Time, Like a River

So, some passing thoughts now about science fiction, then on to the story.

SciFi is a weird genre floating along the stream of human literature. It’s comparatively new, too, given that modern scientific enquiry is itself kind of new. Discounting Euclid and Aristotle, modern scientific studies really only got underway about the time Mark Twain was writing (and I know, there’s plenty of room to question that assertion), with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne really kicking off the game as we know it.

To my mind, the best science fiction derives from well educated scientists, and of course I would hardly consider myself in that league. I always think of Arthur C Clarke as the best of the best in this genre, and his Childhood’s End remains my favorite. Period. Still, The Mote In God’s Eye, and it’s primary sequel The Gripping Hand  (co-written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) are probably my next two favorite scifi novels. And I wonder, just how many people know of The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle? A physicist, one of those Manhattan Project gurus, had us read that one for his intro physics class (the man looked like a lizard and worked on predicting how the atomic bomb blasts would affect the B-29’s wings…esoteric, to say the least…). And that’s what’s neat about the genre. There’s room for everything in SciFi – except perhaps mediocrity, but one of the things I’ve noticed over the last couple of decades is that Science has come to dominate the genre, sometimes at the expense of Fiction. Hence, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and see what happens…when there’s more fiction and less science. Hopefully, when all is said and done next Fall, you’ll have enjoyed the trip.

Anyway, I’ve read and reread those poor dog-eared books so many times over the years it’s probably impossible for me to separate the themes in those books from the ideas I’ve developed in this latest Driftwood sequence. And speaking of Childhood’s End, I found the 2015 miniseries on DVD last weekend and have watched it more than a few times since; it’s a decent retelling of the story and worth a look. Now, would someone please bring the Moties to life??? JJ Abrams – where are you???

I found, while writing the second chapter of Time, Like a River, that I didn’t want to “give away too much” about the Mr Christian part of the story, and that came into play more directly writing this third part of the story. I knocked off about half of the second chapter, and more than two-thirds of this third part, so the brevity has purpose. If you think it too brief, please, let me know.

SO… I’ve decided to post “all three parts in one” this time out. Yes, Virginia, this post has all three parts of Time, Like a River included, so you may be rereading some material here (and note: the previous posts have disappeared). Midsummer or thereabouts I’ll post the entire Driftwood story as one longish novella, including the original Driftwood and all three parts of the post-Driftwood sequence, with some tweaks here and there, and all to lead the way to An Evening at the Carnival with Mr Christian.

So, without further fanfare, here’s Time, Like a River. Let me know what you think.

+++

Time, Like A River: The Journey From Driftwood III

Part I: They called for the harp – but our blood they shall spill

Byron, By the Waters of Babylon – from The Hebrew Melodies

◊◊◊◊◊

The Air Force C37A turned on base over Maryland’s ‘eastern shore’ – flying towards it’s next waypoint and now 4500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and Grover Smithfield looked down at Annapolis as the pilot configured flaps for the extended approach.

So many decades had passed, Smithfield thought as he looked down at the campus by the bay, since his class had first formed up on drill fields by the waterfront. JFK was in the autumn of his presidency, and only a few of his teachers glimpsed the great dissolution that would follow Kennedy’s murder. One of his favorite instructors, a Navy captain who just happened to be a well regarded historian, remarked casually on the Monday after Kennedy’s assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald had just accomplished what all the navies and armies of Germany and Japan had failed to do in the second world war: in the span of a few brief seconds he had completely shattered America’s sense of itself. No matter who was ultimately held responsible, he saw Americans from that day forward drifting apart from one another, flying off to their polar extremes. “Belief is a fragile thing,” he said, “a shared set of ideas that can disappear in an instant – even in three seconds.” Smithfield remembered the captain’s office, and a little sign the man had hung on the wall above his desk. “History is the graveyard of tyrannies,” the little placard stated, and even now Smithfield recalled the captain had gone to work for first Nixon, then Ford, eventually ending his non-partisan career in the Carter White House. Smithfield had tried to emulate the man all his life.

But what had happened to that perspective over the years?

He watched the little harbor slide by, then Washington’s eastern suburbs, looking at the captain’s rigid prediction that was even now coming true. Politics had devolved from the soft art of compromise to cold obstructionism. Compromise was considered evil, and thugs on the right and idiots on the left all sounded more and more – like what? Ignorant, or simply arrogant? Unwilling to even consider a thought that didn’t conform to a fixed set of ideas? Now he could see better than ever how communities had grown into ossified extensions of ideology, yet even so, looking down on the Beltway in that moment, for some reason he remembered sitting in Sergey Gorshkov’s office one rainy May afternoon in Moscow, listening to the old admiral expound on the role of Soviet seapower.

“The Soviet Union will collapse soon,” he’d said as their meeting drew to a close, and Smithfield had thought the man insane to speak those words aloud in that office – even if he was the architect of modern Soviet naval doctrine. “But I do not worry so much about that. Your Kennan predicted our collapse, in 1947, and he had it down almost down to the year. And he was correct, his working hypothesis was accurate, the whole Buddenbrooks analogy, how political cultures decay like families decay over time. But, Captain Smithfield, what troubles me most is what happens when your country falls. It will, you know, perhaps in your lifetime. That is the working assumption in the Kremlin, anyway.”

Smithfield’s Gulfstream made it’s last hard left onto final – and a half mile off their left wingtip he saw two F-16s, and he thought again of Israel. That beleaguered nation had been at war since 1947, since it’s modern inception – and keeping a strong military presence in the public eye was a vital fact of public life.

But here? In our skies? My, how times had changed. Was this what Gorshkov had been thinking of?

Now it was routine for airliners approaching New England from Europe, or Alaska from the Orient, to find squadrons of interceptors waiting to ‘escort’ them through the relevant ADIZ. Terror alerts were taken seriously now – by the military, at least – because that was the reality of post-modern ‘neoliberal’ existence. Newton’s Laws, Smithfield sighed, just couldn’t be ignored –  though the political world had tried often enough – only now actions and reactions were coming so fast there was no time to adjust, no time to plan. He’d found himself reacting to events all during his presidency, rarely ever ahead of events.

And now the extreme reaction to the Hyperion Contacts – as the current president called them – with ever more liberties curtailed, and everyone clueless about the facts. Still, almost seven months after Hope Sherman’s ‘disappearance,’ information about the project within the intel community had been rigidly compartmentalized. Of more importance, information had been stopped before reaching the greater political hierarchies within the American congress, let alone the European Union and Russia. As a result, only a handful of people around the world had any idea what had happened last Christmas – in space, between the earth and her moon. So focused had those governments been on the threat of expanding Islamist terror, the idea that the Hyperion Fusion Project had been a ruse and that so-called ‘First Contact’ had already occurred remained a great unknown.

The fact that Russia’s intercontinental missile force had been neutralized in an instant completely altered the role of the military, and an early Cold War hysteria gripped planners in the Pentagon and the Kremlin – “Flying Saucers and Death Rays, oh my!” – yet countering this new threat became the next mission. Planners and designers from Boeing and Grumman and Sukhoi hypothesized and groused – because no one knew what the threat was – not what the threat looked like, or even what “their” capabilities were. These planners and designers just shrugged and shook their heads and wondered how best to spend the billions of dollars suddenly knocking on their doors.

So the race was on: how to assess the threat became the next great game, and the President called Smithfield, or, rather, he had called the Prime Minister of Israel…

…and now here he was…walking down air-stairs on a torrid July afternoon to a convoy of waiting Suburbans. Turning out of Joint Base Andrews onto Pennsylvania Avenue, four black Suburbans and eight motorcycles in line, making the half hour drive through the city to the Big House; once past the Beltway the traffic grew oppressively heavy, the edifice of empire was everywhere he looked, while legions of homeless and the infirm lay in every shadow. The city was, Smithfield thought, still the living embodiment of extreme contradictions, and then, the white Capitol Dome looming just ahead in a thick, brown haze. Perfect, he thought. So few with so much.

The House was unchanged, he saw, but security was oppressive now; not even one tourist on the sidewalk waiting for a tour; those had been suspended for the time being. Snipers not visible either, but he knew they were up there, watching this arrival. Through the White House gates and out of the Suburban, he heard a formation of jets overhead and didn’t even bother looking at them; he saluted the pair of Marines by the entry and saw Paul Kirkland, the President’s National Security Advisor, waiting, and they walked together through the West Wing to The Office.

The President looked much older now, and uncharacteristically tired, his face lined with cares he’d never imagined seven years ago, and Smithfield smiled. He paused, looked at a sword on the president’s desktop, a simple Samurai’s sword, and Smithfield thought it looked ancient, indeed, it’s silvered steel now almost elegant with the patina of age – and use, perhaps – yet the President pointedly didn’t stand, and barely acknowledged his predecessor’s presence in the room.

Smithfield listened as an old clock beat away on a bookshelf, and still the President simply continued looking at the sword, his eyes fixed on the cold steel, while Smithfield remained standing. The old man wasn’t aggravated by this breach of protocol – no, he was simply more interested in the mood he felt in the room. Oppressive curiosity, perhaps? With a lingering sense of despair?

“Japanese Ambassador just left,” the President finally said, slowly looking up at the previous occupant of this office. “Symbolic, don’t you think?”

Smithfield glanced at Kirkland, then back at the President; Kirkland shrugged, rolled his eyes, so Smithfield sat down across from the President. “Why symbolic? Think he wants you to commit seppuku?”

The President shook his head then, and chuckled. “Wouldn’t be surprised, Grover. Not a bit surprised.”

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Have you been out there yet?”

“Sir?”

“KIC 8462852, the system. Have you been out there yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Really? I’m surprised.” The President was staring at him, as if taking the measure of his predecessor once again.

“Oh? Why’s that, sir.”

The President turned in his chair and looked out the window. “Don’t you want to?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President steepled his hands in front of his face, took a deep breath. “That ship of there’s. The one on the far side. Have you seen it, know it’s capabilities?”

Smithfield shook his head. “No, I haven’t, and I don’t.”

“Well then, that’s going to be a problem.”

“Yessir. I understand.”

“Oh? Do you?. We’re confronting a hostile species that has demonstrated the capability to neutralize all our offensive and defensive weaponry. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President turned to face his desk again, yet once again he looked at the sword as he spoke. “Interesting. I never took you for a fool.”

“Was there anything else you wanted to talk about while I’m here?”

“Such as?”

Smithfield shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Who goes next, on what ships? How we go about setting up colonies on new worlds? Things like that.”

