Authors: Ryk Brown
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2016 by Ryk Brown. All rights reserved.
First Edition: March 2016
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
He watched from a distance, as the tall, slender man braced himself against the jet wash of the approaching shuttle. The lone man had arrived only a few minutes before, driving up in an open-cockpit, all-terrain vehicle. The shuttle bounced once, then settled gently onto the hard-packed ground and began to spin down its engines. The slender man straightened his jacket and prepared himself for his next task.
From the safety of his hiding place, he watched as the shuttle’s hatch swung open and the smiling face of a woman appeared in the open hatchway. The slender man offered greetings to the smiling woman, helping her down to the ground. She opened a small panel and deployed a boarding ladder, her smile fading as he whispered in her ear.
Startled by another distant sound, the watcher sank lower, remaining hidden as another vehicle approached from the access road to his right. It was the same type of vehicle as before, but this one carried several people. He felt he knew them all, yet chose to remain hidden as their vehicle pulled to a stop next to the first one. Climbing out, they strode across the tarmac to join the others at the shuttle.
He poked his head back up from hiding as he strained to hear their distant voices. Now that the shuttle’s engines were shut down, it was unnaturally quiet in the surrounding valley. The native wildlife avoided this unfamiliar patch of hard, unnatural ground. Strange things happened here. Frightening beasts falling from the sky on fiery tails with a cry so loud it echoed throughout the entire valley. He listened as the newcomers joined the tall slender man at the bottom of the shuttle’s ramp. The man seemed surprised, yet grateful, at their arrival. The young woman with the sandy hair spoke to him first, offering a sympathetic greeting. They exchanged sounds that seemed familiar, yet the watcher did not understand their meaning.
The slender man looked up at the brilliant topaz sky for a moment, as if searching for something, perhaps gathering strength, then exchanged more sounds with the young woman with sandy hair.
The second woman, older, with darker hair, reached out and touched the slender man’s shoulder, making soothing sounds… Sounds perhaps meant to strengthen and encourage the slender man. He looked anything but, as he straightened to regain his composure and prepare himself.
He watched from a distance, his heart pounding as a woman stepped into the open hatchway at the top of the ramp. As she stepped out into the light, her long blonde hair turned even more brilliant in the afternoon sun. Even from afar, he watched her green eyes large with anticipation, her chest rising and falling in an exaggerated breathing ritual, as she took in her first breath of natural, unfiltered air. She was breathtaking and elegant, with a natural grace that he could not remember seeing before, and was sure he would never see again.
The blonde woman’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the surrounding area from her vantage point at the top of the ramp, searching desperately for something. He shrank further into his hiding place, watching as her eagerness turned to worry, realizing that the one she searched for was not there. She proceeded down the ladder, met at the bottom by the tall, slender man and his companions.
He watched from his hiding place, straining to control himself as the slender man led the beautiful woman away from the shuttle and several paces away from the group. It was a terrible moment. As her expression turned from one of worry to one of shock and grief, his own eyes welled up with tears for the first time in longer than he could remember. As the woman nearly collapsed into the slender man’s arms, he wanted to call out to her, but could not. As she wept without restraint, he wanted to run to her, but could not. And as she pounded the slender man’s chest with her fists, refusing to believe the horror, he wanted to go to her, to hold her and tell her that everything would be all right, but could not.
Then came the children. A boy, maybe eight years old, and a girl, even younger. They had the same expression of excitement and wonder that had adorned their mother’s face only moments ago. But that too was short-lived as they saw their mother in the distance, crying in the slender man’s arms. The boy somehow knew what it all meant, as he took his little sister’s hand and helped her down the ladder. His eyes were narrowed and his expression troubled, but he would not let himself cry. The older, dark-haired woman met the children at the bottom of the ramp, greeting them with all the normalcy and joy she could muster, trying to distract them from the anguish their mother was experiencing only a few meters away.
Seeing her children, the blonde woman composed herself and turned to face them. She knew she had to be the one to tell them. But as she looked into her son’s knowing eyes, it was all she could do to keep from falling apart again. She went to them, kneeling down and embracing them, telling them the awful truth.
Their father was gone.
