How was this possible? It was not – but then… Here in his hand was the proof. Its truth was unarguable. James was stunned.
The dream with the Fleet Council Chairman Tilney: Tilney had been a friendly; gray-haired, middle-aged man in his seventies. He had an easy and genuine smile. So unlike what he thought an officer of such high rank should be. But Catherine Moreland had also been friendly, not completely overt, but friendly all the same. James supposed that these very senior officers were good at the craft of relationship because they spent most of their time caught-up in the art of Fleet politics. James shook his head; perhaps that was why he had an affinity towards the two, and it was through their sincere kindness that invoked the very real, but hidden emotions of loss and guilt. Perhaps, because of his parent’s death at such an early age…
During the short journey in the ferry vessel with Catherine Moreland and Andrew Bingley he had experienced similar feelings of loss while in close confines with them. James wondered if these newer emotions were brought about in some way by the strange dreams he had been having. It was not as though he thought about the loss of his parent’s everyday – he did – but it was rare that he fantasized about surrogate parents, if at all.
That dream with Chairman Tilney had been an easy one. He woke refreshed and felt better than he had in weeks. A fright took him when he discovered the two handwritten documents, which the night before, in his dream, Chairman Tilney, had given him to read. The notion that they had passed from dream-state into waking-state troubled him deeply, so much so that he pushed them aside and decided to ignore them for the moment. He needed perspective before he could tackle this new strangeness.
James’s curiosity got the better of him when it came to the arrow though. Would there be another one? He seemed to have misplaced the photo that he had printed-out the day before. But he had it on disk. If there was another, it would be an interesting game of intrigue to compare the two – if there were another.
James pulled the train into Station FMID Port. As the train slowed the huge plume of dust kicked up by its passage caught-up, and passed the train, enveloping it as if in slow-motion. The dust swirled gently and billowed about the train in a thick mask of gray. The visibility which had been bad initially went to zero as the train finally came to a stop.
He waited for the dust to settle and walked down to the boardwalk. And there, as before, was another arrow gently carved into the dusty floor. Again, it appeared as if an index finger had been stretched out and then pushed into the dust, giving it its shape. It was surreal. James did a cursory search of the area looking for other markings. He found none. Not a single foot print, boot print, or anything that could account for the mark. Fourteen hundred years of accumulated dust can take one pattern and only one pattern, and that is that of a pancake: flat, bare, and devoid of arrows. It did not make sense. James photographed the arrow and returned to the train. The arrow was still pointing in the same direction he was travelling — a good omen? Maybe… He returned to the train and dusted himself off.
* * *
Several hours later James stopped the train at Station FG. The familiar billow of dust that had accompanied the train on the journey continued on ahead under its own momentum; once again wrapping the train in its thin grey mist.
As before, James knew he should not have stopped, but curiosity, the wild card of man’s adventuring spirit was calling. It wouldn’t take long, he thought, and so why not?
He exited the train and made his way down the metal staircase to the boardwalk below. It didn’t take him long to find it.
It was much like the other two, hand-drawn; its light curlicue touch imprinted in the dust; still pointing south towards the Bethlehem’s aft.
He photographed the arrow. Then, with little else to do or see, he returned to the train and had a Chlorella lunch. Sustained he was, but hungry he remained.
While he ate he printed the three photographs and compared them. He carefully marked the three photographs; naming them each by the location he had found them: Echo-Foxtrot, Foxtrot-Mid, and Foxtrot-Gulf. On close examination there were enough similarities and enough differences so that, most probably, the three arrows had been made by the same person – or same thing.
* * *
The Aristotle and the Ptolemy were not spaceships proper, but were extremely large satellites that moved along the central axis of the fleet. The purpose of these two satellites was simple; they created the bead line between Sol and Pleiades. They were but one small part of the navigational structure of the Fleet; primarily they were used as time-keepers. Aristotle was centered on the central axis, five-and-half light-seconds behind the Orion. Ptolemy sat seven light-seconds directly behind Aristotle. Together they bounced lasers between each other and the Fleet as it revolved about them. Aristotle and Ptolemy kept each ship’s exact distance around the axis steady as a clock hand.
