Keith Hobson sat in the dark and watched the raw video feeds that became the news. Earth Channel One captured the video for storage in London’s DNA data center. The raw footage—kept for historical purposes—was the real news. The EC approved streams that ran over Earth Channel One’s many networks was the news humanity needed to hear.
Earth Channel One was his idea, his and Charles Clark’s. Charles wanted a genuine propaganda wing for Explorer Corporation. He wanted every story—every disaster, every storm, every murder, every fire, every lost child—every detail of local, national, and global life connected with his vision.
When EC One had conquered the news, they manipulated other forms of media. They altered songs, plays, movies, shows, and books to reflect Charles Clark’s view of the future. Public apathy meant they didn’t have to alter older works, they offered new criticism instead; a revolutionary understanding of the past. EC One influenced every bit of media humanity consumed. A greater accomplishment than the Explorer Bridge. Space folding merely transported humanity, EC One had transformed it.
Knowing the leviathan, he ignored it. Since his retirement, on August 8, 2240, he hadn’t read a book, seen a movie, or listened to music produced after the twenty-second century. His retirement was one date he remembered with clarity, the date was tattooed on the inside of his left arm. Someone, maybe himself, had cut a complex network of lines and arcs over his right arm. Whoever created the work, they had left a network of scars without meaning. He studied it now.
“Why was this so important?”
He fumbled around the side of his chair, looking for his notebook. He kept his thoughts on paper, the last secure form of communication.
The inside front cover had the dates he wanted. “I was twenty-four when Charles made me communication’s director.” He spoke to the screen in front of him as if it was a camera in a newsroom.
He scanned the inscribed dates:
2184 the Gobi spaceport.
2187 USA and EU join EC
2196 the New Mexico and the Normandy spaceports
2199 christen the Santa Maria
2244 Earl Clark at EC
Others were more specific:
3/19/2241 Charles Clark dies.
12/6/2256 Erin Smart born.
4/6/2260 The Meeting.
6/5/2280 Earl dies (?).
He traced a line that joined Earl Clark’s appearance and Charles Clark’s death. The tattoo, the scars, and his journal seemed unrelated. He slid the journal into the chair’s side pocket.
“I am too old for this now,” He rubbed his eyes. “Damn you Charles, you never said I had to live so long.”
A monitor flashed. Someone was trying to redirect the Santa Maria’s video feed. That is news. With a thought his chair rolled to his antique terminal, one of the few on this ship with a physical screen and keyboard. They were good enough for Charles. These older, silicone and graphene systems were officially offline, but old, sleepy, leviathans found service, if you knew how to prod them. He hen-pecked his password, double-checking the entry.
This was the footage Captain Smart was trying to hide. Three people entered an elevator. Erin Smart was unforgettable in her blue jeans and flannel shirts, her hair an uncontrolled mess in the low gravity of the ship. Jenna was also familiar though less interesting than the man she berated. Keith leaned forward. The time had come, he was here.
He thought the lights on. Startled, he studied the new glow. He meant to say lights, but they came on before he could speak. The phenomena were still disconcerting. Knowing another’s answer to an unasked question drove him to Mars. Fewer people meant fewer thoughts to distract him.
The chair rolled to a closet door that doubled as a full-length mirror. His disheveled appearance bothered him. That he was growing accustomed to it would upset Charles. He pinched a roll of fat sneaking from under his partially buttoned shirt.
With another thought, his chair reclined, and service drones emerged from the closet. F-Grav disengaged, and he pushed himself out of his chair. Floating above it, but still tethered to the box that extended his life, a service drone began washing him. Another shaved his face while another massaged his lower body. He dressed himself. An advantage of the F-Grav system he did not have on Mars. He wore a white suit with a royal blue shirt and gleaming white necktie. Charles had worn the same while Earl insisted on white linens. A regression to his true form.
“Ready,” he said to the well-coiffed man in the mirror.
He settled in to the chair and engaged F-Grav. His cabin door refused him exit, “You are to remain in your quarters until further notice.”
