Strapped into a chair Steve Anderson breathed into his mask. In his mind he counted seconds.

Three.

Again the entire ship pushed forward. At first it had been a pain to be strapped into the chair. After an hour or so he had gotten used to it. Glancing around the command center he was under the impression that it was the same with the others. After two hours a man had torn on his straps, tried to remove his mask. The moment he and Brenda O’learey had been waiting for.

It had happened a lot sooner than he anticipated. Which meant that she had won the raffle. Or was it the elected governor of the alpha ring, Darius Jovic? He was uncertain.

Again a small shock went through the ship.

The inertial dampeners worked fine but for the initial acceleration with the nuclear bomb drive safety guidelines dictated for them to be scrapped into the chairs. All the while there had been no push that seemed unsafe. “Initial acceleration has completed.” Someone in the command centre stated the end of that stage. “Finally! ” the man who had freaked out yelled. “Now get me out of here!”

“Pull yourself together private!” Brenda barked. Easier said than done, Steve smiled.
“Alright. Give the signal to open the straps. All decks.”
A navigation officer stated their position to be beyond the Cuiper belt. “Perfect.” As Admiral, Steve was the highest ranking aboard the Explorer, he glanced at the distraught man. Brenda had released all straps except his, he had noticed and started to shout insults. “Doc?” Steven turned to a young man with an absent expression. “Yes sir?”

Nodding gently in the direction of the crazed crewman, Steven stretched his legs by walking around the command centre. A moment later the yelled insults grew lesser, eventually trailed off. Half sedated the man was led of by the young medical officer.

“All stations report at least one victim of claustrophobia like Mr. Saunders. Otherwise no problems. Fission reactors working within nominal parameters, fusion reactors in the rings will fire within the hour.” Brenda went to report about the various stations aboard the Explorer and their readiness.

Ten more days the bombs would blast against the dish on the ship’s rear, bringing them to the top speed. Steve wasn’t paying much attention to Brenda and her report of what worked.

It all worked. Since the Explorer broke orbit over earth, drifted out of reach of the other ships, that were due to launch in five and ten years time, using just the solar sail, and power from the fusion reactors, which were shut down before the acceleration began.  The scientists who ran them had assured him that it shouldn’t interfere with the reactors, but at the same time clung to safety guidelines.

“Good,” he interrupted Brenda as she was about to report from the bioengineering department that ran the gardens and plants everywhere on the ship. “Brenda, let us make it a habit that you only report the things that aren’t working to me.”

Was there a hint of relief in her eyes? Steve had to suppress an amused smirk. “Aye, Sir.”

He wandered to the navigational consoles. “What is the distance to the Challenger group’s ship?”

“The Ark1 has cleared the Gas giants, but is still within the solar system. At least based on their trajectory and last measured speed. There is no sign of them nearby however.” Steve couldn’t help but feel triumphant over the crew of the Ark1. A ship filled with billionaires and their crew. They had caused a significant brain drain in the project in the past. Their fathers and grandfathers had lured scientists away from the international efforts to build the Explorer, the Horizon and the Destiny, to build the Ark1 and the Ark2. Both equipped with Antimatter reactors and highly experimental propulsion, instead of the Orion propulsion and fusion reactors.

“Excellent. Ladies and gentlemen, I congratulate you all. We are the first humans in interstellar space!” While most of the people in the command centre applauded he sent a request to Probe control to look for signs of the Ark1 further out in space, just to be sure.

For a moment he lingered with the probes in his mind.

They had been sent out in advance, using the same Orion propulsion as the Explorer and her sister ships, at speeds and a rate of acceleration definitely lethal to a human being. Designed to map out the path for the ships following behind and, upon arrival at their destination, start preliminary exploration of the planet.

RV-p 296. The last hope for humanity. Shaking that thought off Steve wandered back to navigation. “Any signs of obstacles thrown in our path by the neutron star?”

“Not according to the these readings, Sir.”

Again the smile returned to his face, at the same moment as a shudder of the propulsion. He wondered secretly what would become of the entertainment aboard. The computers had a full backup of all recorded music, film and writing of the world that had ever been created from the time of their departure. But surely people would build upon that. New stories, novels even, would be written.

New music composed. New films of all sorts and lengths filmed. All aboard his ship. And the other ships. They received and sent updates of all sorts all the time. How long until a new Show, a new song, a new novel would be among these transmissions? How will it look or sound like?

