Here are the first one and a half chapters of my new book, Beneath the Sky. I’ve cut it off at the same place that the Kindle’s free sample did, mostly for the unintentional cliffhanger it chose. Enjoy!
Beneath the Sky
“They call us heretics for fulfilling God’s promise to manifest heaven here on the earthly plane. Have pity for them, my friends, for they are not among the Chosen of God and will not be welcome in His paradise.” – St. Mason’s epistle to Ganymede
Margaret Pritchard’s life was saved at 7:43 on a Tuesday morning, but she never knew it. Her savior was a navigation computer almost a light-year away, and its action was noted only in the automated logs. For Margaret and her world, it was everything.
At that moment, she was glancing up into the sky at Lake Harmony. It was four kilometers away, but she could see the core lights glinting off a boat’s wake as it made its way towards the docks on the spinward side of the lake. At this time of the morning, the lights were still patchy and dim, but they were starting to burn off a wispy layer of clouds that had formed towards the aft of her little world.
She turned her attention back to the path as she cut across the corner of the park towards the aft entrance to the school. A young boy was running towards it but stopped and fell into line behind her respectfully. She suppressed a smile over that. It was only her first year, but the teacher’s uniform had an impact.
After a quick climb to the third floor, she whisked into her classroom to find her class seated and waiting, all but one. Time would tell if little Ashton was out sick or merely late again. Turning to the board at the front, she wrote out the date in high script: March 28, 1049. Her students fidgeted behind her, but she had been taught to take care with such things. After embellishing the final mark, she turned her gaze on them. “Now, can anyone tell me what’s special about this date?”
A few hands went up, and she selected Belli. “It’s my brother’s birthday.”
The class burst into a sporadic fit of giggles before settling down.
“I’m sure it is, Belli,” Margaret replied, “but I didn’t mean special for you and your brother. I meant March 28 in general. Anyone?”
Three hands remained up. “All right, Sarah, what do you think is special about it?”
With a bragging smile, little Sarah pronounced, “It’s Turning Day!”
“Turn Over Day,” she corrected, “but yes, some people call it Turning Day, too. That was the day God’s Chariot reached the halfway point on our journey to New Providence.” She surveyed the class. At a range of seven to ten, they were a mixed lot, but it would be many years before she could have her pick of the students. “Does anyone remember what year Turn Over Day was?”
Only one hand remained. “Yes, Mary?”
“Eight hundred fifty-five, Miss Pritchard.” Mary came from a very proper family, and it showed. Teaching Mary would serve Margaret well within the local tier, but she also knew any help would be limited. The Pritchards and Ellises had maintained a quiet animosity since her grandfather’s time.
“That’s very good, Mary. Eight hundred fifty-five, almost two hundred years ago. Now, if you all did your reading last night, you should be able to tell me who the High Reverend was. Anyone?”
The review eventually led into a quiz, catching out four who had ignored the assignment, and then the day moved on into math and grammar. In the afternoon she focused on her specialty, teaching three different classes on environmental systems. Today it was recycling protocols for common metals. She finished off the day with her morning class again, and assigned that night’s history reading, the Captains of the ninth century. When they were older, of course, they would get to read of the two Great Mutinies and the three minor ones, but these little ones were still too young for that.
After that, it was a quick trip back downstairs, and she was almost out the spinward doors when Tier-son Joseph Mackenzie called after her. “Maggie! Wait up a moment.”
She stopped and waited patiently as her supervisor huffed through hall, trying to navigate his girth around children. She knew her place well enough to wait for him, but she wasn’t going to retrace her steps to meet this man, even if he was a tier-son. “What can I do for you, sir?”
Mackenzie slowed up as he approached, his rounded cheeks red with the exertion. “I wanted to remind your father about tonight’s tier meeting. He hasn’t said anything about the budget yet, has he?”
“Not to me, he hasn’t.” It was only a half-truth. It had been discussed openly with Aunt Jen at dinner the night before, so she knew very well that Father planned to argue strongly against Mackenzie and his plans for Charity Lake, but technically, the conversation had not been with Margaret. “But you had best try his link. I was going to be having a picnic with my Cal, so I wasn’t going to see Father until after the meeting anyway.”
“I did try it, but he’s locked out. I couldn’t even get through with an emergency page.”
Margaret took a step back. That was not like her father. “Is it actually an emergency?”
Mackenzie grimaced and shuffled his feet. “Well, not really an emergency, but it is important. I was just hoping you might be able to get through with your code.”
“Well, Father doesn’t like it when I interrupt him on duty, but if I can reach him, I will be sure to pass on your message.”
“Thank you, Maggie. You’re a good girl.”
She turned to head out the door, already deciding that she would only use her low priority page. In addition to being a Tier-son himself, Father was Third Navigator, a position of significant respect and responsibility within the crew, and if he was busy on duty, no little toady like Joseph Mackenzie was going to interrupt him.
Captain Akahele Kalas had been skimming a novel in her command chair when the little bridge of the Jinley turned from peaceful monotony to the chaos of multiple alarms.
“What the fuck was that?” She leaned forward over Semi’s navigation console. The chart was still updating, trying to make some sense of the data pouring in from the close encounter.
“Not sure,” he replied, “looked like some kind of rock, a big one.”
“At that speed?” She moved over to the other console and called up the data herself.
“All I’m saying is what it looks like on scan. Mix of metals, judging from the surface spectrum, and its magnetic field pegged the instruments. Not sure of the actual size… not enough mass for anything that wide. Might be hollow or something.”
“But nothing on the charts?” In sixteen years, she had never had a surprise like this.
