In January 2088, life in outer space is rocked with news of its first homicide. The dead man—a young Dominican Priest—had secretly made his way “upside” and lived as a common laborer. His intentions are a mystery and the killer’s identity and motive are questions that the best investigators of the new world cannot answer.
With public order threatened, the reputation of the ruling engineers at stake, and criminal elements seizing the opportunity to gain control, authorities seek help from Earth—itself recovering from decades of war and environmental crises. With assistance from the Vatican, they recruit Father John Francis McClellan, a parish priest from Boston and a retired US Marine Corps expert in “high-defs”—the artificially intelligent three-dimensional printers that built the new world.
A Printer’s Choice tells a story of faith, the future, and the power of free will. It explores questions about sentience, choice, and the necessity of choosing well. Set in locations on Earth and in the orbits, the story takes place in a future extrapolated from today’s geopolitical and ecological turmoil. In this epic debut novel, author W. L. Patenaude illuminates not just the struggles of our world, but also the promises and implications of building a better one, one choice at a time.
|Product dimensions:||6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.88(d)|
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FOR TWELVE YEARS, THE Aesirs had landed at the Gainesville Regional Spaceport at nine o'clock at night and launched at nine each morning. But on Wednesday, February 25, 2088, one arrived without notice just before noon. A day later, it stood in the Florida sun, ready for an evening departure.
As word spread, the work of rebuilding the city slowed, and bets were made that the rumors were true — that there really had been a murder in the orbits. And that the authorities up there had sought help from the old world below.
The Aesir's wings glowed yellow, then orange, as the sun slipped into the west. Steam drifted between its engines — a sure sign they were being readied — and still the spaceport's information displays remained blank. But people from Gainesville knew better. They knew that before long the engines would ignite and roar and be heard for miles. Then the Aesir would climb, and begin to arc into the coming night, and if you were watching from below you might never know why.
Inside the shuttle, Father John Francis McClellan was making his way to the first-class passenger section. Other than the flight crew, he was alone with his two escorts in the three-hundred-person-capacity craft. One of the escorts — or hosts, or ambassadors from the new world — was saying that they had been lucky to find this particular priest. Besides the necessary qualifications, he was young and fit, which had hastened preparations. And time, she said, was of the essence.
McClellan's assessment was different. He had turned thirty-four two weeks earlier, and he knew that seven years in the seminary and four in a parish in Boston had softened him. He no longer had the build of the young man who had farmed and played football — a worker's build that the Marine Corps made leaner and tougher.
His uniform now was a black, space-ready suit with a customized collar signifying his status as a Roman Catholic priest. Only his sandy brown hair remained as it had back in the Corps — cut low and faded to his skin on the sides and in back. The haircut revealed a series of scars that roamed across his left temple, stretching from his ear nearly to his watchful eyes, which were the blue of all the McClellan men. The scarring was slight but evident, softening whenever his quick smile came, as it did with the first-class accommodations.
McClellan had been upside only once, fifteen years ago, back in boot camp. But it was as if it were yesterday. As his two escorts spoke quietly among themselves, McClellan called up the faces of his fellow recruits — so many men and women he'd grown to love. Men and women he had watched die.
They had stayed upside for three weeks to learn the skills needed to perform missions in weightlessness. They were outfitted in full lifegear and body armor, and carried standard-issue weapons alongside the tools they needed to program the printers. All that mass worked to crush them on takeoff, and it burdened them in orbit. He could still hear the drill instructors shouting to stay focused — to remember that mass is always subject to the laws of nature. And in space those laws are strict.
McClellan had been nauseated for the first two days, yet by the end of the three weeks he was at the top of the class both in weightless programming and overall. This had assured him an assignment in the 6th Marine Raider Battalion, which took only the best programmers.
Back then, as always, he had wanted to help make things right. But the means of his youth had been tools of war, not faith, for like many children, he had been brought up with no belief in God.
Now, finally strapped into his seat as the escorts chatted about progress, McClellan wondered how he had ever managed without his certainty in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He looked below and followed the craft's shadow, which had advanced into the marshes to the east. It blended with other shadows farther toward the horizon, where the land darkened out by the ruins and crater that had once been the city of St. Augustine.
The pilot announced that they'd be launching in fourteen minutes, then issued a final round of safety tips.
Fourteen minutes? McClellan slipped a frayed pouch from his pocket and removed his rosary. Sitting in front of him, the more talkative escort watched closely.
"I trust you're not nervous," she said.
"Not exactly," McClellan said. "But I'll be glad when I can begin my work."
"That makes two of us," she said.
Elaina Jansen, the elegant chief engineer of New Athens, understood his impatience. She had been instrumental in convincing Rome and McClellan's archbishop to set all this in motion — and now her reputation was at stake. She was a tall woman, neat and proper. Her silver hair was cut short, with wisps of blond still showing along the sides. Determination shone in her dark eyes even when fatigue or sadness sought to distract her.
