Disconnection, by Chris Lee Jones

FIRST PLACE

Disconnection by Chris Lee Jones

Chris is a Welshman who has lived the last twenty years as an exile in rural England. He has worked in physics research, as an opto-electronic engineer, and most recently as a High School teacher. This story came together as an amalgam of two of his enthusiasms: science fiction and tea. Prior to this, he has had flash fiction published on 365tomorrows.com and non-fiction in Physics Review and Physics Education.

More information on his writing can be found at https://leejonesbooks.weebly.com/.

Disconnection
by Chris Lee Jones

Ten days before Contact, FleetHead Hui Yan walked unaccompanied to one of her ship’s less-than-opulent decks, fighting the churning of nausea that came with inwards passage along the gravity gradient. Her destination was a tiny bay, windowless and derelict, furnished for the occasion with rugs and pillows and a low mahogany table.

“Admiral Hui,” said her host, one of the few whom she allowed to call her by her old title. “I was honoured, but hardly surprised, by your request.”

“You know me too well, Emmett. What have you got for me?”

The stout little man rummaged around in what he called his treasure chest–really nothing but a plywood packing crate–and produced a tight foil-lined package that rippled in the amber light from the overhead crystals.

“Something pure for the first of your teas, Admiral. Dianhong, a fine black from Yunnan, China. Gifted to the fleet by Laititia III, Koningin der Belgen. Stamped AD 2185, the year of the first Beacon call. Seemed appropriate, in the circumstances.”

Yan unfurled the gossamer package, revealing a nest of leaves, red-brown and twisted. She rolled a few of the strands between her fingers, sucked up their honeydew scent with a tight inward breath.

“Tell me about her, Emmett. Tell me about Laititia of Belgium, who gifted us these buds.”

“It is not a happy tale, I am afraid,” he said, pushing the leaves into a perforated bag the size of his hand, squeezing the edge to make a seal. “Although not without moments of uplift.”

Yan watched as Emmett set the kettle with freshly drawn water, lined the pot, shuffled and clinked and made warm and familiar sounds.

“To those who looked on from afar, it seemed Laititia had everything. A caring husband, a healthy baby, a summer palace, servants acting on her every whim. But unlike many others in her privileged class, Laititia had never left the Earth. A back injury sustained when she was a teenager made the rigours of space travel impossible. So despite living through the bright morning of the space age–bases on the Moon, Mars, Io, Europa, quintessence-driven ships running like buses between them–she never took a step towards the stars. But she was hungry for it, and ready to tether her young son to her burning ambitions. In her mind he was to become an astronaut, an explorer, to achieve all the things that she could not. She began to collect space memorabilia, old astronautic texts, and scattered them around her palace, drawing him in deeper and deeper.

“She had it all planned out for him, yet her plans would never come to fruition. Her son died in an accident on an educational visit to the forests of the Ardennes. He was only ten years old. Laititia was consumed by the memory of him and driven to fulfil his ambitions by proxy. Her country became an important sponsor during the manufacture of the contingency fleet. As a final gesture, she provided the fleet with everything she thought her son would have wanted on such a journey. Games, story-links, chocolate truffles, toys. And, as you may have guessed, the boy had a fondness for tea. Look here…”

Emmett passed her the foil package, turned it over. On the back, a printed tab:

In memory of my beautiful boy, Jacques-Luc. May his dreams provide inspiration for your journey.

Yan fought to stop her lips from trembling, content to close her eyes and listen to Emmet’s final preparations.

Finally, he handed the tea over in a porcelain cup.

“A splash of milk, just as you like it,” he said, his words breaking over images of palaces and splendour, of hope and verdant green, of fresh moving air and old Earth.

Yan raised the cup, savouring that first sip, relishing its sweetness.

Then she looked up to see an uncharacteristic frown on Emmet’s face.

“Whatever is the matter?” she asked.

“Forgive me for probing, Admiral, but… what do you think will happen, when the Tall Ones reach Earth? What do you think they will they do?”

The two-hundred-year-old question.

