Back to Earth - Danilo Clementoni - ebook
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“We were on our way back. Only one of our solar years had passed since we had been forced to leave the planet in haste, but for them, in Earth years, there had been 3,600. What would we find?”Nibiru, the twelfth planet of our solar system, has an extremely elliptical and retrograde orbit, which is much larger than that of all the others. In fact, it takes approximately 3,600 years to complete one revolution around the Sun.Its inhabitants, seizing the opportunities afforded by this cyclical approach, have been making systematic visits for hundreds of thousands of years, each time influencing the culture, knowledge, technology and even the very evolution of the human race. Our ancestors have referred to them in many ways, but perhaps the name that best represents them has always been “Gods”.Azakis and Petri, two friendly inhabitants of this strange planet on board the Theos spacecraft, are returning to Earth to retrievea mysterious and precious cargo left hidden during their previous visit.A compelling and amusing story, but one that is full of suspense, with some potentially devastating reinterpretations of historical events. 

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Danilo Clementoni

Back to Earth

The adventures of Azakis and Petri

Original title: Il ritorno

Translated by: Melanie Rutter

This book is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places and organisations mentioned are the work of the author's imagination and are intended to make the narrative authentic. Any similarity with real events or persons, living or deceased, is purely coincidental.

BACK TO EARTH

Copyright © 2013 Danilo Clementoni

First edition: November 2013

English edition: September 2016

Translator: Melanie Rutter

Self-published and printed

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/danilo.clementoni

blog: dclementoni.blogspot.it

e-mail: d.clementoni@gmail.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form, including by any mechanical or electronic system, without the written permission of the editor, except for brief passages taken for the

purposes of review.

To my wife and son, for their patience and their valuable suggestions, which helped me to make improvements to both my story and myself.

Special thanks to all my friends for their never-ending support, and for spurring me on to complete this work. Without them it might never have seen the light.

I would like to thank Melanie Rutter, my translator, for working on this book and for the passion she has shown in completing this translation.

“We were on our way back. Only one of our solar years had passed since we had been forced to leave the planet in haste, but for them, in Earth years, it had been 3,600. What would we find?”

Introduction

The twelfth planet, Nibiru (the planet of the passing) as it was called by the Sumerians, or Marduk (king of the heavens) as it was referred to by the Babylonians, is actually a celestial body orbiting our sun with a period of 3,600 years. Its orbit is significantly elliptical, retrograde (rotating around the sun in the opposite direction to the other planets) and distinctly tilted relative to the plane of our solar system.

Each cyclical approach has almost always caused huge interplanetary upheavals in our solar system, both in the orbits and the conformation of the planets it consists of. It was during one of its more tumultuous transitions that the majestic planet Tiamat, located between Mars and Jupiter, with a mass approximately nine times that of the Earth of today, rich in water and endowed with eleven satellites, was destroyed in a cataclysmic collision. One of the seven moons orbiting Nibiru struck the gigantic Tiamat, effectively splitting it in half, and catapulting the two sections into opposing orbits. In the following transition (the “second day” of Genesis), the remaining satellites of Nibiru finished off this process, completely destroying one of the two sections formed from the first collision. The debris generated from multiple impacts created what we now know as the “asteroid belt”, or “hammered bracelet” as it came to be called by the Sumerians. This was partly swallowed up by the neighbouring planets. It was Jupiter, especially, which captured most of the debris, thus noticeably increasing its own mass.

The satellite artefacts of this disaster, including those surviving from Tiamat, were mostly “fired off” into outer orbits, forming what we now know as “comets”. The part that survived the second transition is now positioned in a stable orbit between Mars and Venus, taking along with it the last remaining satellite and thus forming what we now call the Earth, together with its inseparable companion, the Moon.

The scar caused by that cosmic impact, which occurred approximately 4 billion years ago, is still partially visible today. The scarred part of the planet is now completely covered by water, in what is now called the Pacific Ocean. This occupies about a third of the earth's surface, extending over 179 million square kilometres. Over this vast area there is virtually no landmass, but instead there is a large depression extending to a depth of over ten kilometres.

