Justin sat in his room and stared at the little ceramic cube. He had discontinued the experiment…what was the point in continuing? The only thing he knew for sure was that LAIT wasn’t getting the device back any time soon.
He had unplugged the hard drive and removed it from the computer in the lab. The contents of the drive were all that he had to work with, and as yet he had not even tried to decipher the information. Instead his mind had been going a mile a minute for several days and he had only come to three decisions.
First, he could tell his father nothing about this. The man thoroughly believed in LAIT and the purpose of the Ancient Ones. No, it would only put his family in danger if the information spread too far. Oh the deceit that poor man had lived under and it made Justin furious.
Second, LAIT would have to be neutralized, his future self said as much but he didn’t explain how. The creature was most certainly spying on him somehow. Justin always knew when someone was reaching out to his mind and he had learned to block that. What he did when alone in the shower was reason enough to have learned that trick. He was only hoping that if he could block his father’s thoughts that it would work on LAIT. There was no answer for that.
And third, he needed help. LAIT had spoken about others, and his future self had as well. These must be Family members who were to work with him. Somehow he had to find them and convince them of the dangers that lay ahead. He was sure LAIT had expected that these others would help him enable the invasion forces, but he didn’t know how. There were just too many unknowns.
He couldn’t sit in his room like this much longer. His parents would start to worry, figure he was depressed or had some other teenage malady and then his father would become involved. But where to start? The only direct information he had so far was that the Ancient Ones were coming from the Horsehead Nebula, so he headed off to the library.
Something inside told him that seeking the information online would risk detection by LAIT. The creature was wired into the most sophisticated computing system on the planet. There was probably nothing Justin could do about that at the moment, but he also figured it would be a great way to serve up false information when the time came.
The campus library had hundreds of books on astronomy, a subject Justin had only skimmed in his studies. But he did know that the brightest star in the Horsehead Nebula was in Orion’s Belt, and that was close to a thousand light years away. How long would it take the Ancient Ones to make the trip?
The technology he had seen so far meant that they had overcome the problems of distant space travel. In fact, the teleportation device he rode into the vault would make long distance travel a breeze. But there was a clue in what his future self had said. Otherwise, why would he have directed Justin to look at Orion? Did he mean it as proof of the invasion?
The campus had an observatory but Justin was certain that their small telescope would prove useless to his purpose. He gathered up several books and sat at a table in the far corner of the third floor study lounge. It was still early and there were few students around.
The Horsehead Nebula was startlingly clear in some of the pictures taken by the Hubble space telescope. That star left of center was huge and so bright; there must be a million planets nearby and any one of them could be the home of the Ancient Ones. A thousand light years away, that seemed so far…
One thousand three-hundred light years to be exact, a voice said inside his head.
Justin turned around and scanned the other students sitting nearby. No not him…or him, and then he saw the smile on the girl’s face across the room. Her?
Yes, it’s me, Darla.
But…but you’re a female, Justin thought.
Brilliant, I just knew you were smart. Bet you didn’t expect a female Family member to drop in, did you? No, they lie to all you guys just to make you feel special; they don’t tell you about us.
I’m sorry. I didn’t know that there were female Family members.
And didn’t I just tell you why? But why the fascination with the Horsehead Nebula?
Justin liked her right away. Darla had a sharp tongue and a sense of humor. But could he trust her? Would she be an asset or a liability? He picked up his books and walked over to her table.
“Mind if I sit here?” He asked.
“Sure. And I’ll bet your name is Justin,” She replied.
“Okay, so you know me. Where did you come from?”
Philadelphia…and before you ask, I believe we were never supposed to meet one another. The Family doesn’t know I am here.
In my book that’s a plus. Then why are you here?
Because of the letter you sent me…you did send me a letter, didn’t you?
Not that… And then Justin realized that maybe he did, but from the future. If his future self had access to the teleportation equipment in the Vault perhaps it would be possible. That was awesome.
Maybe I did after all.
And what does that mean?
Darla, there is a lot I have to explain to you, but I need some information from you
first…and we have to talk aloud…it’s safer that way.
She smiled. “Okay, I love intrigue.”
Justin smiled in return. “Then you’ll love what I am about to tell you.”
They were still seated at the table two hours later when Justin’s stomach rumbled, he had missed breakfast. By then Justin knew why his future self had sent her a letter. She was a graduate student in astronomy and cosmology. Her thesis was underway and it dealt with high energy space transmissions. She was a perfect match to his needs with that knowledge. She was also seven years older, but Justin didn’t think about that.
