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They’ve been watching us for hundreds of years.
Now they need our help.
Earth is not safe.
Zack is good at finding things, but when he discovers a global conspiracy, life as he knows it is over. Sometimes the truth doesn’t set you free. It traps you instead.
Kept secret for 60 years, the discovery of an alien signal forces an unlikely team to investigate a mysterious structure discovered in the furthest reaches of the solar system. Join the crew of the Athena, Earth’s most advanced spaceship on the ultimate journey beyond our wildest imagining.
Strap yourself in. The Star Shroud is the first book in this action-packed space opera series. Readers describe them as “a cross between David Weber and John Ringo.” If you like space opera adventure stories with clever heroes, impossible situations, and chilling discoveries, then you’re in for a fun nonstop thrill ride. Read it now!
Find out why thousands of readers have fallen for Ken Lozito’s thrilling series!
Release date: February 25, 2016
Publisher: Acoustical Books LLC
Print pages: 276
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Fort Meade, Maryland, 1986
Bruce glanced toward the window where dark skies peeked in along the edges of the blinds and didn’t know whether it was late in the evening or early in the morning. Either way he was in deep shit with Kathryn. Late nights spent reviewing reports and attending last-minute meetings were becoming a common occurrence in this line of work—not something the mother of his three young children wanted to hear.
He glanced at the picture of his family that took up prime real estate on his desk. It had been taken when they were on vacation in the Florida Keys. Kathryn loved the beach. The children missed him, and the thought of his constant absence from their lives hit him like a blow to his gut. Perhaps he would take off work tomorrow. Shoulders hunched, he stiffly rose out of the chair and switched off the lamp.
As he slipped on his gray suit jacket, the desk phone rang. The special line was flashing red, indicating that the call was
coming from the pit. Eric was on duty and wouldn’t call if it weren’t important. He had probably called the house first, waking Kathryn and the children. Maybe those damn pagers hadn’t been such a bad idea, but security protocols for Dux Corp mandated that the use of pagers was forbidden because they left more of a trail than using the telephone.
He strode back to his desk and picked up the phone.
“Bruce, thank god you haven’t left yet. You need to come to the pit right away. We have an incident.”
Incident was code for "get down here now," and this was all that could safely be mentioned on a phone.
“I’ll be right there,” Bruce said.
In the late seventies the U.S. Army had commissioned an intelligence-gathering project to test the validity of the "psychic warrior." These specialists were used to spy on enemy installations and provide preliminary reconnaissance deep in hostile territory. Bruce Matherson was a project-lead contractor for Dux Corporation, and at thirty years old he had a proven track record for getting solid results. At this point, the project only received laughable support from the U.S. military, but Bruce didn’t care. The brass didn’t know the team had stumbled upon a veritable goldmine in intelligence gathering, but they wouldn’t have been able to see beyond its militaristic application. There was more to do than spy on enemy nations. Research institutions—both domestic and abroad—warranted closer scrutiny, and the insights gained were truly enlightening.
Bruce was using the program to test subjects who showed an inclination toward a sixth sense, with none of the hokey, new-age bullshit that went with it. The program fed the army some useable intelligence reports with a marginal rate of error. But Bruce, along with his partners, Eric Bridges and Jeffry Radford— the rising stars at Dux Corp—had agreed that in order to maintain the most influential role in the project, they couldn’t be completely honest with their findings. Intelligence was the world’s currency, and Bruce knew the Russians had similar programs running.
The pit, where the magic with monitoring and reconnaissance happened, was located in the old wooden barracks, well away from the real action at Fort Meade. Housing them there had been intended as an insult, but it suited their needs quite well and was far away from prying eyes. Bruce hopped in an old army Jeep they used to get around the base and drove down to the barracks.
It was a cool fall evening with a hint of moisture in the air. Through slightly foggy windows, Bruce noted the vacant buildings lining the road. They were old and hadn’t been used since the seventies. The glowing lights of the barracks were the only indication that anyone was working at this part of the base.
Eric was outside waiting for him, waving excitedly as Bruce parked the Jeep and got out.
“You’re not going to believe what’s happening,” Eric said, holding the door for him.
“It must be important, since we’re not supposed to leave the pit until we’ve been relieved,” Bruce mildly chided.
“Radford is there. I had to call him in too,” Eric said, leading him down the hallway and into the pit, where a grouping of eight reclining seats was equipped with leads that attached to the viewers who occupied them.
Remote viewing enjoyed a time-honored status that lingered between "ridiculous" and "flights of fantasy." Most people confused a sixth sense with deductive reasoning, but Bruce’s team had been able to demonstrate a way to delve deeper into the capabilities of the human brain. Although shamans used hallucinogens to reach a receptive state and eastern monks spent years meditating to achieve it, with the help of the army, the team had been able to run a series of tests on candidates to determine how receptive a person was without those practices. If the candidate qualified, they were brought into the program for more training. Bruce’s work focused on bringing non-military personnel into the training program.
