Fire roared beneath me even as the ever-thinning air grew colder. The thrusters on my boots shuddered. The thermsuit popped and rattled, and I felt sure it would disintegrate before I tore free of Earth's gravity.
And if it didn't, my sister would kill me.
The blue sky darkened. I didn't dare look down. Turning my head could send me careening off course, plummeting toward the surface fifty kilometers below. A blip on my heads-up display beeped. I'd pulled away from the assassin-bots, but I knew they were still there, watching me rocket toward the cold depths of space.
Hamilton had said the suit would never hold up if I left Earth in it, but I figured my big brother just wanted to keep me from trying.
"You'd most likely lose control and burn up on reentry," he said. "Then we'd have to tell Mom and Dad why their youngest son is nothing but an ash cloud drifting over the Atlantic."
"Then why's the suit retrofitted with a second-stage booster?" I asked.
"Because," my sister Sam said, "someday we might need it in an emergency."
Well, if outrunning a half-dozen killer robots wasn't an emergency, I didn't know what was.
An alarm sounded in my ear. Initiate second-stage scrolled across the visor.
"Let's just hope this thing works. Fire second-stage boosters." For a second nothing happened, then just before panic set in, the rockets ignited. My head snapped forward when fire roared behind me. For a heartbeat, I wobbled. Then straightened my head, thrust my open hands downward, and stabilized myself. Once more, I shot heavenward. Ice that had formed on my suit in the lower atmosphere shattered and fell toward Earth. Within moments the sky above lost nearly all its blue.
Thirty-seconds to engine shutdown.
I strained against the forces buffeting me. Just a few more seconds.
The beeping stopped. I was home free.
Ten seconds to engine shutdown.
Billions of stars sparkled against the darkness of space.
Main booster shutdown.
Switching to navigation thrusters only.
For a moment I coasted in space enjoying the view. The Milky Way, with its wide bands of blue, red, yellow, and white stars, cut across my vision. I looked toward Earth, the shimmering blue horizon receding below me. Green and brown patches crisscrossed with roads, small towns, and cities covered the southeastern United States. A swirl of clouds churned over the Atlantic. The earth is so alive during the twenty-first century-unlike my own time, nearly a thousand years in the future.
Someday it'll look like this again.
I winced when a sharp pain tore at my abdomen. The two little black-tufted marmosets, rescued from certain extinction and now tucked safely inside my suit, were getting restless. One dug its claws into my stomach.
"All right, all right, calm down. We'll be there soon." I looked back toward the heavens and up at the giant, cratered moon. "Time to go home."
"Noah! Do you have any idea how stupid that was?" Sam glared at me from the doorway.
"But you've got to admit it was really cool." I lay back on my bed, petting my dog Obadiah, waiting for my sister to finish chewing me out. I was twelve, but she treated me like a baby.
Sam stood with her hands on her hips, trying to look like Mom. They had the same sandy blond hair, but Sam's was always in a ponytail, otherwise it'd be sticking up everywhere. She had a grease smudge on her cheek that matched the stains on her coveralls. Definitely not Mom no matter what she thought.
"I'm in charge while Mom and Dad are gone." Sam jerked a thumb towards her chest. "Earth in the twenty-first century is dangerous enough! I should never have taken you down there-do you know what kind of trouble I'd be in if you got yourself killed? Do you even care?"
For the first time, I thought I might have gone just a bit too far.
"Just plain stupid, Noah!" She glared, her dark eyes boring into me. Everyone in my family had brown eyes, except for me-mine were blue. A freak of nature was the way my sister explained it, which is surprising considering my eye color was the least of my "deformities."
Hamilton came into the room, huffing and puffing-probably ran all the way from the magsphere. At fourteen, he already had a hacker's body, a little soft and pudgy. He looked around and wrinkled his nose, which made me smile. Hamilton normally steered clear of my room, calling it a putrid petri dish for staphyl-something and pseudo-something-else. Maybe he really was that smart, but he didn't have to show off all the time by using words nobody understood.
Anyway, I absolutely knew there was no better place in the solar system than my room. It might be a mess, but it was my mess.
"So," Sam said. "Did he damage the suit?"
Hamilton shook his head. "Of course the boosters have considerable carbon build-up and the fuel cells are depleted. But the gyro-servos are intact, and there doesn't appear to be any significant wear on the memory polymer skin." He frowned at me-Sam glares, Hamilton frowns. "Your actions were incredibly shortsighted."
"So Sam was telling me." I tried to look serious, but I hadn't yet shaken off the exhilaration of that flight. I glanced at my magchair sitting in the corner. How do they expect me to react, when I spend most of my time in that thing?
I was born without the use of both of my legs-a paraplegic. The only time I feel free is when I'm piloting a ship. I realized I was smiling again, couldn't help it. Now I could add flying in a thermsuit to the list. Hamilton and Sam just didn't get it.
"You were supposed to signal us when you had the marmosets." Sam calmed a bit while she paced, stepping over piles of clothes. "I could've been there in forty minutes to pick you up."
"I told you, Haon was there. I couldn't wait."
"Did you actually see him?" Her brows scrunched up.
"Well, no." My cheeks got hot. "I was a little distracted by the robots trying to kill me."
"Noah..." Sam shook her head. "You wouldn't remember what he looks like, anyway. You were only what, five when you met him?"
It was back on Mars. The Zarc family was the guest of honor at a benefit for the Earth 3000 Foundation. I was playing hide and seek with another boy-what was his name? Stevie? -when I ran right into a giant of a man.
"What have we here?" He said, lifting my chin with his finger. "One of the Zarc children. You must be so proud of your papa. He's an interplanetary hero-off to save the animals."
"Yes, sir," I said. "My daddy's going to let me have a pet ellerphlant."
He loomed over me. "Your daddy has no business messing with the natural order of the universe!" I shivered as his face nearly touched mine. After all these years I could still smell his breath, like rotten meat.
"The animals died out for a reason. The earth was meant to be used for the good of mankind, not some zoo for ellerphlants!"
His face got so red I was sure he was going to hit me. So I smashed into his shins and sped off. He was gone by the time I dragged Dad back, but I was sure it was Haon. I'd heard the stories about the man who'd dedicated his life to stopping the ARC project, and I'd built a picture of him in my head. This guy fit every detail.
"So you have no proof it was Haon you saw?" Sam put her fists on her hips.
"No," I said. "But how do you explain the assassin-bots? Only Haon could have that technology in the twenty-first century."
"It doesn't prove Haon was there. No one is allowed to travel through time except us-"
"No one's allowed," I said. "Doesn't mean he didn't do it anyway."
"He'd be risking life in prison if he did," Hamilton said, "or worse. He could never return to Mars, or Venus-he'd be apprehended the moment he set foot on either planet."
Every human born on Venus or Mars has their DNA sequenced and stored in the Poligarchy's computer system. Time travel leaves trace markers in their DNA and regular searches would flag anyone who didn't match their saved signature. I, along with the rest of my family, would set off all kinds of alarms if we weren't designated as the only humans alive allowed to time travel.
"Well, I know what I saw." I glared at both of them. "And just because it doesn't make sense doesn't mean it isn't true."
They glanced at each other. Hamilton shrugged. Sam rolled her eyes.
"Someday you'll want me to believe you," I said, "and I'm not going to. I know what I saw, he-"
"Nothing we can do about it now." Sam shook her head. "I don't understand why you have to be so stupid."
"I'm not the one being stupid-"
"You need to grow up, Noah." She turned to leave.
I fought the urge to stick my tongue out at her. Everything I did lately made her mad. Everything anybody did for that matter.
At the door Sam whipped around, her ponytail snapping behind her head.
"Help Ham get the suit cleaned up. Then move your butt down to pod 3794. We have to get the habitat ready." Sam glared at me once more, then stormed out.
"Seems our sister's none too happy."
Hamilton smiled slightly as he watched her leave. When she was out of earshot, he turned to me.
"I can't condone what you did, but..." He dropped his voice. "How'd the suit handle? Was it incredible?"
I grinned. "You should've seen the look on Haon's face when I hit the magthrusters and launched right in front of him."
Hamilton raised his eyebrows. "You really think it was Haon?"
"I do." I saw a glimmer of excitement in my brother's eyes. Haon was bent on destroying the ARC project, but some of what he said rang true for Hamilton-political stuff and the proper use of Earth. He and Dad got into huge fights about it.
"Well, he scrambled the assassin bots quick enough," I said. "I lost them with the second stage boosters." I massaged my neck. "About snapped my head off when the rockets fired, though. You should've warned me about that."
"I told you not to use the thrusters at all." Hamilton tried for a stern look but didn't make it. "Nevertheless, I'm pleased. The suit exceeded even my best estimates." He surveyed the room. "Were you able to retrieve the marmosets?"
I pointed to my desk, cluttered with this morning's homework. A Brief History of Time Travel by Nowell Clark was still displayed on my holopad's screen. Inside a clear box were two tiny monkeys about twenty centimeters long, with their signature black-tufted ears.
"I'm not sure they liked the ride up as much as I did. One of them grabbed onto my stomach for dear life." I lifted my shirt and displayed dozens of red marks peppering my skin. "But I rescued them before Haon got there."
Hamilton lifted the box from the desk. "We'll need to get down to the infirmary and give them their shots." One of the monkeys screeched when Hamilton set the box back down.
Of course Obadiah jumped off my bed and padded over. His nose twitched as he tried to figure out how to get on my desk for a closer look. The marmosets screeched again and started hopping around in their box.
Hamilton laughed when Obadiah turned his pleading hound-dog eyes my way.
"I don't think they're in the mood to play with your dog." He looked at me for a minute. "Why don't you take the marmosets down, then get something to eat. I'll refurbish the thermsuit on my own. I'm quite certain I don't want you anywhere near it ever again." He headed for the door, then turned.
"The thrusters about snapped your head off, did they?" He shook his head. "Why is it I spend all my time designing technological marvels that I never get to use?"
I reached in and carefully lifted one of the marmosets from the box, avoiding its sharp teeth.
"Come on little guy, I won't hurt you." I held the monkey up. "Umm, sorry... little girl." I could feel her heart racing. "Just a small pinch and you can go back in the box." I held her tight and placed her little rump against the injector. She flinched when the machine clicked. "See, that wasn't so bad." She glared at me.
With one injection, the machine had given her all the vaccinations she needed and inserted a small tracking device so we'd always be able to find her in the rainforest habitat.
"Now for your boyfriend."
He didn't take it much better. In fact he got a good bite on my arm, and it took a while to coax him back in the box after his shot.
When I was little, I'd take it personally when animals bit me. But the more time I spent with them, the more I realized how hard what we were doing was on them. These two little monkeys were running around the forests of Brazil with no clue their species would be wiped out in a couple hundred years. And suddenly I show up, throw a net over them, and haul them off to a room on the moon-a room with sterile white walls, the smell of ozone in the artificially produced air, the hum of instruments in the infirmary-enough to scare any creature out of its wits.
