Chapter 6: Islands in the Night

 
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Chapter 6: Islands in the Night

 
 
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There is one bright spot of learning left in the colonies, one place that seeks to stave off the coming ignorance. The city of Galileo, Ganymede was named after the astronomer who first discovered the moon, peering into a telescope all those centuries ago. He would be pleased to know that those who colonized it deemed it a proper place to found a university.

And like the ancient Galileo who at times strove against the ignorance around him, the modern university battles against the same darkness. Without Moses or the backing of Earth, it is a losing battle as its scientists and engineers study the technology Moses left them, hoping against hope to unlock its secrets.

The University of Ganymede has one ally that Galileo himself did not have. A short trip across the icy plains will bring one to the very steps of the colonial Vatican. The papacy, though still chiefly concerned with the state of men’s souls, knows that there will one day be no more men at all if humanity continues in its current decline.

Thus the church and science’s long misunderstanding is at last set aside. Have they not both ever sought to explain the universe in which we dwell? Do they not both seek the betterment of the human race? In this dark time, there is at last a peace between these two fields of study.

And that is enough to bring a little hope.

Jonathan Walkins
Author of the History of the Colonies
Died 58 AM

 
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Yvonne sat in the cockpit, book in hand, but unread. The Sparrow was quiet, with only the occasional tick of contracting metal as the ship slowly cooled through the night. Jupiter sat unmoving in the sky due to Ganymede being tidally locked with the gas giant, it’s reflected light making the moon’s eighty-five hour night somewhat more bearable.

She stared at that planet, feeling the tug of memory. How many years had it been since she and Tomas attended the med school here? Too many. Late night studies in the library had led to confessions of love and a hasty marriage. Together they had passed their classes and their rotations, never parting from each other’s side. The colonies needed doctors and they bounced around the solar system for years. Eventually, as their youth faded, they ended up on Ceres. The fact that their practice had been aimed at the most desperate members of chaotic Ceres was a deliberate choice. It had ended as they knew it might. Though less than a year ago, it seemed to have happened in a lifetime past.

The arrival of a stranger to spirit her away in her hour of need felt like something out of a adventure story, the sort of thing one imagines in an idle moment. Lifting her eyes, Yvonne saw the dark spires of the University of Ganymede against the horizon. More than anything she wanted to leave the Sparrow, to walk through the old library, to find the park where Tomas had proposed.  

But the risk was too great. Every freelancer and bounty hunter in the system would have memorized her face by now, and a chance encounter would lead to disaster. For the foreseeable future, she was indeed a prisoner on board the Sparrow with perhaps the only two people in the solar system she could trust.

And she could trust them. Her last fears were assuaged after they passed the first few days on Ganymede. If either Matthew or Abigail had intentions of betrayal, they could have turned her in the moment they touched down. They were a peculiar pair, fiercely independent and secretive. She knew nothing about either of them beyond surface level niceties and their methods of deflecting and redirecting conversations towards the inane.

They were both gone for the day, each on some job or contract of their own. Matthew had contacts on Ganymede and seemed to know his way around. Abigail had never been here, but her endless confidence meant that she wasn’t going to let that slow her down. A side effect of being bulletproof, perhaps.

Yvonne looked out at Jupiter one last time and decided she would at least step outside. She had been in the underground tunnels of Ceres for so long that having only the stars for a roof would be a certain joy. Sticking her book beneath her arm, she walked to the aft of the Sparrow, passing through both the crew cabins and common room. Just before the thumper turret, she climbed the ladder to the dorsal hatch, or rather the three separate hatchways required to climb out onto the top of the Sparrow.

The night air on Ganymede had a cold bite to it, and for a moment she regretted not putting on another layer. Even the chill was familiar. As the extended night lingered for four standard days, the temperature would drop until frost sparkled on every surface. Decades ago a proposal had been made to put reflectors in orbit over Ganymede like Europa used to warm and light its crops. Engineers at the university had drawn up extensive plans, but nothing had come of it and nothing ever would. There were no resources, manpower, or will to pull off such a feat of engineering.