“No, ma’am, nothing. This part of the channel is rated green-three, nothing above twenty microns.”
Akahele thought it over for a moment. She thought about calling down to Victor, but the tach-drive status was nominal, all greens barring that intermittent alignment glitch on the port sail generator. Whatever it had been, they had come away unscathed. “I just don’t see how something like that could be moving so fast.”
Torin Graylock stepped through the rear hatch and crowded into the bridge. “It might be a transient, something from outside the galaxy.”
Semi turned back. “You’ve got to be kidding me. The odds of something getting that far, let alone crossing our path—”
Torin held up his hands. “I’m merely stating the possibility.” He turned to Akahele. “It would be quite a find, Captain.”
Semi looked back at the plot. “Well, look, it’s already half a light-day behind us. If we’re going to break tach, we should do it soon while we still have a good chance of finding it again.”
Akahele shook her head. “No, we’ve got a time-bonus on this run, and I’m not going to fool around trying to match courses with this thing. I don’t even know if we’re rated for that kind of reentry.”
Torin started to object, but she waved him off.
“No. Just log it, Semi. We’ll report it when we get to Answay and let those survey guys check it out. That’s what they’re paid for.”
Semi dumped it all to the backup holo-core and returned his gaze to the boards. “Everything looks clear from here on, Captain.”
“Keep a sharp eye out anyway. We’ve had enough excitement for one day.”
The bridge of the Chariot was much more subdued. There were no alarms. The overhead lights were dim, and most of the ambient light came from the various displays arrayed around the crew. Nevertheless, Captain Ackerman was far more worried. He leaned over his officer’s shoulder and stared intently at the display. “Let me see it again.”
Lieutenant Commander William Pritchard dutifully played the recording again. The burst of color could not really be called an explosion as much as a streak, blue in one direction and red in the other, fading out into the near X-Ray and the radio at the extremes. “It’s the same as the others, but this is by far the best look we’ve ever had.” It was a remarkably good recording. He had been working with the sensor techs for the last two years to boost this kind of sensitivity in the extended spectrum.
“And it was right across our bow?”
“Close enough… seventy-three degrees, and probably not more than a million kilometers away.”
He looked back at Pritchard’s display, frozen at the brightest moment of the burst. “And when we passed by that point?”
Pritchard shook his head. “Nothing, sir.”
“Who else has seen this?”
“Conners in scan, Commander Soze, and myself.”
Ackerman nodded. “Well, what do you think?”
“If you’re asking for my analysis, I really don’t know, but I don’t like it. It worries me.”
Ackerman chuckled. “But we’ve been seeing these off and on for almost five hundred years. We’re still running at over forty percent the speed of light these days. Perhaps this is merely another unexpected relativistic effect.”
Pritchard pressed his lips, holding back his answer. “Perhaps.”
Ackerman scanned around the bridge. A few of his crew were making furtive glances in his direction, but Commander Soze was officer of the watch, and his pacing through the control aisles was a calming influence. Even so, he continued in a quieter voice. “Speak your mind, Bill.”
Pritchard also glanced about before continuing in a hushed tone. “I mean, yes, we’ve seen a few things that have led us to refine old Einstein, even trusty Jacobs, but there’s nothing in the theories for something like that.”
The captain shrugged. “There’s always room for new theories.”
Pritchard shook his head. “It’s not that. If it’s a relativistic effect, then I would expect them to be dropping off now that we’re slowing down. It’s not simply that our sensors are getting better. I think we’re seeing more because there are more, and they’re getting closer.”
Ackerman took a deep breath but kept his tone calm and quiet. “Are you suggesting this is some kind of a sign?”
“A sign from God or a sign of something else?”
He shrugged. “Your choice.”
Pritchard stiffened. “Well, that’s not really for me to say, Captain, but either way, I don’t particularly relish the idea of taking this to the reverends.”
“Neither do I,” the captain replied with a frown. “But I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
Cal Johnson wrapped his left arm around Margaret as they lay in the mesh hammock. It was strung between two branches of an old oak tree. It was only a mild climb to the spot, but it was enough to tuck them out of easy sight, both from below and from any curious eyes on the ground curving above them. This was one of their favorite spots, a secluded niche in Ballard Park, fully three kilometers from their mutual parents’ neighborhood. It was good for talking as well as more amorous activities. Such unions were politely frowned upon, but there was little actual risk of shunning.
“So how did your mother take the news?” Margaret asked. “I know she’s been praying for this promotion.” Beyond mere praying, Margaret knew she had also been pushing on two of Cal’s uncles.
Cal smiled contently and pulled the blanket a little higher. “I haven’t told her yet. I wanted to tell you first, Mags.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “That’s very sweet, but why?”
“Because the promotion comes with a raise, and more to our future, a better housing allotment.”
He gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “Yes. I can get my own place now.”
“You have someplace in mind?”
He looked up and pointed through open patches in the leaves. “Right over there, in Wilson tier, just a block from the tram line. It’s not grand or anything, but it’s quaint.”
“Oh, I love that area,” she replied. “Grandma Noreen lived there when I was just a little girl.” She shifted to lie across him a little more. “Of course, I do like this little spot of ours.”
Cal shrugged. “Cousin Patrick told me about this place when I was only fifteen. It’s time for me to pass it on to someone else.”
“I don’t know, Cal, it’s one thing for us to meet in the park. There’s a tradition there, but for me to just come to your place… well, that’s not done.”
“That brings me back to the raise, Mags.” He took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “It’s enough, with what you make at the school, we could get married.”
She gave him a playful kiss. “But we are getting married, silly. Or did you want to propose all over again?”
He replied with a short tickle. “No, once was enough. What I meant was that we could get married now, this year.”
