Command Decision - S.E. Smith - ebook
Opis

Seeking answers we are not yet ready for… Lieutenant Commander Joshua Manson’s career has taken him to many places, just not the one he has always dreamed of going – into space. His sometimes controversial methods during missions have given him a reputation as a rule-bender, so when Josh receives a summons to Washington D.C. after a challenging mission, he worries that soon he won’t have a career at all. Once there, though, Josh is offered the chance of a lifetime, command of a mission investigate an unknown object in space. The more he learns, the more determined he is to do this, even if it means a one-way ticket. Cassa de Rola’s family has lived for centuries in the quiet valley where they farm. She fervently hopes their valley will stay quiet, but the growing unrest between intergalactic forces makes it unlikely that her family will remain untouched for much longer. When an unusual object falls from the sky and Cassa finds a strange male in the container, she knows that taking him in will endanger the lives of everyone close to her, but she can’t leave him defenseless. Both sides of the coming war are determined to discover the origins of the escape pod that crashed on the de Rola farm and find whoever was inside. The dominoes fall, and when the fight between the Legion and the Gallant Order escalates, a new rebel leader emerges from the stars that will change the galaxy, and Cassa’s life, forever. Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of action and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid landscapes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 214 (6x9) pages, 69,790 words

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Command Decision

Project Gliese 581g Book 1

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

Copyright

Synopsis

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Sample of Dust: Before and After

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Christel, Sally, Jolanda, Lisa, Laurelle, Debbie, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Science Fiction

Command Decision: Gliese 581g Book 1

Copyright © 2016 by Susan E. Smith

First E-Book Published April 2016

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: An unlikely Navy commander is given a new mission in space, one that he might not return from.

ISBN: 978-1-942562-71-9 (Paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-72-6 (eBook)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Science Fiction Romance. – Fiction. 2. Science Fiction – Fiction. 3. Fantasy – Fiction. 4. Romance – Fiction.}

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

ISBN: 978-1-942562-72-6

Synopsis

Seeking answers we are not yet ready for…

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Manson’s career has taken him to many places, just not the one he has always dreamed of going – into space. His sometimes controversial methods during missions have given him a reputation as a rule-bender, so when Josh receives a summons to Washington D.C. after a challenging mission, he worries that soon he won’t have a career at all. Once there, though, Josh is offered the chance of a lifetime, command of a mission investigate an unknown object in space. The more he learns, the more determined he is to do this, even if it means a one-way ticket.

Cassa de Rola’s family has lived for centuries in the quiet valley where they farm. She fervently hopes their valley will stay quiet, but the growing unrest between intergalactic forces makes it unlikely that her family will remain untouched for much longer. When an unusual object falls from the sky and Cassa finds a strange male in the container, she knows that taking him in will endanger the lives of everyone close to her, but she can’t leave him defenseless.

Military forces on both sides become determined to discover the origins of the container and find its missing contents. The dominoes fall, and when the fight between the Legion and the Gallant Order escalates to all-out war, a new rebel leader emerges from the stars that will change the galaxy, and Cassa’s life, forever.

Prologue

Twenty Years earlier:

Kennedy Space Center: Florida

Joshua Manson stood on the stands across from the launch pad in stunned disbelief. His gaze was frozen on the sky above him. Tears suddenly burned his eyes. They weren’t caused by the brilliant sun or the chilled wind trying to cut through his jacket, though. No, the burning in them had to do with the unusual trail that followed the liftoff that was supposed to take his dad into space for the last time.

At almost eighteen, he and his dad might have had the occasional clash of wills; well, maybe more than an occasional one, but the fact remained that he had never missed one of his dad’s launches. Even the fight they had last night over whether Josh should finish college before enlisting in the military hadn’t prevented him from coming to silently support his father.

His dad wanted him to finish his degree first, and then join the Navy. Josh wanted to enlist in the Army at the same time as his best friend, Ashton Haze, so they could still do things together. It had been a stupid fight.

Josh really didn’t know what even started it. It was like a red flag had flashed in front of his face when his dad started talking on the phone last night. He had argued with his dad about everything. Now, he wished he could take back his angry words; words he hadn’t really meant. Pain pierced him at the thought. He stared at the sky with a growing sense that his mind was playing tricks on him.

“I’m so sorry,” a voice whispered behind him.

Josh remained stunned, nodding his head in acceptance of the sympathy, even though the words couldn’t penetrate what his mind was acknowledging. The Space Shuttle was gone, exploding in a fiery ball leaving spiraling ice crystal contrails in its wake as it fell into the ocean below. The sounds of crying echoed around him.

