One man. Two worlds separated by a universe. Space-time warped by black holes. In the passing of seconds on Earth, Major Niall Kearey has witnessed the birth and death of generations on Astereal. His mind shortcuts light years to visit a fantastical world of floating sky cities populated by telepaths.
Astereal is in decline, the dueling forces of black holes threaten extinction. Ancient prophecy predicts their interstellar visitor brings salvation. As Niall faces the staggering truth – that his alien dream world is real – he and his family are targeted by secret societies, scheming politicians, and the US military.
Time is running out as Astereal races towards annihilation and temporal alignment with Earth. Power brokers vie for control of his capabilities. Niall must act, balancing the needs of Earth, his family, and the alien civilization he has come to know and love. The fate of two worlds rests on Niall Kearey’s shoulders.
Warning: Some strong language.
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A lull in gunfire stopped his team in their tracks.
Major Niall Kearey raised a hand, intent on ordering them forward. It didn’t matter whether the fire fight continued, or the insurgents packed up for the night. For two Rangers in critical danger, each ticking second decreased the odds of survival.
A deafening round of mortar fire changed his mind.
White flashes dominated the eastern sky and adrenaline coursed through his veins. The world around him thinned to the point of vanishing as his vision magnified and then contracted in a moment of precognition. An onslaught of jumbled impressions slammed him between the eyes: blood-coated metal fangs, crazed insurgents shooting off in some inane pissing contest, and the innocent faces of sleeping kids, black eyelashes resting on darkened skin. The cascade of images stuck on a slavering dog fighting its chain.
“Sir? You okay?”
Dyer’s query anchored Niall in the here and now. He lowered his hand. “Assholes got to be high on khat. Secure target perimeter.” He glanced at Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hastor crouched beside him. “Go with them. I’m going to check out those weird hot spots.”
Sam shot him a speculative look that Niall ignored, just as he had in their Academy days. His friend had always been too perceptive for Niall’s liking. Sam’s turning up at the TOC earlier that day had been spooky good timing. This politically-hot casualty evac in Somalia seemed a perfect set-up for Sam’s review of cooperation across US Special Operations Command.
Dyer issued rapid-fire orders sending Niall’s team and their Pentagon tag-along off in various directions. Niall took a more direct line to their target. He crept from shadow to hiding place, senses on high alert, his thoughts focused on the men they had come to extract. He slipped inside a recessed entranceway and shifted aside the ragged curtain door with the muzzle of his M4A1 carbine. The suspicious thermal images that had Command so concerned lay curled up on thin mats scattered across a broken concrete floor.
Hell. Give me hostiles over a human shield situation any day.
He counted twelve children between his team and the two injured Rangers trapped on the roof with a cache of explosives big enough to ignite a car bomb bonanza.
Bastard insurgents. To them, kids were little more than expendable fodder for their miserable war.
He scanned a shell of a room as dilapidated as the outside then let the curtain drop. Back flat against the thick stone wall, he scrutinized the street scene, ears alert for the sound of danger, or a child’s stirring.
“Hotspots are kids,” he murmured. “They’re asleep.”
He’d barely finished when a dog’s barking detonated the night’s silence. Niall cursed under his breath and pressed deeper into the crumbling stone recess. Sharp, loud, and uncomfortably close, the yapping threatened them all. Blood and metal teeth flashed across his vision once again, its significance still to be revealed.
His earpiece crackled to life. “Won’t stay asleep, not if someone don’t shut that mutt up real soon.”
The damned creature did sound disturbed. Vicious even. Luckily the kids seemed oblivious, apparently accustomed to late night commotion. What with insurgents throwing impromptu shooting parties and feral dogs going off, he wondered how anyone in this bumfuck town got to sleep. “Sit rep.”
Dyer reported in. “Three hostiles thirty meters east of target. Stand by.”
Niall’s jaw clenched. More delay. These kids wake up and start screaming, we’re screwed.
