Branching Out


by John Steiner

The ISS Mockingbird is ordered to Kepler 22 to check up on a research outpost set up by the Astraeus. Colonel Ramachandra and her crew discover on the planet, Kepler 22B a form of life that doesn't need ships to travel through space. Also present is a base established by Remote Space Conglomerated Industries. Their operations put profit before the concerns of the indigenous life. An unauthorized distress call originates from the RSCI base. Colonel Rama must risk breaching their air defenses to comply with international conventions and save lives.


Chapter 1

Hot House

For the second time the ISS-454 Mockingbird, a Flip-capable ISV-71 Raven, made a decelerating entry into an exosolar system. The first des­tination was Kepler 22c, a planet that evaded detection for some eighty years after its larger sibling, Kepler 22b, was discovered. As with the Mockingbird’s first mission, the ship wouldn’t be landing on the planet itself. Instead, the crew’s task was to dock with a space station established by the Astraeus mission seventeen months ago.

The triangular configured Intra-Solar Vessel’s colors and its attached Flipspace Device frame with four modules were set to the standard blue and white of the Naval Aerospace Treaty Organization. In contrast, the multi-rimmed circular Kepler Twenty-Two Charlie Station, nicknamed “Hot House” was covered in fluorescent oranges and greens, as if covered with spilled paint, between the yellow bands separating them.

The Hot House was established by a Faster-Than-Light Vessel twenty-two hundred meters long, the station itself still seemed too big to have come from the handiwork of the Astraeus’s two thousand personnel. Around five hundred of the Astraeus crew deployed with their research stations on or near exo-planets. The remaining fifteen hundred former crewmembers disappeared without a trace. The personnel stationed in Kepler 22 didn’t yet know that.

“Attention all stations.” Maggie, the ship’s AI, spoke through an air variation, resonance system running throughout the ninety-meter long vessel. “Strap in for deceleration and maneuvering. Docking maneuvers in twenty seconds.”

The Mockingbird’s Xenon ion pulse thrusters fired to put it into a closer velocity match with Hot House Station. The gyroscopic motors embedded into the ship’s structure spun within their housings to reorient the vessel without fuel emissions. Smaller XIP thrusters pushed with ever so light a touch the craft toward the station’s hub. The ISV-71’s right side airlock extended out from under the back-folded wing. A soft metallic clamp rang through the ship frame as the Mockingbird com­pleted its connection to the motionless hub of Hot House.

Within the combat information center, as elsewhere within the Mock­ingbird, everyone unstrapped themselves and drifted up from their accel­eration couches in the free-fall. Colonel Sumitra Ramachandra shook her hair out, buzzed short on the sides and back, and straightened up her Air­man Battle Uniform.

“Major Fitch, Chief Anders,” Sumitra called out. “I’m thinking twenty-four hours of Stat Leave is in order after being cooped up in this bird so long. What say you?”

Chief Anders made a show of looking around in disdain before an­swering. “I suppose these cuckoo birds earned some extra legroom and elbow space. Sure, a day’s foot flapping will do, Ma’am.”

Stat Leave was the Aerospace Defense Response’s equivalent to shore leave, whereas the term Grav Leave referred to going planet-side or moon-side.

“Since I’m needing it,” Fitch said, glancing at Chief Anders. “I’m guessing the rest of them were due for it a couple weeks ago.”

“Alright,” the colonel affirmed. “Anders, notify the crew they get un­til thirteen, thirty hours tomorrow to stretch out, lounge and unwind, but that we do need this rather expensive station to remain intact. Major Fitch, you and I will see what the station administrator needs.”

“Roger that, Colonel,” Anders affirmed, and called through the AVR system.

Over the next several minutes, thirty-seven people collected a handful of things each and shuffled toward the right side wing housing and through the airlock shaft. Not under Threatcon status, the crew wasn’t required to don pressure suits to disembark the vessel. Inside one of four cargo bays in Hot House’s hub was as spacious as on the ill-fated Astraeus, but with thinner walls, due to the preliminary quick-build nature of station archi­tecture. All the RAVs inside were strictly unmanned and shaped like egg as if squished to be aer­odynamic.

“Hey, Cob,” one of the crew called out to Anders by his title of Chief of the Bird. “These must bring on flashbacks from your childhood. Isn’t that how you were hatched?”

“Come on,” a grinning Major Fitch answered in the senior-most NCO’s stead. “Now you know better ’n that. Chief Anders was put together in a top-secret lab using robot components from the future an’ only the finest Grade-A dead airmen. You do well enough before you go out, and they just might let you have the privilege of being one of Anders’ spare parts.”

Departing their chuckling, the commanding trio entered a different el­evator tube than most of the crew. At first Sumitra, Lamarr, and Carl had to hook a foot and hand into straps on the walls of the cylindrical transit car. Then, as they traversed further down toward the station rim, the sense of pull toward the floor grew. A monitor in the wall indicated the decimal percentage of normal Earth gravity that the centrifugal force equaled.

After reaching the second outermost rim, the doors opened, and the three enter a junction that broke off into two narrow hallways. Fitch cast longing eyes at carpeted floors and walls that appeared to be meant for Earth-side office buildings. What appeared to be storm windows every few meters were in fact monitor displays of various scenes as if from a screen­saver. They showed places from Earth’s natural ecosystems, sites on other Sol System planets and moons, or artist depictions of worlds yet to be dis­covered.

Sumitra checked door placards until finding the one for the station administrator, whose name read Tomas Vasquez. Colonel Rama placed her hand on an access panel, which read off her name to the occupant in­side and recorded her biometrics.

