Becca shivered and realized she’d been standing around in the cold. She turned away from the fountain and started heading back to the hotel.
As she left the Conservatory Garden, her phone vibrated. It was a message from the Consortium Central Office. She was needed for an emergency briefing.
That’s very odd, she thought. None of her work required her to be on call for anything. She decided to call the number when she got back to the hotel.
Another message popped up: “A car is waiting for you on the park roadway. It will take you directly to the Central Office.”
She looked up and saw the typical black government vehicle with four men in black Consortium uniforms standing in front of it signaling to her.
What the hell? How did they know where I was? What is the emergency?
She jogged reluctantly toward the black vehicle. The four agents turned and started to walk back to the vehicle, apparently assuming she would follow. The sliding door opened, and she got inside without a word.
Two of the agents were tall men in black uniforms with unit patches on their shoulders, along with rank insignia. Each had body armor, thin and barely noticeable but there. Both were armed with pulse rifles and wore head-mounted targeting displays. The weapons were high-powered and excessive for an escort, Becca realized. They could blow holes through walls and almost any type of armor.
The other two agents were shorter, less athletic. They appeared to be clerical personnel. One was balding. Neither appeared to be armed, but both had databooks and similar head-mounted equipment.
When Becca stepped inside, she noticed two women sitting in the vehicle, neither in uniform.
“What is going on?”
“We are being asked to retrieve all essential personnel involved in the Ark Project. You were at the top of the list. Sorry for interrupting your run.” She sounded almost genuine in her apology.
“Why are you rounding everyone up?”
“I don’t know. Something involving Gaia and the Ark, I’m sure, but they are not releasing any details yet. Whatever it is, it’s big.”
A cold chill ran straight down Becca’s back. The vehicle couldn’t move fast enough for her. She looked up at the two agents in the front seats, then at their weapons, then back at the woman.
“Is…is it okay? The Ark, I mean. Is everyone okay there? What kind of problem is—“
“I don’t know, Dr. Newman. You will be briefed when we get there.”
Becca suddenly looked up and noticed that all other traffic on the road was being automatically moved aside by the automated traffic system. The system was usually used for police, ambulances, and other public safety vehicles. It was rare to see a black government truck use it to cut through traffic.
What the hell is the big rush? It took them thirty fucking seconds from the initial message to picking me up and heading full speed to Consortium HQ. It can’t be good. They don’t freak out this way about good news. Something went wrong.
The vehicle pulled up in front of a large black building on the corner of Forty-Second Street and First Avenue. The old United Nations Headquarters had been demolished years ago and replaced with the Consortium Central Office for North America. Another five or six black vehicles were unloading passengers in front of Becca’s transport.
The Central Office was about thirty stories, mostly black composite alloys with dark gray reinforced windows. It could be the HQ for Satan, Becca thought. All black and gray, no trees, no gardens or bushes, white concrete walkways, and a heavily guarded entrance.
Becca jumped out of the car followed by the other women. She ran toward the nearest door, where fifteen other people were lined up and being scanned in.
She made her way through security and was herded along with the rest of the group to the elevator hall, where they were directed to head to the sixth floor. After a quick elevator ride, she burst out of the doors even though she had no idea where to go.
Two officers were there to point them down a long hall with green walls and that ugly faded blue Consortium carpeting. She looked ahead and noticed more armed officers and several high-level Consortium officials.
A double door led into a large auditorium. She reached the doors and was told to enter the auditorium, where a guard told her to take a seat. The high-ceilinged room seated roughly two hundred people in black cloth seats with no work surfaces or cup holders. She recognized the electronic equipment behind the podium for the floating screens. Behind the small piles of equipment was a mahogany wall with granite trim. Behind the stage was a large Consortium emblem surrounded by the flags of all of its members.
Becca waited anxiously for the briefing to begin. She asked several of the people sitting around her what was happening, but no one knew. Finally a short man with red hair walked up to the main podium. The talking died down quickly, leaving an ominous silence.
“Good morning,” he began, “and my apologies for the urgent manner in which you were all brought here. It was necessary, as you will soon learn. All of you have been involved in the Ark Project in some manner, and some of you have friends and family on the Ark itself. You are the first outside the senior leadership and NASA to be notified of the crisis.
“Roughly twenty-four hours ago, the CSS Atlantis returned to the solar system without the Ark. As you know, it is a full month early.” The man paused and took a deep breath. “It has reported that the Ark never arrived in the Gaia System.”
The crowd exploded with nervous chatter and elevated voices asking questions, getting steadily louder with anxious and fearful tones. Becca gripped the arms of her seat, trying not to hyperventilate.
“If you would just calm down, please, we will try to answer your questions. The Atlantis cannot track the Ark during the voyage to Gaia. It arrived in the orbit of Gaia, but the Ark never arrived. It waited for several weeks, searching the different waypoints with no luck. Visual and gravitational scans of the system confirmed that the Ark had not arrived in the system. Per its instructions, the Atlantis left a beacon to indicate that it was beginning its return journey and that the Ark must unload and return as soon as possible. Our experts have indicated that it is still possible that the Ark was delayed or slowed and simply arrived much later than expected. If that is the case, it will return per its instructions.”
The crowd became loud again. None were put at ease. If it slowed down or stopped for anything, that meant it was in serious trouble and could be anywhere.
Becca recalled a conversation with a physicist a year back. He had told her if the Ark didn’t get there on time, it never would. Only a catastrophic event could slow or stop the Heidion Drive.
“What are the contingency plans? I mean, what if the colony is not there?” a man yelled out from the crowd.
“We are not there yet. NASA believes it is likely the colony is being constructed right now and the Atlantis left too soon.”
Becca shook her head. It was all for public consumption. The Ark was lost.