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Adventure Science Fiction Thriller

The seven members of the executive council aboard the Amazonian were all but touching shoulders around the grey rectangular conference table. Deputy Governor Hunter Bryant, his tunic unbuttoned at the top, wiped sweat from his temples with his sleeve. Climate control was a major issue on the 923 year-old ship. 


Cleo el Masry, the vessel’s operations chief paused for effect, wrapping up her report on the impending deceleration decision. She sat back, her legs crossed at the knees, her hands smoothing the wrinkles out of a precisely tailored zip-up jumper that revealed nothing except that she was aggressively fit and fastidious. Most men found her beautiful. Hunter knew they had no chance.


“The new probes have given us what we needed to know. The bottom line is," she said, "Renova is teeming with life. That indicates a much higher probability of danger to any settlement. We need additional security forces, updated weapons, and a lot more ammo.”


Rupert Shumar’s chair scooted and banged against the wall behind him as the science lead stood, “Bullshit!”


Here we go again, Hunter thought, watching Rupert's face redden all the way up past his balding hairline.


Rupert aimed his wrath at Hunter. “You know the protocols. We should divert and avoid Renovan life,” turning now to face Cleo, ”not murder it.”


“That protocol—,” Cleo began but stopped short at the withering scowl on Hunter’s face. 


Hunter knew that what he lacked in looks had been compensated two-fold in presence. He could hold a room.


“Rupert,” Hunter began, “please have a seat.”


Rupert sat, his bulk making the chair squeak.


Hunter continued, “The protocol applies to intelligent life only, and...,” he held a hand up and shot a warning glare at Rupert who was bracing himself to stand again.


Hunter finished, “the protocol clearly lists examples of technological signatures we can use to define intelligence.”


“There is no evidence of intelligent life,” Cleo said, her cool tone contrasting with the room's heat.


“As we know it,” Rupert corrected.


“As we know it,” Cleo allowed. “However, we have developed options that conserve life of all origins,” she looked at Rupert, who didn’t acknowledge her. “You’ll find them at Tab O on your tablets.”


“If we decelerate,” Rupert said without looking up, scrolling, “it cannot be undone.”


"But," Cleo countered, "we have six months to deal with anything that pops up. Lots of smart people, too.”


Hunter glanced at the time. “I need to present our progress to the Governor over lunch. What about the rest of you? Let’s start on the left with life support. Max?”


“Thank you, deputy governor.” Max DuPont said wiping his brow, his voice low and gravelly despite his height. “Alexa, bring up my graphics on the table hologram, please.” He waited five seconds for that to occur, then continued. “First, if we choose to divert, food production needs to be prioritized to rebuild our stockpiles. We may need to ration certain items for some time. Next graphic please. Second, our gravity systems are in bad shape and need upgrades and repairs if we extend the mission. We are hoping for a deceleration scenario.” 


“Thanks, Max,” Hunter said. “Alexa, use life support’s data to estimate priorities and timing for gravity system repair, starting in two weeks. Deliver those to my tablet before noon.”


“Certainly, Deputy Governor.” Alexa said.


Turning to his right now, “Medical?”


Kimbe Otumbo, unusually tall and bespectacled, stood to speak. “Yes, thank you, deputy governor. Colleagues, I'm honored to be h--,”


“I apologize, Kimbe. I have ten minutes before the governor’s lunch meeting.” Hunter knew Kimbe relished his chances to speak. He wasn’t arrogant or selfish. He was thorough. And he loved his job.


“Certainly," the doctor fumbled with his glasses and set his tablet on the table. “Well, since time is limited, may I remind everyone that the data to support what I’m about to claim is at Tab M. As my colleague Cleo loves to say, there is a bottom line to my report. If we divert to Duonova, we - your mental health professionals - worry about panic and anxiety at levels conducive to mass hysteria and revolt.”


The table was hushed and still. The only sound was the clinking of Hunter’s glass as he swirled his ice water. He looked to Cleo. “Have we seen spikes in mental-health related deaths or crime?” Cleo, as operations lead, had executive responsibility for security and prisons, among many other departments.


Cleo nodded, “Alexa, bring up graphic thirty-seven from my briefing set. You all know the history. We have been focused on mental health for over two centuries now. Here’s the chart.”


