Friday Fragment, brought to you today by WordPress losing my post.

I had a long post about Serious Business.  But WordPress ate it.  Damn it.  So here’s a fragment, Chapter 2 of The War for Earth The Remembrance War book one, which has as working titles Pathfinder and The Finder, neither of which I like.  As usual, it’s a work in progress, and I’m not entirely happy with it–there are some edits and adjustments to be made. But it’s not, I hope, unreadable.

Chapter one can be found here.

Chapter 2

Slipspace is a funny thing.  It makes interstellar journeys possible by vastly cutting down the time it takes to get from one star to another, but the jump isn’t instantaneous.  It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few months.  The time in transit depends on several factors–distance is only one of them.  The more a given route is travelled, the more stable the subspace connections become, and the faster the journey.

Hammerfall station is pretty far off the standard routes, but the route’s kept pretty stable by the black market traffic that goes there pretty regularly, so the trip to Galileo only took about three weeks in slipspace.  Before we jumped, I sent a message to Kiri telling her when I would arrive, then spent most of the trip ensconced in my cabin.  Katherine and her crew–my crew–were coming on a cheaper, slower transport; they’d probably get there just as I finished putting my brother’s affairs in order.

Once we made orbit, I took the elevator from Helios station to the surface and checked into my hotel, where I found a message from Kiri informing me where and when to meet the lawyer the next day.  After a quick water shower to get the feel of three weeks of nothing but chemical baths off my skin–on Class-3 transports, only first-class passengers get sonic showers, and only the captain gets a water shower–I ordered a light dinner and a scotch and spent most of the night watching the skies over the capital city, Virginia.

The next morning I took an early shuttle over to the city center and made my way to the office.  Galileo had been colonized for about four hundred years, making it the second oldest human settlement.  A side effect of colonization was that the oldest building in Virginia had been built by an advanced civilization in full command of its technology.  Compared to photographs of Old Earth cities, Virginia was a pristine paradise of skyscrapers and open parks, with none of the trash or grime of cities described in the old literature.

I hated it.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like I wanted it covered in grime and graffiti.  But I’ve never been completely comfortable under open skies; at heart, I’m a spacer.  Since the moment dad first took me on board the Pride of Earth, space has been my home and comfort.  Daav was the opposite.  Starships made him uncomfortable, but he loved Virginia.  He once said the only thing more beautiful than Virginia was the ice sculptures of Scalti Prime, and he couldn’t stand the cold there, much preferring the tropical heat of Virginia.

As the shuttle landed on the upper shuttle pad, Kiri stepped out of the lobby area.  The wind this high in the city was intense, and my hair whipped about as I approached her, while hers was restrained in a tight braid at the back of her head.  I didn’t hug her; I didn’t feel like I had the right.  I hadn’t seen her in nearly 15 years, and I’d hardly been a good uncle even accounting for the distance.  A few quick letters when I had a spare moment and had had too much drink.  I had sent a few messages early on, but when I got no replies, I stopped trying.  Daav didn’t want to hear from me, and I’d learned to be ok with that… or so I told myself while I tried to sleep.

“Kiri.  It’s… good to see you.”

She smiled and said “Hello, Uncle.”  She threw her arms around me and held me tightly.  After a few shocked moments, I returned the hug, and was surprised at how good it felt.  This was my brother’s daughter, and I hadn’t held her since the night of her mother’s funeral, all those years ago.  I felt the tears finally begin to well up, and I tamped them down quickly.   Kiri pulled away from me and said, “Let’s get this over with.”

#

“Ok, what’s the story with this rock?” Kiri asked, tossing  double-fist sized lump of black in her hands.

Kiri and I sat in the living room of the house I’d grown up in, drinking the most expensive bottle of Tkar’i wine we could find in Daav’s cellars.  As we’d discovered during the reading of his will, Daav had left the house and most of its contents to the local University, to be used as a retreat for faculty and students working on special projects.  He’d left me half his ownership share of the Pride of Earth, giving me 75% of the ship, the remaining 25% in Kiri’s hands.  He also left me guardianship of Kiri until she came of age in a few years.  All the funds in his accounts had been left to Kiri, along with a rock.

