Excerpt for The Threatening Sky by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


E.R. Mason

Smashwords Version

Copyright 2018 by E.R. Mason

All rights reserved

All characters in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.


Frank MacDonald


Web Site:

Tom Macomber

contact info:

Sam Thornton, PE PhD

ISBN: 978-0-9986637-9-1

Chapter 1

Cassiopia Cassell stood with her hands on her hips, eyeing the gray sliding doors with mischievous intent. The locked doors were the latest challenge proffered by her professor father, Theopolis Cassell. He so loved to keep his current projects secret. But it was a game to him, a taunt to his meddlesome genius daughter. Ironically, Cassiopia’s relentless tenacity, inherited from the Professor himself inevitably resulted in the yielding of his project’s secrets.

It was a gunmetal entrance with a seam down the middle with no knobs, no locks and no keypads.

She turned to survey the room while thinking out loud. “I see no infrared eyes or miniature microphones anywhere which means access must be by radio frequency, maybe Bluetooth or more likely some simple pulse code modulation transmission, or perhaps hidden wires in the wall linked to his computer terminal. He’s been working in there for months. It’s time I know what it is he’s up to.”

Scott Markman sat in a chair tilted back against the wall, his feet crossed atop a lab workbench. The beauty of Cassiopia was so compelling it was difficult not to stare. So many expressions, each like a reflection of a completely different woman yet all of them mesmerizing. Her blue eyes seemed almost too bright and there was a shadow about them that pulled him in. Her small mouth was always slightly rose colored even without makeup. A tiny button nose that seemed like it belonged on a child and not an adult. Markman stiffened as she noticed his lustful gaze. He tried to sound condescending, “Boy, you are so nosy, you know that? You have two PhDs but snooping on your father is still your favorite pastime.”

Cassiopia pulled her long ivory hair behind her head. “Am not nosy. I’m only concerned. It’s not safe for him to be doing this again. What if he got into trouble in there? How would we know? How would we get in there to help him? We’d have to use a torch to cut through the doors!”

“Admit it, you just always want to know what he’s working on,” insisted Markman. “He’s got a cell phone if he needs help.”

“Cell phone access! I’ll bet you that’s it. I’ll bet the door opens to a program he’s set up in his cell phone.”

“Personally, I really think he’s got you stumped this time,” mused Markman.

Cassiopia narrowed her stare in defiance. “I still have one trick up my sleeve.”

Markman linked his hands behind his head and smiled. “The robot? You think Tel is going to help you? That would have been the first block your father put in place.”

“Tel can never refuse me. Let’s go see,” said Cassiopia.

Markman swung his athletic shoes off the counter, stood and adjusted his jeans. His reflection in the side panel of a stainless-steel lab oven made him pause for just a moment. Were his gray-blue eyes as appealing to her? His dark blond hair was slightly too long near the shoulder. Was that an age line forming by the left eye or just road wear on his well-tanned face? He straightened the collar of his tan cargo shirt and gestured toward the exit. “Elevator or tower stairs?” he asked.

“You like this place a lot, don’t you?” mused Cassiopia.

“A castle home located in the mountains? I’ve got a lawn chair on the tower roof. It’s the best view of the stars I’ve had since Tibet. Who wouldn’t like this place? I know your father does, that’s for sure. Six separate laboratory rooms for his experiments down here in a private dungeon. This is Shangri-La as far as he’s concerned. Don’t you like this place?”

Cassiopia strolled close by him toward the elevator and seemed hesitant to answer. As she passed Markman couldn’t help but eye the formfitting blue and white tie-dye Maxi dress chosen for this morning’s wear. Her sleek figure shaped the dress so nicely it was difficult not to stare.

“Not going to answer me?” he asked.

Cassiopia pressed the elevator button. The doors opened. She turned to him. “I’m afraid to let myself like it here. I’m not sure I feel okay about the arrangement.” She stepped into the lift and waited for him to enter.

As the doors closed Markman pressed the issue. “The Celestial Order? You’re worried about working for the Celestial Order?”

“We’re not supposed to mention that name out loud, Scott. You know that.”

“Geez, it’s just you and me,” replied Markman as the elevator started up.

“There could be listening devices or something. You know the rules,” said Cassiopia.

“Or you might be paranoid. For someone who has doubts about the secret organization she now works for you sure are a stickler for the rules. Don’t you trust our beloved leader, John Paul?”

“I believe I do but he’s just one person. Just because he recruited us and is our main contact doesn’t mean the entire organization is legitimate, especially considering the things we’ve seen them capable of.”

The elevator doors opened. Cassiopia stepped out. Markman followed.

“Well, all I know is I have a Corvette downstairs that can change colors automatically or come to me all by itself if I’m in trouble and that’s really cool.”

“The way to a man’s heart is through his car,” said Cassiopia and she turned and headed down the ornate hallway in search of the robot.

Markman followed close behind. “Well okay, you’re the high IQ and I’m the spiritualist. What makes you think the organization shouldn’t be trusted?”

“You’re the spiritualist who spends hours a day practicing fighting forms and weapons technique.”

“Oh boy, how many times are we going through this? A sage once said, ‘When confronted by only bad choices a wise man who is prepared will choose correctly.’”

“Okay, Sensei.”

“That’s Japanese. I keep telling you I’m Tao Chane, a branch of Chinese Kung Fu.”

Cassiopia stopped and looked around. “Where is Tel anyway?”

“The last time I saw him he was in his room in his docking station.”

Cassiopia resumed her walk down the red-carpeted hallway, past the heavily carved doors and paintings that lined it. She came to an open door that gave access to a small utility-styled room. Among the shelves of electronic equipment, special tools and stacks of books stood a shiny, chrome-finished TEL model 100D robot. It was in a wall mounted recharging station alive with colored lights, display screens and push buttons. The robot’s visor began sweeping gold light in response to Cassiopia’s entry. As always, she stood admiring the handsome machine for a few moments. Somehow the robot seemed at attention in her presence.