She shifted, backing away. “You know I can’t do that, not until I’m twenty. Father says.”
“You wouldn’t be the first, you know. Just last month a girl in my tier got married at eighteen, and it’s not like we’re rushing into it.”
She sighed, remembering the last time she had had this particular argument with her father. He was a loving father, to be sure, but when angered he was a force to be reckoned with. She had learned long ago not to provoke him. Aunt Jen said he had once been far gentler, but it seemed that had died with her mother. “You know I can’t, Cal. Besides, it’s only eight months. We can wait.”
He set his jaw. “Maybe I should talk to him.”
Margaret giggled. “If you want, but let’s not forget what happened at last year’s Launch Festival.”
Cal could not help but smiling, and that spread into a broader relaxation. “I still say that wasn’t my fault, but all right. We can wait, at least a little while.”
Above them, the core lights were dimming into an evening sky of houses and parks. Margaret peeked out through the branches, looking towards Tier Wilson. Perhaps it was time to give up the park after all.
Captain Ackerman relaxed in the High Reverend’s office. It was comfortably suited, with fine woods and soft leathers — real leathers from some of the Chariot’s few herds, not the more common synthetics. He had sat here many times, and he scanned about looking for any changes but found only one since his visit the previous Friday. The small portrait of his daughter had been updated, her visage as a young woman finally replacing the lanky teen that had graced the wall for years.
The wait itself was not unexpected. This was not their regularly scheduled meeting, and Ackerman knew Hathaway’s schedule had been reasonably full today. Earlier captains might have seen the wait as part of a larger game, a subtle jab in the interplay between the crew and the reverends left over from the last Great Mutiny three centuries before. Captains officially deferred to the High Reverend in all matters, of course, though the High Reverends had usually been wise enough to avoid any decrees on the operations of the ship itself. It was an arrangement that had worked very well for Ackerman and Hathaway, but he knew that friction had been common between both of their predecessors.
Before long, however, Hathaway swept into his office, his swift movements in contrast to the age in his face. “So sorry to keep you, Jim. You know how Reverend Haggerty can be.”
Ackerman rose and clasped him by the forearm. “Indeed, but with far less patience than you show. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
Hathaway sat in the chair next to Ackerman, eschewing the formality of his desk. “For you, anytime,” he replied, “except, of course for—”
“Except for Thursday nights,” he finished for him. “Yes, I remember.”
Hathaway responded with an embarrassed grin before gathering up his thoughts with a long sigh. “So, you said it was important but not urgent.”
Ackerman nodded. “We had another sighting today.”
“That’s what… three this month?”
“Three confirmed. There were perhaps another dozen possibilities, but we don’t always get such a good look. This one was close, though, very close.”
Ackerman shrugged, knowing that Hathaway was weak in this area. “Close in astronomical terms, but if you’d been looking at it, you could have seen it with your naked eyes.”
“And you still think it’s something real, not just some trick of the light.”
“Yes, and I’m not the only one.”
“Who? Not that fool… Rickman, was it?”
“No, no. Rickman is gone, promoted into retirement I would say. No, this was my Nav-3, Bill Pritchard.”
Hathaway nodded. “Yes, I believe I met him once… seemed like a reasonable fellow.” He rose and strode to his bar. “Would you care for anything?”
Ackerman was a Roxa drinker, preferably the double-malt variation they made in Olsen tier. He knew the Reverend despised the taste, but he usually kept a small decanter on hand. “My usual, but just a thumb. I’m officially on duty until seven.” He accepted the glass while Hathaway poured himself a bourbon. “And yes, Pritchard is a good man, very level-headed.”
“Is he a family man?”
“He has a daughter, a teacher I think, though he’s a widower, some ten or fifteen years now.”
Hathaway returned to his seat and took a sip. “Something you two have in common.”
Ackerman nodded and sighed. “Of a sort. I recall that it was Glonic syndrome for her. You don’t see much of it anymore, but at least they had time to say goodbye.”
“True.” Hathaway did not press on that matter, and Ackerman was quietly thankful for it. “So tell me, what does Pritchard think of all this?”
He suspected very much what Pritchard had thought, but he owed it to the man not to put such words into his mouth. “He did not offer an explanation, but he cannot attribute it to the relativistic effects of our speed.”
Hathaway nodded. “But you do have an explanation, I take it?”
Ackerman took a sip. “Yes, High Reverend, one that borders on heresy.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Now this should be interesting. Go on, Jim. Taint my soul with your heresy. Between the two of us, I can use a little from time to time.”
“Thank you, High Reverend. These sightings, these flashes, they have grown more and more common the further out we have gone, the closer we get to New Providence.”
“Perhaps a sign of blessing,” suggested Hathaway.
“Perhaps. Or perhaps a sign of danger.” Ackerman took a deep breath before plunging ahead. “I know it is the official position of the church that Earth alone was blessed with life by God and that only Man was blessed with the mind to go forth unto the other worlds, but what if we’re wrong? What if there truly is some other life in the Universe, alien to us, but still capable of traveling the stars? Perhaps these flashes are signs of their ships passing, or maybe a flare to warn us off.”
Hathaway considered it for a long moment of silence. “As heresies go, it’s big, but there have been bigger. These flashes, you believe them to be artificial? Man-made, or rather alien-made?”
“Certainly artificial. While it is difficult to prove they are not natural, it is what I believe. I can only speculate at their source.”
“Are they something that we could produce ourselves?”
“Perhaps a small one, though even then not quite. There’s just too much energy in these things.”
Hathaway nodded. “I’ll have to take your word for it, friend, but I trust you in these matters.”