They normally ran sessions with three viewers at a time, tasked by various intelligence agencies to observe and report on assigned targets. Usually by the time the requests came to them, the investigators had exhausted all other avenues. Coming to them was, in essence, a Hail Mary pass at the end of the fourth quarter, and the clock had already expired.
The viewer’s vitals were constantly monitored while they were in the "cradle," which was a reference to the recliners the viewers sat in during a session. Monitoring vitals was essential to the validation of the viewer’s report. This kept both the viewers and trainees honest. Even the best liars had a "tell" of some sort, be it an elevated heart rate, a twitch, or some other physical movement.
Bruce entered the pit. The viewers all had their eyes squeezed shut. Their heart rates were elevated, and beads of sweat dotted their foreheads. Bruce bent over one of them and snapped his fingers in front of their face, but there was no response. He checked their vitals again, but they hadn’t changed. It was as if the viewers weren’t aware of their physical surroundings.
“What happened? How long have they been like this?” Bruce asked.
“They started the session normally, studying this evening’s targets. About fifteen minutes into the session, Lewis began muttering about space and something called "the nine." Started saying all kinds of strange things. We’re still recording, but we can see a video of it in Observation,” Eric said.
“Have you tried to wake them?”
“They’ve been unresponsive to all attempts so far.”
Bruce frowned, studying the viewers. “Call the nurse in here to start IV bags with saline for each of them. That should prevent dehydration.”
Observation was a room away from the pit where they could monitor the viewers without causing distraction. Jeffry Radford was standing to the side as they entered, speaking to three young men in army fatigues. Each had a notebook out, recording the time and instrument readings.
“Great, you found him,” Radford said when he saw them.
Bruce took in the room for a few seconds. There was a quiet flurry of activity as each person focused on their assigned task. The readings from the instrumentation for monitoring the magnetic field in the room were erratic, as if something was upsetting the field.
“What’s causing all this disruption?” Bruce asked.
“You got me. This all started about an hour ago—the same time the viewers in the pit became unresponsive,” Radford said.
The phone rang, and Eric went to answer it.
Radford waved Bruce over to the TV with a video player. He pushed in the VHS tape and pressed the play button.
“This is from earlier,” Radford said.
Bruce watched as the viewers got in the cradles and had the electrodes connected to them. Each of the viewers used their own techniques for achieving the state of what the project team called the "observant mind," and Radford fast-forwarded through this process, slowing the tape as one of the viewers—Lewis—started shaking his head back and forth. As he did this, the lighting dimmed and there was momentary interference with the video. When it cleared up, Lewis’s mouth was moving, but Bruce couldn’t hear him. He raised the volume.
“… so much space. The void is empty. The cold burns. The nine is the key … we must get to the nine…”
Lewis suddenly started spewing random numbers. At this point the viewers all sat up with their backs arched and their chins raised toward the ceiling. After a few moments they laid back down as if whatever held them had eased its hold.
“They’ve been like that ever since. Sometimes the others speak, but it sounds like gibberish,” Radford said.
Eric came over to him. “It gets better. Eight other viewers are in the same state as the ones on duty. We’re checking on the rest.”
Bruce turned toward the monitor showing the pit. “Is everything being recorded that can be?” Eric nodded.
“We need to bring in the other viewers. I don’t care if we have to pull them from hospitals,” Bruce said.
Eric headed back to the phone and started dialing.
“This is going to bring us a lot of attention,” Radford said.
“We have to risk it,” Bruce answered.
“What do you think this is?”
Bruce chewed on the inside of his lip. “It’s like someone is trying to tell us something, but we can’t get the full picture. We’ll observe and record like usual. Then we’ll compile all the data and see what we’ve got.”
“But Bruce, how long can we let them stay like this?” “Let’s get the on-call MD in here,” Bruce said.
He took off his jacket and tie, placing them on the hangar by the door. So much for going home tonight. Bruce promised himself that he’d make it up to his family as he pulled on his lab coat and headed back out to the pit. Entering the room, the hair on his arms stood up as if there was a lot of static electricity in the area. He went over to Lewis, who was among the most gifted viewers the program had ever produced. Lewis was whispering, and Bruce brought over a stool and sat on it.
“They are coming … they are coming … must go … go,” Lewis whispered.
The nurses quietly checked vitals but couldn’t wait to put as much distance between themselves and the viewers as possible. Bruce stayed by the viewers. As hard as he had tried in the past, he didn’t have the inclination they had. His talents lay with disseminating the information the viewers produced.
The hours went by like quicksand, and the pit filled as eight other viewers were brought in. All of them were in a state of unresponsiveness. Five of the viewers were connected to the open cradles, and cots were set up for the rest. Bruce and the team ran out of equipment and had to borrow some.
