"All right, Meta, you called them gifts. Why gift them to us?" Captain Jassom asked.
"They?re early warning devices," Ryl replied. She downed the last of her wine and meeting his eyes, added grimly, "Believe me, you?re going to need them."
"Then the different flood came, as humanity reached its first billion and passed it?the flood that seemed to need no stemming. That flood, as it surged ever higher, extinguished old freedoms. What replaced them was not new freedom, but license, an arrogant assumption that no title to a place was valid unless written in a newly invented language by one of the most recent arrivals on the planet. For this new flood there was no new Ark. It is already too late for a hoard of splendid creatures?and for how many lesser ones we never knew??to find sanctuary."
?David Bower, Founder Friends of the Earth
Part 1: Katyl
- Chapter One -
December 05, 2499
Avalon Davo sat alone in the ark ship’s darkened atrium, her mind catching the cobwebs of space. She sensed the oily darkness of the Others lurking amidst the minds of the VIPs, but there was no danger to the ship so she ignored them?for now. Eagle’s captain was not expecting her aboard until they entered Dim5 in three hours and she wanted to say goodbye to Earth from this unique perspective. After all these years, being back in space was as breathtaking as her first time, almost three hundred years before. And as always, leaving Earth was painful.
As the C20 bonded to the Viking class ark ship, Avalon had expected to be pulled aboard eighteen months earlier, when Eagle tested its Dim5 engines. Ryl, her daughter, was not surprised when it didn?t happen. Neither engine tests, said the Meta, nor fifth dimension jumping completed Eagle’s life-force. Only life, sentient life, could do that.
Avalon felt that life-force grow as a million humans immigrated from Earth to their new home, adding to the billions of creatures, great and small, that made Eagle a living machine.
Then the official launch day arrived. Dignitaries and politicians sipped flat champagne in micro-gravity, and made tedious speeches thanking the alien Kwilloys and Dwins. Again. And they muttered disappointment at the C20s? absence. Again. Custom, convention, protocol, it was all necessary, Avalon knew, but not for her. Though it wished otherwise, the NASA Gaia Corporation?NGC?had no jurisdiction over C20s, so she stayed in character and ignored all invitations. Her bonding to the great spheroid ark ship was an experience of the mind and soul, one too intimate to be shared.
Now, a month later, Eagle was about to leave its Spacedock cradle and depart on her maiden voyage.
Avalon looked out through the transparent laminated diaglass?LD?hull of the ark ship and smiled. She had been granted such a fortunate life. Time to help in Earth’s restoration, time to explore the galaxy, time to love and raise children. Time to grieve. And now, time for an achingly familiar life to begin again.
From Eagle’s orbit around Mars, Earth appeared little more than a blue-white pinprick of light, barely distinguishable from countless other lights in the vast inky blackness of space. Although she had been gone less than an hour, Earth tugged at her, begging her to come home. Just a year she promised, just a goodwill tour before the ten-year voyage to find Gaia. We?re not going to abandon you, but we need to find the Great Ones and through them, offer the lesser cousins a place on our journey. And more importantly, to ask if they might one day consider returning to you and to forgive us our sins.
My sins, for was I not amongst those that almost destroyed you?
In his office on the deck below, Captain Christopher Falcon stood staring at the screen in the LD hull, grinding his teeth in frustration. Through the thin bulkhead separating his office from the bridge, he heard Eagle’s Chief of Security, Senior Commander Stuart Phelan, ordering the VIPs off the bridge. Senator Matheson replied with a stream of threats.
"That’s it!" Falcon declared, striding to the connecting door. "I will not tolerate the crew being bullied by Earth-side politicians!"
From the LD screen, Admiral Calvin Woodstock barked, "Do not go in there, Captain, that’s an order!" His bushy grey eyebrows lowered over equally grey eyes. "You attempt to talk with them and you?re setting yourself up."
Falcon swung to face him. "I was set up eight years ago, this is just a delayed reaction. Sir." He glanced beyond the LD screen to the boxlike, administrative hub of Spacedock. It was dark now, silhouetted by the rising Mars. Although it was over a hundred kilometres away, he could see the light shining from the Admiral’s office.
