High Priest Timothy watched the sensor displays, tracking the approaching ships. Timothy had led most of the newcomers and, like Isaac, he’d once served in the Space Force, though the priest took more pride in his military career than Isaac ever would. Timothy and his followers came from a different era, with strange speech patterns and new ways of worship; but in time dilated flight, their home century belonged to the distant past just like everyone else’s.
“Problem evident,” Timothy announced in his odd dialect. “Approaching vessels’ time dilation: 166 years per hour. Communications sync impossible unless time dilation matches ours.”
“Can we see them yet?” Judith asked.
“Visual scanners not yet corrected for Doppler shifts,” Timothy answered. “Distance: twenty-five million kilometers.”
“I’m detecting a signal!” the communications tech yelled. “A transmission beam focused on the Charity. No, wait! Five beams! All five ships are transmitting to the Charity!”
“Impossible,” Timothy said.
“Anything is possible in God’s universe,” Paul replied.
“What are they saying?” Judith said, half rising from her seat. “Can we raise the Charity on voicelink?”
Isaac fidgeted in his uncomfortable chair. The communications tech tried to hail the Charity. Two additional technicians assisted him. An extra man or woman stood at every bridge station, eagerly awaiting first contact with the incoming ships. Isaac wished he could share their enthusiasm, but he felt only unspecified dread.
“Commodore, sir!” a young officer shouted. “The magnetic field around the Charity is depolarizing.”
Isaac leapt from his seat, shoving two crewmen aside. He checked the navigational display, reading through sensor data as the Charity’s protective shields collapsed. The Community had already entered the outermost dust clouds of the nebula. Hydrogen gas and microscopic clumps of dirt surrounded the fleet. Without a magnetic field to repel those particles, the Charity would inevitably collide with them. At near light speed, the impacts would hit like a spray of bullets, a cruel consequence of Newton’s laws.
Sensors revealed a dense molecular cloud directly in the Charity’s path. The Charity began to turn, attempting to veer away from the danger. Instead, the ship smashed through the cloud at an angle. Countless microscopic particles shredded the old bulk freighter’s hull. The oxygen tanks burst. A silent fire erupted in the aft sections, and the massive starship corkscrewed out of control.
“My God,” someone whispered.
“Those weren’t transmission beams,” Isaac said. “They were ion cannons. Those five ships deliberately knocked out the Charity’s defenses.”
Carried by its own colossal momentum, the Charity spiraled toward the nebula. The fires burned out in seconds, smothered by the vacuum of space. The running lights turned dark, and if anyone had survived the initial impacts and explosions, they would soon asphyxiate.
“Navigation!” Isaac shouted. “Fire thrusters one-zero-one forward and six-zero-six aft. Communications, order the fleet to break formation.”
“The Charity!” Magdalene screamed. “We have to help the Charity!”
“They’re already dead,” Isaac answered, watching on sensors as the five unidentified vessels began “transmitting” to the St. Augustine.
“There could be survivors!” Magdalene yelled.
“No,” Judith said soothingly, pulling the taller woman away. “No one could survive that.”
As the Faith turned in its maneuver, Isaac caught a glimpse of the attacking ships in the viewport. The Doppler effect made them hard to see, but their round shapes echoed the flying saucers of history. These ships belonged to humanity’s oldest, most bitter rivals.
“Hykonians,” Timothy said, his voice full of the same ancient hatred so many humans shared.
“The St. Augustine has lost its magnetic field on the starboard side,” a technician reported. “They’re adjusting course to keep the port side forward.”
“Commodore, sir! The enemy is targeting us!”
“Navigation,” Isaac said, “fire thrusters three-zero-three through three-zero-nine, port side.”
“That’ll push us into a molecular cloud,” the pilot warned.
Isaac turned to answer but stopped. Talie Tappler had appeared. She sat in the captain’s chair examining her long, dainty fingernails while her cyborg cameraman filmed the battle.
Isaac shook his head. He didn’t have time to deal with time travelers. “We’ll be safe so long as our magnetic field remains intact. The molecular cloud should scatter and diffuse the blasts from those ion cannons.”
The navigator nodded and began to turn the ship. The molecular cloud parted, pushed aside by the Faith’s magnetic field.
The Hykonian ships were traveling too fast, and a moment later they overshot their targets. Isaac watched on sensors hoping—praying, even—that they wouldn’t execute the sharp 90-degree turns Hykonian pilots were famous for. Two such turns and they could strike again.
