Part Two -- by Becky Ratliff
See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
(USS Saratoga, January 22, 2065)
Ross was doing some paperwork at his station while he kept an eye on the bridge. It was routine, quiet work today. His people tended their stations, with nothing but the hum of the electronics and the occasional wisecrack to break the silence. The Saratoga was cruising the outer ranges of the Pan system. One of the star systems accessible through the wormhole network around New Jerusalem, Pan had gotten its name because its radio emissions sounded like some sort of weird pipe music over half the frequencies the Navy preferred to use. Pan was a rather out-of-the-way Sol-like system, with one little snowball of a planet that was technically habitable by humans, an asteroid belt, two nondescript gas giants, and a tiny barren rockball in the outermost orbit. The ship's astronomers were still arguing whether that thing should be classified as a planet or an asteroid. Glen Ross doubted anyone outside that department would ever care what they finally agreed to call it. The one thing they could all agree on was that there was Nothing Here ... unless the chigs had established a base in this system.
That was not unlikely, since an intermittent wormhole made it a back door to the chig home system twice a month for two hours at a time. The Sara's orders were to secure the system. So far, though, neither recon flights nor routine patrols had discovered anything to secure the system from.
Ross refilled his coffee mug and took a walk around the bridge.
The kid at the comms station had something on his screen, he was methodically selecting parts of a signal and expanding a second or two of sound to fill the screen. Curious, Ross came over there. "What have you got, son?"
"I don't know, sir, maybe nothing. It could just be background noise, but..." There was concern in the young man's voice. Larry Pfieffer was his name, he was just a couple of months past eighteen. His short-cropped black hair had a tendency to stand out in cowlicks.
"What makes you think it isn't?"
Pfieffer pointed to his screen. "This area here, sir, between the bursts of noise or static or whatever it is. If it was something random, there shouldn't be anything here. But look at this, don't you think this could be a carrier wave, sir?"
Ross didn't want to admit to the earnest young man that he'd just sailed past the limits of his technical knowlege about radio signals. "Can you clean it up a little more and find out for sure?"
"I've been trying to do that, sir, but the computer resources aren't available. If I could go down to Comms on the mids and run it through the system down there when there's less demand on the mainframe, maybe I could do more with it?"
Ross nodded. He wasn't going to discourage a kid whose enthusiasm got him out of his rack at midnight to pull extra duty. "Permission granted, Seaman Pfieffer, let me know if you find out anything."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Vansen took the seat next to McQueen. The rec room was almost deserted, except for a few people playing cards at the other end of the room. "How's Heather?"
"Considering that she doesn't like her treatments at all, she's doing fine. I've got to be down there in about ten mikes."
She nodded. "So ... tell me about Alison."
"What is there to tell?"
"How is this going?"
He looked at her. "She and I come out of two different worlds, Shane. It isn't the same as you and your sisters, you have a common background that shapes everything you do as individuals. What she and I have are gene maps that say we're brother and sister. I don't know how Alison felt about it, but I knew that as soon as I saw her. Remember when we talked about your family and connections? There really is something to that ... but the hell if I know what it's supposed to mean. I guess we'll have to define things as we go along."
Shane nodded. "When do I get to meet her?"
"Right now, if you've got time. I was going down to medbay early enough to look in on Heather."
Shane had meant to find some excuse to go down to medbay with him anyway. As no one else did, she knew the nerve it took to face the associations brought up by needles and other sharp objects. She didn't have to say a word for her presence to offer support and understanding.
Heather was asleep. Alison had pulled back the curtain so she could keep a watchful eye on her daughter through the window while she had a cup of coffee at the nurses' station. Gloria Fallon and a tall blond nurse were working at the station.
Shane remembered the second nurse's name after a moment, Melissa something ... Kenny Lucas had been paying a lot of attention to her since he'd been in sickbay. Kenny was back on light duty now after being knifed by that AI on Kazbek.
Vansen thought, that was one more time they'd been lucky. She scowled for a moment. McQueen had the right idea not to believe in luck, she reflected. You didn't have to worry about the luck turning on you if you didn't believe in it!
