Colonel Sydney Nichols reclined in a wooden chair holding a chilled glass of water in her right hand. Beads of fresh sweat formed on her forehead and along her neck. She dipped her fingers into the glass and removed a chunk of clear ice. While a slow-moving ceiling fan stirred the stale, humid air, she circulated the frozen water over her lips. General Nathan Franks sat next to her holding an unopened soda can. Both officers wore dress uniforms, complete with decorations. Sydney and Nathan listened to Mr. Cain Burl, the longtime warden of Angola Prison. A silver metal briefcase, embossed with a glossy United States Army insignia, rested in Sydneyís lap.
"I do apologize for the inhospitable temperature," Mr. Burl offered in his refined southern Louisiana accent. He pointed to a rusted air-conditioning vent dripping condensation. "Iím sure youíve noticed the oppressive humidity. A better ventilation system would be welcomed, but we arenít overburdened with funds. Convicts and drug addicts, always at the bottom of the list Iím afraid. Would you care for more ice, Colonel?"
Sydney forced a smile. "No thank you, this will do."
Mr. Burl graciously returned her smile. "We are honored by your presence, Colonel. I must say, it was the surprise of my life to learn you were visiting our humble facility. As you might imagine, astronauts are not our regular clientele."
"We wish to speak with a former noncommissioned officer, Eric Precedian," Nathan interjected while he rested his soda on the corner of Mr. Burlís scuffed desk. The warden leaned back in his chair with a quizzical expression on his weary face. He rubbed his chin and shook his head.
"I donít know why the military would send two fine officers to visit such a despicable creature. In all my years, Iíve never met a colder man. I would not be surprised if ice water flows in his veins."
Mr. Burl pointed to the prison yard visible through his dingy office windows. Sydney and Nathan glanced at armed men standing vigil atop barbed-wire-encased watchtowers. "Angola was built for violent psychopaths. With Precedian locked inside here, the world is a safer place."
"Thank you, Mr. Burl," General Franks replied with a diplomatic smile. "If we could speak with Mr. Precedian alone for a few minutes, we would be most grateful."
The warden rested his elbows on his desk and leaned toward his visitors. "Iíve worked in this prison for twenty years. Iíve seen many men-if one can call these creatures men. They can lie, cheat, and kill, but they canít hide the truth behind their eyes. If you look close, you can see into their evil souls." The warden tapped his desktop. "Iíve stared into the faces of a thousand men, but Iíve never seen eyes like his. I tell you, that man unnerves me. My advice would be to steer clear of him."
Sydney focused her gaze on the warden. Her pale blue eyes peered into his. "We want to speak with Eric Precedian, in private."
The warden tossed up his hands and shook his head. "Iím afraid that is quite out of the question. Precedian is in the Red Hats for a reason. He is violent. I canít take the chance he might attack and injure one of you."
"Red Hats?" Sydney asked.
"Solitary confinement," Warden Burl explained. "All prisons have gang problems. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, and so on, each intimidating and terrorizing the other. In these walls, gangs are a fact of life, and we deal with the situation the best we can. Precedian didnít want to play along, so a few gang members tried to initiate him to the hard facts of prison life. We arenít sure of the details because Precedian wonít cooperate, and the four gang members are dead." The warden raised his eyebrows for added emphasis. "Precedian ripped open their chests and pulled out their hearts, while they were still alive. My Lord, Iíve never seen so much blood."
General Franks and Colonel Nichols exchanged a surprised glance.
"Are you certain you want to continue?" Nathan asked Sydney.
She sipped her water and focused her gaze on Nathan. She replied in a calm, self-assured voice. "Yes, I want to continue."
The warden let out a nervous laugh. Fresh sweat extended under his armpits, forming circles of yellow moisture on his white shirt. "You canít be serious. Precedian is no good to anyone, I assure you. Even if I agreed, he will never talk to you. He lashes out at anyone who gets near him."
"How would you react if you were locked in a cage?" Sydney asked.
"Iím not a murderer."
"We have our reasons," General Franks added. "Please allow us to see him."
"May I ask the purpose of your visit?"
