Authors: O'Connor Kaitlyn
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction
THE NINTH ORB
© copyright August 2006, Kaitlyn O’Connor
Cover art by Jenny Dixon, © copyright August 2006
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author’s imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Captain Sterling’s voice was perfectly level and without any emotional inflection, but there wasn’t a person on the bridge of the U.S.S. Plymouth, including the captain, that looked completely calm, cool, and collected. Reflected in every face turned up to the observation screens along the forward bulkhead on the bridge were shock, anger, resentment, and fear. Somehow it seemed worse because only a few moments before those same faces had projected excitement and joy. The abrupt shift in emotions was almost enough to make one giddy with the sharp drop from euphoria to darkest depression.
After more than a decade of nothing but endless space and the echoing of voices and footsteps against metal bulkheads, they had at last reached their destination, the planet in the ninth orbit of a blue star light years from their home galaxy, and everyone was eager to catch their first glimpse of the world that would be their new home. They had wandered up to the bridge one by one or in pairs to stand quietly near the aft bulkhead of the bridge, staring up at the screens, listening to the sounds of approach as the captain and crew at last maneuvered the great, hulking ship into orbit.
From space, the planet, dubbed Georgia in honor of the President, just as the first colony had been named New Savannah for her home town, was as beautiful as Earth herself. Spirits soared as the colonists studied the bright globe of green growing things, blue sky, and aqua seas.
Armed finally with something that offered serious resistance, the captain had instigated a series of braking orbits, dropping to a slightly lower orbit each time they’d slowed the ship sufficiently to do so. As the ship slowed enough for a closer look, the cameras were activated and they began to search for a visual of the drop zone.
Tension coiled more and more tightly within the waiting group as the ship slowed to what seemed a crawl. At last, the location selected by the computers appeared on the viewing screens, eliciting gasps of wonder from the colonists. Their destination, New Savannah, almost seemed to leap out at them. Backed up to a ridge of purple, ice capped mountains and fronted by a tangled green valley of lush vegetation the stark white, rigidly symmetrical buildings protruded from their natural surroundings almost obscenely.
It was home for all that, and almost as one those who’d intruded on the bridge surged forward for a better look as the cameras magnified the images to bring them closer and closer until details began to emerge.
Just as the excitement of the colonists reached fever pitch, threatening to spill over into noisy jubilation, something completely unexpected came within view. The jolt was universal, immobilizing every soul on deck with shock.
Minutes ticked by while everyone simply stared at the screens, stupefied. After a time, project leader, Eden Chisholm, frozen with shock from the first flutter of movement she’d noticed, felt thaw begin to set in. As it did, a flood of thoughts and emotions washed through her, creating more chaos, not less.
The one thought that seemed to pound through her most viciously was that she’d dedicated almost twenty years of her life already to a project that looked like it was doomed to failure before they’d even started. Abruptly, calm purposefulness settled over her.
“It’ll be six months--at least--before we get a response from Houston.”
Ship’s captain, Major Sterling sent her a sharp glance. “Indisputable, but protocol---.”
Eden shook her head fractionally in warning and glanced around the crowded bridge. “Enough gawking, ladies. Back to your stations, if you please. We’ll have a first colonist meeting directly after the evening meal tonight.”
The women blinked, as if just awakening, exchanged looks with the others around them and finally began to leave. Eden studied their expressions carefully. Some merely looked dazed, others fearful, bewildered, and still others angry. When the hatch had closed behind the last of the colonists, Eden moved closer to the viewing screens.
“This is Captain Sterling of the U.S.S. Plymouth, Houston. I repeat, we have a problem. Colony Alpha has apparently already been claimed.”
Eden glanced sharply at the captain. “This is a scenario we considered, Ivy.”
Ivy’s dark eyes narrowed. “It was only considered a very remote possibility and you know it, Eden. No one, even you, expected to find signs of intelligent life. They could be hostile.”
“And they might not be!” Eden retorted.
“I still have to file a report. Houston might want to abort the mission.”
