copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 1


Sylvia and Paul Jacobs,
who are building the foundation of the future;
and to
Rachel Jacobs and Matthew Jacobs,
who will live there.


In a ship of the wood of Atlantis
With quicksilver sails all unfurl’d,
Billowed by winds of enchantment,
And scaling the walls of the world,

We sail between earthdeep and skyfire,
Our course ever-constant, pursuing
Our hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet,
While wakeward falls our world’s undoing.

“…This legend has the air of a fable; but the truth behind it is a deviation of the bodies that revolve in heaven around the earth and a destruction, occurring at long intervals, of things on the earth by a great conflagration….”

-Plato, Timaeus

Washington, DC
United States, North America
June 30, 2053 C.E.

“Great cities perished, their walls burned to the ground….”


Rita dreamed of fire that morning.

It was an old, familiar dream, one that had visited her now and again since childhood—she supposed it stemmed ultimately from a National Geographic show about volcanoes in second grade.

Details differed, but the overall outline was always the same. Fiery stones falling from the sky, house and family in peril, the steady approach of distant danger: walls of flame and floods of lava relentlessly creeping nearer. Rita struggling, with family and friends, to quench the fires and save what they could. And overall, a sense, not of fear, but of futility, of overwhelming inevitability. In the dream, she knew that this had all happened before, would happen again, and nothing she did could change its course.

She awoke to Mozart, the dream already fading from her mind, leaving behind only the sense of inevitable fate…and the memory of flame.

Then, remembering what the day would bring, she hopped out of bed, fully awake. No time to waste on half-forgotten phantasms, she had to get ready.

Today she was going into space.

Not far into space, to be sure. A quick hop up to Freedom Station, three hundred kilometers up, barely outside the atmosphere. But it was undeniably space, microgravity and all, and she’d never been before.

It was well before dawn, the house quiet and still in the preternatural way of houses when their tenants are fast asleep. Even the cleaning ’bots, their jobs done, were silent and inert in their alcoves. Dad and Genrette breathed placidly, deeply from the master bedroom, a comfortable duet that bordered on soft snoring. Rita quietly tended to her morning toilet, dressed, and slipped silently out the kitchen door, remembering to tuck her passport into her purse along with a handful of granola bars.

At this early hour the Metro was uncrowded. Dazed eyes stared out from faces half-asleep, station and car lights bright with artificial, mass-produced cheer. Settled in her seat, she slipped on a pair of DataSpex and whispered, “Daisy, what’s the news?”

Low and to the left in her visual field, a flower blossomed, opening to reveal a tiny fairy-girl, complete with gauzy wings and Victorian attire. Daisy—actually a KhriaCorp Day-EZ 6000 module—was Rita’s clock and calendar, memo pad and address book, ’puter and phone—her secretary and maitre d’ and majordomo—all in one fingernail-size unit mounted in a cloisonne pin on her lapel. Daisy had been a graduation present from Dad, along with a brand-new pair of Spex to replace the scuffed pair she’d worn since she started high school

“Good morning, Rita. It’s Monday, June thirtieth, twenty-fifty-three. The time is six-oh-four. You’re due at Senator Ramierez’s office at six-thirty for a staff meeting. At eight o’clock you are scheduled for a New Space-Travelers’ orientation session at Dulles. You have a confirmed reservation, as part of the Senator’s party, aboard the ten-forty flight from Dulles to Freedom Station. You’ll be spending the rest of the day on the Senator’s business.” Daisy paused, her eyes minute emerald pinpricks.

“Go on,” Rita muttered. The sensitive bone-conduction microphones in her Spex picked up the barest murmur, even if Rita subvocalized with her lips closed.

“The current temperature is twenty-three Celsius. Winds are from the north-northwest at fifteen kilometers per hour. Humidity is eighty-six percent. Today will be partly cloudy and hazy, with high temperatures in the middle thirties. There is no significant chance of precipitation.” Another scorcher, Rita thought. Not that it mattered—by the time it got too hot, she would be on Freedom Station.

Daisy continued, “President Lockhart is at the White House today. Vice-President Clary addresses the National Press Corps at the Willard Hotel; he is expected to discuss the Populist Party’s campaign finance reform legislation currently before the House and Chamber. House Speaker Dobson visits a spacecraft plant in Duluth. He is expected to continue his attack on the Administration’s ethics, and to build support for reunification with Mexamerica and the Christian States. Senior Minister Glasper is on the third day of her six-day tour of South America, stopping today in Venezuela for a meeting with that country’s Head Economic Secretary.”

