THE SPOTLIGHT WAS COMING TOWARD THEM
The volume was deafening, close to pain level. Jim clapped his hands over his ears, wincing from the roaring voice, booming and unrecognizable, battering the senses.
“Captain Hilton and the crew of the Aquila! Anyone know about Operation Tempest? Show yourselves.” The Chinook was about two hundred yards away, to the north of the ghost town, hovering over a maze of dry ravines.
“Sorry we’re a day late on the rendezvous here… tech problems. Come on out, folks. Okay, we got you on the scanners.”
Now the blinding light had located them, sucking them into a cone of brightness so powerful it almost felt like being suffocated in a force field.
Jim Hilton held his breath, feeling like a fly trapped in amber. He was aware of Sly Romero screaming in terror.
Then above it all, the noise of gunfire.
#2 in the EarthBlood series
Captain James Hilton, lately the commander of the United States Space Vessel Aquila, started down the sunlit main street of the abandoned ghost town of Calico, California.
There was the dazzle of the chromed hood of the sleek silver Mercedes sports car parked near the open front of what had once been a popular gift shop. Mica wind chimes still tinkled in the light breeze, and he could just taste the faint, elusive flavor of piñon pine candles.
There were five bullet holes in the car, not counting the smashed windshield. The nearside fender was crumpled and smeared with brown, drying blood. One of the double headlights was gone, and Jim could still make out the macabre hank of blond-haired scalp that dangled from the socket.
The rough surface of the old picnic table in front of him felt warm to the touch. He glanced at the sky, seeing it was cloudless from east to west.
It was November 15, 2040, the date and the place that Zelig had warned them to attend.
He looked around, seeing what changes the past seven eventful weeks had wrought in his command. Mentally he ticked off the names of the crew, finding to his dismay that some of the faces had already blurred.
Dr. Bob Rogers from Topeka, dead in his cryo-capsule.
Mike Man, the best chess player that Jim had ever known, dead in the landing crash.
Marcey Cording, the Aquila’s number two, decapitated.
Ryan O’Keefe, their psychiatrist, also dead at Stevenson Base.
Jed Herne, shot by a sniper not far from San Francisco, his death described to them all by Jeff Thomas that morning.
Pete Turner and Henderson “Mac” McGill, both missing, believed killed. Their planned trip up to New England had been the longest and the most dangerous. Mac’s loss was about the hardest to bear of the seven dead or lost.
Then there were the survivors from the Aquila.
Steve Romero and Kyle Lynch, who’d left together and returned together.
Jeff Thomas, beating the odds to return to Calico.
And Carrie Princip, who’d been such a vital support for Jim through the past seven weeks.
Down to seven from twelve.
But they also had some additions.
Hilton’s own daughter, Heather, eleven years old. She was sitting on the porch of what used to be the house of the town’s schoolteacher, playing a game with a handful of quartz pebbles along with ever-smiling Sly Romero. The boy was about eighteen, but he acted more like ten. His round, gentle face turned toward Jim, and the boy waved a soft hand.
Jim waved back, then turned his head to the north, where the ground rose steeply, close by the remains of an old mining railway. He felt the woman before he saw her, conscious of the intensity of her gaze.
The enigmatic Nanci Simms, immaculate in her khaki pantsuit and polished boots, stood on the ridge and stared at him.
There were some questions there. Jeff had come in with the sixty-year-old stranger, but he hadn’t talked much about her. Jim Hilton reckoned the questions could wait awhile.
There was no sign of Zelig, no sign of anyone moving as far as the eye could see. Just the ocher expanse of the desert, stretching away, unchanged and eternal. But the dried shards of sagebrush and mesquite still showed in the distance, carrying the scarlet tint of the lethal plant cancer that had ravaged Earth while the Aquila was on its mission. It had caused the deaths of tens of millions of the planet’s population, changing life forever. Jim sighed. “What now?” he said.