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Apollo’s Plague

By Derek Hart






Published by Derek Hart at Smashwords


Copyright © 2017 by Derek Hart



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This book is a work of fiction. While the names of some places are real, the characters or actions that appear within them are products of the author’s imagination.




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“So Chryses prayed, and Apollo heard him. Then down Apollo came, in all his fury, from the heights of Olympus, with his bow and inlaid quiver at his back. The arrows rattled at his shoulder as the god descended like the night, in anger. He set down by the Greek ships, and fired a shaft, with a fearful twang of his silver bow. First he attacked the mules, and the swift hounds, then loosed his vicious darts at the men, so the dense pyres for the dead burned endlessly. For nine days Apollo’s plague fell upon the Greek army.”

- Homer’s Iliad




This book is dedicated to Princeton Rose




Foreword


Healing was associated with Apollo, both directly and through his son, the demi-god of medicine, Asclepius. Yet true to his dual nature, the god that protected from disease could also send it. Apollo’s many epithets included Smintheus, associated with mice and rats, both as their exterminator, but also as the bringer of the plague. The most famous mythical incident of Apollo sending pestilence to those who invoked his wrath was the story of Agamemnon told in Book I of the Iliad.

The king of Argos and one of the Greek leaders in the Iliad, Agamemnon held captive the daughter of Chryses, Apollo’s priest. Chryses asked Agamemnon for her return, but the haughty king refused. The old man appealed to the god he had served all his life, and Apollo, angered by such disrespect, shot the arrows of plague at the Greeks for nine days, with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrows in the midst of them. Only after the girl was freed and suitable offerings made to Apollo, did the pestilence end for the Greeks.





Preface


The Apollo program, also known as Project Apollo, was the third United States human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which accomplished landing the first humans on the Moon from 1969 to 1972. It was first conceived during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration as a three-man spacecraft to follow the one-man Project Mercury which put the first Americans in space. Apollo was later dedicated to President John F. Kennedy’s national goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960s, which he proposed in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961.

Kennedy’s goal was accomplished on the Apollo 11 mission when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their lunar module on July 20, 1969, and walked on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the command/service module. All three returned safely to Earth on July 24. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. In these six spaceflights, twelve men walked on the Moon.

Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972, with the first manned flight in 1968. It achieved its goal of manned lunar landing, despite the major setback of a 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a prelaunch test. After the first landing, sufficient flight hardware remained for nine follow-on landings with a plan for extended lunar geological and astrophysical exploration. Budget cuts forced the cancellation of three of these. Five of the remaining six missions achieved successful landings, but the Apollo 13 landing was prevented by an oxygen tank explosion in transit to the Moon, which damaged the CSM’s propulsion and life support. The crew returned to Earth safely by using the lunar module as a lifeboat for these functions. Apollo used Saturn rockets as launch vehicles, which were also used for an Apollo Applications Program, which consisted of Skylab, a space station that supported three manned missions in 1973–74, and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, a joint Earth orbit mission with the Soviet Union in 1975.

Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while the final Apollo 17 mission marked the sixth Moon landing and the ninth manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. The program returned 842 pounds of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon’s composition and geological history. The program laid the foundation for NASA’s current human spaceflight capability and funded construction of its Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. Apollo also spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.




Thoughts


Every civilization has created its tales of cataclysm or apocalypse. We are perhaps the first generation which, by deliberate actions, could create our own doom. It’s no great stretch of the imagination that humans might disappear from the face of the earth. Yet we’re tantalized by our own myths, about our own destruction, but even more certain by the notion that we might somehow survive. It is an interesting predilection of so many Americans, who strangely fantasize about the coming zombie apocalypse, yet when quizzed, always seem to think they will be amongst the survivors. In a recent online poll, over 80% of the responders thought they would live through a zombie outbreak. This, of course, is highly unlikely. Still, the instinct to survive is a powerful force and there probably would be some who would indeed make it.

Within hours after the unexplained apocalypse unveiled in Minerva’s Shield, lights would start going out around the country. More than 70% of power in the United States is generated by the burning of fossil fuels. These power plants would continue to produce electricity only as long as the fuel took to be consumed. As discovered during the journey outlined in Nike’s Chariot, if there is no one around to provide new fuel to the generating plants, it won’t take long before the lights blink off everywhere. Nuclear power plants are unlikely to melt down because the average reactor holds enough fuel to keep running for two years, then automatically powers down. If you were in an area supplied by nuclear power, you could continue to have power for a significant time.

However, without humans consuming the power generated by the plant, the reactors will automatically go into safe mode in as little as two days. Even wind generators can’t last forever. The turbines require bearings and lubrication of those bearings in order to keep operating. If there’s no one around to maintain the turbines, the electricity doesn’t get produced. Solar power could be available, but its usage percentage in the USA is very low. As all these generating plants shut down, outages on the power grid contribute to a cascade of failure. After a few weeks, everything within The Zone would plunge into a deep darkness not experienced since primal humans gathered around a campfire. Perhaps the final glow would be seen in the American Southwest, where the mighty Hoover Dam hydropower plant took little notice of the absence of humans. Its source of fuel is virtually limitless. At Hoover Dam, the fuel is the water in the reservoir in Lake Mead behind the dam. So as long as there’s water in the reservoir, the power plant will continue to generate electricity.

Yet, in the end, Man’s supposed domination over nature would prove to be quite tenuous. The signs of our vulnerability have always been there. Now, years after the cataclysm, the roads are disappearing beneath a green mantle that will spread like some relentless monster. The advance of nature knows no boundaries. Not even the vaunted Grid will be able to prevent the inevitable march to its own destruction.




Acknowledgements


Thank you to Dennis Wingo, for his absolutely fascinating take on the Apollo Space Program in his white paper - The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program.


Thank you to Jeff Kueter and John B Sheldon, for providing critical information regarding current and future plans by the United States National Security Space Agency and the Minerva Planetary Defense Organization.


