Excerpt from Book 2 of the Mars Ascendant Series

Welcome to this excerpt page. This is a three chapter preview from the second book in the Mars Ascendant Series (yet to be titled), made available to you as a member of my reader list.

This work is copyrighted and all rights reserved, ©2016 Doug Pruden. No part of this work may be copied or reproduced in any form for any reason. Please do not violate my trust, lest my wrath be brought down mightily to smite thee!

I hope you enjoy reading this, and ask you to keep in mind that it is only the first draft and may change a bit by the time the final version comes out in the new year….

 

Author’s note: Our heroine, Mel Destin and her friend Dani have just been captured by Felix Altius…

The shuttle door closed behind me and the pressure pumps started up automatically. Within a few seconds, breathing became noticeably easier. In the passenger compartment, Felix Altius leaned against a panel and casually held his pistol pointed in Dani’s direction. She was seated in the left seat of passenger couch and her right hand was manacled to the centre armrest. From his other hand, he dangled another set of manacles.

“I’m so glad you could join us, Doctor. Please take a seat next to Miss O’hara.”

He waved the gun slightly, just to remind me to behave myself. When I was sitting beside Dani, he tossed the restraint to me and pointed to the armrest Dani was attached to. Without feeling the need to comment or play dumb, I quickly closed the bracelet around my left wrist and attached the other end where he’d suggested. Within seconds of my closing the mechanism, an unmistakable clicking assured me that Altius had locked them with his CI.

Satisfied we were immobilized, he holstered the gun and retreated to the cockpit. Shortly, the familiar whine of the ship’s power plant and press of inertia from the floor told me we’d lifted off.

Hoping the hum of the engines would mask my voice, I whispered to Dani, “Did he hurt you?”

“No, but he scared the shit out of me. I didn’t think a little guy like him could have that kind of strength.”

“Or speed. Did you see how fast he moved? I had no idea he or Bubo could do that.”

“I really thought I was going to die, Mel.” Dani swallowed hard. “Do you think Bubo would have shot me to get at this guy?”

“Naw, he had his eye locked on Altius the entire time. He wouldn’t have pulled the trigger without a clear shot.” Of course I lied. I didn’t know what Bubo’s intentions were in that moment. I had no idea if he would shoot me to get at Altius, let alone Dani. Standing in front of him was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve done, and I did it without thinking.

 All my life I’d needed to watch out for number one. Concepts like self sacrifice were simply not in my lexicon while growing up. Over the past year, I’d reflected on my relationship with Dylan and sometimes wondered if he loved me enough to sacrifice his life in a grand, romantic gesture. Never once did I reverse that fancy to put myself into the hero’s role. I didn’t see myself that way, so putting my life on the line for Dani caused me some consternation.

If I did it for her, would I do the same for Dylan? Maybe, but it didn’t look like I would get the chance.

“I can’t believe JR is dead. And Talus too,” said Dani. Her face was filthy with the martian dust caked to her drying tears.

“Talus was still alive when I got aboard. Bubo was looking after him.”

He’d needed serious medical attention, but the only chance he had for that kind of help was in turning himself over the authorities who hunted him. They might be able to save his life, but that would be so they could execute him shortly after. Talus Varr was a dead man, regardless.

My memory replayed the image of JR’s brains being blown out. I couldn’t believe he was dead. Yes, he was a heartless murderer, and nothing like the man he’d conned me into believing he was. After witnessing his remorseless killing of Aleena and her father, I’d wanted him to pay, but his death filled me with the same emotions I’d felt for his victims.

I didn’t want to feel pity or sorrow for the loss of JR. He was a bag of shit. But the recollection of his sudden, pointless demise tugged at my conscience, forcing me to consider there might have been more to him than what I chose to believe. Intellectually, I did not want to consider his life being worth as much as the little girl’s. Something inside of me apparently didn’t agree with that.

“We will arrive at our destination in four-and-a-half hours, ladies.”

Felix Altius stood at the door to the cockpit. He’d removed his gloves and the holster at his hip, apparently confident that neither of us could cause him problems.

“Where are we going?”

Wearing an amused smile, he said, “You two are likely dehydrated. Would you like something to drink?”

