BOOK 2 - THE SCOURGE OF HOPE
(THE SKINS)

 




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(July 5th, 1947)
(The day after the crash)
(General Nicaron's transport - The Leptes, orbiting the Earth)

Nicaron strode onto the Leptes' command center. "Report on the search, Lieutenant Scorene."

"Sir we are having trouble with our equipment," Scorene replied. "The metal content in the area is interfering with the data we are receiving."

"Then figure out how to compensate for it," he responded in a low growl.

"Yes Sir."

Nicaron turned and walked back toward the console to look at the map. He would have to send troops down to the surface of the planet to conduct a proper search. The environmental suits they had brought with them could be modified for short-term exposure to the Earth's atmosphere but the way things were going, it looked like they might need a longer-term solution. Nicaron struck the console. They should have been in possession of the Royal Four and the Granolith by now but he was surrounded by incompetence.

"General there is a message for you from the lab," Scorene said timidly.

He turned to her and ground out impatiently, "Well, what is it, Lieutenant?"

"Sir, Gragras requests your presence in the lab."

Nicholas turned on his heal and with a quick stride, headed toward the lab. As he entered, he addressed the head scientist, "Gragras, what do you have to report?"

"General we have devised a solution to the problem of the Earth's atmosphere." Gragras motioned toward a sealed container that housed a small oval patch of a substance resembling human skin. "This container is filled with a sample of the Earth's atmosphere and as you can see the substance we have developed is unharmed."

"What is the substance?" asked Nicaron.

Gragras explained. "Basically it is a genetically engineered environmental suit. It is thin but it has several layers and is almost indestructible. It is stronger than most metals and if any small scratches or punctures were to occur, it will immediately seal itself, without losing pressurization. Of course if the tear was of sufficient size it would not be able to fix itself fast enough, and it will be vulnerable to extreme temperatures like fire or freezing."

Gragras motioned to himself, "We will wear them over our bodies, and they will give us the added bonus of camouflage because we can engineer them to look human."

"Excellent work, Gragras," Nicaron said, giving a rare compliment. "When will these 'skins' be ready for use?"

"That is the only problem, General. Even using our growth enhancers, it will take approximately three Earth years to grow the skins to the proper size."

Nicaron considered the alternatives briefly. "Start the growth process immediately." It would take longer than he had anticipated, but they needed to cover all their options. And while they waited for the skins to mature they could use the environmental suits to search. He turned to the console and activated the com, "Major, ready the scouts to go to the surface as soon as it is dark."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(February 4th, 1950)
(Onboard the Leptes - above Copper Summit, AZ)

They had searched the area for three years using the limited capabilities of the environmental suits but they had found no trace of the transport, the pods or the shape shifters. The troops were growing restless from the long period of inactivity and Nicaron was relieved that the skins had matured more quickly than the scientists had anticipated. He would use the cover of night to land the Leptes in the hills outside of the town and at daybreak they would enclothe themselves in the skins for the duration of their stay on Earth.

Nicaron had spent the time in orbit attempting to familiarize himself with the human's customs and teach the troops English. Then he had divided the troops into family units. He would set up house, as the humans called it, with his senior officers, Major Nesta as his sister, Colonel Jafto as his father and his loyal servant Idos as his mother. Nicaron would adopt the guise of a child, giving him added protection and camouflage. And he had ordered all of the troops to change their names to human ones. Nicaron choose his human name because it was similar to his own, Nicholas.

His troops believed that Nicaron possessed the power to alter his body and appearance but only a few, such as Khivar knew the truth. Nicaron was a shape shifter and did not require a skin to survive on the planet. But he would have a skin made for him so that the troops would not discover his true nature.

The Antarian tradition marked shape shifters as servants, who could never hope to obtain rank in the military. But Khivar had not cared about his genetic make-up, Khivar valued Nicaron for his mind and abilities.

Nicaron had learned to conceal his true identity at an early age and he was always careful to stay away from other shape shifters in case they recognized what he really was. Shape shifters who spent much time together, learned to recognize one another easily, even when they were in different forms, and they tended to pass thoughts and feelings to each other, sometimes without trying. The last thing Nicaron wanted was to share his thoughts with a bunch of shape shifters. Because of his power to extract information from people’s minds, he was somewhat immune to others reading his thoughts, but there was no sense taking any chances.

Nicaron let himself into the conference room and stood before his gathered troops to address they one final time before the descent to Earth. "There are two parts to our mission and both are equally important. The first is to gain possession of the Granolith.”

Gasps of surprise rose from the troops and Nicholas signaled for silence and continued. “Apart from Khivar and a few of his trusted advisors, we are the only one's who know the Granolith is no longer on Antar. We must take possession of it and return it to Antar to help Khivar secure the throne.” He motioned to a woman beside him. “Major Nesta will lead this part of the project."

