What starts as a curious find in the wilderness pulls Marc Krause into a conflict between unknown forces. When messages appear on a mysterious sphere, Marc must work with authorities to carry out the senders’ directives. What will be the cost to Marc and to those around him for the information given him?
Chapter 1 -- The Sphere
Hunched over a student desk at the back of the classroom, Mr. Marc Krause managed to write only a few words about each senior presentation before his next student stood up. Drops from his water-soaked towel draped over his neck to cool him created more ink-smeared stains in his faculty notebook than notations. Cheers from the class after each student’s mathematical demonstration made the past three days more like a pep rally than a high school calculus class.
“Settle down,” he told his students, his nausea reducing the rebuke to a wheeze.
He could muster only enough energy to utter a word or two such as “excellent” or “good work.” My students deserve more than this. The stories he’d given his students over the year had made math come alive for them. But now, with his flu, he lacked the energy to control the class.
Two girls glanced at him and then turned back to shush their classmates.
A heavy knock came from the classroom door which quieted the room. This gave Marc so much relief he forgot for a moment that he was sick. He glanced up from his notes to see the classroom door open a few inches.
“You can do better!” Principal Richie’s voice said. The man always sounded like a cowboy in the process of dying of thirst. “Your schooling is up to you, and only you. You must believe in yourself.”
Crap, Marc thought and fingered back his matted, black hair. It was never a good sign when a principal took over a classroom because the teacher couldn’t control the students.
One youth stood and looked left and right.
“Sit down,” the voice said, “and think smart for a moment.”
The young man sat and then turned around and asked, “Mr. Krause?”
“I promise that your life will get better if you commit to your schooling,” the voice said.
The student closest to the door stood and peeked through the opening. “There’s no one out there.” She slunk back to her desk without Marc having to tell her.
“The work you put into your education is worth it,” the voice said. The stilted lecture was the worst Marc had ever heard Principal Richie give. Other than his voice, it didn’t sound like him at all.
I should have gotten a substitute, Marc thought. But I don’t want to miss their presentations. He slid the towel off his neck and stood up. The students watched him shuffle to the front of the classroom and look out through the open door.
“Is he out there?” a young man asked.
“No one’s there,” Marc answered. He closed the classroom door. Everyone heard the click. Marc was weaker than in the morning and more nauseous than the day before. The neck and shoulders of his shirt were drenched from his towel.
The voice said no more.
How ridiculous of Principal Richie, Marc thought.
“Who opened the door?” a student asked.
“Principal Richie, apparently,” Marc said. He braced both hands on his desk, fingers splayed. None of his students made a sound.
“Please keep your voices down for the rest of the period,” Marc said. “I haven’t been feeling well, as you know. Especially today. I want to be here for you and I’m proud of you. Can you remain quiet for another ten minutes? Then we can all go home.”
His request produced a chorus of soft yesses.
“One more thing,” he said, waving a finger. “If I get a call from Principal Richie about disruptions in class, I’ll curse you with my flu on your first day of summer vacation. You don’t want that.”
Marc reached up and felt the excessive warmth in his cheeks with his palms.
“Are you going to be all right, Mr. Krause?” a student in the front asked.
Marc nodded. “Yes. Thank you for asking.” He returned to the back of the classroom and sat down, putting the wet towel over the back of his neck. “Who’s next?”
Kyle in the third row stood up, holding his notes under his right arm. The rest of the class watched him walk to the front.
* * * *
The alarm clock jerked Marc awake the following day, being Friday. He thought he’d heard Principal Richie’s voice again, but it was only in his head. His mental cloudiness was even worse than the day before. He couldn’t have imagined Principal Richie’s voice in class because his students heard it, too.
Sitting upright made his bedroom tilt considerably until he lay down again. Consigning himself to his bedroom, he grabbed his cellphone off his nightstand from where it lay in front of a picture of his wife, Gwynn.
“Erica,” Marc said to the office secretary. “This is Marc Krause. I regret to tell you I have a terrible flu. I’m calling in sick today.”
“I’m sorry you’re feeling bad. I’ll notify scheduling.”
“Thank you.” Marc hung up and lay with his eyes closed until the swirling went away.
* * * *
When Marc became aware again, he found himself lying upon twisted, drenched sheets. But to his relief, he could think freely again. The shackles of sickness had fallen from him. His fever had broken.