Now I saw my scars as badges of honor. Every bite meant another animal would live. Rescuing these creatures, even if they didn't know they needed rescuing, was what I was meant to do.
"Come on, you two. Let's get you a little more comfortable." I picked up the clear box and headed for the rainforest habitat-the one with none of the marmoset's natural predators. "Living here does have its good points."
After seeing the monkeys safely to their new home, I headed to the mess hall. Usually my magchair felt like an extension of my body-all I had to do was think where I wanted to move and how fast, and the chair would respond, thanks to the neuro-implant at the base of my skull. But today the chair stuttered and lumbered around the room as if mirroring my mood.
Even after spending my entire life in the chair, there were days, like today, when it felt alien. I couldn't wait until I finished growing so I could be fitted with my permanent neuro-prosthetic legs, but for now the magchair would have to do.
"PB&J please," I said. Our chef-bot came to life in the corner. "Oh, and a glass of milk."
"As you wish, Master Noah." It always cracked me up to hear the robot's French accent. Whose idea was that, anyway?
Le Chef 9000 swiveled and passed through swinging doors into the galley.
I moved to the window overlooking the hydroponic gardens. Dozens of robots sped along the hanging plants, tending them and harvesting the fruits and vegetables that fed the hundreds of animals on board the ship. I could just hear Mom: "All this food and the only thing you eat is peanut butter and jelly."
Obadiah came up beside me and sat down, oblivious to the view. I reached down and scratched behind his ears.
"If there's food to be found, Obadiah's around."
The ARC, or Animal Rescue Cruiser, was docked in a crater on the far side of the moon in the year 2011. So far removed from where my family came from-nearly a thousand years in the future-but it was home. In fact it was all I really knew, since I'd only visited Mars a couple of times and didn't remember much and I'd never been to Venus. My parents founded the ARC project before I was born-its mission to rescue Earth's animals from extinction.
I hoped my parents were okay. Most of the time their missions only last a few seconds, at least from my perspective-thanks to the quirks of time-travel, even if they've spent weeks wherever they went, they can just come back to the moment they left.
But this time, something was keeping them.
Sam and Hamilton kept telling me everything would be fine, but I could tell they didn't believe their own words. The main reason I'd gone on my little thermsuit excursion was that I couldn't bear to sit around wondering where Mom and Dad were for another second. Or what century, for that matter.
The robot returned with a tray. I took the plate with my sandwich and a cold glass of milk.
"You are most welcome, Master Noah. Will there be anything else?"
"This is all I need." I gave the robot a weak smile. "Three PB&J's a day keep the doctor away." I scarfed down the sandwich, tossed the crust to Obadiah, and drank my milk down.
I'd stalled long enough. Time to help Sam with the habitat.
The fastest way to get around on a ship the size of a large city was the magspheres. The series of tubes that crisscrossed the decks allowed the spheres to travel at extremely high speeds while keeping their passengers safe in gel-padded seats. It was annoying having to climb out of my magchair into the seats, but if I didn't I'd probably end up plastered against the wall, ceiling, or floor as the sphere screamed down the twisting tunnels.
I held Obadiah firmly in my lap while we sped along toward deck thirty-seven. When the magsphere stopped, the hatch opened and Obadiah jumped down and ran out. I wriggled back into my chair and followed. Moments later I sat in front of pod ninety-four. A screen next to the door displayed "Arctic Habitat - Irish Deer." Below, the word "Unoccupied" flashed in yellow lettering.
I opened the hatch and was hit with the rich smells of fir and fallen leaves. It reminded me of hiking with my dad in the forests of northwest America.
As massive as the ARC was, it was still a bit confining day after day. As soon as I could handle the magchair on my own, Dad took me on excursions to Earth. Down on the planet's richly varied surface with the sky spread out above me, I never felt more alive. Dad said that was the reason he became a scientist in the first place-listening to stories growing up about what Earth was like before the Cataclysm.
Sometimes I wondered about the government's edict that no human could live on Earth again. The Poligarchy decreed that the planet had to be saved for the animals we rescued from the past. It seemed wrong, somehow, to keep people from living on a world so perfectly suited for human life. Dad said it had to do with the guilt we felt for our role in the destruction of Earth. I wasn't sure I felt responsible for something that happened hundreds of years ago, but I certainly agreed we should do what we could to bring the animals back. Besides, questioning the Poligarchy could have terrible repercussions, so Dad told me to just avoid the topic.
I shook my head clear. There were people a lot smarter than me working on the problems of the solar system.
The temperature in the arctic habitat was near freezing, so I pulled a warm parka off a hook just outside the door. I entered the pod and surveyed the room, if it could be called that. Already it looked like a pristine, subalpine forestland-I could barely make out the bulkhead above, and all the trees and undergrowth blocked out most of the walls.
An electric Jeep Dad brought back from one of his excursions to the late twenty-first century sat next to the hatch. Obadiah ran in circles, excited to go for a ride. I moved to the driver-side door, opened it, and pulled myself from my chair into the seat. Leaving the magchair by the hatch, I slammed the door. Obadiah scampered through the window to the seat next to me.
The Jeep was retrofitted with sensors for my neuro-implant, so I pressed the power button and imagined putting my foot on the accelerator. Of course my lifeless legs didn't move a muscle, but the Jeep lurched forward. It wasn't made for a twelve-year-old driver, so it was a little hard for me to see over the dashboard-but hey, if I could pilot spaceships, surely I could drive a clunky old car. I'm not sure why Dad likes these beaters so much. Give me a star-runner any day. Or a thermsuit.
We bounced through the woods on a dirt road, little more than a game trail. Obadiah kept his eyes out for squirrels or chipmunks in the undergrowth, but this was a new habitat. Aside from Sam, Obadiah, and me, there were no living creatures in the forest around us. Of course, he didn't know that, so his whole body shook with excitement as he dashed back and forth between the open windows.
I laughed at him. "Life's pretty great when you haven't got a clue, Obadiah."
His big pink tongue flopped around when he looked at me."
"What am I saying? You get all the food you want. You sleep in a warm bed. The most you ever have to worry about is whether or not I'll give you a crust off my PB&J. You've got it all figured out."
Satisfied he'd put me in my place, he licked my face and went back to looking out the window. Frozen potholes cracked and splashed while the Jeep trundled along.
"Locate Sam." The screen on the dashboard positioning system lit up, and after a few seconds, a small red dot appeared with little light rings pulsating around it. I whistled.
"How'd she get so far already?"
The Jeep rattled along for a quarter-hour. The heater didn't work, and it wasn't the same as rocketing through space, but I was having fun. Finally, up ahead, I saw Sam climbing over a stone ridge. Dozens of robots surrounded her: planters, sculptors, and dozers (my favorite).
She swiped her gloved fingers over her wrist-comm and the robots headed off down the trail. I brought the Jeep to a stop, looked around, then yelled out the window.
"This is amazing!"
She turned with a scowl on her face.
"What?" I said.
"Don't try to suck up to me now, Noah. What took you so long?"
"Hey, a kid's gotta eat."
"You can eat when Mom and Dad get home." She looked around at the forest. "This place is a mess. Help me get it cleaned up."
"I think it looks great. Mom and Dad'll love it." I stayed seated in the Jeep.
"Get out here and help me pick up these tools?" She bent to retrieve a shovel, then realized I wasn't moving.
"Don't tell me you didn't bring your chair."
Uh oh, here it comes.
"I asked you to come down here and help! How are you going to do that if you can't even get out of the car?" She stomped over and threw the shovel in the back of the Jeep. "Come on Noah, use your brain."
"Don't you think I know I can't get out of the car?" I let my voice rise. "Don't you think every day I wish I could just hop down and-"
"Oh, don't play the poor helpless cripple card." She finished loading the rest of the tools. "You handle yourself just fine, and you knew perfectly well I needed your help. You just use your shriveled legs as an excuse."
I sat stunned. "I..."
She was right. I did try to get sympathy for being in a magchair, but she had no idea what it was like -always relying on someone else or some piece of technology just to move.
She saw the look on my face.
"I'm sorry, Noah." Her face softened further as she looked around the habitat. "Do you think the deer will love it?"
"Of course they'll love it. It's just like home, except no wolves or lions to eat them."
"Lions don't live in the same environment as the Irish deer." She smiled slightly. "They'll be safe here. Nothing, and no one, will harm them." I couldn't tell by her face what she was thinking.
"Sam," I said, "you're not really worried about Mom and Dad, are you?"
"Of course not!" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Noah. I am a little worried, but they've been late before."
She climbed into the passenger seat.
"You remember when they went after the blue whales? Dad said it would be a piece of cake and they'd be back before we had the habitat done. And if we didn't hurry, he'd stick them in your bathtub."
I laughed. "They had to go back four times before they finally got Jada corralled in the ship's hold."
"She was one stubborn whale," Sam said.
It still didn't sit right with me. With the whales, they hadn't actually been late coming home-they just had to keep going back. But knowing I wasn't the only one who was worried made me feel a little better.
The great blue whales swam along a transparent composite wall, oblivious to the tiny humans marveling at their grace.
"I'm always surprised how small Jonah is," I said. "Well, for a whale."
Sam laughed. Her mood had definitely lifted on the ride to the whales. It hadn't taken much prodding to get her to come for a visit-this time, anyway. I never knew if she was going to bite my head off or give me a hug. Dad said it was a girl thing-whatever that meant. Far as I knew, seventeen-year-old females might as well be aliens. I'd never figure them out.
"You think Jonah's small?" she said. "I remember when Mom and Dad brought you home." She looked at me with that look girls get when they see something cute-doe eyed with goofy smiles. "You were the smallest baby I'd ever seen. Grandma and Grandpa were watching Ham and me on the ARC while Mom and Dad went to Mars. Told me they'd be back with my new baby brother in just a few weeks."
Sam cocked her head sideways. "You know, now that I think of it, I don't remember Mom even having a big belly. That must've been why you were so small, you came early." She slugged me in the arm. "That's the last time you were early for anything.
"I remember Mom bringing you to my room." Sam's eyes had that far-off look again. "She let me take care of you. Ham and even Dad didn't seem to want to have much to do with you at first. Maybe they thought you'd break easily, since your legs didn't work." Sam frowned, then ruffled my hair. "I got to help give you baths, feed you, even changed your diaper."
"Can we talk about something else?" I said.
Sam laughed. "Sorry, I hadn't thought about that in so long." She looked back at the whales and smiled. "Jonah is getting so big."
I watched Jonah swim along with his mother. The baby whale was over six meters long. "How many whales do you think this habitat will hold?"
Sam glanced away from the calf and his mother after they crested the surface to get some air. "Mom would have a better idea than me, but I think somewhere around ten. From what she says, our biggest problem with the whales is their food supply. We have to keep the krill reproducing at a faster rate than the whales eat it."
