Western Kenya, April 6, 1954
The sun was a crimson sphere on the Western horizon, painting the sky a mosaic of colours, amber fading to red, then purple and blue. Stalks of tall grass swayed in the wind that swept across the field.
A small ridge overlooked a dig site where men in straw hats laboured with shovels in the oppressive heat. They would not be pleased to be pushed so hard, but there was no getting around it. Either they returned home with something of value or Cambridge would not fund another excavation.
Kenneth Barnes stood on the ridge.
A tall man in beige pants and a white shirt that was plastered to his back with sweat, he scrubbed a hand through his slick dark hair. “Keep at it, Crawford!” he shouted. “I've got no time for dawdling.”
Kenneth felt his face heat up. He closed his eyes tight. “Idiots, the lot of them,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Utterly useless unless you have a mind to part with money.”
“You're too hard on them.”
A young woman stood three feet away with her hands clasped together behind her back. Tall and slender, she wore a black skirt and a white shirt that was somehow free of sweat stains. Her face was a perfect oval, framed by long red hair that spilled over her shoulders to the small of her back. “Do be patient, Dr. Barnes,” she admonished. “I am quite certain this trip will prove fruitful.”
Kenneth felt his lips curl, then bowed his head to her. “You genuinely believe that, do you?” he asked, brow furrowing. “Then perhaps you can articulate the reason for your constant badgering.”
From the moment they had set foot on this dig site, Chelsea Lawrence had been a source of constant frustration. Appointed by the Parliamentary Expenditures Committee, her job was to ensure that the Crown's investment in this project did not go unrewarded. How a woman managed to achieve such a position was unclear to him, but there were days when he could feel her gaze on his back.
Wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, Kenneth winced and turned his face away from her. “Not to worry, Miss Lawrence,” he went on. “I'm sure the knowledge we gain from this will be-”
“Knowledge is the province of scholars, Dr. Barnes.” She lifted her chin to stare at him with gray eyes that seemed to drain the heat from the air. “My interest lies in making sure the funds you've been granted are spent wisely.”
“You're questioning my methods?”
Folding her arms across her chest, Chelsea Lawrence pursed her lips as she studied him. “You're surprised?” she asked, eyebrows rising. “You may not have realized this, sir, but the Mau Mau are a serious threat.”
“I am well aware of-”
She stepped forward until her face filled his vision, held him pinned in place by the force of her gaze alone. “The soldiers we employ to protect this…dig site,” the derision she invested in those last words was obvious, “could be put to better use hunting down the Crown's enemies.”
Dealing with this woman was like trying to walk around with a splinter in your big toe. When he met the man who assigned Chelsea Lawrence to this project, he was going to punch the fool in his fat face.
He spun around to find a man staring up at him from the dig site, a tall man with a straw hat over his head. “You need to come down here, sir!” the fellow went on. “There's something you should see!”
The trek down to the dig site only worsened his annoyance. These idiots tended to call him when they found a stone that looked like an arrowhead; it was highly unlikely that they had produced anything useful.
He found Crawford standing with two other men next to a hole in the ground with piles of upturned earth nearby. The wiry fellow was nodding quickly as he spoke to one of the other workers.
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Kenneth frowned and blinked a few times. “I take it you found something?” He felt his mouth tighten, shut his eyes and shook his head. “Another `arrowhead,' Mr. Crawford?”
The man went red in the face, then lowered his eyes to the ground. “Well, sir…no.” He scraped a knuckle across his forehead. “You're going to have to see for yourself. This is…there are no words.”
Kenneth stepped forward.
In the hole, he found a triangular piece of metal that would stand as tall as a grown man when set upright with sinuous grooves running over its surface. The sight of it held him transfixed.
Clamping a hand over his gaping mouth, Kenneth squeezed his eyes shut. “This is not right,” he said, shaking his head. “Call Captain Langford down here. I want a report on anyone who set foot on this dig site.”
The red light of the setting sun glimmered on the triangle's reflective surface. “This thing was man-made,” Kenneth went on, “which tells us someone put it here. So, unless you think the hunter-gatherer tribes of Eastern Africa had secret knowledge of metallurgy, someone has been tampering with our work.”