Sunrise after the long night had always been a time of celebration at the university as a gathering of students and faculty would meet at Galileo’s Mausoleum to greet the dawn. Of course the long dead scientist wasn’t present, but three of his fingers and one tooth had been preserved in a bell jar and were proudly displayed. The old joke was that everyone at the university would be branded a heretic if Galileo endured a sunrise alone.

It didn’t make much sense, but then most traditions don’t.

Yvonne sat on an outcropping of the hull and opened her book. Staring at the page still didn’t help her concentrate. It had been many years since she had free time to devote to pleasure reading. Now idle hours were the only kind she had. It didn’t help that most all of Matthew’s books were rather heady affairs, reading like she hadn’t done in decades. He had a small collection of western civilization’s most enduring classics, and the ship’s digital library was even more extensive.

“You’re a strange man, Matthew Cole,” Yvonne mumbled clearing her head for one last valiant attempt at reading by the light of Jupiter.

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Abigail mounted her bike and punched the throttle. It had been another meager day, with only the small side job she’d snagged to secure a few dollars. Her own broker didn’t have any contacts on Ganymede, so she’d been left scrounging the public boards. Better known as the bottom of the barrel.

Meanwhile, Cole had been busy all week with some local government contract. When she’d asked about it, he’d just shrugged and said he’d signed an NDA. Abigail had been a freelancer long enough to know what that meant. Money.

He had a ship, a good contract, and apparently all the luck. Life wasn’t fair.

Galileo, falling quickly behind her, was a quaint town, charming with its university and residential districts, and downright peaceful compared to Ceres. Which meant not a lot of work for a freelancer. That had been the idea of course, to go somewhere real quiet while Yvonne’s bounty was fresh. She passed the last of Galileo’s buildings, the frost crusted grass of the open countryside rushing beneath her bike.

As she approached the Sparrow, she saw a small silhouette perched on its upper hull, lit by Jupiter’s pale light. Abigail felt a pang of sympathy for the older woman. As well as she seemed to be taking it, it couldn’t be easy to sleep at night with a million dollar bounty hanging over her head. And added to that, she’d recently lost her husband, been chased from her home, and abandoned to fend for herself. It was hard not to feel a bit of pity for her.

She remotely lowered the lift to the hold on approach. Cole had kindly offered her an entry-fob since it appeared they were stuck together for at least a little while longer. She stashed her bike and climbed the ladder to the top of the hull.

“I trust your day was productive?” the doctor politely asked as Abigail pulled her bulky frame out of the almost too-small top hatch.

“Sure. You could call it that.”

Yvonne’s eyes held an amused expression that Abigail didn’t quite get. “I would have thought that question would yield a straightforward answer.”

“Yeah, I got paid.” she grumbled. “But wasn’t exactly that lucrative of a job.”

“Oh. I’m sorry then. I suppose Galileo isn’t exactly Ceres. What was the job, if it’s acceptable for me to ask? You’ve been rather quiet in the evenings.”

Abigail bit her lip. She hadn’t planned on telling Yvonne or Cole, but what could it hurt? Besides, complaining might be fun.

“So there’s this professor at the university,” she began. “Agricultural department. She has a side thing where she breeds dogs. Has dozens of them. Anyway, she’s visiting her sister on Callisto and she uh… She needed someone to feed and walk the dogs.” It sounded even more ridiculous out loud than she had imagined.

Yvonne chuckled and Abigail felt her cheeks flush. What did she expect?

“I suppose she had no friend brave enough to take care of her pack and so posted it to a freelancer board, Yvonne said. “Unorthodox, but fortunately she found a taker.”

“It was a paycheck,” Abigail grumbled, “Just, don’t tell Cole about this, alright? Last thing I need is pity from the cowboy.”

“It’ll be our secret. Which does lead me to another question.  Why aren’t you two working together? With your rather diverse set of skills, I would have thought you’d make a great team.”

“Tell me about it,” Abigail agreed. “Actually tell him about it. I was all for a little team up after how well the Arizona job went. Turns out the mysterious loner streak is pretty strong in our friend. Nevermind that we’d both make more cash. Something in his fragile little ego doesn’t like playing with others.” She winced as she said the last bit aloud. “Okay that might have been too far, but cut me some slack. I’ve been taking mangy animals on walks all week.”