How long until someone asks why the Explorer isn’t jumping to warp, hyperspace or the likes? Or why it isn’t slowing down as in all the series and movies.

Would someone create a representation of how spaceflight really was? Silent and, unless forced to a halt, or steer, moving on in a single direction forever.

“Admiral? I believe you had an appointment with your wife.” Brenda had sneaked up to him speaking in a hushed voice. “You had promised Carol and Jason to show them the gardens once they were somewhat established enough. They were and still are.” She winked and wandered off.

Realising how much time he had spent staring at a computer screen musing about art Steve shook his head. “You have the command.”

 

From the command centre he had taken the tube transport. The cab rode straight upwards, a warning flashed on the screen alerting him that soon he would loose gravity.

He took a seat and buckled the belt as he reached the center of the sub-alpha ring. A smaller ring in front of the alpha ring, housing the command centre and military personnel quarters. His wife had insisted on a living space on the alpha ring, in order to not spoil Jason. He had to admit that the civilian rings were a lot more beautiful, much less spartan. Although the small gardens that had been raised in the center of the military rings were almost as beautiful as the ones in the civilian rings.

 

“Carol!” The doors opened after hissing, every time that hiss reminded him that the tubes were a vacuum, the cabs magnetically suspended, so only a minimum of power was required to move them. “Dad!” Jason ran toward him, relief written all over his face. The seven year old boy hugged his father. “That was a damn long flight!” He exclaimed, referring to the acceleration period they had spent strapped into their seats. “It sure was partner.” Steve smiled. Your mind will be blown once you find out that it isn’t over. Perhaps you live to see the arrival, I surely won’t.

“You’re late. Let me guess, Brenda alerted you of the time?” displaying an amused smile Carol observed her husband and their son. “She had to, yes.” He admitted. Looking in her eyes he remembered why he married her.

“Let’s not linger around the hallway, I have made a promise, and I intend to keep it.” With the three of them the cab of the tube suddenly seemed a little less roomy. It had seats for a dozen people, if they didn’t go through the zero G section probably a dozen more would fit inside, but since they all had chosen not to sit down the room seemed lesser than it actually was. “Dad, why are there plenty of empty rooms aboard?”

“Well,” Steve looked to his wife. “one day you will move out from Mommy and me. Find a woman you truly love and want to have children of your own. Then there will be free places. Other people your age will do the same. In many more years, while we older people still live where we are at now,” or in the geriatric section of the rings, “your children will need a place to stay once they leave your home.” Jason seemed to be satisfied with that answer, while Steve wondered how that question had not arisen sooner.

Again the vacuum sealing of the door hissed before the doors opened, before them a hallway stretched out. Taller and wider than the usual hallways. Instead of plants hanging and standing in the corners, or between doors the botanists and bio-engineers had given the access hallway to the garden a different touch. Walls and floors had been isolated, no moisture could escape the hallway, then they had covered the hallway with soil, growing grasses, flowers and other low rooting plants directly on the ground.

The walls were covered with plants too. Hopping from stepping stone to stepping stone the three made their way toward the broad doors leading out into the garden.

Together with the elected officials Steve had seen the gardens on every ring before. They were more orchards, only plants that produced, or contributed to, something edible, medicinal or produced large amounts of oxygen were allowed in the gardens. Some Flowers had been accepted, more for crew morale reasons than their other purposes. Steve missed pines. A nice pine tree, evergreen, dark and strong.

Or Oaks. But he couldn’t hope for that.

They couldn’t be eaten. And after two years of processed Algae and stem cell meat he looked forward to the upcoming harvest. Finally producing enough for a raffle. Later the botanists hoped to have enough for everyone aboard, but the raffle was the best choice to go with until then.

UNAUTHORIZED PERSONEL!

Bold red letters lit up on the screen next to the door to the garden. Reminded that the gardens were a restricted area, until such time as they were opened to the public, Steve stepped toward the console. He held his right hand against the screen. “Permission granted to unauthorized personnel.” The rice corn sized chip implanted there was better than any security code.

It monitored bio functions, thus an unconscious or dead person, or a severed hand would be useless. It also made things easier for the Doctors. Detecting fevers, pathogens, viruses, cancers and other diseases with ease, the medical personnel simply had to read out the chip. Some medications even were created by the chip using blood cells in and around it. But that was just in an experimental phase of development.

