Ophiuchus Cube, book 1
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Old testament, Isaiah Chapter 13
9 Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the Sinners thereof out of it.
10 For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
11 And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
12 I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
13 Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.
2. Biblical Times.
(January year 2)
“Good evening. This is the six o’clock news from the World Wide Live News Channel. These are today’s main headlines.
“Gunmen coordinated attacks on 26 major cities worldwide, killing more than 5,000 people, with most casualties in Paris and New York. Followers of the Children of Abraham are suspected of being responsible, although their leader has strongly denied any involvement. Police forces throughout the world are on high alert in anticipation of more attacks.
“The London Metropolitan Police is out in force tonight at the Children of Abraham rally in Trafalgar Square, where thousands of protesters have gathered, waiting for their spiritual leader, Simon Waltz, to address them.
“Stock exchanges around the world suffered huge losses today, wiping over 120 billion US dollars off share prices.
“Riot police in Jerusalem killed at least 400 people at the Wailing Wall after clashes between Jewish and Muslim protesters against followers of the Children of Abraham who were staging prayers.
“In India, the army shot dozens of rioters outside a food processing factory. Food shortages have plagued the country for months and it is estimated over 6 million people have died so far as a result.
“The border control agency in Texas has stepped up its patrols and has adopted a shoot to kill policy against Mexicans illegally crossing the border. This decision was made after Mexican gangs had raided several farms near the border. In the last seven days 50 farmers have been killed during these raids.
“The Prime Minister has announced measures to stop the rise of the — my apologies, we are now going live to Trafalgar Square, with reporter Anne Goodman, where Simon Waltz is about to speak. Hello Anne, what can you tell us?”
“Yes, hello. I am here at the Square and the atmosphere is electric. I can hardly hear myself speak. There are thousands of Children of Abraham gathered here. The crowd has been waiting here for hours in anticipation of their charismatic leader Simon Waltz, who is about to give his keynote speech. Yesterday he announced he had a very important message from God. Ah, here he is — ”
Hearing Simon’s name made Rick Favier and Paul Jenkinson feel uneasy and they were about to see him again. Simon meant trouble, and especially to Rick and Paul. An excited crowd filled the Square, thousands of hands and arms reaching out to the sky, frenzied, as if they wanted to grab the stars and pull them down. Placards were being waved with ferocity above the crowd, and the air seemed turbulent and strong enough to tumble trees. The scene created the illusion of an angry, stormy sea, the waves threatening to drown the empty stage.
Living close to the Square, Rick and Paul heard the shouts and cries from the crowd through their flat’s windows, as well as via their television speakers.
“I don’t like this. Those lunatics sound very angry,” Rick said. “I’m scared they’ll come for us tonight. They’re so close. Why do they always try to attack us? I’m fed up with him blaming me in every interview, as if I made it happen. I know Simon is going to blame me again for everything, as soon as he opens that big mouth of his. It’s bloody sickening!”
“Relax. The police are outside protecting us.” Paul grabbed his hand and pulled Rick towards him, giving him a gentle hug and a soft kiss on his cheek. “Besides, if they knew we lived here, they would’ve come for us already. And I’m here to protect you. I love you. And I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Even though he trusted Paul, Rick wasn’t happy. He knew armed police were outside, but a mob of a few hundred people, willing to die for their cause, could overrun them.
The reporter, Anne Goodman, estimated around 20,000 people had congregated in the square. Her voice was barely audible over the chanting and shouting crowd. They held placards, explicitly warning people they would burn in Hell unless they repented and became Children of Abraham. The camera panned to the main stage and a man came into view. A colossal cheer and applause ensued, the crowd seemed to go berserk at his arrival. They knew who he was: the charismatic Simon Waltz, their spiritual leader, their Saviour, their Second Coming. His long, blond hair waved in the light breeze, giving him the same Jesus-like appearance that Michelangelo had painted in The Last Supper. His hypnotic blue eyes pierced straight through the camera. Was there a knowing smile on his face? His attention shifted to the crowd as he walked up to the front of the stage, his pristine white robe flowing, giving the impression he was floating. The winter cold seemed not to bother him. He stared into the crowd, his eyes scanning the Square. A big grin appeared on his face. Clouds in the sky partially obscured the moon; the dim light gave his face an eerie and haunted look.
“Silence!” Simon said. “Children of Abraham. Look into the sky. I can see God’s anger. I do not need heathen instruments to see him, I have faith. God is angry and Armageddon is upon us. Look up and see him for yourself — Can you see Him?”
The crowd roared, its arms reaching for the sky. The sea was angry again, fiercer now, the waves bigger and more menacing, turning into a tidal wave threatening to engulf the stage.
“Silence — You all know that heathen faggot Rick Favier,” Simon said, his voice low and full of disgust. “This abomination is the one who tipped the balance. He is the one who changed God from loving man to God hating man. He was chosen by God and given the sign in the sky to warn us, but he had the audacity to deny God and deny the existence of God’s sign. Because of him we all have to face the consequences. He, and the other deniers, must suffer the consequences soon.” Simon paused. He pointed towards the Houses of Parliament and faced the crowd again, grimacing now, his eyes burning in their sockets with anger. “Children of Abraham. I stand here before you in these troubled times. Armageddon is approaching. We have six months left to make every soul on God’s Earth see the light and repent. And Britain has become a filthy, godless country and you all know who’s responsible for this. A godless Government rules us and tells us we cannot spread our gospel. It is time to show them we will not take their oppression anymore. It is time to take control. It is time to tell them they are not in charge anymore. Children of Abraham: you know what to do. The time is now!” Simon walked towards the edge of the stage. As he walked down the steps, the crowd parted in front of him like the Red Sea parting before Moses. These were biblical times indeed.
With an almost invisible hand gesture the crowd was given a sign, and as one Simon’s followers moved towards the hundreds of police officers cordoning off the Square. Rick and Paul looked in horror as they saw the police being overrun and beaten up by the angry mob who were now heading towards Parliament. What they didn’t see was a group of around 50 men going in a different direction — into their street.
Police constables Shaw and Thompson heard the frantic cries through their radios: their colleagues were being beaten up, probably worse. The sound of shooting guns came from the Square and made them look at each other in horror, the shock visible on their faces.
“This isn’t happening. This is not how I want to spend the last months of my life. I need to be with my wife and kids,” Shaw cried; wide eyed and ashen.
Thompson looked at him, “Stay calm, they are lunatics, a minority. We’re safe here. It’s not the end of the world for us.” He almost added the word yet, but knew the realisation would make Shaw even more frightened.
They had been stationed outside the entrance to the flat and had been ordered to stay there no matter what was happening elsewhere. Thompson struggled though: hearing the cries for help from their colleagues on the Square made him want to run off and help them. He became aware of shouting at the end of the street. He looked towards the noise and saw a group of men running towards them. “This isn’t good, grab your gun,” he said, praying he would get through to the police station when he took his radio out. “HQ. This is Thompson. There’s a crowd running towards us. I need back-up now! We’re going to retreat inside the building.” He hoped there were officers nearby to help them. Shaw had already opened the main entrance and was shouting at him. One last look down the street made him shiver: the group of men were less than 20 metres away. A hand gripped his arm and before he realised he was inside the building. Frantically they barricaded the door. Just in time. The crowd was shouting outside. Kicks juddered the door: there was no way the barricade would hold. Running up the stairs, they heard the noises grow louder. On the top floor, outside the entrance to Rick and Paul’s flat, Shaw started banging on the door, and shouting, to get their attention. When he heard Paul’s voice behind the door, Shaw told him to barricade the door and wait for further instructions.
When he heard a loud cracking noise, Thompson looked down the stairs, and he watched in horror as he saw the door cave in and an angry mob push through. He saw them kick in the doors to the downstairs apartments and he heard a woman scream as the men ran in. Thompson imagined the woman being attacked and probably killed. He saw other men running up to the next floors, also kicking in doors and entering apartments. The screams made his stomach turn. He knew in a few moments the men would be up here and confront him and Shaw. “They’re almost here,” Thompson said, taking out his gun and checking the safety was off. “Shoot as many as you can. And Shaw — you’re not only the best colleague I’ve worked with, but it’s also been a privilege to call you my friend.” Tears ran down Thompson’s face. He did not want his life to end like this, but as he heard the approaching men, now less than ten steps away, he knew he was never going to see his wife again. Fists punched him in his face and chest. A sharp pain in his stomach: someone had stabbed him with a knife. He was on the floor. Someone took his gun out of his hand. Thompson closed his eyes and imagined sitting with his wife. He looked into her brown eyes and smelt her perfume. She was laughing. In the distance he heard his own gun fire.
“Quick. Come, help me barricade the door. They’re here,” Paul said.
Rick felt real terror. “I hate this. Why are they coming for me? I didn’t cause this. It’s not my fault. Fuck. I really don’t want to die.”
