September 27, 2999 C.E.
Mariposa Hernandez arched her left eyebrow as she looked at the cargo manifest the freighter pilot had just downloaded to her pad. “Ashes?”
She checked the planet of origin on the form, and her implant revealed Jeroboam was 37,592 light years from Earth. Her puzzlement increased–in the three years she’d worked on Orbital Customs Station 27, she’d never seen a freighter from so far out. It must have taken him over two years in that antiquated ship. “You’ve come 37 k-lights with nothing but ashes?”
From behind the diamondglass wall of his quarantine cell, the pilot shrugged at her. “Our planet ain’t got much worth trading. Not that the ashes are for sale.”
She looked up the pilot’s name on her pad: Shear-jashub Cooper. “Mr. Cooper, why are you trying to import ashes to Earth if they’re not for sale?”
“Religious reasons.” His tone was matter-of-fact.
“I see,” she said, as if his explanation made sense. She had a vague memory that her Catholic great-great-grandmother sometimes got marked on the forehead with ashes, so she queried her implant about the religious significance. Nothing relevant to the importation of ashes from other planets came up.
She looked down at her pad. Ashes. “Ashes of what?” she asked. “Are they biological?”
Cooper nodded slowly. “They are the ashes of the 9746 founders of Jeroboam Colony. I’m returning them to the planet of their birth.”
“Human remains?” She queried against Earth Customs and Immigration Enforcement Regulations and found several subsections devoted to importation of human biological material. “You’ll need to get special clearance for that. I’ll send the forms to your pad.”
“Thank you.” He smiled at her.
“I’ll also need to run a thorough scan on your cargo. I hope that doesn’t offend any religious sentiments, but we can’t risk–”
She pointed to the chair at the desk inside the quarantine cell. “Please sit and put your arm on the desk so the system can take a blood sample.” She sent a command to the system through her implant, and a holographic image appeared at the desk to show Cooper the proper way to put his arm.
“Blood sample? You folks take customs seriously.” He smiled as he spoke, and he walked to the desk and superimposed his arm on the holographic one.
A restraining field flickered to life across his forearm, as a robotic needle arm emerged from a hidden compartment of the desk. With smooth efficiency it scanned his arm for a good location, inserted the needle, and let blood flow through one of its transparent tubes. After about thirty seconds, it withdrew and stowed itself.
“Seems like an awful big sample,” said Cooper.
“We want to be sure we catch any unknown disease elements in your blood.”
A hatch opened on Mariposa’s side of the quarantine wall, and she took out the vial of blood.
“Medical says this is the optimal sample size. It’ll take them a few hours to run the tests,” Mariposa said. “If you’re cleared, you’ll be allowed into the public areas of Station 27. We have some restaurants and various entertainment facilities. Your ship will remain under quarantine, though, until I’ve had a chance to examine it.”
He grinned at her. “Any chance I could buy you a meal?”
Mariposa stared at him. It took her a moment to realize that this was probably a signal of attraction on his part, rather than an attempt at bribery.
He spoke again before she could respond. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. You probably get pilots asking you out all the time.”
“No, actually,” she said. “Most of the pilots that come through here know better. All Earth Customs Agents have their sex drives suppressed during tours of duty, so we can’t be seduced into bending the rules.”
To Mariposa’s surprise, Cooper blushed. “Well. I guess the Elders were wrong.”
“The leaders of Jeroboam. They warned me all the women of Old Earth were temptresses who would try to lure me to their beds.”
Just before reaching Medical, Mariposa got a thoughtcall from Verdun through her implant.
«What’s your estimation of the Jeroboam pilot?» Verdun asked.
Mariposa frowned and stopped walking. Verdun was the head of the Earth Planetary Customs Service. As a high-level AI, Verdun was easily capable of directly overseeing the work of over 100,000 Customs Agents, but it rarely micromanaged.
