The Orion Project
Book 1: Descent
By Ryan K. Stansifer
May 24, 2194/1023 Earth Standard Time
New Langley/Earth/Sol System
It was another sweltering day in New Langley. Yet the crowd didn’t care. They swept over Carnalla Park, flowing like a living ocean of humanity. Sam Maver adjusted his dress uniform’s collar for the eighth time as he eyed the mob.
He studied the skyline of New Langley past the vast grassy fields of the Park as Senator Jubilee Hunter’s voice soared over the excited mass. The windows of the silvery skyscrapers blazed with the light of the late morning. No clouds marred the sky, leaving in a crisp blue for the burning sun.
Sam could feel the sweat trickling down the small of his back and tried to rub it into his chair, but it only made the itching worse. Even the shadow of the enormous monument didn’t help hide him from the heat.
“Commander?” Ambassador Grekan whispered beside him. The bulky woman looked concerned. “Are you well?”
“It’s nothing,” Sam muttered, his face turning a bit red. “Just a little warm.”
“This? This is warm?” The woman didn’t look like she was even sweating in her thick forest green robes.
Sam chuckled. “Maybe not for a colonist from Krax, but for here, yes.”
The woman’s enormous green eyes peered at him curiously. “I forget sometimes.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sam smiled.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce a special guest. “ Senator Hunter’s voice lanced across the platform and brought him back into the moment.
A nervous flutter not dissimilar from combat jitters started in his stomach. Sam took a deep breath and straightened his white SAF uniform.
“A man who fought on the front lines of the Sinerian War. Serving as Squadron Commander aboard the ESS Ronin and the Odyssey before transferring to Special Operations, he was instrumental recovering Princess Inchadar, giving us the chance to pursue peace with the Sinerian people.”
Applause exploded over the landscape, like the sound of a hoverjet. Cheering and shouts echoed through the clapping. Only the power of the public address system could pierce the noise.
“I give you Commander Samuel Maver!”
Sam stood as the applause reached deafening levels. The Senator and other delegates joined in as he stood and slowly walked toward the podium. She shook his hand before relinquishing the podium to him.
He took another long breath and triggered his speech to begin rolling over his vision.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sam began, his voice wavering ever so slightly. “I’m not usually one for speeches. And I’m sure you have more exciting things to do on Armistice Day. So I will not keep you long.”
The cheering exploded like a concussion grenade before settling to a dull roar.
“I don’t pretend to be a hero,” Sam began. “I never went into the Solar Alliance Fleet for glory and honor. I went because I wanted to protect those I loved. And because of service of ordinary people willing to fight for their homes, you are now able to stand here in freedom.”
Sam forced himself to continue over the shouts and cheers. “But remember that there are those who did not come back from the void. I said I fought to protect those I loved, but many times, I failed. I could not save every one of my compatriots. But their sacrifices must never be forgotten.”
The crowd’s cheers were now just a quiet murmur as his voice pierced the wavering air. Sam adjusted his shoulder, wishing a cool breeze would sweep through the audience.
“In the War, we all bled the same color. The race didn’t matter, or the gender. It didn’t matter what planet we were from or if we believed in the Solar Alliance or the Confederation of United Frontiers. All that mattered was our humanity. And it’s important in the days to come that we continue to remember that.”
“With the War over, humanity will take its place among the galactic community. Envoys to the Jannu have already been dispatched. And we can look forward to the rise of our kind in the eyes of all those among the stars. Let us remember those who surrendered their lives for this chance.”
The crowd was silent.
“This monument, named for the distant outpost where Earth and Sineria shook hands for the first time, is a testament to our determination, our courage and our sacrifice. It’s not a monument for war, but one for peace. And let everyone who looks upon it know that humanity is here to stay.”
He breathed a sigh of relief when the text finally stopped scrolling over his eyes. There was only one line left.
“And now, I present to you, the Jeremiah Monument!”
He turned with the rest of the delegates to stare at the immense holographic drape around the hundred-meter high spiraling tower built in the center of Carnalla Park. The Solar Alliance March pounded through the speaker system.
The holographic shroud exploded into glittering doves. The shimmering particles caught the sun and dazzled the crowd for almost a full minute before the twisting structure came into view.