He jerked when he felt a hand on his arm. Blinking in an effort to focus, he saw a staff member of NASA security standing beside him, a grim expression on the man’s face. The man said something, but Josh’s mind couldn’t decipher what he was saying. It wasn’t until the man repeated his request that Josh nodded in understanding.

“Follow me.”

Josh moved numbly down the narrow steps of the bleachers, his gaze darting to the fading remnants of the shuttle’s last path. Other family members of the crew were being guided to a large bus. He waited as several people entered ahead of him before he climbed the steps, almost choking on the heat inside the bus.

Sliding into a vacant seat, he stared out of the tinted windows. His father was gone. The last member of his family. He was alone in the world except for his best friend, Ash. His gaze jerked down when he felt his cell phone buzz. He flipped the top and looked at it, recognizing Ash’s phone number. Pressing the connect button, he held it to his ear.

“Is it true, man?” Ash asked in a slightly husky tone.

“Yes,” Josh replied in a tight voice.

“I’m sorry,” Ash finally replied with a sigh. “I’m here for you.”

“I know,” Josh muttered, looking down so he didn’t see the long line of cars and the people standing around talking about what just happened. “Thanks.”

“I mean it,” Ash said bluntly.

“I know,” Josh replied, closing his eyes. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“’Kay,” Ash said. “Hang in there.”

Josh pushed the red button. He could feel the reaction of shock hit him like a rogue wave. Opening his eyes, he stared out at the launch pad’s skeletal tower standing in the distance. His dad loved being an astronaut. He had once told Josh that there was nothing like seeing the earth from above to give you an appreciation for just how alone and isolated we were in the vastness of space. Right now, that space felt big, scary, and lonely to Josh.

“Goodbye,” Josh murmured when the first wave of real grief hit him. “Aw, shit. I love you, dad. I hope you knew that. I love you,” he choked out, closing his eyes when a fierce wave of pain swept through him.

1

Ten Years later:

Outside Flagstaff, Arizona:

“Dad, do you need anything else?” Julia Marksdale asked as she stepped into the Observatory.

“No, thank you. I have everything I need at the moment,” Harry Marksdale replied in an absent-minded voice.

Julia shook her head and sighed. For the last week, her father had been distracted. She chuckled when she saw that he had placed the remains of his sandwich in his coffee cup by mistake instead of on the plate. He was bent forward over the computer in front of him, studying it with a frown.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, walking forward to stand behind him.

Julia watched as her father rubbed a hand down his face and leaned back to gaze up at her through blurry eyes. He shook his head and released a tired sigh. She reached out and touched his shoulder when he closed his eyes for a moment.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted in a tired voice, slowly opening his eyes to look up at her. “It could be nothing. I need to take more photographs and check them.”

“Are you still studying the Gliese system?” Julia asked, pulling a small, metal, folding chair closer to the table where several different computers were hooked up.

“Yes,” Harry replied as he gave Julia a distracted smile before he turned to study her for a moment. “You look so much like your mother when she was your age.”

Julia resisted the urge to roll her eyes like she used to do when she was a teenager. He had been saying things like that more frequently. She was beginning to think that the lack of sleep was making him a touch loopy.

At twenty-two, she was used to being the one to take care of him. Her mother left them when she was ten. Living in the desert outside of Flagstaff, Arizona was not the place her mother - Carry Marksdale wanted to spend the rest of her life. The fact that her father spent more time gazing at the stars than he did at his wife didn’t help matters. When her mom gave her the choice of going or staying, Julia stayed. She loved the desert and the stars as much as her dad. In the end, she suspected her mother was relieved, because the only time Julia ever heard from her mom was on her birthday.

“So, what are you studying so intently?” Julia asked instead, glancing at the fuzzy images on the screen.

Harry glanced back at the monitor and frowned. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “It may be nothing. I have a new telescope coming, so I hope that it will help.”

Julia raised her eyes to the old fourteen inch Cassegrain telescope. It was currently the largest telescope her father owned. The other two were a smaller eight inch and a refractor. They were each housed in separate smaller observatories on the property.

“I’ll help you set it up tomorrow night after I finish with the class I’m teaching,” Julia said with a smile. “How much more do you have to do tonight? I was going to fix some dinner.”

Harry glanced at the computer screen with a sigh before he smiled at Julia. For a moment, she saw his eyes glaze over as he lost himself back in whatever he was thinking before they cleared. The crooked smile told her that she had won the battle with the stars this time.

“I’ll be up in a few minutes,” he promised with an affectionate grin. “I just need to check everything one last time before I come in.”

