The Freedom Express – Chapter Three

“We’re starting to get some surface scans back, Captain.”

Harry looked up from the procedure he’d been writing and examined the main screen. They had a rotating object with the same rough shape as the comet on display. Unlike the real one, this recreation was light grey and was beginning to get some elevation shading.

He’d seen video from the surface. It was darker than the Devil’s armpit. Even with the lifter’s lights playing over the surface, it still drank in the illumination.

Radar and laser rangefinders, on the other hand, were working just fine. The lasers got them precise elevations and the radar penetrated the surface to look for things they couldn’t see. Like any hidden bases or old mining shafts.

He’d been disappointed when he’d heard how shallow the initial readings would be. The radar wouldn’t map the entire interior of the comet. Far from it. Still, this should be enough to find anything obvious, or only marginally hidden.

“How long to map the entire surface?” he asked.

“A few hours,” Lindsay said. “Though the spin will bring most of it into view in less than an hour. Then the lifter has to go hit the areas that aren’t rotating the way we want.”

A chime on his console drew his attention. It was Jess. He opened the channel.

“Talk to me, Liberty Five.”

“I think these military names are silly. Who’s spying on us up here? Can’t you just call me Jess? It was good enough for Kirk and Spock.”

“You’re a civilian through and through. What can I do for you, Jess?”

“I just thought you’d like to know we’ve sunk a few test holes and I have excellent news. This isn’t an extinct comet after all. It’s a dormant one.”

“And the difference is?” he asked.

“The difference, my martial friend, is that under a few centimeters of hard surface, there are plenty of volatiles and organics. We’ll have to take the samples back to the ship to get a breakdown.”

“That’s good news, but isn’t this thing on its way out of the solar system?”

“That is a problem,” she admitted. “It will be past Mars before we could even set up shop. I figure we have roughly three more days before we need to start decelerating for Mars orbit. Then it just keeps rolling right back out of the system. It’s not going to be a source of fuel for us, but it makes for good science. There are plenty of similar specimens near Mars and Earth.

“But enough about me. What have you found?”

“That the surface of that thing isn’t so conducive to just seeing anything. We’re mapping and looking for anomalies, but that might take a couple of hours.”

Lindsay cleared her throat. “Good timing, Harry. We just spotted one of those aforementioned anomalies. It’s almost on the other side of the comet from Jess’ team.”

“I heard that,” Jess said. “What is it?”

“Some kind of surface structure, I think. The lines are too regular to be natural.”

Harry grinned. “Jackpot! Jess, I’m going to grab a lifter and head that way. I’ll pick you up.”

“Roger, wilco, and all that. See you in a few minutes.”

It took longer than a few minutes to get a team together. This time he had Sandra Dean, Jeremy Gonzales, Leann Branson, and Rex Jamison from his special operations team with him. They’d be on hand to deal with any trouble.

He also had Doctors Rachel Powell and Paulette Young. They were the restoration specialists his father had hired to preserve anything they found. They’d been working on the language the others had used.

The ship’s chief engineer, Ray Proudfoot, had slipped in at the last second. Harry wasn’t going to complain.

Their lifter detached from Liberty Station and made the trip to where Jess was waiting in just a few minutes. She boarded and strapped in next to him. Neither of them removed their helmets.

“Any more detail on what you’ve found?” she asked.

“Not really. The subsurface readings are a little cloudy. There might be an open area under the structure, but they can’t be sure.”

“Do you really think it’s a base or mining facility?”

He shrugged. “I’m not going to prejudge. Whatever it is, we’ll know in just a few minutes.”

The lifter made short work of circling the comet. Harry spotted the unnatural lines of the target as they were settling in and the lifters lights played over it.

It was a cross between a dome and a rectangular building. It wasn’t very tall, and had a number of flat triangular panels fitted together. Definitely artificial, and it looked intact.

“Holy shit,” Jess whispered. “We really found something.”

“Looks like. All right everyone. Listen up. We’re treating this as a potentially hostile entry. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to and be wary of booby traps. If someone opens fire on you, light them up. Clear?”