The base of the enormous white cone was about twenty meters in diameter. As it rose through the air, it twisted and flapped back upon itself, like hundreds of swans caught in midflight. It spiraled up through the wavering air like a mirage until it ended with a single glowing crystal, sending a brilliant stream of light through the atmosphere.
Sam couldn’t help staring at the abstract and organic piece of art. Though he’d been asked to speak at the ceremony, he’d never seen the plans for the Jeremiah Monument. He found a strange symmetry in it, as his eyes wandered over the myriad of branching segments, but always returned to the unified whole.
It was breathtaking.
Sam stepped aside for Senator Hunter, who took the podium in the wake of the eruption of sound from the assembled crowd. She nodded at Sam, her eyes glinting in approval. He nodded back then sat back down beside the Ambassador, who smiled broadly at him.
Despite the wide signs of approval, he couldn’t ignore the sense of pain gnawing at his stomach. Even ten years after the end of the war, he could hardly forget the things he’d seen. He’d lost too many friends. While the speech was for them, he wondered if they could hear it.
After shaking hands with the various delegates and absorbing the praise of Senator Hunter, Sam managed to extricate himself from the grasps of the politicians. He slipped down the steps behind the dais and into the crowds still milling about the base of the monument.
Few people paid him any attention, as they were still focused upon the enormous abstract sculpture. He skirted an elderly couple holding hands and dodged a boy chasing a squealing little girl the same age. He avoided an impromptu party at one of the white gazebos scattered through the park and moved west toward the signs for the parking structure.
Despite the heat, the air was clean and smelt of wildflowers, floating over from the botanical gardens on the southern edge of Carnalla Park. If it were twenty degrees cooler, it would be the perfect day. But when the clock on his neural heads-up-display hit 1045, a bit of the brightness faded from around him.
He didn’t care for crowds or speeches, but he was tempted to stay here, despite the conversation with Director Clayton still echoing in his mind. Clayton was sure Marcus needed help. And Sam was the only one who had a shot to get through to Marcus.
He flashed his ID at the guard, who saluted and allowed him into the VIP lot on the first level of the subterranean parking complex. His mind whirling with what to say to Marcus, his movements were automatic as he located his ’91 Lapel.
The navy bullet-shaped hovercar was still in good condition after three years. Its sleek shape looked as if it was designed for cutting through water rather then running through the automated road systems. Black tinted windows reflected the other vehicles in the nearby stalls in an unbroken line around the upper half of the hovercar.
With a whispered word, the car’s microfusion drive whirred to life. The driver’s door slid backwards, becoming flush with the side panel and Sam slipped into the microfiber seat. The car’s onscreen display synced up with his neural HUD and automatically plotted a course to Marcus’s apartment complex on the west side of New Langley.
“Please confirm destination,” the car’s soft voice intoned.
“Confirmed,” Sam muttered, his mind still focused on the coming conversation. “Automated path.”
He took a deep breath and tried to relax as the vehicle pulled out of its stall and worked its way onto the street. He only did enough manual driving to keep his license and he wasn’t in the mood for fighting the congestion of downtown New Langley today.
As cool air flowed from the vents, he scratched his implant under his arm. His mind wandered endlessly as the car smoothly maneuvered through the traffic. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t figure out what to say to Marcus.
When his earcom buzzed and Nina’s picture flashed up on the screen, he was grateful. He tapped earlobe and her voice sputtered onto the car’s speakers, redirected from the earcom.
“Sam!” Nina’s voice sputtered. “Sunshine got stuck behind the couch again!”
A sound between exasperation and laugher burst from his throat. “This isn’t a good time, sis.”
“I know you’re not on base!” she cried. “I can read my tracking systems. You’re just across town!”
“I didn’t say I was on base,” Sam pointed out in what he hoped was a reasonable tone. “But I’m heading over to Marcus’s place.”
Silence descended over the speakers. “Oh.”
“But…but…what should I do about Sunshine?” Nina sounded caught between her concern for Sunshine and her worry for Marcus.
“Do you still have the can of tuna I bought you when you brought the rat home?”
“She’s not a rat!”
“Do you have it?”
“Yes,” she muttered.
“Go open it.”
“But why would that do…”
“Nina, please, just open it. You’re the one who decided she wanted a pet!”
“Fine!” she huffed.
The hovercar slipped through three traffic intersections before he heard the pop of the tuna can. A few seconds later, the faint meowing of a kitten echoed over the speakers.
