Chapter 1

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Chapter 1Stretching out on the coastal sandsunder the two bright, yellow suns of Beta Five, I was thinkingagainof retirement. I extended my arm and reached for my beach drink.Astrid, on a large red towel, dozed off beside me. The green waveslapped softly at the shore, as if caressing the earth. The BetaFiveoceans are green instead of blue like the oceans of Earth, but thesky is remarkably similar. More of a windy climate than my nativeFlorida and, even though I was sweating, the planet had much lesshumidity than the Sunshine State. I wiped the beads off my face and thenspied a man wearing the burgundy uniform with the white trim ofMorganthal Enterprises walking at a brisk pace. He left the smallwooden walkway and stepped onto the beach. His large boots plungedahalf-inch into the sand. He was about twenty yards from the walkwayto Astrid and me. I met him halfway. “Major Ryvenbark. I must askyou to accompany me, sir.” “Where are we going?” “To Nassau Mountain, sir. Ms.Morganthal has requested your presence.” “If she only requested my presence, acourier would not be needed. I’m guessing shedemanded mypresence,” I said. “She asked that I first request,sir.” “I’m sure she did.” Astrid had woken up. She walked toward us, a blue towelaround her neck. She still looked sleepy and yawned as she came upbeside me. “What is this about?” she said. “I have to go find out,” I said. I would have asked what the situationwas, but I was sure the courier didn’t know. He was merely told tofind me and yank me back to Belen’s office. I assumed this was sometype of emergency, but I had no idea what it was. Belen sparkled in her white suit,dazzling against the snow-covered mountains that stretched justoutside her office’s picture window. For a second I feltill-at-ease for the flakes of space dust that spotted my Raiderbluesuit. She greeted me with a large smile. “Thank you for coming, Logan. Please,sit down.” She didn’t dwell on the usualapologies for interrupting my vacations, or ask about Astrid, so Ithought she had to have something very serious she wanted to talkabout. “I am putting together a smallexpedition to Vega,” she said. “Then I wish you well. When you getback, look me up. I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll celebrate yourgood fortune in coming home alive.” I paused for a moment, and myvoice dropped. “I sincerely hope you make it back, Belen.” Her steel gaze focused on me. “I amputting together an expedition to Vega and I would like you to beonit.” “No, thank you.” “Are you afraid?” I thought for a moment, then nodded.“Yeah. That enters into it.” She sniffed the air like a dog reactingto a bad smell. “Nonsense, Logan. You’re not afraid ofanything.” “Then let’s say I’m cautious.Better yet, let’s say I’m intelligent. No intelligent man orwoman goes to Vega. And nothing this side of a black hole could tugme toward that horrendous pile of rock.” My hand slipped into my jacket pocketand brought out a packet of thin cigars. I inserted one in my mouthand lit it. I took a deep puff and blew out dark gray smoke. “Is that all?” She gave a curtsmile. “Would money influence you?” “Might. There’s a chance, but onlya slim one. How much money are we talking about?” “One million dollars.” That took my breath away. This could bethe occasion for me to retire; no more battles. This could be myonelast mission. Belen leaned back in her chair andsmiled. I took another puff on the cigar. “You know, those thingsused to be bad for you,” she said. “So is a trip to Vega.” I bit into the tobacco and leaned backin the chair. Being genrich meant that my IQ was at the geniuslevel.But that didn’t mean I knew everything, or that events couldn’tcontinue to mystify me. “Belen, why in the world would youwant to go to Vega? It’s not a vacation hotspot. A million istempting, but even then I’m going to refuse.” She walked over, reached her fingersinto my pocket, and pulled out the cigars. She shook the package.When a cigar popped up, she stuck it between her teeth. Shemotionedto me and I lit it for her. Her first puff blew mentholated smokeinto the room. “Let me show you something…” Shethen raised her voice. “Jaclyn, would you come in please?” A door opened in the far wall and atall, young redhead walked into the room. I caught my cigar as italmost fell from my mouth. The young lady had long, lustrous hair.Itreflected the light so that momentarily I thought she had a reddishhalo around her head. She looked at me with dark green eyes. Theskinwas flawless, the milk-white complexion looked immaculate. It hadtobe natural. No machine was that flawless. Her figure, rich andabundant, would have made robots wish they were human, or at leastmale. Her smile radiated warmth. I blinked and stood up. Belen was not an ugly woman. She wasquite beautiful. But she paled in comparison to the stunningredhead.Yet the young lady’s beauty was not the major thing that impressedme about her. “This handsome gentleman is the one Itold you about. Logan, meet Jaclyn Astor. Jaclyn, Logan willaccompany us to Vega. Doesn’t he look distinguished? That deepblack hair.” She walked over and ran her fingers across my jaw.