Chapter 22 (Second Draft)

Three months later…

Aboard Orbital One, dignitaries and VIPs of all sorts and varieties from all colony worlds had gathered for the signing of an historic treaty known simply as ‘The Terran Accords.’  They were gathered in the hastily refurbished former United Nations meeting place on the station, a large semi-circular amphitheatre style room.  There was a large and elevated podium at the front for individuals to give addresses to the convened crowds.  As Margaret stepped up to the podium, flanked by Patricia on her right, and Kirby on her left, above her heads were the flags of the old United Nations, alongside the flags of Haven, Kobol, and Roma.

It had been relatively easy work to restore Orbital One to this point after Kathryn, Jaren, and Teresa had issued their final reports to their homeworlds on the way back to the Solar rift system.  A flurry of official communication and daring proposals fluttered back and forth between the three colony worlds and before New Horizon reached the rift, several engineering teams and support ships had already been dispatched towards the Kobol and Roma suns to get to work on Orbital One.  Whatever would have to be negotiated as far as what could and should be done with Earth itself, the station itself at least seemed to be fair game and there was an informal agreement that responsibility for it would be shared, an agreement which would be formalized in the Terran Accords.

The political leaders of all three worlds met for the first time at the station, after their many teams had established a Kobolian artificial life support system, simply bypassing the original system of arboretums throughout the station.  The New Horizon team had already managed to restore the basic operating system, but every system still had to be initialized if possible, or replaced with equivalent or superior equipment if not.  The fusion reactors, the wider power and data networks, the docking area and the commercial habitat ring… in a sense they had only gotten started on the project, they had months and months if not years of work ahead of them to fully restore Orbital One to its original glory, but they were well on their way.  They already had things to a level which allowed them to host this historic meeting on the station in relative safety.

Jaren had been emblematic to how his people in general reacted to the reality of simulants and the embodiment of Margaret herself.  At first they had been viscerally aghast, taken back on a nearly primal level at the offence unto God.  However much like Jaren himself, the more they got used to the idea, the more they were able to see past this initial reaction and see the value in it.  They came to recognize it as a technology completely unlike anything they had developed themselves, and how understanding the technology which created simulants could advance their science and technology in any number of ways. 

The Kobolians had originally not seen the value in exploring Earth because they felt that it had nothing to teach them technologically, and investigating the mystery of how Earth fell was pointless since for them it was not a mystery at all.  Now this had turned around for them with the discovery of Margaret.  Simulant technology was now a primary interest for them, something they never would have found if they had been left to themselves, not seeing the true value in pure curiosity driven research itself, the things you find which you’d never think to look for.  Now they were in very serious negotiations with Margaret for as much access to her for study as they could get.

Margaret was happy to oblige but operated on a different sense of time given her age.  She would indulge them in exchange for the option of possibly developing some enhancements she had in mind which the original simulant manufacturers would have considered a violation of their prime objective of perfectly replicating a human being.  The Kobolians wanted access to her immediately and at great lengths, but she wanted to stay in the Earth system for a time, and might in some months or years agree to make an extended visit to Kobol and let them have their way with her for a good long while as she explored their world and culture.  Eventually she had every intention of doing the same with Haven and Roma as well.  From her perspective though, in contrast with the Kobolian’s clear impatience, she had all the time in the world, especially with her shiny new body.  She felt young again, despite the true age of her intellect.  Where before the New Horizon arrived, every new day felt like one narrowly stolen from unforgiving death, now she felt like she easily had another half century in her at least.  She had lived so long in a black empty night, and now here the sun had risen for her, and she could see an unexpected dawn stretching forth in front of her, streaked with bold and vibrant colour.

The Romans were happy for the Kobolians having discovered such an interest in Earth by way of the simulants, but had never been lacking any such interest themselves.  They had also been unaware of their existence, but were less intent on studying Margaret herself.  Like other areas of technology, they resisted simply being handed the technology without having earned the discovery of it for themselves.  They still feared that failing to develop a technology for themselves would impede the required respect for the powers of such technologies, and believed that being given a technology instead of developing it for themselves robbed them of something, a certain pride and dignity.

Haven’s President Kim was the most enthusiastic organizer of the summit, and a leader in pushing for the Terran Accords overall, to the point that from time to time she irritated the leadership of Kobol and Roma with the way she sometimes talked as though her own people were the truer descendents of Earth than the others.  She had been fascinated with the old New Commonwealth which used to occupy so much of this chamber, and had been reading everything about it she could find in the archives for months now.  It sometimes felt to the others that she was trying to bring them back into the human family, this person who only made contact with the rest of them yesterday for all intents and purposes, and assuming so much when from their perspective her civilization was still somewhat infantile in its level of development.

Nonetheless, all three worlds had come together, and although in broad strokes there was agreement about how everything in the Solar System should be managed, they were still in the process of hammering out all the fine details before the eventual signing.  Some differences in philosophical disposition as to what rights the current inhabitants of Earth had, and to what degree the ruins should be preserved in the face of a desire to rebuild the planet to its former glory, persisted.  To guide them, Margaret had taken the stand to give a public address.

Patricia in her same cherished pink flower print on white sundress, and Kirby in his well-tailored animal skin outfit, had hardly left her side since she had found herself in a new body.  They were dubious at first, but before long they accepted her in her new form completely.  Before New Horizon left the Earth, they had been kind enough to drop her and her people back at her village where she was able to spend time with her people in a the kind of intimate way she had been unable to for a very long time, having been stuck down in the bowels of the dam for so long.  She was no longer angry or bitter at her predicament, and having the chance to live among them for several months did much to heal her spirit after being spirited into a brand new body.  She fell in love with her people anew, and found herself very proud of how well they had survived and thrived, and came to newly respect who they were today more than merely lament everything she had seen them lose.

She stood up to the podium, but at first did not speak.  As the voices murmured down to a whisper and eventually to a pressing silence, she surveyed the crowd slowly, still operating on a different sense of time from the rest of them.  Her aides also surveyed the crowd, but had a look more of vigilance and sternness than Margaret’s look of pride and appreciation of the moment.  Finally, just as the crowd was beginning to wonder if something was wrong, she finally spoke.

 

“Who speaks for Earth?” she asked.  She looked around as some murmurs could be heard in response to her question as though she might have actually wanted an answer.

“I ask, because Earth clearly needs someone to speak for it.  I have listened for a week now, to you scheming and planning for how you can exploit the Earth, how you can reshape it in an image you would like to see it in.  However, I am also heartened to hear some voices calling for respect for what Earth has become over what it might have been in the past.

“I cannot speak for Earth, but I can speak for its past and present, for I have lived both.  The Earth of old was a masterpiece of high technology and engineering, a gleaming utopia of social justice and progressive ideals.  It was also only brought to that point in response to nuclear war and a global mass extinction due to our deforestation, destruction of natural spaces, and reckless climate change.  It was a world of mixed merits, and as beautiful as it once was, before the fall it was already showing the signs of a possible decline back into the greed and recklessness which brought us to the brink before our second renaissance.

“The world of today is primitive, it is true.  But it is a world of natural beauty and environmental reclamation.  Mighty cities which stood impervious to nature for centuries, are now impossible to see, reclaimed by nature and the animals who were there before humans ever arrived.  It is a world of natural beauty which its current inhabitants now live with harmoniously.”  She looked at Patricia and Kirby.  “By necessity and lack of other options to be sure, but in harmony nonetheless.”

There is beauty in what Earth once was, but it had a darkly destructive and exploitative side.  Likewise there is also beauty in the Earth of today which you mustn’t fail to appreciate, though it certainly has its challenges as well.  I cannot speak for Earth, but I can speak for its past as well as its present.  I can be a bridge, if you would allow me to be.  I can offer my insight into the past and the present, to help you build a future here which serves both what Earth was, and what it is today.

“Yes, do the research!  Yes!  Do your excavations of the old cities!  But also do have respect for the ecology which has since taken their place.  Do so in such a way that you disrupt the local people and wildlife in as minimal a way as possible, and strive to restore the land to what it was before you conducted your research afterwards.  Yes rebuild!  But select only a few key sites across the world to develop extensively, and let the rest of the planet be as it is in peace.  You are a multi system civilization now, each with your own worlds, you don’t require any more than this of this world.  Yes help the current inhabitants of Earth!  But respect the people they have become and the ways of life they have developed on their own in your absence.  Have a standing invitation to any inhabitants of Earth to come to your cities, to learn your ways and live as you do, but don’t expect them to, and respect those who decline, and who remain content to continue to live in their own ways, and strive not to judge them, their cultures, or their ways of life by your own standards.

“Lastly, I’d like to speak of reunion.  The history of Earth is sadly, largely, a history of war.  I can see already how you are all too quick to think antagonistically, to measure the interests of Kobol, or Haven, or Roma, or Earth against the interest of others.  You are too quick to it, too ready to see each other as different from yourselves.  Do not fall into the same trap which so many humans have for so many centuries.  It was hard enough for peoples of neighboring nations to exist in peace, and you are all of different worlds.

“But, you are ultimately all of Earth.  You are all children of Earth, and that is why you are all here, in an exercise in peace, to draft and sign this treaty.  This is a moment of great importance, as profound to the history of humanity as each of your mighty missions leaving Earth themselves were so long ago.  And that is what you all are now, children of Earth and critical sub-plots to the larger and greater narrative of humanity, just as Earth itself has been since you left.  But now, those stories are combining and converging into one epic combined narrative, finally.

“You are one species, divided for too long, and now, finally reunited at last!  May friendship, cooperation, and sensitivity to each other never leave your hearts!”

 

Kathryn switched off the transmission as the applause was reaching its crescendo. 

“Good speech,” Jaren offered as he slowly popped one of the breaded crustacean delicacies from Kobol into his mouth, playfully letting it linger in zero gravity flight towards his mouth before snatching it out of the air.

“Yes, it was very moving.  I hope we can live up to everything she said.  It certainly never occurred to me that might wind up going to war!”

Jaren laughed.  “No, me either… besides, we’d crush you,” he said with a wink.  “I like her suggestions for how we approach the reconstruction of Earth though, sounds very responsible.”

The two were alone in a private yacht Jaren had rented for their honeymoon.  Since leaving Earth orbit and no longer keeping away from each other, they had been utterly inseparable, sometimes stealing away to their suite together for days at a time on the weeks long journey from Earth to Kobol through the Escher Rift.  They had married immediately upon arrival at Kobol in what Jaren swore was a modest ceremony but which still seemed embarrassingly extravagant to her.

Kathryn sometimes doubted herself for recklessly moving things along between them so quickly, but she kept thinking about Margaret’s words to her, about not wasting any time, about trusting her instincts and just going with what felt right.  Besides, the more time she spent with Jaren, the more it felt right to be with him.  He only ever seemed to become more and more compatible with her, and she’d never experienced that before.  She could tell that he not only loved her deeply as a woman, but also profoundly respected her as a human being and professional.

The craft they were on was rented from a facility in orbit around Kobol; it was fast, and had living spaces for up to six people if one didn’t mind being cramped, or just two if they wanted it to feel spacious.  It had a rotating arm with bulbs on either end, at the ends of which were things like sleeping quarters and the kitchen and bathroom, but the vessel also had large sections in the central sections for stretching out in zero gravity, as well as the forward control area which featured a half globe fishbowl viewing window.

They were currently in this forward area enjoying the view as they orbited Saturn and coasted just a couple dozen meters above the majestic rings.  They marvelled at how brightly the light they reflected off the sun lit up their cabin, especially when combined by all the light reflected off the gaseous atmosphere to their left.

“There it is,” Kathryn pointed out.  “See that orange body out there?

“Oh, oh sure, I see it.  That’s where we’re going?”

“Yup, according to the archives it’s a moon called Titan, and before the fall there was an orbital research and commerce outpost attached to it by something called a space elevator.”

“And you want to check it out.”

“Un hunh.”

Jaren laughed.  “Alright then my dear, when I said we could go anywhere and do anything you wanted for our honeymoon I really did mean it after all!  It certainly does sound interesting.”

“There you go, that’s the spirit!” she encouraged him.  “We’ll make an explorer out of you yet.”

He gave her a playfully dirty look.  “Titan it is!” he finally declared with arms dramatically outstretched.

A control panel started blinking and softly buzzing to Kathryn’s right, and she reached over to access the panel and bring up whatever it wished to inform her of.  She experienced a brief moment of horrifying existential dread, but in the blink of an eye it was gone, and replaced instead with a growing warmth radiating from the depths of her being, so much so that Jaren noticed.

“What is it?” he asked.

Kathryn snickered a little, and then as casually as possible, remarked: “I’m pregnant.”

“Really!?” Jaren replied in surprise.

“Yeah,” she laughed.  “The health monitoring system built into the waste system was cued by elevated hormone levels and did further testing to diagnose me,” she smiled mirthfully at the thought of being ‘diagnosed’ with pregnancy.

“Oh that’s wonderful!” Jaren said as he floated over and embraced her in big bear hung which led them to softly bump against the large forward glass fishbowl.  As they slowly floated back in the opposite direction he gave her a lingering and emotional kiss.  Afterwards Kathryn smiled anew.

“What?”

“I was just thinking about what Margaret said, about reunion.  As far as we know this is the first interplanetary pregnancy.  It is the physical manifestation of our reunion as a species.”

“So it is,” Jaren smiled.  “What a delightful distinction for it to carry… begs the question though, where do we raise it?  Kobol or Haven?”

“Neither,” Kathryn answered.  “Earth, of course.  We were both already planning to stay long term at the Terran Research Institute they’re building on the surface, I see no reason to change our plans.  I still want to dedicate myself to researching and developing Earth.  I, I hope you do to…” she asked, with her first hint of nervousness about how this would now all play out.

“Of course,” Jaren softly reassured her.  I still want to be a part of that with you, and I can’t think of a better place to raise the first child born of two child civilizations of Earth than Earth itself.  The manifestation returns to the source, it’s… poetic.”

“Yes, poetic…”

“I just hope we can visit our homeworlds often, not only would we miss them, but I wouldn’t want to deprive our little ones of those worlds either.”

“Ones?  Plural?” she balked.

“One could hope,” Jaren playfully suggested.

“Well,” Kathryn laughed, “let’s see how the first one goes first alright?”

“Of course…” he smiled.

“But you’re right… we should visit the other worlds as often as we can.  I want to show it everything, all of the beauty and wonder which all of our worlds have to offer.  We will raise it on Earth, but we will show it the worlds and it will feel at home on all of them; it will be the first true citizen of the cosmos.”

Chapter 21 (Second Draft)

Kathryn and Jaren burst through the door to the dining hall, almost falling together to the ground as the door slid open after they’d been leaning on the other side of it.  At first Kathryn pulled on Jaren’s shirt to keep him from falling but in the process nearly fell over herself, but this time Jaren was secure enough to keep hold of her arm to prevent her from falling to the floor.

It turned out that unbeknownst to any of the others who did, several of all three crews had brought alcoholic drinks to celebrate with should the occasion arise.  Tonight seemed like an appropriate night to celebrate all they had accomplished on this mission, and they had a good laugh as they all discovered that so many others had had the same idea when everyone had thought it had just been them.

It hadn’t been a formal party, more like some concurrent parties in different living quarters nearby each other in the habitat ring, with people floating between the different locations, enjoying the company at each.

Jaren and Kathryn had stolen away to find something to eat, so they’d stumbled their way down to the dining hall, but they both had something else unambiguously on their mind.  Their mission was effectively over, there was no longer any need of pretense of professionalism anymore as Kathryn slowly walked backwards, urging Jaren towards her with a gesturing finger, and the seductive eyes she’d once practiced in the mirror but never found herself particularly effective in.  She was drunk enough to be feeling playful though in such an open sensual invitation she’d ordinarily never be altogether comfortable with.

She was having fun tonight though; she was allowing herself to be comfortable with behaviour she ordinarily wouldn’t.  She was also long past the point of being concerned that Jaren would reject her for anything she might do in a moment of silliness.  They’d both been hungry to be this way so openly for some time now. 

When he got close enough she turned to bound away mischievously, but he caught her and pulled her towards him and embraced her in a long and lingering hug from behind, and they slowly rocked back and forth together as she stroked his arm appreciatively, savouring the closeness.  How long it had been since she’d felt this way, how much she felt like she’d never felt quite this way before at all, how much she was looking forward to turning around and kissing him again.

It was at that moment that all the lights went on in the dining hall, which startled them as much as it blinded them.  “Ahem,” they heard Molly say from where she was sitting in the middle of the room above one of the viewing portals to the outside of the ship.  “I… didn’t want to bother you, but I was worried the longer I didn’t say anything the weirder it would get.”

Kathryn smiled and walked towards her, pulling Jaren by the hand behind her.  “Why did you have the lights off?” she asked.

“Makes seeing out the windows easier,” she distantly explained.

It had taken two days of careful work, but between the instruction and schematic data in the archives, and Molly’s own explicit instruction, Jaren and the other engineers had successfully been able to transplant her simulant quantum brain from her old head into the head of the new body they’d found for her.  She still had to carry around the antimatter power source until engineers on Kobol could fashion her a proper replacement of the kind she was built to house inside her, but having a fully functional body, she was able to carry the battery herself in a backpack which was such a minor inconvenience in the larger scope of things, and the life she’d been consigned to only a couple short weeks ago.

Kathryn came over and sat down beside her around the circular window in the floor, and Jaren followed suit by sitting beside Kathryn.

“How’s the new body working out for you?” Jaren asked.

“Everything seems to be working okay Jaren, thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

“It’s funny though… I always imagined that I wanted a young woman’s body again, I always longed for the beauty of my youth.  But now…”  Molly looked distantly at her own hand as Kathryn had noticed her doing quite frequently since being transplanted.  She seemed interested in the look of her new body overall, but especially the hand she’d been missing all those years.  “Now I really don’t think I’d want it any other way.  I fell in love with this body at first sight.  To want a young woman’s body would be…” she sighed, “to be chasing a re-becoming of what I once was, a regression.  But simulant or not, I’m not a young woman anymore… and this new embodiment I think much better represents the woman I have become.  It conveys the wisdom of age, compared to my original body it is ancient… as I am.  I suspect it will take some time until the sight of myself in the mirror doesn’t shock me, until I can even recognize my own hands.”

With the hand she’d been musing over she reached over for the bottle she’d apparently been drinking out of.  “You humans have it easier I think.  Sure you actually age, but it dawns on you so gradually.  Sure you periodically look in the mirror and are shocked to realize how much you’ve aged but that’s just the product of accumulated denial.  You can see the passage of time in your face anew every day if you really look for it.”

She poured each of them a glass of the liquid.  “One of the Kobol crew was kind enough to allow me to try some of this alien pink champagne.”

“Ah yes,” Jaren acknowledged in understanding, “beashou.”

“Can alcohol even affect you Molly?” Kathryn asked.

“Yes, well… the system detects and simulates the effects,” she said as she handed the glasses of bubbling pink liquid to the other two.  “Molly though…” she considered reflectively.  “Hardly an appropriate name anymore is it?  Rather a girl’s name don’t you think?”

The other two shrugged.  It wasn’t a common name for people of any age group on either of their worlds.

“I think Margaret might be more appropriate for a woman of my age now.  Yes… I definitely see a Margaret in the mirror now much more than I see a Molly.”

Kathryn laughed a lighthearted laugh that was a mixture of moderate intoxication and sleep deprivation.  “To Margaret!” she exclaimed as she held up her glass.

“To Margaret!” Margaret and Jaren parroted and likewise raised their glasses before all three drank the entire contents of their glasses.

They were quiet for a short time in reflection.  Kathryn looked on Margaret and found that she really did seem to suit her new body.  She was wearing a fitted and conservatively cut dress with her thick bone white hair pulled back in a ponytail.  Her eyes were pale blue and remarkably piercing, and the lines and wrinkles on her face suited her, they suggested a life well lived more than a life of conflict survived.

“Jaren,” Kathryn said as she put a hand on his shoulder, “why don’t you go and wait for me in Felix’s room with all of the others.  I’ll meet you there, okay?”

“Sure,” he answered.  He understood well enough, and was happy to leave them some time to discuss in private with Margaret whatever she wanted.  He put a hand behind her head and pulled her towards him to meet his leaning forward and gave her a kiss on the forehead before standing himself up and making for the door with only the slightest hint of an alcohol induced stagger.

“Can I ask you something?” Kathryn asked Margaret.  She nodded slowly with that same mischievous smile Kathryn had come to know of her before she’d even changed bodies.  “You know?” she laughed.  “I’ve forgotten what I was going to ask!  Guess I’ve had too many of these…” she said as she looked at her glass and whirled it around with a grin.

“Hmm,” Margaret said, looking down with a smile.  “You know… I never realized before how much I associated my body with what was done to it, with… what it was made for,” she said as she poured another modest amount of rose coloured sparkling liquid into Kathryn’s glass and then her own.

“My obsession with the youth and beauty I once had… I think at some point it became metaphor for my… my innocence or something.  Does that make any sense?”

Kathryn nodded.

“It’s almost like I wanted to go back not just to a state of a perfectly functioning body, but a new body like this one, fresh out of production, completely… untouched.  Virgin perhaps.  And now this body, not only is it completely fresh and brand new, not only is it untouched, but it is the body of someone who was loved, someone who lived a life, someone… who I believe lived a happy life, though I have nothing to base that on of course, I just have a feeling.

“Now, in this body, I feel like I am free of so much, not just my infirmities, but all of the baggage I was carrying around in that body, all of the bitterness and bad experiences I associated with it.  Of course I had a lot of good times in that body as well, all those years with Colin and our children… those were good years.  But it’s weird, somehow I feel like those are mine to keep still, part of my mind instead of my old body which I can shed all of that darkness away with.”

“Does it bother you at all that Jaren is going to take your old body back to Kobol for study?  It’s use in another sense.”

Margaret thought about it for a moment.  “No, I don’t think so, not at all… I’m not in in it anymore, it’s not me anymore.  I guess that’s really the key isn’t it?  Things that I feel were done to my body I can leave behind with it, things in my mind I get to keep.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kathryn said as she finished the last of her drink.

Margaret looked at her for several moments with those piercing pale blue eyes.  “You two are quite obviously very much in love.  Obviously you’ve forgiven him.  I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you.  It’s new, but… it’s also so different from anything I’ve ever known.  I can be silly with him, that’s so new for me.  I feel like I can… be myself in a way I’ve never been able to before.  He feels like my equal in every way.  I don’t have to impress him, and he never fails to impress me.”

“That’s the best you could hope for I would think,” Margaret offered as she finished her own glass.  “A word of advice though.  Cherish it.  No matter how well it goes it will all be over all too soon, so it goes…  Every moment you’re able to remember to, cherish that you’re still alive and that you’re with him, that it’s a wonderful moment to live.  Know that someday it will all be over in every sense, and let that dark reality in just enough to highlight in grand relief how wonderful it is that day has yet to come.  Look at me, six hundred plus years and a brand new body, and I still feel sad at the idea of it all coming to an end someday.  Sixty years, six hundred years, six thousand years, it doesn’t matter.  No matter how much time you have it’s never enough.  One more day will always be the most valuable commodity in the universe for any mortal being, and you and your team have given not only me, but this whole planet hope for the first time in a long time, a new hope for one more day to live.

Chapter 20 (Second Draft)

“Alright Felix, how are we looking?” Kathryn asked, strapped into one of the shuttles.

“It’s a beautiful spring morning in the abandoned ruins of the great city of Vancouver,” Felix reported, feigning an overly stylized media presenter voice, “highs of twenty eight, and not a cloud in the sky.  It’s a beautiful day to go sifting through dangerous ruins for a replacement body for your nearest and dearest disembodied simulant head.”

“Thank you Felix,” she replied, indicating she was adequately amused but not going to indulge him any further.  “Patricia, are your explorers standing by for us to pick them up?”  Both she and Molly’s head were in the shuttle with her.

“Yes Kathryn, they are waiting at the location we departed from the other day.”

“Alright then, take us down Jaren.  Other shuttle, as discussed you will wait until we’ve picked up the rest of our party, and then depart to meet us at our designated landing coordinates.  This shuttle will be designated Alpha, yours will be Beta.”

“Understood Alpha,” Irvina answered over the comms from the other shuttle.  “We’ll see you there.”

 

Teresa, Deirdre and Terey were left behind with Felix on New Horizon while Kathryn, Patricia, Molly’s head and Jaren were the only ones currently in Alpha Shuttle in order to accommodate the six explorers they were going to pick up.  This left Irvina, Reed, Xion, Nadelle, Francis, and Ana standing by on the second shuttle.

Alpha Shuttle raced away from the New Horizon and Kathryn, Patricia, and Molly took the opportunity to marvel yet again at the spectacular view of the planet below the projection of the exterior onto the interior surfaces of the shuttle provided, as Jaren focused on safely bringing the shuttle down to Molly and Patricia’s village site.

They approached the ground remarkably quickly, to the point that Kathryn could tell Patricia was becoming somewhat nervous before Jaren severely decelerated the shuttle, and then slowed down more gently towards a soft landing on the extended struts below the shuttle.  The wall fell away to present a ramp, and Patricia welcomed the local explorers onto the shuttle.

“Don’t be afraid,” she told them, “they are friends.”

The explorers seemed rather taken aback at the site of Molly’s head sitting strapped into a seat above the sack her power source had been mounted into.

“Not to worry boys, all part of the plan,” she reassured them as casually as she could through her scroll speakers.

The men looked at each other and shrugged before being led over to their seats by Patricia, who assisted them to strap properly strap themselves securely into their seat harnesses.

“This is a great honour,” Patricia assured them.  “Not only will you be blessed as I have to see the lands from the sky, but our task is to find a new body for dear Leader and help her be restored.  Isn’t that wonderful?”  She sounded genuinely honoured to be part of the effort.

The men didn’t seem much phased by the promise of a great view, perhaps they didn’t fully understand what she’d meant, but they brightened considerably and some of their tenseness seemed to dissipate upon hearing what their primary objective was.  They loved their dear leader, and they knew how much Molly lamented what had happened to her body.  The prospect of helping her be restored seemed a great honour, and what an unexpected additional blessing after only so recently being freed from her imprisonment in the damn!

Kathryn couldn’t tell to what degree Jaren took relish in terrifying their new passengers, but he seemed to take off and accelerate into the sky somewhat faster than he usually would or needed to.  The men seemed on the verge of terror and when she saw the subtle smirk on Jaren’s face she understood.  She hadn’t herself, but Jaren certainly recognized two of the men they’d brought onboard as ones who had been guarding Kathryn during his botched rescue attempt.  Worse still, one of them was clearly the one who had cut her throat. 

She’d already completely forgotten but Jaren clearly hadn’t, and although she doubted he’d do anything else, he was taking this opportunity to relatively innocently get back at them by making their ascent a little harder on them than it needed to be.

He climbed to a relatively high elevation, and signalled for the other shuttle to begin their descent to the surface.  Their shuttle tilted to the side for a time as Jaren traversed the surface of the planet before beginning to descend again.  The area they’d designated this time for landing and setting up camp was a relatively flat area on the water with a mixed sandy and rocky beach leading up a gradual slope to a relatively open and flat grassy area.  Here there didn’t seem to be any danger of surface instability, and it allowed them the opportunity to see any potential threats coming their way before they fell upon them.

“How is the fuel holding up Jaren?” Kathryn asked as she undid her shoulder straps.  The explorers began to do the same upon seeing her do so.

“Bout half, other shuttle’s probably the same, so another four or five return trips.”

“So if we needed to spend a few days or more here we’d want to set up camp here as opposed to going back up to the ship every night?”

“Yes, although… it’s a lot less fuel to go to the northern encampment than to orbit, if we’re welcome it might be best to spend the nights there if it comes to that.”

“You would be welcome,” Molly confirmed through the scroll.

Kathryn led the others down the ramp to wait for the other shuttle, and they were immediately able to see its shiny exterior high up in the sky, glittering in the morning sun.  The all watched as it descended and finally came down to a landing beside them, including Molly’s head who was worn on the back of one of her men.

Irvina led the others out of Beta shuttle and nodded in acknowledgement of her teammates.  “Jaren, Captain.”

“Irvina,” Kathryn acknowledged.  “We were discussing that for the sake of fuel, if we need to spend several days or more here we’d be better off staying at Molly’s village as opposed to returning to orbit.  If it looks like we’ll be spending weeks though, we’ll have to set up a formal camp.”

“Forgive me Captain, but if this is really going to take weeks then we are going to have to return to Kobol and resupply.”

“Good point.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” 

Irvina nodded.

“Ok, Molly’s explorers please gather around.”  Kathryn fully deployed one of the large scrolls and laid it on the ground so they could all stand around and see, though she squatted down to manipulate it with touch control.  She looked up at the men though, and detected a sense of unease.  “How are you all by the way, did you enjoy the flight?  Must have been pretty exciting if it was your first time in the air?”

The men mumbled that they were well and that yes it had indeed been something to travel in a flying machine.  They hardly had the language to even refer to what they had just experienced.  She got the sense that they now just wished to get on with the mission and she was happy to oblige.  “This… is a true aerial image of this peninsula.  Molly tells me you’ve all been here exploring for equipment and supplies you can still use, that you’ve all been here at least once?”  Some grunts and definitive nodding answered in the affirmative for her.  “Right.  Well, this is a road map overlay of the peninsula from the archives.  As you can see, the gulleys generally map onto the ravines between the hills, but not perfectly.  This general area,” she pointed, “is where Mol-, I mean your leader, says we might be able to find a place with things we may be able to restore her with.  Can you lead us there?”

The men nodded while one stroked his chin pensively.  “Hills… unstable, but inside the hills are the best place to find valuables, but very dangerous to enter.”

“Yes, we figured.  We have engineers who can assess structural integrity, and we have some equipment which should help when we need to enter one.”

The men looked at her blankly.

“How do you suggest we proceed.”

“Safest way is along the water, cave ins less likely, but more vulnerable to murdercat attack.”

“Yes,” Kathryn acknowledged as she stood and pushed the scroll closed.  “We know that much.  What is the best way to avoid the, um… murdercats?”

“Luck?” the one man offered.

“Right.”

“If we spot one,” he held up his blow dart, “we will try to stop it.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “We have weapons too.  If you alert us we can attack along with you.”

The man nodded his understanding.

“So, cave ins, murder cats, the occasional bear… anything else we need to worry about?”

“Explorers from other tribes.”

“You encounter them often?”

“Often, yes… but not always.”

“Do you ever get along?”

“Sometimes we make brothers.  Usually we make war.”

“Which do you prefer?” she asked.  They looked at her as though they didn’t understand the question, which she figured was fair enough.

“Alright, everyone listen up.  Here’s the plan.  We walk in twos, two explorers in the front, two in the middle, two in back.  The rest of you pair off and find yourself a place in line.  Person on the left watch your left, on the right watch your right.  One of you look out for threats above and around, the other focus more on the terrain ahead of and beneath you.  Everyone clear?”

 

They all formed into a line two by two and crossed the field towards the wasteland of once mighty skyscrapers and streets.  Kathryn couldn’t shake the feeling of tiptoeing through a graveyard as they entered a covered area.  Once in the city, a variety of leafy and evergreen trees quite thoroughly obscured the sky, and between the trees and the moss and grasses on the ground, everything she could see had a distinct emerald green hue to it. 

As they walked along a creek the terrain was not forgiving.  It was not a path they were traversing, it was wild land, with a deep ravine on one side of them and a steep slope going up the other.  She knew that the hills were the remains of collapsed buildings, but only now did she realize that the creek on her other side was the remains of an underground tunnel under the roadway that used to exist there, now long caved in.

She tried to picture what this place must have looked like once.  She imagined walking along a concrete sidewalk with a towering structure shooting up into the sky beside her, covered in glass and glittering in the morning sun.  She imagined it must have been something like what she’d seen in the capital city on Kobol.  She tried to imagine seeing cars of all sorts zooming by her on one side, subway trains rumbling underfoot…  Her dreams of restoring Earth were not so grandiose or imperial as to want to exactly replicate in this space what had once been, but she found herself longing to be able to walk down this street for real, to know this city and its people as they had been, to know this world and its culture at its height.

It reminded her of home, although home was several hundred years of technological development behind Earth at the time of the plague, it occurred to her that Earth at some point in its past must have looked quite a bit like Haven did now, at least in the twin city.  She imagined hundreds of years before the plague, her ancestors just coming to grips with the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and developing the early rocketry which would take them up to…

She’d stopped dead in her tracks, and the rest of the party was looking at her expectantly.  Some looked up into the sky to try to see what she was looking at, but they couldn’t.  From her perspective, a hole in the canopy of the forest serendipitously showed through the full moon as seen during daytime, a pockmarked blue white circle begging contemplation.

In that moment she understood something profound.  The whole time her people had been on Haven, they had looked up in the sky and seen the New Horizon up there, waiting for them to return.  Its presence there almost taunted them, derided them for having lost the ability to return and dared them to attempt it again.  Haven had no large moon, only New Horizon, but seeing that moon from this planet, she understood that it must have elicited a very similar taunting to the people of Earth, that it must still today to the survivors.  It demands notice, demands explanation and exploration, an ever-present challenge just out of reach up in the celestial sphere.

She knew a kinship with her ancestors in that moment, the first of many such moments, but the first would always be the most profound.  She was able to directly relate something of her Haven experience to something of the experience of Earth, and that moment of recognition brought her to some sort of spiritual closeness with her deep roots as a human being.  It was her first sense of truly deep connection, her first profound moment of deep understanding about of the ultimate unity of all human beings on all four worlds, they were not Havenites, Kobolians, Romans, and Earthlings, they were all just humans with different addresses, an extended family separated for too long.  They were one collective force in the universe divided only in their minds.

“What’s up?” Irvina asked beside her.  “Problem?”

“No, no problem…  Sorry, let’s continue.”

 

Periodically they would find that the path they wanted to take was simply insurpassable.  The hill too steeply gave way directly into the ravine, or they wanted to go one direction but could only go the other, and getting to where they wanted to go even just a few kilometers in from their landing site required a lot of backtracking and careful route planning.

They didn’t complain, but Kathryn was getting the sense that this was not how the explorers were used to operating, that they tended to reach the outskirts, and enter the first hill which presented promise and opportunity.  Regardless, their experience was proving quite useful.

Kathryn and Irvina were directly behind the lead two explorers, and one casually fell back to walk with the two women.  “We are being watched,” he said.

“By what?” Irvina asked.  “From where?”  The man pointed, but the two women could not see anything. 

“They are rival explorers, but we cannot tell from which people.  We can’t say how dangerous.”

Kathryn touched her PANEs.  “Taking a nap Overwatch?  Lead explorers report possible hostiles to the west.”

“Scanning…” Felix reported.  “Sorry Captain, yes indeed.  A dozen targets… one point two kilometers west south west.  Patching infra-red into your PANEs.”

“Wow,” Kathryn said, startled to the point that she had to stop walking, so the whole party did as well.  Now instead of what was in front of her, all she could see in her glasses was the red scanning map from orbit.  She lifted the glasses up and rested them on the top of her head, and pulled a pocket scroll out of her pocket.  She opened it up and muttered: “there’s got to be a more effective way to display… yes, there we go.”  She tapped a few more times at the panel and then rolled it up and tucked it back in her pocket.  “Much better…” she uttered as she pulled the glasses back down over her eyes.  Now instead of the orbital imaging, she had the proper view out in front of her, but with targets marked with cursors off in the distance, superimposed on the true image.  She was seeing every large heat signature besides their party through the glasses, complete with a range indicator above them.

“Setting F7B on your PANEs if you’ve got them,” she called back down the line.

One of the lead explorers grabbed her arm.  “Waneta,” he warned.  “I saw their colours, they are Waneta.  We are in danger.  If we have seen them they are already planning to attack!”

“How do they attack?  What is the best defence?” she asked.

“They circle, attack from all sides.”

Looking all about her in every direction she could see figures slowly making their way into an encircling formation.  “Is there any way to deter their attack, to make them reconsider?”

“They have never been seen without suffering attack,” he explained, obviously quite concerned.

“Weapons?”

“Swords, darts.”

“Damn,” Kathryn exclaimed, turning to Irvina.  “We don’t have the space here to get into a defensive formation against an encircling attack.”

“I have a really bad idea…” Irvina offered, looking up the slope immediately beside them towards a clearing at the top of the hill.

“It’s a good idea,” Kathryn considered.

“Unless we all fall into a cave in and break our necks.”

“No more likely than being hacked to bits if we don’t,” she said with a shrug.  “Oh hell, they’re almost in formation.  Everyone up the hill!!

Some seemed to hesitate or start to protest, but when they saw Kathryn and Irvian along with the two lead explorers all bolt at full speed up the hill they all sensed the urgency and followed.

The head at the very top of the hill, New Horizon crew on your bellies facing out with weapons drawn, explorers out front!  Stick to the ground at distance but if they get close enough, up on your feet for defence against swords!” Kathryn yelled as she arrived at the top of the hill first and got into position, quickly followed by all the others who obeyed her instructions without question and all properly got into formation.

“What’s your name?” Kathryn asked as she tapped on the boot of the explorer in front of her who had warned her about the Waneta.

“Kirby.”

“Kirby will they stop if they’re getting killed?”

“They would consider it a dishonour.”

“I understand.”

A dart she never saw whistled past her ear.

Balls!!” Molly cried out from the scroll in the bag below her.  “Those bastards!  My one good eye!!”

Kathryn looked back to see a dart embedded in poor Molly’s one eye, moving about with her eye as she moved it by looking around in disbelief.

Despite the stress of the situation, or maybe because of it, Kathryn couldn’t help but let out a mirthful grunt at the sight.

“It’s NOT FUNNY!” Molly yelled angrily at her, glaring at her with the dart pointed squarely at her in line with her stare.  This of course only made it funnier, but the moment was broken when she saw one of the infra-red cursors manifest into direct line of sight, and she raised her printed handgun, took aim at his chest and fired.

She rarely missed, and this time was no exception.  They all tried to storm them at once from all directions, but under Kathryn’s instructions they were ready for them.  Before long they were all taken out long before they reached a range at which they could use their swords.  Those who were shot were quickly dying if not dead already, and those who had been darted or struck by an energy blast from the Kobol wands were soundly unconscious.

 

Nobody seemed in a hurry to get back up to their feet after the event.  Kathryn tapped Kirby’s boot and asked: “What happens when the ones still alive wake up?”

“If we are gone, they will leave.  If they see us they will attack again.  They claim these entire ruins for themselves.”

“I see.  And how long will your darts knock them out?”

“Half a daytime,” he answered.  She figured that meant four hours at least and probably no more than six.

“Is anyone hurt?” she called out.

Yes!!” Molly cried out indignantly.

Besides Molly?”

Nobody else called anything else out.  Cautiously Kathryn pushed herself up onto her knees and dusted her hands before standing up and walking over to Molly’s head.  She put her fists on her hips and looked down at her sympathetically as her eye along with its embedded dart looked up at her in return.

“Pull it out?” Kathryn asked.

“Oh no,” Molly answered sarcastically.  “I like it this way.  I think it might start a fashion trend.”

“Alright,” Kathryn sighed.  “Hold still,” she advised as she bent down and put one hand on the top of Molly’s head to stabilize it, and as gingerly as possible slipped the dart out.  Molly blinked her eye furiously several times and then looked up at Kathryn gratefully.  “Are you damaged?” she asked the head.  “Can you still see?”

“Surprisingly… yes,” she answered through the scroll in the bag below her.  “It must have just missed the important optics.”

“Good.  Alright, well we’d better WHOA!!”  The whole hill most of them were still laying down on gave way and slumped, falling straight down, then stopped, then fell again, and then fell again, about two meters each time.  Kathryn was just barely able to keep her footing the whole time and stayed on her feet.

“What was that??” she asked anyone able to answer.

“Cascade collapse,” Irvina answered, carefully getting to her feet. “The top floor fell onto the lower one, both of which collapsed onto the lower floor, and the next.  We’re lucky we didn’t fall through.”

“Why didn’t we?”

“Probably too much debris and soil ontop of the top floor, the weight was easier to accommodate by collapsing floors of the original structure than to have something fall through.”

“Right.”  Kathryn knelt down to address the head.  “Molly, you’re gonna have to help us out.  You said once you were on the ground you’d be able to guide us.  Are any intuitions striking you?  We’ve been wandering around too long, can you help us out?”

“I’m sorry, nothing looks anything like…” she looked around, “what it did before.”

Patricia approached.  “If you could see inside one of these ruins, could it help you more precisely locate yourself?”

“That’s an interesting idea girl.  It might.  A lot of these buildings were residential and I wouldn’t recognize, but a lot of the residential buildings had businesses on the main floor I might recognize.”

Kathryn sighed, but then addressed Irvina and Francis.  “What is the safest and easiest way to get into an interior of one of these hills?” she asked the engineers.

“Safest?” Francis asked.  “There may be an easiest way, but there is no safe way.”

“Fine.  Suppose we wanted to get into this structure specifically, how would you do it?”

“This hill we’re on?”

“Yes.”

“The one that just collapsed several floors?”

“Yes.”  She could tell he wanted to simply state that he wouldn’t want to, but he declined to.

“I’d take detailed orbital ground penetrating scans and assess the least terrifyingly dangerous level and try to tunnel in from the side.”

Kathryn turned to the explorers.  “What about you all?  You must get into old buildings to scavenge, how do you do it?”

“Sometimes there are holes leading into them from the water.”

“Sometimes there are…” she shook her head in disbelief.  “You see?” she scolded Francis.  “That’s why we brought them with us!  Let’s split up into three teams, each led by a pair of explorers, and see if they can find us an entrance into a building, any building.”  She touched the side of her PANEs.  “Felix, we’re going to need you to watch us very carefully, we’re temporarily splitting up.”

 

She assigned who was on which team, and allowed Kirby to lead Irvina, Ana, and herself down into one of the creek gulleys and follow the water along, looking for a cave in the wall which they claimed might lead them into a building.

“Teams be warned,” Francis said over the comms to all three of the groups, “there is a herd of large animals moving through one of the ravines near you.  They appear from the descriptions offered by the locals to be a herd of the herbivores they called deer.  Still no sign of any threatening animals.”

“Here,” Kirby said.  He was pointing to an oval opening about a meter across which had a modest but steady stream of liquid running out of the bottom of it, down the rest of the wall, and into the stream.

“Oh I see, thanks.”  She touched her PANEs.  “Be advised teams, what Kirby has shown me I think is a drainage tunnel where the water that seeps into the building drains out into the ravines.  We’re going to check it out.”

“Send one of mine,” she heard Molly strongly suggest over the comms.  “That’s what they’re here for.”

Kathryn paused and considered.  She wanted to go herself, and if it was just a matter of putting someone else’s life at risk instead of her own she wouldn’t have considered it, but the reality was that they were indeed much more experienced in this and would more readily understand the dangers they would find.

“Alright, here Kirby,” she took off her PANEs and put them on his face.  These will allow you to see in the dark and send what you see back to this,” she said of the scroll she took out her pocket.  “Just try not to touch it though, you might make it do something you don’t want.”

Kirby looked somewhat concerned at her wording.  Might it blow up on his face if he touched it the wrong way?

“Just go in and have a look around.  Your leader will see what you see and be able to tell if she recognizes anything.”

The man nodded, and bravely squeezed into the hole.

“Kathryn, heads up.  I see what I think to be one of those murdercats in the area.  I think it’s stalking those deer, but its close enough that it…”

“What?  Talk to me Felix.”

“It’s veered off.  I think it’s heading in your direction.  It looks like it’s looking for an appropriate perch to look down on you, opposite side of the ravine from you.”

“I see it,” Kathryn said with a devious smile, drawing her gun and relishing the chance for some payback against the beast that had hurt her friend.  It didn’t seem to matter to her whether or not it was actually the same animal or not. 

The creature was hiding remarkably effectively in a tree, but its eyes gave it away when she looked right at it.  She raised her gun and carefully took aim right between those two devilish eyes.  But before she could squeeze the trigger, the life left its eyes and it seemed to fall out of the tree and out of sight.  She looked over and saw that Irvina had rendered it unconscious with her wand.

Irvina was confused by the impression Kathryn’s expression gave her that she’d done something wrong, but Kathryn merely thanked her politely and that was the end of it.  She went back to her scroll to monitor Kirby’s progress.

