Chapter One: The Unchronicled Man
November 10, 1975
somewhere over Lake Superior
Historians chronicle that the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald took the lives of twenty-nine brave men. They are wrong. There was one more.
Such an omission might seem negligent. But this unchronicled man would never have wanted Earth’s historians to know he existed. His life’s work required him to keep his identity a secret.
As fast as he dared, as fast as was safe, the Emissary drove his craft down through Earth’s atmosphere. Such extreme velocities exhilarated him under normal conditions. But these conditions were clearly not normal. Too much lay at stake.
Vibrations increased steadily, then stabilized. He felt his shoulders stiffen and willed them to relax. Even at this altitude, he didn’t need his instruments to tell him that something extraordinary was happening two-thousand meters below on the lake—something unusual about the atmosphere, the waves.
After plunging through thick, soggy clouds, he took his bearings. The lake spread out, a dark plane below him. Keeping a prudent twenty meters over the surface of the riotous waves, he raced his craft forward, alert to his instruments. The storm’s violence jolted through his many layers of trained calm. This was not how he remembered Lake Superior. Such massive black waves. He’d never seen anything like this before.
Of course, that was why he was here. He glanced at his display. How much time?
Though the memento had perched beside his display for years, it now drew his attention away from his controls. For a brief instant, three familiar figures inside a clear sphere slightly bigger than his fist pulled at him. His wife and son. He would see them soon.
Or would he?
His arms prickled. He worked to shake off a sickening dread that had sprung from nowhere. His training kicked in. The uncertainties that surfaced with these missions naturally gave rise to catastrophic thoughts. Unhelpful thoughts. Still, he stared at his family hungrily, unable to look away.
Three tiny figures on a beach. Lake Michigan. A different lake, a much calmer lake, not so far from this one. And a different, younger, much calmer version of himself beamed out from the ball. His wife’s grin matched his, both eternally posing for the scanner while little Koyper daydreamed, oblivious to being recorded.
In the recording, he was holding his son up so that he might take in the vastness of the lake. But Koyper remained distracted with his toy, pairing the model spacecraft up with the sky beyond and waving it, simulating flight. Red instead of blue, but other than that, a good replica of the craft he was currently piloting. Koyper had begged him for a red one.
And he still wants to be a pilot, he thought. Still, knowing the danger. A bittersweet twinge struck him. Like me, like his father. He shook his head to focus and cursed.
He caught himself. Tisked. His native Polish would not work here. English only now.
A row of circles glowed on the display, each with radially symmetrical, subtly changing colors. The array of kaleidoscopic images would mean nothing to most humans. It had taken him a lifetime of training to learn how to interpret them.
The shapes grew jagged. The colors intensified. He frowned at their message. So soon? He had lost track of time. He activated a few panels. The craft responded, casting twin searchlights into the blackness through the driving rain and mist. He exhaled, relieved.
He had traveled such a long way. He breathed deeply and slowly, recalling all his training to remain calm and focused. He continued his race, skimming his craft over the angry waves, searching.
I have to reach them. Before it’s too late.
Several hours ago, Captain Ernest McSorely had decided they should change course. They had checked down their speed considerably, another precaution. They now sought refuge toward the Canadian coast. Detroit could wait for their ore. He clenched his fists, his knuckles stiff with cold. The lives of twenty-eight men come first.
He had radioed the news of their detour to their sister ship. We’re holding our own, he had reassured them. Saying those words, he had allowed himself to feel a small degree of comfort knowing The Anderson trailed them ten miles back. He had thought then that they would make it.
Now things looked different.
Loaded with twenty-six-thousand tons of taconite iron ore, the 729-foot freighter leaned hard to port. One ballast pump was down. The remaining two struggled to keep up, purging out Superior’s ice water. With the radar down, they were sailing blind.
He scowled through the pilot house window, rubbing the stubble on his jaw.
Muted by the scream of wind, shouts from his crew below floated to his ears. His latest command echoed in his head. Don’t allow nobody on deck.
Thirty-foot waves. Green walls of water rising, slamming at his freighter. He dragged his eyes away from the water-streaked glass.
Swaying beside the chart desk, his first mate looked up. John’s eyes bulged as they met his own. John’s mouth opened, closed on whatever thought he was about to express. He quickly cast his gaze back down at the charts.
McSorely understood. Both of them had seen many seas. None like this.
With forty years navigating some of the roughest water on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, this was one for the record books. The hopeful words McSorely had spoken days ago came back to him, causing his stomach to clench. One last haul, then I’m free.
He had been counting the days, eagerly awaiting his retirement after this final run. But Novembers had this way of turning Superior into a witch. In a terrifying demonstration of raw power, the witch was throwing a tantrum, screaming at his plan to escape.
He staggered over to join John at the chart table. John was trying to say something. Screeching wind blotted out his words. He shook his head. Pointed at his ear.
John leaned in. Tried again, shouting.