Thank you to William Mairson - Acting Deputy Principal Associate Director at Los Alamos National Laboratory for his answers to a few of the author’s questions, most of which he refused to answer!


As always, thank you to David Burke, Luben Jelezarov, Anthony Schell, Nick Shook, Ian Lenthart, Christi Nakajima, Katie van Riper, Keegan Ellington, Princeton Rose, Dimiter Kolev, Suzanne Leuck and Kert Crockett, for their continued feedback, suggestions, and assistance in the writing of this novel.


Cover art by David M. Burke




Prologue


Cape Canaveral, Florida


November 16, 1963


The presidential motorcade came to a gentle stop in front of the Minuteman Missile Assembly Building, where President John F. Kennedy was given a brief tour. Here he could see firsthand the three live solid propellant stages, the guidance and control and instrumentation section, the movable nozzle control units, and all cabling amassed at any of three assembly buildings. It was a relatively simple operation.

All of the components had been inspected and checked in other buildings at Cape Canaveral prior to transfer to the assembly building. A complete missile systems test was run on the missile after assembly. Following this, the missile was ready to be transported to the launch silo.

President Kennedy was joined by Associate Administrator of NASA Dr. Robert C. Seamans, Senator George Smathers of Florida, Administrator of NASA James E. Webb, Dr. Von Braun, Deputy Administrator of NASA Dr. Hugh Dryden and finally, Military Aide to the President Chester V. Clifton. The men all shook hands warmly and the tour continued.

There was no doubt that President Kennedy was fascinated by all he saw and heard. He asked intelligent questions, which the NASA officials were delighted to answer. It was obvious to them that JFK was discovering an entirely new level of commitment and support for the Apollo Space Program.

The group continued on to visit the Minuteman Launch Control Facility. This was an R&D test facility. It differed from the operational facilities in that it didn’t require the actions of two officers with keys in each of two control facilities to launch the missile. There were no complicated propellant loading and monitoring requirements as in a liquid fueled missile. The only part of the missile which operated prior to launch was the electronic equipment of the guidance system, instrumentation and hydraulic actuators for control of the movable nozzles.

Next, the party briskly walked to the Minuteman Launch Facility. The two silos at the Cape were specially designed for R&D tests. Operational silos were designed for only one launch. That meant that the gear in the silo was not protected from the heat of the rocket exhaust after ignition and ascent out of the silo. This silo had a special steel liner and automatic closures which protected the equipment in the silo so it could be used many times. Only slight refurbishment was required after a launch.

The motorcade then picked up the President and drove all the officials to the skid strip, where James Webb talked privately to John Kennedy regarding certain Top Secret items that were on their mutual agendas.

“I understand you have ordered the CIA to release to you all their files concerning UFO activity?” Webb asked quietly.

The President’s eyebrows went up, accompanied by a serious frown. “Is this common knowledge?”

Webb quickly shook his head. “No. The only reason I know of your request is that CIA Officer James Angleton called my office requesting that no information regarding UFO activity should originate from NASA. He stipulated that anything we might have must be forwarded through his office directly.”

“I see,” JFK said, obviously not pleased by this news.

Webb cleared his throat. “However, Mr. President, since you are my commander-in-chief and the President of the United States, I have willfully disobeyed Angleton’s order.”

Now that statement did catch the President off guard.

Kennedy suddenly laughed out loud.

Webb smiled.

The motorcade crossed the skid strip, passing by launch pad 36 on the way to Launch Control 19.

Webb continued his briefing of the President. “The Greys have returned with more suggestions, sir. Their demands are quite disturbing and several of Majestic’s top brass are concerned that things might get out of control.”

“Was Allen Dulles aware of this before he retired?” Kennedy asked.

Webb shrugged. “We have no way of knowing what the CIA’s involvement truly was, or is currently. They seem bent on controlling the information you see and preventing you from using NASA as anything but an arm of the United States Air Force.”

“You mean as a tool of the military?” Kennedy replied tersely.

Once again, Webb nodded, but said, “We have to be prepared to defend ourselves. This may require accepting the gift from the Blues sooner than we had planned.”

The President pondered silently for a few seconds, before asking, “How long do we have before the next stop?”

Webb touched the driver on the shoulder. “Slow down to a crawl, Major.”

“No problem, sir.”

The black limousine braked noticeably, forcing the following vehicles to do the same. All the other guests and passengers simply assumed that JFK was peering out the window at the monstrous and gigantic Saturn rockets towering up ahead.

“All the time you need, Mr. President,” Webb then said.

Kennedy remarked, “I think this can be an asset, this Apollo program. I think in time, it’s like a lot of things, this is mid-journey and therefore everybody wonders what the hell are we making this trip for, but at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it.”

Webb asked President Kennedy, “What image do you want to present beyond this military thing?”

Kennedy’s response was revealing in terms of his viewing the space program primarily in domestic political terms. “Obviously I want to present the kind of improvements in our national life which will come from this, such as the leadership of the United States and the national security we’ll get from it, all those factors. There will be tremendous technological advances as well.”

Webb nodded his understanding, but asked, “I sense problems that NASA is unaware of, sir.”

“I don’t think the space program has many political positives,” Kennedy replied. “Right now, space has lost a lot of its glamor. I’ve got to stall for time.”

Webb was about to say something, when the President added, “The only thing that isn’t particularly a plus is the diminishing political support for the program compared to a year ago.”

“What can we do to change that?” Webb asked.

Kennedy grinned. “Could you possibly land on the moon by next week?”

Webb smiled, but was quick to say, “Not likely, sir.”

Kennedy’s primary concern was, “We’ve got to defend ourselves now.”

“The American people are just not ready for the truth, Mr. President, if they ever will be,” Webb stated firmly. “Even with the delivery of Minerva, the instructions are pretty precise. If we don’t handle this gift with care, things could get pretty nasty. Don’t forget, sir, they sought you out first.”