Opening a hidden panel in the wall, he revealed a well stocked bar. He picked up various bottles for examination. “Talus Varr keeps his ship well stocked, so you have ample choice.”

“Just water.” I kept my voice toneless.

He held up a half empty bottle of whiskey, shaking it so the amber contents swirled invitingly.  “You’re sure about that?”

“Is this a final drink?” I asked.

“Not quiet yet.”

“Then I’ll have one,” Dani blurted.

Altius nodded with satisfaction and poured two fingers of the liquor into a glass. He handed it to Dani, then looked at me questioningly.

“Fine, why not?”

After handing my drink to me, he sat across from us with one of his own. Stretching out his legs, he noticed something on his pant leg and brushed it away.

“The damned dust is everywhere. Have you noticed the smell? The whole planet stinks.”

Neither of us responded.

Disappointment on his face, he shrugged. “I apologize for the need to restrain you, but we haven’t yet established the terms which allow us to dispense with that.” He indicated our manacled hands with his glass.

“Seriously? I thought you wanted us dead?”

He tucked his legs back under him and leaned forward, his arms resting on his knees. “I’ve promised to spare Miss O’Hara’s life, Doctor. Talus Varr was correct about my integrity.”

“You’ll forgive me if I retain my doubt about that.”

“As long as neither of you cause me difficulty, she will emerge from this experience unharmed.”

 I had no illusions about my fate. Altius would kill me on Mundi’s behalf. That was a foregone conclusion. What puzzled me was why I still lived. He’d had ample opportunity to shoot me during the standoff.

“You need something from me, Altius. That’s the only reason I’m still breathing.”

 “Your reputation for you intelligence is well deserved, Doctor.”

“So, I give you something you want and then you’ll kill me, is that it?”

He shrugged and took another sip of his drink.

“You’re not saying much to motivate me.”

He glanced at Dani. She looked to me, worry on her face, then downed the contents of her glass in a single, noisy gulp. Everyone was now on the same page.

“You’re not exactly keeping your word. You said you’d release Dani, unharmed if I came with you.”

“I actually promised if you cooperate, she will not be harmed. You have only to fulfill your part of our bargain to secure Miss O’hara’s freedom.” He studied Dani for a few moments. “I will even make arrangements for her CI to be reprogrammed so she may assume a new life and face no repercussions for her association with you.”

“You’re so fucking generous. What do you need?”

 “I simply need you to walk into the centre of the crater the nanites occupy.”

“Yeah, well, there might be a problem with that. All of my anti-nanites are gone. I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else. I probably wouldn’t make it ten metres inside.”

“Now, Doctor,” he said, smiling knowingly and shaking his head in mock disappointment. “we all know that is not true, don’t we?”

Shocked, I turned to Dani.

“Well, I didn’t tell him,” she said, defensively.

“Very few things can be kept secret for long, Doctor. I am aware of your…unique relationship with the Ares nanites.”

I considered the situation for a few long seconds.

“If you knew about my little secret, why am I still alive?”

“Data, Doctor. I require data that only you are able to supply.”

“What kind of data?”

“I need to know the extent and range of your influence on the nanites.”

I was confused. They didn’t need to know anything about my influence. If I was really the threat to them Talus Varr suggested, I should already be dead.

“Bullshit. If I’m really such a huge threat to your plans for the nanites, why would you need data on my range? That only makes sense if you plan on letting me live.”

“Perhaps.” A wry smile appeared. “ Sadly for you, there is another explanation you have not considered. You are not unique.”

“What?”

“You are the result of a desperate genetic experiment undertaken by Talus Varr. Do you actually think you are the only survivor of that program?”

“There are others like me?”

“Statistically, yes, there should be. I need data to learn how much of a threat any other likely survivors of the program pose before I hunt them down.”

“So what’s your plan? Throw me into the middle of the swarm and see how many of them die before you can kill me yourself? That’s a pretty dumb experiment.”

“The population density of the nanites at the source crater is unimaginably large. We estimate there may be over a trillion, trillion of them. Perhaps more. If our understanding of their method of quantum interlinking is correct, once the nanites on the periphery identify you, the message of your existence will extend outward from you at a measurable rate.”

“You mean it will spread out from me like a wave?”

“Precisely. I shall track the rate of advance of your destructive influence. The data will allow me to extrapolate the answer I seek.”

