Atoll

David M. Kelly

“Do they really think they’ll get away with it?”

Several people nearby looked towards Guy Addison as his voice carried further than intended. The brightly lit gardens were a place meant for quiet reflection, unaccustomed to the strident tones of indignation disturbing the mild breeze.

“Your reaction is predictable. I understand the decision, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.” Fyrn Moriaby spoke softly. “We’d fail our social responsibility if we continued allowing uncontrolled immigration.”

Addison felt himself bristle despite the respect he had for his long-time friend. Fardosh-Baird immigration policies were not within orbit of being”uncontrolled.” Like all Atolls, they maintained strict rules of entry. Fyrn’s job was managing that in fact. The only difference between them and the other Atolls, up until now, was that they would at least consider immigration applications from Earth citizens.

“It’s blatant discrimination. We don’t have a choice where we’re born. We aren’t as lucky as—” Addison caught himself before he slipped into a personal attack, “—as the people of the Atolls. We’re stuck on Earth. If you and the others stop immigration, we’ve nowhere left to go.”

Fyrn frowned. “I don’t understand you. You spend as little time on Earth as possible. And you applied for immigration several years ago. Why do you group yourself with them? You’re more of the stars than Earth.”

“I hate it when you do that.” Addison could never disassociate his emotions like that. Fyrn, like most Atoll residents, had logic down to an annoyingly fine art and also, as usual, was correct. “I’m a shuttle commander, so I spend a lot of time in space. It comes with the job.”

“That’s one reason, but you have to admit you’re much happier here than when you return to the planet, aren’t you? What is it you say when you have to go back? SOS? It’s an amusing acronym.” Fyrn smiled, her teeth even and bright, contrasting with her coffee-colored skin. “You’re as disdainful of Earth as the worst New Konigsburg bigot.”

Addison pulled back slightly. New Konigsburg was notoriously anti-Earth. They were the first Atoll to ban the scroffers, the name they used for Earth residents. It hurt that Fyrn compared him to such elitists.

“I know a lot of people don’t do very well. The social systems have been creaking for decades, and it sometimes feels like they rejoice in their own ignorance, but if you remove their last hope of escape, then what? They’re human beings. The Atolls shouldn’t deny their heritage.”

Fyrn skipped along the edge of the path, her feet scuffing softly against the sandy paving as she almost glided in the low gravity. “You don’t associate with them any more than you have to. Your indignation is disingenuous. Allowing open immigration has no benefit to us. We don’t deny our heritage, but the Earth we came from originally no longer exists.”

“You’re denying us the chance of a better life.”

“Think about it, Addison. Atoll culture and customs are very different. Statistics show that Earth people rarely stay, and the acclimation process is very costly, in cultural as well as financial terms.” Fyrn stopped and faced Addison directly, her hands on her waist. “Why should we bear the cost of trying to integrate the unprincipled and iniquitous?”

“I thought you knew us better than that.”

“I know you better. You and others I meet through work. That’s the opinion held by most of our less enlightened people.” Fyrn bent over to relish the rich scent of a group of purple and orange orchids. “This doesn’t affect you personally. Immigration isn’t being completely stopped.”

Addison shook his head. “That’s not the point. It might as well be absolute. How many from Earth have sufficient contact with Atolliers to get a personal immigration recommendation?”

“Very few, and that’s for the best too. The people of Earth have changed. Any vitality there used to be has gone. You recognize that, even if you won’t admit it.”

The discussion was essentially over. The gulf in their respective viewpoints was significant, and Addison couldn’t close it by himself so changed the subject. “How’s the new node coming? Someone told me you’d doubled the growth rate.”

“True, and it’s an amazing step forward. The node will be full volume within a month. Not only that, the Lattice now has standard conduits and power transmission structures built into its growth matrix. That will save months in rigging work.” Fyrn hesitated. “Addison, I’d be happy to be your immigration sponsor, if that’s worrying you. With your background you wouldn’t be denied.”

“I was.” Addison’s instantly regretted the sharpness of his response. It was stupid to hold on to the resentment after all this time.

“That wasn’t…” Fyrn stopped as Addison held up his hand.

“I have a launch window in ninety minutes and you promised to buy me lunch.”

Fyrn sighed, looping her arm through his. “Addison, if we were married I’d punch you.”

“I have that effect on most women.” Addison bowed. “Unfortunately, from my perspective, you already have one husband too many.”

“That’s what I tell him.” Fyrn laughed for the first time since the conversation had started. “Let’s eat. There’s a refectory opened up that serves traditional Malaysian dishes with a great view of the new node.”

*

Addison winced at the smell of slightly rancid fast food from the vendors surrounding the high vaulted main hall of the Cincinnati Gateway. He pushed through the crowds, watching them closely. News of the immigration closure had brought out every nut and protester, choking the public areas of the spaceport even more than usual. After the two days he’d just had, it was the last thing he needed.

He hated it when a forty-eight left him stranded on Earth. The safety aspects of the layovers were obvious, but the enforced inactivity made him feel trapped. This one had been worse than usual. The immigration news had gone public, so the media was overflowing with every crackpot and self-appointed “pundit” going. Then there had been Susan.

The message to call had been waiting when he landed and, despite the fact that they hadn’t been legally married for several years, he’d rushed to her immediately.

As usual she was in trouble, though thankfully not as bad as some previous occasions, and it only cost Addison a few thousand. The problem was that any debts were charged against the house. If they weren’t paid, the debtors would simply arrange a compulsory sale and leave her homeless.

