Authors: Scott Rhine
Book Three of Jezebel’s Ladder
by Scott Rhine
Copyright 2013 Scott Rhine
To my wife, Tammy—we’re
taking the trip of a lifetime together.
Thanks to my editors Katy
Sozaeva and Weston Kincade, and my newest beta reader Jackie Lynch.
Cover art by
Fortune Board Members and Families:
– mother of Kaguya, wife of Tetsuo, and security specialist. Simplification
– only daughter of Tetsuo and Amanda. Possesses Empathy, Simplification, and
Quantum Computing, which pushed her into a navel-staring state.
– billionaire head of Mori Electronics, board member.
– posing as Miracle Hollis, the largest stockholder for Fortune Enterprises and
the richest twenty-year-old woman in the world. PJ’s daughter and Mercy’s
Head of Research and Development for Fortune Aerospace. Mercy’s father. Icarus
– Conrad Zeiss, alias Taz. Tall and quiet Swiss astrophysicist and
navigator. His talents include Quantum Computing, Rubber Sheet Theory, and
multi-species Collective Unconscious.
– Captain Llewellyn, a handsome Welsh pilot who read Strange Attractors and
– Miracle Redemption Hollis Zeiss. A US math prodigy and heir to the Fortune
Aerospace billions, also a pilot married to Zeiss. Index, Pattern
Simplification, Collective Unconscious, Empathy, and Quantum Computing talents.
– Maori physician who likes sports. Genetic design and Anomaly Detection
– Afrikaner botanist and organic chemist who once dated Yvette. Protein
Folding and Nanomedicine Synthesis talents.
– French nurse-practitioner and psychologist who specializes in
high-risk pregnancies. Ethics and Empathy talents.
– Rafael Herkemer. A Polish bomb technician for the UN, and inventor.
Trained in underwater rescue and firefighting. Body Override talent.
– Japanese manga artist, computer programmer, and alien-interfaces
expert. Mind-machine Interface and Red Giant Locator talent.
– Specialist Oleander Dahlstrom. Experienced Norwegian space hand, once
rescued Red’s aunt and uncle. Safety officer and super-goo specialist. Out-of-body
– Giancarlo Bartilucci, an Italian cook. Food Synthesis talent.
– Israeli whose family builds bomb shelters. Expert in water
purification, sustainability, air purification.
– born in Brazil, dual US citizen, oldest daughter of PJ Smith. Gravity
Generation and Icarus Field talent.
– Russian plasma physics and power expert, formerly from the Kaguya
team. Trained in Buckyball batteries and Zero-Point Energy theory.
– South Korean propulsion specialist. Gravity and
chamber modeling talents.
– Sonrisa Belinda De Gama Herkemer. Panamanian expert in solar power,
Herk’s wife, and Red’s former roommate. Alien structural engineering talent:
superdense ice and algae acrylics.
– Croyden Randall Beaks, US Special Forces. Bio fuel, atmospheric engine
– A woman from India, a specialist in economic flow models and space
– Female technician from Mori electronics, a spy for the Mori family.
Grav sensor trained.
The gift that the aliens gave humanity when they
distributed the twenty-seven pages is comparable to us telling ancient Romans
to boil their water and not drink out of lead cups. Don’t even get me started
on women’s rights or slavery. Much of what we do today out of habit and
tradition will seem self-destructive by the light of what we know fifty years
from now. Unfortunately, our world doesn’t have fifty years.
—from the training manual for Actives (psionically active
agents) by Jezebel Hollis.
There are no neat guidelines for species-level change.
The pages were supposed to encourage us to work together; instead they divided
us. The consequences of our lifestyle on this planet force us to act soon. As
the system becomes unstable, we must leave the womb or perish. We need the
information from the orbiting alien vessel that delivered the pages as much as
a newborn needs to breathe oxygen. We recognize no law or authority counter to
this imperative for survival.
—from the journal of Commander Conrad Zeiss, seized in
preparation for his court-martial.
As her team stole the prototype shuttle, a knot twisted in
Mercy’s stomach. She hadn’t eaten at all today. Becoming an international criminal
didn’t bother her, but preventing the accidental deaths of eighteen astronauts
did. A single, old-style Icarus star-drive field could have taken out a small
city, accelerating hydrogen away from the ship at the speed of light. The new
models were more powerful, untested, and flaky as hell. She was wrestling four
of them. Only one engine sprayed their new high-test fuel mixture at record
rates. The other three of the gravity-drive fields prevented the insane acceleration
from making the astronauts flatter than Oklahoma. With shaking hands, she made
constant adjustments and provided a steady stream of data to their coconspirators
on the UN moon base.
To calm herself, Mercy tried to
imagine the main cabin of the
as the first-class section of a
commercial airliner, with seven wide seats on each side and a flip-down chair in
the center for the flight attendant. Instead of a food tray, the wall in front
of her had engine monitors. When they reached the far side of the moon, the
deceleration was more extreme than expected. She almost couldn’t compensate.