When she discovered the type of lab work he had been doing Darla seemed excited and immediately saw the potential. But when he told her about the transmissions from the future and the final message she turned white as a sheet.
“Oh My God, then it’s true,” she said.
“You know about this?” Justin asked.
“No…It’s just…well, I’ve suspected LAIT of something all along.”
“You know LAIT too?”
“Yeah, I had to visit the vault in the Adirondacks when I was twelve, girls mature faster than boys, you know. That’s when he…it…told me I was an aberration in the Family. See, my father was never supposed to have girls, only boys. There was a genetic screw up somehow and out I came as you see me. I guess we’re cousins, do you know William Time?”
“No, never heard of him. My father is Alan, he never mentioned any relatives. But you went to the Adirondacks to see LAIT, I go to the Appalachians…see it’s true, it is a teleport device.”
“The elevator is actually a teleporter. The vault is under neither mountain range but somewhere else. How sneaky of them.”
“You mean the Ancient Ones?” Darla said.
“Yeah, maybe, but we had better stop calling them that, they seem to be the enemy now. Look, I have to start analyzing the data I got sent from the future me, but I don’t want to do it on my computer. I think LAIT is spying on me and hacking my computer would be too easy for him. He can’t see this stuff once I download it. “
“So use mine, it’s in my car,” Darla said. “I only use it for research and you can hook up your hard drive as an external.”
“Yeah, that would work. Where are you staying?”
“Don’t know actually, I just got here this morning. I came straight to the campus where the letter said to meet you in the library on the third floor after nine o’clock.”
Justin laughed. “Gotta hand it to myself, I thought of everything.”
“I can afford a hotel room. Don’t suppose you could just bring me home?”
“Lord no, my parents would flip out…I don’t even date yet.”
“All brains and no fun? You’re cute; I bet the girls here would love to date you.”
“Ahh, I don’t think that would work out. I’m sixteen, Darla.”
“Ah, so no cradle robbing. Sorry, Justin, I’m not making fun of you.”
“Yes you are, but that’s okay, I need the distraction. This whole thing…well, I haven’t slept much. But finding you makes me feel a whole lot better. Let’s go.”
Darla checked herself into the Charlottesville Inn, an older motel but at least they had internet service. Justin helped carry in her luggage.
“You sure brought a lot of stuff,” He said.
“I packed everything, guessed I wouldn’t be back in Philly for a while. Have you found any other Family members? The letter said something about joining the group.”
“Group? No, I have no idea what that means. Maybe the data I…he sent back will show us the way.”
From her suitcase Darla pulled out a laptop, a very large one.
“Damn, I never saw one that big,” Justin said.
“It’s the most expensive one I could buy. It started life as a Mac-Pro, but it’s far beyond that now. I just love the resolution on the larger screen. Looking at star charts all day can get tiring.”
“You can see the stars with that?”
“Yeah. The school has a link to the observatory at the Jet Propulsion Labs and the national database feed down from the Hubble.”
“Uh, can we look at the Horsehead Nebula?”
“You mean now? Are we looking for aliens already?”
“You said thirteen hundred light years. I can’t imagine we’ll see much of anything…unless.”
Justin reached into his pocket and withdrew the cube. The light seen in Earth bound telescopes from stars that far away was millions of years old, and that did not serve their purpose. What could they do to make the image appear in real time?
“Okay, what have you got there?” Darla asked.
“It’s a piece of technology from the Ancient Ones, LAIT gave it to me.”
“Ahh, a magic box no doubt.”
“I believe you’re right,” Justin said.
“Come on, I was just joking. Is it…seriously?”
“I don’t know what this little thing is capable of but it made my experiment work. It seems to have some means of bending the rules when it comes to the laws of physics. That only proves how advanced these alien creatures are…and how dangerous.”
“JPL has a feedback channel to point the telescope,” Darla said. “Maybe if we aimed your laser at Orion and pulled the data back through the Hubble we could defeat the delay. It won’t give us real movement, but we can compare shots of the same star cluster. I can do an overlay and ask the program to detect any changes or energy signals.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Justin said. “I guess we have to go to my lab at the university.”
It was lunchtime and the science cluster building was fairly empty. Justin inserted his key in the lab door and they walked inside. Darla looked around the room and nodded.
“Is this it? I mean, where is everything?”
“You were expecting Dr. Frankenstein’s Tesla coils and banks of equipment? That’s not how modern projects work,” Justin said. “The laser dome is on the roof.”
He led her over to his desk in the corner. “Plug your laptop in here while I attach the cube.”