«He seems nice enough,» Mariposa replied, «if a bit ignorant of how we run things around here. But I don’t think he’ll be a problem.»
«He’s already a problem. His ship should have been red-flagged before it arrived. It shouldn’t have even been allowed to dock.»
«I’m sorry. Nothing came up on–»
«Not your fault. Data integration problem with old records–I’ve fixed it. Did he seem hostile?»
«Hostile? No. What’s this about?»
«That ship and its crew must be considered as possible enemy combatants. Protocol dictates that you arm yourself before any further interaction.»
«Enemy?» There hadn’t been a war since before Mariposa’s birth. «What enemy?»
«Jeroboam Colony has been at war with the United Worlds for the past 592 years. They broke off diplomatic ties in December, 2407, and the UW assembly passed an embargo resolution six months later. Trade with Jeroboam is completely forbidden.»
The floatgun’s countergrav generator whirred softly from its position above Mariposa’s right shoulder as she walked into the room adjoining Cooper’s quarantine cell. Verdun had told her she’d get used to it, but she hoped the situation would be resolved before that.
Cooper cocked his head when he saw her. “So, my blood pure enough I can get out of this box?” His eyes darted to the floatgun and his brow wrinkled.
Mariposa stopped two paces from the glass wall. “Shear-jashub Cooper, I regret to inform you that you are now a prisoner of war. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, you will–”
“What?” Mouth open, Cooper squinted at her.
“The Geneva Conventions are the protocols regarding treatment of prisoners of war.” Returning to the script Verdun had given her, Mariposa said, “You will be treated humanely, until the war is over and you can be repatriated. I will send an explanation of your rights to your pad.”
Cooper rubbed a hand over the back of his head. “You can’t do this! I need to get those ashes down to Earth.”
“Your ship and its contents have been seized. You and your ship will be turned over to military authorities when possible.” Mariposa’s voice softened as she said, “I’m sorry.”
“Please, this has to be a mistake. We are a peaceful planet. We can’t possibly have anything you want.”
“Mr. Cooper, your planet declared war on the UW.”
“Is this some sort of psychological test?” He shook his head. “The Elders wouldn’t start a war while I was on this mission–and even if they did, with our tech level it would be like a flea declaring war on a comet.”
«He’s right, Verdun,» she sent through her implant. «It doesn’t make sense.»
«The technological differential existed when they declared war. The decision was not rational on their part.»
She pressed her lips together for a moment, then spoke aloud. “This is silly. For the record, Mr. Cooper, do you know anything at all about a war your planet started 600 years ago?”
«This isn’t the proper protocol.» Verdun’s disapproval was almost tangible through Mariposa’s implant.
“Six hundred years? We were barely a colo… Oh.” Cooper’s face turned red.
Mariposa arched an eyebrow.
“Look, you have to understand that the Founding Elders were persecuted on Earth for their religious beliefs. They wanted to leave Old Earth and its evils behind–that’s why they found a planet so far away that there weren’t any colonies within a hundred lights until fifty years ago. It’s only since then that we’ve started having interstellar trade. My ship is the only FTL ship we have.”
She nodded encouragement.
“So when the Founding Elders established Jeroboam, they sent a message back to Earth, called the Declaration of Holy Separation. Every child learns about it in school.”
“What did it say?” Mariposa asked, even as she queried her implant for information on the document.
Cooper scratched the back of his neck. “Don’t know as I can quote it word for word any more, but… It begins: ‘As you have cast us out from Earth into the heavens, so shall God cast you out from Heaven into the eternal fires of Hell.’ There’s a lot more, but the important thing is the end: ‘And to maintain our holy separation, we declare war against all evil which might come against us, and we fear not, for God is the pillar of fire which shall consume the wicked.'”
As he spoke, Mariposa’s implant retrieved a copy of the declaration, highlighting the relevant portions in her vision. “I see. So you really did declare war against the UW.”