But it seemed the Hykonians could not make sharp turns. Perhaps they didn’t wish to engage in a prolonged battle. Perhaps they were merely the advance guard of a larger Hykonian armada. Or perhaps, like the Community itself, these Hykonians were exiles limited by their own rust-bucket spacecraft. Isaac counted off distances, waiting until the five enemy vessels disappeared from sensors.
Tap, tap. “Can I ask a few questions?” Talie said.
* * *
Every deck aboard the Faith was a dull, used-to-be grey color, except the chapel. Previously a mid-load cargo bay, the Community had transformed it, replacing strip lights with synthetic wax candles and painting the walls bright orange with images inspired by the Bible. Jonah and the Whale loomed prominently over the altar; that story had become a Community favorite since going into exile.
The leaders of the Community held their meetings in the chapel, so that was where they went following the Hykonian attack. Judith leaned against the wall. Magdalene sat in a pew, her eyes red, her jaw clenched tight. Paul paced back and forth, and Timothy stood at attention like the soldier he’d always been and always would be.
“Ion cannons don’t cause physical damage,” Isaac explained. “They disrupt electrical systems. The Hykonians used them to disrupt the Charity’s magnetic field, leaving the ship vulnerable to cosmic dust collisions.”
“Lovely,” Paul muttered.
“Isaac,” Judith said, “did the reporter tell you anything?”
Talie had refused to talk to anyone else. She’d led Isaac to a private room and conducted an interview that was, for Isaac, even more awkward than the first. The cyborg cameraman stood motionless, his expression blank, his oversized camera eye focused on Isaac’s expertly lit face. In contrast, Talie bubbled with cheer, gushing over Isaac’s performance in battle and asking how he thought history would remember him. She’d blushed when he spoke to her, and at one point she giggled.
When they finished, the cyborg packed up his hover lamps, Talie pressed a button on her brass pocket watch, and the two of them vanished in an eerie flash that stung Isaac’s eyes.
“She told me,” Isaac said, trying not to look at anyone. “She told me she’s doing a three part series on…” he hesitated to say it “… on ‘Isaac’s Crusade.’”
“Part One included our trial and exile,” Isaac continued, staring at the image of Jonah cowering before the Whale’s gaping maw. “Part Two is the war with the Hykonians. Talie said she’ll return when it’s time for Part Three.”
“Part Three?” Timothy said. “No idea of content?”
“N-no…” Isaac answered.
“Talie Tappler is a cunning woman,” Judith said. “If she didn’t want us to know the future, she wouldn’t let anything slip.”
“The Tomorrow News Network’s policy is to report the news,” Paul added, “not change it. Even if we could watch their broadcasts, they’d censor anything related to our own future.”
“Not censored when I viewed it,” Timothy said. “Whole Community viewed it in my century.”
“You only saw Part One,” Isaac replied.
“Okay, let’s forget about time travelers,” Judith said, assuming the leadership role she handled so well. “We’ve been attacked. Our brothers and sisters are dead. What do we do now?”
“Weapons necessary,” Timothy stated. “Prepare for next assault. Perhaps prepare counter assault.”
“No,” Isaac said. “Maybe there’s a peaceful solution. I think they’re refugees, like us. Hykonian warships are more maneuverable, and the Hykonian military possesses better armaments than ion cannons. If we could talk to them…”
“Impossible,” Timothy said. “Hykonians hate Earth Empire. Hate with passion.”
“But we aren’t the Earth Empire. Maybe they don’t realize that. If we could communicate with them, negotiate a peace treaty…”
“Impossible. Hykonians plus peace? Impossible.”
“Damn it! The nebula is big enough for us both. We just have to talk to them.”
Timothy shook his head and turned to Judith. “Enemy rate of time dilation greater than ours. Cannot sync communications. Cannot talk to them.”
“Talk?” Paul said. “I think the Hykonians made their intentions clear without a single word: they want us dead.”
“Shut up, Paul,” Isaac snapped. “We’re not the Earth Empire. We don’t have to fight their wars. Earth is over a thousand light-years behind us!”
“Does not matter,” Timothy said. “Hykonians attacked first. Will attack again. War upon us. Community must defend itself. You and I, Isaac, fought wars before, understand better than most.”
Isaac clenched his fists. He could hear his pulse thumping in his head. Judith and Paul watched him, holding their breaths, and even Magdalene had emerged from her catatonic state.
Isaac turned his back on them. “I joined the Community to escape war,” he said. His anger faded, leaving only a pounding headache. He collapsed into a pew, closed his eyes, and gently rubbed his forehead.