The Raven Falls
The blue orb of the earth dangled in the inky blackness of space. Its startling blueness was marbled with wisps of clouds and patches of brown, like a diseased organism. Kaiden had come to the moon searching for a cure for that disease, but when the cause of the infection was humanity itself, what hope did they have of finding an antidote?
Kaiden shifted his gaze away from where the earth peeked over the gray lunar horizon. The glass dome that covered the landing bay of the Ark Field Station gave a panoramic view of the pitted landscape and the sprawling complex of buildings that comprised the station. It perched on the edge of the lunar Sea of Tranquility, a potent symbol of how humanity was now reaching for the stars.
Their mission was a routine flight to provide security and transport for the delivery to the International Seed Bank of animal and plant tissue, seeds, and DNA. Then they had to pick up half a dozen human test clones for shipment back to their base, called Ararat, in the high deserts of Montana. The docile clones were just lining up on the metal catwalk beside his lunar transport ship.
“They’re pitiful,” Kaiden said, and he meant it.
The six clones stood in a line watching him with placid, disinterested eyes. Each represented one of the broad ethnic groups of Earth—European, Indian, Asian, African, Australian, and Native American. They each had the same withered appearance and sunken cheeks. A few of them had blue lips. It might be his job to escort the experimental clones to and from the lunar field station, but he didn’t have to like it.
“They drug them before transport,” Casey said. “Poor things. What would it be like to be nothing but a lab rat?” Casey was a stocky blonde who was easily the best pilot Kaiden had ever flown with. She wore the standard-issue black security uniform with the red ark symbol of The Ark Project, or TAP, stitched into the left shoulder that everyone on his team wore.
“Do you really think this is the answer?” Kaiden asked. “I mean, look at them. What kind of future is that?”
A shiver of disgust swept through him. The clones gave him the creeps, even while he pitied them. It was like some Frankenstein experiment in which the bodies were normal, but the mind and soul were scarred. If a twisted Frankenstein humanity was the solution to earth’s problems, maybe it would be better just to die before it came to that.
“It’s a future where we’re alive,” Casey said.
“I don’t call that living,” Kaiden responded.
“These are just the prototypes,” Casey said. “When they get the bugs worked out, they’ll look and behave just like us.”
“They better not behave like you,” Delano said as he stepped up with the paperwork for the shipment under his arm. He had a lean, handsome look about him. He cast a smile and a wink at Casey, who grinned and tried to act like she hadn’t seen.
“Shut up,” Casey said. “At least I know how to be responsible.”
“Hey,” Delano said, “I’m responsible.” He held up the paperwork as evidence. “I just don’t mind having fun while obeying the rules.”
“Rules? You wouldn’t know a rule if it climbed into one of your big, flaring nostrils.”
“Whoa, that’s low,” Delano said.
“But deadly accurate,” Burl said as he came up behind Delano with his rifle slung casually over one shoulder.
“All right,” Kaiden said. He needed to keep the ribbing to a minimum. They weren’t a formal military security force, so the rules were more lax for them, but too much of this sort of thing could undermine discipline. As the only African on the team, he’d been teased occasionally for his black skin and short curly hair. Friendly banter was okay, but it could easily get out of hand.
“Let’s get ’em loaded,” he said. He turned to the ship. “Raven,” he yelled. A black head poked out of the bay doors. “They’re coming on board.”
Raven waved at them to come. Someone coughed behind them, and Kaiden spun around to see a willowy young woman with pale skin, long brown hair, and freckles, wearing a white lab coat, standing with her hands clasped in front of her. She bore an expression of controlled patience.
“Who are you?” Kaiden demanded.
“I’m here to monitor the clones during transport. Permission to board your ship, Captain.”
Kaiden snorted and glanced at the clones. “Looks like they need feeding and some rest more than monitoring. What do you people do to them while they’re up here?”
