Fiery streaks were drawn across the sky, visible by day and night. The distant thunder of objects breaching the sound barrier as they entered earth’s atmosphere was omnipresent, followed by the appearance of yet another streak, with its trailing tail of smoke and fire.

Celestial objects of all shapes and sizes were hurled from their natural places in the solar syste by the approaching catastrophe in the shape of a neutronstar.

Gravitational tugs had thrown grains of dust, asteroids and other bodies out of their orbits. So far earth had been lucky to only be showered by smaller objects, not by the hundreds of asteroids, comets and moons large enough to wreak irreversible havoc.

Another hypersonic boom, a ball of fire engulfing a rock, a trail of fire and smoke.

 

“That is all?” dressed casually in the hempen clothes she always wore, the therapist looked up from her notes.

“It repeats night after night. Often several times a night.” Nye Monroe was tempted to jump at the therapists throat. “Miss Monroe,” Dr. Donal shifted in her chair. “each and everyone of us lost friends, family, in most cases close to everyone we knew,”

“They aren’t dead yet!” Nye jumped from the couch. “That is my problem! A fucking neutron star will tear the earth apart, down to atomic levels. My friends, my family, everyone I know, who is still on earth, will be torn to shreds in twenty years, and here I am safely tucked away on this ship, heading out towards a new world!” Nye took a deep breath, only now realizing that she wept uncontrollably, that her voice had changed from anger to hysteria.

“You’ve known for your entire life that this will happen. Yet, you didn’t turn to aimless despair. You worked hard, went to university. You are now twenty-four years old, and overcame that urge.” Doctor Donal typed a few words on her tablet computer.

Slowly Nye inched back to the couch, sitting down she wiped her tears away. “There are thirty thousand people aboard this ship.” thinly whimpering, her voice trembled, “I guess I can find friends somewhere.” she sighed almost not audibly.

“And in the ships launching in five and ten years from now, a total of sixty thousand more will follow.” Doc Donal added with an encouraging smile. Which will be five years behind us if you could leave and stop to wait for the second ship. Five more for number three. Still plagued by the urge to jump at Doctor Donal’s throat, Nye tried to suppress that thought.

The Explorer was the first of three identical ships. “I hope I’m not going to make long distance friendships there, that I will never be able to visit, or meet anywhere in person.” Nye replied to the therapist. Surely she would receive some encouraging reply that would make Nye have homicidal fantasies involving Doctor Donal.

But nothing of the sorts. “You already got to know people on Explorer,we’re two years into this journey. Surely you have found people around you that you would call friends?”

 

Nye left the therapy rooms.

Mandatory psychological evaluation was gnawing on her nerves almost as much as her nightmares. Through the artificial sunlit hallways, next to thriving plants Nye made her way to the tube network. Three levels below her was the office she worked at. Often she caught herself staring at the walls and ceilings of the hallways in wonder. Light and simulated sunshine shone from the ceiling for the plants to grow most efficiently, to give the human population the illusion of daylight. Supporting the psyche as much as vitamin D requirements.

Mesmerized by the beauty of a blossom near the entrance to the tube network Nye missed her ride.

 

“Hello there.” a short haired dark skinned young man with an accent that sounded almost British woke her from her fascination for the flowers.

“Hi.” she replied bedazzled.

“I’m Jacob Charles, Botanist and Bioengineer. May I ask who you are?”

Nye shook her head, bright brown locks curled and uncurled around her face. “Nye, Nye Monroe. Astrophysicist, working in probe control.”

Jacob stretched forth his hand. “In that case, pleased to meet you Doctor.”

“Like wise, Doctor.” she shyly shook his hand, slightly blushing.

“I work to keep all these plants blooming, producing oxygen, having seeds and in some cases fruit.”

Fruit! Nye died a little inside, it had been a long time since she had a real fruit. Most of the rations aboard the Explorer were dishes derived from Algae. Once every fortnight there was meat.