Susan was as apologetic and tearful as ever, blaming herself and Addison in equal parts. He wasn’t sure what more he could do. He’d left her clear title to the house and gave her enough each month to enable her to live more comfortably than he did, even though he wasn’t legally obligated. Nepenth wasn’t addictive in a physical sense, but the chemical removal of guilt was. If only she’d been able to fight it, maybe they could have worked things out, he thought.

He’d explained carefully that it was the last time he’d help, and Susan nodded seriously when Addison booked her into a course of counseling and detox sessions. As with earlier attempts, he knew she’d only attend the first two or three.

Like its older and cruder analogs, Nepenth only masked the true problem. But, by insulating the user from responsibility, it also removed the need to confront the problem. Without that, Addison felt, any form of a real cure was impossible.

“Spare some change, Cap’n?”

Addison ignored the beggar sprawled on the rubberized floor near the staff entrance. If only he was strong enough to deal with Susan similarly. He’d done the right thing and would do it again if necessary. Every time he thought about what happened he told himself he had nothing to feel guilty about, but somehow it never quite worked.

“Don’t growl at the passengers, Guy. You know it makes them nervous.” Addison looked around to see a svelte figure moving towards him. Chantelle Aasht could bring a breath of sophistication anywhere, even the tarnished caverns of the Gateway.

“Hi, sorry.”

“I’ve been less than five meters from you since you entered the Gateway. Am I that easy to ignore?” Despite her play of being upset, her smile was unforced.

“I guess I was preoccupied. Who’s growling?”

“You. Not out loud perhaps, but your face was.” Chantelle tutted and brushed some dust from his uniformed shoulder. “I heard Susan called.”

Addison sighed. “Is nothing private?”

“Don’t avoid, Guy.” Chantelle linked arms with him. “What happened?”

“What am I supposed to do?” He shrugged. “She’s my wife, so I help her.”

“She isn’t your wife, Guy. Not anymore. That’s why we have divorce courts.” Chantelle shook her head, waving her rich, flaxen hair. “You can’t protect her from herself—being her permanent crutch doesn’t help either of you.”

A sprawling mob swamped the broad concourse in front of the departure desks, the shuffling congregation blocking their way as Addison and Chantelle turned the corner. “What’s all this?” he asked.

“You must have heard. Fardosh-Baird is ending immigration.”

“A few days ago actually, but why this?”

“Everyone is lying, begging, and stealing to get on the last flights. Trying to establish useful contacts before the deadline. We’re booked to overflowing.”

“Are they really crazy enough to think someone would sponsor them on the basis of a couple of brief meetings?”

“Look around, Guy. Insanity is the new reality.”

As Addison and Chantelle threaded through the uncontrolled swell of people, a scuffle broke out as a cadaverous, dark haired man jostled with a middle-aged couple, his squeals of protest clearly audible despite the noise of the crowd and ever-present thrum of activity.

“Out of my way, fools. I have to get through.”

“There’s a line here, buddy. Get to the back.” The floridly dressed man and his equally rotund wife formed an impenetrable flesh barrier.

The thin man tried to push by them again, and in the struggle one of his bags burst open like a dying piñata. Addison estimated there was at least ten thousand in notes covering the floor. There was a shout, then people were scooping up handfuls of cash. The man scampered around, hands in the air as he shrieked, like a farmer trying to chase crows away from spilled seed.

“Get away! Get away! I need that for the tollers.” He looked around wildly, then his eye caught Addison’s uniform. “Do something! You must help me.”

Addison didn’t move. Toller wasn’t a complimentary name for Atoll residents, and he disliked it under any circumstances. As he watched, a Security team buffeted through the crowd to retrieve the man and quell the spreading hysteria, but even with their arrival, Addison felt the chances of recovering more than an insignificant proportion of the money were slim.

*

Seventy-five minutes later, Addison had completed the pre-launch checks, the cabin crew signals indicated the passengers were on board and the hatches sealed. Through the narrow-slitted cockpit windows he could see the last of the ground crew moving away, and the yellow pre-launch lit up among the flickering banks of controls that surrounded the pilot seats.

“Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Commander Addison. Welcome aboard Sierra Spaceways flight SRS-103 to Fardosh-Baird. We’ll be launching in a few minutes, and I hope you enjoy your flight.”

“Our journey today will take us out over the Atlantic Ocean, and total flight time is estimated at eleven hours. We ask that you remain seated until we have achieved LEO and while the caution light is on. Today’s cabin crew is supervised by Chantelle Aasht. If you require any assistance, please use the call buttons on the armrests.”

Addison waited while the various crew members indicated “green” status before contacting flight control. Terse messages relayed over the comm link then the ship reverberated with a loud clang, trembling in the magnetic womb of the tubiform MagChute as the umbilicals and walkways retracted. Several indicators flashed and the cabin lights dimmed, informing him that the ship was now independent. Addison raised both hands, one holding the grained plastic control stick lightly, the other hovering over the override.

The launch process was fully automatic, but Addison took no comfort from that—any system as complicated as a shuttle launch had an almost infinite number of possible points of failure. The ‘Chute was only the first. Without it the ship wouldn’t have the velocity to ignite the scramjets, leaving little chance of anything other than a controlled crash.

The dull hum created by the magnetic envelope rose in pitch as the field tightened, squeezing the shuttle in a powerful stabilizing grip. Seconds later, the field leapt forward, impelling the ship’s curved aerodynamic form forward through the containment rings, increasing velocity until it burst as a ceramic composite bullet from the end of the MagChute.

