The ring of Supercentenarians closed-in about us. Simon and Margret took up defensive positions. I signaled for them to stand down. As threatening as their behavior was I felt sure they would not harm us. For what could be their purpose in doing so? All the same I did not want to show any aggression, for we were, after all, on their turf and these people were our warrior-class militia.
The ring of Supercentenarian’s tightened: they were shifting to their left, in a clockwise direction — the ring becoming smaller, necessitating that some fall back. This created an ever thickening wall of ancient bodies, swaying in silent harmony. If they intended to intimidate us they were succeeding. I moved closer Eleanor, and she to me. Alarmed by the sight I signaled that a defensive position was probably not a bad idea after all. Simon, Margret, and Weston formed a defensive barrier with Eleanor and me in its middle. The only sound was the rustling of the fabric as the white coats of the Supercentenarian’s rubbed against each other as they moved. Sharp, bright yellow static discharges could be seen emanating from the swaying crowd creating an eerie staccato of light that flashed vertically up and down their bodies, and in and about the enormous white oval shaped room. Suddenly, about six feet from our position they stopped and one of them stepped forward. It was Peter Giles.
* * *
It was not that he stepped from out the crowd — it was more that the crowd stepped back away from him. A collective sigh went up from the crowd, and then Peter Giles spoke. Hunched and bent forward his thin wispy white hairs floated about his head in an ethereal dance that was mesmerizing. His face, nut-brown and wizened looked up at me.
“Why are a renegade group of Fleet officers interested in this peaceful troupe of Supercentenarians? Why have you come here? What do you want from us?”
I was taken back, to say the least. His tone was reproachful, the manner and delivery, threatening.
“We are come to warn you — if not to activate you.”
“Activate us. What do you mean, Tilney? We are not machines that can be turned on or off as if by a switch!”
“Why sir,” I said, “activate your colony of warriors to war. We are under attack!” Murmurs and whispers resonated from out of the ringed throng, reverberating upon the walls and ceiling.
“Silence!” commanded Giles. A hush fell upon the crowd.
Giles looked coldly at me and said in a cool clipped manner, “For someone who has little more than a few days of command left in him you strike a bold move — coming here and troubling me with your problems.”
Surprised at the hostility but also by the question I pushed forward, out from between the Weston and the Allen’s protective clinch and said, “Our problems are your problems. What makes you believe otherwise?”
Giles’s glare hardened and simply stated, “Your problems are not ours.” Before I could reply he went on, “– what is it that has brought you to this conclusion: a conclusion of war?”
Before I spoke, conscious that all eyes were upon me; I mustered my temper and said politely, “Sir, we have lost contact with the Orion. All transmissions, to and from Orion have ceased. All berths into and out of her are closed. I must believe that short of a ship-wide malfunction – the security of Orion has been compromised by an aggressor unknown.” I felt Eleanor, the Allen’s, and Weston shift uncomfortably beside me. I had not told them this.
“Oh well, there you go then.” Giles said dismissively. “A ship-wide malfunction is a perfectly good enough deduction — and you have made this yourself.” He said this last flippantly and then, “– there was never any need to bother us.”
Giles waved his hand in a flippant manner and turned to a tall thin man standing beside him. “I’m tired, show them out.”
It happened so quickly that the eye could not, in any sense, encompass it. Instantly, an explosion of white and color blinded us and an enormous whooshing sound filled the room. It was the collective flurry of their garments rubbing together in unison; the gathering of Supercentenarians exploded away from us in all directions. It was as if giant hand reached in and swept them away, and then they were gone — all of them — but the single thin man who had been standing beside Giles. Exactly where they all went I haven’t a clue.
I was astonished. We all were. Our mouths were hanging open in surprise. Beside me, I heard Eleanor say, voicing what all of us were thinking, “…where did they all go?” But no one answered.
The thin man who remained stepped forward, and before any of us could react, embraced me. Awkwardly, I tried to break the embrace. “What now?” I thought. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the two Allen’s moving in to separate the man from me, but then he spoke.
“John, it’s so good to see you again.” Shocked, I pulled back away from him and looked closely at his face.
* * *
Catherine Moreland waited and uncharacteristically, paced. The office was small and narrow and she managed to fill it with all of her nervous tension. The office adjoined the Bridge and was normally used to conduct low level scheduling and other operational issues. Moreland had commandeered it for her use shortly after her arrival on the Maryland.