 

“Trees!” Jason jumped forward, Steve hadn’t seen him in such excitement since Jason had found his first new friend aboard the Explorer. Where is Francis now anyways? “Dad!” Called back to reality Steve waved Jason as he stood beneath an apple tree. The fruits were still tiny and far from ripe.

 

“But, don’t brag about the garden.” Jason was reminded as the three walked toward one of the four tube entrances to the garden. “I won’t! Promise!” How many times had they heard that before?

“Alright.” Doors opened. “Doctor Charles!” Steve greeted a tall man with a bald head and black skin. “Admiral Anderson.” a broad smile accompanied the returned greeting. “Mrs. Anderson, young Mister Anderson, I presume?” Had Steve not known that Doctor Charles was originally from South Africa he would’ve placed him in Britain based on his accent.

“You are correct. How long until we can expect general access to the garden?”

“Give us until harvest is over, that way we have enough time for the fences.” Finding the bio-engineer oddly friendly Steve muttered In agreement as his wife and son pressed on into the cab.

Close to everyone on board was a bit gloomy. Even two years after their departure from earth, many people still had difficulty accepting the circumstances. Our generation, and Jason’s too probably, will always have survivor’s guilt. Something in his pocket vibrated. In a fluid motion he took out a device he would’ve described as a smart phone a few years ago. Only that this device tied into the ship’s communication network instead of a cellphone network. Equipped with a strong transmitter they could also be used from the surface of, yeah, where exactly? Earth? RV-p296? Steve guessed that these devices were meant to be handed down through the generations until his grandchildren landed. “I gotta get this.” He put on a head set with a small display over his right eye. “Yes?”

Jason and Carol observed his expression change from slightly miffed to curious. “Alright,” he looked at the screen of the cab. “patch it through to cab 2-1021 please.”

Steve pointed his son and his wife toward the screen.

“That star in the center, that is the sun.” He explained calmly, although they were not far from it on a stellar level, it appeared as a tiny bright dot visually. Just like a regular star in the night sky.

“This image is a few minutes old. Taken by a camera on the whiskers.” Immediately he regretted using that word. Hastily he explained that the whiskers were a series of probes, currently attached to the Explorer by cable, but later running autonomously, flying around the ship to see what lies behind them, and before them.

Both at the bow and stern the Explorer had a large deflector. The one in the aft to catch the pressure of the nuclear bombs that drove them forward, the one in the front deflected any space debris from the ship as they plowed through the universe. Micro asteroids and the likes, if any of the probes that had been sent out in advance would’ve hit something and now was naught more than a debris field in their path. Therefore the sensors were blinded to what lay directly before or behind them.

Jason stared at the image for the entire ride, Carol had turned away with an expression of despair.

Somewhere close to that spec of light was an even tinier pixel in unseen blue and green and brown.

A place that once had been home.

Deep inside Steve felt the same despair, the same homesickness.

“So what are you going to tell your friends tomorrow?” Hoping not to hear about the garden, or a depressing and depressed rant about missing earth, Steve asked on their way to their quarters. The ceiling of the hallway gave a sky like blue impression, while shining down a light that was both bright and warm, giving the impression of sunlight.

“That I was shown around the ship, after we started to accelerate since the firing of the bombs might have caused structural stress. And that I have seen a picture of our sun in the far distance.” Surprised by the eloquence of Jason’s answer Steve looked at the plants that were lined up to the sides of the corridor.

Amongst various fruit bushes and plants the botanists seemed to have a thing for wild roses. Their odour filled the hallway.

“Good, was there any structural stress?” Carol also picked up on the boy’s story. “Not that I had seen. No cracks, no bends. But I’m not an engineer, so,” he shrugged his shoulders. Both Carol and Steve laughed.

I just hope that there is no damage. Teams of technicians and engineers are swarming the ship, will continue to do so until we have finished acceleration. It took Steve a moment to realize that he had grown accustomed to the constant shudders, but that they still occurred. For a brief moment he had worried that they might have stopped. An eventuality in which he would’ve been contacted.