“You mean, of course, that we tell the people? Let the people know who’s up there, what they’re capable of doing to us?”

Smithfield looked at the man, at the lack of imagination he saw in his eyes. “Why not tell them the truth? What they have to offer us.”

“What’s wrong with you, Grover? Have you gone soft in the head?”

Smithfield smiled, looked him in the eye. “Maybe so.”

“You’re dead, I guess you know?”

“Sir?”

“After all that nonsense out in Santa Monica, the funeral at Arlington. The country thinks you’re dead. Maybe a handful of people in the world know you’re still alive. Have you considered your position?”

“Ah.”

“I have reports you’ve been with them.”

“Sir?”

“Well? Have you met them? The aliens?”

“Yessir. Several of them, as a matter of fact. About all I can add is that, in my opinion, you have no reason to fear them.”

The President snorted derisively. “Do we need to send you down to Cuba? Maybe for a little R&R at a little naval base we still have down there?”

“That’s your prerogative, Mr President. But I’d recommend against that course of action.”

“Would you, now? So you do know a few of their tricks. Well, it occurred to a few of our people across the river you might say something like that; in fact, I think more than a few were kind of hoping you’d imply a threat of one kind or another.”

“Yessir, I imagine they have. That’s understandable.”

“So? No hard feelings?”

Smithfield smiled, and stood…

…And the national security advisor shouted into his handset, screamed for the president’s secret service detail to get to the room – ASAP –

The team entered the room, found Kirkland open-mouthed down on the floor, pointing at the president’s desk, but both presidents were nowhere to be found – they had simply vanished – but why was Kirkland down there on the floor? When the head of detail ran closer, he saw Kirkland was kneeling, his hand out, talking to what he at first thought was a toddler – a blue-skinned girl, perhaps two feet tall, and then she too was gone – leaving a thousand questions hanging in the air – apparent.

◊◊◊◊◊

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 July, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning. 

COG: at anchor, Ile du riou , calanque des contrebandiers

SOG: 0.0 kts; 

Temp: 83f;

Winds: NW at 15, viz unlimited +10nmi; 

Barometer 29.98 and rising; 

GPS:  43°10’26.16″N | 5°23’11.17″E

We are still anchored inside the calanque des contrebandiers, aka smuggler’s cove, effectively in another world yet only six miles from Marseilles. Liz is turning out to be a decent diver, both she and Carol are spending lots of time down there – two hours yesterday – while Ted remains preoccupied and sullen, for the second day running. We’re warped to limestone walls, some of the pitons we found are still secure, and we’ve been checking the ones we set a couple times a day. A late-season ‘mistral’ blew through yesterday yet we were snug in here, unaffected by wind or waves, while a few hundred yards away the sea looked like a washing machine. I remain wary as we’re roped off in here with zero maneuvering room, but we’re practically invisible, and the mood is magic, esp. at sunset, when the limestone cliffs glow an incredible orange.]

Gemini lay ‘at anchor’ within a narrow finger of water, a hidden treasure Collins had learned about from a local at the marina in Cassis. They’d taken Hyperion over for a haul-out, to get her bottom painted and anodes checked, and to refill the SCUBA tanks once again, so the four of them had decided to spend a few days over on the island until Hyperion was ‘ready to go’ again. He’d just managed to get Ted out into the sun, and now they were taking the Zodiac over to les Empereurs with masks, fins and snorkels, yet their conversation had been brief – though telling.

“You seem down, almost out of it…” Collins asked, setting a little anchor on the sandy bottom near the rocks.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about Hope. I worry about her, you know?”

“I know, Spud. I think we all do. What does Carol think about all this?”

“She misses LA, her work. Hell, I do too.”

“No shit? You’d rather be back on the streets – than here?”

Sherman nodded his head, looked away. “I wasn’t really ready to retire, whatever the hell that means. Sitting around doing nothing, drinking fruit punch and watching sunsets.”

“Well hell, why don’t you go back?”

“I’m dead, remember? Buried, at Forest Lawn. My name’s been chiseled on a wall, too.”

“You have a house there, don’t you?”

“I did, yes. A friend is renting it, from – ‘my estate.’” He spit out those last two words angrily, looked back at the island.

Collin’s snorted. “It’s hell being dead, ain’t it, Spud.”

Sherman looked down into the water. “So, what’s down here?”

“Fuck if I know. Looks like it falls off fast. What does it show on the chart?”

“Sharp drop to 110 feet, a shelf on this side, then another steep drop-off. Real deep after that.”

“Well, I can see the bottom. Thirty feet, anyway…looks like some coral, too…”

They both heard it then. The wump-wump-wump of a helicopter, turbine driven and making for the island at high speed.

“There he is,” Collins said, pointing at the MH-60S Knighthawk as it skimmed the surface, heading straight for the cove where Gemini lay tethered to the rock. He turned the outboard’s tiller and rolled the throttle open and the Zodiac began bouncing across the lite chop, back to the cove.

◊◊◊◊◊

“There they are, over there,” the gunner onboard the Knighthawk said, pointing at the inflatable that had just pulled away from a rocky, crown-shaped islet. “Both of them.”

The helicopter wheeled around and bore in on the Zodiac, then arced alongside as it skimmed across the water, it’s two gunners leaning out the door, taking aim at the men in the Zodiac.

◊◊◊◊◊

“They don’t exactly look happy to see us, Spud.”

“I do believe that one in back is going to shoot us, Sumner…”

“Oh well…that’s too bad.”

The rear gunner disappeared, then the man by his side vanished as well.

“Ain’t life a bitch, Spud?”

“I think that Rotorhead just shit his britches.”

Collins could see Gemini’s mast jutting up above the rocks now, and he slowed down to make the sharp turn into the narrow-walled cove. “Wonder what that was all about,” he said, watching the helicopter turn and head back out to sea.

“Someone’s not happy.”

“Uh-huh. Well, this ain’t gonna make ‘em any happier, Spud.”

Sherman looked at the girls standing on the aft deck; Liz and Carol waiting with arms crossed, Charley sitting beside Liz with a grin on her face, and then he saw the one they called Jenny. She was standing there too, her face impassively still, which, he knew, meant absolutely nothing. And he could just see someone sitting in the cockpit…a man…no, two men.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

Collins perked up when he heard that, looked at the cockpit. “Damn. It’s Smithfield. And who’s that with him…oh…no…”

“Shit…that explains the helicopter.”

“Yup.” Collins tied-off the Zodiac and they both climbed aboard.

The Presidents, both of them, were sitting the cockpit, deep in shade and both looked dazed.

She was beside them now, the one Collins called Jennie, and the sight of her still unnerved him, left him feeling more than a little dazed. She was sitting on a hatch, looking at Sumner as he crawled over the coaming, and as he sat she ‘spoke’ to him – in her halting, fine-pitched voice.

“The effect is still hard to watch, like sitting on a rattlesnake, Smithfield told me,” she said. “We are sorry.”

“I know just how they feel,” Collins said, looking at her. Perfectly human – aside from the pale, almost translucent blue of her skin. No hair – yet, she said – though maybe in time. She’d let him measure her once: 26 inches tall, 17 pounds, eyes the most piercing green he’d ever seen in his life. Fingers, toes: perfectly human – yet no breasts, absolutely no outward signs of function or gender – no anus, no vagina or penis. Completely asexual, yet even so Jennie was decidedly female –  and ‘she’ self-identified as such.

And the ‘we are sorry’ was still discomforting, too. They had no word for ‘I’, never identified as just one self – always to a collective. Linked, from creation onwards to their local community. No birth referred to, no parents – simply to a creation…

“This man’s group was going to imprison Smithfield. We decided intervention was necessary. Sorry,” this urJennifer said, “but life’s a bitch.”

“I see. This might cause a few problems.”

“We have anticipated. The word Hope used is clusterfuck. Does this mean something to you?”

“Yup, that’s the word. Can you send this one back?” Collins asked, pointing at the current President.

“Many vessels approach now, by both air and sea. Would it not be better to keep him here? Or should we place these vessels into a low earth orbit?”

“Let’s not do that, okay? Ted, would you help me with him; let’s get him into the Zodiac and run him out there.”

Sherman was chewing a fingernail, looking at four Hornets circling the island at about 15,000 feet. “Sounds like a plan,” he said as he and Collins helped the man stand…

“Where am I?” the President mumbled.

Sherman ignored him, helped him into the inflatable, then steadied the boat as Collins stepped aboard. They puttered out of the cove and into the open sea, and immediately saw an aircraft carrier and five frigates steaming their way.

“Put him up front, so they can see him,” Collins suggested as he steered back towards the crown-shaped rocks. Seconds later the F-18s broke off and headed out to sea, while just a few yards away Collins saw a periscope off to his right – then he looked on as the sub’s sail broke surface, it’s huge black hull surfacing alongside his 12 foot long inflatable boat.

“Come alongside,” Collins heard over the sub’s hailing speaker, and he watched as sailors swarmed on deck, dropping a boarding net over the side. Marines followed, their M-16s still slung, and two of them came down the net to secure the Zodiac alongside. Collins looked up the wet black hull, saw the ship’s C.O. heading down the net and groaned.

The Marines secured a line to the President and helped him aboard as the sub’s skipper hopped into the Zodiac.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where, sir?”

The man pointed at the little cove. “Smithfield,” was all he said.

Collins turned back to Gemini and they pounded back through wind-driven waves to the island, arriving soaking wet and cold…and he saw Smithfield waiting for them on the aft deck.

“No weapons, Captain,” a still-dazed Smithfield said plainly, and the captain just held out his hands.

“You’re welcome aboard, then.”

The captain hopped across to the aft platform, waited for Collins and Sherman to come up, then they all crawled into the cockpit. Liz popped up through the companionway, passed up a tray of fresh fruit, then carried up a pitcher of margaritas and put them onto the cockpit table.

“Alright, Captain,” Smithfield said slowly, “you called the meeting, so fire away.”

“Yes, Mr President…uh, is that one of them, sir?”

“That’s Jennifer. I’m not sure who she represents, but whatever you need to say, it probably needs to be said in front of her.”

“Was she responsible for this?”

“What? Removing me from the west wing after that son of a bitch threatened to throw my ass in Guantanamo? Yeah, I guess she is.”

“He what, sir?”

“You hard of hearing, skipper?” Collins asked.

The captain turned red. “You’re Collins, aren’t you?”

“That’s a fact.”