A thousand tiny stars twinkled in the night sky, and the quarter moon provided more than enough light for Kenneth to make out the pits and piles of dirt scattered throughout the dig site. Up on the ridge, tall grass swayed in the breeze. The men had gone to their tents hours ago.
Kenneth was still awake.
The triangle had been stood upon its base in the middle of the dig site, moonlight reflecting on its surface. He found himself fascinated by the sight of it. The discovery they had made yesterday had set everyone in the camp abuzz with theories on its origin. Miss Lawrence was beside herself.
Lifting a mug of coffee in one hand, Kenneth closed his eyes as steam wafted over his face. “At least the woman kept quiet.” He brought the mug to his lips and took a sip. “A day of silence is its own reward.”
Kenneth stepped forward.
Nibbling on his bottom lip, he lowered his eyes to the ground. “Now, how long do I have with you?” he asked, creases forming in his brow, “before someone carries you away to some dusty storeroom?”
The triangle stood silent and ominous, silver moonlight reflecting on its top corner. An archaeologist's dream! That was, of course, if the bloody thing wasn't just some hoax perpetrated by disgruntled Kenyan natives. Or possibly the Mau Mau. They would do just about anything to make the Crown look incompetent.
He clasped his chin in one hand, then shut his eyes tight. “With my luck, you'll be appropriated by some hot-shot from MI-6.” The thought left him feeling disgruntled. “So they can hide you away before rumours spread.”
Some of the more colourful tales circulating through the camp involved little green men from Mars depositing this thing in the middle of the African grasslands. Nothing but the products of unrestrained imaginations, but Kenneth did nothing to discourage his men from sharing those theories. It wasn't his job to-
The triangle began to hum.
Half a moment later, the grooves along its surface began to glow with fierce white light. Little green men indeed! A gnawing sense of terror in his belly commanded him to run away, but he couldn't.
Shielding his face with one hand, Kenneth peeked at the thing through the cracks between his fingers. “Hello?” he called out. “Can anyone hear me? Hello? My name is Dr. Kenneth Barnes of the-”
When he got within three feet of the triangle, a bubble formed around his body, a perfect sphere of rippling air that made it seem as though he were viewing the dig site through a curtain of falling water. The ridge was a shadowy blur off to his right, rippling and wavering. “Heaven help me,” Kenneth whispered.
He was pulled into oblivion.
Another night down in the storage room. There were days when being a security guard just plain sucked. Whether it was hours of boredom or the exhaustion of working the night shift, sooner or later the job would kill you. Still, it was hard enough to get any job in this economy, and this one offered thirteen bucks an hour.
Doug took a bite of his hamburger. He closed his eyes, chewing mechanically as he savoured the taste. “Mmm…mmm…mmm…” he said, shaking his head. “Ain't nothing in the world like Greasy Joe's.”
The storage room where he had been assigned to complete his shift was located in the sub-basement: a huge room about the size of a high school gymnasium with concrete walls. Over a dozen wooden crates were spaced out on the floor. What exactly they held was not important to him.
The one thing that did bother him was the strange triangular object in the middle of the room. Nearly as tall as a man with grooves along its metal surface that reminded him of veins, the thing practically glimmered under the fluorescent lights.
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Doug winced and shook his head. “Rich folks and their toys,” he muttered, leaning against the wall. “Who in God's name would ever buy a hunk of crap like that?”
His bosses, of course.
Penworth Enterprises was one of the largest shipping companies in the country and had dominated the market since the late nineties. They carried stuff over the Atlantic and back again. Doug's job was to keep it safe.
Clenching his teeth, Doug turned his face up to the ceiling. He squinted at the harsh fluorescent lights. “Vinnie, I'm getting tired of this,” he muttered as if his boss could hear every word. “Just once I'd like to be somewhere other than the-”
A strange humming caught his attention.
The grooves along the triangle's surface were suddenly glowing with blazing white light. With every second, they got a little brighter until he thought it might explode. How in God's name…
The hamburger hit the floor.
Before he could speak, a bubble appeared from out of nowhere, a rippling pulsating bubble that had jerked to a halt just in front of the triangle. When he focused, he thought he could see someone standing inside.
The bubble popped.
A man stood just in front of the triangle. Tall and slim, he wore a long dark jacket. His fair-skinned face bore the faint creases of a man just into his middle years, and gray hair crowned the top of his head.
