finished another sweep of Phobos and spotted nothing. The aliens where not on the surface of Phobos, so it was almost time to assault the facility on foot. IN PATROL SHUTTLE Three, John Yamoto and Michael Ender anxiously waited for word from Ellis. Both were tall, muscular, and had military style haircuts. Both in were THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS their late twenties and proud to wear the black MP uniform. They were ecstatic when they had heard news of the aliens. It was something that they wanted to be a part of. John had a friend that died in Platform II, and Michael's friend was still in Platform III. All they wanted was a chance to do battle with the much hyped aliens. A flock of shuttles was hovering outside their side window. Both sat in silence and patiently waited. There was an update on the screen: With the exception of Platform II, every other platform had been searched and every tunnel secured. There was no sign of the aliens. With the help of engineers from Whittaker Resources, the assault would soon begin on Platform II—the only possible hideout for the alien fugitives. John and Michael would soon get their chance to meet the aliens, on a personal level. IN PLATFORM II, 60 MPs stormed the entrance and neatly dispersed into five groups inside. They scanned the place floor to ceiling, wall to wall and there wasn’t a sign of the aliens. The only readings were from the 21 dead bodies—16 sixteen on the ground and five in the coffins. The MPs inspected every crane, transport, and even the platform itself. If the aliens were alive, they weren’t in Platform II. "Platform II is secure," an MP reported to Ellis. The lieutenant was on the lead shuttle hovering above with the Director, William Rhinehart. "Excellent job, boys," Rhinehart said and caressed his bulging belly, even drumming the fat folds a couple of times in excitement. Rhinehart was 64, with fat folds around his sagging cheeks. His narrow black eyes were sunk deep in their sockets and he seemed to be sleeping most of the time. Rhinehart was old and out of shape but he was still the Director of the Mars Police. “Director,” Ellis said, “I think it’s marginally safe if you want to go down. Although I would advise against it.” 47 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Nothing was going to keep Rhinehart from seeing the tombs. “At my age, this could be the only opportunity to witness something this spectacular.” “I’ll have a group meet us at the shuttlepads.” Ten minutes later, Rhinehart's shuttle landed softly on shuttlepad six. He waddled to the shuttle ramp with Ellis and Whittaker's three engineers behind. Rhinehart ducked out and plodded down the slanting ramp. Rhinehart waddled and looked around. "Take me to Platform II," he demanded. Ellis motioned to the transport nearby and the big man stepped in. The transport would've overturned if weren’t for Ellis’ counterweight. He prayed to God that the aliens don’t appear because Rhinehart had no way of escaping. He couldn't run, that was for sure. At me entrance of Platform II, Rhinehart trudged off the transport and looked wildly around the structure. He stood and analyzed the gigantic room, strewn with rock debris, dead bodies, rifles, transports, tombs, and five coffins to his left. "This looks like a war zone," Rhinehart grunted. "It was a war zone," Ellis said from behind. "I read your report but expected nothing like this," his voice changed to the grouchy grandfather of sixty-four. "It was the best we could do, sir," Ellis said. Rhinehart turned left and lumbered to the five coffins. He stood over the nearest coffin. The inscription read UNGER, RANDAL. Rhinehart moved to the next one with another inscription STENGEL, KURDICK. Then he saw the names of Epson Rebus, John Hibler, and Kenneth Rogers. The first five humans to die at the hands of aliens. “Has an autopsy been performed on them?" "They are scheduled to be flown back to Mars. An official autopsy will be done then.” "We can longer tolerate any delays. Their condition should be preserved. Send them to the morgue and freeze them temporarily. We need to sort out the mess here first." 48 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Yes sir." Ellis began barking orders. He asked two officers to gather the cameras and fly them back to Mars, along with the five coffins. The four alien tombs were now beside each other. They had lost some of their brilliant shine. Rhinehart stepped up to one of the tombs. "So these are the four infamous tombs," Rhinehart said as he glided his hand along the humanoid contouring. "They must be extremely big." He stressed “big.” "They are," Ellis said. His mind reeled back to the encounter and it was strangely exciting and frightening at the same time. The glowing red eyes, bulging muscles, and color changes were vivid. "I don’t envy you, Ellis. You have a daunting task before you. Do you think it is possible to capture one to study?” “It should be now that we have enough officers. But they don’t seem too keen on being captured from what I’ve seen, sir.” "Every resource of the Mars Police is at your disposable. Do your best and see to it that no one else is killed. Remember, you will be Director after I retire.” Ellis nodded. He could see himself as Director Ellis with a big, plush chair and a private, posh shuttle. How proud his wife would be. "To do our best is all I can guarantee you, sir," Ellis finally said. Big ass swiveling and all, Rhinehart sort of waddled duck-like around the four tombs and glided his hand up and down to feel them. They were harder than anything he'd touched before. “Now I can see why Whittaker wants to get his hands on these tombs.” Rhinehart then turned to Ellis and said sternly, “You must do everything in your power, Lieutenant to ensure that these beings don’t make their way to Mars.” ON SHUTTLE THREE, John Yamoto and Michael Ender were disappointed when they had heard the news from Ellis. They would be returning to Mars along with the other 49 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS eight shuttles. Thirty more shuttles were arriving to take their place. They had missed their chance to do battle with the aliens, so they thought. John set in the course for Mars, propped his feet beside the monitor and let the computerized navigation manage the rest. In one hour they would be back on Mars, where they would stop by the Olympus Hilton, have a few drinks before returning to MP Headquarters. No one would notice, Ellis and Loren were staying behind. Rhinehart wouldn't mind, he was probably going there himself. The engine was humming around them. Bright sunlight flashed through the windows as the shuttle flew. “This waiting game can get on my nerves, you know,” John said. “We do what we’re told and most of the time it works out well. I regret it a bit that we weren’t down there for the action.” Just as Michael was about to take his eyes off the reports on the screen, there was a thumping sound from the storage compartment. Every shuttle had a twenty by twenty feet storage compartment near the back; it was used to store two rifles, two jumpsuits, emergency battery power and two six feet lockers for personal belongings. "I think your rifle just fell," Michael said with his eyes partially on the reports. "I'll be back," John said like Arnold whats-his-name. He made his way to the storage compartment in the back. He pulled the metal door open and looked around the compartment. There was no rifle or anything else on the ground. He opened the rifle rack and saw that both were still there. It must have been Michael’s imagination. John kicked the door shut and started for his chair. At two steps passed the door, he heard another thumping sound identical to the last. He turned around, yanked the door open again. Once inside, he pulled it shut to investigate. Michael was absorbed with the reports about the aliens on the screen and hadn’t notice that John had been gone for over five minutes. From what he read, he badly wanted to meet one of the aliens. The report mentioned several times about the glowing 50 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS eyes. “John!” Michael hollered finally. No reply. Just the hum of the shuttle. "Do I have to do everything myself?" Michael asked himself and yawned. He rose to his feet and walked to the storage compartment. He jerked the weighty door open, and looked inside. Those eyes! "Holy shit!" he cried in sheer horror. The alien was towering over him, glaring downward. John's dead body was lying at its feet in a fetal position. The first feature Michael noticed were the eyes, glowing brightly in his face. He twisted around and tried to reach the monitor. It was too late, he felt a strong, warm hand clutching tightly on his left shoulder. He slowly turned around to face it. Those eyes were the most evil things he'd seen. His body was quivering. He struggled to free himself of the unbelievably tight hold. The alien, slowly, very slowly, pulled him to its gigantic chest. Michael began to sweat, as they stood like slow dancing partners. The alien had no odor. But those eyes. His eyes filled with tears. The heat was becoming unbearable. "Just kill me," Michael whispered tearfully. For a brief moment all he could hear was the soft hum of the engine, and a sizzling noise from its arm. The alien slowly moved its right hand toward his stomach. As the hand got closer, it changed color, then it glowed. Electric pulses sparked from its elbow to its fingers. Every other part of its body remained fleshy. Paralyzed with fear, Michael stared down at his stomach. "Just kill me." He knew he was dead once the hand touched. He wildly shook his shoulders side-to-side in an attempt to break free. The left grip was incredibly tight. 51 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Just fucking kill me," Michael begged, wanting his life to end without pain. He was sweating profusely. The hand finally touched. He felt a warm tingling sensation in his mid-section from the heat radiating from its hand. He stared at his stomach in horror as sweat beads dribbled down his forehead. A few drops of sweat found its way to its electrified forearm, which fizzled with a thin cloud of smoke. Every part of the alien was flesh-like, only the elbow to the fingers glowed. Its four shiny fingers twiddled slightly as it inched closer, sizzling with electric sparks. Then the hand slowly inched inside his stomach, becoming a part of him. The heat was intense. The alien moved its hand through his body, up the chin then down to the groin. The Lucifer eyes squinted, methodically studying him. The glowing hand finally rested inside his chest, poking through to the back. It stayed there for ten seconds while he dripped with sweat. His heart and breathing stopped. "Just fucking kill me!" he pleaded. The alien mockingly grinned at the terrified man. It knew he was feeble. Then Michael got his wish. Suddenly, his body jerked and went into a violent convulsion. Countless volts of electricity had passed through his body. The body stumbled to the ground, and the head knocked against the door handle and bled profusely. The alien pulled its hand back coolly, then its arm morphed to flesh like the rest of its body. The last images Michael Ender saw were the dead eyes of John Yamoto beside him and another alien appearing into sight. The air was coiling. The shuttle would navigate itself through 9, 350 km of space to Mars Police Headquarters on Mars without further instruction. 52 8 WHITTAKER’S NUMBER ONE secretary, Margaret, sat behind the black desk and lithely polished her nails. First with the pinky, then she worked her way to the lovely thumb, Then to the right hand. She could have used the cheap paste on fingernails, but Whittaker considered them unworthy of her beauty. She re-crossed her legs each time a nail was finished. With a skin tight skirt, she had to. William Rhinehart, the Director of the Mars Police, slowly made his way from the speedy elevators—forty stories and it took him seven seconds. He loved the technology or it would have taken him days to walk the damn stairs. Rhinehart lumbered to Margaret’s marble desk and stared at her long, voluptuous legs with every step. He was sixty four but still had the hormones. "Here to see Udy, Margaret," he announced with a lusty smile. Whittaker wanted to interrogate him in person about the events on Phobos. Margaret poked from behind her desk with a teasing smile. "Mr. Rhinehart, it is always lovely to see you. Do they look good?" Margaret asked, waving her nails in front of his creased face. "Very nice. Very, very nice," he said, looking at her breasts. A V-shaped sweater revealed most of the neck down. "How 'bout these?" She waved her other hand in front of his face. "Very, very nice," he said, looking at her breasts. "Thank-you," she said and smiled to herself. "You absolutely are welcome," he said, still looking at her breasts. She put down her bottles and steered him to the door, opened it and led him in. "The Director is here, Mr. Whittaker." Whittaker motioned Rhinehart in. The tycoon was on the deskscreen with a THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Chinese tycoon from Earth. Whittaker blew Margaret a kiss and she walked out, closing the black door behind her. Rhinehart waddled to Whittaker's desk and almost tripped over the plant vines dangling on the ground. Whittaker waved him to a chair and Rhinehart sat on the biggest one. “Mr. Lui, I have a very important meeting with the Director of the Mars Police. We will be in touch soon to finalize the deal.” “I look forward to it, Mr. Whittaker,” Patrick Lui said and the deskscreen went blank. “What was that all about?” Rhinehart asked. "I’m trying to put together a deal with some Chinese investors to build the biggest golf resort on Mars without using any of my money.” "Fifty-fifty ownership?" "As usual," Whittaker nodded with a conquering smirk. "I have some news that you might appreciate, Udy." The Director was only the second person who dared call the tycoon Udy. Whittaker pulled two cigars from his drawer and gently twisted one in the gold holder. He handed Rhinehart one and Rhinehart lit it. Whittaker blew puffs of smoke. “I’m listening, Will.” “I’ve been informed that extraction facility one is secured. It should be in operation soon.” “That was the good news I was waiting to hear. Your boy was here earlier. Tough as nails," Whittaker said between puffs. "He gets that toughness from me.” “That’s not what the female interns are saying.” “Every man has a weakness.” “Yours is too obvious.” “I got it from you. Let’s get back to business. What did Ellis do that you didn’t 54 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS approve of?” “He could be more accommodating to those in, let’s say, the upper echelons of power.” “He wasn’t nice to you?” “Let’s just say that he could have been a bit more accommodating.” “I don’t know if you would have done anything different in his shoes, Udy. He’s sending more shuttles and ground troops to guard all three of your facilities on Phobos. They will be secure and operational soon. You have my word on it. Trust me.” "The last time you said that I almost got arrested." "That was ten years ago. And I got you off, didn't I?" "Okay, I'll trust you again. But if anything goes wrong, I'll sue your big ass. Have you let the good people of Mars know about the aliens?" Rhinehart paused and watched as four passenger shuttles sped by. Probably on the way to the Olympus Hilton, he thought. "At the moment there is no need to spread unnecessary fear on the good citizen of Mars.” "And the tombs?" Whittaker interrogated. "From what I understand, two of the tombs are empty. Only two aliens have been spotted," Rhinehart puffed on his cigar. "Since those tombs were found on private property, how do you feel about handing over two to Whittaker Resources?” Rhinehart knew it was coming. He paused for a second. "Our chemical team is still running tests on them. They just did an x-crystallography to determine their atomic structure. We’ll have to sit down another time to discuss this issue as it’s not a top priority. Apprehending those aliens is.” Rhinehart looked out the window and watched a cargo shuttle fly pass. "Look, Will, how long have we been friends? Eighty? Ninety years?" "Thirty five," Rhinehart grunted. 55 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Yeah. Yeah. But who's counting." "I am," Rhinehart said behind a smoke cloud. “Look, Udy, you’re looking at this as a commercial interest. Sometimes you need to temper your greed a little, old friend.” Whittaker inhaled heavily, turned his head and stared out the large window at another passing cargo shuttle. “It is easy for you to make statements like that because you are not responsible for employees and shareholders, Will. I have a fiduciary duty to increase profits for my shareholders every quarter.” Rhinehart puffed and watched a flock of shuttles edging dangerously close against the window. They didn't even make a sound. The sight was beautiful at forty stories up, nestled between ancient red rocks and looking at the afterburners of shuttles peacefully gliding past. Only the Olympus Hilton had a better view. "I'll think about the tombs," Rhinehart said. "Don't think too long. Time is money, Will." They sat and finished their cigars and talked about old times. Rhinehart asked if Whittaker had kept the same mistress in the past week. Whittaker replied no, but he’s straining himself to do it, he said. Of course Rhinehart, married for the last forty years, brought up the subject of Margaret's gorgeous pumps. Beauty, beauty, beauty, he repeated while Whittaker sat and giggled. Rhinehart continued, "There’s an item of concern that I’d like to bring to your attention.” Whittaker glared at him as if he didn't hear the question. “And that is?” Whittaker finally said. “We have spotted four shuttles from Whittaker Resources making their way to the Asteroid Belt. My guess is that you’re trying to get more tombs but I’d like to hear the reason from you.” “We get our minerals from the Asteroid Belt. Those shuttles were sent earlier than scheduled because we see an opportunity. It is an investment decision. " 56 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "You understand the consequences of that decision, don't you?" Whittaker said nothing. He knew his company could have future flights revoked. Every shuttle that was airborne had to be approved by the Traffic Division of the MP. "I understand that Whittaker Resources is allowed twenty three flights per year to the Belt." "Which is one per month," Rhinehart grunted with the cigar touching his lips. The rotation of Mars was six hundred and eighty seven days around the sun. Mars used the 30 day a month calendar, same as Earth. Whittaker said, "It wasn't explicit in the contract. It only specified twenty three flights to the Belt per year, which means we could use four flights this month and cancel trips for the next four months." The drumming of the fat folds stopped. "Clever, Udy, very clever. We are thinking about sending ten of our own. And ours are faster.” "I should know, we built those shuttles." Whittaker set down his cigar. "The beauty of capitalism is that there’s competition. There should be enough tombs to go around, I think." They talked some more with Rhinehart watching the orange glow of thrusters flaring outside. After an easy silence, Rhinehart said, "I must be going now. I am expecting full report from Ellis within the hour. He's on Phobos intensifying the search." Rhinehart, with great effort and heavy breathing, started to his big feet. Whittaker rose to his feet and led Rhinehart out. "Please keep me up to date," Whittaker said at the door. "I’ll do my best. In the mean time, you can send your chemical team to Platform II to do whatever work needs to be done." Rhinehart walked out and flashed Margaret an old man's carnal wink. She smiled brightly back and he almost went into a convulsion. For a brief moment he thought about 57 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS divorce. At the precise moment Rhinehart called for the elevator, nine patrol shuttles, including shuttle three, the shuttle of John Yamoto and Michael Ender, landed in the Docking Bay of MP Headquarters. FOR THE LAST the last three hours Ellis had the chemical team painfully analyze and reanalyze every inch of the four tombs. They had found the material foreign to anything on Earth or Mars. Ellis was told they were a type of crystal—regular layers of atoms packed extremely close together, but the layer of atoms on the tombs were stacked closer than the regular crystals found on Earth or Mars. This was a mystery to the Chemical Division. "The third test should be done in about an hour," Dale Mackenzy said as he approached the makeshift command post. He was the lead for the chemical team of the MP. "Good," Ellis said without looking at him. He rubbed his temple with both hands in fatigue. His short brown hair was a mess. He hadn’t had a moment to himself in the last twelve hours. He looked up at Mackenzy. "There’s something important we need to get done before we move on to anything else." Mackenzy waited for a few seconds. “I’m listening.” "We need to get the platforms moving again.” Mackenzy waited again. “Because?” Ellis paused and squinted at the platform. “Because we need to know if there are more tombs.” “More tombs mean more aliens.” More deaths, Ellis thought. "You said only one tomb was forcibly opened by the drill, correct?" Mackenzy nodded. "From what we know.” 58 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "It would probably mean that the other three tombs were opened by the first alien that was released by Whittaker’s people.” "I’m guessing they did it out of curiosity.” “And curiosity killed the cat. Okay! Get the platforms moving and look for more tombs. If you find any, let me know right away.” Within the hour, all the platforms at WEF I were moving again. Ellis drove slowly to the rumbling platform and intensely studied each slab as it was being removed and x-rayed. "Ellis," an MP shouted. Ellis stared tiredly at the man from his transport. The man pointed to Ellis's desk. It was Loren on the deskscreen, the man said. Ellis said thanks and drove the transport to his command post. "Loren, I could use some good news about now," Ellis said, almost begging. Loren slowly shook her head sideways. Ellis got the answer. "Are you positive?" Ellis asked. Loren nodded a yes. "What about the other platforms and facilities?" Again, Loren only nodded. She was dead tired. "And the housing facilities?" "Nothing," Loren finally spoke. "We are missing something here. I know that they’re still alive. Have you scanned down here?” "Only ten times," Loren said. He pounded the table with his fist and her face shook on the deskscreen. "They've got to be on Phobos," he insisted. He stared around the platform again. There were hundreds of people gathered in groups. He swallowed hard before speaking again. "I want you to refuel at WEF III and do 59 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS another sweep. This time do it on rovers if you have too. I know they're out there if they're not in the facilities." "Got it," Loren said as her face faded from the deskscreen. Ellis sat on the chair and buried his face in both palms. It wasn't long before Callen and Mackenzy approached with the x-ray results. The sight of Ellis burying his face in both palms was pitiful. Callen, the lead from Whittaker Resources chemical team, spoke first. "It appears that the tombs are absorbing more and scattering the x-rays less. Or sometimes they change back and forth, becoming more solid at times and liquid at other. I’m just as confused as everyone else." “Nothing is simple with this case. Keep doing the tests every hour or so," Ellis said without looking up. "Maybe we should bring the tombs to Mars and examine them there," Callen suggested. But it sounded more like a pressing recommendation to Ellis, perhaps one from Whittaker. He didn't answer the suggestion. "Just keep doing the tests," Ellis said firmly, still with his face planted in both palms. "We have better equipment on Mars,” Callen suggested. Ellis glanced up at Callen, who was about his age. "Keep doing the tests." "Ellis,” Mackenzy offered, “the results we are getting here are not what we may get on Mars because we have better equipment and facilities on Mars.” Ellis focused his wrinkled eyes on Mackenzy. "We are not doing anything on Mars at this moment. Keep doing the tests here." Mackenzy and Callen glared at each other, as if Ellis was a madman. Ellis sat upright and sipped the instant coffee. He watched the hectic activities. The twenty one coffins had been flown back to Mars for temporary freezing arrangements. Rhinehart had insisted they temporarily freeze the bodies until the whole 60 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS alien mess was cleared up. The freezing process was perfected a few years back by Whittaker Cryogenics. 61 9 KEVIN FRYER HAS worked at the Mars Mortuary for the last six years. The job was easy, but he hated it because it was the night shift. And he particularly hated his boss for putting him on the night shift. But things were looking up now because Michelle Gardner was his new assistant. She was twenty-eight years old, eight years younger than the balding Fryer. And she looked stunning in the long white lab coat. Suddenly the night shift wasn’t that bad anymore. Kevin Fryer’s official title was Supervisor of Data. He catalogued the dead and had seen every type in his six years—sometimes he wondered how he would hit the bucket himself. His job was to check the dead faces and made sure they matched with the personal information on his handscreen. If there was a match, he’d send the official notice to their respective families so they could cry. Easiest job on Mars. The third floor in which they worked was greatly sanitized and cleaner than most hospitals on Mars. It had white floor and walls with no odor or dust. The lights were white and the glass was perfectly clear. The entire floor had that heavenly look to it. There were only two rooms on the third floor. One was Fryer’s office with two big, snug chairs where Fryer did his work and made ridiculous passes at Gardner. The other room occupied over 90 percent of the floor and was called the Nitrogen Chamber. A wide glass wall hallway separated the Nitrogen Chamber from Fryer’s office. The Nitrogen Chamber was where bodies were temporarily frozen after Fryer and Gardner identified them. For the most part, Gardner was there to keep him company. She was learning the job nicely and he was trying hard to learn her. Just one month, he hoped, and he could get some candlelight going. But she was getting married in two months and would have none of it. "Okay, last time," Fryer, alias Romeo, explained for the hundredth time. "Enter your code at the flash. Then punch in the code of the coffin. Then make sure the face and personal ID match. Then move it to the Nitrogen Chamber and stuff it in. Get it?" Fryer THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS was staring at her chest with every word. "Get it," she said with a smile, leaning toward the deskscreen. Now he had to be sly because she was leaning against the deskscreen just inches from him. He needed a good line, one that would get her to move closer across the table. He couldn't tell her his hair was receding, or he had been celibate for six months. Hmm, something witty, something unused. It came to him. "You ever seen two people die from making love?" Gardner looked at him strangely. "No I haven't. Have you?" she asked with a puzzled face, but couldn't wait for the phony answer. "I sure have, twice in fact. See chambers 69 and 92," Fryer said and waved through the glass door to the Nitrogen Chamber. Chambers 69 and 92 were near the top. "A young couple wanted to have sex in every conceivable place. Tourists found them stuck together near the Olympus Hilton. The second couple went the same way. But they went having sex. What a way to go, having sex, then dying. Having sex without gravity, I wondered how that must have felt, having sex in zero gravity. Must have been a great feeling having sex on Mars,while the sex lasted for those poor kids, anyway. Sex, geez, sex." Gardner counted, the poor guy used the word “sex” nine times. He's definitely on to something, Gardner thought. "You're serious?" she asked innocently enough. Just playing along. Maybe she'll make him beg later, then shoot him down. But for now, she would just toy with him. "I’m very serious. It’s on record. They were smiling and embracing when they died," Fryer said as if it were true. He was smooth as glue, but she didn't inch any closer. Gardner thought about it for a few seconds while glaring at the deskscreen. She tried to look interested but couldn’t hold it any longer. She cupped her mouth with both hands and pretended to cough, but was really hiding a big laugh. She had studied the deaths of all one hundred and sixty chambers and recalled no such deaths. Pitiful, she thought, just plain pitiful. She couldn't wait to tell her fiancé. However, she did award him two points of ten for effort. "Wow. That must have been something," Gardner said after recovering from her near-death cough. 63 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS A moment of silence descended as Romeo worked his mind for another line. Finally, she was saved by the people on floor two for the fifth time in five days. A man in a long, white overcoat stepped out the spacious elevators. In front of him were twenty one coffins. The black, shiny coffins were propelled noiselessly down the white hallway by an electric motor. Near Fryer's glass office, the man touched a button on the small panel and the twenty one coffins stopped. The electric motor made no sound. Fryer preceded Gardner to the coffins. "Good evening, Albert," Gardner greeted as the man approached. "Good evening, Michelle. Got a big load for you tonight,” Albert said. Romeo approached from behind and sort of accidentally bumped into Gardner. "Good evening, Albert," he said. "Hi ya, Kevin. Got lots for you tonight. These have special instructions. We are only to identify the names of the first five. Leave the last 16 alone. They are not to be identified," Albert said. “Who wants it that way?" Fryer asked, suspicion hanging on every word. "The Mars Police. Again, please do not identify the last sixteen. The MP will send you the files for verification later. When later? I wasn’t told. For now, just stick them in the chambers. There should be enough room," Albert said. Fryer and Gardener exchanged perplexed looks, then they both stared at Albert. "That's odd," Fryer said. "Why do they want to keep the identities of these 16 a secret? Are you sure that's what the order was?" "The order was sealed and signed by the director of the MP, Mr. Rhinehart himself. Don't feel bad though, we didn't get to pull out the intestines or brains. They said we could do it later. Hee, hee. Right now, they just want to freeze them until further notice. Some MP will drop by and have a look at the bodies soon. I wasn't told the exact time, though.” Gardner stared weirdly at Albert. "And you didn't ask why they wanted to keep the names from public record?" “That is not my place to ask, Michelle. Let’s try to make our job easier by doing what we’re told. We are dealing with the MP here.” Of course, Fryer thought. "How did these sixteen people die?" Fryer asked 64 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS suspiciously. "I don’t know, Albert. You’re asking too many questions that I don’t have answers to.” Gardner gave a perplexed look at the coffins before her. "Okay. Forget about the sixteen. How did the first five die?" Fryer asked, waving his hand across the five coffins. "I was told by industrial accidents on Phobos. I swear to God that’s all I was told. If I knew anymore I’d tell you,” Albert said. Gardner looked suspiciously at Albert. "Thanks, Albert." "Thanks," Fryer said, almost whispering. Albert walked back to the elevator and went down to the second floor to play cards. Gardner and Fryer stood and watched the coffins. Not much work tonight. The verification was the tedious part and they didn’t have to do it tonight. Gardner walked to the elevator door where the control panel to the coffins was. She softly tapped the ADVANCE button and the coffins gently rolled forward. The hidden engine made no noise. Fryer went over to the Nitrogen Chamber door and pressed his index finger on a palm-sized IDpad mounted on the wall. The computer recognized his fingerprint and beeped twice. The glass door hissed and slid wide open. Gardner swung around the corner with the twenty one coffins and gingerly steered them through the door. She navigated the coffins right to the center of the Nitrogen Chamber, and touched the HALT button. The coffins stopped without a sound. The Nitrogen Chamber had four walls. The wall facing the hallway was all glass with the words NITROGEN CHAMBER in black. The coffins were the only other objects that were black, everything else was eerily white. It was an eerie contrast. Fryer walked across the ghostly hallway and grabbed his handscreen. Gardner had decided to put the coffins in chambers 161 to 181. Only 19 spots left. She lightly tapped the SEPARATE button, and the first five coffins separated from the other sixteen. Romeo walked back in with his glowing handscreen and walked up to Gardner. "The side walls are full," she said. "We should use chambers 161 through 181." Each side wall had fifty chambers, numbered from 1 to 50. The front wall had 100 chambers numbered from 100 to 200. 65 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Great. Let's put these sixteen away before we identify those five," Fryer said, pointing to the five coffins, which contained the bodies of former Whittaker Resources employees. Gardner glided the sixteen rectangular coffins toward the front wall. Romeo stood behind and adored her ass waggling from the corner of his eyes. What a boss. Gardner noticed identical lettering on each of the sixteen coffins: PROPERTY OF MARS POLICE. DO NOT TAMPER WITH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE. PUNISHABLE BY FINE AND/OR JAIL SENTENCE. On the front wall was another panel with flashing green lights. Gardner skimmed her hand across the LOWER button and chambers 161 through 181 eased slowly to the floor. She pressed the OPEN button and a cloud of nitrogen-smoke hissed from the chambers as they opened. She positioned the sixteen caskets near the middle, then a long and thin robotic arm automatically reached through the white wall and placed each casket in its respective chamber. As the robotic hand pulled away, the chamber seethed shut and another cloud of nitrogen-smoke rose. The chambers smoothly glided to the top, back to their rightful numbering on the wall. A red light flashed in each of the occupied chamber instead of green. The 16 bodies of the Mars Police officers were temporarily frozen. Romeo was still inclined against one of the five coffins admiring the view of Gardner hustling. "Okay, let's start with the identification of these five," Gardner said as she approached him. "I was going to start on it earlier but I wanted you to have a little practice." Fryer emphasized “but.” He pulled the top off one coffin and stared down. It was Epson Rebus with his eyes closed and hands folded across his chest in a mummified position. His lips were swelled with stitching marks criss-crossed his pale face. Fryer checked the inscription on the first coffin and cross referenced it with his handscreen. They matched. It was Epson Rebus, the first victim of the aliens at Platform II. "That must have been some industrial accident," Gardner said doubtfully, and looked away from the dead face. Fryer ran his index finger down Rebus’s neck. "There's something about the cuts that would suggest something else other than an industrial accident. I'd hate to see how 66 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS the other sixteen died if they didn't want us to identify them. I’m guessing that Xavier and his morons could have a role in all this." Fryer looked at the picture Rebus on his handscreen, then glanced down at the dead Rebus lying before him. Both pictures were looked the same, except the corpse wasn't smiling. He dragged the coffin top closed and she steered it aside. The next two corpses had incisions through their chests with stitches running through their faces. The inscriptions said John Hibler and Kenneth Rogers, the two laser cutters at Platform II. Gardner stood and watched in horror. "Let's quickly get this over with," she said with her palms cupping her mouth. "Only two more to go. You can start putting those three in the chambers. I’ve identified them," Fryer said. Gardner dutifully steered the three coffins to the near wall. She eased them by the waiting robotic arm. The servile machine hissed a few times, then the three coffins disappeared in the wall. She stood by the front wall with her arms folded in front of her chest and waited for Romeo to finish. Two were left. Randal Unger was the next corpse, then Kurdick Stengel. Fryer casually opened the coffin top. He looked at the pale face of Unger, then looked at the handscreen. The two faces looked the same, except the corpse wasn't smiling for some reason. Fryer paused a second and frowned at the handsome picture of Unger on his handscreen. Then he looked at the corpse. There they were! The glowing red eyes blinked open and stared at him. Unger did not move. For a second Fryer returned the stare, then stumbled back in horror. The eyes studied the white ceiling, methodically moving around. "You'd better see this, Michelle," he shrieked, still stumbling back on the balls of his feet. "What is it?" she asked calmly, facing the front wall. Light clouds of nitrogen smoke were swirling around her. She took a long stride toward the coffin. Fryer grabbed her arm. "Don't come near that thing! That guy is still alive." He stabbed fingers at Unger's coffin. 