The captain looked him over, tried to reconcile the man’s dossier with what he saw now. “Well, the Joint-Chiefs wanted me to pass along a request: don’t do this again, okay?” He turned and looked at Jennifer. “It would be helpful if…”

“Captain,” Jennifer spoke now, and her voice dripped with power, “we are allied with Hyperion. That is all. If your group moves against Hyperion, we move against your group.”

“Our group? You mean…?”

“The United States, captain,” Smithfield said. “As her group has already demonstrated their capabilities in this regard, I think it sound advice.”

“If you seek a change in status, captain,” Jennifer said now, “please relay the request through this group.”

“What?”

Smithfield sighed. “If the President, or the Joint Chiefs – or whoever happens to be running the country right now – wants to negotiate with this group, you’ll need to get in touch with me. We’ll arrange a meeting.”

“So, you’re with them, Mr President?”

“Nope. We just happen to have a coinciding set of interests, captain, and their interests do not conflict with our own.”

“Mr President, are you free to leave here and come with me?”

“Of course, but why the hell would I want to do that. I’m not particularly fond of Cuba, or for that matter, the climate in DC these days.”

The captain reached in his pocket and placed a transmitter on the table, then he switched it off. “I’ll probably be shot for this, but sir, can you tell me what the hell’s going on?”

Smithfield looked at the transmitter, then at the captain – and as he looked up he shook his head, turned to ‘Jennie.’ “I think it’s time to go,” he said, and in the blink of an eye both he and Jennie disappeared.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” the captain said. “Do they keep an eye on you all the time?”

Collins shrugged. “I have no idea,” he replied, not wanting to fall into that trap. “Can I run you back out?”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, smiling now as he pointed to several Navy inflatables roaring towards the cove. “I reckon we’ll just take you four into custody.”

Collins shook his head again. “Y’all better get it together real soon, ‘cause this is getting old, and our friends are going to start thinking you’re just stupid.” He leaned over, looked into the sky above the island, then motioned the sub captain to come out from under the awning and take a look.

The skipper of the USS Montpelier stared open-mouthed at his ship, all 362 feet of her now hovering hundreds of feet above the island, then he nodded at Collins. “I’ll relay the message.”

“They seem to have a pretty good handle on things, captain. Shooting the messenger isn’t going to solve anything.”

“What about my ship?”

“What about it?”

The skipper looked up again – and she was gone. He turned, saw his ship a mile offshore and felt sick to his stomach.

“You know,” Collins said as he looked at the man, “they usually want to park things like that in orbit. They have no idea how or even why we’d spend so much money on something dedicated to defense, and they seem almost annoyed a machine so big does so little, that our ships can’t leap from the sea to space. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve realized yet just how primitive we are, technologically speaking. You might pass that thought along, too.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. Here’s your transmitter. Don’t forget,” Collins said as he tossed it back to the man, “to mention this was unappreciated, too.”

The skipper looked at Collins one last time. “Whose side are you on, Collins? Really?”

“Mine. Humanity’s, even yours, when you get right down to it.”

“So, you’d take sides against us, your country, over the Russians or the Chinese?”

“The Russians and the Chinese aren’t acting in the best interest of humanity, and our allies know that.”

“They do? So, why are they here?”

“I think they’re curious, but really, I have no idea.”

“Curious?”

“When I figure that one out, skipper, I’ll let you know.”

“If they let you,” the captain said under his breath, as he stepped onto one of the Navy inflatables. He looked up at Collins one more time, shook his head then left.

◊◊◊◊◊

Hyperion Five was tumbling now, just barely under control, and Hope Sherman wished her brother – or Sumner, really – was here now to help her. She wasn’t a pilot, had never been a pilot; she counted on the ship’s computers to take control during maneuvers like this…only the computers seemed to get more freaked out by trans-light speed dilation effects than even she did. She re-booted them one by one, and systems chirped back to life one by one, only very slowly now, and she put them through simple routines to check accuracy before turning even basic operations over to them.

She saw poor, doomed Phobos ahead through the single ovoid viewport, then their colony ship – in geosynchronous orbit above the Martian equator – with four space elevators already running huge quantities of material down to the planet’s surface.

Finally, computer links were established and Sherman’s Hyperion began slowing, the ship’s tumbling ceased, and she could just make out a docking platform on the colony ship – almost identical to the platform destroyed last year – with three Hyperion vessels already mated there. Five began it’s autonomous approach now; she heard thrusters popping, watched minor attitude corrections line up on her primary display, then a docking monitor superimposed over the platform – and then, with one last gentle bump, positive contact and seal.

She watched pressures equalize, then the computer cycled the airlock. She saw Sara Green on the monitor, no helmet, no spacesuit, and she flipped the safeties to clear the airlock. Green entered the primary airlock, started the equalization process anew, then entered Five’s cabin.

Sherman could tell something was wrong. The expression on her face, in her eyes was all wrong.

“What’s happened?” Sherman asked as soon as the other woman was inside her pod.

“The Phage. We have more reports ready for you, but they’re headed for this system, still sub-light but speed is picking up.”

“The timeline? Have the Vulcans advanced it yet?”

“Moe is convinced we need to advance the schedule, and he wants another colony ship here, like yesterday. Larry and Curly remain unconvinced, they don’t see any need to worry at this point.”

“I wish we’d named them something else,” Sherman sighed.

Green smiled. “I never saw those programs, so the names meant nothing to me. Then Hayden showed me a couple of episodes. Singularly inappropriate, but I get it now. Are you sure you want to call them Vulcans?”

“People will be able to relate to them better that way, at least before they see them. Once that happens, shit’s going to hit the fan no matter what we call them.”

“Klaatu barada nikto.”

“Exactly. Unreasoning panic, all human paranoia manifest and come to life.”

Green sighed too. “Nothing compared to the Phage. Damn, where’d we be without their help?”

“Extinct.”

◊◊◊◊◊

‘Jennie’ was back on Gemini, sitting on the chart table waiting for Collins, her legs crossed ‘Indian-style’ with her elbows resting on her knees, and Sumner laughed when he came below and found her there…

“Well hello there, Tink!”

“Tink? I thought you wished to call me Jennie, or Jennifer?”

“Right you are, but you remind me of a character in a story. Remind me to tell you about Peter Pan someday.”

“I will. I never get over watching you laugh.”

“Oh?”

“I am simply a communicator, yet even so I have no analogue of laughter when I relay our conversations. Laughter, humor,” she said, shrugging her shoulders with her palms now up, facing the sky, “they’re all Greek to me?”

Collins laughed again. “You’re developing a sense of humor, too, I see.”

“If you spent all your time around Smithfield, I suspect yours might develop as well.”

“Stop it,” Collins laughed as he shook his head.

“You see? Here’s another example of the inherent conflict of expressions in your language. You tell me to stop it, yet you laugh, an expression of pleasure. The complexity of neuronal responses is staggering, and at times the interplay of ideas and language is most upsetting to me.”

“Well, you’re understanding seems to be improving.”

“In English, yes. French is not too bad, but Hebrew? You can not swear in Hebrew, apparently, without using your hands. This causes headaches, nausea, death-wish.”

“Probably has for three thousand years.”

“Collins? May we mate?”

“Excuse me?”

“Not physically, you idiot. May I have some of your genetic material?”

Collins’ laughter was loud enough to cause Liz to poke her head out of the aft cabin. “What are you two talking about now?”

“Sex, mating, procreation, genetic co-mingling,” Jennie said. “I asked Sumner if I could have some of his genetic material.”

“Oh, did you now? And Sumner? How are we going to go about doing that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea, but maybe you could give us a hand?” He looked at Liz, at the expression of withering contempt in her eyes – then he turned to Jennie and whispered: “Uh, now would be a good time for some humor.”

“Ah yes. I see. Perhaps, Liz, I could get some of your genetic material too?” Jennie looked at Sumner – who was now frowning, his face scrunched up like he’d just eaten a lemon – then at Liz – who was now staring at ‘Jennie’ with an odd smile on her own face.

“Oh no. Far be it for me to come between you two.”

“Liz,” the urJennie said, “they’re going to send you to a punitentiary, for punishment.”

Liz groaned, shook her head and walked back into the cabin.

“So, what’s this all about,” Collins asked.

“We are highly differentiated, genetically manipulated to fulfill specific tasks. Language skills for communicators, size and strength for those who work heavy industrial machines, intellectual capacity for academic theorists and educators…”

“Attractiveness for the procreation class?”

“We do not conceive, or procreate in the manner you do. I think you call it asexual reproduction, but there is no absolute analogue. And Smithfield implies that at his age all his activities are asexual, and this has caused some concern among our scientists.”

“It does me too.”

“Ah.”

“Are you serious? About wanting genetic material?”

“It has been done many times,” she said, “on this planet.” She looked at him now, studying his reaction carefully.

“Oh? When?”

“A long time ago. An hour ago.”

He looked at her now, wondered where this was going.

“We have manipulated genomes on this planet.”

He felt pressure closing-in as he heard those words, then he pointed at the two scars under her left eye – and she nodded her head.

“These are not scars,” she said, touching her face. “These are sensory organs, and the spots under the right eye…”

“Sensory…? You have eyes, a nose, and ears…?”

“These are…geospatial might be the most appropriate term. But we can see past time, as well.”

“Past time? I don’t understand.”

Jennie looked at him and sighed. “Some of us, communicators mostly, can see time, almost like you see a river. Some can see up the river, and down.”

“You mean the past? And the future? You can see the future?”

“Me? No, but this is a recent genetic variation. Very few communicators have this ability. It is dangerous, the word is…”

“Paradox.”

“Yes, just so. Exactly.”

“Jenn? Do you know what is going to happen here, on Earth?”

She looked away, then looked to the southern sky. “We are too far north to see the danger, but it comes from what you have termed C99, the Coalsack Nebula.”

“The danger?”

“It, or perhaps they, have been named the Phage, by Ted’s sister. They absorb planets. Planets with sentient species. They remove life, advanced lifeforms. We have observed there activities many times.”

“Many times? Why have they not bothered your civilization?”

“The reason should be obvious. We do not attract their attention.”

“So, they have left you alone? Not attacked your system?”

“Many inhabited worlds are benign. We have observed that those attacked are deemed irrational.”

“Irrational – worlds?”

“The beings. They become irrational, they attempt to spread their irrationality between stars. The Phage react to this threat – and stop it.”

“What do you mean by – irrational?”

“The Will to conflict, to spread conflict. You might call conquest. Also, theological constructs have been considered irrational.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, I know. Sherman had difficulty with the idea, but ultimately she found the notion amusing.”

