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Andromeda 

Part Two: Launch 

Chapter 8

Time:  7:30 p.m.  May 11, 3422  Eastern Time

Place: Tallahassee, Earth 

      Before any of the astronauts realised, it was time to say goodbye and prepare to leave everything they knew behind.  The astronauts couldn’t help but feel somewhat uneasy about the mission, having spent 10 months training for it as if it were just a regular voyage, while their personal lives were completely altered by the approaching end.

      The houses of the astronauts without families were to become STAR-funded museums, of which the public could enter freely and view them just as the celebrated astronauts had left them.  Those with families had to sign ownership of everything over to their spouse or child, as if they were being put to death.  All astronauts were guaranteed a house and property in Tallahassee upon their return, but there were a great many mitigating circumstances such as the possibility of Tallahassee not being there.

      The administrators at STAR, especially Jim Lampert, were greatly concerned.  If any of the astronauts decided to back out at this point, the entire mission could unravel.  The reality of the monumental nature of the mission had to hit them sometime, whether it was sooner or later.  He constantly stressed to the administrators how important it was that the Astronauts not jump right into this mission like they were diving into a pool of freezing water.  He wanted to ease them into it, instead of just blast them to Ring Station 4 and into super-light speeds in a matter of hours as it was usually done.

      It was for this reason that he devised a whole itinerary of mission objectives to take place before the launch of the Andromeda.  It would be a period of three days between the time they left Earth and the time they blasted away for good.  In this way he would greatly reduce the pressure of the second-thoughts they would undoubtedly be having.  There would still be several days after they said goodbye in which to pull out of the mission, but once they were already down the path they were less likely to abandon it. 

      The final minutes that Arnold Juciper spent in his house were the saddest moments he had ever lived.  He held his daughter, now almost as tall as him, as if she was just a little girl again.  Across the room, Ellen stared at him, suppressing the lump in her throat.  It was like a scene out of a cheap made-for-TV movie, only without Leaving on a Jet Plane playing as background music.  Finally, Juciper realised he had to go.

      “I’ve got to go now, Rachael,” he said.  “I’m gonna miss you so much.”

      “I’ll miss you too, dad,” Rachael answered, unable to hold back her tears.  “For the rest of my life.”

      Arnold could think of nothing to say, so he said the stupidest thing that came to his mind.  “If they have time travel in the future, I’m coming back to see you.”

      Rachael stopped crying and went still in Arnold’s body.  Arnold wasn’t quite sure why she did that, but he just hugged her tighter, and she squeezed him as hard as she could.

      “I’ve got to go,” he said.  She let go of him very easily, and remained seated as he stood up and went over to Ellen.  “I love you, honey,” he said to her.  She smiled and embraced him, finally losing it with a slight outburst and two tears streaming down each side of her face.  They kissed each other passionately, like they hadn’t done in years.  Rachael closed her eyes and began to sob weakly again.

      “Goodbye,” said Arnold.  Ellen let go of him as he picked up his dufflebag of personal belongings, and made his way for the door.

      “Good luck,” Rachael called to him as he opened the door.  “I’ll see you again.”

      Arnold assumed he knew what she meant.  He smiled and nodded, and then closed the door, the idea that he would never look upon his family again racing through his mind like a roll of thunder that wouldn’t die down.  In the back of his mind, Arnold began to question his decision.  It would be easy to just stop now and go back, letting the company and his dreams die in one simultaneous burst of emotion, but for whatever reason, he pushed this thought out of his mind. 

      The ground was wet and the shoes of the astronauts were soaked in the moist ground as they made their way across the STAR Field.  Their destination was the lounge of the STAR Administration building, a completely secluded room on the first floor, used primarily for Pre-Launch meetings.  As each member of the Andromeda crew made their way through the doors, the light drizzle slightly dampened their hair, causing each of them to shiver as they entered the climate-controlled building.

      This was the first time that all of them were in the same room at the same time.  Some had met each other on previous occasions during training, although only Arnold and Jason had known each other prior to the mission, but the fact remained that from this point onward, this crew of twelve was to spend an entire year speaking to virtually nobody but each other.

      The lounge was very large, consisting of very comfortable couches, love seats, and reclining armchairs for the comfort of the crew.  Each of these would fold out into various bed-sizes, so the crew would spend the first night before the launch with each other.  Each crewmember found a seat and received a handshake from Jim Lampert and Jake Philips as they entered.

      “Ladies and gentlemen,” Philips began from his armchair, “We’re all familiar with the pre-launch meeting and its purposes, so I don’t have to go over that with you.  Normally, it would just be me here going over the steps of the mission one by one, and I’ll do that later.  But because this is such a special and important mission, Mr. Lampert has insisted that he be here to say a few words and go over the first leg of the mission with you.”  Philips looked at Lampert and Lampert stood up.

      “Tomorrow, you’ll embark on the first leg of the single most unprecedented space-flight in the history of mankind,” said Lampert.  “You’ve all been briefed and briefed again concerning the actual flight plan, but as you also know, we’ve come up with an itinerary of things you’ll do before the mission, which I don’t think anyone but your commander has been briefed on.”

      “That’s correct,” said Arnold Juciper.

      “All right then,” said Lampert.  “Tomorrow, you will all launch into earth orbit from a space-shuttle, and fly the ship to a docking with Space-Station Getaway.  You will spend the night in one of their suites, all expenses paid by STAR, naturally…” Lampert paused, but nobody found that funny.  “You will spend Saturday at Getaway and take advantage of their facility as best you can.  You will then divide into groups, and do things like practice your space-walk in an MMU, and use the arcade to simulate your flight to Andromeda, following all the steps of your flight-plan with the time-scale jacked up to a higher rate.  On Sunday you’ll all board an All Purpose Spacecraft and fly out to Ring Station 4, where you’ll spend your last day relaxing and relieving all the tension before the big mission.  During this time, the Andromeda spaceship will leave lunar orbit and dock with Ring 4.  The ship will be ready for your boarding Monday morning.  From then on, the mission is solely in your hands.”

      Jack Peskie had not been paying much attention to what Jim Lampert was saying.  Apart from his major in communications, he had a minor in psychology, and believed that it was the communications man’s job—among other things that were also not in the job description—to keep tabs on the minds of the crew.  As he scanned the room, he picked up a lot of signals from the crew that revealed minor things about their personality.  David O’Brian, he noticed, would frequently roll his eyes, but very subtly so that it wouldn’t draw much attention.  Craig Malls was listening the most intently.  Arnold Juciper, the commander, had been playing with his fingernails the whole time, obviously disinterested because he had already been briefed on all this while the rest of the crew had not.  He stopped when he got to Jason Floyd.  Here’s something interesting, he thought.  Floyd’s eyes, while usually remaining fixated on Jim Lampert, would frequently dart over across the room and then dart right back so as to avoid being noticed.  This didn’t get by Peskie, however, as he soon deduced that the object of Floyd’s distraction was none other than Lauren Samalc, sitting in an armchair, expressionless, eyes wandering around the ceiling.

      Jim Lampert continued to speak.  “Tomorrow, I’ll meet you on the launch-pad before you get in the elevator to enter the shuttle.  That will be the last time I speak to any of you.  It’s been a pleasure knowing you.”  He made his way toward the door, and then turned around one last time to take a look at his crew.  Whatever happened to them, it was his responsibility, and he knew it.  But he also knew that if anything did happen to them, he would most likely be long dead before anybody knew about it.  “Good luck tomorrow,” he said, “goodbye.”

      “And Godspeed,” Jack Peskie called in a loud voice.  “May the force be with you.”  He made a Vulcan peace sign with his hand, and Jim Lampert smiled as he left. 

      Less than twenty minutes ago, Peskie had said goodbye to his son and left him in the care of his mother, Jack’s ex-wife.  It was a heart-wrenching scene, and I would have described it, but I think you get the point: they’re leaving forever.  Boo-hoo, now get on with it, right?  I agree totally.  But just to warn you, it gets much more depressing.

      Jason Floyd felt it in the pit of his stomach.  It was that all-too-familiar feeling of complete emptiness and hunger that persists no matter how full the stomach actually is.  Every now and then he would glance at her, and his head would spin for a second and be temporarily lost in thought and time.  In an instant he would return to the room, without forgetting for a second that she was still there.  She, whom he had loved since High School without ever telling another soul.  She, who was so beautiful that it made his heart ache whenever he looked upon her.  She, who barely acknowledged his existence.  These were the thoughts encircling Floyd’s mind.  He looked at her one time, and she was looking right at him.  He quickly turned his head away and shut his eyes tight as his head began to pound.  He began to sing in his mind.  “From morning to night, I stayed out of sight.  Didn’t recognise I’d become.  No more than alive, I’d barely survive.  In a word—overrun.”

      Arnold Juciper’s eyes were also wandering around the room, scanning his newest crew.  He had been paying little attention to what was being said.  He noticed that Peskie was doing the same thing he was doing, and when their eyes met, they nodded at each other, and continued to scan.  Unlike Peskie, however, Juciper was not quite as good at reading people, and he didn’t even try.  His eyes just wandered the room, noticing little more than a smile here or a roll of the eyes there, none of which registered in his mind as having any significance.

      David O’Brian had been listening very intently.  He couldn’t believe the bullshit that had come out of Jim Lampert’s mouth.  He paid no attention to the other people in the room, and took special care not to make eye contact with Juciper, whom he couldn’t help but notice had been sizing up the room as if he were a starving man looking at a menu.  (O’Brian wasn’t so good at analogies.)

      “You’ll all be sleeping here tonight, obviously,” Jake Philips said, “and I’ll leave you in just a few moments, but before I do, I’d like to clear up any last minute questions some of you might have.  Anyone?”

      O’Brian spoke up.  “Yeah, I’d like to know just why the hell STAR finds it necessary to blast us into space on a space-shuttle.”

      Jake Philips suppressed the smirk that would have invariably come from this response.  He knew this question was going to be asked, and he was almost certain that it was going to come from David O’Brian.  “That’s a perfectly reasonable question, Mr. O’Brian, but I would have appreciated it without the language,” said Philips.

      O’Brian rolled his eyes.

      “The whole thing is just a matter of publicity,” Philips said.  “The Public Relations people thought it would be a good idea in order to get people excited for the mission.  We’ll have a launch that anybody who wants to see can come and watch, and we may just get some very generous donations.”

      “It just doesn’t make any sense,” said O’Brian, completely ignoring what Philips had said.  “The space-shuttle is a dangerous ship.  It’s not made of the atmosphere-proof material that all our other ships are made of.  This thing could burn up if not handled correctly.”

      “You’re going to be flying it, David,” said Philips.  “Are you saying you don’t have faith in yourself to fly it correctly?”

      “I’ve been trained to fly any type of ship from a space-cab to a planetary lander, but that’s not my point.  A whole lot of shit can go wrong on a space-shuttle, and I don’t understand why STAR wants to take that risk.”  O’Brian was satisfied with his argument.

      “I was against it too, at first.  I thought we should just send you all up to Getaway on space-taxis individually, but that won’t generate the kind of publicity a shuttle-launch will.  The fact is people love the old-time vintage style of space flight, especially our investors.  The risk is minimal compared to what this will do for STAR in the long run.”  Philips was only half-satisfied with his argument, but it wasn’t really his own.  “Does anyone else have anything to say?”

      Craig Malls said something for the first time.  “I think a shuttle ride ought to be fun.  I’ve never ridden in one before, and I don’t think many of us have.  It’ll be a nice experience to kick off the mission with.”

      Fun?” said Mark Staff with more than a hint of disdain.  “Is that what we really need to be focused on?  How about the mission objective?  I think we ought to be more concerned with getting our ship to Andromeda than how much fun we’ll have along the way.”

      David O’Brian had found a new friend.  “Thank you, Mark.”  He turned to Philips.  “You see?  It’s a matter of focus, and I don’t think that riding a space shuttle to a resort space station is really the most focused thing we can do.  Come to think of it, this whole ‘pre-launch’ itinerary business sounds like just a complete load of bullshit to me…”

      “Mr. O’Brian,” Philips interrupted, “the launch is tomorrow.  We’re not going to change our objectives now.  But believe me, I appreciate your input.”

      “Don’t encourage him,” Jack Peskie called.  “He’ll tear apart the flight plan and paste it back together until the whole mission is nothing more than a rendezvous with the moon.”

      Jason Floyd was the only one who laughed at that.  But once he realised that he was the only one who saw the humour, he quickly shut up and pretended nothing had happened.

      “If that’s everything, I think it’s time for me to go,” said Philips.  “I won’t see you again, but I’ll be with you through each leg of your mission up until the moment you blast away.  Now, I’ll leave you to talk amongst yourselves, but I advise you to get as much sleep as you can.  It’s going to be bright and early tomorrow morning.  You are under command of Mr. Juciper here for the duration of the flight.  He will give you instructions, and it is not in your discretion whether or not to follow them.  Usually, he has to appeal to STAR before making any rash decisions, but since communication will be impossible for the majority of this flight, he’s being given a lot more authority than we normally give the commander.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to get some early sleep myself.  Goodnight.”

      Philips walked out the door, leaving the twelve astronauts of the Andromeda alone in a room together for the first time.  It would most certainly not be the last.

      Arnold Juciper stood.  “All right,” he said.  “In a moment, we can all relax and get to know each other, but there are a few things I’d like to say first.  We’re going to be gone a long time.  The longest missions that STAR usually gives are rarely more than one month Mission Time, maybe a years or so Earth Time.  This mission is going to last for an entire year of our lives, so I think we should try to make the best of it.  We’re all adults, so I think we can be mature about this.  If you don’t like a certain member of the crew, just stay away from them unless necessity calls for you to get together.  I’ve flown on enough missions to know what animosity towards another member of the crew can do.  I want us to focus on the mission, not our social lives.  That doesn’t mean you aren’t permitted to have social lives.  On the contrary, we want you to be as social as possible.  Try to make friends with everyone on the crew.  For this reason, I am instructing everyone to call each other by their first names.  I know this isn’t customary, but I think it can make a subtle difference.  And while it is normal to refer to me as Mr. Commander, or Commander Juciper, I’ll be fine if you call me Arnold.  Any questions?”  Nobody said anything.  “All right, I’m finished for tonight.  We can all relax now until tomorrow morning.”

      This is the part when all the astronauts get a chance to socialise for the first time.  At first, the room is silent as everybody sizes up everybody else, waiting for one person to initiate a conversation with another, so that they may all begin to socialise themselves.  It was Jack Peskie who began the chatter.  He turned to Ronald Stark, the Surgeon sitting next to him, and began telling a joke which Ronald did not laugh at.

      Arnold Juciper made his way to where Jason Floyd was sitting, and took a seat in the chair next to him.  “What’d you think of that speech?” he asked Jason, the only member of the crew whom he had flown on a mission previously with.

      Jason saw no need to be dishonest.  “You came across as a little arrogant,” he said.

      Arnold nodded.  “Yeah, I have a problem with that sometimes.  But I did my best not to sound that way tonight.  I mean, I offered to let people call me Arnold.”

      “That’s the thing,” said Jason.  “You can’t ‘instruct’ people to call each other by their first names.  You’re making a formality out of informality.  And I don’t think it went over too well when you talked about whether or not we were ‘permitted’ to have social lives.  Nobody wants to hear that.”

      “Yeah, you’re probably right,” said Arnold.  “You think I should get up and apologise?  I mean, I don’t want my crew to think I’m an arrogant leader.  I have to work with these people and keep them under control for an entire year.”

      Jason laughed under his breath.  “Don’t do it now.  Just wait until the next time you talk.”  He leaned in closer.  “And if I were you, I’d be careful not to use the phrase ‘keep you under control.’”

      Now Arnold laughed under his own breath.  “I’ve really got to watch what I say, I guess.”

      Across the room, Craig Malls, the second Scientist, struck up a conversation with Elliot Larken, the first surgeon.  “So what’s it like on Jupiter?”

      There was no escape from that question, thought Elliot.  He could be travelling to a distant galaxy, and there’d still be someone who would ask him about Jupiter, as if he were the one who created it.  “Heavy,” he said.  “Really heavy.”

      The fact that Elliot clearly did not want to talk about this subject didn’t quite register with Craig.  “Really?” he said, as if it were big news that Jupiter had a lot of gravity.  “Like, how heavy is it?”

      “How much can you bench-press?” Elliot asked him.

      “I don’t know,” said Craig, “maybe a hundred pounds?”

      “Then on Jupiter you couldn’t do forty.”  Elliot was done talking, and realising he would not be able to talk to anyone else in this room without being asked about Jupiter, he laid back on the couch and pretended to fall asleep.

      The sounds of the room were loud now, with almost everyone in conversation.  Elliot picked up a few words here and there.  The second Medical Officer Lily Zaw was talking to the Ship Supervisor Maria Wendall about where they went to college.  The first Medical Officer, Todd Blankens, was engaged in a conversation about sports with the first Scientist Mark Staff.  The only slightly interesting conversation he could hear was going on a few feet away from him between Communications officer Jack Peskie and second Surgeon Ronald Stark.

      “So how does it feel to be number two?” said Ronald Stark.

      “Are you calling me a piece of shit?” asked Jack.

      “No, you know what I mean.  STAR didn’t want us to go on this mission.  We’re just the back-ups.”

      Jack yawned.  “It doesn’t make much of a difference.  We’re going on the mission.”

      “I’m just saying I don’t feel right.  Here we are, surrounded by the best in the business.  Everyone here is the best—except for Craig Malls, but that’s a whole ‘nother story—and we’re just the second-strings.  I’m usually Surgeon 1, but on this mission, I’m in the second slot.  And I wasn’t even their first choice for the position.”

      “Yeah, but the first Surgeon is Elliot Larken,” said Jack.  “I mean, come on, the guy’s a hero.  It’s like he’s got Batman’s brains and Superman’s strength.  You just can’t compete with that.”

      “Who the hell is Batman?” asked Ronald.

      “Never mind.  I’m just saying if God put me on this mission, then I’m glad to go.”

      “God?” Ronald repeated.  “You don’t actually believe in God, do you?”

      “Of course I do,” said Jack.  “I’ve been a good Catholic all my life.”

      “There’s no such thing as a good Catholic,” David O’Brian shouted from across the room, thus drawing everyone’s attention to this particular conversation.

      “’Scuse me?” expressed Jack.

      “Uh oh,” said Arnold faintly from the other side of the room.

      “You heard me,” David said.  “I said there are no good Catholics.”

      “I suppose you’re a Protestant,” Jack said.

      “Hah! I happen to be an atheist.”

      Ronald Stark smiled.  “Well, I’m glad to see someone in this room has common sense.”

      “I’m an atheist too,” Mark Staff said.

      David nodded to him as if he were welcoming him into a secret club.  “At least this crew isn’t entirely made up of ignorant fools.”

      Arnold stood.  “Now, David, let’s not start…”

      “Don’t call me ‘David’!” shouted David.  “Maybe you want to be called by your first name, Juciper, but I didn’t give anyone permission to use mine.”

      “Sorry, Mr. O’Brian,” Arnold apologised.  “I just don’t want any religious debates going on right now.  Nothing creates divisions more easily.”

      Around the room, the consensus was in agreement with Arnold.  Religious debates were of common frequency on space missions, and every member of the crew had at least one particularly unpleasant memory about the enemies that such arguments would invariably create.  Jason Floyd said nothing, himself being one of the only astronauts who enjoyed a good religious row.  He, like Jim Lampert, was born to argue, and he had a talent for it.  In any religious or philosophical argument, he could usually completely fluster his opponents until they either partially gave in to him, or angrily called for an end to the “pointless” discussion.

      “What time do we need to get up tomorrow?” Elliot Larken called, still lying back on the couch with his eyes closed.

      “Four a.m., Elliot,” Arnold said.  “And I think it would be a good idea if we all go to sleep now.  If I hear no objections, I’d like to turn the lights out.”

      There were no objections.  There was minimal chatter as the sofas were rolled out and converted into four double beds and four single beds.  There was little argument when it came time to choose where to sleep.  Lauren, David, Ronald, and Jason got the single beds, while the rest paired up rather indiscriminately, with the two remaining women sharing a bed, and the rest just plopping down on the closest surface.

      Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 
 

Chapter 9

Time:  7:00 a.m.  May 10, 3422  Eastern Time

Place:  Shuttle Launch Pad, STAR Field, Tallahassee 

      Before I describe the historic launch of this mission, allow me to take a moment to share with you a geological tid-bit.  The diameter of the earth is 12,752 kilometres (that’s 7,926 miles for those of us who grew up under a government too lazy to switch to a more practical system of measurement) with the highest mountain roughly 7 km high and the deepest known hole roughly 3 km deep.

      If you picture Earth as an object that you can hold in your hand, you can imagine how its texture might feel.  If you were to move your finger across the landscape and brush it across the African desert, you might find it very smooth.  While moving your finger over the Himalayan Mountains in Asia, your finger might enjoy a very rough texture.