For weeks they had trained for this moment. The Metropolitan Police had approached them after they’d received intelligence that the Children of Abraham wanted to kill Rick; since then they’d had 24 hour protection, making them prisoners in their own home.
Rick tried to barricade the door, as they had practised many times, though his hands were shaking too much this time. After they put their shoes and coats on, Paul picked up their emergency rucksacks and took out their knives and pepper spray. They waited. Rick listened to the growing noises outside their front door, the shrieks and gunshots frightening him. He thought of his mum, he needed to call her and tell her he loved her and that she shouldn’t worry. He imagined she was holding him, stroking his hair, telling him everything would be fine. He wished he was a child again; he missed how simple the world had been then. The commotion outside the door returned him to reality; he had no time to make that call. She would have to wait until this was over. He heard screams, shrill and high pitched, like pigs being slaughtered. He almost vomited.
“Come on, let’s go upstairs to the living room. It’ll give us more time if they break the door,” Paul said.
Rick was amazed how calm Paul appeared. He felt sick and scared, unable to move, let alone run up stairs.
Paul had his phone pressed to his ear, talking to their friend Martin, who had helped them many times before out of sticky situations. Rick could not hear the whole conversation, but knew Martin would send help. A cracking noise came from the downstairs corridor and straight after he heard men cheering.
“Shit. Paul, they’re in. Get out!” Rick ran out onto the terrace, into the cold, pulling Paul with him, who was shouting into his phone now. “This is it. I hate those fucking lunatics,” Rick said, locking the terrace door from the outside.
Paul looked at him, putting his phone down. “Me too. We’ll be fine, they’re on their way to help us. I love you.”
“And I love you too,” Rick said and looked at Paul. They kissed each other quickly. Noises from inside made them turn their heads: their living room was full of angry looking men. One of them stepped forward, pointed a gun at them, and shot a bullet through the window, shattering the glass. The bullet missed them. Paul and Rick pepper-sprayed the men who were trying to get onto the terrace through the broken window, then they turned away and ran down the fire escape, the men close behind them.
“Look. The police, they’re here. We’re safe now,” Paul said, his breath heavy in his voice.
“Run. Now,” yelled an approaching officer. “We’ll cover you.” He held a gun in his hand.
Paul and Rick ran down the remaining four floors as fast as they could. A dozen police officers passed them, going up. Several shots were fired and the noise was deafening. Rick felt a bullet fly past his ear. When they reached street level, an officer bundled them into a police van, which sped off, away from the danger. Shaking with fear, Rick noticed he had pissed himself.
“I think we need to go to the hospital,” a pale Paul said, holding his left leg. Both looked at a spreading red patch on his trousers. Blood dripped on the floor. A few seconds later, Paul had lost all colour in his face and fainted.
To the hospital, quick. Rick heard from the front of the van. There was Martin, looking perplexed, but calm.
Six months earlier.
3. A Starry Night.
(July year 1)
Meteorological Office: London Weather Forecast.
“The last few days have been gloriously hot and sunny. Temperatures reached the high twenties and we expect the same weather for next week. Tonight there will be clear skies, with a slight south-westerly breeze, making it feel slightly cooler. Minimum temperature will be around 17 degrees Centigrade, or 66 Fahrenheit. Sunset is at a quarter past nine and sunrise will be at five.”
Rick had not felt in such a good mood for a very long time; this morning, after Paul had left for Paris to attend meetings, he had found a big package in the living room, with a note attached. Have fun tonight. I love you, Paul. Inside the carefully wrapped box was a telescope, which had taken him most of the day to set up; the accompanying manual was thicker than a telephone book, but he managed and soon the sun would set and then he would be looking at planets and stars. He was pleased Paul had left him this present, but he was also glad Paul had gone away for work: there would be no interruptions. Even the best loving relationships required alone time sometimes.
Since childhood, Rick had had an interest in the stars, watching every astronomy programme on television and spending many afternoons in the library looking at pictures of the universe in numerous books. As an adult his interest had been sparked again by all the information available on the internet, and he felt the same amazement and excitement again that he had so many years ago.
Rick had dug up his old charts of the constellations, and now all of them were spread out on the living room floor. His laptop displayed pages explaining where to look for planets, and his telescope stood ready on the terrace. All he had to do now was to wait for the sun to go down.
Rick was only 40 and already a cancer survivor. He had endured a nine month struggle of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery to get rid of the damn disease. After a long recovery he had become depressed, and became addicted to the morphine intended for his physical pain, and to the anti-depressants for his mental pain. He had been unable to lose the nagging guilty feeling of having survived the cancer. The sick leave from his government post turned into leave of absence and Rick realised he would never return to his job. And he had found more reasons for feeling low: he had let Paul down, but also his best friends Isadora and Martin, whom he had known since university; all had offered their support, but he had rejected all help. Rick had tried to convince himself he was having a midlife crisis when he also started drinking, but he knew he had found just another excuse for his bad behaviour. Rick had taken a long time, but he had managed to beat his depression and drug addictions, and his drinking was down to a level where he would enjoy a few glasses, but not end up legless. Recently he started to feel focused and happier again. Astronomy would help him recover faster. Thank you Paul.
The sun had disappeared below the horizon. Rick poured himself a whisky and went out onto the terrace to his new telescope. The radio played classical music in the background and made him feel very content; he had not felt this way for a long time. He smiled as he took a sip of his whisky and looked around the dark sky. “A toast”, he said. “A toast to all the stars in the sky. May we have a long and happy relationship.” Rick thought of Paul, and he took out his mobile phone to call him, but realised Paul would be with his colleagues, so he messaged him instead, thanking him again for his present and wishing him a good night and good luck for tomorrow’s meetings.
The evening sky looked dark enough and Rick decided he was ready to start. He looked into the telescope to gaze at the stars. “Hm, I can’t see a thing.” He frowned, still talking to himself. “It’s all black. Let’s move it around a bit.” Wow! Rick couldn’t believe his luck when he saw his first stars, all of them looked so sharp and bright. He scanned the sky and felt more amazed when the full moon came into view. The sight was breath-taking: the bright white light almost hurt his eyes. He loved seeing the details on the craters. Rick felt very excited: he wanted to see more. Everything!
“Okay, okay, okay, let’s find Mars,” he said, as he walked over to his laptop, with the displayed page to guide him through the sky. After several attempts, one toilet break and another whisky, Rick finally found Mars. Actually, Mars found him, and he couldn’t believe how bright and red this beautiful globe was. “He-he, I am such a geek,” he said out loud, sheer joy on his face and feeling as happy as a child who was running around in a sweet shop without adult supervision.
Rick decided to look for the big three summer constellations which should be easy to find in the July night sky. He had read on the internet that the key was to locate Ursa Major — also known as the Great Bear, or the Big Dipper. after a few clumsy shots he identified the seven stars. Next up was Ursa Minor: known as the Little Dipper, so he could find Draco and the North Star. Rick had difficulty finding Hercules, even though being one of the largest constellations; there were too many faint stars.
“All right then, no Hercules tonight. Next up is Ophiuchus. Let’s see if I can catch that snake bearer.” Rick adjusted his telescope: pointing at Antares; Ophiuchus would be situated north. Containing the second closest star to Earth, Ophiuchus could prove to be a most interesting constellation. Rick took another sip from his whisky, but noticed his glass was empty. “A refill my friend. And then some more star gazing.”
Isadora Silva looked around her gallery. She loved being alone in the evening when there were no distractions; just her and beautiful paintings. She had organised an exhibition for a new up-and-coming artist, Conny. 20 great looking paintings were hung on the newly painted pristine white walls and Isadora was confident she would sell at least half of them on tomorrow’s opening day; not often had she had this much interest in an exhibition. Isadora felt very proud of the work she had done in the last few weeks. And the preparations had been a good diversion after her separation. From upstairs she heard her dog barking. “Sally,” she said, “come down darling, don’t wake up the kids, I’ll take you for a walk.” Isadora enjoyed walking her dog, around her neighbourhood in East London. Her street was quiet tonight, but tomorrow, with the flower market on, would be buzzing with the tradesmen selling their flowers and the many visiting tourists. She hoped her gallery would also be busy. Sally had run down the stairs, so Isadora could put the leash on.
“Come on then, let’s go.” She noticed the warm night, but a slight breeze stopped the air from getting sultry. She looked at the clear sky and saw the stars and the moon. Isadora thought of Rick and remembered how excited he had sounded when he had called her earlier to tell her about his telescope. She realised it was quite late, but she knew Rick well enough to figure out he would be up till dawn tonight; so she decided to send him a text message. So mister. How’s your new toy? You discovered any new stars yet? Will you have a star named after you and will you become my most famous friend? Sally woofs hello! X Isadora.
She let Sally run free at the local park, so she would be tired later and wouldn’t wake Isadora too early in the morning. Isadora’s phone buzzed. Having a fab time! No new discoveries made yet, LOL, but night still young. Wish you were here, it’s beautiful! X Rick.