It was hard to make out exactly what was seen, especially with the red and black infra-red scanner image, but what could be seen was remarkably well preserved.  Very little within was actually preserved of course, but the overall structure, the walls and such, were still intact.  What the room used to be however, was practically impossible to tell.

“We found another entrance,” Xion reported over the comms, “we’re going to send one of our guides in, we’ll feed you all of the raw video directly.”

“Thanks for your help Kirby, you can come on out now,” Kathryn called into the black void as she brought up the other one’s feed.

“We’ve found another one here too,” Jaren said from the third team.  “Want us to send someone in?”

“Wait until we’ve checked out this second one.  No need to risk yours till we’ve checked that one out.”

“Understood.”

“Everyone watched as one of Kirby’s colleagues slipped into the drainage way and shimmied his way through the darkness.  He finally emerged into a much larger though still not terribly large open room with pillars holding up the ceiling.  He spotted an entry way into a larger area and they watched as he proceeded into it.  The second area must have been too large and open for his scanners to be able to pick anything up, and Kathryn listened as Xion explained in warning to the explorer that they were going to remotely activate the little lights on his PANEs and amplify the light he would see in his lenses, and on their remote viewing as well.

When they did so, a large cavernous area was revealed, and something about it seemed very familiar to Kathryn, but she couldn’t immediately identify what it was.

“It looks like the main central area from Orbital One,” Felix commented on the feed from up in orbit.  From what she’d seen remotely of the station he was right, but that wasn’t it…  She snapped her fingers.  “Yes, and a larger configuration of the New Horizons dining hall as well!”

It was a large open area extending into the distance, with elevated walkways on either side on top of a series of open spaces along the main level such as the explorer had emerged from.  The place was awash in debris, and in a number of places the upper walkway had collapsed into the spaces below, but all in all it was all remarkably intact.

“You know what else it looks like?” Kathryn heard Molly say.

“What?”

“Oh my god I don’t believe it!  I recognize it, I know that place all too well!” she laughed.

“What is it?”

“It’s the mall!  My mall!” she laughed again.  “It’s the damn Commonwealth Pacific Mall!”

“And does that help us?” Kathryn asked.

“Sure does!  I spent way too much time and money in that place, and from there I can definitely direct you to where the simulant laboratory should be.”

“Oh thank goodness,” Kathryn exclaimed in relief.  “Alright, get that man out of there and let’s meet up again to plan a route to the lab.”

“Warning Kat,” Felix communicated from high in the sky.  “I see nine creatures headed your way from the east north east.  They look a little different from the cat and they sure aren’t moving in a friendly way if you catch my drift.”

“Nine of them?”

“That’s right.”

“Good grief.”

“Inside,” Kirby said, pointing to the hole.

“Why?”

Inside!” he insisted. 

Kathryn didn’t protest and pushed her way into the small opening in the Earth, and the other four followed behind her.  As she moved she called to the other two teams.

“Converge on our position, I have a feeling we may need your help.  Be careful though, and advance with caution.  Don’t let them get too close unless you have the clear advantage.”

She tripped and fell into the open area, and Irvina tripped over her and fell to the ground as well.  They managed to scramble out of the way to avoid the other three following close behind.

“Light?” Kirby asked, and Kathryn unrolled the scroll and set it to beacon mode, both sides of the screen lit up remarkably brightly, and the whole area they found themselves in lit up.

“Weapons.” Kirby said, pointing to the hole they had just come out of, and she understood.  He had forced the animals into a bottleneck if they wanted to come for them, and that is exactly what they seemed to have in mind.  Ana was unarmed, but Kathryn with her gun, Irvina with her wand, and the two explorers with their blow darts took turns putting down wolves one after another as they came through, but the third one managed to get by them, shelterd from their attacks by the bodies of the previous two.  In their panic the fourth one came through, but the explorers, having survived such an attack before, kept targeting the wolves in the tunnel until their still bodies plugged the hole too tightly for any more to push their way through. 

The women frantically danced about trying to avoid being bitten by the two which had made it in.  Irvina relative quickly put down one of them with her wand, but Kathryn was too afraid of hitting one of her teammates if she wildly shot at the remaining one in the small space.  Instead when it came for her she reared back and kicked it square in the jaw as hard as she could, and knocked it back as it let out a yelp of pain.  She then advanced on it and kicked it several more times in the head before finally stomping it as hard as she could several time, crushing its skull to be sure that it was dead in a horrible bloody mess.

Completely lit up with pulsing adrenaline she turned back to the others and frantically yelled in excited anger tinged with frustration, “is EVERYTHING on this fucking planet trying to KILL US!!??”  She breathed heavily, her chest heaving in and out with the excitement in her veins and the sudden exertion of energy.

“Nope,” Irvina answered with a smirk and a twinkle in her eye, also quite excited and worked up but nowhere near as much as Kathryn, who had just gotten so up close and personal with the predator.  “Only the things that aren’t afraid of us.”

 

From both sides of the narrow access tunnel, wolf bodies were removed from the clog of flesh now blocking the passage between the outside and interior of the ruin.  When the last was pulled out, Jaren was the first through.  He asked if everyone was alright, but the burning inquiry in his eyes was pointed squarely on Kathryn.  Clearly he was most interested in her well-being first, but out of consideration and responsibility had to ask more generally of everyone.

“We’re fine,” Irvina answered him, choosing not to be offended by his clear primary interest in Kathryn.  “Pretty lucky to be actually.”  She did her best to brush dust and dirt off of her pants, but not meeting with much luck.  “Captain Barnes here turns out to be quite a beast, I’m impressed!”

Kathryn looked at Jaren with an expression meant to convey that she was quite fine and that he needn’t worry.  “What do we do with these dead wolves?” she asked.

“We normally use the skins and eat their meat,” Kirby answered.  “But if we leave them here, they will be consumed by other animals.”

“Alright, let’s just do that then.  Everyone else is outside?”

Jaren nodded.

“Good, we can all head to the final site together.”

Kathryn made her way through the tunnel and greeted the rest of the teams on the other side.  Some offered handshakes, others embraced her in lingering hugs before she could offer anything less.  She turned one of Molly’s men around to address the head sitting on top of the backpack.

“So, based on what you saw in there you think you can direct us to the lab where you were built?”

“Yes, absolutely.  Now that I have my bearings and understand better that these ravines were streets and such, yes.  It’s actually not very far from here.”

“Okay, where do we head.”

“Well, the direction you’re looking two blocks, then turn right for three blocks and its right there.  Er… well, that’s where it used to be anyways.  Now I’m really nervous that we won’t find anything other than useless debris and wreckage.  Before we go there there is hope, but if we find nothing… then all hope is gone.”

Kathryn nodded that she understood.  “We felt the same way when we came back to Earth not knowing if we’d even find any still living humans, let alone…” she looked at Jaren for a moment, then declined to finish her thought.  “Okay, where’s Kirby?”

Kirby was just poking his head through the entrance to the ruins as he emerged.

“Kirby, you’re my guy.  You take point and lead us over there please.  Your leader says where we need to go is two blocks that way,” she extended her arm to convey the direction, and then three blocks that way,” she bent her arm and pointed with her finger to indicate the cross direction.  “Same two by two configuration we initially took.  Felix, you have eyes on us?”

“Yes ma’am, things look clear for several kilometers around you.  The remaining wolves seem to have gone back to wherever they came from, and none of the survivors from the tribe that attacked have moved at all so far.   You’re clear to move on.”

And so they did, with Kathryn following Kirby and his fellow local.  The serenity of the location resumed its deceptive quality.  Birds chattered and playfully fluttered through the tree tops above their head, and animals they could never quite get a look at fluttered about in the ravine below, seemingly hard at work with the business of survival in the wild.

The ravine water was only a little less than waist deep and although it had a minor flow to it, it was soft enough that when they needed to cross from one island city block to another, they could relatively easily climb down the embankment on one side, wade through the water, and climb back up the other side to resume their hike.  The only variable of consequence was how easily the embankments lent themselves to traverse.  Sometimes they could directly engage where they’d approached and wanted to cross, other times they’d have to make their way quite an irritatingly far distance up or down stream to find a section more suitable for crossing.  This and the lack of a beaten down path along the banks of the water ways made for frustratingly slow going.

Finally though, they came to an embankment adjacent to the area where Molly had indicated.

“Does every ruin block have an entrance like we saw at the other mounds?” Kathryn asked Kirby.

“If you look hard enough, yes.  There will always be at least one drainage hole, though they are often not large enough for us to pass through.”

“I see.  Have you ever tried to dig such a passage larger?”

“Only once.  We lost two brothers that day.”

“I understand.  Okay,” she forcefully called out after turning around to address the rest of her party.  “Fan out!  Get in the water and look all around the base of this mound for an entrance like we’ve seen before.  Kirby says there’s got to be one, but it may be too small to enter.  We’ll deal with that if and when we need to, but first we need to find it.”

As the teams spread out they investigated the entire perimeter.  It didn’t take long before Ana called out that she’d found something.  Kathryn joined the others in looking at the hole in the side of the ravine somewhat dubiously.  It was narrow, too narrow, well… just barely wide enough for some unlucky soul to shimmy their way through it.

“I’ve got just the thing,” Irvina offered as she pulled off her backpack and rummaged through it.  She produced something like a cube a quarter meter across.  “This is a multi-form drone, it can convert to a helicopter form, or like this.”  She placed the cube at the mouth of the hole and pointed her wand at it.  The cube deconstructed itself into the shape of a segmented snake and began slithering down the hole.  “It has a video feed you can all access, its band theta four, unencrypted.”

Kathryn processed this and then, realizing she could pick up the feed on her PANEs pulled them out of her pocket and put them on, using her pocket scroll to switch them to the channel Irvina had indicated.  She was still marvelling somewhat at the utility of the device, watching through its eyes as it worked its way into the interior.  It seemed that the hole was about six meters long, but maintained the same narrowness the entire length if maybe getting a touch wider the further in the drone slithered.  Finally the snake reached the end and waited ahead of the soil mound in front of it on the floor below for further instruction.

“I’m going to switch it to flight mode and set it on an automatic search and scan mode,” Irvina explained.

The drone folded back up into a cube, and then configured itself into a flat triangle with mini antimatter thrusters at each point, and then got to work mapping the accessible interior.  Kathryn watched the video feed, but then put the image onto the top left of both lenses so she could keep an eye on it while she went to talk to Molly.

“What do you think?” she asked the head, who was watching on a scroll one of her men was holding up in front of her immobile head so she could see.

“Hard to make out…” she admitted.  “I’m certain we’ve got the right building, but… this area appears to be an empty large area… oh, right!  This is the parking garage for the Road Pods in the basement of the building.”

“What are Road Pods?” Kathryn asked.

“Well, they were pods which uh… travelled on the road,” Molly awkwardly answered.  “They were a primary component of our transportation infrastructure, you just get in, think at it where you want to go and it would take you there, charging your accounts for its use when you were finished with it,” she explained.  “This was one of any number of storage lots where Road Pods not currently in use would sit idle, waiting for the next summons.  It also doubled as a parking area for the few weirdos who still had antique vehicles which required a driver, as well as those wealthy enough to afford their own private fancy pod.”

“I see.  What should be above this level?”

“Ummm…” Molly’s head looked up into the sky with its one eye, searching for the answer.  “As I recall… the level above this was ground entrance commercial, shops and restaurants which opened onto the street for pedestrian traffic and, of course, anyone arriving from below in Road Pods.”

“And the simulant laboratory?”

“Three or four floors above that.”

“Three, or… four,” Kathryn repeated, dismayed with her inability to be more specific.

“Felix?”

“How can I help?”

“Molly says that the level the drone is currently in is a basement level, above that was street entrance commercial and the lab three or four floors above.  What can the ground penetrating sensors show of the internal structure of this particular mound?”

“Hold.”

Kathryn waited with Molly looking right at her.  She didn’t have the luxury of turning her head away, but also seemed content to continue to stare at her as though she were assessing her, surveying her, for some reason trying to absorb every feature of her appearance, while Kathryn was politely trying to look elsewhere.

“If this doesn’t work out,” Molly finally said, still looking unblinkingly at Kathryn, “it’ll take a long time for the Mormons to figure out and perfect simulant technology, but eventually if they keep at it they should be able to create for me any kind of form I’d like.  I always imagined I’d like to have my original form restored, but I’ve been daydreaming since you all showed up with so much promise and possibility for me.  I could be a woman of any appearance I could want, I could custom order any kind of beauty I want.  I could have yours!” she exclaimed with a mischievous smile, to which Kathryn frowned quite profoundly.

“Oh not to worry child, I know that would be unfair, especially with you humans aging the way you insist on doing… or hey, I could be a man!”  The novelty seemed to initially tantalize her, but she quickly changed her expression to one of dismissal of the idea.  “No, no I don’t suppose I’d like that at all.”

“I suppose if you didn’t want to, there’s no reason why you’d have to look entirely like a human at all,” Kathryn offered, keeping the conversation going while they waited.  “You might discover a form that suited you even better than a human one.”

“This is true, why I never thought of that, but you’re right aren’t you?  Why I could be a three meter tall bronze skinned monster with laser eyes!  Or I could be an angel with large beautifully delicate wings, or could be a barrel chested silver robot with arms and legs like robotic elephant trunks or something, anything I want!”

“I would imagine so, yes.”

“Hunh… when I was made, back in the day… the whole point of simulants was to replicate living humans as precisely as possible.  That was the pride in them, how indistinguishable they were from the real thing.  It never became in fashion to make things deliberately unreal… though I suppose eventually we’d have gotten there.  We made everything from house cats, to dinosaurs with human minds in them, to toy elephants the size of cats… that was about as imaginative as the builders got before the fall.”

“Okay I’ve run the scans,” Felix said over the comms.

“And?”

“And… there is nothing above the first floor.”

Molly looked down and away in disappointment for the first time.

“Explain,” Molly commanded.

“It looks as though most of the top of the buildings broke off and fell away long ago like all the others, and they are all in various stages of the remaining floors collapsing down on top of each other.  In this structure every floor above the main original ground level floor has collapsed into one large mass.  If there’s anything of interest in there for us, it will take an archaeology crew to conduct a lengthy and meticulous excavation layer by layer from the top, something well beyond the capabilities of a general exploration mission such as ours.”

Kathryn sighed.  “Alright, thank you Felix.”  Kathryn looked down sympathetically at Molly, who had heard the exchange.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly.  “Eventually such a team will be dispatched here, but even if, well… whatever’s left in there will all have been crushed.  I’m sure what they find there will help get the Mormons jump started in their research, but I doubt there will be anything in there that can properly restore you, certainly not that we can access today or with this mission.”

“I understand,” Molly somberly replied.  “I appreciate your efforts Captain, and I trust you will do whatever you can to help me.  When appropriate I will volunteer everything I can think to tell you regardless.  You have proven your intent to help me; I see no reason to hold anything back anymore.”

“Thank you,” Kathryn offered sincerely.

“Captain Barnes,” Irvina called out to her.

“What is it Irvina?”

“I see something that I… think might take the drone up to the next level.  It looks like an emergency stairwell or something?  Should I send it up to check it out?”

“Sure,” Kathryn said, leaving Molly and heading over to Irvina.  “Can’t hurt, may as well explore what we can of the interior while we’re here.  Felix please flag this building on the maps for later expeditions, as well as the mall Molly claimed that other structure was, I’m sure that would be just as interesting to archaeology teams.”

“Already done.”

“Interesting…” Irvina muttered as she watched the video feed from the drone. 

It powered its way through a door frame which must have originally been closed with a heavy fire door and found itself in a main lobby area.  There was broken glass and rocky debris and rubble everywhere, to the point that one rarely saw the floor in the video feed.  Like in the first building they explored there were just empty cavernous spaces where one business or another once occupied.

Wait!!” Molly cried out.  “Stop the drone!”

Irvina cancelled the drone’s automated search pattern and commanded it to simply hover in place.

“Slowly pan it back around to the right please,” Molly requested, uncharacteristically polite.

Irvina did as she was asked and relayed the command to the drone.  They all watched as it slowly rotated and they all strained to see what Molly had thought she’d seen.

“Okay stop.  Zoom in on the base of that rubble pile there.”

Irvina did so.

“Do you see that?”

“See what?” Kathryn asked.

“That… large object sticking out of the rubble.”

“Oh.  Oh yeah, okay I see what you’re talking about, what do you think it is?”

“Doesn’t it look to you like something you’ve seen on the ship?  In the lab where you removed my head?”

“I really don’t uh….”

“Oh for God’s sake Kathryn, it’s a simulant packing crate!!  You had four embedded in the wall of New Horizon’s sim bay for long term storage of your founder sims.  I knew it!!  Simulants are such expensive products to manufacture that their shipping containers are virtually indestructible in order to protect the valuable cargo within.”

“And you think there may be… what, an intact simulant in there?”

“There’s a chance,” Molly implored them.

“Alright,” Kathryn shrugged.  “Irvina, does that thing have x-ray?”

“Sure does,” she answered and began instructing the drone to move towards the case and activate its x-ray scanners.  What they saw, seemed impossible.  They couldn’t make out the outward appearance of the simulant, but the x-ray clearly made out a skeletal structure rather like an overall human’s, but not quite as intricate as a human’s would be and thus clearly something else.

“YES!!” Molly loudly exclaimed.

“I understand your excitement Molly, but there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s in that case.  It may be incomplete.  It may house an intact brain whichat may be unfair to purge just to put you in it,” Kathryn suggested, attempted to reason with the head.

“An incomplete simulant wouldn’t be crated up like that Kathryn, only one ready to ship.  And, after so long without a power supply, there’s no way there is anything left of the brain, it’ll surely have lost all of its data, so bam!  A blank but working brain for Mormon scientists to study as well!”

“Okay, okay, but… it’s still going to be hellishly dangerous to try to drag that thing out.  I mean… besides getting crew all the way through to that thing, it looks like trying to pull it out could bring down the whole rubble pile it’s embedded in.  If we… if we go for this now, it’s a big risk Molly.  We should wait, bring out an archaeology team to properly dig down from the top and get down to it safely.”

“Kathryn?”

“Yes?”

“No.”

“Oh?”

“I have waited for this day for six hundred years.  If you resist I’ll just send my people in there and hope for the best, but it’ll be safer and have a far better chance of success if you help me.  If we can’t get it out we’ll have to wait for the eventual excavation anyways, but I have to try in case we can get our hands on it today.”

Kathryn sighed heavily.  “Okay Molly, okay…  But, I won’t subject any of my people to the danger, and if I think you’re subjecting your own people to unacceptable risk I will cancel the op and call them out.  Agreed?”

“Yes, agreed,” Molly answered quite eagerly.

 

Molly walked over to Jaren and Francis to consult with the engineers.  “Thoughts?” she asked them.

“It’s dangerous,” Francis offered with a shrug.

“Yeah, I figured,” Kathryn answered impatiently.  “The locals said that when they tried to widen one of the drainage holes somewhere else there were deaths.  Do you think we could do it more safely?”

“In theory, yes,” Jaren offered.  “We could reinforce the tunnels as we dig them out.  I’m afraid to say that it would be less dangerous for someone to just crawl through the tunnel as it is.”

Kathryn shuddered.  She wasn’t claustrophobic, but she was a living human being who had deep seated instincts to keep her that way, and which warned her against crawling through tight unstable spaces which could so easily entomb her alive.  She turned to Kirby who seemed to be listening in.

“What do you think?  Could your people be brave or foolish enough to try to crawl through that hole?”

“Yes, but the hole is too small to pull that box out if we are successful.”

“Damn good point,” she remarked to the engineers as she turned back to them.

“Take it out of the box,” they heard Molly’s voice call out to them from the scroll in Kathryn’s pocket.  Kathryn rolled her wrist to acknowledge to the others that this was a solution which could work.

“Do you think you can do this in relative safety?” Kathryn asked Kirby.  “I suspect you would follow your leader’s instructions even if you thought it was a suicide mission, but I can’t allow that.”

“We are concerned about removing the box from the pile, but we believe we can safely get to it and back.”

Kathryn nodded and turned to the engineers.  “Suggestions?”

“A fast winch,” Francis offered.  We could set it up in the stairwell and connect it to that box, and we could try pulling it out gently but if it looks like the place is going to come down we could just whip it back towards the stairwell and hop it avoids the cave in.  That way if the stairway remains intact it will just be there at the top waiting for us.”

Kathryn nodded, and then opened a channel to the entire team including Felix above.  “Okay, here’s the plan.  We’re going to equip Kirby’s team with a fast winch and if they feel they safely can, they’re going to crawl through the tunnel, up the stairs and to the package.  They will set up the winch, and then get back here outside before we start trying to extricate.  If successful they will go back in to open the package, remove the simulant body and drag it through this tunnel here to us.  We can use the winch for that as well.  Everyone clear?”

She was answered by a chorus of nods and verbal acknowledgements.

Kirby consulted with his five compatriots and they decided that the three smallest of them would go in, which did not include Kirby himself.  He would be staying out with the others.  They equipped each man going in with PANEs for their own benefit as well as to enable the rest to monitor their progress and see what they saw.  Irvina switched on all of their small lights on their PANEs so they could see the inside of the tunnel as well as what they’d see on the other side.  The first man climbed in and disappeared into the darkness of the hole, and Kathryn shuddered with same instinctual dread which she had at the mere thought, but much stronger now at actually seeing someone do it for real.

The second man climbed in, then the third, and then not long afterwards the first man exited the tunnel on the other side, followed by the other two.  “We’re inside,” one of them said over the comms.  “We’re making our way over to the stairway.”

Aside from the video feeds from their PANEs, they were also monitored from a distance inside by Irvina’s drone, and Kathryn was monitoring all four video feeds simultaneously on her scroll.  She watched as the men carefully climbed the bare concrete walled staircase to the next level.  They then crossed the expanse of the main building lobby towards the simulant box.  When they reached it, Kathryn cringed as she saw one of them give it a gentle tug to see how firmly it was embedded.

“It’s pretty in there,” he reported, “but I think it can be pulled out with enough strength.  Very worried about cave in though.”

“We understand,” Kathryn assured him.  “Please set up the winch as instructed.”

There was a thick half ring embedded in the short side of the casing material sticking out of the rubble.  Kathryn wondered what kind of material it was, since metal would have decayed in the intervening time.  She surmised that it must be some kind of advanced synthetic polymer and figured the ring should hold up to the strain of the winch since it seemed to be the natural hoisting point while being shipped.

They connected the heavy steel cable to the half circle ring and laid the cable down all the way back to the reception area down the stairwell.  They then set about wrapping the winch anchor wire all around the railings in the stairwell, the thick concrete beam anchoring the stairwell, anything sturdy in the area they could see, while leaving the winch mechanism inline of the cable, resting about a meter away from the doorway to the stairwell.  Reporting that they were finished and ready to go, they returned down the stairwell, through the Road Pod parkade, and out again through the narrow drainage hole.

“Good work,” Kathryn acknowledged , patting them each on the shoulder as they each came back through the hole.  “I think we’re ready,” she told the others.

Jaren helmed the winch controls while Irvina piloted the drone, holding it steady in the doorway to the stairwell, poking out just enough to be able to see the simulant case in the dark distance.

“Like we discussed, I’m going to try to ease it out gently, but if I see a cave in starting, I’m going to hammer it full power.”

Kathryn nodded her acknowledgement and put her hand on his shoulder as she stood behind him, watching him control the winch as he watched the video feed from the drone.  Little bursts of power to the winch did seem to nudge the case, but it would result in rains of dust and the occasional chunk of concrete rolling down on either side of the case and tow cable.

Jaren shook his head.  “You see where this is going, don’t you?” he asked her.

“I do,” she answered.  “Just do what you can.”

“Just a few more nudges…” Jaren muttered to himself, “to make sure it’ll come free… and snap.”

He depressed the control fully and the case shot out of its position in the rubble pile and across the lobby all the way down to the stairwell door where it made a terrible racket, crashing into and off of the walls there.  It made such a terrible noise that they all heard it from where they were standing outside.

“Hunh,” Jaren said.  “How anti-climactic.”

Kathryn could see what he meant on the drone video feed.  Some loose rubble had filled in the void where the case had been and while there was a noticeable amount of settling and debris shaken loose, it was not as climatic a cave in as they had feared.  “Well, let’s just call that a win,” Kathryn said with a smile as she clapped him on his shoulder.  “Okay men,” she said to the explorers who had laid the winch.  “Back at it.  Don’t worry about retrieving the winch if it’s inaccessible, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out if you want to take the simulant body out where it is or carry the box towards the drainage hole before doing so.  Use your best judgement.”

“Understood,” one of them said, and then crawled back into the hole.  Kathryn was getting used to the sight at this point, but it still made her shudder slightly. 

The three men exited the other side and made their way to and up the stairwell.  She heard them briefly discuss how they wanted to proceed, and they settled on carefully bringing the case down the stairs and carrying it to the hole before removing the contents.  As they did so Kathryn looked down at Molly and noticed that she was nervously biting her lip.  She must be concerned about damage from whipping it across lobby the way they had, but she had said that those cases were practically indestructible and she had approved the plan.  Hell, that was why it was still around for them to find.

With only a few cringe inducing bumps and drops of the heavy case, they successfully manoeuvered it down the stairs and across the parking garage.  “How do we open it?” they asked.

Kathryn laughed out loud.  “Damn good question!  Any suggestions Molly?”

“Emergency release on the opposite side from the lifting ring,” Molly answered uncharacteristically seriously.  “There’ll be a panel you can already break, well… which means it will probably have been broken away, and a handle underneath.  Crank the handle several times until you break the seal and can remove the lid.  Make sure it’s right side up, you should be able to feel the lip of the lid even though it’s sealed.”

The men realized that it was upside down and flipped the case over.  Sure enough the breakaway panel was long gone but the handle was intact, and as instructed they yanked on the stiff lever repeatedly until they heard a pop and were able to remove the lid.  They removed the top packing material and got to work removing the lifeless figure, laying it on the bare soil ground before the hole.  They tied a loop of rope around the figure’s chest to allow them to drag it out through the hole, and then tied the other end of the rope to one of the men’s feet.  He then climbed into the hole and the others lifted the body into it behind him so that he could pull it along behind him.  On the other end he was helped out by Kathryn and the others, and they then carefully pulled out the body he pulled behind him, gingerly resting it on an alter they’d built out of the water to keep it dry. 

It was a simulant of an elderly woman, easily in her mid sixties, thin and somewhat short, with long and full bone white hair.  She was naked of course, and as they laid her down and looked on her, she seemed almost like an angel rescued from the depths of the Earth.

Patricia lifted Molly’s head and attached backpack up so she could see it, and for what seemed like a long time Molly was speechless as she looked the body up and down.  It was hard for the others to accurately gauge the expressions on her face.  Not only were they somewhat cryptic, not only did she only have half of a face left for them to read, but it also seemed as though her expressions often changed and shifted through different phases.

After what seemed like a long time she was finally able to utter: “She is… beautiful.  I love her.”

Chapter 19 (Second Draft)

Kathryn sat alone in the room.  She was leaning forward with her elbows rested on her knees and her chin on her clasped hands, watching the countdown on the wall tick down the last seconds.

The clear round end of the sarcophagus slid away, and a small amount of mist rolled out of the chamber as the warm moist air inside clashed and cooled as it mixed with the cooler and drier air of the rest of the ship.  As the tray Felix’s body had been lying on extended out of the chamber, Kathryn stood and walked over to it and looked down on her friend’s face to see his eyes open and blink several time as consciousness slowly arose in him.

She looked on him fondly and with sympathy as he looked up at her and then lifted himself up on his hands into a sitting position.  He didn’t say anything to her, instead he looked at his hands and forearms, slowly rotating them in front of his eyes in disbelief.

“Did it… did it really happen?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” Kathryn answered softly.  “It really happened.”

“It’s hard to believe,” he said in wonderment.  “I, I honestly can’t tell the difference.  It’s good as new…”

“I’m sorry Felix,” she said, backing off as he swung his body around and hung his legs off the side, and after a moment of gathering his strength he stood on his feet.  He faltered for a moment, but found his strength and recovered before Kathryn could finish coming to his aid and she backed off again.  He was naked, but she hardly noticed.  Between being in the service together, being best friends, and the absolute absence of sexual tension between them, both had seen the other naked any number of times.

“About what?” he asked as he reached for the fresh clothes which had been laid out for him.  She might not have noticed or cared herself, but anyone else could walk in at any moment, and basic modesty drew him to the clothing.

“What happened to you.  It’s my fault.  I was reckless.”

“Nonsense.”

“Don’t dismiss it,” she countered tersely.  “I was tactically reckless and foolish, and it nearly cost you your life.”

“Yes, but no one objected.  If you were reckless and foolish then we are all guilty of the same,” he said as he pulled his pants on.

“But I’m in command.”

“Of course.  Yes, you fucked up Kathryn, but only a little more than the rest of us did.  We won’t make the same mistake again, will we?”

“No.”

“So what’s…” he pulled his shirt on over his head, temporarily muffling his ability to speak, “what’s the new plan?”

“Overkill.”

Felix raised an eyebrow at her.  Having finished dressing, he sat himself back on the body tray projecting out of the sarcophagus.

“We’re going to pick up some of Molly’s scavengers to escort us before we try again.”

“Definitely wise.  We knew of the intel resource, we should have done that in the first place.”

“Right, then instead of just landing in the middle of the damn ruins, we’re going to take both shuttles down and make a base camp by the water as near as we can to the target site.”

“Both shuttles?” he asked. “Is that wise?”

“It will allow us to have a much larger landing party, and to split our resources more productively.”

Felix nodded to the side, indicating he didn’t necessarily agree, but that he certainly understood the rationale.

“I’m not going to allow what happened to you to happen to anyone else.  We’ll be armed, and we’ll have New Horizon in an overwatch position.  We’ll do it right this time.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“… and you’re going to be our overwatch.”

“What?”

“You’re not coming this time.”

“Oh come on Kat!  Look, I’m fine now!  And you’re going to need engineers down there this time just as much as you did last time.”

“Felix.  You are a tremendous engineer.  On Haven.”

He frowned at her.  “That hurts.”

“I’m sorry, you’re right.  I mean we’ll have to be doing excavating if we find what we’re looking for and you’d certainly be very helpful with that, but still.  You’re not going.”

“That’s not fair.”

“No, probably not,” she responded with a sigh as she stood up.  “But I’m in command, and that’s how it’s gonna to be.  You will stay here on the ship with Irvina, Xion, and Teresa.  You will telescope our position and monitor in infra-red, and you will keep watch from orbit to make sure that what happened to you doesn’t happen to anyone else.  Everyone else will be down on the surface.  A pilot and guard will stay at each shuttle, and the rest will be divided into two search teams.  That’s how it’s going to be.”

He was unhappy but eventually he shrugged it off.  “Well, someone’s gotta do it…” he remarked.

He was a decimeter taller than her, and she put her hand up onto his shoulder, then affectionately cradled the side of his face with her hand as she smiled at him.

 

Kathryn left the medical bay and the door shut behind her.  She paused, and wearily allowed her body to fall back against the door and let her head rest back against it.  She let out a long exhausted sight.

“Is he alright?” Jaren asked.

Her eyes shot open.  She hadn’t even noticed him there.  He was sitting across the hall a few meters away, his chin resting on his arms folded over his drawn up knees.

“Oh, Jaren.  Yeah, he… seems fine.  He’s as surprised as anyone else at how magical that sarcophagus seems.  He asked if the attack was a dream… you can’t tell he was attacked at all to look at his arms and leg.”

“Yes, that chamber is… remarkable.”  He was remarkably glum.  “I’m glad he’s alright.”

They sat in silence facing each other as a slow but steady procession of other crew members arrive and entered the medical bay to greet Felix.  They didn’t seem to pay Kathryn and Jaren much attention.

“It’s my fault too,” Jaren offered.  As a commander himself he could sense that she was burdened with her sense of responsibility at what had happened.  “And you said yourself he’s good as new.”

“Maybe we should wait,” she pondered.

“Wait?”

“We could report home what happened, have them assemble a more specialized team.”

“Captain.”

“Yes?”

“We are that specialized team.”

She smiled despite herself.  She had to admit that she missed him.  She wanted to sit beside him and let the weight on her shoulders melt and drip down around her with him.  But she wasn’t ready for that yet.  It was all still far too fresh a wound.

“We should have brought more weapons,” she lamented as a general point of observation.

“In retrospect yes, that would have been helpful.  We have enough to manage though.”

Kathryn nodded.

“Did you mean what you said before about this all just being the beginning?” Jaren asked.  “About restoring Orbital One and establishing a colony and research post here and all that?”

“I did…” she replied a little distantly, lost in the thought.  “I love Haven.  I love our twin cities and our people and culture.  It’ll always be home, but… something about this place, despite the danger, despite the challenges… still feels like coming home somehow.  Do you feel that too?”

“Not really,” he answered distantly.  He wanted to tell her that being with her was the most at home he’d ever felt in his life, and how much he longed to return to that place, but it was obvious how poorly such a sentiment would be received at present.  “I do like it here thought, there is something about it…  I love Kobol and have a lot to miss there, but… still.  I am taken with this place, the mystery, the potential, the danger and wildness…

“Captain,” It stung Kathryn to hear him refer to her so officially, “if there’s a mission to have a permanent presence here to research and rebuild, I want to be a part of it.  I’ve been looking for a new direction and I think I’ve found it.  I want to spend the rest of my career working on this project, on rebuilding Earth.  I think that once the announcement is made, there will be a significant number of Koboli who will want to do their part.  Many won’t care of course, and most I’m sure won’t care enough to want to actually help themselves, but some will, like me.  Some will just be curious enough to want to come see Earth with their own eyes.  There really is something about it…  Something deep in our bones feels a connection to this place.”

“Have you gotten word on when the announcement will be made?”

He paused to look at her for a moment, it was almost accusatory.  “Soon,” he told her as he reached in his pocket for his scroll in response to a notification tone sounding from it.  Pulling it apart and reading the message, he clarified: “very soon.”  He looked up at her.  “We should gather everyone together.”

Kathryn stood up and brushed off some of the dust which had accumulated on her pants.  She then crossed the hallway and offered her hands to Jaren to help him up.  He looked up at her quizzically for a moment before accepting her assistance and climbing to his feet.  “Thank you,” he offered simply.

“It hasn’t been for very long, but I shared in your lie.”

“Yeah…” Jaren affirmed heavily.

“I love Felix like a brother, but I couldn’t tell him.”

Jaren nodded.

“So I get it.  I get why you had to do what you did.  I hate it, but I get it.  It’s hard for me to condemn you for something I’ve now participated in myself.”

Jaren wisely said nothing and just listened.

“I still need to sort out and separate my feelings about what you did and what your people did.  It’s all still muddled up for me, but I think we’re going to be okay, if you still want us to be.  I still need some time, but… I think it’ll just take some time at this point.”

With that she moved to hug him and he accepted, putting his hand on her head and holding it to his chest.

 

All three crews were summoned to the conference room with the large wall screen, and all were in attendance.  No one knew what it was about, but were told only that the Koboli government was making an official statement which would be important to all of them.  The Koboli crew had their suspicions that it was about the virus and Earth, but couldn’t know for sure, and couldn’t share their suspicions with anyone else.  They were all still sworn to secrecy themselves.  As the transmission began coming in followed by a brief flickering, the Koboli president appeared on the large wall screen.

Greetings.  This transmission was recorded on Kobol, and immediately transmitted by rift to Roma, Kobol, and Earth.

“In the beginning, God commanded Adam and Eve not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Tempted by Satan, Eve ate of the tree, and thus burdened us all with an original sin for which we can never atone, but for which we must nevertheless perpetually strive against in an eternal Sisyphean struggle.

“Our great Latter Day Saints religion was founded in the United States of America, a nation born of its own original twin sins of slavery and genocide.  For hundreds of years that great nation struggled to live up to the promise of its fundamental ideals, and muddled through the darkness trying to find a way to atone for its original sins, knowing on some fundamental level that any sort of redemption was certainly out of reach if not outright impossible.

“We on Kobol are aware that those of Roma and Haven are suspicious of us, of our generosity, of our good will.  It is my heavy duty to inform you today, that there is indeed a reason for this, and sadly it is not merely our nature to be so generous.  We too, have an original sin, a monstrosity in our past which we struggle every day in our attempt to learn how we can atone for it, knowing that on the same fundamental level as Adam and Eve and the United States of America, such atonement can never really be fully realized.

“The people of Roma and Haven were unable to understand our apparent lack of interest in what happened to Earth, and much to their clear frustration.  Well the answer is simple, really.  We had no need to wonder, because we already knew. 

“Some eighteen years after our launch from Earth, a conspiracy was hatched in secret among a small group among the thousands aboard the Nephi.  They developed a sinister virus, constructed a rocket, and launched it back towards the Earth.  It took nearly eighty years for the rocket to return to Earth, and it struck the surface, and infected the planet.  Within a week most on Earth were dead.  Over the next weeks and months, most of the humans elsewhere in the Solar System were dead as well.

“This is obviously a horrific revelation, but I wish to stress that this was an incredibly small faction of fanatics aboard the Nephi.  After the launch, the plot was uncovered, and a tribunal was convened to judge them, and all involved were sentenced to death and ejected to space.  We… would have warned Earth of course, but in our zeal leaving the Earth we carefully excluded any technological means of transmitting back and forth between us.  We were leaving the Earth specifically to avoid the… pollution of modern Earth culture.

“As the president of Kobol, speaking personally for myself, as well as for all of the citizens of Kobol today, as well as for all of our forebearers all the way back to the original inhabitants of the Nephi, I apologize.

“While today we all carry the stain of guilt, none of us are personally guilty ourselves, and I ask that you keep this in mind as you experience the urge to judge us by association.  Remember what we have done for you so far, the reunion we have facilitated, the technology we freely share, and the aid we continue to offer however we can.

“Be horrified.  Be angry.  Be spiteful.  But when these impulses finally wane, when the fever of hatred breaks and the wave crests, we will still be here.  We will still be here with outstretched arms, open hands, and open hearts, still offering our warm help and love.

“Thank you.  God bless us all.”

Jaren swivelled around in his chair to face the Roman and Havenite crews.  His right elbow was on his chair’s elbow rest and his chin rested on his hand.

Nobody spoke for what seemed like an eternity.

“You knew?” Teresa finally asked him.  Jaren nodded slowly.

Seemingly at a loss for any better response, Teresa stood up and walked out of the room.  One by one, others began to silently depart to process in their own way, until all that were left were the Koboli crew along with Kathryn and Felix.

“Why now?” Felix asked.

Jaren shrugged with his hands.  “There is no right time for something like that.”

“No I mean, I get that they would wait to do this until they’d made contact with us so they could admit it to all colonies at once, but why this moment specifically, why not yesterday?  Why not tomorrow?  Why now?  There must be a reason…”

“Because I found out,” Kathryn admitted to him.  “Well, Elim found out in researching the virus and he told me.”

“When?”

“Late yesterday, while you were in the chamber.  I wanted to tell you, but I promised to keep quiet on the condition that they made this announcement immediately instead of waiting any longer.”

Looking utterly numb, Felix stood and left the room.

“That could have gone worse,” Kathryn offered the Koboli crew.

Irvina shrugged.  “It could have gone better.”

 

It took Kathryn some time to track down where the others had gone, but eventually she figured out that they’d taken one of the shuttles and gone over to Orbital One.  She took the other shuttle and headed over there herself.  After docking in the central hub she retraced their steps and finally found them in the wrecked storefront which used to be the Space Outback Bar & Casino, which made sense once she saw the backpack with Molly’s head attached to the top.  Kathryn remembered her commenting earlier that her long late lover had once been the owner and operator. 

It was dim in the bar.  Main power was still down and would continue to be until a crew resupplied and restarted the central fusion power cores.  Only some portable lights revealed her crewmates and the condition of the bar.  It seemed as though not a single piece of glass remained intact in the entire place, and the ground crunched under her boots as she walked in.  The grand piano in the corner was smashed and a lot of the booth seating about the place was torn up.  She found herself wondering how it had all happened.  Did people go mad and just start looting and ransacking when the apocalyptic extent of the sickness became clearer and clearer?  She wondered how she thought her own people would react to something like that, how she herself might.

The two crews were gathered around two round tables pushed together in the middle of the bar, and she discovered that she was wrong.  There apparently was at least one piece of glass remaining intact, and they were drinking out of one large liquor bottle, passing it around.  They seemed ambivalent about her showing up there.  Noone welcomed her, but nobody was willing to tell her she wasn’t welcome.  When she took off her jacket, set it over the back of a chair and sat down, Felix handed her the bottle after a moment of hesitation.

She looked the bottle over in the dim light and realized that it was Havenite vodka.  One of her crew must have brought it along and been saving it for one reason or another.  She took a drink from the bottle and grimaced violently as the toxin burned her mouth and esophagus.  She was going to hand the bottle off, but thought better of it and took another big gulp before handing it off to Keri as she put her other forearm to her mouth to contain the drink as she swallowed it.

She wasn’t sure if they were talking before she came in, but nobody was saying anything now.  Everyone was just staring glumly into space, interrupted only by their turn to drink as it came.

“Thoughts?” Kathryn finally asked.

“You should have told us,” Keri told her.

“Maybe…” Kathryn nodded as she fiddled with an ancient coaster on the table.  “Maybe.”  She let the word hang in the air for a while before continuing.  “Do you remember how they told us that they were monitoring us for years before they made contact?” she asked Keri, who nodded.  “They said they did so because we were so close to reaching New Horizons on our own.  They knew how important it was to us to be able to do that for ourselves, for our own esteem and sense of accomplishment.  I only granted them the same courtesy.  It was less than a day that I knew and had to keep their secret, and I told them I only would on the condition they made their announcement immediately.  I got them to reveal it themselves, but I extended them the courtesy of being able to do it for themselves.  I felt I owed them that at least.”

Several people shrugged, but nobody said anything positive or negative about what she had to say.  They seemed willing to accept her reasoning, but still didn’t like it.

“As for them keeping that secret that long, as for judging them for doing it… I don’t know.  I’ve had more time to process than the rest of you have.  If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to blame them personally for what a small faction did so long ago.  What really hurts is the lying now, the deception of keeping it from us since they made contact.  At the same time though… you’re all right of course.  I was complicit in that too, so it’s hard for me to judge them too harshly for that alone.”

“It’s shocking what they did,” Teresa said.

Kathryn nodded.  “Yes… But it wasn’t them them, was it?”

“It feels like it was…”

“I know, I know… I certainly felt that way with Jaren at first.  If felt like such a personal betrayal.  But, it wasn’t them… and I hope you come around to that as I have.  His sin… their sin sorry, was only the lie.  They kept it from us as long as they did.  They pretended they didn’t know what happened to Earth, and that they just didn’t care to find out.  That they certainly are culpable for.”

Everyone around the table nodded angrily.

“It’s hard to forgive them for that, I know… but from what I understand they always intended to make that formal announcement at some point.  You can argue they waited too long, you can argue that they would have waited much longer if they hadn’t been found out, but they certainly meant to tell us at some point, and now they have, even if I forced their hand.  And… well frankly, their guilt over the whole thing has turned out pretty well for us  all in the end hasn’t it?”

Most looked at her quizzically.  “We’re here,” she elaborated.  “We wouldn’t be without them.  We’re reunited.  We wouldn’t be without them.  That means a lot to me, and I think it should to you as well.  In the final calculus that forgives a lot in my opinion.”

“We can’t just…” Molly tried to utter through her scroll.

“Can’t what Molly?”

“They committed genocide.  That’s not something you just get over.”

“The people who did that Molly, I don’t intend to ever forget or forgive.  We need to keep an active hate for them I agree.  We need to erect some kind of monument or series of monuments to those who were lost, and in condemnation of the perpetrators.  We need a regular interplanetary day of memorial across our worlds.  We need all of that.  This can never be forgotten, and those who did it must never be forgiven.”

“Those who did it…” the head said.

“That’s right.  As for the… well, latter day Latter Day Saints, despite myself I keep putting myself in their position.  I keep imagining being confronted with people who are angry with something people ten generations removed from me did, while I’m doing everything I can to help them in the present, just sucking it up and taking their slings and arrows.”

“They are no saints,” Ana asserted.

