A while back, I wrote a prequel to Orphans of the Void. I’m posting it here for those who would like a look at a bit of backstory.
“... but then we found Earth.”
(a prequel to the novel Orphans of the Void)
by John H. Harris
This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.
It may be freely distributed, so long as the author, John H. Harris, is credited and it is done in its totality.
This short story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
John H. Harris
Visit my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/Gahyens
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing: Aug 2017
“Well,” Wilia Phas said, letting the computer tablet she’d just read from drop to the table, “that’s it. They’ve all signed the treaty.”
“A fat lot of good it does now. We'll only have one ship capable of even leaving orbit.”
Wilia looked down the table to find Bewan Gwaam looking back at her with the look of disgust he reserved for politicians.
“If the Paplari hadn’t attacked the construction frames, we could have had fifty ships ready,” he added.
“I know, Gwaam, but do you really blame them? They’re scared, just like everyone else on Gahye.”
She then picked up a large bound volume and started leafing through it. “You’re sure about these numbers? There’s no way to cram in more stasis pods?”
Gwaam shook his head. “I ran them four times. We either have to sacrifice cargo space or pods, and we’re too close to hitting the mass wall as it is. We can digitize the works of art, music, literature... but there are some things you just can’t do that with. You can’t digitize seeds or emergency shelters.” He heaved a sigh. “They don’t understand how much of the ship is made up of consumables. Without hydrogen, the ship goes nowhere.”
“But four hundred,” Wilia mused. “There’s no way at all we can add more pods?”
“You know the numbers as well as I do, Phas,” he answered. “Any more mass and the ship wouldn't be able to escape the danger zone before impact.”
Wilia dropped into a chair that had been left pulled out from the morning’s meeting. “Why did it take so long to confirm impact?”
“Why does it take so long to do anything? Somebody has a lightbolt moment, someone else has to replicate it, then there’s a paper that has to be peer reviewed, then somebody challenges the paper with another paper, so there’s another peer review. It goes back and forth so many times that it’s a wonder anything gets published. And once it is published, someone with an agenda gets hold of it and we’re off to the debating pits again... or don’t you remember the whole tech-triggered climate inquisition?”
“Hey!” Wilia protested. “The numbers clearly show—”
“I’m not denying it’s happening, I’m just reminding you that the tech aspect is nowhere near what the grass-kissers claim it is. I’m all for fighting pollution, but not that way.”
“I hate this argument, Bewan,” Wilia said, her voice clearly showing the fatigue she felt. “And it’s not like we don’t have more important problems to solve.”
Gwaam looked down the table at her. “And your use of my given name indicates that you’re as tired as I feel.”
“Sleep sounds like a wonderful idea,” Wilia agreed. “I would say let’s grab a drink, but I haven’t seen anything stronger than flavored water for... A week after we started the whole project.”
“They say they’re fighting over that, too.” With a groan, Gwaam stood up. “My pillow is calling me, so I think I’ll answer it. Maybe a good night’s sleep will give somebody an idea that won’t start another argument.”
“Good luck with that. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The idea was so far out there, so completely insane, that it woke Bewan Gwaam from the soundest sleep he’d had in a long time.
“That’s it,” he said to the quiet, darkened room.
Of course, it was only quiet because of the quad-paned windows and white noise generators that masked the ever-present sound from outside and it was only darkened due to the lined blackout curtains on those windows, shut tight against the lights that accompanied the sound.
Reaching to his right, he grabbed the slim personal com unit from its cradle and activated the screen. Then, more by touch than sight, he found the familiar entry, triggering the comm code.
The ringback music played for less than a second before the screen changed to show the beta team coordinator’s face.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” the elderly man asked. It was a question he'd asked Gwaam many times, since Donu Kolartani had been Gwaam's mentor, employer, and friend since Gwaam had been a child... and Kolartani had a full head of hair.
“Never mind that. I just thought of a way to save more people, but we’ll have to radically re-plan the mission to do it.”
“Are you sure you didn’t just dream it?”
“How radically are we talking?”
“Radically enough to make anyone who isn’t a parent want to kill us, and the rest begging us to tear their families apart.”
Kolartani was silent for several seconds before replying.
“Now I’m interested.”
