copyright (c) 2006, Don Sakers
Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet
By Don Sakers
Sylvia and Paul Jacobs,
who are building the foundation of the future;
Rachel Jacobs and Matthew Jacobs,
who will live there.
In a ship of the wood of Atlantis
With quicksilver sails all unfurld,
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 worlds 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
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 childhoodshe supposed it stemmed ultimately
from a National Geographic show about volcanoes in second
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
She awoke to Mozart, the dream already fading from her mind,
leaving behind only the sense of inevitable fate
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 shed
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, whats
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. Daisyactually a KhriaCorp Day-EZ
6000 modulewas Ritas clock and calendar, memo pad
and address book, puter and phoneher secretary and
maitre d and majordomoall 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 shed worn since she started
Good morning, Rita. Its Monday, June thirtieth,
twenty-fifty-three. The time is six-oh-four. Youre due
at Senator Ramierezs office at six-thirty for a staff meeting.
At eight oclock you are scheduled for a New Space-Travelers
orientation session at Dulles. You have a confirmed reservation,
as part of the Senators party, aboard the ten-forty flight
from Dulles to Freedom Station. Youll be spending the rest
of the day on the Senators 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 matteredby 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
Partys 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
Administrations 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 countrys Head
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 Cygnetbut Ritas
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
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
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 Thursdays Dinner.
Save in personal. Next.
From Dell Torrence subject Just Wondering.
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
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 statusbut Senator Ramierez did not draw
lines between staff and Interns the way some others did. To Ramierez,
everyone got a seat at the table.
RamierezRita still couldnt bring herself to think
of the Senator as Carrieentered 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 Senators
instructions to those who would hold the fort while she was away.
At ten past seven, Daisy gave an audible beep and whispered in
Ritas 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 wont 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 Ritas passport up onscreen
and added a notation to the effect that she had undergone sufficient
sadistic torture to be allowed to leave Earths atmosphere.
The receptionista 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. Thatll
set your stomach right.
I know y dont feel like anything to drink.
Best thing for you, though. Maybe some saltine crackers, too.
I promise, youll 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
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 terminals 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
In fact, she felt better than okayit was nearly
ten oclock, and in less than half an hour shed 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 couldnt help laughing. I had some of those,
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 shuttles 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
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
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, Ive seen my
share of flight decks. He touched the stewards sleeve.
Soon as you can, send me over a gin-and-tonic, thats
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 controlstwo 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 channelbut
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
Ramierez looked around the flight deck. Captain Klepnitzov,
all this complex machinery fascinates me. Im 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 Ritas face,
and smiled. Once again, you honor us. Well 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 seats 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
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? Ive 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. Ive 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 everyones 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 Ritas 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 Ritas 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 wed 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 couldnt tell what they were saying. Except,
perhaps, for the one phrase:
God be with you
The Pilots 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
Captain, all passengers and crew are secure for scram
launch. The word from below came in clipped, professional
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.
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. Were past the speed of sound. The wave cant
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 shuttles
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; Ive
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
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 Traffics 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, Im afraid
that we may not get you to Freedom Station in time.
The Senator just closed her eyes, and sighed.