Woodstock’s weatherworn face settled into its familiar, authoritative glower. "You don?t have time to deal with this now, a delayed departure is unacceptable. I?ve entered an emergency override to the umbilicals and am resetting countdown from minus forty-eight minutes to minus three minutes."
Falcon met Woodstock’s eyes. Immediate departure was an elegant, albeit temporary, solution to the furore. He turned to his desk monitors and examined Eagle’s status. They were fully sealed and ready for departure. "AI," he said to the computer, "command override for emergency detachment and reconfigure our trajectory for three minutes. And warn Jacobsen that Eagle will make a forty-five minute parabolic loop past Mars."
"I?ll call Jacob personally and explain," said Woodstock, his voice betraying a hint of amusement.
Falcon’s lips curled in acknowledgement. Jacob Jacobson would wet himself if he saw Eagle leave Spacedock prematurely, then head off in the wrong direction. The gravitational side effect of the Viking project had already been wildly successful, but the terraforming engineer was depending on Eagle’s close fly-by of Mars, combined with simultaneous detonation of subterranean charges, to release a huge underground reservoir of water.
It would take Spacedock three minutes to retract the umbilicus to a safe distance, then Eagle’s manoeuvring engines would back them away. Thirty minutes later, Eagle would cut in sublight engines, then curve out and back past Mars. It was a straightforward procedure that did not require his presence on the bridge, but his place was there, if only to support the crew.
His crew, now, Falcon reminded himself. He unconsciously touched the blue, eagle shaped designator and gold status bar on his uniform jacket.
The noise from the bridge turned ugly; scuffles had broken out. The situation was way beyond unacceptable and Falcon wondered why things had gotten out of hand so fast. Too fast, he thought suspiciously. Then he heard Phelan yell, "Any unauthorized person still on the bridge in sixty seconds will be shot! And a stun shot means you?ll miss the short-range shuttle to Earth. And you all know," he added in a pleasant voice, "how uncomfortable long-range Dim5 shuttles are, especially when recovering from a stun gun hit. The captain is not going to allow badgering and hysteria to endanger Eagle during critical manoeuvres!"
Two minutes later, it was all over. Falcon opened his office door and surveyed the dark, cavernous D-shaped bridge. The one hundred and fifty metre long, forty-metre high LD hull was opaqued to black. Coloured glow-worm lights lining the concave inner bulkhead winked in and out of view as shadowy figures moved about. The darkness had no doubt served to make Phelan’s job easier.
"Opening single LD panel, no filtration," said Captain Peta Vol, Eagle’s Chief Commander.
As Falcon strode to the command workstation in the centre of the bridge, a window-sized section of the LD hull turned transparent. Marslight filtered through, illuminating the deck level cockpit and long catwalk railings around the inner bulkhead.
"As a result of our guests? behaviour," Falcon said, pitching his voice so that everyone could hear, "Admiral Woodstock has rescheduled our departure. The AI has the revised our trajectory, all stations please verify." He took his place at the cockpit beside Vol. Despite the minimal light, he noticed a growing bruise on her fair-skinned cheek. "I suspect you enjoyed that, Captain."
Vol straightened her blue uniform jacket and tucked a few titian hairs behind her ear. "Who, me, sir?" she replied, her eyes glowing with mischief. "All systems green, all stations verified, umbilicus now out of range. Orders, sir?"
"Get us out of here," he replied. "Manoeuvring engines at minimum thrust for two minutes, then increase to maximum in two minute increments for the next thirty minutes. And now that our aeroacrophobic VIPs have left, let’s get some light in here. Clear the LD throughout the entire Command sector."
Eagle’s LD hull acted much like Earth’s atmosphere, automatically opaquing to a sky blue ?day? and clearing at ?night? during the ship’s twenty-four hour rotation. Standing on the upper deck, with the LD almost a thousand metres overhead, was like standing on a planet with a foreshortened horizon. However, to facilitate operations, the Command sector was butted up against the hull. Its aspect and gravity?including the primary shuttle bays, bridge, command personnel quarters, atrium and observation lounges?was also perpendicular to the hull. The effect on civilians was almost universally disturbing.
"I should have done that earlier," Vol muttered as the LD hull suddenly vanished, exposing them to an unimpeded six thousand square metre view of Mars and space. "It would have cleared the bridge in seconds."