“What kind of lunatic is piloting?” she whispered.
“Red,” replied Herkemer with a
chuckle over the cabin-only frequency. The head of mission security sat on the center
seat in exoskeleton-enhanced EVA armor.
Mercy just shook her head. She only
knew the security man’s name because he had spoken it aloud as he inserted the second
key that made her console function. Almost everyone else here had been training
together for years, but the only people she’d met before today were Red and the
“Zeiss normally wouldn’t let her
fly like that, but we need to outrun the missiles that will be headed our way
in few minutes.” Herk pointed to the grav-sensor display, which showed a small
forest of weapons’ platforms.
A woman with the name ‘Yuki’ on her
helmet, the sensor technician from Mori Electronics, was still tied to her
acceleration couch with her comm links disabled. Seeing the missiles, her eyes
widened, and she tried to wiggle free in panic.
Mercy looked up from her own data
feed and suggested, “Maybe if you loosened her . . .”
Herkemer shook his gold-plated
helmet. “Sorry. She’s a known spy. We can’t risk her telling anyone what’s
going on.” His accent was eastern European, but it was so faint that Mercy
couldn’t discern which country he came from. “Don’t worry. Do you remember when
we ignited all four engines at once?”
How could I
forget? There was a small chance that they might’ve merged into one big field,
killing us instantly.
After a successful low-power test of the prototype,
team had engaged all four drives at full strength to reach
the alien artifact as fast as possible. “Zeiss said that much power would generate
an electromagnetic pulse. All our gear had to be shielded. I didn’t understand
“We used the flare to blind the
remote sensors for these orbital weapons. We only have a few more minutes to
get inside that hole before they can see again and all hell breaks loose out
“Why would someone shoot us?”
“If our opponents can’t have the
secrets of the alien technology, then no one can. The official party line is
that the Arabs and Chinese refuse to submit to Imperialist domination. The
truth is they want all the benefits from the aliens without being hampered by
She’d known about the political détente.
The UN space program had been treading water for twenty years, but this was the
first time she’d heard about the sheer volume of lasers and missiles.
“We’ll be safe inside the artifact?”
“Theoretically . . . Until the big
stuff from L1 and Earth orbit arrives.” L1 was the stable region in lunar orbit
where the pull of Earth’s gravity balanced the moon’s. Fortune Aerospace had a
major construction platform at L1 where the
had been assembled.
Dancing red lights on the ceiling
of the shuttle startled her.
Another plugged-injector alarm?
her whole body in the awkward spacesuit, she managed to see the Japanese man behind
Yuki. He was fiddling with the glass sphere that served as a control for the
What was his name?
Receiving an order from the bridge,
Mercy shut down the drive units. When they had designed the
the Zeisses knew the shuttle couldn’t fit through this hole with the drive pods
still attached. When the cockpit crew hit the jettison button, the drives blew
away from their hull with tiny explosions. The pods were fitted with beacons to
enable easy retrieval. “Say good-bye to two billion dollars in R&D.”
Paradoxically, she breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that she could no
longer kill everyone with a fat-fingered keystroke.
Herk read the sensor console and
mumbled. “Confirming lens has been opened to the maximum—forty meters across. The
grav sensors are showing some serious mass through that hole, but the visual
still shows the same star field as before.”
“The main body of
is thirty-one meters across! Does Red have the skill to fit through that gap?”
“No, but Lou does. He’ll sweet talk
in. I don’t approve of his morals, but the man has a feather
touch—like a hummingbird caressing a flower.”
Over the command channel from the
cockpit, Red said, “Everyone join hands and recite the code of ethics we’ve
agreed to follow in space.” Agreeing on this charter had been an exercise
required by the aliens before humans could leave the solar system. Other races
meeting them in the void had to know what to expect, and alliance colonies
needed a common set of core rules. Unlike those who read the Ethics page,
however, obedience was on the honor system.
Forewarned this might happen, Mercy
had the text display inside her helmet. With hands joined, the group reading
felt like a congregation reciting the Our Father in church. Mercy might have
enjoyed the activity if she’d had more than a few minutes to compile her
observations on the test flight and make suggestions for the next model. The
incoming missiles could destroy the crew or the message relays at any moment.
After the final word of the charter,
Herk said, “The visual changed. There’s a hangar down there.”
Knowing future generations depended
on her, Mercy ignored the drama of the artifact landing as she read the raw
data on her slate and dictated design notes like mad.
Everyone in the crew was eager to
set foot on the alien ship, and they bounced out of the shuttle in minutes.
“Careful,” warned Herk. “The gravity in the hangar is less than half that of
moon base. Take baby steps.” After frog-marching Yuki out of the cabin, Herk
tapped Mercy on the soldier. “Hit ‘send’ and grab your APK.”
