Upon a midnight clear, p.1
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           Kalifer Deil
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Upon A Midnight Clear
Upon A Midnight Clear

  Ian Thomas Healy

  Copyright 2011 Ian Thomas Healy

  Cover design by Ian Thomas Healy

  Rob Stabler squeezed back into the cramped airlock, exhausted and running low on O2. Fifteen hours in the 'suit and nothing but aching joints and negative sample tubes to show for it.

  Asteroid mining was simply impractical. Unlike in the old Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century movies, the Asteroid Belt wasn't a raging torrent of whirling, spinning boulders. A miner could burn his drive for days before he'd come across a piece of rock of any significant size, and what he found was likely to be carbonaceous or stony and therefore useless for all modern purposes. Why should he bother to range out so far from the Inner System in search of the rare mother lode of metal when corporations were strip-mining on the Moon? Or on Io and Titan, quenching the Outer System's thirst for metals and organics? It was expensive and wasteful of resources to try to exploit what few resources were available in the otherwise-empty orbital slot between Jupiter and Mars.

  All that changed with the discovery of 2208 Phobos Base.

  It was early morning on September 5th when a piece of rock, hurtling around the Sun for millions of years, smashed its way through the bulkhead of Storage Locker 28, voiding the room to vacuum and freeze-curing the quartermaster's illegal supply of Tennessee Gold tobacco. When the repair crew made it into the locker they found 2208 sitting harmlessly amid the shriveled leaves, a quiet, unassuming bit of prehistoric chondrite; but it contained the greatest secret ever discovered by mankind.

  Nestled in the deepest nook of the meteorite, the Base's scientists found a dormant bacterial colony of a type completely alien to Earthly biology.

  At first everyone believed it was a mistake, or a hoax, or contamination by some bug in the storage locker. The scientists were careful to record all their data, to preserve samples, and to make everything available to anyone who wanted to examine it. Eventually, even the biggest skeptics were forced to conclude that 2208 Phobos Base contained the first ever bona fide example of extraterrestrial life.

  All this created a new gold rush as scientists, prospectors, and explorers launched themselves gleefully into space in whatever cobbled-together ships they could buy, beg, borrow, or steal, heading for the Asteroid Belt. Only instead of gold, they sought something far more elusive: life.

  That ongoing search is why Stabler had spent the past fifteen hours crawling across a rock slightly larger than his prospecting ship. The standard procedure was to use radar to find a rock in the vastness of space, check its coordinates against the archival data on Phobos, and if it hadn't been logged yet to lay claim to it. After that came the grunt work: taking surface and core samples, spectroscopic analysis, looking for the exclusive chemical compounds which pointed toward life.

  A wealthier prospector than Stabler might have used robots for similar work, but he preferred to do it himself; it was the only way he knew for sure things were being done right. Robots were notoriously clunky and stupid machines, incautious and unthinking despite the arguments of their Turing processors to the contrary.

  Nobody had yet found any more signs of life in the Belt, and after several years many folks were turning their attention back toward the Colonies as better places to make a fortune. A few diehard souls still trolled the Belt, though, logging rocks, marking those of useful metallic content for later collection by the automatic refineries, and slogging onward to the next rock in the hope of finding something valuable. In his time, Stabler had managed to keep himself comfortably in O2 and real food through a few M-type asteroids with significant amounts of nickel and one nearly awash in mercury. But eventually even those funds would run out and he would be forced to sell his ship, his home, and go groundside somewhere.

  "Any luck today?" asked Mona, the ship's onboard Turing. She knew his answer already, and he knew she knew, but they both maintained the civilities of a longtime working relationship. Out here in the Belt, it wasn't unheard of for the prospectors to fall in love with their Turings, often the only companionship they'd have for months at a time. Stabler even knew of one guy who'd married one, although for the life of him he couldn't imagine a padre willing to consecrate such a ceremony. Stabler didn't feel affection for Mona – at least, not in any romantic way. She was more like his assistant manager, running the ship when he was away and keeping things going smoothly.