“Good morning, Tel,” said Cassiopia.

“Greetings, Cassiopia. May I be of service?” replied Tel.

“How was last night’s surveillance, Tel?” asked Cassiopia.

“No unauthorized activity was detected, Cassiopia.”

Cassiopia took a moment to look around the room. “Tel, where is Speedy?”

“Speedy is presently outside performing olfactory inspections in the courtyard.”

“He’s smelling around the courtyard? I take it his new tracking collar is working well?”

“It is frequently providing invaluable data that would otherwise require extensive use of corporeal scanning, Cassiopia.”

Markman asked with annoyance, “What?”

Cassiopia laughed and turned to him. “He likes the dog’s new tracking collar. He was spending too much time looking for him before.” Cassiopia looked back at the robot. “Tel, I have a few questions for you.”

For some unexplained reason the robot suddenly looked uncomfortable.

Cassiopia continued, “How do I open the Professor’s project room door downstairs?”

Markman leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. “Here we go.”

The robot seemed pressed to answer.

“Tel?” persisted Cassiopia.

“I am inhibited from responding to that query, Cassiopia,” replied Tel.

“Okay, then we’ll do it a different way. Please show me the last file Professor Cassell accessed,” ordered Cassiopia.

To her dismay the robot suddenly began playing waiting-style music from the game show Jeopardy.

Cassiopia stepped back. “Tel, what are you doing? Stop that!”

“I’m sorry Cassiopia, I am mandated to provide this rendition for a period of not less than 120 seconds each time you query a file attributed to Professor Cassell.”

The music continued.

Markman turned away, squinting to contain his laughter.

Cassiopia wrinkled her brow and tapped one finger against her mouth.

“I do believe he’s got you this time,” joked Markman.

“I’d have to plug in a maintenance terminal to get around this,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’d have to get in through the firmware.”

“You’re gonna get in tra-aa-ble,” warned Markman comically. “Is it really worth it?”

“He’s been receiving crates from machine shops and companies that deal in custom molds. It’s driving me crazy.”

“Still, seems like getting through that door is a dead end if you ask me.”

“I already know it has to be wireless remote control or computer terminal entry and now I know Tel knows.”

“Why don’t you just ask your father?”

“Oh, he’d love that. He’d gloat for a week and he still wouldn’t tell me. Whatever he’s building is pretty big. If I can figure out what reference material he’s using….”

The robot spoke, “Cassiopia, there is a vehicle at the main gate. The occupants have the gate code and are entering.”

Cassiopia quickly decided to concede her dilemma for the moment. She took Markman by the arm and tugged him back out to the hall. “To the rotunda, Sir Scott.”

“Where?” replied Markman.

“The front door, silly.”

“You really do like this place, don’t you? Admit it.”

“We must see to whom it is that so honors us with their presence, Sir Markman.”

Markman followed along the red carpet, reaching for the elevator button as it came into range.

“The stairs, my good man, the stairs. It be but a single floor beneath us, My Lord.”

“See? That’s the trouble living in a mansion. It’s too easy to get used to being rich. One day you’re living a life of luxury then the market crashes and you’re back out on the street remembering what the good life was like.”

“Fear not, good Scott. The Cassell coat of arms will remain on high, a noble and well-respected line.” Cassiopia turned the corner to a large cloak room and led Markman down a wide, winding corridor of stairs.

“Noble and respected family? You have a crazy scientist father who conjures up magic doorways to other worlds and a robot who owns a beagle named Speedy. Does that sound like well-respected nobility to you?”

“Quiet yourself, oh loyal knave. We must be gracious in greeting our guests.”

“Did you just call me loyal knave?”

The pair emerged from the side stairwell into the grand receiving hall, a two-story chamber with pillars and ascending stairways on either side. Decorative stone balcony circumvented three-quarters of the second level. The floor was large polished stone tile with smaller tiles dividing. At the opposite end of the chamber carved double doors stood open offering access to a social meeting, entertainment area.

“You know, I think I’ve only been in this part of the place twice,” mused Markman as they crossed the huge foyer.

Cassiopia gave a condescending stare and stepped up the short row of steps leading to the front doors. She pulled one of them open and peered outside.

A long black limousine was parked in the drive. A familiar figure strolled up the walk tapping a golden-brown cane as he went. His dress was Victorian in style, a single-breasted brown morning jacket with a striped light brown vest beneath, topped by an outdated bow tie. Light brown plaid trousers and deep brown leather boots completed the ensemble. A pocket watch chain led from one button to a vest pocket. He wore a dark derby hat and carried a worn brown briefcase in his free hand. Upon seeing Cassiopia in the doorway, he paused and smiled then hurried his approach.

“John Paul!” exclaimed Cassiopia and dashed out the door to meet and hug him.

Markman waited to hold the door.

“John Paul, I always feel better about things when I see you,” declared Cassiopia and took her mentor by the arm.

“And it is always my great pleasure to see you as well,” replied John Paul.

They strolled through the doorway past Markman. John Paul nodded and smiled in passing. As Markman closed the doors Cassiopia finally released her grip and stood back to look at John Paul. The age lines in his weathered face never seemed to deepen. He smiled back at his favorite protégé.

“Have you settled into your new home?” asked John Paul.

Markman stepped down to join them. “The truth is I haven’t been able to find where it ends yet,” he said.

“And you, Cassiopia? Is it to your liking?”

Cassiopia stuttered, “It’s a great deal to take in and get used to John Paul but it is so beautiful.”

Markman added, “A janitorial team showed up yesterday. We didn’t call for them but they said you’d authorized the service so we let them in.”

John Paul nodded. “They are a specialized service, Scott. They not only do the maintenance they also secure the entire estate from eavesdropping devices or anything else which does not belong. You should feel quite at ease after they’ve visited.”

