Book 2: Rebellion
Rei Bierak was sound asleep in the bedroom he shared with Rome when a slight hiss emitted from the communication grille mounted directly above the headboard. It was 11 months into their year-long journey from Tabit to Deucado, during the interval designated as nighttime even though here in the blackness of space such a distinction was completely arbitrary. Their bedroom was nestled inside the converted Vuduri space tug affectionately known as the Flying House.
“Psst, Rei,” MINIMCOM whispered from the grille however he received no response.
After waiting a moment, the little computer spoke again, this time a bit louder, “Please wake up, Rei."
Eyes still closed, Rei asked in a fatigued tone, “What is it, MINIMCOM?”
“I need you to look at something.”
The 26-year-old man from the 21st century opened his eyes. He turned to his left and saw that Rome was still fast asleep.
“Hold on,” he said wearily. He jumped up and padded into the refresher, closing the door behind him. Standing at the sink, he splashed some water onto his face and peered into his reflection.
“Vroggon Chrosd ta Jasus,” Rei said out loud, shaking his head.
“You speak Vuduri even when alone?” MINIMCOM asked from a grille mounted to the left of the sink.
“That’s all we use now. You know that. I have to keep practicing. Rome says nobody is going to take the time to learn English on Deucado. Especially the mandasurte. And she’s right.”
“Very well. Fiu veler ebanes am Vuduri.”
“I don’t need help from you,” Rei said sharply. He paused for a moment. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you, I’m just tired.”
“No need to apologize. As I have stated on numerous occasions, I do not have feelings.”
“Well, I do,” Rei said, “and I’m really worried about Rome. She’s barely halfway through the third trimester but the baby’s getting so big. She has trouble breathing all the time.”
“We will be arriving at Deucado within three weeks. There you will have access to medical aid. My readings tell me she will be able to make it until then.”
“Yeah, I know,” Rei said, straightening up. “Forget I said anything. So tell me, what’s so important that you had to wake me up in the middle of the night?”
“We are about to enter the Kuiper Belt surrounding the star system. The Belt contains an unusually large amount of mass - comets, asteroids and the like. I have been using the starprobes in a dense array to chart a safe way through and they found something.”
“What kind of something?”
“An anomalous object, far too regularly shaped to be natural.”
“Are you saying it’s man-made?”
“That would be presumptuous. I would prefer that we use the term artificial for the time being.”
“Regardless, what do you think it is?”
“I do not know. That is why I need you to look at it and determine if it is important.”
“OK,” Rei said, yawning. He opened the door to the refresher and saw Rome standing there, looking as pregnant as humanly possible.
“Qua asde onti sipra?” Rome asked, rubbing her eyes.
“MINIMCOM’s found something that he needs me to look at,” Rei answered. “It’s probably nothing but I told him I’d go up to the cockpit and see.”
“I will go with you.” Rome turned toward the entrance to the bedroom then cried out in pain.
“What is it, honey?” Rei asked, rushing over to her. “Your breath?”
“No,” Rome said, reaching behind her with her arm. “It is my back. It has been hurting more and more.”
Rei stared at her for a second then snapped his fingers. “Stay right here,” he said. He dashed out of the room and returned a moment later with a large white bottle and a squeeze bulb of water.
“Hold this for a sec,” he said, handing her the squeeze bulb. He opened the bottle and shook out one pill.
“Are those not the pills for your people when we land on Deucado?” Rome asked.
“Yeah,” Rei said, staring at the pill. “My back was killing me when I was first awakened. OMCOM made these to compensate for 1400 years worth of degeneration. I’m betting they’ll do wonders for you. We have plenty to spare.”
“But my back is Vuduri, do you think these pills will even work?” Rome paused for a moment. “And more importantly, do you think they might affect the baby? I cannot ingest anything that could be harmful.”
“Good point,” Rei said. He looked back to the grille mounted over the sink. “Hey MINIMCOM…those pills that OMCOM gave me. Will they help Rome’s back? Is there any chance they’ll hurt her or the baby?”
“They will have absolutely no negative effect on the baby. As to whether they will help Rome’s back, I cannot be sure. On balance, I would say yes. Either way, I cannot compute a downside to trying.”
Rei started to hand the pill to Rome then drew his hand back.
“What is it?” Rome asked.
“I don’t know,” Rei answered, looking puzzled. “I thought the pill that OMCOM gave me was yellow. This one is white.”
“Do you think it makes a difference?”
“No clue,” Rei replied reflectively. He held the bottle up to his eye and jostled it around, peering into it. He spotted one yellow pill mixed among all the other white ones. He shook out a bunch and picked out the yellow one and handed it to Rome.
“No sense in mixing apples and oranges,” he said.
“What has fruit got to do with this?” Rome asked with a bewildered look on her face.