Since her first days as a Congressional Intern, Rita had programmed Daisy to report on what the top politicos were up to each day. As Senator Ramierez said, it paid to keep track of the what the bigwigs were doing.

Daisy, her voice audible only to Rita, continued her recitation. “On Mars, today is Sol Veneris, the thirteenth of Sadalmelik, year fifty. The Madagascar festival of Fandroana starts today. This is the birthday of Lena Horne, Mike Tyson, and virtie star Enid, who turns twenty-six today. Today in history: in eighteen fifty-nine, French acrobat Émile Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope before a crowd of five thousand. In nineteen-oh-eight, a giant meteorite impacted in the Tunguska region of Siberia. In nineteen twenty-one, former U.S. President William Howard Taft was named Chief Justice of the United States; to date he is the only person to have served in both positions. The novel Gone With the Wind was published this date in nineteen thirty-six. And in nineteen seventy-four, archaeologist Sheldon Mirkin discovered the artifact later named the Dymalon Cygnet, near Dymalinao in the Philippines.”

Rita started. Thanks to the forty-year-old classic detective virtie, everyone had heard of the Dymalon Cygnet—but Rita’s family had a special connection. “Daisy, I want to send flowers to my Bisabuela.”

“Confirm request to order a flower arrangement sent to your great-grandmother Luisa de la Fuente at Rocky Mountains Retirement Community, delivery today, cost not to exceed one hundred dollars.”


“Please specify theme and inscription.”

“No theme. Inscription: Thinking of you, love, Rita. End.” Bisabuela would know what it meant.

Back in those long-ago days, sometime in the 1980s, Bisabuela had been a young archaeologist in the Prehistoric Artifacts division of the Los Angeles museum which acquired the Dymalon Cygnet. When a routine audit revealed the Cygnet on display to be a forgery, with the real artifact missing for an undetermined period, Luisa de la Fuente was made the scapegoat. Her career was ruined, and she spent several years in prison. Even now, at the age of a hundred and four, Bisabuela spat and swore when talking about her supervisors, who had set her up to take the fall for their own incompetence.

To this day, more than seventy years afterwards, the authentic Dymalon Cygnet was still missing.

After reporting that the flowers had been ordered, Daisy returned to her recitation. “You have sixty-five messages; six are from family, eight from close friends, and twenty-three which appear to be advertisements.”

Rita sighed. “Summarize number one.”

“From Shanti subject Next Thursday’s Dinner.”

“Save in personal. Next.”

“From Dell Torrence subject Just Wondering.”

“Delete. Next….”

By the time Rita had worked her way through the list, the train was pulling into Union Station. “Daisy, go to sleep.” She pocketed her Spex and joined the trickle of business-suited men and women on their way to another thrilling day in the corridors of power.

There was coffee waiting at the office, and Rita sipped the too-hot, too-bitter brew gratefully as she took her seat at the conference table. As a Congressional Intern, she was technically of second-class status—but Senator Ramierez did not draw lines between staff and Interns the way some others did. To Ramierez, everyone got a seat at the table.

Ramierez—Rita still couldn’t bring herself to think of the Senator as “Carrie”—entered at precisely the stroke of six-thirty. Dark of hair and dark of eye, with skin the color of ancient rubbed oak, Senator Ramierez stood barely 160 cm tall and yet dominated the room in the same way that a single simple crucifix could dominate an ornate chapel. In any room, in any crowd, somehow small, quiet, unobtrusive Carrie Ramierez managed to be the center of attention.

The meeting was unhurried yet quick, mostly the Senator’s instructions to those who would hold the fort while she was away. At ten past seven, Daisy gave an audible beep and whispered in Rita’s ear, “You should leave for Dulles in five minutes.”

Ramierez noticed the beep and smiled at Rita. Interrupting herself, she said, “And Rita, you have to get started so you won’t miss orientation at Dulles. I keep forgetting that this is your first time in space. Go ahead; Bart and I will meet you at the gate.”

From Union Station to Dulles Aerospaceport was ten minutes by high-speed train, every fifteen minutes, day and night. Rita was one of two dozen in the New Space- Travelers’ Orientation; for an hour and a half she endured two interminable lectures, one holo presentation featuring cutely-androgynous Andy Astronaut and his/her astronaut friends, three injections, a drink of puke-green syrup that numbed its way down to her stomach, and five minutes on a centrifuge that left her white and gasping for breath.

At last, a Port official brought Rita’s passport up onscreen and added a notation to the effect that she had undergone sufficient sadistic torture to be allowed to leave Earth’s atmosphere.