      This is a misconception.  In reality, if you actually were to shrink the Earth down to the size of a pool-ball, you might find it a little hard to hold on to.  The texture would be smooth and glassy, and your finger could pass over the highest mountains and flattest plains without being able to tell the difference.  That’s how negligible the surface distances of the earth are.  And I apologise to all those brave souls who have gone through hell to climb Mount Everest, but what you’ve perceived as the top of the world is nothing more than a little speck, merely an ant-hill in the vast field of the planet’s surface.

      Conversely, if you were to enlarge a cue ball to the size of the earth, you’d be astounded at the landscape you would find.  You’d come across mountains, craters, and canyons that would make the mountains, craters, and canyons of the Earth pale in comparison.  In the far distant future, a mountain-climber looking for a real challenge might want to shrink his or her self down to microscopic size, and try scaling a dent in an 8-ball.  The weather might not be as exciting, but the climbing aspect would make a trip up Kilimanjaro seem like a hike up a hill.

      So Earth is smoother than a cue ball, the distance of the highest mountain and the deepest canyon almost negligible.  If you already knew that, as I suspect many of you do, give yourself a pat on the back.  If you didn’t know that, now’s your chance to go out and impress your friends and family members.  And trust me, I’ve got plenty more fun facts like that.  By the time you’re done reading this book, you can go to your High School reunion pretending you’re an astro-physicist, and nobody will question you.  (That’s not a guarantee.)

      So now you may be wondering, why the hell did I tell you all of this when I’m supposed to be describing the launch?  There are two reasons, and the second is much more acceptable than the first.  The first and less respectable reason is that describing a shuttle launch is a tedious affair, and I wanted to waste time before going into it.  The second reason is because these types of thoughts were running through the mind of Arnold Juciper before the launch began.

      For Arnold, the idea of overcoming Earth’s gravitational pull and breaking out of the atmosphere into the infinite was a very incredible thing.  Indeed for most astronauts, a launch was a very deep, almost spiritual experience.  Part of the reason for this is that most of the launch was fully automated, and the astronauts didn’t have the worries of what tasks needed to be carried out to distract them.  Instead, their minds were free to wander and contemplate just what it meant to be blasted away from the planet that had been home to the human race since its birth.

      Arnold Juciper imagined the world in its cue-ball size as he sat in the commander’s seat of the space shuttle, staring up at the thick blue sky above him.  He imagined that glassy, almost perfectly smooth sphere, and just how negligible the distance from the sea to the summit of the tallest mountain was.  And then he thought of the shuttle, now almost precisely at sea level, and where it would be in just a matter of minutes, over a hundred times higher than Everest’s peak.  He thought of this distance in relation to the cue ball, and how distinct it would be.  And then he thought of the distance to Andromeda, and how incomprehensible that was in relation to his miniature mind-model.

      Those were the thoughts going through his mind; eleven other distinct streams of consciousness flowed through the eleven other minds of the astronauts around him, fluctuating between the extremely mundane and incomprehensibly deep in matters of seconds.  Most of them were not even aware of what they were thinking; they would let their minds wander, only occasionally stopping to reflect on what they were actually thinking about.

      Outside, hundreds of metres away, an enormous crowd of people had gathered to witness this historic occasion.  The STAR propaganda had worked even better than expected, as the bleachers were completely packed and thousands had to stand in the fields in order to get a view.  Over the loudspeaker, the voice of Jim Lampert could be heard, announcing the amount of time that remained before the launch.

      Hundreds of metres in another direction, below the ground floor of the STAR Administration building in mission control, Jake Philips strapped on his headset and left his computer.  The other mission controllers listened intently as he delivered one of his long and famous morale-speeches.  They’d heard all of this before: how you can never be sleeping on the job, and each part of the mission is just as crucial as the last; how anything can go wrong at any time, and it was their job to make sure that these things didn’t happen and to find a way to fix them if they did.

      Philips called on every member of every team of mission control to state whether they were “go” or “no go” for launch.  The stream of “go”s flew at him, and once the final checks were in place, he gave the nod to his Communications team.

      The message was sent to Jim Lampert, standing in front of the giant crowd at the loudspeakers, who proudly made the announcement that they were “go for launch.”  The crowd went wild, and a tingly feeling engulfed Lampert’s body.  It was practically a religious experience for him.  He had done it.  What had started out as a simple crazy idea in the far distant bottom corner of the back of his mind was about to officially become a reality.  “60 seconds” he announced, and the crowd responded with the standard cheering.

      Inside the space shuttle, the almost dead silence was interrupted by the voice coming through the communications box next to Jack Peskie.  “60 seconds.  Make all final checks now.  The power to abort is now fully in your hands.”

      “All right,” Arnold said from his seat at the far left of the front row.  “David, do we look okay?”

      “Yeah, we’re still just fine,” said David, scanning the instrument read-outs for the fiftieth time since he sat down.  He was in the pilot’s seat, just to the right of Arnold.

      “Jack, do we have a clear signal?”

      Jack Peskie fiddled for a second with the knob he was sitting next to, all the way on the far right of the first row.  “Couldn’t be clearer, Arnold.”

      “Jason, how does the computer look?”

      Jason Floyd sat directly behind Jack, and while his hands had nothing to do, he could read the data coming through the computer in the front row next to the consoles.  “Everything looks beautiful,” he said.  One seat in front and one to the left sat Lauren Samalc.  Jason’s thoughts cycled only between the edge of the universe and the back of Lauren’s head; he would have gladly given up anything in the world for the chance to touch either of them.

      “All right, Jack,” said Arnold, “tell them we’re go.”

      Jack pressed a button on the communications console and made the announcement.  “Houston, we are go for launch.”

      “We’re all in Tallahassee, Jack, but thanks for the clearance,” came the response.

      Four and a half seconds later, the word reached the crowd that the launch was imminent, and set to go off in thirty seconds.

      Lampert said his final words of inspiration to the crowd.  He told them just how incredibly historic this mission was, and he thanked everyone who had made it possible, but especially all of those people who had “come out here today to support our brave astronauts.”  He was then given a thunderous applause, and turned to face the shuttle.

      Inside, Jake Philips took the seat in front of his computer, which could simply cycle through the screens of all the other computers in the room, allowing him to monitor all other actions being taken by the members of mission control.  He gave one last look around the room and recited everyone’s name to himself.  These were the finest that mission control had to offer.  Most of these were people who were good enough at what they did to be made full-fledged astronauts, but for various reasons had chosen not to.  He was told that the launch was fifteen seconds away.

      Inside the shuttle, the countdown spoken through the communicator was the only thing that could be heard besides whispered prayers and the sound of rolling eyes.  Arnold Juciper closed his eyes and asked God to guide them to a safe orbit.  David O’Brian closed his eyes and asked himself not to screw up.  Jason Floyd closed his eyes and recited the last few lines of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.

      Ten…and as we wind on down the road

      nine…our shadows taller than our souls

      eight…there walks a lady we all know

      seven…who shines white light and wants to show

      six…how everything still turns to gold

      five…and if you listen very hard

      four…the tune will come to you at last

      three…how all are one and one is all

      two…to be a rock and not to roll

      one.

      With a sudden outcry, as though they were boiling with anger and frustration, the engines of the shuttle burst forth the fires of hell and reached a level of acceleration strong enough to overcome the 9.8 m/s² that had been holding it down.  As if a sudden rush of adrenaline had overtaken it, the massive whale of titanium lurched forward into the sky and swam straight up through the atmosphere like a burning arrow shot from a gun.

      Jason spoke aloud, though through the noise his voice was inaudible even to himself.  “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”  He looked at Lauren, and then deliberately bit his bottom lip, for reasons even he wasn’t quite sure of.

      Far away, across the field, the ringing bells told the crowd that the shuttle had broken out of the chains of gravity that had held it at home.  The tingling feeling of ecstasy that had befallen Lampert earlier now had everyone in the audience feeling comfortably numb, and they leapt to their feet in thunderous applause like an audience of cleansed souls after a second encore.

      There was nothing poetic going on in mission control, however, as everyone made sure their full attention remained on the tasks at hand; philosophical thoughts of the deeper meanings behind the event were all but absent from their minds.  Through the giant screen in the front of the room, they watched as the two boosters, having been fully exhausted of their fuel supplies, were successfully detached.  They observed and made comments to each other about each individual success as it occurred.  Each success was its own separate entity, and each was just as important as the last.  There was no room for a single failure, and they knew it.

      In the shuttle, most of the minds were free of all mathematical thought, and the crew sat in absolute silence as the thick blue sky thinned away until it faded to black, and the full brilliance of the stars shone through the cockpit window.  Arnold’s brown eyes were drawn to the thin blue cloud of stars that could be distinctly seen now, the arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which no pair of eyes had ever seen from the outside.  It wouldn’t be long, Arnold knew, before his eyes would actually be treated to that vista.

      Jason Floyd was mesmerised once again, as the beauty of the stars and the beauty of the goddess sitting in front of him meshed together in the most awe-inspiring sight he had ever seen.  He didn’t even notice when the final detachment was made, and the launch was officially over.  The crew of the Andromeda was now in orbit, two hundred kilometres above the surface of the earth. 
 

Chapter 10

Time:  19:45  May 10, 3422  Universal Time

Place:  Space-Shuttle; Earth Orbital Altitude: 200 km 

      When you are in orbit of the Earth, you are essentially in a constant state of free-fall, which is why you feel weightless.  Launching a shuttle is like hurling a rock so far that it doesn’t start falling until it passes the curvature of the earth, and it just continues to fall forever around the earth.  If you could somehow freeze a shuttle 200 kilometres above the earth, such as with a space-lock system, you would still feel gravity, and there would be a definite up and down.  The force would just be a lot weaker.  The weightlessness is the same effect you get from skydiving, because as you are falling you technically have no weight.

      The discovery of artificial gravity came a long while after STAR had dominated the field of space travel.  Beforehand, the only way to create artificial gravity was to put a circular object in space and spin it around at a certain velocity. The centrifugal force would press you back to the outside of the circle like the carnival rides where the floor drops out from beneath you.  This was the typical space-station of science-fiction for a long time, such as the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But this process was not always the most convenient, so STAR developed a new technique that would rely on actual gravity, and not just the centrifugal force.

      The idea is simply that the more massive an object is, the greater the force of gravity will be.  So if you wanted a “floor” in a non-spinning spacecraft, all you had to do was make the floor massive enough to exert a force strong enough to create a downward pull.  The idea seemed ludicrous at first, not because it wouldn’t work but because it was just not feasible.  To pack enough mass into a flat plane roughly the size of the basement of a large house to create a gravitational pull like that of the earth was impossible.  And if the gravitational pull did end up being equal to that of the earth, that would mean that whenever the ship was not in free-fall, it would gravitationally attract every other massive object in the universe, such as asteroids or planets.  Instead of an aeroplane falling down towards the earth, imagine the earth actually falling down towards the plane.

      But STAR continued pouring money into researching this phenomenon, because they were sure there was a way they could contain this gravity.  Eventually, after reaching far deeper into science than Newtonian physics goes, they found a way to bypass these obstacles.  They didn’t have to make a material so dense as to equal the mass of the Earth in a floor, but merely “trick the universe into thinking that the floor was that massive.”  This completely insane concept involved disrupting electromagnetic patterns in the material until it had the same electromagnetic wavelength as the earth itself, thus producing the same effect as actual gravity.  It behaved in the same way as gravity, but it did not follow standard Newtonian laws, so in every sense of the word, it was artificial gravity.

      After solving the first problem, the second was a snap.  They could easily prevent the earth or any other massive object from falling into the ship by giving the exterior of the ship an electromagnetic pattern that would completely cancel out the effects of the gravity on the inside.  The only problem with this was if that system failed for any reason, the electromagnetic forces coming from inside the ship would instantly produce a disturbance in the solar system equal to that of making an entirely new planet appear out of nowhere.  Needless to say, the results of that could be inconceivably catastrophic.  This worry was easily put to rest by linking the two electromagnetic fields to the same system, so if one of them failed the other would automatically sabotage itself.

      STAR couldn’t be more pleased with this system.  Once the computers perfected it, it became incredibly cheap and easy to equip all spaceships and space-stations with this system, and they quickly did.  As a result of having normal earth-gravity, astronauts could spend incredibly long periods of time in a spaceship and return to Earth with virtually no negative effects at all.  The designs for spaceships with built-in rotating modules were all scrapped and replaced by spaceships with this cheaper system of false gravity production.  Soon, the Space Shuttle was the only remaining spacecraft without this system.  It seemed almost sacrilegious to change the model, which was almost obsolete anyway, and they wanted to keep a type of spaceship in which astronauts could still experience weightlessness.  And that finally brings us back to the Space-Shuttle and the crew of the Andromeda on their way to Space Station Getaway, where they would spend two nights on the first leg of their pre-mission itinerary.

      Why did I just waste your time explaining STAR’s system of artificial gravity?  For one very important reason: when writing science fiction, it is practically a mortal sin to create a piece of technology in order to service the plot without explaining the science behind it.  The science was bullshit, of course, but that’s beside the point. I needed ships where there was an up and a down, so this is what I came up with it.  I apologise to everyone who has a good background in the field of astrophysics, but I am not an astrophysicist.  I am a writer.  And not a very good one at that.  (As the previous sentence fragment will indicate).  I break too many rules, such as the one about rambling on in a paragraph to justify my breaking of the rules, and writing self-referential sentences such as this one.  But enough about my unorthodox writing style.  The weightless trip to Space Station Getaway needs to be described. 

      “Gotta love this de-hydrated food,” Jack Peskie said as he floated the freeze-dried piece of pizza into his mouth and chewed it up before it had a chance of becoming moist.

      “I’d probably get sick of this stuff a lot quicker than you could imagine,” Jason Floyd said, snacking on some of the ice cream that had been stowed aboard not as food but as dessert.  Jason didn’t care what the purpose was; he had gone right for the ice cream as soon as the freeze-dried food packages had been distributed.

      David O’Brian took one bite of his french fries and reached for a vomit bag.  “These things are disgusting,” he said, spitting the remains of a fry into the bag.  “They taste like cardboard with pepper on it.”

      “Oh, everything tastes like cardboard,” said Jack, as he took the bag from David and shoved five french fries into his mouth.  His face immediately froze in disgust.  “But not this,” he said with his mouth full.  “This probably is in fact cardboard.”  He turned to Elliot Larken, eating from a bag of dehydrated apples.  “How do you like them apples, Elliot?” asked Jack.

      Elliot Larken had his back stuck to the ceiling, and two bags of cinnamon apples at his disposal.  “The most underrated snack on board,” he said, and put another cinnamon-coated wedge into his mouth and let it sit there until it became moist and tasted like an actual apple.

      Upon hearing this, Maria Wendall reached for a bag of strawberries and took a bite of what looked like a giant red raisin with seeds.  “Uck…” she said, the extreme sour taste overwhelming her mouth.

      “Let me try one of those,” said Lily Zaw, and she put a whole one in her mouth.  Her reaction was the same, but she continued to eat.  “These are disgustingly sour, but I can’t get enough of ‘em.”

      Arnold Juciper finished his strawberries and tossed the bag in the disposal unit.  “I agree.  These are an acquired taste, but quite possibly the fastest taste to acquire in history.”

      “Who asked you?” David said.  Arnold ignored him.

      Only Todd Blankens and Lauren Samalc were not eating the food.  Arnold drifted over to Todd, who had wedged himself between the front row of seats and the control console of the shuttle.  Arnold took a seat in front of him.

      “Don’t want any food?” Arnold asked.

      “No,” said Todd.  “I don’t really feel like eating right now.”

      “Anything wrong?” Arnold asked.  “You can’t be homesick already!”

      “Of course not, it’s just…” Todd sniffled, and Arnold eyed him curiously.  “Can I tell you something in confidence?”

      “Sure,” said Arnold.  “What is it?”

      “I’m sick, commander,” said Todd.  “I’ve had a cold since I woke up this morning.  I spent too much time outside looking at the stars the other night.”

      “How’d you get past the medical inspector?” asked Arnold.

      “I am the medical inspector,” Todd said irritably.  “They hand me a med-scan and tell me to check myself.  I was afraid they might bump me off the mission, so I just lied and told them I was good to go.”

      Arnold shook his head.  “At this point I don’t think they’re going to bump anyone off the crew for any reason short of complete insanity.”

      Todd shivered at the thought, then smiled and nodded.

      “To be honest I was surprised you wanted to come on this mission in the first place,” said Arnold, “I was told that you had a distaste for space-exploration.”

      “That’s exactly why I’ve got to go on this mission. After this I can retire, and then I won’t have to deal with another mission.  It’s a matter of spending one last year in space and then retiring, or spending 30 more years launching and landing and launching and landing…I hate those space-taxis.  Claustrophobia and agoraphobia all rolled into one.”

      “I love the spacecabs.  But I’m glad we’re doing it differently for this mission.  It’s not often you get to be weightless.”

      “I can’t stand it,” said Todd.  “I’d actually prefer the space-taxis to this.  This weightlessness isn’t really helping my stuffed head either.”

      Arnold tried to figure out something to say.  “Isn’t it amazing how we can send twelve people to Andromeda, but we can’t find a cure for the common cold?”  That was stupid, and he knew it, but it was the best thing he could come up with.  Luckily, Todd did chuckle.

      “Actually, we do have a cure for the cold,” Todd said with a smile, “but the government doesn’t want to release it.  It’s a huge conspiracy.”

      “Really?” Arnold said.  “Why won’t they release it?”

      “Because that’s one less excuse people have for not going to work,” Todd said with a sniffle.

      Arnold chuckled.  “That’s awful, Todd.”

      “I know,” he said smiling.  “Just a little Medical Officer humour.”

      “Try not to throw up,” Arnold said, and floated away.

      “Thanks,” Todd called after him.

      Arnold floated over to where Lauren Samalc was sitting.  She was in her seat next and staring off into space—quite literally.  Arnold took the seat next to her.  “How are you?” he asked.

      “Just fine, thank you,” she said without turning her head.

      “You don’t want anything to eat?” he asked.

      “No, I’m not hungry.”

      Arnold leaned forward a little to get a look into her eyes.  “Are you feeling okay?” he asked.

      “I’m fine,” she said.  “I just don’t want anything to eat.”  With that she turned her head towards him and looked him directly in the eyes.

      Arnold felt as though a laser beam was being shot straight through his retinas into his brain.  His mind knew what to say, but there was a lag time between the moment the brain signal was sent and the mouth opened to speak it.  “You can eat David if you want,” he said.  Wait, that’s not what he was supposed to say…

      But with that totally random comment, Lauren smiled, and Arnold was petrified.  She had looked him straight in the eyes and smiled at him.  There is always a certain power to that, as Arnold knew.  When a woman looks directly at a man and smiles, it sends vibrations to his brain, and sometimes these can be dangerous vibrations. 

      Jason Floyd was completely aware of what had just gone on.  From all the way across the shuttle, he could not hear what was said, but as soon as Lauren opened her mouth in that extremely rare manner for her, he nearly melted with desire and jealousy.  He could not remember ever making Lauren smile, but he knew that to do so would be the greatest feeling in the world.  There was nothing in the universe more beautiful than Lauren’s smile, and to be able to create such Beauty would feel like Godliness.

      “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that,” Arnold said, his hands trembling, unnoticed by all but Jason.

      “Don’t worry about it,” Lauren said, her face returning to the normal, expressionless state.  “I’m not hungry, but thanks for your concern.”

      “Okay then,” Arnold said, and floated away so that he could try and reassemble the pieces of his completely jumbled mind. 

      “All right, everyone, listen up,” said Jake Philips to all the people at mission control.  “In about ten minutes, we’ll have rendezvoused with Space Station Getaway, and we’ll be ready to begin docking procedures.”

      He turned around to face the three big screens.  “I want map view on screen C,” he called to the man at the back of the control room who simply had the job of controlling what was seen on the large screens.  Almost instantly, the right-most screen flickered and turned completely black with only multi-coloured dots and circles representing the space shuttle, the space station and the surface of the earth.

      “I want the docking port camera from the shuttle on A and from the space station on B,” Philips commanded.  Instantly, the left-most screen showed the view from the docking port on the top of the space shuttle, and the centre screen showed the images that the camera attached to the docking port below the space station was constantly recording.  At this point, all that was seen on screen A were the stars, and on screen B, the earth.

      Philips then turned to everyone at mission control, and began his next pep talk.  “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, now is not the time to fall asleep.  I don’t want anyone thinking our job is over now that the launch is complete.  I realise that we don’t have to land the shuttle, or even see to it that the crew returns home safely.  But it is our responsibility to get them to launch as scheduled and in order for that to happen, we can’t have anything funny happen.

      “It is absolutely imperative that this launch takes place as scheduled, because of the magnitude of this mission.  In every normal mission, we can have all the delays and safety checks we want, but that’s only because the public eye isn’t watching with as much scrutiny as they’re doing here.  Any delay will only look like carelessness.  We’re blasting twelve living, breathing, human beings into another galaxy here, and if we have even the slightest deviation from the original plan, people are going to start asking questions that we just aren’t going to have the right answers to.”

      “Excuse me, sir,” Robert Davis stood from his seat at the ship supervision table of mission control.  “With all due respect, I believe that the safety of these people is a little more important than the scrutiny of the public eye.”