Currently, Nibiru is much like Earth in its conformation. Two thirds of it is covered in water, whilst the rest is occupied by a single continent that stretches from north to south, with a total surface of over 100 million square kilometres. For hundreds of thousands of years, some of its inhabitants have been taking advantage of the close approaches of their planet to our own, making regular visits, each time influencing the culture, knowledge, technology and the very evolution of the human race. Our predecessors have referred to them in many ways, but perhaps the name that represents them best has always been “Gods”.

Theos spacecraft – 1,000,000 km from Jupiter

Azakis was stretched out comfortably on his dark, auto-moulding armchair. It had been given to him as a gift some years before by an old Craftsman friend who had made it with his own hands on the occasion of his first interplanetary mission.

“It will bring you luck,” he’d told him that day. “It will help you to relax and make the right decisions when you need to.”

Indeed, he had taken many decisions while sitting there, and luck had often been on his side. So he had always recalled that cherished memory when doing so, in spite of the many rules that would prevent its use, especially on a category Bousen-1 starship such as the one in which he now found himself.

A blue-tinged wisp of smoke rose rapidly and vertically from the cigar he held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, while his eyes tried to trace the 4.2 AU1 that still separated him from his destination. Although he had now been making these voyages for several years, the charm of the darkness in the surrounding space, and the thousands of stars it was speckled with, were still able to capture his thoughts. The large oval-shaped opening right in front of him afforded a complete view in the direction of travel, and he was still surprised at how that gossamer-thin forcefield could protect him from the sidereal cold of space, prevent the sudden escape of air, and stop him being sucked into the void outside. Death would be almost immediate. He took a quick drag on his long cigar and continued to gaze into the holographic display in front of him, in which he could see the tired, unshaven face of his travelling companion. In another part of the ship, Petri was repairing the control system on the discharge ducts. He amused himself a little by distorting the image in the centre, blowing the smoke he’d just inhaled, creating a wave effect that reminded him so much of the sinuous movements of the exotic dancers he had often gone to see when he finally returned to his home town and could enjoy some well-deserved rest.

Petri, his friend and companion in adventure, was almost thirty-two, and this was his fourth mission of this kind. His large and imposing physique commanded the respect of all those who met him. With black eyes like the space outside, his dark, long and dishevelled hair that fell to his shoulders, his stature of almost two metres thirty, and the powerful chest and arms capable of effortlessly lifting an adult Nebir2, he still had the soul of a child. The sight of a Soel flower3 blooming in the sun would move him, and he could sit for hours, enraptured, while watching the waves breaking on the ivory coast of the Gulf of Saraan4. An incredible individual, trustworthy and loyal, who would readily give up his own life for his, without a moment’s hesitation. He would never have left without Petri at his side. He was the only person in the world whom he trusted blindly, and whom he would never betray.

The ship's engines, adjusted for navigation within the solar system, transmitted the classic and reassuring biphasic hum. To his expert ears, that sound meant that the ship was functioning nicely. With his sensitive hearing he would be able to perceive a variation in the adjustment chambers as small as 0.0001 Lasig, long before the sophisticated automated control system picked it up. If was for this reason that, as young as he was, he had been placed in command of a Pegasus category ship.

There were plenty who would have given an arm and a leg to be in his position. But here he was.

The O^COM intraocular implant caused the newly re-calculated route to materialise in front of him. It was remarkable how an object of a few microns could perform all those functions. Inserted directly into the optic nerve, it was able to view an entire control console, superimposing the image over the one he actually had in front of him. At first, it had not been easy to become accustomed to such wizardry, and more than once the nausea had threatened to become unmanageable. Now, however, he could not work without it.

The entire solar system wheeled around him in all its fascinating majesty. The small blue dot near to massive Jupiter represented the position of their ship, and the thin red line, slightly more curved than the now faded previous version, indicated the new trajectory towards Earth.

The gravitational attraction of the largest planet in the system was alarming. It was essential to remain at a safe distance, and only the power of the two Bousen engines would enable the Theos to escape this mortal embrace.

