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“I’m here,” Leo Brodie said, slinging his regulation duffel onto the bunk and following it with his rifle, ammo, and dope log. “Christ on a cracker, I’m really here!”
He didn’t expect an answer; the five-by-seven sleeping cubicle on the USS Friendship was empty. Flawless gray walls made of God-knows-what, human-designed wall screen, storage drawers underneath the two-foot-wide bunk—it all left Leo a strip of deck two feet wide to stand in. He’d been in more cramped spaces, but not for a while.
The knock on the door was expected. Leo flung it open. Owen Lamont stood in the narrow passageway. Leo flung his arms around him. “Owen! You’re the one who got me here!”
Owen detached himself; too late, Leo remembered Owen’s dislike of being touched. “Yeah, and now that you are here, we have rules you need to follow.”
“Always,” Leo said. “How did you—”
Owen shoved Leo aside, crowded into the room, and closed the door.
“—pull it off, Owen? My orders only came through yesterday; I was on transport all night. I’m not—”
“Not Seventy-Fifth, no. But you’re still the best damn marksman in the entire Army. Could come in handy on Kindred.”
“That’s what they call World now? Fuck, every planet is a world!”
“That’s why they call it Kindred. Don’t you ever access the news?”
“No,” Leo said. “Too depressing. Christ, it’s good to see you! But why do you need the best damn marksman in the entire Army? You expecting trouble on Kindred?”
“Nobody knows.” Owen’s thin, deeply sunburned face lost its grin. “It’s terra incognita, bro.”
“Tara Inca Nina—Mayan girl. I knew her in Peru.”
“The Incas weren’t Mayan and the Mayans weren’t in Peru.”
“Whatever. God, it’s good to see your overly educated ass again, Owen!”
“Lieutenant Lamont. Try to remember.”
Leo mocked a salute and hugged Owen again. This was his best friend in the world, and fuck all those people who said they made a weird pair: exuberant upcountry Leo and serious, prep-school Owen with the most deadly skills in the elite Seventy-Fifth Regiment of the US Army Rangers.
They’d met in the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program at Fort Bening. Leo had been sent on recommendation of his CO in Brazil, as a result of Leo’s hitting a target with the M107A1 sniper rifle at 2,100 meters. It had been a Holy Grail shot, straight-up luck, although it was true that he had the ability to nudge a little more out of his weapon than normal. Kentucky windage and Tennessee elevation. He had finished RASP and gone on to Ranger School, the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school in the Army. There he had washed out during the mountain phase of training—well, not washed out, exactly, but the details were too embarrassing to think about. Leo was good at not thinking about things.
Owen, in contrast, had finished Ranger School, winning the William O. Darby Award for Distinguished Honor Graduate, and had joined the Seventy-Fifth. The Ranger tab gleamed on the upper left shoulder of his uniform. Since then he’d served in the Mideast and in the Panama Canal Food Wars, earning a Silver Star for valor under fire. Leo had been sent on a second tour in Brazil, but for the last two months he’d basically sat on his butt at Joint Base Lewis–McChord in Seattle, watching deployment after deployment kank as various political situations changed.
Leo said, “So how many troops aboard?”
“Six? That’s all? And you’re expecting enough trouble for the Army to send a Ranger squad and request a sniper?”
“Nobody’s expecting anything,” Owen said with exaggerated patience. “That’s the point, Leo. We have no idea what will happen on Kindred. But Colonel Matthews had to fight to get even six. It’s a tiny ship, only twenty-one berths. Not our choice.”
The ship’s size, Leo knew, had been the aliens’ choice, along with everything else about the Friendship. She had been built from plans left by the Denebs (who weren’t from Deneb—Leo remembered that much) in exchange for—well, Leo didn’t exactly understand what, but it had to do with biology and the spore cloud and the vaccines and other scientific shit. Apparently the Deneb ship, which had gone back to World—no, to Kindred—had been just as small, although he didn’t know why.
He returned to what was comprehensible and immediate. “This Colonel Matthews—a good guy?”
“Yes. Did RASP five times.”
“Impressive.” Officers of the Seventy-Fifth didn’t coast on old training; each time they were promoted, they had to do the assessment program all over again. The Seventy-Fifth had no overweight, out-of-shape leaders. “Who else do we have?”
“Three Rangers and you. Enlisted are Private First Class Mason Kandiss, Specialist Miguel Flores, and Specialist Zoe Berman.”
“A girl Ranger?”