  "Not a damned thing," he replied. "This rock is as dead as the others. Maybe as dead as the entire Belt."

  "Shall I make preparations to depart?"

  "Yeah, get us out of here," grunted Stabler as he shrugged out of the suit. It stank of him and he of it. Even repeated exposure to vacuum hadn't completely removed the smell permeating the airtight fabric. He might finally have to replace it the next time he put into port. He could maybe spend three more weeks out in the Big Empty before he'd have to turn back and restock the ship's larders and tanks.

  "Course?" asked Mona.

  "Are there any likely candidates nearby?"

  "Negative. I've got nothing meeting or exceeding minimum parameters within a hundred hours."

  "Pope's Blood," swore Stabler. "I don't know. You pick a course."

  "Confirmed. Acceleration in six minutes unless you want to delay."

  "No, no reason to stick around here any longer." As sore as he was from the exertion in his suit, Stabler would welcome the return of gravity, even if it was only from acceleration. He always slept better under a burn.

  "Would you like some music? It's Christmas back on Earth."

  "Christmas?" repeated Stabler doubtfully. He wasn't much for holidays. They were wasted on someone like him with no family or friends outside of the cubic meter of Mona's processor in its armored case just aft of the airlock; but he did like music, and Mona had some five hundred years' worth of it to draw upon. "Sure, play some Christmas carols or something. Merry Christmas, Mona. I didn't get you a gift, I'm afraid."

  "Merry Christmas, Robert. I didn't get you anything either." A version of Silent Night began to play, sung by some gravel-voiced woman who'd been dead for two hundred years.

  "Some friends we are, huh?"

  "Stand by for acceleration," warned Mona.

  Light blasted forth from his viewscreen, filling the cramped prospector vessel. It wasn't a sudden flash like the polar lightning on Jupiter or an exploding reactor, but a gradual brightening lasting several seconds until Stabler had to throw his arm across his eyes. A moment later the light disappeared.

  "What the hell was that?" he cried, blinking away the spots floating in his vision.

  "Anomalous energy emission across the EM spectrum," reported Mona.

  "Get our ass turned to face it!" A wide-ranging energy surge would include dangerous radiation, and the best shielding would be from the mass of the ship's drive.

  "Already turning, Rob. Are you all right?"

  "I'm fine. What caused it?"

  "I don't know. It came from a region of space where there should be nothing."

  "Was it a supernova?" wondered Stabler. The wavefront from an exploding star would carry a lot of light and radiation with it.

  "Negative."

  His radio pinged. He dove for it.

  "Stabler, are you still alive?" Bally Lupo's voice was heavily laden with static from the excessive energy in the area but still discernible. Lupo was a more scientifically-minded prospector and the nearest living soul to Stabler, meaning three days at maximum burn.

  "Barely, Lupo," replied Stabler. "Did you see that? What was it?"

  "Some kind of bright flash. I thought your drive had gone critical."

  "No, I'm still here. Anybody else working in that area?"

  "I don't have anybody on my logs. Could
be an unregistered ship."

  A new voice joined the conversation. It was Mel Hostettler, the fellow who'd married his Turing. "Ever'body all right?" asked the large Mars native.

  "We're all fine here," reported Stabler. An idea occurred to him. "Hey, can we triangulate the point of origin? We've got three lines of data now. All we need is one more to verify. Frenchie, are you listening in?"

  Frenchie was Gaspar Rousseau, an Earther from Canada who'd earned his nickname from his strong accent. "Oui," was his static-filled reply. "I 'ave recovered ze data and am transmitting it to you now."

  "Data's coming in from all three ships now," reported Mona. "I've got a fix on the point of origin. It's not far from here. Two hours at maximum burn."