"I wonder where Abner is?" I said.
"He can't be far." Sam pressed her face against the transparent wall and put her hands around her eyes. "Yup, there he is."
The giant whale appeared out of the gloom and joined mother and baby.
"It boggles my mind sometimes, you know?" I said. "All these animals, even the great blue whale, on one ship."
In my opinion, the ARC was humankind's greatest achievement, in the thirty-first century or any other century for that matter. The fact that the ARC could be so large and still travel through time still amazed me. The ship was my parent's brainchild. Sometimes I wished I had their smarts, but then I'd think that would probably make me like Hamilton.
No thank you.
I glanced over at Sam. "Do you really think Mom and Dad are okay?" I couldn't help it-it was hard not to worry about them.
"They're fine." She waved her arm taking in the whales, the ship, everything. "All of this wouldn't exist without them. A little thing like ten thousand years won't stand between us." She slugged me in the shoulder again. "Besides, they have to come back so I can tell them about your little adventure in the thermsuit. You're so in trouble."
We stood and watched the whales a while longer. Abner, Jada, and Jonah swam so close to the glass that all I could see was whale, left, right, up, down.
"How much longer is their migration?" The whales had been swimming for a couple of weeks while the temperature in the tank was incrementally lowered toward the arctic levels of their feeding ground.
"Just another two or three weeks, then we can really start pumping in the krill. Mom says whales-"
"Sam, Noah, do you copy?" Hamilton's voice on our wrist-comms.
"We hear you," Sam said. "What's up?"
"Get up here right away. Moses is back."
Sam looked at me, her face filled with concern.
"Moses shouldn't be here." She sprinted for the nearest magsphere. I launched after her.
The ship's interior screamed by in a blur as we sped toward the ARC Control Center.
I glanced at Sam. She chewed on a strand of hair like she always does when she's anxious. We sat in silence while the magsphere negotiated tunnels over hundreds of decks. Both of us were thinking the same thing: if Moses was back without our parents, something was wrong. I held Obadiah tight in my lap.
"It's okay, boy," I whispered, pressing my face against his furry ear. "They're fine."
Even at full speed, it took nearly fifteen minutes to reach the control center. The door opened with a whoosh, and Sam dashed in. Obadiah jumped down and waited for me to pull myself into my magchair.
When we entered, Hamilton was watching an array of holoscreens on the wall. Three-dimensional images sprang forward or receded when he moved his hand in front of them. A battered, dull gray robot lay on a console to his left. It was toddler-sized but shaped like a small plane with smooth sloping wings. Barely discernible on the main body's scorched sides were the letters M.O.S.E.S., an acronym for Mobile Oriented Spacetime Energy Signal. A flashing green light indicated it was linked with the ship's on-board computer. The images on the screens were downloading from its memory banks.
"What's going on, Ham?" My sister moved to the screens and studied the image Hamilton waved to the foreground. "Why's Moses here?"
"I don't know for sure." He turned to a small toolbox and began pulling out various implements. "He only arrived twenty minutes ago. Something's wrong with his memory crystal-he's been through some kind of electrical shock and his system is damaged."
He laid another tool next to the robot.
"Most of the data I've retrieved is what I expected. Mom and Dad entered Northern Europe in the DUV II, exactly when they wanted to-in 8512 B.C. They set up camp on a remote plateau separated from any people groups, then began their indigenous species survey." He turned and brought a three-dimensional image to the foreground.
"Here's the recording of their discovery of the Irish deer."
The image on the screen crackled and flickered before clearing up. I watched as a deer the size of a moose materialized on the floor between us. The buck, with antlers maybe two and a half meters across, lifted its head and sniffed the air. Obadiah cocked his head sideways and lifted his nose, trying to smell the deer. He backed up and pressed himself against my chair.
I patted his head. "It's okay, he won't hurt you."
Mom's voice filled the room. "We've found a bull-a magnificent example. Noah is trying to tag him so we can track his movements over the next few days. Hopefully he'll lead us to his herd, and we can find our candidates for transport." She sounded out of breath, but her voice was filled with excitement. This was her element.
Hamilton flicked the image back to the screen and turned toward the robot.
"Moses was on auxiliary power when he returned. I've been downloading what I can from his memory while he recharges." He opened a small panel on Moses's side, then flipped a switch.
"He should be charged enough to let us know why he returned without Mom and Dad, assuming his speech processors haven't been fried."
A dull hum filled the room as the robot rose off the console and spun vertically. The smooth nose cone split in half, and like a turtle coming out of its shell, an oblong humanoid head emerged.
"Tr...apped" Moses chirped. "Mis...sion com...promised."
Hamilton adjusted a few things in the open panel with a screwdriver.
"Routing more power to his voice processor."
Two apertures on the robot's face spiraled open. "Your moth...er and father... grave danger." Hamilton continued turning screws and moving sliders.
"Haon located your... parents. Haon is after the deer."
Sam's eyes widened. "What do you mean he was there? That's impossible!"
"Now do you believe me?" I'd been right, not that it made me feel any better.
"Not now, Noah. Moses, how did Haon find them?"
The robot cocked his head sideways. "I don't have enough information to suggest a hypothesis." Hamilton stepped back. Moses continued, his voice processor fully functional.
"All indications are it was Haon himself. He appeared the moment your parents attempted to snare a doe." The robot turned toward the monitor bank. "Observe."
The nine screens went dark, then all of them lit up with a single scene. We moved back when a nearly life-sized image of our father, Noah Zarc, Sr., leapt from the screen to the middle of the room. Snow piled deep all around him and ice crystals hung in his beard and mustache. His brown eyes twinkled beneath bushy eyebrows. His face, just starting to show laugh lines around his mouth and eyes, was beaming in anticipation. He hid behind a tree and motioned off to his left.
"Hannah, bring her around to your right." He turned his large frame sideways, obviously trying to hide behind the trunk. I wasn't too sure how successful he was-Dad had put on a few pounds over the past couple of years.
"That's right. Easy."
Slowly, a female deer walked into the scene. She seemed to step from the monitors to the control center floor. Dad held a photon-snare and pointed the shimmering energy coil toward the deer.
"A little closer," he whispered. The deer hesitantly moved a few more steps forward, her nose in the air, sniffing. Snow swirled around her. Dad got ready to spring with the snare-
A loud pop filled the room. Obadiah yelped. I stared in horror at the red spot on the doe's flank. She turned to leap away, but before she took two steps she stumbled and fell in the snow.
Dad froze. From the whirling white flakes stepped a huge man wrapped in furs, his face hidden by a shaggy parka hood. In one hand he held a large rifle, an old twentieth-century model with a modern homing scope mounted on top. The man walked to the floor in front of us and nudged the deer's head with the toe of his boot.
"Don't move, Hannah," I heard Dad whisper. "He doesn't know we're here."
The man set his gun on the ground, then reached up a meaty hand and pulled back his hood. For a moment I was surprised how much he looked like my dad-the same shape to his nose, the same dark eyes. Then I looked at the dead deer at his feet and realized this man was nothing like my dad. He did, however, look like the man I remembered from years before back on Mars.
"Haon," said Dad.
Moses turned from the monitor-bank. "There is a ninety-eight percent certainty the individual was Haon. All recognition signatures, excluding one anomaly in the DNA catalogue, match his known parameters. Furthermore, the..."
Moses trailed off and cocked his head.
"Furthermore the..." Again he stopped. For a robot he was doing a pretty good job of looking confused. "There is something wrong with my memory banks. There was more information, but I am unable to retrieve it."
"You've suffered some kind of electrical interference," Hamilton said. "Do you remember getting shocked?"
Moses sat for a moment, the apertures of his eyes opening and closing.
"What about Mom and Dad?" I looked back and forth between Moses and Hamilton. "Where are they?"
Moses turned toward me. "They..." Again that pause. "They are trapped in the Ice Age with no way home."
The control room went silent. We watched Haon hoist the deer on his back and stagger off into whiteness. Suddenly the steel room around me seemed cold and lifeless.
Obadiah knew something was wrong. He jumped onto my magchair, licked my face once, then curled up in a ball on my lap.
"But I don't understand," Sam said. "What do you mean they're trapped in the Ice Age? Why send you back? Why didn't they just get another deer and come back themselves?"
"That is what they planned," Moses said. "Your mother returned to the ship to locate Haon using the onboard sensors, while your father..." The robot trailed off yet again. "There is another gap in my memory."
"Run a full diagnostic scan," Hamilton said.
"Acknowledged." The robot turned back toward the screens. "While I am running the scan you can view a recording your father left for you. I believe it is intact."
Dad's image appeared before us-his hair wild and his eyes red. He sat on the snowy ground and looked directly at us. I shivered.
"As Moses has probably told you, somehow Haon found us." I could see the vein on Dad's temple pulse. "He hijacked our ship...." The image flickered. I could see the floor through Dad's image. His lips continued moving, but no sound came out.
"What's he saying?" I looked at Moses, but he was still running his diagnostic scan. "...so I have no...where he..." The sound and the image stabilized. "I've decided to send Moses after them-if Haon hasn't jumped yet the robot should be able to follow."
He leaned forward until it seemed like his face was less than a meter from mine.
"I know this comes as a great shock to you kids. I don't know how Haon followed us. Perhaps I've been too careless." He stopped again and took a deep breath. I'd never seen Dad so distraught. "We have to find him. Who knows what he..." He shook his head. "Just get here as soon as you can."
Dad's image flickered out, and the weight of ten thousand years fell between us.
Hamilton spoke first. "Were you able to follow Haon?"
We all looked at Moses. His eyes spiraled open.
"Affirmative. Haon traveled to twelfth-century Europe, to a castle in the Scottish highlands."
I swiveled toward the door. "Let's go, then!"
Hamilton looked at Moses. "Do you have space-time coordinates for Mom and Dad's location?"
"Affirmative." A small door on the robot's chest opened. A tray slid out with two vials containing a dark red liquid. "I retrieved DNA samples from both time-streams. One is a sample of your father's blood, the other from a squirrel I captured in Scotland."
Hamilton nodded. "So we can return to the exact time and place when you retrieved those samples."
I threw my hands up. "Why don't we just go back before Haon got there? Then we can stop him from taking the DUV II! We still have the original coordinates Mom and Dad used to go after the deer."
"It can't be done," Hamilton said. "Research has shown time and time again that you can't alter events of the past. Mom and Dad were stranded in the Ice Age. Haon did hijack their ship. There's nothing we can do to stop that."
I glared at my brother. "Then what good is time traveling?"
He looked ready to launch into one of his big long explanations but stopped himself.
"Our biggest problem, at the moment, is that we don't have a ship."
Sam spun around. "What do you mean we don't have a ship?" she shouted. "We've got loads down in the hangar!"