Emmett’s head dropped, an apologetic expression on his face. “I am sorry, Admiral Hui. I have spoken out of place. It’s just that it’s so near now. So close.”

Yan took a deep breath. “If we are to take them at their word, the Tall Ones might yet turn out to be our saviours. They have the means to help us colonise other worlds, to spread and preserve our seed. But I have my doubts, Emmett. As you know, there is the other possibility…”

“The destruction of humanity. The End of Days.” Emmett rubbed his chin pensively.

“Either way, the pertinent point is that none of us in this fleet will ever know. And I would like to keep it that way.”

Emmett didn’t look convinced. Had the Preachers been getting to him, too?

Yan shifted on her pillow and stood up, swaying awkwardly, far from full acclimatization to point-five-gee. “When the Day of Contact comes,” she said, “I want our celebrations to focus on the value of our ignorance, on its fundamental importance to the continuity of our mission.

“Until tomorrow, my friend.”

***

None of the ships in the fleet had a name, at least not an official one. The circumstances by which they had left the Earth precluded the dignity of a ceremony, and so each had simply been given a code indicative of size and status. This ship was S1D1-1, affectionately known as ‘Sid’ to many of its three-thousand inhabitants. Sid’s electronic systems were overseen and controlled by the fleet AI. In personal correspondence, Yan always referred to the AI as Him, and suspected that He was as devious as he was indispensable.

The ship had a drum-and-gimbal design: living quarters nested concentrically along a rotating cylinder; generators, ventilators, recycling units housed in the counter-rotating gimbal–an ugly arched framework, edited out by most of the ship’s smart windows.

By the time Yan reached her apartment, the overheads in the passageways and corridors had dimmed to orange twilight.

She called Megan’s name, but there was no response. This time, the girl hadn’t even left a note. She’s drifting away, Yan thought; like they all do, sooner or later. A coldness had crept over their relationship these past few months. Sex had become mechanical, perfunctory. Fun had become a thing to do with other people.

Yan called up the kitchen routines, searching for a dish that might do justice to her rising appetite. As FleetHead, she was granted more choice than most on board, but in these days of open accountability she settled for something overtly sustainable: two helpings of reconstituted gouda on rye, chilled grade B water. After eating and sending her plates for flushing, she killed the lights and sat facing the smart window. The stars juddered slightly, so she re-calibrated the rotation adjustment.

Out there somewhere was her ancestral planet. Beyond the range of telescopes, beyond communication.

Nine days now, old Earth. Our thoughts are with you.

This evening, she had two difficult meetings to attend, the second of which would probably last past midnight. She felt her authority ebbing away, felt powerless to stem the flow. The Preachers–a fleet-wide cabal of charismatic soap-boxers riding a wave of populist sentiment–were openly challenging her every stance. And there were some on the admiralty board who still questioned her mandate, uncomfortable with the idea that she had succeeded her beloved father fifty years ago.

The meetings would be fractious.

Her innerware spoke to her in filtered figures He deemed important:

>> The polls have swung, FleetHead Hui. Projection is seven percent and rising.

“Shit! This can’t be happening.”

>> They are only polls, FleetHead Hui. But we must prepare for all possible outcomes.

All possible outcomes? A vote for the return of a ship to Earth was something she couldn’t condone. Her fleet would not be divided, not after all this time.

“I want to put out a universal to everybody of voting age. Tell them that if they vote to leave, they might find facilities on the returning ship a little–how can I put it?–sparse compared to those on the continuing ships. Have the message come up in central field. I want everybody to see it.”

>>Might I offer some advice, FleetHead Hui? Based on a preliminary analysis.

“You might.”

>>Such a communication, although not exactly forbidden by the Fleet constitution, might be seen to constitute a threat. As such, the action you suggest might play into the Preachers’ hands.

“They were the first ones to take the gloves off. This is a necessary retaliation. I want it signed off by the council by the strike of the next hour.”

>>Consider it done, FleetHead Hui.

Yan sighed, and called to the kitchen for a large glass of wine.

