Zyaina scrutinized her reflection beneath the hood of the navagation display, ignoring the coral stream of updates that relentlessly winked across the crystalline screen. The dim outline of her face lurked within the ever-shifting tri-dimensional plots and sub-texts. Only her blonde curly hair appeared with any detail, the remainder of her countenance, featureless.
Undoubtedly she looked a mess; bags under her eyes, anxiety driven sweat caking her hairline. She’d give her kingdom for a hot shower.
What was left of her kingdom.
“Time’s running out, Lieutenant!”
Mishaa’s brusque order caught Zyaina off guard. She had begun to take his silent brooding for granted. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
Suppressing her agitation, she unceremoniously reached across the Acting Commander’s arm, her fingers settling into the shallow indentations beneath the locator hood. The keys warmed to her touch with a faint aural chime, allowing her to deftly manipulate the holo display above their back up command station - the colony ship's life-science theater.
Zyaina risked a sideways glance while she waited for the wire frame rendering of the single planet solar system to sequence. Was he wearing someone else’s clothing entirely? The oversized pinstriped trousers had been sloppily bloused over officer-issue gilded boots. From God knows where he had obtained what looked like a canvas hunting parka, unbuttoned to the waist to reveal an equally soiled sweatshirt beneath. The stubble of red growth on his chin gave him the appearance of a homeless beggar in front of a post exchange rather than the Orion's commanding officer, though she had to admit that it somehow accented his stubbornly handsome features. Not wearing insignia pips was totally against regs; still who among the crew had had any sleep these past thirty hours?
Still he looked to be about her age.
Twenty one, maybe twenty three at most?
The wire image dissolved into a sweeping rendition born of breathtaking reality. A crimson planet with pale violet rings materialized, a sparkling world framed by a wall of spiraling star clusters. The probe view portrayed a far distant sun, its sphere more resembling a darkened disk than a true source of heat and light. Gaseous plumes buffeted its charcoal body, curling rain shower wisps that emanated from some vanishing point of ominous nothingness. Even as Zyaina watched, these sinuous streamers took on a harsh silver edge, bursting into metallic flames - twin electric halos fanned by an invisible force that defied all imagination.
“Neutron star,” she declared, anxious to gauge his reaction.
“Brink of Hell you mean! Yet that planet supports life.” Mishaa's gaze never wavered from the probe display. His complexion looked waxy, unhealthy, his face far too thin. Mishaa’s father - the “Old Man” as he'd been affectionately known to his flight crew - had been a robust, outgoing, bear of a presence. His son shared only one physical characteristic - the red hair.
“Neutron Star,” she repeated. “What we’re seeing is the first luminescence to escape a disintegrating black hole. They’re notoriously unstable as a rule -liable to flare up in a split second, lasting a minute or a millennium in duration. This one’s tearing itself apart into a double helix. It’s spewing out everything trapped within; a celestial release of time as well as light.”
She was lecturing.
“You’re saying the event horizon has broken down, Lieutenant?”
Was he finally coming alive?
“We think of an event horizon as the point where matter entering a black hole disappears. Here we’re obviously dealing with matter that’s flowing back out, matter that was formally trapped. Those streamers were probably stripped from a binary companion; quite possibly that honeycombed red hulk off to the planet’s right, the biggest of the three moons?”
“This planet we’re looking at could be a candidate as well.” Still he refused to look at her. Those rings are a dead giveaway. Of course it would have needed time to cool off, evolve a suitable atmosphere,” he added.
Back in mankind’s home solar system, the largest of the gas planets had once been a binary companion to some long ago imploded neutron star. To take his logic a step further, this planet and its reddish moon might have been binary companions as well, miniature though they be. Perhaps both had fallen victim to this double helix star, striped of all solar plasma in literally one breath.
“Jupiter had a similar history,” she offered. “Venus was considered a true planet right up until the twenty second century when stellar track tracing was made possible. It was proven to be a former comet.”
“If what you said about that event horizon proves true, that all the consumed matter is now flowing back out, then life might prove real interesting if we manage to get everyone down to the surface. Prime real estate with a time warp view.”
