Download the original attachment

Andromeda 

Part Three: The Mission

Voyage Out 

Chapter 17

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 1

Location: Light-years from the edge of the Milky Way 

      The seconds rolled by, the minutes, the hours.  The crew sat, staring in awe as the stars flew by.  None of them had ever been in a ship travelling this fast before.  A ship on a normal STAR mission would rarely pass by more than 10 or 12 stars.  Within an hour, the Andromeda crew had passed that number and millions more.

      But eventually, the crew had to get up, and it was Arnold who initiated the transition.  “All right, everyone,” he said as he stood up and faced his crew.  “I want everyone in the Living Quarters so I can just go over the ground rules of how things on this ship will work.”

      “Shouldn’t one of us stay here?” David said, referring to him and Lauren.  As the pilots of the ship, it was usually standard to have one of them in the cockpit at all times.

      “That won’t be quite so necessary on this mission,” Arnold said.  “Both of you will have your standard shifts, but if anything goes wrong internally, alarms will sound.”

      “What about scanning for possible dangers?” David asked.

      “That’s what’s different about this mission,” Arnold explained, “we’re going so fast that if a meteor or a star were to collide with us, we wouldn’t even see it coming.”

      Most of the crew shuddered at this thought, but David tucked it away in the back of his mind, as if he could use it somehow.

      Anyway, the odds of colliding with an object in space by pure chance were so infinitesimally small that the risk was virtually negligible.  The space between stars is about equal in scale to the distance between two dust particles on opposite ends of a massive cathedral.  Even when a galaxy collides with another, the odds that anything from one galaxy would come in contact with anything from the other are still unbelievably slim.

      Without saying much, all twelve crewmembers rose and made their way through the back exit of the cockpit into the living quarters.  Arnold instructed them all to have a seat on their beds, and give him their attention.

      “You’ve all seen maps and models of the ship, so I won’t spend much time going over that.  Behind you, of course, is the kitchen area, where you’ll find the food storage bin and plenty of micro-cookers [which is essentially the same thing as a microwave but sounds more futuristic].  There are no set mealtimes.  When you get hungry, eat something.  Just try not to get up in the middle of the night for a snack and wake everybody up.

      “Above them you’ll notice the three rather large holes.  These are the pipes that lead over the lander into the power-generation room.  As you all know, the atmosphere is constantly being generated and purified there.  If we ever start to lose atmosphere for any reason, the ship will automatically detect it and generate air as quickly as it’s being lost, so we never have to worry about de-pressurising.  Again, we all know this, but I’m just going over it for clarification.

      “Next to the kitchen area, in the back left-hand corner you’ll notice two very strange machines.  We call them washers and dryers, and those are for your laundry.”

      A few crewmembers chuckled.

      “As I said, this is basic stuff.  You may do laundry whenever you want to, and especially if you need to.  You’re responsible for your own dirty clothes.  It’s a pet peeve of mine when people wear the same thing two days without washing it.  I mean it only takes thirty seconds, people.

      “And finally to the right of the kitchen area is the ship’s main computer.  That’s your area, Jason.  It contains all vital statistics for the ship, and has the power to assume complete control should the cockpit computers fail.  There is also a wide selection of games to choose from.  If you’d like to play, ask Jason.  I must warn you though, it’ll be pretty hard to pry him away.”

      Jason let no indication of his embarrassment show.  It was true that he usually spent the vast majority of his time in front of the computer doing something unrelated to the mission, but he still didn’t think Arnold should have said anything.  Lauren must have heard the comment, processed it, and her opinion of Jason, whatever the hell that was, had inevitably gone down a notch.  That is, unless she was the same way, but…

      Jason shook himself out of his rapid mind movement, and continued to pay attention to Arnold.

      “And to the front you’ll notice two doors that don’t lead to the cockpit.  The door on the left is my office.  That’s where my computer is.  I doubt I’ll be using it much, so if you want to use a computer and Jason has the main one tied up…”

      “Dammit, Arnold,” Jason said in a very friendly manner.  Everyone chuckled. “What?” Arnold asked innocently.  “It’s the truth.”

      “Yeah, well…” Jason had no answer.  Now he was embarrassed.  And now Lauren had turned to look at him.  A quick glance in her direction confirmed that, and then giving up, he said, “…whatever.”

      Now the chuckling was directed at him.  Lauren didn’t smile though.  Jason thanked God for that.

      “As I was saying, that’s my office.  The door on the right is the lavatory.  I think we all know what that’s for.  Only one shower, one toilet, one sink.  But this is a new design, so we’ve got a new feature.  The room is also an airlock, so as soon as you leave the bathroom and nobody is in there, the old air is sucked out, and new air is brought in, so the amount of foul odour will be minimal.

      “And allowing eleven people to all use the shower in the morning is going to be a pain, but we can all wake up at different times so there hopefully won’t be that many conflicts.  Just don’t take too long, please.  I’m not going to be strict on wake-up times on this mission, but I’d like everyone out of bed and through the shower by 10:00 Mission time.

      “As for going to bed, the lights will be shut off at 22:00.  You can go to bed any time, but it’ll be hard for you to get to sleep with the lights on, so I doubt anyone will be sleeping before 22:00.  When the lights turn off, anyone who isn’t sleeping may go to the cockpit if they still want to talk.  I’m not going to be very strict, but I’d like everyone in bed at 24:00, except of course, for you, David.  You get to sleep while the lights are on, and everyone else is awake.”

      “I’ve never had to do that before,” David said. “I need the drugs for it.”

      “I’ve got you covered,” Lily said.  She supplied the pills that would induce a perfect slumber for 9 hours.  The pill was only given to 2nd-string pilots who had to sleep while everyone else was up.  Nothing short of violent physical contact could wake someone up from the pill-induced sleep.

      Arnold nodded, and looked around.  “I think that’s it.  Are there any questions?” he asked this as if it would be absurd that anyone could have anything to ask.

      Jack did.  “What about privacy, captain?” he asked.  “How does one obtain that?  I mean, aside from taking a shit.”

      “I’d appreciate it if you’d watch the language, Jack, but that’s a good question and I completely forgot about it.  If you’d like to be alone for awhile, you can use my office.  Just ask me and unless I need it for something you can have it.  Also if you’d like to have a private conversation you can go there.”

      “Is that all?” Jack asked.  “That office is a little claustrophobic.  Bare walls, no windows.  Some people wouldn’t be comfortable in there.”

      “Well, STAR gave me another suggestion, but I’m kind of hesitant about it,” Arnold said.  “They suggested that I allow cockpit privileges.”

      Every single member of the crew nodded in consensus to this, and voiced their approval of this idea.  Cockpit privileges were only allowed by certain commanders, usually the very liberal ones.  They meant that if any crewmember or group of crewmembers wanted to be alone in the cockpit to talk privately, they could ask for cockpit privileges, and the commander would call the pilot out (if the pilot wasn’t included in the group) and let the crewmembers have their privacy.

      “I’ll let you have cockpit privileges, but please don’t overdo it,” Arnold said.  “It’s really a pain, and if any of you are asking for it excessively, I’m gonna have to deny it to you.  Remember, they call it a ‘privilege’ for a reason.

      “Anything else?”

      Mark spoke up.  “Yeah, where do I go when I want to beat off?”

      A few crewmembers chuckled.  “That’s disgusting,” said Maria.

      “You wouldn’t understand,” Mark retorted, “you’re a woman.  Men need to do that.”

      Before this conversation could go any further, Arnold put a stop to it.  “If you feel the need to do that…” he said as if just the thought of masturbation made him nauseous, “what you do in the bathroom is your own business.  Just clean up after yourself, for God’s sake.  If I find any…” the level of discomfort was now extremely apparent in his demeanour, “…on the floor, there will be some serious consequences.”

      He shook himself away from the thought.  “Now if there are any other questions that are somewhat appropriate, you can ask them, otherwise, you’re free to go about your business.”

      Everyone was about ready for this conference to be over, so nobody said a word.  Arnold nodded, and the twelve crewmembers set off to explore their new home. 

      In order for you to truly appreciate just how unique this mission was among others, you’d need to understand what other missions of the STAR Administration were like.  There would usually be a crew of twelve just like this one, and a ship of similar design, only smaller and without customised furnishings for the crew.

      A mission to another star system in the Local Group would usually only warrant a time scale of less than a day per second.  Because of the distortion of time and space when exceeding the speed of light, it would only take about a week for a ship to reach its destination.  Technically, they could go faster, and it would only have to take days or even hours, but there was no need to travel this fast over such short distances, and the faster a ship travelled, the more opportunity there was for something to go wrong.

      So the time scale would usually be set to arrive at the destination in one week.  During this week, communication with STAR would be impossible, so the commander had complete control of the ship.  The crewmembers would have nothing to do but socialise, eat, and sleep, and by the end of only one week, they were usually down each other’s throats.

      Upon arrival at its destination, the ship would place itself in orbit of the planet, and eleven of the twelve crewmembers would load into the lander, and the 1st-string pilot would take them down for a landing while the 2nd-string pilot remained with the ship in orbit.  The crew would rarely spend more than a week on one planet, and there was usually so much work to be done that all hostilities between crewmembers virtually ceased to exist.  In addition, constant communication could be kept with Earth.

      By the time the 1st pilot launched and docked the lander back with the ship, the crewmembers were congratulating each other for a job well done.  The return journey would take another week, and by the end of that period, hostilities would usually have flared to levels even higher than before.  When a mission had concluded, most of the astronauts never wanted to speak to each other again. 

      The only exceptions were especially difficult missions such as Betelgeuse XII, where crewmembers had to work together and form tight bonds with one another to accomplish their objectives.  The crew of Betelgeuse XII had been commended by all for how unified they had been throughout the entire ordeal.  This accomplishment was attributable both to the relative difficulty of surviving on the mission, and the crew being under the command of Arnold Juciper.

      If there was one thing that Arnold Juciper could not stand, it was division among crewmembers.  He saw the crew of a ship as one unified force, working towards accomplishing a goal.  Nothing upset him more than seeing astronauts forming alliances and vendettas amongst themselves.  The Andromeda mission especially worried him, because most of the crewmembers had large egos as it was, and groups had already been forming before the mission had even begun.  He’d managed to keep fights from taking place on one-week stretches, but it looked as though it might be an impossible task to do the same for a crew such as this for a one-year stretch. 

       After his speech to the Andromeda crew, Arnold invited Jack Peskie into his office for a private conversation.  The office was small and cramped, with only four objects inside.  There was a desk, a small computer on top of it, and two chairs, one behind the desk and one right in front.

      Arnold took the seat behind the desk, and motioned for Jack to sit in the other seat.  “Well, Jack, what do you think?  We’re on our way.”

      “I think it’s awesome,” Jack replied.  “Where are we going?”

      Arnold smiled, and continued to speak.  “Jack, I know that you seem to know a bit about psychology…”

      “Stop right there, I know exactly what you’re concerned about,” Jack interrupted.  “Well don’t worry.  This kind of thing is very common in men your age.  The important thing is to tell yourself that you would have nothing to gain by marrying your mother.”

      “Jack,” Arnold spoke harshly, “please.  Be serious for a moment.”

      “I’m sorry, Commander,” apologised Jack.

      “You can call me Arnold,” said Arnold in the tone of an order.  “I just wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve been noticing so far.  As far as the social structure of our crew goes.”

      “That’s sociology, Arnold, not psychology,” said Jack.  “Which I also happen to know quite a bit about.  But it’s only been a few minutes.  The only thing I can say for sure is that Mark likes to spank the monkey.”

      “Please, Jack,” Arnold pleaded, trying not to let the image into his mind.  “This crew has been together since the launch of the space shuttle.  Have you noticed anything like cliques forming among us?”

      “Of course,” Jack was now serious as he spoke.  “David, Mark, and Ronald are the tightest group among us.  I think they feel spiritually connected through their mutual atheism.  Todd and Craig like to talk to each other, like Maria and Lily.  Then there’s you, Jason, and me.  Elliot’s kind of a loner.”

      “What about Lauren?” asked Arnold, perhaps a little too anxiously.

      Jack gave him a curious look.  “Well…” he said, processing the look in Arnold’s eyes into his brain, “it’s hard to tell with her.  She’s usually in the company of Maria and Lily, but I think that’s just because the women usually stick together in missions.  That will probably change after awhile though, and I don’t think Lauren really likes either of them too much anyway.  Maria seems to really dislike her.”

      “Really?” Arnold expressed.  “I didn’t notice that.”

      “Of course you didn’t.” Jack’s tone was rather insulting.  Then he quickly added, “Of course, nobody would expect you to.  You’re the commander.  It’s been your job to get us this far and not be bothered with social distractions.”

      Arnold nodded.  “But socialisation is going to be a very important part of this mission,” he said.

      Jack wanted to say, No shit, Sherlock.  But instead he said, “Absolutely.”

      “Well, I don’t want all these cliques forming like this,” Arnold said.  “This is going to lead to vendettas.  We didn’t get a chance to really get to know each other at the pre-launch meeting.  I’m going to hold a group discussion.”

      “Like group therapy?” asked Jack, “or like an AA meeting?”

      “Both,” Arnold said.  “Tell everyone that at 20:00 tonight, we’re all gathering on the floor in the middle of the Living Quarters to have a group discussion.”

      “Aye aye, captain,” said Jack.  He liked the commander, but wished he wouldn’t act so pompous.  He left the office and began to tell everyone about the meeting, and while doing so gauged their responses from “That’s a good idea,” to “What the hell is this guy trying to do?” 

      It was still the first day of the mission when the Andromeda crew sat down for their first group discussion.  Arnold sat on his bed as the other eleven crewmembers, including both pilots, sat on the floor with their backs against the beds in Arnold’s sight.

      “All right, everyone,” Arnold said, using his standard opening for a speech.  “Only one of you has been on a crew of mine before, but I’m sure many of you are familiar with the concept of group discussion.  I always do this on my missions, and this one will be no exception.  In fact I plan to do this even more often than I usually do.”

      Some groans went up, specifically from Mark and David.  Ronald just rolled his eyes.  The rest of the crew didn’t see too much of a problem with it, most of them figuring that they wouldn’t have to speak.

      “Everyone has to speak,” said Arnold.  “You can choose a topic from time to time, but tonight, I’m choosing the topic.  Just so we can all get to know and understand each other a bit better, I’d like to go down the crew list and ask everyone to tell everyone else a bit about you.  Just say something about your past, what your life was like before you left on this mission, and maybe something about you that not many people here would know.

      “I’ll start,” he said, noticing that most eyes were on the ceiling or the wall but not on him.  “I’m Arnold Juciper, the son of former STAR Communications astronaut Arnold Juciper Senior.  I grew up in Tallahassee, went to Clark like most of us did, and rose through the ranks at STAR to become the number one commander.  Before I left for this mission, I was married to a woman named Ellen, and had a daughter Rachael.  Something you may not know about me is that I gained this rank by flying a damaged ship to a Space Station and saved the crew.”

      “We all knew that,” Ronald said, in what couldn’t be called a not un-friendly tone.  “It’s practically legend in the Administration.”

      “Okay, well, there’s really nothing else I can think of.  So that’s all I really want from all of you.  If you have any questions for me or anybody else, just ask them, and we might get into a conversation.  If you don’t want to answer a question, though, you don’t have to.”  Arnold was in his over-friendly condescending mode.  “We’ll just go right down the crew list.  Lauren, how about you?”

      “I really don’t want to talk about myself,” she said, without even looking at Arnold.

      “Come on, just tell us where you went to school and how you got this job?” he pleaded.

      “I went to Whitman High School in the Long Island section of New York, then went straight to STAR where I became a space cabby.  Then I became a pilot.”  She said all of this without the slightest trace of hostility in her voice.

      “What were you doing before you left on this mission?” asked Arnold.

      “I was living alone in an apartment.”

      “And is there something you’d like to tell us that we may not know about you?”

      “No.”

      Jason Floyd’s blood began to boil with desire.  This was exactly what attracted him to her in the first place.  She was an enigma wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside a small but beautiful body covered by the most incredible face in existence.  He had no way of knowing what she was really like, and for all he knew, his assumptions that she was troubled and depressed could be way off base.  But the more he observed her, the more she seemed to prove his assumptions correct.

      “Okay,” Arnold said with genuine kindness.  “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.”  He then turned to the next person on the list.  “David,” he said in a much less friendly tone, “I don’t suppose you’d want to share anything with us?”

      “Are you implying that you don’t want to hear me talk about myself?” David barked.  “Because if you don’t want me to talk, I’ll march right back into that cockpit and watch the ship wile you faggots have your damned AA meeting.”

      “David,” Arnold did his best to keep his calm.  He really didn’t want any hostility, especially this early on in the mission.  “By all means, please tell us a bit about yourself.”

      “I was raised in the middle-of-nowhere, Houston,” he said.  “I wasn’t what you would call a model student.  My older brother was the genius of the family, and everyone said I would never measure up, and I listened to them.  I don’t want to talk about what changed my mind, but I will tell you that I had to work my ass off to accomplish what I did.  I had the best job in the world, with the best wife and a son…and then…” David had started this speech with the purpose of trying to poke an attack at Arnold, but he only ended up hurting himself.  “Fuck it,” he said.  “I’m done.”

      “Okay,” Arnold said, ready to move on.

      “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?” Jack asked in spite of this.  “It might be a big help to everyone if you got this off your chest.”

      “Fuck you, Peskie,” David snapped, and that was that.

      “Okay,” Arnold said again, more forcefully.  “Todd?”

      “I’m Todd Blankens,” Todd said.  “My passion is medicine.  I was a very successful doctor before STAR recruited me.  I had a lovely wife before I left on this mission.  Something most people don’t know about me, but all of you probably do is that I have a fear of open spaces.  EVA terrifies me, but I think I managed to get over that the second time I went out back at Getaway.  I still don’t think I want to go out in Andromeda, but we’ll see.  I don’t know, I guess that’s it.”

      “Thanks, Todd,” Arnold nodded to him, and smiled, as if forcing him to go EVA again in spite of his mortal fear was the biggest favour anyone had ever done him.  “Lily, how about you?”

      “Like a few of us here, I’m a New Yorker,” she said, “but not from Long Island.  I’m from the inner city.  Brooklyn.  I went to public school and community college where I discovered my love for medicine.  And I also took an interest in astronomy.  I figured a job in medicine at STAR was the best way to combine the two into making a living, so that’s what I did.  I don’t really have a family I’m leaving behind.  Just a sister, but I’m single and childless.  Something you might not know is that…” she seemed to pause to reconsider what had naturally come to her mind, “…I’ve done some...experimenting...in my time.  But it’s never been a problem.”  She looked around, and nobody said anything.  Jason made eye contact with her, and Mark nodded very subtly, but Arnold didn’t even respond.

      “Okay…” he breathed heavily.  This was an issue that he figured didn’t need to be addressed.  He wondered why Lily had even said that in the first place, but was afraid to ask.  “Elliot?  Would you mind sharing with us?”

      Elliot Larken just looked at Arnold and nodded.

      “I understand,” Arnold said, although it was clear to all that he didn’t really understand.

      Jason Floyd looked into Elliot’s eyes and noticed for the first time that the pain hidden so deeply behind them seemed to bear some resemblance to the pain he held within him.  Not much of a resemblance to the pain in Lauren’s eyes, but for some reason Jason felt that Elliot could connect with him on some level.

      “Ronald, do you want to say anything?” Arnold asked.

      “I don’t think any of us want to say anything,” Ronald said, “but I suppose I will.  I majored in medicine with a minor in Astronomy.  I got my job with STAR as a simple medic, and worked my ass off to become an astronaut.  I wasn’t originally slated to go on this mission, but I got lucky, and Greg Henry got very un-lucky, so here I am.  I’m not leaving anyone behind.  There’s really nothing interesting about me that none of you know.”

      “Really?” asked Arnold.  “There must be something.  What are your hobbies?”

      “Does anyone really give a shit what my hobbies are?” Ronald asked of the rest of the astronauts.  They all shook their heads, and Ronald turned back to Arnold, satisfied with his victory.  “See?  Now can we please just get through with this?”

      Arnold Juciper was annoyed, but he wasn’t going to let Ronald relish in his own self-satisfaction.  “I realise you don’t like this very much, Ronald, but you’d better get used to it.  My crew is going to stay unified, and the only way to do that is to have unified discussions, so you’d better get used to this.”

      He looked over the crowd, most of them drifting in and out of awareness.  “I know we’re all tired.  It’s been a stressful day.”  He looked at the crew list again, as if he had not even made his previous comment.  “Mark.”

      “My name is Mark Staff, and I’m an alcoholic,” he said.  Ronald chuckled and David laughed out loud.

      “That wasn’t even funny, Mark,” said Craig.

      “Who asked you?” Mark snapped.

      “Please, gentlemen,” Arnold said.  “Mark, tell us about yourself.”