Julia rose out of the chair and bent to brush a kiss across her father’s forehead. With a sigh, she picked up the remains of his lunch in the stale coffee. A soft chuckle escaped her when she saw a grimace flash across his face.

“If you aren’t, I’ll be back,” she said with a shake of her head. “I love you, dad.”

“I love you, too, honey,” Harry absently replied, already lost in what he was doing.

Julia glanced at the computer screen once more, a frown creasing her brow. Her dad was an excellent astronomer. He not only taught astronomy and ran the planetarium program with the undergraduates at Northern Arizona University, he had an impressive private set up. She had recently finished her PhD in Astronomy and Physics, taught classes at NAU, and volunteered at the Lowell Observatory. Her love of the universe had been nurtured by the fascinating stories her father told her as she was growing up.

“I’ll see you in a few minutes, dad,” she said again.

Harry stared at the images he had on the screen before his gaze moved to the glossy pictures he had printed out earlier. He had already forgotten his promise to Julia to not be very long. Picking up the eyepiece he used to magnify the objects on the paper in front of him, he leaned forward and looked at the smudge on the photograph. He did the same with the other hundred pictures he had taken over the last several months.

“Tomorrow, I’ll have a better chance of seeing what you are,” he whispered, sitting back and staring at the computer screen.

Rising stiffly out of the chair when his stomach growled, he turned toward the door. He would come back after dinner for a few hours. The telescope and camera were already set up. All he would need to do tomorrow was process the images.

He paused at the doorway of the observatory, his gaze drifting back one more time to the images. There was something out there, something unnatural that wasn’t supposed to be there. He could feel it in his gut. He just needed more proof.

Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

Eight years later:

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Manson tucked his hat under his arm as he entered the Pentagon’s main entrance and passed through the rigid security. There would be several more security checkpoints before he reached his destination. Security continued to be tightened as the war against terrorism escalated; a war that he had recently experienced first-hand.

He kept his gaze straight as he continued down the corridor, turning right at the main intersection. He walked past the Administrative Assistant Offices of the Army, noting the changes that had been made in the last year. A quick glance at his watch told him he would still make it to his meeting on time. His gaze briefly swept over the different personnel that he passed in the corridors, but he didn’t recognize anyone. Turning right, he soon found himself in front of a set of stairs that would take him down several flights.

The constant renovations at the Pentagon made the journey to the Navy’s side of the building a challenge. He had given up trying to memorize the interior layout. Every time he thought he had it down, he would discover that the new commander in charge would order changes. It was nothing for a stairwell to abruptly end or a corridor to lead nowhere.

“Josh,” a voice called out behind him.

Josh turned and he saw a familiar face. His eyebrow lifted as he waited. Ashton “Ash” Haze strode down the corridor toward him with a worried expression on his face. The sinking feeling in the pit of Josh’s stomach started to grow. If Ash was worried, that meant everyone should be concerned. Ash was known for his “no worries, be happy” personality.

“What are you doing here?” Josh asked when Ash stopped in front of him. “I thought you were home on leave.”

“I was, but I received a call to come here,” Ash replied with a shrug. “I thought with the investigation over, things would settle down.”

Josh’s mouth tightened into a straight line. “So had I,” he responded lightly, turning back in the direction he was heading. “You never did tell me why you’re here.”

Ash shrugged. “Admiral Greenburg’s Assistant sent a notice. There was no explanation, just that I grace the Admiral with my charming presence. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, most of them from following you, but disobeying a direct order from an Admiral is not one of them,” he retorted with an easy grin. “What about you? I expected you to be doing latrine duty after the way Captain Horne ripped you apart.”

“Us… He ripped both of us apart. I wasn’t the only one he was threatening, remember?” Josh replied with a grin before it faded. “He understands that we had no choice in the matter. Our mission was to protect the plane that we were escorting and we did.”

“That still doesn’t mean it didn’t cause an international incident,” Ash replied dryly as they turned left before making an immediate right into the Administrative Offices for the Navy.

Josh nodded before opening the door. His mind flashed back to the recent investigation that had grounded him and Ash. They had been providing a military escort for a group of dignitaries when two fighters appeared on their radar. Repeated efforts to warn the fighters to turn away had proven fruitless, so he and Ash had engaged. The fighters had been stolen from an undisclosed military base in Saudi Arabia. The issue came up when the news blasted it all over the world that the United States had attacked two allied military fighters.

It would have been nice if the media could have given the whole story instead of one that would create the most controversy so they could sell ad time, Josh thought bitterly.

