While in such realms as those of Messenger, this short story, Keeping Faith, won last year's Channel Island Writers Competition. Science Fiction is not a genre within which I usually work, but it offers great freedom...
* * *
It was the same routine each morning – as he’d been taught, as he would teach. Shires thought of his heir, his little girl. He smiled. He had already started to explain that she would one day be Commander, and though she wasn't with him on the bridge today, the serious seven-year-old was as real as the controls and state reports, the buttons, even the steady whine of Generation One’s route beacon. 'For you,' Shires said as he sat down in his chair. 'For you.'
She would see the end, if she lived into her fifties. Which she would – it was Shires’ job to ensure it. He would not fail.
So he picked up first the Med-En, three pages on the health and environment of the ship. Checks had written it, binding it with a green paper clip as he had always done, would always do. There were so many nearly sacred things. Checks had changed very slightly the order of the paragraphs, but he had waited until his mother had been dead for a year. That was the decent way. They were successors, the middle generation. Their task was to inherit and then pass on.
All was well. The CLS, Central Life System, was running at 98-68, a mere 2% impurity in the internal atmosphere and 68% machine efficiency. After more than a century, that wasn't bad. Checks had plotted the rate of CLS decline and it would not fall below 40% before any of the nine projected landing dates. Meanwhile the people were healthy – the people, no longer the crew as Shires' father had called them, let alone the payload, his grandfather's word. People was Shires’ innovation and it was right, right for now. They were learning.
After Med-En came Power. It was always signed Sparks, Sparks signifying impish boyhood though Sparks himself was 76. He was childless through choice, but had chosen a worthy successor. Shires has supported the appointment in both Council and Community, ‘the right woman for the job,’ he’d said of Leha. She would be Sparks in her turn, was already a skilled engineer.
The thermal generator was in top form. The radioactive mass has behaved flawlessly since launch, peacefully discarding its waste caesium into the sump. That was Shires’ next report, Waste Control, human and machine. Generation One has been built not to pollute. ‘You are a new beginning,' the old film shown each day still told them. 'With Generation One, humanity begins again. You are our angels. Keep faith and your children's children will reach the planet of our promise.'
The clocks on Shires’ control table told impossible truths: their distance from Earth, their distance to the planet Gliese 581d. Shires was still waiting for Earth to baptise the planet with a new, a hopeful name. Meanwhile the numbers were never revealed or discussed outside Council. They made no sense, huge beyond the reach of any mind. Instead there were the days and there were weeks and also festivals: First Dawn, Bright Promise, Apollo Celebration, the rest. They broke the curse of sameness. They stunted time. Above all, they stopped the crew – no, the people, Shires had to get that right – from counting. That was madness.
After Waste came Comms, and Comms was simple for there was nothing, nothing to communicate with, no hope of sending a message back to Earth. Just one question, then – could Shires still hear the route beacon broadcast from Mission Command. It was no more than a single note, but it contained the only message, Yes. You are remembered. You must carry on. It sang all day, all night.
Sometimes Shires would switch it off so as to hear, if for a moment, silence. It would swallow them completely. It was pressing, always, on the bulkheads, on their titanium hull. Then Shires would reset the signal acquisition system and, yes, there it was, exactly where he had left it, steady, steady, You must carry on. The signal was their reassurance, the sound that underlay Shires’ life.
That banging wasn't.
‘Not now please. Not before morning assembly.'
He spoke politely, for Shires liked the thought that command did not require authority. It had been one of the lessons the first generation had learnt – consent without control, take that onto the new planet’s surface, live without force and without anger, that way humanity would prosper.
Except the banging on the door was repeated. 'Is it urgent?' Shires called out.
'I heard it in the night,’ a voice said. ‘You have to listen to me.'
Shires felt his body sag, for it was Karl, Crazy Karl, Karl the son of Karl the Painter, grandson of Karl the wild prophet of the early years. The Karls had kept their old name stubbornly as others left their Earth identities behind. Most had renamed themselves after parts of the ship or equipment because, after all, that was where they now belonged. Shires’ grandfather had led the way, Shires from Super-High-Resolution, the system that worked the forward viewing port. Not the Karls. Each Karl had produced one son and no daughter. Each Karl had abandoned his woman, each a man brought up by his father. Crazy Karl had been the one who had asked questions during Formation, as marked for his vocation as had been the child Shires.
Now Shires let him in and sat him down. Karl started where their last discussion, no, monologue, had broken off. Shires listened with his face but not his ears, a plate of toughened glass erected, so it seemed, between them. It was a skill he’d learnt with practice so that only phrases broke through: a signal, words, we are coming, can you hear us, are you there. Shires interrupted when Karl took a breath and offered reasonableness in return for this nonsense. 'We've checked the network many times, Karl,’ he said, not mentioning that such a test was a cumbrous two-day business, waking up the old near-Earth command suite. There was nothing, of course nothing, the vast nothing of the interstellar medium. They’d crossed the terminator line so long ago.
'The message is not coming by way of... that stuff.'
Karl was a tall man. Like his father, he had never taken the growth regulator. That was just awkwardness, for 5’6” was sensible on board, everyone realised that. So, Shires was sure, did Karl. But he owned a heredity of difference, rejoicing in not being like the rest. He also relished the unhappy turn of phrase. Now he was condemning ‘that stuff,’ standing up and strutting, forgetting, so it seemed, how ‘that stuff’ kept him alive. Shires did not respond save with a smile.
'If you’d ever switch off that beacon noise, you'd hear it,’ Karl said, interrupting himself. ‘You'd hear the voices in the silence, I know you would.’
They were the same age, born in the year when all the G3 offspring were conceived. Things had to be organised that way. Yet Karl's skin looked older and his veins more pronounced. He had long hairy hands. Others shaved their bodies regularly.