      Philips could feel the silent approval of this man’s last statement coming from everywhere in the room.  Rob Davis had almost no respect for authority when it came to the lives of others.  Unfortunately, that was one of the reasons Philips liked him so much.  “Thank you, Mr. Davis, and if you’d let me finish, I was just about to address that point.”  Davis sat down, and let Philips continue speaking.  “Safety is far more important than public opinion, as we at STAR are pretty much unanimous in believing, with some exceptions whom I won’t mention because I’d like to keep my job…” people chuckled, although they weren’t sure who he was referring to.  I’m not even sure whom he was referring to, and I wrote it.  It was probably just a joke to lighten the air.

      “But,” he continued, “the two can go hand in hand sometimes.  If we don’t keep our eyes wide open through this entire trip, anything can easily go wrong, and STAR will have the biggest mess on its hands since the incident on Jupiter.  Let’s not assume that just because nothing has ever gone wrong in a docking with Getaway that nothing will ever go wrong.  It might just happen on this mission.  Then, we’ll not only have a safety concern, but we’ll have to postpone the launch to check for bugs.

      “The pressure to launch as scheduled has never been greater, people.  Jim Lampert is dead certain that if we give these astronauts any room for second thoughts, they’ll opt out of this mission and not only will we be a laughing stock, but the whole Andromeda project might go under.  And that’s not going to happen while I’m in control.”

      He sat down, and waited through that awkward moment when the mission controllers collectively pondered whether the speech given had been applause-worthy or not.  They decided it was not. 

      On board the shuttle, Arnold checked the time, and took initiative.  “All right, people, we’ve got about five minutes until we have to begin the docking.  Let’s take our seats.”  The empty and not-so-empty food containers were all thrown in the waste disposal unit and each member of the crew floated into their respective places, with David taking the pilot’s seat.

      As Jack sat down, he picked up a signal from the communications box and put the headphones on.  “Control to Andromeda crew, do you read?”

      “This is Peskie, I read you.”

      “We’ve got about five minutes until the docking.  You might want to tell Commander Juciper to get everyone seated.”

      Jack laughed.  “Well if you clowns weren’t so busy goofing around down there, you’d realise that our commander has already given us those instructions.”

      Craig Malls chuckled from two seats behind him.  From the seat next to him, Mark Staff grunted, “Let’s try and be serious now, Jack.”  Ronald Stark nodded in agreement.

      “I’m perfectly serious,” Jack said, and crossed his eyes at Mark while sticking his tongue out.

      “You can tell Mr. O’Brian to begin the docking procedures,” came the voice through Jack’s headphones.

      “Roger that,” Jack said.  “Hey Dave, you gonna park this bitch or what?”

      Mark shouted, “Jack, watch your goddamn mouth!”

      Jack Peskie rolled his eyes.  “Well, excyoooooose me!  I think he got the point…”

      “Will you all just shut up!” David O’Brian shouted.  “I need complete concentration for the docking.  I haven’t docked a space-shuttle since pilot-training.”

      David took the control stick with his right hand, and held the thrust gauge in his left.  “Get me the docking port camera view, Floyd.”

      Lauren handed the keyboard back through the seat to Jason, who typed something up, and a screen came from the top of the cockpit window showing the view from the docking port of the shuttle.  She then turned to David, and watched his hands as they remained motionless on the controls.  She would have begun applying reverse fine-thrust at this point, but David hadn’t begun yet.  “Whenever you’re ready, David,” she said.

      David turned his head to look at her.  “I know what I’m doing, Samalc,” he said, although everyone in the shuttle knew full well that it was a big “no-no” to turn your head away from the controls during a docking procedure.

      He turned back and noticed that the space station was approaching slightly more rapidly than it should have.  Through his headphones, Jack heard the same concern coming from mission control.  “Slow it down, David,” he called.  “Control says you’re coming in a bit too fast.”

      David was clearly agitated.  He began the backward fine thrust, and the shuttle began to slow its orbit in comparison to that of the space station.  He continued to slow the shuttle down, until the space station was nearly motionless above it.  He then checked the docking port camera screen, and saw that the port of the station had nearly passed the port of the shuttle.  He quickly finished the backward thrust and the shuttle was now in a synchronised orbit with the space station.

      “You may be a little off centre,” Jack heard from mission control, but judging by David’s appearance he decided not to say anything.  A docking was a delicate procedure, but for someone with the skills of David O’Brian, it should be child’s work.  Yet he could tell that David seemed highly stressed.

      Arnold heard the tinny voice coming through Jack’s headphones, though it was impossible to make out what was said.  He eyed Jack, who merely threw him a solemn glance.  He turned to David and said, “You might want to check your trajectory before you apply upward thrust.”

      “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Arnold!” he yelled.  David was just about to recheck his trajectory, but instead he applied the upward fine thrust immediately.  The shuttle began heading in towards the space station.  The docking port of the shuttle had to slide perfectly into that of the space station for it to be a successful docking, but judging from the docking port camera view, everyone could see the fit was less than perfect.

      Lauren could see what was happening.  “David, you really need to recheck your trajectory.  You’re a little off.”

      “Dammit, Lauren, I know what I’m doing!”

      Jack heard the voice from mission control, which had the advantage of seeing the trajectory from the space station’s docking port camera.  “David’s off, tell him to slow it down, re-align, and come in again.”  The voice was clearly concerned.

      Arnold Juciper’s heart was pounding very quickly, and he knew he was going to have to do something.  “David, just calm down,” he said.

      “Shut the fuck up, Arnold,” David said, not budging.

      “David, you’re clearly agitated,” Arnold said very softly.  “We can let Lauren dock this if you want.”

      “Shut the fuck up,” he repeated.

      “David, you’re not coming in straight,” he said in a sterner voice.  “You’re going to have to…”

      Before he could finish the sentence, David let out a frustrated howl and jammed his fist forward on the stick.  The shuttle began to pitch downwards, towards the earth.

      “What the hell are you doing?!” Arnold yelled.  He reached for the controls, but David batted his hand out of the way.  Lauren reached for the override button in front of her to temporarily nullify the manual controls of the shuttle pilot, but David smacked her in the face.

      Jason Floyd un-strapped himself and lurched forward at David, but it was too late.  The shuttle was now pointed directly at Earth, and David shoved the main thrust gauge into full blast.  Jason was thrown backwards as the ship began to rapidly accelerate straight down towards the atmosphere of the Earth. 
 

Chapter 11

Time:  20:04  May 10, 3422  Universal Time

Place:  Space-Shuttle; Earth Orbital Altitude: 198 km 

      It would not have been so bad if Lauren had taken control of the ship just a few seconds quicker.  It would also not have been so unfortunate if David hadn’t miraculously pointed the shuttle straight towards the earth at a perfect 90° angle.  And finally, it would not have been such a dire situation if the ship had been built with the atmosphere-proof material that every other STAR spaceship had been built with since its discovery.

      But alas, the space shuttle was left practically untouched by modern technology.  It had been discovered long ago that a material could resist all harmful effects of a planetary atmosphere simply by using the fine art of electromagnetic manipulation.  The friction of an atmosphere has a certain electromagnetic wavelength, and just like gravity, that electromagnetic wavelength could be overcome by emitting a wavelength inversely proportional to it.  All models following that discovery had been equipped with such a system, but the space shuttle, almost sacred in the eyes of space explorers, was not updated.

      So the chief concern of the crew when the shuttle began its downward plunge into the earth’s deadly atmosphere was that of whether or not they would be burnt to a crisp.  It would be hard to describe the ensuing panic, because it came as such a surprise to everyone (then again, that’s the very nature of panic in the first place).  Even Jake Philips, who had just spent ten minutes preaching to mission control about the need to be alert, was caught off guard by this occurrence.  Luckily, Arnold Juciper had kept his cool.

      “Lauren, override,” he called to the second-seat pilot. Lauren was too busy trying to pry David away from the controls.  Arnold un-strapped himself from his seat, and felt the acceleration of the ship, just as Jason Floyd had when the full-thrust had been initiated and he was thrown to the back wall of the shuttle.  He assisted Lauren in prying David O’Brian, now kicking and shouting, away from the controls.

      “Lily,” Arnold called to the medical officer behind him, “I need a tranquilliser.”

      Lily Zaw was already on top of it.  She had reached for the medical bag under her seat just as soon as it had happened.  She was busy finding the right formula and filling the syringe with it.  “I’m on it,” she said.

      Elliot Larken had also un-strapped himself, and he grabbed David’s other arm to relieve Lauren of the task of holding him back.  “Override, Lauren, I got him,” he said.

      Now David had both of his arms locked to the back of his chair, with Arnold holding up the left from his seat and Elliot holding down the right from Jason’s seat.  Jason was now using every object he could to climb through the falling shuttle back towards the controls.

      Lauren hit the override button, just a second too late, and pulled the control stick until the shuttle was now facing the rapidly retreating space station.  For a moment, the feeling of weightlessness returned, and Jason was able to find his way back to the seats.  Once the shuttle had made the 180°, Lauren once again applied the full-thrust and the shuttle began to decelerate.  The hope was that it could cancel all downward velocity before burning up in the earth’s atmosphere, but there was no way at this point of telling whether or not that was feasible.

      Lily got the syringe ready, and plunged it into the back of David’s arm.  David screamed and thrust about, but went limp in a matter of seconds.  Arnold now directed his attention to every other matter at hand.

      “Elliot, get David away from here,” he said, and Elliot proceeded to carry David’s unconscious body to the back of the shuttle.  “Lauren, take the main pilot’s seat and stay at the controls.  Jack, find out what STAR is instructing us to do.  Jason, take Lauren’s seat and get me a read-out of the shuttle’s rate of deceleration.  Everyone else, just stay calm until we get a grip on the situation.”

      Lauren shifted seats and Jason took the seat she had just been sitting in.  Even in the midst of all that confusion, Jason could not help but feel a little nervous sitting right next to her.  He grabbed the controls and began ringing in the commands that would give the desired read-out.

      Jack Peskie called into the microphone on the communications box.  “STAR, this is Peskie, what’s it look like down there?  STAR, this is Peskie, do you read?” 

      100 kilometres below, and thousands of kilometres away, the scene at mission control was one of pandemonium.

      Bill Sanders, the main communications man, had taken his headphones off as soon as the control room had erupted into panic.  On the main screens in the front of the room, everyone had seen through the image of the space station’s docking port camera the sudden shift in pitch of the space shuttle, and then the ignition of the main engines.  After that, as Jake Philips would later describe, “all hell broke loose.”

      Sanders had jumped up and thrown his headphones down to try and see if anyone had the slightest clue as to what was going on.  Now, he heard the voice coming through his removed earpiece, and quickly threw it back on.  “Jack, this is STAR, we read you.  What happened up there?”

      “O’Brian went crazy,” Jack told him.  “He put the ship on full thrust towards Earth.  How does it look from where you’re sitting?”

      “We can’t even see you through the space station’s camera anymore.  As far as your velocity goes, we’re working on it.”

      From his vantagepoint behind the glass in the observation part of the mission control room, Mike Romband had seen the whole thing.  As soon as the ship began blasting away, he darted out of his seat and ran down to the main portion of the room.  He reached the seat of Jake Philips just as soon as the shuttle had been turned around.

      Philips had his headphones on, and he was turning the dial to every other station at mission control, asking for a status check.  When he opened the link with Sanders, he learned what had taken place.

      “What the hell is going on, Jake?” Romband asked him.

      “O’Brian,” Philips told him, and Romband nodded solemnly.

      Philips turned on the main microphone and spoke so that everyone could hear.  “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a situation, and we need everyone to just calm down so we can figure out whether or not we have a problem.  What is the velocity read-out?” 

      90 kilometres above and thousands of kilometres away, Jason Floyd had made that discovery.  “Jack,” he called.  “This is bad.  At the rate we’re going, it doesn’t look good.  We’ve got about four and a half minutes until we’re all burnt up in the atmosphere.  We’re not decelerating fast enough.”

      Jack nodded, and repeated that information to Sanders. 

      Bill Sanders switched the com-link over to Philips.  “Jake, I’d like to put Peskie on a full link.”

      “Roger that,” Philips said calmly, “let’s get him on the microphone.”

      “Okay, Jack,” Sanders said as he opened the com-link from the shuttle to be heard through the loudspeakers in the control room, “repeat what you just told me.”

      “Jason says we’re not decelerating quickly enough,” the voice of Jack said to the control room, which now became almost completely silent.  Jack was seemingly out of breath.  “We’ve got the ship on full thrust headed away from Earth, but we’ve got about three minutes until the atmosphere eats us up.”

      Shouts were heard from every corner of the control room.  “I knew the shuttle thing was a bad idea,” a voice said.  “Damn Lampert…” said another voice.

      From the back of the room, Mike Romband was on the phone with personnel from Space Station Getaway, warning them not to alert the press until the situation was under control. 

      Jason Floyd sat, staring out the window, clueless as to what needed to be done.  From behind him, he could hear Maria Wendall, the ship supervisor, arguing with Arnold.

      “You don’t need to do anything, Maria,” he said.

      “But this is my job, there’s got to be something…” Maria argued.

      “Listen, I’m glad you want to help,” said Arnold, “but your job has to do with the ship, and making sure everything is functioning properly and fixing it if something’s wrong…”

      “But something is wrong…” Maria began.

      “There’s nothing wrong with the ship,” Arnold said sternly.  “If this was a malfunction, we’d call you in, but right now, our primary concern is whether or not we’ll all be breathing come three minutes from now.”

      During this argument, Lauren seemed to get an idea.  She turned to Arnold, but he was busy talking to Maria, so she turned to Jason.

      As soon as she turned her head towards him, Jason was caught completely off guard to find those brown eyes staring straight into his.  And if that wasn’t enough, he nearly fainted when she opened her mouth to speak to him.

      “If I can get the angle right,” she said, “We don’t have to burn up.  We can make a re-entry and then I can fly this to a landing provided there’s solid ground somewhere.  It’s a long-shot, but it may be our only chance.”

      “You really think you could do that?” Jason asked in disbelief.  He couldn’t even make a successful reenty in a simulator.  “You must be one hell of a pilot,” he said, and immediately regretted it.  His mind had been doped up from the bliss of just talking to her, and in his momentary lapse of reason, he forgot to monitor what was coming out of his mouth.  Lauren made no visible reaction, but she turned away, and Jason scrambled hopelessly to find something to say that might have an electromagnetic wavelength strong enough to cancel out that of the last thing he said.  “I’ll see what I can do,” was all he could think of.

      He turned to Jack Peskie, sitting beside him.  “Jack, I need you to run the idea by mission control.  Lauren wants to make an emergency landing.  I’m calculating the angle of re-entry necessary to do so right now.  See what control has to say.”

      “STAR, this is Jack, we’ve got a request permission for an emergency landing,” he said.  “Lauren thinks she can get this thing through the atmosphere without burning up provided she gets the right angle.  Do you copy?” 

      “Hang on, Jack,” Sanders said.  He looked at Jake Philips who had heard the request through the loudspeaker.  He looked across the room at Romband, who was still making phone calls to anyone and everyone who might possibly leak the story to the newsmedia.  Romband had heard the request too, and he sent Philips a silent yet unmistakable signal of “dear god no.”

      Philips turned back to Sanders.  “We’d like to avoid that at all costs, but if we’ve got to we’ve got to.  I haven’t heard any better ideas…”

      “Jake,” Rob Davis called from his seat at the ship supervision desk.  He motioned for Philips to come over to him, and he did.

      “What is it, Rob?” Philips asked.

      “The pilot’s got it right about the ship not having to burn up, but according to my calculations, we don’t even need to bring the shuttle back through the atmosphere,” he explained.  Philips was greatly intrigued.  “If we could get the angle of entry shallow enough, the shuttle will just skip off the atmosphere, and we could pilot it back to the space station from there.  We’ll have them in bed by midnight.”

      Philips considered that idea for a solid second before completely falling in love with it.  “Davis, you’re a goddamn genius.  And it’s so damn simple.”

      He picked up the main microphone, and spoke through the loudspeaker.  “All right, everyone, we’ve got a plan…” 

      Jack announced the plan to Lauren, with two minutes to spare.  She immediately pitched the shuttle downwards until it was parallel to the horizon.  Jason immediately began punching numbers into the keyboard.  There were too many factors at this point to calculate whether or not the shuttle could make the skip.

      It was already heading sideways at a great angle simply due to the orbital velocity.  David’s little stunt had merely thrown off the tangent, so the “ball falling around the earth” would drop well before it got to the horizon, and that meant disaster.  But if adding some more velocity to the orbit could just get the ball past that line where the earth meets the heavens, there would be nothing to worry about.

      The shuttle was now silent as Jason had the readout shown on the screen hanging down from the top of the window.  It showed the shuttle’s downward velocity, and it’s rate of decrease.  “60 metres per second downward…54 metres per second downward…46 metres per second downward…” 

      In mission control, the same readout was being shown alongside the map view, which now showed the dot for the space shuttle dangerously close to the yellow line marking the surface of the earth.  The path of the dot was highlighted, and every major change in the shuttle’s path could be seen.  The dot was heading parallel to the curvature of the earth until the incident occurred, and then it began heading almost straight down.  Now that line was changing direction, and with every second that ticked by, the angle of descent grew less and less, so instead of nearly heading straight down, it was close to being parallel once again, which was the goal.

      “Sit tight everyone,” Philips said.  “I want the medical people to monitor the heart-rates of the astronauts, but as for everyone else, there’s nothing we can do now.  Let’s just hope this works.” 

      On board the shuttle, the crew sat in silence, watching the numbers, getting more hopeful with each new number.  “32 metres per second downward…15 metres per second downward…9 metres per second downward…4 metres per second upward…”

      As soon as the velocity readout changed from “downward” to “upward” the crew let out a collective sigh of relief.

      Arnold Juciper sat back in his chair, and gently rubbed his temples.  Jason Floyd looked over at Lauren Samalc, her face showing only the slightest hint of a smile. 

      In mission control, there were cries of joy once the readout changed, and it was clear that the ship had indeed skipped off of the earth’s atmosphere and was now in no danger of burning up.  Jake Philips cut the celebration short.  “All right people, we were just tested, and I’m pleased to say that we seem to have passed that test.  But this mission is not over yet.”

      Mike Romband hung up the phone, and walked over to congratulate Rob Davis, as everyone at mission control set their screens back to their normal modes.

      Jake Philips pointed to the map screen behind him.  “Let’s not forget we’ve still got a ship to dock.”  He pointed to the space-shuttle’s dot, now comfortably heading upwards at a tangent from the yellow line of the earth’s surface, and he pointed to the dot of the space-station, now quite a distance from the shuttle.  “We’ve wasted a lot of fuel, and now we’ve got to do a manual rendezvous with the space station.  I want everyone in that shuttle to be walking through the halls of Space Station Getaway inside of three hours.”  He looked around the room, trying to remember the last time he had seen so many sighs.  “Then we can all go home for awhile,” he added smiling. 
 

Chapter 12

Time:  22:56  May 10, 3422 Universal Time

Place:  Space Station Getaway, Altitude: 200 km 

      It wasn’t five minutes after the conflict had been resolved that the finger pointing began.  Most of the STAR employees pointed theirs straight at Jim Lampert.  After all, wasn’t it him who had this whole crazy shuttle idea, anyway? He knew shuttles were dangerous, and yet he still was willing to risk the lives of the twelve best astronauts in the company.  If he had just consented to letting them take the space taxis to Ring Station 4 and then launching right away, none of this shit would have happened.

      At mission control, during the rendezvous with Getaway, the growing anger was expressed under the breath of most everyone while Jake Philips wasn’t looking.  Philips had told them quite clearly that he had been through disasters before, and he was not going to tolerate the blame game, especially before the mission was over.  He repeated the justification for a shuttle flight, although he consented to himself that it now seemed pretty weak.

      Jim Lampert himself had been watching the entire thing from the observation area, from his seat next to Mike Romband’s.  When the disaster erupted, Lampert’s initial reaction had been to rush down to the floor and offer help, but Romband had warned him against that.  Agreeing, he had slipped to the back of the room and watched the whole episode in silence; the most nervous silence he’d ever known.  Once it was over, he quietly slipped out and made his way to his office. 

      After Lauren succeeded in making a rough rendezvous with the space station, and docking it perfectly with fuel to spare, the Andromeda crew was already struggling to keep their eyes open.

      “All right, people,” Arnold said.  “Let’s get out of this hunk of metal and into our room.  Everyone should try to get to sleep right away, because it’s going to be an early morning tomorrow.  As far as I know, we’re not abandoning the itinerary set for us, although that may very well change depending on what STAR wants me to do with David.”

      Groans went up from many crewmembers.  Lily raised her eyebrows at Arnold, and he acknowledged her.  “Lily, I need you to stay with David and attend to him until he comes to.  Then you can send him to me.  Everyone else needs to get to sleep.”

      “We have no objections to that, captain,” Jack said.  “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

      “Agreed,” said Arnold.  “Let’s go.”

      Everyone un-strapped themselves from their seats and floated over to the docking port hatch on the roof of the shuttle, which Maria Wendall un-locked.  A few seconds later, the hatch was opened by the workers in the space station, and each of the crewmembers was lifted into the docking port room of Space Station Getaway.

