A Sea of Stars - Ch. 8 - Counterpoint

         human                 land
    being is truly the        for no
     most dangerous      other would so be
    animal       in         so willingly
    all          the       to       lose
                          every     thing
        but the slightest
         chance of some
        future        hope

Lillian woke with tears on her pillow. Even taking the strange nature of time dilation from her years on the gateships into account, Lillian had lived off Earth longer than she’d lived on it. But she still remembered that quiet house in a city by the beach and thought of it as home. But it was all long gone. Destroyed by what was believed by some to be both the single greatest proof of intelligent extra-solar life ever. And known by everyone to be the single greatest act of devastation in the history of the human race. And perhaps the worst part was that there had been next to no warning.

Luckily, she thought, the human race had finally begun to leave its earthly cradle in the century or so before the attack. Even before the advent of the fusion age, there had been the first human settlement on the moon and research outposts on Mars and Europa. And when fusion drives became cheap enough to manufacture en mass? People began moving off world as quickly as the ships could be made. Finally, there was room to grow. Finally, there were once again new and exciting frontiers to conquer. It was the sort of life that hadn’t existed for centuries. Within two decades, more than 1 billion people had left Earth, mostly settling on the moon and Mars, but also scattering themselves to all reaches of the solar system.

All one needed was a source of hydrogen–the most plentiful gas in the universe–and everything pretty much took care of itself. There was some care involved in making sure that hydroponic gardens could grow enough food to support everyone and that nothing broke down–what would have been a minor inconvenience on Earth could spell disaster anywhere with a more hostile environment–but advances in robotics made even those challenges easy. Once they’d conquered the solar system, people began looking to the stars.

The first manned mission to the stars was a ship named the Hermes. With a fusion powered drive capable of accelerating to half the speed of light, it was orders of magnitude more powerful than anything mankind had ever built before. With great fanfare, it was launched to Alpha Centauri on an epic 22 year scientific mission, the first of its kind. As it drew further and further from Earth, however, two way communications became nearly impossible. Messages from Hermes still arrived every few weeks as the time for a message to reach Earth lengthened from weeks to months and finally to years.

Even while Hermes was on its way, a radical new technology was developed: a way to create and control stable wormholes–the very technology of the gateships. With such technology, Hermes was obsolete. Unfortunately, there was no way to let its crew know. By then, messages would take years to reach them. While Hermes traveled, the first two Gate Stations were built in orbit around Mars and Europa.

Unfortunately, the news didn’t have a chance to reach the Hermes. Five years after she was launched and very nearly at the halfway point in its voyage, disaster struck. To this day, no one is quite sure what happened out there in the cold dark of space. All that remains is the final partial transmission, received back in the Solar System years after the disaster had struck.

Hermes here. Routine transmission scheduled for June 1. You should receive this transmission on … October 22, two years from now. Everything is proceeding as scheduled. Forward telescopes have confirmed the atmospheric content of all three planets in the Centauri system. We believe Centauri 3 to be habitable, although only time will tell.”

“I have a message here from Lieutenant Briggs to his daughter back home, I’ll go ahead and put him on the line.”

“Stephanie? Hey there girl. I know you won’t get this message for two years, so I’ve made sure to plan ahead. It should arrive just on your 16th birthday. Happy birthday kiddo! I hope everything is …”

An ear shattering screech suddenly filled the channel. Anyone listening either immediately shut off their speakers or threw off their headphones. Once volume had been brought back under control they tuned back in.

“What was that? Did you hear that?”

“I can’t hear anything else.”

“There’s no way…”

“What in the world made that noise?”

“There’s nothing out here, nothing but empty…”

Another screech cut the speaker off mid-sentence. The screeching continued for several minutes, rising and falling in an unearthly manner. Just as suddenly as it had begun, it cut off.

Although a specially placed radio satellite system was put in place constantly aimed along their planned trajectory, no further transmission was received from the crew of the Hermes.

Four years later, the gates were completed and the first large scale test of the Gate system was undertaken. It was a resounding success. Trips would have taken hours, days, or even longer could now be completed in seconds. All that was necessary was a gate on either end. Thus, the gateships were born. Daedalus was the first ordered–a massive ship with a gate every bit as large as the Gate Stations and the ability to go for years without resupplying–Icarus was something new. Three years of construction had passed when Earth was destroyed.