“Medical Emergency,” he said. Too late, the door opened. He rubbed the lobe of his ear in frustration. A habit that formed when the telepathy started. A feeble attempt to block unspoken words and the incessant hum of electronics. While the Santa Maria’s computer systems did not speak, they hummed an ever-changing tune. For Keith Hobson, the Santa Maria was a beehive that never slept.
He paused at the elevator door and wondered what came first, human thought or the hum of digital information. Without pushing a button, or thumbing his chair control, the elevator door opened, and his chair rolled into the car. He enjoyed a nonstop ride to the top of tower. No one roamed these halls after Jenna Smart’s orders.
“I need to stop that.” He looked at the elevator’s camera and waved a hand. That video did not make it to EC One’s archive. With an effort, he pushed the chair’s joystick forward, rolled out of the elevator, and to the Captain’s door.
He feared the door would open without him ringing first. It didn’t. He sat a full minute, listening to the hum of the door’s control pad and his heart pumping at a pace unfamiliar to him. The wheelchair’s pumps compensated, he tried to match the new note with a slight hum of his own. Composed, he rang the bell. The chime sounded when he pushed the button with his finger, and not a second earlier.
The door did not open. He rang again. He grew concerned that he would open the door before Erin. Then he recalled the executive tower lockdown. He opened the door for her. Erin Smart stood on the other side with her mouth open.
“Hello,” Keith said. “I am a friend of your fathers. Might I come in?”
“The tower section is on lockdown,” Erin said. “How did you get here?”
“I go unnoticed. It’s an advantage of being old.” He gave her a big grin and offered his hand. She took it. “I am Keith Hobson. I knew your father, somewhat, and your grandfather rather well.”
“Yea. I know who you are. But what are you doing here?”
“I am here to see Earl.”
Erin’s hand went limp in his. He let it go and waited for a verbal answer. Panicked thought came in images rather than words. The final thought was a satisfaction at the opportunity to understand his wheelchair.
“OK.” Erin said.
He sat still, waiting for her voice to register and for her to step aside. When she did, he pushed a joystick forward and rolled into the room. Two chairs and a loveseat marked one side of the room. A glass bar separated him from the far wall. The kitchen area was unused, its systems were quiet. Captain Smart ate in the crew galley.
“How old are you?” Erin said from behind him.
He turned his chair around. “Child, what an inappropriate question to start an interview.”
“I am sorry, it’s just Francis said you were alive for the Arabian Impact. Is that true?”
“Do you know this Francis as a liar?”
“No. It’s just the Arabian Impact was one hundred twenty-five years ago, today. That means you’re at least one twenty-five.”
“I was thirteen when the asteroid struck.”
“You’re a hundred and thirty-eight?” Her voice raised with each word.
“If you say so. Are you done being rude?”
Her face turned red, and she settled on one leg, propping her other foot against it. She crossed her arms over her breasts and looked at him for the first time.
“I am sorry. I not good with people.”
Her mind focused on his chair and the EC archives.
“Me neither. Not anymore. People were my thing once. That is why Charles hired me. Why we created Earth Channel One.”
When Erin didn’t respond, he wondered if he had spoken the last words.
“Why are you here?” She said after a long silence.
“I told you child, I am here to see Earl Clark.”
“But my father’s dead. He was killed at Eris Station.”
Twice now, he had mentioned Earl’s name, and both times Erin’s thoughts filled with visions of Earl lying naked in the sand, his legs and shoulder blistered from burns. Then Earl unconscious on a shuttle’s floor and again on the sand. Behind the images, he sensed a truth they shared. Earl was alive, and he was an alien. A fact she was no longer comfortable with, something had shaken her confidence in her father.
“I am too old for these games child. We both know who and what your father is. I have information he needs.”
Erin dropped her foot and marched to the door. She tried to open it, it reminded her of the lockdown.
“I really think you should leave.” She said.
“I can’t. I must meet with Earl Clark.”
“No, he’s not. He’s alive and behind one of those three doors,” he pointed to the back wall. “He is sick, injured by a conflict and something is wrong with him that you cannot understand. I must speak with him.”
“Three?” Erin said, and swallowed hard. “There are only two doors.”