67 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Don't be ridiculous," she said with irritation. Must of been one of his famous lines, she thought. She deducted one point from his hard earned two. She ignored the warning and stepped forward. Fryer grabbed her arm and swung her around violently. "Look, I saw his eyes open. I am not joking, don't come near that thing. Just don't come near it, please. I saw his eyes open. Please Michelle. Please don't come near that thing. Please," Fryer pleaded, sounding like a scratched CD. Gardner felt the pressure of his grip. "I won't, just let me go." Fryer let her go. They both moved ten feet away from the coffin and watched it carefully. Nitrogen smoke swirled from behind as the robotic arm stopped with the hissing and whirling and properly hid itself in the wall. Fryer raised his hand. "Stay here and don't move," he said like hero, then slowly inched forward to Unger's coffin. He glanced back at Gardner and smiled, and she nervously smiled back. For a brief moment he thought about heroic courage, rescue and a fairy-tale ending. Just like the movies. At six feet from the coffin, Fryer saw the black fabric covering Randal Unger from toe to neck. No movement in the coffin. Fryer carefully stepped forward. Maybe he had imagined the glowing red eyes, or maybe not. Another big step and Fryer stood still, frozen in fear. He turned to Gardner as it happened and Gardner backed against the wall. The fabric covering Unger hurled over the coffin and Unger slowly sat upright. His face was pale, almost colorless. Unger stared directly at the sidewall and ignored Fryer. He sat motionless for a few seconds with his eyes sizzling red. Unger was completely naked and his pale body was shifting colors, becoming transparent. Fryer stepped backward and dropped his handscreen. It dropped on the ground and bounced somewhere behind. He heard Gardner mumbling curses. Still sitting upright in the coffin, Unger turned and stared Fryer in the eyes. The glowing red eyes scared Fryer, then it stared at Gardner and back to Fryer and back to Gardner. "Let's get Albert," Fryer said and grabbed her arm. Gardner was staring in disbelief as Unger's body was becoming transparent, 68 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS enough for her to see the office across the glassed-hallway. "Snap out of it!" Fryer said. Gardner couldn't. She was mesmerized, oh how she was mesmerized. He pulled her hard toward the glass door and she tripped. He slid his arm around hers and they crawled along the white chamber wall while fearfully staring at Unger. Unger was still motionless, staring at the wall. Then his eyes sparked. "Okay," Fryer whispered in Gardern’s ear. "I am going to dash across the hallway and alert Albert. Follow me if you can." "Just be careful," she whispered back and patted his back. He freed her arm and lunged for the glass door. Only thirty more feet until the hallway, then call Albert on the second floor for help. At five feet to the door, a deafening scream erupted. It was Gardner. He abruptly stopped and twisted around to look at her. A mighty blow knocked him to the ground. He looked up and saw Randal Unger straddling his chest. His eyes glinted red. "Run, honey! Run!" he encouraged her. He was lying on the ground staring up between Unger's legs with tearful eyes. Fryer stared at her for the last time and prayed for her safety. He glanced up and saw Randal Unger ominously grinning downward. The last thing Fryer remembered were the electric charged eyes, then the lights somberly dimmed on him. Gardner did not run. The coffin of Kurdick Stengel was behind Unger's. Gardner was cupping her hands over her mouth and crying for Fryer so she did not notice Stengel creeping out of his coffin. He was naked and walked slowly and deliberately toward Gardner, who was still against the wall crying out loud. She thought about running, but there was no way she could get past that bastard guarding the door. Unger/the alien stood over Fryer's dead body like a predator after the kill. It didn't move. Probably waiting for Gardner to bolt through the door and meet the same fate as poor Fryer. She realized this and retreated a few steps. She turned around saw Kurdick Stengel, also with the electric charged eyes. She dropped to her knees and screamed as loud as she could. The sound echoed through the Nitrogen Chamber and down the white 69 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS hallway. But no one heard her. There was no one else on this floor. She screamed again and again and again. Albert was too busy playing cards on the second floor. He had five nothings, but was betting big. Four of a kind, he was telling the gal next to him. Gardner realized there was only one option and she had remembered it from Albert. She would temporarily freeze herself in one of the nitrogen chambers until the MP came for the bodies. Albert had said that the MP would come to claim the 16 bodies. Fryer had recorded the chamber numbers—a red light flashed if the chamber was occupied. She was hoping that Albert would check for all the chambers that was not supposed to be occupied, but were, and hopefully find her. Or she would be frozen indefinitely. Gardner watched the aliens as she sidestepped to the panel. Unger and Stengel did not move. They stood and glared at her, analyzing her movements. As long as they wanted to watch it was fine by her. With both hands feeling the wall, she inched along it, careful not to make any abrupt movements like Fryer did. Her hands trembled as she watched them studying her like a zoo animal. She was full of contempt as she looked at Fryer's body on the ground with his mouth open. Unger tilted his head sideways. Those eyes terribly frightened her. Eyes of the Devil. She managed to gather herself and continued her advance along the wall, using her hands as guidance. No movements from them. Amazing. She finally reached the panel, and tapped in a quick succession LOWER-OPEN-200. A beep, a whine, a beep, then Chamber 200 smoothly glided down the wall. Her timing had to be impeccable or the chamber would shut too soon and leave her standing helpless. Gardner slowly dipped one foot inside through a cloud of nitrogen smoke. Then with one neat twist she flung herself into the chamber, the right leg followed last. She lay down with her arms folded across her chest in a crude X, and wiggled her body into position. She watched through the nitrogen smoke as the chamber slowly seethed shut. The chamber was too big for her tiny body without the coffin, but that was fine. She had made it. Another second and she only saw darkness, the chamber had completely sealed. Thirty more seconds and her body would be at freezing temperature. She had expected to feel the chamber rise as the robotic arm lifted it to its rightful 70 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS place near the top. But that did not happen. Just as the robotic arm poked through the wall, the alien, Unger, lunged forward. The robotic punched a hole through his chest but there wasn’t any blood coming out of it. The robotic arm gyrated wildly and hissed as it tried to pull back into the wall. It was attempting to save his life, like it was programmed to do. Unger coolly looked down at his chest, then at Stengel. Stengel stood and cockily grinned and offered no help to his wounded comrade. Unger raised both arms in the air, clenched both fists, and a brilliant fireball radiated from it. The rest of his body remained pale flesh. Then electric sparks flared from his chest, and within seconds, the robotic arm melted and stopped gyrating. The metal turned into hot molten liquid and oozed down his legs onto the ground. The ground sizzled as Unger knocked the robotic arm hard against the side wall. He was dripping with glowing molten metal. He glanced at Stengel and cockily grinned. They both approached chamber 200 with Michelle Gardner inside. She never saw what happened but her intuition told her something was horribly wrong. She saw the chamber cracking with glaring light, and the hands which opened it were not human. They were large and brawny. Then the chamber door flew off and hit the side wall where it shattered. Gardner found herself looking upward at her would be alien killers. The only feature she recalled were the glowing red eyes, and the two figures standing above her had them. Everything else was different, Unger and Stengel were no longer in the room. Her eyes widened as she viciously bellowed on the top of her lungs, so loud that the sound bounced back and forth on the floor. The aliens leaned their heads forward, hovering over her. She screamed again. One alien extended a hand to her face and wiggled its fingers. The tearful Gardner slapped the arm with both hands, but couldn't even make it move. She kept smacking the arm until she saw it change colors, then her hand went through the arm at the elbow. She bolted up and leaped out of the chamber. The other alien seized her shoulders and violently swung her around. Then the one with the glowing arm stuck its arm through her face. The hand poked behind to the back of her skull. Her face shone brightly as she felt it mildly heating up. A neat line of sweat broke across her forehead as the arm glowed and sizzled. 71 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS She screamed repeatedly as she ran for the door. The hand yanked her collar, and her neck wobbled and jerked. She never had time to scream again. The arm flared with electric sparks and her knees buckled, then she folded to the ground. Her head hit the white concrete and smeared the ground with blood. Her white lab coat was scorched, her eyes eerily open looking into the glaring ceiling light. They straddled her dead body. "Run, honey. Run," one of them mocked. The tone was slightly lower and colder than Fryer's. 72 10 THE LAST PHASE of the Olympus Hilton would not be completed for another five years. Once construction was finished it would be the largest structure on Mars in terms of area, but not in height. Whittaker Tower was the tallest structure on Mars and it would remain that way as long as Udell Whittaker was alive. The hotel resort was a complex of three thirty-six story towers, which were identical except for the numbering. An artificial lake named after the founder, Conrad Hilton, encircled the three towers. A lush green forest surrounded Conrad Lake and the three towers. There was a system of flowing streams crisscrossing inside the majestic forest to ensure it looked natural. A series of wide walkways cut through the forest. It was where lovers strolled and admired the two moons of Mars—Phobos and Deimos, or Fear and Terror. The Olympus Hilton had 60 shuttlepads and an underground train system. Despite all its magnificent sights and posh comforts, the engineering aspect was most admired. The whole structure was under a biosphere and every engineering precaution had been taken so that the guests did not feel trembles during marsquakes. Most guests were from Earth, some from Whittaker Heavy Industries and the rest were well-to-do business types who came for the company of harlots who roamed Venus Bar, which was on the second floor of the Olympus Hilton, Tower One. Veronica and Marilyn happened to be two of the harlots roaming Venus Bar. They sat on the barstools as though they owned the place and methodically examined the floor of Venus Bar for possible victims. They were gorgeous and dressed to the nines. Veronica instantly saw what she liked. "Over there," she said, pointing her long finger at table twenty. "I don't know, one of them is old and fat. He might be married," Marilyn said. "I hope he is. It’s more of a challenge that way." Veronica smiled gamely. She sipped her vodka and admired Conrad Lake outside. It was an awesome scene no matter how many times she had seen it. "It could be a father and son situation. It doesn't look too promising,” Marilyn THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS said. "I bet they work for Whittaker Resources and those guys are always loaded. The young one is kinda handsome. Look at that innocent face. I think he’s the shy type," Veronica said, and they both giggled. Both were in their late twenties. "I get the shy one," Marilyn said with a giggle. "Okay, you get him first and I get him second," Veronica said. "Then we both get him.” "I don't know," Veronica said, sounding serious. "The last time we did that the guy almost had a heart attack and his wife found out." They both chuckled. "What was that guy's name again?" Marilyn asked. "Wine, line, hine. What was it? He just kept on going and going and going and going. What was it?" "Rhine, rhine. Rhine something," Veronica said. "Rhinehart!" Marilyn snapped. They burst out laughing. Veronica stopped first and turned to her victim. "Isn't he so young, so handsome and so shy?" she said. You can never tell with the shy ones, Marilyn thought. "He sure is." "Let's go," Veronica said briskly. Time for victims. They tenderly placed their drinks on the bar, pushed off their stools, and strutted to table twenty. Every guy at every table turned their heads to get a peek of the two beautiful ladies strutting down the aisle. As they passed table nineteen, the young man turned his head and admired Veronica’s legs. His girlfriend pinched his cheeks and forcefully spun his head back. "I am sorry, honey. I was looking at Conrad Lake," he apologized with dreamy eyes. "Conrad Lake is that way," the young lady said and pointed to the opposite direction. A stupid grin crossed his silly face. Caught in the act. Table twenty had three brown, leather chairs, but only two were occupied. Veronica comfortably sunk herself into the third one, as though it were her table. 74 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS She sexily crossed her smooth legs. "Hi. How are the drinks?" Veronica asked the shy one, staring luridly at him. Marilyn stood above the chubby one. The shy one hesitated. "It's fine," he answered bashfully and swallowed hard. "What's your name?" Veronica asked, smiling gamely. She dragged her chair closer to his. "Gust, Gust Hein," he answered sheepishly and gulped again, trying hard to look away from the suave legs. Her seductive perfume reached his nose and he felt awkward. The temperature was raising. "And yours?" Marilyn asked the chubby one. "Brown Arbon," the man said flatly and returned to stir his drink, uninterested in the apparent advance. "Do you both work for Whittaker Resources?" Marilyn asked, sounding crafty. "Yes we do. We are Haulers," Brown answered, sounding bored. This one was definitely married and not interested, thought Marilyn. Neither was she. Marilyn stood and watched as Veronica worked over the young Gust Hein. "Is it true that all employee of Whittaker Resources are paid well and work really hard?" Veronica asked, strongly emphasizing “hard.” She dragged her chair closer until her thighs rubbed against Gust’s. She ran her hand up his legs under the table out of view from Brown. The temperature zoomed passed 80 for Gust. "I have no complaints about the pay," Gust said sheepishly. He pretended to admire Conrad Lake but it was in vain. He crossed his legs to cover the bulge. Her fingers were playing with his privates. Then she grabbed it and caressed it, and a warm tingling feeling shot up his body. The temperature reached boiling point. She inched her lips closer to his ears and caressed it with her tongue. "I think you need some company after all that time away from home, honey," she whispered playfully in his ear. Brown was busy watching two guys arm wrestling at table twenty-nine and missed the offer. Everything, his head, hormones, emotions, and most importantly the bulge, told him to say yes. He hadn't had any in eight months and won't for another week. He touched her dirty blonde hair and sniffed the lovely fragrance. She was working her way 75 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS down his neck, still with the commanding hold on his privates. It was a soft but commanding hold accompanied by a gentle massage. Gust grinned stupidly at Brown, then he turned to Veronica. "Mr. Arbon, I’m married, aren’t I?” “Happily so, son,” Brown lied for Gust. Then added sternly, “I’m going to tell your wife everything that happens here, so be careful what you get yourself into. There are consequences to every action.” Gust shrugged and grinned stupidly at Brown. "Maybe next time," Veronica said and smiled prettily at Gust. She pecked him on his handsome flushed checks and walked off. Marilyn and Veronica strutted back to their barstools to comb Venus Bar for their next victims. Gust glanced back at the bar and saw Veronica looking at him. She winked at him and he turned back to Brown. He could wait because his girlfriend, Christy, was coming to Mars soon. "That was close," Gust said and wiped his forehead. “Thanks for covering for me, Mr. Brown.” Brown laughed as he watched Gust take a swig of the Budweiser and emptied the bottle. "It was the right thing to do, Gust. All the little pleasures can add up to big problems later on in life,” Brown preached. “You know what they say, ‘a small leak can sink a great ship.’ “ Brown reached over the table and patted Gust on the shoulder. Gust turned his attention to Conrad Lake and the dense forest outside the big picture windows. Gust lifted his glass to take a sip but realized it was empty. It was his fourth and he felt a buzz. They had spent most their spare time at Olympus Hilton since they had returned to Mars eight days ago. They needed the crowd after eight months of isolation. A long easy silence descended as Brown thought about his family and Gust about Christy. Then Gust recalled what a friend in Platform II had told him earlier and decided to let Brown on the secret. "You know happened to the rock we pulled in?" Gust asked. 76 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "It’s probably in a million pieces by now," Brown said casually. "I have a friend who works in Platform III at WEF I and he just told me a bizarre story. He said something about aliens." "Aliens! Was he smoking that green stuff they’ve been bringing from Earth?" Gust smiled and leaned closer to Brown. "He said they found some aliens in Platform II." Brown looked perplexed. “Aliens? How many beers have you had?” "Please keep your voice down, Mr. Arbon." Gust shook his head. "According to my source the aliens escaped and the MPs are searching Phobos for them. Apparently, they had to shut down extraction facility one because there was damage to it." "Does your friend have a name?" "Yes." Brown was quiet and expected an answer, but none was coming. "Well, what is it?" Brown asked, a little frustrated. "He made it clear that he didn’t want to be named as a source because he was under order to keep it quiet." "Maybe he's pulling your leg. A big prank, it happens all the time on Mars. Aliens are famous here, you know." "He could be, I doubt it though. You know Epson Rebus, supervisor of Platform II?" "Not personally but I’ve heard of him. Why?" Brown asked and sipped his beer. "According to my source, Epson Rebus and two other guys from Platform III were asked to assist Platform II. They went with a drilling laser. He said all three never came back. The next thing he knew, the entire facility was overflowing with MPs. They shut down the entire facility. Last he saw, there were at least over twenty six patrol shuttles at the facility." "Where's your friend now?" "They flew him back to Mars. They told him he couldn't return to work for a couple of months; they're temporary replacing all personnel at the WEF I." Gust looked over at Veronica leaning against the bar in the distant. She did not catch him this time. "If what your friend is saying is true, then why haven't the MP released the 77 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS news?" Brown asked and drained his beer. He wiped his lips dry and waited for an answer. "I believe my friend is telling me the truth from what he knows. I don’t see any reason for him to concoct an alien story. The two guys who worked at Platform II have been confirmed dead but they’re trying to say that it was from an industrial accident.” Gust's face was slightly red from the four beers. Brown looked at him weirdly. "Maybe it was an industrial accident," Brown blurted. "There are a lot of rumors flying around. But let’s say that it was an industrial accident, why would they send in almost the entire enforcement division?" "It might have been just an accident and Whittaker needed some muscles, so he called his pal Rhinehart for help. Everyone knows Whittaker and Rhinehart are tight. They're the two most powerful men on Mars. Rhinehart scratches Whittaker’s back this time and vice versa next time.” Gust paused for a moment as a waitress made her round and Brown ordered six more Buds, all for himself. Gust ordered two. Venus Bar had live waiter and waitresses and not the robotic ones like the Holiday Inn. The waitress lifted a small receiver dangling on her chest and spoke in it. "Eight Buds for table twenty," she said. Her voice was relayed to the main bar where another waitress would pick up the order and bring the beer to table twenty. "I would distance myself from these rumors for the time being," Brown said, shaking his head. “At least until the facts can be confirmed. I know how much you love aliens, son, but as they say, curiosity killed the cat.” Gust frowned at the suggestion. "Okay, when is our next scheduled flight to the belt?" Gust asked and thanked the attractive waitress. She squeezed by and made her way to table twenty-one. Gust watched her move. The booze was kicking in. "About four months." "Our next flight is suspended indefinitely," Gust said as the waitress was out of earshot. "What!" Brown was shocked. He almost choked on his beer. "Who says?" "Whittaker Resources. We weren't supposed to know until later, but my friend 78 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS found out first." "Are we-" "Yes, we’ll still be getting paid in full." Gust knew it was coming. "Did they say why?" Brown asked, relieved he was still getting paid for sitting on his big, round ass and sipping beer. "Not that I know of. But don't you think that's unusual for Whittaker Resources to be canceling trips?" "Come to think of it, it does. That’s how Whittaker makes most of his money." "I’m taking a wild guess that they don’t want to bring back anymore aliens.” “You’re scaring me, son." "Mr. Brown, do my a huge favor and keep this between us. We don’t want to look silly if it does turn out to be a hoax.” "My lips are sealed," Brown said and did his best buttoned-lipped impression. The waitress arrived with the eight beers and gently set them on the circular table. Brown guzzled his first before Gust could reach for his. Gust sipped slowly and swerved his chair to admire the awesome sight of Conrad Lake. The artificial lights outside were beginning to dim. MARILY AND VERONICA leaned against the barstool and, again, carefully surveyed Venus Bar. They had just figured their next victims. It was at table sixteen where two MPs were quietly sitting. The boys in black were always used as a last resort and only for fun because they had a habit of drawing the unwanted attention of the crowd. This time Marilyn was the lead. She eased up to both of them and jerked her head at the ceiling, tossing her hair. "Come on, let's go upstairs and put those cuffs to good use," she said bluntly. No need to be subtle with the boys in black. The two MPs stared at each other and ignored the two beautiful ladies standing before them. "Looks like you guys need some company," Veronica said loudly and kicked her suave legs out. 79 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Still no response. Marilyn , ever the party girl, kicked another leg and put it on the table right in their faces. "How about a wild time? Wouldn't you like that?" she asked seductively with her hands easing on her hips. One MP gawked up, confused. "Do I have to do everything myself?" he asked in a fragmented voice, a little stuttering after each word. Veronica and Marilyn stared at each other. "This should be fun," Marilyn whispered to Veronica. Marilyn looked down at the MP. "No, you don't have to do everything by yourself. Not if you don't want to." Veronica funnily smiled. "You don't even have to talk if you don't want to. But I promise you’ll moan and groan," Veronica said. She blew them a kiss with her red lips and slowly recoiled it in tease. "Holy shit," the other MP said. He was Japanese and his voice was cracked "Holy shit is right," Veronica said. "We're gonna give you the ride of your life, big boy." She turned to Marilyn and they both laughed loudly. Amusing. The two MP made no effort to smile. "Just kill me," the other MP said, his voice was peculiar. Again, Veronica and Marilyn exploded in laughter. Very amusing. "We've come close to killing a couple of people. We’re that good," Marilyn said good-humoredly. She smiled at them, but they didn’t smile back. Veronica clenched her jaw and tightened her lips to prevent herself from bursting with laughter again. Under a minute with these guys, Veronica thought. "Just fucking kill me," the other MP said. His voice was crackling with electricity. Veronica and Marilyn failed to connect the humor this time. "Look," Marilyn said and looked down at the names on their uniforms: ENDER, MICHAEL and YAMOTO, JOHN. "Michael and John," Marilyn said seductively. "Why don’t you guys come up with us and release a bit of stress?" No response. "It must be hard work chasing the bad guys. Let us help you release some 80 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS tension," Marilyn offered. The two MPs did not move. Veronica pulled her leg down from the table. "Well?" Marilyn asked, a bit frustrated now. There was no response. Ender just stared at them and they both gamely returned his stare. Suddenly, Ender's eyes were no longer black. They glowed red. Then the ominous eyes sizzled with electric sparks. Yamoto's eyes also glowed red, exactly like Ender's. Eyes of Satan. "You're a bunch of freaks," Marilyn cried. "What a bunch of creeps," Veronica added to the insult. Veronica and Marilyn strutted back to their barstools at Venus Bar. No victims tonight. 81 11 THE MARS POLICE Docking Bay was built inside a gigantic mountain. A large field and series of tunnel were carved through the mountain that provided shelter for the shuttles. The mountain itself was in a valley, and above the mountain sat the building of the MP Headquarters. At the feet of the mountain stood the massive statue of the ancient Roman war god, Mars. He was dressed in full combat gear complete with a sandal, cloth toga, a girdle on his hip, and a wreath around his head. He held a spear with his right hand and a shield with his left hand. He was the representation of the Mars Police and the symbol of the thriving colony, erected by Rhinehart at the pressing recommendation of Udell Whittaker. The statue was nine stories tall and towered over most miniature glass biospheres. Mars, the war god, was placed on a moving platform so that when the planet rotated, his spear always pointed toward Earth, the Mother Planet. The MP had fifty Patrol Shuttles to enforce the laws of the new colony, but rarely needed more than twenty. There was hardly any crime as the inhabitants were busy enjoying their new found wealth on the colony. The most pressing concern for the MP before the Alpha Centaurians was a cult leader by the name of Daniel Xavier, who was hard at work collecting followers to support his theory that there were aliens frozen in the polar ice caps. His cult believed that these aliens were the true ancestors of Humans. Daniel Xavier was public enemy number one before the incident at Platform II. HIS NAME WAS Willy Winston and his cohort was Steve Gray. They were maintenance crews for the Mars Police. Their job was to refuel and inspect the shuttles after each flight. Whatever personal failings Rhinehart might have, he was very adamant about keeping the shuttles in top flying condition. The speedy freight elevator door hissed open into the docking bay. Winston was carrying some diagnostic tools in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He munched on the long sandwich with each step as red sauce dripped on his chest. Gray watched in humor. "Don't you ever stop eating?" the much younger Gray asked. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Never," Winston retorted with a mouthful. The sauce was trickling down his obese chin. He swallowed the load and continued, "If I did, the food companies would go broke." Gray shook his head and continued to walk down the snaking hallways. The Docking Bay was a large rectangular room with three metallic walls. The fourth wall, near the end, was actually the hangar door. It was over sixty yards high and forty yards wide, ample room for three shuttles to depart or enter the Docking Bay at one time. It was closed at the moment. Gray reached the Docking Bay first. Winston was still chewing away. "What’s going on here?" Gray said as he looked at the vast Docking Bay. Winston waddled around the corner. "Jesus," Winston grumbled. His eyes widened and he stopped chewing. "What the hell is going on?" They glanced around the docking bay in shock. The shuttles were usually parked along the two lengthy sidewalls in their proper numbering slots, but right now the bay was nearly empty with only ten shuttles. “I think Rhinehart is hunting the Xavier cult,” Gray said and walked down the yellow lane. "He must be because I have never seen that many shuttles out at the same time," Winston said and crammed a load of sandwich down his throat. The Docking Bay was usually bustling with activities. On a typical day, twenty officers were sitting on their shuttle ramps waiting for their next patrol of Mars. But there weren’t any officers here today and the only sound was Winston's heavy breathing and chewing. "Let's find out what's going on," Gray said. "Good idea." Winston nodded and chomped away. Gray eased beside the 40" wallscreen beside Rhinehart’s shuttle—the biggest one in the bay. Gray tapped a button on the wallscreen and a face blinked to view. "Yes," the voice said. "Lennox," Gray said worriedly. "It's Steve in maintenance. I know it's none of my business, but where the hell are all the birds? There are only ten here.” “Only ten? Are you sure?” Lennox asked. 83 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Only ten. I kid you not. Can you look into this for us?" Winston asked. “I’ll get right on it, Steve. Give me a few minutes guys,” Lennox said. The wallscreen fizzled with static, then went black. Gray turned to Winston and sighed. Winston shrugged back. A few minutes later, the wallscreen flickered again and Lennox appeared. "I just talked to Rhinehart,” Lennox announced. "And?" Gray asked eagerly. "He said not to worry. There’s a new training program taking place on Phobos." "Okay," Gray nodded. "Thanks. We were worried because no one told us anything." "No problem. I was worried myself, too. We’ll see you at the Olympus this weekend." Lennox said. Again, the wallscreen went black. Gray glanced at Winston with relief. "Well, that takes care of that. A new training exercise on Phobos. There are only ten, so it shouldn't take long. Let's get working," Winston said happily. They walked to the other side of the Docking Bay where Winston picked up his diagnostic tools. As they reached the shuttle, Gray nudged his index finger on the small, rectangular IDpad. Two beeps and a light flashed, then the shuttle ramp lowered and touched the ground. Gray hiked in. He checked the navigational systems while Winston checked the engine and thrusters. "Everything looks good," Gray reported. “As usual,” Winston said. They checked shuttle two and everything also looked good. Shuttle three was next—the shuttle of John Yamoto and Michael Ender. Gray pressed his finger on the IDpad and the door hissed open. He hurried in and sat in the pilot’s chair. The first thing he noticed was a decaying smell. Winston waddled in and also noticed it. "What's that terrible smell?" Winston asked. He was turning his head, sniffing to get the source. "Burnt food?” Gray asked. Winston shook his head. Lucky he wasn't eating. "It smells weird. Maybe some of 84 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS the circuits burned out. I think it's coming from the storage compartment," Winston said and pointed to the heavy metal door. Gray jumped off the chair and started for the storage compartment. He yanked the door open and looked in. He didn’t see anything out of place but it was hard to ignore the smell of what he thought was burnt flesh. "There doesn’t seem to be anything out of place in here," Gray said. "It could be in here," Winston said. He opened the rifle locker and noticed the rifles were still neatly on the rack. "Let’s try their lockers." ENDER, MICHAEL and YAMOTO, JOHN, were stenciled on top of the two lockers. Only finger identification could open them. "The problem is that only Michael, John, Rhinehart and Ellis have access to these compartments," Gray reminded him. Out of frustration, Winston stepped forward and pressed his chubby index finger on the IDpad. Beep, beep, then a small message flashed in red: ACCESS DENIED. IMPROPER FINGERPRINT PATTERN. Winston shrugged. "Hey I tried." "You think we should report this?" Gray asked as he walked down the shuttle ramp. "I think the best course is to let Michael and John know first and let them decide what to do. It’s just a smell. I’m sure nothing will come of it. They're nice kids." Gray disagreed but convincingly said, "Sounds good." The maintenance procedures took them about forty minutes. After which, Gray opened the massive hangar door and bright sunlight rushed through and illuminated the docking bay. They sat in Rhinehart’s shuttle and watched the red and craggy mountains of Mars in the distance. The shuttles patrolling Mars were scheduled to return in another hour. THICK, RED WRINKLES had formed under his eyes after being awake for 24 hours. Ellis was exhausted and had to chug on the instant coffee to stay awake. Dittmar Callen, the chemical team leader for Whittaker Resources, had finished another series of tests on the four tombs. Their chemical composition still baffled him; it 85 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS was unlike any material he'd ever worked with. The tombs seemed to have every property of crystal, but the atoms were a lot smaller. "Here you go," Callen said as he approached Ellis, and plopped a 20 page print- out beside him. The sound startled Ellis, who looked up and saw Callen staring at him. "Thanks," Ellis said, almost to himself. He was half-asleep and Callen knew it. The report was a series of graphs showing the results of the x-ray tests at each one-hour intervals. "I am not an engineer. What does this all mean?" Ellis rubbed both eyes. "It means the tombs are reacting with our atmosphere. They are getting less dense. The reaction rate is slowing down as time goes by. I think our air has a lot to do with what’s happening to them. They're definitely nothing from this world." Ellis stood up and cracked his knuckles, stretched both arms, and shook his legs loose. He watched as Mackenzy arrived with a report of his own. Mackenzy jumped out the transport and eased up beside Ellis. "Any good news, Mac?" Ellis asked, dragging each word. "If I had proof it’d be easier," Mackenzy said. His report was only a one page printout. "But I think all four have died," Mackenzy said, rapping his important paper. Ellis sat of the table's edge and folded his arms. "Is there a way to confirm that theory?" Ellis interrogated. "The tombs are reacting strangely with our oxygen. The four aliens might be having problems adjusting to our oxygen-rich atmosphere inside this facility. They might have had difficulty adjusting to the environment. Every little detail counts when it concerns survival, even room temperature and lighting." “So your theory is that our oxygen-rich environment killed them?” "That’s a very strong possibility considering what we’re seeing with the tombs. If they’re alive I’m sure Loren would have found some indication of that.” Ellis brushed his military hair back and glanced around Platform II, which was quiet now. The MPs were bunched in groups and chatted quietly among themselves. They seemed more relaxed and speculative voices were no longer floating around. After a long silence, Ellis said, "That would fit with what Callen's been 86 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS reporting. But I’m not ruling anything out." "It's the only reasonable explanation, Ellis. They died the same way we would if we stepped out on Phobos without protective suites and oxygen tanks." "Then where are the bodies?" Ellis demanded. “My guess is that because they could turn invisible, they probably died while they were invisible and their molecules might have dissipated and mixed with our air.” Ellis listened intently on the edge of the table. Mackenzy's theory made sense. They had to be dead, he thought. His people had swept Phobos dozens of times and had found nothing. Every meter of the moon had been searched or scanned. Every extraction facility inspected at least five times. No trace of the aliens. Oxygen killed them. Ellis pushed off the edge of the table and stood upright. Mackenzy moved out of the way. Ellis stretched out one more time and yawned. His back faced Mackenzy. Standing with his hands resting on both hips, Ellis studied the platform carefully. Finally, he turned to face Mackenzy and instructed, "Mark all four tombs and shuttle them back to headquarters." Mackenzy nodded his head twice, then climbed into his transport and weaved to the four tombs. Ellis stood and watched with a thin smile. Then he eased back and sat on the big chair. He picked up the cup and forced a load of coffee down, and exhaled. It was hot. He waited for the caffeine to kick in. He wildly shook his head back and forth. Another transport passed in front of his desk with a female MP waving her hand at him. He waved back, then stared at the hole in the ground. It was the spot where one of the aliens had laid helplessly while a barrage of fire hit it. Then, it had moved and all the firing hit the ground and made a hole. He still remembered it vividly. He forced another load of coffee down his throat, and waited for the effect. After a long moment of deep thought, he sent a message to Rhinehart on Mars. Ellis told the chief he was coming to headquarters for an update. Then he sent another message and told his wife to get ready because daddy coming home. Finally, it was all over. Oxygen killed them. 87 12 ELLIS WALKED BRISKLY through his condo and slowed down as he reached the living room. He stopped momentarily and looked out the two story windows to admire the red cliffs of Mars. They were magnificent. The entire building was surrounded with imposing images—red mountains, cliffs, and shuttles silently easing past outside. He turned from the window and saw a message on his deskscreen. It was from his wife, Arlene: "Took Nick to the Exposition at Biosphere Eleven. Be back at 16:00. Love you." He smiled to himself, then tapped a button and the deskscreen blinked off. He walked to the shower and undressed on the way. In the shower, he lay there and let the water massage his body uninterrupted for 30 minutes. After the shower, he slid on a bathrobe and made his way to the living room. There was another message on the deskscreen. It was from Rhinehart, who wanted Ellis to meet him at Whittaker Tower in half-hour. Thirty minutes? There goes sleep. Ellis moaned at the message, dropped himself on the sofa, and closed his eyes. The first images that appeared were the aliens. Oh yes, and those electrified eyes. He remembered how one of them effortlessly hurdled into the air and landed on a transport and broke it. It was a god compared to his officers. He had seen all sixteen of them die. He knew their names and shuttle numbers. He jumped off the sofa and shook his head to clear the memories. Then he walked into the bedroom and put on a new MP uniform. The only color was black, which suited him fine because it was his favorite color. After he finished dressing, he eased to the deskscreen and talked at it, "Message for Arlene," he began to dictate. The words flashed on the deskscreen as he spoke. "Babe, I have a last meeting with Rhinehart. The training on Phobos is over and we need to go over the evaluations. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Love you." He leaned forward and quickly read the final message. Every word on the deskscreen had matched his voice. He rubbed his temple above the deskscreen for a THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS while, then started for the door. Ellis was one of the few fortunate enough to have the shuttle off duty. He darted through the maze of air traffic and passed over Biosphere Eleven where his wife and son were. He looked down from the shuttle but only saw latticed- glass and steel frames of the biosphere from the air; he smiled down at it anyway. He then made a hard turn about and headed in the direction of Whittaker Tower. The trip would take five minutes at comfortable cruising speed. RHINEHART WAS SITTING on the edge of Margaret's table when Ellis eased out the elevator. He was pathetically attempting to attract the lovely young lady with whatever charm he had left. He told her his age was really forty and he'd been through nine wars, encountered ten near death experiences, and had climbed the mountains of Mars without protective suites for fun. He even told her he was a chess Grand Master and champion in his younger days. What a Director. Rhinehart saw Ellis coming and properly stood up. Rhinehart winked at Margaret and she flashed him another bright smile. Again, he thought about divorce. Margaret turned to Ellis and shook her head in amusement, then guided them to the door. They made their way to Whittaker's desk by the large picture windows. When Whittaker saw the two MPs walking up, he stared up at Ellis. The boy was back. Whittaker motioned for both to sit down. The three most prominent people on Mars were in one room. "I’m sorry we had to do this in person, Lieutenant," Whittaker broke the icy silence. “But where are the tombs?” "They're at headquarters," Ellis replied. Rhinehart acknowledged the fact with a nod. “Where they’re nice and safe,” Whittaker said, then he paused and pulled out a gold cigar box from his drawer. Whittaker continued, "Callen, my chemical lead, has 89 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS suggested that the tombs may be very valuable. He also said that the aliens are dead because they were exposed to our oxygen atmosphere.” Ellis said, "That is the theory we are going with until something proves otherwise. As for the tombs, no one knows how much they’re worth because their atomic structure is unstable.” Whittaker drew three cigars from the box on his desk, leaned over and passed Rhinehart one, who happily accepted. Whittaker offered one to Ellis but the lieutenant shook his head. He was a health nut. Whittaker neatly twisted his cigar on the gold holder, which was glinting as he was twisting it. Rhinehart smoked the long and thick cigar without a holder. Staring at Ellis, Whittaker coolly lit his cigar. Ellis sat and watched the two men enjoy their cigars. Suddenly, he became uneasy and stared at the picture windows, which were opaque with nothing to see. Whittaker had blocked out the sunlight. Suddenly, Ellis started to his feet. "I haven’t the wife and kids in two days," he said. "We will try to make this as quick as possible," Rhinehart grunted between puffs, then hacked through a smoke cloud. He pulled Ellis down to the chair. Rhinehart shot a private glance over to Whittaker, the private glance which Ellis was supposed to miss but caught it anyway. The air purifier was off and the room filled with smoke. Whittaker and Rhinehart sat comfortably in silence and puffed as if Ellis wasn’t there. Ellis felt uncomfortable. Rhinehart finally spoke, "Where are the twenty-one bodies?" This seemed awkward, Ellis thought. He had already told Rhinehart. "They're at the Mars Mortuary like you requested." Rhinehart shot Whittaker another private glance on the corner of his eyes. Ellis caught this one, too. "How did they die?" Rhinehart asked. 90 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Very awkward, thought Ellis. "From industrial accidents like you stipulated. Are we playing a charade here?" "Is anyone catching on to this alien story?” Rhinehart held his cigar firm close to his lips and did not puff. Whittaker clamped the cigar to the lips and absorbed very word. "If there’s a leak, it’s not coming from anyone under my command." "Good. Our 16 officers who died, who’s handling that?” Rhinehart interrogated. "I’m sending Loren and a small team tomorrow." "That’s not good enough. I want you to do it yourself," Rhinehart said firmly. He looked over at Whittaker and noticed Whittaker gleefully smiling. Ellis wanted to ask why but thought better of it. He knew the two friends were hatching a plan which was going to include him whether he liked it or not. "Lieutenant,” Rhinehart began firmly, “because of the unique circumstances of this situation, things will have to be handled in a special way. First, the deaths of the five Whittaker Resources employees at Platform II must be declared as industrial accidents. This must be particularly made clear to the insurance companies as there is no coverage against aliens,” Rhinehart ordered. Ellis shook his head in disbelief. He bit his lips. Whittaker slowly puffed on the cigar and exhaled slowly. He was enjoying it. There wasn’t a clause that protected him against alien invasions. He thought about turning the windows transparent and letting bright sunshine in to reflect his mood. "Second,” Rhinehart continued,” The 16 officers that died must also be declared as industrial accidents. They died while trying to rescue those five employees. The details will be provided by Whittaker Resources,” Rhinehart intoned every word. "And if the insurance companies want to do independent autopsy?” The gleeful smile was gone from Whittaker's face. He glanced worriedly to 91 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Rhinehart. "Who did I say was next in line for Director?" Rhinehart asked. "Last I remembered it was me." The huge smile was back on Whittaker's face. "It would a shame if the most qualified person didn’t become the next director of the Mars Police." Whittaker grinned wickedly. "What should I tell the insurance companies if they snoop around?” “The details will be provided by Whittaker Resources. You just need to worry about taking care of the people under your command.” Whittaker said. He was still wearing that nasty grin with the cigar touching his lips. THE YOUNG MAN walked casually to the dark security desk on the ground level of Whittaker Tower. He acted as though he were a welcome and expected guest. "I am here to see Mr. Whittaker," he formally announced to the two security guards. They glared sternly at him over the counter. "Do you have an appointment with Mr. Whittaker?" one of them asked rudely. The young man paused before replying. "I work for Mr. Whittaker," he said in defense. The young guard stared at him as though he were nuts. "You and about eighty thousand other people. You think you're special or something?" the same guard asked as rudely as he could muster. The young man twiddled his fingers on the side of the counter and moiled for an answer. "I am new to the company and I have to ask him something regarding my flight to the belt. I heard it’s been canceled so I need to confirm if it’s true," he said. "So you work as a Hauler?" the same guard asked. "As a Mineral Retrieving Personnel," he corrected the guard. The older guard stood up, sniggered, and shook his head. He opened a small portion of the desk and a flat, palm-sized IDpad came into view. "Put your finger on it, 92 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS son," he instructed. The young man pressed his index finger on the IDpad. Two soft beeps, then the old guard glanced at his deskscreen: MATCHING FINGERPRINT PATTERN. GUST FREDERICK HEIN, MINERAL RETRIEVAL PERSONNEL BORN: BONN, GERMANY, EARTH. BIRTHDATE: AUGUST 23, 2172. STATUS: SINGLE RESOURCE DIVISION, FIRST YEAR OF EMPLOYMENT A picture of Gust accompanied the file. He was smiling. Gust pulled his hand away from the security IDpad and the guard closed it. "You don't need to see Mr. Whittaker for that, son. Go to the thirty-second floor, that's where you'll know if your flight has been canceled," the old guard said and waved a hand to the right to the bay of twenty elevators. "Oh, is that where I go?" Gust asked as stupidly as he could muster. He could have gotten the answer online on his deskscreen. "That's where you go, son. If there’s any other way I can help, let me know," the old guard said and sat back down. "That’ll be good for now. Thanks." Gust said and walked to the elevator. Instead of calling for the 32nd floor, he called for the penthouse office of Udell Whittaker. Within seconds the elevator ascended forty stories. Gust glided out and innocently glanced around. Something beautiful caught his attention. It was the secretary, Margaret the babe. But she was an obstacle at the moment. Gust walked up to her desk. "Hi, I am here to see Mr. Whittaker," he said as if he had an official appointment. "Mr. Whittaker has no appointment at this time. May I ask your name?" she asked with a shiny smile. Her red lips parted and her teethe shone brilliantly. 93 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS He smiled back. "Gust Hein." "When did you make the appointment?" she asked and toiled with her deskscreen for the answer. No Gust Hein. But he was handsome and she liked him. "I don’t have an appointment. I just wanted to make sure that my flight hasn’t been canceled," he said as honestly as he could. He already knew the flight had been cancelled from Brown Arbon. She loved the handsome face and innocent smile, and wished that he did have an official appointment. But she had to turn him down. "I am sorry, you’ll have to get that information on the thirty-second floor." She waved her lovely hand to the elevators. "Oh, that’s where I go. I am sorry but I am new to the company." "Think nothing of it," Margaret said and flashed him that radiant smile of hers. She crossed her legs and Gust managed a small peep. He turned and took two steps to the elevator, then swung around and ran toward the office door. Margaret mumbled something but was too late. Gust jerked the door open and rushed in. By the window sat Whittaker, Rhinehart and Ellis. All three abruptly turned and faced him. They all thought he was a lunatic. Gust froze inside the door. His feet were standing on some of the plant vines snaking on the marble floor. Margaret approached from behind. "I am sorry, Mr. Whittaker, but he just ran right in.” She sneered at Gust. Suddenly he wasn't so handsome anymore. Whittaker glared at her from across the room. "We'll discuss the matter later," Whittaker said harshly, then added softly, "over candlelight." Margaret walked out and smiled to herself. Whittaker glanced at Rhinehart, then Ellis, and finally set his gaze on Gust. "You’re standing there looking like you’re lost. You haven’t said a word. We’re all curious as to why you’re here, young man," Whittaker said and his face hardened a bit. He gently set down his cigar. 94 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust ignored the question. He studied the other two men and noticed they were MPs, one was the Director and the other was the lieutenant. Gust looked completely lost. Spit accumulated in his throat and he swallowed hard. "What is your name and why are you here?” Whittaker interrogated. "My name is Gust Hein. I work for your company as a Mineral Retrieval Personnel, Mr. Whittaker," Gust said nervously. "Then why are you standing there? You should be at the Olympus enjoying your time off." Gust shrugged stupidly and continued to study the two MPs. Rhinehart looked at Ellis, then nodded his head in the direction of Gust. The signal to remove the intruder from the room. Ellis slowly rose from his chair and walked over to where Gust was standing. He gently put a hand on Gust's arm. "Mr. Whittaker has other things he’d be rather be doing right now," Ellis said. Ellis steered him to the door. Near the door Gust firmly planted his foot and shouted over Ellis's shoulder. "I know about the aliens that were found in Platform II at WEF I!" Ellis let go of Gust’s arm and looked at Whittaker and Rhinehart, shocked. Rhinehart and Whittaker put on convincing unknowing faces. Abruptly, Rhinehart cocked his watermelon head up and laughed hysterically. Whittaker picked up his cigar and joined in the laughter. Gust noticed Ellis wasn't laughing for some reason. A moment later, the laughing stopped and Whittaker' face grew tense. "You need a good woman, son. All this time away from home has stirred your imagination.” "Everyone in Platform III knows what happened. There were aliens found there. People deserve to know the truth!" Gust was on the attack this time. Ellis nervously looked over at Rhinehart for the next instruction. Rhinehart offered nothing. How the hell did a Hauler know, the big man thought. If he knew, how many other people knew? 95 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust noticed the uneasy silence between the three men. He saw Ellis tighten his lips just inches in front of him. Whittaker retreated to his cool hush-hush mode and let Rhinehart takeover. "Son," Rhinehart softly began and lumbered up with heavy breathing. "I don't know you got this fantasy about aliens from but you have a very active imagination." "The aliens were found in the asteroid that I hauled back! How long do you intend to keep this a secret!" Rhinehart waddled to Gust and they stood nose to nose. Rhinehart sneered at Gust. He no longer looked like a man of sixty-four with the evil sneer. "You will not be spreading your alien daydreams to anyone or you’ll be arrested for inciting fear. There is no truth to what you’re saying," Rhinehart said coldly and stabbed a crooked finger at Gust's chest. "Then charge me," Gust said sharply. Ellis shook his head in disbelief at the stubborn young man. "He didn’t mean that, sir." "Oh, I meant what I said. If you feel I’m making this up, then charge me," Gust dared Rhinehart. Rhinehart fell silent. His bluff had failed miserably and he knew it. Whittaker was observing all this from his desk. It was apparent to all three that Gust wasn't giving one inch. They needed another solution. Whittaker stood up and said, "Why are you interested in aliens, son?" Ellis and Rhinehart turned around to face Whittaker. Gust shrugged and answered the question with another question. "Are you admitting there were aliens found in Platform II?" "There weren’t any aliens found anywhere. You might have to get a psychiatric evaluation if this keeps up, son.” "Mr. Whittaker, whatever secrets you’re intending to keep will surface. Even if 96 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS you silence me, there are others who know about it. You can’t keep everyone quiet forever.” Whittaker looked at Rhinehart for some direction. They both realized what Gust said was the truth. Eventually, the truth would surface because too many people knew about it. Whittaker exhaled deeply before admitting. "Whatever I tell you here, son, will remain in here. Do we have a deal?" Whittaker said. Gust nodded. Rhinehart turned to Gust with a stern face, and they were nose-to-nose again. Rhinehart knifed a finger at him. "If you leak this to anybody, Mr. Whittaker will have you fired and I will have you arrested." “Whatever you tell me in this room will stay in this room. I promise.” “Good,” Rhinehart said. “There were aliens found in the asteroid you hauled back. That is all you need to know for now.” Whittaker tapped a button on his desk and the picture windows turned transparent. The rays of light brilliantly pierced in and Gust watched as three cargo shuttles eased near the window. Whittaker swerved his chair and faced the window with his back to the three. "Lieutenant, please remove him from the room," Rhinehart grunted with a stern face. Ellis nodded. He steered Gust to the door and led him out. "Do you know where the shuttle bay is, downstairs?" Ellis asked as he held the door open. "I've been there a few times," Gust said. His heart slowed down. "Good. Make sure you’re there in ten minutes. I'd hate to see what Rhinehart would do if you didn't show up." "Okay, I'll be there. Ten minutes," Gust said with a straight face. "See you there." 97 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis closed the door and continued chatting with Rhinehart and Whittaker. They gave him detailed instructions on how to proceed with the insurance scheme. THE CROWD AT Venus Bar was thick but Gust had managed to get the last table. It was table thirty, which was right next to the window overlooking Conrad Lake. The waitress immediately squeezed by and took their orders. Ellis was not a drinker and ordered freshly squeezed orange juice. He loved vitamin C. Gust, taking the opportunity to prove himself an angel, ordered not one, but two asparagus juices—one of two healthy servings at Venus Bar. Gust surveyed the bar and noticed the other two healthy servings, Marilyn and Veronica, were not around. He heaved a sigh of relief. "Are you the only person who knows about this?" Ellis asked. He had taking a liking to Gust on the way here on the shuttle. "I got my information from a source so I’m not the only one." "Who is this source?” Ellis interrogated. “I’d rather not say for now.” “So why are you so interested in this?” "Space and all things space are big hobbies of mine. Plus there's nothing exciting to do in the next four months," Gust said like a bored scoundrel. Another waitress eased by and brought them the three drinks. She set them on the small tabletop and quickly walked away. Ellis waited until she was out of earshot. "I hope the Director has made himself clear about keeping this quiet for the time being," Ellis said and sipped his orange juice from the crystalline glass. "He has made it perfectly clear. I just want to get involved in the investigation." "You want to what!" Ellis choked on his juice. "Get involved in the investigation. I have a lot of knowledge which could be helpful to you." Ellis shook his head, then glanced around and made sure no one was over 98 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS hearing anything. "The investigation is closed. They’re dead." "Dead? Did you kill them?" "No. One theory is that oxygen killed them." "Wow," Gust mumbled. "That's too bad. Oxygen killed them, eh?" "That's right. That's what our chem team said." “Did you see any of them?” “Yes, we did.” “How did they look like?” “Big. Really big. That’s all I can tell you for now.” "So, you were one of the lucky ones," Gust said and sipped his drink. Then noticed it was empty and couldn't believe he'd just finished two asparagus juices. He comically rubbed his neck. Ellis looked on and managed a smile. "I guess you could say that." Gust admired the twinkling stars, just barely visible over the glass-domed biosphere. To satisfy Gust’s curiosity, Ellis told him about the 21 deaths and the four tombs. "When can I see the bodies?" The question startled Ellis. "There are no bodies." "What? I don’t get it." “Their molecules broke up and mixed with the air." "Wow. Did you see that happen?” "No one did." "Oh I see." "Sorry, kid." Gust despised the word “kid” but let it pass. "Were you able to determine what star system they came from?" Gust asked. "The possibilities are endless but it’s not a priority for us right now. Why do you 99 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS find all this interesting?" "Like I said, space appeals to me in general and aliens appeal to me even more. There is a romantic curiosity there for me. During my trip to the Belt I mapped all the star systems using my telescope. I made three notebooks, all hand drawn," Gust proudly said. Did he just say “romantic curiosity?” Ellis thought. He held back a grin. “I thought all Haulers did was looked at naked women?” “Most. Not all.” "Not you?" Ellis teased. "I just look at stars. Has anyone included the possibility that these aliens originated outside the solar system?" "Like I said, there are many possibilities but that’s the least of our concerns right now, kid." Gust let the “kid” pass again. Ellis slowly stood up and said, “Look, I hope I’ve been able to satisfy your curiosity. I have to see the family now. It’s been two days. Please remember what the Director said.” "My lips are sealed." "Enjoy your holiday and keep out of trouble." “I will. Thank-you for your time, Lieutenant.” They shook hands and Ellis disappeared into the Venus Bar crowd and made his way to his shuttle. THE YOUNG COUPLE sauntered romantically hand in hand along the walk pavement of Conrad Lake beside the gurgling sound of rushing water of the artificial streams. Above them were the massy green trees. High above the trees were the starlit sky hanging over the biosphere's glass dome. They held each other's hands gently and swung 100 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS them like a pendulum as they walked. Their eyes were glued meaningfully to each other as they both smiled romantically. They were on their honeymoon. The young man complimented his lovely wife with each step, and she flushed countless times in response. What a stud. They walked and whispered to each other until the walk pavement ended. They sat on a brown bench next to a stream and continued with the mellow talk. There was no one in sight and Conrad Lake itself could not be seen from inside the dense artificial forest. It was what the young couple had wanted. Perfect isolation. Without hesitation, the young man grabbed for the long legs and straddled them over his thighs. She smiled and allowed it. Then he slowly slid his hand to her bra, which was peering through the sweater. At the same time, he slowly began to remove her bra and sweater. She allowed that too. Very slowly, he began to peel her bra farther down and leaned over to kiss her as he did. She allowed that, too. With one swift movement, he clutched her leg with one hand, and her shoulder with the other hand, and inclined her to the bench and smothered her with sloppy kisses. The attack was on. She giggled as he attacked her neck with smooches. Her legs thrashed in mid-air and she paddled them as she cupped both hands around his head. "Aren't you afraid someone might show up?" she asked the top of his head. No answer. Just more wet kisses on her neck. She giggled louder and grunted his name repeatedly. Richard! Richard! Richard! It felt good so she permitted him to continue. Her sweater was half off and her bra feel to her stomach. Then she heard voices. "Richard, stop. Someone's coming," she whispered and slapped his back. No response again. His lips were still locked around her neck and slowly making its way down her middle-sized, firm, luscious casabas. She whispered again, this time louder. "Stop, Richard. Someone's coming." 101 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS He pulled his head up and looked into her eyes. "The only thing I hear is the beating of your heart, babe," he said with a sly grin and continued with his attack. His tongue was only inches away from his intended target. The voices got louder. People were coming. "Stop, Richard. Stop!" she protested, and pulled his head up by his hair. She pushed him away, strapped on her bra, and properly straightened her sweater. "Later," she said and crossed her legs, looking normal like nothing had happened. He did the same. "Dammit. Dammit. Life's not fair. It's just not fair," he cried, then heard the voices. They sat and talked as the voices neared. Around the corner, two MPs eased out. They were wearing their usual black MP uniforms. The young couple thought nothing of the two officers. The MPs approached the young couple and stood above them. They did not smile or say anything. The MPs were both eerily stone-cold. "Good evening," Richard greeted them. "Good evening, officers." His pretty wife said and smiled at them. No response from the MPs. One of them tilted his head sideways and methodically studied the young couple. The whole thing seemed awkward to the couple. Their name tags announced them to be ENDER, MICHAEL and YAMOTO, JOHN. Michael Ender spoke with an unsteady and cracked voice. "We've come close to killing a couple of old people. But not quite. We could come pretty close with you guys. That is, if you want us to." Richard confusedly looked over to his wife. He couldn't think of anything to say. Just as the young lady was about to ask what the MPs wanted, John Yamoto spoke, "Look, Ender and Yamoto, do you guys want pleasure or sit around and tell silly jokes?" "Pleasure. Right, babe?" Richard retorted and smiled lewdly at his babe. The 102 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS babe's name was Anne Pressly and she smiled back in reply. Then Richard's face turned serious as he studied their name emblems. They were supposed to be Ender and Yamoto. "I think you have the wrong people, officers," Anne said cordially. "Well, we're still waiting for an answer," Ender said. His eyes began to change colors, from deep black to sparkling red. Richard noticed the dreadful transformation. He stood up and extended his hand to Anne. She slid her arm around his and pulled herself up and stood beside him. "I think we better be going, officers. It was nice meeting you," Richard said nervously. He quickly walked off and dragged Anne along. John Ender called out, "That's very cute just give us an answer. Okay?" They stopped, turned around, and stared at the MPs. They noticed the eyes were glowing red with sizzling electric eyeballs. The MPs started walking toward them. Richard swung around and ran. Michael Ender/the alien, raced forward and tightly grabbed Richard on his shoulder. He came to a complete stop and was face-to-face with Ender. Richard released Anne's hand and whispered to her, "Run, get help! Don't worry about me.” Anne ran and bellowed on the top of her lungs. At a few meters away, she ran into an invisible object. The object was hard and it knocked her to the ground. She immediately got up and ran in another direction. A few more meters more and she ran into something invisible again, which knocked her to the ground. She was terrified and couldn’t breathe. Then the air spiraled and looped with colors of the rainbow. Then strings of lumpy flesh twisted into an outline. The invisible something appeared from thin air. The red eyes glowed. Anne crawled backwards on her hands and feet. 103 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS It mimicked her movements and kneeled to the ground. It squatted there and watched her scream in fear. It seemed to take delight in her horror. She kept up her crawl for a few meters more, then felt the water of the stream with her fingers. That was when the alien stood up and walked toward her. She screamed louder this time as the veins almost popped from her neck. Her plead for help was finally heard by some tourists in the distance. Seconds later, the screaming stopped. Anne Pressly was dead to the world. The air was coiling over her body. Ender would kill Richard. Instinctively, Richard lunged a fist at Ender’ s chest, but something unexpected happened—his fist did not hit and fly back. Instead, it went through the chest. Then the chest solidified with half Richard's arm stuck inside. He wailed in pain and desperately tried to pull it out. The harder he pulled, the harder the clumps of flesh on the chest tightened. Then the chest solidified to concrete around his arm. Richard lunged another fist at its face. It bounced right back. Ender/the alien grabbed the half-arm still outside and twisted it in a circle. Ender gave it another hard wrench and the arm cracked in half. Half of the arm was dangling on Ender's chest with strings of reddish-flesh hanging loose. Richard cried in pain. With its chest glowing green, it stepped up and struck Richard on the temple. Richard dropped to the ground and head hit a rock and jerked a few times. Ender straddled the body and grinned predatory downward. His chest was decorated with Richard's half- arm, dripping with blood. Then he looked around and smiled pompously at the surrounding air. The other alien was not in sight, but Ender could sense its presence, and that was the person he was grinning to—his invisible buddy, the former John Yamoto, which only Ender could sense. Three tourists eased out from the leafy turn and saw the dead body of Anne 104 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Pressly. In unison, they all screamed and darted to the main complex. They ran like a pack of deers being chased by wolfs and never looked back. One of them stumbled to the ground and shouted for help. The other six looked back, but didn't stop to help him up. They made it to the Olympus Hilton into the arms of security guards. Later, each tourist would give identical accounts of what they saw. They were all out for a leisure walk when they came upon the body of Anne Pressly. Each tourist went on to say that they caught glimpses of two men, both wearing black, nonchalantly strolling away from the crime scene. 105 13 THE DEATHS OF Richard and Anne Pressly quickly reached Rhinehart. He was sure Xavier and his cult were behind the murders but the only lead the MP had was that the two suspects wore black. Suddenly, Mars wasn’t a Garden of Eden anymore. When Ellis had heard the news, he wanted to lead the investigation, but Rhinehart would have none of it. Ellis had a very important matter to attend to: the completion of Whittaker’s insurance scheme. Ellis had to complete some paperwork at the morgue. He would do this alone, as requested by Rhinehart and Whittaker. After the paperwork was done, he hoped it would be the end of this alien fiasco. Ellis parked the shuttle below ground level at the morgue. He was in his black uniform and had a handscreen. On his right hip was a small rifle that fired bullets instead of lasers. He took the elevator to the second floor. It stopped and he and glided out. "Over here!" a voice shouted. He turned right and saw Gust casually leaning against the white wall. Gust waved a hand as though they were best friends, then jogged to Ellis. Tucked under Gust’s arm were three notebooks, he had left the other two at home, filled with stars and planets that he drew during his eight month trip to the Asteroid Belt. Ellis turned sour at the sight. He glanced suspiciously around the white halls of the morgue to see if anyone was around. He saw no one except Gust. That’s odd, he thought. "What are you doing here?" Ellis asked with a touch of anger. "I came to talk to you about the aliens." "How did you know I was going to be here?" "I kinda hacked some information off your shuttle." Ellis shook his head and glared at him. "Your fascination with aliens will soon get you in trouble," he said like a father. He did not worry though, he left no reason as to why he was at the morgue. He only left the time, and that was all Gust knew. So Ellis THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS assumed. “Look, Gust, you are way out of your element. I think you'd better go. There are many things I need to get done. Alone." Ellis pointed a finger to the elevator. "Okay. But before I go, I'd like you to look at something." "What is it? Make it quick,” Ellis said as he walked down the eerie white hallway. That’s strange, he thought again, there’s no one around. Gust reached for one notebook and opened it to a page where he had drawn the stars. He placed the other two notebooks on the ground and ignored them. In the middle of the page was the sun drawn in black pencil ink. Around the sun were nine planets, also drawn in pencil. Between Mars and Jupiter was the Asteroid Belt indicated by tiny dots. Gust pointed to the neat circle of dots to indicate the Asteroid Belt, then ran his finger around Mars and Phobos. Again, Ellis surveyed the hallway and saw no one in sight. "Make it quick." "You said the aliens have the ability to turn invisible, correct?" "Yes," Ellis said, looking around the hallway. There was still no one around. "I have a theory as to where the aliens originated," he said and flipped the pages again. "I’m listening.” Gust gazed up with a smile. "I’m guessing they’re from the Alpha Centauri system, the third brightest star in the sky," he said and pointed his finger in the middle of the page where a planet was drawn with three stars around it. "What is the theory behind that assumption?" "It's the nearest star system made of two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, which are binary stars and they orbit around each other. The third and closest star, Alpha Centauri C, is a ternary star. Also, the biggest star, Alpha Centauri A, is similar to our own star, the Sun, in size and brightness. But no planet has ever been found orbiting those stars because the constellation is too far. But there might be a planet crammed between the three stars, orbiting at a very close distance. And that might 107 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS explain how they could turn invisible." "You’ll have to explain this in terms I can understand," Ellis said, rolling his eyes around the hallway. Is everyone on holiday? "A sun, or a star, is a huge fireball which gives off radiation. In order for any one to survive in a system that has three stars, they must be able to adapt, somehow reflect harmful radiation and absorb what they need to survive. Of course I am assuming that this unseen planet is orbiting very close with the three stars of Alpha Centauri, and the planet filters very little or no radiation. If we lived on a planet with three stars, we'd be cooked unless our atmosphere reflected the heat from the three stars. Otherwise our body must adapt at the molecular level such as rearranging our molecules and atoms in such a manner that they absorb only certain frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. We would likely reflect off gamma and x-ray radiation. I don't know about the aliens, they could feed on gamma and x-ray radiation." "Three stars did you say?" "Yep, the Alpha Centauri system has three stars—two main stars tightly orbiting each other and a third one orbiting at a distance." "You could probably get a good tan with three stars, eh?" "Sure can." "But that doesn't explain how they could turn invisible." "If you could reflect or absorb and manipulate electromagnetic radiation, you'd be able to turn invisible. The color of any object depends on what color it reflects. The color that the object reflects determines what color our eyes see. It all depends on the chemical composition of the object. And our eyes can only see light in the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. Those aliens could probably see radiation in all spectrums." Again, Ellis checked the hallway and found it strangely empty. "Just remember, Gust, what you have is only a theory. We have many theories of our 108 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS own. Just remember to keep this to yourself, okay?" Gust pursed his lips and nodded. "I will. No one would believe me if I told them anyway. Now, where are we off to?" Ellis was shocked at the question. He pointed a light finger at Gust. "I am off to do my job and you're off to somewhere else, kid." Gust frowned and pleaded, "C'mon, Mr. Ellis, let me see the tombs. Are they here? Is that why you're here?" Ellis shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t you find it odd that we haven’t seen anyone since we’ve been here?” “There’s more than one floor. They could be upstairs. Can I come with you to see the tombs?” Again, Ellis shook his head. "The tombs aren’t here. Just the bodies of the twenty- one victims." "Then, can I see the bodies?" Ellis thought about it for a few seconds. He needed the company anyway. “Look, kid, just stay close to me. If anything happens, run to the shuttle and call the MP,” Ellis said, a bit concerned. “You’ve got it, Mr. Ellis," he said with an appreciative smile. Ellis surveyed the white hallway and suddenly felt cold. He tightly grabbed his handscreen and walked down the long hallway. "Did you hear about those two tourists at the Olympus?" Gust asked as he walked faster to keep up. "Yes I did." Gust looked at Ellis's face and noticed the lieutenant was frowning. "Must have been some crazy psycho who did it," Gust said. "Do you think Xavier did it?" "I’m not on the case so I don’t know all the facts.” The hallway ended and split into two turns. A sign hanging on the ceiling was 109 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS marked RECORDS with an arrow pointing to the right. Ellis followed the arrow and eased around the corner, and stopped with one foot in mid-air. His jaw dropped and his face lit up with fear. He glared at Gust in utter fear, and Gust returned the same look. Words failed them. Ten meters in front were three dead bodies sprawling on the white floor. They lay in pools of blood. The arms of each victim were spread eagle-like on the floor and their eyes were still open staring at the ceiling. One body was curled in a crude L with cracked bones protruding from the ribs, legs and arms. Blood was still trickling from the bodies. One of the corpses was Albert. Behind the three bodies was a deck of card strewn wildly on the floor. All the cards were faced down except for the joker with his mocking laughter. Not too far ahead, the elevator door leading to the nitrogen chamber on the third floor was smeared with blood. Gust began walking backward. Ellis snatched his arm and pulled him back. "Stay here," Ellis whispered and let his arm go. Ellis stepped over the dead body of Albert and peeked inside the office. It was a wild mess with another body slouched over a chair beside a deskscreen. It was a male. Papers were strewn all over the office. Ellis pulled the handscreen in front of his chest and punched buttons on it. Beep, beep, then a face appeared. It was the dispatcher at MP headquarters. Ellis did not give her a chance to speak. "Send one unit to the Mars Mortuary. Make it fast. Ellis out." The face on the screen nodded. Ellis punched another button and the handscreen flickered out. He pulled the rifle from his hip, then beckoned Gust to come with a wave of a hand. He had just called for backup and Gust heaved a sigh of relief. Gust cupped his mouth with both palms and walked to Ellis. A puddle of blood was beneath his feet. "I think we'd better go," Gust whispered softly as he looked inside the office. Then he glanced at the white walls and glass doors, which were smeared with blood. Ellis bent down and put his handscreen on the floor. He turned to Gust and 110 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS pointed his head to the elevator. "You said you wanted to see dead bodies," Ellis said, grinning. Gust gulped in fear. He couldn’t stop looking at the dead bodies. "Not like these," Gust whispered as though the people at his feet were sleeping and he didn't want to wake them. Ellis carefully stepped over the second body. He stopped, glanced around suspiciously, then hopped over a puddle of blood. Then he went around the third body. Gust followed his example and managed to keep his black shoes free of blood. "Where are we going?" Gust whispered. Ellis stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "To the third floor." He had been here on many occasions and knew the nitrogen chamber was on the third floor. "Let’s wait for reinforcements," Gust was still whispering. He eased beside Ellis and gently yanked on his wide shoulders. "Look, I was wrong. I don't want to see any dead bodies. Let’s get out of here.” Gust's cheeks became pale and Ellis saw how frightened the kid was. He could see how bad Gust was pleading with his eyes. The kid definitely wanted out. Ellis pointed his rifle behind Gust and whispered as though Ted Bundy was standing down the corridor, "Don't move. There are two things behind you. Just don't move, kid." Gust completely froze. His palms were profusely sweating. He momentarily closed his eyes and prayed nothing would happen to him. In one swift motion, he twisted his head back, then the body followed. Down the hallway, he saw- There was nothing standing behind him. He stared at Ellis and flashed a silly smile, but said nothing. Ellis smiled and walked to the cargo elevator. Gust followed close behind. They neared the door and it automatically hissed open. Ellis entered first and spoke at the elevator, "Third floor." 