The receptionist—a bald, elderly black man— stopped Rita on the way out with a wan smile. “Go to the snack bar and get yourself some ginger ale,” he said. “That’ll set your stomach right.”

“Thanks, but—”

“I know y’ don’t feel like anything to drink. Best thing for you, though. Maybe some saltine crackers, too. I promise, you’ll feel better in no time.”

This time Rita nodded. “All right, I will. Thank you.” She wandered to the nearest snack bar, swiped her crediplate, and said, “Ginger ale, small. And a packet of saltine crackers.”

The machine answered, “The-charge-is…three…dollars-and…sixtyfive…cents.”

She hit “enter” automatically, then retrieved her drink and crackers from the delivery chute. At a small table, she nibbled crackers and sipped ginger ale while watching the crowded bustle of the busy terminal. By now it was mid-morning and the major suborbitals from Europe and Africa were arriving, spilling out thousands of business-suited rat-racers on their way to vital meetings downtown, or waiting for connections westward. The terminal’s air-conditioners were beginning to lose their battle with the heat and humidity outside, and the faint but potent whiff of human bodies was in the air.

Rita drained the last of her ginger ale, surprised that she did, in fact, feel okay. The old guy knew what he was talking about!

In fact, she felt better than okay—it was nearly ten o’clock, and in less than half an hour she’d be on her way to space.

Daisy, of course, already knew the correct gate and was able to guide Rita to the proper place. After only moments, Senator Ramierez appeared with Bart Nuñez, her right-hand man.

“Rita, good. Did you have any trouble with orientation?”

“Not much. My stomach was unsettled, but some ginger ale took care of it.”

Bart wrinkled his brow. “Saltine crackers are best.”

Rita couldn’t help laughing. “I had some of those, too.”

A loudspeaker interrupted, “Passengers on Flight 1701 to Freedom Station, please board through Gate 23.”

There were a total of sixteen passengers for Freedom Station; on the bus ride out to the shuttle Rita examined their faces one-by-one, imagining their reasons for going up. The tight-lipped couple in severe midnight blue had to be spies, and the trio of elderly nuns were probably on their way to the new retirement convent in Armstrong City. But what about the handsome black woman with purple lips and eyeshadow, carrying a thick briefcase handcuffed to her left wrist? Probably a courier with some new bio design, Rita decided.

The shuttle was a flattened cone squatting on four spindly legs, apex to the sky, all by itself on the concrete field. It was about twenty meters tall and fifteen across at the base, where four rocket nozzles hung like wilting flowers.

The bus rose on hydraulic lifts, then extended a boarding ramp to the shuttle’s airlock. Two perky stewards ushered them into the main cabin, which was laid out much like a planetarium. From the inside, half the surface seemed invisible; high-resolution holographic displays gave a full view of the port and the distant terminal building.

When Rita sat down, she discovered a display screen set in the seatback before her, along with controls that allowed her to pick any of a dozen views, including a long shot of the shuttle itself, probably from the control tower. A time display showed that it was exactly twenty-five past ten. Just fifteen more minutes to go.

A steward discreetly tapped Ramierez on the shoulder. “Captain sends his respects, Senator, and asks if you and your party would care to see the flight deck?”

Before Rita could say anything, even gasp, Ramierez laughed. “I think my Intern here would kill me if I said no. Come on, Rita.” She started to get up. “Bart?”

Bart was already settled in his seat, with the screen before him tuned to Network News. “No, thanks, I’ve seen my share of flight decks.” He touched the steward’s sleeve. “Soon as you can, send me over a gin-and-tonic, that’s a good lad.”

The steward led Ramierez and Rita to a bolted door; behind it, a flight of metal stairs led upward. He touched an intercom and said, “The Senator is on her way.” He smiled at Ramierez. “Just through the door at the top, Senator.”

In her first glimpse of the flight deck, it was hard for Rita to sort everything out. Part aircraft flight deck, part bridge of a passenger liner, the area was more spacious than she expected. There were, of course, banks of controls—two headset-clad crewmembers sat before consoles, and more panels lined the walls. There were, she saw, six seats around the deck, with room in the middle for a circular console bearing more instruments. Four of the seats were empty.

There seemed to be no walls: all around there was an unobstructed view of the spaceport. To be sure, various numbers and graphs floated before the two seated crewmembers, outlined in electric blue and white, and a small window showed the Network News channel—but with the sun shining bright in summer haze, and distant planes taxiing this way and that, Rita could almost believe that she stood outside the shuttle.

The Captain, a jolly-faced Slavic man of indeterminate age, held out his hand. “Senator Ramierez, I am Captain Yuri Klepnitzov. I am honored to meet you.”