Since their construction, which coincided with the first of the ship’s; the two satellites had been populated by only by small teams of Fleet officer’s on temporary duty assignment. It was not a popular assignment. For one, the crews had only functional living and working quarters. And two, because these vessels had no rotational vector, they had no gravity. Other than the occasional longitudinal accelerations (due to frictional adjustments because of the passage through space) one was forced to live weightless for the duration of their tour.
The entire Fleet made frictional adjustments from time to time. This was normally automatic. Each ship needed either a rotational adjustment or a longitudinal adjustment depending on the amount of dust and debris that it passed through. It is very true that space is not empty and infinitesimally small particles of dust, whole fields of free-floating hydrogen and helium atoms, made massive interstellar slough fields of the space we traversed. Which, as a result, these particulates actually slowed our forward speed and dampened our rotational vectors from time to time, so occasionally, a ship’s engine would roar to life for a few seconds and then subside just as quickly. Aristotle and Ptolemy were no different, only in that they had no rotational vector, and so at a constant velocity, their inhabitants were weightless. The unpleasant thing about this was that because of their relatively small masses an unannounced acceleration could be especially uncomfortable, if not dangerous, if you were not braced for it. And so, being stationed on either satellite was neither fun nor novel for a Fleet crewmember.
About one thousand years ago the Supercentenarian’s realized the benefits of weightlessness on their aging frames. And slowly, over the years, they began to migrate from their homes above, down into the central axis, setting up new homes on these two mostly empty satellites.
* * *
Margret calculated a new flight plan and submitted it to Fleet Central Flight Control for a new clearance. Special permission was required to land on both Aristotle and Ptolemy. Fleet Council didn’t just want anyone there. Both vessels were integral to the Fleet’s navigation structure, and therefore were only on a “need-to-go” basis. Its burgeoning geriatric population didn’t want anyone there either – privacy was their mantra and secrecy their code. Margret had initially submitted a statement for the reason, of “Council Business.” Control kicked that back asking for a more “details.” Margret, annoyed, fired back: Council Chairman Tilney and company have Council business with Peter Giles. We are proceeding on course.”
Without waiting for a reply Margret punched-in the new Flight plan into the vessel’s onboard flight management system and set course for Aristotle, which was, fortuitously, only one light-second off our nose. It would take a little over four days to get there. This suited me fine. I would need the time to think. Nobody, not even the Council Chairman, bothers Fleet Warlord Peter Giles without good reason.
We retired to our sleeping-walls for the duration of the flight. Weston was concerned by my silence for the reason of the flight plan change. For this, I apologized. But the problem was that I had too many questions of my own that I could not yet answer. I had received an urgent message from the Charles Musgrove of the Council’s Communications Chair. He told me that communications with the Orion were becoming erratic – “we needed to make a statement” – he said, and asked for my guidance. Like Weston, he too I ignored. Instead, I told Musgrove to convene an urgent meeting of the Council leadership on the New Hampshire as soon as possible. I would join them when I could. I signed off abruptly; perhaps too abruptly. I had no answers for any of them. Not yet – at least. Giles, I hoped might.
Weston insisted that he remain with me for security. But short term, at least, I wanted him to accompany the others to the Bethlehem Steel to rescue James Rushworth. This I decided, from the political fact, that I, and consequently as a result thereof, all of us were about to be disciplined the moment Catherine Moreland took office. That was less than three weeks from now. I would rather that they be out of the firing-line than to be burned at the stake with the wrath that was surely coming my way the moment Catherine took office.
As we prepared for bed Eleanor came up to me. “Dad, I’m sorry about the other day… I didn’t fully understand the situation. I was disrespectful to my uniform and the Primary Protocol.” In the weightless environment her hair fanned out like a giant starfish; she pushed it from her eyes. “I know that’s not an excuse but I was just settling in after my training. I didn’t want to leave the Maryland. Will you forgive me?”
“Honey, of course. But understand this, I need — no — the Fleet — needs people it can trust. We may be looking at a ship-wide evacuation of the Orion. I need all the help I can get. In a few weeks, after I retire, so too will Captain Moreland. Also, there is a young man marooned on the Steel. The fate of the entire Fleet may be in his hands. He needs our help.” I paused and smiled, “but you were right — I don’t like your mother’s brother, or his friends.” I paused again and said, “Just know this. I love you.” I kissed her on the forehead and she went back up onto the flight deck with Margret. Silently, I watched her go. There was no use reminiscing. I was commander first and father second. For if not in that order, then what hope could there be for any father?