“Wow!” replied Markman.

“Is the Professor here?” inquired John Paul.

“He’s asleep in his room. He’s been spending his nights in the lab downstairs. That allows his daughter to snoop around his work during the day.” Markman smirked.

Cassiopia snarled at Markman then smiled at John Paul. “John Paul, do you know what he’s working on down there? The door to the project room is always locked.”

“I’m sorry, my dear Cassiopia. We have found that the best, most surprising results come from eccentric scientists who are left to their privacy. I’m sure whatever it is he’s doing we’ll all be amazed when he finally lets us in on it.”

“John Paul, please forgive our manners. Are you hungry? Or would you like something to drink? Can I take your briefcase?” asked Cassiopia.

“Perhaps later, thank you. Actually, I am here to give the two of you your first official assignment. I know it’s a bit soon for that. It’s something urgent that just popped up and happens to be well suited for the two of you.”

“Assignment?” said Cassiopia as she tried to hide a flush of doubt.

“Don’t worry. You are free to decline if you so desire. As I’ve said, I know this is a bit soon, especially since you’re not quite at home here yet.”

“What’s it about?” asked Markman with more interest than John Paul had expected.

“We should discuss it in the briefing room. We’d be much more comfortable there.”

“We have a briefing room?” asked Markman.

“Why yes. It’s on the third floor but is only accessible from the east elevator.”

“We have more than one elevator?” asked Markman.

John Paul laughed under his breath. “It is the last door on the second-floor hallway. It looks like a bedroom door and is locked to anyone but you two and the Professor. Why don’t I show you? There is an exceptional espresso machine up there. We can have coffee.”

John Paul took a step toward the main elevator but paused and looked back, waiting for the other two to dismiss their surprise.

In the elevator, John Paul continued, “So I’m of the impression you have not requested household staff yet?”

“Household staff?” asked Markman.

“Do we really need those, John Paul?” replied Cassiopia.

“It is provided for in your residential services manual, my dear. Though you may think it somewhat decadent, you will find after a time the walk from the dining rooms to the kitchen is too lengthy to allow you to enjoy your meal. You will also find some mundane tasks such as answering the door or gate intercom take up far too much of your time and energy, especially if you are working on the third floor or in the subterranean labs. Beyond that you will be traveling on business from time to time during which I have no doubt the Professor will need to be looked after by more than just the TEL robot.”

Cassiopia wrinkled her brow in thought. The elevator doors opened.

They followed John Paul down the second-floor hall to the last of the adjoining doors. There he twisted the decorative knob and opened the door to a shiny metallic elevator. The group stepped in and as the door shut itself a cage barrier also closed them in. A brief ride up and the grated door opened to a moderately sized office densely packed with electronics. Lighting came on automatically. There were large display screens on three of the walls along with computer stations beneath them. A sizeable panel on the right appeared to be filled with various types of radio equipment. In room’s center, a dark oak table had a dozen heavily cushioned dark leather chairs around it. The brown carpet was unusually plush.

John Paul emerged from the elevator, plunked his briefcase down on the table and headed for the stainless coffee maker built into the wall near the head of the room.

“I’ll mix you my blend and if you don’t find it deliriously wonderful you can come mix your own,” he said as he worked the machine.

Cassiopia and Markman stood at the center table, marveling at yet another elaborate room they’d been unaware of.

“You have another of these delightful espresso machines in your main kitchen. You should master it as soon as possible. It is its own reward,” said John Paul.

“How much more is there we don’t know about?” asked Markman.

“A great deal you would not expect,” replied John Paul. “For example, there are numerous cave entrances in the woods farther up the mountainside. Most have steel grating over them to prevent anyone from falling in. I’m told the caves go on for miles.”

John Paul brought the first two large china cups over to the table then made a second trip to retrieve his own. “Shall we sit, my friends? I believe you’ll find my proposal more than interesting.”

Markman plopped down onto a seat and tilted back. Cassiopia sat beside him.

Markman asked, “Is this room specially shielded or something so that we can say anything we want?”

John Paul sat across from them and nodded. “Yes, in fact it is. There are white noise generators along with every other kind of sound abatement technology in the walls, floors, and ceiling. There are not many bubbles of space more secure than this room.”

“So we could even talk about the Celestial Order here then?” asked Markman.

“You should never mention that name out loud anywhere ever, Scott, unless it’s a matter of life and death and there are no other alternatives. The first rule of our organization is invisibility. If an organization’s name is never spoken, for all intents and purposes there is no evidence of its existence.”

“Okay, sorry,” answered Markman.

“In fact, you will find the premise of invisibility to be a key element in the objective we are about to discuss. It is a rule you should live by in all the work you do from this point forward.”

“John Paul, do you have surveillance equipment installed here that is watching us?”

“No, Cassiopia. By not installing those types of devices it makes it much easier for the cleaning crew to spot any equipment planted by adversaries. But I should remind you that each of you has the implants we installed when you agreed to work for us. We can track your location and hear everything you say though we never do except in an emergency. Your implants continue to be monitored by a computer system programmed to respond to key words you can use to call for help. It will also transfer commands to your car when you call for it. Other than that we are notified only if you appear to be in an unexpectedly hazardous location or situation. As always, you are free to have those implants removed anytime you wish. A simple command from us dissolves them.”

Cassiopia nodded. “John Paul, does my father know about this room?” asked Cassiopia.

John Paul shook his head. “Not yet. A true eccentric genius, that man. Although he arrived here three months ahead of you he paid little attention to these wonderful surroundings. His only concern was setting up his labs and resuming work on whatever it is the man has in that locked lab downstairs. Our coordinators found it to be quite humorous. They would visit periodically to restock the refrigerators with food and do maintenance as necessary but the Professor took no notice of their visits other than to eat the food without even questioning from where it was coming. Nor did he question how the household chores such as laundry and trash where being done. Our only concern has been that perhaps the man is spending too much time locked away in the labs. Has he always cut his own hair when it starts getting in his way?”