The scramjets cut in perfectly, sending the ship in a curving ascent that rapidly approached, then passed, the wispy cloud layer. Although the initial lung-crushing launch decreased, Addison still felt an excited tightness in his chest. The raw forces harnessed during the launch sequence always brought an exhilaration and an almost reverent trepidation that no one wanted to admit. In over twenty years of flying shuttles, he’d never grown tired of the adrenaline hit and felt sorry for the passengers, cocooned in acceleration-dampened seating, who never truly felt the rush.

The adaptive canard surfaces and stubby delta main wings glistened as their leading edges caught the bright mid-morning sun, the flight systems constantly adjusting their shape and profile to optimize the shuttle’s course and correct its motion. The entire ship’s cross-section changed, becoming closer to the ideal arrowhead delta as its velocity increased. The sky graduated into steadily deeper shades of blue-purple and Addison searched intently for the appearance of the first star. That always signified to him the real crossing from atmosphere to space. When he saw it he breathed deeply, tasting as always the slightly sour antiseptic that came from the between flight cleaning. Finally he could relax a little.

*

“LEO achieved. We have orbital stability of approximately fourteen hundred minutes,” Addison announced to the passengers and crew.

Twenty-three hours until orbital decay was more than enough for safety. The flight plan defined less than four hours before final lift to Fardosh-Baird. Satisfied they were secure, Addison switched the caution signs off. Most people weren’t comfortable with zero-g and would stay in their seats, though every few flights someone would decide to be a “spaceman” with predictably disastrous consequences. He hoped Chantelle was spared clean-up duty this time.

Addison analyzed the actual and planned trajectory. The planned flight-path was an ideal, and he wanted no surprises. The last thing they needed was a course correction while some passenger was showing off floating around.

Using the NavStation, Addison calculated a number of alternate vectors, basing each one on a variety of different scenarios such as lack of fuel, engine or control failure, and even emergency re-entry. The standard flight plan in the computer would undoubtedly get the ship to its destination, if everything went well—but it would be his judgment and responsibility to make it to the best possible alternative.

The alarm signifying orbital departure sounded. Addison stopped checking alternates and flipped the caution signs back on. The boost from LEO to Fardosh-Baird Atoll would be at eighth gee, providing an undoubtedly welcome relief to a number of protesting stomachs unused to freefall.

Once more Addison positioned himself at the controls, and again the programmed maneuver executed flawlessly. The transition from LEO to the station approach vector was far less dramatic, producing none of the adrenalin of the earlier operations—instead the Ion thrusters burned for several minutes steadily increasing the ship’s velocity to the planned speed.

“Fardosh-Baird control, this is Sierra flight SRS-103.” Addison’s voice was loud in the quiet flight deck.

“Acknowledge SRS-103.” The mechanical intonation of the response identified it immediately as an automatic system.

“Outbound from LEO. ETA 12.37 Universal Time using approach eleven.”

“Confirm SRS-103. You are on approach 11. ETA 12.37.” The system paused as it ran a voice match. “Welcome back, Commander Addison.”

Further course adjustments should be unnecessary until they were on final approach, so Addison locked the flight controls and turned the caution lights off again in the passenger lounge. If anyone really wanted to move, there was no reason not to allow them to now they’d completed orbital changes. Personally, he preferred the weightlessness anyway.

After running a series of standard diagnostics, Addison leaned back in the padded pilot’s chair staring out at the welcoming points of light. How long before the cuts start, he wondered. With no immigration the shuttle flights would inevitably diminish. Most visitors to the Atolls were looking to emigrate, even if they didn’t say so, and there would no doubt be a backlash that would lower tourist appeal.

There was Fyrn’s offer of sponsorship. It would give Addison opportunities he wouldn’t otherwise have. With deep space training he’d be eligible for the Ceres Project—mining the Asteroid Belt appealed to the adventurer inside him. Longer term there was the fledgling Oort cloud mapping, a task for a lifetime if ever there was one.

Addison knew the majority of emigrants didn’t fully adjust. Two thirds of PHINCIs—those expelled for “philosophy inconsistent with the common interest”—were immigrants. The Atolls demanded high levels of tolerance, cooperation, and intelligence—they also had no qualms about removing those who didn’t make the grade. Sadly they were the qualities that appeared to be increasingly lacking in the majority of his fellow Earth citizens.

Do I even care anymore, he wondered. Perhaps it was guilt. The values he admired seemed to have been lost a long time ago. Political indecision was rife—short term policies were carried out for no reason other than to pander to popular demand. That failure to make the hard choices meant things only got worse. People were never held accountable. Merit was ignored and ignorance rewarded.

The soft burr of the intercom interrupted Addison’s thoughts, and he thumbed the button. For several moments he heard nothing but an odd unidentifiable scratching noise.

“Addison, one of the passengers has a problem.” Chantelle’s voice finally sounded over the background noise.

“Illness?” Addison mentally ran through the alternates, his fingers working quickly to display all the possible options on the screen. A sick passenger could mean the entire flight plan had to be scrapped.

Chantelle gasped. “He has a message for relay to Fardosh-Baird. It seems serious. We may have to delay our Acapulco trip.”

Addison came to a state of high alert and double checked the flight-deck door locks were engaged. Acapulco was a code used to indicate the presence of  armed terrorists. Several long moments of silence passed then a new voice sounded.