“Unless the Russians do something spectacular, the only way we can defend ourselves is if we put a national security, rather than a prestige, label on Apollo,” Kennedy added. “We’ve got to wrap this space race thing around a military use for what we’re doing and spending.”

“Are you having second thoughts, sir?” Webb asked understandably.

The President vehemently shook his head. “No, but there’s an election coming and I would like to be in a position to push on, to be ready for when Minerva does arrive.”

Webb had taken notes and stated for the record, “So you need to know how much of our present peaceful space program can be militarily useful and how much of our capability for our moon program is also necessary for military control of space?”

Kennedy added, “I would be interested in any other thoughts on how to justify the large amounts of money being spent on space.”

In response, James Webb argued, “In my opinion, all of the civilian space program can be directly or indirectly militarily useful.”

Kennedy looked surprised. “Really?”

“I think the military will buy into it as well,” Webb went on. “When we present our increased payload capabilities, the Air Force will want a piece of the action.”

The President frowned. “Then the military industrial complex will want to take over.”

Webb shook his head. “If you give them a reason to wait for the technology, then they’ll wait. It’s just like a giant game of chess, except you hold an extra queen.”

The President smiled, but refrained from saying what was really on his mind.

“Give them something to whet their appetites,” Webb added.

Kennedy asked Webb, “How are we going to do that?”

“Let them know what our current payload capability will be,” Webb responded quickly. “The Saturn missile system could deliver multiple thermonuclear warheads to any target inside the Soviet Union. With that kind of punch, the Air Force will be more than willing to wait.”

The President nodded. “I think you’re right.”

“One last thing, sir,” Webb said quietly. “Once Minerva’s Shield is at your disposal, you can dictate terms. Don’t let them bully you. Don’t give up one inch. The time is right, sir, to negotiate world peace, not just some exercise in futility. You will have the power and the authority to initiate something spectacular, unimagined except by science fiction writers.”

At the end of the meeting, Kennedy told Webb, “We’ve got to hold onto this thing. Minerva could prove to be the one thing that saves this planet in the end.”

President Kennedy then visited the launch pad where a Saturn I vehicle was being prepared for a December launch, which signified for the first time that the booster’s S-IVB upper stage would be used. Kennedy was told that with this launch, the United States would be able to lift more mass into space than the Soviet Union, and this prospect clearly excited the President. Much to the discomfort of his Secret Service detail, however, Kennedy then walked under the booster to get a closer look. His mouth hung open as he grasped the sheer size and power of the rocket towering over him.

Webb smiled to himself. He knew this tour had brought JFK around 100% in support of the Apollo Program.

NASA Chancellor Seamans waited for Kennedy to rejoin him before whispering, “Do you now understand why we want so desperately to please our space brothers?”

The President merely nodded.

The visit wrapped up and Kennedy returned to Air Force One. During the entire flight, JFK sat alone, pondering all he had seen and heard. He felt as if the United States was on the path to something glorious and wonderful, a program that would revolutionize technological advancements by leaps and bounds, propelling the world into a new age. On top of that, he was about to receive an incredible gift from an alien race light years away.

Still, he also frowned when realizing all the political battles that lay ahead. He was beset by old-boy thinking and fraternal order back-stabbing. Most troubling was the CIA’s complete disregard for complying with any request coming from the White House. The Bay of Pigs disaster still hung heavily in the minds of many CIA operatives.

However, the visit to Cape Canaveral completely re-energized Kennedy’s excitement about the space program. He returned to his father’s home in Palm Beach for the weekend, talking about little else than what he had seen at the Cape. His discussion with Webb seemed to have resolved many of the doubts he had about the value of the program, as well as the future alliance in space. From the start of his time in office, Kennedy had been concerned about the disparity in weight lifting capability between US and Soviet launch vehicles. Learning as he stood before the Saturn booster on November 16, that the United States was about to take the lead in lift capability seemed to have convinced the president that the space program was on a positive path. In addition, Kennedy had just signed the order asking for a detailed plan for cooperating with the Soviet Union in going to the Moon. He also was willing to share vital secrets regarding UFO activity, so that the Soviets wouldn’t get nervous with little green men zipping about and launch a nuclear attack, thinking we were doing the same.

As the President retired to his bedroom to write a speech, he also recalled Webb’s not-so-cryptic warning regarding the hotly anticipated delivery of Minerva’s Shield. This technology was a gift from special envoys and within its power was the ability to protect the entire planet from asteroids, alien attack, violent weather, pestilence and even war.

In remarks prepared for delivery in Dallas, on November 22, Kennedy was prepared to say, “The United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space. This effort is expensive, but it pays its way for freedom and for America.”

Later that same evening, two men crossed a patch of desert in west Texas on foot under the brilliant moonlight. Dressed in suits, it certainly was strange that they traveled in such a way, moving from one stand of brush to another. After almost forty minutes of pressed-for-time walking, one of the men pointed out a lonely ranch situated in the middle of nowhere.

“There it is,” the taller of the two individuals gasped. “Damn, I thought we would never make it.”

“That’s how Jesus wanted it, with no chance of us being seen on this moonlight stroll,” the other dark-haired man responded. “You know how paranoid he is.”

Down the hill they scampered, both men checking their wristwatches several times. They sure as hell didn’t want to be late.

When they reached the front porch, they were abruptly greeted by two men pointing shotguns. Slowly raising their hands, neither said anything for a moment, while catching their breath.

“I’m Howard Hunt and this is Frank Sturgis,” the dark-haired man said slowly.

They were given pass to enter. Once the pair was inside the ranch house, they heard tires on gravel and saw the headlights as a car drove down the road.

Both men were nervous.

Before the vehicle came to a complete stop, the doors opened and three men stepped out.

The man in the lead was tall, donnish athletic, bright, and wore glasses, with a pronounced stoop. Yet he was so charismatic. The other two men remained silent, withdrawn, obviously obedient, following like hungry dogs.

Hunt stared. It was as if a bolt of blue lightning had suddenly struck him. Hunt smiled thinly. “Jesus.” He offered his hand.