“But we never did anything about it,” said Cooper. “The Founding Elders said God would fight our battle for us. And the fact that no United Worlds warships ever came was proof. My people don’t think we’re at war with you. They think we won the war, 600 years ago.”
«I think he’s telling the truth,» she sent to the AI.
«So do I.» Then Verdun spoke through the com speakers so Cooper could hear. “Mr. Cooper, what protected your planet was your extreme isolation, not a deity. The hypercom message only took 203 days to reach Earth, but with the FTL drives of that period, any military expedition would have taken over forty years to make the round trip.”
Cooper flashed a questioning look at Mariposa.
“That’s Verdun. My boss.”
Nodding, Cooper said, “I’m just trying to explain that there isn’t a real war between my planet and the UW, so we can clear this mess up and let me carry on with my mission.”
“Wait,” said Mariposa. “These ashes you’re carrying are the remains of those Founding Elders who declared a holy war against the UW?”
Cooper winced. “Not just them, but all the original colonists who were born on Earth.”
“If they thought Earth is such an evil place, why are you bringing their ashes here?”
“Because God is a God of order,” Cooper said. “‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.'”
It sounded vaguely familiar, and her implant obliged by telling her it was a quote from the Bible. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“I was born on Jeroboam,” said Cooper. “I was created from the dust of that planet. But the founders of the colony were created of the dust of Earth, and they must be returned to Earth before the new millennium so they may be resurrected according to God’s proper order.”
“Resurrected?” Mariposa blinked. “You expect them to return to life when you take them back to Earth?”
Cooper waggled his right hand in what Mariposa assumed must be a local gesture on his planet. “Sort of. God will raise them from the dead to live with Him in Heaven.”
Verdun’s calm voice came from the speakers. “I’m sorry to tell you that will not happen.”
Shrugging, Cooper said, “It’s a matter of faith.”
“No,” said Verdun, “It’s a matter of logic, assuming your religious beliefs are correct. The UW has embargoed Jeroboam, therefore your cargo cannot clear customs, therefore the remains of your ancestors cannot return to Earth, and therefore your ancestors will not be resurrected.”
That evening, as Mariposa sat alone while waiting for the table’s portal to deliver her Argentine chorizo sandwich, she thought about Cooper. He had looked discouraged when she left, assigned by Verdun to clear the paperwork for a diplomatic ship from Cumbria.
«We’ve got to do something about Cooper,» she sent to Verdun.
«I believe the situation is under control.»
«No, I mean we need to help him.» The table portal opened, and Mariposa withdrew the plate.
«We are trusted to protect the people of Earth as a whole. As a Customs Agent, you must not begin to identify with the traders.»
«I know that.» She bit into her sandwich, and the warm sausage fueled her annoyance. «You’re far more intelligent than I am. So why can’t you see how stupid this never-fought, long-forgotten war is? Isn’t it in the best interest of the people of Earth to end it before someone decides to fight it for real?»
«The probability that Jeroboam could pose a conventional military threat to Earth is so close to zero as to be of no concern. However, the possibility of war by unconventional means cannot be ruled out. For example, the ashes Cooper claims to be carrying could contain a plague unknown to UW medical science. That is why the embargo was put into place, and why it must remain as long as the war continues.»
«And how long will that be?»
«I do not know. Until the diplomats say it is over.»
September 28, 2999 C.E.
“I don’t know as I’ve ever been called a diplomat.” Cooper’s brow furrowed as he looked at Mariposa.
“You were chosen by your leaders, your Elders, to represent them here in returning the ashes of your founders, weren’t you?”
A sad smile replaced Cooper’s frown. “Chosen? I was born for this mission. My Christian name, Shear-jashub: it comes from the Bible. Means ‘a remnant shall return.’ Ever since I was a boy, my father taught me it would be my honor to return the remnant of our founders to the planet of their creation.”
Mariposa blinked. For a moment, she wondered what life would have been like if her parents had expected her to become a butterfly in some way. “But your Elders entrusted this mission to you. And you’re the only person from Jeroboam in the Sol System, so that makes you the closest thing to an ambassador your planet has, right?”