The bedroom clock illuminated 3:30 in the afternoon. It was Friday, and the school day had already ended. His remaining students had presented their senior projects to a substitute who could not have appreciated their work.
Marc poured chicken soup into a bowl, microwaved it, and then drank the hot fluid. He realized he’d nearly forgotten what it was like to be well. How enjoyable it was to reach and bend and walk about freely again. His wife never believed him when he said he always felt the strongest after overcoming a flu, as if he had been given a new body.
Two glassfuls of water completed his return to full energy.
The sun called him outside to where there were no deadlines, vague academic policies, or managerial lecturing. Marc’s wife was in Las Vegas helping her mother for the past week, so there was no one at home to keep him indoors.
With a water bottle on the seat beside him, he drove to where he had spent many of his Saturdays as a youth getting away from classmates who had no interest in him. The chaparral-lined canyon bordering his old neighborhood was one of the interconnecting rifts that used to separate San Diego into small communities.
The dusty path snaked downward between prickly pear and tarweed. The walk was more invigorating than hobbling between student desks under stale air conditioning.
From beyond the scrub oak in front of him came a dog’s yelp. The cry seemed to create a wedge between his joints and deplete his newfound energy. This puzzled him because he had felt fine just a moment before.
Maybe he was getting too out of shape.
Anyone with better judgment would not have ventured out so soon after feeling ill. His wife would not have approved. Yet, there he was in the canyon, and what would a few yards off the trail matter to him? He should show his appreciation for his restored health by helping the poor creature.
Despite all the advice he had ever received against approaching wounded animals, he left the trail and pushed through the brush. He soon came upon a clearing, and on its far side under more brush lay a black Labrador. The dog quieted when it saw Marc.
Marc’s vision blurred, and he began to feel dizzy. He closed his eyes and bent down with his hands braced on his knees until the nausea passed.
“Hey, fella!” His nice-doggy voice only made him cough. “Why the fuss?”
The dog responded with a fit of growling so severe that Marc retreated into the brush.
“Be that way!” Marc yelled at the dog.
Thorns and dry desert leaves pricked through Marc’s sweaty clothes. He could turn around and return to his home with its soft couches and plush carpet, but he felt for the unfortunate creature, which on an ordinary day probably would have had a better disposition.
Half-buried trash lay scattered about him along the bottom of the canyon. Marc squeezed between stalks of towering pampas grass to reach an old metal hub cap. The black lab watched Marc pour water from his bottle into the makeshift bowl and then set it out in the clearing as far as he dared.
The dog showed no interest in Marc’s offering.
More dizziness. Marc backed away and put his hands over his eyes. From behind him came a hiss like a running faucet. His feet jerked together so quickly they flung sand into his shoes.
“Git, stupid dog!” Marc turned around to try to see the rattlesnake. The sound seemed to come from everywhere.
Then Marc heard a second snake rattling.
“What is this, a nest?” He spun around again. That’s when he discovered that the dog had run off. The shrubbery was thicker behind where the dog had been.
A shadow gathered directly over Marc. Maybe he was now losing his vision. There were no clouds above him, even though the sky had gotten darker.
Something touched the back of his shoulders. Panic overcame him and he sprinted down the clearing twenty or thirty yards until it ended in a mass of thick shrubbery. He reached around to feel what might have touched him when he saw something on the ground.
It was a glass sphere about the size of a cue ball, its polished surface glittering under the sun.
The rattling behind him stopped, and the shadow dissipated.
Perhaps he only thought the ball was glass. His fish-eyed reflection looked back at him as he bent down to pick it up. The ball slipped from his hand like wet soap. He lunged down to catch it but aimed too low. The sphere took its time before floating to the ground without a sound.
Rubbing his fingers together, he was surprised to find them dry. He cupped the ball with both hands and stood up, realizing he could not hold it securely no matter how firmly he tried to grip it. Its hard surface did not feel cold, perhaps because the thing had been out under the sun.
From eye level, he let go of it on purpose. Counting aloud, he estimated eight seconds before it landed silently on the ground.
It was too hefty of an object to fall so slowly. What a story he would tell his students on Monday. He looked back up the clearing but dared not return that way.
The ball fit snugly in his shirt pocket. Marc peered down at it, half expecting it to jump out on its own, and then headed back into the brush toward the trail.