James Jesus Angleton, Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterintelligence Staff stood before him. He had an El Greco face. He was the thinnest man Hunt had ever seen.

They shook hands, but it was not a shared grip of friendship or warmth. In fact, Hunt felt a powerful chill run up and down his spine.

“Read this,” Angleton commanded, handing over a piece of memo paper.


Dated November 12, 1963

The subject header of the file was:

Classification Review of all UFO intelligence files affecting National Security.

The top secret memorandum went on to say:


I have instructed James Webb to develop a program with the Soviet Union in joint space and lunar explorations. It would be very helpful if you would have the high threat UFO cases reviewed with the purpose of identification of bona fides as opposed to classified CIA and USAF sources. When this data has been sorted out, I would like you to arrange a program of data sharing with NASA where Unknowns are a factor. This will help NASA mission Chancellors in their defensive responsibilities. I would like an interim report on the data review no later than February 1, 1964.

JFK


President Kennedy was requesting that the Central Intelligence Agency, the organization JFK vowed he would break into a thousand pieces, to hand over the most guarded secret ever!

Angleton sneered, but only stuffed the memo back into his inside suit coat pocket. “Well?”

E. Howard Hunt had first met James Jesus Angleton in Georgetown, where they were often joined by strange men with forgettable names. They would float through the afternoon on a steady stream of cocktails, red wine and cognac. It was here that James Angleton discovered his lifelong battle with insomnia and the desire to suspect everyone of something. Suspicion was the order of the day.

It was Sturgis who spoke. “You have no intention of letting the President get his hands on that information, do you?”

Angleton didn’t bother with an answer. He turned and beckoned his two henchmen to come forward.

Hunt felt uncomfortable again.

“I’m William Harvey,” the big overweight man introduced himself. He too wore a suit, but the tails of the white shirt had pulled out, exposing some potbelly and he had to keep pulling his pants up. Harvey served as chief of the CIA’s program to overthrow Fidel Castro and openly derided Attorney General Robert Kennedy for what he regarded as the Kennedy administration’s weak Cuba policy.

The other man, a hard, cruel-looking fellow who only frowned, refrained at first from making an introduction, but after receiving a withering glare from Angleton, stepped forward. “I’m David Sanchez Morales.” He refused to shake hands, which was okay with Hunt. Morales was involved in other covert operations for the CIA, reportedly including plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, training intelligence teams supporting the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and running the Miami spy community.

Sturgis felt like throwing up. His stomach churned. He was in the company of the CIA’s most despicable characters. Still, he realized he was one of them. Looking in the mirror would never be easy again.

“Now we’ve all made our pleasantries, let’s get down to the business at hand,” Angleton said quietly.

CIA Counter Intelligence head James Angleton spoke with a slight English accent and his manner was always on the quiet side. He never laughed loudly or acted in a boisterous way. Both his talk and his laughter were always soft. He was captivating, and had the ability to dominate a conversation without ever lifting his voice. His dark eyes darted, but they were cold and hard and completely unforgiving.

“Deception is a state of mind and the mind of the State,” Angleton said bluntly. “I control the State and therefore everyone’s mind. They will believe what we tell them to believe.”

Angleton was often this arrogant, tactless, dismissive, and even threatening.

To him, everyone was a suspect.

That meant everyone.

He ran his department with compartmentalized secrecy and zero accountability.

James Jesus Angleton had access to everything.

“Now read this,” the CIA man ordered.

The memo was from the former Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles.

The purpose of this memo is to have the Team review a new set of directives and recommend changes that can be agreed on. As you must know, LANCER has made some inquiries regarding our activities which we cannot allow. Designated Majestic projects should be held in readiness to perform SPIKE and HOUSE CLEANING operations in major population centers in the event conventional methods are not satisfactory. Specialists from MK-ULTRA and ARTICHOKE are hereby activated to conduct domestic cleaning operations.

When conditions become non-conducive for growth in our environment and the White House cannot be influenced any further, the weather is lacking any precipitation, but it should be wet.


Angleton grinned grimly. “Of course, LANCER is the code name for Kennedy and wet denotes someone who must be killed and drenched with blood.”

Suddenly, the fat man, Bill Harvey, growled, “We’re going to exterminate that fucking shithead from Massachusetts and then we’re going to get his fucking brother.”

Sturgis swallowed deeply. “You want us to take out the President of the United States?”

Angleton’s face was expressionless. “I want you to follow orders. You work for me and if you have a problem with my directives, then we’ll bury you right here.”

Sturgis turned several shades of pale, but shook his head. “No sir, I understand. We’ll make sure it happens.”

Morales finished the conversation by saying “We’re going to take care of that son of a bitch! We have twelve guns pointed at his head.”

Angleton looked sternly at Hunt. “Is your fall guy ready?”

“Lee knows exactly what to do,” Hunt replied.

“And are you quite certain you understand that he is not to walk away from this?” the CIA man asked seriously.

“Once Lancer is dead, Lee will head to the pickup point,” Hunt answered carefully. “We have several people ready, in strategic positions, to make sure that the target is eliminated. I’ve arranged for Ruby to stand by, just in case Oswald gets arrested before we can take him out.”

That answer seemed to satisfy Angleton. In doing so, James Angleton arranged for a communist defector to be involved so as to eventually take the blame and ensure that no thorough investigation would follow by federal or congressional authorities.

Hunt thought to himself, “I’m in a room with them and I have to believe they will deservedly end up in hell. I guess I will see them there soon.”

The group was just about to break up and head their separate ways, when Angleton noisily cleared his throat. That grabbed everyone’s attention. “There is one last thing. While this operation is underway, the gift must be retrieved and broken apart or destroyed. It will be in Lancer’s possession, so there’s no room for failure.”

That was that.