Sally ran back to Isadora and sat at her feet: she was done running around. “Oh come on then, let’s go home.” Isadora said, putting the leash back around her neck. Noticing the time; she hurried home, wishing she was already in bed. Before she turned in herself, she checked up on her sleeping children.
No, no, no, this can’t be. This isn’t right, Rick thought, looking through his telescope at the Ophiuchus constellation. Tonight started off so well, but had he broken his telescope already? No, something else had to be wrong. Let me double check. He became so excited that he spoke out loud to himself. “Okay, don’t fail me now internet.” He looked at his laptop screen, comparing the image there with what he saw through his telescope and they did not match. “Oh buggery bollocks!”
Isadora woke up from her telephone ringing. Oh God, who could this be? She switched on her night light and looked at her phone: Rick. Why on earth would he be calling now? Reluctant, but worried, she picked up the phone. “Hey, what’s going on? You all right?”
“No, I’m not,” Rick shouted through the phone. “No, yes I am, well, I don’t really know. I think I found something. I’m not sure, but I think it’s quite big.”
“What do you mean?” Isadora asked him, properly waking up now. “Do you know what time it is? I was already asleep.”
“Oh, yes, I see. Sorry about that. I tried Paul, but his phone’s not on. I really need to tell someone. I’m excited and scared at the same time. I think I’ve discovered something. I think I saw something was missing in the sky. Well, it’s hard to explain, but I was looking at this constellation and then I saw that this big star in it was missing.”
Isadora sat up, wondering what Rick meant. He didn’t make much sense to her, but obviously this was something very important to him, so she would let him talk more before interrupting.
“I — I, looked at this star, well at the place in the sky where it’s supposed to be, but it’s not there, the sky is black there. I compared it with pictures that were taken in that region, from different sources and it all checks out. There should be a star there. I’m quite baffled and don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what it means to be honest, but maybe you’ve discovered something important. You should let others know of your discovery, have other people check it. Email all the people from your work, and Martin too,” Isadora answered, wanting to go back to sleep. “Hey, let me and the kids come over to you tomorrow after I close the gallery. We’ll fire up the barbecue and have a look through your telescope and you’ll explain everything. And get some rest. I need some.”
“Oh yes, I forgot, you have the opening tomorrow. Good luck. And for us, I’ll get burgers and beers. Night-night.”
Isadora had not seen Rick for a few weeks and she missed him. Tomorrow would be a good chance to catch up and for the kids to see their only English uncle again. Her youngest, Karen, had just turned 13 and would love to look at the stars: she was a science buff. And Thomas, her eldest, 17, who was born autistic, would hopefully be happy watching the sports on television. Isadora had taken a few years to realise that Thomas was different, and the problems he had caused had created a lot of stress in her marriage. Her husband had rejected Thomas for years and he kept on reminding her Thomas was not his child anyway. He did grow to love Thomas later and even ended up adopting him, but that had happened before their marriage had started to fail. She hoped Thomas would behave tomorrow, because he was very unpredictable: sort of a hit and miss, although he behaved himself most times when around Rick. She needed to stop worrying and go to sleep. She kissed Sally and switched off her light.
Cleaning his place had kept Rick busy all afternoon, not that the flat was dirty, but messy: dishes were everywhere, and all over the place was clean laundry: ready to be ironed and folded. After he finished clearing up, he checked his emails. Last night, before going to bed, he had followed Isadora’s advice and sent out an email. Already he received replies from former colleagues and astronomers: his email had been forwarded to many people. He realised he had become an on-line sensation when he read the dozens of messages sent to him. There was a real buzz on scientific boards. Other astronomers confirmed his findings and they speculated what could have happened. Many suggested Rick should send his findings to NASA and ESA for verification. He hurried writing the request to both space agencies, as Isadora and the kids would be arriving soon.
Today’s weather was great: hot with a clear blue sky, and tonight would be the same, so he should have no problem showing them his discovery. Karen certainly would be interested. Rick was busy preparing the barbecue when his phone rang.
Paul’s voice was on the other side. “Hey, how are you? Everything okay? I got your message after my meetings finished. I’m a bit pissed off that I had to work on a Sunday, but hey, I get to be in Paris. So tell me all about it.”
“I’m great. I made a discovery last night. In the Ophiuchus constellation a star is missing.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
“Only blackness where a star’s supposed to be. First I thought the telescope was broken, but the other stars were still there. All very strange. So I emailed people and, officially, I made a discovery.”
“That’s great. Make sure they put your name on it.”
“I will, don’t worry. So, your plans for the rest of the day?”
“Preparing for tomorrow’s meetings, dinner with colleagues and then bed,” Paul said.
“I have Isadora and the kids coming over. I’m preparing the barbecue now.”
“Your evening will be better than mine. I’m spending it with boring bankers. Give my love to Isadora and the kids. And baby, I can’t wait to see you tomorrow and your discovery. I love you.”
Rick put the phone down and prepared the food for the evening. He would leave the cooking up to Thomas, who always wanted to be in charge of the barbecue, to keep him happy and busy whilst the others would be looking at the heavens and discussing Rick’s discovery.
Rick checked his emails again, but there was no reply from either NASA or ESA yet. The boards on the internet were very busy though; people from various countries verified his findings and some of them posted before and after pictures, clearly showing the missing star. Identified as: Beta Ophiuchi, also known as Cebalrai. Rick wrote several thank you messages for all the compliments he had received. Around seven o’clock Isadora, Karen and Thomas arrived.
“Uncle Rick. You’re famous,” Karen yelled, as she walked in. She gave him a big hug. “I’ve been on the internet all day and everybody is talking about you.”
“Well, you can help me set up the telescope, and when it gets dark you can see for yourself,” Rick said, smiling. “Hey Thomas, you all right mate?”
“Yeah. We brought beer to celebrate. I’ll put them in the fridge and open a few of them now,” Thomas said, heading for the kitchen.
Isadora waited her turn to say hello. She knew not to compete with teenagers for attention. “So tell me all. I was a bit sleepy when you called.”
“It’s spinning right out of control. I’m all over the internet now. My 15 minutes of fame have started. But tell me first, how did the opening go? And — how are the kids coping with the separation?”
“The opening was a success, I’ll tell you later. And Karen’s fine, you know her, she’s always happy as long as she has her books.”
“And Thomas? He seems happy today. I was worried he wouldn’t adjust.”
“He’s okay actually. Much better than I expected. No more dramas than the usual.”
“I’m glad,” Rick said. He and Isadora did not have to mention Thomas’s autism and all the accompanying challenges: they had grown used to the episodes, and for them Thomas was just him, and the loved him the same.
When they got to the living room, Thomas was watching the sports on the television with a beer in his hand and Karen sat in front of Rick’s laptop.
“Thomas, you want to fire up the barbecue and cook the burgers?”
“Sure mate, but I want to see the football scores first,” Thomas said.
“No worries, we’ve plenty of time, mate,” Rick said. He smiled when he thought how Thomas used words like mate when he felt comfortable and happy. There should be no problems tonight.
Rick and Isadora sat down on the terrace and, over a beer, Rick explained what had happened.
Isadora was impressed. “I can’t believe that on your first night you already made a discovery like that. You have any idea what this means? What do people say about this?”
“Well,” Rick said, “they don’t really understand it either. Some say for a star to disappear, it would’ve been a super nova, but others believe that would have been picked up by the whole astronomy world, as they are quite rare and this star is close enough to Earth to light up the sky when that happens. So basically people are baffled by this. I know I am.”
“So what happens next?” Isadora asked.
“I’m not sure. I wrote to several space agencies to have it verified, but I haven’t heard back from them yet. They have massively strong telescopes and can see things better than I can. Anyway, maybe I’ll get a mention in Scientist Monthly and that’ll be the end of my fame.”
“Oh, it’s the leading science magazine. If you’re mentioned in there, you’ve made it.”
“Well, let’s drink to that,” Isadora laughed, and raised her bottle. “To Rick, getting a mention and a Nobel Prize too. And now, let’s eat, I’m starving after my busy day.”
Thomas started cooking the hamburgers on the barbecue, whilst Karen and Rick were realigning the telescope.
Isadora sat in front of the laptop, reading up on Rick’s discovery on various forums. “Hey Rick, there’s some guy on the forum who claims to be from NASA. He wrote you should check your emails. Can I have a look?”
Rick was stunned and ran to Isadora. “Yeah sure, open it. NASA? Already? Cool. So, what does it say?”
“It starts pretty standard. They thank you for your email, blah, blah, blah, oh, here it is: After receiving many more emails, including pictures of the region, we have decided to allocate resources to investigate your findings. As soon as we can verify your findings we will give you full credit for this discovery. And then it goes on about legal stuff and also requests to various other people to investigate this too. It’s a very long email. You’ll need to read this yourself. But, hey, this is great!”