Cassiopia looked annoyed. “You are describing my father to a tee, John Paul. That’s the way he has always been. When he was still teaching at the university I had an endless battle keeping his appearance marginally acceptable. I’m glad to hear he is at least eating.”

“It is reassuring you’re here so we have a better understanding of what is normal for Professor Cassell. I must say it puts my mind a bit more at ease. Whatever he has behind that door, considering the new working environment and tools available to him, I have no doubt it will be something extraordinary.”

“You have no idea at all what it is?” asked Cassiopia.

“None whatsoever. He has been like a man guarding a treasure. We would need to violate our own protocols to find out what is in that project room and that could interfere with his obsession, and obsessions of his kind often lead to spectacular discoveries.”

As Markman sipped his coffee, his eyes suddenly lit up. He pointed at his cup. “John Paul, this is the most fantastic coffee I have ever had. How do you do it?”

“I shall text you the formula, sir. But perhaps we should turn to the business at hand. Your first mission, should you decide to accept it, if you don’t mind me quoting an old television show I’m rather fond of….”

Cassiopia interrupted, “John Paul are you sure we’re ready? I mean I’m not even perfectly sure of what we’ve gotten ourselves into here.”

“What better way to understand than to go to work, my dear?”

Markman leaned forward and rested his chin in his hand. “I, for one, am ready. Lay it on us.”

John Paul pulled his briefcase in front of him and unsnapped the latches but left it closed. “You are both already aware races more advanced than our own exist on and off the Earth. I know it takes some time to accept such a thing but in our previous dealings you’ve been exposed to some of that. You now know not all UFO sightings are swamp gas and not all ancient artifacts were made by primitive man. However, this knowledge is not for everyone. You would be surprised how many people would be harmed if they learned there are races far in advance of their own. Religion would be irreparably damaged whether it was contradicted or not. We go to great lengths to discount Bible stories which describe visitors descending in towers of fire or sightings of firmaments in the heavens. It is important for now to preserve the façade we are the only people in the universe so that this system we all participate in while we’re here on Earth can continue as it is.”

John Paul paused to sip his coffee. He eyed his two counterparts carefully for disapproval then continued. “Occasionally evidence of the more advanced races accidentally gets into the wrong hands and sometimes such evidence can give someone power or notoriety they are not mature enough to possess. In those cases it is our job to recover said evidence before any significant damage is done to society.”

John Paul sipped again and waited for questions. Cassiopia and Markman stared with great interest.

John Paul continued, “Recently, a small group of nonhuman intruders entered Earth’s restricted space without authorization. More simply put, an alien species that does not have rights or permissions to be here landed either to collect something or meet someone. We do not know which or why. We detected their arrival and landing in a densely wooded area outside of New Providence, New Jersey. An intercept team was dispatched to deal with them. The invaders did not have time to get far from their vehicle before they were met by our operatives. There was a brief military action. The invaders retreated to their ship and made their escape, but they had to leave one member behind. There was a foot pursuit which went on for quite some time. The intruder was finally cut off and captured. He remains in custody but has been uncooperative.”

John Paul paused to sip again, taking time to evaluate how such unearthly information was affecting his friends. They continued to stare silently back at him. Cassiopia’s eyes had widened somewhat.

John Paul continued, “What we did not know at the time was that the captured intruder had been carrying a handheld disruptor weapon which he lost in the woods during his escape attempt. This all took place in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge near New Providence. To our dismay, before we could recover it two children illegally racing around the refuge on dirt bikes found the disruptor. Fortunately, that weapon is made to fire only for its owner and no one else. But to complicate matters further, one of the kids took the thing home and gave it to his father who happened to work for Bell Labs. He thought it was an expensive Star Wars toy and took it to work for a joke.

“The research group played around with it and eventually realized they couldn’t figure out how to take it apart. Suddenly urgent calls were made to higher company officials and meetings quickly scheduled. The story gets hazy after that. Normally we have connections with Bell Labs and would secretly have been brought in on this but at some point the disruptor simply vanished. That’s not surprising, however, nor was locating it a problem. Only a limited number of individuals had access to the disruptor weapon at any given time. Once a list was compiled our team began twenty-four hour scans of all the people involved. Since the disruptor contained materials not available on Earth, we eventually detected those kinds of signatures at one particular location. Bell Laboratories executive Robert Duran also owns Advanced Aviation Systems Incorporated. Mr. Duran was found to be the culprit who had made off with the disruptor. Obviously, he knows it is an item not of this Earth and has stored it in his company vault on the fifth floor of Advanced Aviation Systems in New Providence. Your mission is to recover that disruptor and replace it with this.”

John Paul opened his briefcase and withdrew a dark black case about the size one would expect for a target pistol. He placed several other odd-looking items alongside it. He unsnapped the case and from the tight black padded foam drew out a strange looking gun. The grip was dirty brown and well worn. The gun looked like an undersized hand drill except the body was made up of dull silver cooling rings that led to a short fat chrome barrel with more silver rings at the end of it. From the way John Paul handled it the thing seemed to be very lightweight. He placed it on the table and slid it over to Markman who quickly snatched it up for closer inspection.

John Paul said, “As I’ve mentioned, the real disruptor has materials and technology unknown to Earth. This replica is identical in every way except it uses only common Earth elements and does not function at all. We even placed patent IDs from various Earth companies inside to complete the suggestion it’s simply a sci-fi toy. When scanned, however, this unit will reflect exactly the same way the real one does so there will be no way anyone will know a substitution has been made. Your mission is to get into Advanced Aviation Systems, recover the real weapon and put this one in its place. You will then insert the real weapon into this same case and return it to me. This case cannot be detected by any scanner. If you get into trouble you may dispose of this case anywhere you need to and we will be able to quickly find it, whether it is at the bottom of a lake or buried deep in a landfill dump site. The trick is, no one is to know you were ever at Advanced Aviation Systems. Complete invisibility during this exchange is essential. That is the tenet of invisibility I talked about earlier. So, having completed this rather lengthy dissertation I am ready now for your questions.”