Keith turned his chair to view the back wall. Three doors were visible to him.
“I see.” He commanded his chair next to Erin. The game was up, might as well spill the beans.
“I see three doors, and you know there are three doors. I see three doors because the fluid this chair pumps in me lets me see three doors. The same liquid lets me do other things. I can read your thoughts, for instance, or control the systems on this ship with a thought. I know your curiosity child. I will tell you about this chair, but first I must speak with him.”
Erin stood against the door, her hands behind her. She produced a small tablet from her back pocket. Her hands shook when she noticed it was off.
“It won’t power on child. I won’t let it. Now take me to Earl.”
“How can you do that?” She pressed the power button on the tablet.
“I will explain—”
She jumped, low gravity aided her, she flew over Keith’s head, pushed off the ceiling, and aimed herself for the glass table in the middle of the room. She grabbed the table with her hands, and hand walked across it to a chair with a large bag on it.
Keith noticed that she left her cowboy boots by the door. She must have kicked them off while he focused on the tablet. The bag was full of tablets. He powered them off with a thought.
If the child was flying around, he should too. His chair lifted a few centimeters. Gliding now, he fired air jets and directed the chair for what he hoped was the bedroom door.
Erin fumbled with her dead tablets, tossing each away as they refused to power on. He opened the bedroom door to find Earl Clark, waiting for him.
Keith reactivated F-Grav, his chair settled to the floor. Erin and several tablets landed with a thump behind him.
“How do you do that?” She said.
Keith ignored her. The image in front of him was more important. He saw Earl Clark, but he could not sense him. No thoughts came from the man in front of him.
“Hello,” he said, then felt foolish.
Behind him he knew Erin had found a knife in the kitchen. She pointed it at him, but she could not use it on him. His chair, however, was fair game. Breaking her tablets bothered her more than his discovering Earl.
“I will not hurt him,” Keith said. “He was my friend long before he was your father.”
Earl’s forehead wrinkled with concentration.
“I don’t know you. With everything that has happened. I—”
“I know everything child. More than you, I am certain. That was my job. Keeping the record. Preparing people for what comes next.”
“What comes next?”
“Keith?” Earl said.
“Yes, I am Keith Hobson. I was Charles’s closest friend.” Keith stretched a hand in greeting.
Earl ignored it. His forehead furrowed. He looked as if he was trying to speed-read a book.
“What comes next?” Erin asked again.
“We go home. That was the plan. When we get to Explorer Bridge, rescue Amah, we go home,” Earl said.
“What comes next?” Erin yelled the question.
Keith turned his chair to face her. She held a long bread knife with both hands, thrusting it out in front of her like a shield.
“What did Earl say? She’s missing?”
“Who?” Erin said.
“Amah child. The Amah.”
“I didn’t say—”
“No, but he did,” He turned his chair again. “You did say rescue Amah?”
“Yes,” Earl said. “We have to…” He trailed off with that speed reading look again.
“What has happened to Amah?”
“How do you know about Amah?” Erin’s curiosity had switched to the problems at hand.
“Tenakee took her,” Earl said.
Keith watched his lips move. Certain he spoke, he considered the implications. Tenakee, he knew the name, but nothing more without consulting his journal. Earl spoke, but he did not think. How could that be?
“What’s wrong with you?” He asked Earl.
“How do you know about Amah?” Erin touched the knife to his back.
“Put the knife down child. I am an old man. I couldn’t hurt you if I tried.”
“But you disabled my tablets. How?”
“I don’t know. It just happens. I think it, and computers respond.”
“Can you do that with me?”
“No. It doesn’t work with humans. Just the latest computer systems.”
Erin’s mind skipped from Amah. Could I control computers like that?
Unable to read Earl, he turned the chair again. Erin lowered the knife but kept both hands on the blade.
“Are you one of them?” Erin asked him. “One that we don’t know about?”
For a moment, Keith thought he was an alien. He had manipulated so many facts before he discovered the truth that he could be the alien and Earl the human. That would explain his telepathy. He turned his chair to face Earl who had retreated to sit on the bed.