He watched as the others collected the grieving family’s bags from the shuttle’s cargo bay, below and slightly aft of the ramp. The slender man assembled them together, making sure they were ready to move. He crouched down low behind the bushes to avoid detection as the group began to move toward him, walking to the vehicles that would take them back to the strange collection of buildings further up the valley. The slender man led the way, followed by the beautiful woman, her arms around her stoic son and confused younger daughter, and finally the others carrying their bags. As they came closer and climbed up into the vehicles, he could see the pain in their eyes.
The slender man glanced toward him as he hid, nestled among the colorful, fragrant foliage, as if he had known all along that he was there, hovering on the edge of their reality. Once again, he yearned to leap from his hiding place and go to them, to snatch them all up and carry them off to some faraway place where he could protect and love them… But could not.
He watched from a distance, feeling utterly helpless, punished for crimes he did not commit, cursed to spend eternity alone. He watched them depart from his life forever, and did the only thing he could.
The ship rumbled as they rode out the last few minutes of their tenth and final braking burn on approach to Tau Ceti Five. Jack looked down at the display at the center of his forward console. He didn’t like the numbers he was seeing, and a discreet glance to his right told him that his pilot didn’t like them either. “A little fast, Lynn?” he asked.
She responded with only a nod, her concentration focused on the task at hand.
Jack turned his head slightly toward the rear of the flight deck, as if to speak to his engineer. It was a completely unnecessary gesture, since everyone was required to wear their comm-sets during any condition other than green. “Frank, what’s our estimated speed at the end of the burn?”
“Estimated speed at end of burn will be…” Frank paused for a moment as he glanced at his displays to be sure. “Four nine one zero five meters per second,” Frank answered, “give or take a meter.”
Jack scowled. At that speed they’d still be going too fast to safely perform an aero-braking maneuver and achieve a stable orbit around Tau Ceti Five. And they didn’t have enough fuel to burn the main engines any longer than scheduled. Jack thought about it for a moment, weighing his options. “That’s not good enough,” he concluded. “Take the reactor up to one hundred and ten percent.”
“The flight manual says no more than one zero five.” As usual, Lynn was putting in her two cents.
“One hundred and ten percent, Frank,” Jack repeated firmly, annoyed at Lynn for questioning his decision.
“It’s too risky, Jack,” she objected. “You know what happens if the reactor fails, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do, Lynn.” Jack was biting back his anger through gritted teeth.
“Then why not just burn the engines a little longer?”
“We don’t have the fuel for it.”
“We can make it up…”
“Just fly the damn ship, Lynni!” Jack snapped, cutting her off mid-sentence.
Lynn instantly fell silent, her mouth still open as she returned her attention to her console. Jack rarely yelled at her like that, and he never used that awful nickname. Only Frank used it, and only when he wanted to irritate her.
“Reactor at one one zero, Jack,” Frank interrupted, trying to ease the tension. “Thrust levels are coming up.”
Jack stared at the ship’s speed readout on the display. The numbers slowly began to decline as the ship’s rate of deceleration increased.
“Revised estimated speed at end of burn; four seven, five zero zero.” It still wouldn’t be enough for Jack. Frank knew that Jack wanted to finish this burn with room to spare.
“Take her up to one-fifteen, Frank,” Jack ordered, glaring at Lynn before she could object any further.
Frank took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. “One one five, aye,” he responded, trying to sound formal, hoping that Lynn might take the hint. Frank scanned the reactor’s status displays, watching intently for any anomalies. Satisfied that the reactor was operating within safe tolerances, he turned his attention to the flight dynamics display, knowing that Jack would ask for another estimate any second. “Revised estimate, forty-six, nine-fifty. Fifteen seconds to end of burn.”
“Very well,” Jack replied, trying not to show the nervousness in his voice.
The remaining seven members of the crew were secured in their flight seats in the narrow passageway between the inner airlock and the habitat module of the land and return vehicle. The passageway was only two meters wide at the deck, and one meter wide at the ceiling, with two rows of four seats, each row stuffed under the inboard edge of the LRV’s forward turbine housings.
Tony, the mission’s computer and electronics specialist, sat at the forward end of the compartment, in the only center-mounted chair, watching the flight status monitor on the forward bulkhead above the hatch. It was his responsibility to supervise the evacuation of the rest of the crew in the event of an emergency. He was glad that the braking burns were almost over. They had been going through this for the last two weeks. Burn for an hour, break for fifteen, and repeat, sometimes for more than half a ship’s day. Then flip the ship over again, and spend a day or two scooping up interstellar hydrogen to process into fuel. Today’s series of burns had lasted only four hours. But it had been a boring four hours, stuck in his couch for thirty minutes at a time, sometimes with no more than a few minutes rest in between. But it was no small feat to decelerate a vessel from nearly forty percent the speed of light to a speed safe for aero-braking.