      “All right.  I like Astronomy, because I’m strong in math.  I went to Clark University and majored in it.  It was fairly easy for me to get into STAR and get an astronaut job.  I was probably gonna be head of the Science Department, but then this opportunity came along.  There’s so much money in this mission that I won’t even have to work once I get back.”

      Craig started to say something, but stopped himself.  Mark noticed.

      “What, Craig?  What were you gonna say?” he challenged.

      Craig declined to respond.

      “Were you gonna say that I’m a greedy bastard, and I shouldn’t just care about money?” he yelled.  Then he said in a mocking tone, “that I should care about the science, and not the money?  I should have passion for space and exploration, and not just for my wallet?”  He then got louder.  “Well go ahead and say it!  I’ve heard it before.  It’s easy for someone like you to say.  Some rich retard whose parents had to buy Clark University an airport just to get you in!”

      “Fuck you!” Craig yelled.  “I didn’t even say anything, but you just attacked me!”

      “You were thinking it, asshole!” Mark shouted.

      “Gentlemen, please,” Arnold said, but his attempt was useless.  The two men continued shouting at each other, until Arnold stamped his foot on the floor and yelled at the top of his lungs, “PLEASE!!!”

      There was silence.  Arnold continued.  “You’re done, Mark.  Craig, how about you?”

      Craig then launched into a ten-minute autobiography of his life and how he rose above adversity to achieve his dream.  He made sure to put emphasis on how his parents weren’t supportive initially, but once he convinced them of his passion, they were behind him all the way.  He talked about how everyone at STAR loved his charisma, and how the hardest thing for him about the mission was leaving his parents behind.

      Even Arnold was rolling his eyes by the time Craig was done with his speech.  “Thank you, Craig,” he said.  Seeing that Maria Wendall had fallen asleep, he just moved on to the next person.  “Jack, would you like to tell us who you are?  In eight million words or less, please.”

      This actually got a laugh from the likes of Mark and Ronald.

      Jack smiled.  “Nothing special about me.  I grew up in Raleigh, and found my love for Astronomy and psychology in school.  I’m leaving behind a son, but I’d prefer not to think about it.  And something you might not know about me is that I’m actually a woman, and I’m pregnant with Arnold’s baby.”  He said this with a completely straight face, because he didn’t find it particularly funny.  Neither did the rest of the crew, but he figured it was worth a try.

      “And finally, Jason, would you like to tell everyone a bit about yourself?” Arnold asked.

      “Not really,” said Jason.

      “Come on, everyone else has said something.  Let’s just finish this up.”

      Jason knew that Elliot hadn’t said anything, and he had skipped Maria, but he didn’t bring these things up.  A quick, involuntary glance at Lauren, then he spoke.  “I went to Whitman High School, where my name was Jimmy Brown.” He looked again at Lauren, but maintained eye contact, because he had an acceptable reason.  She too had gone to Whitman, had lived just down the street from him in fact, when his name was Jimmy Brown.  He had no way of knowing if Lauren had recognised him from this time, and of course Lauren offered no answer at this point.  “I changed my last name to Floyd after the character Heywood Floyd from 2001: A Space Odyssey, not after the band Pink Floyd.  I’m not leaving anyone behind.  I lived alone in an apartment before this mission began.”

      “And is there anything that people might not know about you?”

      Plenty, thought Jason.  But he just decided on the safest thing to say, “I enjoy writing in my spare time.  I don’t just play computer games.”

      “What do you write about?” Jack asked.

      The infamous question that Jason could never really find an accurate answer to.  “Everything.  Nothing.  All that stuff,” he said with a yawn.

      “I see,” said Jack, as he winked at him.

      “Well, Maria’s still asleep,” Arnold said, “and I wouldn’t mind turning the lights out a little early tonight.”

      A few people applauded, and Maria woke up (actually, she had just been pretending to sleep).  “Huh?  Where were we?” she asked.

      “We were just finishing up,” Arnold told her.  “Now you can go to sleep on your actual bed.”  He turned to the rest of the crew.  “All right, you can all move to your beds.  When the lights go out, it’ll be pretty dark, but we’ll still have the light from the cockpit if any of us need to move around.  David, you can start your shift now.”

      David O’Brian nodded and skipped out of the room to sweet privacy.  Arnold found the lights and turned them off as the crew found their customised beds and tucked themselves under.  Arnold found his bed and immediately fell into unconsciousness for the first full, healthy night of sleep he’d had in days. 
 

Chapter 18

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 7

Location: Light-years from the edge of the Milky Way 

      The first week of the mission went by quite uneventfully.  The astronauts were used to spending a week on board a tight spaceship with the same people, but they were still getting used to the irregularities of this situation.  The level of comfort was incredibly high, and the level of freedom had never been higher.  Unfortunately, the same thing went for the level of boredom.

      Jason Floyd would keep himself occupied on the computer, either writing or playing games, but he always had music playing.  The computer was the only thing on board with the capability to play music discs, aside from the portable disc-players of some of the other crewmembers.  Jason played Pink Floyd often, but not as often as some of the crewmembers assumed he might.  In fact, most of them enjoyed the music selection, having also been a part of the 20th century music comeback.  He had hundreds of discs, and would frequently play a disc from another crewmember when they so requested.

      The other crewmembers had other ways of keeping occupied.  Many of them had taken a large selection of books aboard, and they would exchange them with each other and discuss them.  Todd, Lily, Elliot, Craig, and Jack were like the ship’s personal book club.  People who were less literature-inclined like Ronald, Mark, and Maria would keep busy in other ways, such as frequently eating and showering, and occasionally making up games (with the help of Jack when he wasn’t reading) and playing them until they realised they were adults and stopped.

      The pilots didn’t have to concern themselves with recreation.  David slept all day with the aid of the drugs, and was only awake during the short period in which everyone else was preparing to go to sleep and after they all woke up.  Lauren woke up and went to sleep with the rest of the crew, leaving David at the helm and relieving him in the “morning.”  They stayed in the cockpit for almost the entire duration of their waking hours, and kept occupied by listening to music through portable disc-players, and occasionally reading a book.

      Arnold also spent most of his waking hours in the cockpit, simply looking out of the window and hypnotising himself with the motion of the stars.  He would take his seat in the front row, which was one empty seat away from Lauren’s.  She was usually listening to music, so they wouldn’t usually talk, but occasionally, they would exchange words.

      “This still hasn’t gotten boring to you?” Lauren asked Arnold one day after she finished listening to a music disc.

      Arnold was so entranced that at first he didn’t hear her.  “What?” he asked, caught off guard by the sound of her voice, which was rarely heard by any crewmember.

      “You don’t get bored just sitting there?” she asked.

      “No, not at all,” Arnold said amiably.  “I mean, it’s just so beautiful.  Don’t you think so?”

      Lauren stared out the window as if she hadn’t been doing just that for the past two weeks straight.  “Yeah,” she said.

      “What is it about nature that’s so inspiring?” Arnold asked rhetorically.

      Lauren seemed to think for awhile before answering.  “It’s not only nature that inspires,” she said.  “Don’t you ever get inspired by looking at something done by the hand of man?”

      “What, like a tall building?” asked Arnold.

      “Possibly,” said Lauren, trying to find the words to express what she meant.  “But I mean like artwork.”

      Arnold didn’t stop to ponder this.  “Oh, yeah, like one of those 2nd millennium artists?  Michaelangelo, or Picasso.”

      “Or graffiti,” said Lauren, almost to herself.

      “Graffiti?” Arnold asked, not disguising the confusion in his voice.

      “Haven’t you ever looked at something so ugly that it was beautiful?” she said.  “Abandoned buildings with graffiti all over them.  Every time I used to see one of those back in New York I could just stare for hours.”

      “I haven’t seen many,” confessed Arnold, “but abandoned buildings are so depressing.”

      “It depends on how you look at it,” explained Lauren.  “You look at a mountain and see beauty because it’s nature, pure and colourful.  I look at an abandoned building and I see a stronger emotion. People used to work there.  They lived and died there, and now all those people are completely forgotten.  The walls are covered in spray-paint from hundreds of different people who did it for hundreds of different reasons.  But it’s those people whose names are remembered.  Those who only touched it for a brief moment in their lives.”

      Arnold was dumbfounded.  He’d never heard so many words come out of Lauren’s mouth at a time, and these words seemed so profound.  “So what does all that mean?”

      Lauren didn’t pause to consider her answer this time.  “It means what you decide it means.  You love nature, because you have a mathematical mind.  All of these stars and planets inspire an emotion, but they can all be explained by simple principles of physics.  The meaning behind a man-made thing is much more abstract and artistic in nature.  The meaning can be left to your own interpretation.  That’s what I like about it.  It depends on your own perception.”

      Arnold had heard things like this before.  “You sound just like Jason.”

      Lauren didn’t respond.

      “He’s really into art and philosophy.  Interesting guy, but sometimes it’s just impossible to tell what’s going on in his head.”

      Arnold sighed heavily, and then thought of something else to say.  “So nature is beautiful through mathematical principles, and man-made things are beautiful for artistic principles.  What about humans themselves?  Are we beautiful by nature or by ourselves?”

      “If it was nature, then we’d all be beautiful,” said Lauren.  “But we’re mostly the product of what we make ourselves.  And the concept of beauty itself changes so often.”

      “What about people who have natural beauty?” asked Arnold.

      Lauren turned her head and noticed that Arnold was now staring directly into her eyes.  She swallowed and looked away, but then turned back to him with an answer.  “That’s also a matter of your own perception.”

      Arnold’s mind was now racing, because he was realising emotions he’d been suppressing since the moment he’d seen this woman at the medical inspection.  She was incredibly beautiful, but he’d been married then.  But now he didn’t have a wife, and he didn’t have a daughter.  Still, to him he had left only two weeks ago.  Yet it had been several thousand years on earth.  But it would be wrong to go after another woman so soon.  But his mother couldn’t even wait two months while his father was away on a mission…

      “And how do you ‘perceive’ me?” he asked, the thought of his unfaithful mother provoking him to shut it out of his mind and just take the risk.

      Lauren’s mind was racing too, but for very different reasons.  She did find the commander to be attractive physically, but she had felt the same way about some of her boyfriends back at school.  And those men abused her.  But this was a respectable man with a spotless reputation and a clearly kind heart.  But he was a man, and men abused her.  Abused her like her father…

      “I think you’re a nice guy,” she managed, the thought of her drunken father preventing her from saying anything that might encourage him.  But then she looked into his eyes, and she knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for.  His eyes, bright and brown, so innocent.  She could see inside him for an instant, and something told her that this was a man from whom she had nothing to fear.  “And you’re a very attractive man,” she said.

      Arnold’s smile was so casual and genuine that Lauren almost doubted its sincerity.  Nothing that real could possibly not be fake.  Yet she was still lost in his gaze.

      “I think you’re beautiful,” said Arnold, but then his face underwent a complete transformation.  He sat up straight and composed himself.  “But I’m the commander of this ship, and I shouldn’t get involved with anyone on the crew.  It would be too much of a conflict of interest.”  His tone then went soft for a second.  “I’m sorry.  I hope you understand.”

      I don’t understand why you bothered to pursue me just to reject me, thought Lauren, but she said, “Of course, I’m not really looking for a relationship anyway.”

      Arnold nodded and stood up, obviously upset with himself.  “Good, then we’re agreed.  I’m…gonna go back now.”

      He turned and left, relieved that nobody else had been in the cockpit to witness what he had just done. 

      People like to joke about how unrealistic soap operas are.  You have a cast of characters who go through so much drama in their lifetimes that it’s a wonder they haven’t all gone completely insane.  They have dozens of weddings, and many of which are marriages to the same person.  A woman will divorce a man for cheating on her with her best friend, but once she marries another, the man will decide he wants her back and then end up raping the woman who subsequently gets amnesia and forgets who she is while the man keeps her new husband trapped at the bottom of a hole somewhere while he tells her that he is her father…it goes on and on.

      Naturally, these plot lines are a little hard to swallow.  However, when you consider it, there really is no alternative.  The writers have the daunting challenge of working with only a select few characters and keeping the lives of these people constantly interesting.  And avid soap-opera fans (which I am not) don’t really care how impractical the plots are.  It’s entertainment.

      You can say the same thing about pro-wrestling, although in that respect, the challenge is even greater because there are not many plot lines to choose from.  One wrestler may turn on his best friend during a match by hitting him with a chair.  But that’s about as far as it goes.  Every other plot line is just a more intricate and complex form of the old chair-in-the-back betrayal. Avid pro-wrestling fans (which I am also not) don’t really care how simple or unbelievable the plots are.  It’s entertainment.

      Yet there is one thing critics of the soap opera fail to realise, and that is the limits placed upon possible plot-lines due to a select amount of characters.  In real life, we are constantly meeting new people and forgetting old ones.  In a soap opera, new characters may be created and some may be killed off (only to return from the dead again in some cases) but essentially the story stays within the same basic cast.

      This constitutes some examination.  If you look at the entire human population, you will find countless cases of people un-knowingly marrying their sister, or their long-lost husbands seeming to return out of nowhere once they’ve found a new love.  The question is are these instances just a fluke, or are they inherent in the social system?  If you halved the human population, would these things still happen?  What if you halved it again?  What if you only had a very small population of humans who interacted only amongst themselves?  Take twelve astronauts, for instance, aboard a spaceship on the way to another galaxy with no possibility of interacting with anyone outside of their own population?

      People fall in love.  That is bound to happen, and it does happen countless times.  There are billions of fish in the sea, as the infamous cliché goes, so it’s only natural some of those fish will pair up.  Yet when you reduce the population of fish by incredible factors, they still pair up.  Students in a High School or college usually end up pairing up with other people who are in the same school.  Patients locked up in a psychiatric hospital tend to pair up (against the wishes of the doctors) with other patients in the hospital.  This is natural.

      So then would it not be safe to say that this will happen in a population of any size?  There are billions of humans on earth, but there were once only millions.  People still fell in love.  You didn’t need another billion to choose from.  You choose from those you see, and if you only see a million, you’re going to choose from them.  And if you only see six or seven, you will choose from one of them.

      So if love can happen in a population of any size, then wouldn’t that go for the other soap opera clichés as well?  Love will happen in a group, no matter how many people are in it, so wouldn’t it be safe to say that betrayal would behave in the same way?  What about falling out of love, and falling in love with somebody else?  If you are locked in a small population for a long enough time, you may befriend your former rival, or get back together with an old fling.  How many people does it require for such things to happen?

      I believe these things are inherent in nature of human social activity.  Because of the nature of the human mind, there will be love, and there will be betrayal and forgiveness no matter how large or small the sample population is.  I believe that [many] soap-opera plots are perfectly believable when you consider the relatively small size of the cast of characters.  I believe that these basic manifestations of human nature will occur in a population of any number of humans.

      Of course, certainly there are some populations that are far too small for these things to happen.  At what population size does human nature kick in?  I believe that the answer to this question is three. 

      These were all theories of Jack Peskie, who paid close attention to the crewmembers as they went about their daily lives.  Everything he saw seemed to support this theory.  However, he didn’t have the whole story, so he could never fully understand why this was so.

      He watched carefully as a weeks days into the flight, the first request for cockpit-privileges went to the commander.  Lily and Maria wanted to have a private conversation, and Arnold instructed Lauren to leave the cockpit while the other two women went back to talk.  Lily invited Lauren to stay and talk with them, but Maria made a face and Lauren declined the invitation.

      The cockpit was now empty except for the two women.  They took two seats next to each other in the back row, and sat facing one another.

      “So, I don’t know about you,” Maria began, “but I can’t go on for much longer like this.”

      “It’s only been a few weeks, Maria,” said Lily.  “This is about the time a normal mission takes.  You’ve gone for a whole mission before without picking up a man.”

      “That’s different and you know it,” said Maria.  “This mission is going to take a whole year.  I can’t remember ever being single for that amount of time.  And besides, all of my thoughts have become so dirty.  I need to release my sexual urges somehow.”

      Lily smiled at her friend.  “Who did you have in mind?”

      “I don’t know,” lied Maria.  “There’s not too many of them to choose from.”

      “Come on, Maria, you know who,” teased Lily, seeing right through her.

      “Well, I think Mark is pretty attractive,” she said.  Mark Staff was the most muscular of the men on the ship, and Maria was attracted to strength.  “And he’s not so preoccupied with bullshit like the rest of the men on the crew.”  She also liked the rebellious, no-nonsense kind of personality.

      Lily made a curious face.

      “What?” asked Maria.  “Who would you want?  If you were to choose?”

      “Well, I wouldn’t choose Mark,” said Lily.  “He thinks he’s so tough.  He may be smart, but he’s not very intelligent.”

      “Would you rather have Craig?” asked Maria, jokingly naming the other scientist.

      “Dear God, no,” said Lily.  “I had someone a little smarter on my mind.”

      “So you do have someone on your mind?” asked Maria.

      “Todd,” said Lily.

      “Todd Blankens?” asked Maria, as if this was some sort of shock.

      “Do you know of any other Todd on this ship?” Lily remarked.  Then she proceeded to explain herself.  “He’s quiet, but he’s very smart.  He may not be all muscular like Mark, but he’s thin and has a pretty cute face.”

      Maria laughed.  “And he’s a medical officer, just like you.  I don’t know what it is about you medics and how you always stick together.”

      “What other men are there beside the other medics?” Lily challenged.  “You’ve got Arnold…”

      Maria laughed.

      “…and you can just forget about him,” Lily continued.  “Then there’s David, but he’s worse than Arnold.  I already mentioned Craig.  Jack…he’s kind of cute, but too weird.  And Jason…he’s not exactly what I would consider ‘boyfriend material’.”

      “I know what you mean,” said Maria.  “There’s nothing wrong with Todd, of course.  If you want him, you can have him.  Just leave Mark to me.”

      “And how do you plan to ‘get’ him?” asked Lily.

      “I’m a woman,” answered Maria, very matter-of-factly.  “It’s not very hard to seduce a man.”  Maria was one of those women who knew she wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but also knew that all she needed to get a man was two breasts and a smile.

      “And I don’t think a man like Mark will put up much of a resistance,” said Lily.

      Maria laughed again.  “You’re probably right,” she said.  “But I don’t have to respect a man in order to fuck him.  I know you probably do…”

      “I definitely do,” said Lily, but not harshly.  In some ways, she and Maria were two very different people, but they still connected on the level that counted.

      “Well, I’m going after my man.  You can do what you want with yours.”  Maria made a pompous face and rose from her seat.

      “And I’m sure Arnold will be thrilled when people start having sex in his bathroom,” Lily said without over-emphasising the sarcasm.  She got up and the two women walked back towards the living quarters.

      “Fuck Arnold,” Maria responded.

      “No thank you,” said Lily, “But if you want to, I won’t try to stop you.”

      Lily and Maria were both in hysterics when they returned to the living quarters, and with only a quick assessment of their skin-tones, Jack Peskie was able to figure out exactly what the topic of their conversation had been. 
 

Chapter 19

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 11

Location: Light-years from the edge of the Milky Way 

      Arnold Juciper was aware that the veil of stars in the window was getting thinner, and soon, they would all be behind the ship.  Most of the journey to the Andromeda galaxy would be through virtually nothing, outside of the galaxy, in the 2 million light-year gap between the Milky Way and Andromeda.

      On the day before the ship was scheduled to cross the orbit-line of the furthest star from the galactic core, and thus technically exit the Milky Way galaxy, Arnold Juciper made it clear that he wanted all astronauts awake and in the cockpit for this historic event.  No human being had ever been beyond the edge of the galaxy.

      That day went just like any other.  Jason played Meddle by Pink Floyd, which includes the song “Echoes” which he always played before a monumental part of a mission.  He didn’t warn the crew however, and those who had actually been paying attention to the music were frustrated by it.

      “What kind of crap is this?” complained Mark Staff.  “Is this the same song that was on 20 minutes ago?”

      “Yes, it is,” said Jason.  “This is Pink Floyd.”

      “Is he a relative of yours or something?” asked Mark.

      “It’s a band, and this music was recorded over a thousand years ago,” Jason informed him.  “This is classic.”

      “I like it,” Todd put in.  “It’s different.”

      “Thank you,” said Jason.

      “Well, I think it’s crap,” Mark insisted.

      “Me too,” said Maria, looking up from the romance novel she was reading.  “You don’t need a song to last an hour to get your point across.  And what was with all that shrieking?”

      “I suppose you’re a sklar, fan?” asked Jason.

      “Yes, I am.  That’s music,” said Maria.

      Jason rolled his eyes.  He was sick and tired of this debate.  Luckily, Todd jumped in for him.  “Sklar is not music,” he said.  “You rarely hear any instruments, and the lyrics sound like they were taken from a four-year-old’s fortune cookie.”

      Jason wanted to laugh, but he had a few problems with Todd’s analogy.  Specifically, four-year-olds didn’t have separate fortune cookies.  Todd had just pulled that out of the air, and it didn’t make any sense.  It hurt his mind to think about it.