The crunch of stone underfoot set him on edge. Heart pounding, he rested his finger near the trigger of his assault rifle and risked a look out. A heat signature with a ‘friendly’ cold spot approached from the west. Niall covered him. Sam Hastor slipped into the door well and slashed two fingers across his own throat.
Two hostiles down. Cool. Sam looked way too pleased with himself. An arrogance the Air Force Academy failed to drill out of him.
Niall tapped off his mike. “You’ve been flying that desk too long, Mister Light Bird Colonel. You woke up Cujo.”
“Hey, I’m here to observe, not pick up your slack, Major.”
“You want to observe, be my guest. Like having a rotor on an F-15 – still, you might learn something.” Sam’s shoulders sagged and Niall stifled a chuckle – the moon would turn red before Sam Hastor passed up this chance for real action. “Humping full combat gear must hurt after years of shuffling paper.”
“Like riding a bike.”
Niall raised a skeptical eyebrow while inwardly admitting his friend was doing okay.
He flipped up his night vision lens to check the ominous-looking sky. Not a moon in sight, red or otherwise. In spite of Cujo, the town slumbered peacefully into the early hours of the morning. Seemed the revolutionaries wore themselves out playing.
His right leg twitched, his muscles telegraphing a warning to get moving. Come on, Dyer.
Every wasted second reduced the chances of getting everyone out alive.
“Flight One to Lima Six. Rainstorm’s started tracking northwest – gonna get freakin’ wet in twenty. Keeping outta its way. Over.”
Hellsfire. That storm was racing across the Horn of Africa faster than predicted. This op is going to shit, whatever I do. In truth, his pray-now-or-die sense had been jumpy all day. Gut instinct said that incoming storm had the targeting system of a heat-seeking missile.
Sam glanced in on the children. “That’s why you went solo.” His head turned to Niall. “You knew.”
Two simple words loaded with years of suspicion.
“Let’s not go there again.” Niall gritted his teeth and forced down his irritation. Sam once joked Niall could walk on water. Clearly he still held to the belief that Niall’s uncanny intuition exceeded that of any normal field operative. Niall’s lips thinned. “The moment we’re clear, find somewhere to put these kids.”
Sam said no more, but Niall knew better than to believe he’d drop it entirely.
“Target perimeter secured,” Dyer reported.
At last. Niall knocked his night lens into place and waved Sam to get moving. “Lima Two, Seven, to my position.”
He tracked Sam’s progress down a darkened street dominated by more modern concrete houses. His team’s heat signatures stood out from the shadows and piles of rubble that marked the town’s beleaguered past. Dyer and Jackson zigzagged towards him. Experienced members from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, they assessed the situation with a glance. While Niall monitored the children, the pair systematically swept through the ground floor before disappearing upstairs.
“Second floor, clear.”
Grunts and creaking metal preceded a brief pause before Jackson checked in. “Roof clear. Friendlies identified. Okay, who requested a house call?”
Niall smiled at the abuse heaped on the pararescue jumper. The unflappable Master Sergeant Jackson could handle a belligerent Ranger. It was the quiet one they had to worry about.
When Dyer reappeared and assumed watch, Niall raised his night lens out of the way and eased his backpack to the floor. He pulled out a sealed bag of gauze impregnated with chloroform-ether – non-standard issue, but very useful. Avoiding skin contact, he held the cloth over the nose of the nearest child. He patted the boy’s scrawny shoulder then checked his pulse – kids had a nasty habit of going down, no warning.
Human shields started way too young in this godforsaken land.
He had put three more into a deep slumber when a lightning flash illuminated the room, the strobe-like effect increasing his sense of foreboding. They didn’t have much time. No sane person messed with explosives in an electrical storm and he had the extraction to consider. His Black Hawk crew would play tag with a hurricane to get them home – he preferred to avoid that scenario. He counted the seconds for the thunder to follow, tensing when the distant rumble disturbed a little girl.