“One of only three and the only one with combat experience. Bomb expert. Don’t look like that. She’s off-limits, Leo.”
Leo smiled. “Just fucking with you.”
Leo nodded; he’d expected this. Everything in Owen’s manner had just changed, from facial expression to body posture; the informal reunion was over. Owen was an officer and from now on that would be the relationship. Leo didn’t mind. He’d rather serve under Owen—and this unknown colonel, since Owen vouched for him—than anyone else in the entire United States Army. He nodded again, to show Owen he’d gotten the message, and said, “Sir, can I ask who else is aboard?”
“Five ship’s crew, all Navy under Captain Lewis, six scientists, and four diplomats led by the US ambassador to Kindred, Maria Gonzalez. Colonel Matthews has ordered fall-in at thirteen hours.”
Owen smiled, reluctantly. “Well, that’s a problem. Besides personal quarters, the ship’s got the bridge, the common area you came through when you boarded, a storage bay full of supplies, and behind that an area that is wardroom and gym now—we share it with the Navy—and will be a laboratory on Kindred. It’s crammed with lab benches and exercise equipment and a big foldable table. But it’s all we have. Be there at thirteen hours.”
Owen—from now on and at all times, Lieutenant Lamont—left. Leo stowed his gear.
He didn’t even feel it when the Friendship lifted, smooth as a dancer. If the wall screen hadn’t suddenly blossomed into a view of Earth rapidly falling away, Leo wouldn’t have known that liftoff had occurred. No strapping in, nothing—damn, that alien tech was something! And thanks to Owen, Leo was here. Really, really here.
Going to the stars.
* * *
What the hell was she doing here?
Marianne Jenner already knew the answer to that. All the answers, actually. She was, officially, Ambassador Gonzalez’s assistant, the only one aboard who had actually met any Worlders. (No, Kindreders? The name change was beyond stupid, even for a government PR move.) She was, officially, the geneticist who had helped create the vaccine against R. sporii (only she hadn’t, not really—other team members had done that). She was, officially, the person who had saved the Friendship (when it had been the privately built Venture) from destruction by the Russian ship bent on revenge, and so averted a war. She was, officially, the only one on ship with a family member on World. On Kindred. Whatever.
All that made her practically a national icon, at least for many people. Others hated her passionately. Marianne distrusted both groups.
Unofficially, much as she wanted to see Noah again (had it really been ten years since her son left Earth?), she was ambivalent about this expedition. The Kindred expedition to Terra had resulted in much good, yes, but also in the destruction of entire economies. Was Ambassador Gonzalez charged by the US government with anything other than establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Kindred? Over half the passengers were armed military personnel, both Army and Navy, with, she suspected, much more serious weapons in storage. Not to mention ways the spaceship itself might have been weaponized; the basic alien plans that Earth had been given covered only the hull and mysterious drives. Marianne distrusted the military. She especially distrusted military going to a peaceful planet that had not seen war in thousands of years. Why were Colonel Matthews and his men along?
There was a general meeting scheduled for the common area at 1:00 p.m. Meetings, in Marianne’s experience, usually ended up 90 percent chaff to 10 percent wheat. Still, 10 percent wasn’t nothing. She would go to the meeting. As soon as she had a nap. Liftoff wasn’t for another hour, and she had not slept well last night.
* * *
Dr. Salah Bourgiba, biologist and ship’s physician, watched the liftoff on the big screen in the common area, along with the other scientists and the diplomatic corps. Ambassador Maria Gonzalez sat beside him, her gaze intent on the screen, her face unreadable. Salah had no idea what was going on in her mind, although he knew everything there was to know about her body, medical history, and genome. He knew everything there was to know about all their bodies. Salah had long ago gotten used to the double vision demanded of doctors in social situations: “Oh, what did you think of that movie?” and I hope she’s had that mole on her neck checked out.
Unlike the twenty-one bodies aboard, the ship itself was a mystery to Salah—and to everyone else, even the engineers who had built her. They might all just as well be flying on a magic carpet. Physicists and materials experts were still fighting about why the dark-matter drive worked, and the fights were vicious and public. Salah knew this because he read and spoke five languages, which was one reason he and not another physician sat here now, watching the Earth dwindle to a blue-and-white marble in a black sky. He picked up languages as easily as a dark suit picked up lint, and after studying recordings of Kindese (awkward name) for months, he was pretty sure he could translate for the other scientists and those diplomats who did not speak the language. Tend their bodies, aid their jobs—he was a full-service provider.