It was said without a trace of humor but it was he who now stole a glance, looking for some sign of affirmation. “Then there’s the possibility that our neutron star will push this planet to the outer reaches of space once those superluminals expand.”
His knowledge proved intriguing.
Superluminal gas jets were normally associated with accretion disks, rotating gaseous rings spiraling about a black hole, their plasma drawn from a nearby companion star. While accretion disk material would eventually be swallowed by an active black hole, superluminals shot outward, their apparent velocity exceeding the speed of light. Indeed this lone orbiting planet would be in grave danger should this neutron star accelerate its mass.
“We're talking about a planetary orbit something on the line of Neptune,” she rattled on, hating her compunction to tie up loose ends. “A year would equal; let’s see...” she quickly scanned the remaining data, “about a hundred and forty five Terra years. Wonder if they have seasons?”
There were similar long orbit planets on record that maintained periodic variations in axis, changing seasons quite nicely throughout their track about the sun. Too bad the probe had inexplicably malfunctioned.
Stop thinking about it, she ordered herself.
Zyaina stabbed at the keys, the luminous image above them abruptly growing by a factor of ten; increasing to full fifteen meters in diameter. Two massive continents dominated the planet's Northern Hemisphere, land masses connected by an archipelago of brownish-green islands awash in a red ocean.
She let out her breath.
Somehow this magnified version seemed less threatening, even thankfully inviting. The desert and forest renderings could easily have been something out of the Virtual Geographics she had pored over as a child. Zyaina renewed her concentration, again scanning the system-stats displays. Keep talking... “Backup for NAV's shot to Hell,” she went on. “Half the circuits are still out. It's a wonder the damned countdown clock survived.”
Bioluminescent digits winked relentlessly over the theater entrance:
01:19:01 TO ORBIT
He wasn’t listening; his mood once more mirroring their shadowy environment. The theater had once been her beloved Life-Science observatory. Now it served as the Orion's emergency Bridge. Still it was his command now.
Her duty to keep him updated.
“I've added a neutral density factor to cut the brightness,” she explained briskly as she rubbed the back of her hand against her headband. The three metal stars designating her as an Orion Flight Service Officer felt icy to the touch. Colony ships weren’t noted for warmth, faster than light vessels notoriously chilly during long stellar tacks. But now the Orion's outer passageways and compartments lay encrusted in glistening sheets of frost, an encroaching icy cocoon that imperiled the vaccu-lifts and ramp-ways leading to the evacuation shuttles. Climate control had been among the first systems to go down when the Flight Bridge disintegrated some thirty hours earlier.
No one on watch had made it out alive.
Including the Old Man.
The pictorial began to break up, momentarily becoming a snowstorm of mica flakes, the swirling glints animating the overhead web of exposed plasma ducts and wry filaments into weaving tentacles of lights and darks.
Zyaina couldn't help but shudder.
How she had hated her bedroom ceiling as a child, the ancient cracked plaster grotesquely catching the landing lights of every nighttime vehicle sailing down the flight path into Los Alamos. Her parents thought their hillside home quaint and countrified.
A silhouetted figure passed the open doorway beyond the bank of atmospheric sampling tanks, drawing her attention, reminding her that Mishaa had shown up under escort. There were at least two Military out there.
With everyone's life at stake, they should have been overseeing the evacuation procedures. Survival was everyone's concern now. What in Hell did the Military think she and Mishaa were going to do in here anyway? Zyaina forced her attention back to the NAV displays.
Velocity barely halved since mid-watch.
She could see the power for the super coolers visibly draining at an alarming rate; the colony ship’s deceleration subject to unprecedented heat build up. Though the Orion had mushed head on into a gravity wave when they had tumbled out of stellar tack, achieving stable orbit was going to be chancy. In spite of the wave’s celestial headwind, a single pass at this ringed planet was likely all they would get. Hopefully the Orion would hold together long enough for everyone to bail out.
“Not much power feeding from the dorsal sails,” she muttered aloud as if to drive away the unwelcome thought. “Should be close enough to that neutron star to get some lift developed.”
She busily keyed at the schematics for the sail systems, scanning the routing through the now inoperative Bridge, searching for the blockage. The stellar sails were the keys to their survival. Though capable of absorbing the limitless energy of nearby sun fields to generate faster than light speeds, the sails were now trimmed aback, dispelling built up ion energy as a dynamic braking force.