Raising his eyebrows, Cooper said, “You’re trying to give me diplomatic immunity, so I can return home instead of sitting here as a POW?”
“More than that. If you’re recognized as a diplomat, maybe you can negotiate an end to this stupid war!”
Cooper pinched at stubble on his chin. “That’s a thought.”
«Mariposa,» Verdun sent through her implant, «you are walking a thin line. I do not approve of this.»
«Do you disapprove?»
«If his intentions are hostile, you are giving him an opening to transport a potentially dangerous cargo to Earth.»
«I will inspect that ship and its cargo down to the last molecule. If there’s any danger, I swear I will not let it through.»
Verdun did not reply through her implant. Instead, its voice came over the speaker. “Mr. Cooper, do you have any evidence that you have authority to negotiate on behalf of your world’s government to end the state of war?”
Wincing, Cooper said, “The Elders never mentioned the war.”
“Then you are hardly in a position to end it,” said Verdun.
Cooper snapped his fingers. “Wait, I think I have something. If you’ll give me access to my ship’s computer? I have a message from the First Elder.”
«Letting him access his ship is a risk,» Verdun sent to Mariposa.
«I believe him when he says he knows nothing about the war.»
After a moment Verdun said, “I am inside your ship’s systems now. Your network security measures are rather primitive. Where is the file?”
Cooper’s eyes widened briefly. “You’re an AI?”
“Of course,” said Verdun.
“But you sound like a real person.”
Mariposa chuckled. “I’m sure he means that as a compliment, Verdun.” Focusing her attention on Cooper, she said, “High-level AIs like Verdun are so far beyond human that it takes only a small fraction of their capability to act like a ‘person.’ And since Verdun is the head of Earth Customs, you don’t want to insult it again.”
Cooper saluted her and said, “Yes, ma’am. No offense intended, Verdun. The file I need is tagged as a personal letter, dated around the time I left, which was March 31, 2997. The sender was Isaiah Cooper, First Elder of the True Church.”
The screen inside the quarantine cell flickered and displayed the face of a gray-haired man. As he began to speak, his name registered and Mariposa saw the clear family resemblance between him and Cooper.
Cooper moved to the computer console at the desk. “If you’ll give me access to forward to the right place?”
After a few moments of fiddling, Cooper resumed playback.
“A final word, my son,” said the man on screen. “I know that in your travels you have not always held to the strictures of our faith. The temptations of the fallen have tested you, and you have been found wanting.”
Glancing at Cooper, Mariposa saw his face redden.
Cooper’s father continued, “But the spirits of the Founders cry out to us from Limbo. Do whatever you must to get their remains to Earth, and neither God nor the Church will count it amiss. Go now with my blessing.”
Cooper stopped the recording. “I think that means I have authority to make peace, if necessary.”
Mariposa nodded slowly. “I should be enough to at least get you a hearing. What do you think, Verdun?”
“I agree,” said Verdun. Through Mariposa’s link, it added, «I’ve been through all the data on that pitiful computer, and there is nothing to indicate his story is false or that he is a threat in any way.»
October 18, 2999 C.E.
“Your credentials have been provisionally approved, Mr. Ambassador.” Mariposa smiled at Cooper as her implant transmitted the codes to unlock the quarantine cell. “Someone from the External Affairs Ministry is taking the next shuttle up from Quito and will be here in a few hours. In the meantime, I’ve been authorized to play tour guide.”
Cooper got up from his chair. “I’d be happy to fly down instead.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Patience, Mr. Ambassador. You have much to learn about diplomacy.”
He bobbed his head. “Sorry.”
“You should be,” she said. “I almost thought you didn’t want me as your tour guide. Not very diplomatic.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better guide,” he said, flashing her a smile. “You’ve been helpful beyond the call of duty.” He stepped out of the cell and took a deep breath. “Lead the way.”