Markman looked up from the weapon. “John Paul, I’ll probably seem stupid asking this but don’t you guys have equipment that you could just beam the thing out and beam this one back in?” Markman glanced at Cassiopia to see if she was laughing. She was not.

“Actually, it’s a fair question, Scott. And since you now officially work for us I am at liberty to answer it. Yes, we do have such equipment. It’s referred to as a Teleportation System. We do not customarily use such equipment on humans as it tends to disrupt the electrical signals in the brain. Often several minutes is required for a person to reorganize their thoughts after transit. Special in-depth training is required before a lifeform can safely use that system. And as for inanimate objects, unfortunately teleportation cannot be used on certain classes of objects including this one. This weapon contains a power cell of a very high order. Power cells of this type are encased in a containment vessel. If that type of containment vessel is dematerialized in any way the energy within it is released all at once, resulting in a high order detonation and contamination of the surrounding area to a degree proportional to the size and capacity of the power cell. So, in more common Earth terms, we cannot beam this type of disruptor up.”

“Wow!” said Markman as he handed the duplicate disruptor to Cassiopia.

Cassiopia inspected the item with both interest and disdain. “I take it this company has an elaborate security system and a vault which must be very modern.”

“You are correct, Cassiopia,” replied John Paul. “I see that idyllic mind of yours has already gone to work on this. I am not surprised.”

“So how do we get in the building?” she asked.

“I have no idea, Cassiopia. Although we will provide you with some very useful tools.”

“And the safe? How can we get in a modern high security safe?”

“Again, I have no idea, my dear. I only know you will do it and leave without anyone knowing you were ever there,” replied John Paul.

Cassiopia stopped her inspection and looked up. “You mean you’re not going to help us at all?”

“Oh no, you will have all of our resources at your disposal. We will provide you with exact drawings and schematics of the building, alarm system and safe along with any special tools you require. If there’s anything else we’ll be at your service twenty-four hours a day.”

Cassiopia furrowed her brow. “You’re saying we have to figure out how to get in, exchange the gun and get out of the place without anyone knowing we were there?”

John Paul sat back. “Yes.”

“But we’re not safecrackers!”

Markman burst out a laugh, then thought better of it.

John Paul smiled calmly. “Yes, Cassiopia. You are.”

Markman’s penchant for humor took over. “I don’t know, John Paul. She can’t even break into her father’s project room!”

Cassiopia stiffened. “Of course I can. I’ve only just started! Just wait!”

John Paul smiled once more. “I rest my case.”

Markman laughed out loud.

John Paul folded his hands in his lap and spoke reassuringly, “Cassiopia, you underestimate yourself. Sitting before me is a master of the martial arts who grew up in the Tibetan mountains, a man who can move as silently as a cat in the night and disarm an assailant before he knows it’s happened. And then there’s you, the cute girl who graduated college when she was only fourteen, the same girl who once started a fire in the snow using jet fuel and a landing gear piston from a crashed airplane. And who then figured out how to carry a 180-pound man twenty-one miles down an icy cliff. Do I need to go on?”

Cassiopia narrowed her stare at John Paul. “When’s all this got to be done?”

Chapter 2

Cassiopia sat in the sunlight from the mansion’s second floor windowed alcove, there especially for tea times. She was wrapped in her rose terrycloth robe nibbling at toast, still half asleep, a tablet with the morning news in one hand. The rising sun brightened her view of the distant Culpeper City beyond the mountainside forest that seemed to be waking along with her. She soaked in the wonderful view, enjoying the sentiments of a new day’s nature for it was far too early to think about things.

“I see you’ve found your morning spot,” said a voice behind her. Markman stepped into view and tugged at his jeans. He fastened a button on his plain blue collared shirt and took a seat.

“John Paul was right. It’s a very long walk to the kitchen.”

“At least you can find it.”

“Not really. I took a wrong turn and ended up in the servant’s quarter’s kitchen.”

“How could you tell?”

“There was no food there. I saw my father also.”

“The Professor? You’ve seen him too? The ghost of Cassell Castle?”

“Very funny. He was grumpy. His project must not be going well. He was on his way to bed.”

“Did you sleep okay?”

“You’re always gone when I wake up.”

“Sunrise is very special,” replied Markman.

“Can’t you do your morning meditation later?”

Markman took the empty china cup which had been placed there in anticipation of his arrival. He poured from the matching teapot and tested the brew with a cautious sip. “There is nothing as good as sunrise,” he replied. “There’s a secret during the time between each night and new day. It’s a time when, using meditation, you can learn to see and even visit the next higher plane very easily. You can actually do that kind of meditation without ever even getting out of bed but it’s too easy to fall back asleep. If you use some version of the lotus posture it helps keep you conscious so you can study the lower portion of the astral plane.”

“Maybe I’ll try it sometime,” said Cassiopia as she sipped.

“You need to practice a bit first. It’s very important you know yourself and who you are before attempting a higher plane.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“The astral plane is a very emotional place. It’s very easy for influences there to affect you. You must know your own space and not let anything from outside invade it. It’s like here on the physical plane when someone stands too close to you; they are in your space so to speak. They can influence your feelings doing that. You must be self-assured and in control to prevent them from bothering you. That’s what it’s like on the astral. You need to think of yourself in an egg-shaped bubble. Everything inside is your space. No influences from without are allowed in.”

“Did you say the lower portion of the astral plane? The lower portion?”