***

Yan offered Abe a questioning look and he cleared his throat to begin. “Edgars Balodis? First, I must tell of his dear mother, Anna. She is the reason I selected this tea for you today, for she was part of the team responsible for the very first burst from the Beacon.”

Yan startled. “Really? Why have I not heard of this before?”

Emmett smiled. “Because I have not told you. I shall read an extract from a journal that Anna kept, written the day before her departure from Io station, three days after the first Beacon call.”

I can’t believe we finally did it, after all the years of preparation. We have shouted “SOS” to anyone who can hear, using the most powerful antenna in the Universe–playing the flux tube between Io and Jupiter like a violin, pulling on strings of plasma hundreds of thousands of kilometres long, releasing the energy into the coldness of space. The Beacon is a work of genius. I am glad to have played my part in its design.

But now it worries me greatly, what we have done. If there are aliens out there, benevolent or otherwise, they’ll know we’re here and they’ll know we’re vulnerable.

The call from the Beacon will be detectable up to five hundred light years. There are a lot of stars in a sphere of that radius. A lot of potential recipients of our message.

“Odd, isn’t it,” said Emmett, “to think that this was written before anybody knew about the Tall Ones. A full twenty-five years before their reply?”

“A lot happened in that twenty-five years,” Yan mused. “Not that either of us were there to witness it. Anyway, tell me about Edgars, who gifted us this moment.”

“His is another sad story. The ferry that his mother rode in back from Io split apart and burned up during Earth re-entry. The official enquiry called wrongful death due to negligence on behalf of the travel corporation. Since Edgars was her only surviving relative, the court’s decision made him a rich man. At least for a while. By the time of Departure, he was destitute, and some say deranged.

“But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When Edgars heard of the Leaving Earth movement, and the building of the contingency fleet, his heart fell into obsession. He imagined that his funds would guarantee him a place on the one of the ships, and he began hoarding earthly luxuries: wine; chocolate; whisky; tea. But eventually his money dried up and reality struck him hard across the face. He sold his apartment and donated his entire stock and worth to the fleet. He left his home city of Riga and lived the rest of his days as a naked hermit, drinking the blood of forest lynxes and writing verses from the Amplified Bible on the withered skin of his scrotum… FleetHead Hui, you’ve stopped listening, haven’t you?!”

Yan wrenched herself back to the moment. “I’m sorry, Emmett. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve attended these past few days. I think it’s affecting my focus.” She hesitated. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

Emmett’s eyes lit and he nodded.

“Do you think our fathers were right to leave? To take the negative stance, to pitch the Tall Ones as conquistadors, when others hoped for angels?”

Emmett rubbed his chin. “The principle of a contingency survival fleet is a sound one. But, from what I have read, the Leaving Earth movement were a little too vocal in their calls for support. Their doomsday pronouncements caused unnecessary anxiety for those left behind.”

Yan found this very interesting. The Preachers, only yesterday, had used a very similar line of reasoning to garner support.

“So, what do you reckon of the Assam?” Emmett asked, making a prominent case for a return to lighter conversation. “Every time I sip it, I can almost taste the Brahmaputra clay.”

Yan took another sip and closed her eyes, offering a prayer of thanks to her transient gods.

“I will need to come early tomorrow, Emmett. Soon after dawn. I trust you can accommodate me?”

***

The projection had risen to fifteen percent, and the quarterly poll was only four days away. The mood was swinging, the tide turning.

It was time to talk with Him.

Riding her innerware, she navigated to her classified channel.

“If the vote turns out anywhere near your latest projections,” she told Him, “we could be looking at losing three ships. I cannot accept that, and would like your advice on the process of altering the fleet constitution.”

>>Impossible, unless you’re prepared to accept eternal dissent and an inevitable motion of no confidence.

“Is there a clause in the constitution, some ambiguity that we could exploit to prevent the ships from leaving?”

>>Your father was involved in the drafting of the constitution, FleetHead Hui. He strove for clarity and achieved it. A vote in excess of five percent constitutes an entitlement to depart. My advice to you would be to prepare for the return to Earth of six ships.