Bennett and Harville were ushered in; accompanying them was the Maryland’s Captain, John Thorpe. Catherine pursed her lips and said sharply, “why is he here!” indicating towards Bennett. Bennett did not wait for Thorpe or Harville to explain; jumping right in and answered the question curtly. “Chairman Tilney put Mr. Harville under my charge. Where he goes, I go.”
Thorpe shrugged sheepishly. He had been unable to dissuade Bennett from leaving Harville’s side, and short of using actual force, Bennett was adamant. Where Harville went – he went. In the end Thorpe had acquiesced. Catherine could deal with it, if she cared.
There were four chairs lining the narrow office and both men helped themselves. Thorpe remained silent but moved quickly, pulling the chair out from behind the desk for Catherine. Catherine used the interval that it took for everyone to get seated to think of a retort.
“Very well then Professor Bennett, if Tilney trusted you then I guess I can trust you too.” Bennett didn’t miss the sarcasm in her tone.
Thorpe remained standing. He leaned tiredly against the opposite wall. Thorpe reminded Bennett of a dog waiting patiently for its master to give a command.
“Harville,” Catherine began, “there is no point in beating around the bush. Let’s get right down to it. I want some information from you — I have only one question,” she paused, and after a few seconds continued, “– when… when,” she said haltingly — thinking about how best to put it to him. It had seemed much easier in rehearsal. “When you went mad — what did it feel like? The experience – what was it like?”
“Excuse me?” Harville laughed, surprised by the question, “by mad – you mean the aberration of my mind?”
“Whatever. Harville, don’t toy with me. I knew you before the incident, and you were very different afterwards… We all noticed it. What I want… is some understanding… of it. We have severed contact with the Orion and have locked her down. I want to know what happened to you — because whatever it is has spread throughout the Orion.”
Harville sat back. He had not anticipated this question — of all possible questions she could have asked… Catherine Moreland had been completely unsympathetic to his “mental” problem all those months ago; citing protocols, procedures, and that elusive character — duty. A part of him felt sorry for Moreland but another part disliked the woman altogether; although, no part of him wanted her to fail. For if she were to fail then so too might the Fleet.
During the preceding week he and Bennet had discussed the issue of the lost communication with Orion, like most everyone else; and much like everyone else, hammered over the question of what could have caused a systemic ship-wide shutdown of the Orion. Neither men, nor anybody else had a clue; speculation only fueled their ignorance. But now Moreland had offered up some new information.
“You say we severed communication with Orion? The rumor is that Orion ceased transmitting.” Bennett asked, suddenly interested. He had felt all along that Moreland was here on the Maryland to exact some undue punishment to Harville that she felt he had somehow slipped out off under Tilney’s patronage.
“I’ll get to that in a minute.” she answered quietly, drawing a hand over her hair, pushing back stray strands and tucking them under her pony-tail. Catherine Moreland looked tired.
Harville spoke carefully. “I’ve taken Bennett here into my confidence. While I have not discussed the details, I have briefed him on the issue.”
“You’re speaking of the anomalous orbit?” Moreland offered.
“Yes.” Harville waited for her response. He expected outrage at his discussing of top secret information with non-Fleet personal but her demeanor remained calm, resigned almost. That in itself spoke volumes. The situation was serious, protocol it seemed, was the last thing on Catherine Moreland’s mind. He sighed quietly to himself and then continued. “Has a correction been affected?” he asked.
“No.” Moreland said, stony-faced. “We are at a loss for a solution. The Orion has not responded to any input. It was as you initially supposed — that the ship had been hardwired to enter an ever increasing oblate orbit about the central axis. We believe that our software and hardware was designed specifically to mask the errant behavior. We dispatched a young Lieutenant to the Bethlehem to find proof of this but we lost contact with him only after a few days into the mission.” Here she stopped, hanging her head; hiding her eyes.
“What of Tilney? What does he know?” Harville asked full well knowing that he had told the Fleet Chairman far more than Catherine Moreland knew he had. But he asked the question more to draw her out, seeing how much she understood.
“He thinks it’s a Slug attack.” Moreland looked up at Thorpe, “where is he now.”
“Last we heard he docked at the Aristotle. Our intelligence stops there though. Not too much gets out of there.”
For a moment nobody spoke; everyone pondering the Supercentenarians and their odd occupation.
Bennett broke the silence. “Could it be a Slug attack?”
Harville answered, “…possible — but unlikely. A Slug invasion would be more obvious. They are not devious or stealthy creatures. The change in the Orion’s orbit appears predestined by our makers. I know no reason for it. But once you eliminate the idea of invasion then that is all you are left with.”
