The Pandora Stone
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by William Greenleaf
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Arlo Triplethorn doesn't match the holo-vid image of a contract courier. Short, scrawny, and unremarkable in every way, he suffers from recurring nightmares about his one disastrous encounter with the cobra. The bloodiest war in human history was fought with the cobra, an alien race prone to senseless aggression and unrestrained violence. Although the cost was devastating, the cobra were eventually exterminated. Or so Arlo believes. Everything changes for Arlo when he is hired by the International Space Exploration Agency to acquire a mysterious alien artifact and deliver it to their headquarters on Sierra. The artifact is a fist-sized crystal found buried on a Fringe world. It's clearly of alien origin, and it gives Arlo a bad case of the jitters when he first gazes into its amber depths. A strange thought comes unbidden to his mind: There's something alive in there? Things go downhill fast when Arlo discovers that a ruthless underground organization known as Isterbrandt also wants the crystal. Pursued by both Isterbrandt and corrupt ISEA officials, Arlo escapes to Earth with the crystal. There, in the ruins of a sprawling city once known as Los Angeles, Arlo learns the truth about the crystal from a small band of mutated humans who are the only remaining inhabitants of Earth. Now he knows why the two most powerful organizations in humanspace are chasing him. But the worst is yet to come, and it steps straight out of Arlo's nightmares. Not all the cobra were exterminated, after all. One of them has been living among the crumbled ruins of the city, waiting patiently for the return of the amber crystal. Now that it's back, the cobra's patience has morphed into the single-minded goal of acquiring the crystal at any cost. Only Arlo Triplethorn stands in its way.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [359 KB]
Reading time: 221-310 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
* * * *
In a little while he could rest.
He told himself that again as he felt the soft impact of touchdown, then the jostling movements of the craft's stabilizer gears seeking a foothold on frozen ground. Pinpoints of light winked across the console in changing patterns--greens, reds, ambers--as the control system tested its components and analyzed data from outside monitors. Then the lights steadied, all green. The roar of the stasis engines dropped to a low whine, then shut down entirely.
For a long moment, the man sat hunched at the console, his eyes fixed on the sensor data lining up in neat rows of pale green against the black face of the readout screen. The only sounds were the faint hum of the cabin heater, the click of relays, and an occasional distant crackle of commset static.
The man's name was Julian Schroeder. He was a prominent biochemist and Kohlmann physicist, his face and name well known along the loop of explored space called the stream even in a time when the products of science were accepted with an insouciance bordering on scorn. He was the man who had defeated the cobra; the x-virus, created in Schroeder's laboratory, had all but exterminated the cobra race and had put an end to the war that had left half the explored universe in ruin. Julian Schroeder, hero.
But Julian Schroeder was also an old man, with wispy white hair and hollow cheeks and the frail look that often comes with age and ill health. He did not feel like a hero. He felt the ache of age in his bones, and he felt filled to the brim with old men's doubts.
Surely by now they know what I've done.
The thought sent a shudder through him. But they wouldn't find him. Even their almost unlimited resources wouldn't be enough to track him through the complicated series of skips that had brought him to this place.
He drew a deep, rattling breath, then reached across the control pad to depress a pair of thumbplates, one to lower cabin lights and the other to activate the curved bank of vidscreens above the console ledge. The screens produced a faint image, then brightened, automatically augmenting the light of the incredibly distant white dwarf star that served as this planet's sun. Everything was ghostly pale. Three of the screens showed only flat, frozen ground, but the sternview screen was filled with the image of a stark, thrusting dagger of rock.
He swiveled around to look at the utility case that was strapped into an open storage compartment behind him--a standard graymetal case with a single molded handle and locking clasps at each end. Its outward appearance said nothing about the object resting snugly inside it.
With an abrupt motion, he snapped open the chair's restraining straps and reached for the lifesuit that lay crumpled on the cabin floor. He pulled it over his coveralls and fastened it up, checking the points of contact for a tight seal. Then he reached into the storage compartment and pulled out the utility case.