Except maybe for himself.
Studying his fellow adventurers, Salah thought that the least understandable thing about the Friendship might be the way that all twenty-one aboard her had just accepted liftoff. No gees pressing anyone down, no rocket boosters, no course corrections, no weightlessness. After five short test flights, everyone just accepted this miracle, this living room with fake-leather easy chairs and giant-screen TV moving through space, this alien technology out of The Arabian Nights by way of Apollo’s chariot, as the new normal. The adaptability of humans dazzled Salah.
Ostensibly, the rest of the trip should be equally painless. The humans on Kindred had, after all, practically invited Terrans to visit, by giving them the spaceship plans. In fact, they probably expected Terrans earlier than ten years after the Kindred ship departed Earth. And by now the Kindred, having technology so much more advanced than anything on Terra, would have not only perfected the vaccine it took Earth years to create, but also vaccinated everyone against R. sporii. The planet had only one continent, one culture, a carefully controlled population, peace and plenty. Kindred would not suffer the devastation that had ravaged Earth when the spore cloud had hit, and they would be welcoming hosts to this small, unthreatening Terran delegation.
So why did Salah feel such unease?
Let this go well, insha’Allah.
* * *
Leo stood at attention until Colonel Matthews said, “Stand down.” Leo relaxed his stance, at least as much as possible in a “wardroom” so crowded with stuff that the six representatives of the United States Army barely had room to stand between the table and the wall.
“Sit,” Matthews said, and Leo blinked. Enlisted men didn’t usually sit with officers. But, as Owen had already told him, this mission wasn’t usual. Leo sat.
Matthews was old, maybe in his forties, but he looked like the kind of CO you could trust. Gray hair cut very short, pale blue eyes. That the other five soldiers were Rangers put Leo at a disadvantage, but he didn’t detect any condescension from Matthews. Only—why was the CO wearing glasses? Eyesight had to be lens-free to qualify for the Seventy-Fifth.
Owen didn’t look at Leo, and Leo didn’t try to catch his eye. Lieutenant Lamont was second in command here. Leo didn’t look at Specialist Zoe Berman, either, having been told not to, but he’d had a glimpse anyway—wow. Flores and Kandiss, like everybody else, were expressionless.
Where were the Navy guys? At the other meeting, probably, which raised some questions. Who was in charge of this mission, Army or Navy?
Matthews said, “This is an informal briefing to supplement what you’ve already been told, so feel free to ask questions. Our mission here is to guard and defend this ship and everyone on it. Because this is a diplomatic mission, ultimate authority rests with Ambassador Gonzalez, whose orders you will obey without question.”
That answers that.
“The captain of this vessel, Captain Lewis, has final say over everything connected with the ship while we are in space. Once we are on the ground, command reverts to me unless and until we return to space. If Captain Lewis is incapacitated in space, his executive officer, Ms. Fielding, is in charge. If both are incapacitated, then command reverts to me, not to the other Navy personnel aboard. Is everyone clear on the chain of command?”
“Yes, sir!” from five throats.
“If I am incapacitated—”
Leo listened, but he wasn’t perturbed. Such talk was just the sort of thing the Army, especially Rangers, did: anticipate trouble. This was a trade mission to a friendly planet. Their main job was to guard the diplomats and scientists against any stray crazy, defuse any situation like that without killing anybody if they could help it, and look impressive in dress uniform.
Although—why Rangers, then, instead of the usual Marine honor guard for diplomats? Rangers were a direct-action special operations raid force. And why a crack marksman taking up one valuable berth that could have been used for another scientist or Washington bigwig?
Leo didn’t think he was going to get answers to any of that, but he couldn’t help mulling over the questions. What the hell sort of trouble was expected on Kindred?
* * *
“We do not, of course, anticipate any trouble,” Maria Gonzalez said. She stood at the front of the common room, the most spacious area on the Friendship, addressing the twelve people in easy chairs or seated around the small tables. Two Navy personnel, Executive Officer Anna Fielding and crewman Robert Ritter, were on the bridge, although Marianne couldn’t imagine what they were doing there, since the ship pretty much flew itself and no one, including Engineer Volker, understood how. Maybe the Navy personnel were talking to Earth while they still could. The Army people were holding their own briefing.
Ambassador Gonzalez was forty-nine, a tall and elegant woman with black hair worn in a chignon. As the first-ever ambassadorial appointee to another planet, she carried enormous responsibility to make the mission go well, which she bore without apparent anxiety or doubt. The woman radiated a confidence that Marianne envied.