  "Two hours?" repeated Stabler incredulously. "How could anybody be that close to us and stay running silent?" There were no laws governing contact between ships in deep space, but the Belters all maintained regular contact with one another anyway, keeping tabs on each other in case somebody needed help. Prospecting was still a dangerous job and they were a fairly close-knit community.

  "You t'ink it's a ship in trouble?" asked Mel.

  "Don't know what else it could be if it's that close," replied Stabler. "There's nothing natural that would have made that energy spike. I'm declaring an emergency rescue and claiming salvage rights as the nearest responder. Mona, log that and transmit it to Phobos."

  "Confirmed."

  "You sure?" asked Lupo, sounding disappointed. An emergency rescue declaration required all ships within reasonable range to respond. More ships meant more hands if needed and a wider range of possible tools and spare parts, but it also meant all crews had to drop whatever they were doing to respond. That translated to extra fuel expenditures, lost prospecting time, and increased supply usage. The unofficial Belt code rewarded those responders with salvage rights.

  "I'm sure. Emergency rescue. Get on out here."

  "Bally Lupo, responding. ETA thirty-one hours."

  "Mel Hostettler, responding. Thirt'-five hours."

  "Gaspar Rousseau. Forty hours."

  "Thanks, fellows. See you when you get here. I've got some Callistan moonshine for anyone who'd like a taste."

  "White fire-water, eh?" laughed Bally. "Then I suppose I should share my Tennessee Gold."

  Mel laughed loud across the miles of empty space. "Tobacco? Out 'ere? Your ship must absolutely reek of it. I bet you've polluted your scrubbers. I've not got any contraband, but I've got soap and detergent for anyone who needs it."

  "Oui, I need some of zat. I do not 'ave much but muscle liniment to share."

  "And I've got a deck of cards," added Stabler. "Sounds like a real party. See you fellows in three days. I'll let you know what I find."

  Mona plotted an intercept course for the origin of the flash. Stabler gave himself a disinfectant sponge bath, wiping away the worst of his odor and accumulated sweat, then dressed in his coveralls and ran a full diagnostic on the ship's systems and inventoried the supplies. Prospector ships weren't large by any stretch of interpretation. The total living space amounted to less than a hundred cubic meters, including bunk, office, flight controls, refresher station, and galley. Half as much volume was devoted toward consumable and recyclable supplies. The rest of the ship's mass was taken up by the reactor, ion drive, and sensor package. Some prospectors named their ships but Stabler had never seen the need. The ship was his home and his job and his transportation; it was his life. If he had named it anything, it would have been after himself, but he wasn't quite as self-centered as that.

  Mona began decelerating an hour later, shunting the ion jet through the ship's forward nozzles instead of the aft. She announced her radar had definitely pinged off an object at their destination, although of what she couldn't be certain. Stabler activated the approach exterior lighting. Great clusters of LEDs which would illuminate anything in their path powered up along with the grapple. Soon, Mona acquired a visual image of the target object, ran it through the best imaging filters she had onboard, and displayed it for Stabler.

  If the object was a ship, it hadn't come from anywhere in the System. It resembled the seashells Stabler had seen on Earth with smooth whorls patterned on a glistening surface with spikes protruding at regular intervals. It shone under the lighting, all blues, greens, and golds. One end was cracked and blackened as if something had exploded outward. Pinkish lights twinkled at the tips of the spikes, brightening as his ship came in on final approach.

  The object tumbled slowly through space, particles breaking away from the damaged section in a slow shower of sparkling dust. Mona reported that it appeared to be losing internal pressure. The object was smaller than the prospector ship – maybe 80 cubic meters total displacement.

  Stabler shut his mouth, which was hanging open in shock, and activated his radio. "Fellows," he said in a shaking voice. "I've, uh, I've got something here."

  "What is it, Stabler?" asked Bally. "A ship?"

  "I don't know," said Stabler, truthfully enough. "It might be. I'm transmitting pictures to you all. Stand by."

  The others overloaded the comm channel with shocked oaths as they received the images Stabler had sent them.

