“Once in an age, the forces of darkness align to bend the arc of history...”
—From the Diary of Neuchar de Merlner, Europa, 2121
In 2177, that alignment broke the Princess.
“C’mon, Littlebit,” Meriel said, dodging cargo haulers and puddles as she dragged her little sister to their ship from the play area across the dock. They were late. The boarding siren had already sounded.
Meriel slowed when she saw their mother waving from the cargo-bay door. She smiled and relaxed. This was home, a merchant ship called the Princess, crewed by seven families working a circuit between Luyten’s Star and Sirius. The two girls paused at the air lock and brushed their hands past their foreheads in a child’s salute to the officer on deck, their mother, the XO.
“’Mission to come aboard, ma’am,” Meriel said, but Elizabeth had already turned away, distracted by the symbol of a cat’s eye in light blue on a cargo crate.
“Granted,” their mother said and hurried them through the boarding checklist while dockhands detached the umbilicals behind them.
Once inside the Princess, Meriel’s world opened up to the familiar bustle of cargo lashing and comm chatter in preparation for the hyperspace jump to Enterprise Station. She closed her eyes and danced her way to their cabin, running one hand over the nicked walnut railing and the other hand over the fabric walls covered with children’s artwork. The tips of her fingers brushed the corner of Tommy’s drawing—a fire breathing dragon melting a knight in armor—and the rough texture of Anita’s first creation: her name written with a backward n in letters larger than the sunflower drawn just above it. And behind Meriel, little Elizabeth copied every move.
Surrounded by the familiar background chatter about mass, vectors, and fuel capacity, Meriel dreamed that she captained the Princess and plotted their course to Enterprise. With her arms out and eyes still closed, she rode the quantum path to their first jump point, but collided with something big and soft that should not have been there. She opened her eyes and looked up to see Uncle Ed’s smiling face just before Elizabeth collided into her.
“Hey, lassies,” he said, his long arms hugging both of them. “Course correction needed.” He looked over their heads to her mother behind them. “Sis, we’ve still got thirty-Z of memory unfilled.”
“What’s the bid?” her mother asked.
“Not good. But it’s something. Maybe we’ll get lucky on the beacon pickup.”
Esther frowned and nodded. “OK, girls, on to bed,” she said and shooed them to their cabin to put on their pj’s. This was the time Meriel loved most, the quiet time before sleep and jump when their mother belonged to them alone.
“Meriel, did you find Elizabeth’s doll?” her mother asked and tucked her into her sleep net.
“Yes, Mom, but Liz was a brat and didn’t want to come,” Meriel said.
Her sister mimed, “Blah, blah, blah” with her fingers and rolled her eyes.
“Hey, birthday girl, your sister’s in charge when your father and I aren’t around,” she said to Elizabeth. “Hear me now?”
“Yes, Mama,” Elizabeth said with a frown. “Where are we going next?”
“Enterprise, hon,” her mother said.
“You’ll have fun there, Liz. It’s a lot like Lucky,” Meriel said, referring to the system hub for Luyten’s star, “but much better sims.”
“Time for sleep, girls. Take your tranq,” her mother said and pointed to the tranquilizers on their pillows that would ease the disorientation of the jump. “Which song would you like tonight?”
“‘Home,’ Mama, please,” Meriel said, and her mother began the familiar nursery rhyme.
Veiled in mist, her star arises,
Past the cloud that shelters Home.
Cradled in the giant’s nursery,
See there near the Seven Sisters…
When her mother pointed her finger, Meriel closed her eyes and imagined flying toward a planet. “What’s it like, Mom?”
Esther took each of the girls’ hands in hers. “Well, you can run all day in a straight line through fields of grain and never run out of room. The days are warm, and you can feel the sun on your bare arms. Little insects buzz near your ears, and it smells of wheat and flowers. Home has two moons, and some nights you can read by moonlight…”
Elizabeth snored softly, which was her mom’s cue that they were both sleeping, but Meriel had palmed her tranq and lay still, pretending to sleep.
“Esther, bridge, please.” Meriel heard her father’s voice on the comm.
“Coming, Captain,” her mother said, and then she kissed her daughters on their foreheads.