“Thank you, High Reverend.”
He sipped at his bourbon. “So tell me, have you shared this particular heresy with anyone?”
Ackerman chuckled and finished off his glass. “I rarely find the time in my schedule for spreading heresy, so no, I have not.”
“And do you feel the need to do so?”
He shook his head.
Hathaway drained the rest of his bourbon. “Then what would you have me do?”
“I hesitate to advise you on guiding our mutual flock.”
Hathaway smiled. “But you came here to do just that, so don’t stop.”
Ackerman nodded. “I may have been the first to reach this particular heresy, but if these sightings continue, particularly if they increase, I will not be the last.”
Hathaway replied with a quiet grunt. “From anyone else, Jim, that would sound unpleasantly like a threat.”
“I understand, High Reverend, but you know I don’t mean it that way. It is a warning, one I feel I must give, just as surely as you would warn me of a gap in the core fittings.”
Hathaway rose and stepped over to his desk. Certain times demanded a formality between the two of them. “Well said, Captain, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
Ackerman rose and stood before him. “My pleasure as always, High Reverend.”
“I would ask, though, that you do what you can to limit the discussion of such things amongst your crew.” He began fidgeting with some papers on his desk. “You know how it goes. Rumors are the only things that seem to outrun our ship.”
“I will do my best.”
“And this Pritchard fellow, I think I’d like to meet him again. Nothing formal, you understand, just something where I can take him aside for a moment. Please arrange it with my staff.”
“Certainly, High Reverend.”
“Thank you, Captain. You may go.”
Ackerman nodded once, and turned crisply on his heel to leave. He was lucky to have Hathaway, and he knew it. He could think of at least two High Reverends out of history who would have had him under arrest before he could reach the door.
Captain Akahele Kalas fidgeted in her seat as the Survey administrator scanned over her report on the screen projected over his desk. At first, he seemed to be giving it only a cursory read, but he stopped partway through and rewound to the start, taking it in more slowly the second time. Eventually, he closed it and met her gaze.
“It’s a rock. I’ll grant you, it’s an interesting rock but still just a rock.”
Akahele had expected as much from the Survey branch, especially from a has-been like this Belikovsky. Nothing in the inner systems ever interested them much. It lacked the glory of charting new systems on the frontier. “Aren’t you going to investigate?”
He shrugged. “We might. I must confess that your first officer’s theory is intriguing, but right now we’re down to one survey ship in this sector. It’s tied up charting the asteroid belts around Lasko-Gamma for the next three months, and even when the Buscador finishes refit, she’s been committed to the colonization board for the first two months. By then your rock will have passed the Jasper shipping lane and will no longer be a pressing concern. Still, I’ll bring it up at the next scheduling session. We should be caught up on our backlog by next summer.”
Akahele sat back. “And in the meantime?”
“We’ll post an advisory. From the data here, a ten light-day deviation to coreward for the next three months should be more than enough to keep even the sloppiest navigators safe from harm.” He rose to see her to the door. “We thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
She walked outside into the cool air. They say that the Answay sky is always overcast, and today was no exception. The canopy of clouds extended down even further on winter mornings like this one, almost completely masking the towers that rose from the city’s center. Torin was waiting for her next to their rented pod, poking at the pebbles in a rock garden with his foot.
“Anything?” he asked.
She shook her head. “They’re posting an advisory.”
He pushed a stray stone back into place. “That’s it?”
She opened the pod’s hatch and climbed in. “They might send a survey ship next year.”
Torin joined her and punched up the destination code for their dock. The pod slid smoothly out into traffic and hooked onto the main transit line. “So, it’s just going to be sitting out there for a year.”
She nodded. “Not quite just sitting there, but I hear you.”
“You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?”
She chuckled and gave him a hard stare. “Yes, I am thinking about it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”
She looked out the window as they followed the long curve through the spaceport. “After all, I’d need solid assurances from Semi that we can find it again, not to mention some kind of down-tach program from James to get us in at that speed.”
Torin nodded, trying hard to suppress his grin. “Absolutely.”
Akahele looked at him again. “Now why do I think you’ve already worked it out with both of them?”
Torin’s smile broke through. “Because you’re very perceptive, Captain.”
“We have broken down contact into nine categories, created full taxonomies of hypothetical life forms, and crafted an encounter decision tree that fills volumes, and yet we are fundamentally unprepared for a true first contact situation. Why? Because quite simply, no one has ever had one.” – Vincent Caruthers, opening address to the Joint Conference on First Contact, 3375
Bill Pritchard waited in the foyer as calmly as he could manage, but he found himself pacing in fits across the marble tiles. This was the first time he had ever been to the High Reverend’s estate. In fact, he had only met him once before, back when he was promoted into one of the eight prime navigator slots. Now he had been invited to a private party, and he was late. Two officers of the Divine Mark stood silently just inside the front door in full dress uniform, their ceremonial sabers brightly polished.
Captain Ackerman stepped in from a side room. “Pritchard, good, there you are.”
“I’m sorry I’m late, sir, but—”
“Oh you’re not that late. These things always start late. We’re still circling over the hors d’oeuvres.”
“We just had another sighting,” Pritchard paused to eye the Mark officers before lowering his voice. “Another close one.”
Ackerman motioned him back towards the door. “As close as that one last month?”
He nodded. “Just shy of a million kilos off our stern, but what really concerns me is that it’s different from the others. It was just blue. The red half wasn’t there.”
“What do you mean? Was it the angle?”
“No, sir, the angle was fine. It just wasn’t there.”
Ackerman chewed on it for a moment. “Look, don’t say anything about this over dinner. Later, perhaps, you and I can discuss this with the High Reverend.”