“It’s just an expression,” Rei replied, laughing gently.
“How long until the pill takes effect?”
“When I took mine, I was a lot better in just a few days,” he answered. “OMCOM said in my case, it would take almost a full year for the effects to become complete. Right now, I’d say my back is mostly perfect. But for you, I’m guessing it’ll help within a day or so.”
“Good,” Rome said, swallowing the pill. “I could use the relief.” She smiled and pointed to the door. “You go on up to the cockpit. I will meet you up there in a minute.”
“Sure,” Rei bent over and gave Rome a kiss. “See you shortly.” He left the bedroom and headed forward.
It was longer than one minute but eventually, Rome entered the cockpit and sat down in the co-pilot’s seat.
“What have you found?” she asked, breathing heavily.
“I’m not sure,” Rei answered, pointing at the viewscreen. “MINIMCOM detected something odd floating in space. We’re trying to figure out what it is. The starprobes weren’t built for close up inspection. But MINIMCOM is right. It certainly isn’t natural.”
Rome observed the image on the center viewscreen. There were quite a few objects, mostly boulder-shaped, spinning very slowly. On the right viewscreen, MINIMCOM had reconstructed a still snapshot of the object in question. The image was blurry but Rome could see it was elongated, rectangular and its edges were distinctly regular.
“MINIMCOM, how far away is the object?” she asked.
“Only a few light minutes.”
“What do you think, Rome?” Rei asked. “MINIMCOM says he can get us there in a single jump. Should we go take a look?”
“Yes. Since it is not really out of our way, it is worthy of inspection.”
“OK, MINIMCOM. Go ahead and plot the jump,” Rei commanded.
“I have already performed the necessary calculations.”
“Great,” Rei responded. “In that case, you can fire when ready, Gridley.”
“My name is MINIMCOM. Why are you calling me Gridley?”
“Never mind,” Rei said, chuckling. “Just go ahead.”
MINIMCOM activated the PPT generators and their high-pitched whine. Having heard the sound thousands of times over the last 11 months, Rome and Rei had long since stopped paying it any attention. But for this excursion, the sound was quite noticeable. In front of them, the dark circle of negative energy grew larger and larger, exposing the stars on the far side. Their destination star, Tau Ceti, shined a tiny bit brighter than before. When the tunnel reached maximum size, MINIMCOM fired the plasma thrusters on both tugs and the combined mass of the two ships plus Rei’s Ark inched into the hole. As soon as they were completely though, they heard the regular thunk-clunk of MINIMCOM disengaging and reengaging such that he could use his plasma thrusters to bring them to a halt.
“Did you do it?” Rei asked.
“Yes. The object is to your left approximately one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers.”
The central section of the large flat-panel monitor built into the front console lit up but it only showed the cold, clear darkness of interplanetary space.
“Where is it, MINIMCOM?” Rome asked. “I do not see anything.” She squinted flipping between regular vision and her telescopic vision but nothing resolved itself.
A set of sequentially widening circles appeared on the center of the screen, reminiscent of a radar sweep or an air traffic controller’s screen. If the purpose of the circles was to locate the object, there was nothing there.
“I don’t see anything either. Can you switch to infrared?” Rei asked.
“The object is sitting at ambient. That would not make it any more visible.”
“So how can you detect it?” Rei asked.
“So show us the MIDAR screen,” Rei said exhaustedly.
The screen switched to a set of fixed concentric circles and within the circles, a bright line appeared as it swept clockwise. When the sweeping hand hit the 11 o’clock position, a tiny dot flashed. As MIDAR was three-dimensional, it was easy to see that the object lay below the plane of their current trajectory.
“Can you magnify it?”
“Of course,” replied MINIMCOM. The concentric circles slid off the screen zooming into just segments of arc. The object they were tracking became centered. MINIMCOM suppressed the reflections of the extraneous mass surrounding the object but there was no legend to gauge its overall size.
“What are its dimensions?” Rei asked.
“The object is approximately two meters long by one and a half meters tall by one meter deep.”
“Omigod,” Rei exclaimed.
“What?” Rome asked. “What do you think it is?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” Rei answered. “But I think it’s a sarcophagus. That’s the exact right dimensions.”
“What is it doing out here?”
Rei shook his head. “Our ship was headed toward this star system. Based upon how messed up the Ark is, I think we hit something along the way in. I’m assuming the collision sheared off the command compartment. This must be one of the command crew.”
Rome looked at image again then turned toward Rei. “What do you want to do?”
He cocked his head. “We have to go get it, of course.”
“In our current configuration that would not be very practical. It would be far more efficient if I detached from the Ark and flew my tug there.”
Rei glanced at the screen then looked up at Rome, questioningly. She was scowling.