‘Karl, you have to listen...’
‘I am listening all the time.'
They met each other’s stare. 'I mean listen to Community,’ Shires said. ‘To Council. Even to me. We have a mission. We have a goal. Our journey is long but there will still be a Karl at the end, as there will be a Shires. Your son and my daughter, they will step out of this ship. Together. Until then, Karl, our job is to believe. You know that.'
Karl did not seem to hear. 'You are deaf, Shires. It is a shame. When He comes, the crew will look to you and not to me.’
'The people,’ Shires corrected automatically, but he was hearing more carefully what Karl had said. 'Who is He? I thought your voice was meant to be another space-faring...’
‘No. It is God. I know it now. God is coming for us.'
And that was it, the end. It had to be. Religion was the impermissible excess. The rules laid down in the past, they were clear – the first source of humanity’s division was to have no place in Generation One. Shires could have let it pass but didn't, tired of Karl and tired of oddness. He needed one faith in their one mission along the clear signal from Earth. There had to be boundaries. Some words could breach the hull.
For my daughter, Shires told himself that he initiated the procedure, opening the containment cell, appointing a guard. He broke out stunsticks from the store but did not take one for himself. Junior officers did the messy bit. They secured Karl and sealed in the contagion.
Shires supervised the search of Karl's cabin. It was a wild place, hung with the pictures Karl's father had painted, those dreadful, fatal landscapes of their desolation. He had looked out of the viewing port after begging Shires’ father for a peek. The commander had been lenient and this was the result, these canvases of darkest black but for a single speck of pale light, light somewhere and light hard to see, light lost and light almost swallowed. Was it meant to be their ship or perhaps their destination? No one knew. Strange, Shires thought, that the apostle of emptiness had brought into being a son who now believed they were no longer alone.
Community that afternoon was a frightened affair. People had seen the arrest and they wanted security. Shires wore his grandfather's uniform. He spoke clearly, without notes. He explained. No one objected. Not a voice defended Karl. Afterwards, Shires drew aside the Entertainments Manager. 'Find a celebration,’ he said. ‘Give us a feast.'
She did, a very good one. It turned out they were approaching the outermost theoretical limit of the influence of their new sun. This is Home Day was born and, once born, spread into a week of work and merriment. People formed into groups. They planned and they imagined. This was constructive activity. This broke Karl’s spell.
Shires moved in and out. He joined but mostly watched. His daughter sat with her peers. They were making a world out of things they'd never seen and nor had Shires: water, colours, grass, something called a mountain. 'I am keeping faith for you,’ Shires told her without speaking. 'This is for you.'
The command room never changed, save for the one screen which showed Karl inside his cell. Shires looked for a time, checking again that the cell was for Karl’s surgery, not punishment. This was a necessary and regretted amputation. Karl was leaning against the bulkhead, one ear pressed into the metal, listening still.
Instinctively, to test both Karl and himself, Shires flicked off the route beacon signal. He listened and switched it back on again, turned up the volume on Earth’s enduring message. Stick to this, Shires’ father had told him. That way, you won’t go wrong. Shires looked over the status lights, all good, all green. It had been a difficult time. Now he could go back to the party.
There was a sound, a sound becoming a voice. Shires listened and thought to hear syllables. No. More volume from the signal beam. Sometimes old computers seemed to speak in their decrepitude. All is well, Shires told himself. All is well.
Karl was standing. He was looking up towards the ceiling camera, mouthing words to Shires – was this a trick, or was he imitating, translating for Shires’ sake. It seemed that there were words, not spoken but insinuated: We are coming. Are you there? Are you there?
A light was flashing. Shires did not know what it meant. He had to look in the manual to interpret what it meant. There was a note in pencil to explain, Light EE5 means Another vessel approaching. His grandfather’s clear letters told him it had activated last near Jupiter.
O God. Shires pulled himself from the edge. No. Keep faith. Believe. Get Karl back. No - communicate. Somewhere amongst the equipment was a ship-to-ship system. Where was it? How did it work? He didn’t know.
Then real noise – a warning screamed. It might have been a woman's voice. It was louder than the guidance signal, stronger than the whisper: We are coming. Are you there? Are you there? She seemed to howl out of forgotten depths, a sound unused since pre-launch tests. Collision alarm, the handbook translated. Collision alarm.
Shires’ hand hovered over the general emergency button. He could press it but there was nowhere to go. Instead he touched the vision screen. The High-Res cameras swung out from their slumber and offered him a vision of deep space. Shires looked, his prerogative.
And saw a shape, a ship but not a ship like anything he’d seen before. A rapier, it might have been, to their lumbering bludgeon. It was a knife that sliced through space, not overtaking them but brushing past, as if Generation One was scarcely anything at all. The blade ship filled the screen – for a moment, it was everything – but then diminished, quickly, too quickly. Soon it was gone. The warning siren returned to sleep. The light stopped blinking red. All is well, the controls told him. All is well.
The whispering voice lasted a little longer. Shires thought to hear a final message, See you there, eventually. There might have been a giggle in the words. It faded too. Then there was only silence.
Generation One pressed on. Shires looked up and saw Karl, now slumped onto the floor of his cell. On the other screens, the party carried on. The children were still building their new world.
Less new now. Shires understood. The sword-ship would be there a lifetime ahead of them.
No matter. That was Shires’ decision. If Earth’s technology had just sped past, then all the more would his daughter be welcomed when she arrived. It made their achievement even greater. Theirs would be the braver part.
So be it. Peace. Silence.
Too much so.
There was no guiding signal any more.
As if the ship ahead had signalled back, impossibly, across the emptiness to Earth, They've gone. They did not hear us. Poor fools, how long did they last?
The ship's computer was asking Shires a question, What course?