      Although Arnold had been to Getaway before, the appearance of the room surprised him because it didn’t look at all like anything you’d find in a luxury resort.  He had come before through space taxis, and the docking bays for the cabs were highly decorated and jazzed up for the normal public who would always enter the station in that manner.  This room had a hard grey floor, with the artificial gravity found everywhere in the station.  The walls were white and practically bare except for a promotional poster for the station.

      Jason Floyd looked at the poster and shook his head in disgust.  He remembered seeing it elsewhere in the station when he had been there before.  It was a photo of the space station, in front of the earth, with the station’s slogan written in big, red, bold letters above it: “Space Station Getaway: It’s Out Of This World!”  The cliché made him cringe.

      Ronald Stark stood beside him once he was lifted into the room.  “I take it you don’t like the poster,” he commented.

      Jason turned to him.  “That slogan makes me want to vomit in disgust.”

      “I can’t say I disagree,” Ronald said, and walked off.

      Once ten of the crewmembers were in the docking port room, Lily floated David’s unconscious body from the floor of the shuttle up through the docking port hatch.  The station workers were ready with a stretcher to lay the body on, and after closing the hatch, two of them lifted him up.

      Another worker directed Arnold to the exit, and he made his way through the door into the main concourse of the station.  A bellboy was there to greet him

      “Welcome to Getaway, Mr. Juciper, and let me just say, it is such an honour to meet you,” the bellboy said, shaking the famous commander’s hand.  The young man was a little too excited for Arnold’s comfort, but he humoured the boy.

      “Well thank you,” Arnold said as pleasantly as someone who had just come within inches of being vaporised alive could say.  “Can you show us to our room?”

      “We’ve been the live feed of mission control in the workroom the whole time,” the boy said.  “That was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you right now.  I mean, I must sound like an idiot, but…”

      “I’m flattered, really,” Arnold said with more sarcasm than he had intended, “but we really need to get to our room.”

      “Of course, absolutely, right this way,” the boy said, then led them to the end of the hall, made a left turn, and stopped them in front of the only door in the corridor.  “This is your suite.  It’s got twelve beds, and it’s only used for astronauts and our most distinguished parties.  We hope you enjoy it.”

      “I’m sure we will, thank you,” Arnold said.

      The bellboy did not leave.  “I hate to ask after you just went through that whole thing, but…”

      Arnold stopped him, and reached into his pocket, pulling out a stack of index cards, each with his signature on it.  “Here you go,” he said.  This was a public resort, and he had come prepared.  “Now if you’ll excuse us.”

      “Thank you, sir,” the young man said, and walked off.

      A few of the crewmembers eyed him curiously.  Something about that exchange didn’t seem right. It might not have been so bad, if the stack had not been so thick.

      Arnold opened the door, and the astronauts filed in.  The two station workers brought David in on the stretcher.  Arnold told them to set him down on the couch inside next to the door.  Lily brought a chair over to him, and took out her medical equipment.  The rest of the astronauts made their ways to the tiny rooms, each equipped with a bed and bathroom, open doorways and empty windows.

      One of the station workers came up to Arnold, and tried to begin a sentence.  “Um…”

      Arnold took out a card and the man held his hand out to take it, but the other worker batted his arm away, and said “don’t be a dumbass.  Give the man some respect.”  The workers left the room, and Arnold nodded with gratitude at the one who had made the comment.

      Once the door was closed, Lily spoke up.  “Cards with pre-signed autographs on them, commander?” she said in a tone of curious disapproval.  “I underestimated you.”

      “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, knowing full well what she meant, and not really caring.  At least, not caring that much.

      “Nothing,” she responded.

      Arnold let out an exhausted yawn, and said, “Just send him to me when he comes to.”

      With that, Arnold made his way to the Commander’s room, which was distinguished by being larger than the rest, and containing a private office with an actual door. 

      Once the bedlam had settled down in the STAR Administration building, Mike Romband made his way to the office of Jim Lampert.  When he entered, he saw Lampert sitting, curled up in his chair, clutching his knees with his feet resting on the edge of his desk.  He was just staring at the wall and thinking.

      Romband took the chair on the opposite wall and dragged it to the side of the desk.  “Don’t kill yourself over this,” he said.  “It’s not your fault.”

      Lampert sighed heavily.  “It is, and everybody knows it.”

      “Who gives a fuck what everybody else thinks they know.  It’s clear to everyone that the blame rests squarely on David O’Brian’s fat fucking head,” Romband said sharply but softly.  Anyone close to Romband knew that he always maintained his cool, but when he was very irritated, the casual obscenities came pouring out.  “They’ve just been pissed at you because controlling a shuttle mission is a shit-load of extra work, and now they can justify their feelings because something did actually go wrong.  Besides, it’s not all of them.  Rob Davis has been telling the whiners around him to shut the fuck up, and there are a few others who feel the same way.”

      “Promote that man,” Lampert said.

      “Would you like him to take your job?” Romband asked.  Lampert didn’t find the joke funny.

      “I shouldn’t have kept pushing this shuttle thing,” Lampert said.  “If I hadn’t been so adamant about it, and just let Philips have his way and do it like a normal mission, this wouldn’t have happened.”

      Mike Romband sat back.  “Oh, shut the hell up, Jim, you don’t really believe that, do you?  O’Brian’s got issues.  It was bound to blow up sooner or later.  The shuttle was a good test for these people.  Start the mission with a challenge.  That’s why I liked the idea.  And if he hadn’t flipped out in the shuttle, he may have done it during the actual mission, which could have been ten times worse.”

      Lampert turned to Romband and looked him in the eyes.  “So you’re going to replace him?”

      A sudden spasm seemed to go off in Romband’s arm and his left fist jerked back suddenly, slamming into the wall with so much force that the entire office shook.  “That’s what really burns me about this whole fucking business…”

      “You can’t replace him?” Lampert asked.

      “Not at this point,” Romband said with disgust in his voice.  “What kind of a fucking society is this?” he asked himself.  “The man almost kills twelve people including himself, and yet if we try to do anything about it…”

      “The whole mission goes down the crap-hole,” Lampert finished.  “What are you going to tell the investors?”

      “Absolutely nothing,” Romband said slowly, and at that instant his pager went off.  He took out the little device, and recognised the number.  “If you need me, I’ll be in my office.  Probably be in there all night.” 

      The phone in Arnold Juciper’s office rang (in the year 3422, you would think everyone was already using a videophone, but this was not the actual case), and he immediately picked it up.  “Mr. Romband?”

      “Mike,” said Mike Romband.

      “Right,” Arnold paused.  “So what’s the situation?  Can we get a replacement up here?  I’ve already called security, so they’re standing by in case David throws a fit…”

      “I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Arnold,” Mike interrupted.

      “What?” Arnold said, puzzled.  “You can’t honestly be saying…”

      “It’s exactly what I’m saying, Arnold,” Mike said, with about as much joy in his voice as a boy who had just seen both his parents trampled by a rhinoceros.   “The investors won’t have it.  The contributors won’t have it…”

      “I’m sure they’d understand…” Arnold cut him off.

      “No, they won’t Arnold, and you know it.  The contributors weren’t exactly lined up at our doors to throw money at this mission in the first place.  They don’t like the idea of putting money into a mission that their great great grandchildren won’t even live to see the end of.  If word about this got out…”

      “Didn’t they see the news reports?” Arnold interrupted.  “Surely they’d understand…”

      “There weren’t any news reports, Arnold,” Mike said.  “As far as the general public is concerned, the shuttle incident never occurred.  And that’s how it’s going to have to be for you as well.”

      Arnold was dumbstruck.  Could STAR really keep such an incredible event happening on the most publicized missions in history a secret?  “If you can keep this under wraps, why can’t you do the same with sending a back-up?”

      “Because the back-up has a family, and we can’t expect to tell them to keep it confidential.  Not to mention we’ll never be able to keep David silent.  I’m sorry, but we don’t have any choice but to continue as planned.”

      “Mike, Mike,” Arnold pleaded, “maybe the investors won’t be too happy about it, but they don’t have to spend an entire year in a closed room with this guy.  Maybe we could just post-pone the mission.”

      “If we start delaying this mission because we need to make adjustments, we open the door to having all of our investors pull away.  As of now, the mission is technically under way, and we’re fully funded.  We make one delay, and the dam breaks wide open.  As it stands right now, either you go to Andromeda with David O’Brian at the controls, or you don’t go at all.”

      Arnold could not believe what he was hearing.  “Pardon my language sir, but this is the most fucked up bullshit I’ve ever had to deal with.”

      “Welcome to the corporate world, Arnold,” Mike said sympathetically.  “You’re management now.  In the words of David Bowie, planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing you can do.”

      “Jesus H. Christ,” Arnold sighed, giving in.  There was a knock on his door. Perfect timing, he thought.  “Here he is.”

      “Say whatever you need to,” Mike said, “even if it’s not the truth.  Scratch that.  Especially if it’s not the truth.  You need to give him the impression that you are the one in power, and you have total control.”

      “Thanks, Mike,” Arnold sighed, and hung up the phone.  “Come in,” he called.

      David O’Brian walked into the tiny office with a look of contempt in his eyes.  But what other look would he possibly have in his eyes?  He was a predictable man, especially when he did unpredictable things.  Like you didn’t suspect that he was going to pull some sort of shit from the moment I introduced him?

      “Shut the door,” Arnold commanded, “and take a seat.”

      David shut the door with his foot, and flopped down in the seat like a marionette.  He breathed heavily and looked at the ceiling as if he had no idea why Arnold wanted to talk to him.

      “David,” Arnold began.  “I don’t want to talk to you like you’re a six-year-old, so let’s just get to the point.  You know what happened on that shuttle, right?”

      “Nobody told me anything,” David said like a six-year-old.  “You and Lauren kept nagging me so I lost it.  Then Lily sticks a needle in me, and the next thing I know, I wake up on that couch next to her, and she tells me to come in here and talk to you.”

      “Do you have any idea how close we all came to death just a few hours ago?” Arnold asked.  David said nothing.  “We were just minutes away from burning up in the earth’s atmosphere, all of us, including you, when someone got the idea to skip the ship off the atmosphere, and we just managed to pull that off.  Lauren then took the ship back to the station and docked it.  You realise you almost killed us?”

      “Big fucking deal,” David said, still looking at the ceiling.

      “David!” Arnold shouted.  “Do you have any idea how much pressure I’m under to kick you off the crew?”

      At this, David sat forward.  “You can’t be serious…”

      “I am serious!”

      “STAR would never allow a switch to be made at this point.”

      “Don’t assume, David.  STAR can make exceptions, and when one of the pilots almost kills the entire crew of a mission, they can consider kicking him off!”

      “You’re bluffing!”

      “Try me!” Arnold shouted, rising to his feet.  There was a pause.

      “So why don’t you just go ahead and fire me?”  David asked. This was the key question.  Arnold knew the answer.  It had been in his mind since the beginning of training.

      “Because I think I know the reason why you did this,” Arnold said.

      “I told you, it’s because you and Lauren were…”

      “Not that reason, David!” Arnold interrupted, now starting to enjoy his position of power.  “Any normal person would have just sucked it in and docked the shuttle, and forgot about it a second later.  But you went ballistic, and I think I know why.”  He paused for effect, and sat back down.

      “What do you know?” David challenged him.

      “I know a whole lot, David,” Arnold said.  “You weren’t always the angry little shit you are now.  I remember you before it happened.  I remember you before Betelgeuse XII.”

      “What does that have to do with anything?” David asked in a shout, now folding his arms and staring at the corner of the wall.

      Arnold concealed a smile.  At least he’s not acting like a six-year-old anymore, he thought, now he’s acting like a three-year old.  “It has everything to do with everything, and you know it.  You’ve known it for years.  In fact, it’s been haunting you all this time, and it just exploded a few hours ago on that space shuttle.”

      David started to say something, but his frustration stopped any words from leaving his mouth.

      “It was over ten years ago Earth Time, as I recall,” Arnold began.  “The STAR Administration had concluded its reconnaissance mission with the Betelgeuse system and was ready for its first landings.  Traditionally, it starts with the outermost planet and works its way in.  In this case, there were sixteen planets, and the last four were gas giants.  The first planet targeted was the twelfth, about three times the mass of Earth.  A molten hell of flowing lava, with active volcanoes littering the entire planetary landscape.  The only non-gas giant with an atmosphere, and an average temperature well over 100°C, heated like an oven by the harsh red giant of a star, Betelgeuse, barely fifty astronomical units away from its core.  This was any astronaut’s dream.  It was going to take one hell of a crew to brave this nightmare of a planet.  And most certainly, it was going to take the best commander that the STAR Administration had.”

      “Do I have to listen to this?” David said.

      “If you’d like to keep your position on this crew, you do,” Arnold said sharply.  “As I was saying, it was going to take the best commander in the STAR Administration.  When they searched their archives, two names naturally came up.  Mine and yours.  So we were put in competition with each other.  Both of us went through months of gruelling training, every single aspect of our physical and mental abilities put to the test.  We both wanted that position badly.  This was revolutionary space travel.  Commanding this mission meant lots of fame, lots of money, and lots of respect.  When it came down to it, they had to make a decision, and they chose me.

      “And that was your turning point, David.  You lost it.  You were so angered by STAR cheating you out of this opportunity of a lifetime—to be the first man on Betelgeuse XIIthat you flipped out.  You were suspended and demoted to pilot.  Your family abandoned you.  You turned into a bitter, hostile man, and all along, you blamed me.  I was the cause of all this.  And when you learned that you were going to Andromeda, under my command, you didn’t see this as an opportunity, but as an insult.  And on that space shuttle you had your first taste of receiving orders under my command.  Under my command.  Taking orders from the man you see as your arch enemy.”

      Arnold could see that his speech was having an effect.  David had his face buried in his hands, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees.  This man was genuinely hurt.  Arnold just stood and stared at him.  The poor, broken man.  This was no longer enjoyable.  Arnold had a change of heart, and tried to make something good come out of this meeting.

      “I don’t want to be your enemy, David,” he said, getting up and walking over to him.  “I know what happened in the past, but that was the past.  If we’re going to have a successful mission, we’re going to have to bury the hatchet and learn to respect one another.  I’ll admit I haven’t been as warm as I should have been to you.  But if you can forgive me for what I did to you all those years ago, I can forgive you for what you did today.”  This was no longer about bureaucracy, so when Arnold was talking about forgiveness, he genuinely meant it.   STAR was going to have them work together no matter what, but he really wanted to forgive David now.  He was almost on the verge of tears himself.  Between Arnold’s pity for David, who had lost his family because of him, and the frustration of Arnold losing his own family and almost being killed a few hours earlier, he was ready to break down.  “What do you say?” Arnold said with a lump in his throat, and put his hand on David’s shoulder.

      David jerked his shoulder back.  “Get your fucking hands off of me!”

      Arnold was taken aback, and for an instant, David looked him straight in the eyes.  His face was red, and his eyes were wet with the trace of tears that had failed to fall.

      The chill that this look sent down Arnold’s spine was like nothing he had ever felt before.  There was murder in David’s eyes.  There was a rage so strong that Arnold could not even begin to fathom its power.  For over a decade, this man had hated him, cursed him, and blamed him for everything that had ever gone wrong in his life.  There was no way David could forgive him.  There was no chance that he ever would.  All of this Arnold realised in that one instant in which their eyes met, and David’s glance pierced the back of his mind like the tip of a burning knife.

      David darted out of the room and slammed the door behind him.  Arnold stood frozen for a moment, then collapsed on the chair that David had been sitting on.  He stared at the wall for a solid ten minutes before going to bed. 
 

Chapter 13

Time:  6:00  May 11, 3422  Universal Time

Place: Space Station Getaway, Altitude: 300 km 

      As any experienced space-traveller will tell you, Space Station Getaway is not truly “Out of This World” as its brilliantly original slogan claims.  In fact, of all the objects in space, it’s probably the furthest thing from it.

      Established in the early 32nd century, it was opened under the name Space Station Gateway, and was not meant to be a resort.  Its purpose was to make launches easier by allowing us to assemble rockets in space so that they wouldn’t have to break free of the earth’s atmosphere or worry about re-entry.  This saved STAR a lot of trouble.

      But with the popular “Ring” design of space-station that came in the latter half of that century, this rather small, zero-gravity hunk of metal floating in space served no practical purpose, so they decided to turn it into a resort.  All it took was a few years of extra construction, and the switching of two vowels.

      Space Station Getaway was officially opened to the public on July 4, 3204, and was so expensive that only the extremely rich could afford to go.  Unfortunately, there is no cosmic law that says all people who can afford to go to space must also have the desire to do so.  For a long while, the station received very little business, and was basically the butt of every joke having to do with STAR for several decades.

      And then came the invention of the space-taxi.  The small, two-person spacecraft could lift-off from the Earth’s surface just like an aeroplane.  It required an extremely long runway (between one and two kilometres in length), but after gaining enough momentum it had enough power to propel itself so far into the sky that it could establish an orbit.  These spacecrafts were so easy and inexpensive to make that they soon became the preferred method of travel through the solar system for just about everyone.

      Spacecabs (as they were called by people in the biz’) were mass-produced, and the solar system seemed to shrink in size.  STAR was in charge of the whole operation, but it soon took on a life of its own.  STAR would hire space-taxis to carry their astronauts from place to place, but regular people would also use the spacecab network to get where they wanted to go.

      Thus, the trip to Space Station Getaway became affordable, and everyone wanted to go.  Business boomed, and it did so well around Earth that more Getaway stations were set up around other planets, including Mars, Venus, and even Saturn.  These stations, however, went out of business very quickly.  They did so for two very valid reasons.  The first was simply the issue of money.  It cost a lot more to ride a space-taxi the millions of kilometres to Saturn than it did the couple hundreds of kilometres to the Earth Getaway station.  The second reason is that those who did take the opportunity to vacation in the other stations invariably ended up leaving early.  Psychologists agreed that this was due to the fact that not being able to see the home planet for a prolonged period of time made normal people very uncomfortable.  When little Tina would wake up in the middle of the night and look out the window to find herself staring into the poisonous clouds of Venus, she would freak out.

      Thus, Space Station Getaway became the only space-station resort in the solar system.  STAR went even further though, and tried to make the atmosphere far less space-like and more Earth-like.  By instituting artificial gravity everywhere on the station (once it was invented), carpeting the floors, putting up chandeliers, and building mess halls and arcades, they gave the public the comfort of familiarity.  Now when little Tina would wake up, she could switch on her light, roll out of bed and head over to the window where she could make out the Florida peninsula amidst the familiar blue colour of the sea.

      Space Station Getaway became virtually identical to a normal Earth resort.  If it weren’t for the windows, you could spend a week on the station without realising you were in space.  By all appearances, it was just like anything you would find on Earth.  They just never bothered to change the slogan. 

      The astronauts were provided with clothing by STAR until they were aboard their ship.  On the morning of May 11, their clothes were hung in their closets, all khaki pants and navy blue button-down shirts with the STAR logo on the pocket.  The women didn’t even need to supply their own underwear.  Nor did the men, for that matter.  It was all taken care of.

      Arnold Juciper awoke to the gentle buzzing of the wake-up-call ordered by STAR over the suite loudspeaker.  He glanced to the digital clock beside his bed and saw that it was 6:00 Universal on the dot.  He let out a silent moan and closed his eyes, the temptation to keep them closed taking shape on the backs of his eyelids.  But unfortunately, he was the commander, and he above everyone else had to be ready to go by 6:15.

      He grabbed an outfit from the closet, and took it into the tiny shower-room next to his office.  Each little room had its own shower.  He took off the STAR Uniform he’d been wearing since the shuttle-launch, turned the water on, and hopped in.  After soaking himself in the hot water, he readjusted the temperature to 5°C; this being the same water temperature he was in the habit of using for every shower over the course of a mission.

      Each water droplet was like a melting icicle on his body.  This was supposed to wake him up, and keep his endorphins running high.  But this morning, the droplets just pierced into his skin.  Each of them was that look in David’s eyes.  Each of them was trying to murder him.

      Arnold slapped his head with his fists both for the purpose of assisting himself in waking up and shaking these thoughts out of his mind.  He managed to remove them, but the exhaustion from his hours of lying awake the previous night would not let go so easily.  He leaned the side of his face against the wall of the shower and let the frozen daggers go to work on him.  Through closed eyes, he could see the clock with those giant red numbers ticking by.  There was no time for dawdling.  That was the whole point of this itinerary.

      He rubbed the fresh bar of soap all over his hands and massaged his face with the lather.  He then dunked his head under the liquid glacier and quickly rubbed it all out.  He then shut off the water and proceeded to dry up and get dressed.

      He made it out to the “foyer” of the suite with six minutes to spare.  He held in his hand a piece of paper with the names of all his crewmembers on it, and a pen.  He studied the sheet for a minute, made a few markings, and then waited for the rest of the crew to arrive.

      Soon enough, all members of the crew were there facing him, including David O’Brian, who stood in the back.