“Azakis,” croaked the portable communicator attached to the console in front of him. “We have to check the state of the couplings in compartment six.”

“Haven't you done it yet?” he replied in a playful tone that he knew would infuriate his friend.

“Throw that stinking cigar away and come and give me a hand!” thundered Petri.

I knew it.

He had managed to wind him up and was enjoying it like crazy.

“I’m here. I’m here. I’m on my way, my friend, don’t get worked up.”

“Get a move on. I've been in the middle of this crap for four hours and I’m not in the mood for joking.”

Grumpy as ever, but nothing and no one would ever be able to separate them.

They had known each other since their childhood. He was the one who had saved him more than once from a certain beating (he had been much bigger as a child), using his respectable size to intervene between his friend and the usual gang of bullies, for whom he had so often been a target.

As a boy, Azakis had not been sure that he would be the type the more attractive members of the opposite sex would fight over. He had always dressed in a slovenly manner, with his head shaved, a slim physique, and constantly connected to the GCS5, from which he would absorb vast amounts of information ten times faster than most. At ten years old, thanks to his outstanding academic performance, he had already been granted level C access, with the option to acquire knowledge that was not available to most of his peers. The N^COM neural implant, which provided him with this kind of access, had several minor side effects, however. The acquisition phase demanded full concentration. Since most of his time had been spent like this, he had almost always had an absent look, staring vacantly into space, completely cut off from what was going on around him. The truth was that it had commonly been thought, despite what the Elders claimed, that he was a little retarded.

It had never mattered to him.

There had been no limit to his thirst for knowledge. He had even remained connected at night. Although while sleeping the capacity of acquisition, precisely because of the need for absolute concentration, was reduced to a mysterious 1%, he had not wished to lose even a moment of his life without taking the opportunity to develop his cultural background.

He awoke with a slight smile and made his way to compartment six, where his friend was waiting for him.

Planet Earth – Tell el-Mukayyar – Iraq

Elisa Hunter tried yet again to wipe the accursed drops of sweat from her forehead. They seemed determined to fall slowly towards her nose and drip into the hot sand beneath her. She had already been on her knees for several hours, with her inseparable Marshalltown Trowel6, gently scraping the ground without causing any damage, trying to unearth an object that looked like the upper part of a tombstone. She had, however, remained unconvinced about this theory from the start. She had been working for almost two months near the Ziqqurat of Ur7. Because of her reputation as an archaeologist and her expert knowledge of the Sumerian language, she had been allowed to work there. Since the first excavations at the beginning of the XX century, several tombs had been found, but never had an artefact such as this been seen in any of them. Due to its square shape and considerable size, it seemed more like the “cover” of some kind of container than a sarcophagus. An object buried there thousands of years before, to protect or hide something.

Unfortunately, having so far uncovered only a small section of the upper part, she was not yet able to establish how tall the supposed container might be. The cuneiform engravings that covered the entire visible surface of the cover did not resemble anything she had ever seen.

Translating them would take her several days and as many sleepless nights.

“Doctor Hunter.”

Elisa raised her head. Placing her right hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun, she saw her assistant, Hisham, hurrying towards her.

“Professor,” he repeated, “there’s a call for you from the base. It sounds urgent.”

“OK. Thanks, Hisham.”

She took advantage of this forced break and enjoyed a sip of water, by now almost boiling, from the flask she always carried in her belt.

A call from the base... That could only mean something was wrong.

She stood up, patted clouds of dust from her trousers, and walked purposely towards the tent that served as a research base.

She opened the zip that held the field tent half open and went inside. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the change in light, but this did not stop her from recognising the face of Colonel Jack Hudson on the monitor. He was grimly staring into space, waiting for her to appear.

The Colonel was officially responsible for the strategic anti-terrorist squad stationed in Nassiriya, but his real duty was to coordinate a scientific research programme commissioned and monitored by the phantom ELSAD8department. This department was shrouded in the usual mystery that enveloped all organisations of this kind. There were few people who knew the precise purpose and aims of this organisation. All that was certain was that the operational command reported directly to the President of the United States.