His lips moved and his eyes darted around. He looked like a crazy vagrant.
Keith retrieved his leather-bound journal from a side pocket of the chair. He unwrapped the strap that held it closed and held the book on his lap.
“Well?” Erin asked from behind him.
“Well what child?”
“Are you an alien?”
He looked over the crown of the chair at the young girl standing beside him. Was he ever that young?
“How old are you?”
Erin released one hand from the knife and stood straighter, but she didn’t answer, not aloud anyways. He waited for her lips to move. But they didn’t.
“Well, child. How old are you? I told you how old I was. It is only fair that you do the same.”
“You know,” she said. “If you can read my mind, you already know my age.”
“And if you read my biography, you already knew how old I was. But still you made me tell you. Now how old are you?”
“I am twenty-seven.”
“Twenty-seven. It’s hard to believe, but I was twenty-seven once too. I was working for your grandfather at that age. I started young. Just like you, but I was good with people. I hated technology, but I knew I needed it. You are good with computers, but terrible with people. It’s time you learned that you need people child. We didn’t do all this on our own.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“See. That. That right there is an example. I answered your question, but you couldn’t see it. Like when you asked me my age, you knew the answer, but still you asked. And you know the answer to this question too, but you need me to say it because you can’t read people the why I can. I am human, child. Aliens don’t get muscular dystrophy.”
Satisfied, he let go of her gaze and turned his attention back to Earl. He adjusted the journal in his lap. Only a few more moments and he could hand over the book and die.
Earl ignored them. He sat on the edge of the bed, reading the floor. After a long moment of silence, he said, “You’re Keith Hobson.”
Keith cleared his throat and nodded. He picked up his journal, then realized Earl had not asked for it.
“You worked for Charles,” Earl said. “But that is all I can remember.”
“Something is wrong with him,” he said over his shoulder to Erin. “We met on Mars. April six, twenty-two sixty, do you remember?”
Earl shook his head.
Keith fastened the strap around his journal. “But you do know that I worked for Charles?”
“And that I know who you are, an alien trying to find his way home.”
Earl looked as if he was speed-reading the floor again.
“Earl,” Erin said. “What’s wrong?” She sat on the bed next to him.
“I am human,” he said. “Without… Without it.”
“The Seed,” Keith said. “He doesn’t have a connection to the Seed. That is why I can’t read his mind. He doesn’t have one.”
The panic images from Erin distracted him from Earl’s answer. He rubbed his ear.
“Yes,” he said, unsure of Earl’s answer. He slid the journal into the pocket at the side of his chair.
“What do you mean he doesn’t have a mind?” Erin held Earl’s hand.
“I am human, a clone. This body was grown in a tank. Without the stimulation of a normal life, my brain is just a collection of ganglia. My mind came from the Seed.”
“I thought you told us everything.” Erin stood. “You, promised.”
Earl looked distraught.
“How old am I child?” Keith said.
Erin could swear like Jenna Smart, just not aloud.
“As old as I am, I don’t know everything, and I worked with Charles. How could you expect him to tell you his entire story in a shuttle ride?”
Erin sat and took Earl’s hand. Her thoughts darted around like a fly.
Keith rolled next to them. “I can help,” he said.
“How?” Earl said. “Without the Seed, my memories are fading. I can’t recall basic facts, like the size of this room, or the power capacity of the Santa Maria’s generators. If we don’t find her, I might not…”
“What? Might not what?” Erin’s skipped over the words.
“Might not function,” Keith said. “He might become one of those corpses they used to spy.”
The panicked images from Erin’s mind were strong, he had to pull hard on his earlobe to shut them off.
“Keith, I told you, they are not dead, they are Tomo drones.”
Keith laughed. “Yes, so you did. See child, his memory is better than mine. Now if you give me some silence, I will see what I can do.”
I am good at that, she thought, or said. He wasn’t sure.
“Stop that chatter,” he said. “It’s distracting.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
Keith squeezed her fingers. “I know child. I know. Try not to think.”
He focused on Earl. How to read the mind of a man that doesn’t have one? The only memory he had to find was the one about their meeting on Mars.