      “All right,” Arnold spoke up, “Here’s how the plan for the day will go.  Once I’m done talking we’re all gonna head over to the Food Court for breakfast.  The food here is good, but try not to stuff yourselves.  At quarter to seven, we should all be back in this room.  We’ll then divide into the two groups which I’ll give you in a minute, and one group will go to the arcade and the other to the Extra-Vehicular Activity training room.

      “In the arcade, everyone is to simulate the mission to Andromeda through the STAR Simulator program.  Follow the Flight Plan exactly so you can get familiar with it.  Just use a faster time scale.  10,000 years per second is what STAR has recommended.  If you go at the actual speed, it’ll take you a year.  Once you’ve finished the simulation, you may play whatever you want until the other group arrives.

      “The other group will enter the room where the employees here train ordinary people to use the Manned Manoeuvring Unit to perform space-walks.  I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it’s stupid but Getaway is just covering their asses in case of an emergency.  They’ve already been sued once for letting someone go out without training, and now they’re making no exceptions.  I assume we’ve all been on EVA before?”

      Todd Blankens raised his hand.  “I haven’t,” he said nervously.

      “That’s right, I forgot,” Arnold said.  He had been told of Todd’s phobia during his briefing on the psychological profiles of the crew (most of which he just slept through).  “Well, Todd, now is the time to face your fear, because if you don’t go EVA in Andromeda you’re gonna regret it.  Might as well have your first time here where you’re under close supervision by professionals.”

      Todd was not enthusiastic.  “With all due respect, Commander, I really won’t mind if I refrain from EVA in Andromeda.”

      “Nonsense, Todd.  You’ll be begging me to let you out of the ship, and I’ll be hesitant to let you if you’ve never gone EVA before.  Just do it now and we can worry about Andromeda later.”

      Todd dared not make any further objections.  His palms were already getting sweaty at the thought of floating in space without a ship to provide him with a solid ground.  It had been bad enough in the shuttle.

      “All right, I think that’s it,” Arnold said.  “These are your groups.  I just went down the crew list and put every other name in a group.  Group one will consist of me, Lauren, Lily, Ronald, Craig, and Jack.  Group two will be David, Todd, Elliot, Mark, Maria, and Jason.  I want Jason to lead that group.”

      “Why him?” Maria Wendall asked.  “He’s just the computer guy.  No offence, I mean, but…”

      “Jason is the only other person who has been to this space station before,” Arnold said, annoyed that someone had questioned his judgement.  “If there are no further objections, let’s all go to the Food Court.” 

      If it weren’t for the glass ceiling high overhead which gave a constant view of the stars, the Food Court of Space Station Getaway would make it possible for one to forget that they were in space and think they were in a shopping mall.

      Lily Zaw took her tray of scrambled eggs and toast over to the table where Maria Wendall was sitting with her bacon and sausage.  As a Medic, Lily was used to feeling out of place.  Although Medics made up a third of every normal ship’s crew, they were always excluded from the conversations about space, which they knew relatively little of, other than what they learned through their own interest.  And she was a woman, which excluded her even further.  Women were a rarity among the astronauts of the STAR Administration, not because of discrimination but because of a lack of interest.  For some reason, most women were just not interested in the field of Astronautics.  Probably the same reason most men are just not interested in the field of nursing.  It was interesting to note that there were three female astronauts on the crew of the Andromeda (it was extremely rare to find more than two) meant that one quarter of “the best of the best” were women.

      And Maria was the kind of woman Lily liked.  The ultra-feminist crusader for equal rights (although legally women had been enjoying the same rights as men for over a thousand years) with a powerful voice.  She could come across as a little snobby at times, but she was good at heart, and Lily needed a friend on the crew to whom she could relate.

      “This place looks just like a mall,” Maria said.

      “I know, if it weren’t for the glass ceiling, I’d forget I was in space,” Lily responded, thus confirming the point I made at the beginning of this segment.

      It was at this point that Lauren Samalc walked by their table, carrying an order of buttered toast on her tray.

      “Hey Lauren,” Lily called.  “Come sit by us.”

      She accepted the invitation without a word and took a seat next to Maria.  The two women continued their conversation.

      “So what do you think of ‘the great Arnold Juciper’?” Maria asked.

      Lily chuckled.  The man was practically a living legend, although she could hardly see why.  He’d only been in command for about a day, and already they’d come within inches of death.  “He’s so arrogant,” she said.

      “I know,” Maria agreed.  “I mean, he seems like a nice guy, but some of the things he does…”

      “Like those index cards with his autograph on it…?” Lily offered.

      “Exactly!” Maria exclaimed.  “Can you be any more of an egomaniac?”

      The women laughed and Lauren continued chewing her toast in silence.  She scanned the room and saw Arnold at a table behind her, eating an omelette and having a conversation with Jack Peskie.  He had his flaws, but he wasn’t the ogre these women were making him out to be.  He was a compassionate man.  Her eyes looked further and saw Jason Floyd sitting opposite Arnold, with Elliot Larken beside him.  Jason’s eyes quickly shifted to meet hers, and then quickly darted back as if she might not have noticed.  She sighed and then returned to her toast.

      “But what really gets me is this,” Lily was saying, “yesterday in that shuttle he didn’t know what he was doing.  I mean, I don’t know anything about atmospheres or re-entry, and I mean there’s no reason you would have known either, but Arnold is supposed to be the commander, and he’s supposed to know about these things.  But it took some guy down in mission control to come up with the idea to skip the ship off the atmosphere to save us.  I would think he should have known what to do.”

      “Yeah,” Maria agreed half-heartedly, concealing the fact that she had known the ship could have skipped off the atmosphere yet also hadn’t thought of doing it.

      “What do you think, Lauren?” Lily asked; the expressionless face sitting across from her was beginning to bring her down.  “You never say anything.”

      “I think he handled the situation well,” she said with complete lack of emphasis on any word.  “It may have seemed like hours up there but it was only a few minutes.  His mind was on other things,” she said, remembering how she had tried to give him her idea but he was too busy arguing with Maria.

      Maria paused in the middle of her bite, then quickly proceeded to eat.  Lily noticed this action but didn’t know what it meant.  For some reason Maria had taken offence to something in Lauren’s comment, although she had no way of knowing what it was.

      “So what’s with Todd and the whole EVA thing?” Lily asked.

      Their conversation picked up again and they continued to act as if Lauren wasn’t there.  Lauren finished her toast and retreated back into herself. 

      Jason Floyd thought all the way back to High School and he came to the conclusion that up until this point, he had never seen Lauren eat anything.  Perhaps that was why she seemed so perfect.  Eating was such a human thing, and because Jason had never seen her do this, it elevated her above human status in his mind.  Now that he had seen her eat, he thought, he might just get over her.

      He laughed out loud at this ridiculous thought and Arnold asked him what he was laughing at.

      “Nothing,” he said, and continued to stare at the back of Lauren’s head.

      “What’s wrong, Jason?” Arnold asked.  “I don’t remember you ever being such a recluse, but for this whole mission, you’ve just seemed so…distant.” 
 Jason swallowed hard, and looked at the others at the table.  Elliot Larken sat silently, his eyes pointed at the table, indicating that he somehow knew what Jason was feeling.  Jack Peskie was staring straight at him, the expression in his eyes suggesting that he too knew what Jason was thinking.

      “I’m down too,” Arnold said, “But I’m trying to keep my mind off it.  There’s nothing harder I’ve ever had to do than leave my family behind.  Is that it?  Are you leaving something behind?”

      Jason smiled.  “No…not leaving anything behind… more like...taking something along.”

      Elliot smirked at this comment and nodded so softly that only Jack noticed it.

      Arnold didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.  “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” he said.

      “You wouldn’t understand,” Jason said, and stared at the table in the same manner as Elliot.  But his resistance broke down quickly and he shot another glance at Lauren.  Like a fucking addict, he thought to himself.

      “I understand,” Jack said, checking to see where Jason’s glance had been to, and now completely positive he had made a proper assessment of the situation.

      Jason looked up at him.  “If you want to talk sometime,” Jack said.  “Just find me.”

      “Yeah,” Arnold said, aware that something was the matter but still completely oblivious.  “I’m here for you too, buddy, just…just come and see me if something’s bothering you.  I’ll be glad to talk it over.”

      “Thanks,” Jason said, the word as hollow as his heart.  There was silence for a moment, then he looked up and completely changed tones.  “So what were we talking about?”

      Arnold continued telling them all about his “conversation” with David O’Brian on the previous night. 

      David O’Brian was giving his own version of the events to his new friends Mark Staff and Ronald Stark, with Craig Malls and Todd Blankens listening on.

      “And then he acts like he’s trying to forgive me,” David said.  “The guy just finished yelling at me for like and hour and then all of a sudden he has a change of heart and wants to forgive me?  I don’t buy it.”

      Ronald agreed.  “He has no right treating you like you’re an infant.  If you ask me, he’s the one acting childish, making all those threats about firing you and such.”

      Craig couldn’t bear to sit there and listen to this any longer.  The man had nearly killed all of them, and there they were indulging him like he was some sort of hero.  “If you were worried about your job, why did you put the ship on full thrust back towards Earth?”

      David gave him the evil eye.  Mark Staff spoke up.  “Who asked you for your opinion, Malls?  The man was under a lot of stress.  Did you hear the way Arnold and that bitch Lauren Samalc or however the hell you pronounce it were on his case every inch of the way?  If they had just let him do his job, he wouldn’t have flipped out.  It’s their fault.”

      “I fail to see the logic in that,” Todd Blankens said.

      “I know,” Craig agreed.  “Arnold was just doing his job.”

      David O’Brian pounded on the table, “Fuck you, Craig!”  He stood up, but Ronald held him back.  “No, David, you don’t have to get up.  He’s the one who should leave.”

      “Yeah,” Mark said, “Just get out of here, Malls.”

      Craig looked to Todd for support, but found none.  “This is crazy,” he said, “I don’t have to leave.”

      “Yes you do!” Mark yelled.

      “I have a right to sit wherever I want.”

      “And I have a right to knock your teeth out if you don’t leave when I tell you to.”

      “No you don’t.  I’d like to see the page of the Earth’s Constitution that guarantees the right to assault.”

      Todd laughed out of the surprise that Craig had said something semi-intelligent, then quickly shut his own mouth.

      “Would you like to try me?” Mark asked, rising.

      Craig looked at him.  Mark was a rather large man, and Craig was rather small.  He also knew that Mark could be bumped off the crew if he attacked him, but judging from the fact that David had nearly killed everyone and he hadn’t been bumped off the crew…

      “Fine,” Craig said as he rose from him seat.  “I’ll sit somewhere else.”  He left and found a place at an empty table in the middle of the room.

      Todd felt awful, but he also didn’t want to cross Mark or David.  “I’m gonna go sit by him.  If Arnold notices him alone, there are gonna be questions.”

      Ronald and Mark nodded in approval.  They knew this wasn’t the real reason Todd was going to sit by Craig.  But it was true enough.

      “Wait,” Mark said just as Todd was standing up.

      “I didn’t mean to threaten him, I just kind of lost control over myself.”

      “I know,” said Todd, not sure what the purpose of this honest remark was.

      “Just tell the guy I’m sorry and I don’t want to hurt him.  You know, it’s gonna be a long flight and I’d prefer not to have any enemies.  Especially him, because he’s my fellow Scientist and all.  Just tell him he should watch his mouth.”

      “All right,” Todd said, and left.

      From across the Food Court, Jack Peskie had seen the whole incident.  Arnold hadn’t noticed it at all. 

      The arcade in Space Station Getaway was a massive room, about the size of the suite where the crew of the Andromeda was staying.  Lit with red and blue lights, row after row of machines, all virtually identical, filled the area.  Ronald Stark found a machine in the back corner, took the comfortable seat in front of it, and turned it on.

      He typed in the special code he’d been given which would allow him unlimited time on the machine for free.  Each machine had a wide selection of games, all voice-activated, of course.

      “Would you like to see a menu of games?” a computerised female voice asked him.

      “Yes, please,” Ronald replied, and the screen flickered, showing him a small menu of the 10 most popular Getaway Arcade Games. 

      Apollo Simulator

      Comet Chaser

      Empires in Space

      Mission Alphatron

      Odyssey

      Shuttle Simulator

      Space Busters

      STAR Simulator

      UFO Destroyer

      War of Alpha Centauri 

      “Would you like to see more games?” the computer asked.

      “No,” Ronald answered.

      “Which game do you select?”

      “STAR Simulator.”  The logo for STAR Simulator flashed on the screen.  This game was basically a digital universe with all laws of physics accurately simulated and a seemingly endless supply of computerised locations to explore at your own free will.  The idea was that you could go anywhere in the universe.  Once a new star, planet, comet, or anything was discovered, it was uploaded into the game, so you could go anywhere that STAR had already been to.  You could also go anywhere STAR had not been to, but you wouldn’t find much of anything there.

      “Please select a starting location,” the computer prompted him.

      “Ring Station 4,” said Ronald.

      “Please select a spacecraft.”

      Ronald thought for a moment.  “Andromeda?” he asked.

      “Thank you,” said the computer, and instantly the screen showed the view from the cockpit window of the simulated Andromeda spacecraft, docked with Ring Station 4.

      The empty panel before him sunk into the machine, and an instrument panel slid out to take its place.  This panel was for STAR Simulator, and had all the basic controls that a generic STAR Spacecraft would have, simplified for the use of anyone who may not have had years of space-pilot training.

      Ronald took the controls and selected the Undock command, and he found himself detaching from the space station.  He found the Andromeda galaxy, and oriented his ship with the dot that represented it.  He then set up for full thrust, and the time scale to 10,000 years per second.  He pressed the “release” button, and his commands were carried out instantaneously.

      The earth shot past him at an unimaginable speed.  Stars flew by faster than he could observe them.  In a matter of minutes he had crossed outside the boundaries of the Milky Way and was in Deep Space.  The screen was virtually black except for the haze of a few galaxies here and there.  Not nearly as many as there were in actuality.  The makers of STAR Simulator did not see it as important to upload every single visible galaxy.  Just a few of the most well known ones would do.

      Ronald was supposed to slow down the time scale so as to coast just as they would be doing in the actual mission, but he saw no reason for this.  He didn’t even slow down as he was nearing Andromeda, which was not a fully-simulated galaxy but merely a picture of the galaxy, uploaded onto the computer and blown to proportions equalling the size of the galaxy in actuality.  Basically, it was a flat image twice the size of the Milky Way.

      Ronald laughed at the whole itinerary business.  He was a surgeon, and a second-string one at that.  It wasn’t his responsibility to know how to carry out the flight plan perfectly.  He watched as the image of Andromeda filled the screen, and looked less and less real with each light year closer it came.  Its purplish outer rim, and its bright yellow centre, not thinning out at all as he headed right towards it.  Soon, the entire screen filled with the eerie yellow, and then it went completely black.

      “Hah!” Ronald shouted out load.  He had just crossed Andromeda, and was now on the other side.  All of that in a split second.  It would take much longer in real life.  Not only would the time-scale be much lower, but the actual Andromeda galaxy was 3-dimensional.

      Arnold Juciper didn’t notice that Ronald had been disobeying the orders and just completely winging the entire mission.  He had taken a seat next to Lauren Samalc, and watched as she carried out the flight plan exactly as she’d been trained to, as she’d done over a thousand times using a much more complicated simulator.

      “Now, Lauren,” Arnold said, “I was told of the importance in the timing of time-scale deceleration, but I can’t for the life of me comprehend how anyone could control it accurately enough to actually fit inside the three-day target window.”

      Lauren was almost halfway between the Milky Way and Andromeda, and she slowed the time-scale down to 70 days per second.  “It’s not as hard as you would think,” she said.  “It just takes practice.”

      “But still, when you’re going so fast that a year passes every few seconds, I would think it would be next to impossible to slow down to the exact time in the plan.”

      “The first coasting period is scheduled to begin on June 17, in the year 1,080,463,” Lauren explained.  “STAR, if it still exists at that time, will be attempting to intercept our signal from the beginning of June 16 to the end of June 18, right?”

      “Right, and to me that sounds like too razor-thin a margin to hit when you’re talking about time-spans of millions of years.”

      “It’s a lot easier than landing on Jupiter with a safe impact-velocity,” she said, and then seemed to take notice of the number on the corner of her screen indicating the date and time, now flashing by at an unbelievable speed.

      Arnold watched as she halved the time-scale to go 35 days per second, then halved it again a few seconds later to go at 17.5 days per second.  She continued watching the years flicker by, slower and slower, halving the time-scale again and again until it no longer read “days per second” but “hours per second” then “minutes per second”, and finally “seconds per second” until she had reached real-time, then paused the simulation.

      The clock at the bottom of the screen read “12:00:00 UT 17 Jun 1080463”.  Smack in the middle of the three-day window she had been instructed to hit, to the hundredth of a second.

      “I am impressed, Lauren,” said Arnold.  “Extremely impressed.” 

      Mark Staff had figured the EVA Training would be a joke, and it certainly was.  The new Manned Manoeuvring Unit was so simple that you would be hard-pressed to find a baby who could not operate it properly.  The backpack, still heavy with fuel, was attached to the space suit, two arms extending from it for the person inside to rest their own arms on.  A thrust control was placed on the left arm for the hand’s easy access, and a joystick for simple manoeuvring protruded from the right.

      The instructor could not have been any dumber.  Mark listened as this man, some low-level employee of a vacation resort, instructed him and five other highly trained astronauts about how to use a simple spacecraft.  It wouldn’t have been as bad if he had at least acknowledged the fact that he probably knew less about the subject he was teaching than those he was teaching it to, but he acted like the six Andromeda astronauts were just another group of tourists.  Mark’s eyes were beginning to ache from his rolling them every single time the instructor tripped over his own words.

      The thoughts of Todd Blankens were far less cynical.  He stared at the MMU backpacks strewn in the corner of the room, dreading the moment in which he would have to put one on.  He tuned the instructor out of his mind, and just stared at the clock, hoping this lesson would take as long as it could, thus putting off the moment of truth for as long as possible.

      “And I guess that’s about it,” the instructor finished.  “Now if the six of you will just head over and find a suit that fits, you can, uh, I guess just get into one.”

      Mark passed David O’Brian on his way to the corner.  “My thoughts exactly,” David commented.  Mark just laughed in agreement.

      “Nervous?” asked Jason Floyd to Todd Blankens as they found suits their size and proceeded to put them on.

      “A little bit,” Todd lied.  He felt as though the fear running through him was now somehow concentrated in his bladder, and he was about to wet his pants.

      “It’s actually a pretty common fear, I read,” said Jason.  “It’s just that most people are never presented with the chance to go EVA.  And those people aren’t usually the types to want to become astronauts anyhow.”

      “I never wanted to be an astronaut,” Todd said.

      “Really?” Jason remarked.  “So you were recruited?”

      “Yeah,” Todd replied, remembering the good old days when “work” meant getting up and driving to it.

      They finished putting on their suits and the instructor came to help them strap on the backpacks individually.  Maria Wendall took initiative and began helping others strap on their backpacks and hooking them up properly.

      “It’s okay, I know what I’m doing,” she told the instructor.  “I am the number one ship supervisor in the company.”

      Even David felt that she should shut her mouth.  Everyone knew she was the best at her job, but everyone else here was also the best at their respective jobs.  Bragging about it may have been appropriate at dinner parties and such, but not on a mission.

      When Maria reached Todd, she said, “Don’t worry about a thing.  The MMU is just about the simplest form of space-travel.  Just two controls, and the press of a wrong button won’t send you into hyper-space like on an Explorer spaceship.”

      Todd thanked her for the reassurance, and Jason strapped a backpack onto Maria, both as a way of helping and as a way of letting her know that it did not require some higher level of expertise.  After all, he was “just the computer guy.”

      The instructor pressed a button on the wall, and in a minute, two men in space suits entered the room and strapped on backpacks of their own.  The instructor then told the astronauts to follow the two supervisors, who would make sure nothing went wrong while they were out on their space-walk.

      Todd felt only a small amount of comfort that he was in the hands of trained professionals (ignoring the fact that the astronauts around him had far more training than the supervisors).  He took the back of the line, and followed as they were lead into a small room at the end of the hall.  The door was sealed tightly behind them, and one of the supervisors instructed them to turn on their life support, and yell “check” when they were sure it was on.

      Maria flicked the switch on the arm of Todd’s space suit before he even asked her.  He knew where that was, and could have easily done it himself.  He was too frightened to be annoyed though.

      “All right,” the other supervisor said.  “If you look around you’ll notice several handlebars firmly attached to the walls of this room.  Everyone should grab one and hold on tightly, because once we open the far wall of this room, the vacuum will suck you out unless you hold on.  We will strap ourselves in and watch you.  If at any time you feel the need to return but don’t think you can do so yourself, just hit the button next to the life support switch, and we’ll come and get you.”  He made the whole speech without any indication that he knew what he was saying.  He had made it so many times that it would throw him off if he didn’t say it.  It didn’t matter whom he was saying it to.

      So while the others scoffed at these remarks, Todd listened intently to every word.  He quickly found a handlebar, and clutched for his dear life.  Jason found a bar next to him.  “The suction will only last for a second.  Then you can just leave at your own will.”

