Carrington didn’t get to go down himself. Not only did Ollinger file a formal objection to the Admiral’s proposed course of action – which had the intended side effect of making the idea public knowledge and spreading gossip about it all over the fleet – but it turned out that when he’d proposed it he’d forgotten that he had important diplomatic duties that needed attending to as well. The Malacandrans were visiting soon.
When the RSN Stewart had reported discovering an entire lost colony of children on Mars it caused a lot of speculation among the intellectuals of the fleet. Carrington himself had wondered what leadership in a city where no one was older than twenty looked like. For a few days the admiral had treated it as a purely hypothetical question. He’d been more focused on retrieving the lost spacers from the Armstrong than debriefing and analyzing what they’d learned on the surface. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Genies had made a bizarre discovery. Thousands upon thousands of sleeping colonists buried in tunnels beneath Borealis Colony, a refuge for countless people in Shutdown, waiting for some solution to the limited resources of the colony so they could once again live without risking the starvation of the entire settlement.
A recently promoted officer who was working with the Malacandrans had proposed stripping materials from the abandoned cities of Earth and using them to expand the Martian colony to support the existing population. After a lot of debate Carrington had given the idea the green light. Anaheim was the first place they’d chosen for the operation, as a number of analytical models suggested that it would be a good place to recover not just the raw building materials they needed but also the rarer metals and organic components necessary to expand the Borealis dome.
A week ago a Malacandran leader asked to view the city they were cannibalizing for resources. After a lot more debate Carrington had agreed. Of course, that was before the disassembler field was deplooyed and now taking dignitaries down to the Anaheim site was out of the question. They’d been advised that the schedule had changed already. However that just meant Carrington would have to spend more time with very young civilians and he wasn’t sure he was up for it. His own children were long gone and he was feeling rather rusty.
Still, when the Stewart’s transport arrived he was down in the hanger bay, waiting. Major Bennet, the ship’s Chief of Communications, had put together a full blown welcoming party complete with extraneous officers, a squad of security men, and the ship’s captain and XO all present. The major himself, Carrington noted with some amusement, was absent.
The Tranquility was fully equipped for automated landing procedures and used a series of manipulator arms to safely bring in ships through the airlock and past dozens of other spacecraft that awaited deployment. Even with the many patrols that were maintained in the space around the fleet and the handful of damaged fighters that were currently elsewhere for repairs, it wasn’t possible to see the Roddenberry ship making most of that trip from their vantage near the back of the bay. When it came into view, sliding past lines of blocky landing craft, the sleek, elegant lines so distinctive of Roddenberry’s shipbuilding sensibilities stood in stark contrast to the Copernican ships all around it.
There was a flare for the dramatic among those Genie boys that no one else in the Triad Worlds seemed to share. The oval body of the transport was carefully placed on the deck about fifteen feet away and allowed to settle on its landing gear. The reaction thrusters that extended back from the main body on gently swooping struts looked like they should unbalance the ship yet it stayed upright as solidly as if it grew out of the deck. Then the hatch opened and a disembarking ramp dropped down. Several figures were visible in silhouette at the top.
The first was the towering frame of Lieutenant Commander Volk Fyodorovich, Roddenberry’s liaison between their ships and the Malacandrans. He was tall and solidly built. The only thing bigger than his frame was his nose, which looked to be about a third of his face, an effect only made more pronounced by the small, sunken eyes that peered out over it. Fyodorovich had been a junior officer a month ago but Captain Gyle, the Stewart’s skipper, apparently had a lot of faith in his performance under pressure. So far nothing had served to disillusion anyone of that good opinion.
Behind him was the much slimmer, much shorter figure of Aubery Vance. She was barely over five feet tall, stopping just below Fyodorovich’s shoulder, but her body looked long and lissome. Aubery was a native Earthling and she’d gone to Mars at her own insistence. Based on what he’d learned during her debriefings after then-Corporal Langley brought her up from the planet she’d developed some kind of intense personal fixation on the fate of the Martians during their escape. Carrington still wasn’t sure what that fixation entailed but she’d proved helpful out there and hopefully would continue to do so here.
The other four people weren’t anyone he recognized, although he guessed one of them was Naomi Bertolini. She was apparently the oldest conscious person on Mars when they made contact with the Stewart. This was the primary qualification for leadership over there. While she’d technically gone into Shutdown for a bit Naomi was also the first person they removed from Shutdown when they figured out what was going on. The fellow who took over for her as the Eldest had agreed to step aside and let her continue to manage the situation for the time being so continuity had been maintained in that sense.
