WILLIAM E. MASON
Approach to Earth
The Shepherd slid along convoluting stellar fields following the path of least resistance. His unpretentious front and gray, seamless sides contrasted little against the immutable void. Nothing abraded his smooth outer surface but the slightest pucker, a tight sphincter dialed closed sealing entry to his womb.
Inside, standing perpendicular to the line of travel, Truman Justis slept, unaware of where he was or how long he had been there. On a long curling arc, the Shepherd homed to the distant star his passenger called the Sun.
"It is time," the Shepherd said, giving Truman a gentle nudge. "We are almost there."
Truman awoke. "The players! Those vermin!" He struck randomly at unseen tormentors.
"You are shaking. Be calm." The Shepherd relaxed tissue to absorb Truman's tight‑fisted struggle.
The future had been a hideous place. "What about Cathcar? The guardian?" Truman felt again the heavy body blows from the Neanderthal, saw his massive build, the reddish hue of his hairy body, his dead eyes.
"Cathcar is in the future." The Shepherd's voice was devoid of emotion. "The guardian is here in the present."
Truman inhaled. "Where are we? I can't see a thing."
A vision opened inside his mind. The backside of the Moon loomed large with a smaller Earth floating emerald‑blue and swirling white in the distance. The Moon slipped past. The Earth rushed toward him.
As he stared at the vision, his mind locked up. "When?" Breathless, it was all he could manage to say.
"Two thousand five. A very precise return given the vagaries of time‑past re‑entries."
Truman blew out a stale breath. Home. A giddy rush of excitement washed over him. It had seemed an impossibility hours, or was it years ago? He no longer knew. His space‑time travel could have spanned centuries.
The Horn of Africa broke through the center of surrounding equatorial clouds. Truman let his mind's eye follow the Great Rift Valley from Eritrea, down, southwest, in a line connecting to Lake Turkana. The speed of their approach brought the landscape into stark relief. The dry desert south of the lake showed pink and beige with the Loriyu Plateau standing above it like a broken aircraft carrier. Orange, afternoon sunlight pierced the dense atmosphere and cast a long shadow off the plateau's eastern flank.
The scene rushed toward Truman and stopped. A flat table of red rock stretched out on all sides and ended at an edge, then nothing except desert below, the distant horizon and pale blue sky.
"I had forgotten how dry it was. We've landed on top of something. Where are we?"
"Two degrees, fifty minutes, thirty seconds north latitude, thirty-seven--"
"We are atop the plateau, facing west. The fossil fields of Kanapoi are on the desert below."
"The last time I was here, I thought I was a dead man."
"That is understandable."
The fossil fields of Kanapoi. Mankind had begun here and here mankind would end. Maybe not in this time, but perhaps in another. Truman tried to shift position, but couldn't. The cloying walls of the womb pressed close like stiff pillows. "Okay, we're here. Now what?" He was anxious to get out and back to his life. He was also tired of being used.
"You must meet some people."
"Will that end it?"
"I thought we had...a deal. I showed you how to reverse the degradation of the human genome and you agreed to meet these people."
"Are they players?"
"Yes, some of them."
A tingle of apprehension shot through his body. "Jesus Christ, is mankind ever rid of them?"
"The players will be neutralized long enough for mankind to fulfill its destiny."
"That doesn't sound reassuring.
"Without mankind’s survival, I cannot exist."
"But you exist."
"Yes. Mankind survives...long enough."
"But for what purpose?"
"It is very simple. Humans must build A4-Ni."
"Who the hell is A4-Ni?"
"She is my creator. The people I want you to meet are already here. You must go."
Truman resigned himself to what he must do. A deal was a deal. The orifice that led from the Shepherd's womb to the outside world dialed open. Sunlight flooded the chamber. The walls tightened around Truman and thrust him from below. He rose, an infant in a birth canal.
Outside, he sat on the Shepherd's rounded exterior and slicked a residue of clear mucus from his arms and legs. The Shepherd had clothed him and given him boots. His head was bare, his beard gone as well as the deep body bruises and lacerations inflicted by Cathcar. The mucus evaporated ahead of his efforts to remove it.
Beside him, the butt of a rifle eased through a tight opening in the Shepherd's skin‑like exterior. The rifle slid straight up, a thorn emerging from a festering wound and fell on its side next to him. He picked up the rifle with both hands, hefting it.
"What's this for?"