      The suction was not what worried Todd.  What worried him was that at any given instant in the next minute, one wall of the room was going to disappear leaving nothing but the void of space in its place.

      Todd bit his lip and stared at the wall that was going to open.  The supervisors finished firmly attaching themselves to the walls of the room, and gave the word of warning.  Instantly, the wall divided into four parts and receded into the walls around it, revealing the darkest shade of black that one could imagine, and the giant blue sphere that was Earth, just 300 kilometres below.

      The suction pulled at Todd, who clutched the handlebar with everything he had, until he found that he was floating and there was no suction at all.  The others let go of their handlebars, and Jason patted Todd on the shoulder and gave him a reassuring thumbs-up.  Relaxed now by the complete lack of gravity, Todd took a deep breath, and let go.

      He watched as Mark used the joystick to point himself at the exit, and thrust to blast out of it into open space.  Todd watched as Jason blasted away, turned around, and slowed down so that he seemed to remain stationary, just a few metres outside of the station.  Todd glanced over to where the supervisors were standing.  One of them gave a nod, and Todd pointed himself out of the station and ever so gently applied forward thrust.

      “Oh my God,” he said as he found himself void of all surroundings.  “This is unbelievable.”

      Indeed, there was no experience quite so thrilling as a space-walk.  Todd had never in his life been in a situation in which there were actually no surroundings.  In space, he had always been safely within the confines of a spaceship or station.  On Earth, even outdoors, there was always the ground to block out one-half of the true universe.  Now, he could look to infinity in almost every direction.

      He took the joystick and did a somersault, marvelling at the way there was no feeling of “upside-down” or “right-side up”.  It was as if he was completely stationary, and the joystick merely moved the universe around him.

      As soon as this thought entered his mind, it was all he could think of.  He pushed the joystick to the left, and felt the entire universe shift to the right.  The giant blue sphere beneath him shifted positions.  He had moved the entire planet, all those stars, the galaxy, and everything else in existence.  Light-years crossed in an instant, just with the tapping of the stick at his right hand.  His mind began racing, and he felt himself in free-fall.  He looked at the earth, giant and glowing bright blue just kilometres beneath him.  He realised that all he had to do was point himself at it and apply full thrust…

      Death had never been such a simple possibility.  And it would be certain death.  There was not enough fuel in these backpacks to return, and the supervisors in the station would not be able to catch up to him before it was too late for them as well.  It was not the contemplation of suicide that made Todd’s skin begin to tingle with fear; it was the fact that it would be so easy to die.  And if it was that easy for Todd to cause his own death, it must be ten times easier for somebody else to cause it.  He stared at those floating around him.  One of them had already tried to kill him.

      Todd froze, and with his last ounce of free will, tapped the button on his right arm. 

      “So he panicked?” Arnold Juciper asked Jason Floyd a while afterward.  Todd was unconscious on the floor of the suite in Space Station Getaway.

      “He just blacked out all of a sudden.  It was a lucky thing he’d pressed the panic button before it happened.”  It had been quite a shock for Jason when one of the supervisors came darting out of the station at full speed heading for Todd’s lifeless body.  If it hadn’t been in the back of Jason’s mind as a possibility, he might not have handled it so well.  But he had re-entered the space station and taken Todd to the Medical Centre, where they told him he had gone into shock, and to just let him lie down until he regained consciousness.

      “It might not be a good idea to let him out in Andromeda,” Arnold said.

      “I think you’re right.”  Jason didn’t think Arnold should have pressured Todd into going out at all in the first place.

      “Still, it’s gonna be quite an experience,” he said.  “I think he’ll regret it terribly if he doesn’t go.”

      Jason shot a look at Arnold.  “You’re not suggesting…”

      “He’ll go out again.  In my group, and I’ll keep a close eye on him and talk him through it.”

      “I’m not sure you should really be pressuring him this much.  He has a fear…”

      “Trust me, Jason, he’ll thank me in the end.”

      Jason knew it was useless to argue with Arnold at this point.  He felt he was doing Todd a favour.  His intentions were good; they were always good.  Jason told Arnold he was going to head to the arcade early and wait for his group to meet him there.

      Arnold said that he would wait until Todd recovered, then bring him back to the arcade where they would all divide again, this time with Todd coming in his group.

      Jason then proceeded towards the arcade, trying to plot out how he could get Lauren to talk to him, and wondering why this was such an impossible thing for him while others could make it happen without even trying. 
 

Chapter 14

Time:  6:20  May 12, 3422  Universal Time

Place: Space Station Getaway, Altitude: 300 km 

      “Today will be the day to relax and just enjoy ourselves before the mission, once we reach Ring 4.  We launch tomorrow.  Can you believe that?  Man is departing for Andromeda tomorrow.”  Arnold Juciper seemed to lose his train of thought during his speech in the foyer of the suite. 

      The itinerary plan, as trite and unimportant as it may have seemed, was actually having an effect.  The astronauts were getting so caught up in the little world of what was currently going on that they forgot about the immense reality of the path that lay before them.  The friendships were already taking form, as well as the vendettas.

      “Anyway, I’ve received word that the All Purpose Spacecraft that is to carry us to Ring Station 4 was successfully docked while we were sleeping.  I have just a few points of order to go over before we all head down to the docking port room.  First, there has been a slight alteration in the crew list.  Lauren is now the first-string pilot.”

      David O’Brian nearly exploded.  “What!?”

      “Relax, David,” Arnold said as calmly as he could.  “All it means is that your name is next to the word Pilot 2 on the crew list instead of Pilot 1.”

      David, of course, was not satisfied.  “It means a hell of a lot more than that!  It means I won’t be flying the APS to Ring 4.  It means I’ll be the one in the pilot’s seat while all of you bastards are asleep, and Lauren gets the shift when everyone’s awake.”

      “Which is precisely why STAR approved this suggestion.”

      “What?  You mean this was your suggestion?”

      “Yes,” Arnold couldn’t help but shoot a quick look at Lauren, causing Jason to shoot a look towards Arnold, prompting Jack to turn towards Jason.  Lauren’s eyes did not show the slightest sign of movement.

      David threw his hands in the air.  “I don’t believe this!”

      “Must I remind you,” Arnold said loudly, the clear sound of his irritation seeping from between his teeth, “that you almost killed us all?  Be glad you’re getting off that easy.  And look at it this way, now you won’t have to deal with me any more, because I’ll be asleep for most of the time you’re awake.”

      David stayed silent, but Ronald spoke up.  “Is it that you’re letting him not have to deal with you, or that you’re letting yourself not have to deal with him?”

      An valid comment, thought Jack, but unfair nonetheless.

      “Please,” Arnold said.  “The second thing I need to go over is accommodations for the short stay at Ring 4.  We’ve all been in that station before, and we all know rooms range in size from one to three beds.  I’ve gone through the crew list and paired you up for the night.  The three women will share a three-bed room, and I’ll stay in a room by myself.

      “Which leaves the rest of the men, and I assure you this placement is completely arbitrary, based on your position on the crew list.  David, you’re staying with Todd.  Elliot with Ronald, Mark with Craig, and Jack with Jason.”

      “Is this set in stone, or can we change rooms?” Mark Staff asked.

      “Let’s not make this complicated.  It’s just for one night.”  Arnold looked around and decided there was nothing else he wanted to say.  “Now let’s get in our ship and wait for the word from STAR.” 

      Jake Philips had just finished a cigarette when Jim Lampert found him outside and told him that they were ready to begin.

      “All right, let’s get this over with,” he said to Lampert, and he repeated those words to Mission Control when he arrived.  “This is tedious work,” he said to begin his speech.  “Flying an APS from one space station to another isn’t exactly A-Team work, but this crew is our responsibility, and it’s our job to see them through until our part is finished.  And it’s not finished until tomorrow morning when they launch.  At least, it’ll be finished for us.

      “This mission will only take a few hours, so hopefully you can all go home early.  I’ll stay here all day, with the B-Team, which is responsible for the Andromeda spaceship itself, until the crew reaches it at which point it becomes A-Team territory.  We’ll have the ship docked by Midnight, fully fuelled and ready to go.

      “As for this mission, I want a map view showing the Earth, the two space stations, and the APS.  I want a cockpit view from the APS, and a docking-port camera view of Ring Station 4.”  The three big screens in the front of the room flickered until they displayed what Philips had requested.  “All right, give me a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ for launch.” 

      The word came from STAR through the communicator on the APS that mission control was “go for launch.”  Jack turned to Lauren, gave her the thumbs up, and strapped himself tightly into his seat.

      Through his headphones, Jack heard the countdown in mission control and said the numbers out loud to Lauren.  “Five, four, three, two, one, undock.”

      Lauren hit the control, and applied some downward fine thrust.  The APS detached from Space Station Getaway, and floated very slowly away.

      “All right,” Jack said after several minutes.  “You’re clear of the station.  We are go for cancelling orbital velocity.”

      This was something that would never have been done back in the twentieth century.  Space Shuttles did not have the capacity to hold enough fuel to make it work.  Lauren manoeuvred the spaceship so that the rear thrusters pointed in the direction of the ship’s own orbit.  She then applied full thrust and watched the radial velocity drop, lowering the level of thrust until the reading was exactly 0.00.

      Hundreds of kilometres below, Jake Philips smiled and shook his head.  She certainly had a knack for that sort of thing.  It wasn’t required to hit everything on-the-button and most astronauts would settle for anything within a tenth of the mark.  But Lauren Samalc did it without even trying.

      Jason Floyd was ruminating about how back in school when he fell in Love with her, he had no idea that she was going to become the greatest pilot in the history of the STAR Administration.

      Anyway, back to the boring pointless bullshit about the trivial technicalities of the journey of the APS from Getaway to Ring 4.  The spaceship, after cancelling orbital velocity, was now in Free Fall, in the truest sense of the word.  The ship was now falling towards the earth just like a penny dropped from the top of a skyscraper would.  Only gravity was much weaker 300 kilometres away than 300 metres.

      Lauren had more than plenty of time to orient the ship with Ring Station 4 and blast towards it at full thrust.  Still, she did it so quickly that she initiated the thrust just seconds after STAR gave her the “go”. 

      A little over 5 hours later, Ring Station 4 was clearly visible and growing larger in the cockpit window of the All-Purpose Spacecraft.

      Ring Station 4, the home of space-based astronauts, scientists, and billionaires alike.  Positioned in extremely high Earth orbit, the station maintained a perfectly circular orbit, 4 radii from the core of the planet.  That meant that if the earth was four times larger than it is, the space station would be resting on its surface.  Or to put it in simpler terms, if the radius of the earth was one metre, the station would be 3 metres from its surface.  Basically, the world was not very big in the window.

      Ring Station 4 was one of the ten original Ring Stations, named by very un-original scientists for its ringed shape.  The station was one of the firsts to have the crude method of artificial gravity, spinning about its axis and creating centrifugal force to make the outer rim of the station into the floor.

      Once the development of the new type of artificial gravity came into being, however, the station went under massive construction, and what was once the floor became the outer wall.  The ring shape was maintained though, basically because there was no reason to get rid of it (the real reason being because it “looked cool” but for some reason that phrase didn’t quite look right on paper).  An extra level was also added to the station, so it looked like two rings stacked on top of each other.  The outer wall of the second level was made completely of clear material, so you could walk the circumference of the station and see the universe in every direction (also done because it “looked cool”).

      While the first story remained strictly for the use of scientists and astronauts, STAR began getting offers from very rich individuals who said that they would contribute massive amounts of money to the company if they were allowed to set up residence on board the station.  At first, STAR rejected these offers, until a trillionaire from Houston donated enough money for them to build an entire new level onto the station.  The third level was created, and the station became like a city in space.

      After that, the first story was the home to scientists, and the third story was shared by rich contributors to STAR and rooms for rent in which space-based astronauts and visitors to the station would stay.  The second story was what some people called jokingly “the centre of the universe.”  With the outer wall made of clear material, the rest of the story was virtually a shopping mall.  There were about a dozen small restaurants (each competing over the business of the same hundred people and rich tourists), and stores selling things you would think extremely bizarre to find in space.  Other stores sold things that were just plain bizarre.

      And so Ring Station 4 became the only Ring Station (the others orbiting the Sun and the other 9 planets respectively) to have three levels.  That’s not to say there weren’t trillionaires jumping at the chance to own “space real-estate” in Ring Stations overlooking Venus (3), Mars (5), Jupiter (6) or Saturn (7).  But there was no need in those two-level stations for any sort of commercial industry.  In fact, nobody at all wanted to live in the Ring Stations for the Sun (1), Uranus (8), Neptune (9), or Pluto (10), so those stations remained one-level stations.  The scientists stationed in the one-level stations were known to suffer from various sorts of inferiority complexes.  Especially those based in Ring Station 8.  The exception was Ring Station 1.  Scientists based there were known to just be psychotic.

      But all this is ancient history, and not extremely important to the story of this mission.  If you want to learn more about the history of space stations in the STAR Administration, feel free to do the research yourself.  There must be something about them on the Internet somewhere. 

      The docking went flawlessly, with the only disturbance being David’s childish taunting of Lauren.  “You’re a little off,” he said with the tone of a six-year-old (my apologies to any six-year-olds who may be reading this).  She just ignored him.

      Jake Philips thanked everyone at mission control, and told them they could all go home.  As the control room emptied out, Jim Lampert came down from the observation room and took a seat next to Philips, who was already setting up his computer for the mission to bring the Andromeda spaceship to Ring 4.

      “It’s actually happening,” he said.  “Tomorrow.”

      “Yeah, tomorrow,” Philips said rather exhaustedly.  “Still seems like a million years from now.”

      “Just think, in 24 hours, it’ll all be over.”

      “For us it will be,” Philips said.  “But not for them.”

      “Not this whole thing again,” Lampert commented.

      “Five million years, Jim,” Jake said, now ignoring his computer and staring at the wall beyond it.  “Do you remember when you were young?  I remember quite vividly when I had my first experience with the perception of time.”

      Another childhood memory, thought Lampert.  Philips really did like to talk.

      “I was in Kindergarten, lying down during nap-time, just counting the years it would take until I graduated High School.  Twelve years.  That was more than twice the time I had been alive already.  Twelve years was just such a long way off at that point that I didn’t even bother trying to comprehend it.  I just kind of decided that it would never come.”  Philips sighed and took a deep breath.  “And for these people…five million years.  And for us, my friend, that will never come.”

      “And do you remember,” Lampert said, jumping on the nostalgia-train, “when you were in Twelfth Grade, a Senior in High School and the realisation hit you that all of a sudden you were about to graduate?  That the time did actually pass, and you were at the end of it?”

      Jake Philips smiled, recalling the exact moment in time in which he’d made that realization.

      “Five million years is nothing in geological time,” Lampert said.  “If you went back in time five million years ago, aside from the lack of civilisation you wouldn’t find much difference in the earth as compared to now.  The dinosaurs have been gone for sixty-five million years, and in terms of the age of the universe, they were here yesterday.  Five million years will come, and whether we’re still here or not, those twelve people up in Ring 4 right now will see it.”

      “That’s the problem with all this philosophical talk,” Jake Philips said as he turned his attention back to the computer in front of him, “You can look at everything from a whole different perspective and be content with it.  But as soon as you bring yourself back down into reality, you realise nothing’s changed.” 

      The last of the Andromeda crew was lifted through the docking port of the All-Purpose Spacecraft into the main docking port room of Ring Station 4.  Arnold thanked the workers and turned to address his crew.

      “All right, we’re done for the day,” he said with a smile, as if this was some sort of favour he was doing for everyone.  “STAR is already aware of our rooming situation, and your keycards are at the information desk on the third level whenever you want them.  From what I understand, our luggage is waiting for us in our rooms as well, in case we want to make sure we didn’t forget anything before we’re gone.  I have a room to myself while the three women are sharing a room, and the rest of you have been paired up according to your positions on the crew list.”  He looked around, knowing that he was forgetting something.  The wall caught his eye.  “Oh yeah,” he said.  “If you’ll look behind you, you’ll see the famous STAR Wall of Fame.  And you’ve all earned yourself a place on it.”

      He was referring to the posters lining the wall of the docking port room.  The tops of the posters contained the names of particular missions and the STAR logo, and a large white area where the crew signed the posters.  Only the landmark missions had posters, such as Jovia I for which Elliot Larken’s signature had the honour of the top slot on the poster.  Arnold and Jason also had their names forever immortalised due to the Betelgeuse XII mission.

      Now, the crew lined up one by one to sign the empty Andromeda poster.  In a minute, the poster was filled with the signatures of the soon-to-be-immortal men and women.  At this point, the poster was worth nothing more than the paper it was made out of, but just a second after the crew was to leave, its price would skyrocket to millions.  STAR would never auction it off however.  It would be encased in flash-proof glass and preserved throughout the ages, forever a relic of Man’s journey beyond the Milky Way.  Occasionally these posters would go on museum tours, where people would pay to see various STAR memorabilia and earn the company some extra money in donations.

      Once the poster was signed, the crew made their way to the elevators and divided into their respective cliques.  They spent the rest of the day exploring the small city in space that was Ring Station 4.  Elliot and Jack paired up and went in and out of shops together, as well as Maria and Lily.  Lily offered to let Lauren tag along, but after a few shops, Lauren got bored and just went up to the room.  David, Ronald, and Mark toured the station together as well, and Todd and Craig kept each other company.  Arnold ate lunch with Jason, who engaged him in a discussion about the vastness of the universe and just how much space they were covering.

      “I’m just saying that the physics of the universe might work differently as you get further from here,” Jason was saying.

      “I understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s just impossible,” Arnold replied.  “The whole point of physics is that its truths are always true.  Since the first few instants after the universe was created, it’s gone by certain rules, and those rules can’t be broken no matter where in the universe you are.”

      “But don’t you see how ign…naïve that point of view is?” Jason said.  “How can you possibly think that by observing what works in our tiny region of space you can deduce what works for all of existence?  It’s like if you grew up in a large box, completely sealed off from the rest of the universe, and in this box everything was the colour green.  You would assume that because all you see is green, everything in the universe must be green.  Meanwhile there’s an entire world with an entire spectrum of colours just outside the box that you couldn’t imagine because you’ve never seen it.”

      “But we don’t live in a box,” Arnold argued.

      “We might as well,” said Jason.  “Do you have any idea how infinitesimally small in proportion the explored universe is in proportion to the known universe?  It’s like comparing a grain of sand to a mountain, only a billion times that.”

      “So you’re saying in Andromeda…”

      “Things could be totally different.”

      “It’s not really that far,” Arnold said, “in universal proportions.”

      “No distance is great if you look at it in terms of the entire universe,” Jason said.  “It’s all a matter of relativity, and one point of view versus another.”

      “I’m not sure I’m following you.”

      Jason looked around the restaurant they were in, then leaned in closer.  “Do you have any idea how much space we’re about to cover?”

      “Yeah, a whole lot.”

      “Have you heard of the baseball model?” Jason asked.

      Arnold scratched his head.  “I might have.  Refresh my memory.”

      “It’s just a matter of looking at things in terms of relativity.  In this case, relative distances.  If the sun were the size of a baseball, then the earth would be the size of a small marble, placed about two centimetres from the baseball.  With this scale, Jupiter would be a bigger marble ten centimetres from the baseball, and Pluto a tiny marble eighty centimetres from the baseball.”

      “Seems like a nice cosy little universe,” Arnold said.

      “But that’s just our solar system.  How far do you think Alpha Centauri would be by this model?”

      “Closest star to the Sun, probably kilometres away.”

      “About seven kilometres,” Jason informed him.

      “So what about Andromeda?”

      “Three million kilometres from the baseball.  There’s not enough room on earth to represent that distance, even by such a minuscule model.”

      Arnold’s eyes widened, and he sat back in contemplation.  “Damn,” he said.  Then he lost himself in the thought that in less than six months, he will have covered that distance.  “Damn,” he repeated. 
 

Chapter 15

Time:  13:00  May 12, 3422  Universal Time

Place:  Ring Station 4, Earth Orbital Altitude: 3 radii 

      After the lunch conversation, Jason made his way to his room and found his luggage on the floor next to one of the beds.  He anxiously opened up the large duffel bag and dug until he found the case he was looking for, which contained his portable music-disc player, and discs.

      He debated himself as to whether this occasion called for The Wall or Dark Side Of The Moon, and decided there was plenty of time to listen to both these discs and even more.  He started, as he always did after a long period (meaning two or more days) without Pink Floyd, by listening to Wish You Were Here.

      He got lost in the appreciation of how this music, practically ancient, was still just as powerful and relevant now as it had been over a thousand years ago when it was recorded.  Ten discs later, Jack Peskie entered the room.

      “Listening to music, are we?” he asked as he sat down on the other bed in the room.

      Jason turned down the volume, and sat up.  “Yeah.”

      “Are you a child of the twentieth-century musical revolution?” Jack asked as though he’d asked that same question to every person he’d ever met.

      “Of course.  I can’t stand the kind of music they’ve got today.”  Once the short-lived comeback of 20th Century rock had fizzled out, a new style became popular, known as sklar, which basically consisted of one meaningless phrase repeated endlessly over a simple beat from synthesised instruments.

      “Good.  I’m kind of an R.E.M. fan myself,” Jack said.