“She came out! And she’s eating it!”
“Okay, Nina. Crisis over. I’m hanging up now. I’m almost there.”
“Wait! I still wanted to ask you…” she trailed off for a moment.
His patience worn thin, he forced himself to wait several seconds.
“Tell him he can come over to play with Sunshine anytime he wants.”
For the first time, Sam smiled at the static picture of his sister. Fluttering black locks rained from her head, framing dusky skin and a faint expanse of freckles. Sometimes she acted as if she was half her age, but the twenty-year-old woman’s bright green eyes and impish smile told a different story.
He still didn’t understand her choice in pets though.
“I’ll tell him.”
When the door slid backwards, Sam was rewarded with another hot wash of air. His boots crunched against the worn asphalt of the parking lot. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked up at the modern high-rise apartment complex piercing the sky above. The windows glimmered in the late morning sun, sending rivulets of light pouring over the surrounding area.
Sticking his hands in his pocket, he climbed onto the baking sidewalk and worked his way to the glass doors of the lobby. A doorman in a blue uniform nodded politely and opened a door for him. He nodded back and slipped into the cool lobby.
His boots made no sound on the plush purple carpet as he stepped up to the elevators, avoiding a trio of giggling teenagers who pointed and gaped at his dress uniform. Leaning against the faux cherrywood paneling, he tapped his foot and waited for the elevator.
The elevator was empty when it arrived, allowing Sam one last moment to collect his thoughts. But nothing especially helpful came to him in the trip up to the twenty-third floor.
He wasn’t paying attention when he stepped out, which was why he nearly bowled over a small blue-haired woman. She stumbled backwards into a distinguished-looking man with identical hair.
Sam stammered an apology and the woman looked up at him with fire in her eyes. She looked ready to tear his head off until she focused on him. Then her mouth closed and her face went pale.
The man said nothing, but ran a hand through his thick hair and adjusted his black blazer over his equally black turtleneck. The woman was dressed almost identically. Sam tried not to stare at their hair as they just watched him.
“It was just an accident.” He sounded awkward and hoarse, even to his own ears. “I’m sorry.”
“No harm done,” said the man. “But it’s time for us to go.”
The woman looked up at him with a pleading expression, but he resolutely shook his head. Sam blinked, confused at the interplay between the couple.
Finally, the curled locks of blue fluttered as she hung her head sadly. With a gentle grip, the man steered her around Sam and into the elevator.
The doors began to close and at the last moment, she looked up at Sam with wet eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”
Then she was gone.
Shaken, it took a few seconds for him to remember where he was. He took a deep breath , turned from the elevator and walked down the corridor to Marcus’s apartment, the bizarre encounter now fighting for dominance in his mind.
At suite forty-three, he tapped the door pad.
“Go away, Sam.”
“I’m not leaving, Cap.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
Silence came over the speaker for a few moments, long enough to prompt Sam to thumb the pad again. There was an incoherent burst of frustration and the door slid open. Sam stepped inside.
He remembered when every entrance was walking into an explosion of light and sound. When once the energy one contained within this three-bedroom condominium could power a small starship.
Now the foyer was dark. The only light came from the corridor behind him. There was nothing on the white walls save for a few non-descript landscapes of black and white mountain ranges. A fake plant sat quietly on a black countertop along one side of the wall.
After a few moments, he caught sight of a faint flicker of purple down the hall and the notes of an old twentieth-century swing band floating through the stale air. Letting out a sigh, he tromped over the tile and turned the corner.
He knew what he would see even before he passed through the dark hallway and into the living room.
A pair of dusty sofas sat on two walls with an overstuffed lounge chair in front of the old-style curtained windows. Flashes of light illuminated the host of trophies and awards dotting the shelves of the living room. To the right of the sofas was the open kitchen with inst-meal packing strewn over every countertop. The only source of light was the tri-dimensional flickering over the walls from its raised dais in the center of the room.
Marcus Simms sat on the edge of one of the sofas, staring into the vid display with dead eyes. He didn’t even acknowledge Sam as he walked into the room. A week’s worth of stubble ran the course of his cheeks while his shoulder length hair hung in tattered, unwashed strands. His chestnut hair looked black in the dim light, colored only by the flashes of pink and purple from the TDV. He was in a stiff black undershirt and a pair of faded denim trousers.