“The station was originally built as a beamed energy power satellite that could double as a laser ablator for defense against asteroid impacts,” said Mariposa as she took Cooper into Station 27’s Hall of History. She pointed to a holopic of a light-sail probe. “That’s Chiron I, the first probe sent to Alpha Centauri. Our central laser helped push it up to 7% of c.”
Nodding, Cooper said, “Impressive.”
Mariposa shrugged. “The Pearson-Chakrabarti drive was perfected after that, actually, so the FTL probes got there first.”
“And what about this?” He pointed to a holopic of an oblong blob.
“That’s the ‘Hot Potato’–a small asteroid that was used to test the laser ablation technique. We shifted its orbit by using our laser to heat chunks of it so they’d blow off.”
“Wow.” Cooper raised his eyebrows. “You stopped it from hitting Earth?”
“No, it was just a test. It wasn’t on a collision course.” She felt suddenly embarrassed that she was bragging about historical details that had happened long before she had been assigned to Station 27–long before she was born, even.
“But still, I had no idea your station was here to help fend off asteroids. I thought it was just to fend off annoying foreigners.”
“You’re not annoying,” said Mariposa. “But the laser’s just used for research now–we don’t do asteroid defense any more. Any asteroid that gets close is merely captured by countergrav beams and lowered gently to Earth to be used for resources. In fact, we have ships out in the Belt sending asteroids toward Earth.”
His brow winkled. “You don’t worry that one’ll get through?”
She blinked. The thought had never occurred to her. She queried her implant and was rapidly reassured. “There are multiple redundant systems in place. The AIs would never have allowed it otherwise.”
After a moment, he nodded slowly. “You place a lot of faith in these AIs. Doesn’t that worry you, to rely on soulless beings?”
“Soulless?” Deciding that it might offend him to mention that she didn’t believe humans had souls, Mariposa said, “Have you found souled beings to be completely reliable?”
He laughed. “I guess not.”
November 21, 2999 C.E.
As the molecular scanner began its final sweep of the cargo hold, Mariposa turned her attention again to the hand-painted urns that lined the walls. Each contained the ashes of one of Jeroboam’s founding colonists and was decorated with a portrait of the deceased. Calligraphic letters spelled out the name, date of birth, and date of death.
One urn stood alone on a shelf: Jeroboam Cooper — Born July 16, 2352 — Died April 27, 2466. The picture showed a smiling, wrinkled face surrounded by flowing white hair.
Cooper’s ancestor, she surmised. He must have been the leader of the colony, if they named it after him. The painting made him seem different from the stern authoritarian she would have imagined.
The scanner beeped to signal it was done. Mariposa accessed the results through her implant. This was the third thorough scan she’d done, and it confirmed the other two. There were no unknown molecules on board. The contents of the urns matched the profile of cremated human remains. Every object on board had been identified, and the only objects which might be considered weapons were a magnesium flare gun in an emergency kit and the knives in the galley.
«All clear,» she sent to Verdun, along with the scanner’s report.
«Your instincts regarding Shear-jashub Cooper were apparently correct. It is one of the paradoxes of AIs, that we may understand more than humans about everything except humans.»
Mariposa chuckled mentally. «Perhaps it’s just that when we think we’re right, we don’t overanalyze things.»
«You underestimate the human capability for overanalysis. The UW Special Subcommittee for Jeroboam has just concluded its third week of hearings with unanimous agreement that further hearings should be held beginning December 3rd. If this matter were being considered by a committee of AIs, we would have reached a consensus decision in seconds.»
Mariposa exited into the umbilical connecting Cooper’s ship to Station 27. «But would it have been the right decision?» she asked as she replaced the quarantine seal on the ship’s hatch.
«It would have been the right decision based on the available information. That is the best that anyone, human or AI, can do.»
December 24, 2999 C.E.