Ramierez squeezed his hand. “The honor is mine. This is my student, Rita Cuervo. Thank you for allowing us to visit you and your crew.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Cuervo. May I present my crew: Pilot Tiphaine Pernoud, and Navigator Ayuz Alizade.” The crewmembers nodded.

Ramierez looked around the flight deck. “Captain Klepnitzov, all this complex machinery fascinates me. I’m sure that Rita understands it much better than I do.” She lowered her eyes. “I would have imagined that you would all be too busy for visitors, this close to launch time.”

The Captain waved to a countdown display in ghostly green numbers. It had just passed 12:00.00. “Ah, we have over ten minutes. Plenty of time. Ms. Cuervo, you are space enthusiast?”

Rita felt herself blushing. “A little, yes.”

“Here, sit. This panel is locked, so you can do no harm. Senator, sit. Today we have minimum crew, so there are extra couches. You may stay for liftoff, if you wish.”

Rita held her breath, sensing that Ramierez was on the point of declining. But the Senator caught sight of Rita’s face, and smiled. “Once again, you honor us. We’ll be very happy to stay.”

“Good. While my crew does all the work, I shall try to explain what they are doing. Launches are not like in the days of chemical rockets. We need very little ground support or preparation. The fusion reactor is ready. Half-hour before launch, our water tanks were topped off by a tanker from the terminal. We have hydrogen for fuel, water for reaction mass, and a large, empty expanse of concrete so we do not incinerate bystanders. That is all we need.”

He laughed and settled into a seat between the two crewmembers. “If we did not have to wait for tower clearance, and if we were not worried about hitting an exact window for Freedom Station, we could launch in fifty seconds. All I need do is give Tiphaine the word; she punches that button, and we take off.”

“How much thrust do your engines give?” Rita asked.

“We can make five gees from a standing start. But we will not be so rough on our passengers today, eh, Ayuz? One and a half gees, one and three-quarters at most.”

“Ten minutes,” the Navigator said. “Tower confirms.”

“You see?” Klepnitzov spread his hands. “If not for lovely visitors to entertain, I have nothing to do.”

Rita absently rested her hands on the console before her, then pulled them back and firmly gripped the seat’s armrests. “How long is the launch window open?”

“I will tell you secret: we are within window right now. For Freedom Station, we have twenty-minute window, every ninety minutes. If we are willing to boost at two-three gees, we would have hour-long window. In fact,” he lowered his voice, as if confiding trade secrets, “we have enough delta-vee to reach any of the stations, no matter what time we launch. Some take longer time, some shorter. Launch window is really not so much for astrodynamics, as for convenience of scheduling flights on the ground.”

“How long will it take us to get to Freedom?” Rita asked.

“Thirty-six minutes.” He pointed to a display panel, a schematic of orbits plotted against the surface of the Earth. “This blinking dot is Freedom Station. Dashed line is our trajectory. You see where the two meet, almost to Africa? That is when we dock.”

“Have you been to all the stations? Which one do you like best? I’ve heard that New Kuumba is nicest.”

He held up a hand. “Slow down, my friend. Yes, I have visited all the stations. And yes, New Kuumba is beautiful. But in my heart, I am loyal to Mir II. It is successor to very first space station, you know, back in the 1980s.”

Rita nodded. “I’ve seen videos of the first Mir.”

“Ah, those were the days when space travel was truly excitement. Those cosmonauts lived on the frontier. Today, I look at this ship, at the way we travel so easily into space and back, at people who have lived their whole lives without touching the surface of the earth…and I wonder what those old cosmonauts would think.”

“I imagine,” Ramierez said, “that they would think us quite fortunate.”

Klepnitzov raised an eyebrow. “Or would they find us dull?” He looked at Rita. “But I must not say such things, my young friend, when you are excited about your first journey into space. Senator, we old people should pay more attention to these young ones. They can revitalize us.”

“Five minutes, Captain.”

“Ah, we are about to become busy. Here, let me show you how to fasten your belts, then I must ask that you keep to your couches until we are on our way. Shoulder belts come down this way, and snap— ”

A sudden flash drew everyone’s attention. To the southeast, past the main terminal, something very bright was descending from the sky, like a tiny piece of the sun broken off and floating gently to earth. It was only a pinpoint, but bright enough to hurt Rita’s eyes. It left a glowing train behind it.

“What in the—?”

“Borjemoi,” Klepnitzov whispered. “Fireball….”