Frank carefully watched the reactor’s status displays. He had never seen a reactor run at one hundred and fifteen percent of normal. Hell, he had never seen one run at one hundred percent, before this mission. The reactors back on the Daedalus had never been taken higher than seventy-five percent, as far as he knew. “Reactor is running a tad hot, but otherwise it still looks good,” Frank reported. “Ten seconds to end of burn.” He looked at the back of Lynn’s head. As usual, her hair was tied up in a bun. He noticed beads of sweat forming on the back of her neck. He glanced at Jack’s neck, noticing it was bone-dry. “Five seconds,” he reported, turning back to his console.
Jack hovered over his display. Their speed was down to forty-seven point two five kilometers per second. It was going to be close.
Lynn’s gaze was fixed on her flight path display, still furious with Jack for snapping at her.
Jack checked his flight data display again. Their speed was forty-seven point one two five.
“Two…” Frank glanced at the primary propellant gauges, quickly verifying that they would finish with exactly the amount of propellant they had intended. Jack was taking his ship to the limit, squeezing every milliliter of propellant out of her.
“One…” Frank’s right hand hovered over the flashing main engine cutoff button located on one of the three touch-sensitive screens placed in a shallow arc across his console. “Zero,” he announced, his hand still in position, ready for Jack to give the order.
A second passed, but Jack said nothing, his eyes still fixed on the display. Finally, after another second and a half, he spoke up. “MECO,” Jack instructed, calmly.
Frank’s hand tapped the main engine cutoff button.
Silence fell over the Icarus as her main engines instantly shut down. Jack looked over at Lynn, noting what could be a satisfied look on her face. Their speed was forty-six point seven five kilometers per second. Jack would have preferred to be below forty-six, but this would have to do. He was still within the limits set forth in their flight plan. Besides, he had already encroached on their max-propellant usage for the burn. He was now a few hundred kilograms short for their trip from Tau Ceti Five to their next assignment at Tau Ceti Six. He wondered how late that might make them.
He’d have to remember to ask Frank to make the calculations for him later. Maybe he’d get lucky, and they’d finish up their work on TC Five a few days ahead of schedule. That would give them a few extra days for the slightly lower transit speed they would need during the next leg to accommodate the additional propellant expenditure.
“Shutdown of main engines confirmed,” Frank announced as he reached for the reactor’s control panel.
“Reactor back down to fifty percent,” Jack quickly ordered.
Frank had started rolling down the reactor output levels before Jack had given the order. “Reactor coming down,” Frank reported. “Mains are cold, master arm is safe, fuel pumps are off. Reactor plant, nominal.” Frank turned his chair forward and announced, “Show’s over, folks.”
“Set condition green,” Jack directed. “And standby to pitch over, Lynn.”
“Aye, sir,” Lynn replied, her emphasis clearly on
Frank laughed to himself, shaking his head as he selected ‘ship-wide’ on the comm-panel.
All hands secure from condition blue, set condition green,
” Frank’s voice crackled over their comm-sets. “
Six hours to aero-braking.
Back in the passenger compartment, the rest of the crew gladly began unbuckling their restraint harnesses.
“That last burn was the worst,” Laura complained as she unfastened her harness. “My back hasn’t been this sore since training.”
Mac, the mission’s mechanic, wasted no time leaving his seat. “I’m getting something to eat,” he announced as he quickly moved forward between the aisles.
“You can’t possibly be hungry
?” Sara asked as she stood sideways in the aisle, pressing her hands against the overhead and stretching her arms upward.
“Hey, it takes a lot of food to fuel this fine specimen of manhood.”
“Oh, please,” Sara retorted, rolling her eyes in disgust.
Mac knew that his obsession with his physical condition was lost on the rest of the crew, but he especially enjoyed irritating Sara. He floated sideways down the aisle, purposefully brushing his chest up against her arms as she stretched. “Oh, baby,” he sneered as he glanced down at her breasts.