Elisa did not attach much importance to all this. Her real reason for accepting the offer to participate in one of these expeditions was that she would finally be able to return to the place she loved most in the world, doing the work that she loved. In spite of her relatively youthful age (thirty-eight), she was one of the most accomplished in her field.

“Good evening, Colonel,” she said, wearing her best smile. “To what do I owe this honour?”

“Doctor Hunter, there’s no need for affectations. You know very well why I’m calling. The permit you were granted to complete your work expired two days ago. You can’t stay there any longer.

His voice was firm and decisive. This time, not even her undeniable charm would be enough to secure any further extension. She decided she would play her last card.

Since 23 March 2003, when the coalition led by the United States had decided to invade Iraq, with the express intention of deposing the dictator Saddam Hussein, accused of holding weapons of mass destruction (an allegation that subsequently proved to be unfounded), and of supporting Islamic terrorism in Iraq, all archaeological research, already difficult enough in times of peace, had suffered a setback. Only the formal end to the hostilities on 15 April 2003 had rekindled the hope of archaeologists around the world that they would once again be able to access the site where one of the most ancient civilisations in history had developed, before spreading their culture across the globe. The decision of the Iraqi authorities, in late 2011, to reopen the excavations in some sites of inestimable historical value, in order to "continue to enhance their cultural heritage", had finally turned hope into certainty. Under the auspices of the United Nations, and numerous authorisations previously signed and confirmed by countless “authorities”, several research groups, selected and supervised by appropriate commission staff, would be able to work for a limited time in the most significant areas of archaeological interest on Iraqi territory.

“My dear colonel,” she began, leaning as close as possible to the webcam, so that her large emerald green eyes would get the results she was hoping for. “You are absolutely right.”

She knew that giving face to her caller would put him in a more positive frame of mind.

“But we're so close now.”

“Close to what?” thundered the colonel, sitting up in his seat and placing his fists on the desk. “You've been repeating the same old story for weeks. I can’t support you any longer unless you come up with something concrete.”

“If you’ll do me the honour of joining me for dinner tonight, I should be delighted to show you something that will make you think again. What do you say?”

A beautiful smile revealed her white teeth, and she ran her hand through her long blond hair. She was certain that she could convince him.

The colonel frowned, trying to maintain an angry appearance, but even he knew that he would not be able to resist this offer. He had always liked Elisa and the idea of a dinner for two intrigued him.

Despite his forty-eight years, he was still an attractive man. With an athletic body, angular features, closely cropped, greying hair, a sharp, decisive look in his intense blue eyes, a broad general knowledge that enabled him to converse widely on a variety of topics, and the indisputable charm of the uniformed officer, he was still an ‘interesting’ man.

“Okay,” snorted the colonel. “But this evening you’ll have to bring me something sensational, otherwise you’d better start getting all your junk together and packing your bags.” He was trying to use the most authoritative tone he had, but he wasn’t doing too well.

“Be ready by eight. I’ll send a car to pick you up at your hotel.” He cut off the communication without saying goodbye.

Hell, I have to hurry. I only have a few hours before it gets dark.

“Hisham,” she called, peering out from the tent. “Call the whole team together. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

She hurried across the few metres that separated her from the excavation area, leaving a series of dust clouds behind her. Within a few minutes everyone was gathered around her waiting for instructions.

“You, please remove the sand from that corner,” she ordered, pointing to the side of the stone furthest away. “And you help him. I suggest you take care. If it’s what I think it is, this thing might well save our asses.”

Theos spacecraft – Orbiting Jupiter

The small, but very comfortable, spherical, internal transfer module was travelling, at an average speed of around 10 m/s, along conduit three, which would lead Azakis to the entrance of the compartment where his companion, Petri, was waiting for him.