Yvonne folded her hands neatly in front of her. “It’s been less than two weeks since I stepped foot on the Sparrow, and I’ve gathered that you two haven’t known each other very long. But I have made a couple of observations. Now. I’m a medical doctor, not a psychologist, but in my practices I’ve met a lot of people. My experience is that those that won’t tell you about their past have either something they are running from or something they are hiding.”

She gave Abigail a look at this last bit, and the point wasn’t lost on her. “Maybe there are reasons,” she said defensively.

“I never said there weren’t. I merely offered an observation.”

“Hmmph,” Abigail grunted. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Yvonne shrugged. “Maybe not. But then I’m also old enough to know that sometimes it’s easier to share a burden with another.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Abigail said, planning on doing nothing of the sort.

“I’m sure you will,” Yvonne replied. Abigail turned to reenter the Sparrow but was stopped when Yvonne spoke again. “As a doctor, I must at least tell you that I don’t think it can possibly be healthy for you to spend every waking hour in that exo-suit.”

The conversation had gone into forbidden territory. “I take extra vitamin D. And don’t pry into other people’s business.”

“I see.”

She didn’t of course. She couldn’t possibly see or understand, but then that was by design. How had the conversation switched from Cole’s stubbornness to her own? She wasn’t going to stick around if she was going to be put under the microscope. With a huff she climbed down the ladder, eager for the peace of her own room.

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When Matthew entered the cockpit later that afternoon, he found Yvonne already there, book in hand. “Bought the ingredients you wanted and left em in the fridge,” he said.

She looked up. “Thank you, I’ll see to it shortly. It’ll be nice to have something that’s not frozen.”

“Well, I won’t disagree with that. But just so we’re clear, you don’t have to do this. I’m not expecting you to take up the job of cook while you’re here.”

“Your concern is noted, but I’ll carry my own weight, thank you,” she said. “If that involves scrubbing the outer hull, then I’ll do that.”

Matthew took off his campero, placed it on the console, and sat in the pilot’s seat, spinning it to face Yvonne. The woman had her usual unflappable look and he wasn’t about to argue the point. “So I guess you’re handy in the kitchen?”

“Ha. Not in the slightest. Tomas was the cook. But, how hard can it be if you follow directions? I once performed an emergency appendectomy by following a textbook. A pot of stew can’t be more difficult than that.”

Matthew wasn’t quite sure that the analogy worked out, but neither was he sure how to politely say as much. “Well, a bit of real cooked food would be appreciated.”

She laughed. “Just so long as you aren’t expecting five-star fare.”

“Of course not.” He nodded at the book in her hands. “Whatcha have there?”

“John Donne. It seemed appropriate given the current situation on the ship.”

Matthew scratched the stubble at his chin. “It’s uhh… Been a long time. I’m not sure I know…”

“Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,” she said. “Meditation Seventeen. Took me a while to find it. It’s been quite some time for me too.”

A sudden memory flickered deep in the back of his mind. Honestly, he only remembered two quotes from that book, both of which happened to come from the same place. He had a feeling he knew where this was going.

“No man is an island entire of itself,” she read from the book. “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

And that’s exactly where she was going. If she wanted to make herself obnoxious, he’d at least make her spell it out. “A lovely bit of poetry, quoted and misquoted through the centuries.”

“Don’t be coy, Matthew,” Yvonne said tossing the book aside. “I’m not going to pry into your past, into whatever thing you feel must be kept from the light of day, though I think it might do you good to unearth those bones. I’m interested in the here and now. In case you’ve failed to notice, there are three of us on the Sparrow. I’m here for the foreseeable future and I don’t think you’ll be dropping Abigail off on Mars tomorrow.”

He crossed his arms. “Alright. What do you want of me?”

“This is your ship. You’ve been gracious to me, but you seem to be ignoring the fact that Abigail could be an enormous asset. Why not partner with her? I’m sure with a shield and a gun you two could tackle any job in the solar system.”

“She didn’t seem to have any trouble finding a job in Galileo,” Matthew said defensively.