      “You people just don’t understand,” Maria said.  “Right, Mark?”

      “I don’t listen to music anyway,” he said.

      Jason turned to Maria.  “What is it about sklar that’s so great?” he asked.

      “I don’t know,” said Maria.  “It’s just…”

      “It’s just that that’s what everybody else listens to?” Jason offered.

      “I just like it, all right?” she said.  “You don’t have to act like some goddamn baby about it.”

      Jason had no comeback, so he just re-started the song at full volume and went to get himself something to eat.

      Maria noticed an opening, and turned to Mark.  “Why don’t you listen to music?” she asked.  She moved from the floor up against her bed to the floor up against the bed next to Mark’s.  He had been sitting up against his bed, reading a book on quantum mechanics, and why travelling faster than the speed of light should be impossible.

      “I’d rather pursue my interests in a more sophisticated area,” he said.

      “Like jacking-off?” asked Maria.

      Mark put his book down and looked at her.  He saw the look in her eyes and recognised it immediately.  He thought for a minute, decided he didn’t want her, and went back to his book.  But his mind was no longer on quantum-physics.  His brain had already relocated to his penis, and now he was considering his alternatives.  Lauren?  No, she wouldn’t put out.  Lily?  Yeah, she was hot, but that would require some work.  Lily, like Lauren, didn’t care for him, and he knew it.  But Maria was ready and willing to satisfy his male hunger.

      Mark closed the book and tossed it aside.  Maria smiled and shifted positions to sit next to him.  They proceeded to talk about bullshit, and in less than half an hour, their tongues were down each other’s throats.

      From the kitchen area, Jason looked on in disgust.  From the floor by his bed, Jack looked on in amusement.  And from her bed Lily looked at Todd, hoping that he would not be so easy to get. 

      That evening, Arnold called together another of his patented group-discussions.  Everyone assembled in their various positions around the living quarters, hoping that the laws of physics would make this hour somehow move by faster.  Of course, they knew that over the course of the hour, the earth would travel around the sun thousands of times, but most of them preferred not to think about that.

      “Well,” Arnold began, “tomorrow we leave the galaxy.  I thought it would be appropriate to have a discussion about this.  I want to know what everyone else thinks.”

      “I think these discussions suck,” David’s muffled voice called from his bed.  He had just woken up, but he was still lying face down with his head against the pillow.

      “Not about the discussions, about leaving the galaxy,” Arnold explained, masking his impatience.

      “I stand by my opinion,” David said and pretended to snore.

      Arnold turned to the rest of the crew.  “This is a historic thing,” he said, “and I’d just like to know if anybody else is excited about it.”

      He turned to Craig Malls before the scientist even spoke.  “I think it’s incredible,” he said.  “No human being has ever gone this far before.”

      “No shit,” Mark said, unable to resist.  “I think we’ve already established that about eight thousand million times.”

      Craig was sick of feeling belittled.  “God, Mark,” he said, “where is your passion for space?”  He didn’t even look at Mark as he said under his breath, “how did someone like you become the best scientist in his field?”

      Mark nearly exploded.  “Listen up, you little shit!” he yelled.  “If I hear one more word out of you I’m gonna punch you so hard you’ll still be bleeding when we get home!”

      “Mark!” Arnold shouted.  “I will not have anyone threatening a fellow crewmember.  If you so much as lay a finger on Craig I’ll have you kicked off this crew so quickly you won’t even know what happened.”

      “Don’t listen to him,” David said from his bed.  “I almost killed us all, and nothing happened to me.”

      “David…” Arnold began.

      “I’m sorry,” Elliot Larken spoke up.  Immediately the room fell to silence.  The Silent Surgeon had spoken without being addressed.  “But do you think we could have an intelligent conversation for once?  I’m getting tired of these elementary school antics.  We’re supposed to be adults here.”

      “Thank you,” Arnold said as if he were a fifth-grade teacher who had just received the correct answer from one of his students.  “Is there anything you’d like to say, Elliot?”

      The surgeon looked up.  “Whether any of us care about it or not, this is a landmark occasion,” he said.  “Just like breaking free of the solar system a few centuries ago, or Earth’s atmosphere back in the 20th century.  We’re leaving the Milky Way.  Life on Earth has existed for billions of years.  And tomorrow, we leave our home galaxy.”

      Even Mark had to appreciate this. Jack was impressed with Elliot’s effect on people.  He remembered him from before Jupiter, and for the first time on the mission, Elliot had revealed just a bit of his former passionate self.

      “And this is the most significant of the breakthroughs in my opinion,” said Arnold.  “We’ll finally be in nothingness.  We were in nothingness when the Russians sent the first man into space.  But we were still in the Solar System.  We were in nothingness when the first mission to Alpha Centauri sent the first man beyond the farthest comets and out of the Solar System.  But we were still in the Milky Way.  But now, we’ll truly be in nothingness.”

      “We’ll still be in the local group,” argued Jason, “of galaxies.  This group of galaxies all bound together gravitationally.  We’ll still be in that.  And if we ever break free of that, we’ll still be in the universe.  And there’s no breaking free of that.”

      Leave it to Jason to offer a perfectly logical rebuttal to my argument, thought Arnold.  “That may be true,” he said, “but you still have to admit it’s a pretty large leap for mankind.”

      “Wait a minute,” said Lily, “who says we can’t break free of the universe?”

      “Physics,” Mark answered.  “You can’t break free of the universe.”

      “Why not?” Lily asked.  She was a Medical Officer, and didn’t have a strong background in cosmology.  But she did understand that cosmology was a purely theoretical science, and even those who devoted their entire lives to studying it didn’t know any more about it than she did.  “If there’s a universe, there must be something outside of it.”

      “When I was a kid,” Maria said, “I used to think that the universe was like a giant ball, and outside of it everything was white.”

      The intelligent members of the crew ignored her.  “There’s not necessarily anything outside of it,” Jason said in response to Lily.  “If you go by the Big Bang Theory, the universe itself is expanding, and at any given moment it’s infinitely larger than it was a moment before.”

      “How is that possible?” asked Lily.

      “It goes on the assumption that the universe itself is a tangible thing, and apparently the evidence seems to support it,” Jason seemed to be talking more to himself.  “Just look at how high speeds slow down the flow of time.  If the universe was nothing more than matter, how would that work?  There would be no limits at all.  Just thrusting for a long enough time could easily exceed the speed of light.  And there would be no smallest solid particle, whether it’s a neutron, or a quark or anything.”

      “You completely lost me,” said Lily.

      Mark decided his expertise was needed.  “At the beginning of time, the universe itself and everything in it was condensed into a particle smaller than your fingernail.  When it burst, it set the fabric of space and time into motion, and it’s been expanding ever since.  About sixteen billion years ago, every particle in your body existed in virtually the same space as the particles in every other object in the universe.”

      “That’s wild,” Craig said.  Somehow, Mark managed to ignore him.

      “But that’s what I don’t understand, though,” said Lily.  “How did all of that matter get there?  And what caused it to explode?”

      “Potentiality,” said Mark.  “All energy in the universe was potential energy, and by its very nature, it caused the particle it existed in to explode.”

      “But how did all that matter and energy get there?” Lily asked.

      “Science won’t explain that,” said Jason before Mark could offer his explanation.  “Scientists will tell you the same thing philosophers would.  Just the fact that the universe exists necessitates its origin.”

      “Could you please explain that in terms I can understand,” Lily said, now clearly showing her frustration.

      Jason sat up and talked directly to Lily.  “If the matter wasn’t there,” Jason said, “then we wouldn’t be here.”

      Lily nodded in half-comprehension.

      Jason continued.  “Basically, we know that the universe exists…or rather, we think it exists, and therefore, it had to have come from somewhere.  Matter and energy didn’t just appear out of nowhere, because technically, you can’t get something from nothing.”

      Mark interrupted Jason’s explanation.  “There was nothing there before the Big Bang, because time didn’t exist before then.  There was no before.  Space and time began there.  All of it.  Nothing came before.”

      “That’s impossible,” said Lily.

      “I agree,” said Jason, now talking to himself again.  “But when it comes to the origin of Existence, Science finds the limit of what it can and can’t explain.  The human mind can’t comprehend infinity, so it only makes sense that everything has a beginning.  But it also can’t comprehend how there could be any effect without a cause.  Which is the argument Science tries to put forth with the Big Bang Theory.  The effect is the universe, and we know that because the universe exists.  But the only thing that caused it is the effect itself.”

      “When you put it that way,” said Mark, “you make it sound like bullshit.  But there’s been millions of experiments to support it.”

      “Mostly thought experiments,” said Jason, “which anyone can do and come up with results that fit their own preconceptions. The human mind will always be limited in that area.”

      Arnold Juciper looked at the computer guy in amazement.  He’d forgotten how philosophical he could actually be.  And even Arnold, who loved to think about this kind of stuff, had to massage his temples because his head was hurting.  He was just thankful this hadn’t turned into a religious debate.

      “I suppose the next thing you’re going to say,” said Mark, “is that God put it all there.”

      Arnold’s thoughts immediately plummeted back beneath the clouds as he prepared to stop the conversation before it created more hostility amongst crewmembers.  Yet something stopped him.  He wanted to hear Jason’s answer.

      Jason involuntarily looked at Lauren, who was staring at him with absolute disinterest, then closed his eyes.  “No, Mark,” he said, “I would say that you put it all there.”

      “What!?” Mark exclaimed like somebody had just told him he was pregnant.

      “I believe in an infinite number of universes,” said Jason.  “This is just one of them, and it began with a Big Bang and will keep going until black holes swallow every bit of matter in Existence.  But there are other universes where matter isn’t composed of particles, and black holes don’t exist because they aren’t physically possible.”

      “What’s this about me putting all the matter into existence?” Mark asked.

      “You live in this universe right?” Jason asked coolly, not waiting for a response.  “Then you must have started it.  Your own existence implies it.  And because you are conscious in this universe, your consciousness must have started it.  So if it started, as you believe, with a Big Bang, then you set it into motion.”

      Mark stared at Jason in silence for a moment.  “I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.”

      To the shock of everyone, especially Jason, Lauren Samalc spoke.  “It’s existentialist idea,” she said.  “Everything exists because you believe it exists.  If you don’t believe that you exist, then you don’t.”

      Mark turned to Jason.

      “Exactly,” he said, perfectly containing the level of amazement in his mind at the fact that Lauren not only spoke for him, but that she understood his philosophy.

      “Well, you can take your crazy religion and just keep it because I don’t believe in any of that shit,” Mark said.

      “And therefore, none of that shit applies to you,” said Jason.  He turned back to Lauren, but she had already removed herself from the conversation.

      “I think…” Arnold said in a loud, authoritative tone, “…we’re done here.”  He waited for the standard sighs of relief from the rest of the crew, but there was only silence.  It seemed that not just Lauren, but everyone including Lily, was lost in thought.  “We’re leaving the Milky Way, and whatever you believe that implies, it’s happening tomorrow.” 

      Jason Floyd lied awake in his bed, face down, headphones on, listening to the live recording of The Wall, and staring at the picture he kept in his duffel bag.

      When “Comfortably Numb” came on, he had reached into his bag and dug out the small, laminated, black-and-white photograph from his High School yearbook.  He leaned over the edge of the bed, and with a mini-flashlight in the one hand, he stared at Lauren’s picture.

      He being the Computer guy, and Lauren being the Pilot, his bed was about as far from hers as it could get.  In some respects, he was thankful for that.  If he could just position himself to be able to watch Lauren sleep, he would never be able to close his eyes because he wouldn’t want to sacrifice a single moment of being able to see her.  Instead, he had the picture.  Lauren’s freshmen picture from High School that he carried with him on every mission.

      About a half an hour ago, as the rest of the crew went to bed, Lily had taken cockpit privileges to talk to Todd for some reason.  Apparently, she still had some things on her mind and Todd was the closest one to her to talk to.  David lay awake on his bed, waiting for the chance to go back and tend to the helm while the rest of the crew was asleep.

      Jason listened to his favourite song and examined the photograph for the eight billionth time.  Lauren’s picture had stood out on her page of the yearbook because she was the only one who hadn’t been smiling.  The rest of her class wore fake smiles, artificial hairstyles and makeup to look good for picture day.  Lauren wore nothing but her natural face.  Expressionless and beautiful, the only hint of a personality being the pain behind her eyes.  The pain that drove Jason crazy.

      Once he started shaking with desire, he stopped his music disc player and shoved everything back into his duffel bag.  It was just in time, too, because Lily and Todd came back from the cockpit.  Jason watched them as David left the living quarters and they made their way towards their adjacent beds.  He wasn’t surprised at all when they kissed each other goodnight. 

      The following day, all twelve crewmembers were seated as they had been on the day of the launch.  The view from the cockpit window was the most incredible sight any of the astronauts had ever seen.  Only a few stars remained, and because of the lack of natural light pollution, thousands of galaxies and galaxy clusters beyond the Milky Way could be seen.  Most of them were just patches of luminescent fuzz, still barely visible, but they were there.  The Andromeda galaxy could clearly be seen, still just a tiny patch of light, but now extremely clear.  There was even a hint of its purple colour.

      Arnold Juciper turned around in his chair.  “Jason,” he said.  “Is there any way we’ll be able to know when we’ve officially left the galaxy?”

      Jason Floyd motioned to have the keyboard handed to him.  “I can use the computer to calculate our distance from the galactic core and measure it against the average distance of the farthest known star from the galactic core.  When we exceed that distance, it’ll beep, but that’s about all.”

      “That’s good enough,” said Arnold.

      In less than a minute, Jason had it rigged.  The crew sat in silence as the last of the stars in the window flew by and disappeared behind the cockpit window of the ship.  The universe beyond the Milky Way was now completely open to view.  In a moment, the computer let out a tiny “beep” and their exit of the home galaxy became official. 
 

Chapter 20

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 23

Location: Light-years outside the Milky Way 

      It was time for the medical check-up on the crewmembers, and Lily Zaw volunteered to make the rounds this time.  She commandeered the computer from Jason, who left for the cockpit.  She then hooked up her MedScan to the system and went down the crew list.

      “Arnold,” she called.  “Commander, you’re up first,” she said.  Fresh out of the shower, Arnold Juciper made his way over to the computer.  “Take off your shirt and sit down,” she instructed him.

      Without hesitation, Arnold removed his shirt and sat on the chair for the computer with his back to Lily.  She raised the plastic apparatus and laid it against Arnold’s back.

      “So help me get this straight,” he said as the tiny device sent an electric current through his body, taking a full account of everything going on internally, “you’re hooked up with Todd now?”  He turned his head around.  “And Maria is with Mark?”

      “Yup,” said Lily, and the MedScan beeped, indicating it was finished.  She removed the data cube from it, and stuck it in the slot of the computer.  Instantly, the MedScan program flashed onto the screen, and Lily cycled through the automatic report to make sure Arnold was as healthy as he could be.

      “And this just sort of happened?” Arnold asked, aware that the Medical Officer didn’t much care for his personality.  He still wanted to get the information he desired.

      “Yeah, it’s amazing how members of the opposite sex can be drawn to each other somehow,” she answered, still scrolling through the screens.

      “You don’t have to be sarcastic,” Arnold said, putting his shirt back on and swivelling the chair around to face her.  “I just want to know what’s going on socially within my crew.”  He paused for a moment.  “It’s part of my job.  I’m supposed to know.”

      Lily turned to face him.  “They should add another crewmember.  In addition to the four medics, they should have a psychologist on the crew of every mission.”

      Arnold gave her a smile.  “That’s what Jack believes.  But he takes the job upon himself.”

      “So assign him the job of keeping us sane,” Lily said, turning back to the screen.

      Arnold sat in silence for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. 

      “You’re healthy,” Lily said.  “You can go now.”

      “What is it about me that you don’t like?” he asked, defying his natural tendency to spare himself direct emotional confrontation whenever possible.

      As if she’d been expecting the question, Lily said, “You’re arrogant and naïve.”  As soon as she said it, though, she felt bad.  “But don’t worry.  We don’t hate you.  You could just afford to loosen up a bit.”

      “Thanks, Lily,” he said, and stood up.

      “Get me Lauren,” Lily instructed him.

      Arnold made his way to the cockpit, and told Lauren it was her turn for medical inspection.  When she left, Jason was the only one left in the cockpit, sitting in the back row.

      “You can keep an eye on everything?” Arnold asked him.

      “Of course,” said Jason, and as Arnold left he was alone in the cockpit for the first time on the mission.  He decided he might as well take advantage of it.  “He’s curled into the corner,” be began to sing softly, “but still the screen is flickering with an endless stream of garbage to curse the place.  In a sea of random images, the self-destructing animal, waiting for the waves to break.” 

      “How are you, Lauren?” asked Lily as she put the MedScan against the pilot’s back.  Lauren had her shirt off, but still covering the front of her body.  Jason wasn’t around though, so nobody was looking anyway.

      “Fine,” she answered.

      “It doesn’t get lonely up there in the cockpit by yourself?” Lily asked as the device beeped.

      Quickly putting her shirt back on, Lauren turned back to face the computer as Lily examined it.  “Not really,” she said.  Then she added, “Nothing I’m not used to.”

      Lily turned to her and gave a sympathetic look.  “Aww,” she said, and turned back to the screen.  “I think you need a man.”

      Lauren didn’t answer her.

      Lily didn’t pursue it.  Maybe she was a lesbian, she thought.  It made sense in a shallow way, but for some reason Lily didn’t get that from Lauren.  She knew there was something wrong, but whatever it was, she didn’t want to talk about it.  And Lily knew it wasn’t her job to pry, so she just left it alone.

      Just leave it alone, Lauren thought, like everybody else.

      “You’re fine,” Lily announced.  “I guess you can go back to the cockpit.”

      “Thanks,” Lauren said, and left. 

      Maria sat on the chair, her shirt completely removed and tossed aside.  She had no shame in flaunting her large chest, and she smiled at Mark as Lily examined her.  Maria was “hungry”, and she knew that Mark was too.  This was the perfect opportunity.

      As if he were reading her mind, he got up and made his way to the bathroom door.  But he didn’t go in.  He sat on the bed nearest to it and continued to watch her.  Maria put on her shirt and waited for Lily to tell her she was done.  When Lily gave her the okay, she stood up and walked over to Mark without a word.

      Everybody in the living quarters watched as Mark opened the door to the bathroom and Maria walked in.  The he followed after her, and the door shut behind them.

      “Sweet, merciful Christ,” Arnold said under his breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear.

      Jack let out a loud, obnoxious laugh.  The rest of the crew also produced some nervous chuckling.  Most of them had been in this business for over ten years, but this situation had never come up on a mission.  They looked to Arnold, who just sat against his bed reading from his collection of STAR magazine.

      He hoped to God that he would be able to ignore it.  He knew he was going to have to.  He would have succeeded too, if after three minutes the noise didn’t begin.  The metal separating the bathroom from the rest of the ship was thick, and you weren’t really supposed to hear anything through it…

      Arnold knew what was going on.  Maria wanted to keep quiet, but Mark had said, “fuck that” and she let it all out.  He knew that was exactly what Arnold was afraid of, but he knew that Arnold couldn’t do anything about it.  As the first of the orgasmic shrieks came from the bathroom, Arnold threw his magazine against the ground, and covered his ears with his hands.

      The shouts of pleasure continued to fill the air, and the crew was silent.  The only sound that could be heard besides the hum of the tubes carrying the atmosphere to the living quarters were the cries of the ship supervisor as she was fucked senseless by the first scientist.  “Oh God, oh God,” she cried.  “Don’t stop, oh God.”  With each passing moment, the cries got more blatant and vulgar.  “Oh my God, faster, faster, FASTER!!!”

      With that, Arnold leapt to his feet.  He started to make his way towards the bathroom, although he didn’t have a clue as to what the hell he could possibly do.  Then he heard Mark.

      “Okay, slut, now you know what I’m made of,” he said.  “Now suck it!”

      “Yes yes YES!!!” Maria shouted.

      Arnold turned around and bent over, clutching his chest and gagging, fighting through the images in his mind to keep the vomit down.

      Jack Peskie, nearly bursting into hysterics, rushed to Arnold’s aid, gently tapping him on the back.  “It’s okay, Arnold,” he said.  “It’s just a natural expression of the love between a man and a woman.  Beautiful, in a way.”  Jack laughed along with the rest of the crew.

      Arnold’s face was completely red, and he broke into a coughing fit.  “Jack, talk to me in my office, please.”

      Jack walked into Arnold’s office, and Arnold staggered in after him, shutting the door behind him.  He bent over the trash bin on the side of the desk fully expecting to puke, but it didn’t come.  When his nausea had passed, he sat in his seat behind the desk.

      “Jack, what am I supposed to do?” he asked.