As the tiny, intense pinpoint dropped it both grew and sped up, until in the last seconds it was a severe blue-white ball that streaked below the horizon, leaving a path of fire in the sky and violent afterimages across Rita’s sight.

A second sun burst from beyond the terminal building, a blast of raw electric light throwing kilometer-long shadows on the concrete expanse. Then the light faded, white to orange to red, while a burning column of smoke rose, twisting, spreading at the top into a mushroom shape….

Ramierez’ voice was strong and sharp. “Captain, I think we’d better launch.”

Klepnitzov, like the rest of them, could not take his eyes off the tortured specter to the east. “Without clearance from the tower—”

“Launch, damn you.”

He nodded. “Da. Tiphaine, commence launch sequence.”

“Fifty seconds,” the Navigator announced. His face was hollow, his eyes fixed on the still-growing mushroom cloud. The countdown display suddenly jumped to 00:00:50.0, and immediately the digits began to fall. At the same time, an intermittent alarm tone started sounding, rising in pitch with each passing second.

Klepnitzov plopped into his couch and slapped controls. “This is the Captain. Prepare for scram launch in forty-five seconds.” He flipped a switch; static filled the cabin. “Tower, this is Flight Four-Sixteen reporting scram launch in thirty-eight seconds, mark! Repeat, Four-Sixteen preparing for scram launch at ten thirty-seven twenty.”

Through the static and the alarm, Rita could hear human voices, shouting, but she couldn’t tell what they were saying. Except, perhaps, for the one phrase: “…God be with you…”

The Pilot’s knuckles were white on her control yoke, an image incongruously familiar to Rita from hundreds of thriller virties. With visible effort the woman ripped her gaze from the mushroom cloud and anchored it on the instruments before her. “What thrust, Captain?”

“Civilians aboard. Some elderly. Two gees. And God help us.”

‘Twenty seconds.”

“Captain, all passengers and crew are secure for scram launch.” The word from below came in clipped, professional tones.

The mushroom cloud climbed higher, rising smoke and dust around it making a thickening haze. Half a kilometer to the north, another ship launched, darting upward on a trail of flame, curving to the west as it rose.

“Ten seconds.”

In the midst of pandemonium, Rita noticed the Network News anchor sitting calmly at her desk, babbling on as if nothing untoward were happening.

“Three seconds. Two. One.”


A sack of concrete fell upon Rita, and she screamed.






It was as if they ascended within a transparent bubble, invisibly propelled at ever-increasing speed. By turning her head, moving carefully under twice the gravity she was used to, Rita could see the terminal building, the expanse of concrete launch pads and runways and parking lots that surrounded it, roads and trees and stores and houses, and beyond them, the rising mushroom cloud. She saw, too, the shock wave: a line of destruction, a wavefront where the hand of an invisible giant knocked down trees and buildings, tossed cars and chunks of debris, and raised clouds of dust; a swift-moving stormfront with fiery destruction in its wake.

And as fast as they rose, the shock wave was moving faster, advancing on them at what Rita guessed was the speed of sound.

“Plus fifteen seconds,” the Navigator announced.

“Passing Mach One,” the Pilot said. “Altitude twenty-seven hundred meters. Vectoring west.” She exhaled greatly. “We’re past the speed of sound. The wave can’t catch us now.”

Just as well, Rita thought. Below and behind, the advancing shock wave ripped through the Dulles parking lot, scattering vehicles like dry leaves, then slammed into the terminal building. Tons and tons of concrete and glass, reduced by the shuttle’s altitude to the size of a toy, burst apart and then collapsed, all the details mercifully lost in clouds of dust and smoke.

Incredibly, the Network News anchor was still blathering on; Rita realized that word of this disaster, whatever it was, had not yet reached the news services.

“Altitude thirty-four hundred meters. Captain, our flight plan would have taken us right into the shock wave; I’ve deviated far to the west. We can compute a new plan to orbit, or we can make a dirtside landing .”

Klepnitzov was silent for a moment. “Ayuz, what does Traffic say?”

The Navigator looked at his datascreen, cocked his head, and finally said, “Traffic recommends continuing to parking orbit, then waiting for further information.” He glanced toward the Pilot. “I have a trajectory that will let us drop down to one gee.”

Klepnitzov nodded. “Follow Traffic’s recommendation.”

As thrust dropped and the awful pressure let up, Rita took a deep breath. Her whole upper body hurt, but she hardly noticed in relief from that terrible stress.

Klepnitzov turned to Ramierez. “Senator, I’m afraid that we may not get you to Freedom Station in time.”

The Senator just closed her eyes, and sighed.


On to Part 2