“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to share that information,” the scientist said with a guarded expression. She glanced up at the window of the control room, and Kaiden was sure she was aware that someone might be recording them.
“What is your name?”
Kaiden smiled. “How appropriate.”
Casey cleared her throat and gave him a wide-eyed, it’s-time-to-shut-up look.
“Right,” he said. “Sorry. Let’s get them loaded.”
Raven waved at Burl and Delano, who led the six clones up the ramp. The low gravity made the procession comical as they made their way with a slow shuffle. When Raven saw Willow fall in behind them, she gave Kaiden a big wink and a thumbs up. This surprised him because she had been moody during the entire trip.
Kaiden rolled his eyes. His crew were constantly trying to set him up with someone. His best friend, Quill, said it was because they wanted him to ease off their constant training and missions and thought if they could get him interested in a woman, they could enjoy more free time. Well, it wasn’t going to work.
Kaiden did the familiar shuffle up the ramp and into the ship before securing the hatch and initiating the pre-flight protocol.
The lunar transport was a medium-sized freighter with plenty of room for the six clones, the five crew, and the scientist. It never landed on earth because it was too large to get back into space cheaply, but the moon’s lower gravity allowed it to land directly on the surface and launch from there. The transport had private rooms for the crew, a fully stocked medical ward, and a kitchen. A central corridor connected every area of the ship and terminated in a wide bay at the rear. The journey to the Earth Orbital Space Station was about thirty-six-hours, and once they were on their way, it would be a relaxing trip.
When all the clones were settled, and everything was set, he joined Casey in the cockpit—a long, oval compartment with four seats, two for the pilot and co-pilot and two behind for the navigation and communications officers.
They worked in silence as they executed the lift-off and then obtained orbit in preparation for the slingshot from the moon’s gravitational pull toward Earth. When they were well on their way, and the navigation and communications officers left to run through the post-lift-off checklist, Casey leaned back and sighed.
“So, what do you think of that new scientist?” She wiggled her eyebrows. “She’s cute.”
“Even if I thought she was,” Kaiden said, “there’s no way you’re getting out of the simulation I scheduled.”
“Come on,” Casey said. “How many times do we have to do that? We’ve made this trip, what, twenty times this year, and nothing ever goes wrong.”
“That’s why nothing goes wrong,” Kaiden said. But he had a funny feeling about this one.
The ship lurched.
“What the…” Casey jumped into action, checking the systems and monitors.
“Did we hit something?” Kaiden asked.
He whirled away from the main controls to check another set of monitors when the explosion ripped through the cockpit with a flash and a bang, followed by a deep, penetrating silence and utter blackness.
Kaiden awoke to the feeling of falling. His arms and legs flailed about in a panicked attempt to catch himself until his brain realized that he was still in the cockpit, twisting lazily in the microgravity environment. He considered the possibility that he had been sucked into the vacuum of space until he realized that he was still breathing. Hissing and beeping rushed into his ears, and he opened his eyes to blink at the flashing alarm lights and the remains of the mangled control console. Droplets of blood revolved and pulsated against the inky backdrop of space, and Kaiden knew the blood was his own. But the lunar transport and his crew and cargo were his first priority.
Smoke billowed from the cockpit controls, turning the air into a thick, black soot that coated the inside of his mouth and burned his eyes. The air stank of burning plastic and hot metal. His head throbbed, and his ears filled with a high-pitched ringing. Kaiden dragged the extinguisher from its holder and unloaded its contents into the ragged hole below the console until the smoke subsided.
Where was Casey? The explosion had been so sudden, so violent. It was a miracle the hull hadn’t been compromised. But that explosion was no mechanical or electrical failure. It could only have been a bomb. Yet how could that be? He had ordered Burl and Raven to inspect the ship before they left the orbiting space station, and he hadn’t left sight of it while at the lunar station. How could anyone smuggle a bomb on board without his knowledge? Surely, none of the clones could have done it.