“Yes I did…Grasshopper. The lower portion of the astral is where most people go when they sleep. Dreams often come alive there. It is a very emotional place. But the higher you go the more pleasant it becomes.”

“We’re getting too heavy for so early,” replied Cassiopia.


“I just wish you were there when I wake up. It would be nice to wrap up in you in the morning.”

“Sounds like I don’t know what I’ve been missing. From now on I will meditate and then come back to bed. Boy, men are stupid.”

Cassiopia laughed and smiled. “Did you look at that stuff John Paul left us on the flash drives?”

“I had trouble getting the new computer to work. Do you believe the 3D those screens put out? And you can reach in and touch the pictures and move them. It’s mind-blowing.”

“Well I, on the other hand, took a good look at everything. The building we’re supposed to sneak into has every form of security there is but I think there is a way.”


“My plan is based on an old saying they use a lot at the Kennedy Space Center: Keep it simple stupid.”

“Sounds like my kind of plan. Wait… that didn’t come out quite right.”

Cassiopia laughed once more. “You’ll need your best stealthing clothes. Will you wear those baggy black robe things the Ninjas use?”

“Actually, I would use a type of free climber’s boots and a skin-tight body suit and hood. Those loose black Shinobi Shozoku uniforms brush up against stuff and can get caught on things. But apparently none of that matters. In my John Paul notes it says he’s going to send me a chameleon suit. I have no idea what that is, but he said I’ll like it and should keep it on hand for other missions. In this plan of yours, will you be joining me inside the place?”

“Only part way. It will be up to you to get me to the security room.”

“Do we crawl through the air conditioning ducts or something?”

Cassiopia rolled her eyes, “That’s only in the movies, Scott. Very few buildings have ducts big enough to crawl around in and even if you could the sheet metal screws would tear you to pieces. We won’t be opening deadbolts with a credit card either.”

“Boy, this little talk of ours really has gotten just as heavy for so early in the morning, hasn’t it?”

Cassiopia nodded and sipped her tea. Markman smiled and did likewise.

Cassiopia said, “I was trying to take my mind off this sickening morning news. I wish I hadn’t read it.”

Markman raised an eyebrow and held out his hand for the tablet. She handed it over. The front page title was indeed repulsive:


The first few paragraphs carefully detailed a grisly murder scene discovered by police at the home of Maria Landers after they’d been sent there by concerned coworkers. The victim had missed work for two days and was not answering their calls.

Cassiopia sipped. “Why does the news media have to be so gruesome? Isn’t it shocking enough that the poor lady was a victim of terrible violence? Wouldn’t it be a much better world if they used their literary talents to dispense the information without creating images of horror in people’s minds?”

Markman continued to read as he spoke, “Cass, maybe I shouldn’t say this but from my experience doing police work I’m guessing the crime was probably uglier than the press or the police are letting on. Where is Kestry, anyway?”

“That’s the scary part,” replied Cassiopia. “It’s not far from here. It’s a new community about thirty miles southeast of Culpeper. Such a wonderful area to have this sort of thing happen. It’s like you can’t get away from it anymore.”

Markman became distracted by a secondary news article:


The victim was just seven years old. He was trying out a new bike, a birthday present from his aunt. The driver did not stop but police had a good description of the vehicle resulting in the man being arrested a short time later.

A pang of fear along with a faint touch of nausea surged through Markman. The article made it clear the boy, Mark Delan, would lose his right leg above the knee. There was no doubt about that. The child was in the Gifford Orthopedic Surgery Center in the intensive care unit waiting to be stabilized enough so the surgery could be performed.

Markman’s private ethical dilemma had abruptly surfaced once more. It was a closely guarded secret known to only one other person on Earth. Growing up at a secret military base outside of Lhasa, Markman had spent many hours with Tibetan monks learning the philosophy of Tao Chane, a martial art based on the movements of animals. Tao Chane was intended to be used only to protect people, animals and nature in general. On numerous occasions he had watched in amazement as the old masters fiercely rubbed their hands together and then used them to heal an injured student, but that amazing power had always been possessed only by the old ones. It was said a lifetime of Tao Chane knowledge was needed to acquire it.

For Markman there was now no escaping the truth. Through a strange set of exotic circumstances he had unexpectedly acquired that healing power prematurely and at a much greater level than his old masters. Not only could he heal others, he could levitate small objects simply by concentrating on them. He had never sought such abilities through meditation so discovering them had come as something of a shock. The old masters had borne their talents casually as though they were a natural part of life. They did not appear to be conflicted in any way. But for Markman the new talents were an endless source of confusion and concern. Each healing he’d secretly performed had drained him of energy, sometimes to a dangerous level. So how was this gift to be apportioned? How many per day should he try to attempt? At what point was he guilty of not doing enough?

The only other person who knew the secret was a doctor he’d once saved. The man had promised to keep quiet. He’d also tried to help with Markman’s dilemma. He’d explained anyone on Earth could spend every waking hour trying to help others but at some point that would be harmful to the person doing it. In the end his answer had been to do as much as Markman could without harming or losing himself in the effort. Markman continued to struggle to apply that philosophy.

Cassiopia’s voice brought him back to reality. “… and so I thought it would be good… are you listening to me, Scott?”

“What? Yes… of course. Go on.”

“I’ll spend most of today going through the materials John Paul left us then you and I can go over how I think it should be done. Does that sound good to you?”

“Yes… great.”

“What were you planning on doing today?”

“I thought I’d go for a drive just to clear my head. This has all been a bit much for me if you know what I mean.”

“Good, you can bring me back some potato chips. It’s the one thing we don’t have.”

“Sure. What kind?”

“Regular, but no salt if you can get those.”

“I will make it my quest, fair maiden.”

Markman finished his tea and tried to look casual. He stood, stretched, and yawned. Immediately Cassiopia began to look suspicious.