They went into Heather's room to avoid blocking traffic in front of the nurses' station. McQueen introduced Shane and Alison, he saw the two women appraising each other and he was surprised at the relief he felt when they hit it off. It was only then that he realized how much he had wanted them to approve of one another. "Alison, how did Heather's treatment go this morning?"
"Oh, she threw a godawful tantrum, she really hates being tied down to that machine. But as soon as it was over, she went right to sleep."
Shane said, "Poor kid, she probably wore herself out. You just can't explain things to a three-year-old."
There was a tap at the hatch, and Mary O'Leary stuck her head in. "Ty, we can get you ready now." She looked in on Heather. "Is Granny's little girl still asleep?" She glanced at the readouts on the monitors and assured Alison, "She's doing fine."
Shane saw Ty take a moment to watch Heather sleeping before he went with Mary.
Alison asked, "Are you and TC in the same outfit? Have you known each other long?"
Shane said, "We've served together since the war started. When he was in command of the 58th, I was honcho. He's still my commanding officer, we've just played a round of musical chairs with promotions. A year and eight months is a long time out here, so I guess you could say we've known each other quite a while." How gracefully she beat around the bush, Shane thought wryly. Every word of that was true, but it sure avoided the Truth.
Alison set her empty coffee cup on the table and the two women sat down to wait. "I'm glad that TC isn't alone here. When I first found out who he was, and that he was the only In Vitro officer aboard this ship at that time, I had the wrong idea about what that would be like."
"Well -- I'm not sure what to say. I think there's always been less intolerance in the Corps than probably anywhere else in society as a whole. I don't mean to sound like a recruitment commercial, but it's true. There's prejudice here, to be sure ... we have our fair share of bigots ... but we're all Marines first. That always has kept a lid on it."
Heather stirred in her sleep, kicked off her blanket. Alison tiptoed over there to cover her again and paused to smooth her curls back away from her face. Shane watched the toddler's little hand close around a couple of her mother's fingers for a few moments, before she went back to sleep.
Mary finished up. "That's it, TC. Be careful putting your weight on your leg at first, you won't have full control over the prosthesis until the local wears off. You should stay off it as much as you can for a few hours."
"I think I can find some papers to sign," he replied. "How long before we'll know anything?" He sat up carefully and pulled on his clothes with measured movements, he didn't want to give Mary an excuse for an I-told-you-so.
"It takes a few weeks to be sure, this is one of the times when Mother Nature will not be hurried. Patience."
That was a hard lesson, but he'd learned it. "I don't need to come back for this, do I?"
Mary thought about it. "Not really, unless you notice something that's not right. Common sense. You'll be in and out of here anyway to see Heather, just tell me if you need anything."
(New York City, January 22, 2065)
As usual, the first fifteen minutes of the monthly meeting of the Tellus/Vesta Colonists Association was a loud round of greetings and hugs and squeals, as if half of them hadn't seen each other within the last two days and they hadn't kept in constant touch with the other half. The representative of the law firm they had hired, Matt Silverstein, had learned months ago that there was no sense arriving on time. He would be left standing in a corner with his briefcase in his hands, shut out of a circle that no outsider could ever really enter. Today, fifteen minutes late hadn't quite cut it ... everyone was crowded around a viewer watching the video of Kylen West's wedding. Silverstein quietly arranged the papers he had brought with him and waited for the meeting to start.
Finally, Kenzie Thompson looked at the time and said, "We're late again! Let's start the meeting then we can take Kylen someplace nice and celebrate." Still laughing and chattering, they took their places around the conference table.
Kylen said, "Okay, let's come to order."
"Does anyone need to hear the minutes from last month? If not I move to dispense." Kenzie was the only surviving member of the ship's bridge crew, she had been the co-pilot.
"Seconded." Rosie said.
Everyone else nodded.
Kylen said, "Okay, any new business?"
Jesse Cordell said, "I got an offer from the Star Entertainer for an exclusive, they're up to two hundred thousand now. People, that's getting to be a lot of money."
Kenzie said, "That's a supermarket rag! We don't want to give them anything, at least not until later."
Jesse said, "I DIDN'T do it. But what I'm getting at is, they hinted that if I didn't give them an interview, they'd make something up and print it anyway."