Dinner itself was a lavish affair with real steaks and a huge central dish of vat-shrimp with a rich cream sauce. Four of the Reverends were there with their wives, along with six tier-fathers. Pritchard was the only tier-son, and he knew it was a not so subtle breach of governmental etiquette for him to be here without his own tier-father. The High Reverend headed the table, of course, and he was joined by his wife and eldest son, Arthur. Pritchard and Ackerman were the only crew present, clearly set apart by their uniforms.
Despite the power assembled at the table, the evening grew more casual as the night wore on. By the dessert course, the jokes were raucous, and the liquor was flowing. Pritchard noted that the Captain was only sipping at the various toasts, his glass never dropping to the point of needing a refill. That alone was an ominous sign of the conversation to come.
Eventually, they moved out into the great hall and into several smaller groups. While the hall was ostensibly for dances or private performances, it was ideal for these informal talks. Typical of other ninth century architecture, small alcoves surrounded the perimeter, while three sets of French doors led to balconies overlooking the gardens.
Pritchard found himself pinned in one such alcove by Reverend Morris who was expressing his disapproval for the park policies in Pritchard’s tier. He disagreed with them as well, but he was still forced by loyalty to defend Tier-father Boland’s decisions, especially given his conspicuous absence. It was a delicate act, because he still hoped to someday reverse those same decisions. Pritchard was on the verge of saying just that when High Reverend Hathaway sauntered in, a half-empty wine glass in his hand.
“Oh, there you are, Tony. I believe your wife is looking for you.”
Morris nodded. “Thank you, High Reverend. It is probably getting on time for us to head home anyway. As always, I am humbled by your hospitality.”
Morris left, and Pritchard glanced around at the portraits in the alcove in a futile attempt to find a way out from under the High Reverend’s gaze.
“It’s Bill, isn’t it?”
“Yes, High Reverend. Lt. Commander Bill Pritchard, third navigator.”
“And tier-son, not to forget.”
“Yes, sir. I do what I can.”
“The other tier-fathers speak well of you.” He stepped back, beckoning him with his wine glass. “Come, we should talk, you and I.”
Pritchard followed him back out into the main hall and off towards one of the balconies. He glanced around the room and spotted Captain Ackerman standing near Reverend Lansbury and Tier-father Baker. The Captain nodded towards Bill and stepped away from the others.
Outside on the balcony, Hathaway settled himself into a seat by the railing while Pritchard stood stiffly by a bench opposite him. Before either could speak, Ackerman stepped through the doorway, closing it behind him. “I thought I might find you two out here,” he said.
Hathaway raised an eyebrow at Ackerman’s presence but made no obvious protest. “Yes, I was just getting to know this officer of yours, and since he is also a tier-son, I suppose he is also an officer of mine, so to speak. Are you here to chaperone, my dear Captain?”
Ackerman returned the smile. “I mean no interference, High Reverend, but the reason for my presence will soon become clear enough.”
Hathaway looked back and forth between them, Ackerman standing firmly by the door, Pritchard eschewing the bench beside him. Their stance made it clear. They considered themselves to be on duty. “Well, then, let’s get to it. Bill, I understand you were watching the sensors last month when we had that big flash, the close one.”
“Yes, High Reverend.”
“And what do you think of it?”
Pritchard looked over at his captain for support but found none. “It is difficult to say. Clearly, they are unexpected anomalies.”
Hathaway shook his head. “Even I know that, but I think you know more. Or at least, I think you suspect more. So, for the moment, try to forget that your captain is eavesdropping on our conversation, and try to forget that I am the High Reverend. What do you think they are?”
“Well, I… I think they are ships, High Reverend.”
Hathaway nodded. “It’s an interesting theory, though you are not the first to suggest it.”
Pritchard glanced at Ackerman who merely nodded.
Hathaway took another sip from his wine glass. “So, if they are ships, where are they from? We’re too far out from Earth for it to be them, not in such numbers.”
Pritchard’s eyes widened at the heresy the High Reverend was suggesting. “I confess that the notion of aliens did occur to me, but I also had another thought. If the ships were fast enough, they could be from Earth.”
Hathaway scoffed at it. “How much faster could they be? After all, your captain always told me that the really high speeds were impractical over anything less than intergalactic distances because of the relativistic mass and whatnot.”
Pritchard nodded. “Yes, but they could have found something new after we left. If they could find a new energy source, or a new reaction to push with, they might be able to get enough acceleration to approach light-speed even over distances as short as a few dozen light-years.”
“Other colony ships?”
“Not like our Chariot, I wouldn’t think. I would suspect smaller ships, just enough for a modest crew. At those speeds, they could do it in a single generation. Or for that matter, they might not even be manned. After all, our own automations have improved significantly since we launched. Earth could have achieved much more with its resources. It might be as benign as an automated terraforming wave.”
Hathaway considered it slowly. “I see you’ve put a fair amount of thought into it. How certain are you of it, that these flashes are ships?”
“It’s more of a gut feeling than anything, but we might be about to find out in light of…” he trailed off and looked to his captain.
Hathaway followed his gaze over to Ackerman. “What? Has something happened?”
“We’ve had another sighting, even closer, and different from all the others.”
“Just before dinner,” Ackerman replied. “Our Mr. Pritchard here was on duty when it happened.”
“And what makes this one so special? You say we’re about to find out… what?”
Ackerman nodded to Pritchard who answered for him. “Well, High Reverend, this flash was lopsided, and given how close it was, we know it wasn’t just a sensor glitch.”
Hathaway looked back to Ackerman. “And what does that mean?”