“Regular potato chips, no salt. I’m on it.”

“Take your time. There’s no rush.”

“As you wish.”

Cassiopia chuckled and watched as he casually strolled away down the corridor.

As soon as he was out of sight Markman broke into a run. He paused momentarily and tapped at his left collarbone where the Celestial Order implant was located. It was an unnecessary gesture but to speak to the car without a switch or turn-on of some sort was difficult to get used to.

“Core, pick me up at the east entrance.”

Markman thought to bolt straight down to the car but again stopped. Hospitals were no longer easy places to sneak into these days. A plan was needed. He hurried down the corridor and turned left toward the master bedroom. Once there he pulled out his only dark suit and found his seldom used briefcase tucked away in the closet corner. In it he grabbed the old FBI badge and ID he’d once been issued while on temporary duty for the Bureau. There was a pair of dark-rimmed reading glasses and a black leather notebook as well. With suit bundled up and the other items tucked away he carefully checked to be sure the hall was clear, skipped the elevator and slid down the stairway banister toward the east entrance. At the bottom of the stairs he darted around the necessary corridors and dashed out the double metal doors to find the shiny black Vette waiting with the driver’s door open. He slid down and in, dumped his possessions on the passenger seat and spun off toward the main gate.

Through the barely opened wrought iron entrance he spun onto Mountain Road and sped along the tree-lined roadway, wondering about the wisdom of what he was about to do. Route 3 would take him directly into Fredericksburg. Core would locate and take him to the Gifford Orthopedic Surgery Center. From there he would need to get in and out as quickly as possible without attracting attention.

Fredericksburg was only 30 or 40 miles away, probably an hour’s drive by the speed limit. Markman decided a quicker trip was needed.

“Core, is your radar on?”

“Radar is currently active,” replied Core in its raspy masculine voice.

“Core, please keep speed safe up to 90 miles per hour. If you see traffic or people ahead go back to the speed limit. Go ahead and take over steering control.”

Core beeped understanding and the steering wheel and gas pedal began to move on their own. Gradually Markman leaned back and loosened his grip on the wheel. The car accelerated and held 90 on the straights and ever so smoothly slowed for curves.

The self-driving mode made for a quick trip to the outskirts of Fredericksburg. Markman took back control and asked for the location of the hospital. The dash display appeared showing the best path. It was fast and easy, north up Route 1 and a right onto East Hospital Drive.

The hospital complex was big. Markman drove around to side parking. A green security van pulled out as he turned in and a police car was parked in one of the first lots. The emergency entrance was on the left. Markman backed into an empty space and sat in thought.

“Core, is there a floor plan online for the Gifford Orthopedic Surgery Center?”

A PDF file opened on the car’s display screen with the layout for each of the floors at Gifford Orthopedic. Markman moved them around with his index finger and did his best to commit them to memory. For a moment he wished Cassiopia was assisting him for she, with only a single look, would have memorized the entire place down to the smallest closet.

But she could not be included in this. Absolutely no one, including Cassiopia, must ever learn of his powers. It could be too life-changing a revelation. Cassiopia might look at him differently. She might consider him some sort of deviant. It could affect their relationship, and nothing was worth taking a chance on that. As for John Paul and the Celestial Order, they might want to do testing on him. He could become a lab rat with no real life of his own. No, there could be no chance of anyone finding out. It was too much of a risk.

For these reasons, getting in and out of Gifford Orthopedic without being noticed was essential. If the healing worked they’d be left only to wonder. It would be a miracle associated with no one but God. That was the way it had to be.

ICU was on the far east side of the second-floor. There were utility and mechanical rooms near a side entrance on the ground floor, good places to hide if things went badly.

This would be perhaps the trickiest job Markman had attempted but it had to be done now before the kid’s surgery was started. There would be surveillance cameras everywhere. The FBI ID would provide the best chance to get in. Markman climbed out of the car and stood within the open door, struggling to change into his dark suit and tie without attracting attention. He tucked his ID into an inside breast pocket, put on the big dark-rimmed glasses, grabbed the thin black leather notebook and shut the door. His brownish-blonde hair was a bit long for the part, but it would have to do. With a deep breath for courage he headed for the main entrance.

The large sliding doors gave way to a grand receiving area. Gray tiled floor led to a wide circular receptionist desk. Above, a high, domed white ceiling opened to the second-floor. Plants and oil paintings filled the surroundings.

A very attractive blond lady in a beige suit top straightened her headset and looked up to greet Markman.


Markman awkwardly adjusted his dark-rimmed glasses and pulled his ID from his jacket. “Special Agent Wayman. I’m here to sign off on your patient Mark Delan.” Markman held up his ID being careful to conceal the name.

The receptionist’s expression darkened. “Oh…. Yes, he’s in ICU on the third floor. I’ll print you a badge.” She turned and busied herself and a moment later handed Markman an adhesive badge he stuck to his lapel. The receptionist promptly returned to her computer screen.

“Too easy,” thought Markman as he rode an elevator up. “Bet it gets tricky now.”

The elevator door opened to cool air. It smelled of disinfectant. Worn green carpet lead to the left and right. Far to the right two large windowed doors with aluminum push guards bore an ominous gray sign that read ICU. There was no one in sight in either direction. Markman took another breath for courage and headed that way.

Door handles with no latches meant the speaker and red access button by the door were mandatory. Markman pressed the button and waited.

A terse voice answered, “Yes?”

“Special Agent Wayman.”

A buzzer sounded. Markman pulled the open. Inside, a circular station took up the center of the ICU. Glass enclosures along the walls separated patient areas. There were faint pump sounds and the clicking of machines. A stern looking nurse in dark blue scrubs behind the counter eyed Markman as an interruption. Her brown hair was very straight and she wore little makeup. Her expression suggested impatience.