“Not one suited to her skills. She told me about it but made me promise not to tell you. You’ve been running around all week with a comfortable contract, while she’s been doing work that I think is a bit beneath her.”

Matthew turned away, frustrated with Yvonne for pushing the subject, with Abigail for not being more forthcoming, and with himself for being stubborn. “Look. Yvonne. I’ve always worked alone. I don’t like having people rely on me.”

“What kind of a ridiculous notion is that?” she asked.

“Because if I fail, then everyone pays the consequences.”

She stood to leave and Matthew turned back around to watch her. She paused at the door. “It’s your ship and it’s your life. But for right now, Abigail and I are a part of it. We already rely on you.” And with that parting shot, she left the cockpit, leaving Matthew alone to brood.

He grabbed his hat off the console and shoved it back on his head, letting it slip low so it covered his eyes, and kicked his feet up. Pushy doctor, prying into business that wasn’t her’s.

But if she’s on the ship, it is her business. He grunted in frustration, trying not to think of past failures and the consequences of the ones yet to come.

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Sitting at a table was a bit of a bother for Abigail. Her exo-suit was too bulky for any of the chairs in the common room on the Sparrow but she’d found a crate of supplies that worked well enough. Still, she felt ridiculous sitting at the table across from Cole as Yvonne dipped bowls of some kind of stew for them. Food was food, though, and she wasn’t going to turn down a fresh-cooked meal.

“As it turns out,” Yvonne said, “cooking is not that much like an appendectomy.”

Abigail’s eyes darted to Yvonne and back to her bowl. “I’m not sure I…”

“It tastes fine I suppose, but I had the temperature set too high and it stuck to the bottom of the pot. You can’t really taste it, but you can probably smell it if you get too close. Which, by the way, I recommend against.”

“I hope the appendectomy went better than this,” Cole said with a laugh. He grabbed his spoon and took a tentative bite. The burnt smell couldn’t have been too bad because he shrugged and dug in.

“The patient lived.” Yvonne said, dipping herself a bowl.

Abigail wasn’t reassured. She stared at hers for a moment, then delicately picked up the tiny spoon with her huge armored-hand. She scooped up a spoonful. This level of fine motor control was on the obnoxious side of tedious. If she hadn’t been worried about offending Yvonne, she would have just lifted the bowl to her mouth and slurped it. As she raised the first spoonful, curiosity got the best of her and she smelled it. Yup. It was burnt. Thankfully, it tasted much better, even though cooked cabbage wasn’t on her list of favorites.

They ate in silence for several minutes as if they were complete strangers. All things considered, they were just that. Strangers who just happened to be on a ship together.

She cleared her throat. “Thanks, Yvonne. This beats a bit of frozen rations, burnt smell and all.”

“Yes, it’s rather meager fare. But you’re welcome,” Yvonne replied.

The silence returned. Cole finished his bowl and pushed it away. “So I’ve been thinking,” he began hesitantly.

Abigail glanced up at him and then set her spoon down, tired of the effort it took to use the stupid thing. He scratched his stubble. “It looks like we’re going to be traveling together for a bit, and I thought that since we all have diverse strengths that we might have a talk about how we function as a crew.”

Abigail sat back and crossed her arms, curious where this was going. And why couldn’t they have had this conversation a week ago, before she’d spent all her patience on the dog pack? She noticed a subtle smile cross Yvonne’s lips. What did she know?

“Sharon, I’m… Well I’m sorry. I just kind of went off and did my own thing. Didn’t make a lot of sense, because I’m sure we can take on better jobs together. Like Mars and the Hawthorne gang.”

So he had half a brain after all.

“You can consider me support staff in your endeavors,” Yvonne said. “Just don’t make me actually play doctor. I don’t want to have to sew anyone back together with the paltry medical supplies in the ship’s first aid kit.”

“Give me a list of what we need,” Cole said. “Better contracts often mean more danger and I’d hate to have an injury you couldn’t treat.” He shuffled in his seat as if nervous. “When it comes to the Sparrow, I’m the captain. In a life or death situation, I expect to be obeyed. But when we’re on the ground or anywhere else we’re partners. Alright? Everyone responsible for everyone.”