      “They’re all right.”

      “You wouldn’t happen to be into Pink Floyd by any chance, would you?”

      “Well, I’ve only been listening to them for the past seven hours straight, and they are my favourite band.  But the last name is purely a coincidence.”

      “Sure it is.  For some reason you struck me as a Floydian from the moment I saw you.”

      Jason Floyd stopped his disc-player and took his headphones off.  “What was it that made you think that?”

      Jack now threw his feet up onto his bed, and took a comfortable position with his back against the wall.  “Oh, I don’t know.  You’re pretty quiet, but always thinking.  You wear your depression on the outside so that everyone can see you have problems. You seem content with the fact that you’re troubled.  And your last name’s Floyd.”

      “The name came first, then the band,” Jason said.

      “That’s what they all say.  Crazy psychopaths like you.”

      Jason laughed this comment off.  “Whatever, Jack.  You’re the psychology expert on this crew.  I suppose if you say I’m crazy then I must be.”

      “And that, my friend,” Jack said, swivelling on the bed and turning towards Jason, “is what makes you a Floydian.  You’d be perfectly willing to go insane.”

       Again, Jason laughed out loud, trying to sound like it was because he found the comment ridiculous, when really he was laughing because it was so true.

      “Look,” Jack said, now in a completely serious manner, “when I offered to talk to you, it wasn’t just out of a need to make myself feel better.  I like to get people to smile, because it does make me feel better, but I’m not the kind of person who just instructs you to smile…”

      “…as if just the act of smiling makes you happy.”  Jason finished the sentence.

      “Ah, I see you’ve had experience in that field.”

      “When I was in High School, it was like constantly being smacked in the face with a baseball bat,” Jason began to open up without realising it.  “They’d tell me to smile, and I would, just because I was so enraged by the fact that these people thought that by making me smile they were doing me some huge favour when really they were just shielding themselves from my reminding them that sadness exists.  And then because I started smiling, they would feel like they had somehow succeeded in making the world a happier place.  Meanwhile I was just left feeling used and manipulated.”

      “Wow.  You really have some serious issues with smiling,” said Jack.  “But I’m sure that smiling isn’t the only thing that makes you depressed.”

      Jason sat back and rubbed his eyes.  He felt like a whore now.  He’d opened up just slightly, and now he could feel the water seeping through the cracks of the dam.  The urge to vent his problems was something he’d been suppressing for decades, and he had no intention of doing it now.  But now, when she was so close, the dam was beginning to break.

      “You’ve got the hots for her, don’t you?” Jack asked knowingly.

      Jason was completely caught off guard.  He was afraid he might end up telling Jack his secret, but he’d never guessed that Jack had already figured it out.  If it was that obvious to Jack after knowing him for only a few days, then what chance was there that she wasn’t aware?  Still, there was nothing that said Jason couldn’t deny it.  “What are you talking about?”

      “Lauren, the pilot,” Jack said.  “Samm-alck”

      “It’s Samalc, like Sum-aulk.”

      “Jason, Jason, Jason,” Jack said while shaking his head.  “You fell for the old pronunciation guide trick.”

      “First of all, there’s no such thing as the ‘pronunciation guide trick’, and second of all, I’ve known her since High School so it’s quite likely that I’d know how to pronounce her name.”  Jason was caught with a spinning mind, simultaneously enjoying the situation and trying to end it.

      “You’ve already made such a big deal out of it that I know it’s true,” Jack said.  “Besides, I’ve seen the way you look at her.  The quick, sharp glances, accompanied by a short swallowing motion.  But the look behind your eyes…that’s the dead give-away.”

      Jason sank back down into the bed, defeated.  He stared up at the ceiling, and rubbed his hands down his face, letting out a short moan of agony.

      “Since High School, huh?” Jack said.  “Shit, man.  I had no idea it was that bad.”

      “You still have no idea,” Jason said.

      “You’re probably right,” said Jack, quite contentedly.  “I’ve never Loved anyone like that.  I mean, I love my son, but that’s different.  And my wife is just a completely different story…but enough about me.”

      “No,” Jason said, sitting up.  “That’s not enough about you.  Let’s talk about you.  You’re leaving your son behind.”

      “You don’t really want to talk about me,” said Jack.  “You’re enjoying every minute of this conversation.  Finally, your pain has centre stage.”

      Jason let out a frustrated yell.  “Stop it!  Get out of my head!  I know that my fucking pain is all I care about!  I know I’m the most self-centred heartless bastard who ever lived, and I don’t need someone who barely even knows me to confirm it!”

      “Welcome to the human race, pal,” Jack said.  “I’ve got news for you.  We’re all like that.  Depression is what happens to those people who admit it to themselves.”

      Jason took a deep breath and shook his head.  Then he nodded.  “So what do you want from me?”

      “Nothing,” Jack said.  “I thought you might want something from me.  You can’t expect to go through this whole mission, spend an entire year in virtually the same room as this woman who you’ve been in Love with since High School, and keep it all bottled inside yourself.”

      “Nothing was stopping me until you came along,” Jason said.

      “I’m just trying to keep everyone from going insane,” Jack said.  “This mission is a lot different then anything else STAR has ever put together.  Most missions only take a couple of months at the most to the crew, and even then they can get out and walk around.  But this mission…you’re locking twelve people in a room together for an entire year, with nothing to do but look out the window.  That’s bad enough as it is, but we’ve got a pilot who has a murderous vendetta against the commander, two scientists who are about ready to box each other, and now a computer guy obsessed with a pilot.  It’s gonna be a very interesting twelve months.”

      “With all the build-up it damn well better,” Jason said under his breath.

      “What was that?”

      “Nothing.”

      “Okay.  Look, I’m sorry if I came across as a little insensitive,” said Jack.  “But you’ve been looking as though you’re gonna explode.  And our Divine Commander hasn’t been helping at all.”

      Jason nodded.  “Tell me about it.”

      “The guy has the people skills of a sadistic cockroach.”

      “Well, that’s not fair,” Jason said.

      “Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy,” said Jack.  “And I’m damn glad he’s in charge on this mission.  It’s just painful to hear him talk to his crew as if we’re a bunch of twelve-year-olds.”

      “Some of us act like we are, though,” said Jason.

      “Mark and David,” said Jack.  “Ronald is pretty intelligent, though.  I don’t know how long he’ll be able to stand hanging out with them.  And Craig, is just…well…how can I put this kindly…a little slow for a scientist, wouldn’t you say?”

      “How did this turn into a session of talking behind people’s backs?” asked Jason.

      “Ah, now you’ve found my character flaw,” said Jack.

      “Must you narrate everything?”

      “Hey, the world needs a narrator.  How else are the idiots supposed to get it?”

      “You come across as a little condescending.”

      “No, that’s you.”

      “Oh yeah.”

      There was a confused pause now as the two men realised they stopped having a clue as to what exactly they were talking about.

      “So you’re not gonna tell anyone about this, are you?” asked Jason.

      “Of course not.  If everyone knows you’ve got the hots for Lauren…”

      “I hate that phrase.”

      “What, ‘the hots’?  Do you prefer the term ‘obsessed’?”

      “Not really.  But at least I’m used to it.”

      “All right then.  Anyway, if everyone were to know of your obsession for Lauren, things could get so awkward that you’ll end up tossing yourself out through the garbage chute.”

      Jason contemplated this, and easily saw himself doing that should the situation explode into the proportions that he most feared.  In the silence that followed, he decided to say something that had been eating at his mind through the whole conversation.  “Jack, you wouldn’t happen to have any idea…”

      “About Lauren’s feelings for you?” Jack interrupted, completing the sentence exactly as Jason had intended it.  “No, she’s much more skilled at hiding her emotions than you.  But the way I figure, if she does have any feelings for you, she probably would have expressed them by now.  I mean, she must know how you feel about her.”

      “That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Jason.

      “Of course, she can’t know for sure unless you tell her.  But she probably has suspicions.  I suppose the thing about being in the same room with the same people for a year is that by the end of it, all secrets are bound to come out.”

      “That’s what I’m even more afraid of.”

      Jack laughed, and shoved the covers off his bed as a clear indication that this conversation was nearing its end.  “You shouldn’t worry about it.  It can only have healthy results.”

      “Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” said Jason, and he tucked himself under his own covers, ready to go to sleep.  “And for all I know, I might find out something good, like she has liked me all this time.”

      “Don’t count on it,” Jack Peskie said, and turned out the lights. 

      A few rooms down from them, Ronald Stark made himself comfortable on his bed across from Elliot Larken’s.  As fate would have it, both surgeons were in the same room together.  So naturally, when Ronald wanted to initiate a conversation, this was the first thing he came up with.

      “So,” he said, “do you think either of us is actually going to utilise our skills on this mission?”

      Elliot, intrigued by the fact that Ronald had spoken to him in a sentence completely devoid of the word “Jupiter”, sat up.  “You never know,” said Elliot.  “That’s what they tell us.  Personally, I’ve rarely had to perform surgery on my missions.  The last time I had to do that was over a decade ago.”

      “Well, you’ve been on Jupiter for the past decade,” Ronald informed him.

      Elliot breathed a deep sigh.  “Yeah, but that’s not the only place I’ve spent the last ten years.”

      Ronald could tell that Elliot wasn’t interested in talking about the unfortunate events of the past few years of his life.  “I was just asking because I don’t see how a mission like this could possibly call for an incident in which anyone will need surgery.  I mean, on other missions you actually get out and walk around, maybe brave some tough terrain, but this mission…twelve months in one spaceship.  I don’t see too many opportunities for hazard, unless someone trips over the laundry basket.”

      Elliot let out a short burst of laughter.  “Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I expect our services to be required.  But I don’t think either of us are on this mission because we’d like to perform operations.”

      “I know what you mean,” Ronald said.

      No you don’t, Elliot thought but did not say.  You have no idea.

      “All that money,” Ronald went on.  “An entire years’ worth of pay, plus overtime and a bonus.  And adjusted for inflation. I wonder how much a million dollars will be in the year five million.”

      “If humans are still around in the year five million,” Elliot said.

      “Hah!” Ronald laughed.  “Of course we will be.  Mankind has evolved technologically enough that we don’t have to worry about the mass extinctions that occur on Earth every now and then. We’ve got other planets.  And even when the sun blows up, we’ve got other solar systems too.  I think we’re gonna be around for a long time.”

      Elliot let the pause carry itself out for awhile.  “But do you think we’ll be the same human race we are today?”

      “What do you mean?”

      “Five million years may not be a long time geologically, but in terms of human perception, it’s an eternity.  Think of how many generations that is.”  Elliot couldn’t really fathom it, and he didn’t really want to.

      Ronald seemed to lose himself in thought for a moment.  His thoughts took him from one corner of the brain to another, and the next thing he said just seemed to come out of nowhere.  “Are you one of the people who still believes in God?”

      Elliot exhaled sharply through his nose.  “You ask that like believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus.”

      “Well, they’re both equally fake,” Ronald said.  “It’s just that everyone knows one of them is a lie, and most people still refuse to believe the other one is.  So, are you an atheist?  I mean, you’re an intelligent man.  It baffles me how any rational human being can believe in any sort of higher power.”

      Elliot carefully chose the words to his answer.  “I don’t know if I believe in God,” he said, “but I can’t convince myself to believe there’s no sort of higher power.  I’ve seen some strange things and had experiences that basically defy all the laws of science quite blatantly.  There are so coincidences too great to be called coincidences, so many times I should have died but didn’t…so I can’t not believe in a higher power.  But then there are people who shouldn’t have died but did…and that’s why I’m reluctant to believe in God.  Because if there is a God, and I had to meet him, I wouldn’t be able to fight the impulse to punch his fucking face in.”

      Ronald, ignorant of the fact that Elliot had just opened up to him more than he had opened up to anybody in a long time, just laughed at the remark, and said goodnight. 

      “So I never did understand how interstellar travel works,” Craig was saying to Mark, his fellow scientist a few rooms over.  “It just doesn’t seem possible that storing light energy could be the key to travelling faster than it.”

      Mark Staff was not a very patient man, especially when it came to the likes of people like Craig.  The fact that this fool was the second-string scientist to him on the most important mission ever undertaken by the STAR Administration was an insult to his intelligence as he saw it.  It was bad enough he couldn’t mind his own business.  Now Mark had to explain basic principles of physics to him.

      “Craig,” he said, “Did it ever occur to you that there’s a little more to it than that?”

      “What do you mean?” Craig asked.  He knew Mark had little patience with him, but he also knew that he needed to have this question answered.  People on the crew were already starting to question the wisdom of STAR’s decision to let him go on this mission, and he hated feeling inferior.  That was how he had felt all his life.  Even in his initial briefing Jake Philips had told him in confidence that he was placed on the crew not for his skills but for his charisma, and he had felt as though life was doing him another favour.  When you go through life feeling that it’s all just one big favour, you tend to have a very low sense of pride.  Yet this worked the opposite with Craig, who continued to fight like an unyielding warrior against people’s unfair (yet not inaccurate) perceptions of his intelligence.

      “Didn’t you even read your physics textbook in college?” Mark asked.  “When the Romband method for interstellar travel was first introduced, scientists all over the globe tried to recreate the results but couldn’t.  They built solar panels which could store and duplicate the energy from light, and release that duplicated energy, but never got past the speed of light.  People started calling it a hoax, but Romband was able to do it again and again.  It turned out that the secret lay in the material, and Romband had just happened to stumble upon the one material with the proper electromagnetic emissions to make it work.  The whole thing had been a lucky coincidence for him, and the process of super-light speed travel was a lot more complex than even its inventor had originally envisioned.”

      “Why couldn’t it be simple?” Craig asked hypothetically.

      In another frame of mind, Mark would have wanted to pound him for that question.  Instead he felt like he was on a roll, and wanted to continue demonstrating his knowledge, thus making him feel even more superior to this idiot of a scientist.  “It’s like the artificial evolution,” he said.  “Since the beginning of life on Earth, animals and all forms of life used to have a natural outward method of pushing against the atmospheric pressure to prevent them from being crushed by it.  When we got to space, and certain astronauts had the unfortunate experience of losing pressure, that outward force caused them to explode.  It wasn’t pretty.

      “But eventually we figured out how to overcome that.  All celestial objects are held together in the vacuum because of gravity.  They didn’t have any outward forces pushing the molecules that composed them apart.  The force that pulled them together was greater than the force that pushed them apart.  All we had to do was apply this principle to ourselves.  A little genetic engineering, and now humans can live quite comfortably in a vacuum provided they’ve got something to breathe.”

      “I don’t understand how that works either,” Craig said.

      “Of course you don’t,” Mark remarked.  “It’s too complicated for you.  Electromagnetic manipulation, genetic engineering, all the miracles of modern science.  They don’t teach you that stuff in a planetarium.  All you know is how to recite the nine planets in order of their distance from the sun.  ‘My Very Intelligent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas’ and other bullshit they teach first graders.”

      “You don’t have to insult me,” Craig said.

      “Yes I do.  You’re arrogant, and you have no right to be,” said Mark.

      Craig didn’t even try to analyse that remark.  “I don’t see what that stuff about artificial evolution has to do with interstellar travel.”

      “It’s the most important rule of science,” Mark said.  “Nothing ever works the way you’d think it should.  No matter how much evidence a scientist has to back up a theory, there’s always gonna be something they overlook.  In the case of artificial evolution and pressure-proof humans, it was gravity and atomic forces that hold things together.  In the case of the interstellar travel, it was the molecular structure of Romband’s material.”

      “But there’s always a scientific explanation,” Craig said it in the tone of a question.

      “Always,” said Mark.  “Now if we’re through with today’s lesson, children, I’d like to get some fucking sleep.”

      “Goodnight,” Craig said and turned out the light.  Mark just rolled over and immediately began to deliberately snore loudly until he was too tired to keep it up. 

      “So you have a fear of space?” David O’Brian said to Todd Blankens from his bed when Todd entered the room.  “Why the hell are you an astronaut?” he asked.

      Todd hopped into his bed and turned off the light.  “Goodnight, David.” 

      Lauren Samalc was lying on her bed listening to music when Lily Zaw and Maria Wendall entered their three-bed hotel room.  They were gabbing about some of the people they’d seen in the station throughout the course of the day.

      “That guy was probably a hundred years old,” said Maria.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t ask them to turn down the gravity in his room to make it easier on him!”

      The two women laughed.  Maria looked over at Lauren, lying on her bed and staring at the ceiling.  She would have sworn there was a look of contempt on the pilot’s face.  Bitch, she thought.  Perhaps she only thought that because Lauren’s quiet and dignified disposition made her feel inferior.  Well, then Lauren was a bitch for making her feel inferior.  This was the logic of Maria Wendall.

      When Maria took the bed on the far right, Lily took the one in the middle, and called over to Lauren.  “Hey, Lauren, whaddya’ listening to?”

      “Are you into 20th century music?” she asked, removing the speaker of her headphones from her left ear.

      “Not really,” she said.

      “Then you wouldn’t know them,” Lauren said.  “It’s a punk band from the 1990s.”

      “Punk?” Maria shouted.  “What kind of music is that?”

      “It’s another class of rock,” Lauren said.

      “Oh,” said Maria.  “I can’t stand rock.  It’s sklar all the way for me.”

      Lauren slightly shuddered at the mention of that travesty of music, and went back to listening to her Newfound Glory disc, making sure to turn up the volume to its max.

      Maria somehow felt belittled by this gesture, and knowing that Lauren had the volume up to its max and wouldn’t be able to hear a word she was saying, she expressed these feelings of frustration.  “Why does she have to do that?”

      “Do what?” Lily asked.

      “She’s always trying to make me feel inferior.”

      “How could that make you feel inferior?” Lily asked, making sure not to add the phrase “unless you’re just incredibly insecure” to the end of her question.  She liked Maria, and didn’t want to piss her off.

      “I don’t know,” Maria said.  “She doesn’t have to act all pompous all the time, like she’s better than the rest of us.”

      Lily looked over to Lauren, eyes closed, just enjoying her music.  Then she turned back to Maria.  “You’re going too hard on her,” Lily said.  “She’s probably just shy and doesn’t know how to act around us.  Give her a few weeks.  I’m sure she’ll be laughing and talking more than everyone else on the ship.”

      “Well, something about her just rubs me the wrong way,” Maria said.  “I don’t know, I’m tired of talking about it.”

      Little did she know that Lauren had heard every word of the conversation that had just taken place.  Of course you’re tired of talking about it, she thought.  You can’t talk about anything that goes beneath the surface without feeling inferior.  When it came to Maria, she rubbed Lauren the wrong way as well, but Lauren had grown up surrounded by people just like her, and she’d discovered that there was just no way to deal with them.  They lived in their own little bubbles, totally ignorant of the fact that other people had lives, unless it came time for them to butt into their business or talk about them behind their backs.  Lauren didn’t live inside a bubble.  She didn’t need to.  Her wall provided all the necessary barriers to the shittiness of the world and the people in it.

      Lily didn’t know what to say.  She didn’t want to talk about it either.  “I think we should just get some sleep,” was what she finally said.  As she leaned over to turn off the lamp she caught Lauren’s eye.  She offered her a sympathetic look and Lauren returned it with a slight sigh and the slightest trace of a smirk.  Lily flipped the switch, and the room went black. 

      Meanwhile, Arnold Juciper sat up in his bed in the dark, wide-awake.  His mind was racing in an infinite sea of thoughts.  He kept seeing the face of his daughter, wet with tears.  He kept hearing the voice of Jake Philips, presenting him with the mission.  The voice of Mike Romband on the phone from STAR after the space shuttle incident.  The look in David’s eyes.  The smile on Lauren’s face.  The pain behind Jason’s eyes that he couldn’t even begin to interpret.  The baseball and the three million kilometres.  The earth like a cue ball.  The ship blasting him through the sky that he would never again see in the same way.  Lauren stopping the simulation at the precise instant a million years in the future.  The tears in Rachael’s eyes.  The murder in David’s eyes.  The voice of his daughter saying goodbye.  The sound of a ship docking with the space station below him.  The mission that would begin tomorrow. 

      Several hundred meters below Arnold’s feet, the Andromeda spaceship, occupied only by one pilot who had flown it from Lunar Orbit, docked with Ring Station 4, completing its final journey without the crew that would call it home.

      The pilot was Danny Armen, strictly an interplanetary pilot, but a damn good one.  Good enough to be trusted at the helm of the Zeus, the largest cargo ship in the solar system.  He was supposed to be on vacation, but he jumped at the chance to fly the historic Andromeda spaceship.  His only regret was that he would never be able to meet anyone on the crew.

      And once he was hoisted into the space station and directed up the elevator to the Space Taxi docking bays where he would hitch a ride back to Tallahassee, the main docking port of Ring Station 4 had history attached to it.  In less than twelve hours, that ship would begin a journey going faster than anything in the universe—including light itself—had ever gone.  It would be home to the finest crew STAR had ever assembled, and it would see more than any ship in the history of the Administration had ever seen.  Both on the outside and within. 
 