"This is a confidential military matter, outside civilian jurisdiction. I can place a call to the governor if you wish."
"No, no," Warden Burl replied with a hasty wave of his hands. "No reason to bother the governor." Mr. Burl glanced at Sydney. "You will have to walk into the prison, past one cell block. As you might imagine, the presence of an attractive, blond woman will elicit a reaction. Are you certain you want to do this?"
"Absolutely. Iíve been in worse places."
The warden leaned back in his chair with a respectful smile. "Yes, Iím certain you have. My guards will bring Precedian to an interview room, but you are wasting your time. He despises the government and all forms of authority."
Nathan stood and shook the wardenís hand. "We appreciate your cooperation."
Sydney and Nathan followed the warden down a flight of metal stairs into the maximum-security section of the overcrowded facility. They walked beneath rows of caged men, each dressed in a white T-shirt and gray pants. Word quickly spread a woman was in the block. Conversations stilled while the prisonerís hungry eyes feasted on Sydney. She stood five feet seven inches tall, with broad shoulders and distinct curves. Years of rigorous exercise kept her fit and trim. A silver clip, decorated with an Air Force insignia, held her dark blond hair behind her blue beret. Excited convicts barked catcalls at her from their cells.
"Hey, Army bitch! Get your ass over here and suck my dick."
"Iíll slap that smile off your face, cunt."
The warden tried to make light of the foul taunts. "Not much I can do to shut them up. Iím sorry."
The shouts didnít distract Sydney. She adjusted her beret and walked forward without rewarding the prisoners with a reaction. Her determined eyes focused straight ahead. After passing several checkpoints, the officers arrived at a dank interview room containing three chairs spaced around a wooden table. Evidence of violent fights marred the scarred walls. Two armed corrections officers waited beside the open door.
"I will leave you in the care of these gentlemen. Please return to my office after your interview." Warden Burl excused himself and returned to his duties.
Sydney and Nathan sat behind the wooden table. Oppressive heat filled the small room, and there was no ventilation to chase the stale air. Sweat streamed down their faces. Sydney rapped her red fingernails on the tabletop. She ignored the cellblock prisoners as they continued with their sexual insults. Her gaze drifted over the dried blood smeared on the walls and the deep gashes in the wooden table. Drab, gray paint covered everything. There were no colors and no sunlight; only metal bars, cracked cement floors, and hot, foul air.
"What a horrid place."
Nathan nodded. "No one said prison was fun."
After a few minutes, the guards led Eric Precedian into the room. He wore a soiled orange prison suit, which indicated he was a high-risk inmate. Heavy iron cuffs shackled his hands and feet. Tattooed on the right side of his neck was a blond angel blowing golden stardust from her open palms. The sultry angel had dark green eyes and lush red lips. The cautious guards waited for Precedian to sit in the chair opposite Nathan and Sydney. They shackled him to iron rings sunk deep into the cement floor. Eric stared into empty space. Black whiskers mixed with grimy sweat covered his rugged face. Purple circles hung under both eyes.
"That wonít be necessary," General Franks said to the guards.
"But the warden gave strict orders he was to be chained to the floor."
"This is a United States military matter. Our interview doesnít concern the warden. You guards get out of here and leave us alone."
"Do you fellows want to be working at a carwash next week?"
"Then give me the keys and find something else to do."
The concerned guards exchanged a worried glance. The officer with the keys tossed the ring on the table. "Itís your funeral, man." The guards exited the interview room and bolted the door from the other side. Eric sat silently, with his chin lowered and his eyes focused forward. Dense muscles bulged from his arms. He had sloping shoulders, thick wrists, and powerful hands. His coal black hair was cut short. On the right side of his skull, an inch above his ear, a jagged scar protruded from his scalp. Sydney gazed at Eric, but he took no notice of her.
General Franks pointed to the shackles. "Do you want those chains off?" Eric displayed no reaction. "My name is General Nathan Franks, and this is Colonel Sydney Nichols. We want to talk to you about your book." Nathan snapped his fingers in the air and waved his hands in front of Ericís stoic eyes. "Can you hear me? Are you drugged? Hello?"