Guess angry dogs and rockets pass for normal around here.
The sweet-smelling chloroform helped her settle. He sedated the rest then moved to the curtain door. Cujo had ended his protest, but a breeze had picked up and the clang of metal roof sheeting and wooden shutters punctuated the rustle of leaves. The floating hotspots in the opposite building suggested sleeping inhabitants. So far, so good, but it could all change in seconds.
Jackson spoke in his earpiece. “Lima Three, need a litter up here.”
Two ghostly figures converged on his position. Dyer directed them up the stairs. A second flash of lightning revealed Sam filling the doorway. Thunder chased him in. Niall gathered up a boy and thrust him into the lieutenant colonel’s arms. Sam shifted the weight then disappeared back into the night.
Niall caught Dyer’s eye. “Help him.”
Dyer grabbed a kid and hustled out of the building. Niall took a deep breath. Dyer made an excellent second, but Jose would have been in his element on this mission. His former second-in-command bulldozed his way through mission glitches, a Juggernaut with a lion-sized heart.
The stubborn Puerto Rican would have woken the kids, told them a bed-time story, and had them trailing off after him to the safe zone.
Taking the wooden stairs two at a time, Niall emerged from a trap hole onto a flat roof surrounded by remnants of a small parapet. Overhead, the inky sky bore down on him, the wind in his face a foretaste of the advancing tempest. Jackson was supervising the loading of an injured man onto the litter. Niall picked his way through some nasty-looking gin traps. One elephant-sized steel-jaw boasted sharp teeth gleaming with reddish-black blood.
Niall nudged it over with his foot, peered at its base, and addressed the Ranger. “Hey, Badger. This trap has your name on it.”
A barbed grimace shot his way. “Shit, sir. You’re a regular standup comedian. No wonder Special Tactics likes you.”
Niall grinned. He noted the wrapping around Badger’s lower leg – the trap had nailed him just above his boot. Paracord held his arm in a makeshift sling. Discarded bloody strips of cloth sat beside two balled up parachutes. The Badger lived to fight another day.
The Ranger with the head injury didn’t look so hot. Jackson shone a penlight into one eye and the restless man moaned.
The PJ glanced at Niall. “Evacuating this one now, sir. Don’t want to race him to the LZ.” Jackson stepped back so the litter bearers could pass. He gestured to Badger. “His SATs are good. He wouldn’t let me near his arm so I gave him a shot of morphine, and antibiotics. Nasty wound, trap bit deep.”
Indignation screwed up Badger’s face. “Evading the traps shoulda been easy, but the fuckin’ guerillas started shooting. Thought we’d been made. Teddy turned to evade, too late, too low, collided with my canopy. Threw our touchdown all to hell. He seemed okay at first, tried to help me out, but started acting weird. He’s concussed real bad, been mumbling nonsense for an hour.”
“I’ll look after him,” Jackson reassured the man before turning to go, but there was a set look to his face that Niall recognized. Teddy had more than a simple concussion.
Niall indicated the tarp-covered pile almost dead center on the flat roof as he probed the Ranger’s arm. “What kinda goodies you got here?”
Badger barely flinched; morphine had kicked in. “Ammonium nitrate.” He nodded to a second, smaller pile. “TNT over there, several cans of diesel and a jug of gasoline. Got enough bang here to form a serious threat to this diplomatic powwow.”
Niall suspected Badger had sustained multiple fractures. He grabbed a splint out of his pack. “Destroy the lot. Can you contain the damage to this one building? Don’t care if it’s leveled.”
“That’s the plan. I rigged up a couple of flame fougasse throwers. Got remotes to set them off and a delayed trigger for the TNT. Fire should decompose the fertilizer and burn off the worst of the explosive before anything detonates. Just need to finish setting up.”
Badger rubbed his chin with his good hand. “What about them kids?”
“Kids will be clear,” Dyer reported in. “Got them a nice animal shelter well clear of the hot zone.”