Hamilton's voice was calm, of course. "What I should have said is we don't have a ship equipped for the time jump. Since the unfortunate accident when we lost the DUV I over southern New Mexico..." I squirmed in my chair under his gaze. "We've been operating without a backup. Dad said he was planning to move the DUV III to operational status before he made the next jump, but then Moses returned with the time-markers for the Irish deer. Dad was too excited to wait, so he and Mom agreed to do the final calibrations on the DUV III's warp manifold after they returned."
"Then take another ship," I said.
"No other ship has a hull built to withstand the strain. Warping spacetime around most objects," Hamilton snapped his fingers, "simply snuffs them out of existence. Only a ship built specifically to withstand the extreme forces can make the jump."
"But we've got ships much bigger than the DUV class. How come they can't handle it?" I was getting irritated. We needed to rescue our parents, and he was lecturing us on the physics of time travel.
"It's not entirely about size. It's more about shape. The DUV class is the only ship we have capable of sliding through the time-stream without causing too great a disturbance. It's no coincidence that Moses and the DUV class ships have the same profile. The only other ship built to the appropriate specs is the ARC herself."
"How long would it take to get the DUV III operational?" Sam said. "I thought it was ready to go, except the calibration."
Moses said, "Your father was not prepared to trust the reliability of the DUV III's warp manifold. Its jumps could be erratic."
"So we take the ARC," I said.
"We haven't moved the ARC in years," Sam said. "And the last time, we had Mom and Dad with us."
"Nevertheless," Hamilton said, "I think it's our most logical choice."
"Fine," Sam said. "We'll take the ARC. We need to get moving, we're running out of time."
Hamilton let out a big sigh. "Haven't you been listening? We have all the time in the solar system. We could leave in ten years and still reach Mom and Dad at the moment Moses left them."
Sam's face grew red and she spoke through clenched teeth. "We aren't going to take ten years!"
"Of course not." Hamilton backed away. "How long do you think it'll take to prepare the ARC?"
"Shouldn't be more than a couple of days." She looked at me, her brows knitted together. "As long as we all do our part."
"I'll work with Moses to process the DNA samples and establish coordinates," Hamilton said.
"Fine." Sam turned toward the door. "Noah, you and I need to get the animals secure and the ship ready to leave the surface of the moon. I don't care what Hamilton says-we need to hurry."
Sam and I worked all day getting the ARC ready to go. It was hard to focus-I had to go over the simplest stuff again and again to get it right. That night I was so tired I didn't even get undressed, just collapsed in bed. No matter how tired I was, though, no matter how I tossed and turned, I couldn't get comfortable. I'm not like Sam and Hamilton. They seemed to be able to keep it together, brush off what was on all our minds, but I couldn't do it.
I thought of a morning when I was seven or eight, Mom seated at her desk looking through a microscope while I played with some constructo-cubes on the floor. I loved to play in her lab-all the equipment, the whirring of machines-but what I really loved was just being around her. Talking to her.
"Mom, do you think I'll ever be like everyone else?"
She looked up from her work. "Of course not, Noah. You're-"
"Special." I glared at her. "Maybe I don't want to be special."
She got down on the floor and wrapped me in her arms.
"Everyone enters this world with some kind of handicap," she said. "Whether it's the place they live, the family they're born into, or the weakness of their legs. No one has a perfect life."
Even back then, when I was still just a kid, she didn't sugarcoat the truth.
"What makes each of us special is how we deal with our circumstances." She moved hair out of my face. "I probably don't tell you often enough how proud I am of you. You handle yourself better than I ever could." I looked into her eyes. There were no tears, just a firm conviction that she would never let me go.
Now she was gone.
As for Dad, being with him was never that easy-he was just harder to talk to, and I guess we weren't really close. I knew he loved me, though. I didn't know how I'd be able to go on without either of them.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning with sheets crumpled in my fists. I'd had enough self-pity. No matter what Hamilton said, we needed to get moving and find Mom and Dad now. I dressed as fast as I could and went looking for Sam.
The biggest problem with moving the ship from the moon's surface was gravity. Not the gravity holding the ship down-the ARC could easily break free of the moon's pull-but the lack of gravity in space. Even in one-sixth gravity on the moon, the animals could live comfortably. It took getting used to, but I was always amazed at how fast they adapted. But once we left the moon's surface, there'd be no gravity at all to hold them down.
Of course Dad and the engineers back home thought through that problem when they designed the ARC. Each habitat, or pod, was constructed on its own gimbal, which meant it was a totally self-contained sphere or cylinder that could be spun independently of the ship, generating its own virtual gravity. In addition, during acceleration, all the habitats would simply pivot so that down was toward the back of the ship. Depending upon acceleration, this was a better imitation of true gravity.
I didn't understand how it all worked, but I loved the ride. In space, when we weren't accelerating, only the pods had gravity. It was a blast floating around the ship in zero-g-no need for magchairs or thermsuits. I was free as a bird.
Over the next two days, Sam and I worked together to get all the gimbals unlocked. We had to test every habitat. If there were any issues we'd go down to the pod and find out what was wrong. Most released remotely as they should, but even so it was no small task to get the rest in order.
On the morning of the second day, Sam and I worked to release the dire wolf habitat. Something had dropped between the outer hatch and the pod's exterior plate, causing it to jam.
"How long do you think Mom and Dad can last?" I said.
Sam shook her head. "Remember what Ham said? We have time on our side. The DNA sample Moses retrieved will allow us to pinpoint exactly when and where Mom and Dad are in spacetime. So even though for us it's been two days, for them it'll only be a few hours at most before we show up. Make sense?"
"I guess so. It's just hard to get your mind around it." I thought for a minute. "I still don't get what DNA has to do with anything."
Sam stopped cranking the ratchet she was using.
"Well, I'm no expert, but the way Ham explained it to me was that the earth is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays-radiation that travels millions if not billions of miles through space from every direction. That radiation leaves markers in the DNA-signatures that when analyzed can give the location in spacetime for when and where that organism lived. Our DNA is keeping a record of everywhere we've ever been, and everywhen."
"Ah, now it's perfectly clear." I laughed. "But...I still don't get it."
Sam laughed too. "Yeah, it gives me a headache too."
"And you and Hamilton are the smart ones-imagine what it's like for me to try and wrap my mind around it."
"I'm sure you do just fine. You only pretend to be slow while you're pulling the wool over Ham's eyes or mine with some scheme." She smiled and got back to work on the hatch.
"You know he hates it when you call him Ham, don't you? He says he's no side of pork."
She laughed. "Why do you think I do it?"
By mid-afternoon, two days after Moses's return, we had the ARC ready to go. Hamilton wanted to wait one hour more for daylight to cover the near side of the earth-less chance of being spotted. During the twenty-first century, thousands of telescopes were pointed toward the night sky. We would try to keep the moon between Earth and us for as long as possible. Our parents always stressed that the most important rule of time travel was not letting yourself be seen.
We strapped ourselves into our seats in the ARC Control Center. I always got excited right before a lift-off. So did my stomach, but I knew it would calm down as soon as the engines roared to life.
Sam sat in Dad's chair between Hamilton and me-she was in charge. She had a long checklist displayed on the monitor connected to a swivel arm on her seat. Even Mom and Dad didn't know everything it took to get the ARC off the ground.
Sam tapped her finger on the screen. "Pods ready for departure, Noah?"
I scrolled down the long row of numbers on my monitor. All had a steady green light.
"Pods are go."
"Power and pressure systems?" Sam said.
"Power is nominal. Pressure is holding at a steady one atm." Hamilton, who had a better idea how the ship operated than Sam or I, was in charge of the vital systems.
"Ham, do you have a lock on the time-stream for Dad?"
An image on the screen showed a pulsing beam of light connecting a long line of round Earths, like a string of blue pearls moving off into the darkness of space.
"Northern Europe, 8512 B.C., requiring three hundred and twenty-six jumps." Hamilton looked at Sam. "Warp-processors powered and ready."
"Disengage the docking clamps," Sam said. The screens switched to an external view of the ARC. Cameras, mounted on several sides of the crater we called home, showed the ship from every angle.
"Take us out of here."
I felt the tiniest shudder as the main thrusters fired.
Sam turned to me, then Hamilton, and gave us a thumbs-up.
"Let's go get Mom and Dad."
On screen, our giant ship erupted in flames along its bottom edge. Normally, ships used maglifters to launch, creating a magnetic field polar opposite the field of the planet or moon. The ARC was so big it needed conventional rockets to help get it off the ground. The ship, shaped somewhat like an enormous snub-winged manta ray, with deck after deck flickering in blue light, slowly rose from the moon's surface. From the outside, with no frame of reference, the ARC didn't look as big as it really was- at more than sixteen kilometers long and eight kilometers wingtip to wingtip, larger than most twenty-first-century cities on the planet below us.
Thrusters fired as soon as the ship cleared the rim of the crater, tilting the nose of the ARC upward.
"Brace for main engine ignition." The shipboard computer's mechanical voice filled the room.
"Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Ignition." An enormous ball of fire exploded from the rear of the ship, and the holoscreens flickered out for a second. The craft shook and rumbled all around us. I felt the vibration in my bones. It had been a long time since we last moved the ARC and I'd forgotten how much force it took to get her going. If I didn't know better, I'd have worried the ship was going to fall apart around us. I hoped Obadiah wasn't too scared in his crate back in my room.
The screens changed to show the stars above us. The round, cratered horizon of the moon was just visible along the bottom edge. For several long minutes the acceleration was so great I could barely lift my arms.
"Reaching moon orbital altitude in ten-seconds," Hamilton said. He peered at his own monitor closely.
I switched my monitor to the rear view. The moon's surface fell away at an astonishing rate.
"We've reached moon orbital altitude."
My body grew light and my stomach lurched as gravity changed to zero-g. A smile crept across my face. I couldn't wait to fly around the corridors of the ship.
Sam let out a sigh of relief. "How long until we make the first jump?"
Hamilton overlaid the main screens with the same 'string of Earths' image. Over the first globe was a timer counting down.
"Three minutes and fourteen-seconds. Powering the warp manifold now."
I continued to monitor the pods. Peeking in on several species told me none suffered much from the acceleration. Most lay down as if they were sleeping. But gradually, when the rate of acceleration decreased and apparent gravity returned to the level they were used to, the animals started to move about again.
"How long will the jumps last?" I said.
"Moses estimated two hours, thirty-seven minutes," Hamilton said. "Preparing for the first jump."
I watched the timer tick down from thirty-seconds. The stars shimmered through a purple haze that bent the light.
Stars rippled, while blue-green electrical energy crackled around the ship.
A loud hum filled the room. Stars melted and blurred together in a fiery conflagration of energy. One moment we rocketed toward space, the next moment the screens were filled with a view of Earth.