After her mother left, Meriel rose from her bunk and followed her to the bridge, where she found her usual hiding place behind the communications console.
“It’s too damn hard here, Ed,” Meriel’s father said.
“Mike’s right,” Uncle Ed said. Ed was her mother’s brother, the manager, and excepting God, he knew more about the financial health of the ship than anyone. “We’re living on the edge now. We need a different route.”
“The Pacific League will not give us another route,” her mother said.
“Damn ’em to hell then,” Ed said. “We need a different league.”
“You can’t just up and switch leagues,” her father said. Meriel heard footsteps pacing the bridge. “We need a cargo that we can trade on a new route. Profits will give us standing with a new league. Without that, we’re stuck with this route.”
“Pharmaceuticals, genomics,” her mother said, “and legal.”
“Of course, Esther.”
“What about Home?” her mother asked.
“Come on, Sis,” her uncle said. “Those fantasies again?”
“It might be real.”
“There’s no way someone could keep an earthlike planet so well hidden. Nothing that important could stay off the grid for this long. Besides, you have no clue how to find it.”
“Someone does. We just need the orientation. I just received something that—”
“It’s real!” Meriel heard the quiet gasp and turned to see Elizabeth hiding behind her. Meriel put a finger to her lips but smiled.
Uncle Ed continued. “We’re spacers, Esther. We’re not made for the dirt.”
“Maybe just a home base, not a home,” her mother said. “We have nothing if our route fails. A few bad trips and we’re working the docks, and the kids—”
“Then let’s not have any bad trips,” her father said.
“That’s a lot of pressure on me, Michael.”
“Sorry, Ed,” her father said and turned to her mother. “Esther, we won’t solve this tonight. I know it’s your dream, but we just can’t bet on it yet.”
“How long to jump?”
“Ten minutes,” Aunt Joanna said from nav. “Time to strap in.”
Meriel and Elizabeth sneaked back to their cabin and crawled back into their sleep nets.
“Mom thinks it’s real,” Elizabeth said.
“No one else seems to,” Meriel said. “Take your tranq, Littlebit. No faking this time.”
Elizabeth swallowed her pill. “Imagine running until I drop!” she said. “What does wheat smell like?”
Meriel hit a few keys on her link to combine the smells of wheat and jasmine with the sounds of crickets and the rustle of trees. She held out her link between them so they could both experience it.
Real! Mom thinks the fairy tales of Home might be real. Meriel closed her eyes and imagined running through an open field, but when she did, the ground curved up a few hundred feet away, just like in a space station. Gravity on a planet was just too hard to imagine without knowing where the next handhold was in the event that artificial gravity failed and the deck became the overhead. Meriel took the tranq and dreamed her mother’s dream of Home while the Princess jumped into hyperspace.
The emergency claxon woke Meriel as they came out of the jump. She got out of her bunk netting and reached for her sister in the dim, red emergency lights, but her feet left the deck; they were zero-g. She grabbed for a handhold to orient herself. Instead of the familiar hum from the engines and whoosh of the ventilation, she heard a low pinging that rang through the entire hull. The smell of ozone stung her nose. Something bad must have happened.
“Meriel! Liz! Come!” her mother whispered from the door of their cabin. Esther had all of the kids tethered together with a safety line to which Meriel and Elizabeth now clipped themselves. Her mother led them all to a small service hatch behind maintenance-1, and they all climbed inside—noisy and crying—and moored themselves to the bulkheads.
“Quiet, kids. Your parents will come for you soon,” her mother said while cracking a lightstick. She turned to Meriel and put the lightstick in her hand. “Meriel, you’re in charge when I’m gone, dear,” she said. “You hear me, Liz?”
“Yes, ma’am,” her sister said and pressed her lips together.
“Mom, what is it?” Meriel said.
Her mother frowned. “It’s serious. Just keep them absolutely quiet. I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. Then she went back through the hatch, closed it, and left the children alone in the hold.
Meriel turned around to face the children. She raised her hand for attention and tapped the shoulder of Elizabeth, who tapped the shoulders of those near her.
She signaled for quiet using sign language in the dim light. Little Harry was deaf and too young for implants, so the entire crew learned sign language to help him. Tears can’t fall in zero-g, so Meriel wiped each of their eyes and noses until the crying subsided to sniffles.