His team quickly confirmed it was.

“Do you really think we’re going to get into a shootout on a comet that hasn’t been visited in hundreds of years?” Jess asked.

“Not really, no.” Harry unstrapped and held onto the back of his seat. “But if the unexpected happens, we’ll be ready.”

She sighed. “I suppose I can’t blame you. Our luck with this hasn’t been the best. Everyone, link up with lines. I don’t want someone getting all excited and jumping off into deep space. That would be embarrassing for all of us. And be ready for any use of those pistols to send you flying. Use them only as a last resort and brace yourselves.”

Jess was the resident expert on zero-G operations, so Harry deferred to her leadership in getting everyone out of the lifter. Frankly, he couldn’t imagine anyone being up here. This facility had to have been abandoned long ago.

Harry had seen pictures of the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. This was nothing like that. The comet didn’t have enough gravity to pull them down at anything approaching speed, so they used their suit’s thrusters to behave as though they were working outside the ship in flight. Honestly, this was about the same.

The structure had an obvious entrance. Two of them, actually. A large one that certainly looked big enough to allow the crashed ship they’d found to pass through it and a smaller one that seemed suitable for people. Both doors were flat and rectangular, standing at ground level.

“We’ll check out the personnel lock first,” he said.

They floated over to it as a group. It was made of the same metal as the crashed ship. The wall panels seemed to be the same makeup as the comet’s crust. He supposed they’d used local materials as much as possible.

The hatch was just like the one on the crashed ship, except it seemed geared to going down instead of sideways. He found the dimple where the key they’d found would fit. He pulled it carefully from a pouch at his waist. The chief engineer had attached a line to it for him, so even if he let it go, it should stay right there with him.

Harry slid the key into the lock until it clicked. The hatch came to life and slid down into the comet, revealing an airlock very similar to the one on the crashed ship.

“They still have power,” Jess said. “That’s a very good sign.”

“Rex, you and Sandra take lead,” he said. “Cycle inside and call us back with a status. If for any reason you can’t reach us, come right back out.”

“Copy that,” his scout said. “Come on, Sandra. Time to make the donuts.”

“Really?” Sandra asked. “That’s what you have to say on an important occasion like this?” The sniper sounded disgusted.

“What would you like me to say,” Rex asked as he went into the lock. “This is one small step for man, and that chick that came with him?”

“You’re going to pay for that.”

The two of them were still bickering as the airlock cycled. Since Harry could still hear them, he knew the building wasn’t blocking their signals.

“Are they always like that?” Jess asked. “I really never worked with both of them at the same time.”

“You have no idea.”

The two inside went silent, their bickering ending abruptly. That wasn’t natural.

“You two okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Sandra said. “The inside door is open and something unexpected happened. As soon as the airlock closed, something pulled us down to the floor. It feels like we have normal gravity in here. I’d have expected there to be air, but it’s still reading as a vacuum.”

“Holy cow,” Jess said reverently. “Artificial gravity. Do you have any idea of the implications this has?”

“Not a clue,” Harry admitted. “And it doesn’t matter right now. We’re exploring a possibly hostile area. We can celebrate once we’re sure it’s safe.”

“It looks clear in here, Liberty Six,” Rex said. “The personnel lock leads to a short corridor beside what looks like a hanger. There’s a clear window looking into it. There’s no ship there, but it’s the right size for the one you found.”

“Pity,” Jess said. “It would’ve been nice to find one intact.”

“True,” Harry agreed. “Rex and Sandra, does it seem safe?”

“Come on in,” Sandra said. “The water’s fine.”

“And you were giving me shit about my little speech?” Rex asked, starting the two of them off again.

Harry led the rest of them into the airlock and took the key with him. Honestly, that seemed like a crappy way to get into and out of things. There had to be something they didn’t know.

The interior of the building had a fine layer of dust on everything. One that didn’t show any footprints besides their own. The room on the other side of the glass did look like a hanger. Racks of containers and bins bracketed an open area right in front of the larger door.

They’d have to make their way to examine it at some point, but he was more interested in what else the building contained.