"The second goal, and just as important as the return of the Granolith, is the retrieval of Princess Vilondra's genetic material, so that she might be returned to Antar and reunited with our King. As you know, she sacrificed her life to aid Khivar's cause and he is eager for her return." Nicaron motioned to the man at his side, "The Vilondra project will be headed by Major Grester.” He turned back to address the troops in front of him. “You will be divided and assigned to one of these projects. Report all findings directly to your project leader and they will report to me."

"The first team will enter the village of Copper Summit under the guise of a family searching for a domicile. They will become fluent in the language and local customs, returning to the ship to tutor the others. We anticipate there will be an adjustment period in the skins and after it has passed, new groups will be dispatched every few days to search the surrounding area."

Nicaron held up a small, black, pentagon-shaped object. "Each group will be issued a trithium amplification generator. It is new technology developed just before our departure. It has several purposes. First it can be used as a communicator to send and receive encrypted, untraceable messages. Secondly it can be used to intercept messages sent on the frequencies used by the former Tageonant royalty. It can also be used to temporarily suspend mental powers in Antarians and shape shifters, but use that mode cautiously because it will suspend your own powers as well. There are also several other uses that will be explained by Gragras later."

"We have learned that the Royal Four will incubate in the pods for more than forty Earth years, so don't expect them to be living next door. We will have to concentrate our search on the shape shifters."

"Also the scientists can only speculate how the human DNA will affect the clones' memory recovery process. It is believed that it will take several years with memory retrieval devices to completely restore their memories. So if we could find them soon enough we could use that to our advantage."

He paused and looked out over the eager faces that were turned toward him in rapt attention. "Our mission is of the utmost importance. We will not leave this planet until all the objectives have been accomplished."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(October 4th, 1957)
(The Crawford House)
(Copper Summit, AZ)

Nicholas had just received another casualty report. He looked at the numbers and cursed. Almost twenty percent of the troops had died over the last seven and a half years and morale was low because they had made no progress in their search. They had discovered a vague report of a UFO crash more than ten years prior in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico, which they now knew to be the actual crash site. But it had happened so long ago, Nicholas had rejected the idea that the Royal Four’s shape shifters would still be in the area.

Nonetheless he had sent a search team, led by some of his best people, to see if they could find any trace of the Royal Four’s transport or its occupants. Under the guise of writing a book, they had interviewed hundreds of people in the area. They had been subjected to wild tales and speculation, but they could find no real evidence of the crashed transport or its inhabitants.

Over five years ago Nicholas had divided the troops into teams and sent them out to search the entire country, surmising the shape shifters would stay in the country that so closely echoed Zan's political ideals. And in that time, Nicholas had discovered that America, as the inhabitants called it, was fascinated with aliens.

Sightings were reported with regularity and he had formed several teams to investigate any evidence of alien activity. But with the exception of the original '47 crash, the sightings were fabrications of fertile human imaginations.

Nicholas was beginning to suspect the search was hopeless. No signal had been detected on any alien frequency and there was no evidence pointing to any specific location. It was as if they had simply vanished after the crash. There was nothing to lead them to the pods or the Granolith until the pods hatched, and according to the scientists, they would have to wait forty years for that to happen.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(October 27th, 1962)
(Universal Friendship League Building)

Vanessa watched helplessly as her lover William was unmasked as a traitor to Khivar. Nicholas had discovered that he and several others in her group of friends were actively conspiring against Khivar and sabotaging the mission. The conspirators were plotting to murder a Lieutenant who had become suspicious of them and Nicholas suspected most of the other fatalities within their troops could be directly linked to them.

Nicholas had gathered the traitors in the common room to use as examples for the rest of the troops. He would take the information from their minds and then kill them, and even though William had betrayed her, Vanessa was still foolishly in love with him.

Vanessa and Yorgam, or William as she now knew him, had become lovers after they had settled into Copper Summit. Nicholas, as a practice, did not police the actions of his troops as long as duties were attended to, and he had made no objection to their affair. And over the years, Vanessa had grown to love William. She had not detected anything in his actions or demeanor that had made her suspicious, which made the discovery of his betrayal all the more devastating. When confronted, William had admitted he had been assigned to seduce her, believing that as one of Nicholas' closest advisors and leader of the Granolith project, much information could be gathered from her.

William stood proudly as he pronounced his final words, "We are not the only ones. Our fellows on Antar will continue the fight and we will take back the planet in the name of the people." As he finished, he and the others reached behind them and broke the seals on their husks, instantly turning to dust before anyone could stop them.