“Roll call,” Meriel signed.
The children raised their hands when their names were signed. Including her sister, Elizabeth, there were eight of them: Tommy and Sam Spurell, Penny Hubbard, Erik White, and little Harry in the lap of his older sister, Anita. Except for little Harry, they were all over five years old, so they understood what she was saying, but that didn’t mean they would behave for Meriel, who was not quite twelve.
To distract them, Sam took out his communications link and suspended it in the air to observe changes in orientation and acceleration. When the maneuvering thrusters fired, the link appeared to rotate in the air, though actually they and the ship were rotating around the link. The main engines rumbled and gradually restored gravity, and the kids and the link settled onto the deck.
“They’ll come soon,” Meriel signed. The kids began to relax in the familiar one-g until they heard the bang of an ejecting escape pod.
“They’ve gone!” Penny said aloud. “They left us here!”
“No! They’d never leave us, ever,” Meriel replied in sign.
A few minutes later, her mother opened the hatch and crawled back inside wearing a small lamp mounted on her forehead. She was sweaty and breathing hard; her eyes dilated. She handed more light sticks to Meriel and then sealed the hatch closed from the inside with a hand welder. When she finished the welds, she sat and leaned back against the bulkhead, took a deep breath, and winced. “Follow. Quiet,” she signed and led the children down the service tunnel and around a corner from the hatch. Once past a rib along the hull, she stopped and gathered the children.
“Your parents will come soon,” Esther signed. “Until then, be very, very quiet. Meriel is my number two. Do what she says.” Esther gasped, closed her eyes, and bit her lip. “Now, we wait for a signal.” She gathered the comm links, pried off the talk buttons so they could only receive, and returned them. Then she lay back and closed her eyes. “You might as well rest now, kids. It may be a while.”
Her mother took Meriel’s arm and drew her close. Meriel could see the tracks of tears in the dirt on her mother’s cheeks and new tears forming. “You need to grow up fast now, hon,” Esther signed and reached around the back of her neck to unfasten a necklace with a sim-chip, a key, and a tiny medal. She kissed the medal, and put the necklace around Meriel’s neck. “It’s all here, M. If no one comes, wait at least a half hour. If it grows colder than you can stand, move immediately. Understand?”
“Mom, why would no one come?” Meriel whispered in her mother’s ear, but her mother only put her finger to her lips.
“The hatch here opens only from the inside,” Esther whispered. “Cargo-2 is on the other side. Go to E-48 next to the galley. Find the alt-bridge behind the panel in the cold locker. Use the key to get in. Put the chip in the nav slot. Princess will jump one minute later, so be sure to tell the kids to secure themselves. Tranq is in the drawer under the monitor. Got it?”
The comfort that Meriel had felt earlier evaporated. “Why can’t you do this, Mom?”
Esther took Meriel’s hand and signed, “I maybe cannot, sweetheart.” She cringed again, and Meriel could hear the raspiness and gurgling in her voice now.
“What about Home?” Meriel signed.
“It’s all on the chip, hon,” her mother said aloud. She took Elizabeth’s hand to draw her closer. “Help your sister, Liz. She’ll need it.” Elizabeth nodded. Her mother lay back against the bulkhead and began to hum the melody of their favorite lullaby. “You remember the words, girls?” The sisters nodded. “Have faith…and never leave them.”
Esther’s headlight dimmed and Meriel used the light sticks to keep all the kids in sight. They sniffled in the dim light while huddling close together in the chilly hold and whimpered when the cargo loaders and hatches banged. But the sniffling eventually stopped, the kids got quiet and fell asleep, and Meriel dozed off.
 OOD: officer on deck. The OOD is the ship’s officer in charge of the bridge during a shift and serves as the direct representative of the captain. In general, the OOD post is manned by, in seniority of rank, the captain, XO (executive officer or first officer), second officer, or third officer. The captain will not stand watch if a third officer is onboard.
 XO: executive officer or first officer. This officer is next in command to the captain.
(c) 2014, 2015 Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.
(c) 2014, 2015 Benjamin R. Strong, Jr.