“Your assistant is very clever, Commander. She could also have used the code Shang Hai to indicate a hostage situation or Skiing in Banff to signify she has a gun pointed at her. But, although we are armed, we’re not terrorists.”

“Who is this?”

“My name is Arturo Benge, but that is of little consequence. I represent the Congregation of the Freeworld. We will not allow this oppression to continue. We the Godly, demand the right to a place in His Heavenly Kingdom.”

Addison remembered when the FreeWorlders first appeared on the scene. They looked like just another wacky cult, but more recently their rhetoric seemed to be gaining increasing sympathy. To him their philosophy consisted of a single idea: the Atolls were stifling humanity and preventing them from reaching their rightful position among the stars with God. To support this they had created a revised history of the previous century as laughable as it was inaccurate. But it played well to the vanities of a majority eager to blame others rather than face up to their own inadequacies.

“What do you want?” Addison asked.

“The world has a message for the Cursed Tollers and I’m here to deliver it.”

“You speak for the whole world?” Addison activated the channel to traffic control, while his fingers danced over the NavStation, looking for options. “I doubt the entire population wants you to hijack a shuttle.”

Benge’s laugh burst metallically through the intercom. “I know all your tricks, Commander. I’m sure the traffic control system is alerting someone that a transmission containing the word hijack has been made, but that doesn’t help you. God has given me his message, and I must deliver it. Connect me to the Atoll immediately, or someone will be hurt.”

“Addison. He has a Bonegun pointed at a passenger’s head.” Chantelle’s voice held an edge, not of panic, but more of disgust.

Addison switched the intercom to broadcast. “You have your audience, Benge.”

“Polluters of the skies, hear me! I know this will be recorded, so I will not wait for a response. You have defiled God’s Holy Empire for too long, and now it must end. The Wrath of the Celestial Being is at hand. My brothers and I are here to deliver that message, and nothing will stop us in that task.  The freedom of God’s Chosen People is at stake.” Benge’s voice grew increasingly impassioned as he spoke.

“No longer will we be excluded from our rightful place among the stars. No more will we meekly accept the stale crumbs of comfort you reluctantly hand down. We, the people of Earth, will not tolerate this final exclusion. You are defilers of God’s kingdom and must repent your sins.”

Addison ignored the tirade. Security at the Gateway would pick up any conventional weapon instantly. Boneguns were built using a person’s own DNA, manipulated to form a weapon that even the finest scanners were incapable of detecting. The only thing that limited their use was the cost of advanced bio-geneering. It seemed unlikely they’d go to all that expense just to make a political statement.

Addison jerked around as the door slid open. It had been secured, but the terrorists must have somehow got hold of the override codes. He started to move, but it was far too late, and he slid back into the chair as the Bonegun twitched in his direction.

“Well, who’da thought? I sure never did, I tell ya.” The skinny newcomer’s voice slurred, the muzzle of the gun following every furtive glance as the man moved unsteadily, his feet sticking to the Van Der Waals carpeting.

“Who the hell are you?” Addison thought about re-engaging the door lock, but it seemed useless if they already had the over-ride codes.

“Are you there, Commander?” Benge’s voice scratched in the speakers once more. “I’m sure my fellow disciple has joined you by now.”

“He’s here.”

“It’s only fair to warn you. Nathan is devout but rather volatile. He spent years destroying his mind with the unbelievers’ poison. Although we’ve managed to lead him back to Righteousness, it has left its mark. As I’m sure you can see.”

“I understand.” Addison knew the symptoms of long-term Nepenth abuse first hand. Nathan’s slurred speech and restless eyes identified him as a heavy user

“He will ensure you don’t try anything foolish.”

Nathan lifted the gun to punctuate Benge’s words, spittle rolling through thin grinning lips. “We’re going to say hello to God! Who’da thought?”

*

“SRS-103 this is Fardosh-Baird Flight Control, do you read?”

Addison recognized the voice. “Hello Fyrn, this is Addison.”

“What’s the situation?”

“I’m not sure how free I am to speak.” Addison looked at Nathan, but he didn’t respond. “There are a number of armed men on board. At least two, possibly more.”

“Their demands?”

“Don’t play games, Fyrn.” Addison snapped, instantly regretting it. “You heard what they said. They want the immigration channels reopened. If you don’t, they’ll start shooting people.”

“We don’t concede to terrorists or negotiate. These people cannot and will not be permitted here or on any At-”

“Wait!” Benge’s voice burst out of the intercom. “We seek nothing for ourselves. What we do is for the good of all humanity, not base selfishness. We do not ask for special favors, only that others be allowed the chance to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Addison…” Fyrn hesitated. “Commander, I have to inform you officially that your docking clearance for Fardosh-Baird is revoked. Please do not approach within five thousand kilometers of the Atoll. We suggest you return to LEO and then to the planet’s surface.”

“What?” Addison checked the NavStation—they were committed to Fardosh-Baird. “Fyrn, this isn’t a bus, dammit. I can’t just turn around.”

“You must make alternative arrangements.” There was a long pause. “I’m truly sorry, Addison.”

Addison’s anger bled out of him. Fyrn was in a bad position, and it was understandable why the Atoll didn’t want them to dock. His fingers tapped lightly on the computer screen, running through the list of possible alternates in search of any he might have missed. There was the hub of the space elevator that was under construction, but right now it was little more than a few temporary expandable habitats for the work crew. Plus he didn’t have the DeltaV to get there without dumping everything.