With the finality of closing the
lid on a coffin, she shut her console. Then she opened both her under-seat bin
and the hollow armrest. She grabbed her astronaut preference kit—about a cubic
foot of personal possessions—plus a monstrous flight recorder and a
Herk helped her with the heavy
recorder satchel. “You’re not taking much of your own.”
“Some spare clothes and a deck of
cards.” As he helped guide her down the ramp, Mercy explained, “I gave my extra
weight allowance to Red so she could take Elias Fortune’s ashes.”
He nodded. “You’re all right,
Smith. Your sister came to my wedding—lent us the corporate jet for the honeymoon,
which was nice because we couldn’t exactly bring plates or kitchen appliances
God love him—he’s the strongest
guy in the lot, and he’s nervous
. Mercy took the lens cap off. Without
Icarus-field drive pods, she no longer had technological purpose on the
mission. “Sorry, I have camera-monkey duties.”
“No shame in being the eyes,” he
said, dropping the heavy satchel behind her on the hangar floor.
She panned around the vast chamber
as two other women did the same thing with advanced digital devices that
broadcast to the recorder pack. Her toy was just a fail-safe in case the
artifact inhibited electricity. The floor reminded her of tooth enamel. The
walls resembled an out-of-focus Monet with reds, blues, and greens. Only when
Red mentioned the farm where the aliens had landed did the shapes resolve into
a barn and pasture in Mercy’s mind. Others said that the place stank like cow
flops, so she kept her helmet in place for now.
The short, Hispanic woman who specialized
in alien materials leaned down to touch the flooring with a handheld tester.
“It appears to be ceramic. All the edges in the room are rounded. I can’t see
any corners or seams where we could to pry it up. I can’t tell what’s
transmitting the images, but the clouds are moving.”
Red strode up to a large, golden
rectangle on the wall, which appeared to be made of the same material as the bulletproof,
fireproof pages that the aliens had scattered as invitations to this party.
“Close the gravity lens.”
The skinny, Japanese guy played
with the crystalline control ball, and the night sky irised shut, replaced with
more Old MacDonald scenery.
Red put her hand on the wall and
said to the alien ship, “We’re here for our inheritance, Sensei.”
The touched section of wall
reconfigured into a ramp, like self-folding origami, inviting them inside.
“It could be a while before it’s
safe for us to leave, or a rescue party reaches us. Everyone grab a cargo cube
and come inside, where we have more cushion from the blast,” Commander Zeiss
ordered as calmly as an old fisherman predicting rain. Mercy noticed he was a
foot taller than either Red or herself.
Herk rotated a latch on the
and a seven-meter-long luggage rack lowered from the shuttle belly. Stacked two
high, there were fourteen identical, black crates and several long poles.
Modeled on the EU Mars expedition, these boxes were supposed to hold everything
they’d need to survive for a couple months in space. Nearly everyone pushed a
cube, but Herk took one end of the poles. “Come on, Crandall.”
Mercy recalled from her briefing
that the other man had a horrible first name, like the
Catcher in the Rye
character—Croyden. He preferred to go by his middle name Randall, but Red had
smashed the two together into a single moniker—Crandall. This team loved
nicknames, so it stuck. She was afraid of what her nickname would be when the
The mechanic, and expert on
bio-fuel, was in exoskeleton-enhanced armor like Herk’s. “Someone should stay
out here, in case it’s a trap,” reasoned Crandall. His buzz cut and accent
pegged him as former US military.
Herk waved his arm. “Come on. Red
says the aliens want us all in the next room for the welcome ceremony.”
“Since when do we obey aliens
instead of orders? CENTCOM told me to stand ready at all times to blow an
escape hole for the rest of you, or get the intel out if you all die.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
Crandall flexed his left glove, and
the nose cone of the
lowered, dropping the swivel-mounted Chemical
Oxygen-Iodine Laser (COIL) and revealing a new missile tube not on the original
Mercy’s eyes bugged for a moment.
explains why the weight distribution was all out of whack. Damn the Pentagon;
that imbalance could’ve killed us all.
“Molten metal projectiles,” she
blurted when she recognized the weapon’s profile.
“One shot of the finest,
self-forging, massive penetrators around,” Crandall bragged. The weapon would
be immune to Icarus field technology, thus possibly able to breach the alien
hull or any hostile shuttles pursuing them.
“Did that sound unnecessarily
phallic to anyone else?” Mercy asked.
The two armored men had a brief
pissing contest about rank before Mercy interrupted. “If the enemy missiles
detonate with that door open, we could all get sucked into space. If he doesn’t
want to do his job, he can do mine, and I’ll take the other end of the poles.
It makes sense for us to leave the recorder here. The satchel is designed to
She set down the toy camera and
tried in vain to lift the rods. No such luck.
Crandall laughed at her efforts. “I’ll
escort you to the door.”
Embarrassed, Mercy slunk through
the entrance to join the others. In his armor, the mechanic lifted his burden with
Is there a level less than