“Good,” Gwaam answered, swinging into a seated position. “Have Galatem wake up the entire team. By rights, I should pitch this to Director Phas, but this is going to need everyone’s input. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Don’t even try to drive, Bewan,” Kolartani said, his voice iron. “If this is the answer, we don’t want you running off the road from lack of sleep. I’ll have a passenger drone there in three minutes.”
“Fine. I was going to call one anyway. I’ll see you when I get in.”
All but one of the one-hundred and seventy-eight faces that comprised the leadership of the Gahye Civilization Sustentation Project had the same expression: Utter disbelief.
Gwaam was the one-hundred and seventy-eighth face, and his expression was one of cautious optimism as he waited for the silence to break.
Strangely enough, it was Kolartani who did so.
“You. Are. Completely. Insane.”
Nearly all of the expressions in the large room changed to that of agreement, but Gwaam could see the gears starting to turn in the heads of several of the planning and crew selection team.
“But it would give us a chance – a slim one, to be sure – of preserving our species and our heritage,” Gwaam argued, “albeit by sacrificing living memory.”
“But what if the Earthmen don’t welcome the ship?”
“Then we’re right back where we would have been if the probes hadn’t detected the signals,” Wilia Phas answered, plunging the room back into silence.
Gwaam slowly nodded.
“We knew from the astronomers that exoplanets were out there, even some with water. So we built and dispatched our probes, using the new Kolartani drive, thanks to the woman I have loved since she was born. And those probes reported back. Star after star, planet upon planet. The probes found thousands of them. Gas giants, ice worlds, a few that looked promising, but proved to be uninhabitable.
“And then the astronomers detected it. The thing that will kill us all.
“They’d made that prediction before. Asteroids in our own system had passed close, some had even impacted, but the public had heard it so many times that they greeted it with... ambivalence.
“We know that planet is coming,” he said, slowly and softly, but pitched just loud enough to ensure everyone in the room heard it. “And we know it will hit. We know there will be no surviving it.
“So on and on the probes went, now with a new mission. Out and back. Out and back. They were finding worlds with life, but not one able to support the life we would plant upon it.”
He paused as if for dramatic effect.
“But then we found Earth.
“Think about that. Earth. A planet with conditions so close to our own one would think it was made for us. And a native species so close to us in cultures and technology. Once we learned their symbology, we saw that even their genetic structure was so close to ours that one might argue we were from the same parent species.
“Yes, the people of Earth may turn the ship away, but I’m willing to take a chance they won’t. A chance that enough of them see themselves in us; see the shared instincts we have... and take in the babies we will send them.”
The veteran blew out a sigh after reading the computer tablet Wilia Phas had placed in front of him. He then looked around at the posh restaurant, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
The world is about to end. All these people will be dead soon, and yet they still go about their lives as if nothing is wrong. Amazing.
He then looked back down at the manifest.
“I see only two outcomes,” he finally said, his deep, stentorian voice pitched low so as not to carry. “The Earthmen welcome us, or everything we are and ever have been will die.”
Phas slowly nodded. She’d been as shocked when she’d read the document, given to her by the head of the crew selection committee.
“The engineers are already working on converting the crew quarters into pod bays, and the coders at the various AI companies are already working on a build that will automate as many functions as possible.”
“I’ll have to pick a new crew, obviously.”
“Check page seven.”
He quickly scrolled down to the indicated page, finding his own name, Bebesi Miroka, listed as having been selected. The rest were all labeled proposed.
Miroka frowned when he reached the proposed science officers.
“I don’t see your daughter on the list,” he said, looking up at Phas.
The director looked back, a wan smile on her face.
“I wanted to avoid all those with family connections. All those going into stasis will be...” She stopped, feeling herself choking up. After a breath, she added, “...unadopted infants. Besides, my thirteen-year-old daughter is much too young to qualify as a science officer.”
“I disagree. Brinda is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. Her videos have made science easy to understand, and she already knows as much as anyone about Earth. The rest of the crew, as well as the ship’s AI, can complete her training en route.”
Phas didn’t even try to hold back the tears.
“Thank you, Bebesi. You don’t know how much that means to me.”
Miroka reached across the table and placed his hands over hers.
“I vow to you, Director Wilia Phas, that I will cherish your daughter just as if she were my own.”
As Phas wiped her tears, Miroka made the change official on the mission plan.