“If I repeat information you already know, please forgive me,” Gonzalez said. Her smile was charming, if a little practiced. “We don’t know much about how this ship functions, but our Kindred cousins”—a carefully chosen term, Marianne guessed, to remind everyone that the Kindred were human—“have shared their own experience with their ship. The star drive bequeathed to them—and now to us!—is best pictured with space as a piece of cloth. A handkerchief, perhaps. We are at one corner. The drive ‘folds up’ space until we touch the opposite corner, unfolds, and there we are. The Kindred said that about a week passed aboard ship while this metaphorical folding occurred, although when they sent their first ship—because as you all know, they had built two—and went to their ill-fated colony planet, the folding took only a few hours. So it does seem dependent on distance.”
Marianne was not used to people who spoke in such long, grammatically correct sentences with so many dependent clauses, varied with punchier short sentences. Admirable, if slightly theatrical. Gonzalez was a pro.
“We thus expect to be in space for two weeks, although supplies have been brought for three months. We cannot, of course, eat the food on Kindred; our microbes are not adapted for it. The plan is two weeks of travel, a month on Kindred, two weeks back. During the journey out, you will have a last chance to learn or improve your knowledge of the language. The screens in your quarters, and we do apologize for the small size of the accommodations, can access voice lessons in Kindese, accompanied by English transliterations as best as we can produce. Just as a reminder: A caret in the middle of a word indicates a rising inflection, and an upside-down exclamation point a tongue click, like this.”
The ambassador clicked. Marianne, who had no aptitude for languages, had pretty much failed at learning Kindese. Her tongue click sounded like she needed the Heimlich maneuver.
“On Kindred,” the ambassador continued, “the scientists will have opportunities to interact with their counterparts, and the diplomatic corps will establish what I’m sure will be a long, mutually beneficial interstellar relationship with the government on Kindred. Which, of course, is made much simpler by the fact that there is only one!”
Obliging laughter. Gonzalez smiled engagingly. She was known for her abrupt switches from formal speech to the unexpected joke, the slang phrase in the right place. The media loved her.
Gonzalez waved her hand and said, “Piece of cake.”
* * *
“We don’t know what to expect on Kindred,” Colonel Matthews said. “The plan is two weeks of transport, a month of occupation, two weeks’ transport back. The natives could be friendly, but they don’t know we’re coming, and there is always the possibility they won’t like it. At destination, the shuttle will convey rotating parties of five to the surface; one will remain on watch aboard unless otherwise informed. At the end of the meeting, Lieutenant Lamont will go over the various possible incident scenarios we’ve anticipated, with our responses. Contingencies include crowd riots, kidnapping, extraction scenarios, terrorist operations, outright military attack, infiltration of the ship or our Ranger base, and/or emergency evacuation of all personnel.
“Basically, all of us need to be ready for anything at all times.”
* * *
Captain Alan Lewis now spoke. Marianne recognized him, of course—he was the famous astronaut who had saved the lives of two Chinese and one French astronauts at the ISS. Appointing him commander of the Friendship was a PR stroke of genius. Everyone but the Russians liked him; the Russians didn’t like anybody. But the Russian spaceship, like the original American one, had been the target of domestic terrorism by the widespread, dangerous extremists who wanted no contact with Kindred because they held the Kindred responsible for the spore cloud. Which made no sense, but then, when did extremism ever make sense? Marianne was just glad that the Russian ship no longer existed. She had already tangled with it once.
Lewis had the same easy charm as Gonzalez—was that desirable in a ship’s captain? Marianne didn’t know. Certainly he looked the part, a handsome African-American in dress whites.
“I won’t go over everything in your briefings,” Lewis said. “You already know about shuttle deployment, planet conditions, and helmet requirements.”
She knew. Kindred orbited an orange dwarf. Slightly larger than Earth but less dense, the planet’s gravity was .92 gee and its oxygen content equaled Terra’s at twelve thousand feet. They could have breathed the air, which was similar to Earth’s, but would not because of microbes. Nobody on the mission had the same immunity to Kindred pathogens that the Kindred had developed over millennia, and so the air helmets were necessary to cover mouths, ears, eyes. Also, no Terran’s gut microbes made eating anything grown there plausible. Ten Terrans had gone with the aliens when they left Earth, including Marianne’s son Noah, and all of them would have had their microbiome completely changed. Examining these ten bodies was the major excitement for the two physician-biologists aboard, Claire Patel and Salah Bourgiba. Marianne saw them exchange small anticipatory smiles across the room.