“Yes it sure is. It’s going to be an exciting time. Let me give Paul a ring. He should have finished dinner by now. Karen, give me a minute and I’ll help you again setting up the telescope.”
“Uncle Rick, Mum, Karen,” Thomas shouted. “Dinner’s ready. Don’t take too long.”
After dinner Karen couldn’t wait to have a look through the telescope. Rick showed Isadora and Karen pictures of what the constellation should look like, and pointed out the star that was missing. When Karen had all the information she needed to start, Rick let her try to find the stars herself. After a few minutes she told him she had the stars in her sight, but also that something was different again. “Uncle Rick, Mum, you should have a look at this. I think there’s another star missing.”
Rick stared into his telescope and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. South-west from the first missing star: Beta Ophiuchi, another star was missing. He let Isadora look at the stars too and went to his laptop to figure out what name the star had. He told them this one was called Gamma Ophiuchi.
Rick wondered what the meaning of all this was. He looked at the sky, which was now black, and with his naked eye he could see all the stars and the sky did not look any different from how it was supposed to look, but he knew something was wrong. He looked again at the constellation through his telescope. As he was looking at the bright sparkles, another star disappeared. This time he saw it happen. Black where white used to be. Black where white should be. He had no doubt now he was seeing something very peculiar and important happening. Rick felt alarmed and frightened. “Guys, another star has gone, that makes three.”
5. Tensions in Downing Street.
(August year 1)
NASA press release, August.
Subject: Anomaly discovered in Ophiuchus constellation.
“In July, British amateur astronomer Rick Favier discovered the star Beta Ophiuchi in the Ophiuchus constellation had gone missing. Upon receiving notification, NASA directed various telescopes towards the region and confirmed the findings. Within the next 24 hours the stars Gamma, and Mu Ophiuchi also disappeared from the constellation. Between Mr Favier’s discovery and the issue of this August press release, NASA confirms that 12 more stars have gone missing from this area. NASA does not know the origin, nor the cause of this phenomenon and is actively investigating its possible causes. NASA is aware of rumours about extra-terrestrial activity in this area, but observations have so far failed to establish any exoplanets capable of containing life, nor evidence of any extra-terrestrial activity in this region. In addition, NASA does not answer theological questions.”
“Rick, you getting ready or what? Martin just called, your car is almost here,” Paul shouted down the stairs. “You’ve been in the bathroom for ages.”
“I can’t get this fucking tie tied and my hair looks shit. And my beard is too scruffy. I look like a mad scientist,” shouted back Rick. “I need to cut my beard, can you tell him to wait?”
“Are you kidding me? No. You look fine. Just get on with it,” Paul said.
Rick stared at himself in the mirror: dark rings around his eyes. He was very nervous and tired, all night he had kept waking up. He noticed his hands were shaking. Okay, get a hold of yourself. Martin would be here soon and he could not arrive late at his own press-conference. Journalists from all over the world would be there and about a dozen television stations would be broadcasting the event live.
Rick’s discovery had set many things in motion: everything humankind thought they knew about the universe had been proved wrong and now action had to be taken. Martin Germain, as the Cabinet Secretary, had been appointed by Prime Minister Christopher Marchant to be in charge of the Ophiuchus Task Force, an inter-departmental and inter-governmental advisory and executive body, analysing data and preparing for any eventuality. Martin had decided they needed a sympathetic face and spokesperson, and that person was going to be his good friend: so he had sent Rick an invitation to give a statement and answer questions at today’s press conference at 10 Downing Street.
One evening, a few weeks ago, Rick’s doorbell had rung and Martin came in for a chat. They had known each other since university. Rick had studied physics and Martin politics. They had first met in a debating group, but because Martin was gay, and Rick was straight and dating Isadora, they had different interests and different lives, so they had only considered each other close acquaintances. After university they had lost contact, but ran into each other again when they both started working for the Government, Rick as a director of the Council for Science and Technology, and Martin as the Cabinet Secretary. By then Rick was gay too and they had been very good friends ever since.
During the chat, Martin had explained that the Government had suspended due process and he was, by virtue of emergency legislation, authorised to appoint any scientist or specialist, and he had appointed Rick. In fact: the British Government had declared a state of emergency, but Rick had to keep that information to himself. Rick’s main job would be to keep the public informed with declassified information and keep the public happy and calm. That was, of course, if he would agree to do it. Rick initially protested: he was on sick-leave and did not feel ready to get back to being a professional, so how could Martin expect him to work for the Task Force? Martin insisted though: it still hurt him having seen Rick fighting cancer and subsequently falling into his depression. He felt Rick would would be feeling much better after he started working again. Paul had agreed too.
The following weeks Martin had come round regularly, coaching Rick on what to say to journalists and how to behave in front of a camera. A week before the press-conference, Martin had handed him the statement and additional information, so Rick could prepare himself. Martin also made him sign the Official Secrets Act.
So, today was the first time Rick would be part of the Task Force and whether or not he would stay in all depended on his performance. The doorbell rang: Martin was waiting; no more procrastinating.
Whitehall was chaotic because of the mayhem the protesters caused, and outside 10 Downing Street the car almost could not drive through the crowd. A bewildered Rick looked out of the windows: hundreds of people had gathered on the road and many of them looked angry, waving their placards. Rick saw a scuffle between riot police, and what looked like men dressed as priests. The bizarre scene felt very surreal to him.
As the car was waiting for the main gate to open, a tall man with long blond hair banged with his big fists on the windscreen, he made Rick jump. The man walked around the car to the door next to Rick. He pounded the window. “You’re scum. You’re hiding the truth. You should all die. The truth will come out.” Before Rick realised what was happening, the man had opened the door and was pulling him out. Rick felt a sudden pain in his left eye. The man had hit him. Rick could not understand why. The surprise attack left Rick paralysed for a moment. He looked at the man, his face was full of anger and his piercing blue eyes were open wide.
“I recognise you. You discovered God’s sign, but you’re hiding the truth, just like them,” the man said, pointing at 10 Downing Street. “All of you should die.”
Rick managed to punch the man in his stomach, before police officers grabbed the man by his hair and pulled him away. “Oh fuck, that was scary,” said Rick, jumping back into the car.
“Are you okay?” Martin asked. “I can’t believe we forgot to lock the doors. He sure was crazy, and fast. Blimey. Sorry I wasn’t quick enough to help. I’ll make sure he spends the night in a police cell.”
“No problem. He caught us off-guard. He’s weird. Did you see his eyes? Like an animal. And my eye is hurting. I’ll probably have a black eye soon, and for the whole world to see. That’s just great.”
“Don’t worry. We have make-up artists. I’ll tell them to put an extra thick layer on your eye. Ah we’re here. — Rick, we have a lot to do and we’re on a tight schedule,” Martin said as they stepped out of the car, into the courtyard. “We’ll have to go through security first and straight to the press-conference. When we’ve done that, we’ll drive up to Chequers, where you’ll meet the Prime Minister, a few Presidents and the rest of the Task Force. Come on, let’s do this.”
Rick walked into a full and stuffy press room. Bright hot lights from the camera crews pointed at him. The prospect of facing the world and having to answer awkward questions made him feel nervous. And the extra information he had also received from Martin about the anomaly in Ophiuchus’s constellation made him nauseous. He felt he was not supposed to have been given that information. Maybe not yet? Or at all? But it was there, in the documents. He couldn’t figure out whether Martin had made a mistake, or had leaked the information. But Martin never made mistakes. Were they testing him? He would not betray his best friend though, but what if the press would see through him, and figure out he was hiding something? He felt awful.
Martin instructed Rick to sit in the middle of the table and to read out the press release written by Martin, and only answer questions when prompted by Martin. Martin began the conference. He introduced himself and the other scientists, made a brief statement and finally introduced Rick.
Rick’s eye hurt and his cheeks felt hot. Everyone in the room went silent and looked at him. Panicked, he glanced at Martin, who smiled at him and gave him a quick wink: indicating everything would be fine.
“Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. I am Rick Favier and the Prime Minister has asked me to give you information and the plan of action by our Government. As you all know by now, I was the first person to notice something had changed in the sky. Last month I observed the constellation Ophiuchus through my telescope, and I noticed a star had gone missing. I contacted various people in the Government and NASA to confirm my findings. The next evening another two stars had gone missing and my findings were confirmed by NASA. Between then and today, over a dozen stars ceased to be visible.
“We are aware of the rumours and conspiracy theories regarding this discovery. This is one of the reasons why we organised this press conference: to provide you with accurate information. Our Government has decided to work together with the American, Chinese and Russian Governments to explore what could have caused this anomaly.
“I can announce that in four hours from now a rocket will be launched from Russia. This rocket is different from any other ever launched. It carries no satellites, but the rocket itself is equipped with telescopes and devices to measure infrared, heat and radio activity. The rocket itself will be travelling at high speed towards the region and will be sending back pictures and readings.