Kathryn smirked.  As much as they may like to refer to themselves as saints, they certainly weren’t.  “No, they are certainly not.  But they are humans.  Fallible, arrogant, individual humans, just like us.  They don’t deserve to be burdened with the sins of their ancestors any more than we do.

“So,” she said as she stood up, “here it is.  I choose to forgive them.  I don’t condone their lying, I don’t forgive what their ancestors did, but I forgive them, as they are today, who they are today, for what they have done today.  I understand their reasons and their shame, and I forgive them.  None of you have to though, you can all feel however the hell you want to.  When we get home you can react however you want, feel however you want to feel, and hate whoever you want to hate.  But right now we’re on a mission that you have all signed up for, and I expect you all to do your duty until the job is done.

“I’ll give you a day to feel sorry for yourself, and then we are launching our second search attempt to get Molly a new body.  You have…” she checked her watch, “twenty-eight hours until we launch.  I expect you all to be well rested, and I expect you all to be professional, and have your game faces on regardless of how you feel about everything.”  She took the bottle from Ana, took one last drink before handing the bottle back, grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair, and walked out of the ruined bar without interest in a response from any of them.

 

Back on the New Horizon she found Jaren on the bridge.  He was reviewing surveillance video of the landing site, and she smiled at the sight of him working given everything that was going on.  She knew it was a comfort for him to focus on the work; it was something they shared in common.  He noticed her enter, but didn’t say anything and looked back at the screens.  He was trying to respect her stated need for time and space.

She came up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders.   Without looking up at her he put his right hand up to his left shoulder and took her hand.  “How are they?” he asked. 

“They’ll work it out,” she answered.  He nodded his understanding.

“And how are you?”

She swiveled his chair around, and pulled him to his feet so she could hug him.  Their hug lingered as they slowly turned back and forth, alone in the dim night time lighting of the bridge.  She pushed away from him, held him at arm’s length, and looked up into his eyes.  “Don’t ever lie to me again.”

“Never,” he said with damp eyes.

“I don’t care if you’re bound by your job.  We have to be past that point now if we’re going to be together.”  He simply nodded that he understood.

“So is there anything else you’re hiding?” she asked.  “Any other big dark secret you’re keeping that will make me hate you when I find out about it?”

He smiled as his eyes brightened.  “No, there’s nothing else.  And it was killing me having to keep all of that from you.”

“Good,” she said.  “I hope your suffering was absolutely horrific,” she teased him with a smile.

At that he returned an awkward smile, and in response she couldn’t resist kissing him.  It was good to finally come home again.

Chapter 18 (Second Draft)

Kathryn was leaning against the medical chamber half asleep when Elim sheepishly walked in.  Not only was she exhausted, but as it worked the chamber produced a gentle vibrating hum which she found oddly comforting.  Elim pulled up a chair and sat beside her with a stunned look on his face.  Kathryn roused enough to notice he was there and asked how Felix was doing.

“Oh,” Elim said before standing up and coming around to the other side of the chamber to examine the display panel.  “Coming along nicely it says, still another ten hours to go, but no complications.”

“Good to hear, good to hear…  Were you worried about him too?”

“No, I mean… yes, of course I’m worried about Felix.”

Kathryn became aware that something was bothering Elim, and quite profoundly from what she could tell as she scrutinized him more closely.  “What is it Elim?”

“I…” he sighed, “I wasn’t sure I should tell you, I… I didn’t know what to do when I found out.”

Kathryn sat up straight, fully alert now.  “When you found out what?”

Elim picked up a chair and set it down in front of Kathryn, facing her.  He then sat down on it heavily.  “The virus.”

“The one that brought Earth down?”

“Yeah.”

“What about it.”

“Well… I couldn’t sleep after Felix was attacked with how worried I was about him and all, so I went to the lab to do some work.”

Kathryn nodded her understanding.  It was common for her as well to occupy her mind with work when she couldn’t sleep for one reason or another.

“I wanted to do a more detailed analysis of the virus.  I wanted to piece together whether it had been developed maliciously, or accidentally, or developed for testing and accidentally released… that sort of thing.  I figured if I took a closer look I could answer some questions and get a better idea of exactly how it happened.”

“Yes?”

“Well, I’ve been using the Koboli equipment to do the research since it’s the most advanced, and…”

It was obvious that there was something the man wanted to say but couldn’t find a way to bring himself to form the words.

“Out with it Elim.  What did you find?”

“Using the Koboli equipment, it became clear that the virus had markers on it which could only be there if the Koboli had created the virus themselves.”

Kathryn stared blankly at him.  “I don’t understand, what are you saying?  The virus struck Earth six hundred years ago.”

“Yes, but…” Elim sighed in exasperation as he stood up and began pacing.  “You have to understand that I’ve only been trying to piece this all together myself on the way here.  They never had the same collapse of technological capacity we had on Haven.  Their biomedical technology is continuous with original Earth tech before the fall, and they’ve only built on it since.  If they used original Earth tech to create the virus back then, and have only built on that technology now, that would explain the correlations I’m seeing here now.”

Kathryn was stunned.  Rage, confusion, and desperation may come later, but presently she was too stunned at the suggestion to feel anything at all.  “Do you realize what you’re saying?  The scale of the accusation you’re making?”

“Yes.”

“How could it have happened?”

“They could have developed it en route and shot it back at Earth on their way to Kobol.  The timelines would match up.”

Kathryn remained silent.

“It would explain a few things.”

Kathryn looked at him in such a way as to invite his elaboration.  Elim sat down facing her again and proceeded to use his hands to assist his hands in explanation.

“One.  They had no interest in coming to Earth, and we never really understood why.  This would be a good reason.  They knew exactly what they’d find and why.  Two.  How quickly and easily they were able to ‘develop’ a cure,” he said using air quotes.  “They didn’t have to develop dick all!  They already had a cure or knew how to make one because they created the fucking disease!”

“Three,” Kathryn added.  “They’ve been here before.”  Elim looked up at her.  “We missed that,” she explained.  “They said they’d been here on the surface at least once, long enough to realize they had no interests here.  If that’s true they would have encountered the virus as surely as we did, so they had to have known about it already.  They didn’t mention when we launched this mission because they knew they could easily cure us.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“We used to have a word for that,” a mechanically hollow voice came from a dark corner of the room.  “Genocide.”  Kathryn had forgotten that Molly was propped up in the corner.  She had remained silent to hear the rest of the conversation, but now she spoke up.  “Everything I witnessed, billions of dead, suffering upon suffering upon suffering.  Their doing.  They are lucky I no longer have arms to rip them apart with.”

 

Jaren was delighted when he received a summons in his suite from Kathryn to join her in the medical bay.  He’d been concerned that she’d felt a little distant the last couple of days.  He’d been brushing it off as them having work to do and there simply not being time for their stolen moments of affection, but he missed her all the same.  When he entered the medical bay she stood up to greet him and he rushed over to hug her, but her hand on his chest held him back from her, and there was something in her eyes, a seething he’d never seen before.  Whatever it was it immediately scared him when he recognized it.

“Elim was just here, and he shared with me a discovery he made.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, in studying the virus.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.  “It was you, the fucking Mormons.  You did it.”

“Well, not me persona-”

“Don’t.  You, lied to me about it though.  Your people lied to all the rest of us about it, but you lied to me about it.  All those hours we spent together, the times we spent together in bed, the mornings we woke up together, not once could you ever find an appropriate moment to tell me that your people committed genocide?”

“When is an appropriate time to confess to genocide Kathryn?”  His voice was icy, nowhere near as conciliatory and pathetic as she’d hoped he’d be.  She hated to have to admit to herself that he had a point.  “My people have many faults, and have done much wrong, but what we did to Earth is… our original sin, that for which we can never atone.  It is this guilt which urged us to establish contact with and help Haven and Roma.  You both keep wanting to know what our angle is, what we want to get back from you for our help, well there it is.  We wish to atone, to maybe, someday… be forgiven.

“Yes, the people who launched on the Mormon generational starship were fanatics, and the most fanatical among them hatched a conspiracy once underway, one later condemned by all of the rest.  In secret they engineered a virus and a rocket to eventually bring it back to Earth.  They launched it before anyone else onboard knew.  They were eventually found out, but by then it was too late.  We were never able to confirm what happened to Earth until we developed rift technology and could check for ourselves, but when we did our worst fears were confirmed.  We never came back because the shame was, well… overwhelming.  It was too painful a reminder to be here.  My people have had to live with that shame every day for the last six hundred years.”

“You lied to me!” Kathryn exclaimed, “to me!”

“Yes, I did!” he snarled back, much to her surprise.  “I was under orders Kathryn, remember orders Captain Barnes?  Remember how much you like about me that the work comes first?  Just like you?  My government was working on how to reveal this in the least disruptive way now that we were all in mutual contact, we were working on some way to formally apologize and atone, it was not my place to step out ahead of my government, you must be able to understand that.  Kathryn… I wanted to tell you a thousand times.”

“Get out.”

“Kat…”

“Get out.”

Jaren looked as though he was going to cry, but he stiffened his expression and held back.  He nodded shallowly his understanding and without another word turned and left through the sliding medical bay doors.

“Well there you go,” Molly’s head said from the shadows.

Kathryn’s body remained stiff and rigid, kept so by proxy to her keeping her emotions clamped down.   Now feeling vacant and numb she made her way over to Molly’s head, stood beside it, fell against the wall and slumped down to the ground.

“Penny for your thoughts,” the head said.

“His people killed billions.”

“Yes.”

“And yet… all I can think about is that he lied to me about it.  How can that possibly compare, let alone feel more important?”

“Because you love him,” Molly’s head explained, “and because you’re a human being.  It’s your nature.  You understand big, but you feel small.  So it goes.”

“I do love him… and I fucking hate him.”

“Such is love.  I hate him too, but it’s easier for me.  I hate him by association, for being part of the group that perpetrated so much evil to me and mine, that brought down the civilization I loved so much, for leading to the death of my love.  But in the end, he didn’t do any of these things himself.  His only sin was keeping it a secret for others.  Easier for me to forgive him personally, but for you… for you with the trust and love you put in him, the lying is a far greater sin than any guilt by association for a genocide generations ago.”

“I… I had a fiancé Molly, back on Haven?  We split just before I left on my mission to Kobol, before anything happened with Jaren.”

“Yes?”

“I thought I loved him, but he never could have hurt me like this.  I loved him, but I had no idea how pale my feelings were until I got swept up with Jaren, until he hurt me this way.  This is what real love feels like isn’t it?  This is how it hurts…”

“Not all the time child, but yes.  The more you love, the more you can hurt.  That’s how it works.  That’s the bargain.  Can I tell you a secret thought?”

Kathryn chuckled.  “Sure…”

“It’s always worth it.  As much as it hurts worse when it hurts, in retrospect the joy always outweighs the hurt.  As much as I loved the world before the fall, it was all too grey.  It was full of grey people who didn’t love with all their heart, who didn’t strive with every inch they had to give.  They never hurt terribly badly in disappointment or heartbreak, but you know what?  They never really lived either, and it always made me sad to see.  Some did though, like the people who went on the mission to found your colony.  They knew how badly the odds were against them, but they went anyways, because it was something to live for, because they were in love with the possibility of it.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive him.”

“Well that’s the great part,” the head laughed through the scroll tucked in the backpack it jutted out of.  “If you can’t you don’t have to!  Plus you’ll have learned a lot from the experience either way.”

The two were quiet for some time.

“So what do I do now?”

“I think first you need to decide what you’re going to do about the virus.  I know your instinct is to tell everyone.”

“Of course.”

Molly hesitated.

“What is it?” Kathryn asked.

“You told me that the Mormons waited to contact you long enough for you to make your own way to this ship, right?”

“Yes.”

“Your people appreciated that didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should extend the same courtesy.”

“How do you mean?”

“Jaren said that his government was working right now on how to reveal what they did and come up with some sort of reconciliation offer.  Maybe the best thing you could do would be to have Jaren signal his government that they’re found out, but keep it to yourself for a short while to allow them to do it their way.  Yes they’ve all lied to you about it, but try to keep in mind they are a dozen generations removed from those who actually did it, and that according to Jaren it was a small faction of them even, who were in turn condemned by the rest of them.”

“That would probably be best, but then I’d be complicit in the lying.”

“And that’s the rub.  Perhaps now you better understand the position Jaren found himself in?”

“Damn you.”

The head chuckled.

 

The door slid open to Jaren’s suite and Kathryn stood in the doorway.  Jaren got up to greet her, but he kept his distance in response to her outstretched hand.  She entered the door and let it close behind her.

“I hate that you lied to me,” she finally said.

“Kat-” he tried to protest but she stopped him by putting her hand up again.

“Just listen.”

He nodded and sat down on his bed to listen.

“I hate that you lied to me.  I don’t think I can ever look at you the same way again.  I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for keeping something so big and important from me regardless of why you did it.”

Jaren was obviously frustrated but remained silent.

“That being said, I… I can understand the position you were in.  I understand that I made it clear that professional responsibilities had to come first for us.  Hell this is why us getting involved while we worked together was a bad idea in the first place.  I need time to figure out what this means for us, if I can get past it.  I just don’t know right now.  The hurt is just too fresh.

“That being said Jaren, if what you say is true, that your government is working on how to announce this and try to make amends, I don’t feel justified taking that away from them.  A formal confession would be better for all of the colonies than a sudden revelation of a cover-up.  For everyone’s sake I will implicate myself.  I will share in your lie, and get Elim to as well.  But you must tell your government that they must make their move soon, that my silence is temporary only.  Do you understand?”

Jaren nodded.

“Will you tell your people this?”

“Right away.”

“Will they move quickly?”

“Under threat?  I believe they will.”

“Good.”  Kathryn turned and walked to the door.  As it opened Jaren called her name and she stopped in the door way.

“Time and space, Jaren,” she said without looking back before continuing through the door.  “Time and space,” she said again as the door closed behind her.

Chapter 17 (Second Draft)

The shuttle shot away from the New Horizon and plunged into the Terran atmosphere.  Inside was Jaren piloting the shuttle, Kathryn, Felix, Francis, Terey and Molly’s head.  The engineers had rigged up a back pack consisting of Molly’s battery and her head above, facing backwards, and Francis had been burdened with carrying her around when they reached the surface.

“We’ll have to be careful choosing a landing site…” Jaren observed as he looked at the scans of the surface on the panel in front of him.  “The terrain appears quite unstable, prone to shifting…”

“That’s what our scavengers report,” Molly confirmed.  “It’s detritus piled on detritus covered in soil and plant.  Any extra weight tends to either cause sinking or collapse.”

“Right,” Jaren acknowledged with a furrowed brow.  “Molly, homeworld had recovered the old Terran maps from the archives when I contacted them and they transmitted them to me before we left the ship.  The address you provided… even with the maps it’s hard to pin down exactly the area you referenced, but we can at certainly narrow it down to within several kilometers at least.”

“That should be good enough.  Once there on the surface and in the area I’m hoping I’ll be able to get my bearings and find my way to the lab, if it still exists of course.”

“What are the odds of that?” Kathryn asked.

“Poor to fair,” Molly answered.  “I remember it being in one of the lower floors of a tower, and if any parts of the building survived, it would be the lower levels.  Even so, if it’s still intact it’ll be buried and require excavation, some very dangerous excavation,” she remarked.

“Grand,” Felix ironically remarked.

“I’m going to set it down on top of one of those sharp hills,” Jaren said as he continued to look at his monitors    It’ll be tricky climbing up and down, but I prefer that to putting down in one of the valleys and risk having debris fall down on the ship.  There’s no guarantee we’d be able to dig it out again.  There could be a collapse when we touch down, but I’ll do it softly and add the weight gradually, ready to shoot up again if there’s a problem.

From visual observations and ground penetrating scans, Jaren selected a hill he felt most suitable in the area Molly indicated.  He lowered the shuttle very slowly down onto the thick green grass covering the mound, blowing down and away the blades from the central energy stream pouring out of the bottom of the shuttle.  The landing struts softly touched the ground and as Jaren slowly let the weight of the vessel down, the struts sunk into the soil several decimeters, but then held as the rest of the shuttle’s weight settled onto the support points.  Gradually letting off the throttle, Jaren powered down the engine and an eerie silence filled the cabin as everyone held their breath.

“We’re good,” Jaren reported, and the silence was broken by a collective exhale.  “Lowering the door.”  The door section of the wall fell away, and the extension ramp projected from within it and touched down.

“Well let’s get on with it,” Molly said.  Francis picked her up and slung her over his back as gently as she could.  “Don’t worry about being gentle Francis, just don’t lose your head,” she said with a mirthful smirk to the others.

Kathryn moved to be the first out the door but Jaren grabbed her arm as if to stop her from going first and allowing him to instead.  She stopped, looked back at his hand on her arm, and then up at him with a look which said: ‘really?’  He understood and let her go. 

The ramp was at a steep incline and she carefully made her way down, one sideways set foot after another.  Coming to the bottom of the ramp she tested the ground and found that it would indeed hold up to her weight.  “Seems okay,” she offered to the others and began making her way down the hill even more carefully.  It was roughly a forty degree slant down several stories to the wooded area between the hills.  The others followed behind her in a line down to the low land.  Reaching the tree line and descending the hill further, she reached the bottom of the gulley and found a modest creek in a deep cavity.  She leaned down to run her fingers through the running water.

“This used to be an underground transit train line,” Molly told her.  “I rode this line many, many times…” she said, seeming to be lost in her memories.  “It’s strange, everything looks different and yet it’s somehow so familiar.”

“Any idea where to head?” Felix asked Molly.

“No… I have a sense of the route this skytrain took back in the day though.  If we follow along it, I may be able to get a sense of our location.”

There was no path for them, so they had to make their way very slowly and carefully through the trees and thick underbrush by the stream.  They would occasionally see small animals they didn’t recognize briefly come into view and then quickly scurry off, but it was too quick for Francis to turn Molly around so she could see and identify them.  “Probably rats, raccoons, skunks…” she offered as she bobbed up and down looking behind Francis.  Felix was the only one behind her, and she had the opportunity to scrutinize him face to face as they walked.  It was beginning to make him uncomfortable, she had that knowing smirk and had nowhere to look but right in his face.

“You’re gay aren’t you?” she asked shamelessly.

“Um yeah, that’s right… Kathryn tell you that?” he asked.  He wasn’t embarrassed; it was no secret after all.  He just didn’t know how it would have come up.

“No,” she answered, her smirk growing broader into a smile as she bobbed up and down and back and forth.  “I was a sexim remember?  I was programmed to know these things, programmed to be sensitive to the… desires and persuasions of men and women.  It’s nothing specific I can just tell, a sense generated from a lot of unconscious cues and factors.”

“I see,” Felix replied, still a little uncomfortable over the scrutiny.

“That must be why I didn’t have the immediate dislike of you I tend to have of other men,” she observed.

“Perhaps… I think-”

Look out!!” Molly cried out in horror as a large cougar jumped out of a nearby tree and pounced on Felix, taking him down to the ground.  The rest of the team scrambled to come to his aid as the cougar clawed at Felix and tried to bite his neck.  He held his arms up between his neck and the creature’s teeth and claws and his forearms and hands were quickly becoming shredded in a horrible bloody mess.

The first to respond, Francis instinctively reared back and kicked the cougar as hard as he could in the ribs.  It yelped in pain, and then pounced on Francis, knocking him back on the ground, landing hard on the backpack containing Molly and her power source.  The cat returned to Felix who was quickly bleeding to death and making horrible sobs of pain.  It bit into his leg and appeared to being dragging him into the brush. 

Kathryn had picked up a substantial fallen branch and before the cougar could drag Felix out of view she hammered it on the head as hard as she could with the branch.  It cried in pain and then staggered off in an apparent daze off into the bush, unseen once more.  All three gathered around Felix to assess the damage.  He was writhing in agony and gushing blood out of his arms and leg.

Elim whipped her medical bag off of her back and pushed the others away.  Though a trained doctor herself, she was of Haven and their medical technology was far inferior to that of Kobol or even Roma for that matter, but she had a Kobol medical kit with her and had been trained by Nadelle how to use all of the supplies in it.  She knew she had to move quickly or he would quickly be dead from loss of blood.

“Is he going to be okay?” Kathryn fearfully asked.

“Let me work,” was all Elim would say as she cinched some straps down on his limbs above the damage to slow blood flow to the area and thus his blood loss.  She then used sterile water to clean out his wounds and then spray a coagulating agent into the wounds.  It was a brute force substance that shared some of the same properties as a human’s own platelets, and bonded with the subjects own binding agents as well as artificial ones in the spray, which activated when sprayed.  It quickly formed an artificial scab over the wounds which stopped the bleeding.

Elim then pulled a transdermic from the kit and administered a powerful sedative and pain killer combination.  Felix’s nonsensical whining sobs of pain and deep dismay slowly dissipated and gave way to blessed unconsciousness.

Elim was emotionally amped up from the excitement, but let out a long deep sigh.  “I think he’ll be alright,” she said turning to Kathryn.  “On Haven… well he might not have survived at all, and even if he did he’d be in for a long, long recovery, likely nerve damage, nasty scarring…”

“But?” Kathryn asked anxiously.

“But as far as I understand the medical chambers on New Horizon, it can physically rebuild tissue.  It could take a couple days, but it should be able to rebuild his damaged tissues cell layer by cell layer.”

“Then we need to get him back to the ship.”

“As soon as possible, yes.”

 

Kathryn and Jaren carried Felix back up the hill to the shuttle with all due haste while still observing the danger whic the terrain posed.  Elim and Francis carrying Molly followed behind, watching their back and sides for any further potential attack.

They were all very quiet as Jaren piloted the ship back up to orbit and to dock with New Horizon.  They pulled the unconscious Felix along in the zero gravity, and then used the same harness and winch line to lower him down the access tube to the habitat ring as they had used to move Molly down.  A rolling medical bed was waiting for them and his body was lowered directly onto it, followed closely behind by Kathryn and the others.

“Treatment so far?” Nadelle asked Elim.

“I used the binding agent you instructed me on and gave him the combination sedative and painkiller.”

“Good work.  These shouldn’t be necessary anymore,” Nadelle observed as the bed was rolled down the hall and into an elevator.  She pulled a pair of scissors out of the kit and cut his tourniquets off.

“He’ll be alright?” Kathryn asked Nadelle.

“Oh yeah, no worries,” Nadelle answered nonchalantly.  “He’ll be right as rain after a couple of days in the sarcophagus.”

“Sarcophagus?” Jaren asked.

“Oh, our little nickname for the surgical pods.  They’ll be able to reconstruct his damaged tissue no problem.  It’s one of their primary functions.”

The elevator doors opened and Felix was rolled across the hall into the medical bay.  Nadelle tapped at the panel and the clear circular hatch at one end of the chamber swung away, and a human body sized shelf slid towards them.  They lifted his body onto the shelf and with another panel tap the shelf slid back into the device and the cover swung closed again and sealed.

The interior lit up and the chamber began conducting all manner of scans on his body.  A list of recommended procedures appeared on the screen above the chamber, and Nadelle tapped the proceed button.  Deft and soft mechanical hands picked up a pair of scissors and began carefully cutting off his pants and shirt.  When it had adequately exposed the damaged areas, it would carefully strip away the artificial scab one small section at a time and replace it with new tissue synthesized from his own DNA.  Once the first layer of tissue was installed and covering the entirety of the wound, nerve, muscle, and skin cells would be laid down layer by layer until the wound was entirely repaired.  The screen above the chamber initiated a countdown starting at twenty-seven hours, five minutes, and twenty-eight seconds until repair complete, and began counting down.

Francis set the Molly pack down on the floor and propped it up against the wall.  Her eyes were full of tears.  “It’s my fault…” she muttered.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Yes…” Kathryn agreed.  “It is your fault.”  She breathed deeply in through her nose as she turned to her.  “But we made a deal, and we all knew the risks.  It’s our fault too… we were reckless.  We should have been better organized, better equipped… we should have planned better.  We won’t make that mistake again.”

“Again?” Jaren asked.  “We’re going back down there?”  He didn’t seem to be questioning her or suggesting they shouldn’t, but it clearly hadn’t occurred to him that they would try again.

“I…” Molly started.  “I want to tell you that you don’t have to, but… I have no body at all now.”

“I know,” Kathryn said as she put a hand on the transparent material of the sarcophagus.  “But it’s not just about you Molly.  We aren’t just going down there to find you a body.  We’re explorers.  We went down there to explore.  Our task on this planet isn’t over now that we’ve solved the mystery of why it went dark so many centuries ago, and it won’t be over when we’ve helped restore you.

“We’ve begun something here, together,” she said as she looked seriously at Jaren and Francis.  “Earth is not just a neutral planet we can survey and abandon, not a mere curiosity.  It is our home, our ancestral home.  It is our destiny to learn all of the secrets this planet has to offer us.  The archives aren’t enough, Molly’s memories are insufficient.  We will research this place for ourselves, and tease out of it every secret about our heritage and… ourselves which we can.  Restoring Molly is only the first step, only the first secret we must reveal.

“We are all at the beginning of a very long journey.  I intend to personally petition our governments to collectively fully restore Orbital One, and make it the home base for a massive research effort, archaeological digs of the ruins, anthropological research of the people still down there and assistance in them reclaiming the dignity which is their birthright as Terran humans, if they want our help.  We will research, we will rebuild, we will restore.

“Felix wouldn’t want us to give up.  He wouldn’t want what happened to him to be the end of this journey.  Yes we’re going back, but this time we’re doing it right, and we’re going to ask for some help from our friends.

“Molly, you have explorers in your village who have been to the ruins of Vancouver and returned.”

“Yes,” she answered.  “Most of our males have made at least one expedition south.”

“Will they accompany us on our next trip down?  Their experience would be invaluable to us.”

“They will do whatever I order them to,” Molly stated.  “I’m sure they’d be happy to help,” she added, sensing the discomfort in the room with her previous phrasing.

“Good.  When we’re done here please contact them and have them prepare.  Have them be armed however they normally would be, those blow darts they got me with would come in handy.”

“Understood.”

“Jaren, we need weapons, whatever weapons we have let’s pass them out.”  Jaren nodded.  “Is your shuttle equipped with weapons?”

“No, it’s just a transport ship, nothing like that.  We’ve got scroll flashers, our wands, several printed handguns, that’s it though.  We can print more.”

“Do so.  We’ll mount a full expedition, both shuttles.  Molly please have your six best men prepare and have them ready in-” she looked at the countdown clock on the wall “twenty-eight hours.  We’ll leave Felix here with three others but I want to see him okay before we head down again.  We’ll leave them on the ship to maintain its systems and give us imaging support with continuous infra-red monitoring to warn us of any threats in the area.  If we weren’t so careless they could have warned us about that, that… what was that Molly?”

The head harrumphed a little through the scroll tucked into the bag which made sounds for her.  “The males call them murdercats, differentiated from the friendlycats and the angrycats.  However they were known in the before time as cougars, house cats, and bobcats respectively.  Cougars like the one that attacked Felix can take down large game by themselves and are incredibly dangerous.  House cats used to be pets and are mostly harmless, bobcats are a bit bigger than the housecats and typically won’t attack a human unless threatened.”

“What other threats down there can you tell us about?”

“Well, large mammals called bears will attack you first chance they get and are twice your size.  They’re solitary unlike the wolves who live in packs of a dozen or so.  They’re crafty and some will distract you while the others attack from a direction you aren’t expecting them.”

The rest nodded understandingly.  They all lived in cites, but their cities all gave way to wilderness, and each planet had their own monsters out there that they warned their children about with good reason.

“What about large prey animals?” Francis asked.

“Deer most prominently,” Molly answered.  “There are other species, but around Vancouver these days it’s mostly deer.  My people say they’re quite tasty, but… well, they say the same things about the bears.”

Chapter 16 (Second Draft)

The next morning, the New Horizon crew walked the path over to the shuttle accompanied by Molly, still carried in a chair by her two guards with her power cell in her lap.  She had been assured that she was welcome to bring her guards with her up to the ship, but she waved them away when it came time to board the ship.

Patricia had accompanied them to the shuttle.  When it came time to board the vessel, Molly turned to Patricia with a thoughtful look.

“My dear I was going to leave you in charge in our absence, but now I wonder… would you like to come with us?  It would be the opportunity of a lifetime for you, and,” she looked over at the guards, “it might put the others more at ease with my going if you accompanied me.”

“Leader, I… I don’t know what to say.  To ascend to the sky, is… I never dared to dream.  I would be honoured,” she replied with a gesture which was something between a bow and a curtsy, pulling the sides of her dress out as she lowered her head respectfully.

“Tell the others,” Molly said to her guards, “that Vega shall be in charge until I return.”

They nodded their understanding.

“May we borrow one of your scrolls?” Molly asked Kathryn.

“Of course,” she answered as Jaren lowered the shuttle door with a point of his wand.  She pulled her own personal scroll out of her pocket and handed it to Molly, who then handed it to one of her guards.

“You’ll be able to contact me at any time using this.  Do not be afraid.”

“Yes Leader,” one of the guards finally answered.  “Safe journey.”

Molly nodded and Jaren, Felix, Kathryn, and Teresa all together lifted Molly’s chair and carried her up the ramp.  Patricia followed behind in a combination of apprehension and wonderment over the ship.  She had never seen anything like it.  Neither had Molly for that matter, but she was harder to impress having seen all of the wonders Earth had to offer before the plague.  Patricia had never seen anything more sophisticated than the dam and the trinkets the scavengers had managed to bring back with them. 

What impressed her most was the seeming transparency of the walls, how once inside there seemed to be a clear view to the outside through the interior walls, with the exception of one large wall panel which was clearly and thoroughly cracked and not functioning.

Patricia and Kathryn lifted Molly out of her chair and into one of the seats which ringed the interior of the shuttle.  They strapped her in and then proceeded to do the same for themselves.  Jaren handed the chair to Molly’s guards outside, telling them that they’d figure something else out on the other end.  He then re-entered the shuttle and after warning everyone, launched the ship up into the air and into orbit.

The shuttle was capable of travelling much faster than could be comfortably tolerated by its passengers, and even the three gees at which he capped their acceleration was somewhat uncomfortable to endure for the ten minutes it took them to catch up with New Horizon’s orbital velocity.

Catching up with the ship he carefully docked and informed everyone that they were secure and free to remove their restraints.  The lack of gravity in the central engineering section of the ship was remarkably freeing for Molly who now with her one arm and one leg could manoeuver reasonably effectively on her own, though was still assisted by Patricia.

“I’d like to show Molly and Patricia the bubble,” Kathryn informed the others.

Jaren and Teresa said that they would proceed to the bridge and begin configuring the comm and rift systems for sending a message back to their planets, and that when Kathryn was ready she could have a turn.

“When you’re ready to bring them up, we’ll have to figure out some sort of rope and harness system to get her safely down to the habitat ring,” Jaren realized.  “We’ll figure it out, you just let us know when you’re done in the bubble.”

Patricia, never having experienced microgravity before, had the typical problems and unforced errors of any novice, such as the instinctual impulse to attempt to swim.  This was so common because the closest analog to the sensation of weightlessness on Earth was the neutral buoyancy of being in water.  But before long she figured out appropriate usage of the foot and hand holds and followed along behind Kathryn and Molly towards the forward engineering section.

“This is our fusion core,” Kathryn informed them as they passed the central core section on their way to the bubble.  It is a much larger and more powerful version of what originally powered you.  Molly understood this immediately upon hearing it was a fusion reactor, so the information was largely for Patricia’s benefit of understanding.

“Through here,” Kathryn said as she unlocked the heavy air tight bulkhead, “is what was called the zero gravity bubble.  It was apparently constructed while they were on their way to Haven and was not part of the original design.  That’s why it was just cut into the bulkhead of the core room like this.”

The door swung open, and as they entered the bubble Patricia gasped loudly.  She had seen the Earth from the shuttle, but they were moving so quickly, and the image was artificial, she didn’t really understand what she had been seeing.  But here, there was no ambiguity.  She was left absolutely speechless.

“It must take you back hunh?” Kathryn asked Molly.

She too was speechless, and pulled Kathryn into a hug.  “Thank you,” she whispered into her ear.  “For everything.”

The three spent nearly three hours in the bubble, watching the world go by twice.  The view from orbit was never the same no matter how many times you went around.  Kathryn took the opportunity to just enjoy the view herself as well, and listen to Molly point out things to Patricia and tell her stories about her past, things she’d seen, places she’d been, people she’d known.  When Orbital One passed underneath them some ways down latitude off in the distance, she went into detail about her relationship with Colin, how they’d met, their life together, their struggle to commission a child… and their last days together.  It had all of the appearance of an elderly grandmother recounting stories of her life to her adoring granddaughter, and Kathryn found it an endearing moment of bonding to witness between the two women, and she found herself wishing she’d known her own grandmother better.

 

“I… don’t even know where to begin, President Kim offered speechlessly in her recorded message responding to the one Kathryn had sent her detailing their experiences so far.

A Kobol diplomatic staff had already been attached to the president, and one of the first things they did was set up an interstellar communications system which allowed her to use the Escher rifts to communicate between worlds.  It took an average of a little under twenty minutes for a message to travel all the way down to the sun, through the rift, out the other side, and all the way back to the other planet.

“I’m immediately going to release your report to the press,” the president informed her, “and encourage them to print it and get it to as many eyes as possible.  What you have accomplished already is… well, beyond our wildest dreams.  You are a planetary treasure, Captain Barnes, you will already be remembered by our people for many generations and your career is only just beginning.  You embody our people’s pride, and hope, and optimism.   Yes, indeed.  Go forth with your plans to help this Molly simulant in any way that you can, especially if she will share Earth’s history with us in return.”

President Kim’s expression darkened appreciably.  “We were all of course quite disturbed to learn of the fate of Earth though, Captain Barnes.  I mean…we knew something awful must have happened, but… to know for certain, and in such grim detail… is almost too much.  There will be many nightmares on Haven in the coming weeks about it and about such a thing happening to us here.

“In short, we are very impressed with your work to date, and yes we grant you full discretion to proceed however you see fit.  Also, please extend my warmest greetings to your guests, as well as an invitation for them to visit Haven if they find themselves in a position to do so.

“Good luck Captain.”

The screen switched off she leaned back in her chair.  She found herself overcome with a wave of homesickness which she hadn’t anticipated.  She switched the large scroll she’d watched the message on to a comm display and pushed the appropriate button to hail Jaren.  “Could you join me in the conference room please?”

Instead of answering, he showed up a few moments later, having been very nearby on the bridge.  He’d brought Molly and Patricia with them, whom he’d been showing the bridge.  Molly had been placed in a proper wheelchair they’d found left over in ship’s storage.

“I got a green light from command,” she informed him.  “How ‘bout you.”

“Well,” he said a little awkwardly, now wishing a little that he’d left the others back on the bridge.  “Like I was, my people were… taken aback at first to learn of the existence of simulants.  However, the more I spoke to them, the more I was able to convey that this is a completely new kind of technology which even if we choose never to develop full simulants ourselves, an understanding of the technology could be very useful to us in any number of other ways.  Once I was able to make them see this, they really turned around on Earth.  Suddenly it is quite worth study and exploration in comparison to their previous attitude.”

“Excellent.  And Teresa?”

“She tells me her people are also quite enthusiastic to press forward.”

“Good!  It’s all settled then.”

“I should also add,” Jaren said, turning to Molly, “they’ve already directed our top fusion researchers to begin working on a compact cell for you.  They’ll have to design one from scratch, and they’ll need detailed scans of your, umm… remaining anatomy, but they have every confidence they’ll be able to provide what you need.”

“I am quite relieved to hear that Jaren, thank you very much.”  The simulated woman finally seemed to be warming to the man.

“Did you ask how they are coming with the archive?” Kathryn asked Jaren.

“I did, they told me they’re very nearly done at this point.  They’ve also assured me that once they have finished reading the sheets, they will send a physical data storage unit to Haven and Roma with the complete archive for their use as well.”

“Good to hear,” Kathryn said.  “Well, there’s no reason to wait then, let’s get everyone in here so we can plan the expedition.  She reached forward to access the comm display on the scroll again and Molly laughed a good natured laugh at the sight.

“What?” Kathryn asked, confused.

“You don’t have thought control do you?  You have to access everything with touch!”

“Of course…” Kathryn answered, still confused.

“It was all designed to be operated by thought control, and by touch for children who didn’t have their Brainchip implanted yet,” Molly explained.  “For me the technology was built in, I mean that’s how I’m operating this wonderful chair here, by thought control.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you.  My own people have to use touch, but well… I rather tend to regard them as children,” she said with an apologetic look at Patricia.  “It never occurred that you all don’t have Brainchips, but you don’t do you?”

“I’m afraid I don’t even know what that is,” Kathryn admitted.  “You’ll have to excuse us, but my people had only just figured out rocketry and electromagnetism when Jaren here showed up on our planet a few weeks ago.  It felt like he was looking at us like we were children because we haven’t figured out something he calls ‘sub-atomic’.”

Molly harrumphed.  “And Earth before the plague would have been equally boggled by the anti-matter technology sitting here in my lap,” she observed.  “So it goes, I suppose.”

 

Not long after, the entire New Horizon crew along with Molly and Patricia had assembled in the now rather crowded conference room off of the bridge.  At Molly’s request, the ship’s telescopes had been trained on what was left of Vancouver, and the image was displayed on the full wall screen which the conference room was equipped with.

“Definitely not how I remember it…” Molly observed somberly.

“But this is how it was described by the scavengers we’ve sent out,” Patricia commented.

“I guess I’d hoped they were exaggerating…”

From orbit, it largely looked like a dramatically hilly area.  They were trained on the Burrard peninsula which had been completely covered with a forest of glass covered skyscrapers before the plague.  Any surrounding suburban areas were now completely re-absorbed by nature and utterly indistinguishable from any other wild and uninhabited area.

The dramatic hills of the area were in fact the result of the bases of the skyscrapers remaining intact, but the tops of them having crumpled and fallen down around the bases of the buildings, creating dunes of debris around the bases which helped to stabilize what remained of the buildings, especially as soil and plant life covered and perfused every surface.

“Switching views,” Felix said as he altered the image with a filter, “we can use ground penetrating radar to show the internal structure of those mounds, and you can see that the lower sections of many of the buildings which once stood are still intact.”

Molly’s eyes had welled up with tears.  “This city was once beautiful as I was…” she lamented with obvious deep sadness in her voice.  “It was a city of glass, every building a shimmering vision of modernity.  Oh how I wish you could see it as it was now…” she remarked as she took one of Patricia’s hands with her one remaining hand.

“You say that the lab they created you in was down there somewhere?” Jaren asked her.

“Yes…” she answered listlessly.  “Somewhere.”

“You don’t know exactly where?” he asked.

“Arbutus and West 16th if it helps,” she answered sarcastically.  “Good luck figuring out where that was in the mess that’s left down there now thought.”

“Hmm.  Well,” he asked her, “how do you suggest we proceed?”

“I have to go down there myself,” she answered.  “I just know that if I can get down onto the ground down there I’d be able to get my bearings somehow… that I’d intuitively know where I’m supposed to go, where… where I originally came from.”

“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” Kathryn observed.  “Look.”  She restored the true image to the wall with a few taps at her scroll.  “Not one bit of terrain down there is amenable to you rolling around in your chair, and it’s too unsteady for us to safely carry you around in a chair either.”

Molly nodded.  “You’ll have to remove my head.”  Several people in the room audibly gasped at her ghastly suggestion, including Patricia.  “Hey, I’m not super hot on the idea myself, but it’s the best way.  We saw the ship’s onboard simulant laboratory.  There were no spare parts which could help restore me, but it was fully equipped with the appropriate tools to conduct such a procedure.  All I need is my head and this power source.  Rig up some sort of backpack and somebody can carry them together around on their back as you make your way through the ruins.”

“It could work,” Jaren offered as he stared pensively at the wall screen.  “It’s not ideal, but… it could work.  It’s risky,” he said, turning to Molly.  “You’re sure this is what you want.  You’re sure you can talk us through the procedure?”

“Yes and yes.”

“Leader,” Patricia pleaded, “I am uncomfortable with this.”

“Fear not child,” Molly reassured her, “you’re coming with us.”

 

“The head is designed to come off,” Molly explained as she drew a line around her neck in the mirror with a black marker.  “Not easily of course, but for repair and maintenance and such it is intended to be possible with some effort.”

Everyone in the room seemed rather uneasy, especially Jaren who had been tasked by Molly to conduct the procedure with Felix’s assistance, given their success with switching over her power source.  None were more apprehensions than poor Patricia though.  Right before her eyes she was to be forced to watch strangers remove the head of a being she considered something closer to a deity than a person.

Molly laid down on the examination table in the centre of the sim-bay where the simulants who had founded Kathryn’s civilization had been stored for the long journey to Haven.

“Cut along the line, as deep as you’re able to down to the substructure.  You’ll come across a material like you can see in the exposed parts of my skull.”

Jaren began moving the scalpel towards her skin but paused to ask, “will you bleed?”

“No,” she answered.

Jaren cocked his head to the side momentarily with uncertainty before slowly moving the scalpel to her neck again.  He paused again to ask another question and the other people in the room signed loudly in frustration.  “Oh come on!” someone uttered in nervous frustration.  Jaren asked her if she would feel pain when he cut her.

“I will,” she answered, “but not as much as you’d think,” she reassured him.

“I figured you’d bleed…” Jaren remarked as he began his incision and watched her wince with what seemed to be considerable, but ultimately bearable discomfort.  “I imagined it was some kind of living skin overtop of an artificial substructure.”

“No,” she managed as Jaren moved around to the other side of the table to cut along the other side of her neck.  “If that were the case then the skin would of course have died away centuries ago.  It is simply an incredibly advanced synthetic substitute which perfectly mimics skin but only superficially.  It even heals over with time just like skin when it’s cut, even though it doesn’t bleed.”

Felix and Francis rolled Molly’s body over so that Jaren could complete the cut along the back of her neck, and then rolled her back.  “Okay, done.” Jaren said with relief.

“Alright, next there will be a series of eight screws along the point of incision at regular intervals.  They all need to be removed.”

As the three engineers got to work unfastening the screws, she explained further: “okay, the hard part will be when you have to disconnect me from the power supply input on my chest coming up through the neck, and plug the different connection directly into the base of my skull.  It’s the different power connector we found in that cabinet.  You’ll have to swap the adapters after disconnecting me, and then plug the new one into the same place you disconnect the power supply from the body.”

“Okay that’s all of the screws,” Jaren answered.

“Alright, you should be able to pull my head about an inch away from my neck, everything in there is designed to have that much give.”

Jaren carefully did just that, and pulled her head slightly away from her body.  Some people in the room were aghast with horror at the scene while others were rapt with morbid fascination.

“Okay,” Molly said with a noticeably and comically elevated pitch to her voice having her vocal cords stretched, “this is the last instructions I’ll be able to give you.  My esophagus and trachea each have three little clips you have to undo to separate them from the body.  After that you need to unplug the data cable running along where your spinal cord would be.  It has a little lock switch you need to flip before it will come free, same goes for the power cord.  When you remove the power cord I’ll go dark again, but you’ll be able to remove my head completely, and plug in the power source directly to the head.  I should come right back on my own just like before, but if I don’t the hard restart in my head I mentioned before is right beside the power connector.  There’s a little red button and a little green button right beside it.  You hold down the red button for three seconds and then push the green while still holding the red. 

“Is all of that clear?” she asked while looking around at the engineers standing over her.  They all nodded somberly.  Molly sighed heavily.  “Very well then… proceed.”

Jaren, Felix, and Francis all worked together to do exactly what she said.  When they uncoupled her trachea she was no longer able to breathe.  At this point it felt like everyone in the room was holding their breath as they finished uncoupling the data cable, and holding his breath himself, Jaren finally disconnected the power supply.

Exhaling slowly and reaching for the different power adapter, he looked at her face as he switched the adapters.  Beyond the uneasiness of seeing her lifeless with her mouth agape and her one remaining eye wide open, she further set him ill at ease with the way she somehow seemed both alive and dead at the same time, like a perfect replica of a human being, but without that unquantifiable and indefinable spark of life.  He found himself wondering if this is what a human would look like if somehow drained of their soul while still alive.  He shook his head to clear the thought as he firmly implanted the power adapter into the appropriate socket on the underside of her brain case.