Matt said, "Good. If they do we'll sue their asses and you'll get better than two-hundred-K."
Kylen said, "Okay ... then we're agreed about the supermarket rags? We don't do that now?"
There was a murmur of agreement.
Stefanie Millhouse raised her hand. "I have a problem. I've been Josh's legal guardian because I live nearest to Heatherton Manor. That's fine and I've been glad to do it. But now the doctor says Mom can't live alone and she absolutely refuses to come to New York. I'm going to have to move back to Minneapolis and live with her."
Kylen asked, "What does Josh's doctor say?"
"He might not ever get any better, he'll probably have good days and bad days the rest of his life. When I saw him yesterday, he knew me all day. We walked around the grounds and he asked me all kinds of questions about the rest of you, and how the lawsuit was going -- he was normal. But his nurse said he was doing that staring thing of his almost all day Wednesday ... and he knew you and Rosie had been to visit him Saturday because the nurses told him, but said he didn't remember. He was asking me to explain all the pictures you left because he couldn't remember you telling him about them. He couldn't be left alone, but -- I'll be honest, he sounds better than my Mom! What scares me is, that doctor is still listing putting him down as one of our options."
Rosie said, "You give me ten minutes with that little son of a bitch, I'll show him some options."
"That isn't the point!" Stefanie said. "We need to do something to make sure Josh is okay, not just now but in fifty years! I'm gonna be halfway across the freakin' country, I can't keep an eye on things from there. That's the best place we could find and we still have to keep after them day and night."
"If he's always going to be like that -- if they really can't help him any more than they have already -- why can't we bring him home? He can live with me," Jesse said.
There was a chorus of me, too's from all around the table.
Kylen said, "That's probably best. If no one can be right there to come to the nursing home in an emergency, I don't want that damn doctor making any emergency decisions about Josh. But Stefanie has a point about fifty years from now. Matt, what can we do?"
"Family law isn't my specialty, but right off the top of my head, I'd suggest making him a ward of the Association. You'll have more clout to influence his treatment that way, and his wellbeing won't depend on just one person. If you can't be sure of being there personally to assure he's getting the best care, you can retain a nearby attorney to do it for you. Someone you're sure has the right attitude. But personally -- I think getting him out of the home is the best thing. Living as normal a life as he can has to be the best thing, as long as we know he won't be living in a cardboard box somewhere!"
Jesse said, "I can drive up there and get him today if everyone thinks that would be the best thing."
Kenzie cautioned, "If he's with it, be sure and ask him if it's what he wants to do. He's been there several months now, he might feel at home there. If that's where he's comfortable when he's normal, we'll work something out to make sure he's safe there. I'll move to Heatherton if he wants to stay there, I can do my Flight Magazine articles from anywhere in the country."
Jesse said, "For that matter, I can move my studio. I can work anywhere I can plug in my computer."
Kenzie said, "If he wants to stay at the Manor, do you want to both of us move?"
Jesse said, "Sure, why not?"
Kylen said, "Okay. Matt, you'll get someone at the firm who does family law to draw up the papers for us, won't you?"
"Sure, I'll get someone on it as soon as I get back to the office."
Kenzie turned to Stefanie. "You do what you have to do to take care of your mom, we'll have Josh settled one way or another by tonight."
"Okay, great," she sighed in relief.
Rosie asked, "Do you need help with your mom? I could come out to Minneapolis."
"I don't know yet ... I might take you up on that."
Matt asked, "Jesse and Kenzie, right?" He filled in a form on his laptop and printed two copies of the document. "Stefanie, this is a power of attorney giving Jesse and Kenzie the right to make decisions about Josh. It will be in force until a judge transfers his custody to the Association."
Once that paperwork was out of the way, Kylen asked if there was any more new business. Then she said, "Matt has an offer from Aerotech. Let's all hear what he has to say before we start screaming and yelling."
Kenzie said, "I have a headache, Matt, let's just stick to the details."
He laughed. "It's pretty straightforward. They're offering a million each. They don't admit any wrongdoing, and they don't suggest that human error had anything to do with it. Also, you don't lay the blame on them at any time in the future."