As we dressed for bed I asked Simon for a weapon. He didn’t ask why; instead he unlocked the little ship’s armory and handed me a small caliber recoilless rail-gun. I slung it over my shoulder and pocketed several handfuls of ammunition. Weston and Simon raised their eyebrows but otherwise said nothing. We three had been caught-up in adventures in the past. I valued their company and their trust.
Then, almost as an afterthought, I rummaged through the galley and dug out six dinner trays. I hugged them to my chest and returned to my sleeping-wall. Weston’s eyes widened as they followed me. I had, he thought, gone completely bonkers.
“What? I might get hungry during the night.” I said enjoying his stare. And then seriously, “we can talk about tomorrow — I’ve got to test something out first, Okay?”
“Okay.” He yawned tiredly. “Goodnight sir.”
I felt the gee begin to creep up upon me and I quickly plugged my suit into the wall and tried to maneuver into a more comfortable position before it was too late. The smooth sandalwood butt of the rail-gun dug into the small of my back. I moved it, cradling it in my arms, jumbled alongside the food trays. The heavy pressure of acceleration increased and held me firm. It was several hours before I fell asleep.
* * *
He was already sitting at the table when I arrived. Like before, the dim lighting drove the shadows of the room into long thin reaching fingers that wrapped about the room’s center and focused it like a fist.
James Rushworth stood as I came into the light.
“Sir?” He asked.
“Yes. It’s me.” I came into the room proper and dumped the gun and the meal trays on the table. From out of my pockets I spilled the rail-gun’s cylindrical shells onto the table. Rushworth’s eyes grew large. “I suggest you put this somewhere on your person. I’m not sure how much time we have so — don’t mind me — eat up!”
Rushworth fingered the one of the meal trays shyly. I didn’t blame him. He was starving and he probably figured he’d appear to have poor table manners if he ate now. I assured him to go ahead. His health was more important than proper etiquette.
Rushworth moved the rail-gun and its ammunition to one side and tore hungrily at the foil-covering of the nearest tray. He did not even wait to activate its chemical heating unit. He ate the food cold, using his fingers. When done, he pushed the tray aside. His eyes were glassy and he was breathing heavily.
“Thank you, sir. But, I think I better slow down.” Rushworth steadied himself. He sat, holding either side of the table with both hands and said hoarsely, “I think I’m going to vomit.”
“Hang-in there son. It’ll be okay. Just breathe easy.” I told him, but moved out of range all the same. He really did look quite green, even in the dim light.
I let him sit quietly for a few minutes. Eventually he felt steady enough to stand. He walked about the table in wide circles. His head was sweaty, but I could tell he was regaining his strength, and would hold his food down after all.
“Thank you again sir. I’ll be more careful next time.” He sat carefully at the table and stacked the remaining meal trays neatly on his side of the table. He slid the ammunition off the table and placed it into his pockets. The gun he took, and leaned it against the chair he was sitting in.
“I can’t imagine I’ll need this sir. But you never know…” Rushworth trailed off and then changed the subject, “I found two more arrows, sir.” From his vest he pulled out two photographs and handed them to me. They looked much the same as the first; their shapes were definitely dissimilar enough to show that they were different arrows but similar enough to tell that they had been made by the same person. The same cursive-like finger pattern was present in both.
“You don’t mind if I hang on to these do you?” I grinned.
“No sir. I guess you have my other photograph?”
“Yes. And no doubt, you have the two sheets of paper I gave you last night.”
“Yes.” He paused “… how… How do think it was done sir?”
“I haven’t a clue. I only hope it works tonight and you get to keep that food.” I told him pointedly.
I sat down on my side of the table and said, “Rushworth, I think we may be under attack; or that this a Slug trick of some sort. I don’t know, but something altogether unusual is happening about the Fleet.”
“Do you think the dreams have something to do with it?”