The ARC skimmed over the continent of Africa toward the darkness of space. Within minutes, the earth disappeared behind us. The next image of Earth in line on the display now had a countdown of fourteen minutes, seven-seconds until jump.
Hamilton had tried to explain, several times, how the whole time travel thing worked, but I still couldn't get it. Somehow, while the ARC traveled through space, it created a dense field around itself, which warped the fabric of space and time. Hamilton said all we needed to do to travel back in time was aim toward a point in space where the earth used to be, or any other landmark, then warp present space so it touched past space. Then we could slide through a hole between them.
At one point when I was feeling totally lost, Hamilton took an old handkerchief and a needle and thread and tried to explain it again.
"This handkerchief represents spacetime." He drew a dot near one edge. "This is the present location of Earth." He drew a dot on the other edge. "This is a past location. In order for us to travel back to the past, we need to bring these two edges closer together." He folded the handkerchief so the two dots touched.
"Now, the difficulty is the energy needed increases exponentially for the amount of spacetime warped. So we usually hop through time in shorter jumps." He drew several dots between the two. Then he took the needle and thread and pushed it through each dot.
"Once we know when we want to go to and where a specific point in space will be, such as the earth at any given time, we can jump from Earth to Earth to Earth all the way back, as far as we want." He pulled the thread tight and brought all the dots together.
"Yeah, I think so," I said. "Earth's a big booger in the handkerchief of time."
"I give up!" He'd stormed out of the room.
I looked over at my brother, who sat poring over his monitor. Maybe I'll have to quit giving him such a hard time. I laughed out loud, saw the way he and Sam looked up at me, and reconsidered.
Purple and green pulses enveloped the ARC, and we jumped again. Once more Earth appeared below us. At first I couldn't quite put my finger on what was different but I knew the planet would keep changing the further back in time we went. It would become wilder, less developed-and that's what was different. Earth this time was greener.
We jumped like this for over two hours, until our final jump. For several minutes after it, the ship fired reverse thrusters and slowed, while Hamilton pored over some charts on his screen.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"Earth isn't where it's supposed to be."
"What?" Sam unbuckled and moved to the window. "Where is it?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out." Hamilton snapped the image to the main screen. Several planets appeared as well as a flashing light he pointed at labeled ARC.
"We're here." He pointed at another image. "And Earth is here."
Sam studied the screen. "I can see that."
It didn't really look all that far to me.
"Computer, please calculate distance to Earth," he said.
"Two point eight three million kilometers."
"Not as bad as I thought." Hamilton scratched his chin. "But it still doesn't make any sense. We should have entered this spacetime just outside the orbit of the moon." He ran through more screens, checking and rechecking his numbers.
"Well, there's not much we can do about it now," Sam said. "Let's get moving. Noah?"
"I'm on it." I brought my monitor back and punched up the coordinates for Earth.
"Computer, take us in."
It took a little over three more hours to get to Earth, but somehow it felt much longer. We passed the moon and zeroed in on the blue planet. Finally the ship's computer began preparing to enter Earth's orbit. I exhaled loudly. We'd made it.
"Engage the light-deflecting shields," Sam said. "No sense panicking the locals by letting sun reflect off our hull." She tilted her head toward me and smiled. "Check on the pods again, then meet me in hangar bay one. I want to get down there as soon as we can. Hopefully Mom and Dad have kept themselves warm."
Twisting and spiraling, I flew down a tube through the center of the whale habitat. Good thing I loved zero-g.
I didn't need to check on all the animals-just the biggest, the ones who seemed to struggle most with disorienting changes in gravity. The whales sometimes had trouble knowing which way was up so they could surface for air.
I slowed and looked down through a window at the miniature sea. Small swells rolled back and forth on the surface as the artificial ocean spun around me. Within moments, the spray from all three whales spouted up toward my perch hundreds of meters above them. They didn't seem to be having any trouble at all. I'd have loved to stay and watch, but I still had a few more animals to check on, and we had to get moving.
I checked the elephants last. A great expanse of African savannah spread out before me. It took a few minutes to spy the two gentle gray giants, both of whom acted as if nothing had changed. I was always amazed at how graceful the elephants were, how such a huge animal could walk without making a sound. I smiled while Fathiya laid her trunk across Elimu's back. The pair seemed content with their new life aboard the ARC.
It occurred to me-not for the first time-how huge a thing we were doing. For the past several hundred years, no one had been able to watch elephants play or hear whales sing, hear a lion roar or see a horse gallop. We had to get Mom and Dad home so we could all carry out our mission: filling Earth with creatures once more.
I watched the elephants a few minutes longer, then headed to the hanger.
When I got there, Sam and Hamilton stood outside the hatch of a small ship called the Morning Star. She was the most beautiful ship we had-gleaming silver and built for speed. The wings curved forward, like a hawk about to unfurl its pinions after a dive. We had bigger ships-maybe even faster ships-but the Morning Star was special to me. She was the first ship I'd ever flown.
"Someone has to stay here," Sam said. "What if something goes wrong?" She turned toward me. "Would you stay on board while Ham and I get Mom and Dad?"
"Why don't we just radio down?" I said. "Surely we can get through from orbit."
Hamilton shook his head. "Moses has been trying ever since we entered this time-stream. There's been no response. We have no option but to go down to the surface."
"I think you should stay," Sam said.
"No way," I said. "Neither one of you knows how to fly the Morning Star."
Sam scowled at me.
"At least, not as good as I do."
"Precisely my point." Hamilton glanced at our sister. "Autopilot could take us down, but what if something goes wrong? Noah has flown hundreds of hours more than we have combined, and frankly, you're the best acquainted with how to handle a somewhat unrefined populace."
"Are you saying I'm the only one who speaks caveman?" Sam sighed. "I just don't feel right about all of us going down. If something happened, there'd be no one to rescue Mom, Dad, or any of us."
"The greatest danger will be leaving the ship to search for Mom and Dad," Hamilton said. "Noah can take us down, and once there he can stay on board the Morning Star. If something happens to us, he can return immediately to the ARC."
"Now, wait a minute-".
"No," Sam said. "Either you promise to stay on the Morning Star or you don't go down at all."
I knew she wasn't going to change her mind on this.
She smiled. "Besides, if we get eaten by a cave bear, you can be the hero who saves the universe all by yourself."
The ship's computer chimed. "Entering Earth orbit, 8512 BC."
I pushed my chair past Hamilton and Sam and boarded the Morning Star.
Despite all the trouble I manage to get in, I really am a great pilot. Mom said I should've been born a bird.
But I admit, my stomach was in knots as I sat in the pilot's seat ready to go. I told myself it wasn't nerves, just anticipation-and awareness that this flight couldn't be more important.
"Nothing fancy," Sam said. "We need to get in and out as quickly as possible."
"Ham! As quickly as possible." Sam's gaze drilled holes into Hamilton, who snapped his mouth shut.
I could sync my neuro-implant with the Morning Star's control and navigational systems. And because I spent my whole life controlling my magchair with my thoughts, I was better equipped than most at piloting a ship. You could fly manually, sure, and there was something satisfying about gripping the yoke with my hands, but I couldn't imagine flying without my implant.
Sam swallowed. "Computer, open the bay doors."
Two large steel doors opened at the end of the hangar. Stars glittered against the black canvas of space, but they were somewhat obscured by a shimmering energy shield that protected the hangar from depressurization. I released the holding pins on the Morning Star. With soft touches to the maglifters, I rose off the bay floor and pushed the craft forward. Once we were in the air, the artificial gravity dissipated, and we were again floating in zero-g. Matching the spin of the doors as I nudged the ship through the bay doors was the hardest part, and it took all my concentration. I lined up precisely and gave it more thrust. The nose of the Morning Star pierced the energy shield. Seconds later, we were through.
I looked at the glow of the earth below and gasped. "There's so much white!"
"Well, it is the Ice Age," Sam said.
"Technically, it's the end of the last glacial period." We glared at Hamilton, but he never seemed to get how annoying he could be. "If we'd gone back another thousand years, nearly half of the northern hemisphere would be covered with ice."
North America passed several kilometers below us. Ice covered a good part of what would one day be considered Canada, but below that was a landscape filled with millions of lakes and lush green terrain.
I gave the Morning Star a little more power and moved away from the ARC. When we were clear, I fired up reverse thrusters to slow the ship. Within minutes, we dropped into the atmosphere.
The edges of the ship's wings glowed.
Sun glared off the ice and snow blanketing the top third of the planet. Red and yellow flames flickered past the windows. This is where my years of practice paid off. I knew a degree or two off in either direction would be catastrophic. The friction of entry would burn a hole through the hull in a matter of seconds. Of course the shipboard computer wouldn't let that happen, but you never know when computers can go haywire.
The Morning Star vibrated. Bright flames flickered past the windows. The temperature in the cockpit rose noticeably. I glanced at Sam, who looked a little worried. Hamilton on the other hand seemed oblivious as he concentrated on his monitor, plotting the course to Mom and Dad. Moses gave us exact coordinates, but Hamilton double- and triple-checked everything.
Moments later, the flames around the ship abated, then vanished. The Morning Star glided through a blue sky with only small pockets of clouds obscuring Earth below.
The ARC should have arrived in this time-period almost the exact moment Moses rocketed after Haon. Still, it would probably take us an hour or two to get down to the surface. Sure, Mom and Dad could handle themselves, but the sooner we got there the better.
As we began our final descent I thought I could make out Europe. Sam shivered and rubbed her arms.
"It's going to be really cold down there. Why couldn't Mom and Dad pick a warmer era to get stranded?"
Hamilton flicked a switch, and a grid popped up over the image on the monitors of the European continent below. A flashing light indicated the spot where Moses left our parents.
"There it is," Sam said. "Take her down as fast as you can-safely."
"Oh, I don't know, I think I'll take us down dangerously."
She just rolled her eyes.
I nudged the yoke forward. The nose of the Morning Star dipped nearly straight down. For a moment we were weightless again, plummeting toward Earth.
A blanket of clouds obscured the continent, and we hit a bit of turbulence.
"Hang on!" I shouted.
I banked left and headed for a clear patch of sky. Sonic booms enveloped the ship when it smashed through the air, shaking the three of us as we sped through the clouds. We burst back into sunlight and saw northern Britain approaching fast. I leveled off and slowed, preparing the Morning Star for landing.
"Keep your eyes out for a good place to touch down."
Hamilton flicked a schematic over the windshield. "Moses specified the clearing where Dad landed the DUV II." A bright arrow appeared on the screen, pointing straight ahead.
Soon we were skimming over the ancient British countryside. The arrow pulsed on the display.
"There!" Sam said.
I saw a flash of sun on metal. I pulled the air brakes wide and banked left. There, in a clearing below, were the remains of a campfire with a shiny metal pot hanging over it. I turned the ship and drifted down. With a slight bump, we hit the ground.
"A perfect landing," I said.