Lab-grown, from stemcells. Even vegetarians couldn’t deny it was clean meat, without any bloodshed. “Fruit?”

“Yeah.” Jacob smiled. “Enough for a raffle this harvest.”

“You’re kidding right?” Nye shifted to one side, calling for the tube once more. “I’m afraid I am not. Why don’t you meet me for lunch today and I’ll show you?”

Smooth.

“Alright. Where and when?”

“Half past twelve, I’ll pick you up at this spot?” Squinting her eyes at the bio engineer she bit her lower lip. “Alrighty then. It’s a date.” Did I just say that it is a date? Still biting her lip, Nye entered the tube. She typed in her destination, looking up from the mounted display she noticed Jacob staring after her, his dark eyes seemed like molten pools of chocolate beckoning her to drown in them. Again she felt the heat of a blush on her cheeks. “Until then.” she smiled. Chocolate? This isn’t high school! Have I reverted to teenage girl?

In silence the roomy cab rushed through the vacuum tubes horizontally at first, then turning to vertical movement, and again horizontally rushing in magnetic suspension towards probe control.

 

Roughly fifty years had passed since the neutron star was discovered. Twenty years had gone by until a series of probes had been shot out into space, twenty years in which the hunt for a new earth was on.

Eventually RV-p 296 had been discovered.

The probes were sent. Highly sophisticated machines, small arks themselves. Orbiter, landing crafts. But they were accelerated in a haste that no human could’ve survived it, were one to fit aboard one of the probes.

 

Thirty years had gone into construction of the Explorer, the Horizon and the Destiny. To be launched five years apart. Each with three major rings.

Nye lived, worked and was counseled on the beta ring. There were two additional smaller rings in front of the ship and on its rear, sub alpha and sub gamma. They housed military personnel, Hospitals, and the command centers for the exodus mission. Although the ships functioned as democracies, elected officials from the separate main rings as ruling body, the commanders could veto their decisions if necessary.

 

“Two years on this tub and I still have bad dreams.”

“Nye, you need to find yourself a man.” a dark haired woman with a heavy German accent barely looked up from her screens. “Thanks Karla, I figured that out too.” Easy for you to say, you’re married. “Something else, can you check the telemetry from Leif?”

Nye sat down at her terminal, her screens came to life after her pressing her subdermal implant against the scanner to log in. “What is the matter with that probe?”

There was no response from Karla. Instead Nye too watched the data from the last probe launched. “Leif is in interstellar space too, how can this be?” in the raw data transmitted by the probe were images in the data stream, conversion to viewable images would take a  few moments. “Better call the blockheads.” from out of her desk drawer she pulled out a contraption for ear and eye, with a powerful microphone.

“Commanding officer please.” she mumbled as the pictures were taking shape before her eyes.

Slowly both her and Karla’s jaws dropped, their eyes widened.

 

“This interstellar body is of similar size and composition as earth.” pacing in front of the viewscreen Nye pointed at the dark marble that showed a color of basalt, probably due to the lack of a powerful source for light. It was barely distinguishable against the dark backdrop of space. “Leif shows that there are signs of a decayed civilization on the surface,” Nye showed charts of sensor readings the probe had transmitted. “we nicknamed it Ericsson, in honor to the probe’s name patron. We could harvest raw materials from the Planet, although we would recommend robotic probes for that, we can also send teams of humans.” she closed the presentation.

Her intelligent glasses told her of the time, again dying a little inside, she cursed the probe for not transmitting that data at a later time.

“How should we mine these materials?” the commanding officer, Admiral Steve Anderson, shifted in his seat. “We could send probes to mine them years in advance.” Karla stepped in. “Three months before we reach the planet a team of people can be dispatched to the planet, they’ll arrive about two months later using maximum acceleration. Then there is a tiny window of opportunity for them to rendezvous with Explorer.”

First officer Commander Brenda O’Learey also shifted in her seat. Nye died a little more, time was out.

She would miss out on her date with Jacob. “How tiny is that window of opportunity?”

