Chapter 02

Sneak - Peek (2)

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Assignment 2179 CE

Hickory’s personal hollo-channel signaled a new message just as she’d finished with her class for the day. Her eyebrows rose. She hadn’t spoken to Prefect Cortherien for months. “Meet me in my office at seven. There’s an important matter we need to discuss.”

Hickory arrived a few minutes early and sat in reception, alternately cracking her knuckles, and glancing at the wall clock. At seven precisely, the security door buzzed, and she strode through.

The prefect lowered the shield on his console and rose from his nineteenth-century walnut writing desk. He reached for Hickory’s hands and held her at arm’s length. “My dear, how good to see you again. You look well. Teaching must agree with you.”

“You would say so, Pierre. You’re the one who recommended me for the job.” She smiled pleasantly at the prefect.

He frowned at her familiarity, then turned his scowl into a smile to match her own. “I terminated your employment with the Alien Corps for your own good—I was concerned for your welfare, child.” He patted her hand.

Hickory emitted a quick snort. After finding the lifeless body of Crxtor Aliaq, she’d spent weeks trudging through the flea-infested swamps and jungles of Aquarius IV, fruitlessly chasing up clues to his murder. When Hickory returned to Earth, physically and emotionally exhausted, Cortherien had sacked her. She shook her head. “My welfare? I needed your support, Pierre, not your concern.”

His smile faded, and he let her hands drop. He crossed to his desk and shuffled some papers. “Your father dropped by the other day. He asked me to pass on his good wishes and says he hopes to be able to spend some time with you on his next visit.”

Hickory swallowed. She opened the french windows leading to the balcony and stepped out into the fresh air. Leaning over the parapet, she breathed deeply and gazed at the vista of New Rome. After the war, the United World Government had rebuilt the city as a shining example of the new order, declaring it Earth’s capital and the epicenter of world government.

Ancient monuments like the Coliseum and the Pantheon were obliterated during the war and reconstructed from original drawings. They now took pride of place in the city’s central parklands. Spiraling towers and shimmering domes stretched as far as the eye could see. Made from glass and plasteelskin, they changed color and shape depending on the weather and time of day. All private vehicles were banned from the city, but public transport capsules and atomic taxi cabs zoomed along multi-layered highways that looped around buildings and lesser roads like tangled spaghetti.

“That’s nice,” she said finally. “What did the admiral come to see you about?” Hickory kept her back to the prefect. When her mother died giving birth to her younger brother, Michael, her father had offloaded both to his sister, Maddie. For fifteen years, the only communication she’d received was an occasional birthday card with his name printed on it. In the last five years, there’d been nothing. George Lace held the rank of flag officer in the navy. He rarely made it back to Earth and never so much as called her when he did.

Cortherien came to her side and spoke in a soft voice. “Your father does care for you, you know. As the head of the Intragalactic Agency, he carries enormous responsibility for the security of the Alliance. Over forty known planets are at a comparable stage of development to Earth. I don’t want to preach at you, Hickory, but not all of these are friendly, and your father is the person responsible for neutralizing potential threats. He can’t just drop everything and come home, much as he might want to.” He patted her on the shoulder.

How much of his precious time would it take just to say hello? I bet he caught up with Michael. She turned away from the balustrade and sighed. “I’m amazed he knows I teach here.” She paused, struck by the truth of her own words. No way would her father have known. Something else must be going on. She sought Cortherien’s gaze, but he averted his eyes. The prefect is hiding something from me.

Hickory was a neoteric, one of a small percentage of the population born in the aftermath of World War Three with a mutated supramarginal gyrus in their cerebral cortex. As Hickory grew, so did the mutation, and so did her empathic power. By the time Hickory turned fifteen, her spontaneous piggybacking onto other people’s feelings reached the point where she had trouble distinguishing which thoughts were her own.

Her doctor arranged for her to be hooked up to PORO, which allowed eminent surgeons from New York, London, Moscow, and Tel-Aviv to work on her mind. Under the guidance of the bio-computer, they applied patches and created new gateways in her brain to reduce the intensity of her empathic responses.

Ever since then, Hickory could generally tell if someone was lying or avoiding the truth by sensing minute changes in their body language. But Cortherien was aware of her talents and skilled at masking his feelings.

“That’s probably enough about your family issues, Hickory. We have more important things to concern ourselves with than whether your father loves you.”