He let out a low sigh as he stared at the recording playing on the TDV. It was a view of this room in a very different light. The windows were open to a glorious landscape of crystal blue sky and the sparkling city fresh with new snow.
The recorded Marcus and Amy danced to a rather silly tune coming over the music net while Sam laughed at their antics. Since he didn’t see anyone else in the frame, he guessed this was sometime during the middle of the day, before the rest of the Protectorate had arrived.
Brilliant pink and purple streamers fluttered through the room, coating every surface in a vibrant display of shimmering color. The recording was so bright and cheery it seemed anachronistic. The current rendition of the room was nothing but dim shadows.
As he watched Amy laughing deliriously while Marcus spun her around, a twinge of forgotten jealousy pierced Sam.
With that, he shook himself from his reverie and stared at his commanding officer.
“Does this help?” His voice sounded hollow, even to him.
“Huh?” Marcus’s eyes were bleary as he glanced up. His voice sounded atrophied from disuse, like some ancient leaking steam pipe.
“Does this help?” Sam repeated.
“This?” He waved a hand at the TDV as his eyes settled back on the recording. “Helps me to remember her.”
“You’ve been ‘remembering’ her for six months, Marcus.”
“I have to remember her.” He sounded like he was in another galaxy.
“You think you’re going to forget her?”
“Not the point.”
“Oh yeah? Then what’s the point?”
Marcus said nothing. He just sat there and watched the recording. He looked almost dead.
“She wouldn’t have wanted you to do this to yourself.”
For the second time, Marcus looked at Sam, but there was a tiny spark of anger in his eyes this time.
“Don’t think you can tell me what she wanted!” He cried, throwing out his arms. A pair of dark bottles rolled off the couch, landing with a dull thud.
Sam started at the sight of the bottles, his fists clenching into tight balls. Something inside him snapped. With a sudden motion, he swept forward and punched the power button on the TDV. The room plunged into darkness, lit only by a faint crack of light from under the curtains.
He stomped over and slapped a control panel on the wall. Instantly, the curtains burst open, revealing the baking skyline of New Langley. The sun burst into the room like an invading army. Marcus staggered, half-blinded by the barrage of sun.
“You haven’t been remembering, Marcus!” Sam snapped as he whirled on his friend. The sight of the unkempt condominium enraged him. A pile of bottles lay at the foot of the sofa. Clothes were strewn across the floor. And the kitchen to his right was filled with unwashed dishes and half empty glasses.
Sam glared down at him, adjusting his uniform. “You’ve been sitting here wishing you died with her. It’s called survivor’s guilt.”
“I know what it’s called.” Marcus hissed, still shielding himself from the light. “Heard the words plenty of times from the shrinks.”
“Then here’s something new.” Sam grabbed a small data folder out of his pocket and threw it into Marcus’s lap. He stared at it without moving. “Kolenstien’s has the entire American Congress up in arms about the budget at the CSA.”
“You’re talking to me about the plokking budget?” Marcus snarled. He snatched the folder and threw it across the room, crashing into a plaque and sending them both spiraling to the floor. “I don’t really care about the Agency right now.”
“Marcus, she’s going to shut us down.”
“I don’t care.”
Sam twitched as he tried to control himself, but the sheer apathy of his CO was too much for him to take. With a grunt, he grabbed the front of Marcus’s shirt and hauled him to his feel. Sam caught the telltale scent of liquor on his breath. Marcus’s bloodshot eyes stared back at him, dejected and pathetic. There wasn’t the slightest spark of life within them.
“Then you didn’t deserve her, you bastard,” Sam snarled into Marcus’s face.
As expected, this got a reaction, though it was a bit more severe than Sam expected.
Marcus’s fist came out of nowhere and slammed into his jaw. He staggered backwards, releasing Marcus. He landed against a small china cabinet. He had only a moment’s respite before Marcus let out a roar and rushed him.
Sam was better prepared this time. He caught the swinging arm by the wrist. With a rough twist, he pinned it behind Marcus’s back. The captain struggled like a trapped animal.
His CO tried to kick at him, but Sam was too fast. In a moment, he’d tripped him up and sent him crashing to the ground. Marcus growled like a wild animal as Sam placed his knee in the small of his back.
“Now that’s more like it,” Sam said.