Six days later, on Friday, November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot at 12:30 pm, while riding in an open-top limousine in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. He was pronounced dead at 1:00 pm at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Eighty minutes after the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested. Later Oswald was charged with the murder of President Kennedy, but never stood trial, since he was murdered two days later by Jack Ruby. The fabled black briefcase recently spotted at the president’s side was never seen again.



Exactly How Much Time Has Passed since the Cataclysm is Anybody’s Guess.




Chapter 1


Aftermath


Slowly, everyone in the conference room opened their eyes.

The shattering vibrations had finally gone away and that horrible sound ebbed to silence. Only Beethoven’s 9th Symphony continued to play over the loudspeakers. On a constant loop, the audio recording then switched to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

The amazing medallion Minerva hovered for a few more seconds, before returning to Ian Norton’s upturned palm, where it made pleasant cooing sounds, much like purring.

Around the room the members of this unusual community of survivors began to smile. It was a natural reaction to making it through yet another attack. The outcome was identical as the last time, but had they expected anything different?

Perhaps it would depend on who you asked.

There was a collective sigh of relief.

Bob Norton was the first to stand up. He was still dressed in the ridiculous open-back blue hospital gown, but thankfully Debra Vitale had convinced him to put on a pair of boxer shorts before exiting the clinic. The bandages were stained with dried blood, yet the bullet entrance and exit wounds no longer existed, simply marked with wicked scars.

As duly elected community president, Bob was their leader and most of his fellow companions respected his authority. He had earned their trust and proven his capabilities. However, he was also feared by some, for his anger was usually expressed in no uncertain and sometimes violent terms. There were even a few whispers that he was insane or perhaps emotionally unstable.

Yet this opinion was held by a minority.

At least that was the case for now.

Unlike the others, Norton was not smiling. With a wicked finger pointed at his best friend David Brock and then Jeff Parker, wizard computer genius, Norton said firmly, “This facility is to remain on total lockdown until further notice.”

Brock nodded his understanding. “Yes, sir.”

Norton wasn’t finished. “I want it understood by every member of this community that we are not out of danger yet. The bunker will remain locked up tight, until we can ascertain what damage was caused and if any threats remain in the area. I will meet with each and every one of you, in time, to get your impressions and suggestions.”

His body was poised, with clenched fists and lips drawn tight. No one in that room doubted his seriousness, even if some of them didn’t especially appreciate being ordered around like disobedient schoolchildren. He did, however, look a bit silly in his hospital gown. This fact seemed to escape him.

“Are there any questions?” Norton asked.

There were none.

“Okay, then let’s relax and be grateful we’re alive,” Norton said, his voice much calmer than before. “Cheryl, I think this most recent brush with death calls for a feast, don’t you?”

Cheryl Boone, coordinator for all food services and everything else associated with inventory control, giggled with delight. “I do indeed, Bob. I think we should make pizzas, steak, and fried chicken!”

A cheer of agreement went up from most of the members.

Alex McAlister interrupted the celebration, “Hey, I like Beethoven just as much as the other guy, but will somebody please turn that music off. I’ve had it playing in my ears for hours!”

Nick Stark scampered out the door and up the ramp to the control room.

Several seconds later, there was silence once again.

Everyone eagerly began to file out of the conference room, with scores of side conversations sprouting up as soon as they were out of earshot with certain others. There was no doubt that the community was no longer united in a common cause of survival, as splinter groups had unfortunately formed over time.

Rumen Karavelov pulled Ian Norton aside, but he was quickly joined by Nick Stark, and the recently wounded and limping Marcus Jordan. Joining them were Rachel Sato, Sarah Boone and Flaca Sanchez, who likewise were greatly concerned by recent events. This group of young people had become fast and furious friends over the past several years, and especially after the last expedition. They were basically inseparable and had proven themselves under fire, while their first real combat no doubt had left a few psychological scars.

Rumen kept his voice low. “There’s a lot of shit. That bastard Kyle stole Sarah’s dead creature, Keith’s brother Kurt is missing, and Angelo Vitale just conveniently shows up while everything is falling apart. I don’t like any of this! I’m pissed and I don’t think I have to remind any of you what that means.”

Ian held his hand up. “I’m not arguing with you, Rumen, but until my dad says otherwise, we’ve got to focus on whatever we’re told to do. We just survived another attack from our own former government. They shot Marcus, remember?”

Jordan grinned, as he hugged Flaca. “It has certain advantages.”

She kissed him passionately.

Nick chimed in, “They also shot your dad, Ian. He was dead, you know. Now he isn’t dead. We need to collect our thoughts, reorganize, and take some time to get back on track. Right now, just about everybody is nervous and afraid.”

“Let’s not forget those aliens, or whatever they are, returned as well,” Sarah pointed out. “Now our enemies know where we are. I think staying inside is the smartest thing to do. This bunker is impregnable…with Minerva here to protect us.”

Up in the conference room, Bob snatched Debra Vitale’s hand and pulled her along. He marched up the ramp to the command center, even while Elena Vitale, the resident medical professional, tried to get him to hold still. She desperately wanted to check his vital signs and figure out how he managed to survive yet another fatal gunshot wound.

Unfortunately for her, Norton was on a mission and had neither the time nor the patience for a checkup. As he charged into the command center, he startled both Brock and Parker, who were busy following his orders. As he stood defiant, Elena managed to take Norton’s blood pressure and monitor his heart rate.

“Jeff, how many of our Nike missiles did Brock fire?” Bob demanded.

“All of them,” Parker answered, his voice cracking.

“So, we’re without any air defense system right now, if they come back?” Norton asked.

Parker merely nodded.

“How many missiles do we have in reserve?” Bob asked.

“Only eight,” Jeff replied.

Bob mulled this information over for a moment, before asking, “How long would it take you to get those eight Nike missiles fueled and loaded on their launch ramps?”

Brock answered first. “If he has enough help, Jeff can get them up and running in one day. He would have to do the fueling, with Matt, of course, but extra hands will make the ramp loading…..”

“There’s just one problem,” Jeff interrupted. “I have no idea how many restraining bolts we still have. When those missiles launched, they sheared away the bolts.”