Eric tilted his expressionless face toward Sydney. His gaze drifted over her neck, her smooth skin, and her flushed red cheeks. The intense power of his stare caused her to shift in the chair. She removed a white cloth from her front pants pocket and wiped beads of perspiration from her forehead and above her lips. She gazed into his unusual amber-colored eyes. His tiny black pupils focused into her.
"What are you looking at?" she demanded. "You donít scare me."
"May I see his file, Colonel?"
Sydney broke off her stare, popped open the briefcase, and handed a thick brown folder to Nathan. Ericís name was printed on the cover in big, bold red letters. Franks flipped through the documents.
"You were a crack marksman, is that true? I have reports from reliable people who say you were the finest sniper they ever saw. The file says you capped an insurgent at two thousand meters on a windy day, blew his head clean off, is that true? They say you were calm under fire, that you were cooler than a mountain lake." There was no reaction from Eric. He stared at Sydney. She glanced at him, but turned her eyes away.
"According to your trial transcript, you killed three unarmed men, is that true?"
"I killed a lot more than three," Eric replied in a low, raspy voice. "Thatís what your government trained me to do, kill people I never met, to protect people I donít give a fuck about. What about you, Colonel, how many did you kill?"
"I donít mean in the war," Nathan continued. "I mean the three men you killed stateside. The file says you chased them into an alley and ripped open their throats."
Eric shifted his empty gaze to Nathan. "What would you do to the scum who killed your wife, buy them a cheeseburger?"
"Thatís not what the file says. Your trial established your wife was a heroin junkie. The coroner testified she died of an intentional drug overdose. You were convicted of three counts of murder."
"Strange, isnít it? Your government sent me halfway around the world to eradicate the opium trade by any means necessary. Nobody uttered a peep about the Afghan drug traders I slaughtered. I perform the same service in Baton Rouge and I go to prison. Bizarre."
"In America we have laws against murder."
"The Afghans had laws, too, but I guess they donít count."
Ericís gaze drifted up and down Nathanís face and torso. The tint of Ericís eyes changed, depending on the way the light reflected.
"What are you, some kind of sadistic freak? Is this how you get your kicks, tormenting prisoners? What about the blonde? Is she your bitch?"
"Iím nobodyís bitch, mister," Sydney shot back. "You better remember that."
A thin smile formed on Ericís lips. "General, youíd better leash your dog before she bites someone."
"The file says you canít hold a job, you are a homeless drifter, is that true?"
"Maybe I lack employable skills. Maybe there arenít abundant jobs for a trained killer. That is what your government made me, a killing machine."
"You had plenty of jobs. The file says you were fired over and over again because you couldnít restrain your temper. Is that true?"
Eric disengaged from Nathan and returned his gaze to Sydney. She glared back at him. Fresh beads of sweat formed above her lips. Neither one blinked.
"According to your file, your sniper team was hit by a one-fifty-five artillery round. Two shrapnel pieces buried so deep into your brain, the doctors couldnít cut them out. Did the shrapnel drive you crazy?"
"Crazy? Is that what I am?"
"The doctors said you screamed all the time and babbled incoherent nonsense."
"Have you ever had a hunk of hot metal in your skull, General?"
Eric jerked his hands, causing the steel chains to rattle. Nathan and Sydney flinched. Their nervous reaction made Eric chuckle. "Whatís the matter, General? You seem jumpy. Has the warden been telling stories about me?"
Nathan reached into the briefcase and removed a dog-eared paperback titled The Fifth Planet. The cover featured a crystal ice palace built on the surface of a tranquil blue moon.
"Did you write this book? You told your doctors the story came to you in vivid dreams, a Fifth Planet inhabited by an advanced race. Mydryans, you called them?" General Franks tossed the book on the table. "Most scientists say you are full of shit. They say there never was a Fifth Planet, because Jupiterís gravity was too strong."
"Thatís why fiction is printed on the cover." Eric leaned toward Sydney and sniffed the air. "Who are you? Why are you here?"
