there comes a time
when the whole
is small yet for
Lillian was sitting on the porch roof, rereading one of her favorite books under the light of the stars. The faint light from her bedroom was enough to see the pages as she kept turning. Although nowadays you could read any number of books on your computers or augmented displays, Lillian liked the feel of a real book.
She'd inherited most of her mother's old books and kept them carefully organized in her room. No matter what it was, if Lillian considered it hers, she would keep it neat. Her room, her locker at school, her desk--everything kept neat and orderly.
Her teachers complained about it from time to time, although they really didn't mind. With more troubled students every year, Lillian was a breath of fresh air.
She had just started one of the more interesting parts of the book when her father burst into her room. He'd only gotten back a few hours ago from some mission or another. He'd been busier than ever as of late.
"Lily dear, pack your things. We need to leave."
"Can I finish my chapter?"
"No time. Pack enough for a weekend and meet me in the front hall." Looking distracted, he headed back out into the hallway.
Lillian sighed. "And it was just getting so interesting too," she muttered under her breath. But she could sense easily enough that something was not quite right, so she crawled back into her room and began to pack. Despite her father's insistence, she had a feeling that this might be a longer trip, so she packed several of her mother's books in addition to her clothes. Her bag was quite nearly bursting at the seems, but she still managed to close it. She made sure to place the book she'd been reading carefully into the front pocket.
She had just finished when she heard a sharp rap the front door. "Just a second," she could hear her father rummaging about in upstairs. A pause and then the rapping came again, harder.I'll get it
, Lillian thought to herself. She knew that she wasn't supposed to answer the door for strangers, but it almost sounded as if whoever was at the door would knock it down any moment with how insistent they sounded.
Standing at the door was a pair of men, both dressed in impeccable black suits and dark sunglasses, despite the early evening hour. The taller of the two glanced down at Lillian. He smiled slightly, removed his sunglasses, and bent down to talk to her. "Hello there young lady. Could you get your father for us?"
"He's busy. I'm sure he'll be down just as soon as he can."
The shorter man smirked and started to reach for something under his jacket, but was stopped by a touch from his partner.
"Not now. We still have time."
"Not much." Lillian couldn't help but notice the wobble in the shorter man's voice as he spoke. He was putting up a good show, but something was bothering him badly.
For a moment no one spoke. It was an uncomfortable silence and both the men and Lillian felt it. The taller man stood there calmly, barely moving but his partner pulled out a cigarette and started to light it with shaking hands.
"You can't smoke here," Lillian cried.
The man looked down at her and shook his head slightly. The smirk was back. "Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it?"
She was spared having to answer by her father coming up behind her. He put a hand on Lillian's shoulder and stared hard at the man with the cigarette. To Lillian's surprise, the man put it down--he hadn't even managed to get it lit. She looked up at her father and saw a dangerous light in his eyes. Yet as he looked down at her, they softened into the warm eyes she'd known all her life. "Are you all packed sweetheart?"
"Then why don't you go get your bag and follow Mr..."
"Smith," the taller agent replied.
"Of course," her father muttered so low that even Lillian could barely hear. He seemed to be chuckling to himself about something. Raising his voice, he continued, "Mr. Smith here out to his car. I'll be along shortly."
Lillian hesitated, but only for a second. At least Mr. Smith seemed nicer than the short man. Her bag was already lying just inside her door, so it didn't take long for her to grab it and return. When she got back, she saw that her father had also packed a small backpack and was carrying a shiny silver briefcase carefully against his side.
"What's that?" Lillian asked.
He looked at the two men in the doorway for a moment before answering, then back at Lillian. "A long story, one full of ..." Lillian's father started but he was interrupted mid-word by the short man, "time to go."
With his hand back on Lillian's shoulder--she could feel him trembling slightly as well, what in the world is going on?
--her father led her out to the old style, almost antique black car sitting on the street. Mr. Smith held the door for her, and Lillian couldn't help but giggle.
"It's like having a chauffeur," she smiled, turning to her father.
"Exactly," her father replied, although without a smile of his own. He took her bag and helping her into the back seat. He handed her bag along with his own to Mr. Smith and slid into the seat next to Lillian. He kept the suitcase with him, sliding it under his feet as he settled himself into his seat.
She could hear Mr. Smith as he walked around to the back of the car and put their bags in the trunk and then again as he walked around to the driver's seat. She could hear him, but couldn't see more than shadows through the heavily tinted windows and the deepening twilight. The shorter man, she couldn't see at all--there was a divider between the back seats and the front.