Bob sighed. “Can you inventory your supplies? Even if you don’t have the exact bolt, I know you can improvise. Let’s get Matt on this right away.”

“I heard that,” Matt White said cheerfully, as he entered the room. Matt was the jack-of-all-trades, a master builder, incredible repairman, and Bob’s brother-in-law. His wife, just like Bob’s, had been killed on the day of the cataclysm. His loyalty to Norton, while understated, was vehement and unnegotiable.

Debra broke away for a moment, to properly greet her prodigal son, Angelo, who was standing off to one side, as if he was still under guard. He had been missing for almost an entire year. Angelo Vitale, Elena Vitale, and Debra Vitale hugged each other enthusiastically, as this was an unexpected reunion. Angelo looked a sight, with a full beard and tattered uniform. His personal hygiene must have suffered as well, for he smelled horrible and his mother was quick to suggest a shave and shower. He agreed, but stopped when he saw Bob approaching.

Norton held out his hand, which Angelo tentatively shook. “I apologize for not offering you a proper greeting earlier, but we were rather preoccupied.”

Angelo replied, “I understand, Mr. Norton. I’m grateful that you’ve allowed me to rejoin the group.”

Norton cocked his head a little. “Oh, rest assured, your admittance comes with a price, young man. I expect a full debriefing of everything you saw and encountered out there. Is that understood?”

His words were not exactly hostile or threatening, but they also left no room for misunderstanding.

Angelo nodded. “Yes, Mr. Norton.”

“Good,” Norton said. “Then we have an agreement. Now go get cleaned up, have a nice hot meal, spend some quality time with your sister and mother, and we’ll chat later.”

Angelo had been summarily dismissed.

Debra took her son’s hand and led him towards the men’s restroom. Elena went off to get some new clothes for her brother.

Bob was in a foul mood, there was no mistaking that. There was too much to do and not enough hours in the day to get it all done. Besides that, he had survived a sniper’s bullet. There was lingering residual pain around the bruised entry scar, but that was nothing compared to the anger and frustration he repressed.

He took pause.

There was something else, lying just under the surface of his subconscious, which pressed in on him. His addled brain ached with strange memories, muddled thoughts, and inappropriate visions.

Stepping back inside the command center, Norton locked the door behind him. Fortunately, Elena had managed to procure a new battle dress uniform (BDU) for Norton, so he quickly dressed in front of them, casting aside any modesty. After all, he was an old man, so there wasn’t much to look at. It wasn’t that he was in bad shape, but he wasn’t in good shape either.

Alex McAlister, David Brock, Matt White, Morgan Effingham and Jeff Parker were all in attendance. This was the bulk of Bob’s inner circle. Only his most trusted advisor, Debra Vitale, was absent, but he would bring her up to speed later.

The others were worried about Bob’s overall demeanor. Norton’s sour expression prevented anyone from making some offhanded comment, or even questioning his resolve.

“Gentlemen, we almost got caught with our collective pants down today,” Bob said in no uncertain terms. “We can’t ever be in a situation like this again, is that understood?”

The people in the command center all nodded. They realized that their possible extermination had been a very close matter indeed.

Brock rolled his wheelchair closer. “What now?”

“Simply put, I don’t trust anyone outside of this bunker,” Bob said coldly. “And I’m not so sure I trust everybody inside either, not after what Kyle pulled.”

Parker looked uncomfortable hearing Norton’s confession. He suspected there was more to the story than what they had recently discovered.

Brock wasn’t surprised. However, he kept his opinions to himself.

There were matters that needed discussing, but later, in private.

David had to share with Bob some vital information, as soon as possible.

“It appears that Kyle had his own agenda,” Bob shattered the silence. “He was not who we thought he was and I doubt that Kyle ever had our best intentions in mind.”

Elena grimaced. What Bob said appeared to be the truth. She had fallen in love with Rawlings and given birth to their son, after believing what seemed to be a pack of lies.

“How could we have been so blind?” Morgan asked.

Bob shrugged. “Because we were too busy organizing our survival, too busy looking elsewhere for our answers, and too fucking busy being led astray. There was much more to this than we realized. On top of that, while the readers of my novels always know what’s going on, we had no such luxury. It wasn’t a matter of being blind, but rather we just didn’t know what to look for.”

Jeff stepped forward. “I think we should focus on our people right now. Settling into a relaxed schedule and going over all the data will give us a lot of answers, I think. There is plenty to do, so keeping them busy won’t be much of a challenge.”

Bob smiled again. “Yes, of course, you’re right. We’ll celebrate our good fortune and, starting tomorrow, we’ll assign tasks to everyone. Thanks to all of you for your quick reactions under stress. Training went far today. Now let’s go have some fun.”

The crowd, all except Brock and Parker, exited with Norton, who went downstairs and entered his private office. He always felt safer there. While Matt had constructed the rest of the presidential suite with palatial comfort in mind, Norton had decorated and arranged his space to his personal liking. One entire wall was nothing but floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, filled with one complete set of Derek Hart novels, hundreds of history and military volumes, his extensive comic book collections, and countless other periodicals, paperbacks, and mementoes that held significance for him alone.

In one corner sat his frayed writing chair, which had been with him since his father had passed it along. Not only had at least 15 novels been proofed and edited in that chair, but he had also made love to Debra in that very spot many times.

To Bob’s delight, Jeff Parker had arranged a computer system that was magnificent in layout, extremely powerful in memory, ultra-fast in performance, and graphically amazing. Bob stored his extensive files on this 19-terabyte hard-drive, with secret servers maintained only by Parker. Norton could access five individual screens, thereby giving him the ability to balance a number of different on-going projects at the same time. It wasn’t exactly multi-tasking, something Bob found extremely distracting, but it did give him constant reminders of everything he was expected to oversee in his current role as the community’s elected leader.