The Theos, which also had a spherical shape and a diameter of ninety-six metres, had eighteen tubular ducts, each being a little more than three hundred metres in length. These had been constructed as meridians spaced ten degrees apart, so that they covered the entire circumference. Each of the twenty-three levels was four metres high, with the exception of the central hold (eleventh level), which measured twice as much. They were easily accessible by means of the stops that each conduit made at every floor. Effectively, moving between the two most widely separated points on the ship would take fifteen seconds at the most.

The braking of the module was barely perceptible. The door opened with a slight hiss, and there stood Petri, his legs apart and his arms folded.

“I've been waiting or hours,” he said in an unconvincing tone. “Have you finished clogging up the air filters with that stinking crap you always carry around?” The allusion to the cigar was only slightly veiled.

Ignoring this provocative remark with a smirk, Azakis pulled the portable analyser from his belt and activated it with a flick of the thumb.

“Hold this. We need to hurry,” he replied, passing it to Petri with one hand while trying to position the sensor inside the coupling on his right with the other. “Our ETA is about 58 hours and I’m getting worried.”

“Why?” asked Petri, a little surprised.

“I don’t know. I have a feeling that something is wrong.”

The device that Petri was holding began to send out a series of sounds with varying frequencies. He examined the object, with no idea what this meant. Looking up at his friend's face, he searched for some sign of an explanation, but found none. Azakis, moving cautiously, placed the sensor into the other coupling. Another series of indecipherable sounds came from the analyser. Then silence. Azakis took the device from his companion, looked closely at the results, then smiled.

“Everything's fine. We can proceed.”

Only then did Petri notice that he had stopped breathing for a while. He sighed deeply and felt an immediate sense of relaxation. However minor, a fault in the couplings would have compromised their mission irretrievably, forcing them to turn around and go back. It was the last thing they needed. They were almost there.

“I’m going to get cleaned up,” said Petri, trying to shake off a little dust. “A visit to a conduit is always like this...” and twisting his upper lip, he added “an education!”

Azakis smiled. “I’ll see you on the bridge.”

Petri called the capsule, and a moment later he was gone.

The central system announced that they had passed safely out of their orbit around Jupiter and were heading smoothly towards Earth. With a slight but rapid eye movement to the right, Azakis once again requested that his O^COM show him the route. The blue dot moving along the red line was now positioned a little further towards the Martian orbit. The count-down showed that their ETA was precisely 58 hours, and that the ship’s speed was 3,000 km/s. He was growing increasingly nervous. On the other hand, the spacecraft in which they were travelling was the first to be equipped with the new Bousen engines, whose concept was completely different from anything previously used. The designers claimed that these would be able to propel the ship at velocities close to a tenth of the speed of light. He had never dared to try this. For now, 3,000 km/s seemed more than enough for a maiden voyage.

Of the fifty-six crew members who would normally have been accommodated on board the Theos, only eight had been chosen for this first mission, including Petri and Azakis. The reasons given by the Elders were not clear. They speculated that this had been due to the nature and destination of the trip. There would be obvious difficulties and it would be better not to put too many lives at risk.

So we're expendable? What kind of talk is that? It would always end up like this. When it came to risking someone’s neck who would they put forward? Azakis and Petri.

In the end, however, their propensity for adventure, and their remarkable ability to find answers in ‘challenging’ situations, had enabled them to obtain a few concessions.

Azakis lived in an enormous building in the beautiful city of Saaran in the south of the continent, which had formerly been used as a warehouse for local Craftsmen. Because of these “concessions”, he had managed to get permission to modify it to his own taste.

The south wall had been completely replaced with a forcefield like the one used on the spacecraft, so that he could admire the wonderful view of the gulf below from his inseparable, self-moulding armchair. If necessary, however, the whole wall could change into a gigantic three-dimensional system, on which one could see as many as twelve GCS transmissions simultaneously. More than once, this sophisticated supervision and management system had enabled him to gather crucial information in advance, meaning that he could neatly resolve even the more far-reaching crises. He would not have given it up.

One entire wing of the ex-warehouse was reserved for his collection of souvenirs from various space missions over the years. Each one of them reminded him of something specific, and every time he found himself among this strange jumble of objects, he could not help being thankful for his good fortune, and especially for his faithful friend, who had saved his skin on more than one occasion.