Abigail nodded, impressed. This had to be Yvonne’s doing. Somehow or another she must have given him the lecture. Abigail stiffened, wondering if the other woman had told Cole about the dog walking thing. There were going to be stern words if that was the case. Either way the results weren’t all bad.

“Think you can handle a partner, cowboy?” she asked.

“Gaucho. And yes, if that shield is in between me and the bullets meant for my head, then yeah, I think I can handle it.” He sat in awkward silence for a minute before reaching across the table to get a second helping of stew.

Abigail watched his discomfort and shook her head. “Relax, Cole. We’re all just trying to keep our head above water.”

“And the past behind us,” Yvonne added. It was another pointed statement that Abigail had no intention of satisfying with an answer. Cole’s eyes met her own and it seemed he thought the same thing. Even partners didn’t have to share everything.

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In the middle of the night, long after the others had gone to bed, Yvonne made a foolish decision. She got up and, remembering to pull a warm layer on this time, crept out the top hatch of the Sparrow. She tugged her hood low over her face as she walked off towards the city of Galileo. The academic town wasn’t exactly known for its nightlife, and only an occasional ground car passed her on the dark streets.

About an hour after leaving the Sparrow, she reached the University of Ganymede. The campus had changed little in the decades since she had last visited. Styled after the oldest of universities, spires rose into the night sky, silhouettes against the stars. She spotted a new dormitory and a new student center, but little else had changed. Through the years she had followed news from her alma mater at a distance. Enrollment and funds were both down in recent years, as was to be expected. It wasn’t a death knell, but neither was it a good sign.

Yvonne reached the front steps of the library and was pleased to find the tall doors still unlocked. The ancient tradition of students burning midnight oil to cram before tests was still held in honor in Galileo. The attendant at the front desk, a student who looked barely old enough to attend, glanced up briefly from her studying before deciding that Yvonne was of no concern.

She walked the aisles of books, the largest collection in the solar system, unless some hidden cache had survived on Earth. They were all preserved digitally of course, but the feel and smell of a real paper book held power in the minds and imaginations of the students that read them. They were a novelty, perhaps, but a priceless link to the past.

At last, she found the quiet corner she had been looking for. A small alcove with a tall arched window. Through it, Jupiter shone its pale light. This had been their study spot. Three decades ago she had fallen in love here.

She sat in one of the deep chairs by the window. “Oh Tomas,” she whispered, a tear warm on her face.

She had never really grieved his death. In the depths of Ceres, she had simply muscled on with her work, never giving space to her bereavement. She and Tomas had agreed that if something happened to one of them, the practice would continue for as long the other could manage.

Yvonne hadn’t even made it a year.

She pushed thoughts of Piggy aside. He wasn’t worth her attention. Not here. Not now. She wouldn’t let him profane this place.

For now, in this quiet hour, she would remember Tomas.

Sometime later she lifted up her head. Matthew Cole stood a short distance away leaning against a bookshelf. He tipped his campero when she saw him and smiled. She sighed and gestured him over. “I’ve been caught,” she said at his approach.

“No one can tell you what to do with your own life,” he said.

“And you turn my own words against me. Well, I’m a poor teacher if I can’t heed my own lesson. I suppose it was sentimental drivel. I couldn’t find anything else in your library that fit.”

“Worked well enough. And as far as advice, we all tend to be hypocrites.” He regarded her thoughtfully. “Still, after you told me about your past with this place, I thought you’d eventually try and go sightseeing at least once. With our time here nearly up, I knew it would be soon. You’ve got a mark on your head. I thought you’d spot me tailing you.”

Yvonne sighed. She had tried to keep her eyes about her, but must not have been as vigilant as she had imagined. “Thank you, for watching out for me.” She looked around, trying to capture the feel of the place. She might not ever return.

Or then again, she might. She wasn’t so old as to need to invoke such melodrama.

“I’m ready now.” She took his offered hand and stood to her feet.

He nodded. “Then let’s go home.”

She turned away from the alcove. Not everyone was captive to their past.

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