A soft beep caught Falcon’s attention. "Display incoming transmission on the LD," he ordered the communication’s officer.
The President of Earth, Edwin Norman, and the chief of the Viking Ark Ship Project, Admiral Calvin Woodstock, appeared side by side on opaqued sections in the LD. Any doubts the crew might have entertained about their new captain fell flat in the ensuring three-way conversation between Falcon, Woodstock and the President. When that was over, Falcon ordered an audio channel throughout the ark ship. The feed would also go live to Spacedock, Earth, Mars, Luna and the score of NGC ships currently inside the Solar system. It had taken decades to reach this moment, and he was not about to let a bunch of media clowns and dyspeptic politicians spoil it.
"This is Captain Christopher James Falcon of the Viking class ark ship Eagle. At 0915 standard today, December 5, 2499, Eagle separated from Spacedock forty-five minutes ahead of schedule. Sixty seconds ago at 0948, our main engines cut in. Eagle has now departed."
Falcon stood and turned so that all forty-eight men and women on the three levels of the bridge could see him. While millions would hear him, the bridge crew, indeed the entire one hundred thousand NGC crew aboard Eagle, knew his words were for them.
"The tragic loss of Captain Laycock," he added, "and the subsequent events requiring our precipitous departure from Spacedock are no doubt uppermost in everyone’s minds. However, this moment is occasion for celebration and nothing, I repeat, nothing should detract from that. John Laycock would not have wanted it. In memory of a fine man and an extraordinary officer, I would ask you spend the next hour during the loop to Mars to reflect on what has been achieved together. I know John was proud of every one of you, as I am of you, and as you should be of yourselves.
"On this day ten years ago," Falcon continued, "engineers initiated Eagle’s buckeyball skeleton, heralding what many declared as the most ambitious project in human history; the growing of five ark ships, each a self-contained living machine eighty-seven kilometres in diametre. I beg to differ. The greatest project in human history began four hundred years ago when humanity embarked on a mission to clean Earth’s biomass from the depravations of a past era.
"It took just a few intemperate and self-serving generations to all but destroy Earth. Eagle and her sister ships still being grown, Voyager, Tyr, Thor and Forseti have been designed to detox large sections of Earth’s biomatter. These ark ships are but steps in Earth’s long road to recovery. Though we will not see the completion of this task in our lifetime, as with all great journeys, what we learn, what we accomplish together on our voyage is as important as the goal itself. Even before we left Spacedock’s cradle, Eagle was already part of another great endeavour. There," he said, gesturing to the receding view of Mars through the LD, "is the result."
The crew turned their eyes to a planet no longer completely red, but one where wispy clouds partially obscured tiny patches of blue. Those who looked closely, could see pinpricks of green. The gravitational pull of Spacedock and the growing ark ships had created tectonic stresses across the planet, releasing entrapped underground water and gases. After countless millennia, Mars was once more home to running water and life.
"We have adjusted our path and velocity to compensate for early departure," Falcon continued. "The fly by of Mars, Luna and Earth will take place as scheduled. Entry to Dim5 will be at 1400 hours as planned. Thank you."
As Eagle continued to back away from Spacedock, five gigantic Meccano-like arms came into view. Four were tipped with Eagle’s incomplete sister ships. A section of the LDmagnified the view of Tyr’s bridge, where her crew were standing at attention, saluting Eagle’s departure.
"Attention on deck!" Captain Vol called as Falcon stood and returned the salute to the ship that had been his home for eight years, to the crew that had become his family and to Captain Malcolm Tishardson who had replaced him as Tyr’s commander.
They caught a brief flash of sunlight before the photosensitive LD opaqued to sky blue, then it turned transparent again as the great ark ship revolved into shadow.
Falcon sat back in his chair and turning to his personal assistant, Marcus Wallace, said, "Sergeant, subject to them behaving themselves, invite the VIPs into the Command observation room, but not the bridge. They can nominate one journalist to interview me after Eagle passes Mars." Then he said to Vol, "Captain, make certain the LD remains one hundred percent auto-transparent throughout the entire Command sector, including my office."
