Prelude to Proxima (Chapter One)


The holographic image of a dead man sprang to life before Landon Walker.

Goosebumps prickled the back of his neck in spite of the steamy air. His forearm stuck to the gummy surface of his desktop as he adjusted the house controls. The automatic climate system thrummed and squealed, working at capacity to thin the air of his private suite here at the International Space Agency's headquarters in Goiás, Brazil, but to little avail.

H.F. Washington, Landon's dead mentor and former boss, paced in full, life size in the display pit of this suite's personal holographic system. The illusion made H.F. appear as if he stood only an arm's reach away from Landon, but in reality, his boss had been dead more than a month. Already it was April, 2092, and the mission to track down the alien signal to Proxima Centauri would be delayed yet again, at least another two weeks. Landon was 51, not so old as the twenty-first century waned, but he felt his aging. The mission couldn't afford to waste more time.

"In the event of my untimely death," the holo image of H.F. said, "you must carry on, my boy."

Landon crouched forward, creaking the vinyl on the edge of his chair. That old tag used to annoy him when H.F. was alive. Now it only reminded him how much he missed the old man. It also told him that this message was clearly meant for him. When had H.F. recorded it, anyway? He hadn't found it before now because somehow the old-fashioned stick containing the data had ended up in a pocket inside his travel bag. H.F. must've put it there, guessing that it wouldn't be found until he packed for an overnight trip. With such precaution, H.F. must've worried more about terrorism than he'd let on. The persons responsible for the bomb last month hadn't been caught yet, but Landon felt certain they were the terrorists known as Savers. The bomb had probably been meant for the spaceplane, but it ended up killing H.F.

His holo mane of gray hair flapped wildly about him as he strode back and forth, aimlessly fingering his trademark worry beads. "The Tititri won't stop with my death," he said.

An electric charge raced through Landon at the mention of the aliens' name. The memory of the night before lingered fresh in his mind, when an alien entity spoke to him through his two-year-old daughter, Molly. It was over now, he told himself. His daughter was safe, as safe as she could be with his sister Greer. The aliens, gone.
H.F. continued, his voice rumbling out of the four-foot square holo pit. "The Tititri won't stop until they've taken all of Earth. Their signal... The destruction at Valles Marineris... What we thought was only the beginning... It wasn't. You were right, my boy, when you suspected that I wasn't being entirely forthright with you. I'm sorry. I thought if you knew any more about this matter back then... Well, I didn't know what you might've done. I was afraid we could never persuade you to join our team. You haven't exactly kept an open mind on this subject. Despite the evidence. But if you've found this message, then it's because you're ready to hear the truth. And the truth is, the Tititri have been here longer than any of us ever suspected. It only came to my attention about a year ago, around the time of your difficulties with your wife. You see, the Tititri have already established an outpost here on Earth, for the purpose of receiving the signal from their home planet."

Landon sprang up from his desk, knocking the chair over backwards. His sudden movement tore a new wave of pain to his shoulder, wounded by a grazing bullet the night before. How could H.F. possibly have known the aliens had an outpost here on Earth? And if so, then where was it?

The holo H.F. paused his monologue and chuckled, as if anticipating Landon's reaction. The old man knew him better than anyone. He had been like a father to Landon. "It's in Patagonia," he said, lowering his voice. "Where Summer is."

Landon sucked in his breath. He was flying to Patagonia today to try one last time to get through to Summer, his ex-wife. He couldn't begin to consider an offer that would require him to leave on a mission for twenty-four years, not before he found closure to a relationship that had ended badly. Now H.F.'s message suggested that Summer's presence there had something to do with the aliens. Maybe the aliens' business with Molly the night before had nothing at all to do with him. They'd targeted Molly because she was Summer's daughter.
"The signal," H.F. said, "was meant to arrive when the time was right to awaken the Tititri from their dormancy and begin their invasion."

Landon swiped one hand across his buzz cut. H.F. was talking about the tachyonic emission that Landon's lab on SpaceHab had intercepted with his collector. Other labs hadn't been able to duplicate his work yet.
But it could be done. He had collected tachyons. Collecting those faster-than-light particles for the purpose of instantaneous communication was his work, his life.

H.F.'s image paced out of range of the holo field and then back again. "Now do you see my urgency? Why we so desperately need to colonize new worlds? I couldn't tell you before about the dormant aliens because of your...shall we say your sensitivity to the subject. On account of Summer. It's not a coincidence, my boy, that she happens to be in Patagonia Prison. You see, the aliens arranged it for her. They chose her to be the guardian of their outpost. You must persuade her to help us stop the alien invasion."

A chill coursed down Landon's spine as the image fizzled away, dissolving on a puff of air. Where had H.F. gotten his information? If what he said was true - and he'd never known the old man to be wrong - then the aliens had been in contact with Summer all along. That might explain her strange behavior, but...

He struggled to understand.

His break-up with Summer and her arrest had happened too fast. He thought he was going to Patagonia to understand the reasons behind her betrayal, why she'd tried to kill them all. And why she'd arranged her pregnancy despite their agreement to postpone children indefinitely. Molly was born without Landon's knowledge, while he'd been away on another mission, the one to Titan. He'd thought the Savers had brainwashed her into joining their terrorist cause, which ultimately led to her failed attempt to bomb SpaceHab. It had landed her in Patagonia Prison.

H.F. was suggesting that Summer's actions had been master-minded instead by aliens.
Landon sighed and flipped off his data control. His old boss, H.F. Washington, the man most responsible for sending humanity to space once again, whose remains awaited in cryo-storage for possible reconstruction one day, had always loved drama. Now, in the absence of his holo image, the room felt empty. Cold, with a muggy chill.

Landon righted his chair and yanked out the data stick. The sudden twisting movement brought a flare of renewed pain to his shoulder, like needles digging into a raw wound. It had only been a flesh wound, for pity's sake. That deranged reporter's bullet from an antique gun had only nicked his shoulder the night before. He'd been lucky.
He dropped the stick back into his travel bag and snapped it shut. The cart would arrive soon with Molly and Greer. He checked the time on his personal valet. His sister was late.

He couldn't stop thinking about the events that played out in the pocket of jungle the night before, rescuing Molly from her kidnappers, getting shot in the process. Those events had led to the last-minute offer that Landon fill one of the empty seats on the Centauri mission.

He needed a few days to make his decision, he'd told Sam, who'd replaced H.F. as the new boss at ISA, but he already knew what he was going to have to do. He couldn't possibly abandon Molly. So he would have to decline the offer. It would've been his scientist's dream to be included on such a mission. He hadn't turned it down yet because he held out hope that he could find a way to make it work. Perhaps he would find his answers along with his closure with Summer.

Invasion, H.F. had said. Landon hoped the word choice was only another example of the old man's keen taste for drama, but if not... Could Earth survive whatever the aliens - the Tititri - had in mind for them?