 

“That’s the last one!” Brenda yelled across the command centre. In her voice a cheer that Steve was unaccustomed to. Applause roared through the command centre, Steve applauded too. Ten days of constantly feeling the trembling of the explosions were over, the Explorer was at her nominal speed.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are on course,” Steve spoke to a ship wide audience. A small News network had been founded by some of the passengers, mostly family members of essential crew members. “and at our nominal speed. I want to thank all of you for your patience those last ten days. I want to thank the engineering department in particular, their hard work over that time was outstanding. It is with great relief that I can report to you, that the Explorer has suffered no damage to its structural integrity, no damage whatsoever in fact. Thank you all.” The line was cut on his mark. “I’m not accustomed to making speeches like that.” sighing he leaned against the console behind which Brenda had assumed position. “Cone on, Admiral,” a playful smirk in her lips she leaned closer too, seeming more like a bartender than a subordinate. “surely you had to make speeches to your crews before?”

“That’s different.” He too assumed a more relaxed stance. “Those were people with orders, military people. Now I hold speeches for civilians!” Smiling a similar smirk he tapped the console. “Now, Barmaid, where’s my Vodka-tonic?”

“Can’t help you with that, sir. No alcohol aboard, but there’s a man on deck seven of the gamma ring, he has a lemonade stand.”

Raising his eyebrows in surprise Steve leaned in closer. “A lemonade stand? Where does he get the lemons from?”

“Grows ’em in his quarters.” Baffled over the motif of that man to have a lemonade stand Steve stared off at an unspecific point. “There’s no monetary system aboard?” He replied after a few moments. “What would he want for a lemonade?”

“From you or me? That we won’t shut him down. From others he gets sometimes gifts, sometimes nothing.” A philanthropist? I have doubts.

“I suppose some women might sleep with him for more lemonade, he too has a rationing programme.”

Thought so. “Well, as long is it consensual.” He sighed.

Brenda snickered as he shook his head. “Well. He has an implant like everyone else. So he isn’t fathering a whole bunch of half siblings.”

With a mixture of relief and anger he gazed at his hand. Like anyone else aboard the Explorer, he too was shooting blanks. Unless permitted by a scientific committee, both men and women were under birth control.

Regulations permitted two children per couple, only in cases of others forfeiting their respective quota, or a dramatic loss of lives, could that be extended to more children. Population control was important in an enclosed limited environment like the Explorer. Or her sister ships.

“At least something.” Steve mumbled, slowly pacing to another console. “Fresh lemonade sounds intriguing however.” Again snickering, Brenda promised to bring some the next day.

 

Against the blackness of space the tiny bright dot that had been their home seemed lonely. By stellar standards the sun was anything but lonely. Steve knew. Yet the image boggled his mind.

At the head of the command centre was a big screen, first time he had entered it Steve felt like he could take a seat and order an ensign to go to warp. All that he lacked of course was an alien science officer and the warp drive.

His eyes remained fixed at the view screen. Another light flickered. It had a blue hue, approaching fast. It took him some time to realise that it was exactly what they were looking for.

The Ark1.

“Incoming transmission.” The man speaking had a set of large headphones on his ears. “Computers are counteracting the time dilation effects.” Stating the bloody obvious he pressed a button on his console.

“Greetings to the people of the Explorer!” Distorted but understandable the voice of a man rang through Steves headset. “Put him on speakers.”

“Greetings to the people of the Explorer!” The initial words repeated for all in the command centre to hear. “Congratulations on being the first humans in interstellar space. No offense, but we’re going to beat you to the next record marks.” A face appeared on the screen.

Still heavily distorted, but recognisable.

“Audio only,” Steve glanced to his radio guy. “On behalf of the people aboard the Explorer I want to offer our greetings to you, and congratulate you and your crew on joining us in the vastness of interstellar space.” Jarred Bolton. Knew nothing but luxury all his life. At least I won’t have to put up with you for long.
“They’re past the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud.” The navigational officer read the data transmitted by the whiskers, which had been detached from their umbilical cords once the Explorer was at nominal speed. Blinking brighter than before Steve figured that the ship of the rich people accelerated too, now that it had passed the last barrier between the solar system and empty space.
“They are actually doing it.” A woman had stepped onto the command centre. “I couldn’t believe my readings, had to see it for myself.” She hastily explained her presence.

“You are?” Steve looked at her over his shoulder. “Clarke, Jane Clarke. I have a PhD in astrophysics, leading your astrophysics department?” She pointed at the uniform she was wearing. “Alright, lieutenant commander,” turning back to face the screen, Steve sighed. Two years on the ship and he didn’t recognise a member of his crew, even worse an officer. He needed to change that. “Would you care to tell us what they are going to do?”