      Jack put his feet on the desk and leaned back in his chair, smiling.  “I can’t help you there,” he said.  “You’re the commander.  If you want to initiate a no-sex rule, I can’t stop you.  But I can almost guarantee you’ll have a mutiny on your hands.”

       Arnold shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “I can’t.  I had specific instructions from STAR that if this situation arose, I was not to stop it from happening.”

      Jack seemed to take this news with a mild surprise.  “So they actually did have some people who considered this mission from the psychological standpoint?”

      “You think that’s a good idea?” Arnold asked.

      “Of course,” Jack answered.  “You didn’t expect that this wasn’t going to happen, did you?  We’re on this ship for a year, and everyone we’ve ever had a commitment to is dead.  This is like some sort of demented sci-fi singles cruise.”

      “Maybe I thought a group of mature adults would be able to resist the temptation for at least a year,” Arnold said.

      Jack nodded.  “I’ll admit I didn’t think anything like this would happen so soon, but we’re not exactly a group of mature adults.”

      Now Arnold managed a short chuckle.

      “But seriously Arnold,” Jack said leaning inward, “are you expecting to go for a year without it?”

      Arnold straightened himself up.  “What?  Of course.”

      “You mean to tell me,” Jack said, “that there’s no one on this crew whom you’d like to bang?”

      Arnold’s eyes shifted quickly to the wall and then back to Jack.  “Of course not,” he said.  “I’m the commander.  Even if I have to let other astronauts get involved with each other, I shouldn’t have any special relationships with any of my crewmembers.  It would be too great of a conflict of interest.”

      Jack shook his head and smiled again.  Arnold was getting tired of Jack’s air of superiority when it came to these matters, but Jack didn’t care.  “Come on, Arnold, don’t give me that ‘devoted STAR Commander’ bullshit.  You’re a human being.  You have feelings, and natural bodily urges.  There are only three women on this crew.  I don’t think you’re capable of not becoming interested in one of them.” 
 “What about you?” Arnold said, turning it around on Jack.  “Which one of your fellow crewmembers would you ‘like to bang’?”

      Jack didn’t even stop smiling.  “Arnold, do you know how long I’ve gone without sex?”  He didn’t wait for Arnold to venture a guess.  “Over five years.  I think I can go for one more.”

      Even Arnold recognised the rarity in Jack referring to something from his own personal life.  “Why so long, Jack?” he asked.

      “I don’t think that’s important,” he said, “but if you must know, I’ve had a son to raise.  His mother was a drunk so I had to take care of him.  I didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to go around fucking other women.”  Jack was no longer smiling.  He was dead serious.

      “But as you said,” Arnold said, now recognising that he had the upper hand in this conversation, “everyone we’ve had a commitment to is dead.  You don’t have to remain faithful anymore, even to your son.”

      For the first time since Arnold had known him, Jack raised his voice.  “I’m not going to fuck anyone, Arnold,” he shouted, but quickly calmed down again.  “I at least owe it to my son to go through this mission without screwing around.  I’ve proven to myself that I don’t need a woman, and I’m not naturally drawn to any of the women on this crew.”  He then smiled again, and stole the upper hand just as quickly as he had lost it.  “But you are.”

      Arnold looked at Jack as if he’d just declared he was from an alien race.  “How would you know?”

      “Arnold, nobody is really as good at hiding their feelings as they think they are.  I’m not going to make you tell me anything, because I don’t think you need or want my help.”  Like Jason had.  “But I will tell you that if you want to be happy on this mission, you’re going to have to put aside some of your blind ethics and give in to a few of your natural desires.”

      Jack looked at Arnold, who said nothing.  He just rocked back and forth in his chair and stared at his desk.  Jack got up and left him to consider all these things.  He didn’t expect Arnold to heed this advice though.  Not yet. 

      The following day marked the time for the routine ship inspection, and that’s where Maria got her first chance to actually do her job.  The ship supervisor first cycled through all the ship’s status reports on the computer, and then went through a manual check.

      While she inspected the cockpit, Lily and Todd sat against Lily’s bed and talked to each other.  “So how do you feel about it?” Todd asked.

      “I don’t know,” Lily said.  “I mean I want to do it, but it seems a little soon, you know?”

      “Yeah, but what’s the purpose of waiting?” Todd asked.  “Arnold already said he’ll allow it, as long as the women have taken their birth control.”

      “And Maria and I have certainly done that,” Lily said.

      “So why wait any longer?” asked Todd.  “I realise it may sound like I’m talking with my hormones, but none of us have ever been in this situation before.”

      “I know what you mean,” she said.  “But you must have some reservations.  You just got divorced a few months ago.”

      “Hundreds of thousands of years ago,” Todd corrected her.  She smiled, and he continued.  “I know, and part of me tells me it’s wrong, but the way Mark and Maria were carrying on yesterday…”

      “…I know,” Lily said.  “But if we do it, we’re going to be quiet about it, you understand?”

      Todd laughed.  “I would have said the same thing to you.”

      Lily seemed to be thinking for a moment.  “You know, it just occurred to me that holding back would be a very ‘Arnold’ thing to do.”

      “What do you mean?” Todd asked.

      “Well,” Lily explained, “Arnold has all these morals and ethics that don’t really mean anything.  The part of us that tells us it’s too soon is that same part.  It’s not like there’s any real reason for us to hold back.”

      “You know, you’re absolutely right,” Todd said.  By now his penis was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer anyway.  He was actually afraid of himself when he was like this.  Sex was the number one priority right now.  If somebody were to start coughing up blood at that moment, he would rather go fuck Lily than offer his medical help.

      So the two of them got up and went to the bathroom.  Mark shouted some lewd remark, and the rest of the crew continued with what they were doing.  Somehow, this had already become routine.

      Maria didn’t ask where Todd and Lily were when she came back to inspect the living quarters.  She did a short scan of the outer walls, making sure there were no cracks or anything, and then proceeded to the last part of her inspection.

      She had to go make a visual check of the engine room, and the only way to do that was to go through the pipes.  They were the large tubes that ran parallel from the holes above the kitchen area over the lander and back to the powerhouse, or “engine room” where the light energy was stored and the atmosphere was constantly being generated.

      Craig looked up from his book when he saw Maria climbing up the rear counter and into the pipes.  He didn’t notice, but Mark shot him an evil glance.  Mark didn’t know that Craig was just surprised that people could actually go through those pipes; he thought that the other scientist was checking out his girlfriend’s ass.

      When Maria came back through the pipes, Craig got up and went over to her.  “I didn’t know you could go back there,” he said.  “What’s it like?”

      Maria rolled her eyes.  “You’ve never seen a ship supervisor go through the pipes to the engine room before?”

      “No,” Craig said innocently.  Mark got up from the floor and made his way to the kitchen area where the two of them were standing.

      “It’s just a bunch of fans and blowers from the ground,” Maria answered Craig.  “There are ducts running along the ceiling that carry the light energy from the solar panels to the thrusters.  That’s all.”

      “Can I go see it?” Craig asked.

      “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up and leave her alone?” Mark said.

      Craig didn’t even realise Mark was there, and he jumped at the sound of his voice.  “Oh hi, Mark.  I was just asking her…”

      “…I don’t care what you were asking her,” he said, “she’s mine and you can’t have her.”

      “I don’t want her,” Craig said strongly, but then reconsidered his statement.  “I mean, it’s not that I don’t think she’s attractive, I just…”

      “Maybe you should just stop talking, Craig,” said Maria.

      “No,” Mark argued, “I want to hear what he has to say.”

      Craig scanned the room, trying to locate Arnold, but the commander was in the cockpit.  Nobody else was paying attention.  “Um…I just, she’s yours like you said, and you can have her.”

      “Why thank you, Craig,” Mark said with a vicious smile.  He stepped up right next to Craig, dwarfing the small scientist with his bulky, muscular body.  “Now would you mind telling me why she’s yours to ‘let me have’?”

      Maria enjoyed watched Mark defend her, but this was getting to be too much.  “Mark, you know he was just asking me a question.  You don’t have to get hostile.”

      Mark seemed to think that Maria was turning against him.  “Oh, so you’re on his side now?  Well, why don’t you just go fuck each other?!”

      Craig was now extremely nervous.  “Look, Mark, it’s okay, I didn’t want to…”

      Mark was frustrated.  He hated this little shit scientist and hated the fact that he had to work next to him. And Maria was his.  He was the extremely jealous kind, the one who used to beat up on the kid at school who was interested in his girlfriend.  And the one who would stalk his ex-girlfriend when she dumped him and went out with the kid he’d beaten up…

      With a shout of rage, Mark, clenched his fist and socked Craig with maximum force on the left side of his face. 
 

Chapter 21

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 24

Location: Light-years outside the Milky Way 

      The sudden commotion coming from the living quarters startled Arnold out of his conversation with Lauren in the cockpit.  As he ran back to see what was going on, Lauren followed, also curious to see what had happened.

      Arnold was not prepared for what he saw.  The medical officers were huddled around Craig in the back of the room.  He was bent over and bleeding from the nose.  Mark stood with Maria, looking on in silence, and Jack was already making his way to the cockpit to tell Arnold what had happened.  When the commander entered the room, the commotion stopped.

      “I don’t want to hear anything,” Arnold said.  “Let Todd and Lily stop the bleeding, then send Craig into my office.  I’ll let him tell me what happened.”

      Arnold stormed into his office and sat at his desk, sweating out the few minutes of uncertainty before he would learn what exactly had taken place.  Luckily, he didn’t have to wait too long.  Craig came staggering into his office, holding a tissue against his nose.

      “What the hell happened?” asked Arnold.

      “Mark punched me in the face,” said Craig.

      The confirmation of Arnold’s assumption only served to enrage him.  Arnold slammed his fist down on the desk and shouted, “Why?  Why does my crew act like a bunch of fucking first-graders!”

      Craig offered no explanation.

      “What happened?” Arnold asked again.  “Why did he punch you?”

      “I don’t know,” said Craig, “he just got really angry.  I think he thought I was trying to steal Maria from him.”

      Arnold nodded.  “This is why I didn’t want to allow relationships,” he said as if he’d feared this all along.  “They fuck with the mind even more than isolation.”

      Craig continued to stare at the commander in silence.

      “Well?” Arnold exclaimed as if he had been waiting for Craig to say something.  “Is there anything else?”

      It was obvious that Craig didn’t know what else to say.  He just stared dumbly at the commander.

      “Get Mark in here,” Arnold said angrily.

      “What are you going to do to him?” Craig asked nervously.

      “That’s not your concern,” said Arnold.

      “Well, commander,” Craig began, “I just don’t want you to do anything that will make him more angry at me.”

      Arnold dismissed this idea as if it were completely unreasonable.  “When I’m done with him, the last thing he’ll want to do is hurt you again.  Now get out and send him in here.”

      Arnold watched as the second scientist left the room and the first came in; the look on his face was eerily similar to the one David O’Brian had had when he came into his office on Space Station Getaway.

      “What the hell did you think you were doing?” asked Arnold.

      Mark rolled his eyes.  “He had it coming,” was all he said.

      “Oh really?” asked Arnold.  “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind explaining the reason behind this number-one-scientist logic of yours?”

      Mark shot Arnold an evil glance.  “The guy’s a fucking moron,” he said.  “He doesn’t know anything about science, and he’s a rude little shit.  He’s had it coming for a long time.”

      “I know that Craig isn’t the sharpest knife in the cabinet,” said Arnold, “but out of all of us, he’s probably the most passionate about his job, and this mission.  You have to put up with him sometimes.  You may think he’s rude, but some people would say the same about you.  Now what’s this business about Maria?”

      “What?” asked Mark, as though he didn’t know who Maria was.

      It was Arnold’s turn to roll his eyes.  “Craig said you hit him because of a fight over Maria.  What happened?”

      “Oh,” said Mark, thinking that if he didn’t say the right thing, Arnold might forbid him from fucking Maria again, and then things would get really ugly.  “He was insulting her.”

      “Craig was insulting Maria?” Arnold said with more than a hint of scepticism.

      “Well, yeah, he was insulting her intelligence.”  That was the truth as far as Mark was concerned.

      At this point, Arnold didn’t care.  “But you punched him?” he asked.

      “Like I said, he had it coming,” Mark stuck to his story as if this were a perfectly legitimate defence.

      “Do you know what the penalty is for assaulting a crewmember?” asked Arnold.  “A warning?  No, I already gave you one for threatening.  Demotion?  No, that’s part of it, but not the part that’s going to get you.”

      “What!?” Mark shouted in fear and fury.

      “I’m afraid I have no choice but to kick you off this crew,” said Arnold.  “When we return to Earth, STAR will decide what to do with you.  You’ll probably get demoted.  But for the rest of this mission you’re the equivalent of a passenger.  Your duties as a scientist are hereby relieved, and your name will be removed from the official crew list.  And no more cockpit privileges.  You can only go in the cockpit when the entire crew is gathered there for a flight manoeuvre.”

      Mark was stunned.  He could only think of one thing to say.  “What about my name ball?  Does that still go in Andromeda?”

      A name-ball was a sacred artefact when it came to the astronauts of the STAR Administration.  Arthur Romband had thought of the concept.  On any historic mission, first-rendezvous or first landing, each member of the crew would be supplied with a ball containing their name and signature.  This ball was made of virtually indestructible material, and would be released into orbit of the object rendezvoused with or left on the surface of the celestial object landed on.  It was a way for Mankind to leave their mark on what they explored.  If a planet became colonised, the name balls would be retrieved and placed in a museum. To have a name ball somewhere in space was considered the greatest honour an astronaut could receive.  And the name balls of the Andromeda astronauts would be the only indication that Mankind had ever visited the galaxy once the mission was over.

      “Your name ball,” Arnold said, “will be shredded up and disposed of with the rest of the garbage during the next dump.”

      For a moment, Mark was speechless.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  He had sacrificed his life to go on this mission that would take him away from every aspect of life as he knew it, and now it was virtually all for nothing.  “That’s not fair,” he protested.

      Arnold shook his head.  “I gave you a warning,” he said.  “You chose to disregard it.  What I’m doing is perfectly fair.  It’s what I’m required to do by the rules of the STAR Administration.  You were aware of those rules when you chose to break them by physically assaulting another crewmember.”

      “This is bullshit!” Mark yelled.  “David O’Brian almost kills us all, and all he gets is a slap on the wrist.  All I do is hit someone, and now you’re practically throwing my life away!”

      “The situation with David was different,” said Arnold.  He had feared that Mark would bring this up, because this was a perfectly legitimate point, and on one level, he agreed.  David should have been fired and charged with attempted murder.  But the bureaucracy was no longer in control.  He had the power to do what he believed was right this time, and he was going to do it.

      “How is it different?” Mark asked in desperation.

      “I know why David did what he did,” this was what Arnold had been telling himself all along.  “In essence, I provoked him.  But that was before the mission even began, so most of it was out of my jurisdiction.  But I’m in control now, I’m kicking you off this crew, and as far as you’re concerned, it doesn’t matter what David O’Brian did.  Now get out of my office.”

      That was when Mark shot him the look.  It was the look that Arnold recognised from David O’Brian.  That same look of murderous rage behind his eyes that had been haunting Arnold in his sleep.  Mark got up and left the room, closing the door behind him.  Arnold took a deep breath, and tried to convince himself that he hadn’t just made a huge mistake. 

      Craig Malls was wide-awake in the middle of the night.  He was too nervous to sleep.  He’d heard what Arnold had done to Mark, and he couldn’t imagine how terrible Mark must feel.  He saw the murderous rage in Mark’s eyes as well, and fear ate away at his stomach.  He had spent the rest of the day in the cockpit, not wanting to even be in the same room as Mark.

      Craig hoped that it would blow over.  Eventually, Mark would accept what had happened, and be okay with it.  And maybe, if Mark behaved just right, Arnold might decide to let him back on the crew.  It was a possibility.  It was the best Craig could hope for.  At the first opportunity tomorrow, Craig planned to apologise to Mark, and share with him his hopes that he could get Mark placed back on the crew.

      Still, he couldn’t shake the horrible feeling he had in the pit of his stomach.  His nose had stopped bleeding a long time ago, but his head ached in fear.  He couldn’t block the look in Mark’s eyes from his head.  Just because he’d talked to Maria, he thought.  He didn’t even want her.  She had nice breasts, but…

      Craig’s thoughts were interrupted by a sound.  He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, not daring to move his head.  The sound was coming from the kitchen.  Probably just someone wanting a midnight snack.  Craig could go for a midnight snack himself.  He hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  But Arnold had said he didn’t want people getting up to eat at night, and he was too afraid to move.

      He heard one of the cabinets open, and the unmistakable sound of silverware being sorted through.  Just a fork, he thought.  Or a spoon.  Maybe whoever it is just wants some pudding.  In a moment, he would hear the food storage refrigerator open.

      He didn’t.  He heard the sound of footsteps coming closer.  Closer to him.  Craig shut his eyes, the sound of approaching footsteps muffled out by the sound of his own heart pounding furiously.

      The sound of the approaching continued, getting closer and closer, and then, when they couldn’t have been any louder, they stopped.  Craig’s eyes were shut so tightly that his eyelids started to ache.  He held his breath, but still heard breathing.  The breathing was coming from right over his head.

      It got slower and slower.  Inhaling and exhaling.  Then inhaling again.  And finally exhaling.  Then nothing.  But then a long period of inhaling.  Then nothing again.  Still nothing.  Nothing…

      The instant Craig opened his eyes, they once again met the murderous glare of the eyes of Mark Staff.  It took him a moment for his mind to assure him that this was not just a vision.  In the instant before his heart stopped beating, Craig screamed so loudly that a deaf baby in the caves of Jupiter would have been able to hear him through the soundless vacuum of space. 

      From the cockpit, David O’Brian heard the scream, and instantly jumped to his feet.  He’s actually doing it, he thought to himself.  Crazy bastard.

      David smiled and ran to the back of the cockpit to peer into the living quarters to see if the scream was coming from Craig or Arnold.  Before his eyes could adjust to the darkness, the lights for the living quarters flickered on, and the sight of blood spurting everywhere caught David off guard.

      Immediately, the pilot turned around and ran back to his seat, trying to keep himself from vomiting.  He wanted nothing more than to see Arnold get his throat cut, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle the blood.  He stared at the instruments, trying to shake the image from his mind. 

      In his dream, Arnold Juciper had returned home from a successful mission to find that Ellen and Rachael were still there, waiting for him.  He hugged his daughter and she cried with joy at seeing him.  But when he went to hug Ellen, she screamed.  He asked her what was wrong, but she just kept on screaming until…

      …until Arnold realised that the screams were coming from inside the ship.  He opened his eyes and jerked himself out of bed, trying to find the source.  Jack Peskie flipped the lights on, and Arnold caught sight of Mark Staff, hovering over Craig Malls’s bed with a butcher knife, violently stabbing him in the stomach.

      Arnold tried to shout, but no words came out of his mouth.  The screaming stopped as the last bit of life poured out of Craig’s body.  The rest of the crew was just coming to their senses when Mark leapt to his feet and waved the knife around in the air to threaten anyone who might try to come after him.

      “Stay away from me,” Mark shouted in a voice of pure madness.  “Everyone just stay the fuck away from me, and in a minute, it’ll all be over.”

      Arnold stood with his bed between him and Mark, and the pool of blood that was spreading over the floor.  He nodded at the rest of the crew, who all backed up to the edges of the room, leaving Arnold to deal with Mark somehow.

      “Mark,” Arnold managed to say.  “Jesus fucking Christ!” he realised he hadn’t the slightest idea what to say.  “You killed Craig!”

      “No shit,” Mark shouted, the crazed look still in his eyes.  In spite of his madness, he knew exactly what he was doing.  He was getting revenge, as well as helping the crew get rid of their inconveniences.  Craig had caused this to happen to him, and nobody liked him anyway.  He was completely useless.  Just an annoyance.  And Arnold had done this to him…Arnold wasn’t helping this crew at all…

      “Kick me off the fucking crew, will you?” he said.  “Well, as soon as I take care of you, I’ll be back on.  It’s your name ball that’s gonna be shredded.”

      “Mark, you’re crazy,” Arnold said trying to remain calm.  “Just calm down and we can figure this out.  Put down the knife, and I promise that nothing bad will happen to you.”

      Without warning, Mark leapt over the beds between him and the commander, rapidly closing the space between them.

      Arnold had no time to think.  He had no defence.  Mark had a very large, very sharp knife, and an obvious amount of strength.  He turned to run, but it was useless.  Mark was right on top of him.

      But just as the futility of his situation occurred to him, Arnold was blessed with hope.  Elliot Larken had reached back into a compartment where the EVA suits were held, and pulled out an MMU backpack.  “Hold him off!” Elliot shouted.

      As Mark dove for him across Arnold’s own bed, the commander grabbed Mark’s left arm with both of his own, stopping the knife.  With Mark’s free hand, he punched the commander across the face.

      Elliot was now running towards them as fast as he could, clutching the impossibly heavy MMU backpack, solid lead and filled with fuel.