Zyaina traced her finger along the junctions.
Still she wished Mishaa would make conversation; issue another order at least. His father had always talked continuously, drawing his crew in.
“The lateral sails seem fine; we'll make it, if they don't melt down. We've red-lined the heat dumps as it is.” Zyaina left the rest unspoken. To be pushed from this solitary solar system in the condition the ship was in, meant certain death for all aboard. She wondered if Mishaa felt the cold? She wouldn't ask.
Thank God for Ben.
He’d been here with her since the beginning.
She glanced across to the far side of the theater, to the acting First Officer, his stocky body and balding head barely visible through the floating cluster-screens arranged about his workstation. She smiled in spite of herself. Ben would always be Ben, looking as though he was engrossed in some research project back at base library. Ben was good medicine. Try to make eye contact with him; reassure herself that everything would be okay.
The theater was dying around her.
The once vibrant displays of probe updates and overlays depicting climate conditions to mineralogy had long ceased functioning. She refused to look up into the overhead again, silently cursing the maintenance engineers who had forgotten to replace the bright cheerful trim panels when they last modified the array feeds. Only the hemisphere was in a display mode. For how long was anyone's guess.
Just as well.
No time for anything more than primary data
Mishaa reached down and gingerly inched a knurled ring by his knee, their servo-seats attached to either side of the console beginning to track slowly along the edge of the theater. Though it would have been far quicker to rotate the display itself, she mentally applauded any physical action on his part.
“We're in what appears to be a system listed as Henson's Cluster.”Ben's matter of fact voice carried across the room, amplified by his com-cap headband. “No neutron stars on record though. Give me a bit more time; I’ll come up; with something.”
Black humor suited Ben’s leprechaun stature. Too bad his lack of hair unfairly created the illusion that he was well into his thirties. She knew him to be a decade younger, not much older than herself or Mishaa for that matter.
“No time left, Mr. Dealer,” Mishaa said evenly, his tone giving no indication that he was aware of Ben's dour meaning. “We’re steadily losing computer function. NAV'S already rerouting macro-bytes.”
Zyaina eyed Mishaa warily.
Though the Castus system was well respected back on dry land, here aboard the Orion there had been far better ship drivers aboard who were more qualified; who could have replaced the Old Man. However no one, not even the Military nor the Colony Governor had questioned the younger Mishaa’s succession.
“Sir, Ben's saying that orbiting this planet is the our only chance.”
The chiseled face turned, his movement coinciding with another loss of power to the display. The holo wavered as the metallic plumes strained toward the reddish planet, twisting outward in a series of serpentine coils, silvered twin funnel clouds anchored in pulsing blackness.
Had she spoken out of turn?
Mishaa’s face softened; the lines around his eyes might have passed for a weak grin. “I'm not entirely humorless, Lieutenant.”
Zyaina nodded silently, wondering what had broken the ice. This was her first experience with the younger Mishaa at the helm though she had briefly met him maybe a year ago, at one of Flight Surgeon Arbor's music recitals. Back then she had interpreted Mishaa’s distant manner as deliberately haughty, a person to be written off without ceremony.
Certainly she had never sought out men of privilege, though God knows she'd been involved in more than a few love affairs since leaving the Academy some four years back. At the time she considered Mishaa’s aloofness tinged with the arrogance of the Fadar Castus, those at the top like Pro-Consul Devereaux or politicians for life such as Colony Governor Des'Weren. Now she wasn’t so sure.
Don't look at it!
“What's the status of the shuttles?”
She glanced to a holo that floated before her armrest
“All shuttle crews have been on standby since the beginning; since the Bridge fire. The best bet for us if we can’t get to our own shuttle, is Bay Twenty or Fifteen, the Rianne and Harm? We’re assigned to Bay Twenty Five, the Onrust--the Old Man's Gig.”
Mishaa appeared puzzled.
Didn't he know shipboard slang?
While she held a Geophysicist Specialty with an additional Flight Service rating, her off-ship assignment was Life Systems aboard the Commanding Officer’s little delta shaped shuttle.