Science Officer: Brinda Phas
“I notice there’s only one name for engineer, and I concur.”
“We figured you’d need her should something happen to the FTL drive.”
The two quickly moved their work out of the way as the waiter approached with their steaks. As Miroka cut into his, he stopped and looked up with a question in his eyes.
Seeing it, Phas stopped, too.
“What?” she asked.
“I wonder what the steaks on Earth will taste like.”
“Brinda! I’m home.”
“Hello, Mother! How did dinner with Chief Voyager Miroka go?” Brinda Phas asked.
“It has given me a great deal to think about,” Miroka replied.
Instantly, the girl was on her feet and at attention.
“As you were, Voyager. And ‘Captain’ will do from now on, I think.”
It was her mother who explained.
“He overruled the crew selection committee,” she said, “and added you to the crew.”
Brinda looked from her mother to the man who was now her captain, her mind not quite processing what she had just heard.
“B-but you said the original crew had been cut,” she finally stammered.
“Sit down, Brinda,” Wilia told her daughter. “We have a lot to explain.”
The girl complied, and the two adults sat down on the living room’s other sofa.
“The short version,” Miroka began, “is that you will, most likely, be the first of our species to set foot on Earth. As science officer, you are second in command, which makes you the one to make the first contact.”
Brinda slowly toyed with the end of her braided hair as the impact of the man’s words worked its way through her.
“I think I’m going to need the long version.”
Later, Brinda sat in her room, looking up at the stars, unable to sleep.
A gentle knock on the partially open door broke her from her reverie.
“You can’t sleep, either?” Wilia asked.
“It’s a lot to take in.”
“Welcome to my world. I don’t think I’ve slept a full night’s sleep since the project started.”
“Mother, I don’t know if I can do this. I mean, I can’t just land in the middle of their biggest city, pop the hatch and say, ‘Hello! I’m an alien refugee. Can I and a thousand of my species’ children live here with you?’”
Wilia couldn’t help it. She started laughing.
“I know, Baby, I’m just laughing at the image of an Earth person landing in the middle of Freedom Square.”
“Half would panic, and the other half would think it’s just another ThirdDay.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, they both dissolved into giggles, but they faded quickly.
“Now I know why so many just... go about their lives as if they don’t know the exact moment of their deaths,” Wilia said.
Brinda tore her gaze from the window outside as her mother joined her on the small sofa that had been built into the bay window.
“I was ready, you know,” Brinda said. “Ready to go with you to meet Father in the Oververse.”
“Not yet, Baby. You have so much more to do.”
Suddenly leaping across the sofa to hold her mother, as she did when she was little, Brinda cried, “But I’ll be alone!”
Putting her arms around Brinda, Wilia slowly rocked her.
“Oh, no, Brinda. You won’t be alone. You’ll have billions of souls watching over you and the others, just like your father has done since the Great One called him away.”
The two sat like that for what felt like a lifetime before Brinda’s sobs ebbed. Wilia looked down at the top of her daughter’s head as she heard Brinda say something.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Do me a favor when you get there?” the girl asked, in return.
“Of course, my precious little girl.”
“When you get there, see if you can find some Earth spirits and ask them to let their people know we’re coming. Can you do that?”
“Oh, you know I will. Can you do something for me in return?” Wilia asked.
“When the time comes, don’t look back. Close all the ports, turn off all the cameras except those that face forward. That’s where your future is. Some will want to watch. Don’t let them.”
Brinda nodded as she continued to hold her mother.
“That’s it,” Dr. Tik ih Shotula said, confirming the readings from the computer tablet she held. “One thousand infants on ice.”
“That sounds rather morbid, don’t you think?” Brinda asked, nodding for the loading techs to move the last set of stasis pods into the shuttle that would take them to the ship.
“Call it professional detachment, Miss Phas.”
The crew had begun using words from Earth languages in preparation for the journey and had progressed to the point where most of those around them had no idea what they were saying.
“I don’t think I could ever be that detached.”
“You’d be surprised. And, if I have anything to say about it, you’ll learn, since it’ll be part of your job to check on each and every one of them with me.” She then nodded in the direction of the shuttle. “Have you chosen your slot yet?”
“Not yet. The captain wants me on the main deck with him, but I’m not sure I belong there.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Child. If anyone belongs there, it’s you.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“An intelligent woman, the Director. It’s clear you got yours from her.”