      Arnold involuntarily brought his right hand to the part of his face that Mark had hit, and Mark managed to bring the knife down and cut deep into Arnold’s arm.  The commander yelled out in pain, but brought his right hand back to grab Mark’s other arm, to try to hold off the inevitable triumph Mark’s strength would have over his.

      In an instant, however, Mark’s strength was drained, and he dropped the knife on the ground as his knees buckled underneath him.  Elliot had raised the backpack over his head and brought it down on the back of Mark’s skull.

      Immediately, before Mark regained his orientation, Arnold bent down and picked up the knife.

      Mark had no idea what had just happened.  All he knew was that he was about five seconds away from stabbing Arnold through the heart when he felt a searing pain in the back of his skull and his head started spinning.  By the time he could shake himself out of it, Arnold was above him with the knife.  All hope was lost just as suddenly as his position on the crew had been taken from him.

      “Mark,” Arnold said, trying to sound powerful, “I’m placing you under arrest of the STAR Administration.  Once we get back to Earth, you will be put on trial for murder, and with nine eyewitnesses, you don’t have a prayer of acquittal.”

      Mark Staff leapt to his feet, the madness behind his eyes now fuelled by the complete lack of hope.  He stared at Arnold in disbelief.  How had this happened to him?  This morning he’d been fine.  He’d been screwing his girlfriend, perfectly content with his position as the first scientist on the most important mission known to mankind.  Now he had been kicked of the crew and arrested for murder.  What the fuck had happened?

      Arnold watched as Mark’s eyes darted across the room to the small box a few feet from the computer.  The hatch to the airlock of the garbage chute.

      “There’s not going to be any trial,” Mark yelled, and he leapt past Arnold to the tiny airlock.  He punched the button on the side of it, and the door spiralled out of the way, revealing the space where the crew threw their garbage before opening the other end and letting it spill out into space.  “I’m fucking finished with being at your mercy.  I’d rather be dead than take any more orders from you.”

      Arnold shot a look at Elliot who was prepared.  He threw the knife to the ground and rushed towards the garbage chute.

      But they were too late.  Mark had shoved himself into the tiny compartment, and closed the hatch.  Arnold pounded the button, but the hatch didn’t open.  While the outer hatch was open, the inner hatch had to remain shut.

      In a few seconds, the inner hatch opened, revealing nothing but an empty area.  Mark had sucked himself out into the void.  By the time the crew realised what had happened, he was already dead. 
 

Chapter 22

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 25

Location: Light-years outside the Milky Way 

      At this point, you may be thinking, “that’s a little hard to swallow, man.”  And I wouldn’t blame you, because it certainly is.  But I’m going to assume that if you’re still reading this, you either like it, or you’re one of those people who won’t give up on a book no matter how excruciating it is to read.

      So surely you can appreciate that it doesn’t matter how “hard to swallow” it is.  If you’ve already suspended your disbelief enough to believe that a group of humans can travel to the Andromeda galaxy and be back in only a year, than surely this leap of faith would be no problem for you.  And who knows, maybe you’re actually glad that something interesting finally happened.  If you are, then you’ll be happy to know that there will be plenty more events that are even more illogical than this last one.  But to take your mind off of it, how about a nice astronomical tid-bit?

      Since we’re talking about galaxies, it may interest you to know that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the known universe.  Now, since this number is basically incomprehensible to us humans, there are a few analogies.  First, if you took every human being that has ever lived on Earth, those who have died and those who are alive now, and sent one to every galaxy we know of, you’d still have billions of galaxies left over.  Second, if you took every grain of sand on every beach and turned each of them into a galaxy, there would still be more galaxies in the known universe than the amount you just made.

      I could go on for awhile about this, but you get the idea.  There are a whole lot of galaxies in the universe.  “So what does this mean to me?” you might ask.  “Why the hell should I care how many damn galaxies there are in the universe?  I’m never going to leave this one.  I’m perfectly happy sitting here reading this book even when I could be doing something productive with my day; which, by the way, is not counting how many grains of sand there are in the beaches of world.

      Well, you have a point.  But consider it from a somewhat deeper perspective.  That’s how many galaxies there are in the known universe.  That’s not to say that there aren’t billions or even trillions more in the entire universe.  And everything we know to be true only holds true for this galaxy and the few around us we can actually study.  Yet if there are so many other locations in the universe, would it not be fair to hypothesise that these Absolute Truths may not hold true everywhere?  There could be another galaxy out there where the better something tastes, the better it is for you, and the lazier you are, the more successful you’ll be.

      Or maybe there isn’t.  Perhaps it’s all just stars and rocks, forever and ever in every direction.  And Earth really is the only planet in the universe where intelligent life has evolved.  And now that I’ve depressed you with science, I’ll go back to depressing you with science fiction. 

      None of the crewmembers got back to sleep on the night Mark killed Craig and then took his own life.  None of them even tried.  Not much was said throughout the entire day.  The mood was a combination of shock, sadness, and anger.

      The crew spent the day cleaning up.  It took several hours to clean off all the blood from the floor, and after several failed attempts at cleaning the bloodstained bed sheets, they sent them out the garbage chute.  Craig’s body was not tossed, however.  The crew didn’t feel it was appropriate to just toss a corpse into space, but there was also the issue of what to do with it.  They couldn’t just keep it in the corner somewhere to rot away.

      Maria Wendall offered the solution.  The engine room, where the atmosphere was created, was at near-freezing temperatures, and it would slow down the decaying process by so significant an amount that his body would be perfectly intact even after returning to Earth.  So after wrapping the body, Todd entered the pipes and pulled it back to the engine room.  After setting the corpse down in the corner of the room, which was very cold and breezy from the giant fans in the back circulating the air, Jason used electronic rope to hoist Todd back up into the pipes and to the living quarters.

      Electronic rope was a very handy tool for use in space.  It was a very thin yet incredibly strong rope made from a wire material that could pass an electric current through it.  The rope was stored in a black box about the size of a toaster-oven; one end protruding from a hole in the box and the other end firmly attached to the inside.  The box contained controls which would allow the user to manipulate the rope, giving and taking away slack, and even tying knots without ever touching the rope itself.  After using it to hoist Todd up from the floor of the engine room, it became Jason’s favourite toy.

      Arnold had a large gash across his arm that he was lucky hadn’t cut through any veins, but would definitely leave a scar.  Lily bandaged him up and told him it should be completely healed in about a week.  Arnold spent the rest of the day moving from his office to the cockpit, only entering the living quarters to eat meals.  The trauma of the incident had apparently reached him in a place the rest of the crew had never seen before.  He hadn’t even acted like this when David almost destroyed the space shuttle and the crew with it. Some people wondered if they were about to see a new Arnold.

      But by night, Arnold called together another group discussion.  He still had that troubled look in his eyes, but his demeanour seemed the same as it had for all of the previous group discussions.  He sat on his bed while the others took their places on the floor, wondering if and how this discussion would be different.

      “All right, everyone,” said Arnold in the same voice he began every speech with.  “We’ve all had a pretty big scare.  For many of you, this is probably the first time you’ve lost a fellow crewmember during a mission.  Although some of you have been unfortunate enough to lose many.”  He looked at Elliot, whose dangerous adventures on Jupiter had cost the lives of more astronauts than he cared to remember.  “I think the best thing to do is just talk about it.  If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but I think if everyone just shares their feelings about this, we can face it and move on.”

      All eyes in the room met his for a moment.  “But first things first,” he continued.  “We’ve lost both scientists.  Who here was trained as the back-up?”

      “I was,” said Elliot.

      “Okay, then on top of your duties as a surgeon, you’ll take over the responsibilities of the scientists.  But you won’t have to worry about them until we reach Andromeda.”  Arnold waited for Elliot to nod, and he did.  “Okay, everything’s cleaned up.  Craig’s body is being preserved in the engine room.  Is there anything else I haven’t mentioned?”  Nobody said anything.  “Well, then let’s begin.  I guess this should be more of an informal discussion.  Is there anything anyone would like to say?”

      For a moment, there was silence.  Then David O’Brian of all people broke it.  “I think Mark did the right thing.”

      A few crewmembers shouted at him, but most of them just rolled their eyes.

      “Craig was so annoying,” David continued.  “He got what was coming to him.  And if you ask me, he didn’t even belong on this mission anyway.”

      Arnold just shook his head, waiting for somebody to say something in contradiction to this.  But when nobody jumped at the chance, he said it himself.  “David, you can’t honestly believe that being annoyed by someone would justify murder?”

      “I didn’t really like Craig either,” Lily put in.  “But I don’t think he deserved to die.  And sure, he wasn’t the brightest mind among us, but he was certainly very passionate about his job.”

      “Are you saying that Mark did deserve to die?” David challenged her.

      “Yeah, anyone who murders somebody else in cold blood deserves to die.  An eye for an eye, that’s my philosophy.”

      “Oh, don’t start the capital punishment debate,” said Jack.

      “Well, what do you think?” Lily asked him.  “You think Mark didn’t deserve to die?”

      “Well, he chose to die,” said Jack.  “But it’s a shame his death was so clean.  All he had to do was put up with a minute or two of suffocation and then quietly pass out.  And think of the view he had while he died…man, I hope the last thing I see before I die is as spectacular as that.”

      “So you think he did deserve it?” asked David.

      “Look,” said Jack, “I don’t care where you stand on capital punishment; you’re wrong.  If you think it’s immoral to take an eye for an eye, you’re naïve.  If you think everyone should fry for their mistakes, you’re ignorant.  Do I think Mark deserved to die?  No, I think he should have had to suffer through prison instead of just a few measly seconds of oxygen depravation.  But do I think he was justified?  Dear God, no.”

      “Look,” Todd Blankens spoke for the first time during this discussion.  “I was probably Craig’s closest friend on this mission.  And even with that, I wasn’t even very close to him.  There’s no question he was out of place among us.  But you have to learn to tolerate that.  Craig wasn’t a bad guy.  He was actually a very kind person.  You have to look beyond his weaknesses.  Mark couldn’t do that.  For some reason, he just couldn’t tolerate Craig, and that’s why he did what he did.”

      “That’s why he punched him,” said Ronald Stark.  The other surgeon had almost been as silent as Elliot had on the mission, so his voice seemed to carry a bit more power to it.  “But not why he killed him.”

      “Why did he kill him?” asked Todd.

      “I don’t want to point fingers here,” said Ronald, “but you have to look at his situation.  Mark was the first scientist on the most incredible mission ever put together by the STAR Administration.  So he had a short temper.  That’s not a felony.  And neither was punching Craig.  Yet after he made that one mistake, he suddenly lost everything.  He was kicked off the crew.  He was going to have to sit in this spaceship for another ten months while the rest of us did our jobs and he would be forgotten.  His name would be off the crew list, and even worse, he wasn’t even going to release his name-ball, to put his mark in the galaxy we’re going to explore.  This is a man who had a life back home.  And just like all of us, he left it behind.  He left behind everything to do this, and because of what Arnold did to him, it all suddenly meant nothing.  I don’t condone murder, but I can definitely understand what drove Mark to it.”

      The crew was now painfully silent.  Arnold didn’t even chance to look at any of the crewmembers.  The guilt was too strong.  Had he acted too harshly?  In some way, were these deaths his fault?  Was their blood on his hands?

       “You know what?” Maria broke the silence.  “You’re absolutely right.  I was almost thinking the same thing, but you just put it beautifully.”  She looked at Ronald like this was the first time she’d recognised the fact that he existed.

      “Like I said,” said Ronald.  “I don’t want to point fingers.  Mark was my friend, and Craig was not, so I naturally have a bias.  But I think we can all agree that Mark was in a position that gave him little to no options.  In the end, his only option was suicide.  That’s the real tragedy here.”

      “Yes,” Maria said.  For a moment, her eyes appeared to be watering, but it might have just been the light.

      Ronald looked at Maria, and saw that he’d affected her.  In that instant, his thoughts on Mark were completely wiped out by new ideas.  Was Maria looking at her in the same way she’d looked at Mark?  Was he the next object of her interest?  Did he even want to be the object of her interest?

      “Look,” Arnold said.  “I realise that Mark was in a bad position.”  A few crewmembers couldn’t believe their ears.  He was actually trying to justify himself.  “But I did what I was supposed to do.  In the STAR Administration, the commander is given the power to kick an astronaut off of the crew of a mission if he violates the rules.  Mark clearly violated the rules, so I did what I was supposed to do.  Like it or not, he brought it on himself.”

      “Those rules were designed for a normal mission, weren’t they?” asked Ronald.  “And a normal mission rarely lasts longer than a month to the crewmembers.  Being kicked off the crew and remaining a passenger for a few weeks is no big deal, especially if the mission itself is no big deal in the first place.  But this is much different.”

      “He’s got a point, Arnold,” Jason said.  Probably because he hadn’t said anything yet, and thought people would forget he was still among them.  “This mission is nothing like the normal missions.  I’m not saying you did the wrong thing, but I think you might want to consider using more discretion when it comes to the rules.”

      “Absolutely,” said Jack.  He looked straight at Arnold, and delivered his silent message.  For your own good, Jack thought to Arnold, listen to what these people are saying.

      Arnold didn’t get the message.  “STAR never gave me any instructions about using my own discretion when it comes to the rules.”  Something more than Craig’s death was upsetting him.  He stood up, and the crew was surprised that the discussion was ending so early.  “Mark knowingly broke the rules, and he paid the consequences.  Under the circumstances, the mission is more important so the consequences were more severe.”  He should have stopped there.  That last piece of logic might have worked.  But he continued.  “Let what happened to Mark be an example to the rest of you.  If you break the rules like he did, I won’t hesitate to take the same actions in dealing with you.”

      With that, he stormed into his office, leaving the crew in a mood of astonishment and frustration. 
 

Chapter 23

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 47

Location: Many light-years outside the Milky Way 

      As the days went on, and the crew became more and more social, Arnold Juciper became more and more anxious, and Jason Floyd became more and more frustrated.

      In an average day, Jason spent most of the hours in the living quarters, either listening to music, playing on the computer, or writing.  Some days he would work up the nerve to venture into the cockpit and sit in his seat, just one seat over and behind Lauren, and cycle back and forth between staring at Lauren and staring at space.  He would usually bring music, and leave after one disc was finished playing.  Lauren would sometimes turn around to see if someone was there, but she would always turn back after seeing him and not look back.

      One day, about a week after Arnold’s infamous “example” quote during the group discussion on the deaths of Craig and Mark, Jason sat in the cockpit listening to Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell.  For the first half of the album, he merely stared out into space.  When he got to “Wearing the Inside Out” he fixed his gaze on the back of Lauren’s head, and found he couldn’t remove it.

      If only he could just work up the nerve to talk to her.  But what would he say?  He came up with about two dozen possible scenarios in his mind where he would start a conversation with her.  All of them ended badly.

      Just as “Wearing the Inside Out” ended, Lauren removed her headphones.  Before she could reach for a new disc, he took advantage of the surge of adrenaline that had been brewing in him from the song.  He stopped his disc player, and removed his headphones.

      “What are you listening to?” he asked her in as friendly a tone as he could manage.  It was perhaps too friendly.  Perhaps not friendly enough.  Jason couldn’t tell.

      “Green Day,” she answered.

      “Ah, twentieth century,” said Jason.  “That’s cool.”

      “I guess,” said Lauren, and turned back around.

      Was that it?  Was that going to be the entire conversation?  What else could Jason say?  How could he continue with this line of questioning and not sound awkward?  He should probably just leave it alone.  Think of a new plan some other time.  But as the urge to jam a knife through his heart flared up in him, he knew he could not let the conversation end here.

      “When did you get into that type of music?” he asked.

      “High School,” she said.

      Perfect, an opening to talk about the past.  “You went to Whitman too, right?” he asked.  If he could only work up the nerve to shift seats and move to the front row to sit next to her.  But this level of conversation did not constitute such a movement.  This was small talk, and Jason loathed small talk with a passion.  Nevertheless, it seemed to be the only solution.

      “Yeah,” she answered.

      Something told Jason that she didn’t really feel like talking.  If she did, she would have followed up her answers, maybe even asked a question or two of him.  Or maybe she was just not a conversationalist.  Just shy, perhaps.

      Now what?  “I remember you.  You came in when I was a junior.”  Was that a mistake?  Should he have revealed that he remembered her from that long ago?

      “I remember you too,” she said.  “We lived in practically the same neighbourhood.”

      Jason didn’t know whether to be ecstatic or cautious.  She remembered him?  How?  He had never talked to her.  He just looked at her every time he passed her in the halls.  “Suburban Long Island,” he commented.  “Perfect place to raise a family.”  He put just the right touch of sarcasm on that last comment.

      Lauren breathed sharply through her nose and turned around, but didn’t give a verbal response.

      This was it.  Now or never.  Jason stood up and made his way to the seat immediately to Lauren’s right.  As he walked, he suddenly realised that he hadn’t planned on the demeanour with which this motion should be executed.  Should it be casual?  Should it be quick?  He had no idea, and as a result, he just awkwardly stumbled into the seat.

      “A miserable place,” he said.  “I spent the worst years of my life there.”  Depending on how this went, Jason thought, the Andromeda mission might turn out to be the actual worst year of his life.

      “Yeah, it sucked,” said Lauren.

      Jason recognised the tone immediately.  This wasn’t a tone of conscious agreement.  This was the tone of a person who was involved in a conversation she didn’t really want to be a part of.

      Fucking small talk, thought Jason.  Surely there must be some other way.  But how do you just start a deep conversation out of the blue?  Easy, he said to himself.  “So you know what existentialism is,” he said.  “What’s your philosophy?”  Smooth.

      “I’m not sure what I believe,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure there is no God.”

      “No God as in the man upstairs, or no God as in a higher power?” Jason asked.  This was a familiar conversation for him.  Suddenly he was much more comfortable.  Something might actually come of this.  This might actually work.

      “There’s probably something deeper than what we see,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think there’s anything controlling it.”

      Jason knew the response to this.  Love.  Love controlled everything.  He believed that Love was at the centre of everything, the only thing real in existence.  Everything else was an illusion.  But Love was real, and for Jason, it rested in Lauren.

      And that’s why he couldn’t say it.  For some reason, he couldn’t say the word “Love” in front of Lauren.  He tried to begin, but nothing came out.  Shit.  There must be something else he could say?  But what?  What was he even responding to?  How long had this uncomfortable pause lasted?

      The solution came to him.  “Yeah,” he said, and turned to look out the window as if pondering this.

      It solved the immediate dilemma, but effectively put an end to the conversation.  Lauren was not going to respond to “yeah.”  She wasn’t going to continue this conversation.  Lauren didn’t speak to him unless it was absolutely necessary.

      It was this thought that caused Jason to flinch; his head had a spasm, and his neck abruptly jerked to the right.  Lauren didn’t turn to look at him.  Jason now had the choice of trying to continue the conversation that would just be awkward, or leave the cockpit in utter failure.  He was caught between two very unpleasant solutions.  So he went with the only alternative, and sang.

      “Won’t hear a sound from my mouth.  I’ve spent too long on the inside out.  My skin is cold to the human touch.  This bleeding heart’s not beating much.”

      This caused Lauren to turn and face him.  He faced her.  Their equally expressionless faces met each other. For the first time in the mission, for the first time in what may have been decades, Jason got a clear look into her eyes.  Lauren’s big, bright brown eyes stared straight into his eyes of blue, conveying no message whatsoever.  The windows to the soul.  Yet somehow Lauren managed to pull the blinds on hers.  Jason could not do the same.  Seeing Lauren’s face so close to his, so incredibly far, an indescribable pain overtook him, and his face betrayed his emotions.  He was wearing the inside out.

      This literally happened in the blink of an eye, however.  So immediately after that, he rose from his seat and left the cockpit before she could start drawing any definite conclusions.  She probably already knew how he felt, but without absolute proof, he could still rely on doubt.  His only hope was doubt. 

      Well, at least that bit of unpleasantness is behind us.  Jason’s social skills were clearly not up to par with those of, say, Arnold.  Perhaps it was because he spent all of his free time writing instead of dealing with people.  Perhaps it was because his aunt had damaged his self-esteem to the point where he actually believed he didn’t deserve the company of anybody.  Or perhaps he was just a moron.

      Whatever the cause, he didn’t go back in the cockpit for quite some time.  It was much less frustrating to watch Todd and Lily go into the bathroom together and come out sweating.  And watching Maria work her powers of seduction on Ronald, whom she had just discovered her passion for.  Soon enough, they would be going to the bathroom together as well.

      Several days after his bitter failure at conversation with Lauren, Jason saw Arnold walk out of his office and into the cockpit.  This was not a rare occasion.  Arnold spent a lot of his time in the cockpit.  But Jason could tell by the look on Arnold’s face that something was different this time.  He only hoped that what he feared most was far different from the truth. 