The doctor on call tried a few different ways to get the viewers to wake up, but not even adrenaline or smelling salts worked. Whenever one of the viewers did speak, it was mostly gibberish that they couldn’t make heads or tails of.
They brought in transcribers who would review the recent video tapes and record each and every word spoken. The gibberish was subject to interpretation. Bruce retrieved a few pages of it and pressed his lips together as he studied the data. Not having any luck looking at individual pages, he grabbed some Scotch tape and fastened a few pieces of the transcribed notes together, sticking them to the wall. Before long he had a ten-foot section of wall filled floor-to-ceiling with them. Bruce rubbed his eyes and rolled his shoulders, trying to keep exhaustion at bay for a little while longer. He cocked his head to the side and studied the meaningless jumble of numbers and symbols.
Eric came out of Observation and glanced at the wall of paper. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
Bruce forced his tired mind to focus on the papers, looking for some pattern. “It’s like some kind of code. Do you think this is all some sort of message?”
Eric frowned, taking a closer look. “You might be onto something here, but doing it this way is going to take forever. We need access to a mainframe.”
Bruce nodded. “We need a search algorithm that can identify patterns at the highest level, and then we can work our way deeper.”
Radford stuck his head out of Observation and shouted, “They’re waking up!”
Bruce and Eric ran to the pit. All of the viewers appeared slightly disoriented. The nurses and doctor kept telling them to remain seated while they went around to check them. More than one had to be told where they were.
Bruce and Eric went over to Lewis, who was sipping some water. He kept looking around as if he didn’t trust what he was seeing.
“How are you feeling?” Bruce asked.
Lewis set his cup down. His hands were shaky, and they all saw it. His breath began coming in gasps, and the monitor showed his blood pressure spiking.
“Lewis, look at me,” Bruce said, squatting down and placing his hand on the viewer’s shoulder. “You’re all right. We’re here at the base.”
It took Lewis a few seconds to process what Bruce was telling him, and after a few moments he calmed down.
“Can you tell us what you saw?” Bruce asked.
Lewis cleared his throat. “It was all black, like something grabbed hold of me and pulled me down,” he said, and closed his eyes. “Space. It was so vast and cold, but … not quiet.”
Bruce shared a glance with Eric. They both knew that the most vibrant viewings affected all five senses.
“It took control of me,” Lewis said, his eyes darting around, looking for some nameless threat.
“It’s not here. We’ve been at your side this whole time. Can you tell us anything else?” Bruce asked.
“Regret. There was regret and desperation. I’m sorry. I just need some time,” Lewis replied.
“Just take it easy for a few minutes. The nurse will be coming around with the standard questionnaire. I know it seems routine, but tonight was definitely different. Don’t hold back any detail, even if it seems insignificant,” Bruce said.
Lewis nodded, and Bruce and Eric stepped away from the pit.
“This is huge. They can’t possibly pull our funding now,” Eric said.
They were both tired, but the relief of having their viewers return from whatever had held them pushed the exhaustion back.
“We can’t tell them,” Bruce replied.
Eric’s brows shot up his forehead. “What do you mean we can’t tell them? Bruce, this is too much to cover up. We need more resources to run analysis on all this data we’re collecting.”
“If the brass catches wind of this, they’ll take the project away from us. Then they’ll likely misinterpret the data and keep it locked away somewhere to be forgotten. We know something extraordinary just happened, but we need time to run our own analysis. I’m not just going to give this up,” Bruce said.
“If we get caught, then all of us could be brought up on charges of treason. Do you understand what treason means? It’s when they either lock you away and tell your family you’ve had an accident, or death by firing squad, which amounts to the same thing minus the rotting-away-in-jail part,” Eric said, trying to speak in hushed tones and failing miserably at it.
Bruce held his hands up in front of his chest. “Listen to me. Our deal with the military was never going to last. There are rumblings that the project is being transferred to the jurisdiction of the CIA. It would be treason to hand this over to them. They’re bogged down in more politics than the military. I won’t let this become another black ops program.”
Eric sighed. “I just don’t want to end up in jail, or worse.”
Bruce smiled. “We won’t. We’ll take the data and leverage our connections to piecemeal the analysis. This is going to take a while—years, in fact—but it’ll be worth it. The viewers kept talking about space. We’ve only sent out a few probes and been to the moon. If whatever the viewers saw pertains to some kind of threat in space, then we’re not ready to deal with that. Not by a long shot.”
Eric frowned. “Aliens?” he asked with a half-committed chuckle.
Bruce shrugged. He didn’t want to venture any guesses at this point. His gut instinct was to get this program out of government hands, and the sooner that happened, the better, even at the expense of reputations. Their work had just begun, but it might be his grandkids who would deal with the brunt of it.
“Come on. Let’s get back inside. I need to give Kathryn a call to tell her I’ll be a while,” Bruce said.
“She’ll understand, even if she doesn’t like it,” Eric said.
Bruce nodded and made a mental note that he needed to make up these more frequent absences to his family.
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