“She would.”

“Ah, another interesting concept. Sarcasm.”

“You don’t lie, do you? Or evade the truth?”

“No. What is the point?” Collins’ scrunched face was all she needed to see to understand the point was lost on him. “Lies are deception, and yet all deceptions fail in the end. Suspicions deepen, even political subterfuge crumbles. Your history is filled with lies.”

“I suppose,” Collins said, and he watched her watching him. Communicators would almost certainly be adept at reading all kinds of language, wouldn’t they? Even body language? And if they could “see” the future, was there anything anyone could do they wouldn’t already know about. “So? How long have you been manipulating genomes?”

She made the jump without batting an eye. “Human? After your last Ice Age. We manipulated the atmosphere, and the waters of the ocean, after several intermediate meteoroid impactors. To preserve…”

“The experiment?”

“No. Our destinies are inextricably linked to another species, so our manipulations with humans have been limited to a few.”

“My dolphin,” Collins said, sitting bolt upright. “She has the same markings. On her face.”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean? Is she…has she been genetically manipulated?”

“Of course. She is not the only one.”

“What has she been manipulated into?”

“A hybrid, a cross between her species and my own. She is a communicator.”

“What?”

“Her kind can maintain an active link to any communicator, anywhere. And it is from her species that we found the ability to see through time.”

“WHAT?”

“Her’s is a unique species, Sumner. When we came to this world, when we first came to study life here, we developed little interest in any other species. We came first to catalogue lifeforms, we continued to come to study – only them. When their true significance became apparent, after the first hybrids were developed, we came to preserve habitat. When the Phage became aware of the inherent irrationality of their ability, we were able to see, through their mind’s eye, that the Phage are coming – here. We have come now, to this system one last time – to save them.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Corrine Duruflé sat in the back of a yellow and black utility company van, an old, beat-up Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ class van – watching an apartment building on the left side of the Rue Albert Einstein, in the town of St Denis. The Parisian suburb had developed a reputation over the last few years as a haven for Islamist terror cells and perhaps, she thought, it was the proximity to the old cathedral, the first true gothic cathedral in Christendom, that made them feel safe and at ease as they drew up plans for their assault on Christian infidels. That might have worked in the beginning, but as pressure grew groups had moved first to the south, to Lyon, and then north, to Brussels, after the attacks the year before. But the Directorate had watched a return to the town of St Denis, that her quiet streets were growing popular again. More attacks would surely follow…

A direct metro line to the heart of Paris might have been one reason, but there had to be a network still in place – and that was obviously of more importance – and two days before drones had sniffed the tell-tale signature of radioactive material in the air near the cathedral. Not medical material, that much was immediately obvious, and no known transits of waste through the area were on the books, so the obvious supposition was that IS had gathered enough material for a dirty bomb – and were assembling the device now.

CCTV cameras throughout the area were now being monitored day and night, more sniffer drones criss-crossed the area through the night, triangulating patterns, narrowing the search perimeter, and now Duruflé was parked outside a pale gray apartment building monitoring live CCTV feeds, while two specialists from ASN, the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, watched readouts spike and fade…

“Best guess,” one of the techs said, “is this top floor unit – right here – ” pointing at an image on her screen. “The one with the telescope on the balcony. Concentrations are heaviest in the air above this unit.”

Corrine looked at another screen. The apartment was leased to a physics professor, a woman from Grenoble married to a Saudi national. She ran a search, read the dossier then looked at her watch, called the university where the woman was employed and asked to speak to her department chair. She introduced herself as a reporter for Agence France-Presse working on a story, and understood the professor was well regarded in the field, and she wondered if the Chairman could facilitate an interview.

“I would be happy to, madame, but the professor has not been in class for the last week, and has not called in…”

She left her name and number, then rang off. She called headquarters, relayed all she knew.

“Approaching the residence will be next to impossible,” she advised. “Too many known assets are in the area, warning would be instantaneous. Even something as ridiculous as an airstrike would be counter-productive, radiation would be released on an even more massive scale.”

“The decision has been made. A NATO Predator will fire a modified Dart. A biologic agent, a neural-disruptor will be released, death will result in less than two seconds. To soon for anyone to react.”

“The area we can expect to see fatalities?”

“The approximate kill radius could be up to a quarter mile, depending on winds, perhaps a half mile on one lobe.”

“Laser designator?”

“Yes, he is on the way.”

“I see.”

“Clean up your site and leave the area, and do so immediately.”

“Yes, director.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Jennie’s head snapped away from their conversation, a sudden, jarring discontinuity. He was getting used to these interludes – when she was receiving information from…somewhere.

“A nuclear device will detonate. In five minutes, thirty eight seconds.”

“Where?”

“Paris. Just north of Paris.”

“Can you stop it?”

“Of course.”

“Would you do so now, please?”

Jennie jerked away for a moment, then looked back at him. “There was an incoming projectile. This was stopped as well.” She smiled for a moment, then looked away.

◊◊◊◊◊

When the Dart failed to detonate, Duruflé and two assault teams ran up to the fifth floor apartment – and crashed through the door. Tools scattered everywhere, take-out food containers piled on a small table just off the kitchen, the professor’s duct-taped and shackled body hustled quickly from the building, but no terrorists – and no terrorist’s bomb – anywhere in the vicinity. The 20 kiloton warhead – recently acquired from Russian separatists – had simply disappeared. She had no way of knowing the warhead had arrived seconds later inside the Kremlin – in the old Armoury Museum, resting gently inside a large, trough-shaped urinal inside the men’s room near the museum exit. Four of the five terrorists appeared at the First Southern Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, in the middle of a Gay Conversion Therapy workshop, while the fifth terrorist, and the leader of the group, appeared – naked – on stage at a Klan rally in Tupelo, Mississippi – his mutilated body found later that afternoon in a dumpster behind a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken take-out restaurant.

◊◊◊◊◊

‘What about the future?’ Hope Sherman wondered. ‘Does the past cast a shadow so deep it reaches into the future?’ She looked at Moe and Larry and grasped for context. ‘And what about the future? Has it cast a shadow back on the present? To the past?’

Moe’s ‘body’ shifted slightly – and she had the impression he was looking at her and tried to come to terms with him once again. Ten meters tall, his body roughly pyramidal in shape and perhaps five meters circumference at his ‘base’ – his scaly ‘body’ did not move, at all. This ship had, in effect, been built around him, and he was physically connected to the ship in almost every conceivable way. And the scales on his body? Those had been hardest for her to get used to.

Translucent blue near the top, then reds and browns beneath, the scales detached frequently and zoomed away on some errand or task. The blues were of course communicators, the reds negotiators, while the browns were somewhat analogous to a security team. All genetic hybrids, all hyper-specialized entities with essentially no free-will of their own, the ‘scales’ resided on Moe’s ‘flesh’, drawing energy, taking sustenance from him. A part of him, in other words, yet somehow not quite.

She still found them disturbing, just as she had the first time she saw one, when she first encountered one of the Masters.

A blue scale detached from Moe and drifted down to her lap – and she recoiled at the sight of this new one. Two feet tall, he was a miniature of her brother Ted, only hairless and translucent blue. His voice even sounded somewhat Ted-like, though diminished by stature, and now he sat cross-legged on her thighs.

“Hey kiddo,” ur-Ted said, his familiar mannerisms completely unnerving her. “We need to talk.”

“Do we?”

“About the Phage. Wanna go grab something to eat?”

She turned her chair, rolled from the chamber – trying to hide her face from him. She knew they were getting better at reading emotions and understood the implications of that mastery, but her emissary was a tenuous one, her grip on Moe’s loyalty conditional. She had to keep this alliance together at all cost, yet the communicator’s presence was jarring – and Moe would know that, instantly.

‘Deliberately so?’ she wondered. Keeping your adversary off-balance was a key tactic in any negotiation. ‘Well, that answers that question…’

She rolled to the living module off the docking platform and cycled the airlock, went inside her private cubicle.

“What would you like?” ur-Ted asked. “Burger and fries again, a chocolate malt?”

“How about eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, from the Place Pigalle at the Pike Place Market?”

“You’re homesick today, aren’t you?”

The plate appeared on her table a second later.

“I need a fork and knife, please.”

And there they were. She picked them up, started on her breakfast.

“The Phage are now at light-speed times times ten to the fourth. At that velocity that will reach this system in twenty years, but they are still under heavy acceleration. We will revise their arrival time when we have more accurate data.”

“Okay. So what’s bothering Moe?”

“There is no work underway on colony ships for your people. What you called political gridlock has stalemated your governments. Threats. Posturing. Attempts have been made on Smithfield, Collins, and your brother. There appears to be no awareness among vast numbers of your population of our existence. Various factions are uniting against our alliance. We think this is pointless, we think a renegotiation of terms is warranted.”

“I do too.”

“Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly? You do too?”

“Yes. And I have an idea…”

◊◊◊◊◊

Part II: ‘Which scarce the shade of coming eve can banish from the sky’

Byron, I See Thee Weep – The Hebrew Melodies

Perhaps controllers under Cheyenne Mountain were the first to spot the object, or maybe those at Baikonur II were first, but within moments NORAD increased it’s defense posture from DEFCON 4 to 2 – and Secretary of Defense Donald Burke notified a still-shaken president that the Hyperion Contact was emerging from behind the moon. Twenty minutes later, NORAD radar sites along the Labrador Sea picked up seven new targets in formation – and all had simply appeared ‘out of nowhere’ – and all were now closing on earth.

“How big are they?” the president asked Paul Kirkland, his National Security Advisor.

“The Dark Side object appears to have a diameter of roughly twenty miles; the seven new targets appear identical in size, but their field displacement is different – heavier mass I’m told.” Kirkland’s encrypted line to NORAD chimed again, and he answered, listened to the general in command as he updated information, then Kirkland cut the connection. “Mr President, a ninth object has appeared. About 5800 miles above Antarctica. Uh, sir, the apparent diameter of this ship exceeds 1500 miles.”

The president turned and looked over the White House lawn. “Did you say 1500 miles?”

“Yessir.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yessir.”

“Stationary?”

“No, sir. Descending, moving north northwest, projected to skirt the Chilean and Peruvian coasts, then continue offshore until it moves up our Pacific coast.”

“Interesting.”

“Mr President?”

“No way we’ll be able to keep a lid on this any longer. My guess is they’ll pull an Independence Day. Position over our major cities, try to scare the shit out of the general population.”

“That’s a possibility, sir.”