Nathan tapped the table to draw Ericís attention. "Do you still have those dreams? Flying horses, red-eyed demons, and magic machines? Did imaginary ghosts drive you crazy? Is that why you couldnít find a job? Did nightmares trash your sex life? Did your bad dreams force your junkie wife to kill herself?"
Eric thrust his powerful hands toward Nathanís exposed neck. He would have seized the generalís throat if Sydney hadnít intervened. She grabbed Ericís wrists and shoved his hands away.
"Sit down, Sergeant!" she barked in a loud command voice.
For a few tense seconds, Sydney and Eric stared at each other in silence, neither backing down. The glint of anger in Ericís eyes faded and he slowly sat.
"What do you fuckers want? You are starting to bore me."
Nathan removed color photographs from the briefcase. The pictures were bloody shell fragments removed from wounded soldiers. He showed the photos to Eric.
"That is what is in your skull. We traced those fragments to an ore mine near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Guess what we found? Metal from an ancient meteor impact had melted with local ore deposits. The bits of metal in your skull, we think they came from the asteroid belt, close to your imaginary Fifth Planet."
Ericís eyes narrowed while he examined the gruesome pictures. He held each photo in his soiled hands and examined the jagged bits of shrapnel.
"That is not just any metal, Sergeant. There are traces of an alloy with odd properties we have yet to fully understand. In recent fighting, seven other men had similar head wounds. Guess what? They all found the loony bin, except none of them wrote a book. The ones who didnít kill themselves are so far gone, we canít talk to them."
"Are you bullshitting me?" Eric asked and tossed the photographs to the table. "Is this some kind of mind fuck?"
"No, Sergeant, Iím not playing a game."
"What do you want from me? I was wounded twelve years ago. Why all the sudden interest?"
"We have a proposal," Sydney explained. "Do you want out of this horrible place?"
Eric tossed back his head and laughed. "The state of Louisiana will never let me out of Angola."
"If you cooperate, General Franks can get you a pardon. All I have to do is give the word."
Eric glanced back and forth between the officers.
"What is this, the good-cop bad-cop game? You mind fuck me and the blond doll steps in to make me feel better?" Eric slammed the table. "Iíll never work for the government. You bastards fucked me to the wall and left me in the toilet."
"Donít you want hear the details?" Nathan asked.
"Fuck you," Eric replied in disgust. He stood and called toward the door. "Take me back to my cage. Get me away from these lying military bastards."
"I can get you out of here," Sydney offered. "But you have to trust me."
Eric leaned on the table and glared into her eyes. "I listened to your government once and look what happened to me. Why should I trust you?"
Two nervous guards seized Ericís arms. He gave Sydney a parting glance on his way back to the Red Hats.
Nathan raised his eyebrows. "That could have gone better."
Sydney dabbed the sweat from her forehead. She returned the book and the pictures to the briefcase. The officers accompanied a guard to the wardenís office. On the return walk, the prisoners stared at Sydney but made no catcalls. Nathan noticed the unexpected silence and elbowed the guard. "Why so quiet?"
"The inmates know Precedian was in the interview room. No one wants to risk pissing him off."
"Because he killed four gang members?"
"Those four we know about. Who knows how many others."
"Man, people die in Angola all the time. This is a bad place. No one knows who does the killings, but they all know Precedian is crazy. The inmates swear he gets out of the Red Hats and stalks the corridors at night, threatening them with those evil, bizarre eyes of his, but I donít know for sure. Every inmate is scared shitless of that guy, and I donít blame them."
The correction officer escorted Sydney and Nathan to the wardenís office. Mr. Burl offered them cold refreshments. Sydney soothed her face with a lump of clear ice.
"I tried to warn you," Mr. Burl explained. "We are fortunate you werenít injured."
"We thank you for your time," Nathan said. The general walked toward the office door expecting Sydney to follow, but she didnít. She used the ice in her fingertips to trace over her cheeks and lips. She narrowed her eyes and glanced at Nathan.
"I want to see him again."
"But why? Heís crazy."
Sydney opened the briefcase and took out The Fifth Planet. "He wrote this book. He knows things no one else does. I need him on this mission."