“Minutes. We’re talking minutes here.” Nye admitted ignoring her urge to bring the meeting to a quick end. The elected officials from the three separate rings started mumbling in agitated fashion. “Order!” the Admiral barked. “What if they miss rendezvous?”

Uncertain Nye and Karla exchanged a glance. “Horizon.” was Nye’s short reply. “If they miss out on them, there is still Destiny.”

“And if they can’t make that, they’ll be marooned on that desolate rock.” Commander O’Learey leaned back in her seat.

“Yes.” Karla stepped toward Nye.

 

While the elected ones and the military commanders debated the subject further, Nye and Karla had been dismissed, more than an hour too late for Nye’s liking. As she had thought there was not a trace of Jacob at the tube entry where they were supposed to meet.

Still wearing the glasses with the built in heads up display on her head, she turned around to the door when the words “Authorization confirmed.” flashed before her. Augmented reality messages.  He’s smart. Nye waited a moment. “Doctor Monroe.” Jacobs voice rang in her earpiece. “I’ve waited for the entirety of my lunch break for you. Sadly you didn’t show up. I’m leaving this message in the hopes that you are still interested in grabbing lunch together. Meet me here tomorrow at the same hour.”

The words vanished together with his voice. “Dear Doctor Charles,” Nye began after starting to record. “I am very much interested in lunch with you. Or dinner.” I should delete this bit. It seems desperate. “If I should be kept from coming here tomorrow again, please do not assume it as disinterest.”

Forgetting to delete the embarrassing part, she saved the message to the mainframe with authorization to Doctor Jacob Charles only, just as the message reached her that a decision had been made.

 

“For now we will send automated probes to the planet, we’re certain they can be instructed to manufacture a delivery system. If we’re going to send people, and the civilian authorities urge to stress the ‘if’, we’ll make that decision when the Explorer nears range.” Admiral Anderson stood at the front of the board room, where Nye had stood before.

As he went on to tell the assembly that a ship wide announcement would be made,  and transmitted to the other ships and Earth,  Nye drifted off mentally. Off to Jacob, and their impending lunch, or dinner. Blushing as she recalled the embarrassing part of her message she had neglected to delete, she heard her name from the Admiral. “Pardon?”

“I asked whether you could oversee the probes operations once they reached the planet?”

Nye chased away her thoughts of Jacob. “Admiral, the term Probe control is misleading.  With these distances all we can do is receive telemetry, sent long before we receive it. By the time our instructions are received by the probes,  any unforeseen circumstances have already played out. ” Her hot cheeks did not get cold, as all eyes in the room were fixed on her. “But me and Karla can oversee the telemetry sent to us. We can help with the programming and backup programming.” Uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other Nye wished to be as far from the conference room as possible.

“I see. Still, we would like you and Dr. Hansen to be in charge of the probes for that planet.” The Admiral looked to the others who gave confirming nods.

Probe control just got more interesting. Smiling both Nye and Karla accepted the new assignments.

“Doctor Monroe, a word please.” Nye was already on her way out when the Admiral asked her back in. Commander Brenda O’learey was there too. “Did you receive any telemetry concerning the Ark1 from the advance probes?” Nye thought for a moment. There had been telemetry, but they had sent it to the command centre after they figured out what it was. Since that incident a few weeks prior no further telemetry concerning the Ark1 had been received.

 

Beeping.

Annoying beeping, Nye thought. Drunken on sleep she gazed at the fake windows of her room.

Dark, to simulate night.

Stretched out on the bed, which doubled as couch, she was still watching the ship’s television network. During an episode of her favourite hospital series she had fallen asleep. In the top right corner of the screen was the current time, informing her she had slept for only twenty minutes. “Accept call.” She mumbled to her headpiece as she lifted it from her nightstand.

“Good evening, Doctor!” Jacob’s voice filled the tiny room.

“Good evening, Doctor!” Immediately she had found her smile again.