“I agree.” Moreland added bluntly, but added nothing more.
Thorpe interjected, “Why would our makers design such a thing? It makes no sense.”
Moreland said, “–that’s the question isn’t it. We are within a hundred years of the halfway point between Earth and Pleiades. Perhaps it is a test of merit?”
“Merit? Surely you jest Ma’am? To what end?” Bennett exclaimed.
“Then I haven’t a clue. All I really know is that Harville here,” she waved her hand in Harville’s direction, “–was the first to experience the bizarre behavior that appears to have now settled upon the whole of the Orion after which…” she paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts, added, “—after an absence of some months, you appear to be back to normal. But, at the time… Well, I didn’t know what to think.”
Harville cleared his throat. He realized that was about as close as Catherine Moreland would ever come to an apology for her heavy-handed treatment of him. “Thank you Ma’am. But it might be best if you bring us up to speed on Orion’s real situation. It may help me to frame my answer better.”
Catherine shifted in her seat. She cocked her head to the side, pondering what she knew and if she should share it. It was, after all, secret. The Fleet’s rumor-mill was wild with query – it would no doubt come out eventually. A few days earlier the Council had taken the unprecedented step of severing FleetNet from the Orion because of the disturbing and chaotic images being transmitted from her crew, of which, had escalated into nonsensical madness and gibberish as time passed.
Catherine began. “It’s not true that transmission from the Orion ceased. We shut them down – cutting them off from FleetNet. Let me show you this.” She swiveled in the chair activating a screen on the far wall with a remote control. With the remote she selected an icon and the screen flashed into action. There was a moving image of a man and a woman, their backs to the camera, running through a corridor. The two were screaming commands at each other. In their hands they carried weapons – rail-guns. The camera was obviously mounted on the helmet of a second man, who ran behind them. Bennet and Harville could tell it was a man by the grunts of exertion he emitted as he ran, following the other two.
The three were in a corridor of what looked to be the lower crew quarters. They were heading aft towards one of the small hangar bays. Smoke filled the corridor and soot stained the walls. At one point the woman stopped, and fired her weapon. She paused and pumped two more rounds into the smoke filled passageway. Then, sure that the coast was clear, continued on down the corridor, with the two men at her heals. The camera barely focused on two bodies lying dead on the corridor floor as the trio passed. It was not lost on either Harville or Bennett that no weapon of any sort could be seen near either dead man.
“What is this…?” gasped Bennett. Catherine held up her hand, “just watch.” She said quietly.
The trio continued their run a breakneck speed. The corridor gave way into a wider passageway in which a fire was burning. The fire looked to be fueled by tables, chairs, mattress, books, and anything else that could be found to burn.
The camera panned about the large space and the man whose head it was attached to said, “—over there! Two o’clock position – they’ve destroyed the fire extinguishing system.”
His camera zoomed in on a wall to his right. Wall panels had been torn from their fastenings and piping and wiring hung forward like inert and dead entrails.
A small explosion came from their left. The three threw themselves to the floor. A man brandishing what looked to be an iron pole ran towards them screaming nonsensically and waving the pole in the air. The trio let loose with barrage of gunfire that cut the man in two.
The woman turned and looked into the camera. Her eyes were wild and she yelled, “Another mutineer down. Let’s keep moving. We need to get control of this hangar.”
The image froze; Catherine had selected “pause.”
“Do you recognize her?” she said to Harville.
“Yes, barely… that’s Isabella – Captain Isabella Thorpe.” He stopped and looked up at John Thorpe, “—your sister!”
Thorpe grimaced, saying nothing; only nodding his head in affirmation.
Bennett, taking his hand from his mouth where he had held it while watching the shocking scene play-out on the screen asked, “What’s a mutineer? I think that was the word she used?”
Here Thorpe found his voice and said, “Yes, we had to look it up. It means someone who participates in a mutiny. The word mutiny references other archaic terms such as: rebellion, revolt, sedition, insurgence, and uprising. None of which makes any sense: but we believe that Isabella is referring to some faction of her crew who are attempting to take control of the Orion away from her.”
“I know; it doesn’t make sense.” Catherine added, “—but that is only the beginning. It gets worse.”
Catherine turned her attention back to the screen and selected another icon.