“Don’t you? You and I have been having the same if not similar dream. It took me awhile to figure it out. But the dream’s intent, I think, is to debilitate the dreamer with fatigue. Imagine that Rushworth! The entire Fleet, overcome with a functional disability; more than that — the human body actually dies within a few weeks if deprived of sleep! We will be beaten before the war even begins!”
“But sir — what about this dream? Me and you? It does not seem a hostile act; and if this works,” he gestured towards the food and weapon, “then it may actually be beneficial.”
He was right – if it works, and to be truthful, I hadn’t even given a thought to how it worked at all. What mechanism and by what method had I returned to the ferry vessel and Rushworth to the bowels of the Bethlehem — he with my documents and I with his photograph. Could two seemingly independent people, separated by hundreds of thousand miles have the exact same dream, simultaneously? And exactly where was here? I looked more closely about the room in which we sat. I did not recognize it. But, then there are tens of thousands of rooms about the Fleet. This could be anywhere.
“Sir,” Rushworth said, breaking my train of thought, “I can’t help but feel that if this happening to us then perhaps it is also happening to others about the Fleet.”
“I’ve wondered the same thing myself.” I said this last reflectively, thinking about my last conversation with an exhausted looking Catherine Moreland. I changed the subject and said, “Rushworth, I’m sending you a rescue party. Captain Margret Allen, First Officer Simon Allen of the Pennsylvania, First Officer James Weston of the New Hampshire, and also my daughter, a Pilot Officer on the Maryland, will be on their way in a few days. I’ll need you to write out instructions and directions as to where they can find you. Also, they’ll need to know how you got into the Bethlehem Steel in the first place.”
Rushworth took one of the two pieces of paper I had given him the night before and quickly scrawled an untidy map of the Bethlehem and his location on the back. I noted, he had written, in his big spidery pen. “BEWARE OF ELEVATORS!!!”
Rushworth folded the page and handed it to me.
“Won’t you need this?” I asked referring to Harville’s decoded script.
“No sir, I’ve already committed it to memory.”
It was then I remembered this unusual trait of Rushworth’s. I had read it in the Fleet’s sporting papers. They discussed the young chess champ’s rise through last year’s rankings — all the way up to the semi-finals — as a quirk of genetics. I distinctly remember that the writer, quite unkindly, attributing rote-memory rather than skill, to Rushworth’s successes. Ouch! That must have hurt!
“Rushworth, listen to me. We may not have much time. In a few days I will be docking on the Aristotle. I plan to alert Peter Giles and the other Supercentenarians to the troubles on the Orion. I don’t know if it will do us any good – but this threat… this threat is… so uncharacteristic of anything we have been trained to expect. I’m not even sure how to quantify it. My sources on the Orion…” I stopped myself before I said too much. Rushworth needed to focus on his task at hand. He didn’t need to know that a ship-wide melt down on the Orion had already begun. The information would do him no good — I sure knew it wasn’t doing me any good.
* * *
We talked for another hour or so – until we woke. He told me of his encounter with the second arrow and then the third. Also, there was something else, and I could tell he did not want to discuss it. He hinted at it – and almost touched on it – but avoided it all the same. So, I let it go. I felt he would tell me in his own time; when he was ready.
During the hour Rushworth opened another packet of the dried food. This time, he activated the tray’s heating unit and nibbled carefully on the hot food as we talked.
* * *
The most striking thing about Supercentenarian’s is their clothing. And while we of the Fleet spend most of our time dressed in the undergarments of the ubiquitous pressure-suit, and the Centenarian’s, our academic, farming, and commercial class, would not be caught dead without their roughly woven tweed suits, trousers, and dresses. The Supercentenarian’s, in stark contrast to the rest of us, wore woven white woolen coats of pure sheep’s wool. These coats were decorated in vegetable dye motives and emblazonry. This mute-colored heraldry was explicit in design and nature, denoting rank and order. As our military arm, the Supercentenarian’s were more of a guild than cadre specific. While the Fleet corps used training and politics to step through rank, the Supercentenarian’s utilized their genetic makeup to garner favor and rank. The deterministic terms as to what those genetic characteristics may or not be, no one outside their group actually knew. But, this I did know: at least two former Council Chairman still lived and were very low ranked among the Supercentenarian’s. Experience and political favor did not bode well for me one hundred years from now.