Sara grabbed his shirt and pushed him forward, away from her. “Get lost, Neanderthal.” She had spent the last four months locked up with the man. She had been subjected to sexual innuendos, unbridled chauvinism, lewd remarks, and even the occasional grope. And it had not been much better during their year-long training regimen before the mission began.
“She wants me,” Mac whispered to his considerably less offensive cohort, Tony, as he passed by him near the forward hatch.
“One of these days I’m going to blast that jerk out an airlock,” Sara grumbled.
Maria, the mission’s medical officer, rose from her seat. “He just behaves that way because he knows he can get a rise out of you. If you just ignored him…”
Sara pushed past Maria as if she were chasing after Mac. “Thanks, Doc,” Sara replied dismissively, “but I think I can handle it.”
“Honestly, Maria, I don’t know why you even bother with her,” Laura protested as she drifted over the tops of the seat backs, heading forward.
“What can I say? She’s a challenging case.”
Laura drifted forward toward the airlock between the flight deck and the passenger space. Tony was already in the airlock, securing some equipment. “Torpedo?” Laura asked him, turning into an excitable child for a moment.
Tony laughed. It was a private game that he and Laura played at the end of each burn series. “Standby to launch torpedo,” he agreed, shaking his head in dismay. This woman was thirty-two years old, a mother of four, and an expert in biogenetics. And yet, here she was, pretending she was a torpedo.
Laura flipped over one hundred and eighty degrees in the middle of the airlock, inverting herself and positioning her head just above the hatch in the deck, her feet nearly touching the overhead. “Clear the tube!” she announced.
From deep down within the Icarus below her, Mac’s faint voice could be heard from the galley. “
Tube is clear!
“Torpedo ready for launch,” she responded gleefully.
Tony positioned himself next to her, hooking his toes under the hatch ring. He grabbed her ankles, feeling her legs stiffen as she prepared herself for launch. He pushed down on her ankles, propelling her down the transfer tube. “Torpedo away!” Tony announced as he pushed her toward the midship airlock of the Icarus.
The tube was nearly ten meters long, with a smooth handrail running along its starboard side. It connected the Icarus and the land and return vehicle, allowing transfer between the main ship and the landing craft affixed to her topside.
Laura squealed with delight as she quickly traversed the length of the tube. As she approached the bottom, she saw Mac step into the airlock below her and release a two-liter container of water, the fluid separating into several large globules that floated directly into her flight path. “Mac!” she screamed as she fumbled for the handrail. But it was too late. Entering the airlock at the bottom of the tube, she collided with the water globules, drenching her head and shoulders as her outstretched arms touched the airlock’s padded deck plates in a clumsy attempt to stop her momentum. “You jerk!” she cursed as she bounced off the deck, spinning clumsily, flinging water droplets about the airlock.
” Mac boasted from beyond the galley hatch.
Laura wiped the water from her face as she floated in the airlock. “You knew he was going to do that, Tony!”
“I had no idea!” Tony defended from the top of the tube, as he tried not to laugh. “Honest!”
“Look at this mess!” Laura complained. “How am I going to clean…” Before she could even finish her sentence, a small towel came floating in from the aft hatch, obviously sent there by Mac from the galley next door. “Oh, thank you very much,” she said, grabbing the towel as it floated by.
Adia entered the airlock next. It was still difficult for her to navigate in zero gravity, even after four months of practice. She gingerly made her way past Tony, excusing herself as she passed. Unlike most of the others, she preferred to go down the tube feet first, always keeping her head in the direction that she interpreted as being “up” in order to maintain her bearings.
Suddenly, the attitude thrusters fired, pitching the nose of the ship downward, throwing Adia toward the ceiling. She reached out to grab the side rail along the equipment lockers, but grabbed a handful of Tony’s shirt by accident. “Sorry,” she apologized, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she withdrew her hand.
“Wait,” Tony warned, grabbing her arm and surprising her. “It’s not over.” The thrusters sounded again, and the pitch over suddenly stopped.
“I guess I still haven’t gotten my space legs yet,” she admitted as Tony let go.
“That’s alright,” he consoled her. “After all, you didn’t have nearly the training time the rest of us had.”
She knew he was only being polite. The others had been just as nice at first, but had soon grown tired of her difficulty adapting. “And yet, here I am,” she said without thinking.