Ackerman allowed himself a little smile. “If these things are ships, then this one didn’t fly by. It stopped.”
Hathaway lurched to his feet, spilling the rest of his wine in the process. “You mean there’s a ship here now?”
“Nearby perhaps, a million kilos or so. I put in a call to Commander Soze, and he has all the scopes sweeping the area. Nothing so far, but I should really be getting back to the bridge myself.”
Hathaway was flushed. “Yes, Captain, I think you should.”
Ackerman turned to Pritchard. “I know you just came off your shift, but I’d like to see you back on the bridge as soon as you’re able.” He then gave a curt bow to the High Reverend and departed, leaving Pritchard under Hathaway’s quiet gaze.
“This ship,” Hathaway said, “did you know about it through this entire dinner?”
“No, High Reverend. I think I only put it together during dessert.”
Hathaway chuckled. “Blueberries stimulate your thinking?”
“I think it was the color,” he offered. “In truth, I’m still having a hard time believing it.”
Hathaway shrugged. “Well, it might turn out to be nothing after all.”
“Perhaps, High Reverend.”
“But you don’t think so, do you?”
“No, with respect, I do not.”
Hathaway stared at Pritchard a moment as if taking measure of the man. “I don’t want to demean your fellow officers, Bill, not at all, but you are not like the rest of the Captain’s men.”
Pritchard bowed his head slightly. “I’m not sure what you mean, High Reverend.”
“You must already sense it. You are a tier-son, after all, and from the sounds of it, you’ll be a tier-father soon enough. You see the larger picture beyond merely following Ackerman’s orders, and you have the good judgment to act on it.”
“That is kind of you to say.”
Hathaway shook his head. “Humility doesn’t suit you, Bill. Your captain needs men like you, but you can’t limit yourself to merely following one man’s orders, loyal though you are. Your real loyalty must be to the colony and its mission. You do understand that, don’t you?”
Pritchard nodded gravely. “Yes, High Reverend, I do understand.”
Hathaway stood and walked over to embrace Pritchard by the shoulders. “Then don’t deny me or your captain your good judgment. If you’re going to be a tier-father, or perhaps even a Reverend, it’s time you start thinking like one.”
“I will do my best.”
Hathaway released his grip. “Well then, my good Tier-son Pritchard, I send you back to my friend. I am sure you will serve him well.”
Pritchard nodded one last time and took his leave. He was growing more certain there was indeed a ship out there, and no matter who was on board, the implications for his world were staggering.
Margaret relaxed in her bench swing on the back porch of the Pritchard home. Father had built it for her mother long ago, before she died, but over the years it had become her place to sit and enjoy the view. They lived in tier Bennet, only three kilometers from the rear engineering sections, so she could see almost the entire length of the Chariot from there, the furthest bits fading into a haze around the core lights.
Her father sat on the steps leading down into the side garden. He had been going through the motions of polishing his shoes. It was an old habit of his, and one he usually did with vigor, though he had spent five minutes reworking the same shoe over and over. He paused and caught her staring at him. “What is it, Maggie?”
“I said Cal got his promotion. He’s no longer apprenticed to Mr. Welles.”
Bill Pritchard set down the left shoe and picked up the right. “That’s nice.”
Margaret let the silence stretch until her father’s brush had reached the toe. “He’s moving too. He found a sweet little apartment down in the Wilson tier.”
Her father’s brush continued on. “Well, I’m sure he’ll make the effort to come back and visit.”
She pressed her lips together and summoned her courage. “I think he wants me to visit him… well, more than just visit.”
The brush stopped, and he looked up and met his daughter’s eyes. His intensity startled her, but she did not look away. “Maggie, we’re not having this conversation now.”
“But Father, I am going to marry someday. I want it to be with your blessing.”
He sighed and set down the shoe and brush. “No, my little Magpie, it’s not that. Cal’s a fine boy—”
“A good man,” she corrected.
“Yes, a good man I suppose, but…” he looked out over their little garden and the sweep of the ground up into the sky. With a shrug, he turned back to her. “It’s just that I have another shift now, and it’s not a good time for such talk.”
She leaned forward in her seat, balancing precariously. “But you just had an extra half-shift last night.”
He looked back down at his shoes and wiped away the remaining polish with a cloth. “It’s just a busy time, you see. We’re upgrading some equipment, and you know I’ve got a new apprentice to oversee.”
Margaret leaned back. “That’s all right, then. It can wait, though I’ve got parent meetings tonight. Tomorrow?”
He looked up at her as she swayed gently on the bench and shook his head slowly. He set the shoes down and crossed over to her, taking her hands and smudging her pale skin with the black polish from his own. “Maggie, I want you to listen carefully.” She nodded. “If anything happens in the next few days, anything sudden, I want you to head for the closest shelter immediately. Don’t wait for the alarm. Don’t wait for instructions. Just go.”
She looked at him closely, seeing the fear she could only remember vaguely from her childhood. “What’s wrong, Father?”
He shook his head. “No, no questions this time. I just need you to promise me you’ll go to the shelter.”
She nodded. “I promise.”
The five of them had gathered in Jinley’s crew lounge. Akahele sat at the head of the table opposite Torin at the far end. Semi, James, and even old Victor were gathered around. According to association regulations, one of them should have been on the bridge, but this was not the first time they had ignored that rule. Floating above the table was a magnified view of a rough cylindrical asteroid, perhaps twenty-five kilometers in length. Its rotation was slow, but even in the real-time feed it was visible.
“So, Semi,” Akahele began, “tell us about our rock.”
At the far end, Torin could not completely suppress a smirk. “Our rock, yes, tell us about it.”