“Okay. Shut down the stock exchanges, close the banks. ATM withdrawals only, initiate full DEFCON ONE guidelines.”

“Air traffic, Mr President?”

“I said full DEFCON guidelines, Paul. Air and rail traffic, shut down the interstates, activate the emergency broadcast network. Full emergency food distribution using the National Guard, the whole nine yards.”

“Martial Law, Mr President?”

He leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling. “Let’s get the media to contain the story. If a panic starts, give ‘em a half hour then pre-empt them, cut ’em all off. Just replay the policies,” the president said, “give people a few days to habituate, get used to the threat…”

“If we have that long, sir.”

“Oh, we have time. Remember what Smithfield said? What he said we should do? ‘Tell ‘em about building ships. Let the people know,’ he said. Pretty good opening move. Cut off our policy options, incite hysteria, breakdown public confidence in national institutions. Yes…an interesting first move.”

“And? How do you want to counter it?”

“Counter it? Are you kidding me? That’s the goddamn Death Star up there, Paul. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do – that wouldn’t simply piss them off.”

“So? How do we defend against them?”

“We listen. Listen and learn, because that’s about all we can do. If we make a stupid move they’ll shut us down. They’ll begin a disinformation campaign. We’ll lose that one, too.”

“How do you know that, Mr President?”

“Because that’s what I’d do,” he said, pointing at the sky, “if that was me up there with five Aces tucked up my sleeve.”

◊◊◊◊◊

Amanda and her friends were in a funky-festive mood – but finally, it was time to celebrate! After being grounded the first month of summer vacation, this was her first night out, and her mom had just dropped her off for a sleepover at Kiley’s mom’s house. Amanda and Kiley had been best friends all through elementary and middle school – but next year? The really big adventure started: High School! Still, she was pissed – her mom had nearly ruined everything, caught Kiley and all her friends in the pool out back the afternoon school let out – with a bunch of beer – and Justin Landry, with his hands where they weren’t supposed to be. Now, after spending a month at the Westside Pentecostal ‘Vacation Bible School’ – she was…free at last–Gawd-almighty–free at last!

“So, what’d they make you do there?” Kiley asked.

“If I ever see another Charlton Heston movie again, I’ll die…”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter…I hear the new Independence Day sequel is pretty good…think we can get your mom to take us? I think it’s playing at the Westside Galleria?”

“Uh-huh…and Justin’s going to be there too, I suppose?”

Kiley’s mom was so-o-o kewl, too. Dropped them off with plenty of money to see the movie – with some leftover for snacks, but Look At That Line! Sheesh! The four thirty showing was sold out, so now they’d have to wait a whole fifteen minutes to get into the four forty-five! And…where was Justin?

Then people were gasping, looking at the sky and pointing, so of course Amanda and Kiley turned and looked too. No boiling, flaming clouds this time, just a really big – spaceship – looking thing. She yawned, looked around – hoping Justin was going to make it in time for the show, then turned back to look at the advertising thingy up there floating by.

“Man,” she heard someone say, “I wonder how much the studio had to pay for that thing?”

“Gets your attention though…” someone else said.

“Wow!” Justin said, and Amanda wheeled around to see him and did her best to appear bored. “That thing’s really big.”

“Just one of those blimp things. No big deal…”

But the mass of the ship was huge, and no measurement protocol was available to quickly calculate a mass this large, let alone distortions to the earth’s ‘gravity well’ it’s passing caused. As the ship closed on the southern California coast, people, cars, cats and dogs – even garbage – anything and everything not firmly affixed to the earth – began to float free – weightless as the ship passed.

And as the ship faded from view, still heading north along the coastline, the temporary distortions in the earth’s ‘gravity well’ dissipated, and everything and everyone simply settled back to the surface…

“Wow, that was SO kewl…” Amanda said. “I hear they’re going to – like – have a ride like that at Magic Mountain this summer! Oh! This is going to be such a – kewl – summer!

And so she and Kiley – and Justin – walked into the theater, all jazzed about seeing a bunch of aliens coming back to earth on the silver screen – “I bet they’re really going to kick ass this time!” she saidall while Justin wondered if he’d be able to slip a finger inside…

◊◊◊◊◊

News outlets were curiously silent about these brief sightings, and what imagery and commentary that did “come out” did so through less conventional ‘online’ channels. Most of this smartphone based imagery was grainy enough to allow experts to debunk the entire affair, and reports of distorted gravity were put down to h-h-hysteria – and nothing more.

The President had called in a lot of favors to get this done, and he was happy with the results.

◊◊◊◊◊

Hope Sherman conferred with her translator, her urTed, or as Sumner liked to call her brother – Spud. The eight remaining transports – Moe’s colony ships – had been given coordinates and times, and Sherman smiled at the allegorical significance of his choices. Moe apparently had a sense of humor…or he was a real gambler.

◊◊◊◊◊

Heavy thunderstorms appeared over the Eurasian landmass, torrential rains began that afternoon, and the largest displays of undulatus asperatus clouds ever recorded followed during the evening. The eerie formations unsettled people from the Russian steppes to the desert regions south of Tehran. The fearful faithful gathered and pointed at the sky, sure that God was about to visit a mighty wrath on them all.

The first ships, completely invisible to radar, appeared over Tehran and Moscow in the deep of night, and not a half hour later over Mecca and Jerusalem. St Peter’s in Rome and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg followed. One more appeared before sunrise over a forest glade in the foothills of the Himalayas, and later that morning, at noon local time, the last ship drifted into place over a small Shinto shrine not far from Osaka.

The significance of these locations was not lost to our world’s religious leaders, and within hours almost the entire populace of the earth was on their knees, praying to objects in the sky, asking for forgiveness – all wondering what they had done to anger their God – and what might happen next.

And yet the objects remained motionless – and silent – for days, then weeks.

During this period all the earth’s mammalian marine life swam to seven points in the seven seas, and they waited in quiet depths, perhaps not knowing what was coming but completely unconcerned about their future.

◊◊◊◊◊

“The Phage. They approach at velocities we have never seen. It is a matter of weeks now, before they arrive.”

Hope Sherman looked at her Spud as he paced back and forth on the bed, looking for all the world just like Ted now. There was hair on his head now, his genetically derived illusion almost complete.

“So, there is no time?” Sherman said.

“Your leadership is paralyzed. Industries have collapsed, even agricultural productivity has ceased. Your people continue to pray – even as they starve to death. This is the most irrational display we have ever seen, and it may account for the increase in velocity we have noted. The Phage will not let this force spread among the stars.”

“The colony ships?”

“Perhaps, but you know how the Master’s feel about this.”

“I do, but…”

“But you feel responsible. You think that if you’d never built Hyperion, none of this would have happened.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps. Yet the Phage would have noticed such an intense and irrational discontinuity sooner or later. Perhaps we could have completed our mission without your assistance, yet time distortions from your seas completely altered our plans. Your arrival made our intervention possible. We are grateful.”

“But not enough to…?”

“We will try. That is all we can say now. We will try.”

Hope Sherman looked at ‘her Spud,’ her translator, and wondered what he felt about humanity, yet at times like this she asked herself if he even felt anything. As just one small part of a larger, rapidly evolving being, and with the constant input of hundreds of translators and negotiators passing through his being every waking moment, Sherman was amazed Spud could sort through the incoming data fast enough to form even one coherent sentence – let alone help formulate long term strategies. Yet she had to consider when she was talking to Spud she was also in direct contact with Moe – who was himself linked to Masters across the galaxy. The idea was an impossible point of view to wrap her head around, and even after months among them it still troubled her, yet she found the process oddly comforting. When she spoke with Spud she wasn’t getting one point of view – she was getting hundreds – simultaneously. ‘Spud’ essentially collated data and presented a consensus point of view, with his Master, the one she called Moe, in effect commanding what was relayed, what she heard.

And what she’d heard still troubled her.

Humanity was irrelevant. A sideshow to the main event. There was one ‘extra’ colony ship available to transport humans, as well as space on the large command ship that had off-loaded cargo on Mars. Maybe two million people could be resettled.

But who? Who would go?

And who would choose?

◊◊◊◊◊

urJenn sat on Sumner’s lap, in her way trying to console him. Liz and Carol looked at one another, then Ted stood and walked to the rail, hopped over to Hyperion and disappeared below.

“So? That’s it? These hell raisers, the Phage? They get here in a few weeks, find the remains of the human race and lay waste to the planet? Is that what you’re telling me is going to happen? The human race ends in a few weeks, maybe a month from now?”

“As I said, there may be room for more of you. Perhaps two million humans in total, more if we have less mass to move. A world is being prepared even now, but there is no guarantee the Phage won’t respond to your movement. We must keep the others on a different world, an ocean world well away from your new world. We must protect them at all cost, but you will be on your own – once we’ve helped you re-establish industry and agriculture. What you do with this new world will be your species future, and perhaps it’s legacy.”

Carol stood and walked over to Hyperion, leaving Liz and Sumner to look up into the night sky. He felt her leave then too, his Jennifer, and he wondered where she went, and why – but it didn’t matter now. Nothing really mattered now.

He, his people, even this world – had just been sentenced to death – and now they all sat in their collective twilight, watching the last of the sun fade against the purple mountains majesty of their home.

And their last trip to Cassis had been spooky, almost terrifying, with only a few farmers present selling produce and roving bands pillaging food. For the past several days they had all diving for fish – and finding nothing – and now he understood why…

“Perhaps? Is that what she said?” Liz asked.

“Yup – if things work out, maybe two million.”

“Seems kind of small, when you think about it.”

“Hmm? What’s that,” Sumner said, lost in a passing thought.

“Two million…people. That’s not a lot, is it?”

“It’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Who will they choose?”

“I have no idea,” but he knew the ideal candidate would be young enough to propagate the species, and intelligent enough to be valuable to a re-emergent technological society. ‘That leaves me out, too,’ he said to himself.

Liz stood and walked forward to the bow pulpit. She held onto the rail as she looked up into the sky, while Charley came and settled on Sumner’s lap. The pup looked up into his eyes and licked his chin, then the tears that rolled down his face.

He heard Carol running through Hyperion, heard her running up the companionway steps up and into the cockpit…

“He’s gone!” she screamed.

Sumner stood. “Who? Ted?”

“Smithfield was down there, and his sister too, and when I came in they all just disappeared!”

“Well, hell,” Sumner Collins said as he walked aft, grinning. “Ain’t life grand?!”

Then he too turned to the stars – and he laughed at them – while he shook his fist at the night sky.

