Liberty Station – Chapter Two

Jessica Cook removed her Astros cap long enough to wipe her face and reapply her insect repellent. The jungles of Guatemala were even hotter and more humid than she’d feared. What had she been thinking?

The trees towered over her, filled with life that called out to attract or warn off others that she would never see. The cover didn’t stop the undergrowth, though. Someone had cut a path through the worst of it, but that wasn’t saying much. And, God, the humidity! She was soaked in sweat.

Besides being far more uncomfortable than she’d counted on, this jaunt was taking her away from her job as the chief construction engineer for Liberty Station. They were coming up on some very important deadlines and she really should be preparing for them.

The rest of the world—those that even paid attention to such things—thought Liberty Station was going to be a space hotel for the uberwealthy. The truth behind that story was a lot more impressive. Clayton Rogers was building the first spaceship to take humans to Mars and beyond.

If the truth got out, plenty of people would try to stop them. The only players in space these days were the Indians and the Chinese. Both had Mars locked in their sights and were determined to be the first to put a human on the Red Planet. They’d lose that race when Liberty Station stole a march on them. Just one more reason to keep things quiet, since those governments might be able to stop them if they had enough warning.

The United States had given up on space, turning their attention to purely terrestrial problems. Oh, they’d tried to keep up appearances, but the ISS2 space station project had imploded financially. Mister Rogers had bought the unfinished skeleton and they’d corrected its flaws and expanded on it.

They’d be the first global corporation to focus on the rest of the solar system, and the riches—both financial and scientific—awaiting them. With their technological lead, they’d have years to set up infrastructure that the rest of the world would be hard-pressed to match.

She stumbled a little and forced herself to focus on the here and now. A broken leg would slow her down even more than this side trip.

The boat had dropped her and her guides off that morning, but it had taken them all day to traverse just a few miles of thick jungle. The workers had it much harder than she did, though. They had boxes and bags of equipment and supplies to carry. The sight of them all moving in a long line reminded her of an old Tarzan movie. She could’ve used a pith helmet.

A stone column was the first indication they’d entered the Mayan ruins. With all the people behind her, she couldn’t stop to examine it. Not that she could see much anyway. The thick vegetation hid it almost completely.

She began looking at the hills around them. The ones behind the caravan looked normal. The ones in front of them were more angular. They weren’t hills at all. They were pyramids covered in jungle growth.

They’d arrived at the city.

The ghost of a road led them deeper into the long abandoned capitol of some forgotten Mayan kingdom. Her imagination filled in the missing details and she could see it as a bustling metropolis. Considering the Mayan’s technological level, the city was a marvel.

She spotted a few young men and women with survey equipment on a small rise ahead. They waved as she and her party walked past them. Jess cheerfully waved back.

The caravan leader took them to the central camp in what must have once been a great courtyard. Tents stood in neat rows just past a large, dark hole in the ground. A small tumble of stone marked what she imagined had been a short wall surrounding it.

Doctor Abel Valdez stepped out from one of the tents and waved at her. “Jess! You made excellent time! Come! I must show you what we found.”

Even though she ached to sit and rest, she wanted to see what had gotten her old friend so excited. And to find out what possible assistance an orbital engineer with degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering, and several minors in space sciences, would be at an ancient ruin.

His enthusiasm was as infectious as she remembered from college. He’d almost convinced her to become an archaeologist before she’d dedicated her life to engineering. The past had called to him even as the stars seduced her toward space.

Jessica pulled him into a hug. “Abel! Take a breath! How are you? This place is amazing!”

His expression turned sheepish. “Better than good. I apologize. I should let you rest and recover from your trip.”

“And miss this mysterious find of yours?” she asked with a smile. “No way. Maybe now you’ll explain what the hell is so important that you couldn’t tell me over the phone.”

She’d been at the Yucatan Spaceport, so it had only been a matter of hours to fly to Guatemala. And then three days of rough travel involving overland driving, a boat she’d been certain would capsize, and a full day hiking through almost impenetrable jungle.

Abel grinned. “This is the most important find of this century and possibly any other. This city is probably from the late classical Mayan period, so around AD 700 to 900. I need your help in deciphering something critical.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “I’m an engineer. What I remember about archaeology wouldn’t fill a small notebook.”

“It would be much easier to show you. I’ve kept details on this particular aspect of the dig quiet. If word gets out, it will draw the wrong kind of attention. You’ve studied astronomy and other esoteric space skills for your work in orbit. That is the kind of assistance I need.”

Jess blinked in surprise. “Seriously? How can that possibly be useful?”

“Come inside and I will show you.”