The sudden loss of resources and funding delayed the project for two years, but eventually work began anew. Progress was steady and finally, 14 years after the Hermes’ final transmission, the Daedalus was sent in her tracks.

Lillian snapped out of her unpleasant reverie and looked over at the clock. There was still half an hour until her shift officially started. She must have woken earlier than she’d thought. I guess it doesn’t hurt to go in a bit early, she thought to herself and started getting ready.

When she got to the lockers, Madeline and Jacobs were already there, sitting on one of the benches in the middle of the room and talking. They seemed pretty focused on whatever it was they were doing and she didn’t want to get in the way, so she went quietly over to her locker and picked up her gear. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Madeline’s voice sounded from just behind her ear.

“Meet any of the new crew?” There was an amused lilt to her voice.

Lillian’s response was cross, she couldn’t help it. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“Do what?” she said with a smile. She knew very well what.

Lillian frowned at her. “Sneak up on me.”

She grinned. “I wasn’t trying to be particularly sneaky.”

“It’s that tiny body of yours,” Jacobs called over from the other side of the room. He’d apparently been listening in. “You just float right along, not even making a sound.”

Madeline stuck out her tongue at him.

“I’ve just been distracted this morning,” Lillian went on. “What with everything that happened yesterday. And yes.”

“Yes?” Madeline asked, puzzled.

“I did meet one of the new crew.” She smiled at the memory. “A new cook. Quinn. We had drinks last night.”

“Really?” Madeline sounded almost shocked.

“Is that so hard to believe? We had a great time.”

Madeline shook her head. “You surprise me sometimes.”

“So is he a…” Jacobs started. He glanced around the room and towards the still partially open door. “A you–know–what?”

“I really don’t think so. He doesn’t have the right vibe.”

Jacobs stared at her and raised an eyebrow. “The right vibe? There’s a vibe?”

“Sure.” She dropped her voice. “The diabolical, evil, I’m gonna get you sort of vibe.”

“You know who you’re talking to right? Ex–member.”

“Exactly.” Although she did grin to let him know she was kidding. Mostly.

Madeline elected to ignore the tangent and focus on what she apparently thought was more important–the new guy. “So no diabolical vibe from the new guy, eh?”

“That’s up to you to decide. I invited us for a few rounds of cards tonight.”

“Us?” Jacobs sounded mildly alarmed. “And if you’re wrong?”

“You don’t have to. But I think it’ll be fine. There will be three of us and only one of him.”

Jacobs grinned at that. Shortly thereafter, Hans came in as well and almost flew into his gear. He was running late as usual. Lillian couldn’t believe how quickly time had gone. It was time to start the day.

In definite contrast to the previous day, work was completely tame. They took some time to go over the repairs from the day before, but everything seemed to be holding fine. They went over the new shipment of supplies from Triton and everything seemed to be as it should. Just before lunch, one of the ovens in the kitchens stopped working.

When they arrived, Quinn was working at the other unit, a perfectly clean white chef’s hat jauntily balanced on his head. Lillian poked Madeline and whispered, “new guy.” Madeline whistled softly under her breath. “Totally a gentleman as well.” She raised an eye doubtfully at that. She’ll see, Lillian thought.

He noticed them and walked over.

“Good morning Lillian.” He smiled at her and, getting a smile in return, turned to Madeline. “And, if I don’t miss my guess, you must be Madeline.”

She nodded and smiled back at him. His smile was infectious. “And you would be Quinn,” she replied. “Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

“Well I do declare,” he said, affecting a sudden Southern drawl. “What do we have here?”

“I thought you said he was from Io,” she whispered to Lillian, just loud enough that he surely could hear.

“I did,” she whispered back. “And I didn’t say a word about where your family used to come from.”

“She still has a trace of it on her voice,” Quinn confided. “My French teacher in middle school was from Louisiana before… well before. Learning French from her was certainly… an experience.” He continued, back in his own voice. “So what brings the two of you into my domain?”

“Broken oven. Didn’t you call it in?”

“Nah, must have been while the other cook was still here. Speaking of which…” He dashed over to whatever he had been making. “I would thank you most kindly if you could get it working again. It’s a bit more work than I’m used to cooking for so many.” Lillian could only imagine.

It was an easy fix. One of the valves had become misaligned. It could have been quite a fire if things had been allowed to progress, but no harm done.

“So, looking forward to our card game tonight?” She heard Quinn asking Madeline. She’d wandered off as Lillian was putting the panels back on and was watching him cook.