His and Ash’s life had been on hold for the past six months while the investigation was underway. To hide the lapse in security, the true details of the findings were sealed. Unfortunately, until the Senate released the final findings, he and Ash were both grounded.

Stepping up to the front desk, Josh handed the woman behind it his security badge. She swiped it before reaching for the one Ash was holding out. She was silent for several long minutes as she stared at the computer screen in front of her before she gave them a brief, polite smile.

“I will let the Admiral’s assistant know that you are here,” she said. “Please have a seat.”

Josh gave her a curt nod while Ash sent her one of his easy, ‘I’m-pleased-to-meet-you’ ones. The woman pointedly ignored Ash’s flirtatious grin and returned to whatever she was doing before they came in. Ash’s pained expression drew a smirk from Josh. He hadn’t missed the faint white line around the third finger of the woman’s left hand or the slightly hostile look in her dark brown eyes.

“I must be losing my touch,” Ash complained as he walked over to sit down next to Josh.

Josh leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment. The pounding in his head was getting worse. He had caught an early morning flight and was working on a couple of hours of sleep. Cracking an eyelid, he saw the calculating look in Ash’s eyes as he stared at the receptionist.

“Forget it,” Josh murmured under his breath. “She isn’t too happy with men right now.”

Ash leaned back and crossed his arms. Josh could feel his friend staring at the woman with a frown now. He shot Josh a glance and scowled.

“Okay, how do you know?” Ash grumbled.

Josh shook his head and opened his eyes to stare at his friend. “You’d think by now you’d learn to look for the clues,” he replied dryly. “The third finger of her left hand still has the outline of her wedding ring and the indent from it. She just took it off. I suspect if you looked in her desk drawer, or better yet, the trash can, you’d find it.”

“So, maybe she took it off to wash her hands and forgot to put it back on,” Ash reasoned.

Josh shook his head. “No, she took it off on purpose. The indent showed it wasn’t something she did often. She’s also wearing more makeup than she normally wears. The picture on her badge and the one on the wall behind the desk show that she doesn’t normally wear very much. Her bottom lip is swollen as well, as if she had repeatedly bitten it, and her eyes are slightly bloodshot from crying. Also, the picture on her desk has recently been changed. She used to have a picture of her husband in it. Now, she has a picture of a dog. It’s crooked under the glass. If you look closely, you’ll see the smudge mark from the ink on it. The dog isn’t hers, by the way. There is no dog hair on her uniform,” he added.

“Sometimes I really hate your attention to detail. You take all the fun out of the chase,” Ash muttered, looking at the woman again. “What other clues did you see, Sherlock?”

A soft chuckle escaped Josh and he shook his head again. “Her lips tightened when you gave her the smile. I swear if she had a gun, you’d be sporting a bullet wound in your ass right now,” he said. “No, I suspect her husband finally got caught cheating on her and she kicked him to the curb.”

Ash sighed and released his breath. “I hate to admit you’re probably right – again.” He snorted when the phone rang and the receptionist picked it up. She hissed out a few strong words before hanging it up with a slight bang. “Of course, I’m always open for being the rebound. I’m great at giving comfort.”

Josh was about to reply when the door leading into the internal offices suddenly opened. A stiff looking young Yeoman stood in the doorway. Josh rose when the man turned his attention to them.

“Commander Manson, Commander Haze, Admiral Greenburg will see you now,” the young man said.

Ash rose behind him. The Yeoman stood stiffly as he and Ash walked through the door. Once they were clear, the man turned on his heel and led the way through a series of inner offices until he stopped outside the rich, dark wooden doors with Admiral Greenburg’s name attached to it. The Yeoman opened the door and announced their arrival.

Josh walked in first, followed by Ash. He heard the slight click of the door when the Admiral’s personal assistant quietly closed it behind them. Both he and Ash stood at attention until the Admiral finally looked up several minutes later. Josh’s mind raced through all the different scenarios as to why he and Ash were there. Each one kept coming back to one conclusion: they were both about to find themselves on a different career path than what they were expecting – probably not a favorable one at that.

At thirty years old, Josh had passed his thirteenth year in the Navy. He planned on staying the full thirty. His hope of joining the astronaut program a few years ago had slowly disappeared after several rejection letters, but his love of flying hadn’t. While he had excelled at it, his tendency to do things his own way had gotten him in trouble more than once, even if he had been right more often than not.

“At ease,” Admiral Greenburg finally said with a nod of his head. “Sit down.”

Josh sat in one of the plush chairs that had been moved in front of the desk while Ash took the other one. He sat stiffly as he waited for the admiral to speak. His gaze flickered to the open folder on his superior’s desk. If he had to guess, it was either on him or Ash.