She smiled, knowing the barb was aimed at deflecting her from the truth.

Cortherien lit a Sobranie Black Russian and inhaled deeply. “Disgusting habit, I know.” He exhaled a long stream of smoke. “But it calms my nerves.”

Hickory’s nose wrinkled at the pungent aroma.

The prefect continued, “Admiral Lace brought some exciting news from the far side of the Eridanus constellation, about twenty light-years from Earth. They’ve discovered an inhabited planet. It’s called Prosperine and has an oxygen-based atmosphere and a dominant life form similar in body plan to humans.”

He switched on a holographic image. “You can see the species is bipedal and looks remarkably humanoid. They call themselves Avanauri, after their homeland in the northern continent.”

Hickory stared. The alien wore a three-quarter length cloak draped over its shoulders. It appeared tall and thin, with long stick-like legs and arms. Its skin was predominantly white, with dark pigmentation on its neck and around the eyes. The oval-shaped head was devoid of hair except for a thin strip running along the top of the skull like a Mohawk. Created in God’s image. The irreverent thought flitted through her mind. “How intelligent are they?” she asked.

Cortherien stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. “I’m told the Avanauri race is more ancient than humankind, but their brains have developed more slowly. According to the admiral, their society is medieval. Scientists have studied their genetic makeup and say they are approaching a critical point in the evolution of their species.

“It seems their intellect is likely to rapidly increase over the next century. It’s estimated the Avanauri will be on a par with humanity within a few hundred years.”

Hickory felt a flutter of anticipation in her belly. Why was the prefect telling her this? She said nothing, waiting.

The prefect cleared his throat. “How long is it since you’ve been on assignment, Hickory?”

She could have told him to the day, even the hour when she returned from her last mission. Three years, two months, and ten days. “Three years,” she said.

He smiled at her and nodded. “And no doubt you miss being in the field. The good news is Admiral Lace has asked that you be released from your academic duties to work with the Intragalactic Agency in the Avanaux capital, Ezekan.”

Hickory’s heartbeat raced, and she felt her cheeks glow. She averted her eyes so Cortherien wouldn’t see the excitement shining through.

The prefect walked to the wall dispenser and said, “Coffee, black with two.” He raised his eyebrows at Hickory, who shook her head. He took a sip from the steaming brew, then lit his third cigarette. “Reports have been coming in over the last few months that religious fanaticism is on the rise. There have been claims of miracles by a local mystic who goes by the name of Kar-sèr-Sephiryth. Loosely translated, it means ‘Kar, beloved son.’ His followers call him ‘Teacher.’” He strolled over to the window.

Hickory felt strangely lightheaded. She forced herself to focus on the prefect’s words. “You think this Teacher might be the one?”

The prefect hesitated. “How long have the Corps been looking?” He glanced down at the plaza below before continuing. “It’s been eighty years since the discovery of Philip’s manuscript, and in that time, we’ve investigated fourteen potential messiahs.” He turned and blew a stream of smoke in her direction. “Including the one unfortunately killed during your last mission. Perhaps this ‘beloved son’ is the one we’ve been searching for. At the least, we need to explore the possibility. But there is a problem.

“Agency spies on the planet say the Teacher is a thorn in the side of the government, which, I suppose, is what one might expect. He also seems to be the target of a disgruntled cleric called Sequana. Apparently, Sequana considers anyone who strays from the traditions of the past to be a heretic. I’m told he would like nothing better than to return the planet to the dark ages.”

“So, the chances are he’ll be dead by the time I arrive?” Or just after. Hickory felt her stomach churn.

Cortherien grimaced and exhaled a cloud of smoke before continuing. “Hickory, do you believe in our mission?”

It was a fair question. One she had struggled with, especially since her return from Aquarius IV. “Honestly? I don’t know whether I do or not, but I believe we can’t stop searching.”

“Agreed, although I would put it more positively. Someday, Hickory, on some remote, insignificant little planet, we will find another Christ. What happens at that moment in time will be pivotal in determining whether the human race, indeed all life in the universe, continues to exist.”

“I doubt either of us will be alive to see it.”

“What an experience that would be. To meet the Son of God in the flesh, perhaps to speak with the Almighty through Him. Think about it!” His eyes gleamed.

“I wish I could share your vision, Pierre.” Such a possibility was inconceivable to Hickory. She brought the subject back to Prosperine. “What I don’t understand is why the Alliance is so interested in a medieval planet.”