“Merry Christmas!” said Mariposa when Cooper answered the door to his temporary diplomatic quarters. She held out a small box wrapped in red plastic film. Her research had revealed that red was one of the traditional colors of the holiday.
Cooper took the box and stared at it. There were dark circles under his eyes–he must not be getting much sleep since the subcommittee adjourned the previous week, postponing any further action until January. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get you anything. I didn’t know you celebrated Christmas.”
Mariposa waved away his concern. “I couldn’t have accepted a gift, anyway. It would look like an attempt at bribery.”
He held up the box. “Nobody’s concerned that you might be bribing me?”
Shrugging, Mariposa said, “Nothing in the regs about that. I’m not violating some Jeroboam law, am I?”
Cooper shook his head. “Come on in. I was just recording a letter to my family.”
She followed him into the living room and sat down on the couch. He sat on a chair facing her.
“Open it,” she said.
He complied, unwrapping the plastic to find a clear diamondglass box that appeared empty. He looked up at her with questioning eyes.
“It’s a common tourist item, so I was hoping you hadn’t bought one already,” said Mariposa. “It’s called ‘A Breath of Earth.'”
“What is it?”
“Compressed air from Earth’s atmosphere. I know you’re disappointed at being stuck here on the station instead of going down to Earth. So I thought I’d bring a little bit of Earth to you.”
Cooper smiled. “Thank you.”
“Here’s the best part: the reason the air is compressed is so they could fit 10 to the 22nd molecules inside, while still making it small enough to fit in a pocket.”
Rotating the box, Cooper frowned at it and said, “How much air is that?”
“Only about a liter, so it’s not under extreme pressure. But there’s a reason for that particular number. Not only is it about the average size of a human breath, but also, due to the mixing of the atmosphere over time, the odds are that box contains molecules breathed by just about everybody who ever lived on Earth. Even someone born three thousand years ago.”
Cooper leaned forward and gently placed the box on the coffee table. “I will treasure it always.”
They sat silently for a few moments, looking at the box.
“Technically, the new millennium doesn’t start until January 1, 3001,” said Mariposa, “so you really have a year left before your deadline.”
Shaking his head, Cooper said, “That’s not the way we count it.”
“I’m sorry about the bureaucracy,” said Mariposa.
“It’s not your fault.” Cooper sighed. “I’m the one who has failed my ancestors.”
“No, you’ve done everything you could,” said Mariposa. “It’s their fault, not yours. They’re the ones who declared war, not you.”
He didn’t answer.
“Surely God will not leave their spirits in…” Mariposa queried her implant as to what Cooper’s father had said about the location of his ancestors. “…in Limbo forever, just because you miss the deadline by a few weeks or months.”
“No, not forever,” said Cooper. “Just until the next millennium. Just another thousand years.”
December 31, 2999 C.E.
Mariposa was inspecting a racing yacht when Verdun interrupted her. «We have a security situation. Cooper’s ship has forcibly undocked from the station.»
The date made Cooper’s plan obvious. «He’s going to try to land his ship on Earth.»
«That was what I projected as his probable course of action.»
Mariposa let out a slow breath. «I’ll try to talk him out of it.»
«Good. He is not responding to me, but human males tend to pay more attention to attractive females.»
«Flatterer.» Mariposa excused herself from the yacht owner and hurried to the nearest control cubicle so she could communicate with video. «What’s PlanDef doing?»
«Why not?» Mariposa sat down in the cubicle, which recognized the authorization code from her implant and lit up its screens.
«Bringing this matter to the attention of my fellow AIs would involve a certain loss of face on my part. That is why I hope you can solve this quickly.»
As Mariposa tried to establish a communications link with Cooper, she directed the cubicle to show his ship and its projected course. A red curve showed the ship hitting atmosphere in approximately three minutes.
“Cooper? Can you hear me?” she said. “Talk to me.”
There was no response for several seconds. Then Cooper’s face appeared on screen. “Remember when you said I had done everything I could? I realized there was one thing left.”