A man came on the screen; his uniform was torn and damaged. Behind him six or seven others were working quietly in the dim light of the room. Large plastic containers of liquid were being mixed and combined with a solid white substance – it was hard to see what – but the resultant was poured carefully into smaller, handheld sized metal objects and then sealed carefully by a woman wielding an electric soldering iron. The man on the screen was speaking: “— early yesterday afternoon First Officer Sara Bates, selected by popular vote, relieved Captain Thorpe of her command.” Over her shoulder Catherine added an aside, “…this was dated three days ago.” And Harville added, “I know him, that’s Brandon Jennings, the Third Officer.” Catherine only nodded and turned her attention back to the screen. “— Thorpe’s erratic and autocratic behavior –” Jennings continued, “has driven us to this point. It is only right, in light of Isabella Thorpe’s murderous rampage – that… that woman! She will pay dearly for not accepting the election of a replacement. The control of Orion is ours!” Jennings screamed loudly holding one of the small makeshift containers up to the camera. His boldness and purpose shone from insanely twisted eyes.
Catherine stopped the recording. “We believe that they are making small incendiary devices from common cleaning fluids.”
Both Harville and Bennett wore looks of horror – their faces drained of blood by what they were seeing. But Catherine was not done yet.
“This is the hardest for me. Forgive me Charles…” Neither Bennett nor Harville realized that she had used Harville’s first name. The screen was active again and both men could tell that this had been shot outside of the main living quarters, down by Orion’s lake. It was night and fires could be seen burning upon the slopes forward – up towards the Fleet personal facility, and the Bridge. To the left side of the lake a series of houses burned and animals, cows and horses, could be heard screaming in the distance. Scattered debris burned as it floated; the lake appeared to be on fire.
The camera zoomed in on a crowd of fifty or so people holding a meeting on the lake edge. But it was more mob-rally than meeting. A tall dark haired woman was screaming to the crowd. She stood on what looked to be the charred remains of a carriage. Bodies of people and horses lay scattered like chords of discarded wood behind her.
“The barbaric rule of the interloper, Sara Bates, has brought doom upon us all. The Fleet aim to capture us and kill us, like they killed my husband. But we will strike first. Make me your Captain and we will drive this ship far beyond our enemies grasp – away from the central axis, far away from Pleiades – we will find some safe haven among the stars! But first – first — we must kill them! Kill them all! Kill them now or perish my friends!” A roar of approval went up from the crowd. Sticks, pipes, and a few rail-gun’s could be seen waving above their heads — visible in the darkness — only because of the backdrop of fire. The camera zoomed in on the woman. Her hair flew wildly about her head; dried blood streaked and smeared her face. But her identity was unmistakable: Marilyn Harville.
Charles Harville sat as if bolted to the chair and stared, he had no words.
* * *
James stood staring at the airlock door. It was warm to the touch; he could feel it through his gloves. But he had expected this. Days earlier, from the safety of the train, he had reactivated a small ancillary generator and the life-support systems that made up the emergency backup system for this area of the Bethlehem.
Next to him, James had a small pile of survival equipment. It including: his only remaining power-pack, the same one that had survived the arduous journey from the hull of the ship to the dry-dock, his small toilet tent – which he had now repaired and cleaned. He also had a large plastic container of his Chlorella algae — breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if need be. He hoped he wouldn’t need any of it though. Still, he was not the wide-eyed boy who had originally landed here. He now expected the worst, and was prepared for it. The train’s computer had given him access to large portions of the Bethlehem’s computer network. After a week of operation the space behind the airlock door should be free of ice; its temperature warm, and its atmosphere pressurized, and breathable. There would be no food though. But that would not be a problem as long as he had his jar of Chlorella. He had decided that he could not rely on the strangely bizarre phenomenon that was occurring in his dreams, whereby Fleet Chairman Tilney could actual transfer food and other items from his dream into his own dream. It was impossible to even comprehend the idea, let alone quantify it. It worked, and as far James was concerned, how or why it happened in the first place could remain a mystery until after his mission was complete. But either way the phenomena could not be relied upon as a real source of sustenance.
James fingered the rail-gun nervously. This was his second time at the door. His first approach had brought him up short, for etched into the dust pointing directly at the door was another of the mysterious arrows. He retraced his tracks, returning to the train and retrieved the gun and some ammunition; and now he stood, pausing before opening the door, unsure of what he might find… He punched in the appropriate code and waited.
The door swished open revealing a large space between him and the inner door. The floor was wet, presumably from ice-melt. Faded and tattered pieces of paper were pinned on a large brown board to his right. On the left wall was a map of the transit system. Other than that, the room was empty. James lowered his gun. He had not realized just how tense he was until that moment. He stretched his back and shoulders. It helped some, but the anxiety that had built up over the past four weeks could not be undone so easily. He braced himself and stepped inside.