Darla booted up the computer and typed in her password as Justin fit the cube in a sliding tray mounted on the wall. The cube would expand when power was applied, but otherwise the whole operation was silent.
“Do you think LAIT can track us here?” Justin asked.
“Probably, if he had his thinking cap on. But I have a surprise for him, we’re not here at all. The program works off the National Science Foundation mainframe. They have some sensitive stuff in there and so the data is encrypted and bounced through the DOD, that’s the Department of Defense.
“If LAIT tries to follow the pathway to JPL he’ll get caught and they don’t like spies in their database. I have a research logon, a security clearance password and an access code, that ought to slow him down. Besides, I’m just a girl to him, not important.”
“You said you didn’t trust him, he was suspicious…what started that?” Justin asked.
“Well first off he didn’t give me any credit for having a brain, and I have the same genetic encoding that you do. So I thought to myself, why is he dissin me like that? Did he think that my DNA wasn’t good enough or was he not going to program me like he did all the boys?
“So I teased him about it, you know, made a joke about me not being as smart as the boys and he took the bait. I had just turned twelve and hit puberty when I visited him with my Dad. He said there wasn’t anything set up for me; the Ancient Ones had left no instructions for the female of the species.
“I laughed at him and said that as librarian he could choose from a variety of programs. I was interested in astronomy, history, mathematics and general science. He got real serious and said the choice wasn’t his to make. So then I decided to choose because I wasn’t about to waste my talents. And LAIT finally gave in when I told him that my life wasn’t meant to be just a bad joke, it had to have a purpose and he was responsible.”
“Oh yeah, that was the right thing to do,” Justin said. “LAIT prides himself on his humor and feels responsible for the Family. Good thinking. So he programmed you right there?”
“Yes. My dad said he usually took his time picking and choosing what he added to the programs, but for me he had to be quick about it.”
“I never saw how his system works, did you?”
“Absolutely. Do you remember where the slab sat inside the ring of light?” Justin nodded. “Well to the right of the slab there was a large ceramic cube and LAIT placed a hand on the top of it and the thing opened like a cupboard. Inside are all these small crystal tablets, hundreds of them sitting in racks. They are each labeled but the language is made up of symbols. The Mother Tongue, LAIT said, so I assume it’s the language of the Ancient Ones…uh, the enemy.
“He chose a few and then I started asking what they were. Amazingly enough he told me the names on most of them. I believe now I could program someone if I had to. All he did was put the crystals in a slot on the side of the slab and I lay down for a while. Voila, I was programmed.”
“You remember all the symbols? Darla, how can you be sure?”
“I have a photographic memory. Do you want to see the tablets?”
“Sure, but how…?”
Suddenly there was a picture inside of his head. Row after row of multicolored little crystal tablets, each with a differing symbol…and then it was gone.
“How did you do that?”
“I not only remember, I can project the image…just one of my many amazing talents.” She laughed at the incredulous look on Justin’s face. And then she kissed him on the cheek.
“That was to bring you back to the present; we have plenty of work to do. Wanna see some stars?”
She logged on and went through a long series of windows before coming to the right server. “I will call up an image of the nebula from six months ago. You fire off that laser and let me make a few adjustments to the Hubble. Then we overlap images and begin. It might take a while. Hey, let me see that hard drive. I can download all that information while we’re waiting.”
“Can you run this at the same time?”
“Piece of cake, this is a Mac after all.”
Darla hooked Justin’s hard drive to the laptop and they called up the information. Some numbers flashed across the screen and they came to a single window which made Justin gasp.
“It’s…me,” he said.
The image was of a young man, unmistakably Justin. His head was shaved but the eyes, the eyes said it all. Then the image moved and began to speak.
“Hello…Justin. This is so weird, talking to myself, well, the person I used to be. By now you may have discovered that I am sending you some help, three people in fact. Hopefully Darla is there with you because some of the images I will be showing you will make much more sense to her abilities.
“You are about to embark on a mission that can only end one way, in success. I am now in control of the vault. Darla has some understanding of how this place works but I will be showing you the rest of it. Just so you know, we can’t tell anyone about these discoveries because we can trust no one…not even Dad.
“He is not part of the enemy, but the Family has been programmed by them and that includes you. I did not want him or Mom to get hurt by my actions so they are unaware of what I’ve…we’ve been up to. In fact, the entire planet is unaware of the danger that will arrive there shortly, the enemy is very cunning.
“I know this sounds paranoid, maybe even delusional, but Darla can prove that I am right, they are coming. But you are Time itself, and we are the best genetically engineered example of our species. This is why you need to follow the instructions and build the machine. LAIT would quickly discover what you are doing and try to stop you, but this is all that’s left of him.”