"Daddy, what's happening?"
"Not right now. I'll explain in a little while. Why don't you see if you can get some sleep? It's going to be a long ride."
"But Daddy, it's barely even getting dark." She considered, "could I read some more of my book?" She'd snuck it out of her backpack before handing it over.
His eyes seemed to light up, seeing his wife's old books in his daughter's hands. So many her age nowadays didn't even bother to read--they just watched vids all day long. "Sure honey. But not too long. I have a feeling tomorrow's going to be a long day."
What felt like only a few minutes after she'd gone to bed, Lillian awoke. She'd fallen asleep with her head in her father's lap--he was asleep too.
Carefully, she picked up her head and looked out the window. It was pitch black now but for the moon barely peeking above the horizon. She couldn't have been asleep for more than an hour or two. There was barely enough light to see the ground outside whirring by. They appeared to be driving through the scrub east of the city. There was no grass, but there were shrubs everywhere, brown from the lack of rain.
What could we be doing out here, Lillian thought, there's really nothing important for hundreds of miles inland. Up ahead though, she could see brilliant lights along the road, lighting up the dark. And before that, a long dark fence, much taller even than her father.
As Lillian was watching the fence draw nearer, a sliding panel opened and Mr. Smith's head popped out.
"Sir? Mr. Shaw?"
Noticing her father sleeping and Lillian awake, he turned to her instead, "Hey there little one. Could you wake up your father for me?"
Although she didn't particularly like being called little one--she was third tallest in her class after all!--Lillian decided it was neither the time nor place to argue and reached up to tap her father on the bridge of his nose. He was awake immediately.
"Are we there?" He asked, looking out of the window.
The car had slowed to a stop and Mr. Smith withdrew his head--sliding the little window shut again as he did.
As his window slid shut, the main window on Lillian's father's side opened. Another man was standing outside, this one in Army fatigues.
"Identification please," he asked pleasantly enough. Lillian's father offered his right arm, palm up for the scanner. The soldier pulled him a bit close and Lillian could hear the slight electric hum as the scanner read the identification chip under his skin.
"We don't have time for this," her father replied, an edge to his voice.
"Policy, sir. Everyone must be scanned."
"It's okay Daddy, really it is," Lillian said, lifting her arm towards the young man. As he brought up the scanner again, her father put his palm against it, applying just enough pressure to hold it down.
"That won't be necessary."
There was a sound of the front window opening up and a cough from Mr. Smith. The young soldier leaned towards the front window. The talked for a few moments and then the young soldier was backing away from the car, looking shaken. He waved to someone else out of view and the car began to move again.
"What's going on Daddy?" Lillian asked as the window rolled back up.
"Just a little longer." Her father seemed distracted, looking out the window.
Lillian looked too and all she could see was a short concrete wall surrounding what looked vaguely like a streamlined bus sitting on its back end with a cage-like steel tube stretching around it and several stories overhead.
"Do you know what that is?" her father asked.
Lillian thought for a moment. "A Squill?"
Her father smiled. "Yes dear. Single-use quick launch. Did you learn about that in school?"
"Yeah. Ms. Wady was talking about them when we covered the early lunar colonies. They can get into space, but only once. Once they're in space, they're broken down. That way you can have space launch without having to pay for re-entry and also a way to get raw materials into space."
"Very good." Her father still seemed distracted.
"Is that where we're going Daddy?"
He started at that and then turned to his daughter. "Yes dear."
"Yes we are."
"You'll see," her father smiled, but it was a distracted sort of smile. Lillian knew that she'd just have to wait it out. Oh sure, if she really decided to push the issue, she could beg and plead and he'd tell her. But he already seemed troubled enough.
Instead she busied herself looking out the windows. While at first she'd only noticed a single Squill, now she could see half a dozen, each with a crowd of people scurrying about, preparing them for launch. She could also see several cars of every imaginable make and model parked haphazardly around each of them.
Watching the other cars, Lillian wasn't ready when her own car suddenly skidded to a halt a dozen meters from the Squill her father had first pointed out. She pitched forward in her seat at the sudden deceleration, but she was caught by a combination of her seatbelt and her father's steady hand. She carefully slid back into her seat, blushing slightly.
Moments later, Mr. Smith was opening her door and handing back her bag. He had her father's bag as well. Looking at the Squill, she could feel as much as hear the electric hum of its track powering up. It was ready to launch.
But that's not right, she thought, Squills have to wait at least half an hour for the final systems check after being boarded. This one is ready to go. So why did they bring us here?
