In The Shadow of This Red Rock

an excerpt



Chapter One

Come in under the shadow of this red rock,

And I will show you something different from either

I will show you fear in a handful of dust

TS Elliot



This was Cal's favourite time of the artificial day: artificial dawn. He woke a few hours before he needed to be on duty and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. He'd only been back on board a few days, and the simulated gravity still seemed slightly off. However hard Inter-Sol Corp worked to persuade their personnel that the gravity on the ships was exactly the same as on Earth, 1g, few people believed them. But as some claimed it was more, and some less, and some that it fluctuated daily, their complaints were put down to one more of the endless space legends that had taken the place of Old-Earth urban ones. No one told stories now about vanishing hitchhikers; now it was members of a crew mysteriously disappearing in deep space...

So, the gravity issue had passed into space folklore, and everyone enjoyed grumbling about it; the ship continued to rotate on its set speed and gravity was science, not myth. Cal usually acclimatised to being back in space after a few hours, but this time he'd been on a six-week intensive course back on Earth, and it was taking him longer to adjust.

He put on his training kit and made his way down the dim corridors to the gym. It was one of his favourite places; it was his only home. When he'd joined his first ship, fresh from the Wars, he'd assumed that he'd be surrounded by like-minded military guys. It hadn't been quite like that. Most Inter-Sol Corp officers, he'd discovered, were administrators first, soldiers second--or never. A business attitude of profit and exploitation prevailed over the kind he had been used to--discipline, obedience, and physical excellence. Cal had been something of an anomaly on board his first ship; he was just a soldier who wanted to do his duty. He'd been surprised, therefore, to be given a promotion within six months, within a year to be transferred to a much larger vessel, at the end of that tour to be picked for officer training, and now, only a few years later, to be head of security on a Class 1, inter-planetary transport ship with five men and women working for him.

He began his regime with light repetitions, his mind elsewhere, thinking through his tasks for the day. Tomorrow was the first of October, the first official day of Inter-Sol Autumn, and the d├ęcor would need to be changed in accordance with Inter-Sol Corp directives. Cal knew from experience that this would be little more than a load of hassle and extra work for his team.

In the early days of inter-planetary travel, most large shipping companies had gone their own way with establishing routines on board ships. A few had paid lip service to Earth's timetables, running to the Gregorian or Hijri calendars. Most, however, had been entirely independent: it was space travel. But human beings, it was quickly discovered, had evolved over millions of years to obey natural cycles, and when these rhythms were absent, or interfered with--as with the gravity fluctuations--morale tended to deteriorate very quickly.

Investigations into unfortunate incidents reported during the six-year inter-planetary journeys had concluded that severe and prolonged Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, was sending people mad--which was how the laymen in the companies had interpreted the official and often incomprehensible language used by the psychologists drafting the reports. Lack of natural sunlight and its replacement by artificial lighting was driving crews insane. Only when conditions had worsened on board the ships, despite daily does of UV being mandatory, had a radical proposition been put forward by a psychologist working for Inter-Sol Corp--one of the few companies that had adhered to Earth-time from the outset.

Dr Eugene Hathaway had done some research into the impact on the human brain of relocating between Earth's hemispheres: people suffering from the inability to accept spring in October and winter in August. The disorders some settlers had reported were clearly, in his opinion, psychological rather than physiological--after all, if the individuals concerned had been unaware they'd been moved from one hemisphere to another; if they were allowed to celebrate their festivals and rituals according to the natural calendar instead of the one forced upon them, they would be none the wiser, he'd argued.

He had then made the logical leap from Earth's hemispheres to space and proposed that the depression and paranoia which were plaguing the inter-planetary crews were symptoms of humans being removed not just from sunlight, but from the rhythms of nature: the seasons. He'd coined the term SAND--Seasonal Affective Neural Disorder. Inter-planetary travel, he'd claimed, produced SAND in men.

It wasn't long before sufferers became termed the Sandmen.

In accordance with Sandman protocols, gravity, time, daily routines, and seasons had all been recreated on board the transport vessels. The northern hemisphere calendar was chosen for alignment, and so that morning, Cal had autumn to plan. It was the last thing he needed.

Cal also had Minders on the way.

He decided to put both issues on the backburner and concentrate on his workout.

As he increased the weights and began on the really hard work, he let his thoughts drift free, the burn in his muscles the only thing he focused on. When he was done, he moved to one of the running machines and set it for a five-mile course. By the halfway point, he was running steadily uphill. His breathing was good, his heart beating strong and regular, his mind clear. He sometimes wondered if his fellow officers ever gained this kind of clarity of reasoning and purpose from their scientific manuals and profit and loss calculations. He doubted it. Not only did he feel powerful and in control, he fitted his uniform to perfection. He grinned ruefully to himself as he hit the final mile. He didn't like being considered the best-looking officer in Inter-Sol Corp, or that this was openly rumoured to have been instrumental in his rapid rise to his current position, but there was little he could do about it. He reasoned other guys capitalised on their assets--their brains, their superb educations, their wealth, their family connections--he might as well exploit his.

He climbed off the machines and set the room's sterilization mode to run after he'd exited, grabbed his towel and headed back to his cabin. Suddenly the gravity felt very low, but he knew he was floating on endorphins rather than space myth.

He had a briefing with the captain at 0800 hours and wanted to check the equipment he'd brought back from Earth with him first. He showered rapidly and pulled on his uniform: standard black shirt, pants, and boots. The only colour was the flash of rank insignia on his shoulders--two stars for full lieutenant. He paused before leaving his cabin to check himself in the mirror.

Since being put in command of his own section, he'd been even more rigorous with his personal standard of dress. He knew he wasn't liked much and that was good: far better to be feared and respected, than to think his subordinates had to be his friends. Respect had to be earned, and he made sure every day that his turnout was superior to that which he expected from his guys. He was fitter and stronger, worked harder, and made no allowances for weakness in himself or others. He was twenty-nine years old, and sometimes he reckoned he could reverse those figures. The self-discipline and effort took their toll. But if he felt old inside, he decided his reflection told a different story. His jet-black hair was regulation length at back and sides, but he left it slightly longer on top so it flopped over rather than stuck up like he'd been electrocuted. He was well over six feet tall, which was often a disadvantage in cramped space conditions.

He smiled once more, a private grin he rarely showed anyone else. It softened his face to the extent that the professional military mien morphed into an almost androgynous beauty with bright, inquisitive, wide-set eyes. Dark eyelashes framed blue eyes in a pale face; a rare combination that women always remarked on. Not only had his flawless features apparently advanced his career--he'd been selected to be the recruiting poster boy for two years running--they, more importantly as far as Cal was concerned, led people to misjudge him, to dismiss him as nothing more than a pretty boy. It was a mistake they didn't make twice. Satisfied that his personal shields were in place, he made his way down to security store Alpha. He let himself in with his authorisation swipe card and regarded the crate before him.

***

The ship, the ISC Elon Musk, currently had a crew of just over a hundred and fifty, and they were carrying another fifty or so scientists, miners, and associated colonists for their current resupply mission to the Titan colony. But his assignment now, since his sojourn on Earth, was separate and distinct from his usual duties as head of security for the two hundred souls on board. He opened the crate and regarded the neatly stacked boxes. He'd spent the last six weeks learning how to use this equipment and studying its likely effects on crew morale.

He didn't underestimate the difficult task ahead of him.