Chapter 16

Time:  7:00  May 13, 3422  Universal Time

Place:  Ring Station 4, Earth Orbital Altitude: 300 km 

      At this point in the story, I feel it would be a nice gesture for me to address some of the things that may be bothering you.  “First of all, it is chapter 16, and at least 100 pages into the story, and the mission hasn’t even begun yet.  How much build-up is there going to be?  And second of all, is this a science fiction or a character study?  Or is it just a big waste of my time?  I read this book for some good old fashioned sci-fi thrills, not to read dialogue between stupid characters whom I don’t even care about.”

      Well, let me just start by saying: you’ve got some attitude, man.  If you don’t like the book, nobody is forcing you to read it. There are certain people who on principle will not give up on a book they don’t like, even if it’s agony to read.  Well, I personally don’t see anything wrong with it.  If I’m reading a bad science-fiction book, and I’m not liking it or I don’t feel it’s going anywhere, I’m gonna put it down and read something else.  So if you’re not enjoying this, please, by all means just put the book away and go do something productive with your time…like maybe write your own damn book.

      As far as all the build-up goes, I never expected it to take this long either.  Maybe it’s because I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and I can’t bring up any point without elaborating upon it for a million pages.  Or maybe it’s because I spend too much time writing commentary about my own writing!  That’s just not what a “good writer” is supposed to do!  And all these excessive exclamation points!  What’s with that?!

      And finally, if you’re not sure if this is actually science fiction, don’t worry because you’re not alone.  I don’t even really know exactly what genre this belongs in.  I mean, just because a book takes place in space doesn’t automatically make it science fiction.  Or does it?  Can’t you have a good old Romance story or even a Western in space?  Well, maybe not a Western, but…you know what I mean.

      So hopefully that answered some of your questions.  It probably didn’t, because it was just me rambling on about bullshit again, and wasting even more time, but like I said, if you don’t like it, put it down.

      But for those of you who are enjoying the story, and for the even fewer number of you who can actually appreciate my rebellious self-commentary and find it amusing, I would like to express my gratitude.  You are the audience I’m looking for.  People who don’t care too much about “good writing skills” and just want to read something with a kick-ass plot and interesting characters are the best kind of readers out there.  Shine on, you crazy diamonds! 

      It was 7:00 on May 13, as the clock on Arnold Juciper’s bedside table indicated.  The alarm rang, but Arnold had already been awake for hours.  He wasn’t sure of the exact time he had gone to sleep, but he knew he couldn’t have actually been unconscious for more than three hours.  This was the day.  After all of the months of training, and the ordeal it took to reach this point, today was the day that the actual mission would begin.  And the launch was scheduled for 8:00, which meant that this was the final hour.  With the time scale at 70 days per second, only 7 minutes later everyone he knew and loved would be dead.

      He tried to block this idea out of his mind as he hopped in the shower, set it to freezing temperatures and went over the flight plan in his mind.  Undock, coast for sixty seconds, orient with Andromeda, and thrust.  The next section of the flight plan would be executed two months later for him, one million years later to Earth. 

      Jake Philips sat at his seat in mission control.  Jim Lampert and Mike Romband sat in the viewing room, along with those people whom the Astronauts of the Andromeda crew were leaving behind.

      Rachael and Ellen Juciper were there.  Rachael wanted to talk to Mike Romband, but Ellen told her that Mr. Romband probably didn’t want to be bothered right now.  Rachael protested by saying that Romband would be glad to talk to her, and just answer one question, but Ellen insisted, so Rachael sat down.

      Little Tommy Peskie sat behind them, along with his mother, Jack’s ex-wife.  She had been an alcoholic and was denied custody when Jack divorced her.  She successfully made it through rehab though, and when the time came for the decision as to where Tommy would go when Jack was gone, he decided it would be better for him to be raised by his mother than anyone else.  Tommy was nine years old.

      Maria Wendall’s boyfriend sat in the front row, directly behind the glass.  A few seats down from him sat Mark Staff’s girlfriend.  Actually, in about an hour they would both be single.  Although they never formally broke up, it was understood that they would not stay faithful to their lost loved ones for five million years.  As far as the other end of the coin goes, it was probable that neither Mark nor Maria would stay faithful for even one year.

      Todd Blankens had been married, and his ex-wife sat in the second row.  A week prior to the mission, they were divorced.  Mrs. Blankens made it clear that she was probably going to remarry, and because Todd would not technically be dead, law might not permit a legal marriage to another person.  This was in contrast to Ellen Juciper, who had decided not to remarry, although both Arnold and she saw no harm in taking on a significant other.

      A few people were surprised to see the son of David O’Brian, now in his late teen years, sitting in the observation room amidst the rest.  David’s ex-wife did not show up, and nobody had expected her to.  It had been a nasty divorce, and she was embarrassed at being associated with the disgraced astronaut.  His son, however, saw no reason to hold a grudge, and he defied his mother’s wishes by driving to Tallahassee in order to witness the launch.

      The parents of Craig Malls sat in the back row, hardly able to contain their pride.  Their son, whom nobody had really ever believed would amount to anything, was now part of the most celebrated mission in the history of the STAR Administration.  They were both very old, and couldn’t really see much, but just being there was a thrill.  Noticing that they were the only parents of a crewmember in the room, they kept to themselves.

      Lily Zaw’s little sister sat in the second row.  Martha Zaw was in her early twenties, and pursuing a career in medicine like her sister. Martha, however, had no desire to practice medicine for the STAR Administration.  Her dream was to become a paediatrician.  There was no way in hell she would ever be caught on a spaceship.

      Ronald Stark’s little sister sat beside Martha Zaw.  Katie Stark, unlike her brother, had no interest in medicine.  She wanted to work for the STAR Administration as a mission controller.  She frequently came to the control room anyway just to see what went on, and was fascinated by it.  But like Martha, she would never be caught dead in a spaceship either.

      The parents of Lauren Samalc were thousands of miles away, if they were even still alive.  Lauren didn’t know, and she didn’t care.  She left no one behind.  Elliot Larken was in the same boat.  His ex-wife (whom he had divorced decades ago) had long since moved on, with only the son whom Elliot had never known existed to remind her of him.  Jason Floyd also said goodbye to no one.  His only family member was his abusive aunt whom he never even tried to contact, and who, unbeknownst to him, had died years ago.

      The rest of the seats were filled by STAR Employees who had a hand in putting together the mission but were not needed in mission control.  The head of the science department, Phil Jacobs, sat next to Mike Romband and Jim Lampert.  Maria Altman, who had designed the Andromeda spaceship also sat in with them.

      The main man, however, was several meters below, directing orders to the men and women of mission control.  Jake Philips was making it perfectly clear that although nothing could possibly go wrong during a standard undocking and thrusting procedure, something could still go wrong, and with the way the mission had been going so far, it probably would. 

      It was a good thing, however, that this was not the thinking on Ring Station 4 when the Andromeda astronauts assembled in the hallways outside their rooms.  They were surprised but not shocked to see that the halls were lined with spectators, residents of the station who were there to cheer on the crew as they boarded their ship.

      Arnold Juciper signalled for his crew to follow him, and they picked up their bags and made their way into the elevators to take them down to the docking port room.  Cheers went up from the crowd, and most of the astronauts just smiled while Jack Peskie blew them kisses.

      Walking off of the elevator was like entering a new dimension.  On one floor, thousands are cheering for you, and as soon as the door opens again, you’re in a small dark room with only a couple of STAR Employees waiting in silence.

      When all twelve astronauts were in the room, one of the STAR Employees pressed a button, and a hatch opened, revealing a hole in the floor, and about ten meters below the hole, the floor of the Andromeda spaceship.  This was the floor of the small space between the cockpit and the living quarters, to be exact.

      Electronic rope was lowered from the ceiling, and Arnold threw his duffel bag into the ship, grabbed onto the rope, and was lowered down into the ship.  He then picked up his bag and moved into the living quarters as the rest of the astronauts did the same.

      Arnold had never seen a living quarters quite like this one.  Each bed was custom-made according the preferences of the crew.  Arnold had chosen a regular mattress, with a feather blanket and feather pillow.  He found this bed and went to the steel compartment underneath.  He opened a panel next to the compartment, and typed in the password he had specified to the builders of the ship.  The compartment opened, and he slid his duffel bag in, just as the next crewmember entered and did the same.

      He then made his way to the cockpit, and was equally astonished by this room as he had been with the living quarters.  The window stretched all the way from the floor to the ceiling, and overhead until it met the back of the room.  The seats were also custom-made according to the specifications the crew had made.  Arnold found the leather commander’s seat he had requested, and sat down, admiring the nice view of Earth he had through the window.

      About ten minutes later, all of the astronauts had their stuff together, and were in their appropriate seats.  It was 7:46.  Fourteen minutes until the launch.

      Andromeda, this is STAR, do you copy?” came the message over the loudspeaker.

      Jack picked up the microphone on the radio next to his seat, and responded.  “STAR, this is Andromeda.  We hear you.”

      “You are scheduled to undock at 7:50.  Check all systems to make sure you can safely undock.”

      “Roger that,” Jack said.  Then he turned to Jason, who had the keyboard in his hands.

      The keyboard was fully mobile, and sent messages to the ship’s main computer through radio signals from anywhere in the ship.  He sat with it on his lap, scanning the monitor above the cockpit window, making sure everything appeared to be in order.  Not much had to be in order for undocking, however, so it was an easy task.  “Everything looks fine.”

      At the main pilot’s seat, Lauren Samalc checked all of the instruments and made sure they were working properly.  “Everything’s good here.”

      Jack gave the information to STAR, and they told him to await clearance from mission control.

      “Jack, tell STAR I’d like to say a few words before the launch,” Arnold said.  He had been preparing this speech all night for lack of anything less frightening to think about.

      “STAR, Arnold wants to say a few words and wants to know when he can have the opportunity,” Jack said.

      A few seconds passed.  “Philips says he’ll be happy to let Arnold talk once the ship is undocked and coasting.”

      More silence ensued.  “Andromeda, this is STAR, we are go for Undocking procedures.  You may undock in approximately one minute, at 7:50.”

      “Copy that,” Jack said. 

      Everything was quiet in mission control.  Nobody was standing or walking around.  Everyone sat in their seats, watching the large screen’s chase view of the Andromeda spaceship.  The big clock counted down the seconds.  There was nothing to do but wait for the ship to undock, and then give it the proper co-ordinates for orientation. 

      “Ticking away, the moments that make up a dull day,” Jason Floyd said to himself, “you fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way.”

      “What are you singing about?” Maria Wendall asked from beside him.

      “It’s twentieth century rock,” Floyd responded, then continued to quote more lines from the song, “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon.  “You run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking, and racing around to come up behind you again.”  He then spoke louder.  “The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, shorter of breath, and one day closer to death.”

      Lauren turned around and looked right at him.  Out of habit, Jason immediately turned away, although he knew there was no reason to.  He then nodded as if to say, “Yes, I do Love you and I’d be happy to make you my wife.”

      Lauren turned back to the controls.  It was 7:49:57.  She put her hand on the lever that would un-latch the docking port of the spaceship from that of the space station.  At exactly 7:50:00 she pulled the lever and after a loud clicking noise, a slight downward acceleration was felt, and through the transparent ceiling, the astronauts watched as they began to drift away from Ring Station 4.  The Andromeda was now completely on its own.

      “We have successful undocking,” Jack informed mission control.  “And I must say, this clear ceiling really adds a new dimension to the process.  You should put these on all spaceships.”

      “Thanks for the commentary, Jack,” Bill Sanders at mission control said sarcastically.  “Instruction 1a is complete.  Instruction 1b is to coast for a duration of 60 seconds.  We will then give you the co-ordinates for orientation with the Andromeda galaxy.”

      It was actually happening, Arnold thought.  They were going to orient the ship with the Andromeda galaxy and blast towards it.  It all seemed too surreal.  Just two years ago, that idea would have sounded ludicrous to him, and anybody else who might have heard it. 

      Jake Philips asked for the co-ordinates, and received them from Navigation.  He punched them into his computer, and made sure they were accurate.  He then transferred them to the computer of Bill Sanders, and instructed him to read them to the Andromeda crew.

      Andromeda crew, this is STAR, instruction 1b is complete.  You may now orient with the Andromeda galaxy.”  The one-minute period of coasting allowed the ship to get far enough away so that just manoeuvring wouldn’t cause it to collide with the space station.  “The co-ordinates are as follows…”

      Jake Philips watched on the big screen, as the Andromeda spaceship shifted positions so that it was facing the Andromeda galaxy.  It was to be facing in that direction for over two million years.  The thought sent a chill down Philips’s spine.  People all over the galaxy would be able to point their scopes at the ship and watch it move, incredibly fast yet infinitely slow.  Philips would be dead before they even got up from their seats.

      Jack Peskie’s voice came from over the speaker.  “STAR, this is Andromeda, we have successfully oriented with Andromeda.  Lauren has hit the co-ordinates with the maximum level of precision.”  That meant that she oriented the ship with the exact co-ordinates she was given, down to the very last significant figure.

      “Thank you, Jack,” said Bill Sanders.  “You are scheduled to launch in ten minutes.  Make all the necessary preparations, and give us a ‘go’ or ‘no go’.  We’ll do the same here.” 

      Jason went through and checked every system through the computers, and Lauren checked all the systems manually.  They gave Jack the “go” and he informed STAR.  David O’Brian sat silently between Lauren and Jack, a look of general anger on his face.  He should have been the one in the pilot’s seat.  It had been custom made for him.  He felt like such a chump sitting the 2nd pilot’s seat.  And to make matters worse, Arnold was about to talk.

      Un-strapping himself from his seat, Arnold Juciper stood up and faced the eleven other members of his crew.  “All right, people,” he said.  “Once we get the ‘go’ from STAR, there’s no turning back.  We are going to be gone, and when we return, we have no idea what to expect.  The human race might not even be here.  Or they may have evolved to become so technologically superior than we are now that they’ll barely be recognisable as a civilisation to us.  Or things could be exactly the same as they are now.  We don’t know, and that’s one of the risks we were all willing to take when we agreed to go on this mission.

      “And the other aspect is our personal losses.  I’m losing my wife and child, and I know many of you are also losing people whom you deeply care about.  Once this mission is under way, they’re going to be gone forever, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Again, we all knew and accepted this fact when we agreed to go on this mission.

      “But we shouldn’t focus so much on what we’re losing.  It’s what we’re going to find that’ll make this worth it.  We’re going to travel longer and further than any human being has ever gone.  We’re going to break the largest boundary there is.  We’re going to another galaxy, not just another planet or another solar system.  We’re going just about as far as we can go.  And that’s pretty damn amazing.

      “I know most of you probably don’t care.  Some of us have lost our passion for space.  Some of us never had any.  But this is something you have to get passionate about.  This isn’t just about fame or money.  This is about breaking the ultimate boundary.  Once we reach another galaxy, there are no more boundaries to break.  This will be the final step in human exploration.  And we are the people who are taking that step.  I think we all need to realise that.

      “The psychologists say that it’s a bad idea to keep so few people in such an isolated place for such a long time, but I have faith that we can all come together.  Once Andromeda is huge and colourful in our window, I feel we can put aside our hostility and just recognise how small and insignificant our problems are in comparison to the vastness of the universe.  I hope we…”

      Andromeda, this is STAR, we are Go for Launch.  Prepare to depart in three minutes and counting.”

      Arnold looked around, and saw that the only person he seemed to be reaching was Craig Malls, bright eyed and misty.  Others had been listening intently and nodding along, but he could tell other things were on their minds.  David just ignored him completely.

      “Good luck, everyone,” Arnold said, and took his seat. 

      The combined heart rate of the twelve astronauts on board the Andromeda was enough to break a Med-Scan, as the Medical Team at Mission Control noticed and pointed out.

      “It’s natural to feel anxious just before a launch,” he said to Philips, “but this is insanity.”

      “Are you saying we should postpone the launch until they all calm down?” Philips asked.  “And just make them more anxious, and more nervous?”

      “I guess not,” the man said.  “But most of them are at serious risk right now.  Blankens is liable to have a heart-attack.”

      Jake Philips made his way over to the communications station, picked up the microphone, and set it so that not just Jack but the entire crew would be able to hear his voice.  “Andromeda, this is Jake Philips.  It has been brought to my attention that your heart-rates are in the danger zone.”

      “What do you expect, Jake?” asked Jack, who was also starting to feel the anxiety.

      “I just want to ask you to calm down,” Philips continued.  “Go back to those early days in training when you went on your first missions.  Take a deep breath, and just accept the fact that it’s out of your hands now.  Even Lauren.  That thrust needs to be engaged at exactly 8:00 and it will be.  Just relax.  It’s just another mission.”

      “I think we’re all just a little freaked out,” Jack explained.  “In about two and a half minutes, we’ll never hear your voice again, or anybody else we know.”

      Jake Philips bit his fist, and looked straight up at Jim Lampert, who nodded in understanding.  “I’m still gonna be here,” he said.  “We’re all still gonna be here.  Try not to think of it in terms of one generation passing by with each moment.  We’ll have our time, and live on for much longer than the duration of this mission to you.”

      “Thanks, Jake,” said Jack.  “And I think I speak for everyone here when I say it’s been a pleasure working with you on this mission, and on all the others.” 

      Philips listened as the astronauts around the cockpit gave shouts of approval so that he could hear.  A lump in his throat formed so hard and so quickly that he nearly choked on it. “Thanks, you guys,” he said.  He didn’t want to get all mushy, but this was most definitely “farewell.”

      He glanced at the clock and decided it was okay to send a little personal message.  “I can’t thank you enough…” he began.  “You guys are the best.  We’re really gonna miss you.”

      Mike Romband appeared beside Philips, nearly ready to break down.  “This is Mike Romband, and that goes for all of us at STAR,” Romband said into the speaker.  Applause went up from everyone at mission control.  “And your families all want me to wish you a special farewell.” 

      Now everyone aboard the Andromeda was misty-eyed.  Jack Peskie actually did shed a tear.  “Thanks, Mike,” he said, and choked on his words.  This caused him to laugh at how ridiculous he sounded, and a few of the other astronauts let out nervous laughs.

      “Medical says your heart-rates are normal again,” Philips said.  “And now you’ve got one minute until launch.  We’re damn proud of you,” he paused.  “Now let’s get you guys to Andromeda.”  More applause was heard through the speaker on the Andromeda

      Jason set up the countdown on the computer, and Lauren set the controls to head at full thrust at 70 days per second.  This caused the “engine” of the ship to begin taking in light energy, storing it and duplicating it until it shone with the light of a million suns.  All she had to do was press the release button, and the ship would automatically carry out the acceleration procedures.

      The seconds ticked away as the heart rates of the crew once again rose to dangerous levels.  In what seemed like the longest minute of their lives, the crew sat in silence.  Just before the countdown began, Jack turned on the microphone for one last message, as Jason had requested.  “Goodbye, STAR.  We’ll see you on the Dark Side of the Moon.”  And as the countdown began, Jason recited the lyrics to “Eclipse.”

      Ten…all that you eat

      nine…and everyone you meet

      eight…and all that you slight

      seven…and everyone you fight

      six…and all that is now

      five…and all that is gone

      four…and all that’s to come

      three…and everything under the sun is in tune

      two…but the sun is eclipsed by the moon

      one.

      And with that, Lauren pressed her finger into the release button, quickly and sharply, at precisely 8:00:00.  A click was heard, and the crew could feel the rear of the ship, heavy with enough stored-light energy to exceed its own speed, begin to spew it out. 

      From the control room, Jake Philips, Mike Romband, Jim Lampert, the rest of mission control, and the families of the astronauts watched the chase view of the spaceship as it began to thrust forward.  Within two seconds, it’s speed had already achieved escape velocity from Earth orbit, and all that could be seen of the ship was the bright light, now just a dot in the background.  Two seconds later, the speed had achieved escape velocity from Solar Orbit, and a few seconds later, it would soon achieve escape velocity for orbit of the Milky Way’s core.

      Jake Philips watched the ship dart off of the map view screen, and read the data from his computer, indicating acceleration procedures had gone impeccably.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a successful launch,” he said, and dropped to his seat as cheers erupted from both mission control and the spectators, most of whom were now sobbing wildly.

      “We’re done,” Philips said through his microphone, but nobody heard him.  Everybody was too busy congratulating each other.  Mike Romband came and put his hand on Philips’s shoulder.  “We’re done,” Philips repeated.

      “For now,” Mike Romband said.  “We’re only done for now.  There is no Dark Side of the Moon, really…” 

      “…matter of fact, it’s all Dark,” Jason Floyd finished his quote across the void of time and space.

      Just a second after the button was pressed, Ring Station 4 disappeared from above them.  The G-force pinned the astronauts back against their seats as the Earth flew by them faster than they had ever seen a celestial object move.  And only a few seconds later, the sun was out of sight.  In about half a minute, the G-force let up and the ship whizzed by Alpha, Beta, and Proxima Centauri, the closest three stars to the Solar System.

      The ship had reached its full velocity, and the stars were shooting by faster than the light they could give off reached them.  The astronauts just stared in awe for about an hour.  Eventually, they were going to have to get up and make themselves comfortable, but they needed some time for the reality of the situation to settle in.

      They were on their way, heading at full speed towards the Andromeda Galaxy.