A cynical smile curled Eden’s lips. “You’re not serious? After all the time and money that went into this project? They’ll expect us to proceed as planned, and you damn well know it.”
Ivy frowned. “I can’t authorize a landing until I file a full report with Houston and get a go.”
Eden planted her hands on her hips and turned to face the ship’s captain. “You’re not in charge of the colonization project, only the ship. The decision to proceed, or abort, is mine.”
Ivy Sterling’s dark complexion grew darker with anger. “You’d willingly take the colonists into harm’s way just so you can settle who’s in charge?”
Eden released a bark of humorless laughter. “Come off your high horse, Ivy! We’ve just spent nearly fifteen years traversing uncharted space. There’s no more certainty of harm here than there was in the trip itself, and you know as well as I do that this was always intended as a one way trip! There is no going back, only forward. It’s up to us to do the best we can with what we’ve been provided.”
Ivy looked as if she was considering further argument, but abruptly glanced around at the other crew members on the bridge. “No decision can be made, one way or the other, by anyone, until we have more data.”
“Exactly,” Eden agreed. Turning from the captain, she addressed the communications officer, Cpl. Linda Hicks. “Can we get a little more magnification here?”
Cpl. Hicks threw a questioning glance at her commanding officer. At Ivy’s nod, she focused on her control panel for several moments. Abruptly, the scenes in the viewing screen blurred. When the images sharpened again, the moving dots they’d seen had resolved into individual beings.
Someone gasped. Everyone on the bridge stiffened.
The ‘aliens’ moving purposefully about on the planet below them weren’t just humanoid--they looked human--almost. Some of them had wings and all of them, from what they could see, had horns.
“Closer,” Eden demanded abruptly, moving closer to the screen nearest her.
When the image cleared again, she found herself standing seemingly face to face with a being that was definitely not human. A strange current went through her when she met his gaze on the screen. It was almost as if he was looking her straight in the eyes.
A shiver went through her.
Behind her, someone released a nervous snicker.
“I guess I’ve forgotten what men look like,” someone else quipped, “because that looks like a man to me. Yum, yum.”
He was wearing a uniform that said ‘military’ to Eden. It covered him from the neck to wrists, and the heavy footwear he wore that looked like military boots, but he was definitely bipedal--otherwise she couldn’t tell a lot about his anatomy except that there were a couple of fairly notable differences between these aliens and their human counterparts. The skin tones weren’t quite like any human of any race, though fairly close to the ‘yellow’ race--close enough to give her a sense of kinship when coupled with the basic human form. The eyes were different. Not only was the color, an orange-gold, not one found among humans, but the general shape and size of the eyes and pupils were subtly different. The nose, mouth, and facial structure seemed basically human, but she couldn’t tell if the skin texture was. The hands gripping his weapon looked a little longer and more slender than typical human hands, but he seemed to have four fingers and a thumb. Close cropped, blue black hair capped his head.
“You knew men with wings and horns?” Eden quipped dryly without bothering to turn around. She didn’t need to know that it was Janine who’d spoken. She recognized the voice, and Janine had always had a problem maintaining formal military protocol.
Janine snickered. “I knew plenty of horny men. Actually, he’s kinda cute--a little strange looking, but if his body is nearly as good as it looks, I could live with the weird stuff.”
The comment elicited a round of snickers from the other crew members.
“You haven’t seen a man in fifteen years. If he looked like a baboon, you’d think he was cute.”
Eden repressed a smile with an effort. When her gaze finally moved beyond the male, her amusement died, however. “These creatures are a long way from baboons. The weapon he’s holding is obviously advanced technology and take a look at the city below the wall there.”
Silence fell as everyone studied the viewing screens critically.
Unlike New Savannah, the alien settlement seemed to blend with its surroundings, almost as if the structures had been hewn from the rocky surface of the world. Eden wasn’t certain if the camouflage effect was purposeful or accidental, but it was certainly effective. Right up until their attention had been caught by movement, they hadn’t noticed the settlement at all.
“That looks like a well established community. You think they’re natives?”