Then he felt her there, down there in the sea – and he turned and looked at her two scars glowing in the night. He dove off the stern, dove deep – so deep he felt his lungs about to burst – and when he saw her there beside him he knew she would never leave him.

◊◊◊◊◊

Part III: When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul, then nightly sings the staring owl.

Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

Departures I

Ted Sherman and his sister, Hope, as well as a startled Grover Smithfield, blinked into existence on the first Hyperion loading platform, the one attached to ‘Moe’s’ command ship while it was still in Mar’s orbit. They made their way into the hastily constructed conference room off Hope’s sleeping cabin and sat around an oxygen polisher – that now performed double duty as a table.

“This is your meeting, Grover. What’s on your mind?” Hope said as she looked at him closely.

“The final figure is 1.2 million people. That’s it. That’s all they’re able to transport. That means seven billion people are now at risk.”

“The terraformed world they’ve chosen for our people,” Hope sighed, “the one that’s immediately habitable, is a quarter the size of our moon. Within decades we’ll reach it’s peak ability to sustain life. Within one hundred years we’ll have to be prepared to send out colonists, or our population growth will cause another implosion.”

“I understand that,” Smithfield sighed. “But do you understand – seven billion people? That many people are going to die if we can’t…?”

“I do,” Hope said. “What would you have me say?”

“We have to find another world. Another Earth, someplace for these people to go.”

She looked at Smithfield, knew what he wanted, but she’d exhausted those possibilities weeks ago. Humanity had exhausted this planet, and even without the Phage it’s time here was limited. Population explosion, resource depletion, climate change…earth really was a paradise lost.

And Ted was looking at his sister just then, just as Hope’s ‘urTed’ translator blinked into the room. Ted had never seen his doppelgänger before, though he had almost gotten used to the ur-Jennifer that always seemed to be somewhere close to Sumner; now, seeing his near self in such close proximity was unsettling – and he instinctively pulled away from ‘it’.

Hope, of course, smiled at his discomfort, at least until the ur-Ted began speaking.

“The human population on the surface has reduced by 3.4 billion. A religious reaction, but starvation, panic, sudden military interventions have been observed. By the end of this week we project more than 5 billion will have perished. We are authorized to tell you that three new colony ships will arrive, room for twenty million people has been found on a system of synthetic moons. These moons orbit in a system where three planets are being terraformed. It is possible these worlds will be ready for human habitation within ten standard years.”

“By Golly,” Smithfield said, “that’s wonderful news. How can we express our gratitude?”

The urTed looked at Smithfield, his eyes sad, full of pain. “There will be a price,” he said, his voice now dull and flat. “We are sorry.”

◊◊◊◊◊

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 August, 1430 hrs GMT. 

COG: moored, Marseilles, old port;

SOG: na; 

Temp: 107F;

Winds: SSW at 22kts; 

Barometer 29.55 rising; 

GPS:  43°17’38.04″N   5°22’0.21″E.

Still unseasonably hot. Very dry wind coming off North Africa, last night the low temperature was 97F. Almost no food available in the city, but there is power, and we have been able to fill the diesel tanks.]

Sumner Collins had moved Gemini back to the relative safety of the marina in Marseilles’ old port, a deeply sheltered harbor almost completely surrounded by the oldest part of the city, yet now he was uneasy, felt like he was being watched all the time. Ted had been gone for weeks now; he had simply disappeared, leaving Carol alone on Hyperion for several days – and then she too had simply vanished. Last week he’d heard what he thought was a thunderclap and gone on deck to check the sky – only to find Hyperion was gone. One minute the boat was there, then clap-boom – she was gone. The event had seriously unsettled him.

Liz had grown increasingly despondent after the urJenn’s announcement the Phage were coming much sooner than expected, yet she rallied for a time – after Ted left. She assumed if there was room for older people she might find a way off-world, she might survive the coming of the Phage…and then Carol had vanished. Liz fell back into a downward spiral after that, and was sleeping into mid-afternoon most days now, and rarely eating. She helped when she could but the sense of onrushing doom left her paralyzed more often than not most days.

Then Liz watched as Sumner grew increasingly disenchanted with the idea leaving, of living anywhere but Earth. He said there was no room ‘for people like me’ out among the stars, and when she’d asked him about this, about what exactly he meant by that, he’d grown sullen and withdrawn – and walked away. But he’d fallen into spells like this ever since he’d come back from Israel, and while she didn’t understand – she couldn’t get him to talk about it, either.

By this point, only Charley seemed to exercise any sort of hold on Sumner, and their unique bond only seemed to grow stronger – even as Liz’s hold on Sumner seemed to diminish – after Hyperion vanished. She didn’t truly understand Charley or what the pup meant to Sumner, or how he would – in effect – choose a dog to confide in over her, yet that’s what it felt like to her. She grew more distant and depressed – causing further withdrawal – and the cycle spiraled beyond their ability to control.

Food became harder to find, farmer’s markets were overrun as fuel dependent transportation and distribution networks broke down. Pelagic sea life had all but disappeared, but he soon found shellfish and after that they were feasting on crab and oysters almost every meal – and an occasional lobster could be had with patience – but even that diet grew stale after a week.  On top of it all, he had to run the engine to make water, and as that bit into their fuel reserves it meant they had to find fuel. And this was getting harder to do…

So, the zero-sum end game that the urJenn had laid out for them was slowing rearing it’s ugly head, coming to pass. Collins listened to the world’s death throes on his single side band radio night after night; stories of heroism filled the airwaves – but he saw little evidence of that on the streets. Tens of millions of people on their knees, overwhelming helplessness the order of the day, and yet, of all the nations of the earth, only one seemed to soldier on almost completely unaffected by the peculiar fatalism sweeping through the remaining people of the Earth. America, and to a lesser extent Canada, had proven more resilient to the religious fatalism sweeping the eurasian landmass, but only just.

One day Collins walked along the waterfront until he came to the Cathédral de Major, the city’s main cathedral, and he looked at it’s odd mishmash of styles, then at the hundreds of uncollected bodies on the plaza surrounding the building. He heard singing inside and walked past the dead and the dying until he gained the entry, and at the door he pulled a woman’s bloated body from the door and walked inside.

There were no people inside, no one sitting in the pews – not one soul taking in the music. He walked inward between rows of pews to the transept – where he paused and looked up – then he walked deeper into the building, to the choir. He watched an immaculately dressed choir of men and women singing, saw a string ensemble nearby accompanying the organ, and found a place in the shadows to sit and listen.

He drifted within the music, sat and fell into the arms of that spirit which is ultimately most human, and he found he almost felt like crying as the music washed over his parched soul. He knew the music, music somewhere from his past, a piece the Jennifer had loved, perhaps. It was Duruflé’s Requiem, and the choir was moving into the Paradisium, those final few moments of the piece long regarded as the most intimate ever scored, the composer’s intent to unleash the music of heaven – on those clinging fast to life.

As Sumner Collins drifted, he wondered when he’d lost his faith – indeed – if he’d ever possessed anything resembling faith. He’d spent his entire life hurting people – killing so many, torturing more than a few – and now, listening to this music he wanted to know why he’d done those things. Why he’d turned away from beauty, from love. Why he’d embraced such infinite darkness – in the name of – ? What? A Father? His country? He didn’t feel like a murderer, but he was, and in the worst possible way. He’d never found enjoyment in his actions, only a sort of grim satisfaction when the ends proved the means justified, and he’d marched right along to the anthems of his chosen life like any good soldier.

But that hadn’t always been the case, had it? He thought back to Smithfield’s wife, to her easy capitulation over the Atlantic, and he contrasted that experience with hundreds of others in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each human disintegration had been burned into his soul, each broken body was superimposed over his own, and there were times now when he lost track of himself, when he felt his own decomposing body atop piles of his victims. Was this, he wondered, what it felt like to take another’s life – in the name of some greater good?

The last chords of the requiem washed through the cathedral, broke over his soul, cast him adrift as the voices drifted off into evening aires. He felt all his tears just then, the tears he’d held in check for so many years. First Jennifer, then Charley and Deborah, and now he could feel Liz falling away, falling into his own peculiar darkness – only now he felt completely powerless to watch his life unfolding in the twilight. He’d done everything he could to help Jennifer, everything to save her life, then when that was not enough he’d been content to ease her suffering. Nothing. Nothing he did mattered, and in the end death came for her. And Deborah’s hallucinogenic passing, with something akin to Debussy at her side, with Lennon beckoning from the shadows? What did it mean?

He stood after a while, saw the choir had already left and he wondered how long he’d been sitting in the darkness. He thought of Phoebe, lost up there on the Norman coast with that lip smacking psychiatrist…and he wanted to see her again, hold her when the time came…but no, she’d finally found someone to hold as her own night came. He’d talked to them last week, heard her playing the Orgeron piece once again while he talked to Mann. He knew she couldn’t ever say goodbye. They were too close for such expressions, so thoroughly conjoined words would never suffice.

Why, he wondered as he looked up at the vaulted ceiling, was it irrational to believe in something greater than ourselves? Why had the visitor’s ships descended upon and hovered over humanity’s symbols of mystery, the home of all her irrational imaginations? Had those alien minds known that earth’s people had already reached a tipping point of dissolution, that humanity had arrived at that point where faith doubted so long simply snapped? Had those distant minds known that the human spirit was, in the end, only so strong?

◊◊◊◊◊

And why was it was that not one of their huge ships had settled over an American city?

Was it that the people of the Americas were isolated in other ways – by their oceans, perhaps, or the relative newness of their civilizations. The people of North America, in particular, had seemed to grow ever more resilient when they looked at the ships above Rome and Jerusalem, Mecca and the Himalayan foothills. Their faith, the ‘Vulcans’ sensed, seemed rooted more in themselves, more in the material world than in something so nebulous as God, and the ‘Vulcans’ realized they were looking at perhaps the most utterly human of all the races they’d observed on this planet.

And yet they looked down on these Americans with understanding. They’d been like that too, once, and they knew from their own troubled experience all the outcomes that might have been – had these Americans been allowed to move off into the stars. But they were too much a threat, their unique fusion of the rational and the mystical. Their fatalism was far too dangerous to simply cast loose among the stars, and so only a few would be taken aboard the colony ships.

Because most of all the ‘Vulcans’ remembered a time when the Phage had very nearly found them. When they’d first achieved a level of technological expertise that permitted spaceflight, before the time when population pressure and resource depletion had very nearly caused a complete collapse of their world.

