The Juggernaut | Chapter 16
The next three days passed by like treacle.
It was a quiet time in New Haven. No new ships were expected for another week, and local border issues seemed under control, so there was little work that required her help. The only novelty was the Orion, still under repair by Theo, and that was certainly nothing she could help with.
Tila had left Malachi’s workshop more troubled than when she entered.
Malachi’s conclusion thrilled and chilled her in equal measure. It meant hope, of a sort, but it was hope edged with fear and more questions. The possibilities it hinted at held a dangerous attraction.
She could easily jump to outlandish conclusions based on what Malachi had found, but if he was right then that truth demanded a response. Truth demanded that she do something, that she act, instead of remaining in this state of passive anger.
Until now, Tila had always felt she could overcome whatever life threw at her. She had done it before, many times, but this – this was something else. In the last twelve years, she had often acted rashly, often enough to have learned that the wise action was sometimes careful, but it was still action. She could still do something, achieve something. To only sit and think and wonder about the actions she did not take was something she could not do.
But there was no action she could take, and so she ached for something she could do. Something other than waiting for the enormity of their suspicion to crush her under the weight of its implications.
At times like this Tila felt the burning need to move. She could not dwell on problems. She worked through them, so she had retreated to her makeshift gym and was working out her frustrations there.
It was a spartan room, out of the way of other living quarters. It was too remote from the main population to be practical for storage or habitation. One day she would have to give it up as the population continued to grow, but for now it was her secret. Her own private getaway.
And it was perfect.
The beams and girders bracing the hull gave her somewhere to stretch and practice and train without bothering anyone and, more importantly, without anyone bothering her.
Today she needed to do something more vigorous than simply stretch. She was working out her frustrations on a makeshift punch bag.
She danced around it and punched, danced and jabbed, danced and kicked for as long as she could, until the ache in her muscles finally overtook the ache in her heart, and she could sleep.
But sleep was no willing partner tonight. Questions tumbled over in her mind, each one demanding attention and each one overtaken by the next.
How could the colony mission have been sabotaged? Who would gain and what would be their prize?
No mission of that scale had been launched in a hundred years, not since long before contact with Earth had been lost.
The expense involved was, quite literally, astronomical. To construct even a single colony ship would cost tens of billions, and then there was ancillary equipment and craft to consider, as well as the crew and training required for the four thousand or so individuals on board.
And this mission wasn’t taking any chances: the investors had provided enough funds and resources to build three ships.
Is Malachi asking me to believe that someone had the means and will to murder eight thousand colonists and destroy space craft worth hundreds of billions? For what? What could they possibly gain? It made no sense. Even if someone had the means to pull off a heist like this, why not steal all three ships?
What made one ship a more valuable prize than three? Was there something special about the Far Horizon?
What could someone gain that was worth so much death?
Her life had been anchored to that moment when her world had ended. She witnessed the explosion first hand, had felt and heard the terrible screams of people and tearing metal as the ships collided.
She remembered the fear and terrible dread that filled the observation room as the canopy closed, shutting out the light of the stars. It was a moment fixed in her life forever. She and too few others had lived through it.
Tila knew what happened. She knew what it meant.
Or so she thought. The data they found in the hauler had changed everything.
More questions burned in her mind. How did the ship end up here? Who put it there? What were they trying to hide by burying it so deep?
The rational part of her mind told her there was an explanation for everything. But another part of her sensed shadows in the darkness. Mystery and death did not easily lie together.
She was sure something underhand must have taken place.
Be taking place? But what? And how was the colony jump involved?
So, what am I sure of? Today, everything is different, so what do I know? I know someone hid that ship here. That means someone knows it exists. Someone knows it came back from Baru.
So, they know travel between Baru and at least one other system is possible but they’re keeping it secret. Is it the same person who hid the ship in the city?
Is it even one person?
Unless Malachi could unearth any more data from the chip it would be impossible to find out. As much as she had faith in his ability to perform the impossible there were still limits to what he could do. And even if he could find out where the ship had been going, how would that information help her?
It frustrated her that she didn’t have the answers. It frustrated her more that she didn’t know the right questions.
She punched the bag again, a fast combination which she finished with an elbow strike to an imaginary head.
Suppose they did learn where the ship had been delivering its unknown cargo. Maybe they could go there and… then what? Wait weeks, or months, for another ship to arrive?
There must be another way, she thought. There must be something useful they can get from that stupid chip.
That had a rhythm she could use. She repeated it to herself.
Stupid chip – jab, jab.
Stupid chip – jab, jab.
Stupid chip – jab, jab, jab, jab.
The only useful data they had extracted was the timestamps, but what use were they, really?
They showed that the hauler had made system jumps after the Far Horizon vanished, but that was all. Would anyone believe that the three of them had uncovered some great mystery based on that?