“Ever seen…SEAS…like THIS?”
John’s real question, unspoken, hung between them. What were the right words to say? A sting of anguish burned through his core. All of the men. All of their families. John was from his generation. John knew him. He would know if he tried to hide the truth.
McSorely jerked his head, a tight shake. Shouted back one word. “No!”
John’s mouth hardened. Comprehension spread across his face.
He shot John a stiff smile that he didn’t feel. “Hey!” He slapped a hand on the man’s back. “Buck up!”
It was hard to tell whether his words offered any comfort. John’s shoulders relaxed, though perhaps only from exhaustion.
The Emissary blinked at the display and a small cry of relief escaped him. “Uff!”
The signal grew. Too strong to be an artifact. It had to be them.
“Ojejku.” He caught himself again. English, now. “Yes! I see you. Good!”
He changed course to intercept. But these waves, this wind. He had never navigated anything like this before. In all his many simulations, he had never tested his piloting against waves like this, against wind like this.
A flutter of worry made him take and release a deep breath. His craft possessed a few zones where, under rare circumstances, its design rendered it vulnerable to sudden pressure, especially once the canopy was open. He considered these zones now. His craft could get pummeled if he wasn’t careful.
With fresh significance, that other lake he had just viewed in his family’s memento ball flashed to mind. Lake Michigan, where the nearest emergency rendezvous site sat concealed on the shores of Door County, not so far from here. His ship would autopilot him there should anything go wrong. Just one of so many safety measures. He gave his head a shake and swept the thought from his mind.
He slowed, angled his craft carefully, and descended over the freighter.
The cabin windows began vibrating. Trembling softly at first, then building to a quaking chatter. McSorely frowned at John, who threw him a confused look back.
The cabin floor trembled, resonating from some loud bass hum. Another ballast pump down?
Something blue, huge, swept along the cabin view from starboard.
He rocked back, hands flying up to his face. Caught his breath.
It was massive. It made no sense. Defying gravity, obscuring much of the stormy sky beyond, a shiny blue sphere. At least as large as the pilot house cabin. It seemed to hang in the air, hovering directly over the deck.
He rubbed at his eyes. His mind raced, searching for some explanation.
He rushed to the windows, palming the glass. Whirling, he gaped at his first mate who stood frozen and swaying, gripping the edge of the chart desk, his mouth open. John’s eyes darted away from the thing beyond the window just long enough to share with him a look of unconcealed shock.
A growing electrical charge raised the hairs over his body. His thoughts sprinted wildly, probed his repertoire for emergency procedures.
McSorely had no protocol for this.
His gaze flicked to a faltering motion on the stairs leading up to the pilothouse. O’Brian, taking his shift. O’Brian’s eyes were on his feet as his climbed the stairs, swaying with the motion of the freighter. As O’Brian lifted his face, he stiffened. McSorely saw, rather than heard, O’Brian’s mouth form the words over the noise of the storm.
O’Brian’s hand rose to point at the blue sphere hovering beyond the pilot house windows.
Over the roar of the storm the bass thrumming mingled with a new sound, a reverberant metallic scraping.
The Emissary finished wrenching the ends of the harnesses free from the storage bin, carefully clipped himself into the nearest one, and gave it a tug. Satisfied that he was secure, he opened the panel that contained the switch that would slide the clear canopy back through the egress hatch. His hand hovered over the switch. He swiftly reviewed his options.
Right now, the sight of his ship would have them panicking. He had to act quickly.
He would smile. He would use his arms to beckon them. He would use voice amplification to instruct them in English. Do not be afraid.
Yes. He would say that first.
He pressed the switch and caught his breath as fingers of cold slipped through the portal along the retracting canopy into his tiny vessel. Braced himself. Shoved his head and torso into the egress tube. Gasped, squeezing his eyes shut against the icy blast that ripped across the right side of his face, the side that faced the open portal and the storm beyond.
He twisted his head to the left and blinked to clear his vision. Swiped wet strands of hair from his eyes.
Blinked his eyes open. Before him lay his spacecraft’s power generator. Reassuringly nested in place just as it should be, opposite the portal opening, protected by the retracted canopy shield.
Like a giant silver finger longer than he was tall, the generator seemed to be pointing him toward the portal that he was poised to exit. The reaction chamber regulator tipped the generator’s silver tube with its glorious array of endlessly shifting, luminous colors. He listened, trying to tune out the scream of the wind.
The generator’s reassuring hum still purred. Steadily, just as it had for all the many days it had taken him to arrive from the Colony.
A high-quality generator. A few decades, surely, before this generator would need to be deactivated, withdrawn through the core tube like some worn battery on so many of those Earth devices, and swapped with a fresh one.
As he considered his ship’s generator, a strange foreboding rose through him. The unbidden image of his damaged craft piloting itself through a stormy night to another, more distant shore again rose to mind. Dark dread spread and coated the pit of his stomach. He shook it off.