"It won't be much longer," she said. "We had agreed to wait until after launch to begin sharing what we know."
"Thirteen minutes, thirty seconds, and counting," McClellan said. "Until then, I'll put the time to good use."
He looked once more out the viewport, thinking of the suffering that surrounded them — the souls of all the dead from the once-vibrant lands that had faded in sea and storm, shadow and memory. He thought also of the people working to rebuild. The priest fingered the crucifix on his rosary, made the sign of the cross, and silently said the Apostles' Creed.
Jansen tapped the knee of the second escort, Security Commissioner Joseph Zhèng — the man in charge of the investigation. She leaned closer and whispered with subtle superiority, "The good father will be praying. I suppose we should let him. We may all need it."
Zhèng said nothing. He gave McClellan a nod, the slightest of smiles, and returned to watching a gull gliding in the currents, its feathers reflecting the floodlights of the spaceport. Two more gulls joined the sendoff. Then, from below, a series of horns sounded and the birds flew off fast and sure.
Midway through his third decade of the rosary, the cabin lights dimmed and small displays that had been showing the locations of emergency pods began flashing a countdown.
As the rumble of engines rose to a thunder, McClellan remembered his training.
Back then he had found himself comforting his fellow recruits, as they did him — making things better by cracking jokes about printing jobs gone wrong, or about that night out in Albuquerque. Now he sat with two companions from a different world that he'd known for less than a day. But whatever the differences, they were, all three, united by the thrust and roar of ascent. Their hands clutched armrests. Their feet pressed into the flooring, as if that action would keep them from falling forward. And McClellan silently continued his rosary for the soul of the man whose murder had set all this in motion.
* * *
Ten days earlier McClellan had arrived at his archbishop's office to receive a new assignment, one that, as a diocesan priest who had taken a vow of obedience, was not open to debate. As a friend of Archbishop Alfred Bauer, however, he could resist a little.
"I thought you were assigning me to a new parish," McClellan said, "and I was going to protest. But New Athens? There has to be someone more qualified."
"Johnny," the archbishop said, "I wish there were." He leaned his strong figure forward in a leather chair that had been saved from the old archbishop's office, from long before the war. "But you aren't the average priest."
McClellan stiffened. He couldn't think of why the Archbishop of Boston would be so concerned with the new world — so concerned that he'd send one of his priests.
"If this is about my time with the Corps," McClellan said, "I'm not the only priest with a military background. And other than one exercise in boot camp, I never served in space."
"I think only eleven Marines ever did, Johnny. But that's not the point. In addition to your time with the Military Police, you have other skills. You were trained to program the printers. And whatever this business is all about, I am certain it will involve them."
McClellan waited for Bauer to continue. But the archbishop looked down at the data hovering over his tablet and maintained an impassive expression.
"Do those reports say anything about programmers?" McClellan asked, hearing the apprehension in his voice.
"No. And no one has mentioned them — not to me, anyway. But it was obvious that Cardinal Kwalia was interested in your military history, which he seemed to know a great deal about."
"That would make sense. He's the Holy See's secretary of state. The Corps must have told them everything. Which means he knows what happened the last time I programmed."
The archbishop sighed and stood up. He picked up his mug and went to the windows of the old office, gazing at the February afternoon. A young father crossed Washington Street carrying a boy in one arm and pulling a tired girl with the other. The children suddenly laughed at something the father had said, and Bauer smiled.
"Kwalia was being diplomatic when we spoke," he said when he turned back to McClellan, "but he was not subtle. He's Kenyan, and all the clergy I've met from there have the talent for being wonderfully polite and terribly straightforward all at once."
"And yet he didn't say anything explicit about this case needing a programmer?"
"Johnny, I know about you and the printers — more than most. I know why you vowed to never go back inside one. But it was clear that Kwalia wants you up there because of your training — and that probably means the Holy Father wants you up there for that reason, too. Now, I'm no hotshot detective like you, but I think I'm on to something."
"I was never a detective."
"No. But you made a few in the Military Police look good."
A motorcycle came and went outside, startling a blue jay that screamed in reply.
"Okay, let's talk." Bauer returned to his chair and waved his tablet. "Here's the information I've been given. There's been a murder upside. It's the first up there — the first that we know of, anyway — and the victim is a Catholic priest. A Dominican. And tell me, why would the engineers even admit that a Catholic priest was up there in their godless new world? Because they need someone who's investigated murders, who knows law enforcement, who knows the priesthood, and that's you."
"So what's the angle with a printer?"