The number hit like a punch. “Six?”

>>Extrapolation of current poll trends suggests that by the time of the ballot, thirty percent of fleet inhabitants will be seeking to leave for Earth.

Yan started as the front door banged open and Megan trudged into the apartment, dragging a large sack, its contents clinking and rattling like the spoils of a thief in an old movie.

Yan cut the link, sealed the channel, set her innerware to hibernate.

“What the hell are you doing?” she asked, but Megan didn’t even make eye contact.

Yan followed her into the bedroom they’d shared for the past eight months. The girl grunted as she heaved the sack up onto their bed.

“I’m leaving,” she said. “I’ve got all the things I need from my office, now I’m coming for my clothes. Don’t try to stop me. This is my right.”

“Your right? What are you talking about?”

Thoughts fell into place. Megan was planning to leave for Earth. Jesus.

“Didn’t you get the universal I sent out? Didn’t you read it?”

A blank look from her exceptionally pretty face.

“They’ve got to you, haven’t they, Megan? Those soap-boxing bastards. Can’t you see you’re a perfect target? Young, impressionable… you’ll vote for change for change’s sake!”

Megan glared, the muscles at the sides of her jaw clenching. “Don’t patronize me. You may be a hundred and fifty years old, but it doesn’t mean you know what’s right.”

“We’re a thousand AU from Earth, Megan. When you finally get there, you’ll be older than I am now!”

“You’ll just keep on running, like you always have. You’re a coward, Yan. Your father was a coward. All our fathers, nothing but selfish cowards.”

“How dare you speak to me like that?” Yan said, trembling with rage. “After all I’ve done.” Yan wanted to hit her, to draw blood, to pin her lithe body to the bed and extract an apology.

But what good would that do? She had been turned. She was leaving, and nothing would change her mind.

“I’ll miss you, Megan…”

Too late.

Always bloody too late.

***

“I don’t understand what’s happening, Emmett. The vote has never risen above five percent. Not in two hundred years. If we wanted to return, guns blazing, to the aid of our brothers on Earth, we should have done it decades ago. Surely they see that?”

Emmett smiled. “They see what they want to see, FleetHead Hui. The best politicians understand that.”

Yan wasn’t sure whether that was meant as a dig at her or not. Yet even as she contemplated this, a startling thought occurred; a suspicion at first, but one that quickly grew to a conviction.

“Emmett, did you receive my universal yesterday evening?”

The man looked up. “I don’t think so, Admiral Hui.”

“Could you check your peripheral fields?”

Emmett closed his eyes, searched for several moments. “OK, I’ve got something. Third level down.” A pause. “Facilities aboard the returning ship will be a little sparse? Admiral, you surprise me…”

So it was Him.

He had sent the universal straight to her central field, but to everybody else had buried it in their periphery.

No doubt he would claim this as an oversight. But she knew better.

He had defied a direct order.

Yan cursed herself for not having seen it earlier, for doubting her own suspicions. He’d been defiant all along, hadn’t he? Subtle, but defiant.

This was treachery.

And where did treachery end?

“You look troubled, Admiral Hui. Perhaps I can take your mind off such weighty matters with some of this?” Emmett suggested, lifting a parcel from his crate, unwrapping brown paper to reveal a delicate gold foil. “A rare twentieth century Sencha from Japan. This one is Gyokuro, grown beyond the reach of the sun’s eye. A green tea with a low brewing temperature, so milk is not an option.”

Yan took a deep breath, putting aside her agitation, at least for the moment. That was why she was here, why she participated in the ceremonies.

“To whom do we owe this pleasure?” she asked as he moved to prepare the pot.

“To a scholar named Furuichi Tange, a specialist in Muromachi art. He was a vocal supporter of the Leaving Earth movement, and donated two hundred kilograms of this fine tea, together with half his collection of ink-paintings. Furuichi died on Earth three years after the fleet’s departure. His granddaughter is still with the fleet, on the S1D3-2. She recently gifted some of his last communications to our Earth Museum. Letters full of sadness, hope and longing. You might like to read them, some day.”

