In the fall of last year, I put out the long-awaited sequel to my novel Still Man Fights. Called The Siblings Who Shook The World, I aimed to make a tighter story that would appeal to a wider audience.
I wanted to share the prologue with my blog readers. This piece itself is basically a standalone short story about the history of the world of the NewHome books. If you dig it, please consider checking out the novels at the links above.
-=-=- PROLOGUE -=-=-
With Rigala 4 now in view, Papa adjusted the ship’s trajectory. The closer The Penance got to its destination, the more he could tell the planet would be a suitable place. It had an atmosphere; it had water; it had green land. From this distance, computers told him of new discoveries about Rigala 4 such as a 27-hour day cycle and temperature fluctuation that is less severe than Earth’s. The 52,300 passengers holding one-way tickets to the uninhabited planet would have a fighting chance at survival. Several officials who signed the banishment proceedings back on Earth felt it was more than the group deserved.
Papa wasn’t sure whether he agreed with the assessment of his superiors. He had spent spare moments on the journey observing his passengers and had developed sympathy for them. They were generally normal people who had made bad choices and found themselves in a tough spot. The majority were confined to sparse, narrow cells, alone, for 22.5 out of every 24-hour simulated day cycle. Electrified flooring herded them to and from meals and exercise – their only means of socialization.
Using cameras placed throughout the passenger quarters, Papa observed how they made the most of their group time. He witnessed fights and friendships, murders and marriages. Allegiances were formed and leaders were established. At times the scene was brutal, but peace was not a stranger on the ship.
None of the activities he witnessed were a surprise – not even the murders. He had been told during briefing: If we’re going to move this many bad eggs, we have to expect a few to break. After sharing a ship with these people for nearly three years, Papa found that analogy to be rather insensitive. They were still human beings, after all. Once in a while, he even found himself envious of their companionship; here he was, alone in his private sector of the Penance.
What bothered him more, though, was the treatment of the ones deemed the most problematic or contagious. They remained shackled in their tiny one-person cabins throughout the entire trip, unable to move even if they wanted to. Surely muscles atrophied during that time, regardless of what was being intravenously pumped into their bodies. Did Papa’s superiors on Earth expect these poor souls to just skip off The Penance like jolly rabbits released from a cage? Maybe those scientists and politicians were not so smart after all.
The ship broke through Rigala 4’s atmospheric barrier. Light reflected off the smooth contours of the starship; it was a sunny day. Through the monitor, Papa saw mountains and oceans that rivaled the beauty of anything back home. Home. For everyone else who survived the trip – 49,871 by last count – this was now their home until the day they expired.
As the only crewmember of The Penance, Papa would be making the long return voyage to Earth alone. He wasn’t really looking forward to it. The year 2434 sounded very far off, and he would have nothing as interesting as the passengers to entertain him. Of course, that was assuming he’d make return to Earth in one piece. Few interstellar voyages had been so fortunate; the technology was still in its infancy. Then again, past ships were without the benefit of a pilot as skilled as Papa. He was one of a kind.
As he dialed back rear thrusters and prepped the vertical stabilizers to let gravity do its job, Papa again turned his attention to the passengers. As good as the ship and its pilot were at compensating for the pressure shift, the entry into Rigala 4’s atmosphere did not go unnoticed. Some prisoners called out to nearby cells, others just looked around nervously. For Subject #HK-0347, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back; she died of a heart attack. Now, just 49,870 people were left to populate this strange new world. Subject #HK-0347 would soon be nothing but ash, expelled into the void of space during the return trip. Even now, she was being encased in a sterility wrap. Papa didn’t believe in an afterlife; her existence was over.
The Penance was at an elevation of 25,000 feet, descending swiftly at an angle of 42 degrees. Papa chose a spot three miles south of the exact center of the planet’s largest land mass as the landing zone. No runway was necessary. This was a fairly standard field; the purple-and-white flowers were a nice touch – a sort of housewarming present to the new tenants. Touchdown was in two minutes.
Perhaps he should say something. The thought scared him a bit, since his only communication entailed short updates beamed back to Earth every 168 hours. Still, he felt an obligation to these people to whom he’d somehow grown attached over this journey. Papa opened up the all-com for the first time ever.
“Welcome to your new home.”
Watching for their reaction, he was disheartened to see mostly confusion at his words. Did they not understand common English? Perhaps the all-com wasn’t functioning properly after three years of non-use.
Landing occurred without issue. Papa double-checked that everything was stable, engaged the appropriate executables, and waited. He was as naive to deplaning protocol as everyone else on The Penance. It wasn’t in his job description. He just watched the ship do the work.