Two centuries earlier, a design flaw caused a structural failure that slowed the Amazonian’s velocity and added 225 years to its mission. Three hundred and seventy-two deaths over two years were directly attributed to the accident. Most were either suicide, murder, or health problems related to drug and alcohol abuse. Nearly everyone on the Amazonian had family history with the tragedy. The chart had a massive spike, followed by a steep decline, that arrested about 200 years ago and was now a slow, steady climb with pot-holes and speed-bumps but no major changes.


“No spikes, lately” Cleo said, “but mental health-related stuff has been on a steady upswing for about two-hundred years, give or take.”


“What about the “Renova or Bust” lunatics?” Hunter asked.


“The “ROB” faction remains a challenge,” Cleo replied. “We all know about the two mass killi—”


Max chimed in, “Life support has those loopholes closed. Our security is tight. We will not allow that to happen again.”


Cleo held both hands up, “I wasn’t pointing fingers, Max.”


Hunter wondered if that were true.


Hunter, looking at the clock, pushed things forward. “Cleo, send me everything new on the ROB terrorists - membership, activity, anything the governor might ask about.”


Cleo nodded.


Hunter gestured to the medical officer, “Thanks, Kimbe,” and continued around the table.


Culture and Education agreed with Medical’s assessment of the mood of the population. They had run their own studies, which largely aligned.


Maintenance and Waste Management presented the top five problems with divert: shortage of electronics parts, shortage of propulsion parts, erosion of general education and the quality of maintenance training, recycling bottlenecks causing trash buildup, and security during any kind of uprising.


“OK, everyone. I will get this in front of Governor Fushima." Hunter was standing to leave when Rupert spoke up.


“I think we, as a council, need to speak directly to the governor before she makes her decision.” Rupert said, eyes on his empty water glass.


Hunter cleared his throat. “I will deliver your concerns and recommendation to the governor and she will let everyone know what she decides.”


“So,” Rupert said, “the biggest decision any of us will ever be a part of comes down to one person’s whimsy,” and he looked into Cleo’s eyes this time, “or maybe two people’s whimsy.”


“Why are you so fucking dramatic,” Cleo said through her teeth, leaning across the table within strangling distance of Rupert. “Clarissa was elected. I assume you voted.”


“Clarissa,” Rupert repeated, grinning. “Well, I didn’t vote for your Clarissa. And I didn’t vote for you,” Rupert replied.


Cleo started to stand up.


“I meet,” Hunter broke in, “with the majority and minority leaders of both houses after I talk to the governor today. Congress is involved. The media will play their role. Nothing is being subverted here.”


“Yeah, well,” Rupert said. “I don’t trust any of the junta. No offense.” He stood and left the small room, bumping Cleo as he exited.


Hunter stood up. “Perfect timing.”


Everyone let out a nervous chuckle.


“I’ll talk to you all tomorrow. Same place, same time please.”


**********


“How were Rupert and Cleo?”


“Both arrogant. Cleo lets Rupert trigger her. She referred to you by first name in front of the council.”


Fushima grimaced. “I'll talk to her.”


“Everyone knows, governor.”


“Not everyone. She needs to be careful.” The governor paused, then restarted.


“So,” she pushed the plate away and reclined, her chair protesting, “you’ve told me what they want, but not what you think.”


“I think you should decelerate.”


“Why?” Her tone reminded Hunter of his wife, long dead.


He blew out a breath. “Three reasons. One, nobody is interested in extending the mission 900 years. Two, we know very little about Novaduo compared to Renova. And, three," he paused, thinking he might not say it, but deciding to, "you want to be the first Renovan president.”


"I do want to be president, Hunter," Fushima paused, still smiling, eyes narrowed. “What do you want.” It was more of a challenge than a question.


Hunter lowered his head and clasped his hands in front of him as if in prayer. He had been dreaming lately of storms, the kind he saw and heard on the ancient videos from Old Earth, howling wind and the roar of heavy rainfall. The power and majesty of nature.


”To fall asleep in the rain," Hunter said.


************


Later that night, in his dream, Hunter heard a familiar electronic tone through the pattering of raindrops on a metal roof. It sounded like an alert on his communications tablet. Seconds later, waking, he realized it was in fact his communications tablet. Rubbing his eyes, he said, “Alexa, who’s at the door?”


“Science director Rupert Shumar with Marine Corps Corporal Stewart.”


