CHAPTER ONE: THE ANNUNCIATION The sarcophagus lid of the Palenque ruler, King Pakal, depicts him on a cosmic journey; some say a fall into the Underworld. Others, like Von Daniken, see neither the trunk of the World Tree, nor the tendrils of the Mayan water monster, nor the wings of the celestial bird. They see a space capsule. And from this one picture, a tradition was begun - a legacy of conspiracy theorists, crypto-theologists and dreamers who Matthias Green was proud to count himself a part of, and who held to one simple and shattering edict... That God was an astronaut. A framed copy of this photograph decorated the wall of Green's living room, and had inspired the decor that followed - dark wood and ivory offset by onyx. After the dining room it was the largest chamber of his mansion and held what qualified as his favoured children. A library shelf of Sumerian texts, life-size statues of the Annunaki angels, a piano furnished like a pharoah's coffin and, between rubber plants and orchids, a dozen orrery models of the solar system. And underneath that very picture, Green himself, in his own strange device. The billionaire sat in what looked like a gyroscopic chair, a throne with metal rings that allowed it to tilt and spin. But there were further appendages - mechanical arms that clamped his limbs and worked them back and forth. The chair was designed to give him a full workout, to manipulate the muscles that he, by his own power, could not. In this manner he spent an hour each day, ensuring no muscle mass was lost in his half-paralysed body. It was for the sake of appearance more than health. His wife called it his 'Vanity Machine'. "They're going to die." These ominous words broke the silence of the evening. Matthias paused the machine as a stack of papers, like colliding birds, struck against the rings and seat back. And having settled in a heap around him, they revealed the silhouette of his wife by the writing desk. "How long have you been there, dear?" Andrea Green, personal secretary and media magnate, stood in grey suit with folded arms. It was the pose she used when putting up a wall - a wall no man would cross. "A pair of armchair theorists," she exclaimed, "A Star Trek fan, an unhinged surgeon, two thugs, a gutter-press journalist... Need I go on?" "We've discussed this." Matthias unstrapped his belt and looked down at the personnel files thrown by his wife. Photos spilled from wallets, medical reports and resumes mixed with press releases. "Only one of them has any low-orbit experience!" Her hand swept out to indicate the pile. "And you're putting them on a crash-course with the real astronauts who should be on this mission." "There are no real astronauts," Matthias pulled his wheelchair over and lifted his first leg onto the footplate. "Only people scared for their careers and families, even their lives." He gripped the arm rests, grunting as he transferred over to drop, clumsily, into the wheelchair. "Real astronauts, Andrea, were complicit in the biggest cover-up in history. I'll not have the Irideus crewed by minions of an establishment that desecrated the course of truth. I want the uninitiated." "You're not at a press conference anymore, Matthias!" She came to stand over him, leaning so her shadow swallowed the wheelchair. "If you don't want me to watch you die, go to the Paris apartment. Don't blast yourself into space to get away from me." The words revealed the truth of it. There was not so much anger as pain in his wife's eyes. It was love that had brought her to this confrontation, suffering that had made her hurl the files. Helplessness that edged her words. He looked away, adjusting lifeless feet to their proper place. "I'm not going up there to die, Andrea." "Don't you dare finish that sentence." "I'm not going up there to live, either." "Then what?" She placed her hands on the arm rests, leaning fully over him. Her blonde curls brushed his face, soft strokes around the daggers of her eyes, and as always she smelled of vanilla. The perfume she had worn when they met at the ice cap social, a decade ago. "Why are you putting these people in danger?" Lights splashed through the window blinds, yellow gloom repainting the decor and lending motion to the silence. The first of the limousines were winding their way up the mountain road. A song of tyre on gravel and guard dogs straining, of detector sweeps and water fountains, set the background to the tension of man and wife. "Because..." Matthias settled a blanket across his lap, eyes downcast, voice soft. "To have you ask that, Andrea... and to be among comrades so ill-prepared... to have all our fortune put at stake... and to know that powers beyond imagining have forbidden us to even try... yet to try nonetheless..." His eyes lifted. "...is the very essence of being human." The sound of the house staff opening the front doors punctuated his answer. And with it the outside world came rushing through the mansion halls: car engines idled, doors popped, assistants greeted the mission crew, cameras snapped. The press event was unfolding. But the Greens remained frozen, gazes locked. And in the end, as Matthias had made the answer she could not dispute, so Andrea made the exit he could not oppose. She turned on her heels and walked out, faster than he could ever follow. "Tell the guests I have a headache." The billionaire was left between the angel statues, hunched in his wheelchair, as his wife climbed the stairs. It took a few moments to compose himself. The sun was fading and soon the stars would be out to hang above the coming press conference, their light prophetic, their silence siren. It was seven days till Launch. He hoped his crewmates were not exhausted from their training. He needed them in good spirits for this conference. He needed the world to see... to trust this mission... to send them shooting to the heavens with all humanity's good intent. Matthias fetched an ionising rod from the desk and used it to pick up each dropped personnel file, one by one. And as they stacked on his lap he felt their weight, a heaviness more than physical. This would be their last night of luxury, before they were taken to the Irideus Hangar.