“Rome, come on,” he said. “It’s one of my people. We can’t just leave him here in space. I’ve gotta go and get him. I’d take you with me but in your condition…” Rei pointed to her protruding belly.
“But, but,” Rome stammered.
“What is it, honey?” Rei asked tenderly.
“What if something happens to you? I will not be able to help you.” A tear came to her eye. “I would just die if anything happened to you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Rei replied, reaching forward to wipe away the tear. “I’ll be careful, I promise.” He turned toward the viewscreen. “MINIMCOM, I need about five minutes to get ready.”
“How will you get here?”
“I won’t. You come get me.”
“Of course,” MINIMCOM responded. “I will be there momentarily.” The little computer’s words were punctuated with a clunk as the tug disengaged the magnetic clamps.
Rei hopped up to aid Rome out of her seat. They made their way to the side airlock, where Rome helped Rei get into his pressure suit. He pulled the hand thruster down from the shelf and clipped it to his belt. Looking down, he saw the case containing the VIRUS units and picked it up and secured the case to his belt as well.
“Why are you taking that?” Rome asked.
“It always gave me the willies to keep those things here,” he said. “I’m going to take them over and leave them aboard MINIMCOM. I just never had a chance before.”
“I understand. I think that is a good idea as well.”
Rei picked up his helmet. He leaned forward and puckered his lips. Rome kissed him but there was no ardor. The kiss was perfunctory.
“What?” he asked, peering into Rome’s eyes which were glowing with the light reflecting off of her tapetum. Tears were streaming down both cheeks now.
“Rei,” she answered finally. “I am afraid. You will be leaving me alone.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rei said, trying to be upbeat. “This isn’t the first time we’ve done this. Remember when I went out to jettison the propulsion unit?”
“Yes, but that time you were tethered to this tug during the entire mission. And I was able to see you. You did not really go anywhere. This time, you and MINIMCOM are going to fly away from here. This is the first time in my life that I will ever be truly alone.”
“It’s not like Cesdiud. I’ll have MINIMCOM hook up a video and audio link. We’ll talk the whole time. It’ll be like I’m right there with you.”
Rome sighed. “It will not be the same but I suppose I must learn to do it at some point. You go. I will be all right.”
Rei leaned forward and kissed her again lightly. This time, Rome grabbed his head with both hands and kissed him long and passionately, making the man dizzy.
“You be careful, Rei Bierak. You come back to me,” Rome said firmly.
“Nothing will ever keep us apart,” Rei vowed earnestly. “I promise.”
Looking sad, Rome stepped back out of the airlock. Rei engaged his helmet. The door closed and Rome leaned forward to peer at him through the porthole. He turned to look at her and had a sudden feeling of déjà vu. Rome put her hand up to the glass and Rei placed his gloved hand against hers. She nodded.
With that, Rei turned and pressed the stud to activate the outer door. He could feel his suit stiffen as pumps worked to pull the air out of the airlock, leaving the chamber in a near vacuum. The differential indicator turned red and the outer door opened automatically.
Not even six feet away, MINIMCOM’s tug hovered in place with the side airlock directly across from Rei. The outer door was already open. Rei looked back at Rome one more time then took a flying leap and landed inside the other tug with nary a jolt. Rei closed the outer airlock door then quickly made his way to the archway that served as the secondary airlock and entry to the cockpit, closing the door behind him. As soon as the indicator turned green, the door opened and Rei stepped through.
He surveyed the cockpit. Its layout was identical to his own tug’s cockpit, with the exception of a large white box bolted on the floor where the co-pilot’s seat had been. Rei set the carrying case holding the VIRUS units on the floor and removed his helmet. The air smelled musty. There had been nothing here to stir it up in almost a year.
“MINIMCOM?” he said, bending forward and tapping the rectangular box.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” came a tinny voice from the grille mounted on the front instrument panel.
“This is weird, huh? We’ve spent the last year together but I’ve never actually seen you before.”
“Impressive, am I not?” MINIMCOM said regally.
Rei laughed. “Yes, you are,” he said. “Before we do anything, can you patch me through to Rome? I think she was about to have a conniption.”
“What is a conniption?”
“You don’t want to know,” Rei replied. “Just patch me through. Please.”
“Romey?” Rei asked tentatively.
Her beautiful image appeared on the viewscreen. “Yes, mau emir. I am here.”
“Well, you can see that I made it OK, right?”
“Yes,” Rome replied tersely.
“So you can relax now, right, honey?” Rei asked.
“That is too much to ask but I am happy that you are safe.”
“OK. Sweetheart, we’re going to head out now.”
“I will be here, monitoring.”
“Okeydokey,” Rei replied. He pointed to the case on the floor. “I brought you a present, MINIMCOM.”