Petri, who had also been academically outstanding, was no fan of push technology. Although able to pilot almost any kind of aircraft, and although familiar with almost every kind of weapon or local and interplanetary communications system, he preferred to rely on his instincts and manual skills to resolve the problems that presented themselves. There had been a number of times when he had quickly transformed a shapeless heap of scrap metal into a means of transport or a fearsome weapon of defence. It was remarkable. He could make almost anything he needed to. This was partly something he had inherited from his father, an ingenious Craftsman, but it was mainly due to a passion for Art. As a boy, in fact, he had always been in awe of the way that the Craftsmen were able to transform helpless matter into items of great utility and technology, whilst also creating objects of "beauty".

A loud, unpleasant and intermittent sound jolted him back to reality. The automatic proximity alert had been activated.

Nassiriyya – The hotel

It certainly wasn’t a five star hotel, but for someone who had spent weeks in a tent in the desert, even a shower could be considered a luxury. Elisa let the cold, refreshing water massage her neck and shoulders. Her body welcomed the chill, and a series of not unpleasant shivers ran down her back.

One realises how important some things are when one no longer has them.

It was more than ten minutes before she decided to get out. The vapour had steamed up the mirror, which had clearly been hung incorrectly. She tried to rectify this, but as soon as she let go it returned to its crooked position. In the end she ignored it. Wiping away the water that had settled on her with a strip of towel, she looked at herself admiringly. When she had been few years younger she had often been offered work as a model or actress. Maybe she could have been a cinema diva or a footballer’s wife, but money had never interested her much. She preferred to sweat, eat dust, study ancient scripts and visit forgotten places. For her, adventure meant the blood and emotion involved in finding an ancient artefact, unearthing some vestige from thousands of years before. Nothing else compared with this.

She drew closer to the mirror, looking at the small, accursed lines at the corners of her eyes. Her hand moved automatically to her make-up bag, from which she pulled her anti-ageing cream. “Visibly fewer wrinkles in less than one week”. She spread it carefully over her face and gazed at herself attentively. Were they claiming to perform miracles?  It did say the effects would only be visible after seven days, however.

She smiled at herself, and at all the other women who passively allowed themselves to be duped by such advertising.

The clock on the wall above the bed was showing 7.40 pm. She would never be able to get ready in just twenty minutes.

She dried herself hurriedly, leaving her long, blond hair slightly wet, and stood in front of the dark wooden wardrobe, in which the few smart clothes she had managed to bring were hanging. At other times she would have taken hours to decide which outfit best suited the occasion. That evening, however, the choice was limited. Without thinking too much, she opted for a short, black dress. It was pretty, definitely sexy, but not vulgar. It had a flattering neckline that would certainly emphasise her voluptuous figure. Taking it out, she threw it onto the bed with an elegant sweep of the hand.

7.50 pm. It may have been a lady’s privilege, but she hated being late.

Looking out of the window, she saw a dark, glossy SUV right outside the hotel door. A youth dressed in military clothing, who must have been the driver, was leaning against the bonnet, and making the most of his wait by calmly smoking a cigarette.

She did her best to enhance her eyes with pencil and mascara, quickly painted some gloss on her lips. Whilst trying to spread it evenly by throwing kisses into the air, she put on her favourite earrings, struggling somewhat to find the holes again.

It was actually some time since she’d gone out for an evening. Her work took her around the world and she had never found a stable relationship with anyone. Her relationships were usually over within a few months. She had always ignored the innate maternal instinct she had felt from being a girl, but now, with the approach of biological maturity, she was becoming increasingly aware of this. Perhaps this was the time to think seriously about being part of a family.

She quickly banished the thought from her mind. She slipped on the dress, stepped into the only pair of high-heeled shoes she’d brought with her, and sprayed her best perfume onto each side of her neck with a generous movement. Silk scarf and spacious black handbag. She was ready to go. One last check in the stained mirror on the wall near the door assured her that her make-up was flawless. After a quick twirl she left the room with a satisfied expression.