There was silence. Kylen asked, "Uh... that's it?"
"They're offering us a million each to take the money and shut up."
"In brief, yes."
"Tell 'em to shove it."
There was a chorus of agreement. Then shy little Cathy Highland spoke up. "Look ... I don't know about the rest of you ... but it isn't the million ... it's my insurance. They said if I sued I'd lose my insurance and I don't have any other. My doctor said I'll need four more operations before they're done. I don't know what to do."
Kylen asked, "Can they do that, Matt? Our contract was for lifetime medical care."
He looked through the contract. "There's a clause here that all payments due either side can be suspended for the duration of a lawsuit. We can get an injunction."
Cathy said, "I can wait until the lawsuit is over for the other operations. But what about Josh? If his insurance gets cut off -- and Fred and Cleo both have big doctor bills too --"
Cleo said, "Hey, I don't like being blackmailed, and I'm not sure those doctors are doing me any good anyhow."
"I know, Cleo," Kylen said. "But Cathy has a point... some people need the insurance now, not after the trial...."
They looked at each other around the table.
Slowly, Jesse said, "We can't shut up, Kylen, no matter what it costs us. We'll take care of Josh, he can't take care of himself. But I say ... for the rest of us ... for the people we left out there ... we tell the truth."
"How can we take care of Josh?" Cleo asked. "I know, I know, it sounds like I'm arguing both sides ... but what if he really needs medical care and we can't pay? Look, no one can put us to sleep, the worst they can do is refuse to treat us if we can't pay. But if they decide it's in his best interests--" She looked like she was going to start crying.
"That's another good reason to get him out of that damn place!" Jesse said. "Do you want it to let them spin it around that it was our fault somehow that we got captured? Kenzie, do you want to just shut up and let them blame it on the captain? He died putting that barge down in one piece so we could survive!"
Kenzie said, "Hell, no, it isn't what I want! If it was just me I'd tell 'em to take their million and shove 'em one at a time! This was never about money. Just someone tell me how we can do that!"
Kylen said, "We ... get Josh on disability. He was hurt on the job, right? Then Medicare pays if his primary insurance won't. Right?"
Matt said, "That would work, Kylen. I can stall Aerotech on the offer for a while, until the paperwork goes through Social Security."
"Then I'll entertain a motion to table discussion of the Aerotech offer until we hear back from Matt about Josh's disability."
Cathy said, "So moved."
Jesse looked around. "Seconded."
"All in favor--" she glanced around at the upraised hands. "The motion is carried without opposition. Do we have any other business?"
Kylen was glad nothing else came up. When the meeting broke up, they said their goodbyes to the people who had to leave. The party moved to a restaurant down the street, in the middle of the afternoon they were able to find adjoining tables for fifteen people. Kylen found herself unexpectedly nauseated, the food on the buffet smelled delicious but she couldn't bring herself to eat much of it. She just picked at a light salad and some crackers, pretending to be too busy talking to eat. There was a lot to tell, about the Kazbek raid as well as her wedding.
The couple of blocks to their hotel seemed like a mile. Kylen flopped on the bed and curled up around her stomach ache.
"What's the matter?" Rosie sat down beside her.
"I don't know, I'm just real sick all of a sudden. Just the smell of food in the restaurant got to me really bad."
"I think I have some antacid in my purse, let me look." Rosie hadn't any more than opened her purse when Kylen dashed past her into the restroom. Presently she came out, looking a little pale, but feeling somewhat better anyhow.
Rosie asked, "Do you want anything?"
"No, just a nap. I'm sure I'm fine. It's probably just a bug, or something I had for breakfast. Wake me up if Jesse calls about Josh, would you?"
"Sure. I'll go out on the terrace to check my mail and stuff, just yell if you need anything." Rosie turned off the light on her way outside.
(USS Saratoga, January 23, 2065)
One of the things that had first drawn Glen Ross to music as a young boy was the contrast between the discipline necessary to master an instrument and the complete creative freedom that mastery allowed. From rigid scales and chord progressions to improvisation and back to finger exercises again, Rosalyn took him in any direction he felt like going -- always somewhere away from the responsibility of his position. Tonight it was somewhere black water kept its secrets as it flowed slowly beneath veils of Spanish moss in the quiet night.