"I don't see them anywhere." Sam's face was at the window.
Hamilton frowned at the monitor in front of him. "They're not within range of our scanners, so I doubt you would." He pushed the monitor away, stood up, then grabbed the monitor and yanked it back.
"I see something-two life-forms approximately three kilometers due east."
Sam headed for the door. "It's got to be Mom and Dad. Let's go." She glanced back at me. "Remember, Noah, stay in the ship. Any sign of trouble and you get this thing in the air, got it?"
Minutes later I watched on the external monitors as they headed off into the woods, dressed from head to toe in every stitch of clothing they could find.
"Hamilton, can you hear me?"
"I hear you, Noah. Don't worry. We'll be fine."
"Just keep me posted. If you come back telling stories of fighting off lions with your bare hands and I missed it all, I'll be very unhappy."
"I told you, " Sam said. "There aren't any lions in this part of the world."
For the next forty minutes I watched the holoscreens. A couple of red blips marked Sam and Hamilton's steady progress towards the two blue blips that had to be Mom and Dad. The blue dots moved in a line, sometimes seeming to run, sometimes stopping for several minutes. Sam and Hamilton were nearly on them.
"Do you see them?" I said.
"Not yet," Sam said.
I moved my chair back and forth, back and forth, my eyes fixed on the screen. The dots seemed to crawl.
"We see Dad," Hamilton said just when I thought I'd go crazy from waiting. "It looks like he's following an animal of some kind."
"Dad!" Sam's voice yelled over Hamilton's comm link.
Just then, I heard a loud thud outside the ship. I tore my gaze from the red and blue blips and looked to the window. Another thud as something smashed against the pane.
"We've got him, Noah!" Sam said. "We found Dad."
I flipped the screen to exterior monitors.
"You'd better get back here," I said. "We've got company."
I nearly laughed at what I saw outside the ship. It was like one of those so-bad-it's-good movies from the middle of the twentieth century, the kind Dad loved. A half-dozen men with long shaggy hair and beards, dressed in heavy animal furs, were throwing everything they could find at the ship. A couple of boys were doing their best to follow the men's lead.
"I'm being attacked by a bunch of cavemen."
"What?" Sam sounded out of breath. "What do you mean, attacked?"
"Attacked as in they're throwing rocks at the ship."
"Are they doing any damage, son?"
I studied the scene from each external camera.
"Hard to tell, Dad." Man, I loved saying that. "I can't see outside the ship so good, but I don't think so."
"Fine, just sit tight for a minute." I heard him whisper for a few seconds. "Noah, I think the best thing to do is just stay there. If it looks like they're starting to do any damage, fire up the engines. That should scare them off."
"Okay," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I hadn't realized how much I missed the sound of Dad's voice. "Can I talk to Mom?"
He was silent for a moment. "Didn't Moses tell you?"
"Tell us what?"
I could hear Sam and Hamilton asking the same question.
"Haon has your mom. He took off with her in the DUV II."
Dad said something about explaining once they got back to the ship, but I barely took it in. Mom was fine in the video we saw. At least she sounded fine. How could Haon have kidnapped her?
I tried to distract myself by watching the men outside. They'd realized they weren't doing any damage and were standing around the ship, either staring at it in disbelief or arguing.
I turned on the external microphones. Just as I reached for the translator, Sam's voice came over the comm.
"Noah, get the Morning Star in the air! Something big is headed your way."
I launched myself to the pilot's seat and grabbed the yoke.
"You heard her, let's get going." The shipboard computer ignited the lifters. A cloud of snow and steam billowed from under the Morning Star.
Outside, the cavemen backed away. Then, just as I was about to ease the ship off the ground, I heard thudding over the roar of the engines. The men outside heard it too-they ran back toward the ship and huddled together. I hovered a meter or two off the ground. Before I could give the ship more thrust, I heard a thump and the Morning Star tilted.
Turning to the external monitors, I saw a boy splayed across the ship's left wing. His eyes were wide with panic.
"What are you doing?" I yelled.
Quickly, I eased off the thrust and settled back toward the ground, but before I touched down, the source of the thudding became all too clear. A giant, brown, fury animal burst through the trees beside the ship and headed straight for the Morning Star-and the caveboy clinging to the wing.
"Get out of here!" I yelled. But he was frozen with fear, and couldn't hear me anyway.
A flash of tusks made up my mind for me. I twisted the yoke clockwise. The Morning Star swiveled right, taking the boy with it. A crash rocked the ship when what could only be described as a huge, hairy elephant smashed into the rear of the ship. I jerked the joystick sideways, and the wing dipped to the ground.
The boy slid off.
I tried to level off, but the Morning Star wouldn't respond. The external monitors at the rear of the ship showed the elephant was still there, thrashing about. Each jerk of its head sent shudders down my spine. One of the elephant's tusks had pierced the skin of the ship-it was stuck.
I had no choice. That thing would shake the Morning Star apart, and if it did we'd be stranded.
"Fire rear thrusters at five percent."
Gouts of flame erupted from the back of the ship and engulfed the elephant. In two seconds its fur ignited in a ball of yellow fire. The Morning Star lurched forward, and the panic-stricken creature pulled free.
I overestimated the sudden release of the elephant's weight, and the Morning Star surged left, smashing into a small stand of trees. I pulled the ship right and she turned sluggishly. I needed to get back on the ground.
With one check of the monitors to make sure I wasn't going to land on anyone, I dropped the Morning Star back to earth.
I surveyed the damage. Big trouble, any way I looked at it.
Sam, Hamilton, and Dad ran into the clearing. Dad, dressed in a winter parka, had a spear in his hand. A shaggy man in furs ran behind them, also carrying a spear. They all stopped and stared.
Too worried about Dad's reaction to the mess I'd made of things, I opened the outside hatch remotely and waited for them to come up to the cockpit.
I stared at the damage on the holoscreens. The elephant had fallen to the ground and wasn't moving. Would never move again.
Tears ran down my cheeks, and my shoulders shook. I couldn't help it-too much had happened. Mom was kidnapped. I'd killed the elephant. And who knows how much damage the animal had done to the ship, our only way off this planet. If I just hadn't parked the Morning Star so close to the trees-
I heard the door open behind me and turned to see Dad.
"Noah?" He rushed forward when he saw my face. "Are you okay?"
"I'm sorry, Dad." I choked. "I didn't mean to. I've ruined everything."
He leaned over and hugged me.
"That poor, hairy elephant..."
Dad smiled at me. "You mean the mastodon?"
He held my shoulders and looked me in the eye.
"I'm sure you didn't mean to kill him. Sometimes it's unavoidable."
"But... what about the ship?"
"I'd just as soon you hadn't run the Morning Star into the trees," he said, "but I'm sure Sam will figure out how to patch everything up. You're safe, that's all that matters right now."
"But what about Mom? We have to go rescue her!"
"Your mother's a strong woman. She'll most likely figure out a way to rescue herself."
I didn't get it-why wasn't he worried?
Hamilton and Sam came in, still breathing hard. Sam looked like she'd been crying.
"What took you so long?" Dad said.
Hamilton frowned. "We were right behind-"
"No, what took you so long getting here, to Earth? I sent Moses after your mother almost two weeks ago."
"That doesn't make any sense," Hamilton said. "We set the coordinates to the exact time he calibrated from your blood sample. Unless..." He paused and looked toward the ceiling. "We didn't appear where we should have, either. Earth wasn't where it was supposed to be."
"That makes sense," Dad said. "Wrong time equals wrong place. But why?"
"Moses was damaged when he returned." Hamilton thought for a moment. "Perhaps the sample was contaminated."
"Damaged how?" Dad said.
"It looked like he was hit by some kind of electrical shock. We had a hard time retrieving information from him-part of your message was scrambled."
"That's why you didn't know your mother had been captured?" Dad sighed. "I'm so sorry I hit you with the news like that."
"So what happened?" I said.
Dad sat down in the pilot's seat and swiveled toward us.
"After Haon killed that doe, your mother went back to the DUV II. We wanted to run a scan of the area to make sure Haon was really gone. I stayed out in the field to locate another deer."
He shook his head.
"I should have gone with her, but we figured if anyone was in danger, it'd be me. Not fifteen minutes later, I heard a rumble and turned around to see the DUV II rocketing toward the sky. I tried to contact your mother on the comm but got no response." He looked away from us, out the window-maybe he was more worried than I thought.
"I ran to the clearing where we'd landed. There was fresh snowfall-her tracks led straight to the clearing and didn't leave, so I decided she had to have been on board. I also found another set of tracks, much bigger, and knew it was Haon. There were drops of blood interspersed with his tracks-"
Sam gasped, and Hamilton went pale. Dad held up a hand.
"I'm certain they were from the deer Haon killed. I'm guessing he followed her on board, otherwise she'd have seen his tracks leading up to the hatch. Once on the ship, he must have overpowered her."
By now his eyes were starting to fill up.
"I felt so helpless."
We all waited for him to continue. In a way it was comforting that Dad seemed as lost as I felt, but it was sure unsettling.
"That's about it," he said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "I sent Moses after you, and I've been here ever since." He looked out the window and his mouth made a crooked smile, or maybe it was a grimace. "I did make some new friends, though."
I guessed he meant the shaggy man with the spear I'd seen earlier.
"The fact that Moses was damaged concerns me," he said. "Obviously Haon wants your mother for something and doesn't want us to find her."
"Maybe he just wanted the DUV II," I said. "She was at the wrong place at the wrong time." I wasn't sure I liked what that might mean. If Haon didn't need Mom, then maybe he'd get rid of her.
"It can travel through time," Hamilton said. "There aren't many ships that can do that." He hesitated, then said, "Except Haon must've already had a ship that could time travel. So it was Mother he was after." His face brightened. "Which means she's still-"
"Of course your mother is fine," Dad said. "But if Moses was damaged, Haon knows we tried to follow him and he'll be expecting us."
He went quiet. I watched him and thought about how worried I'd been the past couple days. Then it hit me: he'd been here two weeks. He'd been worrying about Mom all that time and probably worrying about us, too. Sometimes it's easy to forget parents have feelings too.
He looked at me, and I smiled. He smiled back.
"Okay, first things first. We need to assess the damage to the Morning Star." He glanced out the window. "And I need to have a talk with my friends."
He patted his chest and hip pockets.
"Where did I put those things? Ah, here we go." He produced a small clear bag, pulled out several tiny objects, and handed one to each of us. "Place this in one of your ears."
"A neurotranslator?" Hamilton said. "I didn't know you finished them."
"Can't let my son have all the patents." He grinned. "I've been tinkering with them for a few months now. I call them Triple-B's."
We all knew better than to even try to guess. Dad looked at us, grinning. He was feeling a lot better.
So was I.
"Bye Bye Babble," he said, then jerked his thumb at the window. "These cavemen will give you the perfect opportunity to try the Triple-B's out."