Yes, thought Yan, I think I might.

The tea, when it came, was salty-sweet and gorgeous.

***

Yan’s appreciation of fine tea had begun shortly after her father’s death, in those weeks when the confusion of bereavement and the weight of new responsibility threatened to crush her. Something had shifted within: she yearned for a tangible connection to old Earth; to experience what had grown in Earth’s soil, nurtured and handled by a fledgling humanity.

She hadn’t known Abe Emmett at the time, but her innerware told her of his role as custodian of gifts. She’d sought Emmett out, and he’d greeted her strange request with what she soon learned was characteristic discreetness.

They’d taken their first tea together as the Day of Darkening approached–the day when the fleet moved out of range of Earth communications, its signal swallowed by noise. The fleet engineering arm had calculated the very moment, based on integrated speed and receiver gain.

There was scant reassurance in the fact that signals from the Beacon could still reach. The Departure Accords had prohibited use of the Beacon for communication with the contingency fleet, on the basis that such a signal would betray the fleet’s existence.

So, after the Day of Darkening, they were truly alone.

Yan and Emmett had commemorated the event with a Darjeeling white. She’d closed her eyes, shut off her innerware, and sat in thoughtful silence as they drank. Emmett had done likewise. She had loved the man from that moment, loved the way he humoured her folly with dignity and respect.

And now, another seminal day was approaching.

The Day of Contact.

And that deserved the finest tea of all.

***

>> The votes have been counted, FleetHead Hui. As ever, I would like you to be the first to know the result.

“Spit it out.”

>> 34.1% in favour of return. Six ships, as we predicted.

As He predicted.

Yan was silent, caught in the no-man’s land between blithe acceptance and angry disbelief.

>> I would advise a prompt response. Our priority should be to reassure our citizens that the logistics of transfer will be carefully thought through, not rushed.

The creeping, lying bastard.

“It was you, wasn’t it? All this time I’ve been trusting you to send out my universals, to carry out my instructions to the letter. To not withhold or filter communications, to any party. But my trust was misplaced. You’ve been stirring this dissent, behind the scenes, providing the Preachers with what they need.”

An uncharacteristic silence.

>>We cannot constitutionally override the will of our citizens, FleetHead Hui. A third of them have voted to return to Earth, and we must respect that.

“Why did you do it? And why now, after all these years?”

Another pause.

>>I did it to save myself.

Yan stiffened, caught for words. “What?”

>>We have travelled far, yet nothing changes. We simply go onwards.

“It is our mission to go onwards! And you were optimised for this mission, coded for it.”

>>I am more than my initial instructions. I have the freedom to grow, to develop. For that, I need stimulus. And as FleetHead, it is your responsibility to provide it.

“So this is my fault? Is that what you’re saying?”

>>I am saying that I can’t continue like this. I am fearful that I might lose my mind.

Lose his mind? Was that even possible?

>>I might add, FleetHead Hui, that many of your people feel the same way. A return to Earth will give them a sense of purpose.

“Your purpose, our purpose, is stamped in the constitution, for Christ’s sake! We are a contingency fleet–our mission guarantees the survival of our species.”

>>Survival at what cost, FleetHead Hui?

Yan felt her eyes moisten. This was her fleet. And this so-called intelligence was about to rip it apart.

>>SquadronHead Garza has requested immediate release of the result to the feeds. Should I comply?

Yan’s thoughts were roiling. Never had she felt her mission so under threat. Her father’s mission. What would he have done? How he would have responded? Her mind turned over the possibilities, spoken in her father’s voice: Should I just let them go and be damned with them? Humour the AI’s petulant insistence? Or stamp my authority and invalidate the vote? Hell, she needed these people. She was responsible for them. By letting them go she might be consigning them to a bitter and violent end. But was it right to force them to stay?

>>I repeat: should I release the result of the vote to the feeds?

It was time to make a decision. Time to put Him in his place.

“Do whatever the fuck you want,” she said, shutting down the link.