Kaiden glanced down at his arm and the crimson bubble of blood that expanded there. He let go of the empty fire extinguisher and let it float away as he grabbed the jagged gash that shone pink against his black skin. Droplets sprayed in every direction as he tried to stem the flow of blood.
He fought against the sense of falling and struggled to focus his mind on what had happened and what needed to be done. He flipped the communication switch while still holding the gash in his arm.
“Delano? Do you copy?”
“Raven? Burl? What’s your status?”
Static crackled again.
Debris and smoke swirled around him in lazy circles. Emergency lights blinked red, and some of the screens had gone black.
“Burl?” he said again. “What’s your status?”
Kaiden dragged himself toward the control panel, careful not to overdo it and propel himself across the room. He had to determine the extent of the damage and make sure the spacecraft was still operational. He reached for the keyboard when a blonde head pushed through the debris and thumped against the panel beside him.
Kaiden choked on the word. Terror tightened his stomach. He grabbed a bundle of wires hanging from the ceiling and hauled himself around. He reached for Casey, fighting the lightning pains that exploded behind his eyes, the rushing nausea, and the spray of crimson droplets from his arm.
Casey kept rotating, propelled by the propulsion from the blast. Her hair spread out around her like a lion’s mane. Her blue eyes stared, vacant and empty. Kaiden grabbed her and shook her. Her arms and legs flopped around in the microgravity environment like some rag doll.
“Please, no,” he said.
The door swished open behind him. Kaiden shoved himself around to find Raven floating upright in the doorway. She had one boot hooked under a bar to keep herself from moving. Her dark hair splayed out around her. Her expression was grim, her face pale. She held her service pistol in her hand. It was the Model 9 Rapid Repeater, specially designed for use in space. Behind her, a body in a black uniform twisted in a grotesque circle amid a halo of blood and smoke. Was that Delano?
“Report,” Kaiden snapped. “What’s going on?” He was relieved to see one of his security team alive and doing her job. He could always depend on Raven.
Raven glared at him. “I warned you not to accept this mission.” Her lip lifted in a sneer. Kaiden could barely hear her over the ringing in his ears.
“How’s the rest of the ship?” Kaiden yelled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The clones have to die.”
“What?” Kaiden rubbed his ears, trying to dislodge the obnoxious ringing. He must have heard her wrong.
Raven raised the gun and pursed her lips in determination. Their gazes met, and Kaiden read her intention in her dark eyes. Raven meant to kill him.
“Wait!” he yelled. He couldn’t believe it. Not Raven. She was his friend. They had trained together. He had picked her for his team because she was so driven, so dependable.
A gunshot rang through the cabin. Raven jerked. A red hole blossomed in her chest. A spray of blood, flesh, and the fragments of an explosive round spit toward him, peppering the console beside him. A crimson balloon wiggled outward from Raven’s chest. Her eyes widened, and her gun fired off three rounds as she twitched. The recoil sent her flying into the wall. Kaiden yanked on the dangling wires, desperately seeking to twist himself out of the way of the exploding rounds.
Two bullets zipped past him, but the third grazed his head before smashing into the console with a bang, sending out a shower of plastic fragments. Kaiden struggled to keep his focus through the burst of pain. Raven’s eyes stared at him. Someone in a white coat appeared in the doorway behind her. The gun slipped from Raven’s grasp to spin leisurely through the air. The red bubble from Raven’s chest grew larger, like an inflating balloon. Then the scene swam away into the black oblivion.
The middle-aged, black woman watched Kaiden. Her stiff, black hair had been straightened and parted to the side. Her lips were unnaturally red. She still wore the white lab coat that made her black skin seem darker. Kaiden hated the coat. It represented something evil. Something dangerous.
“You don’t understand,” she said.
Her voice was soft and melodic. Kaiden remembered how she used to sing to him back when he was too young to understand what she did for work, what she had become.
“Why didn’t you save her?” Kaiden accused. “You’re supposed to be this great scientist.”