“Planetary Defense will not let you land. Turn around now, before they’re forced to stop you.”
“Just let me do what I’ve sworn to do, and you can arrest me, put me on trial, execute me–I don’t care.”
«Verdun,» Mariposa sent, «is there any way we could transfer custody to a customs facility on Earth, while maintaining quarantine?»
«If there were, I would have suggested such a plan when this problem first presented itself.»
“Please, Cooper. Just come back, and eventually this will all get sorted out.”
Cooper sighed. “Since we met, you have gone out of your way to help me. Why?”
Mariposa frowned. “I guess it’s because I thought you needed help.”
“And I’ve repaid your goodness with trouble.” He sighed again. “So I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you. Just come back.” Mariposa watched the track of Cooper’s ship as it moved steadily closer to Earth.
Verdun’s voice broke in on the channel. “Unless you begin to change course away from Earth in the next thirty seconds, I will have no choice but to inform Planetary Defense that your ship is a possible threat.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” said Cooper. “Mariposa’s searched it–she knows it’s safe.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Verdun. “Your ship cannot land while the embargo remains in place.”
From the screen, Cooper’s eyes stared into hers. “Mariposa, you wouldn’t really shoot me down, would you?”
She shook her head. “It’s not up to me. Verdun’s my boss, not the other way around.”
Cooper shut his eyes and his lips moved silently.
Verdun said, “Now, Cooper. This is your last chance.”
Cooper’s eyes snapped open. “Changing course now.”
Relief swept over Mariposa. She focused on the screen showing Cooper’s projected course, but the red line curved more steeply toward Earth. “The other way, Cooper!”
“I’m, uh, experiencing a guidance system malfunction,” said Cooper. “Mayday. Mayday. Request permission to make an emergency landing.”
He was such a bad liar that she almost laughed in spite of the situation. But it might work. «Verdun, a ship emergency gives a legal pretext for Cooper to land.»
«I already notified PlanDef when he refused to change course away from Earth. They agree Cooper is a possible threat. It’s out of my jurisdiction now.»
«I swear I went over that entire ship, and there aren’t any weapons–»
«If he were to crash into a populated area, there could be thousands of casualties. PlanDef is powering up the countergrav beams.»
“Cooper,” said Mariposa, “it’s not going to work. PlanDef considers you a threat.”
“Your ship itself is a weapon.” Mariposa leaned toward the vidcam. “They’re powering up the countergrav beams they use for asteroid defense. Turn away so they’ll know you’re not a threat.”
On her screen, Cooper’s ship reached the end of the red curve, and the view zoomed and created another red line to show the ship’s projected path through the atmosphere. A yellow circle showed the probable zone of impact, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. After a moment she realized it was just to the west of the International Date Line–where the new millennium would begin in just under fifteen minutes.
«He’s not headed for a populated area,» she sent to Verdun.
«We know. But he might change course and hit somewhere in the Americas.»
The view from Cooper’s ship began vibrating. Cooper reached out and made a slight adjustment to the autopilot’s course.
“Nice thick atmo you’ve got,” said Cooper. “On Jeroboam, the air’s a lot thinner.”
“Slow down, Cooper. Don’t go in ballistic like a weapon.”
“I want to land before they can stop me.” He grinned.
Mariposa raised her hands up by her face, then dropped them to her lap. “Don’t you get it? There is no way you can land. The countergravs will stop you. They can stop asteroids–they won’t even need full power against you.”
“At minimum power,” said Verdun, “your ship will not only be stopped, it will be pushed away at approximately 35 gees.”
The energy seemed to drain from Cooper’s face. “No, you can’t let them do that. I need to be here when the millennium starts.”
“Once the magnets are spinning fast enough, the beam will be focused on you,” said Verdun. “You have less than three minutes. If your religion has some pre-death ritual, I suggest you engage in it now.”