  "It's… it can't be a ship," protested Mel. "Look at it! It looks organic."

  "An alien? C'est impossible!" argued Frenchie.

  "No, I think it's a ship," said Bally. "And it's damaged. Stabler, you know what this means?"

  Stabler gulped and said the two words nobody ever expected to repeat seriously. "First contact. Pope's Blood, I'm not qualified for this. I'm a damned prospector!"

  "Look, whatever it is, it's damaged and outgassing. If there are occupants, they're probably in trouble and you're bound to help them. If it's some kind of probe, then it's salvageable. Whatever you choose, either you lay claim or you relinquish it to me, since I'm next on approach. I'll take the damned thing on myself." Bally's ship was larger than his, and he'd have no problem taking the claim.

  "I don't have room here for something that big," argued Stabler. "This ain't a cargo hauler."

  "Claim it now or relinquish it to me," pressed Bally.

  "Pope's Blood," Stabler swore again. "All right, I'll figure something out. My claim stands."

  Mona matched velocity with the object. Stabler couldn't quite bring himself to call it a ship. He watched it tumble slowly in the viewscreen. Except for the small porthole in the airlock, his ship had no windows. They were a liability in the harsh environment of deep space, prone to accidental breakage by pebble-sized asteroids whirling through space or allowing harmful radiation and particles into the womb of the ship. If his viewscreen wasn't always on, Stabler wouldn't even have noticed the flare from the mysterious object.

  "Can we get the grapple on that, do you think?" Stabler asked.

  "Unknown," replied Mona. "I have no way to determine the mass of the object. We run the risk of breaking the grapple and possibly damaging our ship."

  "I'll take that under advisement. Do your best to match attitude and spin and we'll try to grab onto it."

  "Confirmed."

  Mona deftly worked the ship's maneuvering jets until the object's apparent spin dropped to a lazy tumble against the star field.

  "That the best you can do?"

  "I'm afraid so. Do you still wish to attempt the grapple?"

  "Yes," said Stabler, slipping his arm into the control sleeve and pulling the virtual screen helmet over his head. Stereoscopic cameras mounted on either side of the grapple projected images to the helmet, giving Stabler an apparent three-dimensional view of the grapple and the object beyond it.

  As it spun slowly before his eyes, he could see the shiny surface wasn't quite as smooth as he'd originally thought. It was marred by long scratches and scars, in turn surrounded by raised edges of the surface material. He drew in a sharp breath of surprise as he spotted a scar that was almost completely sealed over.

  It healed itself, or had been repaired. Either way, it made a very stro
ng case for extraterrestrial life.

  He reached with the grapple and tried to snag a protrusion as it swung around but the mechanical jaws couldn't close quickly enough. The protrusion banged off the grapple, shaking the sleeve harder than Stabler would have liked. The impact did alter the object's rotation slightly, which implied it wasn't very massive, and gave him hope that he could latch onto it after all. He went after it again with renewed vigor, trying to time the closing of the grapple's jaws in time to clamp onto one of the spikes. After what felt like an eternity, the jaws fastened onto one of the protrusions. For a moment, Stabler was afraid the spike would simply snap off but instead the object ceased its spin and hung motionless relative to the prospector's ship.

  Stabler pulled off the helmet and shook his head to free the sweat beaded on his skin, tiny jewels spinning off into the air unfettered by gravity. "Is it stopped?" he asked Mona.

  She confirmed it was.

  He climbed back into his suit. "I'm going out to look at the damage and see if there are any survivors. I'm staying on a tether. If there's a problem, I want you to reel me back in."

  "Confirmed."

  He sealed his helmet, ran his systems check, and connected the tether to his air tank. The cramped airlock seemed suddenly homey and comfortable when faced with the possibility of confronting alien life. Or more likely alien death, reasoned Stabler as the lock cycled. The outer door slid open, silent except for the slight sound transmitted through his suit.

