Talie blushed even redder as she unfolded her hands, revealing a small, leather-bound book. Laid in gold across the cover, it said: The Life and Times of Isaac Matheson.
“I was a history nerd as a kid,” Talie explained, peeking out from loose curls of golden hair. “I studied both the past and the future. You were one of my favorites: the warrior running from war but who could never get away. I used to stay up late reading about you.”
Isaac shifted his weight, feeling uncomfortable under Talie’s intense gaze. Then Isaac remembered he was in bed and pulled the sheets tighter around his naked body.
“It must be nice knowing everything,” Isaac said. “Knowing who will live or die, who will be a hero or a traitor.”
Talie scowled. “I don’t know everything, unfortunately.”
She rose to her feet, and for a moment she became the beautiful, arrogant reporter from the viewlink again. Her skirt and jacket hung in sharp, straight lines, and the ribbon around her neck was tied into a crisp, stylish bow. Talie clutched the book to her chest, and her eyes became hard, like two violet gemstones.
“You are not the man I expected you to be,” Talie said. “So meek. So conflicted. If I hadn’t called attention to you back on the prison ship, I doubt you would have told them your idea. I don’t understand how you could be so different from the history books.
“Maybe I miscalculated all those years ago when we first met. Maybe in my excitement, I somehow altered your timeline. I should have been more careful. Whatever happened, I’m trying to fix it. I will fix it. I promise.”
Isaac grunted. “What about the Charity and the Hope and the others? What about all the people who died because of my idea? Will you fix that too?”
Talie waved her hand dismissively. “Those things were supposed to happen.”
“And am I supposed to become a traitor?”
Talie smirked. She came closer, undeterred by the glowing laser device in Isaac’s hand, and set the book on the bed. “Open it,” she said.
After a moment’s hesitation, Isaac obeyed. The old-fashioned book felt heavy, yet the individual pages seemed flimsy as he turned them. He saw words printed in ink and tried to read them, but they kept changing, morphing from one thing to another. Sentences and paragraphs shifted positions. Precious little stayed constant. The book kept telling the story of Isaac’s life in different ways presumably with different endings, all because Talie had miscalculated.
“I am sorry,” she said, sitting at the foot of the bed.
Isaac closed the book and gave it back.
“The defining moment of your life is yet to come. Until then, the way the author describes your past, present, and future will remain in flux.”
“Couldn’t you lose your job for this?” Isaac asked.
Talie laughed. “By the time I’m done with you, my boss won’t know anything ever went wrong.”
Isaac couldn’t help himself; he cracked a smile. Once again, the professional journalist had vanished, replaced by an imperfect human, one of God’s many imperfect children.
“I am so sorry,” Talie said. “You’re still too conflicted. In my efforts to help you, I’ve only confused you more. Commodore, you will be called a traitor, but I need you to promise you won’t do anything rash until you understand why.”
“What does that mean?”
Isaac’s first impulse told him to refuse, but he could no longer think of Talie as the enemy. She’d made a mistake, just like anyone, though Isaac couldn’t guess when or where that mistake had occurred. Who could comprehend the arcane methodology of time travelers? All Isaac knew was that in her own convoluted way, Talie was trying to make things right. Isaac sighed and nodded yes.
Talie opened the book and flipped through its pages. A satisfied grin spread over her face. “Thank you,” she said before disappearing in an eerie flash.
It was Sunday, according to the ship’s internal chronometer. Isaac stared at himself in a cracked mirror. His old, grey eyes drooped, his cheeks sagged, and his wrinkles carved a permanent frown onto his lips. His hair had turned white, as had the stubble coating his chin. Isaac looked away. He finished washing his hands and splashed some water on his face.
As Isaac dressed, someone knocked at the door. “Come in,” Isaac said, buttoning his shirt.
A girl stepped in, one of the children born during the voyage who’d known nothing but war all her life. Her ten-year-old face looked too much like an adult’s.
“Commodore, sir!” she said, standing at attention, her high-pitched voice squeaking. “Message from the bridge. Sensors have detected a planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere.”