“Come in,” issued from the panel before the door opened.

Though Mr. Vasquez’s office was as small as her own quarters, Sumitra noted, it seemed more spacious for the lack of spaceflight neces­sities such as an acceleration couch. His desk, in reality an extension from one wall and the floor, even had the mundane trappings expected when a downward force kept everything from floating away. It included a tabletop display of him, a woman, and a little girl all moving around to pose for the video image.

“Hello.” He stood and offered a hand to each of them. “I’m Tomas Vasquez, Tier Three Admin for Hot House Station. Are you part of a new security detachment stationed on the Astraeus?”

“Colonel Sumitra Ramachandra.” She began handshake introductions as a delay to think how to soften the blow of bad news. “This is my XO, Major Lamarr Fitch, and Chief Master Sergeant Carl Anders. Ah, no, we’re the command staff of the ISS Mockingbird. ADR dispatched us to check on your situation in lieu of the Astraeus’s scheduled mission follow ups.”

“Alright.” Vasquez accepted that with a hint of dour crossing his fea­tures, as he sat back down. “So why isn’t the Astraeus returning? I was told their next stop would include providing us with a NoLo array, so we could send and receive transmissions directly with Sol.”

“I’m afraid a NoLo transmission array will have to wait a bit longer. FTL research flights to the exo-planets have been cancelled for the time being.”

Now came the expected protestations from Vasquez. “Colonel, there’s nearly eighty people on this station who haven’t seen or read any­thing from back home that isn’t a year and a half old. That and another ten people on the Kepler 22 b research base. Most of us have gotten used to the hydroponics, cloned meat foods, and all that. However, just because we got air, water, and food indefinitely covered doesn’t mean we’re really living out here.”

Sumitra waved him back like a school teacher allaying the complaints of a parent. “I understand that, Mr. Vasquez. If anyone gets what your conditions are like, it’s me and my crew.”

“There’s only so long until you’ve cycled through all the most recent news and entertainment vids, books, and M-cast articles, and need some­thing to convince you Earth’s still there awaiting your return. I’ve got peo­ple begging to be overworked just to distract themselves from being left with their thoughts. This station doesn’t feel so big after that much time. Then there’s the big news.”

Chief Anders glanced at Sumitra for just an instant, before stepping into his most favored role, that of Beta Dog. “The Colonel’s saying you’ll have to suck it up. It’s rough all round for everybody beyond Earth and the moon.”

“What’s that mean?” Vasquez said, looking between Anders and Rama­chandra.

“It means be glad you’re still here where we know to find you.” Sumitra reconciled herself to delivering the news he needed to hear. “Our first operation was to rescue the crew of the Astraeus in Gliese 667. Ex­cept, we found no crew on her nor on the surface of the only planet where they could’ve conceivably landed. I have a security approved version of the final report, so you’ll understand the situation as it currently exists. We’re not cleared to reveal more than that, but do understand that relief and resupply missions will continue. I’m sure the next civilian FTLV will have your NoLo array, but that’s not our purpose here.”

“With what we’ve discovered it should be,” Vasquez insisted. “I don’t suppose you have anyone versed in SETI Protocols?”

After an approving nod from Colonel Rama, Fitch spoke. “We have Captain O’Connell.”

“Malcolm O’Connell?” Vasquez searched all three of their faces.

“So you know the captain?” Sumitra said.

“I know of him,” Tomas corrected. “I never met the man. I wasn’t aware he’d joined the military. Last I heard he was a trauma surgeon and rehabilitation specialist at Johns Hopkins.”

“As you said,” Rama continued,, “it’s been nearly a year and a half since you got any information from Sol. Due to his several careers, he was brought into ADR through the AIR Program―the Accelerated Individual Recruitment, instead of full military basic training. He commissioned as a captain specifically to be my flight surgeon on the Mockingbird.”

Rama was never fond of name-dropping to incur respect or awe, but she saw the value of doing so in this case, instead of the usual top bitch attitude some women commanders used.

“Is this related to what happened in Gliese 667?” Tomas spoke with civilian’s enunciation of the triple star system. “If so, he’ll get another notch for NESI contacts on his belt.”

“You found candidate organisms for contact,” an incredulous Fitch asked. “Which planet?”

“Well, both we think,” Tomas answered, “All three of Kepler 22b’s life baring moons too.”

Military uniforms had long since included internal computers and communications, which for ADR crews enabled with ocular augments al­lowed them to see files without external devices. Sumitra and Tomas traded file reports, after which she, Fitch, and Anders, from off his sleeve, all read the cursory details. Kepler 22c was a little less than half the Earth’s mass. It was about as hot as Venus due to a comparatively thick atmo­sphere of mostly carbon dioxide, but also fifteen percent methane and an­other two percent of various other greenhouse gasses.

From Hot House’s research, it was clear the little boiler plate of a planet and its Earth-like moon, only half the size, had no indigenous life. However, they had recovered remains of long dead organisms from the greenhouse-cursed surface. Kepler 22’s outer planet wouldn’t have been the only world where life went extinct before discovery by the Astraeus in the last two years, except that’s where the file went beyond merely semi-amazing.

The first planet orbiting within the inner range of the Sol-like star’s habitable zone and three out of its nine moons appeared to be home to life forms that might be related.

“Holy shit!” Fitch huffed in an effort to catch his breath.

"Fire Alive!" by John Steiner


PDF - Add to Cart
HTML - Add to Cart
EPUB - Add to Cart

Amazon Kindle



? Heat Level: 0