“The black beard stubble. Gives him a ruggedly masculine look,doesn’t it? And a dangerous look.” The redhead walked up and offered herhand. Her smile convinced me life was not only worth living, butworth celebrating. “On the contrary. Mr. Ryvenbark looksrather sweet.” On impulse I didn’t shake her hand,but brought it up to my mouth and kissed her fingers. “Thank you, Miss Astor. It’s been along time since anyone called me sweet. In fact, I don’t think I’veever been called sweet.” “I certainly wouldn’t use thatterm,” Belen said. Looking at such a beautiful woman, Iwondered how the thought nudged into my mind. I was tempted tokneelbefore her, as a loyal soldier would to a queen. “Please call me Jaclyn.” “Call me Logan. You are going toVega?” “Yes.” “Jaclyn, I don’t think Vega is anyplace for civilians. Well, it’s not a place for anybody.” She smiled. “Perhaps not, but I needto go.” “Don’t be impressed by his allegedsweetness. He is much too old for you,” Belen told her. “How old are you, Logan?” Usually it was rude to ask someone’sage, but the voice held such curiosity and naïve affection that itwas impossible to take offense. “One hundred and eighty-six. But Ilook a lot younger. People tell me I don’t look a day over onehundred and twenty.” Jaclyn laughed and looked at Belen.“He’s not only sweet, he’s witty, too.” “Yeah, he’s a laugh a minute. Wouldyou please excuse us, Jaclyn? There are other things Logan and Ineedto talk about.” “Of course.” She moved away andwalked back toward the door. She opened it and disappeared. I had my cigar clasped between fingers.Belen grabbed it and stuck it back between my lips. “You can close your mouth now. Whatdo you think of Jaclyn?” “I’ve never seen anyone like her.Joan of Arc must have given off such an aura. Or maybe the biblicalEve.” “Yes, there is an innocence abouther, isn’t there?” “And a strength.” “Of course. Innocence has strength ofits own. Innocence does not mean weakness.” I shook my head. “Is she Synthetic?Artificial?” Belen gave me a quizzical look that,roughly translated, meant ‘How could you be so dumb?’ “Of course not. Humans, for all oftheir flaws and vices, are the only ones who can be so… virginal.No Synthetic or Artificial could project that. That’s one of thetraits of the human race. We can be evil and we can besaints.” “She’s close to the latter.” “Yes, she is. Speaking of saints,thank you for coming with us to Vega.” “I haven’t said yes yet.” “I know you, Logan. In addition tothe sweetness Jaclyn detected, you have your own type of innocenceand a chivalric ethic. You’re a White Knight.” She leaned back on the desk and stuckthe cigar in her mouth. “So how many men will you need?” “Wait a minute. There—” “Besides, there’s another reason tomake our voyage.” “Ever sought a career as a travelagent, Belen?” “No, I already have a full-time job.” She went behind her desk and rolled thechair out. She wheeled it right in front of me and sat down. “Whatif I told you that at one time there was a highly advancedcivilization on Vega? Now it’s beneath the wind, ice, deserts, andstorms, but it was more highly developed than any currentcivilization we know. It had exceedingly high-tech weapons — morethan enough to wipe out evil races such the Creagers the next timethey attack a peaceful planet.” I rolled the cigar around in myfingers. “Belen, I trust your word. You’ve never lied to me. Sowhen you say something, I assume you know what you’re talkingabout.” “I’ve never led you astray, haveI?” “No, so I will just ask once. Are yousure?” She nodded. “Ninety-five percentsure. There’s always the unexpected and always a slight chance oferror. But ninety-five percent is pretty good odds.” “Yes, it is.” She reached over and touched the beardstubble. “So how many men do you need?” “About a dozen. If I go.” “There’s one other reason youshould join us, if you need one. You can make the most unique andamazing discovery in the history of man if you come withus.” “Just how would I do that?” “Have you ever seen anyone likeJaclyn? I’m not changing the subject. One question is directlyrelated to the other.” “No, I haven’t. There is somethingabout her presence. A type of human magnetism. It’s like goodnesshas a power and it exudes from her.” “Exactly, and you know why she’slike that?” “Have no idea.” She leaned over and stared directly inmy eyes. Her lips moved close to me and she whispered. “She is anAristolan. She has never fallen and her race has never fallen. Theyare the humans we were meant to be. The Adam and Eve on Vega neversinned. They are perfect in body, in spirit, perfect in DNA. Theyare, to use a word never used today because we’ve forgotten what itis, righteous.” Belen paused for a moment, thenwhispered again. “Do you understand the implications formankind?” I nodded, although I wasn’t sure Idid. “So…” I let the word hang in the air for aminute. “So… perhaps I will mosey along to Vega with you, afterall.” After a time of silence, I sat back andmatched her steely gaze with mine. “Have anything to drink?” She snapped her fingers. “Edward, getMr. Ryvenbark a drink. What would you like?” “Whiskey sour.” “Whiskey sour, Edward.” A pale figure in a dazzling black andwhite butler uniform had come into the room. He walked to the bar,mixed a drink and brought it to me. “Tell me he’s not a Synthetic,” Isaid. “No, he’s a robot.” “Good.” “You don’t like Synthetics?” “No, they’re treacherous. You can’ttrust them.” “Then I’m glad I don’t have anyaround.” I sipped my drink. “A half-dozen menmight be enough. But I’d prefer twelve. How much time do Ihave?” “The Aristolans don’t have muchtime. I’d like to leave in two weeks.” I raised my glass to her. “In twoweeks I can get you the toughest, smartest, meanest grunts in thegalaxy.” Edward brought her a drink. She smiledas