“This is not a science fiction scenario: the rocket will not get there soon — actually it will never reach that region, as it is many light years away. Its only purpose is to give us more information.
“As I mentioned before; many rumours have been spread. They do not originate from us and we will not speculate, or theorise either. However, we can confirm this is not an act of God, nor is it the beginning of Armageddon. There is not a big alien ship coming our way. And no government on Earth has any type of weapon capable of extinguishing stars. This concludes our statement. Thank you very much.”
Rick felt as if he had not been breathing for over an hour, speaking in public certainly was not his thing. He listened to the other scientists and the questions asked by the press. He was happy nobody seemed interested in him and he drifted off in his own mind, trying to calm down. All of a sudden he felt as if someone was trying to wake him up.
“Mr Favier, again I ask you. What do you think of the fact that the Pope said in his statement that this is a sign from God, in response to the sins of mankind?”
The reporter looked at him. Rick saw everyone in the room staring at him. Martin had only prepared him for scientific questions.
“I — I, well uhm, I don’t know, I don’t believe in a god, so I — I,” Rick stammered.
Before he could continue Martin interrupted him. “Let me answer this. Mr Favier discovered the anomaly, a purely scientific discovery, that’s all. Nobody caused this. God did not cause this. In fact, it is certain not any of the over 3,000 existing gods have any involvement. This press conference has ended and we will not answer any more questions. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. On your way out you will receive our briefing pack. Goodbye.”
The room erupted with journalists shouting and people getting up, running out as fast as they could. Martin ushered Rick and the other speakers through a back door out of the building and into their cars.
The journey to Chequers would take them an hour. The increasing throbbing in his eye, the worrying new information in the documents, and the abrupt ending of the press conference had made Rick grumpy. Martin tried to lift his spirits by telling jokes and commenting on the classical music on the radio. He told Rick the press conference had gone better than he had expected and he didn’t need to worry about not acknowledging God; the religious would be proved wrong very soon and that should shut them up once and for all. Martin was certain of that. Rick chose not to challenge Martin, or ask him about the leaked information: he did not want to start an argument. But, thanks to Martin, at the end of the journey, Rick did feel much happier.
Rick was welcomed by the aroma of freshly made coffee when he entered the meeting room at Chequers. There were plenty of people inside, but Rick was not interested in talking to anyone: first he needed caffeine and something to eat. He caught sight of the table with the coffee and sandwiches and made his way, but someone grabbed him by the arm. When he turned to see who was holding him, he was stunned to find himself facing the President of the United States.
“Oh, hello Mr President.”
“Ah Rick, you don’t mind if I call you Rick? At these meetings you can call me by my first name. We all do around here. I’m William, or Bill for short.”
“Yes, okay, thank you — Bill,” Rick said.
“I want to thank you for the fantastic job you did explaining our next step and for not divulging any classified information. I know under pressure one can make big mistakes. I know I have. Anyway, I see you’re on your way to the refreshments. Don’t let me keep you, the meeting starts in a few minutes.”
Rick smiled, but he was puzzled by the President’s remark. Why had he mentioned the classified information? Rick needed to find out what was going on. He gestured Martin to join him for a coffee.
“Quite a bunch of powerful people here. Don’t you think?” Rick asked.
“Yes, I’m happy we have them all together. It’s really important we get all the cooperation we can. There’s so much to do.”
“The President is nice. He told me I could call him Bill. But he also told me something very interesting.” Rick hoped to see a reaction, but Martin showed no emotion.
“What’s that then?” Martin asked.
“How I kept my cool and didn’t divulge classified information. How come the American President said that? What’s going on Martin? Did you put those classified documents with my speech?”
Martin’s face went pale. He looked at Rick and sighed.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my idea. They wanted to test you. I objected, but without it, I wouldn’t be allowed to hire you. And I wanted you here,” Martin said.
“I’m glad I passed the test. But I’ve been worried sick over this press-conference. I really thought I would screw up. Don’t ever do this to me again.”
“I did it because of our friendship. Please don’t be angry. Friends?”
“Sure. I’m a bit pissed off with you right now, but I’ll get over it. I need to use the bathroom before the meeting starts.”
“Rick — you did really well earlier. I’m proud of you.” Martin’s face pleaded for forgiveness.
“I’ll see you in a moment,” Rick said and walked off. He felt let down by Martin and needed a moment alone, to avoid starting an argument. And he needed to call Paul.
“Hey you, how are you?”
“I’m good. I saw you on television. You looked a bit stressed, but you read out the statement really well,” Paul said.
“Thanks, the statement was easy to read. I practised a few times before the conference. I was terribly embarrassed by that guy that asked me that God question though,” Rick said.
Paul agreed. “Yes, he was bang out of order. I’m not happy with this God label the gutter press tries to give to the anomaly. It makes people scared. Oh, and why do you have a black eye?”
“You noticed. Ugh, yes, my black eye, this guy punched me outside Downing Street, but I hit him back. He’ll be spending the night in a police cell. I’m fine, don’t worry. Listen. I don’t have long, another meeting is about to start, and I can’t let the others wait for me. But, I have something important to tell you and you must keep it to yourself. The documents they gave me. It had confidential information added, because they wanted to test me, see if I could be trusted. Anyway, about that information — my statement was a lie. There is an object and it is coming towards us.”
Paul sighed. “Crap.”
7. Bad news bears?
(September year 1)
Home Office and Ophiuchus Task Force joint press release.
The Soyuz rocket: the Serpent Bearer has transmitted useful data to Earth and scientists have been busy analysing it. After they were satisfied with their conclusions, they released the following information:
Since the discovery of the anomaly, over two dozen stars have gone missing in the constellation. It has now been confirmed that the anomaly is caused by an object. This object is between the stars and Earth: thus obscuring the stars. Observations so far have shown that the object appears to be a square and is thought to be around 50 by 50 kilometres, however the object might be cube shaped. Data received so far suggests no energy is emitted from the object; there is also no evidence of a propulsion system.
The origin of this object is not known, as no habitable planets inside the Circumstellar Habitable Zone, or Goldilocks Zone, in the constellation have yet been discovered. It is estimated that at the current speed the object could enter our Solar system in approximately 12,000 years.
The Soyuz rocket named Serpent Bearer was successfully launched from the Russian site in Kazakhstan last month. Mission control confirmed the rocket had left Earth’s orbit and has set course towards the Ophiuchus constellation to investigate the anomaly, which two months ago was discovered by amateur astronomer Rick Favier, who was the first to report the missing star Beta Ophiuchi.
When more data is analysed, additional information will be released.
Simon Waltz reread the press release. The evidence was right in front of him; he didn’t need more proof, even the authorities knew, though they were trying to hide the true meaning. They had even sent the Serpent Bearer to greet the thing. Oh, the irony. Was he really the only one who could see that the Cube was sent by God, and the serpent was hiding in there? God was sending the Devil, who would descend on Earth and start Armageddon. He was certain of that. The blatant lies in this article annoyed him. He knew the object would arrive soon, in his lifetime even. He could feel its presence in the sky right now. They mentioned Rick Favier in the article and Simon’s stomach turned. How he hated that guy. Yesterday, when he recognised him in the car, sitting there with that smug look on his face, he instinctively knew Rick was his enemy, part of the conspiracy, so he did what he had to do and had confronted him. Simon had spent the night in a police cell after the incident, and after he had been released he found out Rick had denied the existence of God at the press conference. How dare he? He wished for Rick to disappear from the surface of the Earth.
Reading the word Goldilocks made him think of his daughters and he felt sad for them: their lives would be cut short. But they would go to Heaven with him. He did not care about his wife though. Diane, lovely Diane, stupid and thick, but loyal to him, and even after he had been having an affair, she had forgiven him. For God’s sake, the only thing she had ever done that meant anything was giving birth to his three beautiful, blonde, blue eyed daughters. Diane would also go to Heaven, like him, but he would make sure she would be right on the opposite side. She drove him crazy and eternity with her would be Hell for him. Divorcing her was out of the question of course, a very un-Christian thing to do, but God would make sure now he would not have to endure her for much longer.
Simon’s phone rang. It was his good friend Aziz. “What’s up bro?” he asked.
“You must come to the community centre, my friend. I’m here with a few guys and we saw on the news what you did yesterday to that Rick guy. We liked it and we have a very interesting proposition for you,” Aziz said.
A roaring applause welcomed Simon at the centre. A smiling Aziz waved at him, gesturing him to come to the front, but he could hardly move through the crowd; they all tried to shake his hand and touch him. Simon didn’t understand why they acted like that. He noticed rabbis and imams were staring at him, and praying.
Aziz walked up to him and slapped him on the back. “Dude, you’re a hero!”