      Lauren turned around to see who had come into the cockpit.  Arnold again.  He hadn’t talked to her all week.  He hadn’t really talked to anyone all week.  Nobody really wanted to talk to him.  But his expression as he entered the cockpit this time clearly indicated a purpose.

      She removed her headphones as the commander sat down beside her.  As usual, she waited for the other party to begin the conversation.

      “I don’t know, Lauren,” he said.  “Did I do the wrong thing?”

      Lauren turned to him.  “You did what you thought was right.  Whatever the result was, you had good intentions.”

      Arnold seemed to consider this as if he hadn’t been considering it non-stop for the past ten days.  “That’s not saying much.  Hitler had good intentions.”

      Lauren nodded in agreement, but said, “You’re not Hitler.  You’re just a good man trying to do his job right.”

      “Thank you,” said Arnold, and he sounded like he genuinely meant it.

      Lauren didn’t follow her comment up.  She just continued to stare out into space, waiting for the next thing he said, wondering just how long he would take before he got to the point.

      “You know my father was a STAR Astronaut.  Communications,” he informed her.

      Lauren had a vague sense as to where this might be going.  “I know,” she said.

      “The marriage…” he hesitated, “…of my parents basically fell apart.  My mother didn’t stay loyal to him while he was gone.  He was gone months at a time, so I can kind of understand how she must have got lonely, but I never really forgave her.  He found out about it, but they stayed together for my sake.”

      Lauren nodded.  “My parents stayed together because God would have punished them if they didn’t.”  As soon as she said that, she startled herself.  Had she just opened up to Arnold?  Had she actually mentioned her parents to another living soul?  What did this mean?

      Luckily, Arnold didn’t seem to see this as having any significance.  He continued talking.  “Ellen, my wife, did the same thing to me.  I never confirmed it.  I never wanted to, but I knew what was going on.  I guess I had the same mentality as my parents.  I stayed with her for my daughter’s sake…” Arnold’s voice cracked.  “But then I left them both.”

      Lauren turned to look at him.  His eyes were wet, but no tears came forth.

      “Did I do the wrong thing?” he asked.  “Was this mission so goddamned important that I had to abandon my family?”

      This statement touched Lauren.  “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.  “Your daughter must have been so proud of you.  I don’t think she would have been able to live with herself if you’d passed up this opportunity because of her.”

      Although he hadn’t been moving anyway, Arnold seemed to pause.  He blinked as he considered this, and his eyes seemed to dry up almost instantaneously.  “I suppose you’re right,” he said.  “But what about Craig and Mark?  They had families too.  They gave them up for the opportunity to see Andromeda, but now they never will.  How am I supposed to feel about that?”

      “Feel anything you want,” said Lauren, “just don’t feel guilty.  Whether you provoked him or not, Mark was the one who brought the knife down into Craig.  He was the one who sucked himself out into space.”

      “Try telling the rest of the crew that,” said Arnold.

      “The rest of the crew can go fuck themselves,” mumbled Lauren.  She mumbled this so softly that even Arnold could barely hear her.

      “Lauren,” he turned to her.  “What am I supposed to do?”

      “What do you mean?” she asked.

      “There are rules and protocol that a commander is supposed to follow, but I think Jason has a point.”  Arnold paused.  “Maybe on a mission like this, certain normal standards of conduct could be overlooked.”

      Lauren clearly understood what he meant.  Why didn’t he just say it?  Instead he went through this whole charade…no, it wasn’t a charade.  The emotions he felt were genuine.  As hard as it was for her to accept this, Lauren knew that Arnold’s intentions were good.  He would not abuse her.

      I need someone too,” he said.

      Lauren was lost for words.  She had absolutely no idea what to say to this.  She could only stare at him, and hope that he would pursue it to a point where she could answer.

      “You’re the only one who seems to understand me,” he said.  “In a non-negative way,” he added.

      “The others are just frustrated.  They need someone to focus their frustration on.  You’re the easiest because you’re the authority figure.”  Lauren wondered if saying this would knock him off the track he was on.

      He didn’t seem to be listening, however.  “If you want me,” Arnold said, “I’m willing to put protocol aside for you.  You’re a beautiful, intelligent, kind woman.  There’s nobody else on this crew who I can really connect with.  And I’ve gone far too long without any connection.”

      So have I, thought Lauren.  My entire life.  “I do want you, Arnold,” she said.  “But I don’t think you want me.  I’m not exactly the kind of woman that…Maria is,” she said this name without any effort to mask her contempt.

      “Oh, don’t worry,” said Arnold.  Now that he saw that acceptance was secure, he was much more cool and confident.  “I’m still not too keen on the whole thought of sex on the mission.  I’m not looking for that.  I’m just looking for…”

      “Someone to connect with,” Lauren finished for him.  “I think you need that too.  If you want me, I’ll try to give you what you want.”

      “You’re perfect,” Arnold said, and smiled passionately.  Lauren had not seen him smile like that since before the incident on the shuttle.

      “No, I’m definitely not,” was all she could think to say. 

      When it was time to turn out the lights, Arnold walked into the living quarters with Lauren at his side.  Jason immediately knew something was wrong when he saw they were holding hands.  All of the other crewmembers noticed it too.  It was their way of declaring that they were now a couple.  It was just a little more dignified than entering the bathroom together.

      Jason was frozen where he sat on the edge of his bed.  Lauren shot him a look, but he quickly turned away, to notice that Jack was staring at him.  Jack’s face was serious, almost sympathetic.  He just nodded at Jason, the look behind his eyes suggesting that everything was okay.  The look was so convincing that Jason could almost believe it.

      But once the lights were turned out, and he looked at the new couple again, he watched as Arnold gave her a small kiss goodnight.

      Immediately every muscle in Jason’s body tensed up.  His old friend jealousy had returned with a vengeance.  Jealousy.  His most hated emotion.  He was too angry to even look at Jack.  He was angry with Arnold, but not as angry as he was with himself.  The fact that he was angry made him even angrier.  Lauren was happy.  He should be happy for her.  Arnold would be far better for her than he ever could.

      These endless thoughts continued as Jason wrapped himself in his blankets, and laid down on his suddenly uncomfortable bed and rock-hard pillow.  The cycle of rage and jealousy barrelled through his mind; he didn’t sleep for a single moment of that entire night. 
 

Chapter 24

Flight Plan: Instruction 2b- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 59

Location: Millions of light-years outside the Milky Way 

      Somehow, Arnold and the rest of the crew managed to keep David O’Brian from finding out about him and Lauren for days.  Much to Arnold’s surprise, many of the crewmembers actually approved of his relationship with the pilot.  A few suggested that it might be “good for him.”  Lily Zaw believed that it would be good for her.

      Jason Floyd, of course, kept his thoughts on the matter to himself.  Jack offered to talk to him, but he refused any help.  He just spent the days moping around the living quarters, blasting whatever small amount of punk music discs he had, and writing furiously.  He also took to exercising for some reason.

      A few other crewmembers had already started practising daily exercise.  Elliot Larken, for one, had been working out since the mission began.  His dedication amazed most people.  The man was the oldest member of the crew, in his mid-forties, and every night he would do two rotations of one hundred sit-ups and three rotations of fifty push-ups.  Yet with all this, he still seemed so broken and weak.  A person just looking at him would never be able to guess at his strength.

      Others did less strenuous exercises.  Todd would jog in place for a half-hour every night, and do a more moderate amount of push-ups and sit-ups.  Lily would do more aerobic exercises.  She was the only one who could get away with doing jumping jacks and not looking like an idiot.  Ronald Stark occasionally did a few push-ups and crunches, but not every night.  When he did exercise though, he would get very sweaty, and Maria would lead him into the bathroom to “cool him down.”  Nobody commented on this.

      But Jason refused to get sweaty.  He practised what he referred to as “stationary exercises.”  This would consist of him holding his arms out straight at his sides, parallel to the floor, and fighting the artificial gravity of the ship until they started shaking and he was forced to drop them.  Then to tighten his abdominal muscles, he would lay on the ground and lift his legs 30° in the air until his stomach hurt so much he had to drop them.  Then he would do the same thing again.

      The crew was in the middle of their respective exercise routines one night when David awoke from his drug-induced sleep.  Arnold was still in the cockpit, presumably talking to Lauren.

      “You morons and your exercise,” David teased.  “I can’t even watch this.  I’ll take my shift early tonight.”

      “Um…maybe you shouldn’t do that,” Lily called while doing jumping-jacks. “Yeah, you might want to get something to eat first,” said Jack.

      David ignored him and walked up to Lily, who didn’t stop her routine.  “You know,” he said, just a few feet away from her, “I’d stay here to watch your breasts flop up and down, but unfortunately there’s nothing to see.”

      Jason, his arms in the air, imagined how satisfying it would feel to jam a sharp object down David’s throat.

      Todd grabbed Lily’s arm just before she had the opportunity to smack him.  “Don’t do it,” he said.  “He’s not worth it.”

      “Not worth getting kicked off the crew for?” David asked tauntingly.  “I suppose not.  I guess then you’ll just have to deal with me.”

      “What is your problem, anyway?” Todd demanded.

      “My problem,” David announced turning to everyone in the room, “is all you fucking morons breathing my air!  You know how much you people stink when you sweat?”

      Jason’s arms began to shake in pain.  They couldn’t resist the gravity much longer, but he was determined not to let his arms fall in front of David.

      “I’m going to the cockpit,” said David, as if anyone cared.

      Much to Jason’s frustration, they did care.  “Why don’t you just wait around a bit?” Jack offered again.  “Ronald and Maria should be out of the bathroom any minute.  Then you can taunt them for awhile.”

      Protecting Arnold and Lauren, thought Jason.  At this particular moment, he hated Jack, although he knew his intentions were good.  But his arms were killing him, and he would not let David see his strength reach its limits.

      “Your offer is tempting, Peskie,” David said with a smile, “but I like Ronald.  He deserves to fuck whoever he wants.  Even a bitch like Maria.”

      With that, David disappeared into the cockpit, and Jason dropped his arms to his sides in relief.  He’d been holding them up for eight minutes straight.  His new record. 

      Arnold had been talking to Lauren for hours about his life.  She just listened, without really saying anything but for a few words of comfort here and there.  When Arnold became aware of the time, he sat up.  “David should be waking up soon,” he said.  “I should go back.”

      “Okay.”  Lauren’s eyes, looking directly into his, seemed to melt his heart.  The most overwhelming desire to kiss her welled up inside of him.  He put his arm on her shoulder, and leaned over, his lips pressing against hers as her eyes closed.  At first, he thought she might pull away, but after one second of hesitation, she opened her mouth, and put her arms around him as their faces meshed together in passion.

      “Well, what do we have here?” a voice called from the back of the room.  David.  Just great.  “I don’t suppose you were practising CPR?”

      Arnold had jumped up from his seat as soon as he saw him.  “Lauren and I are together,” he said as if he needed to defend himself.  “Do you have a problem with that?”

      David approached them as if he were a predator moving in for his prey.  “As a matter of fact I do, commander.”

      Arnold turned to Lauren.  “Why don’t you relieve yourself early?” he said.  “Go back and get yourself something to eat.”

      As Lauren walked past him, David shot her a nasty look, but she didn’t even raise her eyes to receive it.

      “So what’s your problem?” Arnold asked in an almost-friendly manner.

      “Funny,” David said, “but that’s the second time this minute that somebody’s asked me that question.”  Realising he was amusing nobody but himself, he got to the point.  “You know as well as I know that a ship’s commander is not supposed to have any intimate relationships with other crewmembers.”

      Arnold was prepared for this.  “As everyone said, this mission is different.  If I can allow sex in the bathroom, I can allow myself to have an intimate relationship with a crewmember.”

      David used to be a commander, one of the best.  He knew the standard protocol for the rules of a ship.  “A commander dating a pilot is a conflict of interest,” David said, “two medics fucking each other in the bathroom isn’t.”

      “Isn’t it?” Arnold argued, trying to figure out how to get this argument to go in the direction he desired.  “What if somebody gets hurt?  The two medics would have to stop what they were doing immediately, put their clothes back on, and then attend to the emergency.  That seems much more dangerous than me talking to the pilot for awhile every day.”

      “Yet you allow it,” David said as he sat in his pilot’s seat, the one right next to the seat Arnold was standing in front up.

      “You’re right, I do, because it’s good for the mental state of the crewmembers,” Arnold couldn’t believe he was using the arguments of others against him to defend his own actions.  “A few things need to be done differently on this mission, and if I have to overlook a few standard rules of conduct, I’ll do it.”

      “Yet it’s perfectly fine to kick someone off the crew and basically take their life away after only making one mistake,” said David.

      The trump card, thought Arnold.  But he had something up his sleeve, and this was his opening to take the argument in the direction he’d been hoping for.  “I warned him that if he punched Craig, he’d be off the crew.  He did that himself.”

      “So it’s okay to keep that aspect of protocol, as long as it hurts the ones you hate?”

      “What are you talking about?”

      “Face it, Arnold, you hated Mark.  If it had been Jack or Elliot who punched Craig, you wouldn’t have done jack shit!”

      “Jack or Elliot wouldn’t have punched Craig in the first place!”

      “Lily almost smacked me back there.  Are you saying if Lily hit me, you’d take the same actions with her as you did with Mark?”

      “I’d give her a warning, and if she did it again, I would take the same actions.”

      “Even though you know it could lead to the same bloody consequences it did with Mark?”

      Arnold stopped there.  He’d played the shouting match just as he’d wanted to.  Now it was time to take the upper hand.  “Speaking of that,” he said, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about that night. I would have brought it out during the discussion, but I figured it would be cruel to discuss it in front of the others.  He paid attention to David’s face, though it revealed nothing so far.  “You were in the cockpit wide-awake when it all happened, right?”

      “Yeah,” said David, who naturally knew what was coming next, but didn’t know what to do about it.

      “But you didn’t rush back to the living quarters.  You must have heard the scream.”  Arnold kept his face perfectly straight and emotionless as David sank back into his four-year-old state of mind.

      “I didn’t want to leave my post,” he said.

      “Bullshit,” said Arnold.  “You know damn well you could have left your post.  And I find it hard to believe that after hearing that scream you didn’t rush back to see for yourself just what the hell was going on.”

      “Well, I didn’t,” he said, folding his arms against his chest.

      “Yeah you did,” said Arnold.  “Jack told me he saw you standing in the doorway when he flicked the lights on, but you ran back.”

      “I didn’t want to abandon my post!” David shouted again.

      “That’s bullshit!” Arnold said again.  “You want to know what I think?”

      David said nothing, but his face made it clear that he didn’t give a damn what Arnold thought.

      “I think you saw all the blood, got scared, and ran back here.”  Arnold knew from the look in David’s eyes that he’d hit the mark.  “You’re not as tough as you’d like to believe you are,” he told David.  “You’re even afraid of a little blood.”

      Without warning, David left from his chair.  “I am not!” he shouted, and looking at Arnold, he slammed his fist into the control panel.  He meant to hit the top, but he missed, and his hand came down right on the edge, cutting open some of the skin on his fingers.  As he looked at the blood coming from his hands, David nearly fainted.

      Arnold laughed.  “I’ll send a medic in here.  Try not to get your blood all over the cockpit.”  He marched out, happy with his moral victory. 

      David cursed him under his breath as he left.  He buried his bleeding hand in his shirt so he wouldn’t have to look at it.  Of course, it was Arnold who did it to him.  That bastard had made him cut himself.  David would get revenge.  Somehow, he would pay Arnold back for this, and for everything else.

      Todd Blankens walked into the cockpit with his medical kit.  The smart-ass who thought he was so intelligent just because he went to a medical school and had his own practice before STAR recruited him.  David had to resist the urge to spit on him.

      “So what happened?” Todd asked.

      David showed him his bloody fist.  The medic examined it as if the problem wasn’t completely obvious.

      “How’d you do this?” Todd asked as he took a few bandages out of his kit.

      As Todd wiped away the blood with alcohol, David indicated the control panel.  “I smashed my fist against the corner of this.”

      “Why the hell would you do a think like that?”  Todd began wrapping bandages around David’s fingers.

      It took a lot of restraint for David not to flip out at this question.  “I didn’t do it on purpose, you brain-dead asshole!  It was Arnold.”

      “Arnold made you smash your fist against the control panel?” Todd asked with more than a hint of scepticism.

      “No, he just provoked me into doing it,” David explained.  “He was taunting me, and getting on my case about shit I couldn’t control.”

      “Maybe,” Todd said as he finished wrapping the bandages, “you need to stop blaming Arnold for every aspect of your own ignorance.”

      That struck a nerve.  Somewhere in the back of David’s mind, a rage he had been suppressing seemed to leap straight from the subconscious to the frontal lobe.  If it had gone any further, David might have ripped his bandages off and strangled Todd right then and there.  Instead, a fire flashed across his eyes.

      Todd recognised that he’d touched a sore spot.  Perhaps, he thought, it might be better not to provoke David.  Ever.

      David watched as the medic got up and walked briskly out of the cockpit.  He knew he had scared him.  He was glad.  He hoped he could scare more people.  If they feared him, they might have a little more respect for him.  What David needed was the will.  He was tired of just moping around and being hated by everyone but Mark and Ronald.

      But Mark was dead now.  (Because of Arnold, of course.)  And he might find it to his benefit if Ronald feared him as well.

      But Todd Blankens had gone too far.  David could not let him get away with a statement like that.  He told himself that the statement was unacceptable because it was so preposterous, but deep down he knew he hated it because it was true.  Either way, Todd would regret saying that.

      All right, Todd, David thought to himself.  I was just gonna go after Arnold, but if you’re so eager to pay, I might as well start building a list.  If you piss me off, you go on the list.  I don’t know what I’ll do to you yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. 

      Ooh, scary.  I know, I know, it’s pretty lame, but what can you do?  Foreshadowing is sketchy business when it comes to writing a novel.  It’s hard enough not to make it completely obvious, but you don’t want it to be so subtle that people will completely miss it (unless that’s your intention).

      But sometimes you just have to overlook a few flaws in the book you’re reading if you want to get any enjoyment out of it.  I’m not telling you to overlook my extremely pitiful writing skills (if they can even be called “skills”), but if you just focus more on the characters and the story than on my contemptible way of telling it, you might enjoy it a little more.

      Or maybe I just have a confidence problem, and I’m so insecure about my own writing that I feel that I have to justify everything I do.  A good writer doesn’t have to do that, because he or she is comfortable with his or her writing.  Besides, they’ve already been published.  I’ve only been rejected, and I’m sure if this version of the book gets rejected, it’ll be because of the poor writing.  But even if it’s accepted, I’ll have to remove self-referential passages like this one because they just break all the rules of literature.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to do this.

      But of course, if you are reading this (and you’re not an editor) than I must have succeeded, so I guess the book really isn’t that bad.  Maybe now I should be a little more secure in my work. 
 

Chapter 25

Flight Plan: Instruction 2c- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Halfway between the Milky Way and Andromeda 

      “I can’t believe it’s only been sixty-five days since we left,” Arnold reflected.  “So much has happened already.”

      “Yeah,” said Jack, “I didn’t expect anyone to get killed until at least Instruction 2d.”

      They were entering the cockpit, taking their respective seats for the next flight manoeuvre.  This was to be the first “slowing-down” procedure in which the spacecraft’s output of light energy would be steadily lowered until there was no longer a rate of time distortion, and communication could be established with Earth.

      Lauren took the pilot’s seat, and David sat beside her.  Jack sat next to the communications console, which was virtually useless throughout the entire mission because it didn’t have the power to transmit over such cosmic distances.  Two empty seats reminded the crew of their loss.

      “All right, Lauren, you know the 3-day window we’ve got to land in,” Arnold said as he sat down.  His voice was the same emotionless commander’s voice he used with the rest of the crew.  Judging by his tone, nobody would have been able to guess he was dating the pilot—that is, if everybody didn’t already know.  “Just carry out the procedures as you’ve been trained, and announce any deceleration before you make it.”

      Lauren nodded.  “Can I get a large read-out of the date on the computer screen?” she asked.

      Jason took the keyboard and carried out her request.  He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t have sounded incredibly stupid.

      “Thanks,” she said.

      For a brief moment, Jason was in that uncomfortable state of ecstasy.  She had said “thanks” to him.  He couldn’t remember if she’d ever thanked him before in his life.  It took him almost a full three seconds to remind himself that it didn’t matter at all.

      The date read “28 Nov 1.078.912” and climbed by 70 days every second.  Soon, Lauren announced she’d be performing the first halving of the time-scale.  She turned a knob and pressed a button and the crew felt an odd sensation as if they had suddenly lost gravity in the ship.

      The date read “2 Feb 1.080.136” and climbed by 35 days every second.  In a few short moments, Lauren made another announcement, and the crew felt the same sensation as the time scale reduced itself to 17.5 days per second.  This continued until the date read “27 Dec 1.080.462” and the time scale read 1 day per second.