Admiral Greenburg sat back in his seat and studied them carefully for several long seconds before he leaned forward again. The expression on his face clearly said he wasn’t pleased with what he saw; another sign that this meeting wasn’t going to be a pleasant one.

“You’ve both applied to the astronaut program multiple times, why?” Greenburg asked in a blunt tone.

Josh frowned. This was not a question he was expecting. It wasn’t often that he was taken by surprise, but the start of the conversation had definitely done that.

Josh shrugged. “You are aware that my father was in the program,” he said. “He went on three missions into space. It only seemed natural that I would follow in his footsteps.”

Greenburg turned his attention to Ash. “What about you?” he asked.

Josh felt his friend give him a quick look before he redirected it back to the admiral. A part of him wanted to grin at Ash. He wondered how his friend was going to answer the question – truthfully or with a politically correct answer. Knowing Ash as well as he did, he doubted his friend would be able to keep his foot out of his mouth.

“Josh bet me that I couldn’t get in,” Ash admitted.

Yep, truth every time, Josh thought.

It was just as well; Ash wasn’t a very good liar. He was a damn good pilot and friend, though. That was what made them excel as a team.

“He lost the bet then. You are both to report to Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center tomorrow morning,” Admiral Greenburg stated.

Josh blinked in surprise. Ash drew in a sharp breath. Sitting forward, Josh stared at the admiral in confusion.

“Why?” he asked in a blunt tone.

The admiral studied Josh’s hard face for several long seconds again before he responded. His lips were tight. Josh glanced down at the file on the admiral’s desk again. At the top was a subheading in large, bold letters that said Family. Neither he nor Ash had any living relatives. That was another common thread that bound them. Ash had been adopted by an older woman, but she had passed away almost five years ago.

“For a top secret mission,” the admiral stated. “I was asked to pick two candidates that would be crazy enough to take on a suicide mission. You two came up. You’ll find out the details when you arrive tomorrow morning. My assistant has made all the arrangements. You are dismissed.”

Josh rose slowly out of the chair when the admiral closed the file in front of him. Almost as if the Yeoman was listening at the door, it opened. Ash stood up beside him and shot him a puzzled look before saluting the admiral and turning sharply on his heel. Josh did the same and followed at a slower pace. He paused at the door when he heard his name being called.

“Commander Manson,” Greenburg called out.

Josh turned. “Yes, sir,” he responded.

Greenburg rose from his seat and walked around it to stand at the corner of the desk. Josh noticed he was holding the two files. His eyes lifted to the admiral’s face.

“I knew your father. He was a good man and a great astronaut. He would have been proud of you. Whatever happens, don’t dishonor his memory, or me,” Greenburg ordered.

Josh stared back at the admiral for a moment before he replied. “Yes, sir,” he said in a quiet voice.

Stepping out of the office, he strode down the hallway where Ash was waiting for him with a puzzled expression on his face. They both waited impatiently as the admiral’s assistant handed each of them a packet before explaining that they would be catching a military hop to Houston at 0500 the next morning.

Neither one of them said anything until they had left the office. Ash grabbed his arm once they reached the outer corridor. Josh turned to look into Ash’s dark face.

“What the hell is going on?” Ash asked, holding up the envelope. “I thought we were about to get our asses handed to us on a platter and instead we’re suddenly being sent to astronaut training. What the hell is up with that?”

“I don’t know any more than you do, Ash,” Josh replied with a frown, glancing down at the folder before looking up again.

Ash blew out a long breath and scowled at him. “When you are taken by surprise, I know shit is about to hit the fan,” he muttered, turning away. “I need a drink.”

“You aren’t the only one,” Josh said. “I’m staying at the Plaza. I’ll meet you at the Boundary at nineteen hundred.”

“Sounds good,” Ash replied as they passed through security. “And, Josh…”

Josh paused and turned back as he was about to go down the steps. “Yeah,” he responded.

Ash gave him a slight grin. “I expect you to have it figured out, man. You know I don’t like shit taking me by surprise,” he replied in a half teasing, half serious tone.

“Neither do I,” Josh retorted before turning. “Nineteen hundred. Don’t be late!”

2

Lyndon B. Johnston Space Center, Houston, Texas: 0800.

Josh held out his hand to retrieve his security badge and picked up the small bag holding his belongings. His gaze flickered around the huge reception area of the compound before narrowing on an older woman that was walking toward him and Ash. She paused to speak with one of the guards, glancing at the two of them several times before she nodded.