  The alien ship wasn't immediately in his view. He pushed out of the airlock, threading the tether through a Teflon eyehook, and headed toward the fore of the ship where the other vessel sat, clamped in the grapple.

  "Rob, I'm being hailed by your three friends," reported Mona in his ear.

  "Tell them I'm busy right now. And tell them to hurry," he added as an afterthought. "I have no idea what kind of trouble I'm about to get into here."

  The alien vessel loomed before him, its expansive hull pearly and luminescent in the light of the distant Sun. He drifted across the openness toward it, steered by puffs of carbon dioxide gas. He braked, orienting himself to land feet-first, trying not to think about the way his altered perspective put his ship directly overhead, seemingly supported only by the slender arm of the grapple.

  His feet touched the ship, and his mind exploded in a haze of emotion and sensation.

  //PAIN//

  //FEAR//

  //LOST//

  Stabler screamed and jerked away from the surface of the vessel, twisting awkwardly in the vacuum and nearly smashing his faceplate against the main sensor dish before he got himself under control.

  "Rob? Rob, are you all right?" called Mona in his ear.

  "Did you hear that? Did you pick that up?" he babbled.

  "I only heard you scream."

  "You didn't get a transmission from the ship?"

  "Negative."

  "Blaspheme me," grunted Stabler. "I certainly heard it."

  "Do you want to come back inside?"

  "Not yet. Let me try again."

  Stabler steeled himself and jetted back toward the alien vessel once more. This time he floated around toward the damaged section. His suit lights were bright, but he unclipped the handheld spotlight from his belt and raised it to get a better view of the damage.

  The hull had ruptured outward. Frozen liquid streamed out of the ragged hole, forming icy froth along the edges. Inside, he could see what looked like torn pipes and some kind of ripped fabric or sheeting. Beyond that lay strangely-shaped lumpy masses, surrounded by membranous netting and a mesh of tubes and pipes, glistening with a fine sheen of ice. He wondered if they were the ship's crew and if he should try to get them out. He drifted in for a closer look.

  As he approached, his spot picked out a fine network of mesh in the ripped fabric and more fluid leaking sluggishly out of the tubes. Motion caught his eye and he discovered two of the masses deep inside pulsing with a slow, regular rhythm.

  "Pope's Blood," he whispered.

  "What is it?" pressed Mona.

  "This isn't a ship, it's a creature."

  Mona paused as she interpreted this new bit of information. "Confirmed," she said at last.

  "Stand by, Mona. Whatever it is, I think it could be hurt pretty bad."

  Stabler couldn't imagine what kind of evolution would allow a creature to travel through space, but the end result seemed to be drifting before him, barely out of arm's reach. It would only take the slightest puff from his jets to bring him in contact with it once more. His mind screamed at him to leave the damned thing alone, to crawl back into his ship, fire up the drive, and run away at maximum burn. Let someone else be the hero, the recipient of the fabled First Contact.

  But this creature was in pain, maybe dying, and his heart said he should offer what comfort he could. He triggered his jets and touched the thing's shell.

  //PAIN//

  //FEAR//

  //LOST//

  "Um, hey," he said aloud, feeling foolish. "Can you hear me? Can you understand me?"

  //INQUIRY//

  He nearly jumped right out of his suit. The voice came not from his ear speakers, but deep inside his head, like the thing spoke directly into his mind. And it wasn't using language, at least not like he was used to. More like it communicated in concepts, in basic emotions. Whether it heard him or his thoughts, it seemed to grasp the main idea.

  "My name's Rob Stabler. Who are you?"

  //SELF//

  //PAIN//

  //FEAR//

  //LOST//

  "Don't be afraid. Can I help you somehow? You're in the Solar System. I guess that's probably no help to you though."

  //NEGATIVE//

  "What happened to you?"

  //INJURY//

  //PAIN//

  "Is it… bad? It looks pretty bad."

  //DEATH//

  "You're… you're going to die?"