Nicholas let fly a string of curses. The traitors had killed themselves before he had been able to search their minds for information. He turned slowly, studying the faces of those before him, wondering if all of the traitors had been unmasked. He could search every mind for any sign of disloyalty but the aftermath of his search was often destructive and sometimes deadly. He did not want to risk it yet. If he suspected any individual, he would deal with them at the time, but for now he would have to continue to be vigilant for unusual activity among his troops.

He waited until he reached his quarters to send a coded message to his master. "Khivar, my liege, I have discovered five traitors among the troops and executed them. From them I have learned there are others on Antar who are among the troops, as we had suspected. They are actively sabotaging our efforts, working toward their goal to take back the Government. I suspect there may be other traitors on Earth but I was unable to force the information from their minds before they died. But be assured, if there are others, they will be discovered and dealt with."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(February 3rd, 1965)

As more and more traitors had been unmasked, Nicholas had decided to go into the field and do surprise inspections to see if he could detect any treachery. Unfortunately his journey had taken him to New York City where he had unmasked a traitor and received the worst disappointment of his life. But that was a story for another time.

Now he was more determined than ever to root out the treachery in his remaining troops and return victorious to Khivar. He would make sure every traitor got exactly what they deserved.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(October 20, 1968)
(Gregory's (Gragras') Lab on the Leptes)
(Copper Summit, AZ)

Nicholas waited in the lab for Gregory's diagnosis. Some of the troops who had returned from assignments over the past few weeks had noticed a sloughing on the outer layers of their skin and Nicholas worried it might mean a premature and unsuccessful end to their mission. Nicholas hated failure but more than anything he hated failing Khivar. Even though he was as much his own person as a shape shifter could be, he was programmed to obey his Lord and master and he could not escape it.

The troops were demoralized because they had made no progress in their search, some were still mourning their friends who were exposed as traitors and with this latest setback Nicholas expected a mutiny. He paced the room as he waited, trying to lay out a plan in his mind, and considered executing one or two of his soldiers just to remind the others of their precarious situation.

Gregory entered the room. "As we suspected, some of the skins are starting to peel."

"How much time do we have?"

"The skins are living organisms," Gregory explained. "They must regenerate, and in order to do that they are sloughing away the dead top layer."

Nicholas released a sigh of relief. "So this is not going to affect our mission."

"Eventually it will," Gregory continued. "The life span of the skins is only about fifty Earth years and as the end approaches, the peeling will be much more noticeable."

"Fifty years," Nicholas echoed. "We have been in the skins for almost twenty years, so we have thirty years left."

"Approximately thirty, although we don't know precisely," Gregory said. "Each skin could age differently depending on the conditions it is subjected to. The ones that are peeling now are worn by soldiers who have spent a considerable amount of time in dry climates."

"So if we stay in more humid areas, the skins will last longer."

Gregory nodded.

Nicholas sighed. "I will make sure the soldiers are rotated into humid areas on a regular basis," he said distractedly. "I want you to keep this information to yourself for now. I will tell my senior staff but no one else must know."

"What will we tell the troops if they become suspicious, Sir?" Gregory asked.

Nicholas waved his hand dismissively. "Tell them the peeling is a natural part of the skins regeneration process. It is close to the truth and it will sound believable."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(May 14th, 1978)
(The Crawford House)

Nicholas looked around the kitchen table, where he held all of the meetings with his senior advisors, taking in the faces of his faux family and the scientist Gregory. They had still made no progress in their search, the pods were not due to hatch for another ten or so years and Nicholas decided a back-up plan was necessary. "We have made little progress in our mission and it looks doubtful that we will complete it until after the pods hatch. I want to devise an alternative to the skins in case we are forced to remain on this planet longer than the skins will live."

Vanessa spoke up, "Why can't we just make more skins?"

Gregory answered her, "We can make more skins. I have been experimenting with a new type of skin that would be far superior to the originals. It is a hybrid cross of our skin cells and human cells. The technology is similar to what the scientists used to re-create the Royal Four but we won't have to die to use them. We could use each individual's cells to grow a skin specifically for them. It would link the individual to the husk, giving the wearer greater sensitivity and control because all of the senses will be accessed through the skin. But we have used all of the rapid growth compound and the elements required to manufacture it do not exist on the Earth, and we cannot create them."

Nicholas had never considered growing more skins because he had assumed that the time required to bring them to maturity on this technologically backward planet would be more than they had. But now he turned to Gregory. "How long would it take to cultivate the skins without the growth enhancers?"

Gregory considered for a moment. "It would take approximately twenty years."

Ida voiced the thoughts of the table's occupants. "That would be cutting it mighty close to the end."