And yet, these ‘Vulcans’ thought, the people of this planet had absolutely no idea what was coming their way. Or why. Now the ‘Vulcans’ wondered what they might have done, once upon a time, if they had been so ignorant of the reality closing in around them. If they’d looked with wonder and awe upon the vast fields of stars around their Homeworld – until it was too late to act.

And then, after weeks of silence, after burning days and nights while the people of the earth stared up at huge, silent spacecraft, each of the eight ships moved away silently – in the light of day – and hours later settled over spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from land and in the middle of the seven seas. The ships settled into the waters of the earth’s oceans – and disappeared. Lost in frantic despair, the remaining people of the earth looked at broadcasts of the ships moving out to sea, watched them sink into the seas – and those still living wondered what it all meant. When the ships did not reappear there was a sudden collapse of the human spirit.

And in the emptiness that followed, the remaining few wondered if there had indeed ever been any meaning to human suffering.

And that night, while most of the earth’s people slept, the television broadcast began. The program simply crushed all other programming, pushed it aside, moved it away, and for the very first time, the people of earth listened to a voice from the stars.

The President of the United States of America was sitting in his office, in the West Wing of the White House, when the broadcast first started playing. He was not amused, and appeared to be in no mood to listen.

◊◊◊◊◊

Departures II

An owl, and a fairy.

That’s what most people thought when the broadcast started. They were looking at an owl, and someone who looked, perhaps, somewhat like the Tinker Bell of their dreams.

But the owl was staring at them. Benevolently, perhaps, but people saw sadness, and perhaps even wisdom in the owl’s eyes.

And then the owl spoke.

“Good evening, my name is Hope,” the owl began, “and I am speaking with you tonight from a ship in orbit above the earth, 4,000 miles above Antarctica. Tonight I have a story to tell you, a most unhappy story, a story with a sad ending – for most of us – ”

And the owl told them of the people in the spaceships, people from another star. She told them of a race of people she’d come to call the Vulcans; because, she said, these beings seemed to be guided by principles of pure logic, and that this race had millennia ago turned away from irrationalism and mysticism. They had become explorers, as once the people of earth had been, and, perhaps, how we might become like them once again.

They were explorers. Seekers. A People willing to reach beyond themselves – into the unknown. As we had been, before we were consumed by fantasy and illusion.

She told the people of earth a little of what she knew about the people who built the ships, the ships that had settled over the earth’s religious centers. They were a race that had moved out into the stars tens of millions of years ago, a people who took worlds and remade them when they expanded outward, into the systems beyond their Homeworld. This race, she told the people of the earth, now counted hundreds of planetary systems as their own, and she spoke of the literally hundreds of planets they now traveled between. She spoke of having visited several of these worlds already, and she tried to convey the majesty of the worlds she beheld, and the people who ruled them.

And then she told them of the Phage:

“There is a force in our galaxy,” she began, “that appears to exist for no other purpose than to eliminate irrationalism, in whatever form it takes.” She paused, let the words sink in. “Religion is one such force,” she said, “but the Vulcan’s seem to have accepted that this form of thought is self-limiting, that religious cultures always collapse as various contradictory and self-destructive impulses overwhelm other cultural institutions, and the Vulcans have accepted for some time our species now approaches such a fate. The Vulcans do not think we will escape our destiny, but they are prepared to offer a refuge of sorts – for some of us. That said, the Vulcans did not come to our earth to rescue us. There is another species on our planet, one even more irrational than humans, but one which possesses – a power – that the Vulcans want to preserve. They are now taking steps to insure the continuity that species.

“One week from today the Vulcan mission on earth will be at an end. One week and one hour from now those humans whom the Vulcans have chosen will be taken from earth. The final number is not known as even now the Vulcans are gathering resources to save as many humans as they can. Some of you will be resettled on planets the Vulcans have already established, some will be housed in temporary facilities around worlds that are being terraformed, but the vast majority of people alive now will – not – be transported. Those people not chosen next week will remain here on earth, and these people will be here – on earth – when the Phage arrive.

“The Phage will arrive soon after the Vulcan’s depart. The exact time of the Phage’s arrival is not known, but it could be as soon as a ten days, perhaps as long as two weeks. The Vulcans have observed, from afar, what the Phage do to the worlds they target – and they have taken steps to do so this time. They have advised that there is no chance of survival, that there is no weaponry powerful enough to defeat this force.

“There remains an outside chance that the Vulcans will be able to relocate more of us before the Phage arrive. If this appears likely, there will be one more broadcast after The Departure.” 

The owl named Hope looked out at the people she addressed, then said “Goodbye to you all,” before the broadcast faded away. Normal broadcasts around the world resumed, and while a curious sense of Hope prevailed, people began to look up into the night sky with more than just curiosity and wonder.

Those people who paused to stare into space now did so with hearts full of darkness – their minds full of something unfettered and wild – something now well beyond fear.

◊◊◊◊◊

Sumner felt the sense of finality everywhere he walked now, and the few people he did run across seemed to waver somewhere along this newly discovered – and vast – razor’s edge between dread and nothingness. And a few of these people passed on reports they’d heard from the few observatories still operating: the Coalsack Nebula had roughly tripled in size, while Doppler and angular velocity measurements indicated that whatever was coming to earth was coming – ‘from right there, in the middle of Caldwell 99’ – and it was coming fast.

Most people on earth had been too far north to observe the looming cloud, but when simulations revealed the Coalsack’s apparent change in magnitude fear turned to panic, panic to hysteria and, finally, hysteria into a sort of resignation that bordered on listlessness.

Then people in the northern hemisphere began to make out the pure blackness of the Coalsack. One night the southern horizon went dark; the next night the blackness filled the half the night sky, well into mid-northern latitudes…

…and three nights later more than two thirds of the northern sky was obscured by the vast, expanding Coalsack, yet the shattered remnants of humanity who stared into the night sky were no longer afraid.

These people had endured too much over the past several weeks to experience fear as anything other than a pale, washed-out emotion, an emotion no longer able to command their attention for very long. Fear, Collins knew all too well, is what people experience when they still have some hope for the future, and that when hope is at long last gone, so too is fear. Nothing remains, nothing but the last grudging acceptance of an imponderable fate, and as earth’s remaining people stood out under the night sky, watching vast fields of stars simply smudged out of existence before the advancing cloud, they could at last see the form death would take in it’s final confrontation with life on earth.

◊◊◊◊◊

The Departure

Exactly one week after the owl spoke people began ‘winking’ out of existence, and within hours a pattern to these disappearances began to emerge. Younger women disappeared at twice the rate men did, yet the physically infirm? None at all had gone. Scientists, physicians, engineers and builders of all sorts vanished immediately, while prisons and shelters for the indigent remained untouched. A literal handful of people over forty vanished, yet even those older people who disappeared were notable for their intellectual ability, while almost a half million academically undistinguished men, almost all involved in the construction trades, vanished immediately. Philosophers by the thousands vanished, yet not one lawyer was unaccounted for after that long day’s journey into night.

And then the owl announced herself again. American and Canadian farmers and ranchers, she said, those few still alive, had 24 hours to tend to their affairs and get ready for transfer, and these men and women were to gather their herds and seed-stocks immediately. After a final farewell, she was gone again.

Librarians went to their libraries the next morning, only to find shelves had been picked over. Laboratories were similarly ransacked, and factories too. The means to pick up where humanity had left off were already aboard the ‘Vulcan’s’ ships, and a day later the last ‘essential’ people were gone.

And those remaining on earth woke to yet another new reality.

There was no escape now. Whatever the Phage were, they were close and getting closer. Food had all but disappeared, and now there was no means to produce more. Cities grew dark when power plants failed, all means of transportation ground to a halt within a few hours and people seemed to retreat further into themselves.

Families and communities gathered in the night. They built fires and told stories, and listened to one another as they never had before. That thing called love was on display now, and at long last people reached out to one another…they reached out while they looked up at the night sky, remembering.

And soon the vast black cape of the Coalsack had swung ‘round and blotted out the night sky; only the Sun and her planets remained visible now, and most people felt the sky had become a metaphor of their future. Still, they took some comfort from Jupiter and Saturn and all our neighbors…

…and then – Neptune disappeared…

◊◊◊◊◊

Goodbyes

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 21 August, 0730 hrs GMT+1. 

COG: 200M, 200 yards off l’île de la Tortue, departing Marseilles;

SOG: 5.3kts; 

Temp: 97F;

Winds: NNW at 12kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:   43°12’55.54″N   5°19’17.12″E.

Cooling, though still very warm. Cool, dry wind coming off the Alps, last night the low temperature was 93F. No food available in the city now, anywhere; I would have expected riots under other circumstances, but most people have simply retreated indoors to wait for the inevitable. A neighbor on the boat next to Gemini stood outside and watched with us two nights ago, and we watched the Coalsack for a half hour or so. He’s from the UK and planning to return, to be at home when it happens, but frankly, I don’t think he has time and told him just that. At any rate, he left yesterday morning, and Liz went with him. She said she wanted to be home too. C’est la vie, I suppose. Charley and I sat up last night and we’d been watching the sky for a while when my old friend turned up, my dolphin. I jumped in with her, and I don’t know, but I had the damnedest feeling she was talking to me. Never felt that way before…not like the way it was last night.]

Collins felt Liz’s departure acutely now, and he drifted back to that time north of Bermuda after Charley passed, and the dolphin took her from him – took his friend into the night. He fell into the absolute loneliness that had come for him as he watched her fall away into the depths, crushing all hope from his life as she left. But the dolphin had sensed his despair, and then she’d simply stayed with him, swimming lazily alongside Gemini day after day. He recalled how he’d dropped sail from time to time, how she’d consoled him when he joined her in the water.

And she appeared the night after Liz left –

He was sitting on the aft deck looking at the moon rising over the old city, surprised at how utterly quiet the night was. No cars or buses, no trains leaving the station, and only a very few people out – and those few he saw stopped to stare at the black veil of the night – when he heard a commotion in the water and saw her dorsal fin in the inky blackness.

She was there, only agitated now. He jumped into the water beside her and held her for what felt like hours, and when she leaned against him he heard little moaning sighs coming from deep within – and he could see fear in her eyes. When at last she calmed down he felt her communicating – with him. Definitely a link of some sort, then he felt visions – before he saw them. Swimming one moment – underwater amidst vast schools of fish – and then adrift among stellar nurseries. Tumbling endlessly among vast fiery nebulae, the Coalsack turning to follow as she ran.