The young driver, after repositioning the jaw that had dropped at the sight of Elisa walking out of the hotel like a model, threw away the second cigarette he had just lit and rushed to open her car door.

“Good evening, Doctor Hunter. Shall we go?” he asked, hesitantly.

“Good evening,” she replied, trying out her best smile. “Yes. I’m ready.”

“Thank you for the ride,” she added as she climbed into the car, knowing that her skirt would slide up and show just enough of her legs to embarrass the soldier.

She had always liked being admired.

Theos spacecraft – Proximity alert

The O^COM system rapidly materialised something in front of Azakis, a strange object whose outline was not yet clearly defined due to the low resolution obtained by the long-range viewers that were picking it up. It was definitely moving, and was heading for them. The proximity alert system estimated that the probability of impact between the Theos and the unknown object would be greater than 96% if neither altered course.

Azakis hurriedly climbed into the nearest transfer module. “Bridge,” he barked curtly at the automatic control system.

Five seconds later, the door opened with a hiss and there, on the huge central screen of the control room, was displayed the blurred image of the object on a collision course for the ship.

Almost at the same time, a breathless Petri rushed out of another door.

“What the devil is going on?” he asked. “We shouldn’t be encountering meteorites in this area,” he exclaimed, staring at the big screen.

“I don’t think it’s a meteorite.”

“If it’s not a meteorite, then what is it?” demanded Petri, visibly anxious.

“If we don't change course immediately you’ll see for yourself, when we find ourselves splattered all over the bridge.”

Petri fumbled with the navigation controls and set a slight variation in the previously planned trajectory.

“Impact in 90 seconds,” said the warm, female voice of the proximity alert system, without emotion. “Distance from object: 276,000 kilometres and falling.”

“Petri, do something! And do it quick!” shouted Azakis.

“I am doing something, but that thing’s moving too quickly.”

The estimated impact probability, visible on the screen to the right of the object, was slowly dropping. 90%, 86%, 82%.

“We're not going to make it,” whispered Azakis.

“My dear friend, the ‘mysterious object’ that can smash up my ship has yet to be invented,” assured Petri with a mischievous smile.

With a quick manoeuvre that momentarily threw them both off balance, Petri reversed the polarity on the two Bousen engines.The ship shuddered for several moments. It was only the sophisticated artificial gravity system compensating instantly for this alteration that stopped the crew from being flung against the wall in front.

“Nice move,” called Azakis, giving his friend a sharp slap on the shoulder. “But how are we going to stop this spinning?” The objects around them had already begun to rise and were whirling around the room.

“Just a moment,” said Petri, who was still pressing buttons and fiddling with controls.

“I just need to...” Beads of sweat were slowly seeping from his forehead.

“To open the...” he went on, while everything in the room continued to fly around out of control. Even the two of them were beginning to lift off the floor. The artificial gravity system could no longer compensate for the immense centrifugal force that had been generated. They were becoming increasingly lighter.

“...Tailgate three!” shouted Petri finally, as every object in the room fell to the ground at the same time. Azakis was prevented from making a dull moan by a heavy refuse container that hit him between the third and fourth ribs. Petri fell from the height at which he was hovering onto the console, landing in an unnatural and ridiculous posture.

The impact probability estimate had fallen to 18% and was still decreasing rapidly.

“Everything okay?” gasped Azakis, trying to conceal the pain in his right side.

“Yes, yes. I’m fine, I’m fine,” replied Petri, trying to get onto his feet.

An instant later Azakis was contacting the crew, who promptly informed their commander that there was no damage to any property and no one wounded.

The manoeuvre they had just performed had deflected the Theos slightly off course and the pressure drop caused by opening the gate had been immediately counterbalanced by the automated system.

6%, 4%, 2%.

“Distance from object: 60,000 km,” continued the voice.

They both held their breath, waiting to reach the 50,000 km distance, beyond which the short-range sensors would be triggered. These moments seemed interminable.

“Distance from object: 50,000 km. Short-range sensors activated.”