“And then you’ll kill me before I kill them all?”

He shrugged, an almost apologetic expression on his face.

“It is a necessary sacrifice on your part to ensure the survival of your friend.”

“It also ensures the potential destruction of all life you unleash that holocaust upon.”

“Oh, is that what Talus Varr told you? How predictable. He has deluded himself with that ridiculous notion for four decades.”

“What do you mean? I thought…”

“You thought my Dominus to be an unconscionable monster who intended to unleash the nanites on Terra, wiping out their population in order to make a new home for the suffering Martian people. Does that sound right?”

“Well…yes.”

“That would be an insane plan. The Ares nanites are indiscriminate. They would not only destroy a human population, but all life they encountered. Unleashing them on Terra would turn the planet into another barren rock in this solar system, of no use to anyone. I can assure you, my master is not insane.”

“Then why are the nanites…the Ares weapon so important to him?”

“Power, Doctor Destin. It is that simple. Control of the most powerful destructive force in existence will make Regis Mundi the most powerful man in existence. Such power comes, not from the use of the force, but from the threat of its use.”

“Like the nuclear arms race that started in the late twentieth century? That turned out well, didn’t it? Two billion dead in a thermo-nuclear war.”

“Those primitives believed the deterrent lay in the threat of mutual destruction. They all had the same weapon, and when one side feels equal or even slightly superior to their enemies, war is inevitable. I am describing a new paradigm for peace throughout the solar system. One weapon, held by one man whom no one will dare oppose. All conflict will cease and humanity will live under a new peace. A new Pax Mundi.”

“A despot ruling all? That sounds just as insane.”

“Perhaps you believe so from your perspective. I, however, believe that billions of lives will be preserved by putting an end to Terran expansion. If the Terrans are not beaten back, they will dominate the entire solar system in two generations.”

“What are you talking about?” said Dani. “Luna beat the shit out of them. They don’t have the stomach for empire building anymore.”

Altius smiled sadly and shook his head, as if addressing a poorly prepared student. “Do not confuse a tactical retreat with defeat. Regimes change. While those who currently hold power on Terra have no stomach for empire, those waiting in the wings do. When they come to power, they will spread out in a wave of conquest that will make the victory of Luna’s rebellion into a fading dream.

“As much as I enjoy debating such things with you, it is now time for your decision, Doctor. Will you sacrifice your life for the certainty that your friend will be spared, or will you sacrifice both of your lives believing in the duplicitous whimsy of a man like Talus Varr?”

He looked from Dani to me. “You may have the time until we arrive at our destination to make your decision.”

He downed the last of his whiskey and went into the cockpit, closing the door behind, presumably to give us the privacy to discuss the matter.

“Some choice. I die or we both die.”

“I’m so sorry, Mel.”

I studied Dani’s tired face, and became ashamed of myself.

“No, Dani, I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have never given you even a second to think I was going to let you die.”

“But you can’t let them get their hands on that weapon.”

“I can’t stop that from happening. If I refuse and they kill me, they still know where it is and will have control over it. Even if others like me exist, I’m sure it will be only a matter of time before Felix Altius tracks them down the way he found out about me. My resisting him won’t help anyone, but if I do as he asks, my best friend will live.”

Tears flowed down Dani’s dirty cheeks. I hugged her close and let my tears mingle with hers.

######################################################################################################

Talus Varr’s personal shuttle was probably the most luxurious spacecraft I’d ever ridden in, and I didn’t enjoy a single minute of flying in it. Designed to comfortably operate sub-orbitally or as an aircraft within the thin Martian atmosphere, the sleek, elegant craft travelled halfway around the globe in less than five hours. The large, dome-like windows in the passenger section allowed a spectacular view of the red planet as we passed the terminator line in our race to the night side of the planet.

Sparsely distributed on the Martian surface were the glowing domes covering other terraforming stations. Eager for any distraction to take my mind off of what was to come, I leaned a cheek against the cool window and allowed myself to become absorbed in their slow passage beneath us.

Despite her ordeal, Dani had been lulled into sleep two hours earlier by the gentle hum of the shuttle’s engines. I, too, had dozed briefly, but was violently jerked  awake by a vivid nightmare. It was similar to all of the other ones, but of much more immediate intensity, the voices more agitated.