“Too soon,” Cooper whispered. “I timed it wrong.”
Mariposa blinked back tears. She didn’t know what to say to a man about to die. She had tried to save him, but there was nothing she could do for him now.
“Mariposa?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the gift she had given him. “I want to thank you for this little piece of Earth.”
“And thanks for showing me around your station, and that big laser. If I had been a threat, would you have used that laser to destroy me and my ship?”
“But you’re not…”
“Imagine I was. Please.”
Something in his eyes told her he was pleading with her to help him. And suddenly she knew what he wanted.
He smiled his thanks.
Through her implant, she accessed the controls for the station’s laser. Under her control, the targeting mirrors swiveled. The laser began drawing power from the station’s superconducting capacitors.
«What are you doing that for?» asked Verdun.
An invisible pulse of light reached out to Cooper’s ship. One hundred meters in diameter, the beam effortlessly breached the particle shielding and hit its target with 37 terajoules of energy. The titanium alloy hull of the freighter did not melt–it simply vaporized. In a fraction of a second, the ship and all its contents, including Cooper, were atomized.
Mariposa shut down the laser without firing a second pulse.
«Why did you do that? PlanDef had things under control.»
She shook her head. «My responsibility. I swore if there was any danger, I would not let it through.»
«I’m relieving you until this matter is investigated.»
She sat in the cubicle and watched as the glowing cloud of particles that had been a ship dissipated into the darkness just before midnight.
Remembering some phrases used at the funeral of one of her great-grandfathers, she whispered, “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.”
August 22, 3002 C.E.
Verdun had granted Mariposa’s request for extended leave from the Customs Service. It took twenty-six months and three different ships to make her way to Jeroboam. Cooper’s father, the First Elder, had been surprised by her request for a meeting, but he had agreed.
“My son mentioned you,” he said as he showed her into his office. “We didn’t get his letters until after he was already dead, of course. He said you were very helpful, so I thank you.” He motioned her toward a chair and then sat behind a large desk made of what looked like real wood.
“So you know he is dead,” Mariposa said. She was glad not to have to break that news.
“Yes. The UW diplomatic corps let us know.” He smiled. “They’ve been trying to get us to sign a peace treaty. I guess that will be my son’s legacy, even if he failed at his true mission.”
Mariposa shook her head. “But he didn’t fail. That’s why I came. To explain.”
The First Elder’s brow furrowed. “But they told me his ship was destroyed before he could land on Earth.”
Mariposa pulled her pad out of her purse and set it to replay her final conversation with Cooper.
When it was finished, the First Elder leaned back in his chair. “And then his ship was destroyed.”
“Yes. By me.” Mariposa held her breath, hoping that the First Elder would interpret Cooper’s message the same way she had.
He jerked his head forward and stared at her. She met his eyes.
“So the laser destroyed his ship before it was ejected from Earth’s atmosphere?” he asked.
After a long moment, the First Elder sighed. “That’s what Shear-jashub wanted from you. Thank you.”
She wasn’t sure what to say to a man who had just thanked her for killing his son. So she just looked down at the floor. At least she had her answer.
“I will let the people know that Shear-jashub fulfilled the measure of his creation. However, I will not mention your role in the matter–some people might not be as understanding as I.”
“That’s fine,” she said.
“Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
She shook her head. “But I did bring you something.” She reached into her purse.
In the center of the city of Jeroboam can be found the Holy Cemetery, where only the most righteous are buried. In the very center of the cemetery is a mausoleum that used to contain the ashes of the founders of the colony.
Even though the original occupants have been returned to the planet of their birth, the mausoleum is not empty. In the very center, the place of highest honor, stands a marble pedestal. The stone is engraved: Shear-jashub Cooper — Born April 3, 2961 — Died December 31, 2999.
Atop the pedestal, sealed in diamondglass to await the next resurrection of those born on Jeroboam, is a vial of blood.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods….
–from “Horatius” by Thomas Babington Macaulay