“Because you spoke the truth yesterday. You confronted Rick and called for the truth. And when those police officers pulled you away grabbing your hair, that was just classic man. The video is already on the internet and it’s gone viral, the people love you. They agree with what you said and they demand answers too. So we’ve come up with an idea you might like,” Aziz said to him, gesturing him and the others to sit down. “Okay, we’re getting organised. My imams at the mosque got together with several rabbis and priests and they decided to work together to get as many people back into believing in God again. We all believe in the same God and because the end of our days are approaching, we need to set aside our differences and save as many souls as possible.”
Simon thought this was a very interesting idea, but wondered what Aziz was going to say next.
“Anyway,” Aziz continued, “a rabbi came up with the perfect name for our group, the Children of Abraham. And we want you to become our spokesperson.”
Simon was surprised. “Thank you, but what will that mean for me?”
“Well, you’ll speak on behalf of us, do rallies, go to churches, mosques and synagogues. You’ll do television interviews and stuff. So what do you say? Will you accept the position?”
Simon considered for a moment. His felt his career was going nowhere and it sounded like a good excuse to see less of his wife. Everyone stared at him, they were silent, waiting for him to answer. He stood up. “You know what? You made the right decision in choosing me. I will be perfect for the cause. Yes, I accept. I shall be your leader.”
The crowd stood up again and cheered and applauded.
After the crowd had calmed down, Aziz led Simon to a small room, so they could talk in private. “Thank you for accepting Simon, but you’ll be called our spokesperson,” he said, “so, this is the plan. We’ll start by making a website and we’ve arranged a television interview for you later today with the International News Agency, the INA. You’re going to be busy. Now, let’s go over what you’re going to say at the interview. We wrote a statement earlier, we were going to put it as an ad in the newspapers, but now we have you, it will be much better live on the news. Here it is, read it and let me know what you think.”
Simon read the piece of paper. The statement was badly worded and lacked any passion. Simon felt disappointed. “I’m not going to read this out loud, it’s terrible,” he said. “I will rewrite this, because there is no anger and no fear. I must appear more aggressive. If I’m going to unite the believers, I need to give them not only the carrot, but also the stick. Mussolini knew how to make a speech. He’s one of my heroes. Leave this with me and tonight you’ll be blown away. You just make sure I have that interview tonight.”
Simon’s appearance blew INA reporter Anne Goodman away. She had to be careful not to be taken in by his charming ways: Simon was charismatic, but very dangerous.
Before the broadcast her producer had taken her aside and had warned her about him.
“This man is very radical and has an explosive speech prepared. I need you to stay focused and hit him with hard questions. Stay professional.”
The warning had disappeared from her mind, the instant Simon took a seat next to her. She wanted to hear him speak. She wanted to be with him. She wanted to drown in his deep blue eyes. She noticed she licked her lips and she felt a tingling between her legs. Under her desk, she manoeuvred her leg, so her knee touched his. Simon put his hand on her knee and gently squeezed, making the hairs on her neck stand up.
Simon gave an impressive speech. He told the audience how God was angry with those on Earth and would come to claim His souls and send the non-believers to Hell. He spoke into the camera, his smiling face full of confidence, as he delivered the good news for the faithful and the bad news for the rest. He gave a vivid account of what Armageddon was going to look and feel like, and he made that fateful day sound extremely scary. He urged believers of all faiths to sign up for his Children of Abraham movement and all non-believers to join him too, while there still was time, and despite what lies the authorities had told them, there was not much time left: a few months at most.
Anne did not say anything after he finished. She stared at him, mesmerised and excited. She was not afraid of the future anymore.
“We’re live, you fucking stupid cow,” her producer screamed in her ear-piece. “Say something. Don’t just fucking stare at him as if you’ve fallen in love with him. Confront this freaking lunatic. — Oh, forget it. Fuck you bitch, you’re fired. Get off my set.”
“Mr Simon Waltz, thank you for your speech. Everything is clear for me now. I believe you. You’ve taken away my fear and I’ll follow your lead on our path to Heaven. Thank you so much.” She wanted to add: I want to sleep with you so bad.
Simon smiled, he knew the Children of Abraham had made an explosive launch and it was his speech that had made it happen. In a few weeks he would re-launch himself from spokesperson to leader, but tonight he would fuck Anne.
The producer appeared on the set. “We’ve gone to commercials. I want the both of you the fuck out of here.”
“I loved your speech. Please tell me how you can save me,” Anne said, as she kicked off her shoes and sat down on her sofa. After the interview Simon had asked if they could have a drink together. She had agreed and directed the taxi straight to her home; she had noticed the sexual tension between them and did not want to waste any time.
“All you have to do is believe in God and He will look after you,” Simon said.
Anne poured them a glass of wine. This was time for a celebration; okay, she had lost her job, but God would take care of her and she had Simon in her living room.
Before their glasses were empty Simon’s hands were on her breasts. He looked eager and, judging by his bulging trousers: ready. She stood up and took his hands, ready to lead him into her bedroom. But first he made her undress herself. When she stood naked in front of him, she felt vulnerable. Please be a nice guy and don’t hurt me like the other men always do. “Take me, here, now. I’m horny for you.”
“Anne. Look at you, your skin is virgin white, you are pure. I really like you. You’re a beautiful and strong woman and it’s an honour to make love to you soon, but first I need you to do something for me.”
She was confused. Did he not want to fuck her? Was he into perverted sex games? Are you going to hurt me? The thought alarmed her and her hands covered her breasts and vagina. Staring into his blue eyes, she heard herself say: “I’ll do anything for you.”
“I need you to use your influence as a presenter and journalist to make me look good to the world. And I need you to gather information on the Cube and on a few people for me. Will you promise to do whatever I ask you from now on?” Simon pushed her hand away and stroked her between her legs and played with her pubes.
“But I got fired today.”
“I’ll get you a new job, don’t worry. I have connections.”
“Thank you, and yes, I told you already, I’ll do anything for you,” she said, as she moved closer, ready to kiss him.
Simon smiled at her. “This was a great day and tonight will be even better. I love eating pussy and yours looks delicious.”
God, that’s big. There really must be a God, Simon is blessed, Anne thought, as she watched him lower his trousers.
11. Life’s a beach.
(September year 1)
NetInfoSearch result for: Fermi Paradox.
The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the high probability of many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilisations populating the galaxy, and the lack of contact and observational evidence to support it.
In 1950 Enrico Fermi was having lunch with fellow scientists and the conversation turned to extraterrestrial life. They thought it was reasonable to assume life on Earth was not atypical and thus the universe and our galaxy should be teaming with life and many sophisticated societies should be populating the galaxy.
Fermi realised some of them might have spread out. A civilisation with modest rocket technology and a bold amount of drive could easily colonise the whole galaxy in ten million years. This sounds a long time, but compared to the age of the galaxy, which is ten thousand million years old, it is very short. However the lack of any evidence prompted Fermi to ask an obvious question: “Where is everybody?”
Since Fermi asked this question, many attempts have been made to find evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations. Several false alarms have been raised, the most famous being the discovery of Pulsars and Seyfert Galaxies. And the 1977 WOW! signal at the SETI project caused media attention due to its artificial nature, but the signal was never repeated. To date, natural explanations not involving intelligent life have been found for all such observations.
Gustavo Branco sat alone on a nearly deserted Ipanema beach. He had finished reading the morning newspaper and now he had only his thoughts to keep him occupied. The sun touched the horizon, the orange and pink colours in the sky were strong and crisp, but Gustavo did not notice them; he stared at the white sand in his hands, playing with the grains for minutes, deciding if he should stay a bit longer, but he felt tired: not only physically, but also emotionally, empty and lonely.
Before he had come to the beach; he had finished another night of playing tricks. He was sick of being a professional boyfriend. Why did rich American or European women not visit Rio de Janeiro any more? Nowadays the few rich people interested in him were fat and old American men. He didn’t want to do gay for pay really, but men paid him a lot better than women did.
Gustavo felt life treated him unfairly. He had lost his job over a year ago, but he couldn’t face telling his mother. Since she had been hit by a car five years ago, she had been unable to work. She needed him to bring home money and he tried his hardest to pay the rent for their home and pay for food and other bills. Gustavo was her only child and he had never even met his father. Sometimes he felt so ashamed of himself, he wanted to walk in the sea and let himself float away on the waves, but the thought of his mother all on her own kept him going. This morning he felt the same again, wanting to get away from his life. Last night had been very rough on him: his so called boyfriend for the week insisted on having sex with him.
“I’ve given you all these gifts, taxi money, taken you out for dinner, you owe me boy!”
Gustavo had taken the condoms out of his pocket, but the man had insisted on doing it without them.
“I’ll give you two hundred dollars now and more after,” he had said.
A reluctant Gustavo turned over and put his face in the pillow, so the man would not see his grimace. He hated this part of his job. The American was obese and not attractive at all, and turned out to be selfish during sex, but he had been very generous all week and Gustavo needed the money. The man had taken less than five minutes to reach his climax. Afterwards he had told him he had loved the sex with Gustavo and wanted it every night from now on. Paid for, of course.