Paired with Marcus and Matt’s electronic genius as well, Bob was able to enjoy an impressive surround-sound audio system, a huge 72-inch big screen monitor for watching movies, and warm artificial indirect lighting behind the shades, which mimicked both sunrise and sunset. There was also an advanced communication system, which linked Bob with the command center, conference room, restaurant, and armory, coupled with an internal loudspeaker system, giving Norton the ability to broadcast special announcements throughout the entire bunker, including the garage and even outside to the picnic area. In this room Bob also stored his personal combat equipment, along with Debra’s, so they could gear up on a moment’s notice. His weapons locker was state-of-the-art too, with a hand-picked selection of firearms, specialized ammunition, and high-grade body armor.

Bob sighed.

It had been a very long day.

He looked down at the latest scar again, another one to add to the growing collection.

Bob was fully aware that he had been shot dead, clean through the lung, or heart, or whatever. He should be in a body bag, prepared for cremation.

And yet, he was not dead.

And what about those dreams?

Were they merely hallucinations?

Or had they been real?

They seemed real enough at the time.

Bob flopped into his writing chair and turned on the CD player. He settled back to listen to one of his favorite movie soundtracks and then heard the office door open as Debra walked in. She curled up on one arm of the chair, while they listened to the music together for at least thirty minutes, before Debra stood up again. She pulled out the chair from his desk, sat down before him and clasped her hands.

Bob turned off the CD player, before leaning forward to run his fingers through her luxurious long brown hair. “Is it time to talk?”

She nodded, whipping her bangs out of the way.

“Should I begin, or do you want to?” he asked.

Debra grinned and said, “It’s my turn this time.”

He chuckled. “Okay woman, have at it.”

“I love you,” she said.

Bob grinned. “I love you too. I sense I’m in trouble.”

Debra couldn’t help but giggle a little. “Your senses do not betray you.”

He sighed. “Okay, I guess I was overly dramatic up there.”

“No, that’s not what upsets me,” she countered. “There is something going on here, behind the scenes, out of your control. I can feel it.”

Her statement intrigued him. “What do you mean? What are you feeling?”

Debra stood up and paced a little. Her big, brown eyes flashed with intensity.

Bob waited patiently. He could see that she was deeply troubled.

“There are forces beyond our comprehension at work here,” Debra finally said. “I don’t mean the assholes that attacked us and I don’t mean those aliens, or whatever those black dragons are, that came again later, with that horrible sound. No, there are other players involved in all of this, outside our realm of understanding. I can’t explain it, but I feel them.”

She looked so frustrated, that Bob stood up and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed Debra on the forehead, savoring the smell of her clean hair and intoxicating perfume.

“You’re right,” he whispered. “They paid me a visit while I was lying dead outside the pyramid at Nekoma, and again after being shot by the sniper.”

Debra gently pushed herself away from him and looked deeply into his eyes. She studied him for a moment or two. What she saw convinced her that he had experienced something unique and monumental.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “At first, I thought it was all a dream. Or that I was dead and had passed over to the other side, you know, Heaven.”

Debra smiled, but shook her head. “Nothing is that simple. You were visited for a reason.”

Bob nodded. “There is at least one other group of beings involved in all this, maybe more. I don’t know exactly how or why, but I sense we’re a part of a huge…. well, I guess the right word is game.”

“This seems like a pretty nasty game.”

Bob cocked his head to one side. “That’s because they’re making up the rules as they play and we don’t even have a playbook. I imagine this is a learn-as-we-go type of challenge.”

“Why did they come to you?” she asked.

“We have Minerva,” he replied confidently. “The medallion is the key to all of this and because Ian found it at the Black Hills Army Depot, it put us in a unique position. We both touched it, which made our first contact significant.”

“Getting shot must have had something to do with it too,” she guessed.

“Yes, I imagine my death was not part of their original plan.”

“So they care about you?” she asked suspiciously.

He shook his head. “I think making that assumption would be something of a stretch. We provide them entertainment.”

Debra grinned. “You certainly are that.”

Meanwhile, throughout the bunker, the community members scurried around, cleaning weapons used during the recent battle, and debriefing with Morgan Effingham, the current vice president and military commander. Everyone tried to balance a strange combination of elation over the success of their combat skills, coupled with an ongoing sense of impending danger and intrigue. The fact that Kyle Rawlings had deserted the community was now a major topic of conversation. At one time, Kyle had been a trusted… no, perhaps tolerated might be more accurate…member of the community. Suspicions had risen, but no one, not even Bob Norton, had confronted those doubts.

Upon reflection, the fact that nobody had investigated the obvious inconsistencies with Kyle’s behavior, made the situation that much more irritating.

“He was a sneaky bastard,” Rumen commented, while checking his equipment back into the armory. “We should have left him on the side of the road.”

Matt White grinned as he took Karavelov’s AK-74 and made sure it had been cleaned properly. He was impressed. “Nice job, Rumen.”

Karavelov was pleased. “Thanks, Matt.”

Ian shook his head. “No, Rumen, I don’t buy it. We were under duress, under fire, if you will. The world was coming to an end, with people dying all around us. Purple lightning was blowing up houses and cars and killing people indiscriminately. All we saw was this guy, wounded, tossed amongst scores of dead people. How could we have acted differently?”

Marcus agreed. “We had just killed six government agents. The place was soaked in blood. Nothing in our pitiful little lives, up to that point, had prepared us for what we were about to face. It was natural to take Kyle with us, because we thought he was an innocent victim too.”

“I hated him from the very beginning!” Rumen countered. “We should have driven off without his sorry ass.”

Marcus grunted. “Oh, sure, you would have left him bleeding to death?”

Rumen didn’t like Jordan’s tone. “He wasn’t part of our group. I think he was a plant.”

Ian was intrigued. “What makes you say that?”

“It was too convenient, that’s all,” Rumen replied. “Everybody in that drainage ditch was dead, shot in the head, but not Kyle. He was wounded in the side.”