"Yes," Nicholas answered thoughtfully, "but we could house those whose skins failed on the transport until the new skins were ready. And when the husks mature, we would call in all of the troops from the field to attend the," he paused searching for a word, "the harvest."

Vanessa spoke again, "Twenty years is a long time. We could return to Antar, get more growth enhancers and come back to Earth..." She trailed off as Nicholas cast a withering glance her way.

"No one is going back to Antar until we succeed," he said in a soft but deadly voice. "I will not admit failure and Khivar certainly will not accept anyone who fails him. You know the Leptes only had enough fuel for a one-way journey. We must have the additional power of the Granolith to return. Do you think Khivar will send another transport here to save us?" He voice raised to a roar, "We will not return to Antar until the Granolith and Vilondra return with us."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(August 14th, 1993)
(The Home of Arizona State Senator Billings)

After Nicholas had ordered her to get involved in human politics nine years ago, things had progressed quickly for Vanessa. She had moved to Phoenix and actively worked to enter the political arena. First, she had volunteered for the local Democratic Party and used every resource available to her to move steadily into the inner political circle.

Since the unmasking of her lover as a traitor, she had been in disfavor with Nicholas and she was eager to use this opportunity to get back in his good graces. Nicholas had probed her brain for any signs of disloyalty and had been satisfied she had been a pawn in the conspirators' plot, but he still blamed her for not discovering their plans earlier. Vanessa had truly loved William and it had taken her years to get over his loss, even though he was a traitor.

But she had always been ambitious. Her greatest desire was to gain the highest position possible in Khivar's regime, but Khivar trusted Nicholas completely and one bad word from him would smash her plans irrevocably. But if she were the one to recover the Granolith, it would put her back in Nicholas' favor and surely earn her a promotion or even possibly a position in Khivar's administration.

Vanessa returned her attention to the City Council member who had been droning on for over twenty minutes. "And if we can get the patrician politics out of the way, this new policy will help put us on the map."

Vanessa agreed with him to head off more of a discussion and politely excused herself. Earth politics, she thought to herself, what a boring waste of time. She headed for the bathroom to get a moment to herself but was stopped by the host. "Vanessa, there you are. I have been wanting to introduce you to someone all evening."

She eyed the tall, handsome man at the Senator's side as the introductions were made. "John this is the woman I have been telling you about, Vanessa Crawford. Vanessa, this is a Congressman from New Mexico, John Whitaker."


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(June 30th, 1996)

Vanessa straightened her collar in the mirror, with satisfaction. Everything was working out just as she had planned.

She could remember the day four years ago when she had read an article about a Congressman's widow who had been appointed to her dead husband’s seat. And when she had been introduced to a newly appointed Congressman three years ago, everything had fallen neatly into place. After they were married, she had made sure to stay very visible in the public eye, being seen as a political team with her husband and dropping hints about possibly running for office herself. And as planned, her husband's supporters had approached her about taking over his seat after his tragic death.

She smiled. It had been so easy to maneuver the humans to do as she wanted, she hadn't even needed to use her powers to influence them.


~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


(April 25th, 1999)
(Washington, D.C.)

Vanessa pasted on her practiced smile as she listened to the Congressman from Texas drone on about grazing rights. Inwardly she sighed, another dull political party. Nothing really interesting ever happened on this backward planet. During the years she had been in office, she had discretely made inquiries into alien activity, only to meet one brick wall after another. And she was beginning to wonder if the government knew anything at all.

She let her eyes wander as her companions warmed to their topic. The same people always attended these things. The politicians and their staff, the lobbyists, the upper crust political supporters but there was never anyone interesting.

She excused herself from the others and headed out onto the balcony to get a breath of fresh air. She closed her eyes and leaned against the rail, somehow the sounds of the bustling city soothing her. Suddenly she knew she wasn't alone and her eyes snapped open as she turned to confront the person who intruded into her solitude.

Vanessa had never seen the man who joined her on the balcony. He was handsome with dark hair and eyes and even though he was relatively young, he had the strange smile of a man who had seen too much. They stood looking at one another for a moment before he spoke.

"Congresswoman Vanessa Whitaker from New Mexico." His voice was deep and soft and sent a thrill of awareness through her. "You are more beautiful than I had heard."

"Thank you," she said cautiously, "but you have me at a disadvantage."

His smile broadened, "I hear we have a lot of common interests and I think we should get to know one another much better. Our association could be," he paused as he let his eyes roam over her body, "mutually beneficial."

"And what interests would those be?" she asked.

"Aliens," he said simply. He held out his hand to her. “I am with the FBI. My name is Daniel Pierce."




 

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BOOK 2 - THE SCOURGE OF HOPE (THE SKINS)




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BOOK 2 - THE SCOURGE OF HOPE
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