It was about the size of two adult hands clasped together, black as night and shiny as glass.  On old Earth we’d called it obsidian, in Zhen:ko, the language of our patron species, it was shin’kar, “glass from fire,”  though most humans translated it as “fireglass” to keep it simple, which is probably why so few humans are considered fluent in Zhen:ko, even 500 years after the Rescue.

“It came from a camping trip your dad and I went on, about… hm, I guess thirty years ago.  I was ten and he was 12 at the time, an amateur geologist, which lead to his later interest in xeno-archaeology.  Anyway, he found it and polished it up, removing any impurities.  For Rescue Day, he gave it to me as a present, even though I’d asked for a model of a karnakar-class starfighter.  He thought it was funny as hell.

“Until the next year, when I gave it back to him, wrapped in a box I’d gotten from a friend for a ground-penetrating scanner, and enough Zhen mass-producing modules to make the box weigh as much as it should have.  And so began the Great Battle of the Black Rock, which continued for another twenty years–until our falling out, shortly after you were born.”  I hesitated, not knowing how much Kiri knew about that. “Anyway, over time, rules developed–you couldn’t do anything that would actually damage the rock, either in packaging or getting it out, you couldn’t do the same thing twice, and you couldn’t do anything that would present a danger to the recipient or bystanders.  One year he sent it to me buried somewhere in the innards of my own starfighter–don’t ask me how he managed it–and another year I sent it to him in the center of a block of transparisteel I’d had etched with a fragment of a holy text from a world he’d never seen before.   He wouldn’t break the casing until he’d translated the writing, which gave me a break for a year–but he got me back.  And we kept doing that, for years.”

“And now it’s mine.  What am I supposed to do with it?,” she asked, turning it over in her hands.  “Hey, did you cause this seam?”

“What seam?” I asked, reaching for the rock.  She passed it to me, and as I turned it over in my hand, and I saw it–a barely-detectable seam ran around the circumference of the stone.  “That wasn’t there the last time I saw it,” I said.

Kiri took it back and bounced off her chair, heading for the den.  “Let’s take a look.”

#

Kiri placed the rock on an artifact scanner and activated it.  A readout appeared on a screen in front of her, and she touched a small corner of it and flicked it onto a second display.  “Looks like there’s a hollow in the center of the rock,” she said.

“Daav must have hidden something in there.”

Kiri grabbed a cutting laser and began to open up the block of stone, using the scanner image as a guide to prevent cutting whatever was hidden inside.  It took her a few minutes, but eventually she managed to separate the two halves of the stone, lifting a small datachip from inside.  She slipped it into her datapad and frowned.

“Farking thing’s encrypted,” she said.  “And it’s a good one.  Without the decryption key, it could take me decades to break this.  We need to find the key.”  She wheeled her chair over to the desk, where her fingers began to dance over the keyboard’s holographic interface, flicking display elements back and forth as she worked.

“Looks like you know your way around a computer.”

She glanced at me.  “It’s amazing what a degree in computer science can do for you.” At my questioning glance, she grinned.  “I’m kind of a genius, Uncle.  I graduated secondary school a few years ago, then went to University early.  I graduated last month.”

“I… I didn’t know.  I’m sorry.”

She shrugged.  “Whatever was between you and Dad, you and I got caught in the crossfire.  Not entirely your fault, and not worth recriminations now.”  She continued to work, muttering under her breath.  Finally, she sighed and pushed back from the computer.

“It’s not here,” she said.  “I’ve checked all the computers networked in the house, and there’s nothing that fits.  Maybe hard copy?”  Her eyes were practically cinders.  She’d had an emotionally killing day, and she was dead tired.

“It’s late, Kiri.  Let’s start looking in the morning.  We’ve got a few days before we need to get out of here, and we’ve got some stuff to pack.  If it’s here, we’ll find it.”

She nodded, and we went to bed, ready to start looking the next morning.

#

We didn’t find it.