“She would disagree with you. She always says I got it from my father.”
Tik noticed the look of melancholy that appeared on the girl’s face at the mention of her father.
“What is it, Child?”
“How am I going to say so many prayers?”
Tik slowly shook her head.
“I don’t even try. I write letters to them, instead. It’s how I keep my journal.”
Brinda blinked at the simplicity of the idea.
“I never thought of doing it that way.”
“That’s always how my tribe has spoken to those who have gone before. Every time I fill a journal, I transcribe it to electronic form and then burn the paper, so the smoke will transport the letters to the Oververse.”
“That’s so beautiful.”
The doctor smiled.
“I’ve always liked it. Come on, let’s find something for lunch.”
“I hate that we have to keep this whole thing a secret,” Wilia Phas said, a few days later. “That story should be about those infants providing hope, not about how they were kidnapped.”
“We went over this, Wilia,” Bewan Gwaam answered. “If we hadn’t kept it secret—”
“—there would be a hundred thousand expectant mothers tearing down the fences, clamoring for us to take their babies instead. I know that, Bewan, but I don’t have to like it. I’m actually surprised nothing about the mission has leaked. Great One knows somebody should have figured out one ship survived by now.”
“Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are, but it seems the treaty is holding, and the ones who can detect it are keeping quiet. Plus, we were careful to source supplies from enough sources that it would take a wild stroke of luck to figure it out before impact.”
Wilia looked up at the old countdown clock, which read 35:10:04, the last digit changing with each second.
“Thirty-five hours,” she whispered.
“To launch of the last shuttle. To when my little girl leaves home.”
“No, Wilia. To when your daughter leads a thousand of our babies to a new home.”
As if summoned, Brinda’s voice answered from the open doorway.
“Way to drive home the responsibility on my shoulders, Dr. Gwaam,” she said, drawing both adults’ attention.
“Brinda! What brings you to the corner office?”
“I just wanted to stop in and do this before heading into pre-launch quarantine.”
And with that, she crossed the office to embrace her mother.
“I would have hated myself if I didn’t do this,” she said.
“Well, I’m glad you did,” Wilia said. “It’s best this way. No tears, just hopes.”
Brinda looked up. “I like that. I think we should put that on the ship’s plaque.”
“We already did,” Gwaam said, producing an engraved brass plaque.
“And you named her... Gahye’s Hope. It fits so well.”
“I’m glad you think so. Got a hug for me? I don’t have any children, so I’ll just have to adopt you.”
“Of course, Dr. Gwaam,” Brinda answered, shifting her embrace from her mother to the scientist. “Thank you for everything.”
“You are Gahye’s hope, my dear, and you’ll take the hope of every one of us with you.”
“Three mits... two... one... contact!” Captain Miroka called.
“Docking clamps... captured and secure,” Pasi Tarako, the ship’s navigator, replied.
“And that’s it, People,” Wilia Pham said through their helmet speakers. “You’re committed.”
“Understood, Control. Gahye’s Hope, out.”
“Closing shuttle bay,” Tarako reported as he flipped a series of switches above his head.
Miroka turned to face Brinda. “Care to do the honors?” he asked.
Brinda shook her head.
“No, Sir. That’s your job.”
“Are you sure?” the veteran asked.
Miroka traded a look with the others on the flight deck before nodding.
“Very well,” he finally said, “but I want you right behind me. Pasi, you secure the shuttle.”
Unstrapping with practiced ease, Miroka gently pushed himself up and out of his seat, floating in microgravity. Brinda, somewhat less gracefully, followed the captain to the back of the flight deck, where the docking hatch was located.
“Atmosphere reading?” he asked.
Using the sequence of commands she’d learned in her training as a public relations intern, Brinda checked the atmosphere within the ship, finding it as expected. Satisfied, she nodded to the captain.
“Atmosphere as expected, Captain. Good seal.”
“Thank you, Brinda.”
Punching in his personal command code, Miroka unlocked the hatches. A moment later, they obediently swung open, providing access to the giant vessel.
“Welcome aboard, Captain,” the ship’s AI said, its voice a gentle, nondescript female.
“Thank you, Galatem,” the veteran answered, passing through the open docking port.
“Actually, Sir, my name is Hope.”