He heard steps pause outside his hatch. There was a Marine on watch out there, but Ross had been taught too well in the school of hard knocks to ever completely trust his safety to someone else. He set the guitar down.
Finally there was a knock. "Who's at my hatch?"
"It's Pfieffer, sir!"
The young sailor stood at strict attention until Ross put him at ease. Ross asked, "Did you get something with the computer analysis?"
"Aye, sir! There's definitely a signal there. You told me to let you know, and I took you literally, sir -- I thought you might want to have a look at it before I told anyone else. I don't know what I've found, sir, but it isn't one of our transmissions ... and I don't think it's the chigs or the AIs, either!"
Ross reached for his uniform shirt. "Not a whole hell of a lot left, is there, son?"
"Let's see what you've got."
The young sailor was all business as soon as his fingers touched the keyboard. "Sir, here's the signal the way it was this afternoon. The first thing I did was delete everything that could be positively identified, I was able to get rid of a lot more background noise down here. Then it started to make sense, I realized where I'd seen this kind of a pattern before." He touched the keyboard, and the display sharpened. "I have an old recording of a song from the 1920's. It was first recorded on vinyl and the quality wasn't the best to begin with, then it had been re-recorded, first to magnetic tape then to a CD. I put it through this program and I could see where the quality had degraded over time. This signal looked like that. I had the computer do a best-guess reconstruction of the original signal, and here's what it came up with." He played it back. The result was certainly a voice speaking in some lyrical language that was almost song. Pfieffer had heard it before, but he listened with as great a sense of wonder as Ross until the signal played through.
Ross remembered his wet-navy days, when he'd been no older than this lad. "I'll be damned if that doesn't sound like a whale or a dolphin."
Pfieffer's eyes widened. "Aye, sir, it does!"
Ross said, "How sure are you of this?"
Pfieffer looked up. "There's a margin of error, but it wouldn't be within the range of our hearing, sir. Now theirs -- whoever they are -- maybe. The signal goes higher and lower than we can hear."
"This definitely isn't chig."
"No, sir, no way. Thanks to that British fellow, the computers can translate an uncoded chig transmission in a mike or so. I understand a few words here and there myself. On the outside chance it might be their idea of music, I tried the translation programs -- nothing." He swallowed. "My God, sir ... we're probably the first humans to hear this -- at least to recognize it for what it is."
Ross didn't take his eyes off the screen. "Once in a lifetime, son. Once in ten lifetimes." He straightened. "I don't want to start a three ring circus until we know what we've got. Consider this classified and compartmentalized until further notice."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"Carry on. You'll have some help down here in a few mikes."
(USS Saratoga, January 23, 2065)
"Crazy Judy" Ellison ran through a system check, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. This was the kind of exploration she'd hoped for when she'd joined the Navy in the first place. The launch controller gave her go for launch, she glanced over at the port where Ross and McQueen were standing side by side and snapped off a sharp salute instead of her usual saucy wave. The situation seemed to demand the formality. She felt a moment of triumph as Ross looked a little startled before he returned the salute.
"All support personnel, clear the flight deck. Commencing Stingray engagement sequence...."
She waited impatiently as her cockpit made the trip down the lift and along the overhead rails to her plane. She dropped into the slot, then the magnetics kicked in and she waited to hit the thrusters once she was clear of the Sara.
Roberta Carey's voice came over her headset. "Lookin' good, Crazy Lady, you are clear to engage ECM at will."
"Acknowledged, Home Base. Going to radio silence ... mark." Judy toggled a bank of switches, bringing the Stingray's sophisticated anti-detection gear on-line. Baffles and cooling systems in the engines dropped her off the Sara's LIDAR when a Hammerhead would still have been an easily visible blip on the screen. She was on her own until she accomplished her mission and returned to the carrier ... or, possibly, as many a recon pilot had before her, came up overdue and went missing without a trace.