"When the time comes, you will know. The people you must meet are below the plateau's western edge."
The womb's sphincter‑like opening sucked closed.
"Wait!" Truman shouted. "Will Azizah be there?"
"Yes," the Shepherd said dryly. "Proceed with caution."
"What the hell--"
"Goodbye, Truman Justis."
An instant of panic numbed his mind. "Will...will I meet myself?" Did he hear a chuckle? No, the Shepherd was only a machine.
"You will not meet yourself," the Shepherd said. "That is impossible."
"Go now. I will wait for you here."
Truman hesitated. Give me more.
"You need not worry, Justis," the Shepherd said. "You will succeed."
Truman wasn't afraid of failure. He had a gun. His whole life had been one of meeting challenges, and he had always succeeded.
A gunshot cracked through the still air. The sound originated from beyond the plateau's western edge. A moment later, a second shot followed.
Truman slid off the side of the Shepherd and jogged toward the edge of the plateau. He squinted into the glare of the desert sun. Beads of sweat forced from his brow. With his heart thumping, he leaned forward and raised the rifle close to his chest in a ready position. His strong legs pounded the earth beneath his feet, raising puffs of dust. He hadn't felt this good since basic training.
NRO Headquarters, Thursday, March 31, 2005
"God damn flies."
Deputy Director for Military Support Jim Brubaker slapped a flyswatter at a pirouetting black speck. That a fly could penetrate his room, let alone the facility of which it was a part, never ceased to amaze him. National Reconnaissance Office Headquarters, Chantilly, Virginia was one of the most secure office headquarters in the nation.
Having knocked over a book, scattered papers and spilt a glass of water, he gave up on the fly, tilted his considerable bulk into his chair and swiveled back to his desk.
His computer beeped, then launched into a piezoelectric rendition of Hail to the Chief.
With a pudgy finger, he punched function key F2, swore under his breath at his mistake and stabbed F1--the secure video feed.
The screen darkened. A time display came on at the bottom edge of the screen and started flipping…Thursday, March 31, 2005: 0712hrs 35sec…36sec…37sec.
"Brubaker." Brubaker fidgeted.
The screen cleared and the image of a uniformed officer came into view. "General William Morehouse, here, NORAD. We tracked a bogie heading to contact somewhere in Kenya. Thought you guys might want to know."
"I'll be damned." Brubaker leaned forward, feeling the static electricity off the screen prickle the hairs in his nose. "You got details?"
"Yes, sir. Not much. But what we have, you can punch up on COMM.net. It came in real fast."
"Thanks, Bill, I'll take it from here."
Brubaker cut the reception and pressed the button on his intercom to the operations center. "This is Brubaker. You got anything from NORAD on this Kenya thing?"
"Yes, sir," squawked the intercom. "We're looking at it right now."
"I'm coming over."
He reached across his desk and fingered a Wintermans, a Dutch cigar, short, stubby, an after dinner smoke but he liked them anytime. Down the hall, he stepped into the NRO Military Support operations center.
It wasn't as big as its name suggested, maybe ten meters by thirty. In the dim light, clone‑like officers hunched over monitors, manning lines of computer consoles. On the far wall, across from the door, multiple projections of the incoming craft's trajectory splayed across three large screens, all showing a different magnification.
Brubaker studied the center screen while unwrapping clear plastic from his cigar.
"Where's it headed?"
"It's down, sir. Detection to contact, one‑point‑nine‑five seconds."
"Two hundred-fifty kilometers in two seconds? Where'd it hit?"
The duty officer consulted his computer console. "Kanapoi, Kenya. Ah...sir, it didn't hit. It landed."
That's fast even for a UFO. That it hadn't drilled a hole in the desert was even more remarkable. Brubaker twirled the cigar deep into his mouth, wetting the dry tobacco, wishing he could light it. He pointed the cigar at the board. "Kanapoi. We closed that project twelve years ago. Give me a satellite image of the area."
Brubaker paced behind the duty officer as the man punched in the coordinates. An image of the desert seen from two hundred kilometers up replaced the hatch work of lines on the wall screen.
"What the hell am I looking at?"
"That's Lake Turkana, sir. The Kanapoi site is south of it." The officer used his thumb to rotate a ball on a joystick.
Video games. That's where these guys get their skills.
The camera view zoomed to fill the screen with the southern lakeshore and the northern part of the Loriyu Plateau.
"There're the ruins of the Loriyu research station."
