Vale of stars, p.1

Vale of Stars, page 1


Vale of Stars

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Vale of Stars





  Sean O’Brien


  San Francisco

  Copyright ©2012 by Sean O’Brien

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

  JournalStone books may be ordered through booksellers or by contacting:


  199 State Street

  San Mateo, CA 94401

  The views expressed in this work are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

  ISBN: 978-1-936564-61-3 (sc)

  ISBN: 978-1-936564-62-0 (ebook)

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2012949587

  Printed in the United States of America

  JournalStone rev. date: December 12, 2012

  Cover Art and Design: Jeff Miller

  Edited By: Dr. Michael R. Collings and Elizabeth Reuter


  I am grateful for Christopher Payne at JournalStone for believing in this novel, and to his staff for their hard work on it.

  I want to thank my mother, Gina, and my father, Jim, who fostered in me a love of reading and of telling stories.

  I also want to thank my brother, Jeff, for allowing me to test my childhood theories of propulsion on our Radio Flyer wagon. With him in it.

  Lastly, my gratitude to my family knows no bounds. My beautiful wife, Sue, and our children, Katie and James, have been an unending source of support. I love you all.


  To my mother, Gina; my wife, Sue; and my daughter, Katie.

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  JG Faherty

  Jokers Club

  Gregory Bastianelli

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  The Donors

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  The Devil of Echo Lake

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  Pazuzu’s Girl

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  Available through your local and online bookseller or at

  Book One


  Chapter 1

  The ball arced through the air, curving gently in the slight Coriolis effect. Jene Halfner, watching her daughter catch it, wondered if either of them could ever really adjust to planetbound life.

  “Here you go, Mommy,” Kuarta said, tossing the ball high into the air. The rays of the sunrod caught the ball in flight. Jene tracked the ball as it sailed over her head, but was momentarily distracted by the sight of New Omaha above her. The ball landed on the street where the two were playing, the rows of six-story apartments on either side of the narrow lane.

  “Mommy!” Kuarta said, laughing.

  “Sorry, hon. I think it’s time to go in. Daddy will have dinner ready by now.”

  “Well, okay,” Kuarta said, and skipped lightly into the tiny building that contained their apartment along with the apartments of thirty-five other families.

  Jene shielded her eyes from the sunrod and tried to make out the horses in New Omaha. She thought she could see a few Neoclydes grazing above her, but at this distance the tiny specks could easily have been people. Even though the Omaha orchard was almost as far away from their apartment as anything could be in Ship, they were still close. Maybe she would take Kuarta and Renold for a picnic there tomorrow, if she could clear some time from her schedule and if no broken bones came into the hospital. Perhaps the three of them could even take a worldwalk. Kuarta had only been on two before, and both times had been greatly amused. “Mommy,” she had said, “how did we do that? We walked the same direction and came back to where we started!” Jene smiled as she remembered watching Renold roll up a piece of paper into a tube to explain the nature of their world. Yes, she thought, the orchard for tomorrow.

  She had always liked the orchard, and not because it was an island of openness amid a sea of crowded humanity. Jene did not mind the crowds; in fact, she enjoyed the closeness of human contact. The orchard was attractive because it was the only place in Ship where Kuarta could dig as deep as she wanted and not run into the cold deckplate. Jene remembered the first time Kuarta had done that about a year and a half ago in one of the tiny greenbelts that dotted the Residential Four complex. A careless hull worker had not bothered to properly replace the surface soil to its proper depth of one-point-six meters, and Kuarta had found herself, and her toy shovel, up against a dull grey barrier. There had been no tears from the little girl, just gentle amusement at the sight of the metal.

  “You okay, Jene?”

  Jene spun around, her mind snapping back into the present. Franklin Mussard stared at her good-naturedly from under the brim of his old-fashioned straw hat. He was standing in the entryway of his ground-floor apartment, below Jene’s family’s apartment on the sixth floor. All he needed to complete the picture of the fabled Terrestrial farmer was a strand of hay clamped loosely in his teeth. And, of course, blue sky behind him.

  “Oh, sure, Frank. Just thinking of taking the family to the orchard tomorrow.”

  Frank nodded his approval. “Sounds good. We haven’t been there in…hell, five months, I think. So damn busy. I should take Nancy and Wendy. But the work is.…”

  “I know what you mean. Things are starting to get hectic for me, too.”

  “How’s the panimmunity going?”

  “Pretty good. I’d say we’ve got about seventy, seventy-five percent of Ship done. We’ll be ready.” Jene stopped to smile and wave a silent greeting at another shipmate leaving the building.

  Frank nodded again, then was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, it was in a husky voice, an expectant voice. “You think we’ll be able to make it?”