To his surprise they hadn’t brought any children with them. The Roddenberry’s reports had mentioned the Malacandrans bringing kids with them on the initial diplomatic contacts but this time around they’d left them behind. Further speculation on the Malacandran party was sidelined as Fyodorovich marched down the ramp and saluted. For all his youth and presence, the man looked a bit nervous. “Lieutenant Fyodorovich reporting, Admiral.”
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.” Carrington returned the salute and turned to the young woman beside him. “Welcome back, Miss Vance. How was your trip to Mars? Did you learn anything more about the questions that were bothering you?”
“Not really, Admiral Carrington.” The Earthling woman favored him with a tired smile. Although she was clearly still struggling Carrington though she looked like she was in a better place than when she left. “Still, I did meet some new friends.”
“That’s progress all on it’s own, then,” he replied with a smile. “I know it probably doesn’t feel like it but the more friends who can help with your problems the easier they get. Will you introduce me to them?”
“Of course.” Aubrey gestured to the woman just behind and to her left. “This is Naomi Bertolini, the Eldest Malacandran. Naomi, let me introduce you to Admiral Jalak Carrington.”
She was painfully young, almost a girl in his eyes, but there was a confidence and experience behind her eyes that belied the youthful lines of her face. All four of the Malacandrans shared many features including light brown skin, a nose of below average size and thick, coarse hair. Naomi offered him a firm handshake which he accepted. “A pleasure to meet you, Admiral. As it’s been explained to me, you’re the person responsible for all the spacecraft in Volk’s group?”
“That’s essentially correct,” he said. “There’s a lot of nuance to our patchwork fleet which I won’t bore you with right now but for the moment the buck stops here.”
Naomi blinked once. “Buck?”
“Sorry, it’s an idiom that means I’m ultimately accountable for the actions of the fleet.”
“I see.” She nodded once and Carrington could practically see her filing the tidbit away for future reference.
“This is Mr. Dorian Drake,” Aubrey said, indicating the tall, gangly man next to Naomi. “He’s a… petitioner?”
“Correct.” Although Drake was, by definition, younger than Naomi he actually looked several years older. His hawkish nose and thin lips made him look like he was on the cusp of middle age. His handshake was quick and perfunctory. “It’s an interesting position to fill these days, with all we’ve learned from you the last few weeks.”
“Do you work in the field of law, Mr. Drake?” Carrington asked.
“Faith, Admiral. I petition the oyarsa for his wisdom and intervention.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Or at least I did. Reading the full breadth of the Lewis account of Ransom I’ve come to suspect that may not be the correct way to approach him.”
For the first time Carrington was forced to consult his AI’s heads up display and figure out was being discussed. The computer reminded him that Malacandra was supposedly the name of a guardian angel for the planet Mars, a concept the residents of Borealis had apparently gleaned from the novel Out of the Silent Planet. No one in the fleet command structure had ever heard of that particular book, although some knew the author C.S. Lewis. It was interesting that the devoutly Christian man had inadvertently inspired a pagan religion centuries after his death but that had little bearing to the situation at hand.
“You may wish to discuss it with the ship’s chaplain,” Carrington said. “I’m afraid when it comes to theological matters he’s much better qualified to give an opinion than I am, although I sympathize with the way sudden discoveries can lead to a reevaluation of things you thought you knew.”
He turned his attention to the last two people in the group, one who looked about sixteen or seventeen, the other about two years younger. The belted tunics they wore fit them poorly and there was a wide eyed innocence to the way they looked around the hangar that screamed naivety. A glance at Aubrey prompted her. “These two are Teng Pak Won and Gemma Perez, the Chief Watcher and one of his assistants.”
“Chief watcher?” Carrington raised an eyebrow. “What do you watch?”
“Mostly the Silence,” Teng said. “What you call outer space. However on occasion there’s call for us to access the records of events maintained inside the city proper so that we can figure out what happened during an accident or even a criminal incident.”
So he was something like the head of security or perhaps a small town sheriff. Interesting that they had one and didn’t just rely on the social standing of an older individual to bully their way through criminal cases. “You’re very welcome here, Chief Won, and if you need any accommodation from our security personnel please feel free to discuss it with them. I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” Teng said. “And, technically, it’s Chief Teng. My family name is put first in the records and when spoken.”