“Definitely. Although I haven’t played cards in years.” There was just a touch of Louisianan drawl in her voice, but even that was more than Lillian had heard from her in all the time since they’d met.

“I’m sure you’ll remember,” Quinn replied. He wasn’t actually looking at her though, he had his attention full with whatever it was he was making. “It’s like falling off a log.”

“Are you sure that’s the saying?”

“That’s what they always said back on Io. Of course, come to think of it, you’re probably right. That really doesn’t make much sense. There aren’t exactly many logs on Io. Any really…”

She giggled. Lillian pulled her away and turned to Quinn. “Well, we’d best be off now. Have a few more stops to make before lunch time. See you this evening.”

“This evening,” he replied, his hands already busy with the next dish he was preparing.

The end of her shift came quickly. Lillian rushed back to the lockers and had a chance for a nice hot shower while the water was still nice and fresh. She knew that all of the water on the station was recycled day in and day out and she could have showered in her own room just as easily. But none of that stopped the fact that she always loved getting the first shower after a long shift. As she left, Madeline was coming in.

“Meet you in an hour?” she asked.

“Sounds good.”

Madeline vanished into the steam of the shower. Now what to do for an hour? Lillian thought. The answer came to her almost instantly. An hour? Just enough time to take another look at that briefcase. Hopefully the third time’s a charm.

When she arrived, the briefcase was sitting on its table in the middle of the room as always–it was as clean and sterile as it had ever been. This time, she hefted the briefcase off the table without a second thought. If you’re going to cause me trouble, it’s going to be on my own terms, she thought.

It was surprisingly light. For some reason, she’d imagined it weighing her down, as if it had been filled with lead or the like. Probably just all the mental baggage she’d associated with it over the years. Thinking back to the shuttle all those years before, she was sure that it had been light back then too. She remember the mechanic on that Squill heaving it into place with barely a second thought. He’s one of the reasons I decided to get into this line of work, she thought, it’s funny how things work out. I wonder whatever happened to him?

She didn’t wander long, however. She’d only have time to get the case back to her room before the card game. And she still didn’t know how to open it.

When she got back to her room, she was half shocked with herself. She’d essentially stolen the briefcase. Even if it was the same briefcase that her father had sent with her on the Squill–and, come to think of it, there was no guarantee that it was–she hadn’t seen it in nearly 15 years.

Anyone could have taken possession of it that time. And as the old saying goes, possession is nine tenths of the law. So far as she could remember, she’d never done anything quite so crazy. Well, crazy and potentially illegal. Leaving for the Daedalus when she was barely even a teenager was crazy. Leaving with nothing more than a day’s notice was almost certifiable. But she’d been well within her rights.

Screw that, Lillian though. My father left me this briefcase. It’s all that I have left of him. She looked over at the shelf that still had some of her mother’s books. Her parents really hadn’t had much chance to leave her much legacy, had they?

Nothing but memories, she thought. And precious few of those. “And I’m going to keep the briefcase,” she muttered to herself. “Maybe I can get it open when I get back.”

Decided, she left in search of Madeline and the rest with a cheerful step.

She found Jacobs and Quinn all already sitting around a table in the Observation deck. It was getting on evening time, so both the tables and the bar were available. There was a plate of chips with some sort of salsa in the middle of the table, along with a drink at everyone’s place. Even her own, she noticed. A Martian Sunrise, just like Quinn had bought her the night before.

She smiled at Quinn in thanks as she approached the table. Like the previous night, he rose and pulled out the seat beside him.

“Good evening, Lillian. I hope you don’t mind, I ordered you a drink.”

“Not at all. Thank you.”

She sat and took a sip of her drink.

Jacobs raised his hands, he’d been idly shuffling a deck of cards. “We were just deciding what game to play. My vote is for Euchre.”

“I was waiting to see what you thought,” Quinn added. “Never played Euchre.”

“My father was originally from Indiana. Only game they seemed to play.” Lillian smiled at the memory. “I think I was 6 or 7 when I first learned. Father had friends over, but one of them had to leave early, so I picked up his hand.”

It had been a lovely fall evening, with the first touch of winter’s chill and they were on the back patio, playing cards. Her mother had made a pot of chili and was indoors watching a special on the Hermes. It had been 7 years since the last transmission was received.

Her father and two other men were just getting back to the table. Her father and one of the men were dressed in casual clothes, but the last man stuck out in her memory, even here he was wearing a dark suit.