The silence in the room was deafening as they waited to see what would happen next.  At some point they realized that something was wrong, that she had been lifeless noticeably longer than she had been down in the dam.  Now somewhat unsure of himself, Jaren sighed and rolled his head to the side as he reached for the red button and held it down.  After a few seconds he pressed the green button and her eye shot wide open and she made the motion of drawing the deep dramatic breath of someone clutched from the brink of death, but it was ersatz; she no longer had lungs to draw in air to.

When she came to life, everyone in the room jumped back in frightened surprise.  Those nearest to her seemed to jump back several feet before coming to their senses and sharing a nervous laugh with everyone else.  They watched as Molly’s head attempted to speak but made no sound.  It frowned in frustration, then closed its eyes for several seconds with a furrowed brow and an eye clearly darting about underneath its eyelid.

Can you hear me now?” a voice which sounded somewhat like Molly’s but not quite, asked over the ship’s broadcast speakers in the room.

Kathryn laughed.  “Yes Molly, we can.  Is everything alright?”

The disembodied voice harrumphed along with the silent facial expression of a harrumph on the disembodied head lying on the table.  “Aside from being decapitated?  Oh sure…” she answered with an ironic drawl.  “Do a poor head a favour would you?  Bring a small scroll over here and put it in front of my face,” the head asked.  Kathryn pulled out her own scroll from her pocket, pulled it apart and held it up in front of the head’s face.  It again scowled with a searching closed eye underneath a furrowed brow.

Is it coming through the scroll now,” the disembodied head asked, its voice now coming from the scroll instead of the speakers about the room.

“It is Leader, it is,” Patricia reassured her as she stood beside her and stroked what was left of her hair.

Excellent,” the voice offered sardonically.  “Well then bundle me up already, and let’s get going.

Chapter 15 (Second Draft)

Under the watchful eye of her guards Kathryn approached and took the scroll from Molly.  She unfurled it and tapped out a comm request up to the New Horizon.  Jaren’s face immediately appeared. 

“Kathryn!” Jaren’s face on the screen uttered.  “Oh thank the lord, are you alright?”

“Yes, Jaren, I’m fine, everything’s fine…  In fact, I’ve made a new friend who would like to meet you.  She’s made us an offer which I think you and Teresa are definitely going to want to hear.  If you two agree to come down and discuss it with us I will then be free to leave with you again.”

Jaren’s eyes narrowed slightly in suspicion.  “Or we will be two additional valuable hostages.  It’s what they did to you.”

“The men can be savages,” Molly said loudly enough for Jaren to hear.  “But I will personally guarantee your safety and free passage.”

“Who was that?” Jaren asked.

“Well,” Kathryn said looking back at her momentarily, “our new friend,” she answered optimistically.

Jaren looked to the side at someone off screen and nodded before sighing in resignation.  “Very well.  We’ll come down right now.  We’ll bring the cure for you as well while we’re at it, the sooner we can treat you the better.”

“Cure?” Kathryn asked with renewed concern, remembering what he’d called out to them during their botched rescue attempt.

“Yes, that’s what I was trying to tell you.  It was a plague Kathryn, that’s what wiped out Earth.  The people down there now are just the descendants of those who happened to have a natural immunity.  You don’t though.  We were all infected.  New Horizon’s medical tubes couldn’t detect it but Koboli tech could, and Nadelle was able to create a cure.  Untreated you only have a few days left until you would die from it.”

Kathryn looked at Molly, who nodded both gravely and knowingly.

“Very well,” Kathryn acknowledged.  “I’ll meet you at the main entrance to the dam.  You can land just beyond it and I’ll show you down here.”

“We’ll be there in twenty minutes.  See you soon.”  He hastily closed the channel, presumably to be able to come see her as soon as possible without wasting any moments in between.

“He loves you,” Molly stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes,” Kathryn said with a smile to herself.  “You could tell?” she asked, looking up at her.

“I was designed to be an expert.”

“Of course,” Kathryn acknowledged with a stifled laugh.

Molly pressed a button on a panel on the arm rest of her chair where she was missing an arm.  “Patricia,” was all she said.  Kathryn heard the clanging of the heavy door and not long after Patricia came into view and joined them.  “You have served me well bringing this one to me.  She is to be treated as an honoured guest, as are her friends who will be landing and joining her shortly.  Please escort Kathryn to the top of the dam to greet her friends with her.  You will then bring them all down to meet me, and clearly instruct the men to not interfere.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, Leader,” Patricia answered with a slight bow. 

“Good.  Go on then.”

 

As instructed, Patricia led Kathryn and her two male escorts up the stairs again to the top of the dam and over to the nearby clearing.  Not long after they saw Jaren’s ship high up in the sky rapidly descending towards them, and then dramatically reduce its velocity as it approached the ground, coming to a near stop just above the ground, and then softly touching down.  The door wall fell away to form a ramp, and Jaren fearlessly emerged, walked quickly over to Kathryn and embraced her so tightly that her eyes widened and it momentarily became a difficult for Kathryn to breathe.  He let up enough for her be able to do so, but still held her quite tightly still, rocking with her sideways back and forth for a long lingering moment.

“Thank the lord you’re safe,” he said quietly in her ear.  “I was so worried about you.”

“I know Jaren,” she said as she set him a distance from her with her hand son his upper arms.  “I know, but I’m fine, everything’s fine now,” she said with a smile as she put a hand to his cheek.  “And I’ve made a wonderful discovery!”

While Jaren got himself acquainted with the idea that all really was well now, Kathryn noticed Teresa and Felix approach from behind him.  As soon as Jaren gave way Felix immediately subbed in and gave her a big bear hug, lifting her up off of the ground and twirling her around.  “Way to still be alive, kid,” he said in a teasing tone.

When he set her back down on the ground, Jaren pulled a transdermic out of his pocket and held it to her arm.  A small plastic bell created a suction in the void abover her skin into which a skin dilating vapour was emitted, permitting the cure for the plague to be readily absorbed into her bloodstream when it was secondly released into the void.  The whole process took only a few seconds before he pulled the device away and she rubbed the spot for a moment as Teresa put her hand on her shoulder and smiled an appreciative smile, saying simply: “It’s good to see you again, Captain.”  Kathryn nodded in acknowledgement.

“Judging from how things went when we first met, I’m guessing this isn’t your new friend?” Jaren said with a motion of his head towards Patricia.

“No, but she works for her,” Kathryn explained.  “She’s a simulant Jaren, a sexim actually,” Kathryn added as she momentarily looked over at the dam.  “She’s very likely the last functioning simulant in existence, and… only barely still functioning at that.”

“What’s a simulant?” Teresa asked.  The moderately confused look on Jaren’s face signalled his own lack of understanding as well.

“Oh.  I guess you wouldn’t have any records of them would you?  Well, simulants were synthetic humans constructed on Earth during the era our missions left.  They were designed to be completely indistinguishable from humans, and when the New Horizon mission departed they’d reached that level quite completely.  Some were constructed based on real living people, and others were novel units designed from scratch.  The founders of Haven colony, the most revered figures in our history, were simulants of the four original principle mission founders.”

“I had no idea…” Jaren said with obvious uncertainty.  Still, the implications became quite clear to him.  “Wait, so you’re saying that down in that dam, the voice I heard on your scroll, is a six hundred year old artificial human?”

“Yes!  Well, probably a bit older actually…”

“That’s… perverse,” he remarked.

“What do you mean?”

“To try to duplicate God’s highest creation, I… I don’t know how I feel about that.”

Kathryn gave him a curious look.  She knew that he came from a religious planet, but she’d never been confronted with this side of him before.  She chose to believe that it was more of a reflexive response to this new revelation, and that with time his better sense would win over, and she knew she would be happy to help him if he needed a little reassurance.

“Well you’ll have plenty of time to ponder the metaphysics later.  In the mean time you’re going to meet her.”

 

As the group made their way into the dam past the guards and down the stairwell, Kathryn explained that Molly’s body had severely degraded over time.  She explained her demands in exchange for telling them everything she could tell them about what happened to Earth since the last time New Horizon’s physical archive was updated on the way to Haven.  It would help that the archive on the New Horizon was nearly sixty percent updated from Kobol at this point, and advancing every twelve hours as updates were transmitted through the rift.

Jaren immediately understood the importance of this opportunity and put whatever reservations he had about the concept of an artificial human being itself aside for the time being.  They passed the second set of guards and entered the turbine room.  Despite the clear warnings of her appearance from Kathryn, Jaren, Felix, and Teresa were all visibly taken aback when she came into view.

“Did you tell them I used to be beautiful?” Molly asked Kathryn, betraying her vulnerable sensitivity to her appearance in front of her new visitors.

“Yes I did Molly, they know.  And they’ve agreed to do whatever they can to help restore you.”

Molly nodded to Patricia and the young woman retreated once more with their escorts.  The two male guards on either side of Molly’s throne remained though.  Jaren and Teresa stepped forward to greet Molly.  “As official representatives of the planets Kobol and Roma,” Teresa opened, “we offer you greetings, and graciously accept your kind offer of friendship and cooperation.”

“Good…” Molly acknowledged with a nod.  “Good.”

Felix stepped forward, but his head was down looking at the screen of his scroll.  “It looks like there is supposed to be detailed data in New Horizon’s archives regarding the construction and maintenance of simulants,” Felix offered.  “A quick scan turned up fragmentary information, which suggests more complete information we haven’t received yet.  Next chance I get I’ll request the Koboli recovery team to prioritize data on simulants in any way they can.”  He looked up at Molly.  “Even so though, the required technical expertise is… beyond any of us,” he admitted, waving the scroll towards Jaren and then Teresa.

“I understand,” Molly said, “but with time… if I had an appropriate laboratory and enough technical details, I could learn to do the work for myself, or adequately instruct others in what I cannot do for myself.”

“As for your internal fusion core,” Jaren said, rubbing his chin, now seemingly more invested in the technical puzzle confronting him than any lingering concerns regarding her existence at all, “we don’t have anything off of the shelf on Kobol which would be appropriate to the job, but with the relevant specifications from New Horizon’s archive regarding dimensions, capacity, output, and a good look at your original defective unit… I have no doubts at all that we’d will be able to replicate an appropriate micro core for you.”

“Excellent!” Molly’s expression so visibly brightened at this news that her excitement was contagious.

“In the meantime,” he continued, “we brought with us to Earth a number of anti-matter batteries which could probably be used as an external but relatively portable power source for you right away.  Even one of batteries we used getting some of Orbital One’s systems up and running again would probably have enough power left in it to keep you going for several years at least.”

“Orbital One?” Molly marvelled, “you’ve been there?”

“Yes,” Teresa answered matter of factly.

“I remember it well,” Molly recounted, seemingly overcome with nostalgia.  “I remember when Orbital Two came down.  Those were… dark years, literally,” she remarked with a raise of her one remaining eyebrow.

“As for your… body,” Jaren said, struggling through a touch of awkwardness in the required phrasing.  “We have no immediate way to help you, I’m afraid.  We don’t know anything about how you work or how to construct anything like you.  With your help though, and with years or even decades of study of… what’s left of you, we may be able to create a rudimentary replacement for your limbs, but… I suspect anything more sophisticated would take several decades or more of dedicated research, even with detailed data from New Horizon’s archives.  Plus…”

“What?” Molly asked, sensing his hesitation.

“Such research, on my world, could create some… political tensions.  Religion is still a very significant force on my world, and there are many who would object to such a project.  We also are currently led by a president who is not known for taking actions which could be potentially politically damaging.”

“I see.”

“Haven technology is… well, simple by comparison to the Romans and Koboli,” Felix admitted to Molly,” but we would relish the opportunity to study you and do anything we could to help you restore yourself.  It would take us much longer to get up to speed but, well… we revere our simulant founders as, well not gods per se, but certainly regard them in something approximating a mythical sort of way.  Restoring you would for us be a labour of love and respect.  We would cherish the opportunity.”

“And yet,” Molly replied, “if it could take them decades it could easily take you a century.  There may however be an intermediary measure which would suit me even better.  On the coast to the south lay the ruins of a once great city, a place once known as Vancouver.  Somewhere in what is left of that city lay the remains of the laboratory where I was created so long ago.  While there is no chance of there just happening to be an intact Molly unit just waiting there for me, there may still be intact replacement parts such as arms and legs.  If we were extraordinarily lucky there may even be an abandoned yet nearly complete simulant body which I could be moved into with some work, but this is likely just too much to dare hope for.”

“If we provide you with a new power source,” Kathryn asked, “and make every effort to find these spare parts for you, but we can’t and promise to conduct all the required research and development to fully restore you eventually, will you promise to provide us with all of the history you know?  If we commit to doing the research as long as it takes to be able to honour our agreement?”

Molly considered the question carefully.  “If you provide me with a new power supply in short order, and make the attempt to restore me now, if… you will bring me the sun again, I will provide you with the most essential details.  The full recounting of everything I know, my full recollection and legacy though, will be withheld until I am adequately restored, or until I feel I can trust you enough to be assured that you will continue your efforts to help me regardless.  Is this acceptable to you?”

Kathryn, Jaren, and Teresa looked at each other and all nodded.  “It is, Molly.” Kathryn stated.

“Outstanding,” Molly said.

“I should be able to get our other shuttle to extract the power cell from Orbital One and get it down here within an hour.

 

True to his word, less than an hour later Irvina had ordered a fresh battery installed into Orbital One, and had personally brought the used one down to Jaren, accompanied by Francis, who stayed behind with the surface team in case with his engineering expertise might be required to help the others connect it to Molly.

“Now one way or another, with no battery backup your systems are going to lose power when we switch you over from the local power supply to this battery,” Jaren explained.  “What will happen when that happens?”

“I will appear to die,” she explained, “but when power has been restored I should finish rebooting after a few minutes.  “If not you will need to hard boot me by pinching hard the skin between my thumb and finger and pressing any of my molar teeth.  It is also possible to do so by tinkering with my brain case, but I’d quite prefer you didn’t do that if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Jaren said with his usual friendly smile.

Molly, not charmed one bit, warned him: “you should know though, that if I don’t wake up, the guards here will believe that you have killed me, and they will take swift vengeance on you.  No matter what I might tell them ahead of time, you would not make it out of this room alive.”

His smile dissipated, Jaren nodded that he understood.  Molly provided him with the exact voltage and amperage her body required, and told them where nearby they could find a plug which matched the inverse connector on her chest.  They were able to connect the plug to the power source and dial in the exact energy dimensions as Kathryn and Teresa watched on, and then informed her she was ready.

“Go ahead,” Molly said seriously with a lowered head and eyes glaring forward into space.

Jaren and Felix lifted the half meter long battery onto her lap, and held their breath as Jaren unplugged her existing power supply.  Her gritted look forward gave way to a complete absence of any kind of expression whatsoever as the life literally drained out of her.  Jaren then carefully plugged in the new power source and everyone held their breath.  Nothing happened for almost two minutes, and as the guards began to murmur to themselves, Jaren began considering attempting the hard boot up process she had described to him.

As he considered this, her eye bolted wide open and she sat up as she gasped deeply.  The suddenness of her revival caused Jaren, Felix, and Francis all to jump back over a meter in fright, making Kathryn and Teresa laugh at their reaction.  Molly seemed to regain her composure, and when she realized what had been done, and that it had been successful, she thanked them and assured them that it had worked perfectly.  A plethora of wide grins and congratulatory handshakes ensued as Molly looked down at her new portable life line.

“Years you say?” she asked Jaren.

“That’s right,” he assured you.  “Congratulations.  Like I said, by the time that wears out, we’ll have designed a replacement internal unit for you.”

“Thank you,” she said simply.  “I’d like to see the sun now,” she said with an emotional note in her voice.

Her guards lifted her and the battery in her lap up and put her in a chair in which they could more easily carry her.  With the expedition team members following behind, they carried her over to the door, and Patricia, her escorts, as well as the door guards, all joined the parade behind her as they ascended the stairs.

When the upper door opened, and natural sunlight fell on Molly, she began openly weeping out of her one large brown eye.  Her guards set her down on the grass in the full glory of the late afternoon sun, and all of the rest of them let her be for some time as she continued to sob with the intensity of her relief.  She had been trapped down in her dungeon for so long, and now to be free, after having no hope of ever being so only days ago, was too much for her to keep contained. 

She had never been a natural leader.  Confident sure, capable certainly, but the burden of leading these people and being responsible for their survival and safety for so long had been so much for her to bear, especially from down there in her lonely depths.

“Patricia,” she managed to croak.  The young woman knelt down in front of her.

“I am very happy for you Leader, this is a great day is it not?”

“It is child, it is… take me to the village.  Tonight there will be a great feast to honour our guests and new friends, spare no luxury we have to offer, both the finest goods we have scavenged and created for ourselves, understand?  This is a day to be remembered for generations.”

“Yes Leader,” the woman said, now becoming overcome with emotion herself.

“The noble travellers have come home, and they have pledged to help us.  It is a reunion, child.  Our family has finally been put back together.  We have a future again.”

“Yes, Leader.”

 

True to her word, the celebration was beyond anything the villagers had ever known in their lives.  Not only were the reserves of their locally produced alcohol and cannabis nearly entirely depleted, but later in the evening they’d even broken into the especially sacred store of wine from the before time.  They laughed and giggled to themselves opening six hundred year old bottles of wine.  Some were rancid, some were vinegar, but some were remarkably drinkable.

There was a gigantic central bonfire resulting from a pyre twice the height of a person, and the villagers spent most of the night taking turns dancing around it sometimes in wild unstructured enthusiasm, others in attempting to replicate the ceremonial dances their elders had passed down to them.  There were other smaller fires nearby as well, fires more amenable to roasting full deer, fish, and goose, or merely for gathering around conversationally.  Molly and the New Horizon crew on the surface were gathered around just such a fire.

Jaren sat down very close to Molly under the watchful eye of her personal guards, in order to speak with her in relative privacy.  Kathryn watched him do so, but could hear none of the exchange.

“You don’t like me, do you?” he asked.

“I don’t like men,” Molly answered matter-of-factly.

“I see.  Because of your… origins.”

“That’s right,” Molly answered carefully, and after a moment’s hesitation.  “You don’t like me much either do you?” she asked him.

“I wouldn’t characterize it in quite that way.  I find your existence… disquieting, a disruption to my view of myself.  It is nothing to do with you personally though, encountering any simulant would have elicited a similar reaction.  Likewise I suspect with me being any unfamiliar man to you.”

“Hmm…” Margaret responded thoughtfully but still somewhat dismissively as she took a drink from her cup.

“Tell me…” he asked thoughtfully, “can you come to trust a man?”

Molly shrugged.  “It’s been known to happen… sometimes.”

“Then I shall endeavour to do whatever I can to foster your trust in me.  I wish us to be allies, friends…  I want you to trust that even if you had nothing to provide us, we would do whatever we could to help you regardless.”

“Why?  I find that hard to believe.  Everything in human interaction is an exchange.”

Jaren sighed and leaned back, staring into the fire.  “I’m going to be honest Molly, when I first learned of your existence… I was not just disquieted, I was utterly aghast.”

She looked at him curiously with her one large brown eye.  “Why?” she asked.  If one could focus on the parts of her that were still intact, one could still see how achingly beautiful she must have indeed once been.  Her eye was large to the point that she appeared wide-eyed while looking casually, and her most casual gaze always seemed to be staring into the deepest depths of one’s soul with compassion and sympathy.

“My people have come a long way since we originally left Earth, our religion is more a… figure of speech at this point, something few take too seriously despite our habit of speaking and acting as though we still do take it very seriously.  The deep parts of me that firmly internalized the religious teachings of my youth cried when I found out about you.  We had forgotten that simulants ever existed, we brought no records of their existence, and after generations of it never coming up, we had completely forgotten.

“The idea of a perfectly simulated human being seemed to be… a direct challenge to God itself.  If nothing else, it is God who creates people, if not their bodies then their… well, soul for lack of a better world.  If humans can create something indistinguishable from a human being, something so close an approximation that we would assume it had a… soul, to meet them and never be informed of their artificiality, I guess if felt like there was no space left for God at all in the genesis of a person.”

“Maybe that’s something to think about,” Molly offered matter of factly.

“It is,” Jaren agreed thoughtfully, “and I have been, believe me.”

There were several moments of silence as they stared into the licking orange flames together, seeing their whole lives in flashes dancing in the image of the flames reflecting in their eyes.

“The more I think about it though?  The more…” Jaren trailed off.  “See, my people are so technologically advanced compared to the others because we consider technological advancement to be a primary commandment from God.  From the very beginning the goal was always to strive to become ever more godlike in our morality and behaviour, and at some point after landing on Kobol we re-interpreted that into an imperative to become ever more god like in our technological powers as well.  We sought to build ever more powerful tools, but we never once thought about attempting to duplicate God’s powers of human creation, the power which was obviously generated to create you.”

He and Molly were still staring into the fire, and she found herself quite interested in what he had to say.

“My people had to be coerced into coming here by the other colonies.  They had no interest in Earth because we detected no technology here we could learn from.  That has changed now.  After my initial shock at your existence, I realize not that even if we never choose to construct fully fledged simulants ourselves, our understanding of your construction and function would be a vast leap for us in any number of areas.  The discovery of you I believe will if nothing else mean that my people will be more interested in Earth now, intrigued by what they can learn and what powers they can newly harness from understanding you and your kind.  So yes, we all want to know everything you can tell us about the history of Earth from the time New Horizon left to the present, but my people especially will want to help you restore yourself regardless of that because of what they can learn technologically from helping you so.”

“I understand,” Molly said with a nod.  “You haven’t earned my trust yet Mormon, but you might’ve opened a door.”

Jaren smiled and a puff of air escaped through his nose as his smile was accompanied by the hint of a laugh.

Sensing that whatever they were talking about was abated for the time being, Kathryn came around the fire over to them and sat on the other side of Molly.

“Molly, we know from our orbital observations that there are a number of small encampments like this one spread all over the world.  Do you ever come into contact with them?”

“Not directly, no.  Our most frequent interactions are when our scavenging parties come across those from another village in the ruins of an ancient city.  More often than not violence ensues, but what else would you expect, they are all men after all.”

Kathryn wrinkled her brow at this generalization.  “I see, so how do you think the others would react to coming across us?”

“I don’t know,” Molly admitted, “I’ve been locked in that dam for the better part of two centuries, and when the scavenging parties return they have little more to offer than casualty reports.  You probably know more about them than I do just from your ability to observe from orbit.”

“You know Jaren,” Kathryn said past Molly, “I was thinking, so much has happened so far, it would probably be wise to check in with our home worlds before launching any expeditions south, offer them an update on our progress and what not.”

“You’re probably right,” Jaren agreed, “of course there’s always the possibility that for whatever reason we might be told not to engage in that mission and return home instead.”

Kathryn grinned.  “I think there would suddenly be some inexplicable communications interference if they tried to issue that order.  It’s a damn how things like that can happen at the most inopportune time.

Jaren laughed.  “Quite true.”

“Besides,” Kathryn continued, “I find that quite unlikely, at least from my people.”

Jaren nodded that he probably felt the same way about his own command higher ups.  In his experience they tended let their people take whatever risks those on the ground felt it appropriate and worthwhile to take.

“So Molly,” Kathryn said, turning to what was left of the simulant.  “What are you willing to tell us about what happened to Earth?”

The simulated woman took another drink from her tin cup and took a deep breath.  “Well, you’re right of course, that there was a plague.  Nobody knew where it had come from or how it had been created, there… was simply no time.  People seemed fine for a week after being infected, and then suddenly dropped dead the next day.  Billions, and billions… and billions,” her eye revealed her to be lost in unpleasant remembrance.  “Have you ever walked the streets of a city of twenty million corpses?”

Kathryn and Jaren just looked at each other with a shiver up their spines.  Sensing that it was story time, the rest of the New Horizon crew and some locals gathered up near her to hear.

“Everyone who was going to die… everyone on Earth anyways, died within a week of the first death.  There was no time for civilization to break down, instead it just ended… midsentence.  For quite some time we simulants thought we were the only survivors.  Our programming is designed to recognize infectious agents and simulate the effects on us.  Our deaths are only simulated and unlike the humans we can be reactivated, but this disease… it was designed to be undetectable to modern medicine and… as such it went unnoticed by our systems.

“We thought maybe we were the only survivors, and for a time we contemplated how empty and shallow a fate that would be, we who could not reproduce, we who did not know how to create more of ourselves.  We would wander the Earth in dwindling numbers until finally the last of us inevitably went offline.

“But then, a miracle happened.  We came across humans, survivors.  At first we thought maybe they were just simulants who had gone mad and come to believe themselves humans but no, honest to goodness flesh and blood human beings.  We cherished them as the miracles they were.  We tried to lead them, tried to gather them up in one place and rebuild what we could of a civilization, but… supplies were limited.  Our whole food supply chain had become so technological that specialized technicians were required to generate everything from lettuce to meat.

“After the first riotous frenzy of hostility and outbreak of murders, theft, and hoarding… we realized that what we had hoped for would be impossible.  My husband and I gathered up our descendants and others and headed here.  We had a lot more technology left over back in those days, but energy to power them was a scarce resource.  Dams such as this one were one of the few remaining reliable sources of power.

“Some other simulants did the same and-“

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Felix apologetically interjected, “but you had a husband and… descendants?”

“Yes,” she answered nostalgically.  “His name was Colin.  He was a simulation of an Australian man who ran a casino and bar on Orbital One.  He died several hundred years ago falling from a great height and damaging his brain beyond repair… there was nothing we could do.  Long before that though, we were the first simulants in history to commission a human child of our own out of sorrow at our own inability to reproduce but, well… that’s a story for another time.  And yes, some of the people here are descendants of that child, like Patricia over there.” Molly pointed to Patricia over at the main fire, who noticed and smiled back.

The New Horizon crew all nodded a new understanding of the relationship between the two.

“Does she know?” Kathryn asked her.

“No, she… she wouldn’t understand.” Molly answered.  “That’s really all there is to tell.  We made a life here as best we could.  We still scavenged what we could find, there are old small towns near here, but it wasn’t long before we’d scavenged everything we could form those places and had to mount ever more dangerous expeditions south to the ruins of Vancouver.  We had to learn from scratch how to farm, how to keep animals, how to build shelters, all the things which were completely unknown to us as pampered high tech city dwellers.  We had some very rough years and lost a lot of really good people, but… we came through in the end as you can see.  I’d like to think we are thriving, all things considered.”

“What became of the other simulants?” Jaren asked.

“We kept in contact for some time,” Molly explained.  “We were a network of saviours for the remaining humans, sharing what information we could about what we’d found and newly learned and discovered.  One by one though… they stopped answering my comm requests, either they broke down or their comm devices did.  The last I was still in contact with though I never heard from again after the Years of the Falling Sky.”

“What is that?” Kathryn asked.

“Oh, it’s an era we survived and still reference.  A century after the Plague struck, all of the larger things in orbit started falling down on us.  The most catastrophic event was when Orbital Two fell down and hit the lands to the far East of here.  After that critical communications relay crashed down, I never heard from another simulant ever again.  That was four hundred years ago.”

“So it’s possible that some other simulants have survived,” Felix observed.

“Possible yes,” Molly conceded, “but the odds are quite against even my own survival… I shouldn’t even still be around.”

“Can you tell us more about what happened before the plague?” Teresa asked.

“No,” Molly answered matter-of-factly.  “I increasingly trust you people but I’m not ready to play all of my cards at once here.  Besides, the night grows late.”  She looked over to the main fire and saw that half of her people had collapsed in exhaustion or from too much drink or smoke in the now twilight.  “My people have prepared beds for you to spend the night with us.”

“With… all due respect,” Jaren offered diplomatically, “we should really be get-”

“What he means,” Kathryn said, cutting him off, “is that we would be honoured to be your guests tonight.  In the morning we will return to our ship and report our progress to our home worlds through the rift.  Molly, you’re… welcome to join us on the ship while we do so, if you’d like.”  She wasn’t sure how she’d feel about the offer.

“I… I haven’t been to orbit in six hundred years.  I’m torn,” she admitted, “by my desire to get as far away from my prison as possible, and… my reluctance to abandon my people.  Thank you Kathryn, I may take you up on the offer but I think I need the night to sleep on it.  Patricia!”

The young woman in the flower print dress came over from the main fire to see what Molly wanted of her.  Please show our guests to the beds we’ve prepared for them.”

Patricia simply nodded and held out her hand to lead them.  The New Horizon crew lifted themselves up onto their feet and followed her to bed.

They didn’t get much sleep that night, not only were the beds somewhat uncomfortable, but their thoughts were consumed with the nightmare story Molly had described for them.  It was a story about the end of all things, a thing feared in very primal parts of their deep human psyche.  Every one of them when they did finally fall asleep suffered at least once being the last being alive in a city of twenty million corpses, desperately, frantically searching for another living being to assure them against their absolute loneliness, but finding none.

Chapter 14 (Second Draft)

Patricia led Kathryn and their two male escorts along the well-worn path towards the dam.  Patricia had explained that this was where the leader lived, and that she never left.  When pressed, the woman was unable or unwilling to explain why, merely saying with a shrug that it was how things had always been.

Arriving at the top of the dam, they approached a heavy steel door which was guarded by two particularly fearsome looking men who were armed with handguns in holster at their side, rifles strung over their backs, and holding long spears upright in their hands.  They were resting their weight on the spears initially, but stood stiffly at attention when they saw Patricia’s party approach.  She nodded at them and they stepped to the side to allow her passage.  Kathryn noted that they were armed with the only firearms she had seen down here on the surface.  She imagined that they must have been very carefully preserved from what these people called the ancient times and thus extraordinarily rare.  Their use in guarding The Great Moll, whoever that was, showed how important this figure was to them.  ‘They must consider it the thing most needing protection in their lives,’ Kathryn thought to herself.

They group walked down many flights of stairs, Kathryn imagined it to be about halfway down the interior of the dam.  There were more stairs continuing down into an unseen dark abyss below them, but they stopped at another set of heavy watertight steel doors which were guarded by similarly fearsome looking guards, complete with a similar arsenal.

“The Great Moll has standing orders for us to bring her any unusual strangers,” Patricia explained to the guards.  “This woman claims to come from another planet and has clothing and weapons completely unfamiliar to us.  I believe The Great Moll will want to meet and assess her.”

One of the guards nodded, opened the heavy door, and entered beyond.  The other guard closed the door behind him again, and stared down Kathryn.

“Assess me?” she asked Patricia.

“To determine whether you represent to us a threat, opportunity, or neither, the woman explained.

“I see,” Kathryn acknowledged.  She didn’t know if she liked the sound of that, what would they do if they considered her a threat?  How could she best present herself to avoid finding out?

The heavy door opened again and the guard returned.  He said nothing, but his nod towards Patricia indicated their permission to enter.  He held the door open for all four to enter, and then closed it behind them with a heavy bang which echoed loudly in whatever space they had now entered.

They began walking past large metal cylindrical objects twice as tall as any of them.  “These are the turbines which the water spins to provide us energy,” Patricia explained.  “There are eleven, but only four remain operational.  We only need one for our purposes, but we never know which one might fail next and when, and we don’t know how to repair them once they stop spinning.”

Kathryn could tell the ones that were still working from those which were not, they had an audible whine to them as they spun.

Patricia stopped.  “This is as far as we will go with you.  We will be waiting back at the door through which we entered.  You will find The Great Moll beyond that turbine there; your conversation is not for our ears.” The woman began to turn and walk away, but hesitated, and turning back to Kathryn reminded her: “Remember.  She is… not like us.  Try not to be afraid.”  She then resumed her turn and led their two male escorts back in the direction they’d come from.

“Well that’s not ominous at all…” Kathryn muttered to herself.

There was a bright stream of light coming from between the two turbines she was to find The Great Moll, which provided enough light to be able to dimly see the entire interior of the cavernous chamber she was in.  Walking into the light, she saw two ridiculously brilliant lights, and was so blinded by them that she could see little else.  The buzzing hum of the lights was audible over the sound of the spinning turbines nearby.

“Beautiful…” Kathryn heard a voice say.  “Step closer,” the voice commanded and she obliged.  “Patricia tells me you claim to come from very far away indeed, a different planet altogether?”

“That’s right,” Kathryn answered.  She had to look away: the blinding light was growing more and more painful to look at.  At this point she just closed her eyes and suffered the light as a bright orange-pink glow streaming through her eyelids.  “The planet Haven, in the Sigma Draconis system.”

After a pause, the voice asked: “New Horizon?”

“Yes!”  Kathryn exclaimed.

“So you really made it…” the voice said to itself.  “We never knew.”

“How do you know about the New Horizon?” Kathryn asked.

Instead of answering the voice continued its own interrogation.  “How did you come back to Earth?  It was to take you a hundred and sixty years to get there in the first place.  Would it not have taken you just as long to return?”

“We made friends with superior technology.  When we regained the ability to reach orbit we were visited by humans from the planet Kobol, who-“

“Kobol…  The Mormons made it too?”

“Yes… the Catholics as well, how do you know about all this?  Were records left somehow?  If so I’d very much like to review what records you have.”

“Of course you would.  Continue.  The Mormons have superior technology?”

Kathryn was growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of answers to her own questions, but she figured the best way to get answers for herself later on was to be as ingratiating and forthcoming as possible right now.

“Yes.  They have developed a technology they call the Escher Rift.  It harnesses the power of a star to open portals between systems.  They visited us through it, and we made an arrangement for them to help us bring the New Horizon here to solve the mystery.”

“What mystery?”

“What happened to Earth, why it went dark halfway through our trip to Haven.  It is the greatest mystery my people have ever known, and half of our drive to return to the stars was to be able learn the answer.”

“And have you?”

“Have we what?”

“Solved the mystery.”

“No.  Well, my people may have, but I’ve been out of communication with them since I was… captured.”

“I see.  Wait, you brought the New Horizon back to Earth?  It’s here!?”

“Yes.”

A long silence.  “I once knew a man who left on that ship,” the voice said with a note of sentimentality.

“How is that possible?” Kathryn insisted. 

“Because I was there,” the voice said.

Kathryn could hear a heavy switch being thrown and the lights slowly began to fade.  As they did she began to be able to make out the image of her interrogator, flanked by two similar guards to those by the doors whom she hadn’t even realized were there.

The figure before her was an utterly ghastly sight.  She was sitting in what could only be described as a makeshift throne, with several tall steps leading up to where she sat at shoulder level to the two guards beside her.  It appeared to have once been a human woman based on what was left of the anatomy of the naked figure, but it was a body now terribly mangled and disfigured.  It was missing its left leg, it having seemingly been ripped right out of the hip joint, as well as missing its right arm just above the elbow joint.  It had one reasonably well preserved breast, but where the other ought to have been, instead a thick cable was attached firmly and directly to the artificial structure beneath the skin which had apparently been cleared away to allow the connection.  The left side of her face was smushed clear off, allowing various layers of anatomy to be shown, from the relatively intact simulated human skin on the right side of her face, to the electronic and mechanical infrastructure underneath, down to the dull black artificial skull beneath.

“I was once beautiful too,” the creature lamented.  “I was once considered a standard of beauty, but as you can see that was a long time ago.  A very long time ago.”

“You’re… a simulant.” Kathryn uttered with dawning understanding.

“You know what a simulant is?” it asked.

“Yes.  My people’s civilization was founded by four simulants of the New Horizon mission’s principle founders.  They… they saved us from ourselves when we first arrived at Haven.

“I see.  I’d like to know more about that when the time comes.  Yes, Kathryn.  I am a simulant as well, perhaps the very last one in existence.  I was once known as a Molly, a conscious sex toy for men who indulged in such things.  One of my… clients back in those days was a man who left on the New Horizon mission.  I remember that many if not most of the men who availed themselves of me were unscrupulous if not loathsome, but Markus… we had a moment before he left, a moment which led me to grow beyond my original programming and seek an independent life of my own.  I’ll never forget him.”

Kathryn was aghast.  “Markus… Bowland??

Molly smiled.  “Yes, why?  What became of him.”

Kathryn cringed.  “A story for another time I suspect.  Sufficive to say, he was ultimately the reason why the founder simulants needed to save us from ourselves.”

“I see,” Molly acknowledged with a frown.  If true this wouldn’t surprise her but more important things were at hand.  “Do the Catholics or Mormons have simulant technology?”

“I’m afraid not,” Kathryn answered.  The simulant appeared quite disappointed.

“What bargain did you make for them to bring you here?”

“When both of the other colony ships left,” Kathryn explained, “they purged themselves of Earth’s history.”

“I remember,” Molly said with a nod.

“But the New Horizon kept a full and complete archive, backed up by a physical medium which is still intact to this day.  We agreed to grant them access to the archive in exchange for use of their portal system and upgrades to the New Horizon which allowed us to come here ourselves.”

“And now you’re here.”

“Yes.  And now that we’ve met you, you can fill us in on everything that happened since the last transmission New Horizon received from Earth on its way to Haven!” Kathryn excitedly exclaimed.  She’d never imagined such a thing would be possible, simulants weren’t supposed to last that long.

“I certainly could.  But I won’t.”

Kathryn’s optimism visibly melted away.

“Not for free anyways,” Molly continued.  “It seems from your story that information, history, is itself the most valuable commodity in the universe now.  I’m not going to just give away my only currency.”

“Currency?  What are you hoping to purchase from us Molly?”

“Freedom…” Molly answered quietly.

“I don’t understand,” Kathryn admitted.

“Some of my components have survived,” she explained, “but others have not.  My quantum brain for example,” she said with a gesture of her remaining hand in the direction of her head, “is still in quite good condition which is why I can talk to you and tell you all the history you could possibly want to know.  My internal fusion reactor on the other hand…” gesturing towards where her right breast used to be, “failed nearly two centuries ago now.  I have been tethered to these turbines ever since.”

“You haven’t been able to leave this room since?” Kathryn asked somewhat aghast.

“I have not seen the sun in one hundred and eighty seven years.”

“I’m sorry.”

Molly looked down and away with one misty eye.  “So it goes,” she replied with a sad expression.

“We would help you any way we can with or without anything in exchange Molly.  You’re precious, you are… unique.”

“That’s a nice sentiment child, but with my existence at stake I can’t take any chances.”

Kathryn nodded.  “What do you want us to do?”

“Repair me.”

“Well, fusion technology appears to be child’s play to the Mormons so I imagine they’ll be able to help you out with that at least.”

“Excellent.”

“But like I said, none of us have developed simulant technology so we wouldn’t know where to start in repairing your body.”

“In maintaining myself, I learned a great deal about simulant construction and repair.  There are abandoned simulant manufacturing facilities all over the world, but I have not been able to go in search of them since I have been trapped here.  The scavenging parties I send out don’t really know what to look for either but you and your people could find what I need, I’m sure of it.  Ideally I want a new and intact Molly model which my program could be transferred into, but I would honestly settle for any intact simulant body to be transferred into.  Oh hell…” the woman lamented looking at her missing leg.  “Who am I kidding?  To tell you the truth I’d settle for a mismatched replacement arm and leg and tell you everything you want to know.”

“We will do what we can to help you, I promise,” Kathryn assured her, “but you must let me talk to my friends, they must be so worried about me.”

“Of course.  I assume you have this scroll connected to a communications network?” Molly asked as she held up Kathryn’s scroll.

“Yes.”

“Then here, take it,” she said as she tossed it to Kathryn, who fumbled with it a bit and nearly dropped it before securing it in her hands.  “They are welcome to come and meet me as well.

Chapter 13 (Second Draft)

Kathryn woke up, but it wasn’t like any kind of waking up she’d ever done before.  It felt more like coming back from the dead than rousing from a restful sleep.  It took her a few moments to remember the last thing she remembered, but when she did she bolted upright in her bed.  This was a mistake.  It brought on a crushing pain in her head and she had to lie back down again.

At least the bed was comfortable enough.  It seemed to be a mattress shaped bag of sewn together animal hides, presumably stuffed with… fuck did her head ever hurt.  Lying down was helping the pain though; she felt it slowly dissipating.  She turned her head to the side to get a look at her surroundings.  She was in a smallish room which she imagined might be the entire structure.  The walls appeared to be built out of logs stacked on top of each other and crossing each other in an interlaced way at the corners.

She reached down to feel if she still had any equipment in her pockets.  She didn’t.  Both her PANEs and her scroll were missing.  “Well at least there’s that…” she darkly humoured to herself in a croaked voice.  “Okay.  Let’s try this again…”

This time with an abundance of caution, she slowly raised her head and worked her way up to a sitting upright position.  Just as cautiously, she swung her body around to put her feet on the ground beside the bed.  Looking down, she noticed that the floor was bare earth, dry and packed down hard, but bare earth all the same.

As she was contemplating her chances of successfully standing up, the door swung open and a young woman entered, younger than Kathryn certainly, but she was still a grown adult woman.  Kathryn was struck by how different this woman looked to the humans she’d encountered before, the ones who had darted her and presumably brought her here.

The woman before her now was obviously quite clean and freshly bathed.  Her dark hair was tied back with a pink ribbon which matched the pink flowers patterning her flowing and loose fitting white sundress.  She had an air of arrogant confidence about her, the kind one might expect from an aristocrat or a person of some other position of unearned privilege.

“English?” the woman asked.

“I… yes!” Kathryn marvelled.  “Why do you speak, I mean, am I… what’s going on here?”  She didn’t know what to ask first so she blurted out several partial questions at once.

“What land do you come from?” the woman asked.

“Land?  I… I don’t understand.”

“How far did you travel to get here?”

“Pretty fucking far…” Kathryn chuckled to herself and the woman wrinkled her nose in confusion.  “Why was I attacked?”

“You were alone, in unfamiliar clothing.  Our explorers thought it best to capture you first and investigate secondly.  Perhaps not the wisest decision, but… their strengths are not their wisdom.”

“What’s your name?” Kathryn asked.

“Patricia.  And you?”

“Kathryn.” Patricia merely acknowledged with a nod.  “Are you the leader here Patricia?” Kathryn asked.

“No, but I do serve the leader.”

“I’d like to meet your leader.  I have many questions, and I’d like us to be friends.”

“Perhaps.  How did you find yourself alone in our lands?  Certainly you were not foolish enough to have travelled so far alone.”

“I was not alone.  I had friends with me who must have retreated after seeing what you did to me.”

“They have abandoned you.”

“They’ll be back for me, you can be sure of it.”

“I see.”

“I can’t help but notice your clothes… they are very nice compared to the animal skins I saw the others wearing.”

“Serving the leader has privileges.”

“Yeah.  It usually does doesn’t it?”

Patricia tilted her head to the side in a questioning way.  “What land do you come from?” she asked again.

“Haven,” Kathryn answered for lack of a better reply with a shrug.

“I have not heard of this land.”

“No I wouldn’t suspect you had.”

Another tilt of her head to the side.  “You had this equipment with you.”  Patricia produced her PANEs and scroll.  She pulled the scroll apart and looked accusingly at Kathryn.  “We’d hoped we could learn about your land and its people from this scroll but it is password protected.”

“You know what a scroll is?” Kathryn asked with great surprise.

“Yes,” Patricia answered matter of factly.

“Well, go ahead then.  The password is KB4186.”

Patricia entered the characters into the scroll and it unlocked for her.  The first thing she did was search the term ‘Haven.’

“Haven… is a planet?” she asked with great surprise as she raised her head to look up at Kathryn.

“That’s right,” Kathryn answered cautiously.

“You are attempting to deceive me,” Patricia accused.

“No, it’s the truth, I swear…  Like I said, I’ve come from very, very far away.”

“So it would seem.  And yet you are human?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I look forward to hearing it.  So will the leader.”

“How do you know what a scroll is?”

“Some technology has survived from ancient times.  It is rare, but we who serve the leader are privileged to have access to it.  The dam provides us the energy we require to power and use the technology we have.”

“I see… that’s why all of the settlements are near dams.”

“Yes.  If we can maintain the dams, not only do they supply us with all the water we could ever need, but they can also power the technology we have been able to scavenge.”

“Is that what your explorers were doing?  Leaving on an expedition to find more?”

“Yes.  We can maintain a simple way of life without discovering new supplies, but luxuries and tools we cannot create ourselves must be scavenged by our explorers.  Perhaps by design, the dams which power the tools we find are never near the places we can find the tools.  The journey to the lands of the south where such treasures are to be found is a very treacherous one.  Our expedition teams leave in the spring and camp in the south for the winter before heading home the following spring.  Sometimes…” the woman looked down with a minor welling up of sadness.  “Sometimes they do not come back at all.”