111 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust couldn’t believe how calm and collective Ellis was under the circumstance. Either the lieutenant had ice for blood or wasn’t afraid of dying. Gust eased in and the door hissed shut. In the elevator were three electronic bins which were used to haul the coffins from the second to the third floor. There were no coffins in any of the bins. "I bet you the same group who killed those tourists are responsible for this," Gust said over the elevator's hum. Ellis frowned. He lifted his rifle to a shooting position as the door opened. He stepped out first and saw coffins against the wall. Earlier, Albert had brought them up for Gardner and Fryer to catalogue. No one was around so Albert left them. Then he went back to the second floor where he met his death. Ellis stepped out of the elevator onto the third floor. There were coffins against the wall, other than that nothing looked out of place. There wasn’t any blood or dead bodies on the floor. Ellis proceeded in half-steps, Gust reluctantly followed. "I think we should wait for backup." Gust whispered from behind. Ellis went ahead as if he didn't hear him. "This is unnecessary. Backup will be here soon," Gust said louder. Ellis ignored him again and eased to the office of Fryer and Gardner. He raised his rifle and curled his finger around the trigger, ready to shot at the first sign of trouble. If he was tense, Gust could not tell. This guy had nerves of steel, Gust thought. Or he was insane. Fryer’s office looked in good order, so Ellis ignored it and started across the wide glassed-hallway. He took a few steps and studied the big words NITROGEN CHAMBER on the glass wall. Within ten meters he could see through the chamber's glass door, and more dead bodies. There were two bodies lying on the ground. He couldn't tell the gender from this distance. He stopped to analyze the situation. Whoever did this could still be here, he thought. The glass door to the chamber was still open. The robotic arm was busted and 112 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS scattered with strings of wires snaking onto the floor. Ellis tip-toed to the glass door with Gust literally hugging onto his uniform. "I don’t have a good felling about this." Gust was shaking his head. "Let's wait for backup," he pleaded for the third time. Ellis pointed his rifle forward and stepped inside the nitrogen chamber. "You see where hacking has gotten you?" Ellis asked with a trace of humor. Inside, Ellis hovered over the scorched body of Gardner. Blood was leaking from her head. A few meters away was the body of Fryer. It was a clean kill with no blood. Ellis approached the body and dropped to his knees. Gust was still hugging to his back like a baby. Ellis gently placed two fingers over Fryer's neck and felt no pulse. He gazed up at Gust and said, "Same method of death as Platform II." "What do you mean?" Gust asked with a quivering voice. "I'll tell you later." "Keep that swagger because we might need it." Ellis rose and glanced suspiciously around the eerie white room. One chamber was still open with no body inside. He curled his finger around the trigger again. Just in case. He wasn’t going to be able to complete the work as Rhinehart had requested. The insurance scheme would have to wait. "We should've never came up here," Gust mumbled to himself. He darted his eyes around the white walls decorated with blinking red and green lights. They were used to indicate which chambers were occupied. His stomach churned at the sight of Gardner's charred body on the ground. Slowly and together, they hovered over the body of Fryer. There was a sizzling noise. The air in front fluttered with colors. They stared at each other, perplexed and horrified. Ellis pointed his rifle at the moving air. The air twisted and coiled, forming into an outline. Then standing in front of them were Kevin Fryer and Michelle Gardner. Now 113 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS there were two of each—the Fryer and Gardner lying dead on the floor and the two standing in front. "Christ! Christ! I knew we should've waited for backup," Gust blared, his words resonating through the lucent room. Ellis pulled the trigger and hit both aliens squarely on their chests. Some bullets seared holes through them, some deflected and bounced at varying angles. Some hit the floor. Gust clamped his hands over his ears to block out the blaring gun fire. He ran to the back wall and watched Ellis shower the aliens with bullets. The aliens did not move. They both stood and broadly smiled as bullets hit their chests. Ellis released the trigger and the nitrogen chamber was dead silent. He looked over his shoulder to Gust, who was literally pressed against the back wall. Ellis waved him toward the door. Gust nodded fearfully and crawled along the wall at a snail's pace. The alien/Michelle Gardner, took a long step and blocked the exit. Gust stopped and froze, his cheeks quivering involuntarily. The other alien/Kevin Fryer, took three steps toward Ellis and suddenly stopped. It stood there grinning fiendishly at him. Ellis pointed the rifle between its eyes while his fingers trembled on the trigger. It studied him with predatory eyes, then it sneered menacingly at Gust. It/Fryer did not move forward though. Instead it tilted its head and stared at Ellis with familiarity. It knew him. He was the person barking orders at Platform II. Kevin Fryer/it took a measured step forward. Ellis pulled the trigger and bullets rained on Fryer, whose body jerked violently. Then he dropped to the ground. Gardner watched as Fryer wobbled like a fish out of water, and smiled with delight. She/it was enjoying all this, watching her comrade getting injured. Then, Fryer stopped jerking on the ground and Ellis stopped the firing. The 114 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS bullets that hit Fryer were implanted on his body with parts of them sticking half-ways out. Ellis stepped silently back and watched as the bullets melted on Fryer like burning wax. Fryer's body glowed and coiled, then solidified to flesh. Fryer/it slowly rose to a sitting position and glanced at Gardner. He gave her a haughty smile, then stood up. Then Fryer, with glowing red eyes, turned his full attention to Ellis. Gardner and Fryer took two steps forward and abruptly stopped. Ellis raised his rifle to eye level and moved it back and forth between them. A creepy silence filled the room. Gust very slowly eased behind Ellis. Gardner mimicked his moves. Ellis, still with the rifle at eye level, reached back and felt Gust's hand. They were sweating at the foreheads. "Run, honey. Run," Fryer said in a metallic voice. The exact words of the real Kevin Fryer before his death. Ellis gingerly dragged Gust closer. "Are you still going to hack after this?" he whispered, leaning his head against Gust’s. Gust was too tense to answer. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer and he couldn't bring himself to speak. His three notebooks were trembling in his hand. Then something happened to Fryer and Gardner. Their skin melted like wax on a candle, clumps of glowing flesh oozed and flowed and glinted, chunks of flesh twisting and spiraling into muscles. The legs and arms expanded and the height grew by two feet. Their bodies were bulking with muscles now. They were the most imposing presence Gust had ever seen, Rhinehart included. Ellis felt his stomach tying in knots. Gust's stomach was tied in knots. They inched to the back wall. Gust was totally mesmerized. "Run for the hole," Ellis whispered. Gust barely heard him. He was downright scared and confused. He gulped hard before answering. "You mean the door?" Gust asked quietly. "No, the hole," Ellis whispered back. 115 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "What hole?" Gust hissed, still baffled. The only hole in the room was the door. Ellis smiled. The Alpha Centaurians eyed each. One broke into a deafening high-pitched scream that sounded exactly like the one Michelle Gardner wailed before her death. "Run through the hole." Gust scratched his head. "What hole? I don't see a hole." Ellis moved the rifle away from their heads. Click. He sprayed the glass wall with bullets. The glass shattered and crumbled. The words NITROGEN CHAMBER were no longer readable. A hole was made. Ellis sidestepped them and charged through. "That hole!" Gust bellowed, rushing like crazy behind. He dropped his three notebooks as he darted frantically. They dashed to the cargo elevator like Olympic sprinters. The door was open and both jumped in. They looked back and saw the two Alpha Centaurians blazing up. Then, the aliens shifted colors and vanished. "Hurry it up!" Gust yelled at the elevator for closing too slow. "Hurry it up!" The door clanked shut. "Shuttle floor," Ellis shouted. It was a cargo elevator so there was plenty of room for four people. Ellis calculated the time when the elevator door had closed and the time the aliens cloaked. It was possible that they were in here at this very moment. He was aware of this and so was Gust. They locked eyes as the elevator descended. Sweat trickled down Gust's forehead and he wiped it dry with the back of his hand. They could be in here. The elevator reached shuttle floor and hissed open. They uniformly heaved a sigh of relieve. "This way," Ellis shouted, veering left and racing to the shuttle. "I am never going to hack after this!" Gust dashed right behind. 116 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis reached the shuttle and stabbed his finger on the IDpad. Before the ramp came completely down, they leaped in. They stared back at the elevator and saw nothing. The ramp closed and Ellis slid into the pilot's chair. He socked buttons and the shuttle came to life. The glassed-dome hangar door automatically opened in front. The shuttle dipped and turned meters off the ground and eased out with orange thrusters. The shuttle hovered over the morgue. Gust was still on the shuttle floor and didn't bother to take a seat. "You still like aliens, kid?" Ellis asked, checking his navigational panels. "Now that I am still alive," Gust huffed, staring blankly at the gray roof. The shuttle hum went unnoticed. Ellis tapped another button and the face of the dispatcher blinked on the screen. "Are the units on their way?" Ellis asked. "They should be there momentarily," she said. "Is there an emergency?" "You can say that. How many units did you send?" "One as you requested, twelve officers." "Right. Send in another unit and have them equipped with infrareds." He touched another button and the monitor blanked out. He radioed the shuttle that was arriving and ordered it not to land. Then Ellis rapped buttons and had the infrared scan the building. He picked up the heat signals of the four dead on the second floor and two dead on the third floor, and that was it. No unusual heat otherwise. He shook his head in disbelief. He was sure the aliens were down there, but couldn't get a fix somehow. Gust got off the floor and sat in the co-pilot's chair. He stared aimlessly at the sky of Mars. "They died and dissipated into our air. Couldn't react with our oxygen, eh?" Gust said with sarcasm. Ellis looked at him and managed a smile. "Hey, I just know what those chem guys tell me," He was beginning to see Gust as nosy little brother. Not the cocky kid who 117 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS rudely interrupted his meeting with Rhinehart and Whittaker. And definitely not the kid who finished two asparagus juices at the Olympus. "Are you going back down?" Gust asked. "It depends." "I’m glad I don’t have to. Those guys are scary," Gust said, facing Ellis. He closed his eyes and listened to the rhythmic hum of the engine and relaxed a little. He was safe now. "How is it possible that they can change shapes?" Ellis asked. Gust sat more upright in the chair. "They might have the ability to alter their molecular structure. It's the only thing I can think of." "What about the way they spoke? It sounded like 'Run, honey. Run,' " "They must have heard the words from someone. Maybe one of their victims." "You have a theory as how they could imitate voices, genius?" "Since EMR can travel as particles or as light waves and I think these Alpha Centaurians can manipulate light waves, then hen I don't see why they can't manipulate sound waves. Every time they hear a voice, all they have to do is record and recall the right frequencies and wavelengths of the sounds.” Ellis gazed at the stars and thought about his wife and son. He radioed them and used the old standby of more training and evaluations. Gust flashed a huge smile when he heard it. Then he reported to Rhinehart what had just happened in the nitrogen chamber. By the time he finished talking with Rhinehart, the first unit arrived. The two shuttles hovered for another five minutes before the third shuttle made its way. Ellis logged onto the Mars Zoning Board and downloaded the morgue’s blueprint. He studied it while Gust waited. Ellis found that the morgue had five floors. The fourth and fifth floor were administration. The ground floor had mostly equipment and storage compartments. The second floor was used for the initial processing of the dead, where 118 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS hearts and other internal organs were removed. And on the third floor was the nitrogen chamber, where the aliens were. Beneath the building was the shuttlebay, and beneath the shuttlebay was the underground train system. Ellis looked to Gust with concern as he finished the blueprint. The building was connected to the underground train system. And the train system was connected to almost every other business facility, industrial building, and glass pyramids on Mars. Gust had used the same train system to get to the morgue. "How intelligent do you think they are?" Ellis asked in a low voice. Gust sat straight up. "Very." "Then we have a major problem," Ellis said. "What problem? There's twenty-two of you and two of them." Ellis twiddled his fingers beside the monitor and thought about all possibilities, then he turned and saw the two shuttles hovering outside the window. The pilots waved to him and he waved back. Ellis racked his mind for ideas. One was to blow the mortuary up since there was a slim chance anyone was still alive. "I've got it," Ellis finally mumbled under his breath. "Got what?" Gust asked. Ellis left it unanswered and radioed headquarters and requested more handscreen infrareds. Then he radioed the two shuttles and uploaded the morgue’s blueprint to them. He finally called Rhinehart and asked him to cancel all train routes near the morgue. The morgue would be isolated. If the aliens wanted to escape from it, they would pay a heavy price. Ten minutes later, three shuttles uniformly landed and Ellis stepped out first. Gust was still sick to his stomach and remained aboard. The MPs emptied the shuttles and carried Ellis’s plan. Infrareds, motion detectors and cameras were placed below, above, and in the middle of every conceivable entrance and exit. After the job was completed the 119 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS shuttles took of again and waited in the air. For the next hour, Ellis and Gust waited patiently for any signal below. There would be no movement at the morgue. The six dead bodies were not collected. Ellis and Gust watched monotonous space and the shuttles out the window. The engine was humming rhythmically. "My three notebooks are still down there, you know," Gust added to the silence. 120 14 THE DIMLY LIT room had five cozy chairs and one of them was occupied by an obese man. He was behind the black work table with three deskscreens beside each other. The latest news was rolling down each deskscreen. His face was stern as he sat and thought in silence in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows at MP headquarters. Ellis had updated him about what had happened at the morgue. Rhinehart wasn’t sure whether he liked the fact that two aliens were trapped at the morgue with no place to go or that they had made it to Mars. Although the MP did not know where the aliens originated, Ellis, with Gust's theory, gave them the name the Alpha Centaurians. He suggested that everyone use that name from now on and forward instead of “aliens”, “them, “creatures”, “it”, and so on. No one had the slightest clue as why they were killing everyone that came in contact with. Rhinehart was waiting for Ellis to come at the proper time. He had two appointments this morning, the first was with Ellis. Five minutes later, Ellis arrived. Rhinehart turned and faced him. "What the hell is he doing here!" Rhinehart thundered, pointing a finger at Gust. "He’s here to provide assistance," Ellis said, looking at Gust. "Our resources are inadequate that we need the help of a kid?” Rhinehart shouted. Gust felt uneasy and looked to the windows and saw a cargo shuttle ease by. Ellis helped out, "Sometimes it helps to get another perspective," Ellis calmly said. "Leave the room for a second, son" Rhinehart grunted at Gust and pointed to the door. Gust glanced over at Ellis for an answer and saw Ellis nodding. Gust obediently THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS left and closed the door behind him. Ellis and Rhinehart were alone. Rhinehart gave the monologue. He told Ellis how much he disapproved of getting Gust involved, especially after the kid barged into Whittaker’s office. Ellis shrugged with every word. Then Rhinehart demanded to know how Gust got involved in all this. Ellis told him that Gust was visiting a dead relative at the mortuary and saved his life at the morgue. Rhinehart ate every word. "Bring him back in," Rhinehart grunted at last. Ellis walked to the door and motioned Gust back. "Thank-you for saving the Lieutenant’s life, son. My gratitude is beyond words," Rhinehart said to Gust, pointing at Ellis. Gust stared at Ellis, confused. He saw Ellis laugh with his eyes and got the picture. "It was nothing. Anyone could've done it," Gust said humbly. He looked at Ellis and they shared the joke in silence. They sat opposite Rhinehart. "Any idea on what’s happening around here, son? It’s not a Garden of Eden anymore," Rhinehart said, loosening a bit. “I think the deaths of the two tourists at the Olympus and the murders at the morgue are connected,” Gust offered. “Oh, how so? Rhinehart interrogated. "I think all four aliens have made it to Mars. Two of them killed the tourists at the Olympus and the other two are at the morgue.” Rhinehart listened intently. There was something very blunt about the kid that Rhinehart began to like. Ellis left all the talking to Rhinehart because it made the big man feel comfortably in charge. Rhinehart looked over at Ellis. “Lieutenant, what do you make of what he just said?” “I think he is right. We are going to have to find out how they did it. They are full of surprises with their abilities, many of them unnatural.” 122 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS “When it rains it pours,” Rhinehart grimly said. “When it rains, it pours. We only have a limited number of officers to go around. I will not let anyone or anything disrupt the peace of this planet that I’ve worked so hard to build. I will be requesting more officers for you, Lieutenant.” “We have enough manpower, sir. It’s just a matter of figuring out their method of operation.” Punctual as usual, Dale Mackenzy walked through the door. He was Rhinehart's second appointment for the morning. Rhinehart waved him in. Mackenzy walked in with a few sheets of papers in his left hand. He sat on the chair next to Gust. Ellis quickly introduced Gust to Mackenzy. Gust was delighted to see Mackenzy was wearing a red suite. He knew red was the color of the chemical team of the MP. Originally, the Chemical Division of the MP was established to punish companies who were dumping illegal toxins on the soil of Mars. When they established severe penalties for dumping, all the companies stopped doing it and the chemical division ended up helping private companies with their experiments and new projects. Mackenzy gently set the papers on the desk, smiling informally at Gust. "The tests are done," Mackenzy proudly announced. “And?” Ellis asked. "The tombs are made of a carbon-based substance, much like diamond now that they've been lengthily exposed to air. They are arranged in a three-dimensional lattice. Each atom is linked to four other atoms, exactly like a carbon atom arrangement. In short, the tombs are diamonds. The longer they are exposed to air, their property become more diamond-like. Right now, their refractive index is still slightly larger than diamond. The speed of light is also traveling slower in the tombs, as expected when light travels from air to diamond. The x-ray patterns of the tombs are beginning to conform with the x-ray patterns exhibited by diamond." 123 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust listened and absorbed every word. Since the index of refraction of diamond was 2.42, Gust guessed the refraction index of the tomb was around 2.47. Gust asked, "Are the x-ray diffraction patterns similar to natural diamond or artificial diamond?" Mackenzy looked over to Rhinehart for approval. Rhinehart nodded. "The x-ray diffraction patterns are similar to artificial diamonds. From the dense structure of the tombs, it would imply that the civilization who constructed them are far more advanced than our own," Mackenzy answered. "What about the infrared studies from Platform II?" Ellis asked. Mackenzy said, "Their heat signature in Platform II was as much as 10 times greater than humans. However, the number varied depending on their state. The greatest heat registered when they were invisible to us. The least heat was when they were visible. I’m guessing they require a great deal of energy to turn invisible." "All this science is educational. But the issue we need to focus on right now is how did they get off Phobos?” Rhinehart interrogated. "Well, they can re-arrange their molecular structure, correct?" Gust asked no one in particular. "Correct," Mackenzy answered. Ellis also nodded a yes. "What if have the ability to freeze all biological activities down to the atomic level. Then no heat is given off. That might explain why you never picked up any heat in Platform II. It could explain why no heat is being picked up at the morgue. They are at the morgue but are inactive biologically, sort of hibernation.” Mackenzy stared at Gust, somewhat impressed. "I gotta give it to you. No one has thought about that yet.” Gust looked up and smiled a “thanks for the compliment” at Mackenzy. Then he went back to staring innocently at the floor, loving every second of it. 124 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Rhinehart joined in the praise, "How does a Hauler know so much about science? I thought all they did was look at pornographic pictures the entire trip?" Ellis and Mackenzy grinned in amusement. “Back to the first priority,” Rhinehart said, “how did they get off Phobos without us knowing?” Gust offered, “I’m guessing that they came back as MP officers. I would check the flight data of every shuttle that went to Phobos.” Ellis nodded slowly. “That is a good starting point. Thanks, kid.” “Let’s get with it,” Rhinehart said. Mackenzy, Ellis, and Gust slowly rose. Rhinehart slouched back and watched as the three made their way to the door. Just as Gust was near the door, Rhinehart grunted something and Gust turned around to face the director. Rhinehart said, "Thanks again for saving his life, son." Gust almost cracked with laughter. “Think nothing of it, sir.” Mackenzy was last out and closed the door behind him. Rhinehart went back to read the reports on his deskscreen. Mackenzy went back to his laboratory to run more experiments. Ellis took Gust one floor below to show him the tombs. ELLIS NUDGED HIS index finger on the small IDpad against the wall. The light flashed green and the door hissed open. The room was empty except for two tombs in the corner. Ellis walked in first. Gust's eyes widened as he saw the tombs. "I thought there were four?" Gust asked, approaching the tombs. "There were but Whittaker has possession of the other two. He managed to work something out with the director." "What's Mr. Whittaker going to do with the other two?" "I’m not sure but I’m guessing he wants his people to reproduce them. Whatever his plans are for the tombs, there’s money involved.” 125 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust walked up to the tombs and ran his hand around the humanoid contouring on the inside. He felt a sense of excitement. "It didn't always look like that," Ellis said, leaning against the white wall. "How'd it look before?" "Shiny. Extremely shiny. It could have made you blind if you looked at it too long. It’s lost a bit of its shine." "It must have reacted with oxygen,” Gust said softly. Gust studied the contours on the inside and realized no wonder they were so big. "What do these six characters mean?" Gust poked his fingers inside the deep characters, tracing his hand to the contouring. "We don’t know but two of the characters look familiar. Don't they, kid?" "One is a Greek Alpha character and the second one looks like an inverted triangle. Are the first four characters on all four the same?" Ellis pushed from the wall. "Yep, the first four letters of all four are identical for some unknown reason." "What about the last two characters?" "The last two characters are different. They might be numbers or names used for identification. Like Gust and Donald." Ellis smiled. "Cool. Cool and weird. I have never seen anything like it." "Neither have I, kid. A lot of us haven’t." The door hissed open and Mackenzy walked in with two more reds. They smiled at Gust and quickly introduced themselves as Amber and Serena. "Sorry, Gust. I know how much you love aliens and all but we have to run more tests," Mackenzy said, nearing the tombs. "No problem. I was getting bored of them, anyway," Gust lied. The two assistants started the noiseless cart and rolled the two tombs out the door. Gust waited until they disappeared from view. 126 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Don't feel so bad, kid. I have something else to show you," Ellis said and steered Gust out the door. "What is it?" "Let's say it's a surprise. I’m sure you’ll like it though.” They walked down the hallway and Gust studied every MP that walked by. There were a bunch of them hustling around with handscreens. They came to a room with opaque glass doors. Again, Ellis nudged his index finger at the IDpad and the door seethed open. "Pick a seat." Ellis pointed around the room. The dark room looked exactly like a small movie theater with a huge projection screen in the front. They were alone. Gust sat on the nearest seat. Ellis went to the front and fumbled with a machine, then grabbed a small device. The room was too dark for Gust to see what Ellis was doing. Ellis quickly finished and sat beside Gust. There was a momentary silence. Then the huge screen flickered an image as Ellis tapped the remote control in his hand. It was the battle of Platform II replayed over again. Ellis had analyzed it a dozen times, now it was Gust's turn. The large projection screen was split into four squares, each showing different angles of the battle at Platform II. The top left square showed John Lawrence, the chemical leader at the time, nervously approaching something invisible. Lawrence's hands were shaking with fear as he walked in measured steps. Gust didn't understand why, then it became clear as he saw the Alpha Centaurians appearing from thin air on the screen. The bulging muscles and red-glowing eyes frightened him. It was exactly like the monsters he saw at the morgue. On the screen, one Alpha Centaurian picked up the helpless Lawrence and violently tossed him to his death. At that moment, Gust jerked in his seat. He looked over at Ellis and noticed the MP was coolly calm. "Where were you at that moment?" Gust asked over the noise. "Right behind him," Ellis said, eyes glued to the screen. 127 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Where were the other two aliens at that time?" Gust asked over the cussing and rapid movements of MPs on the screen. "I don't know. We only saw two." On the screen, one Alpha Centaurian leaped into the air and landed on a transport, which flipped and cracked in pieces. Gust watched intently and made mental notes of the action. A few segments later, the lower portion of the screen showed one Alpha Centaurian falling to the ground. The knot of black surrounded it and nailed it with streaming lasers, then it cloaked. But the firing from the MP was hitting something between the ground and themselves. Gust knew the fire was hitting the invisible Alpha Centaurian. They sat and watched the entire battle. "Do you still believe the deaths at the Olympus are related to the Alpha Centaurians?" Ellis wearily asked as they walked out of the viewing room. Gust felt important as he walked beside the second in command down the hallway at MP headquarters. He rubbed his eyes to adjust to the bright light of the narrow hallway. “My guess is that the other two did the killings at the Olympus.” "Assuming you’re right, that there are four aliens, why would they separate? Why didn’t they stay in a pack?” "Again, my guess is that the separation was planned in advance or it was unavoidable amidst the chaos." They moved against the wall and let two MPs pass down the hallway. The MPs were wandering aimlessly around the hallway, smoked-eyed and absent minded, roaming about without an intended destination. Their name tags declared them to be ENDER, MICHAEL and YAMOTO, JOHN. They never smiled. "What did you make of the tape?" Ellis asked as they walked again. "Scary. Downright scary." 128 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis forced a smile. "You should have been there. That was scary." Unaware to Ellis and Gust, Ender and Yamoto casually turned and followed. The two Alpha Centaurians stared at the back of Ellis with familiarity. They had met somewhere before. It was at Platform II. The Alpha Centaurians suspiciously surveyed the hallway and saw it empty. They changed colors, then turned invisible. The air was shifting. Ellis and Gust walked along the hallway and took a left to the elevator. It opened and both eased in. There were four bodies inside, but only two could be seen. “Do you have any descriptions of the suspects at the Olympus?” Gust asked. "Only that they wore black. Not much to go on." “Black as in Mars Police officer black?” Gust asked. “I haven’t thought of it that way.” “There is a good chance that they might have made it back to Mars as MP officers. I would contact the witnesses again. Where are we going?" "Downstairs to the main monitoring room to see how our two friends are doing at the morgue." The elevator door opened and Ellis led Gust down a short hallway. They came to a door and it automatically hissed open. The large room was hustling with people, computers scattered all over, lights flashing on the walls, and MPs running about passing information to each other. On the front wall were ten giant wallscreens showing pictures of the tunnels around the morgue. Ellis approached a woman sitting at one of the many consoles. "Any signs of them?" Ellis asked. "Nothing yet, Lieutenant," she answered, looking up at Ellis and the young man standing beside him. She thought about asking who the hell he was, but let it pass since he was accompanied by Ellis. She sipped her coffee and watched the wallscreen. 129 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Have the shuttles picked up anything?" Ellis asked, looking downward. "Not yet, Lieutenant," she replied. "Anything new at the Olympus?" Ellis asked. She shook her head. Ellis and Gust studied the tunnels on the wallscreens for awhile. It was eerie with flickering static. The MPs were aware that the Alpha Centaurians could set the alarm off in the tunnel any moment. If they did, there was a surprise waiting at the far end of the tunnel for them. The female operator felt something warm resting on her shoulder. She thought it was the room. "That's strange," she mumbled to herself. "You still like aliens, kid?" Ellis asked, turning to Gust. "Yes." She thought there was a hand caressing her face, pinching skin here and there. 130 15 UDELL WHITTAKER SANKE comfortably in his tall chair and stared at the opaque window. He rested his chin on one palm and patiently waited. He wasn’t smoking any cigars but lightly tapped his fingers on the chair’s armrest. H was waiting for Dittmar Callen to arrive with the news, which he hoped would be good with all his greedy heart. Margaret opened the door and Callen walked in importantly. Whittaker swung the chair around and faced Callen, who flashed a million dollar smile at the tycoon. Whittaker waved a hand to one of the chairs and Callen sat down. Margaret closed the door and the two were alone. Whittaker stared at Callen. "Well?" Whittaker interrogated. Callen paused and looked deep into Whittaker's eyes, knowing the answer would please his boss. "They are," Callen said. An immense smile crossed Whittaker's face. He was trying hard not to conceal it, but the news was too great. Whittaker slapped the marble desk with one hand and his smile got broader. The tombs were diamond. "Are you absolutely certain?" Callen nodded a yes and sank smugly in his chair. Big bonus coming up, he thought. "They're diamond, sir." Whittaker tapped a button on his desk and the window turned transparent, sunlight rushed in and illuminated the room. The heavy air traffic outside came into view with shuttles of all sorts easing out the window. Whittaker sat in silence and savored the news. What a wonderful day, he thought. "Did the MP get the same result?" Whittaker interrogated. “I assume they did because they used the same test methods we did.” "Keep this a closely guarded secret. This could change the fortune of Whittaker Resources." THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "I understand, sir. It’s on a need to know basis,” Callen assured him. THE ILL-LIT ROOM had one desk, a one hundred inch wallscreen, three deskscreens, four chairs, and large picture windows. Ellis sat on the edge of his chair with his face buried in both palms. He gathered all his strength, crouched forward, and reached for the water cup. He swirled the cup and watched as the water curled in circles. He was exhausted and hungry. He had spent the last two days glued to his wallscreen, pondering on every possible outcome at the morgue. There were no movements so far. The door was open, as usual, and Loren poked her head through. She knocked lightly and Ellis motioned her in. She did not have an appointment. "We have a problem with two officers," Loren reported, sitting down. She looked strikingly cute with the black uniform hugging her body. "Who are they and what type of problem?” Ellis asked calmly. "Michael Ender and John Yamoto. They’ve missed their shifts. A few people have said they saw them at the Olympus and some said they saw them at headquarters." "Have you taken this up with them?" "They have done everything possible to avoid me." Ellis distinctly remembered seeing Ender and Yamoto walking down the hallway together. "Where are they now?" he asked. "No one knows. I've called their homes and but haven’t been able to contact them. They’ve been acting very strange." "When did they start acting strange?" "Shortly after our return from Phobos." "I saw them near the viewing room just yesterday. They seemed normal at the time.” "They kept uttering 'Just kill me' and 'Just fucking kill me.’ I find that odd.” "Have you talked with Rhinehart about this?" 132 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Not yet. I wanted your thoughts on it first." "Good call. Have we contacted their friends and family?” "I checked their files. Ender and Yamoto are both single. They do not have immediately family on Mars. They met through training. They even requested to have the same shifts, patrols, and assignments." "You've been doing your homework." "It's my job." "Is their shuttle in the docking bay?" "It is.” "When is their next scheduled patrol?" "This afternoon." "Wait for them in the docking bay." "I will. Anything else?" "Nothing for now. Do your best to find Ender and Yamoto and see what they're up to." "You got it." Loren stood up and walked out silently. Ellis turned his attention to the wallscreen, which was showing live pictures of the tunnels leading to the morgue. The screen was split in two sections—the left showed a few dozen officers squatting and pointing their rifles down the dimly lit tunnel and the right showed the dark exit. With a tap of a button he could see any of the six exits at the morgue. He had been brave the first two encounters with the aliens. He wasn’t sure what would happen with the third. Finally, he turned the wallscreen off and dashed upstairs to meet Rhinehart. He was already five minutes late. RHINEHART, AS USUAL, was slouched on the big chair in his office. Dale Mackenzy was already in the room, talking and laughing with the big man. Ellis didn't 133 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS understand what they were laughing about. Ellis eased to a chair and made no apology for being late. "I'll take it you've been monitoring the situation at the morgue?" Rhinehart asked and stopped laughing. "It’s been very quiet there so far," Ellis said. "Briefly tell me your plans, Lieutenant," Rhinehart requested with Mackenzy looking on. “We will assault the morgue and retrieve the bodies. After that, if the Alpha Centaurians are still there we will blow the place up.” “That’s the best plan you have developed, Lieutenant?” “It is the only one that will accomplish what you have asked me to do.” Rhinehart frowned. “You see no other alternatives?” “We have to be on the offensive. We cannot let them roam around and kill people.” "Carry out the plan," Rhinehart grunted at last. ELLIS ARRIVED AT the closest tunnel to the morgue. The tunnel was dark with muggy air that made it hard to breath. It was crowded with equipment, weapons, and dozens of officers. A handful of MPs clustered around him and listened intently to his instructions. He picked nineteen officers which he thought were most suited for the task. Each MP carried rifles which shot bullets rather than lasers, the same type which Ellis had used earlier. Each MP carried four specialized round grenades, half the size of tennis balls, around their waist buckles. They surged to a huge metal door and came upon a numerical IDpad. The owner of the building had given the code to every door and operating procedures to the nitrogen chambers and computer equipment. Ellis quickly pressed 4-2-0 on the panel and the heavy door rumbled opened and the MPs swarmed in with Ellis in the front. 