"What's that?" Brubaker pointed.
Brubaker snatched a laser pointer from his pocket, thumbed the switch and, with a thin red beam, pointed to a dark spot south of the ruins on top of the plateau.
The officer shifted the view to the spot and zoomed in. The spot grew in size until it filled the center third of the screen, then stopped. "We're at the limit of optical resolution, sir."
Brubaker peered at the image. A gray, rounded shape threw off a shadow to one side. "Doesn't show us any more detail than before. How big is it?"
The officer punched a button, and a calibration grid layered the image. "I make it to be twenty meters across. Almost circular."
A speck separated from the object and moved to the northwest.
"Did you see that?"
"That thingy‑dot that separated from the bogie and is moving off to the left?"
"Yeah, I see it now."
"Can't we make it bigger?"
"I can go to digital mag but the resolution will be degraded."
"Please, Lieutenant, proceed." Brubaker chewed the end of his cigar.
The dot on the screen expanded, breaking into definitive pixels.
"Looks like a man running," Brubaker said.
"Yes sir. I think he's carrying something, like a rifle at port arms."
Brubaker sucked on the cigar, tasted something he didn't like and stared at the cigar's moist end. "So," he said taking a handkerchief out of his pocket and spitting into it, "we've maybe got a man separating from a presumed alien craft and carrying a rifle."
"Shit." Brubaker paced in thought. "We're going to have to coordinate with the JCS and the ASD on this."
"We got any assets in the area?"
The duty officer's fingers tapped his keyboard. He studied the screen for a moment. "The Eisenhower is cruising the north end of the Persian Gulf. We could get a couple of F/A-20s to Kanapoi in--" He did a quick calculation. "--two hours and fifty minutes if the Saudis give us permission to flyover."
"Fucking rag heads. Not likely. Anyway, I'm thinking more in terms of people. We got anyone on the ground who's up to speed on the Kanapoi Incident?"
The officer typed some more. He stopped at one screen, then flicked to another.
"Here's a live one."
"What's his name?"
"Where's he at now?"
"Zen retreat, Kyoto, Japan."
"Japan? I'm talking closer."
"No one with his background, sir. It says he's a geneticist."
"I need a commando, not some fucking sushi‑eating academic."
The duty officer typed. "His portfolio says he's seen combat. Gulf War."
"That wasn't no war. What'd he do?"
"CIA counter‑intelligence. Biological weapons. Nerve gas."
"What's his profile?"
"Black American by naturalization, thirty-five, single." The officer placed his finger on the screen and moved down as he read. "Sir, this is the Truman Justis, the guy who missed the sarin ID. Two soldiers dead. But he gets a Purple Heart. Shot in the leg, friendly fire. He claimed it was retribution but it was never proved."
"Is that all we got to send against this thing?"
"What else you got on this bozo?"
"Joined the NRO after the war. Been passed over twice. Top marks in his field."
"All right. What's his clearance?"
"After that screw‑up?"
"Gimme a cross‑link on genetics."
More keyboard work. "Hits on alien genetics. Kanapoi Incident." He paused. "Let's see‑‑" He slid his finger down the screen. "--another cross‑link to Kamau Jubali." The duty officer looked up.
Brubaker shoved the cigar in his mouth and tongued it to one side. "Who's Kamau Jubali?"
"Truman's father. Jubali worked for the paleoanthropologist John Lohner twenty years ago when the Kanapoi Incident came down."
Brubaker leaned over the seated man's shoulder and read the screen. "Jubali was killed by a lion. Same time Lohner died when his camp was fired. Wife, Judith Jubali—English, Caucasian, and son immigrated to the States. She took the name Justis. Anything else?"
The duty officer shifted the cursor and clicked on another link. "Truman stays in touch with an Amboseli Moye, Kenyan police constable who radioed in the Kanapoi Incident."
"Looks like Justis is our man. How fast can we get him to Kanapoi?"
"Assuming he answers his cell--" The duty officer changed screens. "--there's a flight out of Narita in three hours, two stops to Nairobi. Let's see...seventeen hours total flight time." Screens changed again. "Embassy's got a helicopter. Two hours to Kanapoi. Say twenty‑four hours at the outside."
"That'll work. Get him on the phone. And contact CENTCOM. While we're waiting for Mr. Justis, I want a flyby."
Brubaker bit off the soggy end of his cigar and spit toward a wastebasket. "Might as well put some muscle in ahead of our man."