Markman held up his ID before she could ask. “Special Agent Wayman. I need to do a quick check on your patient Mark Delan.”

“What is this about?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the case, Ma’am, but it’s just a sign-off so we can close out our paperwork. We contributed some lab work on this. I just need to verify Mark Delan is a real person.”

The nurse slowly began to nod. “I think I understand. He’s in the third cubicle over there. You just missed his mother. She’s been keeping a vigil. The boy is due for surgery in two hours. You must not disturb him in any way. He’s heavily sedated.”

Markman tried to sound sympathetic. “It’ll only take a moment to note his condition. I’ll be very quiet.” Markman tucked in his fake ID and turned to head for the boy’s room. At the same moment a second nurse entered the ICU with two steaming Styrofoam cups of espresso. There was muted jubilation as one was delivered to the person on duty. An excited conversation in low tones broke out. As Markman crossed over to the boy’s area he was able to make out some of it.

“I just saw Dr. Morrison, the medical examiner. They brought the body of that Landers woman in, the one that was murdered. I don’t know what happened to her but it was bad. Morrison won’t talk about it and he looks really grim.”

“The woman from the Kestry community?”

“Yes. Whatever was done to her they won’t talk about it.”

“Oh my God!”

As Markman paused to open the glass door he glanced back to see the two opening their coffees and giving each other looks of dread. He gently opened the glass door, concerned there was not enough concealment for the little time he would have. The two nurses sipped their espressos and one gave a momentary glance his way.

The boy was asleep. There were IV tubes coming from each arm. A heartbeat monitor was also alongside the bed, turned on but not attached to the patient. An automatic blood pressure reader was hissing depressurization. The boy was in a white hospital gown with the blankets pulled up to his waist. He looked peaceful, sedated from the horror of a smashed leg. Markman stood where he could still see the nurse’s station. There were too many quick glances coming his way.

One of the nurses put her coffee down on the counter to fetch something from her pocket. Markman opened his black folder and held it up as though he was studying it. Ever so carefully he raised his free hand to his chest and pointed the first finger toward the nurses steaming coffee cup. With the first concentrated movement of his finger the coffee cup obediently began to slide ever so slightly. Neither nurse noticed and as one of them reached up to hand the other something, Markman made a full jerk with his hand.

The coffee cup tipped over and spilled the nearly full cup onto the counter of folders and documents.

There were muted cries of alarm and despair and a rush to save whatever possible from the espresso tsunami.

Markman snapped his folder shut and stepped over to the boy. With a quick breath for inner strength he placed one hand on the boy’s chest. There was the familiar snap and jolt of electricity between his hand and the patient, then the magnetic locking between the two. A rush of power began to flow into the boy. In his mind Markman could see the life-force charge immediately, targeting the injured leg. At the same time the life-energy within Markman began to drain dramatically. Markman had to fight to stand his ground and not pull away in self-preservation.

But the leg was being reconstructed, almost like turning back time. Markman could feel it. His knees weakened. He dropped his notebook to the floor and braced himself against the bed rails. As he did, something new and unexpected began to happen. Part of the life stream of healing power diverted and flowed upward toward the boy’s head. Somehow Markman knew there was damage to the boy’s brain that had not been detected. It was a critical bleeding of some sort, more a threat to his life than the leg had been. Markman struggled and strained not to pass out as two rivers of life force raced to the boy’s injuries.

Then the merciful snap of completion jolted Markman. His hand slid away from the boy. He fell to one knee, holding to the bed rail to keep himself up. There was no way to tell how long the treatment had taken. Certainly the nurses would be looking in at any moment. Markman’s energy level was so depleted he could not muster enough strength to take a breath but the fear of being seen by the nurse drove him on. He managed to grab his fallen notebook and pull himself up by the rail. A wave of dizziness pulled him backward. He backed into the wall and fought with weak knees. A glance outward showed the spilled coffee crisis was nearly under control. Another attempt to breathe resulted in a choked off half a breath. A second attempt filled the lungs. In desperation, Markman opened his notebook and pretended to be checking it. A nurse with a coffee cup stuffed full of wet napkins looked up to check on him. He managed a quick nod. She turned away and looked down at her friend, out of sight, mopping the wet floor.

Markman straightened up and tried for the door. There was not enough strength to open it. Not all of his attempts to breathe were successful. He focused and pulled the door open enough to squeeze past it. Heading for the exit, there were staggers which went unnoticed by the preoccupied nurse. A lean against the exit door allowed a quick look back and an abbreviated wave to her.

The hallway was deserted. A pause to lean against the wall brought more choked off breath attempts. Someone passed by the hallway in the distance but took no notice. Using the wall, he managed to reach the elevator. Mercifully the elevator doors opened quickly. There was no one within.

A deep breath allowed marginal speech. “Core, meet me at the west entrance.”

The Emergency signs were the only things that allowed Markman to find his way out. In the emergency waiting area a dozen people were too preoccupied with their own discomfort to notice the drunken man leaving.

Pressure doors swooshed open. Outside a black Corvette with heavily tinted windows waited with the driver’s door open. No one had paid any attention.

Markman fell into the driver’s seat and had an urge to shed a tear or two in self-pity. When enough strength had been garnered to pull his legs in, he spoke. “Core, close.”

The driver’s door shut.

“Core, return to home base. Autonomous mode.”

The obedient Corvette dropped into drive and slowly pulled away from the entrance. Markman fell into a semiconscious state. He could feel the Corvette stopping at intersections and making turns but there was not enough strength to actually see what was happening. There was the sensation of G-force as the car accelerated on the main road home. Breathing slowly became closer to normal. Vision began to focus. Apparently escape had been successful. Now all that was left was the self-doubt. It seemed like a stupid, impulsive thing he had just done. He was still wearing the dark-rimmed glasses but they were hanging on the left side of his face. He pushed them away.

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