“I found your message, and was wondering whether you’d like to have dinner tonight?”

How did he find out where to call me? “Sure! I’d love that!” Close to jumping from the edge of her bed Nye grinned. “Where and when?”

“Let’s say in thirty minutes, where we met!” She clearly heard that he was grinning as well.

 

The minutes flew by in a great haste.

Before Nye knew it, she had changed clothes and stood next to the doors of the tube network. With a hiss the doors to the tube pressurised. As they slid open, Jacob stepped out.

Never before had she considered the hempen clothes looking good on anyone, but Jacob looked dashing in his dark blue ensemble. “Doctor Monroe!” He took a slight bow. “Doctor Charles.” She dropped a curtsy.

“I thought to show you something beautiful tonight, if I may.”

Blushing Nye followed his inviting hand gesture and stepped into the tube cab. He entered the destination into the display and the doors closed. With a hiss they depressurized, and the magnetically suspended cab took flight in the vacuum tube. After a few moments the doors hissed, opened, and revealed a humid hallway. Plants covered the ground, only stepping stones led away. “Water refinement, seed vaults.” He pointed at the doors that were half hidden. The ceiling was twice as high as in every other compartment of the Explorer that Nye had seen so far.  After a turn the hallway broadened toward a large door.

“Unauthorized personel detected.” A screen next to the door flashed up. Would either of them be wearing their glasses they’d see the words flash in front of the doors as well. “Authorisation Jacob Charles, PHD, bioengineering. Unauthorized person has temporary permission.”

The screen turned green and then dark. Humming the doors opened, revealing something that Nye had known existed aboard the Explorer, but had never seen before. “We’re working on a fenced off public access to the gardens, but first we want to be sure that the plants have fully developed and are stable.” Nye barely heard him talk. Her eyes drank up the glorious sight she beheld. The entire inside of the ring was overgrown. An orchard of epic proportions.

 

“Engineers first wanted to build one gigantic cylinder, an O’Neil cylinder, but for obvious safety reasons that was transformed into the rings. Then it was debated how much of the rings was supposed to be gardens, and how much space should be used for quarters, offices,  labs, et cetera. All the while taking the coriolis efect into account.” Jacob explained while leading Nye through the orchard. “This is the end result.” He pointed to a relatively large tree. A blanket covered the ground beneath, a basket stood on it. “A picnic?”

“A nice first date, I thought?” Jacob displayed an open innocent smile that would’ve won Nye over, had his message at the tube entrance not done so already.

Walking in the direction of the ship’s length axis was no problem,  but in any other direction created the impression of slightly walking uphill.

The tree was uphill.

Above them the central tubes stretched lengthwise through the ring, inside the central column, which was lined with the lighting for the gardens. Currently only displaying a pale moonlight like illumination to simulate night. “How does irrigation work? The central column is zero gravity, so rain must be difficult to simulate?”

“It is zero G, but still we can use pressure to make rain happen. It isn’t the same as on earth, but it’s something.” Jacob sat down beside Nye. “Maybe you’d want to be here next time it rains?”

Loving the idea Nye just nodded enthusiastically.

“So, Jacob Charles PHD, tell me something about yourself.”

Snickering Jacob opened the basket and took a bottle out, two cups and poured one. “You sound like Doc Fraiser.” Seeing Nye baffled with ignorance about Doctor Fraiser he handed her one cup. “He’s my therapist.”

A wave of a familiar smell swept over her from the cup. Demonstratively she sniffed at it. “It is watered down, but otherwise genuine, no artificial tastes or sweeteners added.”

Apple juice.

Genuine apple juice.

Nye felt like a new being while taking the first sip.

“As I said, soon harvests will be big and prove stable enough for a raffle. Meanwhile the bioengineering department is rewarding it’s employees with the fruits of their labour.” Jacob said in a frie dly low tone.

The only reward I get for my labour, is more labour. Nye silently pondered sloshing a sip of apple juice around in her mouth.