Addison grunted as the Bonegun’s gnarled muzzle pressed hard against his temple and Nathan pushed him back in his seat. He needed the computer to find an alternate, and the longer it took the fewer options he had. The ship had a limited amount of DeltaV available for course changes, and literally every second mattered.

“I need to speak to your leader.” Addison thumbed the button, not waiting for agreement. “Benge? You there?”

Silence seemed to hang for several minutes, long enough for Addison to grow concerned.

“Do you have a problem, Commander?”

“No Benge. We have a problem. Your disciple won’t let me use the flight computer.”

“That’s correct, Commander. There’s no need at this time.”

“I don’t know if you understand the position we’re in. We need to find an alternative destination for this ship or a way back to LEO, and we need it fast.”

“Your concerns are irrelevant, Commander. Believe me, it isn’t necessary. I will speak to the Unbelievers again.”

“People of Fardosh-Baird, you cannot deny our Holy cause. We do not seek asylum for ourselves, but we are prepared to fight for the salvation of our Souls. Your idle threats do not impress us. We will continue on course.” Benge drew a breath loud enough to be heard across the intercom. “It seems you need proof of our resolve, however.”

A mixture of muffled sounds came through the speakers. Addison thought he heard Chantelle calling his name faintly. Moments later he heard the sharp blast he’d been dreading.

“Chantelle? Benge?” Addison lifted slightly, knuckles bloodless as he gripped the arms of the seat.

“I’m here, Addison.” Chantelle’s voice was weak. “He shot a passenger. She’s alive, but needs medical atten—”

“Fardosh-Baird! These lives are your responsibility. Their blood is on your hands.” Benge was shrill. “Open the gates of Heaven once more, or suffer the consequences.”

Addison jumped out of his seat towards the door, the clinging floor surface anchoring his feet as he moved.

“Don’t wanna be doing stupid things now.” Nathan blocked the doorway and waved the ugly pistol at Addison.

“I’m going down to see Benge. If you want to shoot me, go right ahead.”

Addison was gambling that they needed him and hoped Nathan would remember that, despite his instability. The skin on his back prickled as he walked away, as if he could feel the gun sight on his back. Minutes later he slipped through the hub into the passenger lounge.

Chantelle was kneeling down between the plush, heavily-padded rows of seats, her crimson-splattered hands working without pause on a woman lying on the floor. Addison rushed over. The passenger was clearly in shock, her skin gray and pupils dilated. The wound was in the meat of her thigh and roughly dressed, with small towels pressed against it to staunch the bleeding.

“Is there anything more we can do?” Addison asked, already sure of the answer.

“Not here. She needs medical treatment. Urgently.” Chantelle trembled in what could have been fear, anger, or both. “You?”

Benge strode up. “The Commander is as helpless as you are. We’re in God’s hands now.”

“They won’t let us approach, Benge. Why would they?” Addison looked up and recognized the man’s gaunt features. “I saw you at the Gateway.”

“A simplistic ruse admittedly, but sufficient. The security staff were most sympathetic at my ‘loss’ and so eager to help that we didn’t stop at the security points.”

“Does ‘God’ approve of lying, inciting riots”—Addison gestured at the wounded passenger—”and attempted murder?”

“Sometimes God requires His People to make sacrifices, Commander. There is nothing more you can do here. You’ve fulfilled your heroic duty in caring for your passengers. If you want to help, I suggest you convince the Worshipers of Evil to let us land.”

“The only evil here is you.” Chantelle spat.

Benge lifted his pistol towards Chantelle, but Addison blocked the movement, grasping the other’s gun hand lightly. “Don’t.”

Benge’s black eyes stared directly into Addison’s. “Get us clearance, Commander, or I will execute them one by one. Starting with her.”

“The Atoll will act if we approach.”

Benge snorted. “I expect that.”

*

As Addison re-entered the flight deck Nathan jumped up from the pilot’s seat, almost spinning face first into the floor in the zero-g environment. He looked like a guilty schoolboy who’d been caught stealing cookies. “Wondered what it’d be like. Who’da thought? Didn’t touch nothing, nope nothing.”

Addison forced a broad smile and sat in the Pilot’s station. “Why don’t you sit in the second seat? You can see everything from there.”

“I shouldn’t. I surely shouldn’t. Benge and the Lord knows that.” The younger man looked around wide-eyed at the controls and smooth composite trim like a child drinking in the gaudiness of a Christmas tree.

“Well, it’s there if you want to.” Addison called Fardosh-Baird again, hoping Fyrn was still there.

“What’s the situation?” Fyrn sounded tired.

“We’ve a critically wounded passenger in need of medical assistance.” Addison paused. There was no response. “I’ve checked my alternates and have no option other than to land at the Atoll.”

“Please don’t lie to me, Addison. You have enough DeltaV to reach Erebus with a one percent margin. I will not give you clearance.”

Fyrn was right, but taking the shuttle to the unmanned Dark Energy Observatory platform wouldn’t do a thing for his injured passenger. It would also leave him without enough fuel to return to Earth, even if Benge allowed it.

“That’s not a viable option. If you don’t give us clearance this lunatic is going to start executing people.” Addison spoke without thinking but noticed Nathan flinch beside him.

“This is official, Addison. Please understand. It hurts me to tell you this. Fardosh-Baird will not authorize your shuttle’s approach under any circumstances. Continue on your flight path, and we’ll take steps to protect ourselves.”

“I understand.”

“Take care, Addison.”

Addison closed the channel and slumped back in his seat.