The short hallway ended at another door. This one had a button they could press. He mentally shrugged and pressed it.

The door slid open revealing what certainly appeared to be an elevator. The panel beside the door on the inside had ten buttons with alien characters beside them.

He recognized them as numerals from the book. The restoration specialists had been hard at work cracking the language used in the Voynich Manuscript and the book. They still had a ways to go, but some things were becoming clear, based on their last report.

“These are numbers, right?”

Paulette Young nodded. “We’ve figured that much out. One through ten. Just like an elevator.”

“So, the question now is do we work our way down one level at a time or go for broke?”

Jess reached past him and pressed the button for level ten. “Let’s live dangerously.”

The doors slid closed with slow finality.

* * * * *

Nathan Bennett made his way through customs and looked for his driver. He spotted the man negligently leaning against a late model black sedan holding a sign with Nathan’s name on it. Misspelled, of course.

The man barely moved when Nathan dropped his bag in front of him.

“Signor Bennett?” the man asked with a strong Italian accent.

“No, I’m Leo Tolstoy.”

“Sorry, not your car.”

Nathan counted to ten slowly. “Yes, I’m Bennett.”

The man frowned. “Why didn’t you said so?”

“Take my damned bag and let’s get going. I’ve been up for hours and have people to meet before I can sleep.”

“Of course.” The man picked up Nathan’s bag and tossed it into the trunk. He didn’t bother to open the door for his passenger. He’d better not expect much of a tip.

“Where to, signore?”

“Regina Coeli prison. I need to see a man.”

The driver put the car in gear and pulled out of the airport. He seemed unconcerned as other drivers cut him off and in two cases, almost smashed the front of the car. Nathan had forgotten how insane the Italian traffic was.

The driver’s curses at the other maniacs seemed pro forma. As if he was required to yell at them, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“Who are you going to see, signore?” the man asked.

Nathan considered telling him to bugger off, but decided it didn’t really matter. This was just make work his mother had handed him. As if the failure to take out the spaceship was his fault.

“Alessio Romano.”

The driver perked up a little. “The judge? Ah, now there, signore, is a story.”

“Why don’t you tell it to me? I like stories.”

“Of course. The judge, he has friends that do bad things. He is very wealthy. Well, more like he was wealthy. He gave a lot of his money to his daughter.”

“And this matters to me how?”

“Ah! Because he swears he did no such thing. He said some woman drugged him and made him give it up! And the police, they found drugs. The woman, she was there. Her voice was on a recording the police in Rome received where Romano confessed to drugging and raping women. Big scandal.”

Nathan smiled. “It’s always gratifying to see someone screw up worse than one’s self. Is that all?”

The driver shook his head. “No. The woman, he says she stole papers from him. Art.”

That sounded odd. “What kind of art?”

“Manuscript pages. Like those in old books.”

Nathan sat bolt upright. Those sounded suspiciously like what his mother had been griping about. “With strange writing no one can read and pictures of plants that don’t exist?”

The man grinned. “Yes! Exactly! How did you know?”

“That’s not important. How long until we get to the prison?”

“I will check.” He pulled out his cell phone and called someone. They spoke briefly for a few moments before he hung up. “There is a problem.”

Of course there was. “What kind of problem? Some kind of accident?”

“The judge, well, he has killed himself. Or someone who didn’t want him talking made it look like it. But there is a positive side to this.”

Perfect. “I can’t imagine what that would be.”

The driver pulled to the side of the road and stopped the car. He turned in his seat before Nathan could say anything and pointed an automatic at him in what looked like a competent manner.

“It’s good for me that you can explain what those manuscript pages mean and who the woman was,” the driver said, his Italian accent much less noticeable now. “Alessio might have been a fat pig, but his death leaves a gap in our ranks. Someone will pay for that. What you need to worry about Mister Bennett is convincing me to start looking for someone else to bother.”

If you’d like to be notified as soon as the book is released, sign up for my mailing list by entering your email into the box on the right side of this page. I’ll only contact you with new releases or sales. No spam.