* * *
“Yes John, it’s me; and who is this? — my great granddaughter?” The old man pulled away from me and reached for Eleanor, who stiffened instinctively. For all intents and purposes the man was a stranger to her. But gracefully, if not shyly, she accepted her great grandfather’s embrace all the same. Weston and the Allen’s stepped back respectively, realizing that we were not in danger. I noticed that Simon and Margret were still scanning the large oval room for any sign of the troupe of Supercentenarian’s who, only moments before, disappeared before our very eyes. Finding nothing, they turned their attention back to the old man.
The old man, my grandfather, stepped back holding Eleanor by her shoulders, “Well, I must say you are turning into a beautiful young woman.” Eleanor blushed, and muttered something unintelligible under her breath, “…and who is this… little Jamie Weston? You look the same as you did as when you were a boy. Goodness me! Listen to me prattle on — where are my manners? Richard Tilney,” he said holding out his hand. In turn, Margret shook first, and then Simon, and last, Weston. “Good to see you again Sir.” Weston said.
With introductions over my grandfather turned his attention back to me. “How’s your father? Is he still working as a Fleet trader?”
“Yes. Still holding on to that license — I doubt he’ll ever let it go of it.”
The Fleet allowed a modest but strictly controlled trade between each of the ships. Each ship specialized in some commodity or the other, attractive enough that the Fleet’s general population at large demanded it but not so much that it was a necessity. The traders, my father among them, shuttled goods and mail back and forth between the fourteen ships. The purpose of trading was in no way commercial, for that was forbidden; rather, the trade of these items was secondary to the maintenance of human connectedness: communication, ideas, and goodwill spread across the Fleet by real persons and not just through FleetNet, our electric connection. Only a handful of licenses existed. My father had held one for the better part of thirty years now and was not letting go of it anytime soon. Especially now, with my own retirement eminent; he had offered it to me, and was perplexed at my application to the Connecticut Library, “–what sort of girlish work is that,” he had admonished!
“Dad’s fine — still doing his thing.” I answered politely, to which my grandfather only nodded. I had no doubt he kept tab on his offspring. Then he said, immediately getting to the business at hand; “– only a week to go. First, you distance yourself from the Council and now you’ve gone an upset Peter Giles. Tsk tsk. It won’t do my boy. It won’t do at all.” he said disappointed, shaking his head.
“If not from me — then from my successor. Whatever issues of denial Giles has with the current crisis it won’t do him any good. He will have to face the truth eventually, and at that time he must act. I only hope that he will not be too late.”
“The truth? Well that is why he left me to explain the facts of life to you son. You were always one to speak your mind — always upsetting and annoying everyone.” He looked at me, genuinely irritated.
I shrugged. It was an old family story; me, the pest. So I remained silent; wondering where this was going.
“John you need understand that we have our ears to the ground. We are very aware of the goings-on up at the Orion and so there is no need to bother us here in our sanctuary.”
I interrupted the old man tersely, “Grandfather… We are here in the official capacity of my office. Whether I have one week left or one year, it makes no difference. The Fleet is under attack! If you have information to the contrary then you, Giles, and the Guild have a duty to share that information with me.”
My Grandfather snapped back. “Duty?” he shouted with force.
Eleanor, the Allen’s, and Weston took a step back in surprise. It was an odd sight to see, a man of one-hundred-and-thirty bluster with rage. “What duty? What law? Nothing binds the Supercentenarians to the Fleet! We are our own people!”
He glared at me in silence. I did not have an answer for that; it was true — there was no protocol, law, or duty that compelled them. Nothing! Nor was it something I’d ever given much thought to before. In fact, their duty, as I had put it, was an idea that I simply assumed. For weren’t we all in the same boat together, so to speak?
We stood, glaring at each other; generations apart. The ensuing silence was broken when from behind me, Margret said, “…by our common humanity. That’s what binds us.”
* * *
The outer airlock door slid closed behind him, a whoosh of air could be heard. Breathable air was filling the airlock. James checked his environmental readout. Pressure and temperature were rising fast: already 8PSI and a temperature of 255K.
James noted the information but did not heed it. He kept his helmet on; his weapon pointed straight ahead. In a shuffling motion he pushed his kit in front of him with his feet, he moved forward slowly; cautiously. He knew that the inner airlock door would open the moment the pressure in the airlock reached 14PSI; just a few seconds from now…
TO BE CONTINUED…