  Jene knew what he meant. He was not asking now about the Panimmunity Project but about the future in general. The question was on every adult’s mind, if not their tongues. To have lived thirty-plus years, from birth to middle adulthood, on board Ship—Ship, which was the whole world—knowing the day would come when the journey that your great-great-grandmothers and -grandfathers had started over one hundred years before would come to a close in your lifetime was not easily dealt with. The inhabitants of Ship did so by tending to their work, preparing the great Ship for the final leg of its voyage, but not thinking too precisely on the event. Only the eighteen-member Flight Crew ever looked out at Epsilon Eridani, around which their future home orbited. Jene and the rest of the eight thousand-plus complement of colonists worked on their tasks, almost able to keep their thoughts inside Ship.

  “We have to, Frank. Not for us, though. For the next generation.”

  Frank nodded, but his eyes frowned. “That’s what everyone says. I wonder, though.…” He stopped as the Delacruz family of four approached. Frank and Jene exchanged greetings and a few pleasantries with the Delacruz family before the latter entered the apartment complex. Jene waited until they were out of earshot to prompt Frank again.

  “You wonder what?”

  Frank looked away. “You’ve seen things
,” he said vaguely.

  Jene scowled at him. This had been brought up before, but now, Jene was determined to make him say what he was implying. “What things?”

  Frank snorted. “You know. The effects of the trip.” He paused, as though gathering strength for the word that was to come. “Radiation.” The taboo word hung in the air for a moment before Frank spoke again. “Hell, Jene.” Now he turned to her, aggressively, daring her to refute him, hoping she could. “We’re the fourth generation. Your kid and my kid are in the fifth. That’s a helluva lot of cosmic rays they’ve soaked up. I’ve heard what’s come out of the hospital. Cancer. Leukemia. Downs Syndrome. Congenital brain defects. That’s the next generation, Jene. Is that really what we are working for? Because.…” He stopped.

  “What, Frank? Because what?” Jene felt her anger rising. “Say it, dammit! Because we should just start over?”

  Frank quickly looked around for others who might have heard the outburst. There were, of course, several people nearby, working on this or that or simply enjoying themselves in the rays of sunrod. There were always people around—it was an accepted aspect of Ship life. Politeness and courtesy were very important social constructs in Ship; Jene’s exclamation, though relatively mild, was nevertheless powerful.

  Frank did not meet her gaze but looked away, giving no answer.

  Jene pressed her point. “I’ve heard that before. Gen Five has got some problems. So what? You ready to take little Bobby and throw him into the fusion converter?”

  “Damn it, that’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Frank said, taking his hat off and slapping it against his leg. He did not bother to look about him this time.

  Jene saw she had gone too far. The image of little, blind, microcephalic Bobby Yancy, smiling up in her direction as she sponge bathed him, swam in front of her mind’s eye. Just as most of Gen Five had come to represent the collective dream of the colonists, Bobby was their reminder of their nightmare.

  “Yeah,” Jene whispered. “I’m sorry.” The tension and despair was almost palpable between them. Both shuffled uncomfortably in their stances, but Jene was reluctant to leave the conversation on a note of dread, and she suspected Frank was as well.

  She spoke first, her voice bright. “Why don’t you and Nancy and Wendy come along with us to the orchard? I’m sure your work crew can spare you for a day. Don’t you have some vacation coming up?”

  “Not really. You medical doctors have it easy—us spin doctors do the real work,” he said, smiling.

  Jene smiled back. Frank returned to his usual banter about the merits of propulsion reorientation work, or “spin doctoring” as he and some of the others called it. Since the solar sail had been redeployed a few weeks ago for deceleration, angular acceleration of the drum had combined with deceleration effects to produce slight g forces in inconvenient corners of Ship. Frank and many other workers were busily reconfiguring the more essential elements of Ship for the remaining few months of the journey so those inside could continue to function.

  “I keep telling you, all you have to do is build one of those science-fiction anti-gravity machines,” Jene said as seriously as she could.

  Frank slapped his forehead in an exaggerated motion. “Of course! Anti-gravity! And after that, we’ll make a teleporter so we can just”— he snapped his fingers—”over to E.E. three. No more spin, no more complicated calculations, no more radiation.…” He stopped again. The word had snuck up on him, and both knew instantly that their conversation and the issue they had raised would not be so easily dismissed by a trip to the orchard.

  “Yeah,” Jene said. “Anyway, Frank, come with us, okay? It’ll do both of us good.”

  “Yeah. I’ll see what I can do.”

  “G’bye, Frank.”


  * * *

  Jene looked over the dinner plates at Renold. He was fussing with the garnish—a sure sign he wanted to talk but would wait until she was ready.

  “I invited Frank and his family to go with us to the Orchard tomorrow for a picnic,” Jene said carefully.

  “Oh, that’ll be good,” Renold murmured absently. “You can arrange for time off from the hospital?”

  “Sure. I’m owed some back time.”

  Renold nodded. “I’ll have to take my finder, of course.”

  “I know.” He was always on call, never on duty. As Ship’s most trusted and competent psychotherapist, he dealt with only the most serious cases: ones that threatened Ship itself or some vital part of the mission. He had had more contact with the eighteen members of the Flight Crew than any other colonist. He never talked about them. Jene had stopped asking years ago.