I had met Peter Giles only once before. It had been at the reception following the inauguration of my third term as Fleet Chairman (in past history I hold the record for most consecutive terms held). A third term was rare and so the presence of the Fleet’s warrior guild was understandable.
Giles was a small man. He had a wizened face, weathered by tightly packed wrinkles; and buried deep in his giant white cloak he looked small and turtle-like. Before any of the other guests realized he was there he strode across the room and took my hand. “Congratulations.” His voice was strong and his hand-shake firm. And then, before I could say a word of thanks, he turned swiftly on his heel and strode back the way he came. What was odd about the encounter was that no one saw him arrive or leave. A later check of the Ship’s log revealed nothing. Giles had not arrived by one of the many ferry vessels that had docked for the event. I never followed up — why would I? I put it down to a quirk of the Supercentenarian life-style. They came and went as they pleased. How they did this was beyond my jurisdiction. They had the run of the Fleet and so, even their security protocols were of a different standard. So, no, I had no reason to investigate the strange encounter any further. But now, looking back…
Giles was best known across the Fleet as the reigning chess champion. So I was, I admit, a little star-struck at meeting him. I think too; so were the others.
We docked at an aft docking bay and were led, weightless, along a tubular structure for about half a kilometer into what was, we were told, the ante-room to the war-room. The wizened white haired lady who had brought us here left us and we bobbed up and down in silence for a few minutes until she returned.
Accompanying the old woman were two wiry men who looked well into their 200’s. They were thin but fit. Both men were clothed in their traditional garb. The heraldic colors painted on their robes contrasted starkly with the white walls of the ante-room. Looking closely at their garments I noticed that the material was extremely thick. It appeared thinner at their shoulders than at their ankles. I recognized that in the weightless atmosphere, the garment was actually specifically designed to keep the wearer upright. Or at least, the direction the wearer wanted to be upright. I decided that the garment most probably contained nano-gyroscopic machines. I searched my memory for protocols regarding robots; they were not allowed for any kind of commercial development, but in some cases, allowed for transportation, and for high-risk operations. But, for the life of me, I had never heard of robots being used in clothing. The two men beckoned for us to follow. They glided effortlessly in front of us, leading the way. The old woman remained behind.
We were led into a large curved-glass white room. It was, at first glance, a circle, but on closer inspection I noted that its real shape was actually an ellipse.
This room had not been here when I was a cadet fifty-five years or so ago. I frowned. As Fleet Chairman I was to be informed of any and all ship modifications. The Fleet Council proper had the final word on what could and could not be modified. These rules were pretty stiff. Was this room built sometime prior to my tenure? It better have! I thought. The Supercentenarian’s have tremendous freedoms with regards to ship-board protocols. But modifying existing structures was not one of those freedoms. Weston too, looked surprised when we entered. He was thinking the same thing.
Looking about I could see Supercentenarian’s gathered about the space, hand in hand, their wizened old faces stared — almost glaring. I felt Eleanor shift uncomfortably beside me. I overheard Weston whisper to Simon: “I don’t know about you old chap, but I don’t feel very welcome.”
* * *
A warm morning air filled the open cloisters of the university portico. The dry air wafted lightly uphill from the lake below, and from the stone bench set in the cloister overlooking the valley, Charles Harville took in the panorama below him. For the first time in a long time his mind was clear. It was as if his brain had been caught in some deep but conflicted dream but was now released. He drank in the air and the scenery: it was a good morning to be alive.
That morning he woke to a call. Not a voice, but a call. That call eked out discordance of the last few months and left an emotion of symmetry and correctness that he had known for most of his life. His brain, he felt and been lop-sided these last months. He had not been thinking right. What, he thought, had he been thinking: violation of the Primary Protocol, a deviation from procedural rule and law, an abandonment of duty! Disobeying direct orders from a superior commander! What on earth had been wrong with him? But this morning, after the call had come, an easing of the turmoil had begun. The jumbled thoughts, the random skipping and slipping of neurons inside his brain were tamed and calmed. He had been released.