“I see,” Kathryn offered sympathetically.

Composing herself, Patricia asked: “how did you come here from Haven?”

“On a ship, a starship called the new New Horizon.”

Patricia eyed her skeptically.  “I find this unlikely.  The stories say that such a journey would take many lifetimes.”

“Ordinarily it would,” Kathryn admitted, “but we met some new friends recently who have the technology to get us here much quicker.”

“How quickly?”

“Weeks.”

Patricia was quiet for a few moments before admitting: “I would very much like to meet these friends of yours.”

“I’m positive they’d like to meet you as well.”

“Well, if nothing else I am satisfied that the leader would no doubt very much like to meet you.”

“Grand!  Can I have my equipment back?”

“No.” Patricia answered firmly.  “The leader may see fit to return these to you, but that is her prerogative, not mine.”

“Very well.  Does your leader have a name?”

“We call her The Great Moll.”

“I see.”

 

“There!  See?  She’s on the move!” Jaren exclaimed.  He had been watching very intently since Kathryn had shown the first signs of rousing.  He watched with great curiosity as a woman entered the structure Kathryn had been taken to and as he watched them talk he burned to know what was being said.

After a time, they both emerged from the structure, and Jaren had a small sense of relief being able to see her in true image with the satellite instead of an infra-red outline, even if it was just the top of her head.  He didn’t have to watch long before he observed her steal a moment to look up into the sky and give a thumbs up.  It was an ultimately ambiguous message, but Jaren resolved himself to accept that it meant that she was alright, at least for the moment.  He continued to watch as the two women sat on the bank of the river in anticipation of a third figure seeming to bring them some food.

“Of all things…” he muttered to himself, “a frickin picnic.”

“Looks like she’s doing just fine without us doesn’t it?” Felix observed over his shoulder.

“Oh, Parker.  Yeah, well… we can’t really know what’s going on down there, or what’s going to happen.  How are we for supplies?”

“Well all told we’ve been able to assemble quite a little arsenal for ourselves for when we go down to get her.  We’ve got four of your, um… magic wand things which Irvina tells me can render someone unconscious with a touch.”

“That’s right.  And it’s just ‘wands’”

“Right.  And… we’ve got plenty of scrolls which according to my research are capable of emitting a particularly pernicious flashing of light which overloads the visual system and knocks people out.”

“Good, good… what else?”

“Well, there’s not a drop left in the ship’s printers, they were drained to make as many tools as we could before abandoning the ship, but I’ve looked into it and there are a number of things on the ship which with some work could be reduced to printing material.  The food trays in the dining hall for instance, with some processing the plastic could be recycled to make crossbows or something… we could even harvest some of the internal bulkheads to print some firearms, if… if we wanted to go that far.”

Jaren swiveled around to face Felix.  “Well Parker… from what I understand you’re her best friend, how far do you think we should be willing to go to get her back?”

After a moment to consider the question, Felix answered: “I have never taken a life… and I don’t ever want to.  But I could, if it was what was necessary to save her.”

“That’s exactly how I feel.”

Felix nodded with a raised eyebrow, indicating that he believed Jaren did.

“The thing is though,” Felix added, “I don’t think Kathryn herself would want us to save her if that was the cost of doing so.”

“It’s not up to her though is it?”

“No, but we should consider what she’d want us to do.”

“Yes.  Yes of course, you’re right.”  Jaren weighed his options.  “We will make every effort to recover her without hurting anyone, but if it does comes down to them or her…”

“If it comes down to them or her, I won’t argue.”

“I’m glad we understand each other.  I understand you are an active member of your world’s military, same as Kathryn?”

“Well, paramilitary would be more accurate, but yes.”

“Well that makes you the closest thing we have onboard to a soldier.  You can handle a firearm?”

“I can.”

“Then print yourself whatever gun you feel most appropriate for yourself, as well as a few crossbows for others.  If they make any aggressive move against her we’ll launch immediately, but that would be the most dangerous option and it could potentially be very messy.  Hopefully another opportunity will present itself.  I suspect that if it does… we’ll know it when we see it.”

 

Eventually Jaren managed to sleep.  He could have gotten a pill from Nadelle, but that would have prevented him from being sufficiently alert should things seem to go bad down on the surface.  Nothing seemed to go that way though.  Kathryn stayed close to the woman who had greeted her in the building they had brought her to when she was unconscious.  She appeared to be being given some sort of tour of the encampment, and their best guess was that she was conducting the diplomacy which (as surprising as it may have been to Kathryn herself) seemed to come quite naturally to her.

When night fell, she seemed to join some others around a camp fire on the outskirts of the settlement before finally retiring to her room for the night.  Seeing this, the whole crew tried to get some rest, hoping that the next day would present an appropriate opportunity.  If such an opportunity didn’t present itself in the next couple days, they would have to risk a direct incursion before it was too late to save her from the virus which was growing stronger in her body every minute until it eventually killed her.

In the morning, after watching her get some breakfast with her companion, they began to see some indication that they were preparing for some sort of trip.  Felix had finished manufacturing his weapons, and Nadelle had prepared a transdermic which would cure Kathryn if they could get it to her.

When they saw the two women leave the settlement and head west accompanied by two males, Jaren gave the order and he along with Irvina, Felix, Elim, Teresa, and Francis all piled into one of the two Koboli shuttles.  Leaving Xion in command of the New Horizon, the shuttle detached from the ship began its descent into the Terran atmosphere.

Feeling no need for subtlety at this point, even suspecting a little shock and awe might work in their favour, Jaren brought the ship directly down towards Kathryn’s location.  Descending rapidly, he expertly conducted an emergency landing only a hundred meters away from Kathryn’s party.  The door flew open and Jaren’s team poured out with all manner of weapons pointed at Kathryn’s captors.
            “HALT!!  Let her go!  We don’t want to hurt anybody but we will if we have to!”  Jaren didn’t know if they spoke English or not but he figured it was a good bet based on how much Kathryn seemed to have been conversing with them over the last couple day.

“Jaren!  No!!

Jaren looked at the others in confusion as one of the males accompanying Kathryn stood behind her and held a knife to her throat.  “Go back where you came from or she dies!” the man yelled at Jaren.  He seemed startled at least if not fearful of their unexpected sudden arrival, but there was no ambiguity around the seriousness of his threat.  “We are taking her to see the leader, only she can release her if she wishes.”

“Unacceptable!  She is coming with us!  Let her go!  You will die if you hurt her at all I’m not screwing around!”

“Neither are we!”  He was much cooler, much more in control of the situation than Jaren.  “You leave now or she dies!” A small trickle of blood began to flow from where he was holding the knife to Kathryn’s throat.

“Jaren!” Kathryn croaked, “do what he says!”

“But-”

Do what he says!!

“We lower our weapons, and you take the knife off her throat…  Okay?”

“You first.”

“Okay, okay…” Jaren said.  In the moment if he could see a way of freeing her by killing he would have, but he didn’t see any way to accomplish that without getting her killed.  It was also clear how much Kathryn didn’t want him to do any such thing.

“I… we have to treat you Kathryn, there’s, there’s a disease!”

“What?” she asked in confusion.

Enough!”  The man yelled.  “You get out of here!  Get back in that thing and leave now!”

“But, I-”

NOW!!” the man screamed as he put the knife to Kathryn’s throat again.

FUCK!!” Jaren burst in frustration.  “ALRIGHT!  FINE!!!”  Jaren was incensed by his impotence to extract Kathryn.  “We’ll find another way!” he reassured her.

“Do nothing!” she implored him past the knife.  “Just wait, I’m okay really!  I should be able to contact you by the end of the day, if not-” the man put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from saying anything more. 

After everyone else had re-embarked Jaren stomped onboard and as the door swung up he punched one of the wall screen in anger and frustration so hard it cracked in a spiderweb out from the point of impact.  Jaren cried out in pain and clutched his hand.

“Dammit Jaren,” Elim exclaimed.  “Your hand, you dumbass!”

“What did you call me!?” he yelled with fire in his eyes.

HEY!!” Irvina yelled, “everybody just calm the fuck down!  Computer, take us back up the ship immediately.  Jaren, you are a dumbass, and you will sit the hell down and let Elim have a look at your hand.”

Irvina!?”

“You will sit the fuck down and get a fucking grip on yourself.”  She successfully stared him down and he began the long process of returning to centre.  “We are returning to the ship, we will assess our situation and plan our next move.  There’s nothing else we can do here now.”

 

“So, is this how you treat all of your guests?” Kathryn asked Patricia as she dabbed at the wound on her neck with the sleeve of her shirt and then pressed it to stop the bleeding.

“Fenn and the rest of the men can be… overzealous, but he was not wrong.  Your people should not have done that.  He did what he had to do.”

“How can you say that?  You condone me being treated that way?”

“Your fate shall be decided by the leader, and the leader alone.  Your friends will not be allowed to interfere.”

“Then we’d better get there already, shouldn’t we?” she asked acidly.  “I’d hate to keep the fates waiting.”

Patricia held out her hand for Kathryn to lead the way and she headed on.

“Jaren mentioned something about a disease.  You know what he was talking about?”

“Perhaps,” Patricia answered.  “The stories tell of a disease, a plague that brought about the end of ancient times.  The Great Moll teaches us that we are the descendants of a blessed people, those who were spared from the plague.”

“This plague… it must still be around, that must be what Jaren was talking about.  He must have a cure… you should have let him treat me Patricia, I could die.”

“There is no cure.”

“Well, my friends are very resourceful.  What can you tell me about this disease?  What are the symptoms?  How long does it take to kill?  How does it spread?”

“I don’t know anything about it other than those who contract it die quickly once they begin to appear sick.  From time to time it still claims some of our children, we don’t know why.  If you wish to know more about the plague you will have to ask The Great Moll, only she will be able to answer your questions in any more detail.”

“How does she know so much about it?”

“Because she comes to us from the before time.  She can remember when the plague first struck.”

Kathryn stopped dead in her tracks and turned around to face Patricia.  “That must be… a metaphor or something; I mean that’s not possible.  We lost contact with Earth six hundred years ago, how could anyone still be around from that long ago?”

“It is not a metaphor.  She is… not like us.  You will see.

Chapter 12 (Second Draft)

Emerging from the forest into the meadow, Kathryn’s team found their way to a river which was flowing down from the mountains at their back.  They remembered from the topological maps and imagery of the colony site that this river would eventually lead them right into the middle of the town they were on their way to investigate.

An hour and a half after the last communication, Jaren had contacted them again to give them an update on the progress the Orbital One team was making.  “They’ve successfully powered up the central processor and comm system,” he reported, “but they’ve only just begun to feed the data sheets in to restore the operating system.  Shouldn’t be long now, they should be finished by the time they orbit beneath us again.”

“Good to hear,” Kathryn affirmed.  “Keep us posted.  Surface team out.”

“I’m most interested in knowing if there is indeed enough rotational control fuel left to stabilize the gravity,” Irvina commented.  “One would think that automated systems would have used up the last drop maintaining orbital altitude, but if there is still some left we should eventually be able to restart the reactors and fully restore the station.  That would be nice.”

Kathryn shook her head a little with a grin towards the ground.

“What,” Irvina asked.

“Nothing,” Kathryn answered, “it’s just… I wish the rest of your people could get into this they way you can.  Was Orbital One and the other facilities in the system not a big enough lure for them, even if they’re only interested in technology?”

“It’s enough of a curiosity for us to have gotten around to it eventually,” Irvina suggested with a thoughtful wrinkle above her nose, “but other things like establishing rifts around more stars has so far taken priority.  It’s more a question of… allocation of resources than a total and complete lack of curiosity.  As for myself I’m an engineer, and getting the station up and running is just a problem I’m happy trying to work.”

“Right.  Well no one would be happier than me if we can save that station and get it operational.  The possibilities are endless if we can.”

Deirdre grabbed at Kathryn’s shirt from behind and when she looked back at her the woman had a finger to her lips, indicating for her to be quiet.  She then motioned towards the ground for her to get low and hide.  The four of them got as low as they could in the impression the river had cut into the valley.  This left them belly down on the river bank, peeking over the top.  They saw a group of six humans off in the distance walking in their direction along the bank of the river, beyond a bend off to one side.

Mangy was the only word which came to Kathryn’s mind in description of them.  Their hair was either cut very short and very roughly, or was past their shoulders in thick clumps.  From a distance one might think they were rough braids, but upon more careful inspection the hair was just incredibly dirty and great clumps of it clung together.  Their clothing appeared to consist of animal skins and furs, but Kathryn was struck by how well tailored the primitive clothing nevertheless appeared to be.

“Well there they are,” Terey observed.  “What’s the play?” he asked Kathryn.

“I’m going to go say hi,” she mused, amusing herself with her own casual remark.  “Alone,” she told them.

“Captain?” Irvina asked with concern.

“All of us emerging at once could scare them off.  They could run back to their camp in panic and create all kinds of problems for us here.  Low impact is what’s called for here.”

“Very well, but we should inform Jaren.”

“As you wish,” Kathryn acceded.  It was indeed prudent to do so.  “Jaren?” she asked after pressing a small button on the side of her PANEs.

“Here.”

“We’ve spotted some… Earthlings?” she said in a questioning tone with raised shoulders as she looked to the others for their opinion of her use of the term.  The rest shrugged their lack of a better one to use.  “Some people anyways, and I’m going to attempt to contact them alone.”

“Alone?”  Kathryn could hear his eyebrow raising from hundreds of kilometers away.  “Are you sure that’s wise?” he asked as casually as he could, which was less casually than he would have liked.”

“Wise or not, it’s what I’m doing.” she answered definitively.

“Very well,” Jaren said with unspoken reservation, “we’ll monitor your progress from here on the ship’s telescopes.”

Kathryn gave a single nod to herself in confirmation that the conversation was over and closed the channel.  “Alright, wish me luck…” she offered nonchalantly to the other three before cautiously raising her head and climbing over the ridge.  The group was about half a kilometer away and when she emerged she put her hands above her head in what she hoped would be the interstellar gesture of ‘I come in peace, please don’t attack me.’

The earthlings seemed to squack and scramble in a bit of a frenzy before settling down and cautiously advancing on her as she did the same.  The experience was surreal for her.  Until very recently it was unknown if Earth itself still existed, now here were humans just like her whom she was getting to meet on it!  The last couple months her life so far seemed to be one continuous string of ever greater peaks experiences one after another and here she was, her life newly peaked yet again.

A couple hundred meters from each other she began calling out greetings, the standard ‘hello’ and ‘I come in peace’.  She could see them smiling and nodding as if they understood her.  They were making no attempts to directly communicate with her and this increasingly began to put her ill at ease.  She more and more got the impression that they were placating her, trying not to scare her off even more than she was trying not to scare them away.  Closing to less than a hundred meters she began to feel more and more like she was walking grinning like an idiot into an obvious trap.  As they closed to less than fifty meters from each other, they still had yet to make any attempt to communicate with her and at about the point she was on the edge of turning around and running for her life, one of them pulled out a long straight tube, put it to his lips, and blew a dart at her.

The dart hit her in the chest, and her first reaction was one of simple curiosity, wondering what this meant and why they had done this.  When she began to feel drowsy a couple seconds later she came to understand the significance.  She pulled the dart out and tried to turn and run, but she only tripped over her feet as she found herself increasingly impaired by whatever had been in the dart.  She hit the ground and the last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was the feeling of many foreign hands touching her body, and being lifted up over somebody’s shoulder.

  

“KATHRYN!!!”  Jaren cried out on the bridge of the ship as he watched this all happen from a bird’s eye view on his monitors.  He frantically opened a channel to the rest of the surface team who were still hiding in the gulley of the river.  “You have to go after her!” he exclaimed.

“I don’t think that’s wise.” Irvina harshly replied.  Her, Terey, and Deirdre had seen the entire event as well, between peeping up over the ridge and watching the same telescope view on their scrolls which Jaren had been observing.

“But you have to!  She’s, she’ll, they…”

“Jaren!” Irvina said with a harsh tone nobody had heard her take with her superior officer before.  “We are unarmed, and they have a poison dart which is merely incapacitating at best.  If we go after her, now, like this, we are likely only to suffer the same fate as her whatever that is.  You will continue to monitor her from orbit while we return to the New Horizon.  We plan our next move from there.  If we want to mount a rescue assault we can do so very quickly and I’m happy to lead it myself, but I’m hoping a better option will present itself.  Such an action would be dangerous, and more so the more we rush without thinking.  Are we clear?”

“Yes Irvina… yes of course you’re right.  Please return to orbit as soon as you can so we can discuss our options.”

“I thought Jaren was your superior,” Terey questioned Irvina. 

“He is… technically.  But we have a history.”

Terey raised his eyebrow at her.  “History?”

Irivina sighed.  “We used to be married.  A long time ago.”

“Ah.  Now I get it.”

“You don’t seem as panicked about losing Kathryn as I’d expect.  Neither of you do.”

“Good training,” Terey shrugged.  “And we haven’t lost her, I have every intention of getting her back safe and sound.  Losing our heads certainly won’t help us do that.

“Good training indeed,” Deirdre observed.  She looked at the scroll showing the telescope imaging.  For now they seem to just be carrying her back to their town.  We obviously have to do something, but we can’t do anything right now and there’s no indication she’s in immediate danger.  Let’s get back to the ship as quick as we can.”

“Agreed,” Irvina nodded.  “Try to keep up.”

 

Back on the ship, Irvina, Terey, and Deirdre met Jaren on the bridge.  He was alone, so the rest of his New Horizon team must have been assigned to various tasks about the ship.

“Status?” Irvina asked.

“They’ve taken her into their town and put her in a small single room structure.  The infra-red imager shows her alone and still unconscious on some kind of bed.  She seems alright at the moment.”

Irvina looked at the monitors Jaren was so intently observing and saw the false colour blue, yellow, and red infra-red image on the monitor beside a true image of the roof of the structure on an adjacent monitor.  “And Orbital One?” she asked.

“Up and running,” Francis reported as he entered the bridge and came over to give a long lingering hug to his daughter Deirdre.  “The parts we need immediately anyway.”  Pulling away from his daughter he turned to Terey.  “I’m very sorry to hear about Kathryn, Terey.  We’ll get her back, don’t worry.”

“Damn right we will,” Jaren stated definitively. 

“Loading the operating system worked like a charm,” Francis continued, “so we can relay comms through the station and set up an orbital triangle whenever we want to, but we would need to take New Horizon out of geostationary over Kathryn to do so.”

“We’re not doing that.” Jaren said with a determined tone. 

Irvina stared at him for a moment with contempt in her eyes.  “Nadelle is back onboard?” she asked Francis.

“Affirmative.  Everyone besides Kathryn is back on board.”

“Good.  Please take Terey and Deirdre and have Nadelle meet you in the medical bay.  I want her to run a complete medical examination of them with Koboli equipment, right down to the molecular level.  You never know what we might have picked up down there.  I’ll meet you there for my own exam shortly.”

“Understood; prudent precaution.  Come along you two, poke and prod time.”

She stood in silence behind Jaren, waiting for him to notice her looking at him expectantly.  Finally she came around to stand in front of him, between him and the monitors he was staring at.

“Jaren.  We need to talk.”

“Of course,” he said as he shifted his gaze to another set of monitors she wasn’t blocking.

“Jaren!” she yelled angrily.  “I know what’s going on but you need to focus.”

He looked at her finally.

“We are all worried about Barnes and we are all going to do whatever we can to get her back, understand?”

“I love her.”

“Oh for fuck’s sakes…”  She rubbed both eyes with her thumb and forefinger.  “I know,” she said with a roll of her hand.  “We all know!”  This time she waved back at the crewmembers who had just left.  “I know you two thought you were being subtle but you failed utterly.  It’s the worst kept secret in the galaxy Jaren.”

He seemed wounded to her somehow, perhaps it was embarrassment.  She pulled up a rolling chair and sat down in front of him.  “I know you love her Jaren, but you don’t have a monopoly on being worried about her, alright?  We all are, and we all need to have our heads definitively out of our asses if we’re going to get her back safe, right?”

Jaren shook his head as if knocking cobwebs loose.  “Right, of course.  I’m sorry Irvina, we really thought that we could keep things secret.”

“We all knew that was your intent so we indulged you.  I’m your second in command though, it’s my job to snap you out of it if you get lost.”

“Right.”

“I’m also somebody who cares about you, remember?”

Jaren smiled.  “Yes, thank you.  I cherish you in my life Irvina.”

“Great.  So now that that’s out of the way, we need a plan to get her back.”

 

Leaving Xion on the bridge to keep an eye on things, the rest of the crew convened in the conference room.  Nadelle had discovered something curious while conducting medical examinations of Terey and Deirdre and wanted to share it with everyone at once.

“We’ve found something in examining the surface team which might answer a lot of our questions.”

“Go on,” Jaren said, leaning in.

“Well, we may have solved the mystery of why Earth went dark!” Terey excitedly exclaimed.

“Well… let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Nadelle cautioned.

“I don’t know how you could see it any other way!”

“Hey!” Irvina exclaimed, taking on more of a leadership role in Kathryn’s absence.  “Slow down.  Start from the beginning.  Explain.”

“It was a virus,” Terey explained.  “A virus which… we’ve all presumably been infected with now.”

“So, are we… all going to die then?” Parker asked, attempting to blunt his mortal fear with nonchalant humour.

“No,” Nadelle replied.  “Well ultimately yes of course, but not… from this virus.”

“The advanced medical technologies of the Koboli are capable of dealing with it and curing us of it, but the New Horizon’s medical chambers can’t even detect its presence.”

“How does this solve the mystery of Earth?” Teresa asked.

“If Earth technology of the era this ship launched in doesn’t even recognize it, then it certainly couldn’t cure it,” Ana explained.  “We suspect that the entire global population suffered a catastrophic die off as a result of this virus in the environment.”

Several people put a hand to their mouths to stifle their gasps.

“That’s horrific,” Reed commented.

“Well…” Parker said, “based on the limited population down there now, we knew that something like this must have happened at some point.  If this thing is so fatal, why are there any people left down there at all?”

Nadelle shrugged.  “Natural immunity I suppose.  It’s common for even the most pernicious infectious diseases to leave a small percentage of the population immune by chance, by an unexpected quirk of physiology.  Even if point-oh-one percent had some sort of natural immunity, from a population of ten billion…”

“Right, that’d still be a million people,” Parker observed.

“Which sounds like a lot,” Deirdre commented, “but for a global population that’s nowhere near enough to sustain a high technology culture like Earth had had beforehand.  Especially when you consider that’s young and old, and a completely randomized selection of what professional skills the people still left around happen to have.

“Exactly,” Nadelle agreed.

“What more can you tell us about the virus?” Jaren asked her.

“Well, it was synthetic for one.”

“Meaning…”

“Meaning it was engineered, deliberately.  Either it was something experimental being worked on in a laboratory which just happened to be released accidentally, or…”

“Or for some reason it was developed and released maliciously,” Ana said, finishing the thought for Nadelle.

“Yes.”

“I don’t… I don’t know what to make of that,” Jaren admitted.

“It doesn’t matter much now,” Terey offered somewhat distantly.  “However it happened, that’s definitely what happened.  At least we know now.

There was a somber moment of reflection which hung in the air for several moments before anyone spoke up again.

“I’d like to refer you back to my original question regarding… are we going to die?” Felix reiterated.

“No.  I’ve already cured myself, Terey, Deirdre…  Although it wasn’t recognized by New Horizon’s medical facilities, the medical equipment we brought with us from Kobol made rather quick work of it.  When we’re done here I can cure the rest of you.”

“I didn’t realize Koboli medical technology was so advanced,” Reed commented.

“That’s the funny thing, actually.  It’s not,” Nadelle offered.  “I mean it certainly is more advanced, but not that much.  This virus seems to have been specifically engineered to not be detectable to modern Earth medical technology of the day.”

“So it was developed maliciously,” Jaren asked.

“I still couldn’t state that definitively,” Nadelle countered.  “Researchers could easily have developed something like this just to learn about it and how they might counter it if someone else did.  Biotech can be as much of an arms race as anything else… there’s really no way to know.  Don’t get me wrong, it has all the appearances of being a weaponized virus, but such a thing could be developed specifically to figure out how to counter it if it was developed by someone else.”

“Can you tell me what the disease progression would be without treatment?” Jaren asked.

“Simulations suggest that there would be no apparent symptoms for up to a week, during which time it is highly virulent and contagious, followed by a rapid decline over only a few hours resulting from multiple organ system failure.”

“Wow,” Teresa uttered.  She and several others seemed quite disturbed by the description.

“Like I said,” Nadelle reiterated, “it’s weaponized.  It’s designed to kill as many people as possible, to be a… global killer.  With how interconnected Earth civilization would have been at the time, I’d bet most people on the planet were infected before the first person died from it.”

“Those poor people…” Deirdre uttered.  “What about the colonies elsewhere in the system?  What about all the ship in space while this was going on?”

“It ultimately wouldn’t matter if they were infected or not,” Terey explained.  “Certainly many were, but even if they weren’t it would mean a fate almost worse.  There were no places off-world in the system which had the capacity to be self-sustaining, that’s part of why all of our generational starships were built in the first place.  The outposts in one form or another all still needed some sort of supply from Earth.  If they didn’t get infected and die right away, they’d… die when their supplies finally gave out in the end.”

“Even worse…” Reed commented.  Terey seemed to agree with a slightly conflicted nod.

“Kathryn.” Jaren uttered in a low voice through a tight face.

“Yes…” Nadelle confirmed.  “There can be no doubt that she was immediately infected as well.  If we can’t get to her before the rapid decline phase of the disease…”

“I understand.”

“But one way or another, we’re not going to let that happen,” Parker stated firmly.

“No we are not,” Jaren confirmed.

Chapter 11 (Second Draft)

“Alright everyone, I can’t wait anymore.  I called you all here so that we could conference on what the different teams have been able to come up with so far before we head down tomorrow.”

Kathryn was addressing the other eleven crew members in the conference room off of the bridge, the room where they’d spent so many hours staring at the wall sized screen on the way to Earth.

“There are so many questions Captain,” Keri Reed excitedly exclaimed.  “Before we got here the only thing on our mind was why Earth stopped transmitting to us without any warning, but now that we’re here we realize how much more there is to know about what happened to all of the space stations and outposts around the system.”

“Well our primary objective should help us answer all of the follow up questions we also have; what can you say so far?”

“Well we’ve been running continual scans of the surface since we arrived two weeks ago and there are a few things we can say,” Felix offered.  “There are no EM transmissions to or from the surface, and we can’t detect any large scale signalling going on surface to surface.  As you recall we had to boost to a higher orbit soon after our arrival to avoid all of the orbital debris in low orbit.  We also didn’t detect any activity from any of the spacecraft seem to be left intact down there either.”

“Anything left in orbit of interest?” Kathryn asked.

“Oh yes,” Keri answered, “I mean, from my perspective everything down there is of interest and worthy of study, but especially of interest is the massive space station which if I’ve read the limited archives we have correctly, is actually the station which the New Horizon originally launched from.  Apparently it was once part of a triad of orbital platforms, but only the largest one is still left intact.  I guess it had the most onboard fuel for its automated systems to keep it in orbit.  It’s deserted; we can’t detect any life onboard.  Oh, and by the way it’s dangerously close to re-entry, it won’t last another hundred years if nothing is done.  We’ll want to board it and resupply its fuel to prevent that from happening.”

“Wouldn’t that station have the archive data you’d want?” Kathryn asked.

“Negative,” Irvina answered.  “All electronic data storage systems will have degraded beyond recovery over that amount of time.  The New Horizon archives are so valuable to everyone because the physical backup can survive for millions of years.”

“But there’s got be physical evidence down on the surface,” Keri pressed, “things that could help you piece together the history of Earth before or after your departure.”

“Yes,” Irvina acknowledged, “that was our back up plan but pursuing the New Horizon archive was a much more practical pursuit to attempt first.  That’s why our government wasn’t in a rush to explore Earth since what we were looking for we were seeking somewhere else first.”

“I see.  So what about the other two stations?  What happened to them?” Kathryn asked.

“They went down…  You can see here,” Irvina pointed out as she brought an image up on the wall screen, “mid latitude on the African continent there’s a series of craters consistent with a large space station breaking up while de-orbiting and striking the ground in a linear series of impacts.  We could only find the one pattern on the planet though, the other must have come down in the ocean somewhere.”

“Understood,” Kathryn acknowledged.  “So what about all of the other settlements there were supposed to be elsewhere in the system?”

“No EM traffic, no signs of any kind of activity from the ones we can see through the ship’s telescopes from here,” Felix answered her.  “Of course we only take quick looks though, we’ve been primarily focused on Earth.”

“Obviously we’re, well…” Keri corrected herself with a slight giggle.  “I, am as anxious to investigate those outposts as much as Earth.”

“Understood Reed,” Kathryn acknowledged with a smile as she put her hand on the woman’s shoulder.  “But, on to the main event as they say.  What have we learned about Earth so far?”

“Interesting,” Elim said as he laughed a little at himself over the obviousness of his comment.  “The onboard telescope network is equipped with infra-red scanners which allow us to detect any living organism bigger than a human child.  The big news as you’ve all already heard is that there are indeed humans down there, or… at least whatever has become of Earth humans.  We’ve only found approximately half a million people across the planet.  Groups of a few hundred are scattered all across the planet in all of the habitable environments.  Most interesting though is that there are quite a few larger colonies which appear to be based around the few remaining water dams.”

“There are dams that have lasted this long?” Kathryn asked, nearly shocked.

“Well yes,” Elim answered.  “They didn’t build any more after fusion power was developed but there were still thousands of them already built when Earth went dark and there was no point in decommissioning them once they were already there.  They did a lot of environmental damage when they were built, but once the damage was done they provided basically free energy.  The nature of the structures required them to be so robust that in general they could structurally survive this long, so yeah, a few are still around even now.”

“Interesting.  But to what end?  Why do are they clustering around hydroelectric dams?” Kathryn asked.  “For power?  You said you didn’t detect any EM activity.”

“I said nothing large scale,” Felix corrected her.  “Powering small devices or machines left over from before, simple lighting… that sort of thing, all of that could be powered by the energy provided by the dams and wouldn’t show up on our scans.”

“Ok, so have you found any indications so far of what caused Earth civilization to collapse in the first place?  What happened?” Kathryn asked.

“No,” Francis admitted with some frustration.  “There is no indication of mass destruction consistent with a war or natural disaster, no indications of a close encounter between this system and another large stellar body or alien attack or harvesting operation… nothing.”

“Well it looks like we’ve done all we can from orbit,” Kathryn surmised.  “Unless there are any other suggestions, we need to plan the next phase.  We’re going down.”

“The station,” Teresa said somewhat distantly.

“What about it?” Kathryn asked.

“If we want an explanation for what happened to Earth,” she leaned over the table, “it might be a better place to look than the planet itself.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Well it’s been six hundred years, whatever indications or evidence there may be down there as to what happened, it’ll be badly degraded and tilled over by now.  Nature would reclaim settled areas alarmingly quickly.  While there is more likely to be evidence of some kind on the surface, if there is any information to be found on that station it would be easier to find.  It might be a more practical first step.”

“We didn’t bring any additional atmospheric cyclers with us,” Jaren reminded them, “just what we equipped New Horizon with.  You’d have to stay in environmental suits if you wanted to explore the station.”

“Yes… but it’s a good idea though,” Kathryn considered out loud.  “It already made sense to split into teams.  We’ll send one to the station, one to the planet, and leave a team here on the ship to coordinate our activities.  We’ll take one of the two shuttles and drop off the station team before heading down to the surface.  If the station team runs into trouble they can be assisted from the ship with the second shuttle.  Teresa I’d like you to lead the station team, along with Francis, Nadelle and Terey.  Jaren you stay on the ship and coordinate the mission with Xion, Parker, and Ana.”  Felix slumped and appeared severely disappointed.  Kathryn put her hand on his shoulder.  “Sorry Felix, you’ll get your chance.  The first sortie won’t be the last.  Irvina, I’ll need you with me to pilot the ship, as well as Reed and Deirdre.  Everyone understand?”

“Yes Captain,” Jaren answered.  “Now we just need to figure out where on the planet you want to land.”

“Right… where is the largest human settlement?” she asked, turning to the screen.

Felix looked it up on his large scroll and when he found it he put it up on the wall.  “Looks like there are about a dozen across the world of a similar size… but the largest population appears to be centred on a dam in the north east of the North American continent where a large mountain range gives way to prairie land.  Coordinates fifty-six north one minute, one-twenty-two west twelve minutes.

“Well, we have no idea how they’ll respond to us if we just drop in on them out of the blue sky.  Bring up an image of the area for me Felix.”  Her friend acquiesced and the image was displayed on the wall.  “Is this real time?” she asked.

“No we’re on the other side of the planet at the moment, and we’ve been continually changing our orbit to cover the whole planet once a week.  This image is as of five days ago.”

“Jaren you’ll want to drop us off near the station but once you do, take up a geostationary position over that settlement so that we can stay in contact.  The station will pass underneath you every hour and a half and should only be out of communications for an hour at a time.”

“If I may make a suggestion Captain,” Jaren offered.

“Of course,” she said with a smile.

“It appears that the original three stations were designed to fly in formation to be in line of sight comms with every point on the planet outside of the polar regions.  If the New Horizons and our second shuttle take up appropriate high orbit positons relative to the station, we can all stay in constant real time contact with each other.”

Kathryn considered the suggestion.  “Do you see any way that this would put the second shuttle at additional risk?”

“No more risk than it is already in being in orbit and docked with the New Horizon.”

“Alright, that’s a good suggestion, thank you.  We’ll go with Jaren’s suggestion.”

“The shuttle could be operated remotely but I’d be more comfortable if I sent Xion out in it.”

“That’s your prerogative, will you be alright with just three people left on the ship?”

“Oh yes, it’s a very automated ship and this will be a far safer place than anywhere anyone else is going.”

“Right.”  Kathryn walked over to the wall screen for a close look.  “It looks like the main settlement is several kilometers east of the dam itself.  If we approach from the west and land a few kilometers away to the north of the dam itself and to the west of the settlement we should be able to do so without notice.

“How do you plan to make contact?” Keri asked.

“Very carefully,” Kathryn said with a quirky look on her face.  “Look, we are going to have to make contact.  Those people are themselves the best resource we have for finding out what happened here.  They’ll probably be in possession of some sort of artifacts which might glean us some insights, or even be able to tell us exactly what happened through their oral history.  Make no mistake, we are going down there to make contact, I just don’t want to startle them with a flashy entrance like landing our alien spaceship in the middle of their town or something.  I intend to corner an individual or small group of people on the outskirts of their settlement and explain to them one on one who we are.  Hopefully they’ll be happy to introduce us peacefully to the others.”

“You’re making a lot of assumptions,” Jaren warned her, with a not terribly subtle note of concern for her safety in his voice.

“I know, but we’re in the taking risks business here.  It’s the safest risk we could take and it’s worth it.”

Jaren took a deep breath and nodded his acknowledgement, not so much that he agreed as much as granting that it was her choice to make.

“Alright, you all have your instructions.  Let’s get prepping for our respective missions then.”

 

“There are other… let’s say unsavourty options I didn’t want to suggest in front of the others,” Jaren told Kathryn.  They were in the long engineering corridor where the portals to the shuttles were among all of the engineering access point to the fuel pods.  It was their staging area while they were making final preparations for their descent.  “We could just capture one or a few of the people down there and interrogate them here on the ship, or… even just on the shuttle.  It would allow us to use their clothes to blend in and do some poking around before exposing ourselves.”

She pulled him aside from the others out of sight.  “I considered that.  But that carries risks of its own.  I don’t want our first point of contact to be an assault and abduction.”

“Frankly I agree, but I felt obligated to point out the option regardless.  Plus, I worry about you…” he said as he gingerly drew the tip of his index finger down her arm from her shoulder.  She found it so remarkably intimate without being sexual or possessive in any way.  He seemed to just crave even so simple and subtle a physical contact, and she reciprocated by taking his hand into both of hers and holding it to her face momentarily.  “I’m worries about your team as well of course, not to mention Irvina.  You know we’re close.  It’s dangerous out there.  I wish I was coming along.”

“I know,” she said as she released his hand.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be careful, all of us.  While I have you here though, there is something I was wondering about.  We won’t be able to get the Orbital One systems back online because all of the operating system data will have been corrupted beyond salvage over the centuries.  The systems themselves should still be pretty much intact though right?  Could you or your people maybe write a basic program which could allow us to start it up again?”

Jaren chuckled, and then took on an apologetic look when he saw that she didn’t take his reaction very well.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you.  It’s just that an operations system for a station of that size and complexity, even a rudimentary one would take a whole team working for months to be able to reverse engineer the system and figure out functioning code for it.”  Her question seemed to give him an idea though.  “But, since you ask…” he led her back to the others.  “Teresa, Parker, an idea of Ka- the Captain’s gave me one of my own.  I would bet that for something like the Orbital One station… well see, there’s no reason to think that the New Horizon physical archive was a new technology developed solely for that mission’s one massive archive.  It would make more sense that it was a technology already developed for any number of other applications.  In an entirely digital world, computer systems do inevitably fail and some sort of manual full rebuilding of systems and databases would be a required technology.”

“What are you suggesting?” Felix asked.

“I think there’s at least a reasonable chance that on a facility like Orbital One they would have stored somewhere a similar physical archive of at least the basic operating system.  Any number of things could go wrong and require them to reboot their systems entirely from scratch, and that’s exactly what they’d need to do so.  It wouldn’t require anywhere near the amount of data sheets as the New Horizon’s archives, it’s just an operating system as opposed to the total knowledge of the species.  If you can find them, which won’t be easy since there won’t be any kind of functioning map or directory you could use, plus you’ll have limited time, but if you could find such a backup we could re-load the operating system and start turning systems on again.”

“I have an idea…” Felix said as he pulled a medium scroll out of a pocket and unfurled it.  “I asked your people to send us regular updates of information we may find relevant as they unpack the archives back at Kobol.  They may have gotten around to the specs of the station.”  He poked around on it for several seconds and then his face brightened with a broad smile.  “Here,” he said as he turned to be beside Jaren so he could see the screen as well.   “Here it is, we’ve got it.”

“Excellent!  Good thinking asking for those updates Felix.”

“I have my moments,” he answered with a smile.

“So where does it say the backups are located?”

“Conveniently just beside the computer core itself along with all of the required reading and transfer equipment.”

“Well that will sure make things easier.”

“Presumably we can get the computer systems online using power supplied by one of the those anti-matter power sources you brought with you but that’ll only do so much for so long.  To really get the station going again we’ll have to restart the onboard fusion reactors which shouldn’t be any trouble for a man of your talents, but then we’d also need to resupply it with enough xenon for the ion engines to stabilize its orbit, assuming they still work.”

“One thing at a time Parker, you said it had a hundred years before that was a concern.  Our primary objective this mission is just to figure out what caused Earth’s collapse.  There’ll be plenty of opportunity to come back and do things like salvage Orbital One and explore the other outposts across the system.  Once there’s a clear path forward for that sort of thing, I believe the Koboli government will be more interested.  There could very well be novel technologies worth investigating on the outposts elsewhere in the system”

“Well it’s good to hear your people would be interested in something out here,” Kathryn teased with a tone bordering very nearly with sarcasm.

Jaren gave an acknowledging nod and raised eyebrow which suggested that he agreed with her frustration to some degree with his people’s somewhat dysfunctional views and priorities.

Kathryn put a consoling hand over his heart on his chest before smiling at him and letting her hand slide down and off of him.  She turned and floated towards the airlock.  “Everyone ready?” she asked.  Everyone acknowledged that they were and in response she called out: “well then all aboard!  This has been a long time coming!”

 

“Hold up,” Kathryn commanded.  “I want to make sure they’re okay before we move on.” 

The Koboli shuttle with Kathryn and and Teresa’s teams had docked without incident at the central hub of Orbital One.  At the very central axis of rotation the station had a docking port with which an approaching shuttle had to match the rotation of, and then hard lock onto.  When the station was fully operational and a hub of orbital traffic, those shuttles would then be moved around the side of the central hub out of the way to make room for another incoming shuttle, but those days were long gone. 

Unfortunately, there was a small shuttle blocking this main docking port, and their own shuttle had to dock at one of the outer ports designed for much larger ships.  Four long tines extend out from the central hub of orbital one like two pairs of giant pincers which provided enough room for a much larger trans-planetary ship to dock at all four of them at the same time.  Two of those were occupied by just such ship as well, but thankfully there were two which were open.  For the larger vessels, the tines as well as the docking points on the vessels were structurally reinforced to tolerate the ships being carried around in a subtle circle along with the station as it rotated.  It was a fairly tenuous grapple for such a high degree of torque, and without such structural reinforcements the ships were too likely to sheer off of the tines with the force.  Kathryn remarked that at some point all of the ships docked here would have to be evaluated to possibility of salvage, and in the back of her mind worried about the potential for conflict between their worlds over who had claim to any such salvaged ships.

Teresa’s team were wearing environmental suits provided by the Koboli, and they were equipped with cameras on the helmets which provided the feed which Kathryn’s team was watching as they pulled themselves along the long narrow corridor from the outer docking port to the central hub of Orbital One.  Kathryn remarked to herself how much the internal structure reminded her of the central engineering corridor on the New Horizon itself, and she wondered if there was anything to read into that.

“We have reached the central hub,” Teresa reported.

“This portal will have to be pressure locked.  It won’t open unless it detects atmosphere on this side of the door.”  He applied a battery pack to bulkhead beside the control panel and the touch panel lit up in response but there was nothing on it.  “Yup, no response at all.  Okay… well, there’s gotta be a manual override somewhere…”  He felt around the perimeter of the hatch until he found a heavy hinged hole in the wall.  “Now this override could be… overridden by the operations team inside if they were in there, but that shouldn’t be a problem.  He pulled the thick handle out of the wall, and turned it several rotations until the portal unlocked and popped ajar.  “Friends,” he said with a welcoming wave of his hand, “welcome to Orbital One.”

They entered onto what appeared to be a sort of arrivals and departures bay with airlocks on all sides of them marked with large numbers painted on them.  Identifying the correct way towards the rest of the station, they made their way along with hand and foot hold which were on every surface to allow movement about the space in the absence of gravity.  Their way was lit by the lights on their helmets, and all of them were quiet.  They all had the overwhelming sense of walking through a graveyard, a mixture of reverence and irrational fear.

Investigating the end of the arrival and departure bay, they found doorways to the four lifts which ran back and forth inside the struts connecting the central core to the habitat ring.

“Like the hatch into this area,” Felix said, “none of these door or lifts will work for us.  Even with power, with the operations programs so badly degraded they wouldn’t know how to operate.”

“Options?” Teresa asked.

“There’s got to be an emergency crawlspace… ah, over here,” he noted.  Francis used a similar manual override to the one that got them past the tine to open the way to a tubular pathway which was just large enough for them to make their way single file up the way along the ladder which went off into the abyss as far as their lights could make out.  “Feet first everyone, you’ll experience progressively increasing gravity until you get to the end so be careful.  Remember, if you damage your suit you’ll be in trouble.  There’s atmosphere here and you won’t die right away from vacuum, but the air is completely anoxic, no oxygen to speak of, so watch your step.”

One by one the team filed into the access tube and began climbing down to the habitat ring.  Halfway they felt a gravity level they felt they were used to and began to worry.  “Captain,” Teresa called out, “we’re nowhere near the bottom and we’re already feeling heavy.  Is the station rotating faster than it should be?” she asked.

“Jaren can you calculate the rotational gravity at the habitat ring.  Did we miss something that important?”

“Could be,” Jaren admitted.  “We never did run the calculations.  Give me a second.”  Jaren consulted his hand device.  “Hunh,” he uttered.  “One point nine eight four.  There’s nearly double gravity down there.”

“You hear that Teresa?” Kathryn asked.

“Yes…” Teresa answered reservedly.  “Is that safe?” she asked.

Jaren turned to Ana on the New Horizon’s bridge.  “In theory… it shouldn’t be a problem,” Ana suggested.  “It’ll be hell on them physically, but… it’s survivable.  It’ll tax their heart and circulatory system, but they’re all healthy.  We should limit their exposure just to be safe though.  I’d say no more than… two hours exposure at a time?  They could probably survive indefinitely in those conditions if they had to, but it would still be prudent to limit their exposure.”