  “Kuarta, dear, you have homework to do, yes?” Renold said.

  Kuarta nodded.

  “Well, go on to your room and start on it, please, dear. I’ll be in shortly to help you if you need it. You can use computer, but no games until you’re done, all right?” He spoke calmly, as if to an adult, as he always did to his daughter. There was very little difference in Renold’s tone no matter the audience.

  “Okay, Renold,” she said, addressing him as she always did. It was “Mommy” and “Renold,” even though he was her biological father. Long ago, the discrepancy had bothered Jene, but Renold, as usual, had been able to soothe her. It was of no consequence, he said often, but Jene couldn’t help but wonder if there was even the smallest bit of regret behind his words.

  Kuarta disappeared into her section of the tiny apartment. Fewer than sixty square meters of space were allotted per person in Ship. It was claustrophobic, even if one had lived their entire life on board, as all Gens had since Gen One. The human need for open spaces could not be entirely bred out or conditioned away. It was why Renold and his lesser colleagues were so valuable—technicians kept the machinery operational, but Renold kept the technicians themselves operational.

  “Why the orchard, dear?” Renold said, clearing the table.

  “Oh, I don’t know. I just thought.…”

  “Since we’ll be landing in four months, you want to get Kuarta used to openness?”

  “I guess that’s it.”

  “I see,” he said, then fell silent, like he always did. He would wait her out.

  “It’s not going to work, is it?” Jene said finally.

  “What? Trying to acclimate Gen Five to life planetbound? Or the mission itself?”

  “I wonder if those aren’t the same thing.”

  “Hmm. Good point.”

  Jene handed her husband the rest of the tableware. “Frank talked about radiation today.”

  Renold stopped wiping down the dishes. “Oh?”

  “Don’t you ever wonder why Kuarta came out the way she did?”

  “We’ve talked about this before, dear. You cannot feel guilty about this. You’re genetically pure, and so am I. You’ve told me time and time again that we escaped radiation damage through chance.”

  “Is that why you married me?” As soon as she uttered the words, she looked away. “I’m sorry, I....”

  “Do you think that?” Calmly. Jene knew he would not allow himself to grow angry at the accusation.

  It was useless trying to lie. “Sometimes.”

  “Well, it isn’t true. I married you because I fell in love with you and I wanted to create a family with you.” He spoke matter-of-factly, as if he were discussing the meal they had just eaten. “Frank bothers you, doesn’t he?”

  “Well, yes. Wendy is Gen Five too. I think he’s angry at us.”

  “I thought Wendy only has minor, inconsequential mutations.”

  “Doesn’t matter. You’ve seen the way Frank watches Wendy and Kuarta play together. You’re an analyst—don’t tell me you can’t read him.”

  “Yes, I can.”

  “Frank wants to know why his kid isn’t perfect like ours, doesn’t he. And there’s no goddamn answer!” Jene slammed her fist down on the small counter. One of the dessert plates clattered to the floor, the unbreakable pl
astic bouncing noisily off the tile.

  “The orchard tomorrow, then,” Renold said evenly, picking up the plate and wiping it down.

  Jene looked at him for a long moment, wanting to speak, or more accurately, wanting him to do something, feel something. He was infuriatingly cold as he continued the chores. Jene knew it wasn’t his fault—it was a combination of his personality and his training. She just wished—fruitlessly, she knew—that with her, at least, he could abandon control.

  * * *

  The orchard was beautiful. Frank, his wife, Lena, and their daughter, Wendy, had traveled there with the Halfners on the bicycles that the inhabitants of Ship used for nearly all long-range personal transportation. There were, of course, ground vehicles for emergencies and freight platforms for bulk cargo, but when people needed to travel even long distances, they walked or rode bicycles.

  Gil Tannassarian, who ran the orchard, was a kindly Gen Three well-known to Jene. He smiled at her and her five companions as they dismounted and parked the bicycles in their racks in front of the orchard. Gil was leaning his elbows on a simulated woodbeam fence that surrounded the acerage of the orchard and beaming at his visitors.

  “Jene! How are you, my girl?” Gil had promised he would never forget the life-saving procedure Jene had performed on his Gen Five granddaugter Millicent, who had had severe heart defects. Millicent had pulled through despite all predictions and was now about Kuarta’s age.

  “I’m good, Gil.” She smiled back. She knew the rumors: that the old Gen Three had been a candidate for Flight Crew in his youth but had been rejected during his final psych tests. People said (out of his hearing, of course) that something had happened to him up there on the Flight Deck that he had never talked about. He had not been the same since and had started working at the orchard shortly thereafter. He became the custodian of the orchard a few years after that when the previous caretaker had died. Renold, though never directly addressing the rumors, had dismissed them as impossible and irresponsible. No one, he had said, was assigned to Flight Crew. He would not elaborate on this cryptic remark, and over the years Jene had almost stopped wondering about it.

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