I fumbled with mine as I tried to fit it in my ear.
"Here, let me help you with that," Dad said, and there it was-snug in my ear. "The trick with the neurotranslator is calibration. The more you use it, the better it works. All commands are sent to the translator via thought-like your neuro-implant, Noah. If you want to talk with someone, just concentrate on the person's words, and the translator handles the rest. That allows you to control whose words you hear-otherwise, if you were in a room of people all speaking at once, the translator would run out of processing power and probably freeze up. Comprenez vous ce que je dis?"
I stared at Dad's lips, concentrating on his words. At least I tried to concentrate. It was hard when all I saw was his big shaggy beard sticking out all over his face. He really needed a trim.
"Comprenez vous ce que je dis? Do you understand what I am saying?"
"Oui." I smiled. I'd thought "yes," but when I spoke the Triple-B instantly translated English to French.
"Wouah! Cette chose est étonnante." Sam said. "Wow! This thing is amazing."
"The default speech processing is in whatever language it just translated. So if you just heard French, it will translate your words back in French. If you want to switch back to your native tongue, you can turn it off by thinking 'Babel off.' As you use it more you'll be able to switch to any language in its memory banks just by thinking that language. Like this: Jetzt spreche ich auf Deutsch."
All of us started speaking different languages. It was confusing the first minute or two, then we focused on one language at a time and did just fine.
"Looks like you've got the hang of it," Dad said. "Let's try it on our friends outside." He headed toward the door and yelled over his shoulder as he left the room: "N'oubliez pas vos manteaux d'hiver. Don't forget your winter coats."
I thought about Dad's reaction when he came aboard the Morning Star. I was sure I'd be in trouble. I should have been in trouble. But I wasn't.
It was exactly the same when I crashed the DUV I. Even though I'd lost the ship in New Mexico and we had to abandon it to the United States government, Dad was much more relieved than mad. Of course it wasn't like I was ever in any real danger-still.
Parents! I'd never figure them out.
Once outside, I was shocked by the cold. Even the arctic habitats on the ARC weren't this cold. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. This land had been covered in ice fifteen hundred meters thick only a few decades earlier. I hoped my chair wouldn't have any trouble functioning in the extreme temperature.
Dad walked toward the mastodon, where three men and a boy stood guarding it. They looked up, saw Dad, and waved. The man who'd followed him into the clearing held up his spear and shouted, then pointed at the huge felled beast.
I felt awful. The mastodon's dead eyes seemed to stare right at me.
The man lowered his spear and said, "Shelee pundak draxeem."
The translator crackled to life in my ear: "This is our meal."
Dad turned toward us. "Did you understand that?"
We all nodded.
"They're speaking a form of Hebrew. When I heard it the first time, I couldn't believe it-to hear that language this far north, and this far back in time." He turned toward the men again. "It has been a successful hunt."
My Triple-B instantly translated his ancient language back to English.
"I was working with Jobar there to herd the mastodon toward their hunters. Of course I didn't expect you to land the ship right in his path." He gave me a hard look, then cracked a smile.
Again the man with the spear spoke. His voice translated immediately.
"Tonight we will celebrate a gift from the land."
I saw the boy grin-
No, under all that shaggy hair he was actually a she.
"My son provided the meat." Dad puffed out his chest and patted me on the back. "He brought down the beast."
"Then he must be our guest of honor for a grand feast tonight-this meat will feed our tribe from dark moon to dark moon."
"We would be honored to join you." Dad pointed to the Morning Star. "We need to see how badly our vessel has been damaged. Please let us know when you're ready for us to join you."
"Of course. It will take time to carve the gift."
We waved and turned back to the Morning Star.
"Priority one is your mother," Dad said. "We need to get off this ball of ice and rescue her. Hamilton, why don't you and Sam take a look at the ship's diagnostics and see what it'll take to get her back to the ARC? Noah, you're with me. We'll see first-hand what kind of damage we're dealing with."
Sam and Hamilton disappeared into the ship while Dad and I walked toward her tail section. He ran his hand along the Morning Star's smooth, composite skin.
"She looks like she's seen a bit of action. You might have come in a little too hot."
I shook my head. Not likely.
I looked over at the mastodon now swarming with men and women who'd entered the clearing. Already they were carving off long strips of meat.
"I'm like him," I said.
Dad looked at the elephant, then at me.
"Haon," I said. "I saw what he did to that deer."
"Look at me, Noah." Dad waited until he was sure I was listening. "Haon kills animals for the fun of it. He loves to see living creatures bleed and die."
He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me toward the carcass.
"Do you love seeing that creature lying there dead? Did it bring you joy when you killed him?"
"No," I whispered.
"I didn't think so." He nodded towards the women who were now hauling some of the meat away. "There's nothing wrong with hunting to eat, to live. For thousands of years man hunted to survive. Until we were able to synthesize meat, most people still ate cows, pigs, chickens, sheep. Haon thinks all animals should be killed, not for food but for sport. And he loves the killing."
I took a deep breath and looked at the men and women carving the mastodon. They'd all starve if it weren't for the animals they hunted. I watched the girl I'd saved earlier, carrying a hide filled with strips of meat. She would die.
His face softened, and he smiled. "Let's see what's what with the ship."
He ran his finger along a gouge in the Morning Star's side. He stopped at a hole about the size of his fist. Ragged metal and composite tile fell away when he probed the damage.
"It looks punctured clear through." Dad bent and looked in the hole. "Bet if we went inside, we'd see light through this thing."
He straightened up. The suspense was killing me. I felt better about killing the elephant, but killing our only way home?
"I think we can fix this well enough to fly back to the ARC," Dad said. "I wouldn't want to burn through an atmosphere on reentry, but going up shouldn't be a problem. We just need to seal it against the vacuum of space."
He ruffled my hair. I was too astonished-and too grateful-to say anything.
"Better work those muscles in your jaw. This is going to take a lot of chewing gum."
"Sam, how long do you think it'll take to get the Morning Star ready to fly?"
Dad stood in the cockpit surveying the diagnostic report. Hamilton had said the damage from hitting the trees was minimal-it was the hole from the mastodon that needed the most work.
"I took a look, and as you suspected, the hole goes clean through to the rear storage compartment." Sam pointed to a schematic of the ship. "I thought about just sealing the airlocks, here and here-" She indicated two doors on either end of the storeroom. "I don't think that'll quite do the trick." But if we spot-weld plates on the inside, fill the cavity with expanding gel foam, and seal the airlocks, we should be good to go."
"But gel foam takes forty-eight hours to cure," Hamilton said.
"Two days before we can go get Mom?" I said. "What about bringing the ARC down?" I took a sip of hot chocolate, then wiped the cocoa mustache off my lips. "We have Hamilton's thermsuit. I could fly up and bring her down. The ARC's capable of inner-atmospheric flight, isn't she?"
"Technically," Dad said. "But not so fast. What about Hamilton's thermsuit?"
I kept my mouth shut. Sam's face split in a wide grin.
"Yeah, Dad, wait till you hear about Noah's little adventure."
He frowned. "I'm sure it's a doozy, but we'll talk about it later." He fixed his gaze on me for a few seconds, then continued. "As I was saying, it's possible to bring the ARC down, but we've never done it before. And then there's all the additional weight we've added to her. Those whales alone might cause trouble."
"I seriously doubt it, " Hamilton said. "They're a fraction of the total weight of the ship. I do agree it's too great a risk, though. If we lose the ARC, we're doomed."
"It's settled, then," Sam said. "We get the Morning Star repaired fast as we can, then rescue Mom from that madman." She looked at Hamilton and me. "I'll need help."
I frowned. I really wanted to go to the feast. "But-"
"I'll help you," Hamilton said. "Someone needs to be sure all the safety measures are observed."
"Good." Dad stood up. "Hail us on the comm if you run into trouble. Noah, let's go see how they're doing with your mastodon." He opened a cupboard and pulled out three long knives. "Maybe they can use help."
I grimaced at the idea of cutting up the meat but took one of the knives he handed me.
"Why not use a laser-blade?"
"Oh, I think knives will be advanced enough for them." Dad winked. "We probably shouldn't let cavemen play with lasers."
I grabbed my coat and followed him out of the galley. Moments later we were back in the cold.
A horde of men, women, and children had descended on the carcass. I was amazed at how well the crude stone tools they used cut meat off the bone. We approached with our knives. Dad handed one to an old women who was cutting larger strips of meat into smaller, manageable chunks.
"Here, this might make things a little easier."
She seemed skeptical when she accepted the thin metal blade, but after Dad showed her how easily his knife cut through the meat, her face exploded in a huge grin. Soon she was carving like a chef-bot. A group of people stood around her talking very fast.
"Back to work," the old woman said. Immediately they scattered.
Eventually we gave up our knives to those more used to cutting mastodon meat, so I looked around for something to do. The girl from the Morning Star's wing was still carrying loads of meat wrapped in skins on her shoulders.
I lowered my chair, picked up a bundle, and placed it on my lap.
"Can I help?"
"Sure," she said. "Our cave isn't far." She smiled. Dark eyes smiled too, under a mop of ratty brown hair. I watched her turn and walk down a trail through the woods and found myself wondering what she'd look like without all that hair all over her face.
I shook my head. What difference does it make what she looks like? I was thankful she couldn't see my face. My cheeks felt so warm I knew I was blushing.
Looking anywhere but at the girl, I pushed my chair down the trail.
Not far turned out to be three kilometers. By the time the trail ended at the edge of a canyon, my arms burned from steadying meat that wanted to slip off my lap at every turn. The girl, on the other hand, didn't look like she'd broken a sweat.
"Just down here." She giggled when she saw me struggling.
I followed her when she climbed down a narrow trail in the canyon's side that switched back and forth until eventually it dropped about forty meters. Smoke drifted toward the sky. She smiled at me again.
"We're almost there."
I caught an aroma that made my mouth water, then we rounded an outcropping of stone and saw the cave.
Set back into the rock and rising nearly fifty meters, the cave looked like a big amphitheater. Dozens of people were moving back and forth, preparing the meal. A massive fire burned in a pit toward the front of the cave, and women tended slabs of meat suspended over the flames on long, blackened poles.
I followed the girl to a bank of snow just off the near side of the cave. She dug a hole and laid her meat inside. I groaned in relief when I slid the meat off my lap into another hole she'd dug.
"Nice refrigerator," I said.
She looked at me and frowned. I realized the Triple-B didn't know how to translate the word, so it just gave it to her in English.
"Sorry," I said. "That's the name we give a place to keep stuff cold."
She laughed. "We don't have any trouble keeping things cold."
I really liked her laugh. I didn't have any real friends my age, only my brother and sister, Obadiah, and lots and lots of robots.
"My name's Noah. What's yours?"
"Adina, daughter of none."
"Adina's a nice name. Is None your father's name?"