Lillian had a sudden flash of recognition that jerked her back into the present. That man had been Mr. Smith. The same agent that would 3 years later take her and her father to the Squill that would take her off the planet. But it couldn’t be. She’d never met him before that night.

Apparently she’d zoned out, because Jacobs and Quinn were staring at her. “Lillian? Is that alright?” Jacobs asked.

She shook herself. “What?”

“I said we could start with Euchre if you’d like. I was just explaining the rules to Quinn.”

“We still have to wait for Madeline.”

“I’m here!” a voice called from across the room. Madeline came in all in a rush. She was tapping something to her augs as she walked and was distracted enough that she almost crashed into a table on the way.

“Excellent,” Jacobs said. “We can begin.”

Quinn stood and slid out a chair for her and Madeline slid right into it, as gracefully as you please. “Why thank you Quinn.”

“You’re most welcome.”

“Euchre sound fine?” Jacobs asked her.

“Sure, that sounds great.”

“I didn’t know you knew how to play,” Lillian asked.

“You taught me that once. Right after I came on board. I haven’t played since, but I’m sure it’ll come back to me.”

Lillian nodded. Now that she mentioned it, she vaguely recalled teaching her how to play. There hadn’t been anyone else to play with at the time, so they’d never tried again. “How about girls versus the guys?” she asked Jacobs and Quinn.

“Nice,” Jacobs chuckled. He was already splitting the deck for Euchre.

“If you insist,” Quinn nodded to them.

As Jacobs dealt out the cards, Lillian tried to bring back the memory of that evening on the patio. Had it really been Mr. Smith? The memory was already starting to fade from the crystal clarity she’d first had, but she was sure it was him. The same dark suit, the short haircut, and the same crystal clear blue eyes.

“What was he doing there?”

She didn’t realize she’d spoken out loud until Quinn answered, “Who was where now?”

“Oh, nothing.” She looked down. It was her turn. “Pick it up.”

Jacobs took the card and the hand began in earnest.

“You seem a little distracted,” he continued. He smiled at that. “I don’t want to have to take advantage of that.”

“I don’t mind,” Jacobs called from across the table. He’d taken the hand with the last card and was cheerfully adding two points.

While Lillian dealt the next hand, Madeline turned to Quinn. “So Lillian told me you’re a cook. But what do you do for fun?”

He smiled at Lillian and turned back to Madeline. “I cook for fun as well. And look at rocks.”

“You look at rocks?”

“I’m a geologist by training.”

“There aren’t many rocks out here.”

“That’s true. Nor volcanoes. It’s much more peaceful.”

Jacobs snorted. “Pick it up. And I guess you’d normally be right. But the last two days have been anything but peaceful.”

Lillian and Madeline nodded their agreement.

“Or so I’ve heard,” Quinn said. “Did you know anything about the man who did it? One of the cooks?”

“Jenkins,” Jacobs said. “He made good chili.”

“And good steaks,” Lillian added, a touch wistfully. I guess I’ll never have another of those, she thought.

“But nothing about him as a person.”

“Not really,” Madeline said. She threw her last cards in, there was no way they could win the hand. “He wasn’t a very social person. We never really saw him other than when he was working.”

“I wonder what he did for fun,” Quinn said idly, collecting the cards.

“Probably hung around in the library. Or in his rooms,” Madeline answered.

“I saw him working out a time or two,” Jacobs added. “Not regularly though. And not for a few months.”

They had another excellent hand and took the hand without any trouble, tying the game.

“Why do you ask?” At first glance, Jacobs’ question seemed innocent enough, but as Lillian looked over, she saw a glimmer in his eyes. He’s trying to figure out if Quinn is on the level, Lillian thought. But why would Jenkins’ death have anything to do with that?

“A sort of morbid curiosity, I suppose. Just making sure that he didn’t do it because the job was boring or anything.” Madeline and Lillian both turned at nearly the same time to stare at him. “I’m kidding.”

“They say it was the Sympathizers,” Jacobs continued.

“The Sympathizers?” He sounded genuinely surprised. “That crazy terrorist cult that thinks we got attacked by aliens and deserved it?”

“The very same,” Jacobs replied, although Lillian could see him relaxing slightly. “Crazy isn’t it?”

“Nothing’s been linked with the Sympathizer’s for years. There was a big bust on Mars, I thought they disbanded or something.”

“Must be. You know how people get though.”