Abel led her to a formidable pyramid. Someone had cleared part of it and she could see the ancient stones as they climbed the steps to the top. He grabbed a pair of flashlights sitting with some equipment and took her inside. They’d strung lights, but there were still pools of darkness between the widely spaced bulbs.

He led her down through a confusing series of shafts and rooms. They moved too quickly for her to do more than glance at the stonework. Carvings worn with age covered some sections of the walls. She couldn’t tell much about them. The stone beneath their feet was rubbed smooth by the passage of unnumbered feet. The almost oppressive weight of the ancient building above them made her crouch lower as they walked.

He finally reached a large chamber with a well in the center of the floor. Now every bit of stone contained images that tugged at her memory. She’d seen similar carvings in textbooks back in college. The room looked very important.

Oddly, they had passed no other people while getting here.

“Where is everyone?” she asked.

“Outside. I couldn’t allow them to see the last chamber I found.”

Jess saw that someone had put a wooden ladder inside the well when she stepped close. Rather than leading to water, it took them down to a chamber with four evenly spaced tunnels leading away into the earth.

Unlike the chamber above, this area was purely functional. None of the tunnels looked very stable, but one seemed particularly shaky. Someone had braced it with makeshift wooden beams. That was, of course, the direction Abel led her.

She eyed the ceiling warily. “That doesn’t seem very safe.”

“It’s good enough for the moment,” he said. “We’ll bring in stouter timbers once we have the find fully documented. Word cannot be allowed to spread or looters will descend on this place like a biblical plague.”

She ducked down and followed him through a twisting passage that led to another chamber. It was at least twice the size of the one above them. Rather than the rectangular shape she’d expected, it was circular. Except for the far wall, which was flat. The center of the room held another well. This one might even be real, as she could hear what sounded like water below.

The wall froze her in place. It held something impossible.

Though stylized, the inlay was obviously a map of the solar system. She remembered enough to know the Mayans didn’t display their representations of the planets like this. They made sky bands showing the planets and representing the paths they followed overhead.

Yet the scene before her wouldn’t be out of place in modern America. It clearly showed the sun as the center of the solar system. Something she wasn’t certain the Mayans had known. Even the spacing between the planets looked approximately correct. Each world had a line of inlayed gold for its orbital path.

Abel gestured toward the wall unnecessarily. “You see why I contacted you? This cannot exist, yet it does. I need you to tell me if this is some kind of elaborate forgery. It seems to be as old as the ruin, but I can no longer trust my judgment.”

Jess stepped closer and examined the jade insets representing the planets. They were about the right sizes, even for the worlds the Mayans shouldn’t have known existed. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but they only knew about the visible planets, right?”

“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “They knew of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon. They might also have been aware of one or two of the largest asteroids. Ceres and possibly Vesta. That’s it.”

She pointed at the worlds outside Jupiter’s orbit. “Yet here we have the outer planets. This shows the moons around them as little chips of jade. Even Pluto, Charon and Eris.

“And one even further out. A big one. I’ve read that scientists suspected that there were a few undiscovered bodies out there of significant size, but this one is almost as big as Earth. Quite the discovery, if true. How could the Mayan’s know any of this?”

The archaeologist shrugged. “I have no idea. And that’s not all. See this?” He pointed to another orbit, this one going around the sun inside Mercury and out beyond Eris. Its orbital path was inlayed with what looked like oxidized silver. “This looks like a comet. And here along its path? These markings are faint, but I think they’re dates from the Mayan calendar.”

The marks meant nothing to her, but she could look them up at some later point. “May I take pictures?”

“Of course, so long as you promise to keep them confidential.”

“I don’t imagine I’ll need to talk to anyone about it. There’s a very large database of heavenly bodies and their orbits. I can check it myself and use some computer time to see if these marks indicate a real time that matches any known orbits.”

He nodded slowly. “Take your pictures and we can go back to camp. Dinner will be ready soon. We have much to discuss.”

* * * * *

Nathan Bennett scanned the endless jungle outside the helicopter door. How could anyone find anything in this green hell? They could’ve flown over the target a half dozen times and been none the wiser.

His money had gotten them information that led to the river drop off, but none of the people he’d bribed had known where the ruins were located. They might be an easy day’s walk or a week down some hidden trail. He had to keep looking, though, because Mommy Dearest wanted this woman.

Not that he cared, but the target was an important cog in his father’s space hotel scheme. That idiocy seemed to matter to the old man, so his mother knew any disruption she could manage there would hurt him. And that’s what she wanted most in the world: to hurt her ex-husband, no matter the cost.