We spent a few days at the house, packing up the few personal possessions Kiri wanted to keep, searching for a decrypt key, and getting to know each other.  The house had been built on the cliffs over the Western Ocean, with large glascrete windows looking out over the sea, and a comfortably-furnished deck.  We’d decided to leave all of the furniture and many of the necessities in the home–the students would make use of them, and the University had negotiated a fair price for it all.  Kiri wiped all the computers and destroyed any hard copy she didn’t need.

On our last night, we decided to have a drink.  We talked all night, until finally Kiri fell asleep on the couch in the small hours of the morning.  Half-drunk, I covered her with a blanket and then took a walk around the house, cataloging in my mind the many events of my youth.   Memories surfaced; most, from the time before I joined the service, were hazy with time,  but one in particular was from the last time I’d stood in the kitchen with Daav, the night of his wife’s funeral.  Thanks to the implants in my brain, that memory was perfect and pristine.

We’d been standing in the kitchen after he’d put Kiri down.  I remember thinking it was good he loved his little girl so much; without her I don’t know that he would have chosen to live past the death of his wife.

She’d been killed in an attack on the colony world of Jiraad, where she’d been acting as a consultant, helping the colony government figure out how to plan their settlement waves to best preserve the native flora and fauna.  The problem was, Jiraad lay within an area of space that had recently been claimed by the Tabra, a race outside the Zhen Imperium that was fanatical in its defense of its own borders.  It didn’t matter to them that the colonization had begun prior to their claim; they wanted the Jiraadi removed, and the Zhen had refused, sending my task force to defend the world.  I hadn’t’ even known Jillian was there; I’d been out of touch with my brother’s family for almost two years.

The Tabran fleet had obliterated the colony, bombarding it from space until nothing remained.  There had been no survivors.

After Jillian’s memorial, I’d stayed with Daav, and that night he’d asked me the question I’d been dreading:

“What happened, Teren?” 

“I screwed up,” I said, softly.

“What does that mean?”

“I only had my own squadron.  We knew the Tabra might strike Jiraad, but we didn’t know when or who was commanding their forces or their most likely jump point. 

“I stationed my squadron above the ecliptic, in clear space.   Since we were outside the gravity well, we’d be able to jump to any point in the system and interdict the Tabran forces.”  I didn’t like how my voice had become entirely clinical, but it was the only way I knew how to get through this: act like it was a military debriefing. 

“I didn’t realize they’d slipped a spy into the system.  Nothing showed up on scans, nothing betrayed the spy ship.  I honestly don’t know yet if they’ve developed better stealth capabilities or if my Tactical officer screwed up.  But just before they jumped in, we detected a weapon launch, aimed at our task force.  I ordered my forces to scatter, and sent fighters to intercept the missile–but it wasn’t a missile, really.  When it was destroyed, it sent out some kind of pulse that disabled our jump drives.  As soon as it went off, the Tabran fleet jumped into high orbit over Jiraad. 

We worked like mad to get our jump drives back online.  But there was nothing we could do.  It took ten minutes to get them up, and that was too long … too late.

“They weren’t there to take the planet, Daav.  If that had been their goal, more would have survived.  But they were there to teach the Imperium a lesson: ‘Don’t colonize our space.’  The rest you know.”

He looked at me like I had just told him I planned to kill his child.  “You… it’s your fault.”

“Daav… I’m sorry, I–“

“Get out.” 

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.  “What?”

“Get out.  My wife is dead, and it’s your fault.”

I stood blinking at him.  “Daav… I didn’t kill Jillian.”

“You might as well have. GET OUT!”  He began throwing things at me, screaming in incoherent rage.  I could hear Kiri upstairs start crying, woken by her father’s anger.  He stopped and collected himself, glanced toward his toddler’s room, and then looked back at me, all his anger now living in his eyes.

“Get out, Teren.  I never want to see you here again.”

I hadn’t been back since that night.  I’d never written, never called.  I had my own guilt over his wife’s death–over the deaths of three thousand people–and he had his anger.  The two couldn’t mix.

Remembering all that broke the dam.  I sank to the floor, sobbing for the brother, and the happiness, I had lost all those years ago.