“Alexa, audio please.” There was a tone, then Hunter said, “Rupert, it's late.”


“I know!” Hunter heard Rupert's high-pitched response through the door before the tablet audio caught up.


“Alexa, open the front door,” Hunter said. He heard the men’s footfalls on his entry floor a few seconds later. He met them outside his bedroom in his robe.


Rupert held paper reports out to him. Hunter was awestruck at holding paper in his hands. He'd only held real paper twice before in his life. 


After scanning the reports, Hunter asked, ”Those probes have been circling Renova for three days. Why am I just seeing this now?”


“Because we weren’t looking for that,” he said pointing at a specific paragraph, mindful that the Corporal didn’t have a need to know what they were discussing, “and we weren’t looking there.”


“Who figured it out?”


“Me. And Yevchenko.”


“Dissenting opinions?”


“None.”


“OK. Can I keep these?”


“Sign for them with the corporal here. Burn them when you're done.” 


Hence the paper, Hunter thought.


************


“Welcome everyone,” Hunter said. “Sorry for the lack of read aheads but this meeting is for your ears only. Thanks for leaving your tablets outside."


Everyone nodded.


“Governor Fushima has approved the release of the following statement for you only, no staff, no media, no notes."


Again, nods around the table.


"We have irrefutable evidence of intelligent life on Renova.”


Everyone looked at the science lead, who was looking at his hands.


“Rupert?” Hunter prompted.


“If you want the science, I’ll be happy to discuss once I'm told it’s OK. The approved statement for now is that unique and specific chemical signatures are escaping the surfaces of large bodies of water on Renova in types and quantities that do not occur in nature. Industrial processes are the only viable source. We now believe, with more than 90% certainty, that Renova contains intelligent aquatic life.”


“Fish people,” Kimbe said. “Fascinating.”


"Do not say 'fish people' to the media, Kimbe," Hunter said, half smiling, half chastising. Nervous chuckles eased the tension.


Cleo got to the point, though. “So, divert is automatic. Intelligent life means divert.”


“Governor Fushima can make any decision she thinks best,” Hunter said. “But yes. The protocol is clear.”


Everyone was staring at Hunter, brows furrowed. Only Rupert seemed relaxed.


“Please be ready,” Hunter said when it was clear nobody had an immediate question. "This is going to anger a lot of people. And, remember, this announcement will be made by Governor Fushima and no one else.”


**********


Cleo, Hunter, and Governor Fushima met an hour later in the tiny conference room. Sweat dripped off Hunter’s nose onto the screen of his tablet. “Why aren’t we meeting in your apartments, governor?” He asked, wiping his face with a cloth napkin.


“Because I assume they're bugged.”


Hunter shook his head. Cleo didn’t react at all, which told Hunter she already knew.


“Cleo, did you read all of the Renova report?” the governor asked.


“Yes, and everything we have on intelligent aquatic life.”


“Do you think it’s possible for us to settle unnoticed by the Renovans long enough to allow us to gain a foothold and prepare a defense?”


“Based on what I’ve read about their most likely technologies, it’s probable."


Hunter jumped in, annoyed at the obvious tag-teaming of Fushima and Cleo, "But that doesn’t change the protocol, which is clear.”


Fushima shook her head in understanding, “Yes, of course. But I have authority to make my own decision, correct?”


“I’m surprised you’re even considering it, Governor, Hunter said. “You'll be impeached if you disregard the protocol without justification.”


“It’s my job to look at all angles,” the governor said. And she switched her attention back to her operations chief.


“Cleo, if I announce divert, what will the ROB terrorists do?”


Cleo had Alexa pull up a graphic with three options. She went through them in order. First, they would probably attack life support, most likely water generation and gravity in the agricultural section of the ship, in an effort to force deceleration because of resource scarcity. If that didn’t work, they would attempt assassination hoping to replace Fushima with a leader sympathetic to their goals. Third, they would attempt mutiny within the crew.


Governor Fushima’s nearly painted on smile vanished. “You think ROB has access high enough to pull off mutiny? Who?”


Cleo shrugged, “We’ve done years worth of scrubbing. No one seems likely.”


“And yet you think it’s plausible.”


Cleo shrugged, “If I was running ROB, it’s what I’d do. Besides, they've had nine centuries to install sleeper agents.”