Lifting his chin, the man frowned as he studied Doug. “Kom Jen endi?” he said, creases forming in his brow. “Kom enday Wesley Pennfield ay kay tan enda? Nom ademi dasa.”
Doug drew his pistol.
Thrusting his arm out, he squinted as he took aim. “Now, that's enough of that,” he said, shaking his head. “Who are you?”
The man offered a sly smile, then shut his eyes and bowed his head to Doug. “Nom velens, men beli,” he said, stepping forward. “Nom dobera tosk vek deesa elinsinai en del vorad.”
The man raised a hand.
Something was fused to the skin of his palm: a strange circular device with blinking lights on its surface. A screen of energy appeared just in front of the man. To Doug's eyes it looked like the static you saw on dead TV stations.
The man thrust his hand out.
Just like that, the wall of static came racing forward. Doug had half a second to fire off a shot before it hit with all the force of a freight train. The next thing he knew, he was flying backward.
He collided with the concrete wall, then dropped hard to the floor. He fell over onto his side, curled up and aching from head to toe. “God help me…” Doug murmured. “My God, please help me.”
The bubble came to a halt, and she found herself in a brightly lit area, encapsulated by a sphere of rippling energy. Through the shimmering curtain, she could make out what appeared to be boxes.
Then the bubble popped.
Dressed in gray pants and a black shirt under a long brown trench coat, Anna Lenai looked around. Her fingers closed around the grip of a pistol in a holster on her right hip. With any luck, she wouldn't need it.
Her round face was framed by thin strands of strawberry-blonde hair with bangs falling over her forehead. “All molecules intact,” she said, eyebrows rising. “The Companion be praised for small wonders.”
Anna pursed her lips and glanced over her shoulder. She narrowed her eyes to thin slits. “The damn thing still works after ten thousand years,” she muttered. “You've got to hand it to those Overseers.”
The SlipGate stood silent and ominous behind her, light fading out of the grooves along its triangular surface. After being buried for so long, you would have thought the thing would have stopped functioning, but when her shuttle had detected its presence on the surface, she had known where Denario had fled.
She appeared to be in a large warehouse with wooden crates spaced out across the white floor tiles. Fluorescent lights in the ceiling flickered. So, these people had reached a state of post-industrial development. Good to know.
Closing her eyes, Anna let her head hang and forced out a breath. “Can you hear me, Dex?” she inquired. When no answer came, Anna tapped her earpiece to re-establish the connection. “Dex?”
The Nassai within her stirred, no doubt apprehensive at being stranded on a strange planet with no notion of what to expect from the locals. Scans from orbit had confirmed that they were human. A colony world this far out? Why had there been no record? But that told her nothing about their temperament.
With her Nassai's assistance, Anna was able to project a mental map of the room, a 360-degree image of her surroundings. Spatial acuity was one of the many benefits of symbiosis. She could see every crate, every piece of junk and every last light in the ceiling without turning her head.
After making her way around a few boxes, she found a hallway that led out of the room with the body of a man strewn across the mouth of the corridor. He was rolled up on his side, groaning in pain.
Anna rushed over to him.
The man wore a pair of black pants and a white shirt with an odd flapping garment around his neck. A guard? Most definitely Denario's latest victim. The poor fellow let out another groan.
Shutting her eyes tight, Anna drew in a rasping breath. “You're gonna pay for this, Denario,” she said, kneeling next to the fallen man. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
The man stared up at her with his mouth agape, his dark eyes wide with fright. He blinked a few times. How bad are his injuries? The fellow tried to speak, but all she heard was some guttural gibberish.
A shout made her jump.
When she looked up, a trio of guards was marching through the corridor. Dressed identically to the man on the floor, they wore sour expressions on their faces. The one in the middle let out a growl.
He stopped in front of Anna.
Drawing a pistol from the holster on his belt, he thrust an arm out to point the gun at her. Words came out of his mouth, followed by a jerk of his head, and she had the very distinct impression that this wasn't going to go well.
Craning her neck, Anna stared up at him. She blinked a few times, considering her words. “I'm not your enemy,” she began in a soft rasp. “I'm here to help. This man needs medical attention.”
The guard snarled.
Anna got to her feet.