134 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS They ran through each room with eyes fixed on their handscreen infrareds. Nothing on the main floor. On the second floor, Ellis used a different elevator than the one he and Gust had used earlier. He used the one leading from the loading bay to the second floor. The first nine officers and Ellis swung around the corner and were horrified at the sight on the ground. There was dried blood on the walls and floor with three bodies dead and cards strewn wildly on the ground, just like Ellis had remembered. As he neared the bodies he noticed something frightening different about them: Their skin had been peeled off and every internal organ was exposed with bones protruding out. Their eyes were hanging loose with reddish flesh strings dangling out their sockets. One MP cupped his hand over his mouth and almost choked. "You can't go back now," Ellis said. "Just give me a second," the man said hoarsely, turning pale. Ellis put his arm around the man's shoulders for comfort and patted him on the back twice for encouragement. The young man pulled himself together and followed Ellis to the elevator. The MPs rapidly shoved the electronic bins in the elevator onto the corridor and bolted inside. Just as the door clanged shut, Ellis saw the other ten officers rounding the corner. He gave them a thumbs up. They stormed the third floor but couldn’t find any signs of the aliens. The floor was exactly as Ellis had remembered except for the two bodies. Gardner and Fryer's bodies were lying in the same position, but their skins had also been peeled from their bodies. It was a grotesque sight with flesh strings hanging limply from the bodies. Ellis looked at the hole in the glass wall and nervously smiled to himself. He looked to the elevator and saw the second group surging out. Loren approached him for instructions. "Search the fourth and filth floor," Ellis instructed. Loren nodded and hurried back to the elevator. It shut and they were gone. Three officers in the nitrogen chamber carefully removed the dead bodies of Fryer 135 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS and Gardner aside. Other officers cleared the robotic arm debris and kicked the glass fragments into a neat pile. Ellis used his handscreen and ordered the other team up to remove the bodies from the chambers. At his feet were three notebooks. He picked them up from the ground and quickly flipped through the pages. The notebooks belonged to Gust. Ellis grinned as he saw a doodle of a face with an upward arching smile in one of the pages. The third group arrived quickly with a new robotic arm and successfully installed it. They lowered each chamber without paying attention to the nitrogen smoke clouding the room. They began to transfer the chambers, still intact and enclosed, to the shuttles waiting below. The entire process would take thirty minutes. Ellis watched nervously while pacing the white hallway. Everywhere he turned, an MP was standing with a rifle. The whole building was full of them now. Ellis bit his nails and watched the chambers being removed and rolled to the freight elevator. Finally, the end hallway elevator opened and Loren darted out with a dozen MPs in tow. Ellis stopped pacing. Loren ran straight up to him with a grave face. "There's nothing up there." She breathed heavily and unevenly. "Did you check the vents?" "Everywhere. There's no sign of them." Ellis frowned. He recalled what Gust had theorized earlier: the Alpha Centaurians could hibernate and not give off heat. He rubbed his temples. "Our instruments are telling me one thing but my instinct is telling me another. They're still here, I feel it." He glanced suspiciously around the floor. "There’s nothing on the fourth floor or the fifth floor. Maybe they got past our detection system." Ellis hesitated and surveyed the caskets being loaded into the elevators. "Let’s get all the bodies out of here first. That’s our first priority.” 136 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Loren nodded and scurried off. She gathered a handful of MPs and began removing the caskets off the nitrogen chamber walls. The third floor was now packed with MPs streaming back and forth. Ellis crossed to the office of Fryer and Gardner and sat down. The deskscreen was left on with the face of Randal Unger smiling for some peculiar reason. He pulled up some files Fryer had been working on. The pictures of his sixteen officers flashed on along with five of Whittaker's employees. The files declared all twenty-one had died in an industrial accident in Platform II. He changed to another screen and saw that the nitrogen chambers were occupied from 1 to 181. Before the arrival of twenty-one bodies from Phobos, only chambers 1 through 160 were occupied. Michelle Gardner had intended to use chambers 161 to 181 as a temporary resting place for the twenty-one who had died of Phobos. She had finished loading all the bodies up to chamber 179, only with Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel remaining. Michelle Gardner never finished loading chambers 180 and 181. Ellis checked the files repeatedly, and was satisfied. It made sense, Chambers 1 through 160 were occupied before the arrival of twenty-one bodies. When the twenty-one arrived, Gardner loaded all twenty-one into the chambers. It added up, chambers 1 to 181 should all be filled, and they were. So the information on the deskscreen led Ellis to believe. He sat and scanned several files to pass time. Some of the deaths scared him. One guy had his skull crushed by a robot, a woman chemist was found dead with two missing eyes, a tourist died because his oxygen tank malfunctioned, and an eighty year man hit the bucket during sex. Then he downloaded all the files on the deskscreen to MP headquarters, where they would be received by the autopsy unit. A few minutes later, Loren poked her head through the glass door again. "All 181 are loaded. Just waiting for your word," she said. It made sense, there should be a 181 one bodies, and there were. Ellis thought 137 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS nothing of it, computers don't lie. "Great," Ellis said, preoccupied with the deskscreen. Finally, he got up and made mental notes of the office for the last time with Loren closely watching. He picked up Gust's three precious notebooks and stuffed them under his arms. As he walked out of the tiny office, ten officers clustered around and escorted him to the elevator. The elevator door opened and Ellis eased in with the entourage. He turned and studied the white floors for the final time. 181 bodies were retrieved, computers don't lie. The elevator whirred to the second floor quickly. Ellis was the first out and he walked passed the spot where the dead body of Albert had been lying. There were no more blood stains, the walls were white and everything looked orderly. Ellis stopped at the big metal door and turned to Loren. "Go over this place one more time. Then evacuate everyone." Loren nodded and hurried back to her duty. THE DOOR OPENED with a soft hum and Ellis walked in with high-spirits. Nick, his son, bear hugged him around his legs. Ellis reached down and lifted him to chest level. Nick swung his legs wildly in the air and kissed his father on the cheeks. He had not seen his father in two days. "Did you miss me, Nick?" "Yes, daddy!" "I missed you, too. Where's mommy?" Ellis asked, gently setting Nick to the ground. "She's making dinner. She says she misses you so muuchhhhh," Nick said slowly. Ellis took his hand and they walked to the kitchen together. Arlene was cutting up some vegetables with old- fashioned utensils. She refused to use any of the high-tech kitchen gadgetry. The noise was loud and she missed Ellis sneaking behind her with Nick in hand for the surprise attack. Ellis crouched up slowly 138 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS and wrapped his hand around her eyes. She stopped with the cutting and a pleasant smile crossed her face. She put up a hand and touched his arm on her face. "Guess who?" Ellis whispered in her ear. She stroked his arm and did not answer. Nick stepped forward and wrapped himself around her legs. "What I am arrested for this time?" she asked playfully. Ellis leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "For having such outrageous legs." "I didn't know that was a crime." "It is in this home." "Why don't you handcuff me to the sofa and punish me to the maximum extent?" she asked, still smiling and stroking his arm. "Maybe the bed posts," Ellis said, pressing his cheek against hers. "How much is bail?" She played along. "No bail. Just hard time." "How many years?" "A lifetime." "Just for having gorgeous legs?" And yes, they were gorgeous. Long, slender, smooth. Smooth. Smooth. "Yep. Just for having killer legs." He angled down and kissed her neck, then worked his way up her cheek again. "A lifetime? Just for the legs?" "You heard me. A lifetime." "Maybe I can get time off for good behavior." She turned around and they violently kissed for a long moment. Nick covered his eyes with both hands. It was the most disgusting thing, Nick thought. "Go in the bedroom and play, Nick," Ellis pleaded with a mouthful. 139 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Nick happily obliged and ran to his bedroom to play with his alien toys. They let go for a moment and were face to face staring deeply into each other's eyes. "You've been working awfully hard the last few days," she said, gently stroking his face. "Training, training, and more training. Rhinehart is obsessed with it," he said and stole a quick kiss. "Are you sure it has nothing to do with Xavier?" Ellis was tired of hearing about Xavier. "I promise it has nothing to do with the lunatic." "Good. When is this training going to stop?" "Soon I hope." "You don't sound too sure. Don't they give the second in command schedules?" she asked, some of the romance went out of her voice. "I’m hoping it’ll be over by next week." "You promise?" She traced her finger around his upper lip. "I promise," he said with a smile. He lifted her and carried her to the eating table. He gently set her on his knees and looked passionately at her for a long moment. "I heard about the two tourists at the Olympus," Arlene said with sympathy. "It was very unfortunate that it happened. I wish I had been there to do something about it." "I heard they were on their honeymoon," she said and kissed him on the tip of his nose. He shook his head slowly. "It was a shame. They were very young." She crouched up and kissed him on his forehead and noticed the heavy, red wrinkles below his eyes and his body odor. Only ten minutes ago he was at the morgue. "Are you on the case?" she asked. He was so tired that he almost told her about the aliens. "I’m not but Rhinehart 140 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS has put some very talented people on it." "I hope they’ll solve it soon. Mars does not need people of that nature," Arlene said in a caring voice. "No, we don’t, honey." She sat on his and knee and they groped for awhile. Suddenly, a sound of something hitting against the floor stopped their wet kisses. It was more of a loud thud, like the stomping of feet. Ellis gently pulled Arlene away and turned around. He nervously rose and eased to the living room. "What's wrong?" she asked, thinking it was only Nick. "Nothing, honey. Please stay here while I see Nick," he said frigidly. "Is anything a matter? You look pale." He stopped and glanced back at her. "Nothing is a matter, darling. I just to see what Nick is up to," he said as nonchalantly as he could muster. The way Ellis was moving nervously toward the living room concerned Arlene. She slowly rose and followed closely. He motioned a hand in objection. "Please stay in the kitchen, darling." She ignored his request and followed. She eased up and placed a hand on his back and felt him trembling. She was now concerned. She grabbed his arm and swung him around just as he was reaching for his rifle. "Honey, what is the matter with you? There is no one here but the three of us," she said with a touch of anger. He gave her a sidelong glance, but his attention was still on the living room. He felt now the same way he felt at the morgue with Gust. "Didn't you hear that thumping sound?" he whispered secretly. "Yes, it was Nick. He's in the bedroom playing with his toys. You told him to go, remember?" Ellis turned and kissed her left cheek. "Yes, I forget," he said in his best calm 141 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS voice. Arlene stood with arms folded across her chest and frowned. "I think all this work is getting to you. They are trying to kill you. You need some time off to relief some stress. You look so tired and worn out. Can't you ask for some time off? Maybe just a day or two?" He stared in the direction of the living room before answering. "I will get sometime off. Just not this week." An angry frown developed between her eyes, but quickly disappeared. She touched his face with both hands, looked down, and noticed his hand was resting near the rifle beside his hip. "Mr. Ellis, are you still with me? Are you still going to handcuff me and take me into custody?" she said with a bright smile. Another thumping sound came from the living, exactly like the last. He pushed a palm at her. "Stay here," he said and walked quickly to the living room. He took a few steps and turned the corner swiftly. He stood and mechanically looked around the room. Suddenly, he saw a silhouette moving and pointed his rifle at it. The elongated shadow was casting on the floor and wrinkling up the wall, and moving toward him. And there he was! It was him. No mistake. The movement. The body. Those eyes! Tender, loving eyes. Nick was carrying his spaceship toys and alien creatures. Ellis put up both hands and beckoned Nick to come. Nick ran to him and crashed into his father. Ellis picked him up and kissed him. "I thought daddy told you to go to the bedroom," Ellis said warmly, lifting Nick high into the air and swinging him back and forth. "I forget some of my spaceships in the living room," Nick said. Ellis stopped swinging. 142 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Arlene came around the corner and smiled at what she saw. "There was your thumping sound," she said, easing up. All three hugged and exchanged quick kisses. Then Ellis set Nick down. "Do you have all your spaceships now?" Nick nodded and answered, "Yes daddy." Ellis kissed Nick's forehead. "Good. Now go play in the bedroom so mommy and daddy can finish supper. Okay?" "Yes daddy." Nick ran to his bedroom and played his Galaxy Warrior toys. A few seconds later, Ellis and Arlene heard a loud rattling sound originating from Nick's bedroom. They thought nothing of it. Ellis lifted Arlene off her feet and carried her to the white sofa, then he gently set her down. They exchanged long, wet kisses. The type of wet kisses with wet tongues wiggling and squirming inside. A few seconds passed and Nick heard the walls tremble and the ground shake. Ellis did not use the cuffs. 143 16 ALL ONE-HUNDRED and eighty-one bodies that had been removed from the Nitrogen Chamber at the morgue, by Rhinehart's request, were flown back to MP Headquarters for further examination. The second floor hallway at MP headquarters was littered with coffins. The first hundred and sixty-six bodies, including five of Whittaker's employees, had already been verified. The autopsy room was white with wide glass doors. The workers wore long, white lab coats and had that sickly look on their faces. They had never seen anything this nauseating before. Six bodies with their skins removed were in the corner. "In all my years of doing this, I have never seen anything this grotesque," the woman said, waving her finger at the six former employees of the morgue. Who would take the skin of dead people? She kept asking herself. Whoever did it was not human, she concluded. "Neither have I and I have been doing this for over 30 years," the man said, shaking his head mildly. "I wish those assistants would hurry up and remove those bodies or I’m going to throw up." She looked at the six bodies and felt a chill shooting up her spine. "Try not to look in that direction. Concentrate on your work and everything will be fine," he encouraged. "I am trying, but they’re so close." "Stand where I am standing so your back will be to them. That way you won't have to look in that direction," he said. She walked around one of the coffins and stood with her back against the six skinless bodies. "You feel better, Karen?" he asked. She inhaled deeply and slowly. "Yes, Leon." "Good. It’s time to do our people. This shouldn't take long, all the deaths were from the industrial accident and training on Phobos," Leon said, slipping on the transparent surgical gloves. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "So that’s what they tell us," Karen said doubtfully. "Don’t you find it bizarre that we’ve had a string of deaths this week? Our people on Phobos, Whittaker’s employees on Phobos, the couple at the Olympus, the employees of the Mars morgue. There is something big and wacky happening that Rhinehart is hiding from us." Karen nodded affably. “I feel the same way.” At the door, three young assistants strode in and removed the six skinless bodies in the corner. "It's about time," Karen grunted, relieved. "Sorry for the lateness. We were busy making room for some of the coffins in the corridor," one assistant said. Women, always afraid of skinless dead people. Leon continued with his work with a bored look on his face. He entered the information of the bodies into his handscreen with an electronic pen. Karen slid open the coffin of John Lawrence, the chem man, whose face was still slightly frozen from the nitrogen chamber. The next coffin was of another chem man, so was the third one. They were the three reds who died at Platform II during the first battle. The names of the second and third chem men were labeled on the side of the coffins: Robert Turin and Matthew Berkeley. The assistants came in again and quietly rolled the coffins of John Lawrence, Robert Turin and Matthew Berkeley out. Only thirteen more bodies to go; they were all MPs. The fourth and fifth coffins were from the enforcement division of the MP with no name tags attached on the side. Leon skid the fourth coffin partially open and immediately looked over to his assistant, utterly confused and frightened. "What is going on here!" Leon screamed, stepping back from the coffin and dropping his handscreen on the floor. Karen cupped her mouth with both hands and retreated three long steps. 145 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS It was the face of John Lawrence. The first coffin was John Lawrence and so was the fourth. "Are we expecting twins?" Karen said with her mouth open. "Frank! Bring them back! I think we have a problem here," Leon said, as he darted to the hallway. "What's the problem, Leon?" Frank shouted back. "Bring those back here. I’ll show you!" Leon yelled, waving his hands. Frank, the lead assistant, reversed the noiseless motor cart and steered the coffins back. Inside the room, he put the three coffins next to Leon. "Put it by the fourth," Leon instructed. Frank set the first and fourth coffins beside each other and the other assistant glided open coffin number one. Now the first and fourth coffins were open. The five of them stood with perplexed looks as they stared at the uncanny scene. There were two John Lawrence's before their eyes. They looked like dead identical twins. All five didn't know what to make of it. "Looks like we have twins, people," one assistant said nervously. Leon was bewildered. "I don’t recall anything about twins. Do you, Karen?” "I don’t recall anything about twins," Karen said in a low voice. She glared down at the two bodies of John Lawrence in their coffins. She could've swore they were identical twins. All five people gathered in a broken circle and frowned at the John Lawrence twins. Leon eased behind the fifth coffin and slowly slithered it open. "What are you doing?" Karen whispered to him. "I am going to see if these other coffins also have twins," Leon said nervously. He looked at the assistant and grinned, then he slithered the fifth coffin open and looked inside. And jumped back. 146 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS His face was packed with fear. "What is going on here!" "What's wrong?" Frank, the lead assistant, asked. He glanced over at Karen and saw her turning pale. There was a ghostly silence in the white room. "Can anyone please tell me what game we’re playing here?" the third assistant demanded. Leon stepped forward with a determined face. "Open the second coffin," he said. Lucky assistant number one quickly slid the second coffin open and skipped back at what he saw. The bodies of the fifth and second coffins were exactly alike. They were that of Robert Turin, the chem man who had met his fate with the aliens in Platform II. Now there were two Robert Turin's before them. No one had told them about the aliens. "This has to be a joke, right guys?" Frank said and chuckled nervously, expecting the other two assistants to join in the chuckle. The third assistant cleared his throat. “Is this a twin thing that no one told us about? The suspense is killing me.” "Open the third coffin," Karen ordered, already knowing that Matthew Berkeley would be inside. One assistant shoved the top off the coffin and it dropped to the ground. As expected, the third coffin contained Matthew Berkeley. He had been identified earlier. Leon breathed deeply and looked over to Karen. She knew what he was going to do next and acknowledged it with a nod. Leon eased beside the sixth coffin and pushed it open. It was the face of an MP and not of Matthew Berkeley. All five heaved in relief. There was no twin of Matthew Berkeley. Whew! "For a moment I thought I was going to see doubles for the rest of the shift," one assistant joked. They all smiled nervously. The twins of John Lawrence and Robert Turin were 147 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS still lying motionless beside them. "Any suggestions on what to do next?" one assistant asked, leaning hazardously against the double of John Lawrence. Leon turned to Karen for suggestions. "Go open the remaining ten to see if there are anymore twins," Karen said. The three assistants nodded. They slithered the remaining ten coffins open and inspected the dead faces. "No more twins. Thank-God," Frank said. He leaned dangerously on the coffin of Turin's double. Leon sighed heavily. "What now? We can't continue with the identification until this mess is cleared up. We have twins here we know nothing about," Leon said helplessly. "Where’s Ellis? He needs to know about this," Karen suggested. "He's upstairs in the conference room," assistant number one offered. “I can get him if you want.” "I’d appreciate that, Scott," Leon said. "Let him know what’s going on down here." "I will," Scott, lucky assistant number one with the long sideburns, said and walked off. His two unlucky assistants remained behind. Just as Scott eased into the elevator, something happened to the doubles of John Lawrence and Robert Turin. Their body slowly changed colors. Red. Green. Blue. All colors of the rainbow. Then the dead eyes opened. They watched in horror, mouths dropping to the ground in perfect unison. Together and fearfully, they inched slowly away from the coffins to the glass wall in the back. John Lawrence and Robert Turin were coming alive. SOMEHOW THE TWO MPs found their way to headquarters without being seen by 148 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS anyone. They walked aimlessly throughout the hallways and sneered at every passing face. Their name tags declared them to be ENDER, MICHAEL and YAMOTO, JOHN. They saw a group of fellow MPs and closely followed. The group crossed the hallway and eased into a large, dim-lit room. Ender and Yamoto followed them into the room. THE CONFERENCE ROOM on the third floor was occupied by eight MP officers in black uniforms. At the front of the room was Ellis going over some plans. Sitting beside him was a young lad, Gust Hein, the only person in the room not wearing black. Ender and Yamoto stood at the back of the room . They surveyed the room and methodically studied the faces. Then they saw something familiar. It was the speaker. Ellis stopped speaking when he saw John Yamoto and Michael Ender in the back. He turned to Loren and they exchanged concerned looks. "Where have you guys been?" Ellis demanded from the front of the room. No reply. Loren jumped off her chair and walked to Ender and Yamoto, who were standing coolly against the back wall as if they owned the place. "Where the hell have you two been?" Loren demanded irritably. No answer. Ellis crossed to where Ender and Yamoto were standing. "What the hell is wrong with you two?" he demanded, annoyed. Nothing. Ender and Yamoto glared at each other and smirked. There was nothing to indicate there was anything physically wrong with them. "Look, Mike and John," Loren said. "We've been worried sick about you two. Where have you been?" No answer again. They looked downward at Loren as though she were a caged animal, rolling their eyes methodically over her entire face. Ellis stepped forward and dangerously seized Yamoto on both shoulders. He shook them as if he expected some coins to fall out or something. Yamoto remained 149 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS calm with predatory eyes. Finally, Ender/alien spoke, "I think you have the wrong people, officers." The voice sounded exactly like the real Michael Ender. His eyes glowed red, but no sparks. Ellis slowly let go of Yamoto as his eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up. He turned his attention to Ender and noticed Ender was grinning defiantly. Gust, sitting near the front, rose and walked to the back. Ellis eased his hand to his hip where the rifle was. Suddenly, "Good evening, officers," Yamoto said with a menacing grin. "Run, get help. Don't worry about me," Ender added. His voice was feminine, identical to Anne Pressly' s. Before anyone could speak, Yamoto turned to Ender and whispered, "Pleasure. Right, babe?" And the two aliens shared a grin. "I think we better be going, officers. It was nice meeting you," Ender injected. His voice sounded like Richard Pressly’s. Ellis grabbed his rifle and pointed it squarely at the head of Ender and everyone in the room followed his example. Suddenly, there were seven rifles pointing at Ender and Yamoto. Gust quietly eased to the door and watched the action from there. The aliens stood leaning against the wall with grins across their faces. All seven MPs moved away from Ender and Yamoto. "No one do anything rash, wait for them to make the first move,” Ellis whispered. The MPs curled their fingers around the triggers. Gust was in the line of fire and Ellis waved him out the room. "All this hacking business has gotten me in trouble," Gust mumbled to himself. He walked quietly out of the room and waited down the hallway "Are they? Are they? Are-" one MP beside Ellis stuttered. "Yes, they're our alien friends." "Damn!" 150 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS There was a long, silent moment of anticipation. No one knew how what to do. Ender and Yamoto were still coolly leaning against the wall with the cool grins. ON THE SECOND FLOOR, about the same time Ender and Yamoto were about to move on the third floor, Karen, Leon, and the two assistants backed away from the coffins and watched as Lawrence and Turin mutated before their eyes. The aliens sat upright and studied the four humans. Their eyes swept across the white room while they changed shapes. Leon and his coworkers just gaped at the clumps of flesh glowing, twisting and coiling into larger humanoids. The arms and legs were expanding before their eyes. "Someone get security!" Karen cried, trembling at the hands. Someone would, except the two coffins were blocking the path to the hallway. Another five seconds, the human forms of Lawrence and Turin were unrecognizable. Their bodies were now gigantic and with muscles protruding all over. Their eyes glowed red and they climbed gracefully out of the coffins and stood with clenched fists, with an air of cockiness. All four MP employees huddled around each other, as if for protection. As if. "Scott better hurry," an assistant said weakly. He grabbled Leon’s white lab coat and held on. ON THE THIRD floor, the eyes of Ender of Yamoto glowed red, then the sparks followed. They cocked their heads in the air and laughed hysterically for some unknown reason. Suddenly, both stopped laughing and glared at Ellis. They had recognized something familiar in the building. They stared at each other to acknowledge the fact. That something familiar was on the second floor. No one else in the room could sense it, only them. It was something invisible that they could feel. Both smiled satisfactory at Ellis. 151 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS SCOTT, LUCKY ASSISTANT number one with the long sideburns from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Earth, eased out the elevator onto the third floor. He whistled with the steps, as if taking a Sunday walk in a magical forest. Was he in for a surprise. Scott casually, still whistling, turned the corner and hollered on the top of his lungs, "Holy shit!" And his sideburns shot up. There were two giant, hairless, unclothed, brawny, humanoids darting down the hallway. Four glowing eyes were flashing red sparks, looking into his own. The aliens were being pursued by seven MPs with rifles waving in the air. Ellis was leading the chase group, and behind the pack was Gust. "Get out of the way!" Loren bellowed. Scott, who failed his grade ten math exam, froze and his heart pounded like a jackhammer. He rubbed his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was real. It was. There were two colossal humanoids being hunted by a group of MPs, and they were racing straight at him. Scott ran to the nearest available room and vaulted in. He laid on the floor and breathed deeply, then crawled to the door, poked his head in the hallway and watched as the horde sped passed. "Hey! What is going on!" Scott yelled at the passing Gust. "Don't ever hack!" Gust yelled back and darted away with the group. Scott dropped to the floor and stared blankly at the carpet. Don't ever hack? The two Alpha Centaurians jumped in the elevator. The door shut and the elevator descended to the second floor. Ellis and his group jammed into the other elevator. Gust was last. They drew in their shoulders and bunched for the ride. On the second floor, the elevator opened and seven MPs rushed out. Gust was last out and whipped his head in all directions. "There they are!" a MP yelled and pointed down the hallway with her rifle. The aliens were deliberately running to the autopsy room. Still, no fire. The MPs gathered around the doorway of the autopsy room and everyone froze at what 152 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS they saw. There were four Alpha Centaurians in the room, standing beside each other and grinning boldly. United at last. In the corner of the room were four people tensely huddled in a group, shaking at the legs, hands, face and every other bodily part. Sweat was trickling down their faces. "Don't move. Whatever you do, don't move! Wait for my instruction," Ellis shouted at the four babies in the corner. They shook their heads in unity, then froze. Then fell silent. Ellis signaled three MPs to enter the room. "Okay, now move slowly against the wall. But don't make any abrupt movements," Ellis told the autopsy workers. One Alpha Centaurian stepped forward and muttered, "Don't move. Whatever you do, don't move!" It was trying hard to imitate his voice. The four babies froze and stared at Ellis with horror-stricken faces. "Just ignore them, keep going," Ellis encouraged. The aliens stood still while their eyes rolled mechanically around the room, studying each face. Then the same alien said, "Okay, now move slowly against the wall. But don't make any abrupt movements." It was still attempting to copy Ellis’s voice. Ellis twisted to the elevator door and saw another group of MP surging out. He pushed a hand at them, the signal to stop advancing. The four autopsy employees were only three meters from the nearest MP. Only three meters to safety, Leon told himself. He continued his crawl against the wall with beads of sweat trickling down his shiny forehead. His palms and groin area were wet. Leon stared at the four gigantic aliens, mesmerized. But they did not notice him, instead, they were focused on Ellis. The same alien moved up and muttered, "Just ignore them, keep going." This 153 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS time its voice was identical to Ellis's. Finally, Leon and the gang made it to safety. All four quietly eased to the elevator and never looked back. Scott with the bushy sideburns, who cheated on his grade eleven chemistry test, was waiting. Ellis motioned to the group near the elevator to come forward. Within seconds the entire autopsy room was surrounded by MP officers in black. He motioned to Gust to move away from the room. The heavy show of force did not faze the aliens. They were still motionless, but no longer grinning. Ten more MPs crept into the room and properly took their positions. Ellis put up a fist. And Click. Click. Click. Click... The glass was gone. The back wall was gone. The aliens were gone. Dead silence. "Block all the holes!" Ellis boomed. The MPs blocked every hole made by the hail of bullets. There were not enough officers, so a few meters of space were unplugged. The room was now wreck with glass and concrete wildly strewn all over the floor. Nothing was moving. No air shifting, no red eyes. Nothing. Then four MPs blocking the entrance were knocked flat on their backs by something invisible. They quickly jumped up and cussed loudly at the four creatures they couldn't see. Every rifle turned and fired down the hallway. The air ignited with multicolor sparks. Red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta. From the glittering of the colorful air, the bullets were finding their targets. The group gave chase. They dashed down the hallway and saw no one around, then continued with the firing. The air was popping with colors of the rainbow. The aliens took a right with the MPs in tow. The hallway led to a dead end with a large window. The sky of Mars was dark outside the window. Ellis raised hand. "Stop!" 154 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS The firing stopped. The footsteps stopped. The hallway was suddenly quiet. He turned and saw Gust turning the corner. Gust saw the group and stopped, backed off, positioned himself behind the turn, and watched the action from there. "On the count of five,” Ellis said. Every MP squatted on their knees and aimed their rifles at the four invisible humanoids ahead. Four. Three. Two. One. Click. Click. Click. Click.... Gust dropped down and plugged his ears with both hands. The air ignited like fire crackers in the night. Ellis smiled to himself as he kept his happy finger on the trigger. He knew that they were badly hurting. The hallway was now a showcase of fireworks. Another group of MP turned the corner. The firing was intense as a new group joined the hunt. For a fleeting moment, the firing was so intense that four crude glowing outlines of the aliens flashed into view. Only moments now, thought Ellis. Without warning the window smashed open. The aliens had hurdled through it. It was their only escape and they took it. The firing ceased. The blaring siren sounded. The computer's voice blasted over the speakers: WARNING: BREACH OF ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE. EVACUATE ALL PERSONNEL FROM THE WEST WING. EVACUATE ALL PERSONNEL FROM THE WEST WING. BREACH OF ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE. THIRTY-SECONDS TO EMERGENCY SHUT DOWN. WARNING. In thirty seconds the west wing would be cut off. It was everyone for themselves. The hostile air whipped through the hallway and everyone scrambled to their feet and dashed back to safety. Gust was already gone. The hallway was swarming with black uniforms. Ellis guided his officers and was last in the pack. They ran down the long white hallway and noticed the huge metal door clanging close. Gust was standing on the other side shouting words of encouragement. The first MP arrived with ten seconds to spare. The huge metal door continued closing at 155 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS a snail’s pace, but it was closing and the group was far. "C'mon, Mr. Ellis!" Gust shouted, waving wildly. He saw Ellis running with hands viciously pumping beside his hips. Another meter and the door would completely seal so not even air could penetrate it. Ellis ran like crazy. Another half-meter, he twisted his body sideways and barely squeezed through. Something was wrong. His rifle was caught and he yanked it free. The door clanged shut. The breathing in the corridor was, heavy, loud and labored. Everyone dropped their weapons to the ground. Scott, with the long sideburns who skipped his biology final, came around the corner and shook his head. Gust approached Ellis and patted him on the back. "You still like aliens, kid?" Ellis panted. "Yes." 156 17 LEON, KAREN, AND Scott with the prehistoric Elvis lamb-chops, and two other assistants had spent thirty minutes explaining to Ellis and Rhinehart what had happened down in the autopsy room before a group of MPs stormed to the door. Leon did the talking since everyone else was afraid to speak in front of Rhinehart's intimidating presence. Leon said that they were happily doing their work until they came upon the twins of John Lawrence and Robert Turin. Then Leon said he sent Scott with the long sideburns to notify Ellis and the next thing they knew, the twins of Lawrence and Turin were gradually changing colors and mutating to huge aliens. That was when one of his assistants wet his pants, Leon said. Just seconds after that, he saw, quoting: "Two of the biggest, freaking monsters run through door." Then there were four aliens standing in the autopsy room. Leon emphasized that he was calm and poised during the fiasco. If it wasn't for him, he stressed, the other three would have never made it out alive. His co- workers had a good chuckle at that. After the interrogation, Leon stayed behind and chatted with Rhinehart and soon they agreed that bald men were the best lovers. WILLY WINSTON, NO sandwich this time, waddled behind the two MPs down the corridor leading to the docking bay. Gust was a few steps behind. "Did you notice anything unusual about shuttle three during maintenance?" Ellis asked, slowing a bit to match old man Winston’s slow pace. “It has missed every scheduled patrol,” Winston said. "Anything unusual about any other shuttles?" Ellis asked. "Not that I’ve noticed but you might want to check with my partner, Steve Gray, when he returns tomorrow. He might have caught something I didn’t.” Ellis looked over to Loren, then back at Gust. The four took a sharp corner into the docking bay. It was empty except for four parked shuttles with a few MPs waiting for their next patrol. All the available shuttles and officers were out hunting the four alien fugitives. Ellis walked to Shuttle Three and nudged his index finger on the palm-sized IDpad. The shuttle ramp slowly dropped to the ground and Ellis ducked in. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "When was the last time you checked this shuttle?" Ellis asked, turning to Winston. "After it returned from Phobos. It hasn't been used since, so Steve and I haven't done any maintenance on it after that.” Ellis nodded and slid to the pilot's chair. He flipped a couple of switches and the monitor came to life. The lights blinked and he toyed with the panels. "Check the navigational records," Ellis instructed Loren. "Don't touch that!" he shouted at Gust. "It's not a toy." Gust jerked his hand from the flight controls, smiling boyishly at Ellis. Loren turned to Ellis and said, "The last known flight was from Phobos. It was on auto pilot. If this was the shuttle that they used, they didn’t have to do much." "So that's how two of them got off Phobos," Gust mumbled to himself. No one heard him. Ellis noticed nothing had been tampered with. "When Steve and I did the maintenance there was a peculiar smell in the lockers in the back. You might have to have a look," Winston said. Ellis was focused on the glowing displays. "We’ll get to that. I find it strange that they took no interest with anything on this shuttle, unless they regard our technology as primitive." Gust stood up and peered over Ellis’s shoulder. "Maybe they didn't want to leave any evidence behind." "Or they didn’t know how to use the technology,” Loren offered. "Maybe," Ellis muttered. He stood up and made his way to the lockers in the back. The other three followed. Ellis yanked the metal door open, and an odor of burnt flesh wafted out. All four pinch their noses. Ellis studied the compartments and saw nothing out of place. The rifles were still on their racks. He stepped forward and nudged his finger on Ender's IDpad. A beep, then the compartment seethed open. Ellis stepped back and uttered, "Jesus Christ." The charred body of Michael Ender dropped beside his feet. The face was burnt beyond recognition. Ellis shook his head in disbelief as the other three clamped their 158 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS hands over their mouths. Gust looked away. Then Ellis gestured his hand for them to move back. He was about to open John Yamoto's compartment. He stood to the side of the compartment and nudged his finger on the IDpad. A beep, then it hissed open. Yamoto's body dropped to the metal floor. His face wasn’t as badly burned as Ender. He was still recognizable. "Get the medics," Ellis ordered Winston. Winston jogged out of the shuttle to a wallscreen. Ellis pointed a finger at the door and Gust and Loren left the shuttle. Ellis walked down the slanting ramp with a frown. "This was the shuttle they used to get off Phobos," Ellis said. “We have a lot of work to do," Loren said with disgust. Ellis eased beside them, shaking his head and rubbing his temple. "When I gave you the instruction to takeoff from Platform II, we only saw two in the platform. The other two were still cloaked and made their way to the shuttlepad and entered Ender's and Yamoto's shuttle." "Why Ender's and Yamoto's? Why not another shuttle?" Gust asked. Loren recounted the events at Platform II. "Because it was closest to the tunnel. They could have boarded any shuttle, but it was more convenient to board the closest one." "Do you remember getting any reading?" Ellis asked her. Loren stroked her chin and looked at the floor. "There was too much chaos at the time." "So they board the shuttle and slaughter two officers, mutate to their form and made their way here?" Gust asked to make sure. "It appears that’s how it happened, kid. Ender and Yamoto had already set the auto pilot for Mars, even the docking procedures," Ellis said. "They got lucky," Loren said. "I think there’s an element of luck and some intelligence involved," Ellis said. "What do you mean?" Gust asked. "They might have planned it that way. There were four of them and we only saw two in Platform II. Two of them distracted us while the other two made to the 159 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS shuttlepads.” Gust said nothing. They turned around and saw four medics rushing frantically out the elevator with Winston in tow. The medics jogged to the shuttle and removed the bodies of Ender and Yamoto. "We need an autopsy done on them," Ellis requested as the medics passed. The lead medic nodded. Ellis watched as the medics rolled his two officers away from the docking bay. Then he waved to dismiss Winston, who reluctantly waddled off. Gust waited until the medics and Winston were out of earshot. "How did the other two get to Mars?" Loren offered, "They might have used the same shuttle?” Ellis said, "They wouldn’t have had time. By the time our shuttles were airborne the other two were still in the platform.” "How did they end up at the morgue?" Gust asked. “That is a riddle for us to solve, kid.” Just as he finished, Leonard Merck walked up. He spoke quickly, "We haven’t spotted anything. The other birds are still making their rounds, though." Ellis shook his head as he looked over to Gust and Loren. “We can’t afford to have anymore deaths. The lid on this alien thing will come flying off.” Leonard continued with his report, "We have searched every building and biosphere on Mars. There is no sign of them.” Ellis rubbed his temple. "This is not a good sign. We need to double our efforts." He turned to Loren, "I want you to lead the team, Diane. I'll be upstairs if you need me. Keep me informed at all times." "You got it," she said. Ellis crossed weakly to the elevator and up to his office, where he would observe the situation on the large wallscreen. Gust was behind. Loren and Leonard eased to their shuttle to continue the search. 160 18 THE TROOP STATIONED at the Mars Mortuary had been reassigned to search at varying locations on Mars while the shuttles intensified the search in the air and rovers on the ground. Every building, tunnel, and biosphere had been thoroughly searched. There was no sign of the aliens anywhere. Ellis slouched on the chair in his office and focused intently on the large wallscreen, which was divided into four sections, each one with a different location around Mars. On his desk, messages from patrol shuttles and ground groups scrolled down the deskscreen. Gust sat opposite and paid little attention to the pictures on the wallscreen. He was trying to figure out how the aliens were avoiding detection. He had studied the blueprint of MP Headquarters after the incident on the second floor. The west wing window that they leaped out of led to nowhere. “Where do you think they are, kid?" Ellis asked quietly. Gust swiveled his chair and faced the lieutenant. "It’s hard to say but if they’re alive it means they can survive the atmospheric pressure of Mars. It looked like you wounded them pretty bad down there.” Ellis smiled. Yes, he had hurt them. The colored sparks in the air. Red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta, crackling on the west wing. It was them getting ripped by his bullets. Ellis frowned and concentrated on the wallscreen again. Nothing important was being reported by patrol shuttles, ground troops or rovers. Five minutes later, Scott, with the long sideburns who slept through most of his calculus class, poked his head through the door. Ellis waved him in. Scott walked across the room with a bundle of papers tucked under his arm. He sat beside Gust. "Leon and Karen wanted you to read this preliminary report. They said the final reports should be done by tomorrow, " Scott said and pushed a bundle of papers across to Ellis. His sideburns were still moist with perspiration from the melee in the autopsy room earlier. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Thank-you,” Ellis said. "They want to know when the west wing will be fixed." "That will have to wait for now," Ellis said with a weak smile. He skimmed the first page and noticed it was an autopsy report. Scott and Gust watched in silence. "You might want to look at the third and tenth page," Scott suggested. Ellis closed the report and stared at Scott . "What's on the third page?" "The lady, I think her name was Michelle Gardner, who worked at the morgue and some guy who worked for Whittaker Resources died by the same way: electric shock.” Gust shuddered, then tensed up. Scott continued, "One of our officers, Michael Ender also died by the same way. His body was also burnt like the others. We couldn’t recognize--" "We get the picture. What's on page ten?" "The guy who worked for Whittaker Resources, whose body was also burnt, and his co-worker are missing.” "Explain this to me," Ellis requested. "Their bodies are missing. It's not in the autopsy room. No one knows where they are." Ellis quickly flipped to page ten of the report. "Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel are missing," Ellis mumbled under his breath. He stared across the table at Scott. "Are you sure Whittaker's people don't have the bodies?" "We contacted them and they said they don’t know where they are. There were supposed to be five bodies from Whittaker Resources. We only received three and no one has any clue where the other two are." "I am sure we retrieved all one hundred and eighty-one from the morgue. Have they checked with the morgue people?" Ellis asked. 162 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "They did." "And?" "And they said all the chambers are empty. Those two bodies are missing for some strange reason. Randal and Kurdick did you say?" Scott asked. Ellis looked down to make sure. "Yes, Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel, employees of Whittaker Resources. They worked at Platform II on Phobos." "Well, they’re missing and Whittaker Resources wants them back. They need the bodies for the funerals. Some members of their families are flying in from Earth for the service.” "Any other bodies missing?" "Only those two." Ellis hesitated and recalled the file he had downloaded from the deskscreen of Fryer. He remembered something peculiar, but couldn't place a finger on it. He had downloaded the file to the computer, so it should still be in memory. Ellis pivoted his deskscreen and loaded the file from the main computer to his deskscreen. Two short beeps, then Fryer's death report flashed on his deskscreen. "What are you doing?" Gust asked. "Something you're very good at, loading files." Ellis grinned. Gust grinned back. Ellis studied the deskscreen with his eyes rolling up and down, and bingo!, the magic numbers appeared. Gust rushed over and stood over his shoulder to peek. "Thanks for bringing me the report. Tell Leon and Karen they did a superb job. Also tell them we'll get the west wing fixed by the end of the week." "No problem," Scott said, walking off and shutting the door behind him. "What are you looking for?" Gust asked, staring at the figures on the deskscreen. "I've just figured out how our other two friends escaped from Phobos," Ellis said, 163 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS eyes glued to the screen. "How? With this death report?" Gust asked, perplexed. Ellis pointed to the magic number with his finger. "What does this read?" "One hundred and eighty-one. Is that supposed to be a magic number, one hundred and eighty-one?" Gust asked, confused. "It is," Ellis smiled to himself. "I don't get it. Why is one hundred and eighty-one important?" "Listen, kid, your theory about them being able to remain dormant at the biological level may be right. Just look at those beautiful numbers," Ellis said and waved a dramatic hand across the deskscreen. Gust looked confused. He stared down at Ellis. "Can you elaborate on that? I don't understand how this death report is related to what you've just -" "It totally relates, kid. The report says 160 bodies were in the chambers. We told them to expect 21 more, at which point the chambers should be occupied up to 181. And 181 chambers were occupied, and we did retrieve 181." Gust was lost. "If you expected 181 bodies, and you retrieved 181, then what the hell are you complaining about?" "What about the doubles of Robert Turin and John Lawrence? Minus Lawrence's and Turin's double and there should only have been 179 bodies. But still, we recovered 181." "Who are Lawrence and Turin?" "The aliens who slipped our security at the morgue by disguising themselves as John Lawrence and Robert Turin—the two reds who died in Platform II. Apparently, they knew the operating procedures of the chambers. When we shuttled all the bodies from the morgue back to headquarters, they were part of the group. We brought them back here.” "Very clever,” Gust said. 164 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Too clever for my liking,” Gust sat on the edge of the black table and swung his left foot. He quickly caught on to Ellis's train of thought. "Are you saying that the other two escaped from Phobos by disguising themselves as employees of Whittaker Resources?" "You're catching on. They disguised themselves as Unger and Stengel in Platform II. Then we shuttled their coffins back to morgue. They probably were in hibernation once they were disguised and that explains why we never got any readings. Once we shuttled them back on Mars, the people at the morgue took them to the chambers. That explains how they ended up in the nitrogen chamber at the morgue." "Then where are the real bodies of Unger and Stengel ?" Gust frowned. Ellis thought about it. "Go to the docking bay and wait for me." "Where we are going?" "To Phobos to do some backtracking, kid.” Gust nodded, crossed to the door, and went down to the shuttlebay. Ellis tapped a button on his deskscreen. Beep, beep, and Loren's face flickered in view. She was on her shuttle. "I'll be in my shuttle if you need me," Ellis said. He tapped another button and the screen fizzled with static, then went blank. "Transfer all incoming message to shuttle. Authority Ellis: two-six-niner-four," he spoke to the blank deskscreen. From that moment on, every incoming message and file would be downloaded to his shuttle instead of his deskscreen. He hurried down to the docking bay and saw Gust sitting by his shuttle. "Where are we going?" Gust asked, rising to his feet. Ellis marched up. "To Phobos." "All right!" In the shuttle docking bay, Ellis jabbed a finger at his shuttle's IDpad. Hissing and whirring, the ramp opened downward and both ducked in. Ellis dropped on the pilot's chair and danced his fingers on the navigational panel. The panel lights flashed on. Ellis 165 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS set in the course for WEF I, Whittaker Extraction Facility One, on Phobos, maximum speed, 9,350 km/h. They would arrive on Phobos in about one hour. The huge, metal hanger door rumbled open. The computer kicked the glowing thrusters into gear. The shuttle slowly lifted off the ground, dipped left in mid-air and accelerated out the hangar door. It soared passed the statue of Mars, the Roman god, then smoothly glided on its preset course. The sky was pale red and the flickering orange sun was slowly dropping in the horizon. Gust closed his eyes and relaxed. Ellis turned and watched the handsome kid mumbling something under his breath. "How did Ender and Yamoto know their two buddies were in the autopsy room? Do they have x-ray eyes or something?" Ellis interrupted the silence. Gust opened his eyes. "I’m guessing they possess the ability to detect electrical discharges or fields, similar to a shark that has electroreceptors. They can't see or hear their preys, but sharks can spot their preys by electrical signals. For the sharks and other electrical fishes, it's called electroreception- the ability to detect electrical fields underwater. They can mimic voices by manipulating electrical signals, or waves, according to frequency and amplitude. Of course, sound waves are mechanical waves. They also have the ability to manipulate light waves and that's what allows them to turn invisible. All they have to do is pick the frequency and amplitude." "How do they communicate to each other?” "Also by waves. They probably can generate different electrical signals, each signal is a word according to frequency and amplitude. When their eyes glow red it probably means they're being aggressive. And that's when the killing starts. All these electrical receptors are natural to them, much like our five senses." "Still, how did Ender and Yamoto know their two buddies were in the autopsy room?" Ellis asked again. "We can see or hear at certain distances. They probably picked up the electrical signatures of their friends at a certain distance." 166 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis paused, the kid had answered everything he needed to know, and more. "Ever considered getting another job besides a Hauler?" Gust grinned his sly grin. "Yes. I think the MPs can use a bright kid like myself." Ellis smiled, amused. He glanced out his port window and watched monotonous space. The shuttle's engine was humming softly. THE SHUTTLE LANDED at Whittaker Exaction Facility One on Phobos. Ellis crept out first and was about to flash his famous MP badge. "That won’t be necessary, lieutenant" the man said. Almost everyone knew the second command of the Mars Police. "I am here to see Dittmar Callen, the chemical team lead." The man's face lit up. "Is he in trouble?" he asked fearfully. "No. I just need to ask him a few questions." "I'll let him know." The new employee at Platform II jumped on the blue transport to fetch Callen. Five minutes later, Callen swerved the comer of the tunnel in a transport. For a slight moment it looked like the small vehicle was going to topple over from his sharp steering. Callen parked it right beside Ellis, leaped out, and stood between the two. "Good to see you again," Callen said and they firmly shook hands. "Same goes. I need a favor from you." "What is it?" "It concerns two employees, Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel. They used to work at this platform." "I heard about them. Have you found their bodies?" "That's why I am here." "Oh, what would you like to know?" Ellis paused and looked at Gust. "We think their bodies are hidden 167 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS somewhere in this platform." Callen turned pale as he was concerned about this. "I thought this place had been thoroughly inspected before it was turned over to us.” "We might have missed a few spots in our haste. Can you help us?” “Any way I can. Who's he?" Callen asked, jerking a chin at Gust. "My little helper." Ellis smiled at Gust. "Take this transport and I'll use the one over there." Callen walked to the transport parked against the wall. Ellis hopped into the driver's side with Gust on the passenger side. They waited for Callen to lead the way. Callen led them down a twisting tunnel, which was no longer packed with MP officers. Callen knew his tunnels and took a short cut to Platform II. Ellis noticed the platform was clean and no longer had rock fragments, bodies, or tombs strewn on the ground. Although the platform, which was usually rolling with rocks, wasn’t moving, two workers sat behind the controls, in the same spots where Unger and Stengel once sat when they first discovered the shiny slab that turned out to be the four tombs. Callen jumped out of his transport and waved Ellis to a table. Ellis’s makeshift command post that was cluttered with deskscreens was gone. "Where would you like to begin the search?" Callen asked, sitting down. Ellis shrugged. "The pipes, small compartments, chemical storage tanks, equipment lockers. Any place big enough to fit a body or two." Gust shuddered at how casually Ellis said “any place big enough to fit a body or two.” Callen stood up. "Let's start with the pipe openings and see if there’s anything there." He started to his transport and quickly drove to the far end of the platform into a dark tunnel. Ellis and Gust closely followed on the blue transport. Callen led them deeper into 168 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS a shadowy tunnel with circular pipes bulging out from the craggy walls. Callen stopped where the pipes began and jumped out. There was a succession of pipe openings with smoke oozing out. Callen peered inside each of the openings, looking for Unger and Stengel. "Nothing here, Ellis," Callen shouted with his head in the pipe. Ellis eased to the opening and examined it for himself. He shielded his face from the swirling smoke fumes. Ellis ducked his head in and swung it back and forth. "Where next?" Callen asked. "You choose," Ellis said with his head still down the pipe. "That would be the chemical storage tanks." "Lead the way." Callen leaped back in his transport and led them down another tunnel, which was semi-dark with the wall shadows silhouetting on the stone floor. Callen stopped the transport a few meters ahead and walked to a locked room with a big metal door. He pressed his finger on the small IDpad, and the door seethed open. The room was poorly lit with a single lighting fixture on the low ceiling. Two tiny tanks marked with ABRASIVE SUBSTANCES: DO NOT TOUCH were on the sides. Below the fluorescent wordings was the symbol for danger: two crossing bones in a crude X over a skeleton face. Ellis and Gust surveyed the room and noticed it was empty except for the two storage tanks. Both were sealed with two cords running behind each tank. A single alloy stairway led up the tanks. "Can we see what's inside?" Ellis asked. "If you want to." Callen moved to the sidewall and nudged his index finger on the IDpad. The top of the storage tank lifted slowly. They waited until it was entirely open. Ellis climbed the stairway first, Gust second. Callen leaned beside the IDpad and 169 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS waited with the bored-to-hell look on his face. Ellis leaned on the metal railing of the first storage tank and noticed it was cold. He stared downward at the first tank and saw only the reddish- brown chemical solution. He leaned over to the next tank and looked down, expecting to find nothing but forced himself to look away. Ellis pushed a hand at Gust. "Don't come any closer." Gust ignored the warning and stepped forward. He, too, immediately looked away, and was practically sprinting down the stairs. Floating in the reddish-brown solution were two bodies. The faces were turned toward the shadowed ceiling. The eyes were open and looked as though they were alert and alive. The hands were floating freely on the side of the bodies. The skins had been peeled of their bodies. The veins were protruding from the flesh. Callen eased near the stairway and stuttered, "Is it, uh, is it, er, uh-" "It's Unger and Stengel. We found them," Ellis answered. "I don't think you want to come up," Ellis said grimly, pushing a hand at Callen as he saw Callen taking a step up the stairway. Callen backed down. "You sure?" "They're the only two missing." Ellis walked down slowly in tiny steps. He stood in silence for a long moment to collect his thoughts. "Did Unger and Stengel have access to this room?" Ellis asked Callen. "Everyone at this platform has access to this room." Ellis stared at Gust and shook his head somberly. "We have been underestimating these guys all this time," Ellis said. "Are you talking about the aliens?" Callen asked. Ellis shook his head. “Is there a way to find out who used this room last?” "Yes. Records are kept because identification is needed to enter this room.” "How soon can you have this record?" Ellis asked. 170 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Callen snapped his fingers. "Not long. I just need to access our computers in the platform." "Please get them to me. I'll tell my people to pick up the bodies." Dittmar nodded and disappeared into the murky tunnel. He spun the transport and hurried back to the main section of Platform II, where he would retrieve the requested information. Ellis and Gust eased into the transport. Ellis drove like a madman down the snaking turns of the dark tunnels. He overtook Callen a few turns down without saying a word. When they got to Platform II, Ellis and Gust sat and watched the workers hustling. "Where did you say these guys were from again, kid?" "The Alpha Centauri star system in the Alpha Centaurus constellation. The constellation is about 2.2 light years. But the star system itself is 4.4 light years away. It's the nearest star system to our own Sun. No planet as ever been found in the system. I am just theorizing that these guys are from an undiscovered planet of the Alpha Centauri system." "That means they've been floating in space for about 4.4 years?" Gust smiled at this. He folded his arm across his chest intelligently. "No. Alpha Centauri A and B, the main stars, are 4.4 light years, and Alpha Centauri C, which orbits both of the main stars, is about 4.27 light years away. Asteroids are extremely heavy and move at a snail's pace in space. It probably took these guys thousands or even millions of years to make it to the Asteroid Belt. They were probably adrift for eternity and unaware of it. Somewhere along the way they must have gotten sucked in the gravitational pull and drifted to the Belt. Or some alien race might have dumped them intentionally. The civilization from which they came from may not exist anymore. Remember, the system is about 4.4 light years, and nothing can go as fast as light. Nothing." "Nothing?” Ellis teased. "That's right. Mr. Einstein said it, I didn't. Nothing can go as fast as light." 171 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "You came pretty close to it at the morgue. Do you think the tombs were meant to be found?” “We can look at that question from so many angles. Are they galactic warriors? Are they criminals? Are they misunderstood? Are they immortal? Are they the only ones left from their race?” "Where do you come up with these ideas, kid?" Ellis asked and gave a teasing smile. "Can you do me a favor?" "What is it, kid?" "Stop calling me 'kid'." "Sure, kid." They pushed off the transport as they saw Callen speeding up. Callen stopped inches in front of them and jumped out. He pulled out a piece of paper from his chest pocket and handed it to Ellis. Ellis unfolded the paper and read it. Gust looked on. "The last two people who used that room were Randal Unger and Kurdick Stengel, on September 15, 2194," Dittmar said. Ellis glanced at Gust. "What I suspected all along. They used the fingers of Unger and Stengel to access the room after they died. They threw their bodies into the tanks and disguised themselves, then climbed into the coffins and played dead and we flew them back to Mars. We have a lot of work to do, kid.” 172 19 THE SOIL OF Mars was rich in iron, magnesium, and sulfur so it was nearly impossible for plants to grow outside. The atmosphere was high in carbon dioxide and argon, too much to sustain life without protective shelters. The temperature deviated greatly depending on the position of the orbit of the planet around the Sun. It dropped to -100 Celsius near the Martian Equator at night and reached 25 Celsius when Mars was at perihelion with the Sun, closest to the star during its orbit. There were 687 days on Mars or 1.88 Earth years and each day was approximately 24.7 hours, not much different from Earth. Currently, Mars was at perihelion with the Sun and the temperature was hovering above 20 Celsius. Dawn broke beautifully with bright sunlight piercing through the glass roof of Biosphere Ten. The latticed trusses of the biosphere shimmered brilliantly under the relentless glow of the morning sun. The green, young plants lay vast upon acres and acres in the biosphere’s enormous green house. Mr. Herbert and Mrs. Herbert had worked in the green house for twenty years. They planted and nurtured these plants from seed to maturity. It was their life's work and they knew every inch of the vast green house. The air conditioning of the biosphere was humming in the background as the sweet elderly couple worked. "Another one of those days," Mr. Herbert said to his ancient wife. He looked up at the biosphere's curving canopy roof and admired the orange fireball. He squinted and shielded his eyes with a hand. "Enjoy it while it's here. It won't be here forever, dear," his wife said and smiled. She was on her knees digging and inserting seeds into the soil. She did it the old- fashioned way with a handheld dipper. "Come and give me hand, old man. I am beginning to wear out," she said. "Yes boss." Mr. Herbert dutifully leaned over and kissed her cheek, then helped her with the seeds. They dug, inserted seeds, dug and inserted seeds. The robotic hands were not adept in small areas of the ground. Mr. Herbert crawled off a few meters and worked another area. To show Mrs. Herbert he still had the beastly qualities that he used to woo THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS her with, he swiped the soil with his spade. He hit something solid, and thought it was a metal scrap. He took another swipe at the ground and hit the metal-like object again. He turned to his wife with a puzzled look. "What is it?" she asked, tucking seeds into the soil. "Come and have a look at this," Mr. Herbert said, waving his hands. She wiped the sweat from her eyebrows and crawled a few meters to where he was kneeling. "There's something in the ground.” "Let’s have a look at it." "Yes boss." They picked up two large spades and dug deeper into that something beneath the soil. Then, a little portion of that something peeked through the ground, revealing itself. It looked like human flesh. They hurled the spades away and scooped up soil with their hands, tossing it aside. "Pray to the Lord it's not a person," Mrs. Herbert said in her grandmotherly voice. They dug faster and faster until the object was unearthed. It was humanoid. The eyes were closed. It was least seven feet in height with muscles protruding all over the body. It was hairless, naked, with no sex organ. The Herbert’s only saw one body, but there were four of them side-by-side in the soil. They crawled on their knees away from the body and shook their heads in disbelief. They had never seen anything like it before. "Is it human?" she asked. "It's too big to be human.” The alien was still motionless, glowing in various parts of its body where it had been hit by Ellis and his team. "We need to call the Mars Police or notify Cindy immediately." Mr. Herbert was sweating profusely with his hair plastered to his forehead. He wiped the beads of sweat off his face before continuing. Cindy was the administrator of Biosphere Ten. She was in the main working quarters doing busywork like most administrators. "Why do you think it's changing colors?" Mrs. Herbert asked. 174 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Mr. Herbert didn’t know and he didn’t care. "Let's go, darling," he said. Staring at the glowing body, they stood up together and wiped dirt off their uniforms. Mr. Herbert draped his arm around her waist and steered her to the main en- trance. The metal door led to a hallway, which led to the work and living quarters of the biosphere. A few meters from the door, he stopped and punched in numbers on the blue numerical IDpad on the wall. The door hissed open, but they did not enter. Instead, they looked back to where the body of the alien was and saw something unnatural. "Great heavens. Are you seeing what I am seeing, darling?" Mr. Herbert mumbled to his wife of forty years. Mrs. Herbert froze in disbelief. “I see it but I don’t believe it, honey.” In the green house, the young plants separated into an open path, opening and closing, as though a person were walking and parting them. Something was thrusting the plants aside, something invisible, and it was heading straight for them. The trail of parting plants was opening and closing, getting closer, and closer. Mr. Herbert smartly shuffled to the door and pulled his wife along. "I think we best be going," he said, pulling her inside. The large, gray door wheezed shut and they were safe. They stood in silence with terrified looks. Mr. Herbert pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face dry. His wife did the same. Then a boisterous clanging sound hit the door. Something was banging and trying to enter forcefully. But whoever it was, Mr. Herbert wasn’t going to let them in. "Let’s let Cindy know right away," he said urgently. Another earsplitting clanging noise hit the door. Someone on the other side was trying to break the three inches of steel. The ancient couple held each other's hands and briskly walked down the hallway to Cindy's office. The automatic door hissed open as they came within one meter of it. Cindy had left it unlocked. She was sitting behind her deskscreen reading the news from Earth and giggling to herself: some guy claimed he saw Elvis eating a Big Mac at a Mc Donald's on a space station around Mars's orbit. Cindy turned her attention away from the deskscreen and stared at the shaky old couple. "Is there anything a matter? You look pale." she asked, concerned. 175 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Mr. Herbert looked over at Mrs. Herbert and managed to collect himself. "There's someone or some monster in the meadow," he said. Cindy slowly rose from her chair and walked up to the elderly couple and noticed the sweat trickling down his forehead. "It could be the maintenance crew or the scientists gathering data," Cindy said politely. He shook his head in disagreement, but spoke gently. "If we told you what we saw, you wouldn’t believe us.” “I’m listening,” Cindy said. “There is a dead body, not a human, but a monster, one that is glowing, in the field.” A glowing monster? Cindy thought. Cindy frowned and almost shook her head. They were getting old at seventy-five, she thought. Mr. Herbert continued, “I think it’s invisible, too.” “It’s trying to break in as we speak,” Mrs. Herbert added. “Can you take me to it?” Cindy asked innocently. He glanced wearily to his loving wife, and saw her cracking a weak smile. The same smile he was used to for the last forty years. "Only if you don’t let it in," Mr. Herbert said. "Please take me to it." Cindy led the way down the corridor, slowing her steps so the Herbert's can keep up. The tall door was visible from this distance. But there was no more banging. They stood in front of the door with Cindy frowning at the dull metal. The aliens were eagerly waiting on the other side. "Please don’t open the door," Mr. Herbert pleaded. "It’s been a long day for everyone, Mr. Herbert," Cindy said smartly. She was going to open the door with or without his approval to see this glowing, invisible alien. “Please listen to Richard, Cindy. We are telling you the truth. There is a monster on the other side. We both saw it,” Mrs. Herbert pleaded. "What if it’s a friendly monster?" Cindy asked sarcastically, losing her patience. She took another step closer to the IDpad. Just a touch of her index finger on the miniature panel and the door would open. She took another step to the panel. "Please listen to Richard," Mrs. Herbert pleaded again. 176 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "There's nothing to worry about, Mrs. Herbert. I promise you," Cindy assured her with an annoyed face. She raised her hand to the panel, inches away from pressing it. She glided her finger in front of the IDpad and tilted it to get the index finger in proper position so the computer could recognize her unique print. Another twist of her finger and the door would open. The aliens were waiting on the other side. Cindy pressed her finger on-- "Move away from that!" a strong feminine voice roared, running down the bright corridor in a black uniform. Cindy jerked her finger from the IDpad and dropped it beside her hip. All three wiped around and looked down the corridor. It was an MP with black hair. The young and beautiful Diane Loren was charging at them with a small army of MPs with rifles in tow. Loren stopped in front of Cindy and inhaled deeply to catch her breath. "What is going on here?" Cindy demanded bitchy-like. "Please move away from the door," Loren gasped, as the MPs surrounded the door. "Not unless you explain why you're here with this gang of yours," Cindy said with that bitch voice of hers. "Just move away from the door and everything will be explained later. This is police matters" "I think we should listen to the young lady, Cindy," Mr. Herbert added helpfully. The couple stepped away from the door and crossed to the other side of the corridor. Cindy reluctantly did what she was told with a pout on her narrow lips. Loren eased to where she was standing. "Is anyone in the green house?" Loren asked no one in particular. "According to them," Cindy said and gestured to the Herbert's. "There is a glowing monster that can turn invisible in there." Loren looked back and forth at the Herbert's. "Is that true?" Loren asked, already believing them. The Herbert's nodded uniformly. “That is all we needed to know. Please follow Officer Brick. He will escort you to safety. Do not return until you are notified.” 