Most of the Stingray's payload was sensor gear. Judy brought the passive systems on-line immediately, the best way to deal with trouble was to see it before it saw you and get out of its way. Stingrays were lightly armed and fragile, but they were very, very fast and maneuverable. Recon pilots usually ran from trouble and called in the Hammerheads -- still, the respectable number of kill marks on Judy's cockpit testified to the fact that it could be suicidal to corner one.
She put a chip in the media player, and sat back to listen to her music. It was going to be a long ride out to her destination, and some tricky flying when she got there. She wanted to be well rested when she arrived.
Ross saw the look that crossed McQueen's face for just a moment as they watched the hatch close behind Judy's 'pit. Aware of his gaze, McQueen looked up. "Sir, I'd give a year's pay--!"
McQueen had been grounded by an injury. While Ross was still technically checked out as a fighter pilot, he was effectively just as grounded by the star on his shoulder. He'd never fly another mission either. He shook his head and grinned. "So would I--!"
For a moment, the hint of a smile lit McQueen's eyes. Then the two of them headed for the lift, and their duties elsewhere. It would be some time before Lt. Commander Ellison reached the area where the radio signal was originating.
During a quiet moment on the bridge a little later, McQueen stepped aside to call down to sickbay and check on Heather. Mary assured him that the transplant had gone well, and informed him that Heather was still asleep. She suggested that he come by later that day. He hoped he would have time to do that, but he really didn't expect to, depending on what Crazy Judy found out there.
Ross asked, "What did Mary say?"
"Heather's doing fine," he replied.
"Good ... that's good, Ty," Ross said thoughtfully.
Something in his tone made McQueen give him a long, searching look, but Ross didn't say another word.
Judy switched off the music a few MSKs away from target and told the voice recorder her position. The signal was coming from a moon orbiting one of the system's gas giants, she had approached the moon by orbiting the gas giant and now kept the moon between herself and the source of the radio emissions. She had her eyes open for a sentry satellite, or anything else that might make life miserable for uninvited company. So far, she'd seen nothing of the sort. She dropped down to fly low around the moon, an airless planetoid not unlike Earth's moon.
Ellison threaded her way through a mountain range, came out over a wide dust plain. And there it was, a ship three times the length of the Saratoga. She was broken in half, she'd never been meant to land. Ellison realized her mouth was hanging open and shut it, then began to describe what she was seeing for the benefit of the voice recorder. Ellison's instruments were not picking up anything other than the radio transmission. Whatever the ship was, she appeared to be a derelict. Even on its most sensitive setting, the LIDAR wasn't picking up any heat traces that could not be explained as reflected energy from the gas giant or its distant sun.
Instead of the flat planes and angles of human or chig ships, she was all graceful curves. She'd been a beauty in her day.... No way of knowing from here when that had been. This airless rock could have preserved the wreck perfectly for centuries or just since last week.
Ellison wasn't picking up radiation levels much above the normal level for the system, she wondered if that meant the ship had a reactor that had survived intact or if they didn't use radioactives at all. The point was, they didn't have to add radiation exposure to the list of possible dangers here.
When she had found out everything she could at range, she approached cautiously, watching every readout, ready to take evasive action at the first sign of movement. There was none. She recorded what she could see of the bays that had been ripped open to space when the ship broke her back landing, she couldn't see any immediate signs of an explosion or fire though. What had happened here?
Ellison sent what she had back to the Saratoga as a compressed and encrypted file. It was unlikely a quick burst of data like that would be intercepted, and at least the Sara would know what was going on if anything happened. Then she did a complete photorecon of the wreck site, until her fuel indicator told her that it was time to head home.
About five mikes after she set her course for the Sara's last known position, the enormity of what she had just experienced broke over her and left her shaking. She was the first human being to ever lay eyes on that ship, the creation of a previously unknown race of people. She swallowed hard. If they were hostile ... Earth couldn't hope to fight a war on two fronts. But, on the other hand, at this point it was just as likely they were neutrals or even potential allies.... Whoever they were. People who built a beautiful graceful ship and spoke a language that sounded like whale song....
What if there had been someone at home, and what if it had fallen to her to say hello! Humility wasn't an emotion that Crazy Judy experienced very often. But right then, all she could think was to pray, Dear Lord, don't let me do anything to mess this up!
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