“The Onrust, the Commander's own craft!” she said in exasperation. “Your craft now. The Harm's purely a military shuttle; they're probably out playing soldier.” She studied the screen further. “No indication about what's happening aboard the Rianne. There's a Captain Denysenko listed, from the Ukraine-Gysept back on Terra.”
“Harm's skippered by Captain Falconer, military to the teeth,” he half muttered. “I'm afraid they're more than playing soldier.” She was heartened to see that he rolled his eyes at her mention of the Military. Yet his statement added ominous weight to the all too many rumors sweeping the Orion.
“I was originally assigned to the shuttle Marvaa,” Mishaa confided in a burst of geniality. “She's commanded by Erron Ma'Nauton, a dedicated Service Commander and close family friend. General Kaodah, Ma'Nauton and my father served together as ensigns.”
Zyaina could have cared less for military gossip, though the connection between these three particular men was most extraordinary. Though not Science Castus, Ma'Nauton was said to have several degrees in bio-genetics. According to scuttlebutt, he'd spent a good deal of time camped out on M-Deck during the Orion’s trans-stellar tacks.
She risked a probe.
“Word has it that since our layover at Genuver, Ma'Nauton's been secluded in a quarantine lab on M Deck; that he's supposedly surrounded himself with some stiff lipped types who hitched a ride up from the surface.” Tiny Genuver was a stabilized colony, now a routine re-supply drop. Since Mishaa had brought it up, she thought she'd try that rumor out on him. There were even wilder ones.
“That's all classified, Lieutenant.”
Damned if she ask anything further.
It didn't matter now anyway.
“Mally wants us down to Bay Twenty Five immediately,” Ben interrupted. “She's got the Gig full up. Clayt and Ken are standing by the main hatch. She says to remind you, Commander, that the ‘abandon ship’ sequence is now on automatic. She'll keep the hatch open as long as she can.”
They could make it up to the shuttle in five minutes, even without the lifts.
“Ah, Captain Mally Kerry.” Mishaa smiled, then turned to the red world floating above their heads. “Well so much for Ide as a colony site, but with luck, we'll set everyone down on a planet equally as habitable; that is if this damned water world doesn't catch fire first.”
The overhead lighting wavered momentarily, then steadied. The holo seemed unaffected for once.
“Could be that from the planet's surface those streamers emanating from the helix would appear as dark spots ringed by fire,” Ben offered.
“Assuming we make it down, Mr. Dealer.”
Zyaina nodded absently, looking down at her Life-Sci data for a moment. “There are immense forests tracts which indicate sunlight enough to promote biological growth. The atmosphere checks out positive although there's nothing in the readings that would explain the red seas. That's one for the bio-techs to chew on.”
“Or the religious sects,” Mishaa offered dryly as he made an adjustment to one of his own screens.
“Rings on a non-gaseous Terran sized planet,” she observed quietly. “Can you imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface and look up? Like a magenta rainbow, I bet.”
“Anything that might indicate intelligent life?” Mishaa was all business again.
“Nothing,” Zyaina and Ben replied in unison.
“We're too far out to do a proper thermal scan,” she added quickly. “Otherwise agricultural cultivation or roads would certainly show up.”
“We're probably too late in any case,” Mishaa declared. “Anyone on the surface has most certainly fallen victim to solar flare. I hope to God we do better.” His face hardened. “Still that would be nature's way of settling our account,” he continued. “We'd undoubtedly murder ourselves within generations of arriving on the surface. That's all mankind's ever accomplished in our so called quest to put our mark on the universe. Ironic that Ma'Nauton's greed sewed the seeds of our destruction. Quite the opposite of his intent. He would have been the last to promote a mutiny.
Mishaa’s gloomy pronouncement, though steeped in veiled allusions, reflected Zyaina's own pessimism. The Orion had narrowly escaped incineration. Yet once on the surface, they would be at the mercy of this black star.
Had she heard Mishaa right?
A military mutiny?
“Rumor has it, Commander, that Ma'Nauton found the fountain of youth.”
There; Ben had said it. She would never have dared ask. Mishaa’s reply was unexpected.
“Mankind's been a victim of a cruel hoax!”
“Then Ma'Nauton didn't find anything?”For once, Ben abandoned his calculations.