“For starters,” Semi said, “it’s not a rock, but I think we all know that now.” He was met by nods of assent around the table. “The fact that it’s decelerating was the first sure sign that something was up, but in this augmented view…” he paused to toggle a mode on the projector. It zoomed out and highlighted a broad cone extending for hundreds of kilometers out in front of the asteroid. “Here we can clearly see the magnetic field they are projecting. At this distance, we can’t make out their thrust jets, but this is clearly a Bussard ramjet, and the biggest I’ve ever heard about.”
“So, definitely a subluminal design?”
Semi nodded, and James chimed in. “I don’t think you could make a tach sail big enough to support that thing, at least not a stable one.”
“Can you tell where it’s from?”
Semi shrugged. “Well, there are no obvious markings on the surface. As for its course, you have to understand there’s a fair amount of stellar drift over the kind of time frames we’re talking about, and we don’t really know when it began its deceleration or how long it might have cruised just on its momentum.”
Victor gave a little harrumph. “You’re telling us all what you don’t know. How about what you do know, or at least, what you might know.”
Semi smiled. “Given its current vector and rate of deceleration, it would have passed through the vicinity of Sol within the last twelve hundred years.”
Akahele wanted to pin him down. “Passed through or launched from there?”
“Yeah, it could have been launched from there. Tannis Proxima is another possibility, about four thousand years ago.”
Clearly, no one thought much of that possibility. Both Tannis Proxima and Tannis Beta had been settled colonies for over a century with no signs of any previous civilization anywhere in the system.
Torin finally broke his silence. “Well, we should at least be able to tell where it’s going, right?”
Semi nodded. “Callista Prime. If they maintain their current deceleration, they’ll arrive in another six hundred and eighty years or so.”
Akahele thought it over. Callista was a loose binary system, with the Prime as a main-stage star holding twelve planets, including one very hospitable, and another too harsh for anything but environment suits but rich in heavy metals. Between its native resources and its central location in the Gemini basin, it was one of the wealthiest and most populous systems in the Confederacy. Even without the current economic realities, it would have made for an attractive colony.
No matter how she came at it, it was a messy situation. “Well, gentlemen, it looks like we have a ship of errant colonists here, and in another six hundred years or so, their grandkids or whoever are going to be pretty disappointed.” She glared across at Torin who remained silent. “Or, we could pop on over and say hello.”
Victor shook his head. “This is too much like a first contact situation. That’s what those survey guys are for.”
“Not that they’ve ever actually done it,” James pointed out.
“But they’re trained for it at least,” Victor responded. “We’re just guessing.”
“It’s not first contact if they’re human,” Semi argued.
“But we don’t know that,” from Victor.
Quiet settled over the room, and Akahele looked over to Torin. “You’ve been pretty quiet. What do you think?”
“I think if we don’t make a decision soon, we won’t be the ones making it. We’ve been closing with them for almost a day now. They probably know we’re here.”
Torin did not have to defend his argument. The computer made his point for him. “Warning,” its voice chimed, “sensors detect an object moving towards us.” The display interrupted to show a dim, boxy vessel thrusting towards them. “Estimate intercept in six hours.”
Akahele looked to the rest of the crew. “Torin, you take watch. James, I want you on the bridge. Semi and Victor, you’re off-shift for four hours. Sleep if you can.” They nodded their assent and left their captain and first officer alone.
Torin shrugged. “Sorry. I like to be right, but not that right.”
The next four hours passed slowly. Akahele stayed off the bridge, knowing that she would just be crowding in on Torin who had the watch. Instead, she stayed in her cabin, officially taking a rest period. She draped her uniform jacket over the back of her desk chair and stretched out on her bunk. As captain, she had one of the two full-size beds on the ship, though she took advantage of it far less often than she would have liked.
Sleep did not come. She had suspected as much, so she tried to meditate instead. She focused on her breathing, willing herself not to count down the time herself. In and out, slowly, just like the waves of the incoming tide. Even then, sleep did not come, but at least it kept her from pacing the floor, six steps to the door, six steps back. She had not done that since her days as a journeyman navigator on the Cappella.
Finally she gave in and brought up a computer display of the closing gap and recorded a long log entry. She laid out their history with this particular object, referencing the relevant log entries from the Ringway-Answay leg, but also fleshing it out with anything else she could remember. Some it was trivial details that only now seemed particularly relevant, but after a while she realized she was rambling. With thirty minutes before shift change, she closed it with, “So I don’t know if this is my last log entry, the first chapter of something huge, or merely something I’m going to look back on later and laugh. We’ll see in a few hours. Captain Akahele Kalas, commanding.”
With that done, she took a quick shower and dressed in a fresh uniform. Standing in front her mirror, she checked the part in her hair and hooked her collar again, straighter this time. She never liked the way Takasumi’s dull green went with her olive-brown skin, and she still thought the diagonal arrangement of buttons added five kilos to her appearance. Yet it was still her captain’s uniform, and she would not trade it for the world. At one minute to shift-change, she strolled down the hall to the bridge and stepped through the hatch as calmly as she could.
James sat idly at the navigation station, while Torin was half-buried in the sensor bay. Without looking back he greeted her. “I could set my watch by you, Captain.”
“Especially today. Status?”
He emerged from the electronics and sealed the panel behind him. “I presume you’ve been monitoring from your quarters.”
She nodded reluctantly.
“It still looks like two hours to rendezvous. Whatever is over there, it’s already decelerating to match course with us.”
She glanced at the panel behind him. “Any problems?”
“No, not at all.”