“Anyway,”Jacob put the bottle back in the basket. “I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. But I did not stay there. After graduating I went and got accepted into the Explorer crew after my work in thd field of Bioengineering at the university. I lost five brothers and two sisters, ” musing he paused, “or rather I will loose them. Once disaster strikes, but I’ve broken up contact with them when the ship took flight. Now you tell me something about yourself, Nye Monroe PhD.”

Blue feelings washed over Nye, only repelled by Jacobs presence. “I’m from New York, left my family there as well. It tears me apart, and sometimes I doubt it was the right thing to do.”

Jacob laid his hand upon hers. “To quote Doc Fraiser, we all are plagued by these thoughts and doubts.  And to tell you the thruth, I for one am damn glad you made that choice. Even in the event that this is our last date, I really enjoy this moment. And I feel privileged to have met you.”

Feeling heat in her cheeks, Nye sighed. “I too am glad that we met.” slowly she withdrew her hand. “I ain’t saying that this leads to nothing, but can we move slower?”

A broad smile appearedappeared on Jacob’s lips. “Please, forgive me if I seemed to rush forward! I merely wanted you to know that I am glad you’re here, and that I’m glad to have met you.” Smiling with him Nye looked up. Through the branches of the apple tree, faint lights of the garden on the other side of the ring were visible.

 

Fiery streaks were drawn across the sky, visible by day and night. The distant thunder of objects breaching the soundbarrier as they entered earth’s atmosphere was omnipresent, followed by the appearance of yet another streak. “I’m going on the Explorer, Dad. Tell Mum that I am sorry.” Nye turned to an elderly man. His cheerfulness vanished from his face, slowly he stepped toward his daughter. “For what? Surviving?” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, your mother understands. We will live on through you.”

After a short embrace Nye’s father stepped back. “I guess you lived in starship city all this time, you should return there.” Nervously Nye looked at the time on her cellphone. The flight was due in three hours.  “I guess I should.” After an awkward pause she hugged her father again. “I love you dad. And mum. Everyone.”

“I know kid. We love you too.” 

 

Nye awoke to the sound of her alarm beeping from her nightstand. Grumbling she turned it off, got up. Wouldn’t there be a chance to meet Jacob, she would prefer to stay in bed.

“Today’s schedule?” Her voice sounded like an angry bear woken from its slumber. “Meeting with the feasibility group on project Ericsson at 10, open invitation for lunch with Jacob Charles at 12:30,”

“Confirm invitation, but request for rescheduling at 14:00!” She interrupted the computer voice, a moments pause later she was doing her morning routine, left her quarters mere twenty minutes after getting up. The hardest thing I ever had to do was giving up coffee for life, she thought while walking to the tube. Maybe Jacob has some growing in that garden?

The ride to her office offered little new, Karla came in late. Leif had sent more telemetry, but was way past Ericsson, only more of nothing, including that it would shut down communication since it was drawing on its power supply.

Although powered by a small thermonuclear device it had to conserve energy too. “What is new?” Heavy german accent woke Nye from her train of thought.

“Nothing. Why do you ask?”

Karla curled her lips, “You are dating that bioengineer, yes?”

Feeling her lips turn to smile and her cheeks warm with the heat of a blush, Nyr turned away to face the screens again. “Yes. We’re having lunch today.” I hope.

Again her mind wandered off, to the ten o’clock meeting with the feasibility group. “We have that meeting today.”

“You’re just trying to change topic! So how is it going with that plant doctor?”

Again smiling and blushing like a schoolgirl Nye sighed. “Well.” Am I a substitute for a decent soap opera? “He showed me some of their work.” Both of them smiled.

 

In the feasibility meeting for a potential landing on Ericsson, Nye was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the involved scientists thought it possible to land a small group and bring them back.