177 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Loren watched as the three biosphere employees disappeared. She looked down the corridor and saw Ellis and Gust darting toward her. "Are they here?" Ellis panted as he neared. He stopped in front of her and breathed heavily. "They are," Loren said and pointed at the gray door surrounded with MPs. She told Ellis what the Herbert's had told her, almost word for word. Gust listened intently. "Did anyone get hurt?" Ellis asked. "No one. It's just us and them and the killer eyes." Ellis studied his officers barricading the door. They seemed anxious, as though looking for a fight. "Why didn't we get the readings earlier?" Ellis asked. Loren shrugged helplessly. "The bodies were buried in soil, correct?" Gust asked Loren. "Correct," she said, but didn't know what Gust had in mind. "Soil is non-conductive. It made them difficult to detect.” “I see,” Loren said. Ellis walked to the door. An MP eased out of the way and let him pass. He crouched down and examined the door with his hand, gliding it up and down. It was hard and warm. He jumped to his feet, glanced down the corridor and saw another group of MPs coming up. "You stay behind," Ellis ordered Gust. "Why?” Gust asked. “Listen to me and you’ll live long, kid.” "Are the shuttles in position?" Ellis asked Loren. Loren eased near the door beside him. "Yes." "Everyone equipped with infrareds?" "Everyone except for Gust and yourself." "Good. Gust is staying put, aren't you, kid?" "Of course." "Stick with me, Diane." "I'll let Leonard lead the other group," she said. She crossed to where Leonard 178 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS was squatting and whispered in his years. Leonard nodded and she returned to Ellis, who was barking orders. Loren eased to the IDpad and punched in 1-4-0; two metallic clicks, then the door hissed open. Bright sunlight rushed in and illuminated the corridor like heaven. It was like another world looking at the green house beyond the metal door. It was captivating with small trees and plants in all directions and sunlight reflecting off the wet foliage. They stood in silence and admired the enthralling, magnificent view. They stared up at the high, crisscrossing trusses of the biosphere. The sun was at its apex, its glistening rays piercing down onto the green house. Everyone briefly admired the view. "Let's go hunting," Ellis ordered, breaking the silence. Then waves upon waves of MPs surged into the biosphere’s gigantic green house. Once inside, they split into groups. As the door seethed shut, Gust twisted his body sideways and squeezed through. "I thought I told you to stay behind!” Ellis said. "I know." Gust grinned his boyish grin. Ellis let the kid in on the hunt. "That fond of aliens, huh?" "That fond." The green house was swarming with black uniforms with rifles raised to chest level. Ellis, Loren, and Gust stayed together. Their area was along the wall dangling with plant vines. They inched along it using Loren's handscreen infrared. The adventurous Gust moved farther away from the two MPs, jostling his way through six feet plants. "Don't lose yourself in that mess, kid," Ellis warned. Gust snickered. It's impossible to get lost, he told himself. He knew every star and constellation in the sky, so wasn't about to get lost under a biosphere. Nothing to it. Staying close to the contours of the metal wall, Gust boldly moved ahead. He glanced back and saw Loren frowning at her handscreen. Gust moved ahead still, a little to his left. He encountered more thick plants and damp soil. His feet soaked up some of the brown stuff. He elbowed his way through another flock of six feet green plants. Then he tripped on something solid and stumbled face first to the ground. And there it was! 179 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Its face was pressed against his. He was on top an alien with his chest against its chest. The muscular face was leathery with crisscrossing lines. The eyes were tightly shut. Gust stopped breathing, his eyes widened and his heart pounded hard. He was staring at the muscular face with admiring awe and fright at the same time. He was face-to-face with the thing. He slowly, very slowly, rolled off the steely body and stood up. Carefully, he backed off in tiny steps and admired it through the plants. He looked around fearfully and saw no one around. Still admiring it and mesmerized, he elbowed his way silently through the thick plants. The branches and leaves snapped and lashed his shoulders. Then he completely froze. Through the leaves, he saw the fleshy body changing colors. Gust gulped hard and cleared his throat. He wondered if it knew he was watching it. Probably not, or else he'd be dead by now. He wondered where the other three were. For some strange reason, he hoped they weren’t dead. After thirty seconds, he had had enough of the freak show. He wanted to rejoin Ellis and Loren. Letting the branches go, he turned around slowly. And there it was! It was standing inches in front of him, grinning and staring predatory downward at him. "Help! Help!" Gust shouted on the top of his lungs. "Gust? Gust? Where are you?" a voice bellowed from somewhere. “Over here!” He bulldozed and weaved his way through the thick plants until he hit something, then, "Help! Help!" Another one was waiting for him between the thick plants. It was grinning menacingly. Gust twisted right and, "Help! Help! I need help! Someone help me!" Another one was grimacing with delight in front of him. The grin before the kill. All four were accounted for. As he ran, Gust glanced over his shoulder at his would-be killers. He saw none. Only the movement of branches and leafs. Then, smack, he ran into something solid and dropped to the ground. He lay with his face on the dirt and made his last prayers. Blood drained from his pale and terrified face. He slowly lifted his dirty face from the soil and peeked up. He saw what 180 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS looked like two angels standing in the radiant light. He was stunned and couldn't make out their features, but they were grinning. He said prayers for his girlfriend, Christie, his friends, Brown Arbon, Ellis and his family members. Maybe he was already dead and the figures standing over him were angels guiding him to Heaven. He should have listened to Ellis and stayed behind. One of the angels extended an arm down at him. “Listen to me and you’ll live longer, kid," Ellis said. Loren was right beside him. Gust dropped his face back in the soil and thanked Him. Then he grabbed the helping hand and Ellis pulled him off the ground. "All four are here," Gust said, brushing dirt off his clothes and face. "We're only reading three. They're over there," Loren said, pointing a finger deep into the trees. "The other one is regenerating itself, that's why there’s no reading. It's over there," Gust said and pointed at the injured alien on the ground. "Take us there," Ellis ordered. He swung around and saw a small army of MPs behind him. Ellis pointed to the source of the infrared. The hunt was on. The MPs split into groups and surged ahead. The first group came within meters of the alien and fired wildly. The bullets bent the plants and neatly trimmed off the branches and leafs. One alien gave a deep, bassy, earsplitting scream. The sound boomed off every wall and the crisscrossing trusses of the biosphere. Within seconds, the plants which the Herbert's had seeded and nurtured were shot down and stomped on. The biosphere was a train wreck now. The pursuit led the MPs round and round the biosphere with unbroken streams of fire resonating in the immense complex. Many of them were having fun. The three fleeing aliens changed colors where they were hit with bullets. The MPs were relentless in their firing. Gust led Ellis and Loren to the alien on the ground. It was quiet where they were. The chase group was on the other side of the biosphere and the heavy gun fire was almost out of earshot. "I came face-to-face with that thing," Gust said proudly, standing above the wounded alien. 181 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS It was still glowing. "Is that your new friend, kid?" Ellis asked sarcastically. He pulled a miniature grenade from his belt. Gust quickly interrupted, "You're not going to kill it, er, are you?" Ellis flashed a nasty little smile at the alien on the ground. "Don't worry, kid. There's three more.” The sound of rifle fire was coming their way. Then a deafening howl from one of the aliens. "Let’s try to capture it for the sake of science," Gust said defensively. "Whatever you decide to do, do it quick," Loren said and scowled at her handscreen infrared, which was beginning to glow with dark spots. On the ground, the gigantic legs twitched. It was coming to life. Ellis tossed the grenade up and down a few times, and caught it each time. "Make it quick. It’s coming to life," Loren pleaded. On the ground, sparks popped on its body. Ellis motioned for Gust and Loren to move back. Then he walked ten meters backward and stood alongside Gust. Without warning, Ellis swung his arm like a baseball pitcher, then released the grenade at the proper moment. The grenade flew straight at the alien’s chest on the ground. Time froze as the grenade flipped through the air. Just as the grenade was about to hit its chest- It was gone. Invisible. Nothing on the ground. The grenade blew a hole in the ground and a fireball erupted six feet in the air. Dirt flew in all directions. "Damn!" Ellis croaked and kicked the dirt. Loren checked her handscreen. "Over there!" She pulled the trigger and kept her happy finger on it. Ellis did likewise. Gust ducked behind them and watched the air come to life with vivid sparks. Trees snapped to the ground and branches sliced off under the intense firing. The air popped and crackled with colors of the rainbow and the alien appeared in its flesh form. It coolly stood with its back to the three. Ellis and Loren continued firing, but the alien was absorbing every bullet; the bullets were melting on its body, oozing down its back, and fizzling onto the ground. It cocked its head back and faced them, grinning. Then it turned around, planted its foot 182 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS firmly in the soil and grinded it a few times. The firing stopped and silence amid the chaos. Instinctively, Ellis pulled out another grenade and hurled it at the alien. The grenade violently exploded, hitting the alien on its chest as a fireball burst from its body. The fireball faded and the alien was still standing there, grinning still. Then another boisterous scream came from the corner the biosphere. It was from one of the aliens being pursued. The group was circling back. The alien stepped forward and Gust stepped back. "Let's run for it," Gust shouted over the roaring of gun fire. Then it glared at Gust with the glowing eyes and spoke, "What a bunch of creeps." The voice was of Veronica, the lady at Venus Bar. Gust realized this was his third meeting with this particular alien. Once at Venus Bar, another in the conference room at MP headquarters, and now. Then, "How about a wild time? Wouldn't you like that?" it said. The exact words of Marilyn at Venus Bar. Then no one moved. A path of fallen trees was cut between them and the alien. The ground was littered with plants. "We'll never make it. The door's too far," Loren whispered. Ellis shoved his rifle in his holster. "How many grenades do you have?" "Three," Loren whispered back. "Give me all three." She reached for her black holster and handed him three grenades. Ellis wrapped them in his fist. It was methodically studying them with predatory eyes, tilting its head back and forth. Then it glared at Ellis and grinned. It knew him. They had met on several occasions. Ellis eased to the wall that separated the green house from the biosphere’s offices. Still glaring at Ellis, it mimed their moves. They finally made it to the metal wall. Gust hugged Ellis's uniform, grabbing it with both hands like a horrified child. "Run through the hole," Ellis whispered. "What hole are you talking about?" Loren asked. The only hole was the main door, and that was far, far away, too far to be seen at this distance and angle. 183 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS No one answered her. "What hole?" she muttered, utterly confused. Ellis and Gust smiled at each other. It was still mimicking their movements. "Run through the hole," Ellis repeated. "I don't see any hole!" Gust smiled knowingly. Again, she stared at the thick gray wall and saw no hole. She scratched her head. "What hole?" Without warning, Ellis pitched the three grenades and blew a hole in the wall. Metal fragments burst into the air and smoke bellowed all around. The corridors of the biosphere came into view. "Oh that hole!" Loren yelled, darting through like crazy. She threw her handscreen and it bounced somewhere behind. The three ran frantically down the white corridor. Ellis yanked out his rifle and fired blindly behind, hitting nothing but air. The long corridor split into two paths. They took a left. Invisible footsteps were clucking down the hallway, swiftly closing in. It was taking pursuit. The secondary doors of the corridor automatically clanked open as they approached. Then it clanged closed. Ellis dropped to his knees and pulled the small panel on the sidewall open. It was the circuits controlling the door. He pulled the trigger and put it out of working order. Smoke rose from the panel and the lights stopped blinking. Now there was only one entrance to the main complex. "You two stay here," Ellis ordered. "Where are you going?" Gust and Loren asked, their voices overlapping. "To blow out the other entrance." He sped down the corridor to the adjacent one. He veered right and saw the metal door slowly opening. The alien was coming through. Without waiting to reach the electrical panel, Ellis, dashing like crazy, aimed and fired. He hit the target perfectly. The cover flew off and smoke bellowed, followed by sparks. He stopped in the middle of the corridor and 184 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS stared at the door. There was an opening and a hand reached in from the other side. The hand was muscular and glowing with multicolor. It was attempting to wrestle the door open. Ellis eased closer until he stood inches from the half-hand poking through the door. He noticed the flesh part of the alien was leathery, scaly, like a reptile’s. There were leathery lines criss-crossing like a jigsaw puzzle with deep indents. He snarled at it, and almost felt sorry for what he was about to do. "Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, huh?" Ellis grinned at the glowing hand. He took a few steps back and pumped a round of bullets into it. The leathery hand jerked back and a deafening scream erupted, echoing off every wall and floor in the biosphere’s main complex. Gust and Loren, far down the corridor, heard it and shook their heads. Ellis froze and waited for its next move. He kept the black rifle at chest level and focused intently on the door. Then an eye, glowing with sparks, poked through the narrow slit. It stared directly at him, never blinking once. "Where have you guys been?" it asked. He immediately went pale and stepped from the door. The voice sounded exactly like that of his own. The words were uttered by him in the conference room. Michael Ender and John Yamoto were present at the time. It spoke again, "Run, get help. Don't worry about me." The voice sounded identical to Richard Pressly's. It spoke yet again, "Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, huh?" It was his voice. Exactly. Ellis stepped up and jammed the rifle through the opening and pumped another round. He could see its beefy hands wildly jerking and glowing. The hand pulled back, then the firing ceased. "I'll be back," it promised, sounding like John Yamoto. Then it was gone. Ellis ran back to Gust and Loren. "Let's go," he ordered, walking quickly and turning down the corridor. "Where the hell are we going? We're stuck here," Gust yelled. "Upstairs." "For what? We might as well stay here and wait for the main group," Gust said 185 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS and looked to Loren. They shrugged, then jogged to catch up to Ellis. He led them to an emergency stairway and up to the third floor, which was usually reserved for tourist observations. But Biosphere Ten was closed to tourists on this day. Ellis leaned against the large viewing windows of the posh, but empty restaurant overlooking the expansive green house below. The once splendid and imposing view was now in ruins. It was quiet where they stood. All the madness of the hunt below was shielded by the large, sound proof picture windows. "Jesus Christ!" Ellis slapped the window. "I hope they make it," Loren murmured. Gust shook his in head disbelief. "So do I. So do I." Below them, in the distance, in the green house, was a group of MPs wildly chasing and shooting at nothing. The three could see the plants and trees being perforated by the invisible aliens. The green house was a train wreck now, plants were uprooted and littered the ground. Then they saw the fourth alien dashing from the main complex toward the chase group. The visible loner bulldozed its way through the thick plants. "Unbelievable!" Loren pounded her fist on the ledge. She was concerned with the lone alien darting to the group and possibly ambushing it. "Their infrareds and should pick it up," Ellis assured her. "Christ!" Loren shouted in disgust, pounding the ledge again. The lone Alpha Centaurian disappeared from sight, only movements of foliage indicated its presence. It was heading directly for the chase group from behind. "How is the main group getting inside?" Gust asked. Ellis turned to face him, then he faced Loren. "How many entrances are there?" Ellis asked with a stupid look on his face, remembering he'd just sealed two entrances off. "Two and you’ve closed them both,” Loren said. Ellis rubbed his temple. "Oopps. That wasn't brilliant." Gust said, "But it saved our lives." "Know anything about circuitry and wiring , kid?" "Yes. Learned it while reading those pornographic pictures on the eight month trip, remember?" 186 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis smiled at the kid. "I was kidding about that. Blame Rhinehart, kid." "I suppose you want me to get those doors working again?" "Can you try, kid?" "If you stop calling me kid." "Okay, kid. Just make it quick." The three darted down to the doors and Gust expertly manipulated the circuits. They tested the skillful work by walking back and forth through the doors, which opened and closed like they were never broken. Ellis whipped around and saw another group of MPs surging down the corridor. New bodies. Gust, Loren and Ellis returned to the viewing windows on the third floor. They were exhausted. LEONARD MERCK GALLANTLY led the chase group in the greenhouse. There was a chorus of ya-hoos and hee-haws as the MPs scampered through the green field. There had been no resistance from the aliens up to this point. They were badly wounded and the MPs knew it. There didn’t seem to be an escape route out of the biosphere. The four aliens were now united and led the MPs to the edge of the biosphere. Only a few meters beyond the glass wall and beyond the support beams was the harsh environment of Mars. The aliens stopped and stood a few meters from the glass wall. They looked at the small army of MPs surging up and then to the reddish soil beyond the biosphere. The ya-hoos and hee-haws stopped. "Oh no, Ahh no, Oh oh," Leonard muttered to himself and stopped. He was at the west wing when they had leaped out the window and breached the safety barriers. Leonard raised a firm hand high in the air. The signal for a full retreat. All firing ceased. "Retreat to the complex!" he shouted on the top of his lungs. He spun around and ran behind the group. Ten seconds later, he was in the front running for his life. The MPs trampled and flattened what remained of the plants that the Herbert's had devoted so much time nurturing. As they reached half-ways to the main complex, one wall of the biosphere violently erupted. 187 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS They had leaped to safety once more. A gigantic segment of the safeguarding glass exploded powerfully and fragments flew in every direction. The harsh atmosphere of Mars whipped in, uprooting plants and sucking them out. Then two MPs were whisked off their feet and were sucked out along with the airborne plants. No one bothered to look back. It was everyone for themselves again. The earsplitting sound of the warning siren blasted through the hidden speakers on the ground. The emergency system came into effect and spewed water in all directions. Plants were sucked from their roots and flew out of the biosphere. The MPs were barely able to maintain their balance while running, every step required a tremendous amount of effort just to move forward. They were moving in slow, jerky motions. Then another group of MPs were swept off their feet and carried off into the hostile atmosphere outside. Leonard barely made it to the main complex. The safety corridors were in sight, but he did not run to them. He stooped inside the main entrance and waited for the remaining MPs. He felt the strong wind gusting where he sat, but not strong enough to force his movements. He looked down the corridor and noticed a huge hole in the wall. What idiot did that? he asked himself. The secondary door farther down the corridor clanged open. Gust, Loren, and Ellis were standing on the other side, waving their hands and shouting for Leonard to come. Leonard pushed a hand at them in refusal. He hunched lower and waited for the rest of the group. They were his responsibility when they were assigned to him. He knew Ellis and Loren would have done the same. He poked his head into the ravaged greenhouse and watched his officers running for their lives, powerless to intervene. Another minute and the majority of them made it. Leonard dashed down to the secondary corridor to safety. He released his rifle and dropped to his knees. He took long, heavy and labored breathes as Loren looked on. "How many did we lose?" Ellis asked. Leonard shrugged. He was too tired. Loren walked up and down the corridor and counted the MPs. "There's forty-five," she quickly reported. 188 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Leonard looked soberly at Ellis, then Loren. "We lost seven," he panted. He moved to the gray wall and sat heavily against it. "How many birds do we have up there?" Ellis asked Loren. "Two. They're tracking them as we speak." Ellis turned to Gust, who was coolly leaning against the wall. "Any theories, kid? We're not getting readings," Ellis asked. Gust moved away from the wall. "They're hiding in the soil, regenerating and avoiding detection." “These killings cannot continue indefinitely. It has to stop,” Ellis promised. 189 20 THE CHEM MAN for the Mars Police, Dale Mackenzy, rushed into the room with a frown on his face. In his right hand were three large, glossy photographs. He sat down importantly and tossed the photos on the table in front of Ellis. Gust was sitting quietly across focusing intently on the deskscreen. "What's this?" Ellis asked, staring at the immense wallscreen. It was broadcasting the latest search results. "It’s something of a surprise, out of left field, that Rhinehart wanted you to see," Mackenzy said. Ellis wearily reached for the photos and studied them. "Where were these taken?" "They were taken by one of our patrol shuttles near Biosphere Ten." Ellis carefully examined the aerial photographs. Biosphere Ten, surrounded by the reddish soil of Mars was evident. In all three photographs was the large scrawling of W-H-I-T-T-A-K-E-R etched on the soil, surrounding W-H-I-T-T-A-K-E-R were some incoherent letters. Ellis handed one photograph across the table to Gust. "Who did this?” Ellis asked. Mackenzy crossed his legs. "We believe the aliens did it. We examined the soil around the letters and the radiation matched those of the aliens." Gust fingered the incoherent letters. "Any ideas what those letters mean?" "We have no idea. They look somewhat familiar to ancient Greek. Maybe you can help." Gust shook his head. “Ancient language is not my thing. Sorry.” Ellis gently set the photographs on the table. "Why Whittaker?” Gust thought about the question for a long moment. "They probably know what we know, that Mr. Whittaker is the most powerful man on Mars. They’re probably THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS thinking that he’s their ticket out." “They want to negotiate with him or use him as a bargaining chip?” Mackenzy asked. Ellis offered, “I don’t think that Mr. Whittaker is going to be in a mood to negotiate after all that has happened. They’ve killed five of his employees and almost three dozen of ours, shut down his extraction facility, and taken the skins off the people at the morgue. Whittaker is only interested in the tombs. He couldn’t care less about the aliens.” Gust moved to the edge of his seat. "I still think this whole murdering spree could the result of a being misunderstood,” Gust said defensively. "Good point, kid. Try telling that to parents of the young couple at the Olympus. Don’t let your love of aliens obscure the facts," Ellis lectured. "Any hope I had of a friendly alien invasion ended after they peeled the skins off the people at the morgue," Mackenzy put in. “Should we hand over Whittaker to them?” Ellis joked. “I say do it but Rhinehart would never allow that," Mackenzy said and smirked. Everyone in the room grinned. The engineer had a sense of humor, Ellis diought. It was lame, but he had it. Gust stopped grinning first after he remembered Whittaker was still his boss. "When did they do that?" Gust asked Mackenzy. "We’re guessing in the last 48 hours.” Ellis turned his attention to the huge wallscreen. It was still broadcasting the ongoing hunt. "Does Whittaker know these photographs exist?" "Rhineart said I’ll tell Whittaker about them." "What did the director say when he saw them?" "He told me to let you know about them and he wanted to keep this quiet." "Why didn't he discuss it with me?" 191 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "He's elsewhere at the moment." A short silence filled the room as everyone focused on the black wallscreen. "I have something else that might be of interest to you both." "What is it?" Ellis asked, deeply sunk in his chair. Gust was looking on in anticipation. Mackenzy said, "After examining the bodies at the morgue, we might have a way of detecting the aliens no matter what form or state they’re in. " "A fixed radiation signature?" Gust asked. "Yes and something else," Mackenzy said. Ellis sat upright in his chair and listened intently. "What’s the something else?” "Right now we’re examining all the infrared files from the shuttles and handscreens. I think a common pattern is beginning to emerge.” "What's the theory?" Gust asked excitedly. "Like I said, we may soon have a concrete way of detecting them.” "How long will this take?" Ellis interrogated. "Two days at the most. Our best people are on it as we speak.” "Let me know when you get the result," Ellis said eagerly. Mackenzy nodded, stood up, and left the room quietly. Ellis tapped a button on his desk and another image appeared on the wallscreen— it was live pictures of the surface of Mars. MPs in white protective suites with weapons in hand were scouring the ground with the backing of rovers. The whole operation was backed by shuttles hovering above. So far they had found thing. "It doesn’t seem logical that with all their abilities that all they would want to do is kill," Gust broke the silence. "My job is to stop them, kid. Yours is to justify and ponder on all the possibilities" 192 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "They’ve shown that they can adapt. What if they’ve found a way to avoid detection?" "They’re smart but I don’t think it’s something they can do in such a short time span. We have surprises of our own, kid. We’ll blow them up if we see them again.” "I would strongly advise against it." "What would you strongly advise against, kid?" Ellis turned his chair to face Gust. "On using explosives to kill them." "Why not, kid?" "After what I've seen at Biosphere Ten, I wouldn't suggest using explosives. All that energy they possess and can manipulate could be a ticking time bomb." “I’ll keep that in mind, kid.” Ellis turned his chair back to the sidewall and tapped another blinking button and wallscreen flickered to life. There was a large battalion of MPs heading down a dark tunnel, holding out their handscreen infrareds. "How much do you love aliens, kid?" "So much that I want to see one captured," Gust said, looking up innocently. WHITTAKER GENTLY TAPPED a button on his marble table and the large picture windows turned transparent. The beaming sun rays streamed through and illuminated the room. He slouched back in his cozy chair and watched the heavy afternoon air traffic. The bright orange trails of cargo and passenger shuttles were bursting meters from his window. On the table in front of him were the exact three photos Ellis had seen minutes earlier. Rhinehart had personally delivered them to his chum of thirty-five years. When Whittaker saw them, he managed a crooked grin and shook his head in disbelief. Rhinehart sat quietly and watched the back of Whittaker’s chair, concerned. He clasped both hands together in front of his fat belly and waited for the tycoon to speak. 193 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "It’s something we can handle, Udy. Don’t worry about it," Rhinehart assured the tycoon. Nothing from the tycoon. "Look, Eleanor and the kids are coming next week. You can spend time with them and forget this alien bullshit.” "I'd rather face a bear market," Whittaker finally said, and slowly swiveled his big chair to face big Rhinehart. He frowned at the Director of the Mars Police. "Udy, these aliens don’t know how you look like. They wrote your name because they saw it on the shuttles and on the buildings. It’s hard to go on Mars without seeing your name, you know." The magnate pounded the photographs. “Whatever it is they want, they’re not going to get it from me.” Rhinehart faintly shook his head and smirked. "You have my personal guarantee that they won’t come within a mile of you.” Whittaker thinly smiled and ran his hands slowly back and forth on the table. "I have lost a lot of money because of these aliens. I feel this is getting personal, Will. I answer to my shareholders, not these aliens.” "You still have the two tombs. They should provide some compensation until we figure something out." You also have Margaret, Rhinehart thought. "The value of those tombs are still up in the air. Why is this all happening to me? Why me?” Rhinehart decided to take a different approach. "Goddamn, Udy, the motive is obvious. They're envious of you." Whittaker looked perplexed. "What the devil are you talking about, Will? Why would they be envious of me?" A lusty old-man's grin crossed the wrinkled lips of Rhinehart. "Goddamn! The reason is obvious. Don't you see? Goddamn! You have babes like Margaret and Alicia. 194 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Those aliens are jealous. Goddamn, I know they are." Whittaker chuckled lightly. "You kill me, Will. You really kill me, you know that? This is no time to be talking about young babes. Those aliens are gonna kill me.” "If Margaret and Alicia don't kill you first." "Damn you. You're killing me." "I bet you say that to Margaret and Alicia every night, heh? Or do they say that to you?" Whittaker broke into unrestrained laughter. "Damn you, Will! Damn you. Now you're really killing me." "I knew I could make you laugh." “You little fucker!” “You’re a big fucker!” “Fuck you, Will! Fuck you!” They cocked their heads and roared with laughter. Whittaker managed to pull a cigar from of the drawer and hurled it across the table at Rhinehart. It hit the Director right in his round, gleaming, bald spot. 195 21 ELLIS CASUALLY WALKED across the living room and noticed the home was oddly empty. He stopped momentarily and admired the red cliffs of Mars outside the large picture windows. He eased to the kitchen and saw no one. Arlene had not mentioned that she was going out. "Honey? Nick?" he called loudly. No answer. He loosened his belt and set it on the carpeted-floor beside some of Nick's Galaxy Warriors toys. "Arlene? Nick? I am home." Still no reply. He crossed the room and checked the deskscreen, hoping Arlene had left a message. There was nothing on it. He went to the sofa and dropped down on it and closed his eyes. The red glowing eyes. The Herculean physique. The deafening screams. They were forced into his memory. Then he heard sniveling voice from the general direction of Nick's bedroom. He bolted off the sofa and stood upright. Instinctively, he bent down and grabbed his MP belt off the ground. Silently, he drew his rifle. "Nick? Is that you?" The sniveling noise grew louder. It was Nick's voice, Ellis concluded. The voice was crying now. Ellis eased toward the bedroom with the black rifle brushing his hip. "Nick? It's daddy, everything is going to be okay. Where's mommy?" The cries were getting louder. "Nick, daddy is coming in, okay?" his voice was trembling a bit. Then a high-pitched scream erupted. Rifle first, Ellis darted into the bedroom. He saw Nick hunched in the corner hugging his knees, shaking with fear. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS tears dribbled down his pale face. Ellis set his rifle down and wiped the sweat beads off Nick's forehead. "What happened, son?" he asked gravely. Nick shook incessantly. He looked like he had seen a ghost. Ellis pulled him to his chest and brushed his son’s hair in assurance. "Everything is going to be fine. Where's mommy?" Ellis kissed the top of his head. Nick sobbed loudly, his body shaking. Ellis pulled him away from his chest and kissed him on his forehead. "Where is mommy? Is she in her bedroom?" Ellis picked him up. Whatever Nick had seen, he was too terrified to answer. His face was pale, drained of blood, and his lips shivered involuntarily. Ellis knelt down until his eyes met Nick's. "Was anyone here, son?" he slowly and clearly asked. Nick wiped his eyes dry with his shirt and bravely nodded a yes. Someone had been here. But who? "Who was here? Tell daddy who was here earlier?" "You were here earlier, daddy." Nick sniveled. Ellis shook his head slowly. "No, Nick, who was here before me?" "You were, daddy. You were here with mommy and you left. Then--" He broke down and cried outright. Ellis pulled him to his chest. He extended an arm and grabbed the rifle. "And what, Nick? Daddy was here earlier, then what happened?" Nick sniffled and had difficulty breathing. "Then you said something that made mommy mad and she slapped you. She told me to go to the bedroom and..." Nick couldn't finish. He put both hands to his eyes and cried uncontrollably. Ellis looked suspiciously around the bedroom. He walked to the hallway and checked both directions—one leading to the living room and the other to his bedroom. He stood there, frozen, and let Nick recover from whatever drama he had been faced 197 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS with. Then he went back and knelt before Nick again. Nick was sitting on the edge of his bed this time. "Are you okay now?" The son slowly nodded a feeble yes. "That's good, son." Ellis sat beside Nick and draped his arm around his tiny shoulders. "Mommy told you to go to the bedroom and then what happened?” Nick courageously composed himself and stared his daddy in the eyes. There were no more tears falling. "Then 1 came back and you were gone. Then I saw..." He broke down and cried again, but managed to finish between cries, "Then I saw a big monster standing in front of mommy. The monster was changing colors and his eyes were red." Ellis froze in horror. He was going blow up these aliens in a million pieces and dump the pieces on an asteroid. "Stay here, son. Daddy will be back." He ran to his bedroom with rifle in hand. He violently kicked the door open and froze under the entrance. She was home. Arlene was lying on the floor, motionless, hands sprawled over her head. Her legs were curled up to her chest in a fetal position. He rushed over and knelt on both knees before her. Her face was pale but there were no burns on it or anything akin to what he had seen at the morgue. Her hair was thrown over her face, barely making her features distinguishable. Nevertheless, it was his beautiful wife. He gently pressed a finger on her neck. There was a strong pulse. She was still alive. He smiled and sighed in relief. He inched his head closer and kissed her cheek. Then he ran to the deskscreen in the living room and called the medics. It was urgent, a matter of life and death, he told the operator. Then he dashed back to the bedroom and knelt beside his wife. He brushed the messy almond hair back to one side of her face. A grating sound in the dark hallway scared him. Gripping the rifle tightly, Ellis whipped his head around, and saw—it was only Nick, who ran up and wrapped his hands around Ellis’s shoulders. There was a moment of silence as 198 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS father and son looked at Arlene. Ellis was trying his best not to cry. The aliens did not scare him but the health of his wife did. Ellis lightly pecked Nick on the cheeks. "What did you do after you saw the monster standing in front of mommy?" Ellis asked, trying hard to hold back tears. Nick wasn’t crying anymore. "I ran back to my room and waited." Ellis stared at his son. "What did you wait for?" Nick spoke slowly, "I waited for you to come back." "Did daddy come back?" "You just came back, daddy. It took you so long." Ellis shook his head grimly. They had sent Whittaker a message by writing his name on the soil. Were they trying to send him a message with a visit? He was the only person who had encountered all four, face-to-face on several occasions. The first encounter was at Platform II, then at the morgue, then in the conference room at headquarters, then in the MP autopsy room, then in Biosphere Ten. They were diabolically intelligent, he concluded. On the ground, Arlene’s two fingers flinched, and her thump curled up. Her fingers opened and closed, opened and closed into a fist. Then her left arm moved slightly, followed by a painful groan. Ellis saw the movements. "Go to back to your bedroom, Nick and wait for me. Don’t go anywhere." Ellis said urgently. Nick did what he was told. Ellis curled his finger around the trigger and watched his wife intensely. He moved a few steps away from her. Arlene was still groaning. Her body turned over slowly, inch by inch by inch, until she faced the ceiling. She was moaning something incoherent. The first thing he thought about was the glowing eyes and the flesh spiraling into another person. He was sure the body on the ground was not his wife. Why would they let her to live? This was a trap they had set up for him. The second in command had to 199 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS pay the price for hunting the most feared killing machines the solar system had known. On the ground, Arlene was trying to say something. He muttered incoherently until the words made sense. "Is that you, honey?" It was her voice, he thought, but they were able to replicate voices. He wanted to shoot her and get it over with. They could replicate sound waves, he could her Gust saying, they could manipulate mechanical and light waves. They could turn invisible. They could mimic voices. "Don, is that you, honey?" the wounded voice on the floor asked again. He didn't know if anything need be done or said. He stood and stupidly looked down at his wife with his rifle pointing at her. Why would they let her live? Were the other three around the corner? "Is that you, honey?" the voice was more demanding this time. He tensed up. His heart stopped. Two rows of sweat trickled down his cheeks. He needed to know. He needed to save his son. He needed to save his wife. He needed to save himself. Ellis held back tears. "Please speak to me, honey." Any moment now the body could morph into a monster and kill him. Arlene’s body rolled slightly. "Was it something I did, honey?" There was no doubt it was Arlene's voice. His fingers were trembling. He needed to know. He could shoot her and find out. He had known her since they were teenagers. It had taken him a month for the first kiss and a year to bed her. And a hundred disagreements, minor fights along the way; all coming down to this. Shoot her and find out. Arlene sniffled. "Why are you acting like this, Don? Please help me." His knees were weak. He couldn't breath. His palm was wet around the rifle. Where were the other three? He could hear his heart pounding against his chest. Another small roll. "Honey, what is the matter with you? " 200 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS That line. He had used it on her last time. He closed his eyes, and put his finger on the trigger. "Honey, what is the matter with you?" A tear trickled out of his closed eyes and hit the ground. His son. He needed to know. But how? "Don, is that you? Please help me, honey.” "Yes, it's me, Jennifer." Jennifer? Who the hell? He cleared his throat, prayed and expected the worst. Nick was still in the other room. She managed to open her eyes and peeked at him. "Jennifer?" she whispered weakly. Who the hell is Jennifer? "Have you been cheating on me, honey?" she stuttered the words, but managed a weak smile. "No, I haven't been cheating on you, Arlene." She knew her name was Arlene and not Jennifer. He exhaled so hard that his chest dropped. He stepped forward and dropped to his knees before her and gently caressed her hair and kissed her eyes, which were trickling with tears. "I saw them, honey, whatever they are. It was you at first but they changed forms. Is Nick safe?" She cried. He lightly pressed his cheek against hers. "He’s safe, honey. He's in his bedroom." She sighed frailly. "I am so glad you two are safe." She cried. "So am I, Beautiful. You have always been the world to me." He set his rifle down. They will pay for all they’ve done, he promised himself. The door chimed and Ellis jumped to his feet and answered it. He gestured to the bedroom and six medics rushed in that direction. They took Arlene out on a floating stretcher. They assured the lieutenant she would fine in no time. 201 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS He walked briskly to the deskscreen in the living room. "Call Dale Mackenzy, MP." The face of the chem man filled the screen. "Yes, Don." "Are you done with the research?" Ellis demanded. "Another hour or two." "I need the results now!" "Our best people are on it. Is there anything wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost, Don.” “Something is very wrong. If you have a way to detecting them, I need to know as soon as possible.” “I will ask our people to double their efforts for you.” Ellis beat the desk with his fist. The deskscreen fizzled with static and flickered off. He looked outside the window at the red cliffs of Mars. They will pay for what they did to his family, he promised. DITTMAR CALLEN LUMBERED out of the elevator and a stunning brunette greeted him with a warm smile. It was Margaret. She asked him to wait while Whittaker finished some business with a group of investors from Earth. Callen deliberately sat in the chair in front of her and stole glances at her silky legs whenever possible—about a hundred and twenty or so during the two minute wait. Each time she caught him, he smirked as though his hands were caught in the cookie jar and his face reddened. An engineer was forbidden to look at silky legs! Finally a green light flashed on her deskscreen and she guided him inside. Being the good-hearted, highly intelligent, and friendly gentleman Callen was, he let her go first. What an engineer. The large picture windows in Whittaker’s office were transparent. The room was bright with natural sunlight permeating from the outside. Air traffic was slow this 202 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS afternoon. Whittaker motioned the engineer to have a seat and Callen sat on the farthest one from the tycoon. Whittaker wasted no time. "We’re here to discuss the tombs, Callen. I assume you have good news for me." Callen almost choked. He looked at Whittaker like a child about to get reprimanded. “Well?” Whittaker said. “I’m listening.” Callen studied his shaking legs. "I don't think they have any value, sir." Whittaker moved to the edge of his seat and stared at the man. "The tombs are diamond, aren't they? Last I heard, diamond is very expensive.” "Mr. Whittaker," Callen stuttered and paused for a long time. "Why are your legs shaking?” Whittaker interrogated. “I’m a bit nervous, that’s all, sir.” Then his hands began trembling. He looked for a cave to hide in, saw the fish tank and thought about diving in. “What are you nervous about? And why are your hands shaking now?” Callen gulped. He inhaled and exhaled deeply before speaking. "We don’t think the tombs are diamond anymore. They are becoming less dense the longer they are exposed to our air. Their index of refraction is now less than diamond. We have no way of stopping the process. However, there is something strange about it. There is one portion of the tomb that remains diamond—the small triangular-shaped pieces that have alien inscriptions on them." "How big are these triangular pieces?" Callen spread his arms about ten inches apart. "About that big," "How wide are they?" Whittaker interrogated. Callen spread his arms roughly four inches high. "That wide." "That’s not worth much to me.” "But the two pieces are worth at least a hundred million, Mr. Whittaker." 