The blurred image in front of them suddenly came into sharp focus. The object appearing on the screen was distinct, every detail visible. The two astronauts looked at one another, their eyes wide open, each searching the face of the other for an answer.

“Unbelievable!” they exclaimed in unison.

Nassiriya – Masgouf restaurant

Colonel Hudson was nervously pacing up and down the hallway in front of the main dining area of the restaurant. Virtually every minute, he checked the tactical watch he always wore on his left wrist. He didn’t even take this off to go to sleep. He was as excited as a teenager on a first date.

To help pass the time he had ordered a Martini on the rocks with a slice of lemon. The moustached barman watched him from beneath his thick eyebrows while lazily drying a set of long-stemmed glasses.

Alcohol was not permitted in Islamic countries. That evening, however, an exception had been made. The small restaurant had been completely reserved for the two of them.

As soon as he’d finished his conversation with Doctor Hunter the Colonel had contacted the owner, requesting the Masgouf house special, from which the restaurant took its name. Because of the difficulty in obtaining the main ingredient, which was tiger sturgeon, he had wanted to make sure that the establishment could provide it. Knowing that it required at least two hours of preparation, he had insisted on its being cooked unhurriedly, to absolute perfection.

As his camouflage uniform was inappropriate for the evening, he had decided to dust off his dark Valentino suit, which he combined with a silk regiment-style, grey and white striped tie. The black shoes, polished as only a soldier knew how, were also Italian. The tactical watch certainly had nothing to do with this, but he could not have done without it.

“They're on their way”. The crackling voice came from the receiver, similar to a mobile phone, which he kept in his breast pocket. He switched it off and looked out through the window.

The big, dark car swerved to avoid a crumpled bag that was suspended in the breeze and rolling lazily along the street. With a quick manoeuvre it drew up right outside the restaurant entrance. The driver allowed the dust raised by the vehicle to settle back onto the ground, then cautiously got out of the car.The “all clear” came from the headset concealed in his right ear.Carefully, he glanced at all the previously agreed positions, until he was certain that he had identified each one of his fellow soldiers who, in combat gear, would take care of the security of the two diners for the duration of the dinner.

The area was secure.

He opened the rear door and gently held out his right hand to help his passenger out.

Elisa thanked the soldier and elegantly stepped out of the car. She looked upwards as she filled her lungs with the clear evening air, pausing for an instant to contemplate the magnificent view that only the starry sky of the desert could provide.

The colonel waited for a moment, unable to decide whether to go out and meet her or stay inside and wait for her to come in. In the end he chose to remain seated, in the hope that this would make him appear less nervous. Then, with feigned indifference, he walked over to the bar, perched on a high stool and, resting his left elbow on the dark wooden surface, downed the last drop of the beverage that remained in his glass, watching as the lemon seed fell slowly to the bottom.

The door opened with a slight squeak and the military driver looked around, checking that everything was in order. The colonel gave a slight nod, and the escort showed Elisa in, inviting her to walk ahead with a generous sweep of the hand.

“Good evening, Doctor Hunter,” said the colonel, rising from his stool and displaying his best smile. “I trust that the journey was comfortable?”

“Good evening, colonel,” replied Elisa, with an equally dazzling smile. “Very nice, thank you. Your driver was very kind.”

“You can go now, thank you,” he told the driver in a voice of authority. With a military salute, the young man turned on his heels and disappeared into the night.

“Can I offer you an aperitif, professor?” asked the colonel, calling the moustached barman over with a wave of the hand.

“Whatever you’re having,” replied Elisa without hesitating, pointing to the glass of Martini that the colonel was still holding. Then, she added, “Please call me Elisa, colonel. I’d prefer it.”

“Certainly. And you can call me Jack. “Colonel” is just for my soldiers.”

This is a good start, thought the colonel.

The barman skilfully poured the second Martini and handed it to the new arrival. Lifting her glass, she clinked it with that of the colonel.

“Cheers,” she said in a lively tone, taking a sip.

“I must say you’re looking splendid this evening, Elisa,” said the colonel, running his eyes quickly up and down his guest.”