“He ain’t mad.” Nathan glared at Addison. “People say he’s crazy, but God tells him things, is all. You don’t know him.”

Addison tried to control his anger at the child-like faith in Nathan’s words. The boy was being manipulated and clearly incapable of independent thought. That didn’t make it any easier though.

“At the moment what God is telling him will get us all killed.” Addison kept his voice level.

“No. He’s taking us to Heaven, and we’re gonna share God with the Tollers and everyone. He promised, he did. He promised.”

Addison shook his head and grimaced.

“That’s right, Nathan.” Benge’s voice came over the speakers. “I heard the message from the Godless and want to respond, Commander.”

“They won’t listen, Benge.”

“Open the channel.”

Addison switched the intercom system through when Fyrn acknowledged.

“People of Fardosh-Baird, I’ve heard your response. It’s what I expected. You are Godless Defilers of the Kingdom of the Lord, abusing your position to exclude His children from the Heavens. Your hands drip with the blood of the millions you have forced to live in exile.”

“The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want, he leadeth me from temptation and maketh me lie down in green pastures. He is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory. Forever and ever.” An explosive crack overwhelmed the speakers. “Amen”

Nathan crossed himself as Addison ground his fists into the arms of the pilot’s chair.

“Chantelle?”

“Fear not, Commander.” Benge words were sharp gasps. “Your friend is joined with God.”

“Stay! You stay!” Nathan stabbed the gun hard into the back of Addison’s neck. “We’re going to Heaven and you’re taking us!”

Addison slumped forward in the pilot’s seat. I’m supposed to protect my crew, he thought—it shouldn’t have happened.

“SRS-103, we will allow you to dock on very strict conditions. All passengers and crew will remain on the ship. We will refuel you, and you will leave immediately. This is a humanitarian gesture to prevent bloodshed.”

“It’s too late, Fyrn.”

There was a long pause, and Addison wondered if the Atoll had ended its transmission, but eventually Fyrn spoke again.

“I’m sorry, Addison. We will only allow you to dock in order to refuel. I’ll transmit a course correction to your Flight Systems. You’ll come in on approach twenty three.”

Addison recognized the approach as being one that led to the outer bays normally used only for cargo flights. A few seconds later the instrument panel flashed as the new data arrived. The Atoll was obviously minimizing any risk.

Benge marched awkwardly into the control room, gripping the hand-holds as he moved. “I have a different course change” He signaled Nathan with his eyes. “Go watch the passengers.”

Addison stopped programming and waited until the younger man had left. “If we don’t take the approach they’ve given us, they’ll shoot us down.

“Take approach zero-zero.” When there was no immediate response Benge placed his gun against Addison’s temple. “Do it now.”

“That’s a collision course.”

“They need to believe we will smash the Temple of Blasphemy that they have created in the Almighty’s domain.”

Addison didn’t move. “Thousands of innocent people will die.”

“No innocent will suffer. Not on the Atoll…” Benge hesitated before continuing in a low voice, “…nor here. We’re all sinners, Commander, including myself.”

“Go to hell on your own. I won’t help.”

“Your choice, Commander, but it won’t affect the outcome. I know enough to operate the autopilot without you.”

The muzzle bit into the skin behind Addison’s ear. “I’ll set the course.”

*

It wasn’t hard to imagine the reaction on the Atoll. They were expecting a course change but would soon analyze the new vector and sound the alarm. Then discussions would quickly turn to possible responses, and knowing the Atoll mindset, Addison could only think one reaction was likely.

“What’s the point, Benge?”

“The Unbelievers will be forced to destroy us to protect themselves. They will show that they have polluted Heaven and sinned against God and Man. We will become martyrs, a beacon for others to follow, and they will be smitten down from the skies.”

“You want to force the Atolls to show that they’ve armed themselves? You could have done that through peaceful means.”

“By doing God’s will I shall soon join him, that is enough.”

“But you could have gone to the Atolls before they closed immigration. Worked from inside to show them their mistakes. Isn’t it part of your God’s creed that you lead people to salvation? You could have done that without violence. So why didn’t you?”

The gun lifted away from his neck and Addison tightened his fingers around the armrests as he turned to look at Benge. The fanatic had moved back towards the rear wall, eyes fixed on the stars visible through the cockpit windows.

“You won’t make it, Commander.” Benge’s voice was almost gentle.

“You failed immigration, didn’t you?”

“The Godless minions refused me. They claimed my family was diseased. As they did with you.” Benge smiled at Addison’s surprise. “I know you well, Commander.”

“You know nothing.” Addison gritted his teeth.

“Commander Guy Addison, who braved a solar storm and rescued a Toller ship. Big news for a few weeks, until the fickle gaze of public attention shifted. Back to the latest sports results. Back to endless stories about depraved celebrities’ acts of Sodom.

“But that wasn’t the end of the story, was it? After the cheers and the idolatry, you suffered the consequences. Though it wasn’t you that paid the highest price, was it, Commander?”

Addison felt paralyzed as Benge leaned over him. “The price for your act of bravery, the true cost of your heroism, was paid by your unborn child, held in a state of Holy Innocence inside Susan’s womb. That was the price of your decision to play God with people’s lives.”

“No.” Addison looked away.

“Yes! You placed the rescue of the Tollers above your wife and unborn child’s safety. You sacrificed your own child for the Godless.”

“We didn’t know she was pregnant. The doctors weren’t even sure that the radiation caused the miscarriage. It could have happened anyway.” Addison felt the heat of Benge’s breath moist against his ear.