“I agree,” Elim confirmed.  “We should work in two hour shifts.  Two of us should head back down and wait to switch off with you.”

“Well,” Teresa lamented.  “We can’t climb past each other in this tunnel, so Nadelle since you’re behind me follow me on up.  Francis and Reed you head back down to the central core and talk us through what we need to do.  We’ll switch up in a couple hours.”

Teresa and Nadelle continued climbing down as Francis and Reed headed back to the central core.  As Teresa and Nadelle continued on, the weight became increasingly oppressive.  Each step seemed to bring a new strain on their bodies, but eventually they reached the bottom and climbed off of the ladder and found themselves in a small room.

“Wow that’s heavy,” Nadelle commented.  “It’s almost hard to breathe, but… I think I feel okay.  How ‘bout you?”

“Well I don’t feel my heart exploding or anything,” Teresa said, “but it’s hard to stand up straight, hard to keep my head up.  Ugh, and these damn suits sure aren’t helping.”

Scanning the room with her helmet lights, Nadelle looked around the small room they found themselves in.  “Ah,” she said, pleased with herself at having found the door handle and pulling on the latch handle.  “Here we go.”

When they opened the door and stepped out, they tripped over something on the ground beneath them, and had to struggle considerably to stay on their feet in the extra gravity.  Pointing their lights down they saw that it was a half decomposed human skeleton.

“Oh my…” Teresa said as she touched her glove to the front of her helmet.

“Well that’s ominous,” Felix observed.  “What do you make of it Nadelle?”

“Hard to tell without further analysis, but I imagine it can’t decompose any further in this anoxic air.”  She pointed her helmet down the hallway one way and then down the other. both ways of the hallway.  “I can see one more down the hall this way,” she offered, “but that’s it for now.  I suggest we press on.  Answers to the bigger questions should shed light on the smaller mysteries.”

“I agree,” Jaren said from the ship.

“Me too.  Press on,” Kathryn ordered from the shuttle.  “I think we should head on down to the planet now that you’re safely aboard.”

“Alright, good luck.  We should be fine.  If we run into any trouble we’ve got Jaren’s other shuttle for back up.  Good luck Captain.”

“To you as well.”

 

Under Irvina’s direction, their shuttle disengaged from Orbital One and began its descent towards Earth.  Strapped into their chairs, Kathryn, Elim, and Deirdre all marvelled at the projections on the wall of the exterior.  The sight took their breath away as Irvina focused on piloting and navigation, the infinite starry expanse of space on one side, and the impossibly high definition view which only reality could provide of the Earth’s surface racing underneath them.  The ship tilted over to the appropriate angle of attack for the underside of the ship to directly confront the planet’s atmosphere with their direction of travel.  As the ship began atmospherically braking, the image on the surfaces about them broke up and flickered, left rendering only visual static as the imagers were disrupted by the plasma of the atmosphere which became super-heated as they punched through it and were slowed down as a result.

When the image returned it took their breath away.  Beneath them were the rich green plains and snow-capped mountains of Earth.  Irvina seemed either disinterested or too busy with her work, but the other three were free to be utterly captivated by the view.  It wasn’t their first time seeing a sight like this, but they were still far from being used to it, if they ever could be.  Beyond the sheer viscerality of the view, it was near mystical experience of getting ever closer to a place of myth and legend, a place some had begun to wonder if it had ever even existed only couple of short months ago.

As they got closer and closer they could see the mountain range they were descending upon in ever greater detail.

“Okay…” Irvina said.  “We’re coming up on the site you indicated.  It’s just on the other side of this mountain range.  As indicated I’ll put us down at the base of the last mountain five kilometers north of the dam.”

The shuttle required only a tiny fraction of its total thrust capacity to keep aloft and move across the surface of the planet.  At such low power it made hardly any sound at all though at full power it did make quite a lot of noise.  The crew watched as the ship hovered over the spot of their final touchdown, and slowly descended down, blowing down and away the knee high green tinged yellow grasses beneath them at a steady rate, rhythmically accentuated by additional pulsing of energy.

The ship touched down on its metal legs which bent at their joints to accommodate the weight.  Irvina powered down the engines and set all of the ship’s systems on standby.  “Welcome to Earth,” she said as she looked at them with a bit of a smirk, fully understanding the gravity of her words on the others.

 

“Jaren?” Irvina asked the communications system.  “Is the triangle in position?”

“Negative.  Beta Team is still working their way towards the computer core on Orbital One but they should be there soon.  Until they get the station’s comms up and running I sent Xion in the other shuttle to dock on the station as a life boat in the meantime. Until then we’ll keep New Horizon in geostationary position to maintain contact with your team and check in with Beta team whenever we have comms.”

“Understood.  Well Captain Barnes, it’s your mission now, what’s our next move.”

“We move out.  Everyone grab your gear.  Irvina please open the door.”

The other woman nodded and waved her hand over her control panel.  A vertical slice of the interior of the shuttle fell away from the top on its hinge at its bottom, revealing the view of the exterior which had previously been projected onto the slice of wall which had fallen away.  It formed extended into a ramp all the way to the ground after doubling in length with a projection extending from its interior.  The air rushed in, and Kathryn stepped to the doorway and took a deep breath through her nose, savouring the fresh scent of air.

“Careful Captain,” Jaren warned.”  I know you’re excited, but there’s a thousand ways you could get into trouble on an alien world.  I know its Earth but don’t lose sight of the fact that for us it really is just that, alien.  It may feel to you like a long lost home, but… you still need to expect the unexpected.”

“Your concern is noted and appreciated Jaren,” Kathryn said with a smirk.  “We will proceed with all due caution.”

Cautiously she stepped down the ramp with the others following behind her.  She paused at the bottom of the ramp and hesitated for a brieftly with the weight of the moment.  She closed her eyes for a brief moment as she set her first foot on Earth.  Earth, she mused to herself.  She knew the word meant both the planet and the material on its surface and as she brought her other foot to the ground she momentarily relished the two senses of Earths she was standing on. 

Overcome with emotion her eyes welled up with tears as she looked back at the others and stepped out of the way to give the others room to disembark as well.  After Irvina stepped off a little too casually for Kathryn’s taste, Terey hopped off of the last bit of ramp and enthusiastically planted both feet into the ground with a wide grin towards Kathryn.  Deirdre disembarked last with an expression on her face which revealed her to be experiencing something akin to a religious experience.

“We’ve got a bit of a walk people,” Kathryn said after wiping the wetness away from her eyes.  “We can take a moment here, but I’m eager to get moving.  We have limited daylight and we’ll need to walk back here before its dark.”

Before long they were on their way.  When the space allowed them they walked in a line, but when the terrain narrowed they fell into a line.  Terey marvelled at the birds which flew overhead while Kathryn ran her fingers through the long grass.

A couple kilometers along, they were contacted by Jaren again.  “The station has come into range on a pass underneath us,” he reported, “I’m opening the channels.”

All four of the surface expedition team members were wearing devices called PANEs they’d found on New Horizons.  They were like eyeglasses except they were outfitted with cameras and microphones and were synched with their scrolls.  Instead of corrective lenses, they held screens in front of their eyes which could either be perfectly transparent, augment their vision in any number of ways, or fully immerse them in displaying video in stereo vision.  They could hear Jaren and the station team speaking to them through the tiny speakers in the ear piece part of the device.  “We’ve passed several other bodies along the way,” Teresa reported, “but we have arrived at the computer core area and Jaren was right.  There is a storage compartment adjacent to it with the physical backup memory sheets.  It’ll take some time, but with Francis directing us we should be able to power up the system with a Koboli power core and feed all of the sheets into the reader.  Then it should just be a matter of booting up the main system compuer core.  After that we should be able to get a communications network up.”

“How long have you been under that double gravity?” Terey asked.

“Just over an hour.” Nadelle reported.

“How do you feel?”

“Oh, you know… we’re actually starting to get used to it.  I mean it’s still awful, but we’re managing.  You think that maybe going back and forth could be more stressful on the body than going back and for to limit our exposure as we’d planned?”

Irvina piped up.  “There’s a chance that there may be reserve thruster fuel enough to slow down the rotational speed once you get the computers up and running.”

“Yes, but we can’t count on that,” Jaren pointed out, and Irvina shrugged.

“Where is the power core you brought with you?” Kathryn asked.

“Still in the shuttle,” Francis answered from just outside the shuttle down in the central hub.

“Francis you and Reed grab the power cell and… wait, Jaren where will they have to install that core?”

“Hold on,” Jaren requested.  The four stood on the surface looking around at each other waiting.  “Down in the central hub actually, not far from where they are now.”

“Right.  Francis and Reed go to the station’s main power bus.  Install the energy core but feed it only to the computer core and communications systems for now, we don’t want to drain it too quickly by feeding the all of the station’s systems at the same time.  Once you’ve restored power to the computer system Teresa and Nadelle can start feeding the sheets into the machine and you can head to the core to replace them, finish feeding the sheets, set up the comms relay, and then head back to the core section.  That way you each just get the two high gravity shifts and don’t have to go back and forth.  You should be able to access whatever you need to from down in the core section or have Jaren access remotely.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Teresa offered.

“Once you’re both back to the centre we can evaluate further salvage option for the station and see if we can find any useful data in the sheets beyond just the basic operating system.”

Everyone in all three places acknowledged their understanding of the plan and everyone continued on their way.  A few kilometers further along the team came to a place where the wooded area of the mountains gave way to a more of an open meadow, and they held up before moving out into the more exposed area.

Chapter 10 (Second Draft)

As Jaren predicted, it took the better part of three days to retrofit the New Horizon.  Given the ship’s status as an historical artifact as well as a starship, an orbital storage facility was converted to house the components of New Horizon which would need to be removed in order to be replaced.  The pieces belonged to Haven and when they decided what to do with them the pieces would be there for them to retrieve. 

The large ion drives had to be removed first in order to be replaced with the Koboli anti-matter engines.  Not much integration between the systems was required.  Quite a few of the now empty round hydrogen and xenon storage tanks immediately aft of the engines were removed to make room for the anti-matter storage tanks required to supply the engine.  Since they were self-contained units, the most challenging part to accomplish so quickly was programming the module which would translate the computer interface between the entirely different programming languages used in the different world’s technologies.

But, with a tremendous effort, the upgrades were now complete, and the physical archives were transferred to an orbital outpost where several dozen automated reading machines could be used instead of just the three manual readers the New Horizon was equipped with onboard.

With the three teams of four found themselves splitting into four specialist teams quite organically.  Jaren and Kathryn teamed up with Teresa in a command and oversight role, while Felix and Irvina teamed up with Francis who turned out to also be an engineer.  Deirdre, the humanities specialist they’d brought along with them teamed up with Keri and Xion.  Deirdre turned out to be Teresa and Francis’ daughter, and so far all three seemed to be getting along quite well, and would spend hours on end comparing notes on the differences between their respective cultures.  Something magical happened when people of similar interests and research backgrounds got together, especially with humanities experts, where by virtue of being part of different cultures, each was both a teacher and a subject of study to the others.

Anastasius, who preferred to be called Ana, was the personal physician assigned to the ambassadors, and had been as eager as any Roman to be a part of the expedition which was finally being sent to investigate the Earth mystery.  Like Elim and Nadelle, he also had a background in biology with a specialty in genetics in addition to being a medical doctor.  The three of them also seemed to be getting along quite well, if not as eagerly engaging with each other as Keri, Xion, and Deirdre so enthusiastically were.

 

The morning of the launch, Kathryn was consulting with Teresa in the captain’s office when Jaren arrived to speak to her as well.  The office was rather unremarkable for a commanding officer’s, not opulent or status conscious as may have been the case in other fleets.  It was just an office, with a 2 meter wide glass window in the floor through which the planet occasionally passed through the field of view as the habitat ring rotated.  Window views were at a high premium on the ship given that they could only exist on the exterior of the habitat ring, and if the office betrayed any status over any other, it was this privileged view.

“Commander Barnes?” Jaren asked as he knocked on the open door frame.  “Or should I say Captain?  I hear you got a promotion?”

“Yeah, well can’t have a lowly commander heading the only ship in the fleet,” she observed with playful dryness.

“You certainly seem to have earned it,” Teresa offered.  Kathryn only respectfully nodded in acknowledgement of the compliment.

“What’s up Jaren?”

“We’re all done,” he informed her.  “We’re doing final checks on everything, but barring any problems turning up, we’re good to go.”  He entered the office and sat himself at the second chair in front of the desk beside Teresa.  “You’ve got yourself quite a ship here now haven’t you?  If you’re only going to have one, this is certainly a good one to have.  Your people are now free to travel rather quickly to any planet where we’ve set up an Escher Rift.”

“Hard to imagine that a month ago just getting to orbit seemed like a nearly impossible feat.”

“Well your people are ambitious.  I’m sure before long you’ll have a whole fleet of starships.  You’ve got a lot of learning to do but I have absolute faith in… your people.”

“Thank you.  I was just telling the ambassador here that I’ve been in contact with Haven and preparations are being made to send a diplomatic mission to both Kobol and Roma.  As soon as Kobol can spare an appropriate ship, we can begin the process.”

“Well if we weren’t heading off on this wild gargan chase you could use New Horizon to ferry people around.”

“I know, we- wild gargan?”

“Oh, somewhat sizeable flight less bird around these parts.”

“Mmmkay, well in any case you’re right.  In fact, Haven is desperate to get New Horizon back to Haven after our current mission.  With the shuttles you’ve provided us there are so many people who are incredibly anxious to come up and see this ship for themselves; there’s still so much to learn about it.  And now with the re-fit, there’s even talk of formally recommissioning it.  But, the anxiousness to do all of that remains eclipsed by our need to find out what happened to Earth.  Everyone seems in agreement that all that can wait against the weight of our current mandate.”

“It’s too bad Roma still hasn’t developed or accepted any appropriate ships.  If they had you could exchange embassies without our help.”

Teresa looked insulted but remained diplomatic.  “Not everyone is as comfortable being as reckless with developing their technology as your people can be Jaren.  Kathryn,” she said turning to the now Captain Barnes, “my people certainly were offered Kobol technology as freely as your people were, but we declined and I recommend you do as well.”

“Oh?” Kathryn inquired with all due concern.

“Oh it all works fine I’m sure, but it is dangerous to rely on technology you do not understand.  My people value the process of methodical inquiry itself.  We appreciate being pointed in the right direction, but prefer to discover and develop things for ourselves, so that we understand what we build and use as well as anyone.”

Kathryn nodded her understanding but Teresa seemed to feel the need to continue.

“Yes, your ship is now equipped with anti-matter engines, but you’ve already admitted you don’t even know what anti-matter is.  What if the systems break down and stop working?  What if they break down that they put the ship at risk and you can’t even tell?  Do you know that if the magnetic containment bottle the anti-matter fuel is kept in fails for even a fleeting moment this ship will instantaneously vanish in a titanic explosion?  Yes on this trip Jaren and his people have been kind enough to come along and assist in case of any trouble, but they can’t assign people to assist you on a permanent basis, and even if they could and would, you can never be fully independent now that you use their technology.”

“Well to be fair,” Kathryn observed, “we didn’t understand how New Horizon worked before at all before it was upgraded.”

Teresa laughed out loud.  “Fair point my dear, fair point.  I only meant to convey that my people place as much value in the process of development as they do in the result, in the accomplishment of discovery as much as what a discovery allows.  My people are patient.  As long as Jaren’s people are willing to offer transport when they are able to we are happy to accept their generosity, but we will also not complain when our schedules and interests do not align.  This is why we were so delighted to discover that your interests in Earth were as serious as ours.”

“We are not immune to your sensibilities Ambassador,” Jaren pointed out.  “In fact if you’ll recall it was our attempt to understand your reluctance to accept what you offered, that led us to wait to make contact with Haven, to allow them the opportunity to rediscover New Horizon on their own without us.  Once we had the opportunity to make contact we were desperate to, but you taught us what we might be robbing them of if we gave them so easily what they’d been working so long and hard to achieve on their own.”

“I am pleased to have had any role I might have in that decision.  It was the right one.” Teresa said with certainty in her position.

“What do you think Captain Barnes?” Jaren said with smile when he got to call her captain for the first time, “were we right to wait?”

“In retrospect… yes.  I believe you were.  If you’d made contact earlier it wouldn’t have seemed like we’d been deprived of anything right away, but in time… I do believe in retrospect we would have had that sense, yes.  However Ambassador, while my people will indeed want to thoroughly understand whatever technology we routinely employ, I don’t think we will place the same premium on discovering the science behind that technology for ourselves.  We collectively have from the beginning had a sense of… trying to regain a technological competency we once had.  Even if Kobol technology far surpasses New Horizon’s original level of technology, I believe we will want to catch up as quickly as possible.  It’ll be important to us to understand the technology so we can use it safely and responsibly in transforming our society, but if it’s out there… just on offer and waiting for us… no,” she shook her head, “no way in hell we’d be able to resist.  We have an ambitious and adventurous spirit.  I understand and completely respect your point of view Ambassador, but I doubt we’ll share it.

“In that vein Jaren, Haven has asked me to clarify that it is acceptable to send some of our best and brightest scientists to learn about your technology so they can teach others back on Haven.”

“It is more than acceptable Kat- Comman- Captain, if fact after our experience with Roma it would be a relief,” he uttered.  He then realized his offence and put his hand on Teresa’s shoulder.  “I apologize Ambassador, that didn’t come out the way I’d intended.”

“I suspect it did,” she surmised with a sigh, “but regardless, I’m pleased for your people that you now seem to have the playmate you’ve always hoped for.”

Jaren accepted the jab without comment, considering it fair retribution for his own inadvertent attack.

“The ambassador is certainly correct that none of my people adequately understand the workings of this ship yet.  While I will be in command of this mission overall, I would like you to consider yourself in command of the operations of the ship, my… executive officer of sorts.”

“Understood Captain.”

“Other than this I don’t consider any official ranking to be necessary between any of us.  My own people have ranks in our own service of course, but our three teams I consider to be collaborating equally.”

“Very well,” Teresa agreed.

“Understood,” Jaren acknowledged.

“Although… you know, on its original voyage there was a tradition on this ship, of having a captain, a matriarch, and a patriarch as the top command structure of the ship.  We are three teams coming together, each with a leader, it only seems appropriate.  I the captain, Jaren the patriarch, and ambassador if you’ll accept the honorary title you shall be the matriarch.”

“What did the titles mean?” Teresa asked.

“Well captain is pretty self-evident,” Kathryn suggested, “but the others I haven’t any idea, perhaps just elected father and mother figures.  I think it had a nice sense to it.  For our purposes though it’ll just denote we three the leaders of our own teams but working collaboratively.”

“Works for me,” Jaren offered.

“I agree as well,” Teresa added.

 

The departed with surprisingly little fanfare.  Kathryn received an obligatory communication with President Mortensen wishing her a safe and prosperous journey, and she likewise received a recorded message from President Kim back home reminding her of what a grave responsibility she had been burdened with, but with an expression of her confidence that she was up to the job. 

She sat on the central captain’s chair in the centre of the bridge and listened while her crew called out ready status on all of the relevant systems.  In addition to the engines and environmental upgrades, the Koboli had also provided them with a year’s worth of food including fresh food which would spoil relatively soon if not eaten, food which would last a couple weeks, as well as long term emergency rations which would remain edible for hundreds of years.

She felt the weight of the moment as her crew finished calling out ready status, and when they’d finished the bridge crew turned in their chairs to look at her expectantly.  She gave the order and they all looked about them a little nervously as the ship pointed itself in the correct orientation to expand its orbit around the planet, and brought the engines up to full power.  They accelerated remarkably quickly and got further and further away from Kobol until on the final pass they pointed the ship in the opposite direction of the planet’s orbit around the sun.  They gradually slowed in their orbit around the star and fell ever faster in towards the gravity well of the sun.

Once on course Kathryn ordered the shift rotation for the twenty hours it would take to reach the star as she marvelled at the power of their new engines.  She assigned three shifts and encouraged everyone to try to get a good sleep in before they reached the rift.  She took the first watch, and then after seven hours in the captain’s chair was relieved by Teresa.  She headed to her quarters, got undressed, and laid naked on her bed staring at the ceiling.  She’d never been comfortable wearing anything while sleeping, but now it seemed even the comfort of her nudity would be insufficient to whisk her away to sleep.

There was just too much on her mind, too much anticipation.  She grew increasingly frustrated, knowing that she’d have to pay later for her inability to sleep now.  Her body betrayed not a hint of fatigue though, only the sharp awareness of a constant low level of adrenaline.  She found her thoughts cycling between Jaren, Earth, her new rank, Jaren, Kobol, Roma, Jaren…  ‘Dammit,’ she chastised herself.  ‘You’ve gotta do better than that,’ she insisted of herself, ‘for both our sakes.’  She kept thinking about the other night with Jaren, how she wished he’d never had to leave her bed in that residence, how unlike her experience with him that night had been than with any other (admittedly few) men she’d been with before, and how much she was growing to resent their need for subtlety now.  The feeling of his skin against hers was unlike any she’d ever known and she craved to return to that moment again.  Being with him now and pretending they were just colleagues and close friends was agonizing.  Every other thought when she was with him was how much she wanted to take him to bed again.  She wished they could just get on with it and be together if not just share a suite on the ship.  Being partners in command now though… such behaviour was as inappropriate now as a result as ever.  She was beginning to wonder if she’d made a terrible miscalculation. 

With her thoughts racing about Jaren and the mission, it seemed inconceivable that she’d be able to sleep, but after several hours of staring at the ceiling, she surprised herself by being able to fall asleep for at least a few hours, and later on that day she was appreciative for at least that.

 

They passed through the rift without incident, and the Roman and Havenite crew felt an odd and unexpected feeling as they exited the rift into the Solar System.  For all of them, there was a sense of reverence, as though they had just stepped into a graveyard.  This was the place of their ancestors, it was Mount Olympus, home of the gods.  It was the birthplace of all that they were and had become.  And now it would take them nearly three full days to scale the mountain and reach the home of their species.

To Jaren and his crew it was nothing special, just another jump into another unremarkable system.  But to the rest it was a place of myth and mystery, a place they’d been working for hundreds of years to find their way back to, to answer the greatest mystery of all time.  Why did Earth go dark so many years ago?  What catastrophe, what force could have made them abruptly stop transmitting out of the blue one day, with no warning or explanation whatsoever.  Well now they would have the chance to find out, finally, after half a millennium of waiting.  If Kathryn thought she’d had trouble sleeping before, it was nothing compared to the anxiety she felt now being on the other side of the rift. 

They had figured out how to use some of the original New Horizon devices they’d found left on the ship.  The most useful were the items the ship’s computers informed her were called ‘scrolls’, devices which seemed to come in three different sizes.  They were portable information interfaces with the ship consisting of two narrow posts which one pulled apart to reveal a flexible double sided screen.  It could be pulled apart to whatever the desired length, and anything stored in the archives could be displayed on it as well as control systems and maps for the ship.  Of course there had only been time to load the basic operations programs into the ship’s computers so there wasn’t much for the scrolls to access, but it was convenient to at least be able to easily interface with the ship’s systems.  It appeared that they were primarily designed to be operated by thought control, but they were quickly figuring out how to use them with touch controls on the screen, which went rigid after the scroll was pulled apart to the desired size of screen.

She’d heard that the original crew had had devices implanted in their heads which allowed them to operate the technology by thought control, but that was one of the first technologies her people had lost the ability to use.  They certainly couldn’t make new implants for themselves, nor did they have the ability to extract them from their dead and re-implant them in others.  Besides, it wasn’t long after that, that any technology they could have operated by thought control stopped functioning anyways. 

She’d never thought much about the ancient technology the original settlers were alleged to have.  She often wondered how much was historical record and how much was mythic magic.  It was a chaotic time in those early years, and reliable records were hard to come by.  Thought control had always struck her as something much more likely to be myth than reality, but here in her hand was the evidence that it was a real technology that existed and was widely used.  It blew her mind to imagine what it would be like to be able to talk to technology in that way; she just couldn’t imagine.  She had a moment of pride looking forward to the scholars of her world being able to analyze this ship and finally have the chance to definitively discriminate the fact from fiction of those early days.

In her playing around with her scroll in the long hours of waiting, she’d figured out how to access the onboard telescopes which she hadn’t even know had been a part of the original design.  When she’d activated them they emerged from the structure of the central engineering section and began feeding data to her scroll.  The user interface was remarkably user friendly, and while she’d discovered that the system was designed in such a way that the four telescopes could somehow work together to render a sharper image than any one could individually.  For this to work tough, the ship had to be pointed at the target so all four telescopes were in a square face on to the target.  While the ship was under power, it had to remain pointed at Earth or away from it when it was time to slow down.

So, while she could only look at Mercury and Venus with individual telescopes (as she had spent many hours doing so), the multi-telescope ‘interferometry’ mode which she really didn’t understand could indeed work for looking at Earth, and she was thrilled and humbled at the incredible degree of detail this view of the world provided.  She’d clued in the others to the feed and between the entire crew an innumerable number of hours had been spent by all staring at the live feed and wondering.  They’d found a conference room which had an entire wall for a display screen, and hours passed in the room as people rotated through, staring at the live feed on the wall for hours, wondering, dreaming, speculating, imagining… 

What would they find?  Would it feel more familiar on the surface than their colony planets or were they truly more people of their new worlds more now than of Earth?  What would the people still left on Earth be like?  Kobol’s basic reconnaissance scans showed that there were indeed humans (or something like humans) on the surface, but not much more than that was known.  They detected no technology they deemed interesting.  Were they survivors with living memory of their once great civilization, or were they people with no such memory and only wonderment at the ruins which must still persist on the surface.  So many questions…

After what seemed like an eternity, New Horizon inserted once again into orbit around the Earth.  The noble ship, after so long away, was finally home.  Its journey had brought it full circle back to where it had started, and neither it nor its crew knew what lay in store for them down on the surface after so long an absence.

Chapter 9 (Second Draft)

“The president will see you now,” his aide informed her before showing her through the heavy leather clad door.  Kathryn was immediately struck with how opulent the décor of the room was.  Her own president’s official office was certainly fancy by Haven standards, so she supposed the difference was emblematic of nothing more than how much more prosperous Kobol was than Haven.

She brightened noticeably when she saw Jaren sitting on the red leather couch perpendicular to the large presidential desk it was in front of.  It appeared quite old and was made of a dark wood, and she had an immediate like of it.

“Hello Kathryn, good to see you again,” Jaren offered with a smile.

“Likewise Jaren, I quite enjoyed the reception party last night.”

“Glad to hear it,” President Mortensen acknowledged as he closed the leather folder he’d been working on at his desk when she’d walked in.  “Few occasions around here are as big a cause for celebration as officially welcoming a delegation from another colony planet for the first time.”  He came around from behind his desk and sat on one of the two red leather chairs facing the couch and invited her to sit on the couch beside Jaren.  “You are after all only the second other colony planet we’ve made contact.”

“Were you able to communicate with your people this morning?” Jaren asked her.  She’d been ordered to check in daily with Haven and had conducted her first check in this morning.  It had gotten boring quite immediately waiting for messages to be transmitted back and forth.  Even through the rift, it took more than seventeen minutes for a message to travel from planet to planet, which could be even further delayed since the rift had to be opened for each passage of a message.  It couldn’t be left open indefinitely for such a conversation on account of not only the system burning out, but also due to the dangers associated with depriving a planet like Kobol of that much sun light on a longer timeline.  As a result, occasionally the timing would be off and a message wouldn’t make it through, resulting in an even longer delay.

Fortunately not much back and forth was required for her purposes today.  She reported a description of Kobol City, her impressions of the dignitaries and diplomats she’d met, both the Koboli as well as the Roman ambassadors.  Along with her expected report, she included details of the conversation she’d had with Ambassador Teresa and requested direction on how to proceed on the suggestion presented to her.  She chose to leave out Irvina’s opinion of the president on an official channel.  She felt that kind of information could wait to be relayed in person.

It took nearly an hour for her original transmission to receive a response, suggesting that some time had been taken on her home planet to discuss how to proceed before they replied.  It was after all a huge decision to consider quite quickly.  There must have been some impulse to maintain the New Horizon exactly as it was, as something like a museum ship, or perhaps something more like a temple.  However, when considering how the original builders of the ship would feel, one would think that they built the ship to be used, to facilitate travel and adventure.  In this light it seemed like such a shame to just mothball it, to render it merely inert and forbid it any further use.  It was a tool which begged to be used, not put away.

“Yes, we were able to communicate quite effectively through the rift.  I greatly appreciate the permission to use your equipment to do so.”

“Our pleasure.  So what’s your next move?  We’d be happy to facilitate setting up a formal embassy for Haven here on Kobol, and as soon as possible we’d like to formally request the opportunity to set up a similar facility for ourselves on Haven.”

“Thank you.  I will forward those sentiments in my transmission tomorrow.”

“How is your team finding their time here?” Mortensen asked.

“Oh, like children in a candy store!” she exclaimed.  “They’re still spending time with the crew Jaren brought to Haven.  We all got to know each other along the way,” she smiled at Jaren, “and they’re still trying to learn everything they can about your world, your history, your art, science, technology… they couldn’t be more excited.”

“Glad to hear it.  Irvina, Xion, and Nadelle seem to be quite fond of your people as well.”

“So… how long will it take for you to copy the archive?” Kathryn leadingly asked.

“Over a year,” Jaren sighed with obvious lament.  “It takes a long time to read that much data on the New Horizon’s decoder and transmit it down to the surface one page at a time”

“Well… I have been authorized to make you an offer which should speed up the process considerably,” Kathryn suggested.

“We… are eager to hear your suggestion,” the president offered with uncertainty as he looked over at Jaren momentarily.  “Go ahead.”

“Well, I understand that an investigative expedition to Earth is low on your people’s list of priorities for whatever reason,” Kathryn cautiously started, “but for my people it has always been a priority second only to reaching the New Horizon itself.”

“I thought you’d get along with the Romans,” Jaren said with a knowing smile.

“What are you proposing?” President Mortensen asked, much more seriously.

“Well you’re right Jaren, in speaking with Ambassador Teresa, we concluded that if the New Horizon were properly supplied, it is a quite appropriate ship for an expedition mission of that kind.”

Mortensen shot a concerned look at Jaren, but he seemed only intrigued with a single raised eyebrow.

“Don’t worry,” Kathryn tried to reassure them, “we have every intention of honouring the deal we’ve already made with you.”  The president seemed to relax somewhat, but Jaren remained merely intrigued as to what she wanted to propose.  “However, I have been authorized by my people’s government to negotiate an arrangement further to our additional one which we believe would serve us both quite well.”

“Well I’m happy to hear what you have to offer,” Mortensen said with a smile, a smile which Kathryn could now recognize how fake it was after speaking with Irvina about him.

“So, we agreed that in exchange for you helping us get the New Horizon up and running again, and granting us access to your Escher rift system, we are allowing you to copy the contents of the archives.”

President Mortensen nodded and rolled his wrist.

“As you know though, part of that original arrangement was that we retain possession and control of the archive.  That’s why you’re having to go through the painstaking process of reading it sheet by sheet on the ship and then transmitting it down to the surface.”

“That’s right,” Mortensen acknowledged.

“But like you said it’ll take you a long time to do it this way.  Well I’ve been authorized to offer you the opportunity to physically remove the archive from the New Horizon in order to be able to copy it here on the surface much faster than the methods you’re limited to now using the ship’s native built in technology.”

The president looked at Jaren with cautious inquisitiveness.  “It’s too precious to risk atmospheric entry with it,” Jaren suggested, “but we could certainly launch appropriate equipment into orbit to read it much quicker up there.  If you were to let us do this, we could have the entire contents transferred in only couple weeks!”  Jaren seemed quite excited at the prospect.

“And what would you want in return?” President Mortensen seemed far more concerned with her ask than with what she was offering in return.  The archive and its contents clearly didn’t mean much to him beyond what it could benefit him politically.

“Well, first of all we’d want the archive back when you were done with it of course.”

“Of course.”

“As well as a complete copy of its contents.”

“As we originally agreed, yes.”

“In exchange for this concession on our part, we would ask for an upgrading re-fit of the New Horizon.”

“Upgragde?” Jaren asked with another raise of his eyebrow.

“What kind of re-fit?” the president asked dubiously.

“The kind which would allow us to mount our own investigative expedition to Earth.”

The president leaned back in the chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and looked up towards the ceiling.  She could tell it seemed like a big ask to him.

“Jaren helped us re-start the fusion core so we’ve got plenty of power, and the atmospheric cycler you’ve already provided us takes care of the ship’s environmental needs.  But, we are still limited in propulsion with its original ion engines.  If you could replace them with some of your fancy anti-matter engines as well as an adequate supply of fuel, we could cut our transit time between planets from months down to days.”

Mortensen looked over at Jaren.  “Is that even possible?”

Jaren pursed his lips as he considered what would be involved.  “Probably… yes, sure.  But it would take some doing.”

“We… would also require a couple shuttles with orbital ascent and descent capability.”

Mortensen eyes narrowed slightly.  She had the sense that he was deciding that he didn’t like her.  “Is that all?” he asked with a sarcasm that seemed poorly masked by design.  “It’s a big ask, Commander Barnes.  We do well for ourselves, but our resources are far from infinite.”

“I appreciate that, but… well, can I be honest with you?”

“I would hope you have already been,” Mortensen countered expressionlessly.

“Er,” Kathryn’s face scrunched at the realization of her unforced error.  “If you’ll allow me to rephrase, what I mean is that what I’m about to say I haven’t been officially authorized to say, and is only of my own mind.”

The president nodded his understanding.

“The Romans are as motivated as we are to investigate Earth, and have offered whatever resources they have which could help us, and we could technically pull this off ourselves.  They have adequate shuttles and the New Horizon’s original engines could eventually get us all the way to Roma and then all the way to Earth.  Like I said earlier though, it would take years.”

And you’d have to wait until we harvested the archive to even start, unless you intend to…”

Kathryn put up her hand to stop him.  “That’s the other thing, again in my own mind if this is the only option we’re left with, I’m convinced my government wouldn’t want to wait, nor would they want to cross Kobol.  I have to imagine they’d let you take the archive off of the New Horizon either way.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Mortensen asked bluntly.  “It’s not a very effective negotiation strategy.”

“Because I want to impress on you just how important Earth is to Haven and Roma.  We’ll do it on our own if we have to, even if it means giving up our only bargaining chip to do so, it’s that important.  I don’t…” she sighed, “I still don’t fully understand your people’s lack of interest, but that your prerogative and that’s fine.  But I sense that your people have a real desire to be friends with mine, as we do with you.  I ask you not only to share in what we discover, but as a gesture of friendship.  To do this for us would cement our appreciation of your people as our strong friends and allies unambiguously.”  She sat forward on the couch and physically leaned in to her argument.  “Granting us this, would make us a space-faring people as long as we have the New Horizon, and this could be useful to you as well.  When we’re done with Earth we would be an additional ship you could call on to assist in whatever ventures you do with to engage in, or to respond to your own ships in distress; you would create a resource of our sincere friendship, which would additionally grant you the resource of access to an upgraded New Horizon for whatever mutual interests we have, and-“

“Okay, okay!” the president said with a laugh as he held up his hands.  “You’ve convinced me!  Make it happen Jaren, with all responsible haste.  Kathryn you’re right.  We aren’t interested in Earth.  We consider it a place we may someday want to establish a new colony there, but who may be there now, or… what made it lose all technological sophistication, it really doesn’t matter to us.  There’s nothing of value there now.  But, as a people we do place a sacred value in family.  Your colony is sibling to ours, and we would go to lengths which may even surprise you to secure and nurture friendship between our peoples.  From our perspective you are our siblings, but whatever is left on Earth is a pale shadow of our noble parent civilization which used to exist there.  To us what has happened to Earth is just a shame best… left honoured to rest.  We mourn Earth more than we are curious about it, but clearly that’s just us.  Commander Barnes, there was no need to negotiate.  You only needed to make it clear how important your request was to us, and what it would mean as a gesture of good will.  We will breathe new life into your precious ship and honour its builders.”

“How long will it take?” Mortensen asked Jaren.

“Only a few days if we make haste.”
            “Grand,” President Mortensen said as he stood and headed back behind his desk.  “Okay, Jaren you oversee the refit, Barnes please report to Haven our agreement and our request for formal embassy staff to be brought here especially if you and yours will be gone in a few days.  Since the Romans seem as obsessed with Earth as you seem to be, you might want to ask them if they’d like to send some people along with you if you’d welcome them.  Just a thought.”

“Yes, thank you sir, I doubt we’d be able to keep them away.  And personally sir… thank you very much.  A month ago I thought setting foot on the New Horizon would be the height of my career and the biggest moment of my life.  Now… it seems that it was only the beginning.  I have your people to thank for that.”

“Putting our family back together is our pleasure,” he answered.

 


“I can’t believe we’re actually going to get to go, it’s… like a dream,” Felix said as he and Kathryn laid on the ground that night looking up at the night sky.  They were in the back yard of a government guest residence facility a bit of a ways out of town.  The next morning her and her team would be ascending to re-board the New Horizon and oversee the re-fits and get a crash course in all of the new technology.

After her meeting with the president Kathryn had communicated with her home world again and been profusely praised and congratulated for good work.  She’d been told that when this phase of her career was over she had a promising future as an ambassador if she wanted it.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about that prospect.  For now she was just happy that she could enjoy the role which the fates had landed her in presently.

“Yes, like a dream…” she answered distantly.  The sky was different.  It was funny, she’d never really studied the Haven sky much; she’d never really appreciated the pattern to it.  But seeing a totally alien sky, how different it was made her appreciate how familiar she must have been with the sky she’d grown up under, even without ever thinking much about it.  The moon was bright, and this was the most striking thing.  There was no comparable large moon on Haven, just a few small captured asteroids on a slow march to inevitable destruction.  The moon was nearly full and provided a remarkable amount of light reflected from the sun, more than she’d ever have imagined such an effect could produce.

“He’s pretty dreamy too, isn’t he?” Felix asked.

“Yeah…” Kathryn answered, immediately thinking about Jaren when he’d said it.  She then snapped to her senses.  “Wait, what?  What are you talking about?”

Felix laughed mischievously.  “Come on Kat, I know you better than you know yourself sometimes.  I’ve seen the way you two flirt.”

Flirt??” she cried indignantly with an undercurrent of embarrassment.  “I don’t, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Nooo, of course you don’t,” Felix teased.  “I’m jealous… he’s quite a man, and for whatever reason you’re the only one who seems to have struck anyone’s fancy on this trip.”

“Felix this isn’t a… a cosmic dating cruise,” she expressed in frustration.  “I’m a professional.  Even if, if I had… well, it’d be… aw fuck it.” she sighed as she looked up into the night sky.  “Is it really that obvious?” she asked. 

“Just to those who care about you,” he answered.  “You’re not with Tobyn anymore, you’re free to do whatever you want.”

“I didn’t want to entertain anything while we were still on the mission to get here, but we’re still here on official function though aren’t we?  Wouldn’t it still be professionally inappropriate to… date a Koboli at this point?”

“I’m clearly the wrong person to ask, I don’t think the mission we were on should have even stopped you.”

“You’re encourageable.”

“I know.”

She couldn’t see him in the dark, but she could tell he was grinning.

“There’d really nothing stopping you now is there?” he asked.  “Unless it has nothing to do with your work and that’s just an excuse.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were with Tobyn forever.  It would only be natural if you were scared to open yourself up to someone else so soon.”

“Scared?  I don’t know…  We spent a lot of time together on the trip here.  I think I really like him… he’s not like anyone I’ve ever met before.”

“Literally,” Felix laughed.  “He is an alien after all!”

Kathryn’s brow wrinkled.  “Do we call them aliens?  I mean if they’re from another world but they’re still humans… are they really aliens?”

“You know?  I don’t know… I guess it’s up to us if we consider them aliens or not,” Felix answered with as much of a shrug as laying down on the grass allowed.

The two lay on the grass side by side for a while.  Kathryn was surprised again at how much Jaren occupied her thoughts when there was so much else to think about, so many things which her professional brain considered so important and exciting, and yet…

“Pretty dreamy indeed…” Felix teased, breaking the silence.

Kathryn punched his arm hard but he just laughed.

As his laughter turned to pouting and he rubbing the now tender spot where she’d punched him, Jaren appeared at their feet looking down at them.  “There you are,” he said.  “Commander, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you about the mission.  Care to walk with me?”

“Romantic nighttime stroll under the stars you say?” Felix mischievously asked.

Felix!!” Kathryn hissed at him with a mixture of fury and embarrassment in her eyes, before punching him again in the same spot.

“OW!!”

“I’m… I’m sorry?” Jaren asked, confused.

“Forget it,” Kathryn quickly said as she took his arm and led him away.  She felt fortunate that the darkness of the night obscured her blushing, at least she hoped it did.

Before she could get away, Felix grabbed her arm to stop her.  He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.  Before pulling back he whispered in her ear: “I’m sorry Kat, I just want you to be happy.”  He smirked at Jaren before turning to head back into the residence.

“Um, shall we?” Jaren asked awkwardly.

“Yes, of course.” Kathryn answered.  She held out her hand for him to lead and then followed beside him.  “So what did you want to talk about?”

“Well, while my people are rather dismissive of Earth, people like myself and my team don’t necessarily share that lack of enthusiasm.”

“Oh?”

“Well, we’re the type who volunteer for missions like first contact with Haven.  We’re into that sort of thing, even if the wide majority of our people are not.”

“What are you saying?”

“We’d like to come with you.  Me, Irvina, Xion… Nadelle.  We’re all onboard if you’ll have us.”

“Really?  Well that’s fantastic!  Of course we’d be happy to have you along.  A four person team from each planet is exactly what we need and it would be a big help to have you along in case anything goes wrong with any of your technology.”

Jaren nodded.  “My thoughts exactly.”

“Wait, you don’t want to come along just to make sure I’m okay do you?”

“What?  No, that’s… no.  Well, I think the mission has a better chance of safe success with us along if that’s what you mean.  Plus we’d certainly all feel terrible if you got into trouble trying to use our technology and didn’t have anyone there to help you.”

“I see…  Well I’m glad to know you have more interest than the rest of your people.”

“You’ve had a lot to do with it Kathryn.  Your people were an inspiration to my team.”  

The two were walking through a forested area which now opened onto a meadow beside a modest lake which reflected the moonlight in a wide streak across the surface of the water.  Kathryn bit her lip and silently damned Felix for putting the idea of a romantic walk into her head.  This locale certainly fit the bill and it now made her uncomfortable for some reason.

“Have you asked the Romans about it?” he asked.

“Absolutely.  As I mentioned it was their idea in the first place,” she answered.  “They were quite eager to participate when I told them your President agreed.  By the way I see where she’s coming from but Mortensen didn’t seem nearly as objectionable as Irvina made him out to be.”

“If you ever question or challenge him you’ll see what she means.”

“Right.  Anyways, the Roman ambassadors insisted on joining the mission themselves along with two of their embassy staff.  They said that their home world would immediately dispatch temporary replacement ambassadors to Kobol.”

“Three teams of four working together, there’s a certain… symmetry to it isn’t there?”

“Yes.  I think it will work out well.”

“What about your own people?  Have they agreed to exchange embassies?”

“Yes actually, my people agreed quite eagerly.  Your people will send their mission to Haven on a transport ship which will then return Haven’s mission here.  It’s all coming along so well and so fast, it’s incredible!”

She found herself stealing glances at him, trying to appear as though she were casually looking at other things about them.  When she realized what she was doing she privately chastised herself and insisted she stop.  Immediately after she did it again despite herself but this time caught him doing the same thing and they both understood the glances the other had failed to adequately mask.  They both looked away from each other embarrassed. 

Jaren turned back to her to say: “Look, Commander, I-”

That was all he could get out before she grabbed him with her left arm around his waist and her right hand on the side of his face as she kissed him.  They paused with their lips on each other, but it felt so right they couldn’t resist opening their mouths and kissing more deeply ever so briefly before they both pulled away despite their desire to continue.

“Kat,” she croaked as she looked away at the lake and fought back a tear.  “Call me Kat,” she said.  “At least, when we’re alone… you can call me Kat.”  She was trembling.  She had no idea what she was doing, what she’d just done, or if it had been a terrible mistake.