She turned to James, who immediately wilted under her glare. “We thought we would have heard something by now, you know, some kind of communications. Not a tach-burst, of course, but a comm laser or at least some kind of EM chatter.”
James shrugged. “Nothing. After a while we started wondering if we were having an equipment problem.”
She understood. Torin had been running a diagnostic suite on the signal processors. “I appreciate your diligence. Now, both of you take a break.”
James sauntered out without any objection, but Torin lingered. “I presume you’re not going to tell me to get some sleep.”
She shook her head, knowing that would be an impossible order. “Get a meal though. I want us all sharp when that thing gets here.”
She had the bridge to herself for a moment, and while she flirted with a nervous stomach, she also had confidence in herself and her crew. Semi wandered in five minutes later with a half-eaten Brunshwick wrap in his hand. “Sorry, I overslept.”
She eyed him incredulously as he sat at the navigation console. “You actually slept?”
“Sure, didn’t you?”
She suppressed a laugh. “No, you know… paperwork.”
He nodded and made a few adjustments to the display. “Who do you want to do the final maneuvering on this, us or them?”
She thought it over. This kind of ship-to-ship rendezvous was rare, at least amongst legitimate merchants, but when it did happen the standard procedure was for the smaller ship to yield control of its maneuvering thrusters to the larger ship’s computer. There were exceptions, of course, for emergency situations or when surrendering to boarders, but it was always predicated on the assumption that one ship would hold its vector while allowing the other to close in, preferably under mutual computer control. That was not going to happen this time.
“Let’s let them do the final closing. We’re still matching the deceleration of the main ship with a short thrust every few minutes. When this little one closes to twenty klicks, I want you to stop that and just let us drift. We can position the dorsal airlock towards them and see how close they want to get.”
Semi swiveled around in his chair. “And how close do you want to let them?”
She shrugged. “Say a hundred meters, but if you think for even a second that they’re going to collide, you back us off. Do not wait for an order. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am, very clear.”
“And once they close to within five klicks, I’ll have Victor warm up the tach drive, and you be ready to throw that too.”
“But Captain, at that range a ship that size might not survive the backwash.”
She nodded. “Better them than us.”
The next two hours passed even slower than the previous four, though there was a brief moment of excitement when she belatedly ordered everyone into their vacc suits and sealed all the compartments against the possibility of a hull breach. Torin was back on the bridge by then, and she was wishing she had eaten something before. She told her suit to add a slight nutrient mix to her water and sucked nervously on that.
At twenty kilometers they made their last corrective burn and reoriented with the dorsal lock towards the interloper and waited. The incoming ship seemed to hesitate for a moment, slowing down much more sharply, but then it continued on in, already assuming that they would no longer be matching the mother ship’s deceleration. It was dragging out even longer. Whatever was over there, they clearly did not want to spook Akahele or her crew, but if anything, the long process was having the opposite effect.
At twelve kilometers, Torin turned to Semi. “Say… if this thing didn’t come from Sol or Tannis, where was the next likely origin point?”
Semi shook his head, the shoulders of the vacc suit relaying most of the gesture. “There wasn’t one.”
“What do you mean, there wasn’t one?” Torin pressed.
“Well, not in this galaxy anyway.”
That got Akahele’s attention. She toggled the ship comm. “James, Victor, let’s get the tach drive on standby. I want it ready to engage if Semi asks for it.”
Torin looked back at her. “Sorry. I guess I should have asked that earlier.”
She just shrugged and waited.
At three kilometers, the other ship switched off its main thrusters and continued in on what appeared to be little more than attitude controls. At two hundred fifty meters, it finally came to a relative stop.
The silence on the bridge stretched to almost a minute before Torin broke it. “Well now what?”
“Still no kind of signal?”
Torin checked his displays again. “Nothing that we’re recognizing.”
She thought about it, staring at the dim image of the ship resting above her. It was edge on, but angled off to the side, its main thrusters paralleling her own. She punched up the high-resolution radar overlay, and then she saw it. “There it is,” she highlighted it on the main display with a hand motion.
Torin looked closely. “I see it.” The lines of the ship and the indentations made it clear. They had come to rest with their airlocks pointed at each other.
Akahele rose and headed for the hatch.
“Captain… where are you…?” Semi let the question trail off.
“They clearly intend a face to face meeting, so I’m heading up to the airlock to invite them over.”
Torin stood. “But, shouldn’t I? I mean, don’t you think you should stay on the bridge?”
She just chuckled for a moment. “Really, Torin, if you were Captain, would you stay here and send your first officer? Would you pass this up?”
He gave her both a grin and a sigh. “Not a chance, ma’am.”
What would have normally been a quick trip to the airlock was slowed by the need to key open several hatches and seal them behind her. By the time she had started the lock cycle, Torin was on the comm, “There’s some extra light over there. It looks like… yeah, their lock is opening.”
She hooked her boots under the toe holds on the deck and keyed the lock from her wristpad. The doors above her slid open and the center floor of the airlock rose up to lift her out of gravity and onto the level of the ship’s skin. Above her, she could see the other ship, and the window of light that must be the open dock. As soon as the lift locked into place, she hooked on her safety line and gently kicked herself free. There was a moment of disorientation before she could stabilize herself with the suit thrusters, but then she was essentially on her back, facing upwards to her visitors.
The light flickered and she thought she saw a hint of moment. She punched up the magnification on her visor and held her eyes steady. The form was at first gangly and misshapen until she realized that it was merely upside down. A gentle roll on her part fixed that, and she could see the form was clearly humanoid: two arms, two legs, and a reflective bubble for its head. “Are you guys seeing what I’m seeing?”
And that’s it for now. If you’re hooked, look for the sales links here!