A change in pitch of the engines was followed by the pull of deceleration as the shuttle pitched forward to begin its rapid descent to the surface. The view out the window showed only inky blackness, the last of the glowing domes having vanished behind us beneath the chasing strip of dawn on the horizon.

 The site we travelled to was intentionally isolated to prevent any accidental encounter. Mars was sparsely enough populated that isolating any part of the planet would not prove difficult. Altius told us, however, a ten-thousand kilometre long security barrier had been erected around the site, replete with automated security towers equipped with surface to air missiles. It didn’t surprise me that someone like Felix Altius would have the required clearance to enter the airspace over the crater.

Dani’s restraints clattered against the arm of the seat. “Damn it,” she said, examining the manacle on her wrist, “I dreamt I was flying. Now I find myself strapped into a chair and needing to pee.”

“Life just isn’t fair.”

She looked at me, realization of what she’d said written on her face. “I’m sorry Mel. That was…”

“Refreshingly honest. Don’t be sorry. Be grateful for the break you had from this situation while you slept.”

“Did you? Sleep, I mean.”

I shook my head. “The nightmares come almost as soon as I close my eyes. I can almost hear the voices in the back of my mind while I’m awake.”

“How long has that been going on?”

“I began to notice them in the last hour.”

She sat up in her seat. “Do you think they’re associated with whatever is down there?” She pointed unnecessarily to the floor.

“It sure seems that way. They’re very faint; not really noticeable unless I’m sitting, quiet. I wonder what JR would have thought of all this?” I couldn’t get the image of his death out of my mind.

“Who cares? He was the asshole who sold you down the river into this mess.”

“I know,” I smiled wanly at her. “But he still was a pretty good shrink, despite how I felt about him. Who knows how any of us would respond to the kind of stress Talus Varr put him through?” I thought of my own poor, circumstantial decisions of the past.

“Hmph. You may be right, but I’m still glad the son-of-a-bitch got what he deserved in the end.”

I regarded her appraisingly. “Remind me not to piss you off.”

“You need to be reminded?”

We stared at each other for several seconds and then, despite our situation, started to giggle like silly girls. Felix Altius exited the cockpit and appraised us critically before speaking. “We have arrived ahead of schedule. It will be dawn shortly, and then we can begin.”

Our joke no longer funny, we both stared stonily at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Dani. “Did you not get enough nurturing as a child? Why are you such a cold, nasty bastard?”

I shot her an admonishing look, but she shrugged and said, “What’s he going to do, shoot me for being a smart mouth? He probably plans to kill me anyway, so what difference does it make?”

“I’ve given you my word you will not be harmed if the Doctor complies with my wishes.”

“Yeah, like that means a lot. You’ll probably dump me out in the middle of nowhere to freeze and suffocate.”

Nonplussed by her comments, he quickly recovered and addressed me,  “I would like you to look out your window.”

Puzzled, I leaned to the glass. The sky glowed with the light of the pre-dawn, softly illuminating the landscape below. We slowly circled a small crater, less than a kilometre in diameter. At first glance, it appeared no different than thousands of others peppering the surface of Mars, but then the rising sun glinted off an object inside it.

A narrow, metallic obelisk rose, perfectly vertical, from the centre of the crater. We were too far away to make out details, but there appeared to be some sort of intricate pattern along the entire surface of the object.

“What the fuck is that?” whispered Dani in my ear as she leaned over me as much as her restraint allowed.

“That is your objective.”

Dani regarded him, incredulity written across her face. “You want her to drag that thing out of the crater?”

Altius frowned, then addressed me. “I want you to approach and examine the object, making recordings and observations while you do so.”

“What is it?”

“We do not know. No one has been able to get close enough to examine it.”

“Can’t you take high res images and run spectrographic analysis?” asked Dani.

Her question appeared to surprise Altius; it certainly did me. We both stared at her.

“What?” she said, regarding us both and shrugging, “I told you I worked on a methane skimmer. That’s what we would have done.”

“High resolution, multispectral imagery has proven limited. The object’s composition is not…constant,” said Altius.

“And I’m the only person who can get close enough to take a good look at it. Maybe even acquire a sample for you.”

“Precisely, Doctor.” A satisfied smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

“Why is this so important to you?”