#

Three days later, I was in a much better mood–at least, for part of the day.  Kiri and I had ridden the elevator back up to Helios station and met up with Katherine and her–now my–crew.  After some quick introductions, I got the crew started on getting the Pride of Earth ready for space after years in storage.

After several hours of fiddly checks and getting the fusion power plant back online, I initiated an engine testfire.  I was expecting to get the slight humming purr I remembered from my childhood; what I got was a coughing sputter and about fifteen computer alerts going off both on the screen in front of me and in my tac implants, which I’d hooked into the Pride’s systems as soon as I got the computer online.

I winced and cut the system.  “Kiri,” I called over my shoulder, “we’ve got a fault in the main engine. I just sent the computer log to your computer; think you can track it down?”

“Do the pakma have three genders?” she called back from the back of the bridge.

“Actually,” I called back, “that’s a popular misconception.  They actually just have two genders, but there’s a third group that has–” I stopped when she tapped me on the shoulder and poked her head into my vision.

“Nobody likes a smartass, Uncle.”  She headed back towards the engine room and said, “By the way, I got an A in xenopsychology” as she left the bridge.

“What was that about smartasses?” I muttered to myself.

About an hour later, she returned.  “Someone got a power transfer conduit installed backward,” she said.  “And it was probably my dad.”

“Why do you think so?”

She handed me her handheld, with a perfect photo of the offending engine part.  “Katherine got it installed correctly, but look closely at those numbers.”

I squinted, then used my implants’ capabilities to magnify the image.  “Oh, that’s not–”

“Yep.  Half a decrypt key.  I already plugged it in; it’ll be done in a bit.”

As if on cue, her handheld signalled with a slight tone.  “Here we are,” she said, and flicked her hand across the screen in the direction of the main bridge viewer.

A video image of Daav appeared.  Thanks to the advances Zhen medicine had brought us, he looked much as I’d last seen him: plain brown hair, brown eyes, plain face.  He was dressed in field clothes, and I recognized the cabin behind him as the Pride‘s  Captain’s cabin.  “Teren,” he said.  “I found something. Something Big.” I could hear the capital letters in his voice.  “I’m being followed–not sure if it’s an Imperial agent or some corporate spy.  But this… I can’t let it end up with just anyone, not if what I’ve begun to suspect is true.

He waved his hands in a dismissive gesture and said, “I know what you’re thinking–I’ve always been big on wild theories that turned out to be nonsense.  And you’re right.  But this… this is insanity if it’s true.  It could change… everything!

“So I hid the chip in the rock, and I’ve hidden the decrypt key in two places.  Of course,” he looked abashed, “you already know that.” He took a deep breath.  “Teren, I found the route to Earth.”

I was stunned.  It couldn’t be possible, I thought.  Earth had been lost for centuries.  The Zhen had found a human colony ship, the Far Horizon, limping through space and reeling from the death of a quarter of a million colonists when the ship had been damaged by some kind of accident in-flight. The ship’s computer banks were so badly corrupted the Zhen couldn’t find any reference to where Earth lay, and the information the colonists could give just wasn’t specific enough.  Worse yet, the ship wasn’t anywhere near where the Captain’s files said it should have been–we didn’t even know if Earth was in the same galaxy as the Zhen Imperium.

“Well–I found the beginning of the route, at any rate.  But I’ve hidden it.  I had to.  I’m going to go home and get Kiri, and then I’m going to call you.  I’m leaving this message just in case the worst happens.”

“Begin at Hammerfall.  O’Connell is keeping some files for me.  She’ll tell you where to go from there.” On the screen, Daav looked away from the camera a moment, then looked back and said, “Teren, if I’m dead, then I won’t get a chance to say this, so I’m going to say it now.  I’m sorry.  I was wrong, brother.  Please forgive me.”  The file ended.

I sat back and breathed deeply.  “We’re fucked,” I said.

Kiri blinked.  “Why?  So we spend three weeks heading back for Hammerfall, big deal.   Once we get to O’Connell, we’re golden.”

“O’Connell’s dead.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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