“I see.” There was a bit of the old Han features in him. “Your ancestors must have come from Eastern Asia, then?”
He blushed. An actual, honest to goodness, rosy cheeked blush. “I’m afraid I don’t know, Admiral.”
Carrington felt incredibly awkward in turn. “No, I suppose you might not.” That admission hung in the air for a long moment then he clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Well, Eldest, you know we can’t take you down to Earth at the moment. We have prepared a pretty extensive tour of the ship if you’re interested in that but if there’s anything else you’d rather do then we’re very flexible on that front. Is there anything particular you’d like to discuss or see first?”
A glance passed through all four of them and Naomi drew herself up a bit straighter. “If it’s possible, Admiral, can we see Thul-” She caught herself and shook her head. “Is it possible to see Earth from here?”
Carrington smiled. “Would you like to see live video feeds from our patrols or just have a look with the Mark One Human Eyeball?”
Once again Carrington marveled at the mysterious power the Homeworld had over people who had never once set foot on it. This time, however, the people in question were Malacandrans and not Copernicans. Naomi and her companions stared out of the observation deck with the kind of rapt wonder he’d only seen once or twice, when he caught other officers staring at the planet in unguarded moments. Yet their reaction was very familiar, for he felt the same emotions stirring in him as well.
He’d ordered the Tranquility to an orbit roughly synchronous with the Moon, although a bit upwell of lunar orbit, so that the orbit ship would slowly pass by the dark side of Earth’s satellite over the course of the next eight hours or so. The two heavenly bodies framed one another in the observation window at the moment. The Earth was just starting to be eclipsed by the Moon, the contrast between the day and night portions of the planet and the creeping lunar horizon creating a breathtaking view fit to entrance even the most hardened spacer.
One of Naomi’s party took it in a much different light.
Dorian Drake’s attention was quickly drawn away from the planet and to the moon. He moved down the window until he stood on the far left side of the pane, as close to the lunar surface as it was possible to get on that deck. Staring at the dark side of it, he said, “Do you think Thulcandra will really take note of us if we pass by?”
“If he does, he doesn’t show it,” Carrington replied. “The Sea of Tranquility has been in and out of Lunar orbit a dozen times since we got here and we haven’t noticed anything.”
Drake gave him a sharp look. “You believe that Thulcandra is real, Admiral?”
Carrington shrugged. “I believe the man who wrote Out of the Silent Planet was describing the Devil, one of the forces of evil in the Christian Bible, when he used the word Thulcandra. And yes, I have plenty of reason to believe the Devil is real. But if you’re asking whether I think that the events described in the book really happened, that the Devil is named Thulcandra in an ancient and forgotton solar language or that Elwin Ransom traveled to two planets of the solar system and met their guardian angels, then no. I think C.S. Lewis was a storyteller who made up an enduring story. But he founded many elements of that story on real things, or at least things he believed were real.”
Dorian hummed in the back of his throat for a moment, a gravelly thinking noise that only served to increase the idea that he was older than his actual age. “I’m surprised, Admiral,” he finally said. “I thought you spacers were a godless lot over all. You certainly give Ransom’s Tale more credit than you friends on the ship Stewart.”
“There’s a lot of good things about the Roddenberrys, Mr. Drake,” Carrington said in amusement. “The ability to believe things outside their own experience isn’t one of them.”
“I always found Ransom’s Tale a little strange,” Naomi said. “The descriptions of his travel and what he saw on Malacandra were so different from what we knew in Borealis. Most of it didn’t add up.”
“What did?” Carrington asked.
“The Silent Planet,” she said, putting one hand to the plastic and staring at Earth, looking forlorn. “They turned their back on us for over an hundred years and gave us nothing but Silence. No matter what the world is called, that fact remains.”
“I suppose they didn’t need Thulcandra to lead them to that,” Dorian mused.
“No. Nor can we expect him to explain himself if he did,” Naomi replied, turning away from the window. “I read Perelandra. I know how an Unman behaves when you ask him a question. If we want to know the hows and why’s we’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m ready to move on, Admiral.”
There was an oddly resolute look on her face. “Is there anything else you’d like to do before we get to the tour?”
“Yes.” She nodded once for emphasis. “I want to talk to Stephen Mond.”