The boy had managed to pull ahead again and the deal were back to Lillian. She set them and stood. “I’m going to run to the restroom really quick, if you don’t mind.”

“I think I’ll go with her,” Madeline added, standing as well.

As they were walking off, she could have sworn she heard Jacobs asking Quinn, “Why do they do that?”

“So, spill,” Madeline cornered her as soon as they’d closed the door behind them.

“Spill? I really did have to go.”

“Uh huh. What’s on your mind this time.”

“Did I ever tell you about my last night on Earth?”

She hesitated. “No.”

Over the next few minutes, Lillian laid out the rough outline of the story, up until she boarded the Squill. She made sure to mention both the briefcase and Mr. Smith.

“No way, do you think this is the same briefcase?”

“I think it is.”

“But why were you thinking about that back at the card game.”

“Well, two reasons really. I had a flashback to the night my father taught me to play Euchre. I hadn’t put it together before, but I’m pretty sure that Mr. Smith was there.”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding. And he was talking with my father as if there were old friends.”

“I guess that’d make sense why he showed up to take you to the Squills.”

Lillian hadn’t thought of it that way. “I guess that makes sense. It’s still weird that I hadn’t noticed that before.”

“That was years and years ago. You were just a kid. I’m guessing it wasn’t that important to you then.”

“Uh huh.”

“Plus, you had other things on your mind.”

“I guess so.” Lillian wasn’t sure that she believed her, but she nodded anyways.

There was a pause. “You said two reasons.”

“Oh, I went back and took the briefcase. It’s in my room.”

“You what?” she almost shrieked.

“I took the briefcase. Quinn interrupted me last night.”

“So you have the briefcase.”

Lillian sighed. “Yes, it’s in my room.”

“Can I see it?”

“Well we can’t go now, the boys are expecting us to come back eventually.”

Madeline pouted. “But later?”

“Later,” Lillian promised. “After the game. They’re probably waiting for us.”

They headed back. Madeline wanted to stop at the bar, so Lillian headed back to the table alone. The boys where having some sort of intense discussion, and didn’t notice them coming in. As they approached, Lillian was able to discern the topic of conversion. They appeared to be having an argument about whether Batman or Spider-man would win in a fight. Boys.

Just as there was a momentary lull, she cut in. “I’d bet on Spock.”

Both boys turned to stare. After a second, Quinn started to laugh. He had a deep laugh. Jacobs stared at him for a moment as if he’d gone mad then shook his head and started to chuckle as well.

Their levity was short lived however, as a resounding roar shook the room. Lillian’s drink was knocked to the floor and Madeline’s chair fell over. As quickly as it started, it was over. The silence was almost deafening as they all stared at the doorway.

“Not again,” Jacobs muttered.

Quinn put a hand on Lillian’s shoulder. “What in the world was that?”

“I have no idea,” she responded, but I’m going to find out. She was already mostly out of her seat and started heading for the door. She looked over her shoulder. Madeline and Quinn were following her. Jacobs tossed back the last of his drink and came as well.

Out in the hallway, she could see the beginning of the damage. On one side of the hallway, something had torn the wall apart. The edges had a reddish glow to them and smoke was curling along the ceiling. They weren’t alone. A pair of guards in the black uniforms of security were standing on the other side of the hole, both staring, one on his radio.

“Isn’t that the kitchen?” Madeline asked. They’d caught up.

“I think it is.” She took a few steps forward and looked at the damage. At first glance, it looked like one of the large ovens had blown itself apart. The door was across the room and had left a sizable dent in the line of cabinets. The rest of the oven was peeled open like a banana. The back was completely torn apart and bits of it were lying in the hallway.

“What could have done that?” she asked no one in particular.

“There’s a few mining charges that could do it,” Quinn replied.

“Mining charges?”

“We used them to break down particularly troublesome surfaces on Io when we didn’t have time for anything more subtle.”

“And they could do that?”

“Sure. Actually it’s perfect. They’re usually heat triggered, so someone could have just planted the charge and turned on the oven. A perfect time bomb.”

The security staff had come over. Lillian recognized Adrian, the security guard they’d been talking to the day before. The other man, she didn’t recognize. Adrian looked Quinn up and down, “You certainly seem to know a lot about explosives.”

“I was a geologist before I came to the Borealis.”

“Not much call for a geologist on a gateship.”

Quinn sighed. “You might say that.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” His gaze widened to recognize the rest of them. “All of you?”