 When she reached the goal month, Lauren waited until they were only a few days away from the goal, then reduced the time scale to hours per second, minutes per second, and seconds per second in an amazingly short succession.  When she finally announced that they were at 1 second per second, the date read 17 Jun 1.080.463; the first day of the time window in which STAR would be waiting to receive their transmission.  The clock read 0:00:00, the very first second of that window.

      “Lauren, you are absolutely incredible,” said Arnold.

      Before David could make a stupid comment about favouritism and conflicts of interest, Jason said “Amen to that.”  That was a pretty daring risk, but as he had hoped, the rest of the crew (except for Maria) verbalised their agreement.  Lauren was “one hell of a pilot,” and Jason didn’t care if she knew he thought that about her.

      “All right,” Jack said.  “We all know that Lauren kicks ass.  Now for the moment of truth.  Everyone to the living quarters!” 

      A few minutes later, the Andromeda crew was gathered around the black box resembling a large stereo system that had the power to communicate with Earth over a theoretically infinite distance.  What’s more, this communication could be instantaneous.

      How is that possible, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Actually, it’s impossible with the rules of physics we abide by, but we don’t need to concern ourselves with actual physics.

      The idea came from the discovery in the early days of the 4th millennium that if two crystals had the exact same structure, they were somehow cosmically linked to each other. In essence, if you strike one crystal, the other would vibrate as if it had also been struck in the exact same way.  This meant that if you talked to one of the crystals and let it vibrate while the other vibrated in the exact same way and converted its vibrations to light or sound waves, you could use this principle to communicate.

      When this was put to the test, the even more incredible discovery was that there was no lag time between the vibrations of the crystals.  If you called to your friend across the street, a short amount of time would be needed for the sound to reach him.  Even if you called your friend in Australia and talked on the phone, a small amount of time would be needed for the light waves to reach her through the wires.  But if you struck a crystal on Earth, its twin crystal on the moon would vibrate at the same exact instant and with no distortion at all.

      This was the most amazing discovery of all time in the field of communication.  The only problem was the difficulty in manufacturing crystals with the exact same structure.  The slightest difference would cause distortion and make the signal unrecognisable as speech to the person picking up the transmission.  Eventually, the technique was perfected, but was so expensive that only space exploration companies made use of it.

      And they found that there were almost no limits to this crystal phenomenon.  The only catch was that the bond between extremely small crystals could be manipulated by outside forces such as gravity.  At great distances, this transmission could be distorted by all of the objects between the crystals.  For instance, the transmission from the Andromeda could be distorted by the millions of stars that were between the crystal on their ship and its twin on Earth.  But the solution to this was actually quite simple: use bigger crystals.

      So a special communications box was built for the Andromeda which contained the largest twin-crystal ever manufactured in the STAR Administration.  And this was exactly what Jack Peskie was fiddling with during this coasting period. 

      By the way, was that believable or what?  Actually, only some of it was mine.  My apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson for basically stealing this idea from his epic sci-fi “Gap Series” (best sci-fi series ever written).  It just sounds so plausible, and it was exactly the kind of Bullshit Science I needed to make these instantaneous communications scenes work.  So my props to you, Steve, if you’re reading this, and feel free to sue me, because I don’t have any money. 

      Anyway, back to the actual story.  Jack fiddled with the knobs on the console, adjusting it so that it would hit the crystal inside with enough force to produce loud vibrations, but not enough to damage the crystal to any significant degree.

      “Okay, here we go,” Jack said to the rest of the crew, who suddenly discovered they were much more nervous about this than they had imagined they would be.  What if human life no longer existed?  What if they, the ten Andromeda astronauts, were the last humans alive?  Or even worse, what if some horrible disaster had occurred, and the ten of them were the only living organisms in the universe?

      “STAR, this is the Andromeda spaceship, do you read?” Jack spoke into the microphone, which sent his signal through the wire to the crystal.  He waited a few moments, but received no response.  “Well, of course they don’t answer on the first try,” Jack said.  “That wouldn’t be cliché enough.  I need to repeat my message several times before we get an answer.  I predict we’ll get one just as we’re about to give up hope.”

      As if the Fates just wanted to prove Jack wrong, a response came from the speakers of the communications box.  (But of course, that was his plan all along.)  “Andromeda, this is STAR, we read you loud and clear,” said the voice.  The voice was male and spoke as though he were a disgracefully over-rehearsed actor.

      Nevertheless, the crew simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief and applauded with such a standard cheer that made both Jason and Jack wince.

      “I’ve gotta say,” the voice continued, “we didn’t expect to hear from you so early.  In fact, a lot of us didn’t expect to hear from you at all.”

      “Well,” Jack said, “we were a little worried that we wouldn’t hear from you at all.  It’s been a million years since we left down there.  For us it’s only been two months.  Maybe you could give us a little more credit than just assuming we couldn’t survive on our own for a few weeks.”

      The voice took this as a joke, as indeed it was intended to be.  “It’s amazing to hear from you.  I assume you’re Jack Peskie, the communications officer?”

      “That’s why I’m on the microphone,” said Jack.

      “Jack,” Arnold called, “You could be a little more polite.”

      “I’m sorry,” Jack said with his hand off the microphone, “but geniuses like this guy deserve to be treated as such.”  He turned back to the microphone.  “Of course I’m Jack.  And who, may I ask, am I talking to?”

      “I’m Fred Johnson, the C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation.  I believe when you left the C.E.O. was Michael Romband, although back then it was the STAR Administration, and he wasn’t referred to as a C.E.O,” Fred explained.

      To avoid being impolite, Jack put his hand on the microphone and said to the rest of the crew, “This guy knows his history.  He must have been up studying all night.”

      “Well, it’s my pleasure, Mr. Johnson.  Out of curiosity, when did STAR turn into a Corporation?”

      “Oh, it’s been the STAR Corporation for as long as anyone can remember,” said Fred.  “Most people don’t even know it was ever called something else.  Actually, the change was made just after Michael Romband retired.  The next head of the Administration started offering shares of the company on the general market, so it became a Corporation.  But it’s not really important.”

      It certainly isn’t.  “And who was the head of STAR after Mr. Romband?”

      “Um…I’m not exactly sure…” Fred’s voice seemed to trail as if someone else in mission control were shouting the answer at him.  “Ah yes, he was a mission controller.  Robert Davis.”

      “The same Robert Davis who saved us on the space shuttle?” Jack asked with extreme interest. 

      “I…um…” another pause as he was given the information he needed.  “Yes, the same man.  Apparently he performed a few more miracles back in the 3420s.  That was an eventful decade.”

      “I’m sure you’ll tell us all about it,” said Jack.  “We can’t wait to hear.  But first I suppose you’d like to hear the report from our commander?”

      “Ah, of course,” said Fred Johnson.  “Mr. Jewsipper.”

      Arnold stepped up to the microphone.  Jack made one last comment.  “Here’s Arnold Jewsipper.”

      “Hello, Mr. Johnson,” said Arnold.  “It’s a pleasure to talk to you.”

      “The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Jewsipper,” said Fred.  “If you’d like to give us your report now, we’re all listening.  And this transmission is being recorded.  Whatever information you give us will undoubtedly be found in textbooks for generations to come.”

      Arnold paused momentarily to consider this.  Then he proceeded with his report.  “Acceleration procedures worked perfectly.  So far, there have been no complications as far as the mechanics of our mission go.  We did have a very unfortunate incident in which both our scientists, Mark Staff and Craig Malls lost their lives.”

      “We’re sorry to hear that,” said Fred without the slightest hint of genuine or fake remorse.  “How did that happen?”

      The comment about the textbooks had made Arnold rethink what he should say in his report.  If he told them the truth, that Mark had murdered Craig in cold blood, schoolchildren would be studying it for millennia.  Mark had done a horrible thing, but Arnold wasn’t sure he was ready to completely label him a villain for the rest of human history.  And perhaps through studying the incident, people would come to the conclusion that it was Arnold’s fault.

      “They got into a fight,” said Arnold, making up the story as he gave it, “but that’s not uncommon.  Up here we fight all the time, and that’s to be expected, but it never gets violent.  I wouldn’t allow it.”  His story slowly became more and more fictional as he went on.  “This fight almost got violent, and Mark broke one of Craig’s souvenirs…by accident.  It was a little statue or something.  He was sorry and offered to try and repair it but Craig said it was okay and they went to dispose of it in the garbage chute but there was a malfunction and both hatches opened at the same time.  They were both sucked out before we could do anything about it.”

      The eyes of the crew had never been as sceptical of their commander as they were in that instant.  If the mission controllers at STAR could have seen their faces, they would have known instantly that Arnold was lying.  But even so, they were suspicious.

      “I thought you said there were no complications as far as mechanics go,” Fred inquired.

      “As far as the mechanics of the mission go, no.  We are still on course and proceeding as planned.  The garbage chute was the only malfunction.  Our ship supervisor Maria Wendall fixed that right away.”

      “I see,” said Fred.  “Well, we’re sorry to hear about your loss,” he said again, with no trace of suspicion left.  To the current STAR Corporation, the report from the Andromeda hardly mattered at all.  All they needed to know was that the astronauts were still alive so they could leave it on the agenda for the Corporation of one million years from then to contact them.  It wouldn’t have mattered if Arnold had said he had hijacked the ship and brutally murdered everyone aboard.  Fred continued.  “Who have you used to replace your scientists with?”

      “Our First Surgeon, Elliot Larken now has the responsibilities of the scientists,” said Arnold.

      “And all of the other members of your crew?  There are no problems with them?”

      Arnold thought, plenty of problems among them, but “No, no problems with them.”

      “Very well,” Fred said.  “If you’ll just give us a few minutes to get our information together, we’ll give you a short summary of everything that’s been going on here in the Milky Way for the past million years.” 

      So, as you might expect, a few minutes passed by.  And as you also might expect, Fred Johnson came back on the speakers and began giving the Andromeda crewmembers a short summary of everything that had gone on over the past million years.  But the things that he told them were definitely not of a nature that they had expected.

      “First off, we’ll start with some business about the 4th millennium which occurred just after you left.  In the year following your departure, the idea was brought about to follow up the Andromeda mission with several missions following your exact flight-plan, as sort of an insurance should something go wrong on your ship.  The crew was made up of your back-up astronauts so they didn’t need as extensive training.  Exactly one year after your departure, the Andromeda II spacecraft launched carrying twelve astronauts and one passenger.

      “One year later, the Andromeda III departed, followed by the Andromeda IV.  At this point, the public had lost interest and there was no more funding.  But if all goes well, we shall hear from the other three spaceships over the next four years.  If all goes well, they will each return to Earth one year after the previous one.  So you won’t be alone when you return to Earth in the year 5 million.

      “Next, we’ll move forward to the year 5692, on the first manned mission to the Procyon star system.  While orbiting the third planet from the star, the crew of the STAR Spaceship Stethoscope noticed strange signs of life coming from the watery world.  After Stethoscope was given authorisation to go in for a closer look, its scopes found that the planet was home to life, which had not been found anywhere else in the galaxy until this point.  Even more astonishing, however, one of the new species we discovered was intelligent.

      Stethoscope was authorised to attempt contact, and found that this species was very hominid in appearance, with only minor differences.  They were militarily alert, despite the fact that their planet was completely unified under one government, and they were willing to do anything to achieve peace between our two species.  After we deciphered their language, and taught them ours, we began diplomatic relations.  Converted to English spelling, their planet is called Bahzra, so we call them Bahzrans instead of Procyonites, which we had originally named them.

      “Knowing that we were not alone in the universe didn’t change much, though.  For several more millennia, things went on as usual, exploring new star systems and colonising distant planets.  We just stayed out of the Procyon system, even though the Bahzrans never made any effort to leave their planet and expand.

      “Then, in 10,676, disaster came upon the human race when we were attacked by a hostile group of aliens whom we had not known existed.  They attacked us in our own solar system, completely devastating several asteroid colonies, and destroying several space-stations including Ring Station 7 and many of the space-taxi stations, extremely hampering our ability to move about our solar system with ease.

      “All attempts at diplomacy were a failure.  Our ambassadors were taken aboard one of their warships and were put to sleep while they had bombs implanted in them.  When they got back, they could only tell us what the aliens looked like before they exploded, destroying much of our Central Intelligence Agency.  We sent no more ambassadors.

      “What we learned was of little value.  The aliens were short, less than two metres tall with extremely large heads and giant, curved black eyes.  Their bodies were covered in thick layers of grey skin, they wore no clothing, and as far as our ambassadors could tell, they had no sex organs.  They came from the star Vega, but the animal-rights people opposed to us referring to the ultimate enemy of mankind as the “Vegans” so we just called them the Vegs.

      “Despite our best military efforts, it looked as though we could not beat the Vegs, until our diplomats managed to contact us from Procyon, after having informed the Bahzrans of our plight.  The Bahzrans astonished us by revealing that long before we contacted them, this very species of aliens had attacked them as well, but they had learned how to counter them.  Using principles of magnetism, which is the principle through which all their ships worked, we managed to chase them out of our system.

      “We then struck them in their home system, using a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons to devastate what appeared to be their home planet.  They surrendered, but peace was short-lived.  Once they had a chance to recuperate, they attacked again, but this time we were ready, and no major damage was done.  We then retaliated by completely wiping out all planets of the Vega system, and effectively exterminating their entire species.

      “Only a few short centuries later, the spaceship Cymbaline encountered yet another species of extra-terrestrials during a reconnaissance mission in the Altair system.  The discovery was baffling, however, because the new species spoke English.  Apparently, a human astronaut had discovered them millennia beforehand, and had such an impact that they adopted his language.  The story is unbelievable, and there is certainly not enough time for me to tell it here.  We didn’t even have to debate naming this species.  They called themselves the Altairites.” 

      The crew of the Andromeda listened in awe as these incredible stories were told to them.  A lot had happened in a million years.  Or at least, that’s how it seemed at first.  After the war with the Vegs and discovery of the Altairites, surprisingly little had gone on.

      Faster methods of light-travel were developed.  More star systems were explored and colonised.  After those three species, humans had yet to find another form of intelligent life or even any life at all in the rest of the galaxy, of which half of one spiral arm had already been explored.  Much of that had been colonised.  The population of the human race was measured in decillions, but nobody knew the exact number of living people.

      “And that just about wraps it all up,” Fred concluded.  “Now I’m sure you’ll desire a short break, so go ahead and take one.  I will request to talk to the Commander privately in about 20 minutes, and then I will hand control of Communications over to someone who will give each of you information that we have stored about what happened to your families after you left.”

      Arnold froze as the rest of the crew picked themselves up and moved about the living quarters. Lauren sat next to him in silence.  He hadn’t even known they were keeping records of what happened to his family after he left.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. 
 

Chapter 26

Flight Plan: Instruction 2c- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Halfway between the Milky Way and Andromeda 

      After getting up for a minute to have something to drink, Arnold Juciper returned to the communications box, picked up the microphone, and told STAR he was ready.  Jack assisted him in hooking up the headphones to the machine so that the information STAR would give him and subsequently each member of his crew would be private.

      “Okay, Mr. Johnson,” he said.  “I’m ready.”

      “I’m not Mr. Johnson,” said the voice on the other end.  “I’m the director of Public Relations, Travis Phelps.  I have all of the information regarding the families of your crewmembers, or at least all the available information.”

      “What can you tell me about my family?” Arnold asked impatiently.

      “Well, according to our files, information regarding your family may be shocking to you.  I hope you’re prepared for a surprise,” said Phelps without emotion.

      Arnold swallowed and breathed heavily.  “Just tell me, please.”

      “I believe you were told before that the Andromeda II spaceship launched one year after you, carrying twelve astronauts and one passenger,” Phelps said.  “The passenger was your daughter, Rachael.”

      Arnold was stunned speechless.  He couldn’t even breathe.  The meaning of this information did not register with him.  Rachael was on the Andromeda II?  She was heading to Andromeda after him?  Vaguely, he remember the comment Fred Johnson had made earlier, If all goes well, they will each return to Earth one year after the previous one.

      “Are you kidding?” was all Arnold could think to say.

      “We don’t kid, Commander,” said Phelps in a very serious manner.  “Does this information disturb you?  It’s often been argued that you may not like the idea that your daughter embarked on such a dangerous mission at her young age.”

      “I’m…” Arnold searched for the word, “...ecstatic.  This means I’ll see my daughter again, right?  If all goes well…she’ll return to Earth only one year after me, right?”

      “The Andromeda II is scheduled to return one year behind you, yes,” said Phelps.

      “That’s incredible!”  Arnold now noticed that all of the crewmembers were looking at him.  They couldn’t hear what Phelps was saying, but they heard everything that Arnold was shouting. Lauren was wide-eyed, and actually smiling at him.

      “Very shortly after you left,” Phelps continued, “she contacted Michael Romband and requested permission to follow in your footsteps if STAR meant to follow up the mission.  He told her that he had no objection to it as long as her mother agreed to it.”

      Arnold’s eyes widened.  “Ellen!” he said as if he’d forgotten her.  “What happened to her?”

      “Obviously, we don’t have any information about your wife’s reaction to Rachael’s plans, but we know that she eventually agreed.  Your daughter only told us that she was reluctant, but understood that she could never come between the bond she had with her father.”  Phelps seemed to be reading from something.

      “Oh my God,” Arnold commented, imagining how painful that decision must have been for his wife.  She had lost her whole family.  “What happened to her after that?”

      “Your wife Ellen lived alone for several years before abandoning your house and moving in with a man she remarried,” Phelps informed him.  “As part of your contract, she sold the house to STAR after leaving it, and it is being preserved should you wish to live there again when you return.”

      “Do you know anything about the man she remarried?” Arnold asked, out of pure curiosity.

      “Only that his name was Marc Richmond, and he worked as a businessman in Atlanta,” said Phelps.  “Apparently, your wife, or your ex-wife, moved to Atlanta with him and took his name.”

      Why would she take his name?  She had told him she wasn’t even going to remarry.  Arnold was about to ask, but he decided not to.  She probably didn’t want everyone she met to ask her if she was related to Arnold Juciper, the famous astronaut, and be reminded of her loss.  “Is there anything else you know?”

      “There aren’t too many details for any of you,” Travis Phelps told him.  “That’s all we know.  We hope that information is sufficient.”

      “Yes, I suppose it is.  Thank you,” said Arnold, still in a state of desbelief.  “Who should I have you speak to next?” 

      Over the next few hours, the crewmembers were told any information that STAR had kept regarding the people they had known and loved before their departure.  For most of them, it was a haunting experience.  Jack Peskie would describe it as feeling like Rip Van Winkle, only more dazed and less confused.

      Jack was told that his son Tommy developed a few psychological problems after his father left him in the care of his former alcoholic mother whom he barely knew.  Apparently, Tommy was somehow convinced that his father was coming back.  “Why the hell are you telling me this?” Jack had yelled.  “What makes you think I’d want to know that?”

      “I’m sorry,” Phelps had told him.  “I’m only telling you what information I’ve been given.”

      “Well, it doesn’t exactly help me to know that I fucked up my son’s life,” said Jack, but he quickly calmed down.  “I’m sorry.  It’s just…forget about it.  I don’t want to hear any more.”

      Maria Wendall was told that her boyfriend had died in a car accident only a few years after she left.  “Oh my God, he’s dead?” she had said.  Nobody bothered to remind her that he’d been dead for over a million years.  She’d become used to the idea long before she knew how it had happened.

      Todd Blankens was simply told that his wife had remarried and had two children who both grew up to be doctors.  She died of natural causes at an old age, and had kept his name.  Todd couldn’t have been happier with that information.

 David O’Brian was told that his son had followed in his footsteps by getting a job with the STAR Administration, after it became the STAR Corporation, but never made it beyond the mission control room.  “He had a successful career,” Phelps had told him.  “Although he never made it to the rank of astronaut, he served as a controller for over four hundred missions, many of which were first-landings and rendezvous, A-team missions.”  David was not impressed, but he did his best to conceal his disappointment.  His son had tried to follow in his footsteps.  It wasn’t David’s fault that he was incompetent.

      Katie Stark, Ronald’s little sister, had almost the same fate as David’s son.  She had become a mission controller, in charge of Communications, and was very successful.  She never went into space because she never wanted to, but she served on the A-team whenever the A-team was needed, and actually worked beside David’s son.

      Lily Zaw’s little sister Martha had tried to pursue the career in medicine that had lead her older sister to success.  Unfortunately, she never made it through medical school.  She was expelled for being caught with illegal substances, and instead went into business, where she married her boss and had one child who didn’t survive a week past birth.  Naturally, Lily wasn’t too happy with this information, but she refrained from taking out her anger on Travis Phelps.

      There was no information regarding Mark Staff’s girlfriend, and the only thing STAR knew about Craig Malls’s parents was that they died about a decade after their son left, extremely proud of him until the end.  Bittersweet, Jack had commented, at best.