Bauer scanned the data on his tablet. "The priest — Raphael Tanglao is his name — was at an airlock in one of those orbital relay stations when someone hacked in and opened the air lock's outer door. Apparently a printer was making repairs outside when it happened." Bauer entered a few commands with the movement of his eyes and held up the tablet. It showed images from the priest's autopsy. "This is what the printer's emitters did to him before it shut down."
McClellan had seen worse. But not by much. He offered a silent prayer and began asking himself questions about how any of that could have happened. "And they're sure this was homicide?"
"Both the Engineering and Security Councils were loath to admit it, but yes, they are. Apparently Father Tanglao recorded a message as he was dying. He made it certain that this was no accident."
"Any idea about suspects?"
"Not that I'm privy to. But I'm sure there's much more than what we're being told."
McClellan reached for Bauer's tablet and pulled up more of the autopsy photos. "Why would they ask for me? The engineers own the printers — they always have. They should know that I'm not programmer material anymore. And I don't want to be. I don't even have my equipment."
The archbishop leaned back. He remained silent until McClellan looked at him. "Johnny, we all did things in the wars we regret. None of us can change our past. All we can do is make the best choices we can, especially when we're offered opportunities like this."
Bauer placed his mug on the table next to him, fingering a small crack in its handle.
"Look ahead, Johnny," Bauer said. "You're being given a chance to do so much good. For others, yes, but especially for you. Please, think this through — you're so good at that when it comes to other people's problems."
"It'd be easier if you just ordered me to go."
"I could," Bauer said softly. "But this is not an ordinary assignment. This has to be your choice."
McClellan let out the breath he'd been holding. Bauer was the kind of archbishop whom priests either loved or hated. McClellan was in the former group. From the day he had met the Marine Corps chaplain in the infirmary at Camp Lejeune, McClellan had found in Bauer a friend and mentor with the best qualities of both his father and his uncle, who had tried so hard to raise him.
"Your Excellency," McClellan said, stressing the formal title, "what is it that Holy Mother Church is asking me to do, really? Priests get killed all the time. It wouldn't surprise me that if one did sneak upside he would be targeted. What's this really about?" The archbishop looked disappointed.
McClellan hated that expression. He turned and looked out the window. An Aesir was arcing up from Logan Spaceport, its distant glare boasting of technologies that would have been unfathomable to the men who had carved the window's woodwork.
"Look at me," Bauer said.
"Whatever reason that the engineers want you up there, my reason — the Church's reason, and the Holy Father has made this very clear — our reason to send you is, yes, to get to the truth, but it's also to minister to souls. Including yours."
McClellan relaxed. He knew where this was going, and he loved his archbishop all the more for it.
"The faithful upside are just like the ones on Earth, Johnny. They may have to hide their beliefs, but they need the Eucharist. They need confession and all the sacraments. You know this. We need to be up there."
"And yet at least one priest was already up there," McClellan said. "Unofficially, I assume."
"Yes, and quite unexpectedly. Neither Rome nor his order had any idea. Nor, apparently, did the authorities upside."
McClellan wondered how anyone could have pulled that off. "A priest wouldn't go missing without some investigation. There had to have been one."
"There was — it's all here in the files. Raphael Tanglao was supposed to be visiting family in Manila last summer when he disappeared. The Dominican Order submitted all the appropriate reports, but with no leads and no evidence of foul play, the Filipino police closed the case after a month. He was assumed dead — somewhere on Earth, of course. As you said, that's not uncommon. But finding him in the orbits has created some ... questions, not to mention diplomatic tangles for the Church. We're hoping they'll get ironed out with your presence."
"What about the Corps? If there's something here to do with the printers, or me, shouldn't they be told?" Bauer nodded. "Commandant Munrayos was briefed yesterday. There won't be a formal statement of support, naturally, as this does not technically involve them. But between you and me, the Corps wouldn't object to improved relations with the engineers."
McClellan paused. "All right. Two final questions."
Bauer leaned back, motioning for McClellan to continue.
"If I accept, who would you send to my parish? I might be upside for a while, possibly until Easter. Whoever it is better be good."
"I have some fine candidates, Johnny. But I promise you this: before you go, I'll come and preach at all the Sunday Masses. I'll share as much news as I can about their pastor's temporary assignment."
"They'll appreciate hearing it from you. Thank you."
"And your second question?"
McClellan smiled. "You already know it. When do I leave for New Athens?"CHAPTER 2
"ENGINEERS PREFER NOT TO TELL their stories," the voice on the video said. "Whether they are those of their successes, because the engineers are humble, or those of their failures, because they are also secretive."
McClellan paused the video. It seemed impossible that this file, sent by Security Commissioner Zhèng himself, was what he had suspected: one of the censored exposés about the engineers, their printers, and the construction of New Athens. Zhèng had transmitted it in the first round of mission orientation files. But doing so — simply possessing it up here — had to have been risky.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Printer's Choice"
Copyright © 2018 W. L. Patenaude.
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