Nathan extended his open hands. "Be reasonable. The man is a violent psychopath."
Sydney shook her head. "I donít think so."
"Mission?" Warden Burl interjected. "Eric Precedian is serving multiple life sentences. He isnít going on any mission."
"The president can pardon anyone," Sydney explained.
Nathan lowered his arms and gazed into Sydneyís determined eyes. "What makes you think you can depend on this man?"
"I have a feeling about him."
"A feeling? Is that all? There will be a riot if you take that man with you; the president will never stand for it. A psychotic on a taxpayer-funded space mission? That will never happen."
Sydney gazed into Nathanís eyes. "When you placed me in command of this mission, you said I had final say on all crew members. Am I in command or not?"
Nathan nodded. "Yes, you are in command."
"Then I want to see him again."
"Colonel, if you let that man loose on the world, it will be the biggest mistake of your life," the warden warned.
"That is a risk Iím prepared to take."
"What if innocent people are killed, what then?"
"I wonít let that happen."
"You want him returned to the interview room?" Mr. Burl asked with an exasperated sigh.
"No, I want to visit him in his cell, just him and me, no one else."
The warden empathically shook his head. "That is out of the question. A woman in the Red Hats, who ever heard of such nonsense? You demand too much."
Nathan flipped open his cell phone and spoke in the receiver. "Get the governor of Louisiana on the phone."
"Hold on," Mr. Burl responded. "Letís not bother the governor. If Colonel Nichols goes in that cell, I canít be held responsible."
Sydney kept her gaze on Nathan. "I need to know if I can trust him. I need to be with him alone."
"Okay, have it your way."
Sydney pulled a thick chunk of ice from her glass and carried it in her palms. She left the briefcase in the wardenís office and walked with two guards to Ericís confinement cell. The roof of the solitary, one-story brick structure was painted bright red. The rancid air smelled of unwashed men and long-accumulated filth.
"Open the door," Sydney ordered the jailers.
"Lady, are you crazy?" the correction officer asked. "No one in their right mind would go in there."
Sydney pointed at Ericís cell. "Open the door. Now."
The corrections officer inserted a key in the rusted lock and turned a deadbolt. The creaky metal door swung open, and Sydney stepped into the darkness. After she was inside, the guards closed and locked the door. Thin rays of faint light filtered in through ceiling cracks. Eric sat motionless on a metal-frame bed, his back propped in the corner.
"What do you want, Colonel? Canít you see Iím busy?"
Sydney gazed at hundreds of sketches taped to the walls and scattered on the floor. A small desk with a wooden chair was pressed in the corner. An open sketchpad was beside a box of colored pencils. Sydney lifted a page from the desk and held it to the faint light. She viewed a drawing of a winged blue horse flying over a starlit sky. The walls were covered with lifelike demons, menacing warships, armed robots, and numerous sketches of a stunning, green-eyed woman with flowing blond hair blowing stardust from her open palms.
"Are those drawings of your wife? She resembles your tattoo."
Eric rolled his feet to the concrete floor. Sydney barely saw his face in the darkness, but she noticed his strange, coffee-brown eyes glowing back at her. "You must be crazy to come in here," he said in a low, raspy voice.
"You wonít hurt me." Sydney returned Ericís drawing to the desk.
"What makes you think that? Do you have some kind of magic shield? Iím already imprisoned here for life. There is nothing more anyone can take from me."
Sydney offered Eric the chunk of dripping ice she held in her fingers. He moved to the edge of the bed and accepted her gift. He dropped the sweet, frozen water onto his tongue.
"Arenít you afraid of me? Everyone else is."
"I know you wonít hurt me," Sydney answered.
"How would you know that? Your uniform doesnít mean shit to me. I could kill you where you stand and no one could help you."
"You are not a wild animal; you are a human being. You wonít hurt me, I can feel it."
"Feel it? Thatís an odd way to make decisions." Eric slumped into the dark corner. "Why are you here?"
"I want to talk to you about your book."
"You donít know shit about my book."