He did not respond.

“You may as well tell me, since you’re going to kill me anyway. Knowing what you want it for may help me make decisions once I arrive at the obelisk.”

He studied Dani for a long time before he answered. “Since Miss O’hara will not be in a position to negatively influence us, I believe I can indulge you.”

“Wait a minute. If it means he’s going to kill me for certain, I don’t want to hear.”

“I think he means that even if you knew, you would have no ability to hurt their plan. It would seem only I can do that.”

“That is correct.” For a fraction of a second, I saw something in his eyes when he looked at Dani; a softness that vanished as quickly as it appeared.

Returning his attention to me, he continued. “I believe the object in the crater is what creates the nanites. Controlling it is critical, but thus far, all efforts to approach the object have failed.”

“And only Mel can get close to it.”

“We hope so. She has demonstrated formidable resistance to relatively small numbers of the nanites. There is a danger that the shear volume of them in this crater may overwhelm her before they realize her…exceptional nature and end their attack.”

Fear clutched at my heart for the first time since I’d boarded the shuttle. Until Felix Altius got what he wanted, I was safe. If I entered the crater and got eaten alive by the little bugs before they figured out who I was, he would fulfill his mission of eliminating me. If he kept his word, Dani would be safe and some good would have come from my death. But I’d still be dead.

If I succeeded in retrieving what he wanted, he would kill me, and again, Dani would presumably be safe. The danger I had believed somewhat remote was rapidly becoming imminent, and it scared me. I didn’t want to die. Sure, I’d seemed brave about giving myself up to save Dani, but that was a calculated risk. It certainly wasn’t heroic. Altius wanted something and I was in a bargaining position. There was nothing heroic or self sacrificing about that. But my ability to barter my continued life was rapidly evaporating, and the odds of my near death had risen to a certainty.

Or had they?

“Altius, assuming I am able to approach the object, unharmed, you would still never be able to retrieve it without my help. You’d learn about it, but you’d forever be frustrated by knowing what it was and never able to approach it. In short, you’d still need me.”

“Mel, what the hell are you doing?”

“I believe she is negotiating, Miss O’hara.”

I allowed myself to relax a little. “Yes, that is exactly what I am doing. What do you say, Altius? You’re going to need someone to act as your custodian for that thing, and if I survive, it would seem I would be the ideal candidate for the job.”

“You would switch your allegiance from Talus Varr? That is hardly honourable, and would make it difficult to believe you would not betray us at some point.”

“What allegiance? Let’s get one thing straight about Talus Varr. He, more than anyone, has fucked up my life. He’s manipulated and controlled me, but never once with my fully informed consent. I’m tired of being conned by him; fed only enough information at a time for him to get what he wants, but leaving me in more trouble than I was before. At least if I deal with you, I’ll be going into the deal with my eyes open and everything on the table.”

“You make a compelling argument, Doctor.” He studied me carefully, seeming to assess if he could trust me. What served as a brain in his synthetic head probably poured over all of the possible outcomes far faster and more completely than I ever could.

After almost a minute, he advanced towards us and unlocked the manacles with his CI. He extended his right hand toward me.

“Very well, Doctor. On behalf of your new Dominus, Regis Mundi, I accept your offer.”

I stood and took his proffered hand. His grip was firm and a he offered a slight smile.

Dani remained seated, rubbing her freed wrist. “What about me?”

Altius returned her gaze. “You, Miss O’hara, are no longer in any danger. I will honour my agreement and deliver you to safety once we are finished here.” The softness again entered his eyes as he spoke with her, lingering briefly before it evaporated.

My relief at successfully bartering for my life was short lived when I looked out the window. The rising sun now fully illuminated the scene below, long shadows gave everything a depth that made it appear more real than before.

Now all I had to do was survive what was down there.

####################################################################################################

“Is everything still good?” I asked.  My voice sounded distorted by the combination of the air mixture in my tank and the microphone in the mask.

“Everything is still a go, Mel. Nothing has changed,” replied Dani from the cockpit of the ship. “I’ve got your vitals and video feed coming through strong.”

“Glad to hear. I’m heading in.”

Felix Altius had set the shuttle down outside the crater on a small ridge that offered a view of the interior. I would have to hike about half a kilometre, but with oxygen supplied by the suit, that would not be difficult.