The governor looked closely at Cleo and Hunter. She's paranoid, Hunter thought. He wondered how deeply Cleo was in on the governor’s plans.


“Alexa, analyze communications of the executive council over the last thirty days for suspicious or disloyal behavior. Report for my eyes only.”


“Yes, Governor.”


Hunter and Cleo both shifted their gazes from the governor to each other. Hunter realized Cleo was being held in the dark as well. Something was up.


Hunter leaned forward, “Governor, have you already made your decision?”


Fushima eyed Cleo, then said, “Yes.”


“So we’re diverting to Duonova, then.”


Fushima looked at her watch and left the room. Hunter watched Cleo chase after her.


**********


Hunter found Rupert waiting at his door when he returned to his quarters to freshen up.


“Rupert, you know we can’t talk here.”


“Please tell me you’re pushing to divert, Hunter.”


“Is your report accurate and honest?”


“Wha—of course it is!”


“Then how could I do anything else?”


Hunter watched Rupert scan him, deciding something.


“I’m hearing that Fushima is still considering deceleration,” Rupert finally said.


“From who,” Hunter responded, resisting the urge to grab Rupert by the collar.


“People talk. I have sources, just like everyone else.”


Hunter looked Rupert in the eyes, scanning.


“Rupert,” Hunter said, “do not do anything stupid. You are too valuable to our mission.”


“If we decelerate, knowing there is intelligent life on Renova, my mission is over. Because I will resign.”


“Don’t overreact. Your people look to you for leadership.”


“I am leading. I’m doing the right thing.” Rupert turned and walked away.


**********


Two days later, Hunter watched the governor’s address like everyone else, on the ship’s video conferencing system. Fushima was brief. 


“Citizens of the Amazonian, I urge calm as you digest the news I”m about to give you. We have clear evidence of intelligent life on Renova. This means we cannot settle the planet and must divert to Duonova.”


She warned that unlawful activity would be dealt with severely. She asked citizens to report any activity by the Renova or Bust terrorists.


**********


The first violence happened four hours after the broadcast. Gangs broke into shops and looted. 


The ship’s news services reported on the violence, “Security forces have killed twenty-five and wounded hundreds as ship-wide violence erupted following Governor Fushima’s decision to divert to Duonova.”


Damn them, Hunter thought, for ignoring the murdered and wounded cops. 


“Detention centers are filled past capacity as the crackdown intensifies.”


The looting turned into rioting.


*********


Mid-riot, someone blew up the water production facility of the agricultural sector.


ROB did not claim responsibility, but their graffiti tags turned up everywhere.


Hunter guessed insiders had to be involved. It was a very precise attack, the damage conveniently contained.


********


Governor Fushima was forced to reverse her decision. 


“Due to the criminal and immoral actions of a few terrorists,” she announced on video, “our mission must end at Renova. We no longer have enough water resources to divert.”


She assured the ship’s population there was plenty of water capacity to complete the deceleration and settlement.


“We will begin deceleration operations in three days. In six months, we will be Renovans.”


The rioting died.


********


Hunter, exhausted after sleepless days of emergency response leadership, found Rupert at his quarters door again.


He was in no mood to talk. Rupert wasn’t interested in talking, either. He handed Hunter a silicon envelope containing a letter of resignation along with a portable storage fob.


"What's this?" Hunter indicated the fob.


“You’re a good man, Hunter,” Rupert said. “It’s a shame you were caught up in this. You might have made a good president.” He walked away.


Hunter found a single audio file on the fob. He transferred it to his tablet then listened to it. There were two voices. He didn't know the first, but he recognized the second voice, Clarissa Fushima. 


First voice: "Everything is set at the water plant."


Fushima: "Do it now. Before the riots die down."

April 25, 2024 03:28

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4 comments

Jim LaFleur
10:46 Apr 26, 2024

Jeff, your story captivated me with its intricate plot and vivid characters. The tension aboard the Amazonian is palpable, and the ethical dilemmas you’ve woven into the narrative are thought-provoking. Great job!

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Jeff Macloud
18:57 Apr 27, 2024

Thanks, Jim!

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Alexis Araneta
16:02 Apr 25, 2024

Jeff, another one with such great detail. The flow was really smooth too. Splendid !

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Jeff Macloud
19:11 Apr 25, 2024

Thanks, Stella!

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