Yes, Gustavo was feeling really low this morning. He needed a shower. He felt dirty, but he did have plenty of money to take home today. Next week he would do his usual sob story at the airport and as always he would get the address of the boyfriend, but more importantly, he would get more money. Quite often he would write letters asking them for more, and some of them would send him a few notes, once or twice maybe, but then he would never hear from them again. Being a professional boyfriend was hard work and he had to do the same routine again and again.
In the distance he heard laughing and Gustavo watched two girls running into the sea. He looked around him. The beach was quiet. He loved the time before the new hectic day started. Seeing the girls in the sea made him hope he would see her again today: the most beautiful girl in Brazil. Most mornings around six, she would stroll along the beach, her shoes off, the tips of the waves touching her feet, and he would see her jump and dance with the waves.
For the last few months he had watched her and smiled at her. She had light brown skin and the most amazing long wavy hair. She was always dressed in stunning short and tight dresses, made of fabric so thin, he could see her hips and her full breasts. She used to be unaware of the world around her, but recently she had noticed him and had smiled back.
He gazed down the beach, to the place where she always appeared, and after a few minutes, in the distance, he saw her. His mood lifted in an instant and he felt his heart beat faster as she walked closer to him. Finally, for the first time ever, he had the courage to wave at her as she walked past him. When she waved back, he got up and walked towards her, trying, but not succeeding, to look casual.
She stood with her bare feet in the water, smiling. Today, she wore a little red dress and had red shoes in her hand. Oh God, she is so beautiful. This was the first time he saw her eyes: they were light green, emphasised by her light brown skin and her dark wavy hair.
“Hi, I’m Gustavo, I’m so happy to finally say hello to you. I —” Too overwhelmed to speak more, his mind went blank and he felt his face turn red as he looked at her.
She smiled at him. “Hi, Gustavo, I’m Zaira. I’m glad you did. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while. I have a bit of time now. Do you want to go for a coffee?”
“Sure, I know this little beach bar on the boulevard. I hope you like.”
The bar was buzzing: every morning office workers mingled with the party people who did not want to go home yet, giving the place a smart and fun ambiance. Zaira had never been here. This was the usual hangout for Gustavo: his second home and sanctuary, and he hoped she would love the bar as much as he did; giving him an indication if she could fit in his world. The coffee had never tasted this sweet: it had to be the company. Gustavo had fallen in love with her there and then. She probably had no idea how beautiful she was.
Zaira was chatty and funny. She told him she was a biochemistry student and worked as a cleaner in a hotel to fund her studies. She loved to walk the last part of her commute over the beach each morning, and yes, she had noticed him on many mornings.
Gustavo told her he liked to sit on the beach every morning when he finished his shift in the bar where he worked, and enjoy the peace and quiet before the tourists came back. He didn’t want to lie to her and he did intend to look for a real job again, but he needed to save up a lot of money, so he could move his mother out of the slums, the favelas. Soon he would have enough and then he could lead an honest life.
Zaira told him she was having a great time chatting with him, but could not stay much longer. She was already late for work, although her boss wouldn’t mind: he was her uncle. Not that she abused that perk, no, of course not: she was almost never late.
Gustavo could only smile as she tried to apologise.
“Can we meet again tonight? I would love to get to know you better,” she said. “I can meet you here after work, at seven, and then we’ll have time to chat before you start work.”
“Yes. That would be lovely.”
Both looked to see what was on the television when the bartender turned up the volume. Everyone had stopped talking. A report about the Anomaly in the sky, hurtling towards Earth played.
“I’m not too worried about it. I don’t believe it’s aliens coming for us, there must be a reasonable explanation. The media loves to sensationalise everything,” she said.
Gustavo was impressed by her rational and calm behaviour. “Even if they were aliens, which I also doubt, they’ll take thousands of years to get here. So we should be fine.”
Gustavo panicked when he saw an obese, pale man waving at him. It was him, from last night, he had walked past the bar, noticed Gustavo and now he was making his way in towards him, still waving. Zaira was watching the television, unaware the man was approaching them.
Gustavo leapt off his chair. “Hang on for a moment. I have to talk to someone. I’ll be right back.” He gave her a smile and a wink. Zaira looked at him and at the waving man, she looked confused.
“Hello Gustavo.” The man had wet patches under his arms and in his crotch.
If you weren’t so fat, you might sweat a bit less, Gustavo thought. The disgusting sex he had to endure only a few hours ago, replayed in his mind. He had to look casual, otherwise Zaira might ask awkward questions: she seemed very clever. Gustavo forced a smile. “Hello, I didn’t expect to see you up this early.”
“I couldn’t sleep. I felt fantastic after our lovemaking. It’s good to see you. I want to meet you earlier tonight, not just for sex, but also for dinner beforehand. Pick me up at seven tonight.” He reached for Gustavo’s hand, but Gustavo pulled his away.
“Sorry, I have plans for the evening. I can still do midnight, as we agreed.”
“No, you don’t understand. I want you to come at seven.”
“I can’t. Midnight, and we can have dinner tomorrow.”
The man looked unhappy and changed his tone. “Boy,” he said, “if you do not show up at seven then we are finished. There are plenty of your kind around on the beach.”
Gustavo shook his head and walked off. He didn’t want to be around this disgusting man, he wanted to be with Zaira.
“Who was that? He looked angry,” she asked when he sat down.
“A disgruntled customer,” he said. Not that far from the truth.
“From the bar? Ah, don’t worry. I have to deal with the same horrible Americans at my job.”
Gustavo was relieved she did not need to know more. She liked him, he could feel that. He didn’t want to mess this up, he would treat her like a princess and be the perfect gentleman.
Zaira was ready to leave. “So I still see you here, tonight? At seven?” She leaned over and gave him a soft kiss on his cheek. The touch of her lips gave him goose bumps. Off she went, smiling.
Gustavo hurried home. On his way he stopped to buy two bunches of roses, one for Zaira, the other for his mother; she would be pleased with his news.
Life felt great again to Gustavo, and he couldn’t wait for tonight.
13. Life(long) Changes.
(September year 1)
Kim Sook sat at the dining table opposite her husband Jiang. They had married four months ago, and on this as on every evening since then, she had cooked dinner, but had made an extra effort this evening. She had to soften up Jiang before she could tell him her big news. For over a month she had felt sick every morning, including half an hour ago whilst chopping the vegetables, and that meant the one thing she expected it to be: she was pregnant.
But Kim knew her husband wanted to wait several years before having a baby. Life in Hong Kong was expensive; they had recently moved to their newly built apartment and they had little spare money every month. Jiang desperately needed his promotion. A baby could ruin all their plans and Kim realised that they might have to move in to her parents’ house. No, Jiang would most probably be unhappy to say the least. They ate their dinner in silence, glancing out of their windows, with the busy skyline of Hong Kong as their only entertainment.
“Erm, honey, I have to tell you something,” she said, looking straight at him. He kept eating, not looking at her. Was something bothering him? Did he suspect anything? She didn’t know him well enough yet to understand his facial expressions. She could not make up her mind. A wave of anxiety went through her and made her shiver. Her dream of a happy life could be over even before it had really started, but they loved each other so much — he would forgive her, she hoped. She tried to keep another wave of nausea hidden from him.
“Jiang, honey, is everything all right?” Her husband looked at her. His eyes a silent stare.
Oh God, she could not take his silence anymore, she felt she needed to scream. Her pregnancy had made her very emotional. Suddenly a big grin was facing her.
“What, what?” she asked in a loud voice.
“Baby, I have great news,” Jiang said, as he got up from his chair and walked towards her. Kim stood up too and he held her in a gentle embrace. He stroked her hair, kissed her on her lips, on her cheeks and on her lips again. “I had my promotion today. I’m the new chief scientist at the research lab. I’m leading a team of scientists to look at the anomaly in the Ophiuchus constellation — it is called the People’s Republic of China Ophiuchus Project. My salary will be good enough for us to have our baby.”
Kim felt happy her husband was holding her; otherwise she might have fallen on the floor. Could today be better than the day they were married? Or the day she had met him? She remembered when she had seen him for the first time many months ago: this handsome young man walking towards her, their eyes locking. She remembered the moment vividly.
You are beautiful, he had said, please be my wife. Although she thought he was very forward, he did make her smile, so she told him she needed to get to know him first. From that day on, he would pick her up from work every day, with a flower for her, and walk her home, telling her about his poor and simple childhood in the small mountain village where he had grown up. After two weeks, she agreed to go on their first date, that night they had their first kiss, and one month later they were married.
“Jiang”, she whispered, “I have something to tell you too.”
Her husband looked deep into her eyes and kissed her again. “You’re going to make me the happiest man alive right now, aren’t you?”
Kim cried, but her tears were from happiness now. “Yes, Jiang, you will be. We are — we’re pregnant.”