As a precaution, I was outfitted with an environmental suit that theoretically was supposed to protect me from bio-contaminants. I knew from bitter experience that the nanites would have no problem penetrating between the tightly packed molecules of the suit and entering my body. I had a hope that, slowed down a bit by the suit, the first nanites to encounter my cells would send a signal to their buddies, informing them I was not food. At the least, the suit would delay my demise if it was meant to be, which would mean a slow, agonizing death.

I hadn’t wanted to say anything to Dani, but the voices spoke to me from the minute I began to climb the wall of the crater. Up to that moment, I had only experienced it in my dreams, first as a whisper of another presence, then recently as a scream. But they had always confined themselves to my sleep. I understood in that moment that the dreams had been like letters, given voice by my imagination. Now, something else communicated directly with me, seemingly through every cell of my body. I FELT it and knew, with absolute conviction, it existed. It was totally alien, yet comfortingly familiar. I didn’t hear words as I stepped onto the edge of the caldera, but I understood meanings, like wordless thought.

The elevated edge of the crater offered me a spectacular view of the empty plain surrounding it. Near the edge of the crater, out of view of our ship were two other small ships. They were half buried in the drifting sands of the planet and appeared to have been there for some time.

 Advancing a hundred metres down the side of the crater I approached the first body near the floor. My short, rapid breaths sounded ragged as I laboured down the slope, despite the air supply and filter mask I wore. When I reached the prone figure, I knelt down to examine it and, with some effort, rolled it over.

Nothing organic remained behind the mask. A crumbling parody of a human skull stared sightlessly out at me, most of the organic molecules within the bone consumed, leaving only bound minerals in a fragile frame.

The consciousness initially seemed confused or puzzled by my emotional response to the sight of the remains. It then gave me the sense of unconditional acceptance of my emotion, without actually understanding it.

“I’m moving on to the other body.”

Within another minute, I’d arrived at the other figure lying on the crater floor. This one I didn’t bend to turn over. I stood motionless over it, staring. The face behind the mask was a formless mass, the nanites having long before destroyed every living cell in the body. It wasn’t even identifiable as human.

My reaction to the sight of the second body elicited a much different response from the entity. It seemed to not understand the strength of my emotions. At first, it withdrew, as if it feared it was hurting me. When it realized I was undamaged, it plumbed deeper inside of me, searching for meaning. My grief confused it, and I felt its own version of unease, as if it regretted being responsible for my sadness.

After my initial shock at seeing the remains, I focussed on how the presence regarded it. While it had seemed indifferent to the first body’s existence, I sensed a much stronger response to this one. It was a sense of relief, and accomplishment. Recollections of words from my dreams flashed through my mind, Abomination…Purge…

I understood in that instant the meaning of the nightmares. This ancient alien mind had been attempting to connect with me, I now knew, from the minute it first learned of my existence.

As Dani and I had suspected, every nanite was interconnected to the others. Each one served as a node, or neuron in a vast, distributed alien intelligence. The first time the Ares nanites became exposed to me, they perceived something about me was different to any other organic matter. They turned off, essentially dying so as to do me no harm, and communicated my existence to the others in proximity with it through a quantum connection they shared. Every one that learned of my existence passed the message along, and in turn, died. It was as if their reason for existence had been realized and those physically near me no longer served a purpose.

It was their collective intelligence that I now communed with. I was special to it, and I perceived a longing on its part to complete its purpose. I looked toward the centre of the crater and saw the metallic object we’d spotted in our flyover. It was about two-hundred metres away and must have been five metres tall, jutting straight out of the ground like an intricate, chrome plated totem pole.

“I’m moving to the centre of the crater.”

“Mel, are you sure you’re okay? You don’t need to do this right now.”

“I’ve made a deal, and I keep my word.”

Of course, nobody had any real way to know if the obelisk in the crater was integral to the nanites existence. For all I knew it was the empty container they had arrived in almost four billion years ago and now had no more significance for them than my kitchen trash did for me. The scientist in me screamed that I didn’t have any data to draw conclusions about the silver tower, but the entity told me otherwise.