“Command-”

“Kat.”

“Okay, okay,” he smiled.  “Kat.”

“I know what you’re going to say Jaren, and I agree.  That was stupid.”

He touched her chin and directed her gaze back towards him.  “That is not what I was going to say.  I was going to say, I was wondering how long we’d be able to resist before one of did that.”

“Oh, so…”

“I feel like we became very close on the trip here,”

“I feel the same way…”

“Clearly,” he said with a grin.

“I don’t know if it’s… appropriate though.”

“Appropriate?”

“We’re… colleagues.  Shouldn’t we be trying to keep things… professional?”

“I believe we have been trying.”

Kathryn looked down and smiled.  “Jaren tonight I don’t see anything wrong with… this,” she said as she gestured back and forth between them.  “But if you come on this mission with us… we become colleagues again.  It becomes inappropriate again doesn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t want to do anything which would make you feel uncomfortable Kat.  I understand your concerns about intermingling the personal with the professional, but for the record, I am bound by no rules which forbid… this.”

“Now that I think about it neither do it,” she reflected with surprise.  “But it still would seem implied.”

“Fair enough,” he somberly agreed.  He held his hand out for her to shake.  “So, just colleagues then?  As long as we’re working together?”

She shook his hand, but held it.  Keeping hold of his hand she slowly twirled herself around, putting her back to his chest and holding his hand to her breast.   “On the other hand… we can be discrete right?”

“Discrete… right.”

Chapter 8 (Second Draft)

After exiting the rift, New Horizon was greeted by a small fleet of ships which were waiting to greet them on the other side.

“Are they all here for us?” Kathryn asked Jaren.

“Some,” he acknowledged, “but not all.  There is a constant contingent stationed at the rift to render aid if any incoming ships should require it, as well as to deal with any… unexpected guest which might show up.”

“Unanswered guests?” Felix asked in surprise.  “You mean like… hostile aliens?  An invasion?”

Jaren laughed.  “Some people do consider it a possibility yes, if an outside one.  Of course it’s never come up, I assure I would have mentioned it by now if it had, but the small fleet permanently stationed here would be the first to greet them whatever their intentions.  There is after all no way to prevent anyone from coming through other than destroying our crystal but like I said it’s never come up.  We are currently drafting plans for a permanent space station here to supplant some of the ships, but no construction has actually begun yet.”

“Anyone else in the universe with similar technology,” Irvina added, “could in theory lock on to our crystal quite easily but like Jaren said, so far it’s never come up.”

“It occurs to ask,” Keri brought up, “have you set up rift crystals anywhere besides Earth and the colony planets so far?  If you’ve had the chance to do so around these planets…”

“Not yet,” Irvina answered, “but the process is underway.  We have drone rift construction ships underway to half a dozen systems with promising planets, but none have made contact so far and we don’t expect to hear back from them for years yet.  Our first priority of course was the other colony planets.  Not only did we want to know if anyone else had survived, but…” she trailed off as though she hadn’t meant to divulge what she was going to say and reconsidered on the spot.

Jaren finished her thought for her without concern.  “If you hadn’t made it we at least knew that there was definitely a planet in that system which could be colonized if you hadn’t been able to.”

“Right,” Kathryn acknowledged.  “It makes sense.”

“It’s pretty ambitious,” Felix said, “to have sent out all of those drones already.  What have you got planned for those systems?  You’ve made it clear that your people aren’t very interested in exploration for exploration’s sake.”

“Well if there are any plans for those systems, they’re over our pay grade,” Jaren answered dryly with what appeared to be a hint of bitterness, but then he shrugged.  “It’s just a long term process.  If we wait to establish the rift until we have plans those plans will immediately be delayed by decades.  It’s basic capacity building at this point.  Once we have the network established, if we find something useful or come up with plans, the capacity is already right there in front of us.  It’s a very resource intense process to set up a portal in a new system, but our government has set up a continuing budget for the project.  We’re currently aiming for a cadence of one new drone ship launch every year.  So far we’re on schedule, and every new rift we set up creates a new and more distant launch point.  One of the things our government will want to negotiate with yours is the launch of such ships out of your system.”

“I had no idea your people were so ambitious,” Keri commented as bright multicolour lights began exploding in front of them between the New Horizon and the ships they could see.  “What’s that?” she asked.

“Fireworks,” Nadelle explained.  “Of a sort.  It’s a way of saying welcome, and of celebrating our arrival.”

Welcome New Horizon, we’ve been expecting you,” A voice was heard over a loudspeaker back at the entrance hatch to the bubble.  “The people of Kobol celebrate your arrival and offer warm greetings.

Jaren led Kathryn back to the hatchway using their airburst belts.  He tapped at the panel and gestured Kathryn towards it with his hand.  “Thank you, to whom and I speaking?”

This is Admiral Velora, commander of the Kolob Space Fleet flagship Utah.  With your permission we have tow ships which can attach to your vessel and get you to Kolob in approximately seventy hours.

Kathryn raised an eyebrow at Jaren and he nodded his approval.

“That’s… very kind of you, thank you,” she offered with a slight shrug.

Very well, please retract the bubble structure forward of your main engineering section.  As it is currently deployed it blocks the grapple point on your ship we have deemed structurally preferable.

“Will do, please stand by.”  She turned around to face the others.  Alright, that’s us.  Everyone out.”

She ushered everyone out of the bubble and back into the engineering section of the ship.  “Let’s all head up to the bridge,” she suggested as she followed Jaren out and firmly closed the hatch behind them.

 

Once on the bridge they all watched on the external cameras as four vessels approached.  They seemed little more than scant skins of ships wrapped around massive antimatter engines like the ones on Jaren’s ships only much larger and more powerful.  One by one they anchored to the engineering section of the New Horizon and then pulled away with just enough engine power to pull the thick cable taught and hold position at the correct distance.  Once all four had done so they cleared departure with Kathryn on the bridge, and then all four mighty engine ships gradually powered up to full power and along with their escort ships all gradually pulled away from the sun.

The realities of orbital mechanics forbid a direct flight to the planet, instead the thrust was directed towards increasing the distance of their orbit from the sun ever outward until they could meet up with the orbit of Kobol.  Under New Horizon’s own power it would have taken more than a month to reach the orbit of Kobol, fighting the gravity of the sun as they were, but with their powerful tow ships attached, it would only take them a few days.

Although there were occasional operational communications between the ships in their small fleet, nobody boarded or exited the New Horizon.  The president of Kobol had left clear instructions that after Jaren and his people, he wanted to be the first to greet the visitors at their official ceremonial reception in the capital.

These three days seemed to drag on much longer than the two weeks it took to initially reach the rift.  They now felt familiar with the ship enough that it was no longer exciting just to be there.  They kept working at their research diligently, but their minds now kept wandering to what lay ahead, to the new planet they’d be seeing so soon.  Also on their minds were the incredible responsibility of only the four of them representing their entire civilization to the people of the entire planet.

The days dragged on, but passed nonetheless.  Before long they could see Kolob appear before them.  A tiny speck at first, but it grew larger and larger over the course of the last day.  As they approached they were able to see as well the small moon which orbited around it, which was roughly half the diameter of Earth’s moon, and which orbited at about two thirds the distance.

Once the tow ships had inserted the New Horizons into an orbit around the planet, they detached and wished them a safe descent.  Once detached, Kathryn and her crew couldn’t resist reinflating the bubble and having a clear look at Kobol from orbit.  It was a beautiful view, but with odd geography.  There was a vast global ocean which circumvented the entire equator with massive landmasses capping both poles, each approximately a third of the way down to the equator from the poles.  The regions which bordered the oceans appeared rich and lushly green, while some distance inland there were some arid yellow-orange regions and beyond them only white all the way to the poles.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” Jaren asked Kathryn.

“It is certainly an… interesting geography.”

“Yes… it actually leaves us relatively little land area on which we can settle.  We’re certainly nowhere near capacity, but…”

Jaren never finished his thought.  He was distracted by the beauty of his home planet.  For several minutes he and Kathryn floated in silence together looking down on the planet as it raced past them.  “Are you ready?” he eventually asked.

“As I’ll ever be…” she answered distantly.

 

The eight person crew gathered up what they would need from the New Horizon and boarded Jaren’s smaller ship.  After consulting with aerospace control on his planet, Jaren disengaged his ship from New Horizon and descended down to the planet below.  Although atmospheric braking was required to slow them from orbital velocity, the ship was sufficiently advanced that they hardly noticed. 

Through barely noticeable vibrations, Felix asked Irvina if they used ablative materials to slow the ship down the way New Horizon’s shuttles had, but she informed him that this had not been necessary for some time.  Their engines were sufficient to slow their velocity incredibly, and to the point that the advanced materials the hull of the ship was constructed of could withstand the extreme friction of re-entry without ablating away. 

After slowing to reasonable speeds, the ship rapidly soared through the air across the vast ocean until the city on the shore came into view and grew larger and larger as they approached.  The city glittered to the point of appearing to be made entirely of light, but as they approached they saw that it was only an illusion created by all of the tall tower buildings being encased in glass, which reflected the sunlight amongst them.  As they got closer they could see that each building had a metal lightning rod on the top of it in the shape of a figure in robes blowing a simple straight trumpet up into the air.

They approached a large clearing surrounded by towers encased in green glass.  It was a large parkland with trees and grass sporting a landing pad to one side, vaguely reminiscent of the park Jaren’s ship had landed in back on Haven.  As they landed Kathryn could tell that there was something different about the building across the street from where they were landing.  There were hundreds of people gathered a respectful distance from the ship, excluding a pathway from between where the ship landed and the steps leading up to what appeared to be a central tower. 

The ramp extended from underneath Jaren’s ship as the door opened for them.  Jaren urged Kathryn to go ahead and exit the ship first.  As she made her way down the ramp she was so startled by the eruption of cheers from the crowd that she nearly fell over and off the side of the ramp.  Jaren came up from behind her and put his hands on his hips to steady her.  It was the most intimate physical contact they’d had so far, and she savoured it for the briefest of moments as she looked back at him to thank him.  She quickly composed herself and together they   Together they walked down the rest of the ramp followed by the rest of Kathryn’s crew followed by Jaren’s, and headed towards the steps.

Kathryn reached the stairs and began climbing towards the person whom she could only assume was the Kobol president, flanked as he was by various aides on either side.  She was momentarily struck by the similarity of this scene with the one which had greeted Jaren when he’d landed and mused to herself at the reversal of roles.  When she reached the top of the stairs the president reached out his hands and she took it pulled her towards him and embraced her warmly, which surprised her.  Her own people weren’t particularly averse to physical contact, but from the time she’d been spending with Jaren she was beginning to understand that his people were just more physically expressive in general than her own.  She hugged the man back as she came to understand this, and observed as Felix, Elim, and Keri were all likewise welcomed and embraced by the president’s aides.

The president pulled away and introduced himself as Adam Mortensen, President of the Kobol Colony, offering his full name and title.  “This is a day that will long be remembered and celebrated by our people.  Our long divided family has finally been made whole again.”  He put his arm around her shoulder and turned her around to face the crowd.  He put his fist in the air and yelled out to the crowd: “UNITY!!!”  The people exploded with cheers.

 

Several hours later Kathryn and her team found themselves at their formal reception for them at the president’s residence.  The building they had met the president at the foot of, turned out to be the heart of their central government.  At the base, at the top of the stairs, were the congress and senate where the business of governance took place, with offices of the members on the upper levels, and the top half dozen levels taken up by the president’s offices and residence.  It was on one of these upper levels which the Haven team found themselves.  This reception area was ringed with a spacious open air patio, with the narrower upper three level all taken up by the official residence of the president.

The Haven team spent the afternoon being shown to their official guest accommodations in the presidential residence, and being adorned with what were fashionable high end clothing for modern Kobol.  Kathryn and Keri found themselves in long elegant dresses altogether familiar from home with gold jewellery on their ears which attached to the top of their earlobes, and with many fine strands of gold draping over their ears.  Felix and Elim found themselves swadled in a very luxurious fabric worn as what could only be described as a toga.  They all found the men’s formal wear somewhat amusing at first, but the amusement quickly gave way to an appreciation of how comfortable the garments were to wear.

“Barnes, Parker, Terey, Reed, I have a couple people here to introduce you to,” Jaren offered.  “This is Francis,” he offered as he introduced a white bearded man in a black robe and a woman of a similar age on his arm, “and his wife Teresa, they are the Roman ambassadors to Kobol.  They are accompanied by a full diplomatic staff, but if you have any questions about Roma or the Catholics,” he put his arm around Francis’ shoulder and his other hand on the nearer one, “these are the people to ask, alright?”

“Oh yes, wonderful.  Thank you Jaren.”  Jaren nodded before stopping one of the residence staff carrying a tray of drinks and took one.  He happily took a drink as he walked away.

“Sirs?  Madams?  May I interest you as well?” the server asked while holding out the tray.  With a nod of permission from Kathryn all four took one of the fluted glass full of bubbling rose coloured liquid.

“What is it?” Keri asked as the Roman ambassadors respectfully declined.

“It is a drink fermented from the nectar of the beashou flower which grows wild on this planet.  It is quite a delicacy on this planet and if I do say so myself quite delicious.”

“Alcoholic?” Keri asked with a curious but mild surprise.

“Oh yes,” the server answered.  “Roughly nine percent by volume.”

“Forgive me, but…” she cautiously asked, “wasn’t abstinence from alcohol and other substances a rather strict rule for your people?”

“A lot can change in seven hundred years,” the server said with a mischievous smile before disappearing back into the crowd.  Keri looked after him for a moment in thought as she watched him leave.

“So, Francis and Teresa, I’m so happy to meet you.  We’ve been looking forward to it every bit as much as the people of Kobol,” Kathryn offered.

“Likewise Commander Barnes.  We’ve been very anxious to meet you as well.”

“We are both fortunate for having been granted the opportunity by the Kobolians,” Kathryn offered diplomatically

“Indeed,” Teresa said with some uncertainty.

“I look forward to seeing your world, Ambassadors,” Kathryn said with sincerity.  “As exciting as it is to be here, I seem to only find myself hungry for more.  I feel something like a child confronted with infinite wonder.  There is so much to see and learn, it would be intimidating if it weren’t so exciting.”

“Indeed,” Teresa repeated with more satisfaction this time.  “Would you join me for some air on the terrace?”

“Certainly,” Kathryn respectfully answered.

“My husband will be happy to entertain your crewmates while we talk,” she said, indicating that she’d like to speak with her alone.  The late middle aged woman led Kathryn outside and walked out to the edge of the terrace.  It was dark out now, and in front of them was the park where they’d landed in, and beyond it on all sides were all manner of glass towers with a random pattern of rooms lighted on all the towers.  Lights would occasionally flick on and off, almost creating the effect of twinkling twilight.  Back dropped by the clear night sky, it was an overwhelming and hypnotic sight to behold.

The ambassador leaned over the railing and looked all the way down to the ground before turning her back on the city and facing Kathryn again.  “First of all, it is my duty and pleasure to formally extend to you and your people an invitation to visit Roma.  Whether you’d like to send an exploratory expedition first or jump right into sending official dignitaries, we will celebrate the day the first representatives of Haven set foot on Roma.  From what I understand the Escher Rift can open a portal between our systems as easily as to and from them to Kobol.”

“Thank you,” Kathryn respectfully acknowledged.  “Any of us would be honoured to take you up on your invitation and I have no doubt a delegation will be assembled as soon as I have the opportunity to transmit your invitation back home.  I have every confidence that a similar invitation will immediately be extended to your people from mine as well.”

Teresa smiled warmly and only slightly mischievously.  “Well, now that all of the formalities are out of the way, what do you make of the Kobolians Commander Barnes, one off-worlder to another?”

Kathryn felt cautious.  She felt as though anything she might say would be kept in confidence, but at the same time she had only just met this woman and she was representing her world here.  “Please, call me Kathryn.”

Teresa nodded.

“The Kobolians seem generous enough to me, given all they’ve done for us so far.”
            “Ah,” Teresa acknowledged, “but you have something they need don’t you?  That archive of yours… they consider it one of the most valuable things in the entire universe isn’t it?”

“That’s what they seem to think…”

“Hmm, as would we as well.”

“I can’t personally speak for my government to this of course, but I have no doubt that my people would be happy to make the archive available to you as well.  It seems to me a legacy to which all of the children of Earth are entitled to.”

“Yes, Earth…  Tell me, are you any more curious about the mystery of what happened to Earth as the people of Kolob are?”

“Oh absolutely!” Kathryn exclaimed.  “Actually we are quite dumbfounded at Kobol’s lack of interest in it.”

“Thank the lord!” Teresa exclaimed.  “Although they have only recently made contact with the Solar Escher facility, we are finding ourselves quite frustrated at their lack of interest in exploring the mysteries of our home planet.”

“Jaren says his people have little interest because they don’t see the story of Earth after they left as a meaningful part of their own story.”

“That’s what they tell us as well… sounds somewhat chauvinistic doesn’t it.”

“Perhaps, but…” Kathryn hesitated, not sure if she should add what came to mind.

“Yes?”

“Talking to Jaren I get the sense that… it’s somehow more about technology to them.  They seem to value it above all else.  They made a few passes of the planet and after doing some survey scanning determined there was nothing they could use.  No technology of interest, no value in any further investigation for them.”

“What a waste…” Teresa uttered.

“They can’t be entirely single-minded about it though…  If they were the archives wouldn’t interest them.  I find it hard to believe that they think they’ll find any technological secrets in it, they are now far superior technologically to those who created it.”

“Perhaps.”

“If I may ask, why hasn’t Roma launched its own expedition?”

“We are desperate to, believe me!” she exclaimed.  “But… we need the Kobolians’ help to do so, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit.”

“I see.”

“We are sufficiently technologically competent to eventually mount such an expedition on our own, but it would take many years to develop the technology to build a sufficient vessel with the right tools to mount such an expedition.  We have no space program of our own to speak of.  As much as we are passionately curious about Earth, my people don’t have much of a spirit for exploration for its own purpose, so our space technology is somewhat rudimentary.  As you’ve seen though, everything we’d need are off the shelf technologies here on Kobol.  We are growing impatient with them.”

“You think they’re deliberately blocking you?”

“No,” she said with a long heavy sigh, “I think they just don’t care.  I think it’s such a low priority to them, that… our interest in it is an equally low priority.”

“That must be frustrating,” Kathryn observed.

“Incredibly,” the ambassador acknowledged with gritted teeth, “but now you’re here aren’t you?  And with that marvelous ship you brought with you…”

“What are you suggesting?”

“We really have no right to ask, but… I could offer a suggestion as friends with mutual interests.”

“Go on…”

“You have a bargaining chip which we don’t have, your precious archive.  With that ship you’re already halfway there.  You would only need to request certain modest upgrades to the New Horizon from the Kobolians to be able to mount your own expedition to Earth.  If they declined for some reason, Roma could provide you with surface to orbit shuttles and whatever supplies you’d need, but it would take months to get there and then to Earth under New Horizon’s existing engines.  With a refit using Kobol technology you could get to Earth in as little as four days.”

“Wow, that’s…” she turned around, leaned back against the railing and looked up into the night sky.  “That’s so ambitious,” she said as she looked at her again.  “My mission was only to open relations with you Kolob and Roma while letting Kolob harvest the data in the archives in exchange for access to the Escher technology.  I never imagined… it never occurred to me that we could use New Horizon in that way, that we’d be in a position to launch our own missions using the ship and the Escher rifts.  To us New Horizon was always a… a purpose, a destination unto itself.  It never occurred to us that we could actually you know, use it, as a ship, on a continuing basis.  I mean until a few weeks ago there was nowhere for us to go in it unless we wanted to leave Haven forever the way our founders left Earth forever.”

“Well it’s something you’re going to need to think about now.  The only ships we have of our own are glorified surface to orbit shuttles, everything else we have to rely on the kindness of the Koboli for.  We have nothing like on the scale of the New Horizon.  As long as you retain control of it, you are automatically the second most space capable colony, but your capacity is incomplete.  If necessary we would be happy to provide you with our shuttles if you can’t obtain any from the Koboli.  The engines you have are enough to slowly make your way between worlds already, but an anti-matter engine upgrade would make rapid transit quite practical for your people.  If you can play Kolob right in renegotiating access to your archives, you could get both from them tomorrow.”

The woman put her hand on the arm Kathryn was resting on the bannister.  “Think about it,” she urged before heading back into the party.

Kathryn stood there looking back into the party for a time.  It was so bright, and everything with a golden yellow tinge to it.  She wasn’t sure how long she was standing there lost in thought when she noticed that Irvina approach her through the doors.

“Nice night,” she offered.

“Yes,” Kathryn agreed, quite mild.”  She was always amused when small talk was so small the weather was actually discussed.  “What are the seasons like here?”

“Quite mild actually, there’s only an eight percent axial tilt to Kobol, so there isn’t much change between seasons.  Of what we do have we’re in what you’d call spring right now.”

“Your president is an interesting fellow, very…”

“Superficial?  Glib?  Glad-handy?  Smarmy?”

“Tell me what you really think…” Kathryn chuckled.

“I don’t particularly care for him… neither does Jaren.  He’s too conservative for our liking, not that we’re wild-eyed liberals or anything.”

“I understand.”

“He doesn’t support the space fleet’s efforts to open up new worlds, and he’s repeatedly tried to reduce funding for the effort.”  The woman pushed off the railing and turned around to lean on it instead, bracing herself with her hands out beside her.  “Doesn’t stop him from taking as much credit as he can for all our successes though.  I don’t like that.  I don’t like what that says about him as a person.”

“Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear someone talk so… frankly.”

Irvina shrugged.  “I’m not a diplomat,” she finished her drink, “just an engineer.”

“I can definitely relate,” Kathryn offered, “I’m not exactly in my element here either.”  She smiled, looked down at her dress and pulled the fabric out beside her.  “I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore a dress at all let alone getting all fancied up like this.  I’m a test pilot for god’s sake,” she laughed.  “I’m most comfortable in a flight suit!”

Irvina stepped forward and pulled two more glasses off of the tray of a passing server and handed one to Kathryn who took it.  The two looked into the party and saw Jaren continuing to glad hand and converse with other party guests.

“Not like him though,” Irvina said with a smirk.  “He loves this kind of thing.  Total extrovert that one.”

“Is that why it didn’t work with you two?” Kathryn asked without thinking.  Irvina shot a suspicious look at her which then softened.  She was seemingly surprised at Kathryn knowing about her history with Jaren at all.

“No… no,” the woman answered somewhat distantly as she looked at him.  “That was never a problem.  If anything I found that it tended to compliment my inwardness rather well.  Who knows why it doesn’t work out between two people?” she asked rhetorically.  “Sometimes it does… sometimes it doesn’t.”

The two were quiet for longer than it felt like, both reflecting on what had been in their respective romantic pasts.

“He does, by the way,” Irvina said with a mischievous smile as she took another sip of her drink.  “If you were wondering.”

“Does what?” Kathryn asked, confused.

“Like you as much as you like him.”

Kathryn balked as she smiled and looked down; she could feel herself starting to blush.  Irvina laughed a friendly and playful laugh.

“Don’t worry, so far you’re hiding it as well as you should be expected to…” she was still smiling.  “No, there’s no big dark secret you have to worry about with that one Kathryn, he really is exactly as he seems.”

Kathryn nodded.  “Thanks for the intel Irvina.”

Chapter 7 (Second Draft)

“Five hundred years…” Felix muttered to himself as he poked around the kitchen adjacent to the main communal dining hall of the ship. 

It was eerie to be here; he’d dreamed about being on the New Horizon his whole life, and he’d always imagined it as being very exciting, but it was a little disorientating to be confronted with such mendacity and eeriness simultaneously.  He certainly didn’t believe in ghosts or any such thing, but he nonetheless felt a distinct presence here.  It was a place where hundreds of people had come and gone from this place for hundreds of years.  It wasn’t just these particular rooms either, in every place on this ship he could feel the distinct weight of its history.  Sure it had been almost five centuries since anyone had been on the ship, but for the two centuries before it had been the entire world for a great many people.

“Felix?”  He nearly jumped out of his skin when Kathryn said his name from behind.  She couldn’t help herself when she saw his reaction and she laughed out loud before settling down and becoming much more sympathetic and apologizing for having startled him.  “Sorry about that…  It’s creepy in here isn’t it?”

“Can be,” he answered coolly, trying to regain some dignity.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked.

“Just poking around, really… as curious as I am just to see these parts of the ship, I’m just as curious to see what half a millennium does to a place.  I find it oddly well preserved.  I suppose I should have expected as much though, given the vacuum.  It’s kept everything pretty well preserved.”

“Any food?”

Felix laughed.  “No, no of course not.  Anything usable was brought to the surface when the ship was abandoned, but anything left behind wouldn’t be much use now anyways, even with the vacuum.”  He continued pawing at the random containers and equipment left behind for one reason or another.

They were on their way now.  Having successfully powered up the ship and getting all of the required systems operating, President Kim had authorized their mission to Kobol.  They’d made one more trip down to the surface to bring up all of the supplies they would need for the multi-week trip.  They’d been given their last final orders and instructions, and wished well on their trip.  The president had impressed on them all that although none were formally trained diplomats, diplomacy was a fundamentally primary element of this mission.  Although they were trained engineers and scientists, as was required for such an intrepid mission, in the end they were first and foremost first emissaries from their world to another, in a process of first contact.  They’d had several meetings each with chief diplomats in the President’s inner circle.  Each seemed envious of the opportunity Kathryn’s team had been given, yet at the same time quite content to be avoiding the danger and uncertainty of the mission.  The diplomats weren’t necessarily explorers, but in this case the explorers were required to function as diplomats.

It took the better part of two weeks for the New Horizon to break away from its orbit around Haven and make its way inward towards the planet’s star where the Escher rift facility was located.  The first third of their trip was spent in a maximum acceleration phase towards the sun, but the rest of the trip was spent accelerating laterally to the star to put them into a stable orbit around the star.  As the ship fell closer and closer towards the sun, the increased lateral orbital speed slowed their actual descent towards the sun.  After the two week trip they found themselves orbiting a few hundred kilometers out from the giant artificial crystal which spawned the actual Escher rift.

Jaren had explained along the way (as best as the Haven crew could be made to understand), that thousands of solar energy collecting units were swarming all about the sun.  When activated, they each unit unfurled into much larger apparatus, and all streamed their individually collected energy into higher compiling satellites, which in turn fed the energy further up into four massive compilers which always orbited in a line of sight formation with the massive kilometer wide crystal Escher sphere.  When that massive amount of solar energy poured into the crystal all at once, its molecular structure temporarily exploded into an energy rift which created a tunneling wormhole to any other star with a similar infrastructure established around it, where a similar complimentary process occurred.  Kathryn’s people didn’t understand the physics at all, but they came to understand the process and effect well enough.

Along the way, both crews had a wonderful time exploring the ancient ship and learning its secrets.  The Haven crew roamed the ship with a deep reverence, since for them it was Olympus abandoned, the mountaintop home of the gods now deserted centuries ago.  Beyond their reverence for the history and significance to their culture, they also marvelled at the technology on the ship.  Though still significantly advance by comparison, it was much closer to their own level of technology than Jaren’s ship had been.  Where the Kobol ship seemed practically magical to them, the New Horizon technology was more within their grasp, easier to understand the principles behind the technology.  They found much of it to be fully developed iterations of things which were either very basic, experimental, or at least theoretical back home.  The things which were flatly beyond them, they found the Kobol crew quite happy to explain to them as best they could.  Felix, Elim, and Kerry sometimes felt like they were learning more from the ship and the Kobolians in these two short weeks than they had in all the time they’d spent in university on Haven.

The two crews had largely paired off according to their mutual interests and professional specialties, and had become friends over the two weeks of travel.  As much as the Haven crew were fascinated with how advanced the ship was, the Kobol crew were interested in it as an artifact of history.  They explained that their own much cruder starship which had brought them to Kobol, carved out of the interior of an asteroid, had been directed into the sun soon after their arrival.  They took on the same note of sadness when relaying the story as they always did when they recounted the tragic short-sightedness of the founders of their colony.  It was much the same as when the Haven crew recounted what they could remember of the stories told of the conflict which broke out between factions of the crew as soon as they arrived in orbit, and the social conflicts which brought it about, begun much further back in their long journey.  It always made them sad to think of how far they were knocked back because of it.

Kathryn and Jaren spent most of their waking hours together, touring the ship and diplomatically sharing important information about each other’s cultures.  Kathryn had never had much interest in a diplomatic phase of her career, but it was on the shortlist of things she thought she might be able to turn to some day when she couldn’t do the kind of work she really wanted to do, along with politics.  For better or worse, that was a primary element of her current mission, she was effectively the lead ambassador of Haven to Kobol.  Keeping this in mind forced her to keep an appropriate professional distance from Jaren despite them working so closely together.  She recognized that it could easily be her imagination, but she sensed the same from Jaren, that he was feeling the need to keep things more professional with her than he’d like to in other circumstances.  They’d shared a moment that first night in the shuttle, and ever since they’d been spending more time together than they probably needed to professionally, but under a professional justification for doing so.  They had become quite close, even had some remarkably personal late night conversations about what had happened with her and Tobyn, how he had been married to Irvina a long time ago and how now they were quite close friends.  She appreciated and respected his willingness to be good friends with a woman, even if it was only in the wake of a romantic entanglement.  She felt the maturity required to foster that kind of relationship bode well for his overall emotional maturity.  She was also forced to admit that as things stood presently, she didn’t feel that she’d ever care to foster the same kind of friendship with Tobyn.  The more she reflected on it with time and distance and in conversation of the two weeks with Felix and Tobyn, the more she came to the conclusion that they had always been a poor match from the very beginning, they’d just been too young, naiive, and immature to realize it and before long inertia took over and it took too long for either to have the werewithall to finally end it.  This revelation had left her with the occasional acute bout of depression about wasted time, but her old and new friends comforted her that no time was wasted so long as we learn and face the future with eyes opened wider.  In more existential bends in their late night conversations, Jaren suggested to her that the experience for better or worse had contributed to making her the woman she was today, and to will away such a substantial part of her past would be to will away the person it left her in favour of another version of herself, that to regret such a big part of oneself is to wish away one’s own existence in a sense.  There were a few moments when she realized that she’d never had moments like this with Tobyn and it simultaneously made her want to cry and kiss him, but managed to resist both impulses and instead say goodnight to instead lie awake in bed thinking.  It had been too long since she’d had this much time to reflect on her life.  She felt like her spirit was getting the good rest and rejuvenation it had needed for too long.

The night before they were to enter the rift, lying in bed she admitted to herself that she was falling in love with Jaren, if she hadn’t already, she chuckled to herself.  She wasn’t sure what this meant, but she felt it was an important admission to make to herself, important to not deny or be afraid of it.  She knew that could only impair her otherwise good judgement.  She was a professional, and she’d worked very hard all her life to get to this place in her career.  It had been such an affirmation of the value of all her hard work to be selected out of everyone else in the world to be the first to return to the New Horizon.  She didn’t want to deny herself what she was feeling, but she also knew she had to be careful about how she proceeded.  It seemed obvious that while on the current mission it would be inappropriate to act on her feelings if they were reciprocated.  She’d have to maintain a veneer or professionalism at least that long, and then see how she felt then.  She was also mature enough to understand that although it didn’t feel that way, there was always a chance that what she was feeling was only a rebound effect from having so recently separated from someone she’d until so recently thought she’d marry.  She didn’t think so, but… well, she wouldn’t either way, would she?

In their conversations Kathryn had learned that Jaren came from a family of some privilege.  His grandfather had been a member of their colony’s senate, and his own father had ascended all the way to the height of power and become President of their colony’s government.  Jaren explained though that he himself had turned his back on all of that, and had never wanted anything to do with politics.  He’d spent much of his youth exercising his privilege to discover himself and his world, backpacking around some of the less travelled places of Kobol and seeing the most important sights to see on the planet.  It was in this phase of his life that he discovered his passion for exploration and adventure, and when he felt the time was right to gain some more direction in his life, he’d joined the diplomatic corps of their space fleet, soon after meeting Irvina and falling in love.  After many years he’d worked his way up to the position of being a leading candidate to lead the New Horizon expeditionary team.  It also seemed important to him to elucidate that all through his career he resisted getting or taking any advantage or special treatment out of coming from the family he did.

The other crew members had likewise teamed up according to their interests.  Felix had been spending a lot of time with Irvina, who was also Jaren’s second in command.  She had was his lead engineer and seemed to quite enjoy teaching Felix all about the technology of the New Horizon and bringing him up to speed as best she could on all of the ship’s systems. 

This was common in all of the pairings, Jaren’s people seemed to quite enjoy enlightening Kathryn’s people.  Nadelle and Elim for example spent quite a bit of time in the medical bay examining the surgical pods and chatting about the medical advances the people of Kobol had been able to make.

Keri and Xion hardly ever left the archive room, to the point that they had to be brought food or they’d forget to eat, and also needing to be reminded that sleep was occasionally necessary for human beings, to the degree that at one point Jaren and Kathryn had to order them to get some sleep.  Xion had a similar humanities background as Keri, and had been waiting years on end for the chance to learn what happened on Earth after the Mormon generational starship left Earth.  Keri had had access to the information left them in library drone, but was immensely enjoying learning all about Kobol and its culture and history since leaving Earth.  For the people of Haven, what happened to Earth had been the only mystery greater than what became of the other colony ships which had launched before New Horizon did.  Both were savouring the satisfaction of being able to fill in critical gaps in their understanding of the great human narrative, the greatest story ever told, from early cosmology, to star and galaxy formation, to planet formation, to life and intelligence, and all leading to the extra solar colonization that gave rise to their respective civilizations.  Nothing could be more exciting for either of them than filling in these missing chapters of that great epic, and they were loathed to having to resign themselves to such a temporally wasteful activity sleep.

As planned, as they approached the star, it became necessary for Jaren and Irvina to augment the New Horizon’s artificial magnetosphere with technology from their own ship.  New Horizon’s own field was only designed to adapt to the relatively low level of cosmic and solar radiation at the distance from a star of its planets.  The Escher technology required getting much closer to the sun and required a far more powerful magnetic shield to deflect the intense radiation.

The closer they got to the sun, the more both crew spent time in the zero gravity bubble marvelling at the sight.  This sphere of synthetic material was what turned out to be ahead of the reactor core room where Jaren had detected vacuum.  The inhabitants of the ship had constructed as a zero gravity playroom and observatory en route.  Although the need had never been anticipated by the original inhabitants, the advanced materials the bubble had been constructed of incorporated adaptive shielding as a safety measure.  The bigger and brighter the star became in their field of view, the more the material of the bubble darkened, which not only prevented immediate and fatal burning of their skin, but it also allowed them to look directly at the star without damaging their eyes.  Looking into it was positively hypnotic; the closer they got to it, the more detail they could see at its apparent surface, the roiling and bubbling surface of the massive nuclear fireball raging before them.

The crystal only finally came into view the day they were to enter the rift, and although they knew it was a brilliant violet from schematic pictures provided by the Kobolians, the darkening of the bubble required at such an extreme proximity to the star left it appearing only black in contrast to the star when it finally came into view.

As they looked around, they saw the star appear to noticeably darken as the unseen collectors unfurled and began absorbing the energy of the star’s light.  Streams of unfathomably brilliant light began crisscrossing over the surface of the sun until four frighteningly and impossibly massive pillars of light all converged on the crystal all at once right before them.  The crystal literally exploded into a massive field of energy hundreds of kilometers wide, diffuse at the edges but an infinitely bright purple colour at its core as they sailed directly towards it.

As they passed into the centre of the vortex, they felt a shudder and disorienting rush of colours all about them.  The disorientation soon passed as the forward half of the bubble slowly began to undarken to reveal the blackness of space behind a field of stars which gradually came into view. 

Jaren welcomed the Havenites to the Eta Cassiopeiae system.  As the rest celebrated and cheered, Kathryn hugged Jaren with a lingering tightness which was a little indulgent, but not so much as to altogether be inappropriate given the situation.  He hugged her back just as warmly, waiting for her to finally break the embrace, and it was at that point she was certain that for better or worse, her feelings were reciprocated whether acknowledged or not. 

Chapter 6 (Second Draft)

“Alright,” Jaren proceeded, “with Commander Barnes’ approval we’ll split up into teams.  Let’s pair up with one from each crew.  Barnes you and I will head to the fusion core and attempt to restart it.  Irvina with Parker, I need you two to stay here to assess the fuel situation, and transfer whatever hydrogen and xenon from our ship which we’ll need to make the trip.  Xion and Reed, please head to the bridge and connect one of the anti-matter batteries we brought to the main power bus of the ship.  Attempt to power up the ship’s systems, boot up the central computer core, and if possible re-initiate the habitat ring’s gravity spin.  Terrey and Nadelle please head to environmental control in the arboretum.  The air is good for now, but before too long it will become toxic if we haven’t connected the atmospheric cycler to the environmental system.  Since the arboretum used to do that job, the system is centralized there.  Does that work for you Commander?” he asked Kathryn.

She nodded her assent, first to Jaren, and then to her crew.  “Shall we?” she asked.

Jaren, Kathryn, and the two teams who were heading up to the habitat ring used their Airburst Belts to make their way to the far end of the engineering section, where the two sections of the ship were joined.  By the time they’d traversed the distance, the Havenites had already become quite proficient at using the belts in the microgravity.

“Alright, up you go.  No need for the belts here,” Jaren offered, “just pull yourself along with the ladder rungs there.”  He and Kathryn watched as the four people climbed into the tube and disappeared.  They then proceeded towards the central core room which was just beyond the access points to the struts.

Kathryn watched as Jaren held up a small display screen and waved it in front of the walls.  What appeared on the display was the internal structure of the walls, and he appeared to be looking for something.  Seeming to have found it, he pulled a panel off and attached a device to the wall beside the opening he’d created, and clipped some connections between the device and the internal wiring of the wall.  The room lit up to an almost painfully brilliant degree until her eyes adjusted and she could comfortably see the room around her. 

"This small battery will only power up this room.  We’ll need a lot more punch to power up the core,” he explained.

It was a round room, with a spherical reactor in the middle which followed the contours of the wall of the room.  Opposite to the hatch they’d entered through, there was another closed hatch, which gave a clear impression that it hadn’t been in the original design.  The portal they’d entered the room through was beautifully moulded into the wall, whereas the other appeared to have been cut through the contoured surface.

“What’s through there Jaren?” She asked.

Now curious himself after having been asked, he shone a laser beam at the hatch and observed the read out on the device.  “I don’t know… but on the other side of that hatch is vacuum, so best not try to open it.”

Jaren turned his attention to the reactor in the middle of the room.  It was three meters across, and even though there was no indication of instability (especially in the absence of gravity), being near it instinctively made Kathryn conscious of the risk of being crushed by such a large and imposing object.  It was covered entirely by the same dull grey metal the rest of the room was finished with.

Kathryn watched as Jaren moved about it surveying, tapping at control panels and shining his mysterious laser device at things.  She’d never seen such a device.  She found herself somewhat amused as she watched Jaren go about his work.  It was a delight to watch him work, even if she didn’t understand what he was doing, it was clear he knew exactly what he was doing.  He moved with a purpose and deliberate intent which she appreciated in any fellow professional.  It was the way she hoped others observed her when she was intently at work.

“It’s quite impressive,” he commented.  “I mean… for fusion.”

“What do you mean ‘for fusion’” she asked.

“Well…” he seemed as though he didn’t want to offend.  “From our perspective fusion power is a somewhat… antiquated technology,” he offered with a shrug.  “Don’t get me wrong, we still use it,” he offered almost apologetically, “Mostly for grid level energy generation but that’s about it.”  He continued to investigate the device intently.  “I can tell you though that this is quite a remarkably advanced reactor design.  In fact, for the size and application, I doubt we could have engineered it any better ourselves.”

“Are you an engineer?” Kathryn asked.

He smiled warmly at her.  “I’ve been many things Kathryn, as you have.”  He went back to his work but continued, “I’ve read your file of course, quite impressive…” he offered, and she got the impression he was referring to more than her resume.

“Oh and by the way, I never really had the chance to congratulate you.”

“For what?” she asked.

“For being selected to come here first,” he answered without looking away from his work.  “Of all the people on your planet, you were selected above everyone else to be the person to realize a singular and goal of your entire civilization.  You were deemed worthy of having your name be remembered by your people for all time… very impressive indeed,” he explained with a clear glance of admiration of her.

“You have me at a disadvantage Jaren,” she admitted, “There was no file to learn about you.  What do you do on your planet?  What position do you hold?  What’s your professional background?

Jaren smiled at her as he moved around to the other side of the large sphere.  It’s no secret,” he offered, “just remind me when we’re back on my ship.  I’d be happy to provide you with detailed personnel files for all of us.  As for me though, I was a research engineer until I got bored with the minutia.  I wanted work which had a broader scope so I applied to the diplomatic corps and eventually worked my way into the highly coveted inter-planetary division.”

He came back beside her and tapped away at his pad as he continued.  “You might be surprised to know how much this all means to us as well Kathryn.  The day we made contact with Roma… was the happiest day my people had known in a long, long time.  When it was time, I fought hard for this job and I was lucky to be selected for it.”

Kathryn was pleased at the reassurance that it meant a lot to his people beyond just the access to their data.

“The fusion core appears intact…” he finally surmised.  Do you know if it was powered down before the last people left?  Or did it just stop working at some point and force you to abandon the ship?  Did they ever have any problems with it?” he asked her.

“From what I understand it ran continuously and operated flawlessly for over two hundred years straight,” she answered.  “I believe it was powered down deliberately in the end when we put the ship to rest up here and finally abandoned it for good.”  She felt a hint of sadness at the idea of putting the New Horizon to rest, even now after having returned to it.

“Excellent…” Jaren said.  “Then in theory we just need to get it started again.  The anti-matter batteries should have no trouble doing that.”

“What’s the difference?” Kathryn asked, “I mean between the two technologies?”

“Well… if you don’t have any understanding of nuclear physics it would be hard to explain in any detail,” he offered, trying not to sound condescending.  “You know about the different elements right?  Oxygen, carbon, gold…”

“Yup, we know that much.”

“Alright, well simply put, a fusion reactor like this takes atoms of the smallest element hydrogen, and fuses them together into slightly larger elements like helium and lithium.  It takes a lot of energy to get them to do that, but when it does happens you get even more energy out than you put in, and the excess you can use to power a city or… a starship” He said with a wave of his hand about them as he seemed to amuse himself with his ability to use the ship they were in as an example.

“The strength of fusion power,” he continued, “is its ability to operate continuously basically forever just as this one did; it provides solid reliable power output over long periods of time.  It’s the same process which lights the stars, and they keep burning for millions of years.  It’s weakness as a power source though, is its inability to punch a ton of power through all at once.  For that you need to pair it with a system of capacitors.  It can be done but it’s not natural to the technology and you need to build up the charge over time in order to discharge it all at once.”

“And anti-matter?”

“Is… almost impossible to explain if you don’t know anything about quantum physics.  Basically you just need to accept that there is normal matter that makes up you and me, this ship and the planet below… but we can create a different kind of matter which on the subatomic scale is the inverse of normal matter.  When the two kinds of matter interact with each other, they annihilate each other and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process.”

“Guess I’ll just have to take your word for it,” Kathryn lamented.  She didn’t like being told she couldn’t understand something.  She liked it even less when it appeared to be true.

“Anyway, that’s why we call them batteries and not reactors, because they are stored up energy more than they are an energy generating system.  They can be discharged slowly or quickly, and that’s their advantage over fusion.  We use fusion power for the energy intensive process of creating and containing anti-matter on an industrial scale.  The batteries we brought with us, one could power this whole ship at full power for a few hours and if need be we brought enough to get us to through the Escher, or it can be discharged a lot faster and used to juice up this reactor into a self-sustaining reaction.”

Kathryn just nodded her head.  She felt she at least knew enough to believe that he knew what he was doing and that he had good intentions.

“Speaking of which… Xion?” he asked of the ceiling.  “How are things coming in the bridge?”  He behaved as though he were hearing a response but she couldn’t hear any.  “Oh, yes, of course.”  He tapped a few times at a control panel.  “Coming through now?” he asked.