Vol’s eyes crinkled in amusement and soft chuckles echoed around the bridge. When Marcus rolled his brown eyes, Falcon smiled and said, "The carpet will take care of it."
Like most of Eagle’s non-structural bulkheads and fixed furniture, the carpets were bio-engineered plants that fed off organic waste, including the inevitable results of vertigo. And most of the VIPs had been imbibing huge quantities of free, expensive booze and exotic hors d?ouvres.
"Yes, sir, but you know how the smell lingers," Marcus said. He keyed his data pad, waited for the reply, then said, "They?ve selected Dorothy Waters, UP media."
Falcon allowed himself a grin. Waters had denigrated the Viking project from the start and had spent the last two weeks referring to his mostly classified war record as ?highly suspicious for an ark ship captain that NGC didn?t want in the first place?.
"I suspect you?re enjoying this, Captain," Vol muttered softly.
"Who, me, Captain?" replied Falcon. "Sergeant, keep Ms. Waters in the admin foyer until she’s ready to kick the door in, then let her into my office. I figure ten minutes before she recovers, then inform her that I?m on the bridge?"
"Because we?re travelling at sixteen thousand kilometres per second and she wouldn?t want us making a mistake as we approach Earth, now would she?" Marcus finished.
While the politicians might head for the observation room?only to discover the effect on their booze filled stomachs?experienced journalists would likely congregate around access doors and gravitors. By the time they realized he had pulled a disappearing act, it would be time for them to leave on the short-range shuttle to Earth.
Desperately needing sleep, Falcon returned to his office then stepped into his private gravitor and pulled himself down one deck level to his quarters. Although it would take weeks for the fixed furnishings to grow into the desired shapes, Scarty, his personal orderly, had made certain everything, right down to the dark blue leather couches, replicated his spacious living quarters on Tyr.
Falcon pulled off his uniform jacket and unfastened the seal of the black shipsuit he wore beneath. He ran a hand through his dark brown hair and across the stubble on his jaw. He needed a shower and shave. Instead, he walked across to the LD and stared out. Tyr was slowly shrinking against the backdrop of Mars.
Just two weeks earlier, he had been preparing Tyr for her first Dim5 engine test when Eagle’s captain, John Laycock, rammed his shuttle into a civilian vessel. The controversial orders hit him less than an hour later. Eagle’s departure could not be delayed by the death of one man, not even the captain. NGC resolved it with the same logical mandate as other crew replacements; they transferred each captain to the next ship in line.
Simple. Logical. Yeah, right, he thought as he rested his hands against the warm LD. Take a team forged over ten years and honed into an integral unit these last eighteen months, push through an obscenely rapid investigation that ultimately blamed its respected leader for the death of a dozen civilians, toss in a new captain, and oh yeah, don?t bother to consult the most critical factor in the equation, the C20s?who had remained conspicuously silent since Laycock’s death.
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the invisible barrier. He hadn?t had this little sleep since the worst days of the Katyl War. The desk-jockey bureaucrats had patted him on the back and assured him of their utmost support. Great. That would be useful half a million light years from Earth, especially when he had to deal with a hostile civilian governor and chief science administrator?who had written a letter objecting to his appointment just three days earlier.
At first he thought the letter was a tactless joke; civilians had no authority to object to any NGC appointment. And doing so virtually on the eve of departure was ludicrous. Then he dismissed it as political manoeuvring and professional butt covering. Admiral Woodstock agreed, describing it as an opportunistic safety net provided by his eleventh hour appointment. In the event of disagreements, the science administrator and governor could place the onus on him to compromise. But early that morning, someone had leaked the letter to the media. Rehashed tabloid style, it fed into people’s terror of the Katyl and gathered wilder and wilder speculations as the launch countdown entered its final hour. Panicked VIPs had demanded he delay departure. But the furore over his refusal was disproportionate, even for a bunch of tabloid sensation mongers and publicity seeking politicians.
Falcon opened his eyes and stared out into space. Despite the view, he suddenly felt cramped, confined. He needed to clear his head before the inevitable confrontation with the civilian governor. Checking the AI, he found the atrium free of sentient life forms. With an unhindered view of space almost twice that of the bridge, it was a fitting place to say farewell to a planet that he?d hardly given much thought to in eleven years.