Dark clouds lit up around them and Niall’s pulse skipped a beat. He finished strapping Badger’s arm to his chest and hauled the man onto his feet. “Best get a move on. Shout if you need help.”
“Ha, fuckin’ ha.”
With a one-armed, limping Badger happily occupied, and Teddy en route to the landing zone, Niall checked on the remaining kids. The sight of a flung-out arm reminded him of his own six-year old twins. He swallowed. The thought of Toby and Lizzie in a situation like this turned his stomach.
Dyer entered to collect another child and gave him a thumbs-up.
Niall returned to the roof and watched Badger place a pipe flamethrower topped with fuel-drenched cloth near the explosives. He had arranged open cans of diesel around the jug of gasoline. A crawling sensation down the back of Niall’s neck brought a shudder, the feeling tantamount to an electric shock – like someone had stuck a cattle prod in his spine. The last time he ignored a warning this intense, a wall collapsed and Jose nearly lost a foot. The injury did cost Jose his career. Niall wouldn’t let a morphine-doped Badger down the same way.
“Badger, you done?” The man nodded and Niall took the detonators from him. “Fall back to the LZ with the others. Say again, fall back. Go, go, go.” When Badger looked set to argue, Niall shot him a look – he wasn’t taking any Ranger bravado shit, not this time. “Get moving. Someone show our walking wounded the way home.”
Badger got moving.
Niall gave everyone thirty seconds to clear the building. “Lima Two?”
“Evac complete, you’re good to go.”
Lightning forked the clouds and Niall flinched. The clap of thunder felt like a body slam and, for a split second, he thought his time had come. He stared at the cache, unable to believe it had escaped untouched. Gift horse and mouth sprang to mind. Triggering the remote, he ducked behind the trapdoor. After a moment he heard the pop of plastic wrap and caught a whiff of burning diesel. A quick peek showed flames licking the pile.
He grabbed a broken chunk of stone masonry, took aim – fucking better not miss – and bowled it into the jug that hadn’t yet caught. Gas whooshed into a ball of flame. A wall of heat blasted him and he took cover. He gave it some time then looked again. A good portion more of the material was ablaze.
Grim satisfaction filled him as the flames spread. He stood up to go when a raindrop wet his nose. Then something more solid stung his shoulder. The heavens opened and pummeled him with pebbles of ice – hail large enough to detonate burning explosive.
Heart in mouth, he swung around to the flaming pile. His knee brushed the trapdoor. It slammed shut.
He grabbed the handle and pulled, but the heavy wood door had jammed. A familiar sense of being trapped – smothered – hit him and he yanked harder.
“Get outta there,” Badger hissed in his ear.
Spine-chilling fingers of impending doom gripped him. He glanced towards the flame-covered cache as adrenaline turned his world to slow motion. A large flash of white light shot towards him, accompanied by a deafening blast and chased by a writhing ball of yellow flame and black smoke.
He spun away as the roof charged up beneath his feet, bucking him into the air.
Explosive energy plus something as hard as steel slammed into his back and side. A drawn out roar filled his ear drums. A burning stench coated his lungs. He tried to run, but his feet trod air instead. A tight band squeezed his chest and a painful whine in his ear soared into the higher decibels.
Death nipped at his heels. The grim reaper stood waiting.
This time he would surely die.
The subconscious mind of Major Niall Kearey, United States Air Force, bolted in terror. It raced across the Somali landscape then skidded over the Ethiopian Highlands into desert badland. There it recoiled against the electromagnetic forces emanating from a volcanic lake spraying red-hot lava into a cloud of ash.
It bounced back to his physical body hurtling headfirst towards a building opposite the exploding rooftop. Imminent death spurred his mind’s hunt for escape – a way out – a shimmering at the edge of his darkening vision. His consciousness dived through the tear in the fabric of space, confident of its capacity to extend well beyond the confines of the brain binding it to Earth.
It had done this before.
Copyright Ceri London 2012