“They are attempting to pass by certain rules of physics. With their antimatter drive they have capabilities we don’t. And therefore risks we never will have to face.” Unsatisfied with her answer Steve got up from his chair. “Are they going to warp?”

For a moment Jane stood there, her tightly bound hair wiggled as she weighed her head from side to side. “Sort of, we never received the full specs of their propulsion.” She smiled faintly, then returned her gaze to the view screen. “Will that have any ramifications for this ship?”

“Unknown sir.” Changing her expression to a mixture of sadness and concern Jane did not avert her eyes from the view screen.

Someone in the command centre stated the bloody obvious. The Ark1 was accelerating, and approaching fast. Things that were easily deductible if one looked at the screen. “Admiral, I think you can’t appreciate how fast they are moving at the moment.”

“Lieutenant commander Clarke, I think I can.”

A low alarm signal began ringing across the room, concerned and uneasy, Steve marched to the console. A relatively young man sat there reading through lines of data on one of his screens. “Radiation spike in the Ark1 reactor.” He stated as he noticed Steve standing behind him. “I don’t know whether that is intentionally or not.” He added.

“Keep calm.” Steve hummed, the same soothing hum he had made when Jason was just a Baby and cried in his arms.

“The Explorer is shielded against radiation, space after all isn’t the most hospitable place.” reassuring he put his hand on the man’s shoulder.

Jane joined the two, also looking at the data on the screen. “It doesn’t look entirely purpose driven.” A faint irish accent shone through in her words, Steve noticed. Another alarming beep, more alarming than the prior one.

Even without intricate knowledge of the meaning of the displayed data Steve recognised it as radiation alarm.

“Hold on. This can’t be right.” Steve turned around, Brenda looked at her console. “According to these readings they are travelling half the speed of light.”

A moment of silence followed Brendas statement. Everyone in the command centre stared at the view screen. Fast approaching the shimmer of the Ark1’s engines showed their approach, shifted into the blue light spectrum. “Whisker four is hit.” The ensign in front of Steve stated following a beep from his workstation. “By a gravitational wake.” Jane added, also glimpsing at the display.

As fast as it had approached, the Ark1 moved away. It’s engine’s light shifted into the red, watched by all in the command centre until it vanished. “Computer is compensating for time dilation.”

Steve looked to the communication officer witha mix of astonishment and shock. “Another transmission? They’re alive?” For a moment the man was listening to his headphones, shook his head. “It’s the whisker.”

Steve and Jane turned tk the display before them. Automatically the computer routed the signal to that console. “They’re still accelerating.”

“An automated distress signal from the Ark1 is crying for help.” The communication officer again. “Most of the crew is in G-tanks, all outside those have succumbed to the extreme effects of that speed, antimatter reactor out of control, over-feeding the engines. Engines and reactor at critical, ” he stopped, waited a moment. “They’re out of range.” He adjusted the antennae to receive further signals, but asked for patience as time dilation had to be taken into account.

 

“How long since we lost contact?” hunched Steve sat in his chair, his elbows rested on his knees, his hands folded, only the index fingers weren’t, fingertips pressed together directly beneath his nose.

Glancing down to her monitor Brenda sighed. “One hour twenty seven.”

Except for a few more words and incoherent data from the whisker probe, they had not received any information from the Ark1. Upon Steves inquiring look the communication officer shook his head. “Alright,” he got up, “Brenda, note everything in our report to earth, and maybe include a warning to the Saudis.”

“Admiral!” Steve turned to the telemetry ensign who had called out to him, he silently pointed at the viewscreen.

In equal silence a series of red flashes danced through the blackness of space. “Sensory data confirms it was an antimatter explosion. Or rather a series of them.”

Distraught Steve nodded, silently telling Brenda to include that information in her report.

 

Ark1 overtook the Explorer, speeds of fifty percent the speed of light were confirmed. Crew outside the G-force tanks had already succumbed to the effects of that acceleration. An hour twenty nine minutes after last confirmed contact was lost , an antimatter explosion was recorded, still at speeds beyond Explorer’s capabilities. Future reports concerning the Ark1 can not be expected. Recommendations to the Arabian endeavours with the Ark2 include to ditch the antimatter reactor in favour of the more stable but less yielding fusion technology.《

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