He’d rolled his eyes and loaded a team on his private jet when she’d ordered him to do so. He couldn’t imagine what use his mother would get from a space engineer. That made no sense at all.

Perhaps it was because she’d lost a lot of money and prestige when the US space program had collapsed. A decade ago, the liberal politicians in charge of the Federal government had wanted the money being “wasted” on the new ISS2 space station to go to public projects for the people who’d elected them.

The conservative minority had gone along so that some money could go to military spending. Unsurprisingly with the reduced budget, the project had come apart. Massive computer design failures crippled the control center when none of the software worked as promised. And his mother had already fired the people who could’ve walked the systems back to something workable to increase her profit margin.

In space, the station construction fell far behind schedule, even with the corners she’d cut, and the estimated costs rose precipitously. The government didn’t do what his mother had expected, which was to pay through the nose to complete the work.

Instead, they terminated the contract. Lagrange Multinational—his mother’s space company—had gone bankrupt, saddling her with massive debt and splashing egg all over her face.

The Russian government bought out all the international partners for pennies on the dollar, though he knew they didn’t have the spare cash to complete the proposed station. They were far too busy subverting and invading the nations of the old Soviet Union while the US stood around uselessly waving its hands.

Not that Nathan cared. Whatever his mother wanted, she got. So long as she paid.

“Smoke at two o’clock,” the pilot said over the intercom.

Nathan looked ahead of them and spotted it. Thin and grey, but undoubtedly smoke. “Find a place to set us down.”

“I might be able to drop you in the river, but that’s six or seven miles away. I haven’t seen a single break in the canopy.”

“Keep looking,” Nathan snarled. “I’m not dropping into the water and hacking my way through the jungle. I need a place where you can pick us back up.” Carrying an unwilling guest through this would be a nightmare.

His second in command, a bruiser named Jake Farley, jerked his chin toward the open door. “Why not drop in on top of them? We can rappel into their camp and get this over with.”

Nathan gave him a steady look. “Because this isn’t going down like the job in Syria. There’s far less paperwork for me if we don’t kill everyone that might recognize the helicopter or us.”

“It’s easier for me,” Jake said indifferently.

“Right up until one of the local guards shoots you while you try to get untangled from a tree. We do this my way.”

The man shrugged. “Whatever.”

Nathan really needed to get some new blood on the team.

The pilot circled around the ruins at a distance. The jungle would dampen the sound of the helicopter rotors to a soft murmur. Technology couldn’t completely eliminate the noise, but it was a lot better than it had been around the turn of the century. In his line of work, getting in and out quietly made the high cost of the equipment a no-brainer.

He finally caught a break about ten minutes later. A tree-covered hill rose above the canopy. The area it shaded from the sun had a relatively bare spot they could rappel into. He tapped the pilot on the shoulder and pointed. “We’ll go in there. How long for you to get here when I call?”

“About ninety minutes. Add half an hour to get the bird ready.”

“Bullshit. Keep the bird ready to roll. When I call, I want you in the air in ten minutes.”

The pilot’s acknowledgement was more than a bit surly, but Nathan knew the man would do what he’d told him. He’d seen firsthand the kind of pain Nathan could inflict on those who failed him.

It was already late in the day, so Nathan would get them settled in and wait out the darkness. Under other circumstances, he’d prefer to attack at night, but it would be far too easy to break legs and fall into holes stumbling through the wilds of Guatemala. Or be eaten by something. They’d strike out at dawn, locate the camp, and take the woman.

The pilot brought the helicopter to a hover over the bare patch and Nathan tossed his rope out the open door. He watched it fall to make sure it didn’t kink. That could cause someone to lose their grip and fall right to the ground. That would be their problem, of course, but he didn’t want to have less than a full team when he got to the camp.

Nathan checked his harness, took off his headphones, and stepped out onto the helicopter’s skid tube. One last check below and he kicked off, using his braking hand to control the speed of his descent. He slowed to a crawl just above the ground and landed lightly on his feet.

It took only a moment to disconnect his D-ring and raise his weapon to cover the landing zone. He stepped away from the rope and watched as his people come in with mild satisfaction. All six of them made it to the ground safely.

They spread out to watch every approach to the LZ as the crew chief pulled the ropes back up. The helicopter turned and headed back for the airfield.

Nathan led the way into the jungle. It stank, and there must’ve been a million different creatures making suspicions noises in the gloom. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to live in a shithole like this.

The already faint light dropped off to almost nothing under the canopy. The way became congested with undergrowth so thick he had to put his rifle away and draw his machete.

This job was going to be a real pleasure. Thank God he’d fought hard for a bonus.

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