“I was referring to mother nature, Mr. Dealer. We tried to cross her back in the twenty first century, back when the micro-biologists went all out with germ line therapy. The human genome was newly charted then. All of the ethical arguments were swept aside. We wanted to live forever, genetically engineered, resistant to all disease.”
Zyaina momentarily ignored an incoming message alert.
“Somewhere we outsmarted ourselves. We fell victim to a random saboteur of our own making, a jumping gene; a suicidal gene that began to randomly personalize each individual’s gnome, our unique genetic map.”
“But we still live into our sixties,” she protested. “That's a fine age. Any more time and we'd lose the incentive to accomplish anything with our lives.”
“It wasn't always that way, Zyaina.” Ben voice seemed to emanate from just over her shoulder though he was some good ten meters away. “We should be living life spans which exceed a hundred years. Now we're doing little better than our stone-age ancestors.”
He excused himself with a quick wave and spoke into the communicator. She glanced at Mishaa. He looked angry now, his fingers white where they gripped the console rail. The Old Man had been almost fifty two; he had still been full of energy. She immediately thrust the memory aside. She checked the clock.
Time code had jumped!
They'd make it.
“We should be on our way, Commander.”
That was an understatement!
Even Ben's tone expressed outward concern for the first time. Already he had grabbed his display pad and was heading in their direction. “Looks like fifteen minutes until auto-sequencers initiate final rotation. I still think the numbers don't add up. We've too much velocity.”
“Get going, you two!” Mishaa ordered. “No, leave the display on for now, Mr. Dealer.”
“You're not staying here?” Zyaina protested as she swung from her console onto the walkway. Ben jammed his headband into a flight case, offering her a hand as she stepped down. The deck vibrated unpleasantly beneath her feet.
“That's one naval tradition I'll forgo, Lieutenant. No, I intend to stop back at my father's quarters. There are a few things I'd like to gather up. You go, both of you.”
Ben looked at her and nodded slightly.
“We loved him, your father, the Old Man,” she offered sincerely. “He was a respected driver. You're entitled to join us at Bay Twenty Five you know. The Gig is yours now.”
“Thank you, I know.” He caught himself. “Here...”
Mishaa reached into a side pocket of his canvas jacket and extracted a small translucent cylinder which he extended, pressing it into her hand.
She gripped it tightly, her reaction automatic.
“A gift. They don't know that Ma'Nauton passed this on to my father. He in turn entrusted it to me, just in case.”
Zyaina looked curiously into the clear plastic vial. Inside, resting on a few centimeters worth of dull gray padding, were several golden quills, insulated from movement by a circular spacer.
“You're a Life Systems Officer, Lieutenant. You have in your hand the ultimate gift, a genetic blocker that will prevent the body's cells from shutting down.
"According to Commander Ma'Nauton, this stuff was formulated out of material extracted from a Genuverian shrub. It will extend not only your own life span but also the longevity of your future generations. I leave it to you to decide who uses this should you make it down safely. I for one don't give a damn anymore.” He smiled at her shocked expression. "However, tell Captain Kerry to keep the door open."
Again the overhead lighting winked out, the holo display now the observatory's sole source of illumination.
“We need to go, Zyaina.”
She acknowledged Ben with a gesture that indicated “wait a moment.” She needed to say something more, had to say something more. From somewhere back on the console, a row of red warning lights began a slow sequential dance.
“Should I check that?” she asked.
“No, everything's on auto now," Ben reassured her. "It's out of our hands.”
“Commander Mishaa, I don't even know your first name,” Zyaina said, turning to him, groping for some way to say goodbye. Somehow now, all the formality seemed improper. With death so near, it was important that she be close to everyone.
She damned the runaway clock.
“What's yours? You first name?” he asked unexpectedly.
She fought to keep herself from tearing away. “I hate my name. It's Randa. My mother had no ear for alliteration.”
“I'll tell you mine when we're on the ground, looking up at those magenta rings together? Go! Shalom, Lieutenant.”
“Shalom?” she asked, startled at his reply.
He flashed her an enigmatic smile.
“It's a word often used by my people. It’s a greeting as well as goodbye. It means peace.”