“Commander Manson, Commander Haze, welcome to the space program. My name is Lydia Gaines. I’m one of the senior scientists that will be overseeing your training. Please follow me,” she said with a warm smile before reaching out to take two badges that the security guard was holding. Turning back to them, she held one out to him before giving the other to Ash. “You’ll need to keep that with you at all times. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself locked out.”

“Dr. Gaines, can you tell us what this is all about?” Josh asked with a frown. “The information we were given was little more than an order to report here.”

Lydia smiled over her shoulder as she swept her badge across a lighted post and stepped through. Josh did the same, following her. Ash glanced at Josh with a raised eyebrow as he did the same.

“Everything will be explained shortly, Commander. I apologize for the lack of information given to you so far. I’ve, uh, scheduled a briefing within the hour,” Lydia assured him, pausing outside a bank of elevators. “I think it would be best if the entire team is present.”

“Team?” Ash asked, watching as the doors parted.

Josh watched as Lydia Gaines nodded her head and stepped into the elevator. He followed and turned. Ash raised an eyebrow at him again. It was Ash’s way of asking him if he had figured out anything. Josh gave a barely visible shake to his head.

He stepped to the back so that he was standing behind the woman. She was in her mid-sixties if he had to guess. His gaze swept down over her. She was wearing a pair of tan dress pants and a dark red blouse with a wide, matching red belt around her waist. Her feet were encased in a pair of sensible, tan loafers that matched her pants. Except for her badge, she didn’t appear to be carrying anything else. The lack of information was frustrating to Josh.

“How long have you been in Houston, Dr. Gaines?” Josh asked politely.

Lydia glanced over her shoulder with a smile. “Almost, uh, ten years, Commander,” she replied. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” Josh said with a shrug. “I imagine the weather isn’t much different from Louisiana.”

Lydia’s soft chuckle filled the elevator as it began to slow. “Very good, Commander. Can you tell me which part of Louisiana I came from?” she asked with a curious expression of her own.

“Outside of New Orleans, perhaps the Metairie area,” Josh replied. “You have a slight French accent on some of your syllables and often use the term ‘uh’ which is common in the south Louisiana dialect.”

Lydia’s eyes widened and she nodded in approval. “Your files indicated that you were a smart man, Commander Manson. You’ll need to be for this mission,” she added before turning around and stepping out of the elevator.

“I wonder what in the hell that file says about me?” Ash muttered under his breath. “How the hell did you know where she was from?”

Josh’s lips curled into a smirk. “The last woman I dated came from New Orleans and said ‘uh’ in just about every sentence,” he admitted with a mischievous grin. “I immediately recognized it. It isn’t something you forget, especially when it is inserted repeatedly between exclamations of passion.”

Ash chuckled and shook his head. “Only you would pick up on something like that,” he muttered.

Josh walked down the long corridor following their escort. Each room they passed was filled with people. What was strange, they all paused when he and Ash passed by to stare at them before bursting out in excited conversation.

“Something is up,” Ash whispered, glancing at the rooms as they passed. “I swear I’m getting the feeling that we are about to be fed to the lions or something.”

“It’s the ‘or something’ that has me worried,” Josh retorted under his breath.

He slowed his stride before coming to a stop when Lydia paused outside of a room. Her hand gripped the door handle and she smiled at the two of them with a hint of pride and anticipation. Josh was pretty sure she could feel their frustration and curiosity.

“Commanders, I’d like to welcome you to Project Gliese 581g,” Lydia said, pushing the door open and motioning for them to step through.

Josh glanced at Lydia before he stepped through the door. His eyes widened when he saw instead of a conference area, they were in what looked like a huge training room. Dozens of people paused as he and Ash stepped inside.

In the center of the room was a strange looking spaceship, or at least a section of it. He walked forward, his eyes glued to the futuristic design. His gaze ran over the outer hull. Small windows around the bottom gave a hint as to what might lie inside. This was far different from the space shuttles that he had seen.

“What is this?” he asked with a frown.

“It’s a replica of the Gliese 581 Starship,” a soft voice replied. “A long range spacecraft made specifically for an extended exploration.”

Josh turned to watch as a slender woman in her early thirties walked up to him. She was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a white cotton top. Her brown hair was piled up on the top of her head in a messy bun with small wisps fanning her face. Her dark brown eyes were piercing and held a look of curiosity and an intense assessment of them – as if she was evaluating whether he and Ash measured up to her expectations. In her left hand, she carried two binders.

“Dr. Julia Marksdale,” she said, holding out her right hand.

“Josh Manson,” Josh replied, shaking her hand before turning as Ash stepped up.