First, the infirmary doors unsealed. Life-support and sensor equipment retracted into wall compartments. Each sick bed unfolded then disappeared into the floor, which became a giant conveyor belt that took the 732 diseased or incapacitated individuals to the cargo hold. Once there, automated carriers put them into three different covered flatbed rovers that were nearly as wide as the ship’s main door. Papa marveled at the orderly fashion, even though some of the passengers were already feeling discomfort after a short time away from their medication. Oh, to be in that much pain.
He could only see from the cargo hold’s interior as the rovers carted these first involuntary trailblazers out into the wilds of Rigala 4. Did they realize the significance of this moment? Were they excited? Enthralled? He was annoyed at the oversight of not having cameras installed in the vehicles themselves. None of the ship’s navigational cameras picked up the rovers; they must not even be chipped for tracking.
The women of general population were next. Cell doors opened and toilets somehow rose up; Papa had never seen that trick before. Electric shock on the surfaces of floors and walls, along with mild magnetic pulls, motivated the 12,290 females toward the same cargo hold. The medication that prevented them from having children aboard the ship would wear off in a matter of days without the supplement-enriched water supply.
The women boarded rovers to the outside, though it took several shifts to get them all out. Papa zoomed in the camera on some of their faces, registering a gamut of emotion: fear of the unknown, elation at being free, relief at breathing air that wasn’t recycled 12 times over. How would he have reacted in their situation? He couldn’t compute that.
So it went on, until 41,000 people had departed The Penance and scattered out into their new home. The remaining 8,870, however, would not be leaving so easily.
Papa received reports of various fires being started all over the ship, as well as breaches to doors he thought were secure. Interior damage readings were at 1.73% and rising by the minute.
The excrement was hitting the fan. Papa was just one against – checking – 8,592 angry convicted criminals. But he had mankind’s most advanced starship at his disposal; surely that was enough to keep him safe.
Papa called up the security system, requesting that knockout gas filter in through the air ducts. That took care of some of the travel-weakened individuals. Conveyor floors were put at their highest speeds, faster than a healthy man could run. All walls were charged with maximum electricity, powerful enough to incapacitate even large individuals high on Aggro8. These steps were drastic but necessary. They definitely helped, as thousands were unconsciously brought to the waiting rovers for involuntary extraction. Interior damage was holding at 2.1%.
Even the most perfect diamond has a flaw, however. It was only a matter of time before these violent individuals found whatever pinhole was in The Penance’s security system. Papa knew there were more tricks at his disposal, but reserve power was required for takeoff. He was not ready to make his last stand here. The only emergency directive he had ever received was: Do not allow the prisoners to overtake the ship.
A third of the shockwalls simultaneously shut off; someone must have cut their power. Papa saw the mess hall being raided then torched, its cameras going offline. The infirmary’s morphine supply was stolen. Interior damage leapt to 8.39%. That meant hull breach was a concern. All of this was accomplished without the benefit of traditional weapons. Earth was right to fear these crazed and hostile criminals.
Papa got in touch with the transport systems and called back all the rovers. Two did not respond, and one that did ended up running over and killed three people attempting to flee The Penance. The death toll was piling up.
He couldn’t worry about any of that now. Papa cooked the main thrusters, which generated an automated warning signaling last call for escape. Most of those still onboard ignored it. Once the red light turned green, he popped The Penance back into the air. Immediately, one of its engines stalled, no doubt shorted out by some maniac. Shouldn’t they be rushing to get off this cold, steel prison instead of fighting to stay aboard? Their lack of sensibility was confusing and distressing.
Not much more remained before Papa’s job would be done. Once at minimum velocity for an accurate launch, Papa jettisoned the 11 high-frequency scanners; they spread out across the planet’s surface. He knew at this height, they wouldn’t be as widespread as the scientists on Earth would have preferred. That was their problem; he’d done his best.
Papa heard the sounds of rioters nearing the control room. It wouldn’t be long until they force their way in, overpower him and commandeered the ship.
Papa opened the broadcast lines and beamed a two-syllable message back to Earth. For his final act as pilot of The Penance, he triggered the self-destruct.
The ship’s last 5,604 passengers went up in the massive explosion, their ashen remains joining the debris and shrapnel that bombarded a 150-mile radius of the surface of Rigala 4. The blast’s rain of fire claimed the lives of 712 less-mutinous individuals – mostly the infirmed. Casualties included all those afflicted with HCAW, sparing the remaining survivors from a pandemic outbreak.
Eighteen hours later, an entry-level engineer named Bryan at Dow Interstellar Reception received an audio message. Playing it, Bryan heard the robotic voice of the Penance Automated Pilot Algorithm – P.A.P.A. – say his final piece.