She laughed again. "No, I'm the daughter of no one. My mother died while giving me life, and my father died on a hunt shortly after. So I am a daughter of none."
"I'm sorry. That sounds awful!"
"I was so young, I don't remember them at all." She grabbed my hand. "Come on, I'll show you our cave."
I followed her through the crowd. They all stared at me when we passed. Even though my chair must have mystified them, no one said anything. I wasn't sure I'd be so understanding of something so alien.
"This is where I sleep." She showed me a pile of furs, neatly folded next to a worn stone shelf. A few possessions lay on the rock.
"Here's a doll my mother made for me before I was born."
She held up a small object, vaguely person-shaped, carved from bone and strapped together with strips of leather.
"And here's my father's favorite skinning knife." She handed me a piece of flint chipped and shaped like a crude knife. "Careful, it's sharp."
I took off my gloves, tucked them in my coat pocket, and touched my finger to the edge.
"Wow, it really is." I set the knife down before I cut myself.
"And here's where we get water." She skipped over to a depression at the back of the cave, where a long thin band of gray clay separated the stone of the cave's roof from the floor. All along it, water seeped and filled up a small pool.
I dipped my hands into the water. It was cool but not as cold as I'd expected. I drank. It was really good-full of minerals, crisp and refreshing.
"That's amazing. I don't think I've ever tasted water that, well... had a taste."
She shook her head. "Water without taste? How boring!"
I looked around the cave. The walls toward the back were covered with crude paintings: men fighting mastodons with spears, people dancing around fires, scores of handprints of every size.
I turned toward the crowd of people swarming the cave-all working on some project or another. Some sat on the ground, grinding grain in worn depressions in the stone floor with smooth round stones in their hands. Others were mending fur garments with bone needles and some kind of thick, twine-like thread. Kids carried wood for the fire.
At first glance, I thought the shaggy-haired people didn't have much of a life. They probably struggled every day just to survive, yet they seemed happy. I watched them for a few minutes, laughing and talking with one another.
"Look, your father's coming." Adina looked back toward the trail. Dad walked with a group of men, helping them carry the mastodon's great tusks.
"They honor your father by allowing him to carry the creature's pride."
"They say the longer a mastodon's tusks, the greater its pride. The king of the mastodons was said to have tusks that curled around twice. It was his pride that brought him down when they grew too heavy for him to lift. The beast you killed today was a mighty creature with immense pride. And now your father brings the proof of his son's deeds."
She beamed as she watched the men struggle with the long, heavy, curved tusks.
"There will be a great celebration tonight-in your honor, Noah."
"I didn't do anything special." My cheeks were burning. "I was just trying to keep him from hurting our ship."
"Not just the ship. Don't think I missed what you did for me today." She looked down, then up at me through long lashes. "You saved my life. I'll find a way to repay you one day."
I turned away, not really wanting her to see the expression on my face.
"Let's go welcome your father." Adina ran off toward the far end of the cave. I followed, as did nearly everyone else.
Dad entered amid a sea of voices. He and the other men lifted the tusks into the air. Many were shouting, "To the hunter! To the hunter!"
Dad shook his head and pointed at me when they set the tusks on the cave floor.
"Remember, it was my son who felled the beast, all on his own."
The people around me turned.
"He is a child," a nearly toothless old man said.
"A child with a great heart," Dad said. "He has provided your people with life."
The crowd erupted in a cheer. Those nearest me lifted me out of my chair and onto their shoulders. They paraded around the cave, which made me feel weird. And then, for just a moment, I felt like everything was going to be all right.
At last they sat me down in my chair and urged me to move toward the fire. The tusks of the mastodon were brought over and placed on the ground around me. Adina ran up.
"You have the seat of honor. Whatever you need, I'll serve you."
I grinned. "I wish Sam and Hamilton were here to see this."
"Do you want me to go get them?"
"No, Dad says they need to stay and fix our ship, but maybe you can tell them the story. They'll never believe me."
She smiled. "That I will do. The story of Noah the mighty hunter, hero to our people."
As the sun set, the valley darkened. People pulled bits of burning wood from the main fire and used them to light other small fires around the cave, and the whole place brightened. It was actually getting hot now, so I took off my coat. Adina ran it to the back of the cave and laid it alongside her things.
She returned when the women tending the roasting mammoth announced it was ready. Adina carved the first piece and brought it to me on a flat stone.
"The first meat!" she said.
Everyone in the cave shouted, "The first meat!"
I looked at the red steak on my lap. And looked-I'd never eaten real meat before. Adina smiled and nodded. I cut a small bite, lifted it into my mouth and chewed, felt the juice flow down my throat.
And groaned in delight.
"This is amazing!"
Adina grinned. "I think I prefer deer, but mastodon is a close second."
After I began eating, Dad was given the second choice cut. Then the rest of the people lined up to receive generous portions of the mammoth.
Adina sat next to me. "You've never tasted mastodon before?"
"I've never tasted real meat before." I finished another sumptuous bite. She looked puzzled.
"How have you lived?"
"I have plenty of different foods to choose from, but all our meat's artificial." The look on her face told me the word didn't translate.
"Artificial means man-made-um, pretend food. Like your doll-it's not a real person, it just looks like one. Your mother made it."
"So you make your meat out of bones?"
"No-well, I don't think so. Actually I don't know what it's made of. That's why I eat PB&J sandwiches mostly."
"Peanut butter and jelly." I wiped my hand on my sleeve. "Up until now I'd have told you it was the greatest food in the solar system. You have to try one someday."
She smiled. "I'd like that."
We sat for a while enjoying our meal. For the most part, the cave was quiet except for the occasional belch, or other unexpected noises.
"Where is your home?" Adina asked when we'd eaten our fill.
"That's not an easy thing to answer." I looked up toward the stars beginning to twinkle in the night sky. "I was born on a planet a long way from here."
"Um... A great big land in the sky." I gestured around us. "This land, this planet, we call Earth. I was born on another planet, called Mars."
"So, Mars is your home?" She looked up at the sky as if she might suddenly see another world.
"Well, not really. I've lived most of my life on a great ship in the sky."
"A ship? Like the silver thing you killed the mastodon with?"
The firelight danced on her face. I'd never seen eyes that big.
I glanced back at the sky. "Yes, but much, much bigger." How to describe something so alien to her? "It's like a giant cave, with a whole lot of rooms. But it's not a part of the land, it moves."
Adina looked at me like I was a little off my rocker. Then someone shouted from across the fire.
Several people took up the chant. "A tale! A tale!"
Adina nudged me in the arm.
"It's tradition for the hunter who brought down the beast to tell a tale-you know, his adventures and daring."
I panicked. "My daring?"
She giggled. "The story doesn't have to be true."
I looked at Dad, who nodded. My stomach twisted in knots. Then I saw the expectant smile on Adina's face and the faces of dozens of people sitting around me, and raised my chair higher. I was the hero of the day, after all.
"I'll tell you the story of Elimu and Fathiya."
Dad smiled big. I could do this.
"The elephant is a mighty creature, as you all know."
But they all looked puzzled.
"Sorry, elephants are just like mastodons without the fur-tough gray skin, huge ears and tusks. They're not easy for a man to catch, and it's especially hard for a boy on his first hunt." So many nodded that my confidence grew.
"About two years ago, I was helping my dad track two of these elephants in the African...in a land far from here, where the sun always shines and you don't need to wear furs to keep warm." Some of the women looked at each other, then back at me.
"Dad and I were watching a herd of elephants grazing near a watering hole. I spotted a pair off by themselves, a male and a female, perfect for us. We had one of our ships ready with fences on each side of an entrance so we could herd the elephants in."
An old man to my right laughed. "Wouldn't it be easier to spear these elephants and take their meat into your ship?"
"Yeah, I guess it would be, but we didn't want their meat. We wanted them alive."
A kind of collective gasp rose from the crowd.
"Dad put me in charge of closing the doors to the ship once the elephants were inside. He went off to circle around the far side to scare them in my direction. I sat for what seemed like a long time until suddenly the elephants spooked and started moving towards me. I saw my father walking behind them, herding them toward the ship."
I looked at all the faces, shining in the firelight. I wasn't sure they understood the story completely, but they hung on every word.
"The two elephants were within three meters when I heard a loud popping sound!" I clapped my hands, and a few of the younger kids gasped. "The animals turned and started running off to the side, away from me. Dad yelled, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. A loud noise came from the far side of the watering hole, and I looked up to see a Range Rover barreling towards us." More puzzled faces.
"A Range Rover is kind of like our ship, but it moves along on the ground instead of in the sky."
"Another tribe had come to steal your elephants?" the same old man said.
"Poachers," I said. "Men who kill animals and take their pride, leaving the meat to rot in the sun." Many heads were shaking-with outrage or disbelief.
"Finally I could hear my dad telling me to get in the ship and prepare for takeoff. We had the refractor cloak-um, we had the ship well hidden, so the poachers didn't know it was there. I dashed in and fired up the engines. As soon as Dad made it to the ship, we took off and climbed about fifteen meters into the air. From above, I saw the poachers chasing the elephants. They were shooting at them, with their... fire spears.
"I told Dad to stay in the hold and leave the doors to the ship open. We raced ahead of the elephants. They were running through the brush, knocking over everything in their path. I had to time it just right. I remember Dad yelling he wasn't sure this was such a good idea."
Some of the men in the crowd smiled or chuckled. Parents, no doubt.
"I told him to trust me. The male elephant was running down a beaten trail, the female following. He was the one the poachers wanted most-he had enormous pride." Adina grinned at me.
"I saw an area not too far ahead of him that should do the trick. I knew I'd only have one chance. Just before the elephants reached a clearing, I dropped the ship to the ground in front of them, the door of the hold open. I heard a loud crash and the ship shook something fierce, but then Dad said, 'We got them! Get us out of here.' I hit the thrusters and lifted the ship into the air. The poachers screeched to a halt in the cloud of dust." I laughed. "One minute they were chasing elephants and the next both of them were gone.
"So that's how we got our two elephants. Sam, my sister, named them Elimu and Fathiya. They haven't had any babies yet, but we think it's just a matter of time."
The people clapped and cheered when I lowered my chair to the cave floor. Even better was Adina's smile and the look on her face.
"That was a good tale," Adina said. "I'm not sure how much of it I believe-"
"It's true, every word of it." Then I laughed. "Well, almost every word."
Sam's voice sounded over the comm-link.
"We're finished with the Morning Star repairs. We can go after Mom as soon as the gel foam is hardened."
"Good," Dad said. "Get inside and lock up for the night. I don't think it'll be safe for Noah and me to come home tonight, so we'll stay here. Tomorrow morning we'll come get you."
"Sounds good," Sam said. "Save some mammoth-burgers for us."
... continued ...
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Noah Zarc: Mammoth Trouble
by D. Robert Pease
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