“Ashton Haze, but everyone calls me…,” Ash started to say with the easy grin that melted most women’s hearts.

“Ash,” Julia Marksdale finished with a smile. “Your reputation is well documented, as is Commander Manson’s. We are honored to have you as part of our team. Lydia, I’ll introduce them to the Gliese’s command center, if you like, while you let everyone know that they have arrived.”

“Thank you. Gentlemen, I leave you in very capable hands,” Lydia replied with a smile. “We’ll meet for the in-depth briefing in an hour.”

Julia nodded. She waited until Lydia had walked away before she turned back to look at them. Josh’s eyes instinctively moved down to her left hand – it was bare and there was no sign of a ring having been on it. His curiosity grew when she turned and looked up at the replica. She waved her hand toward it and gave them a smile filled with pride.

“It is slightly different from the aircraft you are used to flying. Would you like to see the inside?” she asked with a smile when both men nodded.

“Is this replacing the shuttles? It was my understanding that private companies were taking over the development of reusable spacecrafts to ferry astronauts around,” Ash commented, glancing up at the massive circular pod.

“This is slightly different,” Julia replied. “While this has several private backers, this spaceship is designed for an interplanetary mission.”

Surprise coursed through him at her words. He glanced at Ash. His friend had a what-the-fuck-does-that-mean expression on his face. He felt the same way as he started forward.

“Project Gliese 581g is an international project that was started six years ago. It is projected to launch in eighteen months, if all goes well,” Julia said as she stepped around to a steep, portable staircase.

“What has to happen for it to go well?” Ash asked.

Julia stopped on the fourth step and turned to look down at them. A small smile curved her lips. Josh could feel that assessing look as she scanned both of them again.

“Whether or not you both agree to accept this mission,” Julia replied, turning to climb the stairs. “The team needs you, but this mission is on a volunteer basis because of its nature.”

“It would be nice to understand what in the hell is going on. Usually the briefing comes first,” Josh retorted behind her.

“I second that,” Ash responded in a frustrated voice, staring back at Julia. “It’d be nice if someone actually told us why we are here.”

Julia bit her lip and nodded. “Let me show you the Gliese 581 and I’ll explain what I can before the meeting,” she replied, turning to finish climbing the steps.

Josh swallowed and looked around the futuristic dashboard. It was like something out of a movie set. His hand ran along the back of the seat as he gazed down at the sophisticated control panel. Julia stood to one side in silence.

“Is this for real?” Ash asked in a husky voice filled with awe.

“Yes,” Julia replied. “It is an exact replica of the Gliese 581 control center. I apologize that neither of you were briefed before coming here. There are a few things that have to be approved before I can discuss them in depth. Lydia and I will try to correct that error as much as we can for the moment. I hope you understand the sensitive position that I am in at the moment. I promise to be open about everything once I receive final clearance to do so. Lydia suggested that you both might be interested in seeing the Gliese 581 trainer while she pulled the team in. Some of them are at other buildings on the compound. She thought it might help give a clearer picture of what we will be going over, as well.”

Josh nodded, not missing strain in Julia’s voice or the hint that there was a lot more to tell then just a mission to space. Whatever was going on, it was larger than a top secret spacecraft. This wasn’t an orbiter. Just as Julia said, this type of technology was meant for long distance travel through deep space.

He paused in front of the console, staring through what looked like a large window at the technicians moving around outside the trainer. The interior glass pane didn’t match with what he saw outside. His gaze ran over the console in front of him and he noticed a small screen that displayed the same image.

“From below it looked like there were just small windows,” Josh commented with a frown.

“What you are seeing is an illusion,” Julia said, stepping forward and touching several icons on the console screen. “It is a new technology the Chinese have developed. This will give us a greater view of what we see and help eliminate some of the feelings of being in a small space over a long period of time. At least, that is what we hope,” she added, turning off the cameras.

Josh blinked when he saw a curved wall appear in front of him. It looked almost like a large IMAX screen without the cameras on. Leaning forward, he repeated the process that Julia had done just seconds before and a visual of the large room reappeared.

“The resolution is the best I’ve ever seen,” Josh murmured in approval. “There’s no distortion that could happen with normal windows. Can you record as well?”

“Yes,” Julia replied. “It will be necessary for this mission to document as much as possible and send it back to Earth.”

“I’m assuming the briefing will cover this mission? In a nutshell, what is it about?” Ash asked, sliding into the seat next to where Josh was standing.

Julia looked down at Ash. “To discover if we are alone in the universe or not,” she replied in a quiet voice.