“Is that how you salve your conscience?” Beads of perspiration glistened on Benge’s forehead. “Susan doesn’t agree, does she?”

Addison looked up. “How do you know that?”

“Feeding two Nepenth habits is scarcely more difficult than one.”

Addison’s hands turned to white knuckled fists as he glared at Benge. He’d lost count of how many times he’d been furious with Susan’s inability to break free from the drug. He’d naively assumed that she’d simply been too weak to fight her dependency. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might have had some “help.”

A shrill warble filled the flight deck, and Addison checked the controls. “They’ve launched a missile.”

“Finally!” A vein throbbed in Benge’s temple beneath his tight-cropped hair. “They’ve revealed themselves as the sickness they are.”

“Only a simpleton would believe the Atolls wouldn’t arm. They have a right to defend themselves.”

“They have desecrated the Lord’s Realm with their weapons!” Benge’s whitened lips opened and shut in an impotent turtle snap of rage.

“Missile closing at sixteen hundred meters per second.” Addison breathed in. “Impact in eighty-four seconds.”

Benge’s eyes were bright. “We will be martyrs to God’s cause!”

“It’s meaningless. No one will care if we’re blown up in the middle of space.” Addison’s eyes were locked on Benge.

The view transfixed Benge, as though he could see everything unfold before him. Addison saw nothing at first, then a new pinprick of light formed. A faint glow that quickly increased in brilliance until it matched, then quickly surpassed, the stars. Addison unlocked the thrusters in one smooth movement. The timing would need to be perfect, but he might have a chance.

Addison focused on the instruments as the missile appeared to crawl towards them. It was deceptive. Three times the system re-scaled as the missile closed, the apparent closing speed increasing massively with each change.

Waiting until it seemed too late, Addison stabbed his fingers down on the thruster controls triggering maximum acceleration. He felt only minor pleasure as he heard the solid thump of Benge’s unsecured body slamming into the rear wall. Almost in the same instant, an eye-tightening bloom of white-hot light filled the view screen as the missile flashed by.

Addison held the thrusters on for ten long seconds before triggering retro-thrust. Benge somersaulted forward at the sudden deceleration, his thin frame smashing heavily into the controls. As he hit, an explosion from the Bonegun filled the flight deck. The sharp pressure wave smacked against Addison’s eardrums leaving him temporarily stunned.

Launching himself from the seat, Addison moved to incapacitate the terrorist, but it was unnecessary. The impact with the wall and console had done far more damage than Addison expected. Blood dripped from Benge’s ears and nose—he was no longer a threat.

Several moments passed before Addison remembered Nathan was with the other passengers. Scooping up the pistol, he dived for the door and scrambled down to the hub.

The passenger lounge was wrecked, the usual faint smell of warm people overlaid with a biting electrical tang. Several lockers had burst open, filling the air with floating luggage, debris, and globules of various fluids. To make it worse, many of the lights had failed, and the remainder flickered in epileptic disunity, turning the blue and gray lounge into a threatening cavern.

Addison picked his way through the chaos, surrounded by a mixture of groans and sobbing, hoping that most passengers had been strapped in. Minor injuries could be dealt with later—first he needed to find Nathan.

Instead he found Chantelle. Nathan was pinned underneath her, both of them covered in blood. Addison couldn’t tell initially if the blood on her shirt was hers or the terrorist’s. A quick examination revealed a gaping wound in her stomach. Nathan was dead, his neck broken.

Chantelle’s eyes flickered open. “I got him, Guy.” Her voice cracked. “Did you…?”

Addison stroked her cheek softly.” Don’t speak.” His vision blurred, but he fought back the tears. “You’re in a bad way.”

“Believe me, I don’t need you to tell me that.” She tried to laugh, but it came out as a rasp. “It’s been good knowing you, Addison. Wish I’d met you first.”

Her eyes closed.

“I’m in charge here, Chantelle. You’re not going to die dammit!”

Addison grabbed a nearby pillow. “Here!” The passenger jumped at his shout and staggered across. “Press firmly and keep her talking.”

Seconds later, Addison was in the pilot’s seat checking the damage. The communications system was working, along with the main diagnostics, but the approach systems were junk, and the autopilot tried to fire every thruster simultaneously when he cautiously tested it.

Addison gave a wry smile as the remaining displays alerted him to the launch of a second missile.

“It never rains…” Addison said to Benge—unconscious and securely strapped into the spare seat.” Flight control, this is SRS-103. Abort your missile.”

“Addison? What’s the situation?” Fyrn sounded relieved.

“The hijackers are disarmed. Abort the missile. I have control.”

There was a brief pause. “Cut your speed and change course immediately.” Fyrn sounded concerned again.

If Addison didn’t alter course they would continue to assume the shuttle was a threat. Normally he’d have been happy to comply, but not this time.

“Fyrn, I’m coming in hot. There’s extensive damage and I don’t know how long this thing will hang together. You still have the emergency restraining systems on the central lock.” Addison glanced nervously at the approaching missile track. It was getting far too close.

“I can’t allow that, Addison. You could be at gunpoint, and this could be another ruse. Kill your speed and I’ll abort the missile. I’ll send a Recovery Tug.”

“That’ll take over an hour to prep and launch. I’ve got critically injured people.”

Addison watched as the missile track joined with that of the shuttle, wondering if it had been too late. Then the inside of the flight deck lit up as a white-hot flare blossomed outside.