* * *
“Drills will be held immediately following this meeting in the use of filter masks,” Colonel Matthews said. “Remove your filter planetside and you won’t die, maybe, but you risk infection from native diseases that you could then carry back to this unit. Removing filters inappropriately is grounds for court-martial. Does everyone understand that?”
Leo wondered if he could sight and shoot as well through the faceplate of some fucking filter helmet. He hadn’t so much as seen the thing before, and he sure couldn’t test it regarding marksmanship while aboard the ship. Had the CO thought of that?
* * *
“The shuttle, human built, is large enough,” Captain Lewis said, “to hold everyone for transport but not as habitat, which it will become once we are on ground. Navy personnel will stay aboard the ship except for Lieutenant Yi, who will pilot the shuttle. Colonel Matthews plans to leave one of his soldiers aboard as well.”
Why? That made no sense to Salah, but then, he had never been in the military. To prevent mutiny? Looting? Hijacking? Seriously?
“Although it will be a habitat, the shuttle will also make four scheduled trips to the ship to reload supplies, exchange personnel as needed, and allow our scientists access to the greater computing power of— Ladies and gentlemen, there goes the moon.”
All heads swiveled to the wall screen. In a single eye blink, the moon loomed off to the left and then dwindled, no more than a firefly in the night. How fast was the Friendship moving? He would have to look it up.
Another miracle. Another adaptive normal. The meeting resumed.
* * *
“We have now passed the moon,” Colonel Matthews announced. He must, Leo realized, be receiving information from the bridge. Well, cool—that’s what the CO’s data glasses were for, but they were so sleek and normal-looking that Leo hadn’t even realized. Great tech!
The filter masks weren’t too bad, either. The thing wasn’t a helmet or a big-ass gas mask, after all. Made of some clear, flexible plastic, it fit snugly—really snugly—over his mouth and nose and sealed itself to his face. A bulge under one ear held some sort of tiny motor. The mask kept Terrans from breathing in microbes their bodies couldn’t handle, but microbes in the air still could get on their skin and in “other orifices,” so protocol would be to wear wet suits when they were out of base. At least, they looked like wet suits to Leo, covering pretty much everything. The gloves were thinskin and really flexible, but they were still gloves and he didn’t like shooting with gloves. Another problem.
“Brodie,” Colonel Matthews said, “everybody else has drilled with this equipment for weeks. Your duty roster includes sessions with Kandiss to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the equipment.”
Leo nodded. He was the FNG—Fucking New Guy—and way behind the curve. But he was a fast learner.
Matthews said, “Duty rosters, including exercise periods, are as follows—”
* * *
The meeting droned on. Marianne fought drowsiness. She knew all of this information—everybody here knew all of this information. They’d had classes on it. Now the astrophysicist and geologist were reciting the known facts about Kindred’s physical properties, along with speculations on its geologic history. When they finished—and please God, let it be soon—probably Maria Gonzalez was going to repeat what was known about Kindred social structure. What if Marianne pleaded a headache and—
The wall screen, which had shown black space studded with stars, suddenly went completely dark. The PA system said, “Captain Lewis and Ambassador Gonzalez to the bridge. Repeat, Captain Lewis and Ambassador Gonzalez to the bridge.”
David Sherman, geologist, stopped in midsentence. He and the astrophysicist looked at each other. A moment later the PA said, “Dr. McKenzie to the bridge. Repeat, Dr. McKenzie to the bridge.”
The astrophysicist disappeared through the door. Before anyone could stop her, Marianne followed him.
David Sherman struggled on a moment more: “As I was saying, the molten core of Kindred is … isn’t…” He stopped again.
Stars reappeared on the wall screen.
* * *
In the middle of helmet drill—not hard, but Leo still had no answer about its effect on sighting targets—Colonel Matthews suddenly went intent, listening to something no one else could hear. Then he said to Owen, “Lieutenant, take over,” and strode from the room.
The Rangers glanced covertly at each other.
* * *
Captain Lewis, affability gone, said tightly, “Dr. Jenner, you were not summoned. Please leave the bridge.”
“No,” the ambassador said, “let her stay. She’s the only one with any experience with Kindred; maybe she can shed some light on this.”
The door flung open and Colonel Matthews strode into the room. He addressed Lewis sharply. “Captain, I expect to be included in discussions when something of this nature occurs.”