Kathryn heard Keri’s voice.  “Commander Barnes?” it asked.

“Yes Keri good to hear you.  How are things going up on the bridge?” she asked as she made her way over to the panel the sound of her voice was coming out of.

“Very well, we have one of their batteries hooked up into the grid and we seem to have gotten primary systems up.”  Kathryn watched as Jaren pulled his over to the wall his smaller power device was attached to and disconnected it.  The room remained powered up and he smiled.

Still looking at him, she reported: “Jaren says the core is in good shape and he’s ready to attempt to initiate it.”

Jaren looked up at the ceiling again.  “Irvina?  Nadelle?  Can you patch into the open channel in the ships’s comm system?”

“Sir?”

“Sir?”

“Excellent.  Irvina what is the status of the fuel system?”

“They were dry Jaren, bone dry.  Xenon was down to point zero three percent, hydrogen not much better.”

“Really?  Well that’s unexpected…” he observed as he turned to Kathryn with a quizzical look on his face.  “You were to be left with a significant reserve from what I read.”

“We… had some trouble along the way.”

“I see,” Jaren said with a shrug.  “I look forward to hearing all about that when appropriate.  It’s a good thing we brought so much along with us then.  Have you transferred all the hydrogen and xenon we brought Irvina?”

“We just finished the transfer,” Felix answered over the comm line.

“How’s environmental coming Elim?” Kathryn asked the panel.

“We’re almost finished installing the cycler they brought.  I don’t know how, but they claim that this thing can do the job of the entire arboretum.  Well, the air part anyways.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t grow any food.”

Amused, Jaren shook his head while wearing a smile.  “Apparently not Elim,” Kathryn informed him with a smile of her own.

“We’re going to attempt to fire up the core.  Irvina and Parker if you’re done there head up to the bridge and help Xion and Reed get the rest of the main systems up.  Nadelle and Terrey please do the same when you’re finished up there.  If we’re successful here we’ll meet you all up there once I’ve run my diagnostics.”  He was met with a chorus of ‘understood’ and ‘yes, sir’, and he closed the channel.

“Alright, I am firing up the magnetic accelerators… and now we just have to wait a few minutes while everything gets up to speed.”

Kathryn nodded.  But after a few moments she spoke up again.  “Jaren, I need to ask you about something.”

“Shoot.”

“My people and I, we… didn’t know what to make of your… lack of curiosity about what happened to Earth.  For us, what happened to Earth, why they stopped transmitting, is… the ultimate mystery, right up there with… how the universe got started, whether or not any other colonies survived, or… what’s in the centre of a black hole.”

“Well that last one we actually solved,” he said with a chuckle.  “But another time I suppose.”

“How can you be so obsessed, go to all this trouble to get your hands on the archive, and yet have seemingly zero curiosity about how Earth fell?”

Jaren seemed contemplative if not concerned.  “I would think that the distinction between the two would be apparent.  When my people left Earth, we left everything behind.  In hindsight, too much.  History, science, art, philosophy… everything which contradicted or otherwise conflicted with our religious teachings was deliberately left behind.  In the intervening centuries we’ve changed a lot, and come to discover what a mistake that was, what a tragic loss it was for us.  What we left behind, though we weren’t wise enough to see it at the time, was ourselves, our history, all of the antecedence of what we had and would become.  The archives are our history, our past, our origins, everything we so callously left behind so deliberately”

He sighed heavily.  “It took centuries Kathryn, but eventually we realized what we had done to ourselves, and we mourned.  We mourned that we had to start from scratch, but we took on the challenge with the spirit of our pioneer ancestors.  We reinterpreted our commandment to be ever more like god, as a commandment to develop ever more god-like powers through technology.  As impoverished as we discovered ourselves to be culturally, we also had an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation.  We lamented shutting ourselves off from Earth and the other colony planets.

“Another thing Kathryn, a foundational dimension of our faith was the commandment to spread it, to bring it to others to enjoy.  This is an especially fruitless endeavour on a planet where everyone is already the converted.  So, between our wish to find others to bring our faith to, and the fundamental loneliness and isolation I know your people have suffered as well, we focused our technological development on faster than light travel.  What we came up with, was the Escher.”

“So you’re here to convert us all?”

He laughed out loud.  “No, no… of course not.  Well, some of us will of course try but certainly not me and that’s certainly not why we’re here today.

“It’s not a coincidence that you showed up on the same day that I boarded New Horizon is it?” Kathryn asked.

“Well, no…” Jaren answered with uncharacteristic sheepishness.  “We sent a covert scouting mission first to determine how amenable you would be to us showing up, and to learn about you before introducing ourselves.

“And what?  You were afraid of us?  Of how we’d react to you?” Kathryn asked, inadvertently coming off as more defensive than she’d intended.

“Oh no, quite the contrary actually, we found you to be a most open and friendly people.  We knew you would be as excited to meet us as we would be to be met by you.  We could tell how alone you felt, and how much it cut you to not know if any of the other colony missions had made it.  What a weight that must have been.”  He reflected on it for a moment.

“No, no… the reason we resisted formal contact, was that we discovered how much the New Horizon meant to you, how singularly your people had focused on reaching it, and how close you were.  It just felt wrong to swoop in at the last moment and steal that glory from you.  After some heated deliberation and soul searching, the decision was made to wait until you had reached the ship for yourself, and only then show up to introduce ourselves.”

“Part of me wishes you hadn’t waited… but another part is glad you did.”

“We were very divided on it ourselves.”

“You still haven’t answered my original question though, why the complete lack of interest in the Earth of today.”

“Well, it’s not for any overriding reason.  We have launched some basic reconnaissance missions.  A few even went down to the surface to meet the locals, but they were… well, primitive.  I don’t mean to sound that condescending, but they didn’t seem any more interested in getting to know us as we did them.  All scientific study of Earth and the rest of the solar system is more easily gathered from this ship’s archive.  We’re just far more interested in what it was like before we left than learning about the wasteland it has become, so missions like this came to take much higher priority over time.

She was beginning to understand, and remembering their conversation the night before was coming to suspect that they were simply technological chauvanists.  There was no technology or data on Earth they could use, and they had no other interest in the place.  Haven’s level of technological development was far inferior technology to that of Kobol, but they respected how hard Haven had been working at it, how strong of a technological upswing they were on, and that the ship which had brought them here was so technologically advanced for its time.

“If you and yours are more interested in Earth than my people are, you’ll find much common interest in that regard with the Romans.  They have a permanent embassy on Kolob, I’d be happy to introduce you to them when we arrive.  I’m sure you’d get full diplomatic honours as your people have graced us with.”

“What are they like?” she asked, “The Romans.”

“Oh they’re good people, just very… well, contemplative compared to us.  They value harmony and wisdom over what we would consider advancement.  They brought a lot more technological know-how with them, so they didn’t have to start as far back as Haven or Kolob but their progress is slow.  You could say that they prefer to study while we prefer to build, though I doubt they’d frame it in quite the same way.”

“I just realized that I’m actually going to get to see your planet, and meet them, and see everything else… it’s hard to imagine.”  She’d understood that this was the mission, but she hadn’t stopped to think about everything that was going to entail, the wonder of it beyond the challenge.

“Hold that thought Kathryn.  Everything’s cycled up, we’re ready for the final phase.”  He tapped the comm panel.  “Bridge, how are we looking?”

“Everything is nominal Jaren, and we’ve got plenty of juice for you to punch through.”

“Excellent.  Stand by.”  Monitoring the display panels over his head, Jaren started counting down.  “Three… two… one… firing up secondary accelerators.  We need a hundred percent on this monitor to initiate self-sustaining fusion,” he pointed while explaining to Kathryn.

Together they watched and heard Xion count up the numbers.  “Ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight… ninety-nine…”

They both held their breath.

“One hundred percent.  The reaction appears stable.  Congratulations Jaren.”

Jaren pulled Kathryn towards him and hugged her tightly.  Her startle at the unexpected gesture gave way to her enjoyment of it and she hugged him back in celebration.

Chapter 5 (Second Draft)

After their tour of the museum, Jaren and his staff were provided with guest rooms in the presidential residence.  The next morning, Kathryn, Felix, Elim, and Keri met up in front of Jaren’s ship.  Kathryn was the only one of them (not to mention the only Havening) to have gone to space so far, and she could tell that the others were not necessarily afraid, but definitely anxious.

“Well what do you think?” she asked the others.  She was just trying to keep things casual and make conversation while they waited for Jaren to show up.

“Well myself I’m excited as the first day of school to get a good look inside this space ship of theirs,” Felix enthused.  “They’re obviously far more advanced than even our founders were.”

“Do you think we need to be afraid of them?  Think there’s any chance of… ulterior motives?” Keri asked. 

Haven had not seen conflict since the first few days after humans arrived, but the four were all members of the closest thing they had to a military.  They could best be described as paramilitary; they were trained in weapons and tactics and while all taken very seriously, it was nonetheless all understood as mere exercises meant to hone discipline and trust in the leadership.  Each member of the team had been on at least one deployment already, but the missions they’d been on so far had always been humanitarian in nature.  Several years ago the twin cities had suffered a horrific worst storm in the colony’s history, and all four of them along with the entire rest of the service were deployed on a search and rescue mission, and then later on in for the massive rebuilding efforts.  Several hundred people died that week, and it was the darkest period in their history since the troubles following their arrival on the planet half a century earlier.

Kathryn reached out and felt the cool metal of one of the landing struts.  “I don’t think so…” she said with a covert smile, thinking about her conversation with Jaren late last night.  “They came a long way, and the way I see it… they’re really just so advanced that I couldn’t imagine them being interested in anything we’ve made for ourselves, and any natural resources they might want they clearly have the technology to find elsewhere.”

“I for one think it all just makes sense,” Keri added.  “They just want the archive.  I could see how they would see it as the most priceless thing in the universe.  The fact that they didn’t just take it from us even though they could have I think speaks volumes.”

“Exactly,” Elim said.  “They could have taken it and we’d never even known they were here until we got up there for ourselves and found it missing.  It’s also interesting that they claim to have waited long enough for us to reach the ship for ourselves.  If true, it betrays a certain…”

He didn’t have the chance to find the right word to finish his thought before they all nearly leaped clear out of their skin as a section of the underside of the vessel pulled away and the boarding ramp extended.

“Welcome!” They whirled around to see that it was Jaren calling to them as he came down the ramp.  He startled them so because they were all waiting for him to emerge form the presidential residence across the way, but somehow he’d beaten them there.  Kathryn was doubly surprised to see the president come down the ramp with him practically arm in arm, and with no escort anywhere in sight.  Trust them as she might, that trust remained provisional and she felt the president may be trusting and assuming too much too soon.  They were followed by Jaren’s crew, and as she suspected, not presidential security detail.  Looking around she could now spot the security personnel mulling about, but it still made her uncomfortable for the president to have gone in alone with them.  She again tried to assure herself it was just healthy paranoia. 

Still a little startled, Kathryn forced an awkward smile.  She held out her hand as he approached and shook it.  “Ready to go?” he asked Kathryn with a warm smile as her team all nodded quite eagerly.

“Wonderful!  Follow me then.” He eagerly marched back up the ramp, followed by his and Kathryn’s teams.  Before boarding, Kathryn turned to President Kim and gave a respectful bow.

“Go make us proud Commander Barnes.  Rest assured that you are already a hero to our people.  Now you must go make yourself a legend.”

Kathryn nodded while making intent eye contact, turned around, and boarded the ship.

Once onboard, Kathryn marvelled anew.  The ship was one big open area, save for the central core where she presumed the engine resided, whatever it was.  Jaren and his people were at their stations readying the ship for launch, while her own people were standing around looking especially useless.

“Welcome Kathryn,” Jaren offered without looking away from his control panel.  You and yours just have a seat and enjoy the ride…” One of his many taps at his glass control panel unfolded four seats from the wall, and the four sat down and fumbled through securing the harnesses which they were unfamiliar with.

“Anti-matter engine warmed up sir, we’re ready to lift off.”

“Anti-matter?” Felix questioned.

The man who increasingly appeared to be Jaren’s engineer turned around in his chair to answer him.  “Yes, you may call it something else, but it’s the quantum inverse of normal matter?”

“Yeah, that… didn’t help any.”

“Have your people discovered the atom?”

“Yes.”

“But not the subatomic?”

“Only in a very rudimentary sense.”

“Hmm.  Well, anti-matter is rare, but it can be created artificially and is the inverse of normal matter in such a way that when a particle of it comes into contact with a particle of normal matter the two annihilate each other and are both converted into pure energy.  For now you can just take my word for it.  We simply stream beams of matter and anti-matter towards each other inside a thrusting bell.  The energy released is focused away from us, thus propelling us forward.  Of course within an atmosphere only the anti-matter stream is necessary.”

“Of course.  Well I believe I will have to take your word for it for now…” Felix lamented.  “But as soon as possible I want to know absolutely everything about all of the things you just said.”

“That could um… take a long time,” he said while trying not to sound condescending and smiling at Jaren.

“Oh don’t you worry, I’ve got the whole rest of my life to figure it out.”

“Don’t be alarmed,” Jaren warned.

“About what?” Felix asked.

His answer, was every surface of the interior of the vessel seeming to go transparent.  In reality, every interior surface was an integrated display screen linked to a network of imagers on the exterior.  It was not a perfect illusion, but it was breathtaking nonetheless and the four let out stifled gasps in response.

Ignoring them, Irvina called out: “lift off in 3… 2… 1…”

The acceleration was immediately noticeable, but it started out relatively softly, and then steadily increased.  Kathryn and her team felt themselves pressed ever harder and harder into their seats.  About the time they were beginning to wonder if they should be concerned, Jaren (apparently reading their minds) assured them: “This ship is capable of much more in emergencies, but for standard ascents to orbit we limit ourselves to a relatively comfortable three standard Kolob gravities.”

The vibrations were moderate, but they hardly noticed.  They were too absorbed in the vision around them.  They’d all been in aircraft and seen their twin cities from a bird’s eye view, but after only a couple minutes they were much, much higher than that, and the view changed as the ship tipped over and began directing its acceleration laterally and away from the city to achieve orbital velocity.  The Havenites’ chairs were at the high point of the ship’s circular shape as it sped around the planet, which left them staring down in awe at their planet from two hundred kilometers above the surface, racing over it faster and faster.

Kathryn had been up into space before already, but their rockets which were so crude by comparison only granted her a small navigation window in front of her, which never granted anything more than the briefest of views of the surface.  By the time she’d arrived at the New Horizon, she’d been too absorbed in the ship to spare any thoughts of a glance over her shoulder at the planet below.

As though in a trance, they watched the surface race past them faster and faster as they accelerated until the globe seemed to be falling away from them.  Twenty five minutes or so into their flight, Jaren directed their attention away from the planet and towards the New Horizon.  “There she is…”

New Horizon had been left in a geostationary orbit at the longitude of the twin cities to serve as a perpetual reminder of Haven’s destiny.  It was of course too far away to actually see the ship, but the reflective metal of the hull made it shine brightly for all to see every dawn and dusk.  Now as they approached, all had the opportunity to see the ship take form before their eyes.

While Jaren’s ship didn’t seem to have any kind of artificial gravity, which is really only a problem if you don’t have faster than light capability, New Horizon’s most distinctive feature was its wide habitat ring connected by four struts to the long narrow cylinder of the ship’s central engineering section.  The ring was designed to spin at the appropriate rate to simulate gravity on the interior surface along its six levels.

It got closer and closer for several minutes until its bulk became clearly much greater than the ship they approached it in.  Their saucer ship flew along the length of the engineering section until it came to a stop in front of one of the docking ports for the shuttle Kathryn had seen in the museum more times than she could count.  Slowly, painstakingly slowly, they inched towards the airlock.

“We sent a scout drone to scan the surface of New Horizon soon after we established the Esher in this star system.  We believe we were successfully able to create an acceptable docking port.  Now we find out if we got it right…”

He hovered his ship’s docking port, which now became clear was at the very top of the saucer as they approached the larger ship, less than a centimeter away from the New Horizon, and engaged the magnetic seals.  They all heard and felt a slight thunk as the two vessels became one.

“Ok, and now the atmospheric seal…”  A sheath only superficially similar to rubber pressed against the hull.  The magnetic seal was much more powerful and allowed the material to press against the hull so firmly that it created an airtight seal.

“Attempting to pressurize,” Irvina reported, “and… confirmed, Jaren.  We’re good to go.”

Jaren swivelled his chair around to face the Haven team.  “We couldn’t match the hard crank seal we’re assuming is built into the airlock,” he said as he started undoing his harness.  The Havenites took this as a cue to do the same.  “There’s only about a one in ten thousand chance that we could suffer a power loss catastrophic enough for the backups to not compensate and lose the magnetic seal, but it’s a risk nonetheless so we’ll minimize the time the airlocks are open.  Let’s get ready, get through, and close it up again.  We have the ability to remote pilot our ship if anything goes wrong, so we’re comfortable with all of us disembarking.”  He smiled as he saw the four of them struggle in the unfamiliar absence of gravity.  Kathryn had been in this situation before and was more composed, but the others appeared to be attempting to swim through the air, entirely in vain of course.

With a couple of taps at his panel, a part of the wall screen beside him slid away and he pulled out Airburst Belts for all of them.  He gently pushed four of them in the direction of the Havenites and passed the others out to his team.  Kathryn and her people caught them as Jaren explained: “put one block in front of you and one behind.  Use the buttons with arrows on them to move about, up, down, left, right, forward, backwards… you’ll get used to it.”

When they all had their belts on, they assembled at the airlock.  Jaren tapped at a panel beside it, and the interior of the ship went opaque again to its original appearance.  The panel at the top of the ship, which until now had been displaying the external image of the New Horizon airlock, slid away to reveal the complimentary airlock of the ship they were in.  Jaren put his hands on the sturdy looking physical latch and his other on the master release handle.  “Ready?” he asked. 

Everyone nodded, so he pulled the release handle, swung the latch bar, opened the circular portal, and ushered each person through before climbing through himself and carefully closing the New Horizon’s hatch behind him.

“Welcome to New Horizon,” Kathryn offered, greeting him with a wide grin.

Chapter 4 (Second Draft)

Kathryn stood at attention in her dress uniform only two spots down from the president herself.  They were standing on a permanent stage in Sengupta Park, the large public green space across the street from the president’s residence.  Between the stage and the residence was a large open space where the audience would normally be when this stage was used for music concerts or play as it was built for.  But today the whole large open area in front of the stage was kept clear as a landing pad for Jaren’s ship.

She along with everyone else kept looking up into the sky expectantly, knowing that his ship would come into view at any moment now.  One of the president’s aides pointed up into the sky for her, and Kathryn tried to follow her finger but couldn’t see anything up there.  Then there is was, at first just a spec, barely even there.  Once she was definitely able to detect it, the craft fell so fast that many became alarmed at the possibility of a crash and started looking around for where they could dash for cover if necessary, not that it would help if things went down that way.  But before anyone’s bodies actually betrayed their fear with such a flight, the ship noticeably decelerated to a near hover by comparison to its previous speed. 

It was silver and round, a flying disc wide in the middle and narrowed out towards the edge.  It was clear that whatever propulsion technology they were using, the business end was in the middle of its underside, which inched ever nearer the ground.  A hundred meters up, three panels retracted from the underside of the ship, and out of the void extended silver legs jointed in the middle, poised to take up the weight of the spacecraft when it landed.  It hovered just above the ground and inched lower and lower until the three legs all made contact with the ground at the same time, and then bent at the joint under the weight as the craft settled.

It came to rest, and the myriad strange sounds coming from it began winding down until before long it was rendered eerily quiet.  Nobody on their planet had ever seen any kind of craft or technology even approaching that level.  The near mythic founders of their colony, at their original height of their technological power, had never come even close to the same level.  This left Kathryn with a growing sense of concern.  Her military (*?) instincts couldn’t help but take note of how helpless they’d be if their guests decided to suddenly become hostile.  She tried to shake her suspicions away as merely the healthy paranoia she hoped it was.

Another panel slid away from the underside, and a ramp extended from within.  Once fully extended, Jaren was seen emerging from the ship.  He stood in the threshold for a moment, and surveyed the scene before walking down the ramp with remarkable confidence.  As he proceeded down the ramp the crowd began cheering loudly, and Kathryn could tell that he was clearly quite startled by the noise of the crowd.  He then seemed to understand, found a broad grin on his face, and waved to the crowd with both arms over his head as he stepped off of the ramp and onto the green grass.  Looking behind him he saw the President Kim and Kathryn on the stage and crossed underneath his ship towards them.

Not content to wait, the president walked across the stage towards the stairs, motioning for Kathryn to follow as she passed her.  She dutifully followed behind the president’s chief of staff and head of security.

Laying the diplomatic charm on thick, President Kim put on a big smile and extended her hand to Jaren as they met just beyond the stairs to the stage.  He took her hand and she put her other hand over his as she had to Kathryn, and then he did the same.  Kathryn smirked and motionlessly shook her head.  ‘Politicians…’ she thought.

“Greetings, Mr. Jaren.  I offer you the warmest greetings from all of the people of Haven.”

“Likewise from the people of Kobol Madame President.  And it’s Snow, Jaren Snow, but please do feel free to call me Jaren.”

“Oh and you must likewise call me me So-yi, I insist!”

“As you wish, he answered with another respectful bow of his head.  May I address the crowd So-yi”?

“Oh, I insist!” President Kim answered.  She motioned the way with her hand, and Jaren obliged, followed closely by the other four.  He climbed the stage and stood in front of the podium.

The crowd was abuzz, but when he stood before them and raised his hands they hushed to near silence.  “I bring you greetings from all of your brothers and sisters on my homeworld!”  The crowd cheered with greater volume than they had at any point so far that day.  “I thank you for your warm greeting.  I say today, that our species has been divided for far too long.  Today we take the first step of a journey together, a journey of reunification, but I assure you, the best is yet to come…”  

 

“Please, tell us about your planet Jaren, we’re all very curious,” President Kim urged.  A few hours after his arrival, Jaren and his three teammates were enjoying a state dinner hosted by the president and her top secretaries, as well as Kathryn and the team she’d selected for their mission.

“Kolob?  Oh, it’s absolutely beautiful!  If you make me talk about it too much you’re going to make me homesick…” he playfully complained.  “My people live on a mid-latitude southern continent which is blessed with a great mountain range spine running along the middle of it.  Below this divide is a cooler and wetter climate while the territory to the north is somewhat warmer and drier.  Most of us live in the north where we originally landed, though now there is a significant city living on the southern coast.”

“Did you find any sentients on your planet when you arrived?”

“Did you??” He asked reflexively, seemingly shocked at even the suggestion.

“We found that there used to be here, which is why there was no indications in original scans from Earth.  That era on this planet had long since passed.  Whatever civilization they clearly once had, it collapsed long before we ever arrived.”

“Amazing!” Jeren’s male associate exclaimed.  “As far as we knew humans were still the only sentient species known to have existed!  Were you able to find out what happened to them?”

“Indeed,” Elim Terey explained.  He was the biologist, biochemist, and medical officer Kathryn had selected for her team.  “Well, we at least have a very strong theory.  We believe that they fell victim to a brain parasite.  Our ancestors were able to diagnose the contemporary effects of their condition quite readily.  We tried to help them, we hoped that perhaps their original glory could be restored if we unburdened them of the parasite, but it appeared that their brain had evolved in the interim around the parasite, making such a thing impossible.  We considered going one step further and attempt to restore them genetically, but… our founders didn’t feel it was right.  We don’t question their wisdom, and regardless we no longer have the technology to do so ourselves.”

“Are you in contact with them?” Jaren excitedly asked.  “It may be old hat to you, but up until this moment as far as we were concerned humans were the only known sentient species to have ever existed.  I know a lot of people on Kolob who would give their left arm for the chance to know everything you can possibly tell them about them.”

“Although we have recently begun investigating the possibility of starting a new colony elsewhere on the planet,” the president offered diplomatically, “up until now we’ve restricted ourselves to our territory here to limit our incursion on them, and the Squiddies so far seem content to leave us be in turn.”

“Squiddies?”

“Yes, that’s what we call them.  Our founders found much of the life here on Haven reminiscent of what they knew as squids on Earth.  They found this planet dominated with life reminiscent of Earth cephalopods and reptiles, thought they encountered nothing like mammals at all.”

“Fascinating…” one of Jaren’s people remarked.

“What kind of life did you find on Kolob?” Kathryn asked.

“Kolob is almost entirely populated with something similar to mammals, from the small irritants underfoot to the large majestic Keraziks which fly overhead.  There are insects and such, but anything larger are all mammal like though the limited paleontology we’ve been able to conduct suggest that there used to be far stranger and more varied kinds of like.  Some planet wide calamity seems to have occurred several hundred million years ago which we still don’t understand, but after that point, only the one kind of large animal life persisted.  Like yourselves, our research has been limited by our commitment to limit ourselves to our colony continent.  Our authorities have deemed the rest of the planet a nature preserve; only low impact scientific expeditions are permitted.”

“We have a similar policy here on Haven,” one of the president’s secretaries commented.

“How did your arrival go for your people?” Felix asked him.  “Our own people had some… complications.”

“Well I look forward to hearing all about that, but no, records show that our arrival was actually relatively unremarkable.  We found a good spot at the base of the northern side of the continent, where the great river Moroni flows into a vast flood plain.  It was there that we made our home.”

“And today?  How many people do you have today?” Elim Terey asked.

“Our last census counted over 18 million souls.”

“Wow…”

“And you here on Haven?”

“Just under four million, split between our two beautiful twin capital cities,” the president answered with pride.  “We have so many questions Jaren, you said you were in contact with the other colony as well?  Can you tell us about them?”

“Of course, they Romans are… different from us.”  It was clear that he was trying to be diplomatically fair, but didn’t hold them in especially high regard.  “They are not focused on technological development the way we are Madame President.  We have perfectly amicable relations, maintain embassies on each other’s planets, and collaborate where our mutual interests align, but we have starkly different philosophies in a variety of respects.  They have rejected the high technology which we have embraced.  We have amicable enough relations, we both maintain embassies on the other’s planets and we collaborate where our mutual interests align, but… well like I said, they don’t seem to have much use for us.

“And they were the Calothics?” Kathryn’s anthropologist, psychologist, and historian Keri Reed asked.

“Very nearly Miss Reed, but they call themselves ‘Catholic, not Calothic.  They call their planet Roma.  I haven’t had the pleasure of being there myself but I hear it’s quite lovely where they settled.”

“In what way do your philosophies differ?” Kathryn asked. 

“They are an… introspective people.  They concern themselves with harmony and balance, and this leaves them with little interest in what we would consider development.  Their priority is to exist in a productive and mutually beneficial partnership with the natural world.”

“Do your people not have the same respect for the natural world?” Elim asked, with some deliberate provocativeness.

Jaren sighed as he pursed his lips and considered the question.  “That would be… an inaccurate description I would say.  My people certainly understand that our existence is contingent on a healthy natural environment.  We greatly value the utility of it.”

“The utility?” Kathryn asked.  “That’s all?”

“No Commander,” he answered.  “The possibilities for the relationship between humans and nature exists on a spectrum of impact.  We seek to harness the power of nature to our own needs to a far greater degree than the Romans do, as you do as well I’ve observed.  Our view is that danger only creeps in when we forget that we as humans are ourselves an inseparable part of nature as well.  We must not exploit so far that it begins to harm us more than benefit us.  So yes, we value the utility of nature for us, yet we respect its ultimate power over us, and our need to exploit it with all due caution and respect.  It is our position that a pure state of nature provides us with a starting point, something we can take and improve upon, to perfect.”

“Does that include your own bodies?” One of the president’s secretaries asked.

“No,” Jaren’s apparent second in command decidedly answered.  “God created us in his perfect image.  To attempt to improve on our form would be a blasphemy.”

“Yes.” Jaren conceded, but sounding far less moved by the sentiment.  “A blasphemy.  That is what our people have traditionally believed, but there is a growing movement who question that particular interpretation or our scripture.  I for one, count myself among them.”  His officer shot him an indignant look, but it was brief and seemed involuntary.  It seemed as though she concealed her reaction as soon as she’d become consciously aware of it herself.

“What about Earth,” Kathryn asked, no longer able to contain her curiosity.  “All our people know is that they stopped transmitting halfway through our journey here and were never heard from again.  Have you been there?  Do you know what happened?”

“Earth… is gone,” he answered somberly, to gasps and looks of shock around the table before he clarified.  “Everything it was, anyways.  We don’t know exactly what happened, but by the time we were able to reach it in order to investigate why they wouldn’t answer our messages there was nothing left.  We didn’t bother to land because our observations from orbit showed that every city had succumbed to at least several centuries of decay.  We were able to detect inhabitant, but… they were sparse, and far less developed than even the Catholics.”

“You were there but you didn’t bother to land?  You didn’t make any attempts to contact those who were left at all?” President Kim exclaimed with great surprise.

“We really didn’t see the point,” Jaren answered with a shrug.  “They’re stone aged at best.”

Some uneasy looks circulated around the Havenites.  What happened to Earth was the greatest mystery of all for their people.  It seemed unconscionable to them that they would make it all the way back to Earth only to lose interest and not take the opportunity to investigate.  Nobody wanted to press the issue at the moment though, for risk of offending their guests.  Instead, the president raised her glass.

“To our reunion,” President Kim cheerfully offered.

“And to a new story Madame President, a whole new era for the Human species, finally all united again at last.”

To reunion!

 

A few hours later, Jaren and Kathryn found themselves alone in one of the museums near the presidential residence.  It was well after regular hours, but special arrangements were made for their unusually high profile guests.  The two teams had split into pairs to explore the exhibits more thoroughly.  There had been alcohol served at the state dinner and while they were both under the effects, it was moderate.  They were still buzzed, but nothing more.   It was enough to render them on the verge of flirtation, but not so much that they were unable to maintain their overall professionalism.

“And this is the main shuttle exhibit,” Kathryn informed him as she turned on the lights to the large open room which housed the remaining now ancient shuttle.

“Wow…” Jaren uttered.  He seemed genuinely impressed.  “And this thing allowed you to go back and forth to New Horizon?”

“Oh yes, for years and years after our arrival.”  She caressed the hull sentimentally as though it were some sort of faithful pet who’d been respectfully put to rest a long time ago.  It was an indulgence she’d been wanting the chance to engage in.  Ordinarily touching any exhibit in the museums was strictly forbidden.  “You didn’t have anything like this?”

“Oh no, our means were much… well, cruder.  Your mission was much more methodically planned and crafted.  Our people hollowed out a massive asteroid, slapped some engines on it and just hoped for the best.  We only had crude one way landers when we arrived, and a lot of them even failed after the long journey.”  He seemed sad recounting this.  “Our strategy was overwhelming numbers as opposed to high technology.  We made no provisions for maintaining technological proficiency when we arrived, just tens of thousands of people dumped on the planet to homestead and make a hard honest go of it.  Ironic perhaps that we so enthusiastically turned to technological solutions now later on.”

“Not ironic,” Kathryn suggested as she motioned with her hand for him to follow him and entered the shuttle hatch.  He followed as she made her way past the flight deck bulkhead into the large rear section which was designed carried either fuel of personnel depending on which direction it was going.  She sat down on one of the rows of plastic seats and pulled out of a pocket a small bottle of the wine like drink they’d been having at dinner and opened it.  “It makes all the sense in the world actually.  Your people no doubt had remarkable hardships resulting from your lack of appreciation of technology and that left a mark.  You all remembered well how valuable technology is and have a cultural drive to pursue it vigorously.  So far that’s the thing I respect most about your people.”

She took a drink from the bottle as he sat down beside her and she passed it to him.  “And you only just met us,” he remarked thoughtfully before taking a drink himself.

“The president and I were very skeptical of you, you know.  It all seemed too good to be true.  It still does actually.”

“I can understand you feeling that way.”

“But you’re for real aren’t you?  You really do come in peace don’t you?”

“As far as I’m aware,” he said with a wink before taking another drink.  “We may dazzle you with our technological prowess Commander, but my people are far from perfect.”

“Go on,” she said, taking the bottle back from him and drinking.

“We enjoy making good, honest, and mutually beneficial deals, but…”

“But?”

“But I wouldn’t say we’re particularly charitable.  If you have nothing to offer in return, it will be hard for you to get anything out of our government.  It’s not that we’re into hoarding or anything, it’s just… well, let’s just say that things that we see no benefit for us in immediately have a very low priority.  The flipside though is that what does benefit us is considered very high priority, hence why you can expect this operation to go very quickly and smoothly.”

“And then?”

“And then like the Romans you can expect to be left pretty much to yourselves.  You’ll be welcome to exchange embassies, have access to the rift system… but we won’t ask much of you, nor have much interest in advancing you.  Not maliciously, just… out of a lack of interest.”

Kathryn tipped the bottle towards him.  “Well I appreciate the warning Jaren.”

“What about your people?” he asked.  “Anything I should know about that I might not pick up on readily through standard diplomacy?”

“Yeah, we’re coming for ya,” she said with widened eyes which feigned seriousness which made Jaren chuckle.  “But seriously, we’re not a people who will be content to remain junior partners forever.  I guarantee somewhere tonight there are already wheels in motion to figure out how we can capitalize on this, learn what you can teach.  We’re ambitious Jaren, and we already want what you got.”

Jaren took the bottle from her as he nodded somberly.

“I’m not talking about aggression.”

“Of course.”

“I only mean that we’re going to want to develop for ourselves what you’ve shown us is possible as rapidly as possible.”

“Well, we may not have much enthusiasm to help you do so directly Commander, but I can assure you we will at least respect your initiative.”

“Also good to know…” Kathryn reflected with a thoughtful nod.

Chapter 3 (Second Draft)

Kathryn stepped out the front doors onto the street in front of the State House, and was greeted by chilly air which made her wrap her coat more tightly around herself.  She didn’t like the cold.  She didn’t particularly care for the heat much more, but she handled heat better than she did the cold.  It seemed easier to ignore the heat than it was the cold, which seemed to always immediately penetrate down to her bones.

She was a little stunned as she stood on the street, barely noticing the bustle and noise of the major throughfare.  A wave of faint came over her and she momentarily had to brace herself against a street sign post.  The reality of what had happened was finally fully falling on her.

A reunion… they’d resumed contact.  The existence of the other colonies had by this point become almost… well, practically myth.  They’d long ago lost any real hope or expectation of ever coming into contact with human beings elsewhere in the galaxy.  Re-establishing contact seemed even more unlikely than there being anyone out there to re-establish contact with.  Some fringe elements of their society had even begun to conceive of the conspiracy theory that humans had evolved on Haven, and that the whole distant origin theory was a myth.  It was preposterous of course, but it betrayed just how alone and isolated they felt.  Given how hard it had been for their own colony to survive let alone flourish, most assumed at this point that they were the only surviving colony.  Either way, even if there were other humans out there… there’d never been any way to find out, and no real prospects for developing any way to find out.

Then today happened.  In one day, one moment really, their whole world flipped on its axis.  This morning they were alone in the universe, but now they had a sibling civilization, in fact several by the sounds of it.  Now it seemed somehow everything had changed in one day.  Alone at the top of the mountain, down to somewhere further down the slope but at least now with company.  On top of all that it had been her personally who’d made that contact.  She’d earned the privilege of being the first person to return to the New Horizon, sometimes that was hard for her to understand, hard for her to square her relatively modest view of herself with the scale of the position she now occupied in her people’s story with just that honour, and now to pile on having made first contact with other humans, and then now to possibly be charged with leading the expedition… it was overwhelming to say the least.

Her fiancé Tobyn pulled up to the curb in their car, and she opened the door and climbed in.

“Hello sweetheart,” he said as she latched her safety belt.  “It’s so good to see you home safely!  You know I get so worried when you go up…”

“Yes I know…” she replied listlessly, while trying to not appear too dismissive.  It bothered her how much her work distressed Tobyn.  It kept a divide between them.  Her work was challenging enough without the added burden of having to worry about him worrying about her.  Nothing in the universe mattered to her as much as her job, and it was the biggest issue he had with her.  She found herself wondering why they’d gotten engaged at all given all that.  She wasn’t looking forward to the epic fight that was going to come when she told him about her new orders.

They’d been quite in love once, but that seemed like a long time ago now.  In her heart she’d known for a while that they were heading to some sort of ending, but it was hard for her to confront that reality, and she was a the point of putting in whatever minimum of effort and attention was required to keep things going to put off that end.  And then he proposed.  What was he thinking?  Was he really that blind?  Or was it a sort of hail mary for him, trying to reignite something he on some level knew was dead or dying.  She was never sure, and just tried not to think about it most times.  It was getting harder and harder to just ignore things though.

And then there was the family thing… Although she’d never written off the possibility completely, having children and all that had never been much of a priority for Kathryn.  Ever since she could remember, she’d had one goal, the life and career she was in the middle of living out right now, today specifically even.  Children and all that always seemed like it was just something which would get in the way of what was really important.  Still though, she’d never written it off entirely.  Some part of her, perhaps the parts of her that really cherished how important and comforting her own family had been to her when she was a child, forbid her saying never.

Tobyn on the other hand, was as focused on starting a family as a priority as she was on her career.  He knew how she felt about it though, so why did he stay?  Was he holding out hope that her not necessarily never would somehow evolve into an okay forget everything else and let’s do it now?  It was hard to be too harsh on him though, because she was guilty too.  In the past… when things were good, and they were newly in love, it seemed like such an immaterial difference between them.  Now it felt like a heavy weight on her chest whenever she looked at him.  What the hell were they even doing at this point?

She looked out the window as she thought, watching the world go by and not having to look at him.  Nothing had changed, why was she admitting all of this to herself now out of the blue?

“Still, it’s good to have you back…” he said, sounding unusually unsure of himself.  “And it’s so exciting what happened to you up there, the whole city is buzzing about it!  Nobody’s quite sure what it means or what’s going to happen next!  Tobyn stopped at an intersection for a red light, and they could see a crowd gathered around an electronics store, watching President Kim give a speech on the demo television sets.  Noticing this, Tobyn switched on the radio to the public broadcaster.

            “…you should all be as proud of Commander Barnes as I am.”  The light turned green and Tobyn started moving again.  “Her professionalism and dedication is why I have selected her to lead the expedition to the planet Eta Cassiopae, at the invitation of our new friends…”

Kathryn switched off the radio and folded her arms with a sigh as she looked up at the ceiling of the car.  Tobyn pulled into the first available parking lot and parked, then shut the car off.  He and Kathryn both kept looking forward in silence for too long.  “Is that true?” Tobyn asked.

In response Kathryn pulled the door handle and got out of the car.  She was still just wearing her flight suit with a winter coat overtop of it and it was getting progressively colder out as the sun sank on the horizon.  She wrapped the coat around herself as tightly as she could as she looked out into the multi coloured dusk on the horizon.  They’d happened to have stopped in an industrial area, and the silver canisters and tubing of the manufacturing plant they’d pulled into the lot of was cast against a grey concrete vehicle overpass behind it, all back dropped by the moody orange sky.  Tobyn likewise extricated himself from the vehicle, and then came around to leaned against the car with his arms folded as he looked at her.  “Well?”

She didn’t answer at first, instead studying the horizon for answers.

“I’m leaving you,” she finally concluded.

What??

“Tobyn… you must know that this has been a long time coming.”

“But Kathryn!”

“Stop, please… just stop.  I’ve made up my mind.”  She took a deep breath and turned around to face him, before coming over to join him leaning up against the car beside him.  “You’re a good man Tobyn.  I… I don’t want to hurt you anymore than necessary.  It’s just… my job is hard enough worrying about myself without… having to worry about you worrying about me.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?  You’re certain…”  He knew her well enough to know that if she really had made up her mind then there was no arguing with her, no reasoning with her or changing her mind again.  He’d tried before, but had only ever met with frustration and ultimate failure.

“I am.” she said in more of a whisper than she’d intended.

“Fine.” Tobyn said through gritted teeth, increasingly angry.  “How much time do you need to clear your shit out?”

“Tobyn!”

“How long?” he asked with cold fire.

“Just the… just the night” she said.  She felt awful.  She wished he’d look at her.

“Fine.”  Tobyn went back around to the driver’s side of the car, got in, and slammed the door closed.  The engine roared to life and with a smoking squeal of tires he was off, and she was alone.

 

“I’m sorry… but I had a feeling you two wouldn’t last much longer.  To tell you the truth I’m a little surprised it lasted as long as it did.  I kept it to myself though of course, you know… in case I was wrong.”

She was back at her and Tobyn’s apartment with her friend Felix Parker.  When Tobyn had left she’d called him to pick her up and bring her here.  They were best friends and had been since grade school, since before he’d come to understand that he was gay, since long before either of them had any kind of romantic or sexual interests at all.  As adults they continued to be very close.  Kathryn found that it could be hard for her to make friends with men.  It seemed that inevitably they’d always get around to trying to sleep with her, and it was exhausting.  Though she’d largely given up, she would sometime still try, but sometimes she didn’t, either way though it always seemed that when she thought she’d made friends with a man he’d inevitably proposition her and she’d be left wondering if it had ever really been any kind of genuine friendship at all, or if it had all just been one painfully elaborate and drawn out attempt to get in her pants.  In the aftermath, everything that came before always came to appear like a subterfuge.  It had become hard to let men in at all if she didn’t have a prima facie sexual and/or romantic interest.

This is why since their adolescence she’d come to find such comfort in her genuine and lasting friendship Felix.  There was none of the rivalry she often felt with other women, and yet there was none of the sexual tension she too often felt with other men either.  She could be absolutely secure in the purity of their relationship.  He was her best friend, and that was that.  He knew her better than anyone else in the universe, she sometimes wondered if he knew her better than she knew herself.  She sometimes reflected on prone people are to understanding themselves so poorly compared to those who know us well, but aren’t biased the way people are towards themselves.  So many blind spots, so many wishful delusions…

“I didn’t plan on it, it just… sort of happened.  Yesterday he accepted the mission I was on, and I figured things would be good.  I was expecting to be grounded for a long while after such a big mission.  Hell… I figured we’d be married by the time I went up again and that maybe he’d have mellowed out a bit about it…”

“But?”

“But… when he found out about my new assignment, the look in his eyes… well, I knew I couldn’t have him and my career anymore.  I had to choose.  It was just such a blatant dichotomy between how excited I was and felt perfectly right to be, and how upset he was about it.  Everything just became… way too obvious.”

“I’m sorry.”  He was obviously much more sympathetic than disappointed.

She shrugged, “it is what it is…” and continued stuffing clothes into her luggage.

“What all do you have to pack up here?” Felix asked while looking around.

“Not much,” Kathryn said with a shake of her head and an angry thrust into the suitcase.  “Most of it is just… stuff, replaceable stuff.”  She looked around.  “All of my irreplaceable are still in my deep storage boxes anyways.  I just need my clothes.  He can keep the rest… I can leave him that at least.”  She zipped up her luggage.  “That’s it.”

She’d stay with Felix for now, he had an extra room anyways.  “Want to be on my team?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

“Thought you’d never ask,” Felix said with a big grin.

“Best friend or not you’re still the best engineer at the agency.”

He nodded his acknowledgement of the compliment.  It was the common view of most at the agency and he knew it.  Most of the time he was humble enough to not let it get to his head. 

“What’s our next move then?” Felix asked as he held the door open for her and she rolled her luggage out into the hallway and locked the door behind her.  She started to walk away, but a thought occurred and she returned to the door, removed the front door and apartment keys off of her key ring, bent down, and slipped the two keys under the door.  “After that move?” she asked Felix as she started down the hall again. 

He winced a little on the left side of his face.  “I meant-“

“I know what you meant Felix,” she said as she pressed the elevator door.  Her and Tobyn had lived about half way up one of the taller towers a bit out from the downtown core towards the water.  She was going to miss that apartment, she reflected.  From their balcony they’d had a great view of the ocean.  She took a moment to silently chastise herself for having such shallow thoughts when she felt she should only be missing Tobyn himself.  It occurred to her with some mental discomfort that she was likely to miss the apartment more than Tobyn.  The mind wanders though…

“We get ready to accompany Jaren up to the New Horizon,” Kathryn said as the elevator door opened.

“I’m sure we’ll be expected to participate in the welcome ceremonies when he arrives.”

Kathryn wrinkled her nose.  “Of course.”  She didn’t care much for that part of her job.