"All aboard," her father said, a grin that looked plastered on his face. The grin stopped well south of his eyes.
"But Daddy, why..."
"No time for that," he interrupted and grabbed hold of Lillian's hand, pulling her towards the Squill.
Lillian was shocked. Her father always made it a point to let her finish what she was saying--even if he wasn't going to answer, he'd at least consider the question. Dazed, she followed after her father, first at a quick walk, and then at a jog as his stride lengthened.
As he glanced down to make sure that she wasnít having any trouble keeping up with him, he must have seen another question forming on her lips. "Not now," he started, "I promise, I'll explain everything as soon as I get a chance."
They reached the back door of the Squill and he flashed some sort of identification that Lillian had never seen him use before at a large man in a jumpsuit. He looked like some sort of mechanic with a set of tools around his waist and a few dark smudges on his clothes. The man's eyes widened slightly and he nodded at her father. Without warning, he picked her up off the ground and handed her to the large man.
"Get her buckled in safe and sound, will you?" her father called up.
"Yessir," the mechanic rumbled and half guided, half pushed Lillian towards the ladder set into the floor of the ship. At first Lillian was disoriented. The wall she was climbing up was carpeted like a floor and all the seats were facing up towards the top of the Squill. Then she remembered that Squills generally sat in their dock horizontally and only turned vertically for launch. Once they docked with another craft in space, the other crafts artificial gravity could turn the floor into a floor again.
She wondered again why she'd been sent to this Squill, so close to launch. Looking around, she could see that most of the seats were already full with a wide assortment of people. Many where within a few years of her age, but there was an elderly couple with white hair up near the front and a few men in suits towards the back. Such an odd collection of people
, she mused. Looking around, she noticed an empty seat next to the aisle about halfway up the Squill and started to climb towards it.
She made it without trouble and fastened herself in as quickly as she could. It was a strange feeling. The belts reminded her strongly of the seat belts in a car, only more complicated, but she was facing directly upwards towards the front of the Squill. The safety harnesses seemed to have a mind of their own and it took her longer than she'd hoped to get everything buckled correctly.
Once she had everything settled, she turned back to look for her father. Instead of her father, the mechanic was standing at her level on the ladder, attaching her bag and the silver briefcase to a set of harnesses strung along the ceiling--currently the back wall of the craft. It was already full almost to bursting with an amazing variety of bags and suitcases, but somehow he managed to find a spot.
As he was fiddling with the harasses, Lillian turned in her seat as much as she could and looked down at the door. It was already closed and her father was nowhere in sight.
"Mister," she called out to the mechanic, "where's my father?"
"No room," he responded.
"But, but," She could feel the first twinges of panic running through her. "There has to be room." Looking around, she realized he was right. From her higher vantage point, she could tell there was only a single seat left at the very back of the Squill--where the mechanic would sit.
"Where is he?"
"Getting a ride on one of the others, I expect," he replied, finishing strapping the silver briefcase in. "He made damn sure that this went with you though." He hesitated, "Pardon my language, miss."
He didn't seem to want to say anything more and turned away from her. He put one hand on each side of the ladder leading up the floor and slid down the craft faster than she would have believed possible. In a blink of an eye, he was buckling himself in.
Looking about, none of the others seemed to want to catch her eye, even the boy she was sitting with. She turned to him anyways, "Do you know what's going on?"
He ignored her for a second, but seemed to sense that she wouldn't give up. He sighed and turned to her.
"There's something coming," he whispered.
"Coming?" she whispered back.
"That's all they know. Triton Station picked it up. Lucky that with how fast it was going. It was by them in a matter of minutes."
"Just how fast was it going?"
He shrugged. "Really really fast. Faster than anything we've ever built."
Lillian whistled softly. The Hermes
had been going over half the speed of light when it had sent it's final transmission and the Daedalus
--although it was still under construction--would be capable of going even faster.
The boy was still talking, his words growing louder to compete with the growing electric hum. Lillian felt like her skin was trying to crawl away from the vibrations. "It took them an hour to figure its trajectory. Even with a relay through Mars gate, it took another few hours for the signal to reach Earth."
"What is it?"
"No one knows." He definitely wasn't whispering now. The launch system had reached its full power and he was nearly yelling to make himself heard over the electric hum that permeated the very air. "But they do know that it's coming right for us."
If he had a response, she never heard it. There was whirring noise mixed with the hum that flew from the back of the Squill up passed them to the front and Lillian suddenly felt a tremendous weight on her chest as the Squill was thrown violently upwards.