And then, in a voice as clear as any he’d ever heard: “We must leave. You must follow.”

He pulled back from her, looked her in the eye.

“We must leave, now?” he repeated back to her.

She became very agitated as he spoke, swam away at an impossible speed – then turned and rocketed back to his side.

“Now? We must leave now?”

And she nodded her head, almost hysterical now – then her body rose out of the water and grew quite still.

Collins turned and followed her eye, and he saw a woman on the dock behind Gemini.

At first he didn’t recognize her, but he could see the woman was terrified – shivering and terrified. She was standing knock-kneed, her arms crossed protectively over her breast, her hands on her shoulders…

He felt the dolphin pushing him, pushing him to the dock; he swam to the aft platform and pulled himself up into the night and jumped across to the dock…

And he found himself face to face with Corrine Duruflé.

She was aghast, trembling uncontrollably, her face awash with tears.

“Corrine?”

Nothing. No response – yet he saw her eyes were almost crossed, yet focused somewhere above, perhaps on the enveloping Coalsack.

He turned and looked up into the night again, and now saw ragged streaks of red headed towards earth.

◊◊◊◊◊

Now he was steering Gemini through the outer harbor, motoring to the southeast under autopilot while he wrapped Corrine in a blanket – and he had yet no see a change in her. He’d carried her over to the cockpit and cast off lines, getting underway as quickly as he could. Once they were clear of the l’île de la Tortue the dolphin turned almost directly east, and Gemini followed.

At one point he saw missiles arcing up into the blackness – but whatever they were, whoever had launched them – they simply disappeared. He saw no detonations, heard no explosions. The red streaks remained, only now there were more of them.

They motored out of Marseilles, sailed towards the Calanque he and Liz had been anchored at just a few months back, and still Corrine seemed lost to this world. By mid-morning the wind had picked up and Gemini was broad-reaching under a full main and 120% genoa, barreling along at an honest eight knots. He went below and fixed sandwiches, poured two Dr Peppers and carried them back up into the cockpit.

He held the sandwich under Corrine’s nose and she sniffed at it, shook her head for a moment then stared at Sumner…

“Who…what are you doing here?” she said at last

“Who…me? What am I doing here?”

“Yes, you.”

“Well, take a look around.”

Corrine looked at him, then around the boat. She turned and looked at the shoreline about five miles off to her left – and seemed stunned.

“Where am I? Am I dead?”

“Not as far as I can tell, but I’ve had my doubts. We’re about a third of the way from Marseilles to Toulon, sailing east, following my friend there,” he said, pointing at his dolphin.

Corrine stood and looked at the dolphin. “Your friend?”

“Yes. She’s my friend. You remember? From Honfleur?”

“So. I am dead. Or I am having a, what is the word…?”

“Nightmare? And no, you’re not dead, and as far as I can tell you’re wide awake now. What’s the last thing you remember?”

She looked around again, as if taking her bearings one more time – just to be sure. “I was home. Things are very bad. Fire…fires everywhere, unimaginable riots. The police and fire brigades finally gave up. I was near the Bastille, near the marina. I went down to see if you might have returned…”

“You know, you’re the only woman I know who’d dress for the end of the world in five inch heels.”

She looked down at her shoes and laughed. “Old habits, Sumner.”

“I remember you saying once you’d like to get away from it all, maybe sail with me to Polynesia.”

“Ah. Is that why I’m here? I think I said we’d end up together, didn’t I?”

He shook his head, looked up at the sky: the red streaks visible now in daylight, and the sky had taken on oddly variegated violet hues, the sea an even more peculiar, purple-gold color that was now oddly streaked.

“Oh, over there,” she said suddenly, pointing off the port quarter. “Another dolphin!”

Collins turned and saw this new one, then turned and looked aft…

Yes, there she was. Hyperion – under full sail, about two hundred yards astern – with Carol at the wheel and Ted cleaning-up lines on the foredeck…and…was that Hopie sitting on the aft rail – looking at him?

◊◊◊◊◊

Coda

Hyperion and Gemini followed the dolphin past the rocks, around the little lighthouse and beyond, into the tiny, protected harbor that revealed itself beyond cliffs of granite and pine. The village of Portofino looked empty, almost deserted, yet Collins could see one sailboat tied bow-to the seawall just ahead. It was an old Hinckley, blue-hulled and elegant, one of the Southwester’ 42s he’d admired along the Maine coast decades ago, and now he looked through his binoculars at the boat. The name on the stern was Springer, and he saw the companionway hatch was open – and a very small brown and white pup sitting under the dodger. When the pup saw him, or rather Gemini and Hyperion, sailing into the harbor it stood and started barking. Even through his field glasses, Collins could see the hair on the back of the pup’s neck standing on end, and he smiled – until Charley saw the pup and ran up to the bow.

Now it was a contest of wills…

Then he saw a man come up from below, binoculars in hand and moving to the aft rail of his boat. Soon they were looking at one another – through their binoculars – sizing up whatever threat that might exist – but among Springer owners? There was a kind of universal bond between such people, wasn’t there? No, the man put his glasses down and moved off to the seawall, presumably to help him secure dock-lines, but well before Gemini pulled into the harbor he saw more dolphins circling in the water behind the other man’s boat. Five, no – six of them – and when ‘his’ dolphin saw the other pod it rocketed off into the harbor for a reunion of infinite joy.

And the man on the stone quay stared at this new dolphin, then back at him – and Collins could see things beginning to fall into place – for them both – and when he saw the man visibly relax he did too. Collins swung the bow around and coasted to a stop in the middle of the harbor, then used the thruster to line up with the quay as he backed-down, dropping an anchor on the way in. He brought Gemini to a stop about a meter off the stone wall, then hopped back to toss his lines over to the man on the quay. After checking the lines and setting the anchor he cut the engine, then looked around the harbor for other people, but apparently the man standing quayside was the only soul still stirring.

“Sumner Collins,” he said after he got up on the quay, and as he held out his hand. “Nice to see someone here.”

“Tom Goodwin,” the man said, taking his hand.

“Is this place as empty as it looks? We haven’t seen another vessel since we left Marseilles.”

“Not many people left,” Goodwin said, shaking his head slowly. “About half the people in town here passed within a week of the arrival. It was like someone flipped a light switch. People stopped eating and drinking. Didn’t take long after that.”

“Same thing in southern France. Folks just stopped caring.”

“Not up north.”

“Oh,” Collins said, “what’s happened?”

“The Russians and Chinese started lobbing nukes last night night, at America and Germany, for the most part. Nobody up there stopped them this time. The US counterstrike is still underway.”

“What?!”

“Shortwave broadcasts this morning said most of the world’s major cities are toast, missile silos too. Bombers should be reaching their targets over the next few hours; that’s the word on the nets, anyway.”

“Damn. It’s not enough we have some sort of galactic plague bearing down on us now. We had to go and do their work for them?”

Goodwin shrugged. “That dolphin with you?” he asked as he turned to the commotion behind their boats.

“Yup. She’s been with me for about a year.”

Goodwin nodded his head. “These guys have been with me for a while. I think they’ve been waiting for your’s to get here.” Collins looked at Goodwin as his eyes followed Hyperion into the turning basin, yet as he recognized Hope Sherman on the aft rail he seemed to stand a little straighter, grow a little more self-conscious. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably.”

Goodwin looked from Sherman to the dolphins in the water: they were silent now, staring at the old woman kneeling on the aft swim platform as she talked to the dolphins. Sumner watched as she talked to one like it was an old friend – and he grew cool inside, and light-headed, then he looked up at the sky.

Though it was not quite noon the sky was rapidly turning dark, and everywhere he turned he saw a world bathed in splotchy purple light. The red streaks were more prominent now too, and while they’d not reached earth, for the first time he thought he could hear something new in the air. Almost like static, almost like a someone up there was tearing an infinitely long cardboard box – and the sound was new – like it had just started; Hope Sherman stood and looked at the sky now, the dolphins off Hyperion’s stern were leaning over, looking up, too.

Collins looked at the dolphins now, at these old friends floating in otherworldly color, and he wondered why they hadn’t left with the others. He looked at them and wondered what role they’d come to play in all their deaths, then he helped tie-off Hyperion to the quay.

Soon everyone was on the quay, and Goodwin looked at Hope Sherman like he knew her, like maybe they’d met somewhere before.

“I think we’re running out of time,” Hope Sherman said – as she looked at Tom Goodwin. “Are you ready?”

He nodded his head. “Follow me.”

Collins felt lost when he heard this last exchange, and the group took off to the east, walking along tree-lined paths up the steep hill, then along the spine of the ridge out to the point.

Collins saw rocks down below, close little tidal pools nestled among them, then he saw them – the dolphins – as they rounded the point and came into one of the pools. They looked up expectantly as the group picked their way through the rocky outcroppings down to the pool and as, one by one, the humans took off their clothes…

…then Collins saw two other people were already in the water, waiting for them…

…seven humans, and seven dolphins…

The sky was almost black now, though it was just mid-afternoon, and huge red clots began to take shape in the sky, drifting slowly through clouds to the waiting remnants of humanity. The tearing sound was louder now, and growing more so by the moment; when Collins looked up the red-streaks seems bordered with fire, and clouds seemed to run from the heat. Soon everywhere Collins looked he saw a world on fire…mountains, forests, towns across the bay…all lost in a torrent of lava-like flame, and for a moment he had the impression the earth was being purified, like a cosmic reset button had been punched…

And then they were all together, in the sea, and the dolphins were among them. Circling. Very. Fast.

Sumner Collins was aware of a sudden growing light, and with his passing the earth grew very still.

©2016 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | This work of fiction concludes ‘The Journey from Driftwood’ trilogy, and closes out Passegiatta, as well. The story will conclude this coming October 31st with ‘An Evening at the Carnival with Mr Christian.’ Again, while this is a conclusion of sorts, little will make sense until you’ve been to the carnival. Bring lots of popcorn.

3 thoughts on “Time, Like a River

  1. can there be such a thing as open ended closure?

    with such heavy thoughts to ponder you still find ways to slip in a zinger

    “yet not one lawyer was unaccounted for after that long day’s journey into night”

    the final scene was reminiscent of a similar enactment in a small cove in Italy.

    thanks for the smiles and the anticipation

    Like

  2. My comments never seem to make it to the page. What am I doing wrong?

    Quite good, not a fan of your politics, and do not share the same concept of zero sum resources, but marvel at your audacity to attack the big themes purpose of life, why are we here, what else is out there, etc.

    Like

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