Josh’s head jerked up from where he was studying the controls. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ash’s head twist around as well. His mouth tightened at her quiet statement.

“Do you think we aren’t?” Josh asked.

Julia glanced at him and nodded. “I know we aren’t. The question is, what happened to the others and where did they come from?” she responded before glancing at her watch. “It’s almost time to meet the rest of the team. I have more information that I would like to go over with you before the briefing.”

Twenty minutes later, Josh and Ash sat in a large room that looked more like a mini-theater than a conference room. Every seat was filled. Julia had escorted him and Ash to the front row and indicated for them to sit down before she had stepped up onto the small platform next to Lydia.

Josh’s mind buzzed with the information Julia had shared just minutes before. He glanced down at the binder in his hand. Julia had explained that he had been selected as the commander and Ash had been selected as the pilot for a very special mission into space. While she did not go into much detail due to the limited time, he was piecing together what he had seen. This was a top secret, international mission, possibly to Mars, definitely deep space. He half wondered if the scientists had found something on their nearest planet that hadn’t been leaked to the news yet.

“Good morning. Thank you for taking time off of your busy schedules. This morning, I’m happy to welcome the last two members to our team,” Lydia announced, glancing at Josh and Ash for a moment before scanning the group. “Lt. Commander Joshua Manson will be the commander of the Starship Gliese 581 while Lt. Commander Ashton Haze has been chosen as the pilot. Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to the rest of your crew. You’ve already met Julia. She is a Mission Specialist and will provide navigation and contact support. While both Mei and Sergi are new to the crew, they are not new to Project Gliese 581g. Dr. Mei Li Hú is from the Chinese space agency. She is a Mission Specialist with a background in computer science, biology, and environmental systems. The last member of the team is Sergi Lazaroff. His specialty is in mechanical engineering, payload, and weapons.”

“Weapons?” Josh asked with a frown as he glanced at the spec sheet in front of him of the Gliese 581. “Will the Gliese be equipped with a weapons system?”

“Only in Sergi’s dreams,” Mei interjected, drawing laughter from everyone.

Lydia smiled at their teasing before she answered Josh’s question. “At the moment the answer is no, but we have not eliminated the possibility. The biggest drawback is the technology. We’ve advanced considerably over the last few decades, but a weapons system is still more science fiction than reality,” Lydia said. “This is a review for many of you, but the countdown has begun. In eighteen months, Project Gliese 581g will depart for the Earth’s first interplanetary mission.”

“Interplanetary,” Ash replied with a slight shake of his head. “This is huge. It would have been nice to have more than eighteen months to prepare.”

Julia turned to stare at Ash with a strained smile. “I understand your reservations, Commander. The tight deadline is unavoidable,” she explained. “The original crew for the mission would have received slightly more time to prepare. It is regrettable that the four of you won’t have the same opportunity. On a positive note, both Sergi and Mei have been on several missions to the International Space Station and have worked on the Gliese 581’s construction. It helps that they are familiar with space travel.”

“What happened to the original crew?” Ash asked with a raised eyebrow.

“They and the backup team were killed when the two helicopters they were on crashed while returning to the compound. There is only one original member of the crew left. I had a meeting in Washington that night and was delayed. It is the only thing that saved me, and possibly this mission. We lost some brilliant men and women in the crash, including my father,” Julia replied in a quiet tone that resonated throughout the room.

“I remember hearing about it on the news, but didn’t realize the magnitude of it. I’m sorry for your loss,” Josh replied somberly after a minute of silence.

Josh studied Julia’s pale face. There was more to the story, but something told him it was personal. He could see the shadow of grief in her eyes when she explained the tragic accident that took the original crew members.

Josh caught Ash’s glance that told him his friend felt it as well. Turning his head, he stared at the others in the room. He listened while different project managers shared reports, progress, and issues they were having. It wasn’t until the end of the briefing, after Julia and Lydia quietly congratulated all of them for their selection as members of the crew, that he felt a nagging suspicion there was still more information being withheld.

“I look forward to the mission,” Josh responded with a sharp nod.

Ash was silent for a moment before he sat back in his seat. “Eighteen months to departure, huh?” he replied with a grim smile. “We have a lot to learn.”

“Yes, you both have a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but I promise you will also have the best team in the world behind you,” Julia said with a relieved expression.

“Does anyone have any questions before we begin?” Lydia asked, stepping up to the front again.

“I do,” Josh said with a twist of his lips.

“What is it, Commander?” Lydia asked.

Josh studied Julia’s face as he asked his question. “Where exactly are we going?” he asked.