“Thanks Fyrn.” He breathed heavily. “Have the emergency crews ready. I’m bringing my ship in.”

“Negative, Addison. Hold position and we’ll come for you.”

They’d never evade another missile, and Chantelle would be dead long before a Tug got to them. “If I do that, people will die.”

Addison warned the passenger lounge to prepare for acceleration while quickly programming a series of simple control sequences into the flight computer, brutally overriding the safety systems. Given the damage, he’d have to trigger the thrusters manually, using his years of experience to guide him. He worked with cold precision. Any mistake would lose the last chance they had.

A movement through the window caught his eye, and Addison glanced up to see the metal of one of the Atoll’s outermost nodes slipping past. He was out of time.

Addison executed the macro, engaging the forward thrusters. His stomach muscles clenched when nothing happened, then he breathed again when the thrusters kicked in on full power. He timed the burn for a full ten seconds, slowing the shuttle’s velocity by around a third.

Checking through the window, Addison waited. His three dimensional mental map told him to wait to clear a connecting tube. This time he triggered a five second burn on the port thrusters, watching carefully as the Atoll slid to the left. A trickle of sweat ran down his spine as he blasted back, canceling the lateral movement.

It was a brutal process, each movement carried out purely by instinct and the familiarity of twenty years’ experience. But finally the gaping maw of the main airlock slid into view. Arranged around the entrance was a flock of recovery craft, like floating metallic crustaceans on a welcoming parade.

Making a final correction on the shuttle’s drift, Addison triggered the forward thrusters to reduce speed further. The ship slowed briefly, then the jets coughed several times before choking into a miserable silence.

Addison thumped the control panel. The limited fuel reserves were gone. The computer controlled the thrusters with high efficiency, but he’d used them with all the subtlety of a high-pressure hose.

“Fyrn! Maneuvering thrusters are out and I’m still too fast. Tell everyone to stay clear. I’ll have to flip and bring the speed down using the main engines.”

“I thought this might happen.” Fyrn sounded calm. “Don’t do anything, we have it under control.”

” But…”

“Trust me.”

Half a dozen of the emergency vehicles floated towards the shuttle, cautiously matching velocity with the ship then extending their pincer-like claws to grip the thickest parts of the delta wing. They were going to try to slow the shuttle, Addison realized, something that had never been done to his knowledge. It made sense. The tiny craft were capable of much finer control of their engines than he could achieve with the main shuttle thrusters.

The ships triggered their engines several times, producing a series of gentle pushes—each one slowing the lumbering shuttle. Addison held his breath as they slipped inside the docking bay, the cavernous opening barely wide enough to allow entrance to the combined ships. A few minutes later the ship was stationary and connection tubes reached out towards the hull.

Addison jumped out of his seat and rushed back to the passenger lounge to find Chantelle. As he entered, the metallic boom of a passenger tube locking on echoed through the ship, and cheers erupted.

*

Addison walked through the gardens with conflicting feelings. It always seemed a frivolous waste of space even if the meditative effects were pleasant. There were less people than usual and the few he saw hurried away when they saw him.

“Hello, Fyrn.” Addison smiled. Somehow he knew she’d be by the orchids.

“Good to see you, Addison. No lasting damage I hope?”

He laughed. “I’m a great disappointment to the doctors.”

“And your friend?”

“She’s in a serious condition, but with tissue regeneration she should be up and about in a few weeks.” Addison looked around. “What’s wrong with everyone?”

“They’re avoiding you.” Fyrn took Addison’s arm and they strolled idly down the path. “You’re a hero. Again.”

“I’m not a hero and never was. I just did what I had to. Both times.”

“Heroes are always forged by circumstance. That doesn’t make them any less intimidating.”

Addison looked away but said nothing. Fyrn turned him around to face her.

“The Committee has made an unprecedented decision. One that I fully agree with.” She stopped as if catching her breath. “You’ve been granted full, unlicensed citizenship of Fardosh-Baird—you can come and go as you please.”

Addison’s eyebrows lifted. He’d never heard of anyone being granted Atoll citizenship without condition. Even the best candidates started on parole.

“The keys to the city?” He smiled at Fyrn’s puzzled look. “Hardly seems fair. Why should I be treated any different?”

“Because you are a hero.”

Addison took a few steps away then stopped. “I can’t.”

“I thought that might be your answer, so I reopened your old application. You still qualify.”

“I was refused.” Addison spoke softly.

“Your wife was refused, not you. She carries cystic fibrosis in her genome. That’s why the application failed.”

“And if I want to bring her now?” Addison watched Fyrn carefully.

“I warned the Council that you might. They’ll even allow that.” Suddenly Fyrn seemed awkward. “Speaking personally, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Why?”

“Addison, you can be incredibly slow at times. I don’t want you to bring her because I want you myself.”

Addison opened his mouth then closed it again. Eventually he found something to say. “What does your husband think of that?”

“He accepts the situation, of course. My relationship with him couldn’t continue after my feelings for you became clear.”

“I’m flattered, Fyrn, but I can’t let you do this just because you feel grateful.”

Addison yelped then shook his head. Fyrn had punched him in the jaw.

“I told my husband how I felt over a month ago.”

Addison reached out to Fyrn who flinched slightly, unsure of his response. Then she allowed his arms to slip around her.

“In that case… I think I’ll stay.”

Author’s Note: This short story is an sister-story to my novel Mathematics of Eternity. Find out more.

 

Copyright © David M. Kelly 2017.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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