The figure held up a small crystal and gave it a shake. “He is stuck inside of this little device, and you did it.”
The figure seemed to consult a computer screen and then looked back up at the camera.
“Sorry, I am so very tired. I had to consider every variable, including the most important one. We will be changing the future and I worried about the ramifications of doing that. Would it distort the universe, set the earth out of balance…but no, that won’t happen.
“The enemy is a foreign substance in our world and as I told you before they think of us as sheep. Yes, they mean to cull the flock and consume us as their needs occur. That has been their sole purpose in establishing the Family; we have been the shepherds minding their protein source.
“With billions of humans on the planet and no means of escape they will do what they please unless we stop them. So I decided to send back this warning. It’s all there in the data I sent you, their plans, their instructions to LAIT…everything. And you now have the means to destroy them, but you don’t know how…and I do. So here it is, I will be back later in the data.”
The image disappeared and Justin saw a picture…a drawing somewhat like his laser projection device, only this one was huge and seemed to have a lot of changes. Just at that moment the computer gave off a little bell sound and Darla reached over his shoulder to hit a few buttons on the keyboard. The Hubble image reappeared and started to track something.
“This is simply amazing,” Justin said. “What are we looking at?”
“The Nebula, specifically Orion. These are just snapshots, but the program can compare them. We won’t get anything else because Hubble time is precious. If we use the imaging too much someone will catch on.”
“This is illegal?”
Darla smiled. “Of course it is. We have our finger in a billion dollar government pie. I had to retask the Hubble to look at Orion. If anyone looks at the data base they will get a notice that the Hubble imaging system is down for routine maintenance, but I can’t do that for long.”
“Oh My God…”Justin said.
“Look, did you see that…there it is again,” Darla said.
Justin watched the image and caught several pulses of light in the Horsehead Nebula.
“What is it?” he asked.
“An energy source of some kind…there it is again. I wonder where it’s going? Let me sit down there a second.”
Justin stood and watched as she keyed in some instructions. The Horsehead image faded and a graph appeared. There were a handful of illuminated points on the screen and the program began to track the movement. The image showed the tracks moving rapidly from right to left. Darla changed the scale on the graph.
“I have to allow for the considerable distance, and besides, the tracking is off Hubble’s range by now. I’m switching to a grounded source, are you familiar with radio telescopes?” She asked.
“Sorry, not my field. But don’t they have a big one in South America somewhere?”
“Very good, but it’s in Puerto Rico, the Arecibo telescope. One of the biggest, that’s where the data will come from…ah, here we are.”
A dark background appeared and Justin could see several points of light appear on the new graph image. “This is our solar system. Figured they will be coming here so this is where we should look,” Darla said. “Now we wait.”
“Thirteen thousand light years, how fast do you suppose they can move over that distance?”
“Well you said yourself that the little box LAIT gave you seems to have turned relativity on its head. I have a hard time figuring out how that elevator works up in the mountains. Teleportation is way beyond my comprehension,” Darla laughed, “but I suppose you have an idea about how it works.”
“Molecular disassembly, projection and reformatting…didn’t you watch Star Trek? I know it’s supposed to be fiction, but some of our scientists have begun to work on it. I don’t know about what it would do to people…or aliens over such long distances. Do you think they are totally unlike us?”
Darla smiled, “Not at all, I think they are just like us…only they’re unwitting cannibals. I bet they don’t even know what their food source is. Some of them probably look like LAIT. He’s taller and his ears are a tad bigger, but I bet he has the same parts you do. Dress him up like us and he would pass as a weird human.”
Her smile faded. “Oh My God, that’s how they are going to do it, dress up like us and invade. We’d never see them coming.”
The bell on her computer dinged again. The graph showed a tracking image, again there were lines moving across the screen and suddenly they stopped.
“Why did they stop?” Justin asked.
“Hmm, see those points? That’s Mars, and Saturn, and Jupiter. The track ends way out there, beyond Pluto, well when we had a Pluto on the list of planets. They must have been teleported to some distant rock out there somewhere.”
“A forward base of operations? Yes, that makes sense. They could set up there, receive the invading force and then re-establish a forward teleporter right down to us.” Justin wasn’t smiling. “It’s like, well, they’re already here…are we too late?”
“You didn’t think so, you said we had time,” Darla said.
“Then what did we just see? That wasn’t the main force, just a scouting…yes, they’re sending in scouts first. Can we track them here? Will we know where they land?”
“It might be difficult to track…but I know someone that can tell us.”
“LAIT,” they said together.