“But the wound was life-threatening,” Marcus pointed out. “If Ian’s dad hadn’t stopped and picked up Debra, Angelo, and Elena, Kyle would have died.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Flaca said. “Elena commented that Kyle recovered very quickly. She seemed amazed at the time.”

“That’s not all,” Nick added his two cents. “Have any of you guys thought about our journey since we’ve been back? I mean really sat down and replayed each event in your mind?”

Ian turned and faced Nick. “What’s on your mind, Stark? What have you uncovered?”

Nick shrugged, but all eyes were on him. His friends knew he had stumbled onto something important, perhaps vital. “It’s just that the time we were out there, doesn’t add up to the time we were gone. Look at the date stamps on the photos that Marcus and Debra took. They don’t correlate to our radio messages or Brock’s notations in his day-to-day operational journal. Not only that, each time Alex and Mike went back to the bunker with the loaded loot trucks, their return trips became shorter and shorter. It’s almost as if time stood still here at the bunker.”

“Or stood still with us,” Rumen said. “We had Minerva with us.”

Everyone looked at Ian.

He sighed.

It was time to come clean.

Both Rumen and Ian knew it.

Ian motioned for his friends and allies to follow him. The eight of them walked along the main bunker corridor to the garage door, where they would have some privacy.

Ian kept his voice very low. “I’ve been avoiding telling you this, but ever since I touched Minerva, when my Dad and I found the medallion in South Dakota, there have been some changes in me.”

The others looked concerned.

This was especially true of Rachel, who loved Ian with her entire being. If he was somehow negatively altered by the events he had recounted, her heart would burst.

“I want you all to look down the length of the corridor,” Ian instructed. “Focus your attention to the front door of the presidential suite.”

They did so.

Ian closed his eyes and blinked, a term he had coined to describe his faster-than-light travel.

Poof.

Zip.

Pop.

In a split second, they could see Ian standing outside the door, waving.

There was a collective gasp of surprise.

Poof.

Zip.

Pop.

He had returned to stand amongst them.

To say they were speechless would be an incredible understatement. Only Rumen had been fully aware of the significance. However, his discomfort with Ian’s impressive abilities was an entirely different matter.


Back in the presidential office, after looking at his watch, Bob said, “I’ve got a meeting with your son in the conference room. Let’s pick up this discussion when I get back.”

Debra kissed him passionately, before sending him on his way.

As Bob approached the conference room, he spotted Angelo standing to one side of the doorway. The young man looked extremely uncomfortable.

“Wow, you look human again after a shower and a shave,” Bob commented. “Shall we sit down and have a nice long chat?”

Angelo agreed. His dark eyes were active, almost as if he felt cornered. Bob closed and locked the door behind him, perhaps adding to that sensation for the young man. It was unintentional, at least on Bob’s part.

As they sat together in the conference room, Angelo was forced to face up to his earlier actions, no matter how Bob tried to lighten the mood.

Bob could sense the young man’s internal conflict, but remained patient. “It was certainly a surprise to see you again.”

Angelo frowned. “I imagine it was.”

“You will always be a valuable member of this community,” Bob added. “What happened in the past stays in the past. We need you.”

Once again, Angelo was surprised by Bob’s attitude. “Aren’t you the least bit angry with me? After all, I threatened you.”

Bob tried not to laugh. Not because the situation was humorous, but more because the incident, in comparison to everything else they had endured, seemed trivial at the moment.

He shook his head instead. “Of course I was concerned, Angelo. I’m very much in love with your mother, but I also completely understood your reaction to me. You were close to your father and I was sweeping him aside, taking his place. I, least of all, could blame you for hating me.”

Angelo sighed. “I was wrong, Mr. Norton.”

Bob leaned forward and changed the subject. “What did you see out there?”

Angelo sighed. “The Grid is not what you think it is. That force field is weakening all along the line. It doesn’t touch the ground and rivers just flow under the edge. People are barely getting by, but they are frightened by all the rumors of impending alien invasion. Brutal martial law is in place, the Constitution has been suspended, and everything goes to the military. People are desperate for even basic supplies.”

“How did you get past the Grid or the guards?” Bob asked.

“I waited until it was dark and then swam to the other side. They patrol the Grid, but it’s sporadic and many of the guards are incompetent. I think quality manpower is in incredibly short supply.”

“Just relax and tell me about your journey,” Bob coaxed.

“When I left here, I was angry,” Angelo confessed as he sat back. “I just drove blindly for hours, but eventually ended up at my old house. I guess I was hoping I would find my dad there. It was a futile gesture, because there was no sign he had survived. I even went to his restaurant, but it was nothing more than ruins. Realizing I had packed a generator, food, weapons, water, and a tent, I decided to see if I could cross the Grid on my own. I stopped to fill up the gas tank in Winder, Georgia and decided to spend the night. The next morning, staying on I-85, I made it to the South Carolina border, where I ran into the Grid. The highway was blocked with a cement fortress roadblock, including automated gun-turrets and lots of troops. I found out later that all major roads into the Grid have the same level of security. I learned the local people don’t trust the Grid at all. Sometimes it blinks off, if only for a few seconds, but it seemed very unstable.”

Bob ran his fingers through his short hair. “Wow. This is awesome intelligence you’re providing. Thank you.”

Angelo smiled. “I really am sorry I ran off like that, Mr. Norton. It was an immature thing to do.”

Bob reached across the table, offering his hand again. They shook hands for a long time.

When Bob let go, he said, “Youth is often wasted on the young. It’s part of growing up, no matter what your age. At the time, you had clear motivation for your actions. Everything works out in the end. I’m glad you came back, because you’ve made your mother very happy. On top of that, you’ve been to the other side, so what you bring back to us is priceless.”

Angelo bowed his head, looking down at the carpet.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you come back?” Bob inquired.

“My sister and my mom,” he answered, locking eyes on Norton. “Once I had time to reflect, I realized I was being an asshole. I could always see how much my mother loved you. I wanted to make amends, so here I am.”


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