The woman swallowed and blinked.
“I tried, honey. I did. But science can’t solve everything. There are limitations.”
“It should.” Kaiden knew he was being belligerent, but he didn’t care. “If scientists can make clones, they should be able to save a little girl from an infection.”
“It wasn’t a normal infection. It was—”
“I don’t care!” Kaiden shouted and lunged to his feet, the tears boiling to the surface. The ache inside burned white-hot. “You should have saved her. It’s all your fault.”
He took pleasure in the shock and hurt on her face. He had wanted to make her hurt like he was hurting, to punish her.
Tears swam in the woman’s dark eyes. Her lips trembled. “I know you don’t approve of my work,” she said. “But you’ll see that it’s for the best.”
Kaiden threw up his hands and stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him.
The peculiar smell of burned plastic, oil, and antiseptic penetrated the blackness and dragged Kaiden back to the light and to the pain. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in the infirmary strapped to the table—the confusing dream or hallucination of the woman he had never seen before still lingered.
He should know who that woman was and why he hated her so much, but the dream had melted into the chaos of his throbbing headache and the murky memories of how he came to be staring up at the white, plastic ceiling of the medical ward. His arms floated over him in the microgravity environment. When he tried to unfasten the straps across his chest and legs, a pale, white hand pressed against his chest.
“Lie still, Captain.”
Kaiden rolled his head to the side. The lab tech floated beside him. Her white lab coat was spotted red with an erratic polka dot pattern. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail that couldn’t contain the hair without gravity to help it. Her pretty, dark eyes studied him with concern. They were rimmed with red, and a smudged tear still glistened on her cheek where she had wiped it away. Kaiden tried to remember her name. She was the scientist sent to monitor the clones.
“Willow?” he said.
She wiped another tear from her eye and gave him a smile that lit her eyes and brought tiny dimples to her cheeks. She was a white girl who couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen years old, like many of the people who worked on the project. The best and the brightest, he thought—at least that’s what The Ark Project slogan said.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” she said. “We lost oxygen there for a bit, and your head took quite the beating. You’ve got a concussion, but you should be fine in a few days.”
“Low oxygen?” Kaiden asked. “That didn’t affect you?”
Willow shrugged. “It wasn’t out long.”
Kaiden raised his arm to examine the jagged gash. The pink scar was already forming.
“Those little Internal Nano-Cellular Repair guys work fast,” Willow said.
That was one of the benefits of working for TAP. All its employees received an injection of Internal Nano-Cellular Repair particles, or INCR. As his healing wound showed, the nano-organisms that repaired damaged cells worked quickly.
“What happened?” Kaiden asked.
Willow’s smile faltered.
“They hit us,” she said.
“I think it was the Destroying Angels.”
“The terrorist group?” he asked.
Kaiden frowned. He had been briefed on them, but no one had any credible evidence that they even knew about this mission. Commander Rio had assured him that no more than two or three people outside of his crew knew their flight schedule.
Willow nodded. “The ones that have been assassinating political leaders, claiming that they were clones.”
Kaiden didn’t watch the news because it was usually just propaganda. He relied on his briefings, but he knew about the assassinations.
“Right, so Raven was one of them?” he said. The betrayal burned bitter in his throat.
Willow rubbed a hand over her forehead. “I guess so.”
“Is she alive?”
Willow’s gaze drifted to the blinking lights over Kaiden’s head.
“No,” she whispered.
“The rest of the crew?”
Willow shook her head, and her lip trembled.
“All of them?” A knot tightened in Kaiden’s chest. He couldn’t believe it.
“And the lunar clone prototypes,” Willow confirmed in a shaky voice.
Kaiden stared at her. Then, he grasped his head in both hands as he fought to keep in the tears. A warm ache burned in his chest. His entire crew? Casey. Delano. Burl. They were his friends. His responsibility. He blinked at the sudden sting in his eyes.
“What happened?” he demanded.