The prefect’s fingers flicked at his cigarette, dislodging ash onto the floor as he paced back and forth. The fervor left his eyes, and he turned to face Hickory. “Politics—what else? There’s been an upsurge in violence and rumors of revolution in the capital. The civil government has asked the Galactic Alliance for help.”

Hickory shook her head, bewildered. “The Alliance doesn’t get involved in local squabbles.”

“Which is why they’ve requested the Corps to join their investigation. We have a vital interest in this Teacher, and...” Hickory waited. “And,” Cortherien began again, nodding, “the admiral has been negotiating sole buyer status for Avanaux’s crynidium—”

“Crynidium? They have crynidium?” Hickory’s eyes widened. The liquid metal, essential for faster-than-light travel, had so far been discovered on only a handful of planets. Calling it rare did not do it justice. No wonder the Alliance was involved.

“Yes, and Admiral Lace was quite explicit. He’s running point on this mission, and he’s never dealt with a species so different. Given the sensitivity and importance of the relationship, he wants the Alien Corps on the team—he believes your rather unique talents could come in useful.”

Hickory sensed a whiff of duplicity. Perhaps the admiral thought her skills might come in handy, but the prefect had other ideas. She dropped her eyes. She was desperate for another chance to prove herself in the field, but after the debacle on Aquarius IV, she didn’t know if she still had what it took. And why would Cortherien approve her secondment to a vital operation against his better judgment? Did he want her to fail again? “As I recall, you were the one who said I was no longer up to the rigors of the Corps.”

A bead of perspiration glistened on Cortherien’s forehead and trickled slowly towards his eyebrow. “Your father insisted—and I do agree with him—this mission will benefit from someone with your training and skill set. Guile will be more helpful than athleticism, and besides, you have four months to get into shape.”

That still didn’t answer the question: why her? Either Cortherien didn’t know, or he wasn’t prepared to say. She probed, but all she could feel was an intense pressure to deny her. The request for her transfer must have been persuasive, she thought, but who had the authority to demand compliance from the Vatican? She let the question lie unanswered. Time for that later.

They negotiated terms. Hickory would be assigned the rank of commander and could hand-pick her crew. She and her team would be given access to the Agency’s elite fitness program and any classified intelligence on Prosperine and its people. Hickory would have sole discretion once she arrived on the planet, reporting only to the admiral, but keeping Cortherien up to date on her progress whenever possible.

“One more thing,” said Cortherien, “the Avanauri government has banned the use of modern weapons and technology on their planet. The Agency will provide you with whatever you need.”

That evening Hickory began working out at the university gym, stretching, boxing and cycling. Her first session lasted two hours, and she went home tired and aching. She stared at the unopened bottle of ten-year-old Barbaresco, then poured a glass of cold water and took it to bed with her.

Early the following day, she jogged around the lake in the gardens of Villa Borghese. The autumn sunlight shimmered through the leaves of Chestnuts and Oaks, casting dappled light along her path. After the first ten minutes, she was too puffed to appreciate the beauty of it and was forced to stop frequently to ease the stitch in her side.

Into the second week, she began to see improvement in her muscle tone and aerobic capacity and purchased a road bike. On Saturday, Hickory called her grandmother to say she was coming over for some pasta.

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The main character Hickory Lace is a dynamic character with real issues, and faults she is not a ‘super woman’. Her relationship with her father and her deep conflictions about her job was a continuous underlying thread and helped shaped her motivations throughout the story. All of the characters had their own agenda’s, wounds and motivations. I wanted to hear their story.

B D (USA)

The Alien Corps is a fascinating and thought-provoking story that mixes adventure, and exotic locations and is filled with believable characters that I wanted to know more about. After reading the first part of the trilogy I am looking forward to more adventure when the second part is released.
This is an exciting and riveting science fiction adventure.

sonyboy 39 (UK)

I feel this is one of the best reads I've had in a long while. I am looking forward to the next in the series. Excellent characters and a great plot.

Kindle 2 (USA)

Delightfully well-written, totally intriguing tale. A thoroughly absorbing story of an encounter with a technologically less advanced race, whom I found extremely fascinating. Alien humanoids of avian descent, who wouldn't be intrigued?
The characters are very well developed, some charming, some downright nasty, but all enjoyable to meet.

mandy walkden brown (aus)

The Alien Corps

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The Alien Corps

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