Harville decided, without thinking too much about it, that he would take his breakfast outside. And so he had. He entered the heavily ornate and wood paneled dining room; filled his plate with eggs, sausage, and an assortment of jams and jellies. And leaving; waved cheerily at the gentlemen seated at the High table, and made his way out to the cloister. Harville did not turn to look. If he had he would have seen astonishment painted across their collective faces.
Harville heard Bennet before he saw him. Professor Edward Bennet came up quietly, probably so he could observe him first, Harville thought. Strange behavior demanded attention. At this, Harville smiled.
“Good morning, Harville.”
“Good morning Edward,” and then with a small pause, “you’ve come to see if I’ve gone mad again?”
“Well you know the rules, and the Chairman Tilney did leave you in my charge.”
“Ah… Yes, the Chairman.” Harville agreed. “I heard he has left the Maryland and headed for parts unknown.”
“It seems so, and now that dreadful woman, Catherine Moreland has shown up here to take his place. All this intrusion by the Council into our little world — in such a short period of time — makes me nervous.” Bennet stood beside the bench and said absent mindedly, “beautiful view.”
At this Harville laughed. “You Centenarians distrust everybody. You don’t trust the Juveniles because they meddle and touch things. You don’t like the Fleet personal because they run everything. And you don’t like the Supercentenarians because they are soldiers. You barely like yourselves – so caught-up you are in your hobbies and enterprises.” Harville set the remains of his breakfast aside and said, “Bennet, come, sit; admire the view and breathe in the fresh air. It is a fine morning, and this is a wonderful spot from which to watch.”
Bennet hesitated a moment but at last, sat. He had got to known Harville well over the last few months. Harville’s trial proved to be the novelty of the Fleet, generating immense curiosity and interest. During that time Bennet had become a celebrity of sorts. He took on the role of “court-reporter” broadcasting a blow-by-blow account of daily events to the Fleet population at large. Bennet found he enjoyed the role but more, he found he owned a sympathetic ear for Harville’s plight and at this, the Fleet population both loved and hated him for it.
But, like all things, after the trial, the Fleet moved on. And so too did Bennet’s relationship with Harville. Chairman Tilney had made Harville a ward of the Maryland’s university and Bennet was made Harville’s jailor. Harville had been stripped of his rank as a Fleet officer and was to remain on board the Maryland until he reached the age of seventy-five, at which time he would become a Centenarian and no longer be under the jurisdiction of the Fleet. But until that day, Harville would remain on the Maryland, and Bennet or some successor, would monitor his movements. The verdict, everyone felt was fair; fairer than death.
“I went to college on the Pennsylvania. All city and no view — all work and no play.” Harville opined, staring at the view in front of them. “I have been fortunate to be imprisoned in such a place.” He added.
“I understand the Penn has some wonderful museums. Early Fleet artifacts and even some objects from Earth.”
“That’s true. I met my wife at a museum.” Harville said brightly. “But, I couldn’t tell you which museum. I was more interested in the girl.”
At the mention of Harville’s wife Bennet stiffened. Her name was Marilyn. She was a ship’s pilot, and like Harville, had been stationed on the Orion. Prior to, and during the trial, she had been kept out of the public eye both of her own volition and Catherine Moreland’s badgering. After the trial she had requested a transfer from the Orion to the Maryland so as to be with her husband. The transfer had been approved and she was to have arrived two days before…
“Do you think she’s alright Bennet?”
“I don’t know.”
There was no chill in the air but both men felt it all the same. An eerie silence was all that was that could be heard from the Orion now; nothing going in and nothing coming out. A week before, six days ago, there was an abrupt shutdown of all communications from the Orion. Fleet operational command, under Vice Chairperson Moreland, ordered a cease and desist order halting all traffic to the Orion. The ship was off limits; its danger unknown. Fear, for the first time in its history, gripped the Fleet. Supercentenarian’s, who were rarely seen, were now spotted almost daily, and in the most unlikely of places. Their presence, instead of calming the populace, seemed only to inflame its sensibilities. Fear: it is a potent elixir, and misapprehension and rumor the method of delivery.
Bennet cleared his throat and said to Harville, “Moreland wants to speak with you.”
TO BE CONTINUED…