203 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS “When you deal in billions, a few hundred million is insignificant, son.” Whittaker extended a hand forward and tapped a button on his desk and the big windows became opaque. The posh room dimmed and no sunlight penetrated. Callen could hardly make out Whittaker's face, only a silhouette of the great man. There was a moment of silence as Whittaker eyed Callen in the dark. "What about the two tombs that belong to the MP?" Whittaker asked in the dark. "You mean if they’re turning into liquid?" "What else could I mean! Are they?" "All indications say they are, Mr. Whittaker." "It is crucial that I find out, Callen. There is a lot at stake.” "They have to be, sir. The only difference between our tombs and their tombs is the inscription on each one.” "What do the inscriptions say?" "They're alien writings of some sort. We’re trying to decipher them, but we might need the other two tombs to complete the puzzle." "How is all this going to make us any money?” A brief silence. There was more bad news coming from Callen. "There's one more thing, Mr. Whittaker," Callen said in the dark. Whittaker grunted audibly. "Give me more good news, Callen." "Actually, it's not good news," Callen said sheepishly. "I know it's not good news, you dumbass!" Lucky for Callen he couldn't see the tycoon’s face because Whittaker was scowling fiercely at him in the dark. Callen cleared his throat quietly. "The insurance companies have been asking questions that I don’t have answers to, sir.” There was no response. Whittaker waved a hand in the dark. Callen was able to find his way out the dark room. He closed the door behind him and sprinted down the 204 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS emergency stairway. All forty of flights of it. 205 22 ELLIS HAD TOLD what had happened at his home only to one person, and that was Gust. The hospital had told him that Arlene would be fine with no long-term damage. She had electric current, they assumed from a household appliance, zapped through her body. In Rhinehart’s office, Ellis and Gust sat opposite the director. The big man was softly drumming his overblown belly and savoring Brazilian coffee fresh from Earth. Ellis and Gust looked on in amusement. Ah, oh, ahhh, excellent coffee, Rhinehart complemented at least a hundred times. Gust and Ellis studied the wallscreen while Rhinehart savored his coffee. Rhinehart sipped and grunted, "Ah, oh, ahhh, excellent coffee." At last, the man they had been waiting for dashed through the door with a piece of paper in his left hand. Mackenzy sat beside Ellis and dropped the white paper on the table and knocked the top of it once importantly. Mackenzy inhaled and exhaled deeply to catch his breath. Gust grabbed the paper and studied it. "We’ve got them” Mackenzy announced proudly, panting a little. “We have a concrete way of detecting them regardless of what state or form they’re in.” Ellis eyed Mackenzy.”Even when they’re hibernating?” "Even when they’re hibernating. The reading is faint depending on the state, but it is traceable." Gust read the report and almost killed himself for not thinking of it first. "This is a magic bullet sort of thing?" Rhinehart asked skeptically. "Iridium!" Gust said and slapped his forehead. "Huh?" Rhinehart grumbled stupidly, setting down his precious Brazilian coffee. Mackenzy glanced over at Gust and nodded. He explained his findings with gleaming eyes. "That's correct. Iridium is an element found mostly in terrestrial rocks, such as the ones Whittaker hauls back from the Asteroid Belt. However, there are some traces of iridium in sedimentary rocks, but most it of originates from extraterrestrial sources in space. When meteors disintegrate there are also traces of the iridium element. Evidently, our four friends are leaving traces of iridium wherever they go." THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Ellis reached over and grabbed the paper from Gust. "Keep going.” Ellis requested. Mackenzy crossed his legs importantly, as though he were the smartest man in the universe at the moment. Rhinehart's forehead was shinning in anticipation. Mackenzy spoke importantly and intelligently, "These iridium readings have been confirmed at Biosphere Ten, our autopsy room, the morgue, and Platform II on Phobos. This is their signature.” Ellis was grinning as Mackenzy spoke. "Can we adjust our handscreens to track these readings?" Mackenzy smiled at this. "That’s the beauty of all this. Only minor modifications are needed. This can also be done with our shuttles. Diane suggested we equip shuttle three first in memory of Ender and Yamoto." Silence descended as they let Ender and Yamoto sink in. Rhinehart reached for the fresh Brazilian coffee and sipped, then set it down and turned his attention to Ellis. "So now we know how to find them. The problem remains—what are we going to do when we find them?” “Leave that to me, sir," Ellis said confidently. "Well, kid, looks like your four friends don't have any where to hide anymore.” "Looks like it. Maybe the killings can stop now." Gust wasn't sure, he wanted to capture one to study it. There was silence as Rhinehart sampled the priceless coffee fresh from Earth. He finished it in one mighty swig and burped. “Ah, oh, ahhh, excellent coffee. Are you going to tell us your plan, Lieutenant?” Ellis was saved when an assistant of Dale Mackenzy from downstairs walked through the opened door. A few pieces of paper were tucked under his arm. He walked straight up to Mackenzy and handed him the papers. Mackenzy said thank-you and the assistant left. "What was that about?" Rhinehart demanded from across the table, thinking about Margaret’s hooters. Mackenzy shook his head. "This is a bit odd but it says here that the tombs are no longer diamond. They’re turning liquid. There's something else surprising. Two 207 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS triangular pieces from the tombs did not turn liquid. They have some sort of alien inscription on them. When the two pieces connected, it looked like a sentence. I am not sure what they mean, but we'll have to check with the two pieces in Whittaker's possession." "What does the inscription say?" Gust blurted. Mackenzy shrugged. "No one knows at this point.” Rhinehart grunted, “I want to know why these guys were put in the asteroid in the first place. Or even who put them there. Don’t you guys want to know these things? Or am I the only one with this curiosity?” Ellis gestured a chin to Gust and said, "Kid, here, thinks they can't be killed because of their ability to manipulate their molecular structure.” "Immortality,” Mackenzy whispered. Gust said, “They could be criminals, bounty hunters, warriors, prisoners, the possibilities are endless. Take your pick. I’m sticking to my theory that they’re the Alpha Centaurians.” They glanced outside the large windows and saw two passenger shuttles and a cargo shuttle pass, their orange flares came within meters of the window. Then the huge wallscreen on the left flickered to life and Loren's face appeared. Everyone focused on the wallscreen. "What is it?" Rhinehart grunted. "We found our four friends," she said, and looked out at Ellis on the wallscreen. Ellis and Gust bolted to their feet and approached the wallscreen. "Where?" Ellis asked eagerly. "In an underground tunnel. I've got them on my screen right now," she said, tapping at something beside her. "How long ago did you find them?" Ellis asked. "Just seconds ago. Looks like they’re in hibernation," Loren said and looked away from the screen. "What is the tunnel number?" Ellis asked anxiously. "I don’t know the tunnel number they’re in but I know it leads to Tunnel 231." "How many birds are up there?" Ellis asked. 208 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Twelve, but mine is the only one monitoring this lovely scene," Loren said. Her partner, Leonard Merck, came into view and smiled. Ellis paused and looked at Rhinehart, who was still thinking about Margaret and her luscious melons. Rhinehart simply shrugged as if not knowing what to make of the news. He had his coffee and Whittaker’s young interns to ponder over. Ellis could handle the rest. Ellis rubbed his temple and thought of Arlene and Nick. "Diane, keep an eye of them. Can you transfer the picture to the Director's wallscreen?" Loren nodded and hit some buttons on her shuttle. Then Rhinehart’s wallscreen sizzled with static and an image of a dark tunnel appeared. Ellis and Gust sat back down and focused on the wallscreen like zombies. On the huge wallscreen were four blurred bodies of the Alpha Centaurians lying in the tunnel side-by-side in mummified positions. They were glowing a bit. The room was suddenly quiet. Rhinehart sat upright on his seat and leaned forward and Mackenzy did likewise. No one spoke for minutes. "Are they ever going to move?" Mackenzy finally asked, almost to himself. Gust looked to the chem man. "It looks like they’re regenerating. You must have hurt them pretty bad at the biosphere." Ellis thought about his wife and son while he glared at the aliens on the wallscreen. Tunnel 231. Tunnel 231. That sounded familiar. He’d been there before. That was where he had hunted Xavier and his cult and forced them to evacuate. He knew the tunnel well. This is going to work out fine, he told himself. He already had a plan. "I’m going to monitor this from my office," Ellis said quickly. He eased past the wallscreen and walked out. Gust rose, smiled at Mackenzy and Rhinehart, then followed Ellis out. 209 23 "YOU LIKE WATCHING aliens, kid?" Ellis asked, sitting on the chair in his office. "I'll tell you later." Gust at opposite across the table, watching the four aliens on the wallscreen. They were still glowing and hadn’t moved yet. Ellis just needed a little time to put his plan together so he hoped they’d remain dormant. He turned away from wallscreen and hit the TRANSMIT button on his deskscreen: “Call Mars Zoning Board." A picture of an operator at the Mars Zoning Board blinked on the deskscreen. "How can I help you?" the friendly voice asked. Gust turned away from the wallscreen. "What are you doing?" Ellis put his index finger to his lips. Hush, hush. He spoke to the operator, "This is Lieutenant Ellis of the Mars Police. We need the blueprint of Tunnel 231." The female operator already knew who he was. There were several beeps then the blueprint of Tunnel 231 was downloaded. "Is there anything else I can assist you with, Lieutenant?" the operator asked with a smile. "That will be all for now. Thank-you." Ellis softly tapped the END button and her face disappeared. He put the blueprint of Tunnel 231 on the left side of the wallscreen. On the right side were the aliens. "What are you doing?" Gust asked again. "I've got a plan, kid.” "You mind telling me what it is?" "You’ll find that your four friends are not the only ones full of surprises," Ellis said as he studied the blueprint of the tunnel on the wallscreen. Tunnel 231 was partially owned by Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction, a French firm, of course. The other owner was Whittaker Resources. Ellis THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS studied the blueprint carefully with Gust looking on. The construction of the tunnel was incomplete. He needed permission from Whittaker Resources to carry out his plan. "Call Udell Whittaker,” Ellis said to the deskscreen. Margaret's beautiful face blinked on his deskscreen. Gust heard the warm voice, and rushed over and stared into the deskscreen with dreamy eyes. He wanted to apologize for the intrusion. "This is Lieutenant Ellis of the Mars Police. Is Mr. Whittaker available?" Ellis requested. Margaret smiled warmly. She knew who Ellis was and didn’t waste any time. Whittaker's face appeared on the deskscreen. "Yes, Lieutenant. I didn’t expect to hear from you." Whittaker said plainly, still sitting in the dark after Callen had told him the tombs weren’t diamond. Ellis leaned into the deskscreen as he spoke, "We need your permission to use one of the tunnels where the Alpha Centaurians are hiding out. We also need material assistance." Whittaker looked skeptical. "What kind of material assistance? And where the hell is that Rhinehart?" "We need to meet to discuss this. The Director will be at the meeting.” Whittaker moved away from the deskscreen temporarily. "Of course, at your earliest convenience. I just want my life back." "I’ll see you in your office in twenty minutes," Ellis said and the deskscreen blanked out. He inhaled deeply and tapped a sequence of buttons on his desk. The four aliens in Tunnel 231 were still in mummified positions on the wallscreen. "Are you going to let me in on the plan?" Gust pleaded. "Like I said, your four friends aren’t the only ones full of surprises. I’ll give you a hint though, the plan requires a crazy amount of explosives. That's why we need Whittaker's help." 211 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS Gust looked alarmed. "Explosives could be dangerous. Those guys could be ticking time bombs. I thought we discussed this before." "I like to take risks. A few biospheres and buildings might have to go in the process, but hey it’s for the good of Mars,” Ellis said seriously. Gust shook his head. “You’re willing to risk blowing up a few buildings to kill them? What if there’s a chain explosion throughout all the tunnels? Blowing them up might not be the best idea.” Ellis smiled at the kid most amusingly. He inched close to Gust and patted him on the shoulder. "Kid, there will be fireworks.” "If you want to blast these guys to pieces, there is going to be collateral damage.” “There’s no other way, kid. We need to blow them up. We are going to light up Mars. You will enjoy the show, kid.” Gust shook his head again. “I’m sure Rhinehart will enjoy it also when a couple of biospheres are blown up in the process.” On the wallscreen, one of the Alpha Centaurians twitched and crouched slowly to a sitting position. It stared methodically down at its three wounded comrades. Then it slowly stood upright, and rolled its eyes up and down the murky tunnel. It turned its body sideways as if stretching out after being drunk with sleep. The other three were still in mummified positions on the ground. Gust jumped to the wallscreen and stood inches from it. "That is a work of art," he mumbled in admiration, his face shone under the wallscreen's light. He extended an arm and touched the alien on the wallscreen, tracing his hand to its movement. It stopped pacing and stood directly over its three comrades. Without warning, it spun its head and looked at Gust. Gust leaped back in surprise, yanking his hand away from the wallscreen. He heard Ellis chuckling in the background. "I think it likes you kid," Ellis said with a grin, folding his arms over his chest. Gust gaped back, turning red. "That's not funny," he blurted, breathing 212 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS deeply. "Look, kid, it’s still looking at you. It think it likes you." Ellis smiled, pointing a chin at the screen. It was no longer looking at Gust but seemed to be looking at Ellis through the wallscreen. Then another alien crouched to sitting position, then another one. Finally three were sitting in the dark tunnel, with one standing up, who was pacing again. Gust moved as far away from the wallscreen as possible. He leaned on the side wall and intently watched the aliens. "Will you just look at the size of those freaking guys. They are humongous," Gust said in awe. Down in Rhinehart's office, Mackenzy blurted, "Will you just look at the size of those freaking guys. They are humongous." On the wallscreen, all four aliens were standing and pacing the tunnel coolly now. They had regenerated and were ready to hunt again. There was a chime and Ellis reached over and split the wallscreen split into two portions. The right side was the aliens and the left side was the face of Loren. "Yes, Diane," Ellis said, facing the wallscreen. Loren was shaking her head in disbelief. "Are you getting the live pictures?" "We sure are. Gust here is loving every second of it. Aren't you, kid?" Ellis turned to Gust and smiled. Gust nodded sheepishly. "What next?" She was curious. "I’ve got a plan. Keep monitoring them until you hear from me, which should be in about 30 minutes." "Shall do." Loren nodded. On the wallscreen, all four aliens stopped pacing and glared out to Ellis and Gust, as though they were aware of being watched. Gust winced and looked away from the wallscreen. Ellis stood calmly and glared back at the aliens. "They make a good foursome." 213 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Four perfect killing machines," Gust said. They watched the aliens on the wallscreen for another two minutes, mesmerized. Finally Ellis said, "We have a meeting with your boss, kid." And he slapped off the wallscreen. He walked to the door with Gust behind, who was staring at the aliens on the wallscreen over his back as he walked out of Ellis’s office. THE TWO CHEM men, Dale Mackenzy and Dittmar Callen, stood and listened intently to the conversation between Ellis and Whittaker. Gust stood beside Ellis and watched the shuttles with orange vapor trails whizzing outside the three story windows. Rhinehart was outside in the reception area with Margaret on his lap. Beauty, beauty, beauty, Rhinehart repeated for the millionth time. "The plan sounds risky, Lieutenant,” Whittaker protested. “There’s not a problem with us supplying you with the explosives but the amount of explosives you’re asking for could blow up half of Mars.” "I understand the risks, sir.” Callen added, “If you use that much explosives in the tunnels, that is guaranteed to take a few buildings out and about half the biospheres on the planet.” Callen and Mackenzy shook their heads. Ellis ignored them. “Mr. Whittaker, I need a few of your engineers, the amount of explosives I’ve requested and the permission of Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction." "Yes, that French firm. I own a large share in the company, it could be arranged. Will you not take the advice of these two engineers?” “Mr. Whittaker, we do not have time go over every detail of the plan. I have been tasked to get rid of the aliens and I assure you that is what I will do with no more loss of lives. The Director has already approved of the plan.” There was a long pause as Whittaker started a slow burn. Callen rubbed his arm and his shirt slid up. Gust noticed a tattoo etched deep in Callen's arm just below the 214 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS elbow. The tattoo was a four-sided star, each side a triangle. Callen stared suspiciously at Gust, and the kid looked away, horrified but afraid to say anything. They all watched as Whittaker thought it through. Finally, the tycoon spoke, “Lieutenant, do whatever you feel is necessary to bring Mars back to the peace and vibrancy it enjoyed before the arrival of these aliens.” They filed out of the room and left the tycoon sitting in the dark. Ellis opened the door, and there was Rhinehart on Margaret's desk trying to win her over with his rubbish heroics. What a director. 215 24 ABOUT TWO HUNDRED MPs were either in or surrounding Tunnel 231, which was lit up with spotlights sweeping up and down the tunnel. The entrance of the tunnel was lined with deskscreens showing live pictures of the aliens. The immense robotic arms and cranes, hissing and whirling, were dutifully digging a crater and putting the explosives in place. High above the tunnel, Loren’s shuttle and three others monitored the situation. Ellis sat on a foldaway chair with a spotlight shining in his face. Gust was sitting beside. Ellis stared at the large monitor with the four aliens on it. They were no longer pacing but back in mummified positions on the ground. "The box is in place, Don," one MP yelled. Ellis, still staring at the monitor, gave a thumps up behind his back. Mackenzy and Callen approached quietly from behind. Mackenzy spoke, "The box is ready and the explosives are in place. Everything should be finished in about thirty minutes. I hope you know what you’re doing because setting those explosives off is going to bring down every building and biosphere within a mile radius of here.” Ellis looked up and grinned. “Mackenzy, you know one part of the plan and the other engineers know another part. I’m the only person who knows the whole plan. That’s the way it will be until we’re done. You’ll have to trust me on this one.” Callen had a map of the tunnel which he had obtained from the French company, Nakishewata & Yomiguishygata Construction. He lowered to his knees and spread the map behind Ellis. "You might want to have a look at this," Callen said from behind. Ellis missed every word. Gust nudged an elbow at him. "You should have a look at something. And you thought I liked aliens, geez." "What was that, kid?" Ellis asked, staring hypnotically at the monitor. THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "You should have a look at this map. You requested it," Callen repeated. Ellis veered around slowly and faced Callen and Mackenzy. He saw the map he had requested spread on the tunnel ground. He squatted beside the map and studied it. Mackenzy arched down and fingered a particular marking. "You might want to take this route," Mackenzy said and traced his finger along one route which led to the mouth of the tunnel, where a huge metal box had been inserted earlier. "It looks like that’s the way we’ll have to go,” Ellis said. “Ellis, Ellis! You’re gonna want to see this,” Callen said urgently and pointed to the monitor. On the main monitor behind, all four aliens jumped to their feet and paced coolly down the tunnel. One ran its hand along the tunnel wall, feeling it experimentally to see what it was made of. "Those guys are huge. Just enormously huge," Callen grunted. "You should see them close up like I did," Gust said. "You saw them close up?" Callen asked with excitement. "I sure did. I was face-to-face with one of them," Gust said proudly. "That must have been something, huh?" “It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Gust said. On the monitor, the Alpha Centaurians broke into a run and headed straight for the mouth of the tunnel. The trap wasn't done yet. Ellis angrily kicked the floor and mumbled cusses. The adjacent monitor blinked and Loren came into view. "Did you just see that?” "Lovely, just lovely," Ellis said. He kicked the monitor and Loren's face blinked off. "Seal off all the doors leading to the mouth!" Ellis yelled urgently, whipping his head to the chem men. Mackenzy jumped to the nearby monitor and called the Mars Zoning Board. 217 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "Seal off the doors to tunnel 231," Mackenzy ordered the operator. “Transfer tunnel controls to Loren’s shuttle.” "Done!" the operator said. Mackenzy had expected this. They watched the monitor as the four aliens continued to dash down the tunnel. Their strides were athletic and graceful, as though they didn't require effort to move at such a blazing speed. The legs were bulging with thick muscles, the chests swelling with thick flesh. They were heading right to the group. Two loud thudding sounds exploded as the doors clanged shut, followed by four thunderous, earsplitting screams. Every MP froze and stared down the dark tunnel, even the robotic cranes froze at the deafening sound. "I think they're a little bit angry," Gust said. “Just a bit, kid,” Ellis said sarcastically. For the next five minutes, they sat and watched as the Alpha Centaurians dashed wildly back and forth down Tunnel 231, running into a thick metal wall at each end. Then they’d banged the doors and tried to break through. If this kept up, Ellis wasn’t sure if he’d be able to carry out his plan. Ellis glanced at his watch and frowned, a little concerned now. THE TRAP WAS finished fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The crater was now rectangular metal room with an electronic locking door. Ellis, Mackenzy and Callen stood and barked evacuation instructions. Within 30 minutes, Tunnel 231 was nearly empty. Loren had landed her shuttle and picked up Gust. Only two monitors remained behind for Ellis and the chase group of ten of the MPs finest officers. "Good luck, guys," Mackenzy called, waving a hand at the chase group huddled around Ellis. a„ "Yeah, good luck," Callen shouted. He and Mackenzy faded slowly into the adjacent tunnel. 218 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS On one of the monitors in front of the group, Gust, now in Loren’s shuttle above, appeared and spoke, "Good luck everyone," he wished the chase group. h Ellis turned away from the group and stared at the monitor. "Thanks, kid. Don't cause trouble up there. Diane isn’t as nice as I’m. Okay?" Gust smiled on the monitor. "I won't. She's prettier than you, though.” Loren came into view and pecked his cheeks. Ellis laughed. "See you in about ten minutes," Ellis said confidently. Gust saluted over the monitor. "But just in case I don't make it back, your three notebooks are in my office. I like the doodle face with the smile.” Gust smiled weakly. “I’ll see you in ten minutes.” The monitor fizzled with static and blanked out. The image of the four imposing aliens reappeared, kicking and banging the metal door. Ellis’s chase group didn’t look too confident. Most of them were at Biosphere Ten and the west wing near the autopsy room. He looked at his ten finest for the final time. He inhaled deeply and cleared his throat. "Any objections? Good. Let's finish and get a good night’s sleep." Ellis grinned at the chase group. "Look what just popped up, Don," a female MP said, motioning her chin at the monitor. Ellis turned and stared at the monitor in horror. The four massive aliens were gone. Instead, the physical forms of John Yamoto, Michael Ender, Michelle Gardner, and Kevin Fryer, were on the screen. They looked exactly like the originals. Their eyes stared sympathetically out the monitor, as if asking for mercy. Ellis was intrigued by all this. "That’s not going to work, guys." He pulled out his rifle and pulled the trigger. The monitor sputtered flames and smoke swirled in the air. The ten MPs leaped back from the spitting sparks. 219 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "That's better," he said coolly, arching down and picking up the map. "Let's go." He flipped a tiny microphone in front of his mouth and began walking. He walked down the shadowy tunnel with the group in tow, turned left and came upon a tall door. "Open," he spoke into the microphone in front of his lips. The metal door rumbled vertically open and the chase group ducked in before it was completely raised. "Close," Ellis spoke into the mouth piece once more. The doors were now being controlled by Loren in her shuttle instead of the Mars Zoning Board. Ellis breathed deeply, the chase group was approaching the section of the tunnel were the aliens were and he was about to give the instruction to release them. He shot individual glances at his ten brave officers. They nodded slowly and nervously in response. "Let them go,” Ellis said into his mouth piece. They held their breaths as the metal door clanged open. But there was nothing on the other side that they could see. They sat and waited in silence for another minute. A voice crackled on Ellis's ear piece. "They're not moving, Don. They’re just standing beneath the doorway hoping to get crushed or something." It was Loren. Ellis shook his head. He was hoping the aliens would rush at the group. Maybe they had smelled the trap. “Let’s wait another minute or two." The group waited patiently. Mackenzy spoke this time, "They’re still not moving, Don. They probably know you’re up to something." "I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” Ellis said. “But we’re going to have to do some chasing.” He squatted and unfolded the map of the tunnel and studied it for the final time. The MPs clustered around and looked on. He needed to come from behind and chase them to mouth of Tunnel 231, where the trap was, and Tunnel 230 was the only way to do it. 220 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS "It looks as if that’s the only way to do it," Ellis said, staring up at the group. The group walked down Tunnel 230 and came upon another high metal door. "Open," Ellis muttered at the mouth piece. They lined up a few meters from the door. It slowly, ever slowly clanged up, inch by inch, by eternal inch, then a portion of Tunnel 231 came in view. On Loren’s shuttle, Gust held his breath and prayed for the safety of the group. The door finally opened. Forty meters away were four towering creatures. They whipped around and sneered at the group. Then their eyes glowed red, sizzling with electric sparks. All four aliens appeared to be eyeing Ellis. They knew him. One alien, probably the rascal of the group, stepped forward and shouted down the tunnel, "I think you have the wrong people, officers." The voice was identical to Anne Pressly's. No one knew what to do. They all stood and froze. Without warning, the four aliens broke into a sprint, heading at the group. There was no rifle fire yet. “Now!" Ellis hollered. Each MP pulled a grenade from their belts and tossed them in unison at the ground. Dirt and concrete blew into the air with smoke billowing everywhere. The dark tunnel became clouded . Then the vicious firing began, MPs pulling on triggers, aiming straight ahead. The air sparked to life like discharging fire crackers, setting the tunnel ablaze. Ellis, dragging on the trigger, lunged ahead like a maniac. He hit something and the air ignited. "Charge!" he shouted over the rattling of bullets. At first, the group exchanged perplexed looks and thought he was insane. Charge? But then they obeyed and charged ahead, firing wildly ahead. The firecrackered air retreated down Tunnel 231 under the relentless attack. The air fluttered and popped and four aliens appeared ahead. One of them, still madly dashing down the tunnel, twisted around and gave the group the middle 221 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS finger. Ellis returned the friendly gesture and tossed a grenade to reinforce the friendship. Under the relentless attack of grenades and firing, the alien retreated into the mouth of Tunnel 231. An opened door awaited them. They raced down the dark tunnel with bullets hitting their backs and grenades exploding. Another ten meters down and they came upon a bright sign with the markings ZERO GRAVITY AREA. DO NOT ENTER. The sign was attached beside the door in front of a cold looking room with metal walls. They dashed past the door and into the room with insolent grins on their faces. Once inside the room, they stopped in the middle of it. The trap was perfectly set up. They froze and swept their eyes wildly around the small cold room. The metal floor, roof and walls scared them. They twisted around and saw that the MPs had stopped chasing and were no where to be seen. They were intelligent and knew something was up. The door was the only exit and they lunged at it. The door clanged shut. The floor dropped beneath their feet. They were now floating inside the room—floating helplessly, arms and legs kicking viciously in mid-air. Their eyes rolled across methodically, toiling for an escape. They shifted colors and turned invisible, thinking it would help in some way. It didn't. So they remained airborne helplessly, clawing at nothing but air. There was no escaping from for the well designed room. Nothing they did would help, it was gravity they were dealing with. Suddenly four bassy and deafening screams erupted. Almost every one on Mars heard the sound. The screams lasted for ten seconds and echoed off every wall in the tunnel. "Run! Get back! Quick!" Ellis howled. The MPs sprinted back to the entrance of Tunnel 230. The door was already open and waiting. "Close it! Close it!” Ellis panted in 222 THE ALPHA CENTAURIANS the mouth piece. The metal door dropped ever slowly. The MPs ran through and dropped to the floor, gasping for air. There was a clanking sound as the door completely closed. Tunnel 231 was gone. "Now, Diane,” Ellis panted. "With pleasure." 223 25 On Loren's shuttle, Gust jumped off his seat and pressed his face against the port window. There was nothing to see but the starry sky of Mars. Out of nowhere, a rocket with trailing orange vapors darted diagonally through the sky. Gust slapped the shuttle window and cheered. The rocket climbed higher and higher and higher into Mar’s atmosphere. "He's done it, Diane!" Gust yelled, all pumped up. Loren leaped off her pilot's chair and watched the rocket continue its vertical climb. Leonard was right behind marveling at her shapely rear end, smiling. A voice came over the monitor, but no picture. "Did you like that, kid?" "Original. Very original. And stop calling me kid." "Okay, kid." The voice went dead. They all stared up at the starry sky as the rocket climbed higher—its trailing orange flares lighting up the dark sky. There was an unspoken silence of sadness and a little regret. They had let the chance slip away. No one spoke for minutes. They admired the sky with reflective eyes. FIVE MINUTES LATER, Ellis sat against the tunnel wall with an immense grin across his face. The ten MPs thought he was a serial killer wearing that wicked grin. He couldn't wipe it off for some reason. Then he kissed the tiny microphone in front of his mouth and coolly instructed, "Now, Diane.” He was still grinning. TEN KILOMETERS OVER the nearest shuttle, a violent explosion erupted, lighting up the night sky with a brilliant exploding fireball. Pieces of the rocket spiraled in every direction. Then the dotted sky was silent again.