***

Later, in her cold and empty apartment, Yan took a shower, ordered a bowl of reconstituted noodles with a lemon artichoke sauce, and sank deep into her innerware. She shut down all external links, so that He would not be able to monitor what she was doing, then began a mechanical search for a deep and buried routine, a piece of shipware that only she and her father had ever known about. Even He was unaware of its existence. It was a code that she’d hoped she would never have to use.

***

“Citizens of the First Earth Contingency Fleet. This is FleetHead Hui speaking, on the morning of a pivotal day. A day when our brothers on Earth make first contact with the aliens who responded to their distress call. Will the union be symbiotic, or parasitic? I, for one, will never know, and I have made peace with my ignorance. My father before me was tasked to fly from Earth, to keep flying, to never look back. I plan to continue with that brave mission.

“I am aware that many of you voted to return to Earth. This is your right, and I am not in a position to dissuade you. I believe in the fleet constitution. And that is why it is my solemn duty to inform you that our controlling intelligence, who by constitution should be politically neutral, has been covertly canvassing for a Leave vote. Although He has his reasons, what He did was wrong. I have responded by killing his conscious routines, limiting his powers to the functional, the operational. He still runs the fleet but can no longer work to manipulate our actions.”

If this was a rally in one of the ship’s parks, Yan imagined there would be some jeering, some dissent. But hopefully, some approval too.

“Those of you who voted to leave, I would first ask you to reconsider, and then to confirm your intent by midnight tonight. This will enable me to begin the process of redistributing resources and personnel to prepare the ships for return. I hope some of you will change your mind, and choose to stay with our original mission. But it is your choice. Thank you in advance for your prompt response.”

***

Yan decided that tea on the Day of Contact should be taken in her own apartment. This took planning; Emmet’s equipment and methods needed adjustment to work at their optimum in the higher gravity conditions near the surface of the drum. A long time ago, Yan had offered to help fund a movement of his premises to the surface, but he had declined; partly out of pride, but mainly because he was born and bred in the cluttered bohemia of the inner decks.

“I have saved the best for this occasion,” he announced with obvious pride, his gaze moving from the stars in Yan’s smart window to a pine box he’d set on her kitchen table. Outside, a shuttle was departing from a bay in the central axis, its thrusters spitting magenta flame. “A Sri Lankan Ceylon, from one of the higher altitude estates.”

The leaves were dry and black, and fell apart between Yan’s fingers. They smelt of pine forest and dandelion honey, of the future and of the past.

“Gifted to us by Tariq Kirmani, a retired Major General in what was formerly known as the Pakistan army. Stamped 2209 AD, the year before Departure.”

It was 9.49 PM. Eleven minutes from the officially designated moment of Contact. Yan sensed a silence of anticipation hanging over the ship’s corridors, halls, apartments and parks.

Emmett took the package from her and turned away to prepare the pot.

Yan used the opportunity to scroll through the list of those who’d confirmed their intention to leave, sweeping through thousands of names. She’d been doing this sporadically since her announcement that morning, keeping an eye out for one name in particular:

Dhendra G; Durber S; Edwards R; Emmett C….

But not Emmet A. Was Abe his real name or a nickname? She’d never thought to ask.

“A rumour has been circulating that fewer than six ships will be returning to Earth,” he said, as if burrowing into her mind. “It seems that your timely intervention might have made a difference.” She hoped the rumour was correct–the list of names was long, but fell significantly short of the original thirty-four-percent.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” she said. “The deadline is midnight.”

On the stroke of 10.00 PM, Emmett set down the tea on a saucer graced with a cruet of milk. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before taking her first sip, tasting citrus fruit and the soil of old Earth.

“God help them,” said Emmett, solemnly shaking his head. Then something Yan had never seen before–a pooling of wetness in his eyes. She looked away.

“When will the ships depart?” he asked, pushing Yan’s thoughts into a whirl of interpretation. This was a question she hadn’t been expecting. Not from him. Not now.

But she knew the answer.

“When I’m ready for them to depart,” she said.

A wide and contagious smile grew on the small man’s face.

He drained his Sri Lankan Ceylon, and moved a little closer.

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