she sipped the liquor. “So what are our chances if you haveyour tough, mean colleagues with you?” “Of surviving Vega? About tenpercent.” She raised her glass and clinked itagainst mine. “Only ten to one odds. That’s not too bad.” A few minutes later she escorted meinto her command center; high-tech computers, scanners, militaryequipment, communications. There were three large, color-filledscreens. Belen’s homeworld was on one. Her current planet ofresidence was on another, and a third screen showed what Vegalookedlike. An ugly place. A great deal of the planet, at leastthe northern half of it, was covered in blue ice. The polar regionshad grown and invaded the three continents. All had long stretchesofblue that slowly faded and became a light, then a dark, green.Belowthe equator, there were two vast forests, hot, humid, and deadly. Alarge desert stretched above and below the equator on one of thecontinents. Belen tapped a computer. “Betsy, thisis Logan Ryvenbark. Say something, Logan.” “Hello Betsy, how are you?” “Fine. And you Mr. Ryvenbark?” “So good I can hardly stand it.Please call me Logan.” “I shall, Logan.” “Betsy, if you would, please respondto Logan’s voice as if he were me. He will be asking you questionsabout the planet Vega.” She tapped the computer again. “I haveall the information there is on Vega which, to be honest, isn’t allthat much, stored in Betsy. She can also send out anycommunicationsyou need.” I nodded. “The civilization you sayexists, where is it?” She flicked her hand at a screen and acircle of green marked a small area on one of the continents. Thearea was south of an ocean. A green circle was surrounded by angryblacks and reds. Traveling a thousand miles south, another redcirclewas drawn. This one was in a midst of dull yellow. “The green spots are where thecivilizations were buried, and I mean buried. The top one is wherethe Aristolans are located. The circle below is a desert. A fewmilesunderneath are cities and whatever else is left of a race thatmighthave ruled the galaxy for centuries. A rather enlightened race, wesuspect.” “Who is ‘we’?” “A few scientists and other experts Iengaged. They all signed confidential agreements. I wanted to keepitsecret. We didn’t have a chance to do a first-hand inspection, mindyou. There was no one walking around the planet, and certainly noonebelow ground. We sent in probes and some were able to penetrate thesurface.” She tapped on a computer and her fingershowed up on the screen. The nail rat-a-tat-tatted the upper,smallergreen circle. “There are other cities here, webelieve ‘here’ meaning way below the surface.” Belen tapped thegreen spot inside the red again. “We believe there are two races onVega, and perhaps more. Our probes did not go all over the planet.Weaimed for very specific areas. The Aristolans are centered here.Fromall indications, they are rural in nature but not primitive. Noadvanced technology, though. Comparable to Europe in the 1400s.Before industrialization. Their weapons are only spears, swords andarrows. Although they are a peaceful, enlightened race, they needthose weapons.” “That’s surprising. Until now,science offered no opinion on whether the planet was populated.Because of all the bad weather, it was assumed all sentient life,ifthere ever was any, was dead.” “Until now, science paid littleattention to the planet.” That was true enough. At the Academy Idid my dissertation on the history of Florida, my native state.Backin the 1950s, it was still a sparsely populated place. A highwayrandown the east coast and through the middle of the state, withstartsand stops along the west coast. There was a small road running fromthe coastal town of Vero Beach west. Ultimately it crossed a stateroad heading to Orlando. Thirty miles before the crossroads was alittle shack of a town, where nobody went, called Yeehaw Junction.Not really a town, just a few buildings. It was the ultimateout-of-the-way place. Vega was the Yeehaw Junction of thegalaxy. “The Aristolans are surrounded by amore hostile race we named the Molochs.” I looked at the gold cross around herneck. “Biblical reference?” “Yes. I thought the name fit. Thinkof Genghis Khan and his hoards. They seem almost subhuman and theyare determined to exterminate the Aristolans.” “So you want to do a rescue mission?” She shook her head. “Yes. If theAristolans have preserved, or at least kept the technology fromprevious civilizations safe, we can at least help them out abit.” “OK, we can save the race. But wouldit be better to land in the desert?” “Not really. There’s no guaranteethe Molochs wouldn’t attack there, too. They control the rest ofthe planet and they are not neighborly.” “Well, since we don’t have an army,it might help to have the Aristolans on our side.” “That was my thought. And in return,we can provide them with some help. They are hopelesslyoutnumbered.” I sighed and lit another cigar. It wasa great comfort that cigars actually benefited smokers nowadaysinstead of releasing toxins. “You have security forces, Belen. Howmany men will be coming with us?” She didn’t hesitate. “About ahundred.” “Trained?” “Not as well trained as LoganRyvenbark and his private crew, nor as well trained as his friendsCommander Cleed and Lt. Jade. But my men are competent andcourageous.” “OK, Belen. But tell me this. I knowwhy I’m going to Vega. I know why you’re going. Jaclyn is goingbecause…?” “She’s going home. She was bornthere.”
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