Jiang walked around his office; he had only been head of the Ophiuchus Project for a few days, but he already felt at home, as if he had never worked anywhere else. The team of scientists assigned to him were the smartest in the country. Being a member of the Communist Party had finally paid off: all his requests for resources had been approved by the Central Committee. He had come a long way from his small village, Nyalam Town in Xizang. When he was growing up there, his childhood place still had the old name of Tsongdu in the Tibetan language, but he was not allowed to use that name any more. His family had been resettled there by the Party soon after he was born. As an adolescent, all he wanted was to get away from there: he had always resented the fact that the Party had made him grow up in a backwater. But the Party had never forgotten the sacrifice he and his family had made for the country. Now, they were repaying their debt to him.
The scientists were busy analysing the data they had received from the Russians and sent Jiang regular updates. The reports worried Jiang, and he was unhappy with the fact that he was not allowed to share the real conclusions with anyone, not even with his wife. But in a way that was good: Kim had more important things on her mind right now. She should not be stressed, as that would be bad for their baby. For now he kept her occupied with the redecoration of their new, bigger apartment and all the baby stuff.
Jiang sat at his desk, ready to write his daily report to the Committee, but first he needed to answer the deluge of daily emails. When he checked his in-box he noticed one strange email, originating from India. I have important information for you from the Indian Government regarding Ophiuchus. Do not email me back, but delete this email. I urgently need to meet with you in person. Tonight at 8pm I will be standing at the exit of Chai Wan Station of the Island line. I will find you. Pranit. PS: If you love your country, you must show up.
Jiang reread the email a few times and wondered what he should do. He was under strict instructions never to talk to foreigners; he and his wife could be jailed if he broke the rules. But it was his job to gather as much information as possible about the Cube. And this email fed his suspicions about the amount of information the Russians were giving them. He deleted the email and decided he had to go: for the benefit of his country.
Jiang rubbed his sweaty palms on his trousers as the train slowed down and entered the station. The driver announced they had reached the end of the line.
The end of the line for me too, if this is a trap by the Committee, he thought to himself. Feeling nervous, he looked around. He had no idea what a secret agent would look like, but he did not see anyone suspicious in the carriage. He felt reluctant to get off the train, but he could not go back now, so he got up and walked to the exit of the station; the clock read 7.45pm. He had arrived early and felt annoyed he had to wait.
Pranit. An Indian. I should easily recognise him if he is really here. He looked around. Everyone appeared Chinese to him. This area had seen better days; buildings looked worn and many needed a lick of paint. Litter and old newspapers were strewn around in corners. Stray dogs were scared off by the commuters who were running along the street trying to catch their buses. Street traders were selling food. The strong smell of pork and fried garlic made him hungry. Jiang decided to buy noodles from the vendor outside the station: it was where the good smell came from. “May I have one portion please?” he asked the vendor.
“Of course you can, Jiang,” the vendor said looking at him, a slight smile on his face.
The hairs on the back of Jiang’s neck stood up. “How do you know my name? Are you here to arrest me?”
“Relax,” the man said. “It’s me, Pranit. I’m the one who contacted you.”
“You don’t look Indian. How can I trust you?”
”I am very much Indian. And — can we trust each other? That is the true question. For now, you have no other option but to trust me. Let’s go somewhere less public,” Pranit said.
“Good point, but what about the stall? And how did you know I was going to buy food here?” Fear had changed to confusion.
“Don’t you worry about any of that. Let’s walk, I have a place nearby. By the way, the noodles are on the house.”
Jiang did not know what to think. Should he fear for his life? If they wanted to kill him they would have done that by now. If the Committee was setting him up, he would certainly find out at the end of their walk: he was not looking forward to stepping into a building with this stranger.
The building turned out to be an abandoned restaurant, overlooking Junk Bay.
Pranit led Jiang in and gestured towards a table with chairs, and a single laptop. “Let me start, we don’t have much time,” Pranit said. “Last week we received information from our contact in Lahore that the Pakistanis are expecting an alien attack on Earth. They want to pre-empt this by attacking the Cube before it enters Earth’s orbit. Our contact informed us the Pakistani Government will approach our Government soon with a proposal for co-operation, but our agents have already obtained the documents. The Pakistani Government feels the Russians are not providing them with all data and therefore want to work with us, not only to convince us they are not attacking us, but to have more firepower with our combined nuclear arsenals.”
“That’s terrible. So they assume there are aliens on their way to attack us?” Jiang asked.
“Yes, they do. We keep an open mind, but our Government wants to be prepared for all possible scenarios.”
“But, what is it you want from me? I’m not willing to betray my country, so don’t ask me to spy for you,” Jiang said. He believed he had become an actor in a spy movie, convinced that any moment men in black suits would crash through the windows and arrest him. He had lost his appetite and the smell of the garlic and noodles made him feel sick. Kim would be worried; he had forgotten to call her, telling her he would be working late tonight.
“I’m not asking you to spy for us, please listen to me,” Pranit said. “We have a plan. You must convince your Committee that you have come up with a contingency plan, in case of an imminent alien attack, using China’s nuclear arsenal to attack and neutralise the Cube. You must also convince them the idea is yours and then you should make them contact our Government for co-operation. We will pretend we are grateful for the Chinese offer and work with you on the plan. We’ll then tell your Government we contacted the Pakistanis and have secured their co-operation too. Our combined nuclear arsenal will have over 400 warheads.”
“And there really is no spying for me to do?” Jiang asked.
“Nothing. I promise you. Life on Earth might end and we have no time for petty games. Look, I have all the documents ready, outlining the attack plan. All technical data is here for you. You can rewrite this and present it to your Government as your plan.”
“Why me though?” Jiang needed to know.
“They trust you. You’re a communist, that’s why.”
Pranit’s remark sounded like an insult to Jiang and he was immediately annoyed with him. He stood up, ready to leave. “Hand me those papers. I’ll help you with your plan. Yes, I am a communist and I’ll do anything for my country. I’m going home now, to my wife.”
“I’ll contact you soon,” Pranit shouted as Jiang hurried out of the building.
Where have you been? Do you know what time it is? I’ve been worrying all evening, was what Jiang heard from his wife as soon as he walked through the door.
“People are searching for you. Jiang, I was so worried,” Kim said, hugging him.
Jiang was confused and alarmed: “What do you mean? People are searching for me? Who? And why?”
“When you didn’t come home for dinner, I waited and when it got very late I phoned your office. When the security people said you had left hours ago and I told them you weren’t home yet, they started a search for you,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “Oh baby, I was so worried. I’m so sorry; I hope you won’t be in trouble. But I’m so hormonal now and I panicked.”
“Oh crap, this is not good. This is really, really bad Kim.”
“What’s going on? What did you do? Are you in trouble?” Kim asked, her voice trembling.
“I met this man from India, I don’t know, I think he’s a spy or something. He gave me information. They have plans for the Ophiuchus Cube. They want to work with us and asked me to make it happen.”
“Are you a spy?”
“No!” Jiang answered. How could his wife even think that of him? “I’m not. But because the Committee now knows I was missing, I need to think of something to cover myself.”
“Tell them the truth, it’s the only way. You know they always find everything out,” Kim said.
“I think you are right. You are very wise, my wife.” Jiang hugged her: “I’ll do that first thing tomorrow. Let me call them and tell them I’m safe at home. And — is my dinner still waiting? I’m famished.”
The following morning they made him wait in a tiny, badly lit room with dirty green walls. Two uncomfortable, wobbly chairs and a desk with coffee stains were the only items in there. They had taken everything from him: his laptop, phone and watch, even his shoe laces and belt. Every emotion went through his head, but mostly panic. After what felt like, and probably was, four hours, a man walked into the room. Jiang looked at him. The man was around 50 years old, overweight and had a greasy comb-over that could not hide his bald patch. Jiang noticed two yellow stained fingers, evidence of decades of smoking. The man wore a cheap grey suit, clearly two sizes too small. And when he opened his mouth, Jiang found out the man was certainly a fan of garlic: the smell was overwhelming.
“Mr Jiang Sook. I am agent Tuan. We are very pleased you came to us with the plan. I had a look at it and I am impressed. So here is what happens next. You will be dealing with me from now on. You will do what the Indian asked you and at the end of that process we will go ahead as they expect from us and contact them. It is very important for you to act normally and do not mess this up. The Committee will be monitoring your every step and provide you with assistance when necessary.”
Jiang felt relieved. He had phoned the Committee office that morning and told an agent what had happened to him the night before. The agent had been very pleasant and asked him to come to the office, but when they processed him and made him wait for such a long time he had expected to be treated as a traitor during the interview.
“I have developed a schedule for you with instructions. You will give your scientists their tasks and in one month you will have a full report and proposal ready for us,” agent Tuan continued. “After that we shall take over from you. There is a car outside to take you to your office. The People’s Republic of China thanks you for your patriotism.”
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