  //AFFIRMATIVE//

  "Hell, this isn't how it's supposed to work. You're supposed to land on the White House lawn or Phobos Base or something and announce yourself to everyone. You're not supposed to die out here in the middle of blaspheming nowhere."

  //CONFUSION//

  "Ah, don't worry. I'll sit here with you. Nobody ought to die alone." Sitting in deep space with a dying alien, thought Stabler. Not how I'd ever have imagined spending Christmas.

  //GRATITUDE//

  "You're welcome."

  //URGENCY//

  "What is it?"

  //OFFSPRING//

  "Your children? You want me to notify them somehow? You're going to have to give me some way to do that. I wouldn't even know where to start looking for them."

  //NEGATIVE//

  //OFFSPRING//

  //IMMINENT//

  "Imminent… Pope's Blood, you're… you're pregnant or something?"

  //AFFIRMATIVE//

  "What do I do? I don't even know anything about human babies, much less whatever you are."

  //URGENCY//

  "Okay, okay. I guess I have to figure it out sometime. Is there more than one baby, or—"

  //SINGULAR//

  //URGENCY//

  //PAIN//

  "I, oh hell, what do I do?"

  //SEPARATE//

  //URGENCY//

  //IMMINENT//

  //DEATH//

  Stabler looked around wildly for something that might clue him in on where to find a baby alien living spaceship. It wouldn't be anywhere near the gaping wound on the mother; she would likely know if something had happened to her baby. He spotted an odd protuberance near what he thought of as the creature's stern and jetted over to look.

  What he discovered was a miniature version of the mother, struggling feebly inside a thick membrane extruded from the mother's shell. He pressed a hand against the surface once more.

  "Is this it? Is this your baby?"

  //affirmative//

  //gratitude//

  //blessing//

  The volume and inte
nsity of the creature's voice in his thoughts diminished suddenly. "Wait, don't go yet. What do I do?"

  Silence in his mind, and he knew she was gone.

  The baby's struggles grew more frantic. Stabler didn't know what else to do, so he opened his bulky multitool to a blade attachment and poked at the membrane experimentally. The tungsten steel edge separated the membrane from the shell surface easily enough. Working quickly, he sliced all the way around it and flung it away from the baby.

  The baby hung motionless in space, detached from its mother. It was the size of a large dog, with similar coloration to the mother but with only nubs where the spines were on the adult. Not knowing what else to do, Stabler gathered it up into his arms. "There, there," he said awkwardly. "You're going to be just fine. I'll take care of you."

  A cautious, small voice in his head spoke tentatively.

  //INQUIRY//

  //PARENT//

  "No, I'm not your daddy." Stabler laughed. "I'm just some guy."

  //INQUIRY//

  //FRIEND//

  "Yes, I'm your friend."

  //BLESSING//

  This last filled Stabler with such a sense of wonderment and hope that he nearly fainted dead away. This was an alien baby, born in the wilderness of space, from a mother who died, knowing nothing about Stabler or the Earth or humanity in general, and it gave him its blessing.

  "Rob, are you all right?" asked Mona, sounding as anxious as an artificial intelligence could.

  Stabler smiled. "I'm all right. We both are."

  "Both?"

  "I… that is to say you and I… have just acquired an orphan."

  "Confirmed," said Mona after another pause. "What is the orphan's designation?"

  Stabler paused. It was probably blasphemous, but it being Christmas day and all there was only one name really suitable. "Jesus," he said. "Call Bally, Mel, and Frenchie and tell them that the Three Wise Men better be bringing gifts."

  "Confirmed."

  Stabler looked down at the baby held in his arms. "Well, I don't really have room for you on board the ship, I'm afraid, and I don't have a convenient stable or manger either. But somehow, I think you'll do just fine out here without one, little guy."

  //AFFIRMATIVE//

  ###

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  A Novel of the Apocalypse by Ian Thomas Healy

 
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