It called me to the obelisk. I detected in it a longing for my approach, as if that would in some way fulfill its purpose. Fear suddenly rose up inside of me. Was I being lured to my death? Did this thing have some purpose for me that would make Altius’ threats pale in comparison?

The entity responded to my fear, seemingly wanting to assuage it and reassure me of my safety. I was important to it; integral, in fact.  Knowledge of the reason danced in the periphery of my conscious thought, but eluded my attempts to grasp and understand.

Dani’s continued attempts to keep me in radio contact began to distract and annoy me. I tuned her out, responding with a part of my brain I no longer paid attention to. I was engrossed in the link between the entity and me. It was intoxicating, and I wondered if it perceived our connection in the same way.

Walking towards the distant obelisk, I looked down at my feet.

“The ground is actually moving.”

 The red, sandy ground actually parted under every step I took, revealing a darker, harder bedrock beneath.

“What the hell is going on, Mel?”

 I realized that it wasn’t the ground that parted, but the nanites themselves. Millions of trillions of them occupied the bottom of the crater; so many that they formed a solid, flowing cohesive mass. It responded to my presence, clearing a safe passage for me.

“Nanites,” I said. “There must be so many of them that they’ve become solid.”

“Aren’t they all supposed to be dead?”

“Yeah.” My reply sounded uncertain.

“Mel, you should come back in. If you’re not toxic to them, we need to rethink this plan.”

“No, I think everything is still okay. Wherever I step, the ground seems to move away from me, like the nanites are avoiding contact. I’m going to the object.”

The nearer I got to my objective, the deeper the mass of nanites became and the higher the walls along my passage rose. The flowing mass of nanites that refilled my wake bounded in reflected waves that distributed themselves in complex patterns around the crater. Soon, it appeared like the very ground of the crater undulated like a deep pool of mud.

As I neared the obelisk, the flow of nanites parted and formed a circular clearing surrounded by high, throbbing walls that I feared might come crashing down upon me. I craned my neck to look up at the intricately patterned silver obelisk.

“I’ve reached the middle. I’m at the object. This thing must be fifty metres tall from the base of the crater. The nanites buried it. It’s so beautiful. I’m going to try touching it.”

“Mel? Is that such a good idea? Maybe you should come back and we can talk about this?” I could hear the fear in my friend’s voice and I desperately wished she could experience the calm and confidence I somehow had acquired.

I cautiously advanced towards it, my hand outstretched. The intricate, alien carvings and extrusions covered the surface and I wondered if it served as language or merely decoration. They seemed to call to me, almost now at the conscious level. Not yet quite in language as we understand it, but clearly at the level of sensory perception. It wanted me to touch it, and I felt a longing beneath it all.

Disregarding all protocols, I removed my gloves and let my bare hands caress the warm, smooth metallic surface. It flowed and pulsed in response to my touch and I found myself caressing it in a soothing manner. Waves and ripples of light from my strokes flowed along the surface and into the ground. They began to increase in strength and speed, harmonically amplified by the obelisk itself until the entire structure pulsed with an energy that only hinted at the power behind it.

Fearful I’d done something foolish, I stepped away from the monument, hoping the pulsing would abate. To my disappointment, it continued to build in amplitude until the very ground beneath my feet shook.

Seismic pulses radiated out from the tower along the ground and to the flowing wall that surrounded us. It pulsed and shook like jelly and multiple complex ripples ran along the exposed surface.

Then, as if a giant rock had been thrown into the centre of a pond, the wall rose up and retreated outward towards the distant crater rim, leaving most of the centre exposed as barren rock. The radial wave rebounded off of the crater walls and rushed back towards me like a massive tidal wave. The approaching wave rose in amplitude and speed as it neared and soon became twice the height of the tower.

From all sides it descended onto the middle of the crater and I dropped to my knees and covered my head in a futile attempt to protect myself. The wall crashed down on me and everything went dark.

If you enjoyed reading this and would like to be on my team of Beta Readers, drop me an email at Doug@prudenauthor.com and let me know. I can only accept the first twenty people who contact me before December 20, 2016, but even if you don’t get in for this book, I will put you on the list as an advanced reviewer for this one, and beta reader for the next one.

If you want to check out Book 1 of the Mars Ascendant Series, The Ares Weapon, it is available here at Amazon.

The Ares Weapon Kindle version