It was normal to worry about a ship’s power generator. So much depended on it. He couldn’t return without it.
He shoved the rest of his body into the egress hatch. Rotated to face the exit. Wind bit into his face.
Three men gaped through the pilot house windows where the impossible craft hung. One of its twin lights penetrated through the glass, illuminating them, causing their shadows to leap around the cabin as they rode the waves. They had just watched a clear dome on the surface of the sphere retract, exposing what looked like an opening.
McSorely swallowed down a sick sense of dread. That opening. Large enough for a man to exit. Or enter. He found he was holding his breath. He let it out slowly, shakily, and stammered out his thoughts.
“Could it be a Soviet…but why…what…why would the Reds be here?”
He wasn’t sure the two men heard him. John just kept shaking his head at him, his eyes huge.
O’Brian was lurching around, fumbling around in the cabinets, slamming them open and shut. “Don’t we got…some kinda…camera here…DAMN!”
McSorely turned back to the windows, willed himself to take in every detail he could as his thoughts raced, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
What he had first thought was a sphere wasn’t entirely smooth, he could see that now. Three long, blue, curving fins arced off the surface of the sphere, each one about as long as a man was tall. Positioned, he could see now, at right angles to one another. Were the fins moving?
No, the craft itself was moving slightly, he could see that now. The whole thing was rotating slowly and the fins were moving along with it.
The light was faint, at first. A rainbow of shifting colors spilled from the circular opening, intensifying as it slid fully into view. It stopped, the opening facing them squarely. In front of that luminous glow, a bulky shadow hunched.
Flickering colors moved along the surface of the tube as the shadow shifted. Lengthened.
He sucked in his breath. The shadow had a face.
A pleasant face. A man’s face, clearly smiling, emerging from the opening, flinching hard at the wind. Now his arm emerged, waving. The man’s smile tightened into a wince as wind lashed his face.
What on Earth?
A low groan made him whip his head around. John’s eyes were fixed on something beyond the ship. O’Brain saw it too. He lifted his finger to point.
“My God…that wave—”
Before he could turn to look, McSorely’s body flew, hurled against the far wall of the cabin. The cries of his companions joined his, as they too were flung to the back of the room along with him. The deck of the freighter shot up.
A ripping, tearing crack rang out. Too loud. Earsplitting pain made him clench his eyes shut. Cringing, he blinked open his eyes.
Another slam, harder, rammed him against the opposite side of the cabin. Pain socked his ribs and he gasped for breath.
The angle that his cabin was tilting was all wrong. Walls becoming floors. Floors becoming walls. He twisted, trying to find the cabin window. There.
Through silver bolts of water streaking the glass, a mass of blue beyond. The strange craft still hovered.
But it had changed.
Now a crushed thing lurched to and fro over the deck. Its smooth blue surface bore a long, jagged gash. White light dazzled across the ragged tear, illuminating a long glowing, silver object inside. It looked like a missile of some sort.
But far more riveting was that silhouetted shape, moving around the missile-thing. The figure’s arms and legs scrambled, grappled at something inside the broken shell.
The man’s frantic motions sent a surge of pity through him.
Motion on the horizon caught his eye. He swallowed. Shook his head at the size of it.
Another wave. Rising swiftly, heading straight for them all.
He couldn’t help shouting out a warning even though he knew it was impossible for the man to hear him. The man inside the strange blue craft couldn’t see what was coming.
Both submerged, both adrift in a medium they were never intended to traverse, in the calm below the surface of the lake, the freighter and the mysterious spacecraft hung together for a long moment. Then, both began moving in opposite directions.
Two pieces of the freighter sank and would eventually settle on the lake floor over five-hundred feet below. As the fractured Fitzgerald began its downward descent, the remains of the Emissary’s craft, now missing a significant portion of its hull, rose up, struggling to surface. Its reemergence into air added to the lake one more powerful wave.
Wobbling to a height just out of reach of the waves, disgorging green lake water from the ragged gash in its hull, it lurched southward in limp-home mode.
The Emissary’s tiny ship had something that the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald did not. Its designers built in thousands of year’s worth of trial and error. Epochs worth of refinement of machinery and technology. They gifted their craft with some ability to self-repair. They had even granted the craft, through sophisticated sensory and motor networks, a measure of awareness.
In the Colony’s long history of spaceflight, a craft of this class had never sustained this much damage while still allowing flight to continue. It flew southward. The nearest Emissary emergency rendezvous point was Door County, Wisconsin.
The ship was aware that there was no longer a pilot on board.
© 2022 Holly Phaneuf Erskine. All Rights Reserved
More! More more!
Posted by: EJ Jones II | 11/15/2022 at 08:55 PM
EJ, thank you for your kind words. If you wish, you can hit the contact me button and I can send you a beta draft if you really do want to read more. I truly value all the feedback I have been getting.
Posted by: Holly Phaneuf Erskine | 11/20/2022 at 06:27 PM