It seemed to Marianne that Lewis wanted to say something in the same tone as Matthews—Christ, not a turf war just six hours out! But Lewis was too good for that. He caught himself and said, “You’re right, Colonel. My apologies. What has happened is that all communication with Earth has ceased. It happened at the moment the stars … blinked.”
Blinked. That must have meant the Friendship had jumped from one side of the ambassador’s piece of cloth to the other. But that wasn’t supposed to happen yet! Or, rather, it hadn’t happened that way when the Kindred ship approached Earth eleven years ago. There had been two weeks of sightings by NASA, SETI, the European and Chinese and Russian space agencies, and every amateur astronomer who knew where to point a telescope. The Friendship was supposed to have two weeks in the solar system before she jumped.
Greg McKenzie had been working at the computer. He said, “Ambassador, we’ve arrived. This is the Kindred system.”
Marianne swiveled to face the wall screen. All she saw was a fuzzy orange disk in the black sky. Around it were other, brighter stars.
Gonzalez recovered fast. “Very well,” she said. “We all knew that the ship’s drive was preset to arrive back at Kindred, but I guess we didn’t realize how quickly we would arrive. Captain Lewis, are we now traveling at normal ship speed?”
Marianne had to suppress an insane giggle. What was “normal” under these circumstances?
Evidently Captain Lewis agreed. “I have no idea, Madam Ambassador. Mr. Volker?”
The Navy engineer said, “We are traveling at the same speed as before we, ah, jumped. At this speed, assuming it remains constant, we are three weeks away from arriving at the planet.”
“Thank you,” Gonzalez said. “Captain, can we speak to the planet now?”
* * *
Owen must have been equipped with some way to hear Colonel Matthews, or something, because he broke off in the middle of a sentence and said, “As of now, this unit is on red alert. Battle stations, now.”
Four soldiers sprang up faster. Faster than Leo, standing bewildered and alone by the table, imagined possible, Owen had opened a bulkhead locker and he, Kandiss, Flores, and Berman were grabbing arms and donning armor. Owen felt like a fool. He didn’t have a battle station, had no idea what he was supposed to be doing. A sniper was useless on a tiny ship. Owen said calmly, “Brodie, come with me. Cover me if necessary.” He handed Leo his gear.
Cover him? Against what? Were they going to be boarded, or land, or … Leo did as he was ordered, automatically checking his weapon, copying Owen’s movements, hoping for the best.
* * *
Marianne stood inconspicuously in a corner of the bridge while Ambassador Gonzalez addressed the tiny blue marble on the wall screen. “Kindred, this is the Terran ship Friendship, from the United States, built with the plans you left us when you came to Earth. We come now in peace and friendship.” She then repeated the message in English.
Gonzalez tried again, and again. Nothing. She turned to the engineer and the physicist, both of whom had been involved in building the ship. “Are we too far out?”
Volker said, “It seems so, ma’am.”
“I want the recorded version of the message played every hour, and I want to be summoned immediately, awake or asleep, when there is a response. We don’t know where their receiving equipment is, in orbit or on the ground, or in how many places.”
No, they didn’t know that. Although, Marianne thought, it was reasonable to suppose that a civilization so much further advanced than Earth had ultra-sophisticated detection equipment for anything out of the ordinary in their star system. Still—
Judy Taunton, physicist on Earth and Marianne’s friend, had made some very disturbing speculations about Kindred.
Gonzalez said, “Open the all-ship frequency, please. I would like to tell everyone what the—”
“Oh my God!” McKenzie blurted.
Colonel Matthews said sharply, “What is it? Incoming?”
“No, no, I … my God, no, but I checked … let me run the program again!”
Gonzalez said, “What program? Inform us, Dr. McKenzie!”
The astrophysicist turned away from the computer and toward the ambassador. Marianne was shocked at how pale he looked, how shaky. If he fainted … But he didn’t. McKenzie got hold of himself, although his voice quavered.
“The astronomical program checks the stars’ locations against charts. We know what positions every celestial body should hold relative to each other, given observers’ positions. None of them right now are as projected, they—”
Gonzalez said sharply, “You mean we aren’t at Kindred?”
“Oh, we’re there,” McKenzie said. “But the aliens didn’t tell us there would be a temporal dislocation. But … but from star positions, there is. Time dilation has carried us forward fourteen years from when we left Earth. And I’m assuming that returning will add another fourteen years. And they didn’t tell us.”
Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Kress