Arms and legs locked straight, head tilted upward, the child looked like a Space Force cadet at roll call. She’d learned her sense of duty from Judith and Paul, yet beneath the military formality Isaac sensed giddy enthusiasm, as though in the girl’s head she were jumping up and down screaming, “A NEW PLANET! A NEW PLANET!”
Inside Isaac’s own head, he felt nothing but fear. He still didn’t understand Talie’s cryptic instructions, still didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
Isaac dismissed the girl. With her task complete, the child ran off to spread the good news throughout the ship.
* * *
Isaac entered the bridge and found the crew in hushed silence. Judith and Paul leaned over the sensor display, their faces illuminated by the glowing image of a planet.
“90% of the surface is covered in water,” Paul said.
“There’s proportionate cloud cover,” Judith added. “A stable magnetic field, though the radiation levels are a bit higher than normal.”
“But not dangerous.”
“Given our small population, a little extra radiation might improve genetic diversity.” Judith slid a finger across the touch screen, rotating the globe from dayside to night. “It’s perfect. We could establish a permanent settlement in a few years and have a full scale civilization within centuries.”
Judith and Paul stepped back, but their gazes didn’t stray from the small, aquamarine planet with its wispy clouds and tiny, lopsided moon.
“So we’re agreed?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” Judith said. “It must be a Hykonian trap.”
A trap? Isaac pushed past them and examined the sensor readings himself. At such a distance with all the distortions of time dilation and the Doppler effect, the picture looked too fuzzy. The rest of the star system, three gas giants and an airless, desert world, were equally blurred.
The nebula had aged, and most of the gases were used up. The color had faded to dull shades of purple, but molecular clouds still swirled through space, giving the Hykonians plenty of places to hide.
The Hykonians had altered their tactics. No one knew how they’d ambushed the Hope, but they’d used gravitational currents in the heart of the nebula to trap the St. Augustine and hidden in a star’s accretion disk to attack the King Solomon. Mother Magdalene, High Priest Timothy, most of the newcomers… they’d all died. Only the Faith survived. If the Hykonians had discovered this planet first, they could be waiting.
But the planet had oceans and air and evidence of chlorophyll based plants. Primitive animals might be crawling from the water for the first time. Here lay the Promised Land, so tantalizingly close.
“Navigation,” Judith said, “plot a course away from the planet.”
“How do you know it’s a trap?” Isaac asked.
Judith smiled. “An ancient saying: ‘Too good to be true.’ If we approach that planet, we leave the denser clouds and expose our position. The Hykonians wouldn’t miss the opportunity to finish us off. We cannot claim a new home until we defeat our enemies.”
“Surely, Commodore, sir,” Paul sneered, standing by Judith’s side, “you wouldn’t risk what little remains of our Community.”
Judith stared out the forward viewport, no doubt seeing Hykonian shadows behind every puff of hydrogen gas. The high priestess had changed over the years. She wore the same black dress every day like a uniform with a pair of silver crosses on the collar like military insignia. In her sermons, she no longer spoke about compassion but justice. Not forgiveness but retribution. Though Judith remained strong and defiant as ever, the Community’s consummate leader, she’d become obstinate and bellicose like Paul.
Isaac turned back to the sensor data and wished angels really did whisper in his ear. If only God would give him some sign, some miraculous signal to tell Isaac what he should do, but Isaac only had incomplete sensor data and a low-resolution image of the young planet.
“Navigation,” Judith ordered, “take us deeper into the nebula.”
“No!” Isaac yelled.
“Follow my orders,” Judith said, glaring at Isaac.
The pilot’s eyes darted between the commodore and the high priestess. Reluctantly, the young man reached for thruster control.
“Umm…” the pilot said, “navigation is locked. It says I need code nine authorization.”
Isaac stared at the sensor display. He’d considered many forms of sabotage over the centuries. Locking navigation was one of the easiest.
Isaac needed time. There had to be some clue. Something to tell him if the planet were safe. He scrolled through the data, checking for any discrepancy. Anything—chemical composition, gravitational field, orbital period—anything. The Faith wouldn’t come this way again for ages.