A moment later he stood inside the airlock, waiting for the automatics to do what needed to be done about temperature and air pressure. The cover cracked open at last and lifted away. A white rim of frost formed instantly on the hatchway's inner lip.
Moving carefully, Schroeder made his way down the short ramp and stepped onto the surface of the planet. Gripping the handle of the utility case, he stepped over the frozen, crackling ground toward the jutting upthrust of rock.
* * * *
Later, strapped into the control chair again, Schroeder watched the planet become a diminishing point of light on the vidscreens. In a matter of minutes, he would be safe inside the hold of the sector ship Quinquilla, and after a brief rest he would make arrangements with his NavSec connections for a skip to Earth. The sgor na lyurr were waiting for him. They had already promised to help with the work that would have to be done there.
A brief smile crossed Schroeder's face as he thought of the sgor na lyurr. It would be good to see them again. Even with their aloof manners and odd customs, Schroeder was beginning to view the sgor na lyurr as his friends. The truth was, he thought wryly, these last remaining inhabitants of old Earth were probably the only real friends he had left.
He keyed commands into the control pad, giving the craft's drive system instructions for the return to Quinquilla. When the screen flashed READY, he braced himself and pressed the lighted key at the back of the console ledge.
A moment of vertigo clutched him as the drive engines engaged, launching the streamcraft through the series of maneuvers that comprised the skip sequence to Quinquilla. He gripped the arms of the control chair and drew a breath, struggling with the momentary nausea that always accompanied a k-stream skip. The sequence concluded with a soft transition into normal space, and the nausea receded. He looked up at the vidscreens and saw the Quinquilla hanging in the distance, a silver lance against the bright backdrop of Omega Centauri. Never in Julian Schroeder's long life had a sector ship been such a welcome sight.
The commset speaker erupted into sudden life. "This is Omega Security. Hold your position and identify yourself."
Schroeder's eyes widened. All the weariness he'd felt a moment earlier was replaced by a rush of adrenaline. Not now, not after all I've been through. He depressed a thumbplate to scan with outside visuals and almost immediately spotted the dark speck on the portside screen, well around the Quinquilla perimeter.
The harsh voice came again from the speaker grille above the commset. "Identify yourself."
Now the speck was growing rapidly on the vidscreen. Schroeder barely thought about his next move. He had no choice. The voice could belong to a security patrol, as it claimed. Or it could belong to those from whom he'd stolen the object inside the graymetal utility case--the object he'd left behind on the frozen planet. That was a risk Schroeder was not prepared to take.
With a few commands jabbed frantically into the control pad, he instructed his craft to skip outward along the plane occupied by Quinquilla. The maneuver was only a momentary dodge, but it would give him a chance to think, to decide what to do next.
Vertigo gripped him as the drive system engaged--
* * * *
Like Julian Schroeder, the unmanned patrol craft had no choice. The intruder refused to respond to verbal communications, and the patrol craft was forced to take immediate action. Unauthorized skips were forbidden under ISEA law; they were lethally dangerous to innocent passersby who might be skipping through the same plane. It was the patrol craft's duty to prevent such skips at all costs.
Locked into the intruder's navigation system as it was, the patrol craft knew the precise instant the other's drive system engaged. It moved to intercept.
* * * *
In a cramped, fourth-level operations room deep inside Quinquilla, a young security officer slouched behind a bank of vidscreens and wished for a way to make the time go faster. A full shift of watching the unchanging patterns of distant stars and listening to the susurrant static of space had made him feel dull and listless. For the fourth time in as many minutes, he glanced at the lighted face of his console chronometer. Then his head jerked around as an alarm began to cheep from his headset. The sentry computer, detecting something out of order, ceased scanning and focused all its starboard visuals on the white blossom growing across the number-three screen. The security officer's mouth worked soundlessly as he watched the massive explosion. Then he jabbed a red button on the console and yelled for his supervisor.
* * * *