Eric tapped his skull. "I got a lump of metal in my brain. Iím crazy, donít you know? Iím a raving lunatic, a mad dog. Thatís why Iím locked inside this cage."
"You are not an animal." Sydney unbuttoned her blouse.
Eric sat up. "Are you fucking with me? Is this some kind of sick joke?"
Sydney pulled aside her bra and revealed an ugly scar just above her left breast. A blue-winged flying horse was tattooed over the wound. Eric stared at the scar. Sydney pulled her bra down, giving Eric a better view.
"I took a round from an AK47. The slug remained in my shoulder for three days. We learned the bullet had traces of the same alloy as the fragment in your brain. At that time, I hadnít read your book, but I had dreams similar to those you describe. My nightmares lessened once the bullet was removed."
Sydney held Ericís drawing of the flying horse next to her scar. "In my mind, Iíve ridden this horse a thousand times."
"Interesting. That bullet must have hurt."
Sydney buttoned her blouse. "Are you ready to listen?"
"Yeah, Iím listening."
Sydney sat on the edge of Ericís bed. "Scientists studying meteor fragments have discovered strange anomalies in the ore. They isolated an unusual alloy of extraterrestrial origins. Information from the Dawn mission forced science to reevaluate the asteroid belt."
"How do you mean, reevaluate?"
Sydney raised her eyebrows. "It turns out you may be right. There could have been a Fifth Planet, and it may have been inhabited."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"We want to run tests on you. Depending on the results, we may take you on a mission to the asteroid belt and the dwarf planet Ceres. We have reason to believe the metal lodged in your brain is directly connected to the Fifth Planet. Your dreams may be more than dreams."
Eric let out a laugh. "Dreams? I never had dreams about Iceworld; I have memories. I was there. I donít need you to tell me about Ceres or the Fifth Planet; I already know. I wrote the book to drive the images out of my mind, but that trick didnít work. No one believed me. They all agreed I was insane."
"I donít believe you are insane."
Eric narrowed his eyes and stared into her. He tapped his chest. "You should stay away from me; Iím damaged goods."
"No," Sydney replied with a shake of her head. "You are exactly who I need."
"Need? Need for what?"
Sydney gazed into Ericís strange eyes. "I have been selected to command an exploration team to the asteroid belt. I want you to come along."
"Ha!" Eric laughed and slapped his leg. "I thought I was the one with brain damage. Do you see where I am? Iím locked in this shithole for good reason."
"You are here because you lost your life. Iím offering you a chance to get it back."
Eric laughed and shook his head.
"What is so funny?" Sydney asked.
"Didnít you read my book? Something horrible happened to the Fifth Planet. If you go, you will bring something horrible back. You want my advice? Donít go; let them sleep."
"We are going. Donít you want to know if your visions are true?"
"Not really," he answered with a shake of his head.
His smile faded. "Because if I am not insane, if my memories are true, Iím the last person you want to take to the Fifth Planet." Eric turned his gaze to the floor. "Get out of here and leave me alone."
Sydney offered her right arm toward him. "Take my hand, Eric. Let me pull you out of this darkness."
He shook his head. "No. Iím in hell and thatís where I belong."
Sydney lowered her arm. "This is your last chance." She pointed to the remarkable drawings on the walls. "Donít you want to go up there? Donít you want to see Iceworld for yourself?"
Eric drew in a long, deep breath. "Are you are really going to Ceres?"
"You would actually take me?"
"You would have to rejoin the Army and pass physicals."
"You are the mission commander?"
"Yes, I command the Archimedes."
Eric thought for a few minutes while Sydney waited. He gazed at her with his dark eyes. "I feel you; you know that, donít you?"
Sydney nodded. "I feel you, too."
Eric leaned toward her, but she didnít flinch. He lightly touched her sweating face with his soiled fingertips. They gazed into each otherís eyes. "How did you know I wouldnít hurt you?"
"I had a feeling."
Eric lowered his hand. "Okay, Iíll go."
Sydney stood and called for the guards. "Iíll have you out of here ASAP."
The cautious jailors opened the creaking door. Before she left, Eric called to her.
"Tell the general to be careful what he says about Sophia."