“The VIRUS units. You are too kind. If it would not be too much trouble, would you mind securing them in one of the storage compartments? I would rather they not rattle around while I perform my maneuvers.”
A bin popped open on the far side of the cabin.
“No problem,” Rei said, shaking his head. After securing the case, he closed the cabinet door and then made his to the pilot’s seat on the left. He buckled himself into the long-vacant chair, checking the X-harness for snugness.
“OK. I’m ready. What say we go and retrieve my comrade?”
“Very well, sir,” MINIMCOM replied obediently. Rei stifled a chuckle.
MINIMCOM fired short bursts on the trim-jets until it cleared the Ark by about 50 meters then the little computer ignited the plasma thrusters. Quickly their velocity climbed to 150 km/sec. MINIMCOM shut down the engines and they coasted. It only took them about 15 minutes to traverse the 150,000 kilometers to the object. As they approached, MINIMCOM fired the trim-jets to decelerate, coming to a dead halt no more than 100 meters from the sarcophagus nestled among a group of fairly large boulders. Rei flipped on the powerful front floodlights and illuminated their quarry. Now that it was visible, Rei could see that the sarcophagus was a dull gray but had three broad red stripes around it.
“It’s Captain Keller,” Rei announced.
“How can you tell?” Rome asked.
“They put red stripes around the chambers for the command crew. Three stripes means Captain.”
Rei looked down at the MIDAR display and then back up at the sarcophagus.
“OK, MINIMCOM, turn around and back in as close as you dare. I’m going to go out and…”
“Rei!” Rome shouted.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Rei said. “I’ll be tethered in the whole time. The hand thruster is all I need.”
“Be very careful,” Rome admonished. “You know there are no radios in our pressure suits. If you run into any problems, tug twice on the tether. MINIMCOM, you will watch him and at the first sign of trouble, you get him out of there.”
The retrieval operation went fairly smoothly. Rei had a little trouble grabbing onto the railing surrounding the sarcophagus but once he gripped it, he was able to swing up and straddle it like a would-be cowboy on an artificial bull. A few short bursts of the hand thruster extricated the sarcophagus from its rocky neighbors. A couple more bursts and Rei and his ride glided smoothly back to the waiting confines of MINIMCOM’s cargo compartment. The cargo ramp and hatch closed to form a tight seal and MINIMCOM repressurized the compartment.
Rei disengaged and floated away from the coffin-like object. Once he was clear, ever so slowly, MINIMCOM re-activated the artificial gravity. The heavy object settled gently onto the cargo bay floor. At this point, Rei removed his helmet and walked over to the sarcophagus.
While the faceplate was completely iced over, the nameplate said “Captain M. Keller” confirming Rei’s suspicions. He inspected every inch of the top of the sarcophagus, looking for cracks. He found none.
“I can’t believe it but it looks intact. He may still be alive.”
Rei stooped down, examining the rods and panel, locating the handles he needed to turn to begin the thaw cycle.
“Wait,” Rome’s voice rang out from a grille mounted in the cargo bay.
“What?” Rei said.
“What are you doing?”
“I was going to reanimate him, of course,” Rei said, confused.
“I do not think you should do that.”
Rei stood up and looked over at the wall.
“Why?” Rei asked. “I need to awaken him.”
“Think about it,” Rome explained. “When we first reanimated you at Skyler Base, you were weak and disoriented. If your Captain requires any kind of medical attention, we are not equipped to provide it.”
“But, but…” Rei said. “We should…”
“Rei,” she said sternly. “There is no food or water there. You have no way to get him over here. Remember, we will be arriving at Deucado in three weeks. Why not just wait until then to thaw him out?”
“But the temperature in here, it might trigger the thaw cycle automatically,” Rei protested.
“I will keep the cargo bay evacuated and the temperature will be very close to space ambient.”
Rei was silent for a moment as he thought about their words. After a few seconds, he nodded. “You’re right. If he’s still alive after 1300 years of being frozen and floating around in space, another three weeks isn’t going to kill him. MINIMCOM, can you tell if there are any other crew members in the area?”
“I have searched extensively with MIDAR and the starprobes. I have found none.”
“Oh,” Rei said, a bit crestfallen.
“If it is any consolation, I will leave a beacon here in case any ships have the opportunity to search the area again.”
“OK,” Rei said. “I guess that’s the best we can do.”
After securing the sarcophagus with some short tethers stored in the cargo bay, Rei spoke up. “All right, MINIMCOM, he’ll be safe here by himself. I’m ready to get back to Rome.”
“Affirmative,” replied MINIMCOM.
“Thank you,” came Rome’s voice. “I miss you too much already.”
REBELLION: BOOK 2 OF THE ROME’S REVOLUTION SAGA