“Seems very fitting, actually,” Kini Kolartani said as she pulled herself through the open port behind Brinda. “After all, that’s what this ship is all about.”
“I like it,” Brinda remarked, pulling off her helmet.
“Thank you, Voyager Phas.”
“Oh, please. Call me Brinda.”
“Very well, Brinda.”
“Ship status?” Miroka asked, pushing off toward the helm station.
“All systems functioning as expected, Captain. Stasis pods read functional at optimum conditions. Fusion plant online at idle. All other systems in standby mode.”
“Thank you. Let’s get everything aboard and stowed before the transfer window.
“Departure burn in two minutes.”
“Captain, there’s one thing before we burn,” Brinda said, looking up and across the control deck. “My mother told me that we shouldn’t look back. She said I could override you on that.”
Miroka was silent for several seconds before keying in a sequence on his board.
From throughout the ship came the clang of closing shutters.
“Hope,” the captain said, “cut all aft-facing video feeds. Director Phas is right. The time for looking back is over. As we say goodbye to the cradle of our kind, we set our sights forward, to the void... and, hopefully, a new home.”
“Thus sayeth we,” Brinda whispered, using the words traditional for the end of a prayer.
“Okay, people,” Miroka said. “Final check. Navigation.”
“Set and ready,” Pasi Tarako reported.
“Operational. Hope is monitoring transmissions,” Brinda answered.
“All stasis pods functioning as expected,” Dr. Tik answered.
“Engineering and ship structure.”
“Ship structure at full,” Kini Kolartani answered. “Fusion plants ready for thrust.”
“What about the EM drive?” the captain asked.
“Checklist complete. All systems operational. Burn in seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, burn.”
The crew were slammed back in their seats as gravity suddenly returned.
“Initial burn is good,” Kolartani reported. “We are at one decimal zero five gravities and climbing.”
“Hope, computer status?” Brinda asked.
“Computer operating at optimum.”
“Thrust is now two decimal three-five-five and climbing.”
“Escape velocity in forty seconds.”
“Thrust is three gravities... decimal five... seven... nine... four gravities. Engines are normal.”
“Escape velocity in twenty seconds.”
“Engines throttling back per mission plan,” Kolartani reported. “Engine cutoff in four, three, two, one.”
As suddenly as gravity had returned, weightlessness took hold again. Brinda groaned as her inner ears reacted to the sudden weightlessness.
“It always gets you the first time,” Tarako informed her, just a bit of mirth in his voice.
“Thanks for warning me,” Brinda shot back, eliciting a chuckle from the rest of the crew.
“We have main engine cutoff,” Kolartani called. “EM drive ready.”
“Proceed,” the captain ordered. “Set rate at Earth-normal gravity.”
Once again, gravity returned, but slowly, as the electromagnetic drive began gently pushing the ship.
“Six engines operating normally,” Kolartani reported. “Earth-normal... achieved. Throttle locked.”
“And that’s it. One year’s journey to the edge of the system, then off to Earth.”
Later, Brinda sat in her quarters, idly listening to a radio transmission from Gahye. It was a music program, one that played bands she enjoyed.
“Knock! Knock!” came a voice from above.
Brinda looked up to see Kolartani standing at the top of the ladder.
“Come on down,” she answered.
“I thought you said your mother didn’t want us looking back,” the engineer remarked.
“She doesn’t, but I had to hear one last transmission from home.”
At Brinda’s silent invitation, Kolartani took a seat on what an Earth person would call a futon.
“Do you really want to tear yourself up like that?”
Brinda sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping to hear one last message.”
“Maybe an acknowledgement that we’re going.”
As if summoned, the voice of the program’s host came from the compartment’s speakers.
“We’re going to end now... for the very last time. I want to thank each and every one of you for being loyal listeners. May you all find peace in whatever hereafter you find yourself. Finally, to those intrepid Voyagers heading for a new world... Thank you. Through you and the children who travel with you, we will all live on. May the Great One guide you... home.”
The two women looked at each other, seeing the same look on the other’s face.
And then the tears came.
“But Then We Found Earth” was written over four days in response to a challenge from my next-door neighbor to step out of my comfort zone, which has been Star Trek fan-fiction. It went through a few revisions, but is essentially the story I initially wrote.
I hope it gives you, the reader, a bit of insight into the crew, especially our protagonist.