Their curiosity about the rogue planet was just as big as hers. Mostly astrophysicists, geologists and astrobiologists. If it was up to them, they would be going themselves, staying long enough for Destiny to pick them up after ten years. Studying the first truly alien world they came across was an opportunity they did not want to miss. Formed in a solar system other than the one they came from. Especially the civilisation that had perished there.

Only one medical doctor had joined the the group, and he too was convinced that a human could, if prepared amd protected properly, survive the extreme acceleration. His main concern was with germs that the visitors brought with them to the foreign environment, and how to feed the group there if the worst should happen to occur.

But the consensus of the group was clear, it was not only feasible, but also, necessary.

 

Still she had to steal herself away from the meeting, so she could make it on time to her date with Jacob.

As before they met up at the access to the tube network where they first met. Somehow Nye wasn’t looking forward to her next meeting with Doctor Donal.

It had been Jacob who set the date, Nye set the time, and thus she had prepared food in one of the mass halls in the outer sections of the ring. Close to noone lived there yet, the hall was empty.

Stools and chairs covered with sheets, rese, bling almost a scene from a horror movie, or a ghost town’s deserted diner.

Lunch came in bags that they had picked up.

“I must confess, before I’ve met you, I never had heard your name used as a first name before.” Nye lowered her fork, she was drowning in dark brown eyes. “Well,” she cleared her throat, “that’s because it usually isn’t a first name. My mother is sort of a late hippy.” As so often when she spoke with, or about Jacob, she blushed. “I was conceived on New Years Eve, my name is an acronym for that. N. Y. E., Nye.”

Neither could help but laugh, echoes of the empty hall were swallowed by the sheets on stools and tables. “Do you have any questions about my name?”

Musing for a moment Nye played with the fork. “Not realy.” She admitted finally. “But I definitely am a member of team Jacob.”

“You watched those movies?” He blurted out, glad he left out that he found them god awful. “Yes.” Nervously she picked up some food.”But then I read the books, and hated the movies.” She winked.

A moment of silence paseed between them, Nye felt awkward. “What movies did you watch?”

A broad grin appeared on Jacob’s face, exposing white teeth that made Nye feel like hers were black. “I enjoyed all the nerdy stuff that could get you horribly beaten up in South Africa. But if my information is correct, it could get you horribly beaten up anywhere else too.” Again they shared laughter.

Outside the hall sounds alerted them to someone else in the otherwise empty part of ship. Peeking over her shoulder Jacob just greeted someone with a nod, then they were alone once again. “Just a colleague, tending the plants in the hallways.” he quickly explained.

Although the outer levels of the rings were largely uninhabited, the hallways and common rooms were filled with plants, just like in all other parts of the ship, producing oxygen.

Before Jacob knew what happened, Nye had gotten up, bowed over the table and kissed him. Baffled, but glad he returned the kiss. A muffled computer voice in Nye’s pocket told them that a mere fifteen minutes had passed since their lunch break had begun. Slowly she pulled her hand from her pocket, with which she had pressed the button on her HUD glasses to tell the time.

“Fifteen minutes to go.” She breathed only centimetres from Jacob’s face.

Her intention of moving slow in this relationship was melting away rapidly.

No. There was no moving slow.

If her dream was a sign from her subconscious, as her therapist would tell her, it was a sign that there was no time to move things slow.

Life was precious.

And short.

 

With one look Karla knew how her colleague had spent her lunch break. The messed up hair and hastily rebuttoned clothes told her everything she needed to know. “Anything happened I should know about?”

Karla shook her head, suppressing a smirk. “Good, … then, …” Nye stammered looking around. “I, … uhm, I need a minute or two, … to,” her desperate search for an excuse to leave once more so she could make herself representable again was interrupted by the beeping of an incoming transmission.

A quick look at the source was cause enough for both of them to pause.

The Magellan probe.

Second farthest of the probes sent in advance to RV-p 296.

Radiation associated with antimatter detected. “Our children will run into this when they are in their forties.” If I had kids right now that is. Nye swallowed. “Contact the Admiral.” Karla suggested with an ill feeling in her stomach.

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