Tila paused and leaned against the bag. But it was impossible for the hauler to have returned on its own. Malachi said it was too small to have a jump drive so that meant at least one other ship was involved.
It felt like a step forward, but only a tiny step. After all, where was the other ship?
Did knowing that add more pieces to this puzzle, or obscure the pieces she already had?
Why had no one ever heard from the colonists?
Why discover a new star, live to tell the tale, and then keep it a secret?
Why leave two colony ships to be destroyed? That would only make things more difficult once they got to Baru. They would have only a third of the resources of the complete mission. Who would throw away so much in time and lives and money?
Who could afford to?
So many questions. But there were answers too, some brightness in the night sky. Their discovery meant her parents were right. It meant the jump tech her father had developed worked, and the mission her mother led was successful. No matter what history recorded. No matter what popular opinion believed. The jump worked. The beacon design worked and the star Baru was viable. The hauler could not have returned otherwise.
Maybe there was something she could do with that knowledge. Her parents’ reputations had been vilified – no, destroyed – in the aftermath of the tragedy. They could not defend themselves, and neither could an orphaned eight-year-old child. But here she had the proof they were right. And it began to dawn on her for the first time that the attacks on their character stung almost as much as their deaths.
She had seen her parents die only once but each attack, each false accusation, each lie, was like living through it all over again.
They blamed the tragedy on faulty calculations, and they blamed the calculations on her father. But her father’s work was right. The Far Horizon hauler was the proof.
Although no one had blamed her parents for the explosion aboard the New Dawn, her mother, in her role as mission commander, had been criticised for not saving more lives. To her critics, it mattered not at all that she had lost her own life along with thousands of others in a hopeless situation. The dead can’t defend themselves.
But her father had been aboard the Far Horizon. His ship had jumped first. Now she had evidence it had survived.
Maybe he had survived too.
But if he was still alive why had he not returned? Why had no one been heard from since?
Someone had to pilot the cargo-hauler back and it can’t have been the only ship to survive. Some colonists had survived, at least, but where were they hiding.
What were they hiding?
Tila shook her head, flinging droplets of sweat around the room. She narrowed her eyes and punched again, and again, and again. She vented her anger in powerful strikes, yelling with each one until her back and shoulders begged her to stop.
Finally, she dropped to the floor, leaned back against the punch bag and calmed her breathing. She stretched and flexed her palms and fingers to ease the tension and cared nothing for the spots of blood seeping from her knuckles.
The realistic thing would be to assume her father was dead. Tila had heard all the scientific explanations when she was a child, although she had only come to understand them as an adult.
The jump point was unstable and had collapsed to an infinitely small point. The shockwave would have obeyed the laws of physics and followed the direction of travel through the portal.
The deadly blast of energy on the far side of the wormhole would have devastated any ships too close to the event horizon.
The Far Horizon would have been caught in the blast. Crew occupying the inner compartments might have survived the initial blast because of the extra layers of shielding. But the system damage would be critical. Power and life support would have died, and so, a short time later, would the crew.
But anyone in the outer hull, such as the bridge, such as her father, would have been killed instantly by the high-energy particle blast.
Painlessly, they told her.
And he never came back. That was all the proof she needed.
Tila twisted her head from side to side, stretching neck muscles, keeping herself supple and moving, and knowing what would happen if she stayed still for too long.
So, some things can’t be changed, but what can I do with what I know? Does anyone even still care? It happened so long ago. It’s not like anyone still has a stake in a mission that took place more than ten years ago, is it?
No, that’s not right. Someone would want to know. People invested money in the mission. Rich, powerful people. It was too big for any government to fund alone. Those investors would want to know the truth. Wouldn’t they?
Corporations go to court all the time to reclaim investments gone bad. Maybe to the right investors this knowledge was worth something, and maybe they would be able to redeem her parents’ reputation and make it known that they did nothing wrong. The accident wasn’t their fault. The mission should have been a success.
She remembered the ship they found, and the data within.
It was a success.
Everyone involved in the mission, everyone who had a stake in its outcome – investors, survivors and investigators – wanted someone to blame. What could be more human than that? But Tila had always known they had blamed the wrong people. Now she could prove it. The people behind this, those who truly deserved the blame for lies, theft and murder, were still out there somewhere, hiding around a distant star.
Tila felt lighter now, and the fog inside her head was clearing. She hated being aimless. She had always wanted hope, but now more than hope she needed a plan. Needed focus.
Finally, she had all three.
It was settled then. She would find the investors who funded the colony mission and tell them what she knew. The data chip would prove her claims.
The investors, in their gratitude, would use their vast resources to investigate further.
And maybe, eventually, she could vindicate her parents’ memories and make sure history knew they were not failures.
It wasn’t much, but it was a plan.
All she needed now was a ship.