Eden’s lips tightened. “There wasn’t a sign of them when we dropped the bot pod the first time we passed---the bots would have reported it--and this looks more like a military base to me than a community.” She glanced at Captain Sterling again. “Forward a copy of the data you’re collecting to my personal system, will you? I’m going to my cabin to look through the colony manuals.”
Ignoring the look Ivy sent her, Eden left the bridge and headed down the corridor toward her quarters. She’d had years to study the manuals. She’d memorized them from start to finish and Ivy probably suspected as much.
She didn’t care if Ivy knew it was just a pretense. She needed some time--away from observation--to think, and she wanted to study the data stream coming in when there wasn’t anyone around to gauge her reaction to it.
It was hard enough to deal with the shock without having to worry about hiding her anxieties from the others to keep from adding to their fears.
As she stepped into the lift and punched the level where her cabin lay, Eden folded her arms and leaned back against the cubicle wall.
The stance might have appeared relaxed to the video surveillance, but Eden was a long way from tranquility. As much as she would’ve hated to admit it, she hadn’t felt completely immune to the male herself. It was damned inconvenient to have her hormones raging, even though she realized it was almost inevitable given the circumstances that primal urges would kick in the first time she had any sort of ‘contact’ with a male after so long.
Reaching level four, Eden stepped from the cubicle and strode briskly down the corridor, ignoring the women who stared at her questioningly from the open doors of the cabins she passed.
From a completely logical, economic, and scientific standpoint, the decision to send an all female group of colonists made sense. Two hundred women weighed less that a split crew would have. They consumed less. They weren’t as prone to violence as the testosterone made the male of the species, and finally, two hundred women and an equal number of male donors of sperm were all that was needed to ensure a healthy gene pool. It just plain made sense to send two hundred females and an equal variety of male donations, rather than the males themselves.
From the viewpoint of humanity, however, it was rough to leave behind everything you’d ever known, knowing you would never go back, and then to also accept that you absolutely were giving up male companionship forever. There probably wasn’t a single female in the group, including her, that hadn’t had at least one bad relationship. Maybe even a good portion of the group had considered giving up on men a good thing, in the beginning at least, but there was no getting around the fact that everyone missed being around their male counterparts, however aggravating they might be.
The sex droids that had been provided for comfort and entertainment just didn’t ease that particular ache. Even Eden, who did not consider herself a touchy kind of gal and had never cared for cuddling, found herself missing the warmth of a man’s body spooning with hers through the long nights and yearning for the sound of the deep timber of a man’s voice in her ears.
Reaching her cabin at last, Eden tilted her head toward the security monitor. A split second passed as the monitor read and identified her by her retina and opened the door. She simply stood in the center of the room once she was inside, though, staring around at the cabin’s appointments as if she’d never seen it before.
As much concession as possible had been allowed for the fact that the colonists would occupy their cabins, and little else, for the fifteen years it would take to make the trek from Earth to the target colony planet, Georgia. It was still cramped, and still painfully utilitarian. She’d brought as many personal items as she’d been allowed, but neatness wasn’t actually an option in such a confined space. Neatness was necessary if one didn’t want to trip and break something--like your neck. Very few of her personal items were within view, therefore. The chest at the foot of her bunk held most of it, the things she’d planned to use to ‘decorate’ her abode at the colony to give it a feel of ‘home’. Her clothing was tucked neatly away in the locker across from the bed, mostly because she hardly ever wore anything from her wardrobe.
Like most of the other women, she rarely bothered dressing anymore in anything but briefs, occasionally topping off with one of the knit undershirts that had replaced bras when it was discovered that the restricting garments designed in the previous century had contributed to the rise in breast cancer. She’d worn little more than that since the second year out. There seemed little point in it. The temperature inside the ship barely fluctuated more than a degree or two--ever. Modesty wasn’t something any of them needed to worry about when there wasn’t a man of any description within light-years of them and there certainly wasn’t anyone to impress by dressing up. Even the militia attached to their group rarely followed their dress codes strictly anymore. Off duty, the soldiers went around in pretty much nothing just the same as the colonists did.