      STAR had no information about the family of Lauren Samalc, and that didn’t bother her in the least.  She had severed ties with them long before the mission, and never knew what became of them.  She never wanted to know.  All that mattered now was that they were long dead and forgotten.  The same went for Jason Floyd.  Elliot Larken, as well, had no family he wanted to know about.

      When all the information had been given out, the mood of the depressed greatly outweighed the mood of the content, and very little talking went on.  Arnold told everyone that he had planned to have a crew discussion that night, but everyone was tired and it could wait until the following night.  He then temporarily closed transmission with STAR, and the crew went to sleep. 

      The next day, the STAR Corporation had a “special treat” for the crewmembers of the Andromeda.  Apparently, they had issued a calling to anyone who could claim blood relation to any of the Andromeda astronauts.  For those with legitimate claims, they randomly chose one person to get to talk to the astronaut they were related to.  So the crewmembers that had descendants got to speak to them.

      What a privilege, Jack thought sarcastically as he put on the headphones to talk to one of his son’s great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great whatever grandchildren.

      “Hey, this is Jack Peskie.  What’s up?” he said.

      “Jack, hi, I’m Gerry Peskie,” the voice in the headphones said.

      “Hi, Gerry.  What do you do for a living?” Jack asked.

      “I’m an engineer,” said Gerry.  “What do you do?”

      Jack laughed.  “Oh, a funny guy, eh?  This might not be so bad.  So, Gerry, what do you want to talk about?  Do you want to know what your great granddaddy does up in space?”

      “Oh, not really,” said Gerry.  “I’m in space enough to know what it’s like.  In fact, I was in space just a few hours ago.  I took a cab here from Mars this morning.”

      “I see,” said Jack.  “You go in space often?”

      “Every day,” said Gerry.  “I’m a commuter.  I live in Bradbury on Mars, and work in an office in Memphis on Earth.”

      “Pardon me saying this, but that’s fucked up,” said Jack.  “It used to be that not just anyone could go into space.  It used to be a privilege.”

      “It also used to be a privilege to ride in an aeroplane, Jack, or even a goddamn boat.”  Gerry chuckled.

      Jack paused for an uncomfortable moment. His first impression may have been wrong.  This was turning out to be just as aggravating as he’d imagined.  “You ever been out of the solar system?”

      “Of course.  I’ve got a summer house on Antares VI,” Gerry said.

      “Summer?  Is summer the same on Mars as Antares VI?” asked Jack.

      Gerry chuckled again.  “It’s just an expression, Jack…”

      “Please, have some respect for your elders,” said Jack.  “Don’t call me Jack.  I happened to be your great great great whatever grandfather.”

      “Actually, grandpa, I’m older than you.  You’re in your thirties, and I’m almost fifty.”  Gerry’s chuckling was really starting to aggravate Jack.

      “For your information,” Jack raised his voice, “I am over one million years old.  So I think I’ve had a little more experience in my thousands of millennia than you have in your measly five decades.”

      All-out laughter from Gerry now.  “They were right about you.  You’re hilarious.”

      “Is there anything you want to talk about besides the fucked up effects of Einsteinian physics?” Jack demanded.

      Gerry seemed to understand that he was no longer joking.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I was just gonna ask you about what it’s been like on the mission.  And about your son.”

      “The mission is just fine and dandy,” Jack growled, “if you disregard the whole ‘people dying’ aspect of everything.  And my son was a great kid when I knew him.  He may have had a few mental problems after I left, but…” Jack stopped.  He was done.  “I’m done,” he said.  “Have a nice life.  And to think you’ll be dead two days from now as far as my perception goes, whereas I shall live on for millions of years to come.”

      “You’re breaking my heart, Jack,” said Gerry.

      Jack threw down the microphone, and told Arnold he would like to sulk in his office for awhile. 

      The others also did not have much of a blast talking with their descendants.  Ronald Stark got to talk to a descendant of his sister, who was sixteen years old.

      “This is so cool,” Pip Stark exclaimed.  “You’re like a legend.  I can’t believe I’m talking to you.”

      “Well, you are,” said Ronald.  “So what do you want to know?”

      “I mean, it’s like, who actually gets to talk to their grandparents’ grandparents?” Pip continued.  “And here you are, like my great great uncle times a trillion.”

      “I don’t think a trillion generations have gone by in a million years,” said Ronald.  “For that to work, babies would have to be born pregnant.”

      “No, dude, I meant…”

      “Yeah, I know what you meant.  Now did you want to ask me anything about my job or the mission or anything?”

      “Uh, yeah…” Pip thought for a minute.  “Can you, like, turn off the gravity in your spaceship?  Because a long time ago, you could just turn it off and float around.”

      “You’re thinking of internal spin G,” Ronald informed him.  “That became obsolete long before I was born.”

      “Internal whatchamawhat?” Pip asked.

      “Never mind,” said Ronald.  “I can tell you about how our type of space travel works, if you have something different today, you might be interested…”

      “No no no,” Pip interrupted.  “That’s all right.  Like, have you had to do any surgery yet?  You’re a surgeon right?”

      “Yes,” said Ronald, now wondering just how much time STAR had allotted for these idiots to talk.  “I haven’t had to perform my duties yet.”

      “Whoa,” Pip seemed to forget about his last question immediately after her asked it.  “You’re going to another galaxy, right man?  It’s uh…”

      “Andromeda,” Ronald growled.

      “Yeah…oh!  That’s why your ship is called that!  Dude, I can’t believe I just figured that out.”

      “Well, congratulations.  You’re an extremely gifted child.  I’m sure you’ll go far.”  Ronald was ready to smash the microphone against the ground.

      “Yo, dude,” Pip said, “Do you think there are any aliens in Andromeda?  Like, I know there’s aliens here, but like, maybe there’s more aliens in Andromeda.  Maybe if you guys go there it’ll piss ‘em off, and they’ll like, start a war with us or something…”

      “No, Pip, I’m not too worried about it…” Ronald said trying to sound even more impatient than he actually was.  “But now that I think about it, I’d better go check.  It was nice talking to you.”

      He turned off the transmission and called Maria into the bathroom with him so he could release some of his frustration in a “positive” way. 

      That night, Arnold attempted to call together a crew discussion about everything the crew had heard from Earth so far, but everyone unanimously decided against it.  Arnold didn’t put up a fight.  He wasn’t really in the mood to talk about the odd circumstances of the communication either.

      The next day, a few final words were exchanged between STAR and the Andromeda.  Arnold told them to pass a message to Andromeda II from them saying they were doing all right and he was excited to see his daughter again.  He also put in a request from Jack that they make sure the STAR Corporation would not let any descendants speak to them during the next transmission.

      That night, the crew gathered in the cockpit as Lauren sped up the time-scale and set the ship forward again at 70 days per second, now closer to Andromeda than home. 
 

Chapter 27

Flight Plan: Instruction 2d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 18

Location:  Millions of light-years from Andromeda 

      The first week of the next period of thrust went by as uneventfully as a mission can go.  Todd and Lily continued to “love” each other in the bathroom; Ronald and Maria did the same.  Arnold spent many hours of each day talking to Lauren, and Jason grew angrier and angrier.  When David wasn’t asleep, he spent his time aggravating the other crewmembers.  Meanwhile, Elliot kept to himself, and Jack just watched the living drama play out before him.

      It was Jack who walked into the cockpit a few weeks into the thrust period and found Arnold making out passionately with Lauren.  The two of them didn’t even notice him.  Jack hurried back to the living quarters and shouted, “Hey, everyone.  Whatever you do, do not go in the cockpit right now.”

      Naturally, every person in the living quarters got up and scrambled to the door of the cockpit.  From his seat at the computer, “In The Flesh” playing from the speakers, Jason could read Jack’s expression enough to know exactly what was going on, and he knew he didn’t want to see it.  Still, he got up and took a peek for himself.

      Arms around each other, eyes closed, and faces joined at the mouth, the commander and the pilot were lost in each other.  When Lauren did notice that they were being watched, she merely glanced to the doorway and continued to kiss Arnold.  But this made Arnold aware of the others’ presence, and stopped.  “Excuse me,” he said to them, standing up.  “Sometimes the commander deserves a little privacy too.”

      “Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Lily, smiling.  “This can only be healthy for both of you.  We’ll just go back and leave you two in peace.”

      Arnold wasn’t sure if he appreciated Lily’s comment or not, but it got the rest of the crew out of the room. Jack was the last person to leave, and he shot Arnold a look that he couldn’t interpret.  If Arnold had remembered their conversation, and Jack’s question about which crewmember he’d “like to bang,” he would have known exactly what Jack’s look meant.

      When everyone had resituated themselves in the living quarters, Jason had “Another Brick in the Wall part III” blasting at full volume, and he was typing furiously.

      “Jason,” Todd called to him, but got no response.  “Jason!” he called again.

      Ronald offered his help.  “JASON!!!” he screamed.

      Jason Floyd turned down the music, and without letting up at all on his typing, he shouted, “What?”

      “What are you writing?” Todd asked.

      The response was automatic.  “Words,” said Jason.  “Words, words, words.”

      “Thank you, Hamlet,” said Jack.  Nobody seemed to understand the sudden Shakespearian reference except Jason himself, who nodded and continued writing.

      “Just random words?” Todd asked.  “I mean, what type of thing are you writing?  A book, a short story, a poem?”

      “I don’t write books or poetry,” Jason answered.  “I write ideas.  And I don’t like to share my ideas with other people, especially before they’re completed.”

      The matter was then temporarily put to rest. 

      A few days later, when Arnold returned from the cockpit, Lily had just put down her book and decided to talk to the commander.  “Did you have fun?” she asked him.

      His gut reaction told him to just ignore her, but he suppressed it.  “Of course,” he said.  “She’s such a fascinating woman.”

      “Is she?” Elliot asked, putting his book down.  “How much has she told you about herself?”

      Lily was surprised just to hear Elliot talk, but even more intrigued by the fact that he’d chosen to get involved in a conversation she’d started.  She didn’t say anything though, as she was interested in hearing Arnold’s response.

      “Well...not much, to be honest,” he admitted.  “But she’s pretty philosophical.”

      “Oh come on, Arnold,” said Elliot.  “I’m sure you’re not in there for hours every day just listening to her talk about philosophy.  You can’t even handle ten minutes of hearing Jason’s ideas.”

      Arnold shrugged.  “So what’s your point?”

      “I think I have a pretty good idea about what goes on in there,” Elliot explained.  “You sit around and talk about yourself for hours, and she occasionally puts in an intelligent comment, but always pertaining to you.”

      Lily smiled at the surgeon.  She had assumed Elliot admired Arnold.  He would never personally attack the commander.

      “I try to get her to talk about herself,” Arnold said, clearly on the defensive.  “But she doesn’t.  And just out of curiosity, why do you have a problem with what I talk to her about anyway?”

      Elliot picked up his book again.  “I don’t,” he said.  “It’s just that when you decide to call a woman ‘fascinating’ I think you should have some justification behind it.”

      Arnold shrugged and entered his office.

      Before Elliot could get back into the book he was reading, Lily moved over and sat beside the quiet, mysterious surgeon.

      “Why did you ask him about that?” she asked.

      “I don’t really know,” Elliot said, not looking at Lily but staring off at the wall.  “I think I just find it a little aggravating that Arnold is getting the most out of their relationship while Lauren is clearly the one in pain.”

      “You really think she’s in pain?” asked Lily.  “At first, that’s what I thought, but then I started thinking that maybe she’s just really quiet.”

      “I don’t really like to talk about other people behind their backs,” said Elliot.

      “I understand,” said Lily, although she actually didn’t really understand what the big deal was.  What else could people talk about if not other people?  “But I’m just curious.  What makes you interpret her quietness as pain?”

      Elliot closed his book and put it beside him.  He took a deep breath, and continued to stare straight ahead.  “When you live with it for a long period of time, it becomes another sense.  You learn to recognise it in others.”

      Lily was enraptured in the mystery behind this man.  He was just as quiet as Lauren, but she’d never assumed it was due to depression.  Perhaps it was simply because she couldn’t sense it.  “So what’s caused you so much pain?” she asked.

      Elliot finally looked at her.  He didn’t say anything, and Lily could tell by his eyes that he was never going to.  Still, she kept his gaze.  There was something about her own reflection in his eyes...

      He turned away again, just before she could grasp it.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I didn’t want to bring up old memories.”

      “Don’t worry about it,” Elliot said, now closing his eyes.  “The memories are always there, and always right at the front.  Nothing anybody does can make them stronger or weaker in my mind.”

      Lily had no idea what to say, but she decided it would be best to just say nothing.  He’d succeeded in bringing her down to her own state of depression, and thus into deeper thought.  For a long time, she just sat silently behind him, staring at the wall of the ship while he stared at the wall in his mind. 

      Jason was sitting with his back against his bed, ready to listen to some music privately through his portable music-disc player when Ronald sat next to him.

      “So I read your journal the other day while you were in the cockpit,” he said.

      Jason dropped his disc player to the floor.  He needed several seconds for this last statement to register its meaning.  “What?” he said.  “How?”

      “At first I wasn’t gonna read it, but after the first few entries it got me interested,” said Ronald, “so I ended up reading the whole thing.”

      Jason couldn’t express how naked he currently felt.  “But how?  It’s all password-protected.”

      “The code wasn’t difficult to break, Jason,” Ronald told him.  “I’ve seen you type it, and I know it’s only three letters.  And I’d learned your mother’s name from your background profile, which is available to all of us.”

      “Was that all you read?”  Jason looked around the room, making sure nobody else was hearing this.

      “Yeah, the other file had a different, longer password which I couldn’t figure out,” said Ronald.

      “I’m surprised you were able to figure out ‘Val’.”  Jason’s pulse was racing, and sweat was pouring from his forehead.  “So, um...you haven’t told anybody what you’ve read, have you?”

      “No,” Ronald assured him.  “But now I understand why you get so upset every time Arnold goes into the cockpit to talk to Lauren.”

      “Fuck,” was all Jason could manage to say.  “And you won’t tell...”

      “Of course not,” said Ronald.  “Who knows what Arnold would do if he found out?  But I’m willing to bet he’d feel pretty satisfied with himself to know he’s making somebody jealous.  And I don’t intend to give him that satisfaction.”

      “I can’t believe you read it,” Jason repeated.

      “It was interesting.  And you write it pretty well,” Ronald said, not expecting Jason to take that as a compliment in any way.  He then switched gears slightly.  “So am I the only one who knows about your little crush on the pilot?”

      “If you really read it, you’d know it’s more than a ‘little crush’,” Jason told him, “and you’re not the only one.  Jack figured it out himself without the aid of invading my privacy.  And as far as I know, you are the only two people who have any idea.  Unless she knows, which...”

      “Which you’re not sure she does or not, I know,” Ronald interrupted.  “You didn’t fail to mention that about eight million times in your journal.”

      “You do realise how this makes me feel,” said Jason.  “I barely even know you, and now you basically know all there is to know about me.”

      “Yeah, but I don’t care,” said Ronald.  “You shouldn’t have kept it such a big secret.  If everyone knew you were keeping a journal, I wouldn’t have been so curious.”

      “That’s bullshit...” Jason began.

      “I’d love to stay and chat,” Ronald interrupted, “but I’m so goddamn hungry.  I’m gonna get something to eat.”

      And with that, he got up and left, leaving Jason with the overwhelming desire to take a knife and either slit his own throat, or Ronald’s.  Or Arnold’s.

      Jason began to sing to himself again, at a low volume but very angrily.  “I murmured a vow of silence and now I don’t even hear when I think aloud.  Extinguished by light, I turn on the night; wear its darkness with an empty smile.” 

      More time went by, and more of the same continued.  Then, as Jack had predicted, a minor shift in the social structure of the crew occurred.

      “Lily, I want to talk to you,” Todd called to her.

      She had been sitting beside Elliot, engaging in intellectual conversations with him for days.  When Todd called her to talk, she was stopped in the middle of a talk about life in the universe, and why it was so rare.

      “What is it, Todd?” she asked him.  He motioned to Arnold’s office, and she knew immediately what he wanted to discuss.  “Oh, come on, Todd,” she said loud enough for everyone in the living quarters to hear.  “I was just talking to him.”

      “Could we just please have this conversation in the office?” Todd asked.

      Lily was clearly miffed that Todd was raising an objection to her simply talking to another human being.  She wasn’t going to do him the favour of letting him speak in private.  “No,” she said angrily.  “I want to know why you have a problem with me talking to Elliot.”

      “Lily...” Todd could see he wasn’t going to win this battle, so he lowered his voice.  “It’s just...it’s just that you never talk to me anymore.”

      “That’s because I can never get five sentences in without you nudging me towards the bathroom!” Lily shouted.  A few crewmembers chuckled, although they could clearly see this was serious.

      “Lily!  I think you can imagine that I get a little jealous...” Todd tried again.

      “Well, that’s your problem,” she said.  “If you can’t handle me talking to somebody else on this ship, than you’re just gonna have to deal with it.”  Lily stopped for a moment to consider why she was being so harsh.  Somewhere inside her, she understood.

      Apparently, so did Todd.  “Fine, Lily,” he said, throwing his hands up and turning away.  “If that’s the way you feel, then we’re through.  You’re obviously getting nothing out of this relationship anyway.”

      For some reason, this caught Lily off guard.  “Wait a minute, you’re...”

      “Yes, I am.”  Todd was clearly finished talking.  He gave Lily one last look and stormed into the office to sulk alone.

      “Well, all right then,” she said.  But as soon as he was gone, another feeling overwhelmed her completely.  She sat down where she was and leaned against a bed, telling herself that the tears she was fighting back had nothing to do with Todd.  She was now a million light-years from home, and completely alone. 
 

Chapter 28

Flight Plan: Instruction 2d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 51

Location:  Many light-years from Andromeda 

      There are periods in every person’s life that they can look back on and state, “nothing happened” throughout the whole time.  The crew of the Andromeda could describe the vast majority of Instruction 2d of the Flight Plan to be the most uneventful period of time in the mission.

      For weeks following Todd and Lily’s break-up, virtually nothing happened.  It’s quite disturbing to a writer when this happens, because of the natural inclination to fill up every second with whatever crap you can come up with (as well as expand each moment to ridiculous proportions).  But if I were to describe the actions and conversations that took place over this time, I would just be wasting time and paper.

      The last bit of drama prior to the weeks of “nothing” occurred on the day of the break-up.  David had woken up and found Lily sulking against a bed.  “What’s your problem?” he had asked her.

      She didn’t answer him.  The only indication that she’d heard what he said was a blink and a slight roll of the eyes.

      “Todd broke up with her,” Ronald told David.

      “Aw,” David said in a sinister tone, “did Dr. Assfuck dump you?  Well, you should be glad.  Now I can show you what it means to be with David O’Brian.”

      From across the room, Jack Peskie burst into laughter.

      “In your fucking dreams,” Lily said while turning to him.  “But no, I’d never give myself to you, not even in your fucking dreams.  And if I ever find out that you’ve been dreaming about me, I’ll rip your fucking balls off.”

      “Ouch,” Jack commented.

      David chuckled.  Lily had made the list.  She’d get what was coming to her.  “You couldn’t do that.  If you even tried, Arnold would have to kick you off the crew.”

      The people in the room looked to Arnold, who breathed a deep sigh and nodded.  “He’s got you there, Lily.  I can’t let you physically assault him in any way.”  Noticing the general feeling of disapproval in the air, he added, “as much as I’d really like to see him try to walk after being castrated.”

      “Arnold,” David said in the most jovial of tones, “you are my favourite hypocrite.”

      “Why don’t you go start your shift early, David?” Arnold suggested.

      David gave him a huge grin.  “Well, I can see I’m not welcome here.  I’ll go tell your bitch that she can come back here and suck your dick now.”

      From his seat at the computer, Jason Floyd had restrained every impulse in his body to attack David and choke him to death.  But for some reason, what had really disturbed him was the fact that he seemed to take more offence to David’s comment than Arnold had.  Before he turned back to the screen, he caught a glimpse of Ronald studying his reaction with a huge smile on his face. 

      And so the weeks went by without much excitement.  The crew fell into a solid routine, and back into their social circles.  When Lily wasn’t talking to Elliot, she was talking to Maria.  Jason talked to Jack, although it was more often about philosophy than anything personal.  Arnold talked to Lauren, and Ronald talked to Maria.  Todd would float between conversations, and David would merely butt into them whenever he felt like generating some negative attention for himself.

      But even “nothing” can have an affect on people.  Between her feelings of loneliness and serious talks with Elliot, Lily grew more and more depressed.  And as she fell deeper and deeper, she was able to look deeper and deeper into people’s eyes.  She was finally able to see the pain in Lauren’s, although she couldn’t understand its nature.  And though she had never really given it any thought before, she noticed a pain behind Jason’s blue eyes.  But unlike the icy pain inside Elliot and Lauren, Jason’s was alive and burning.

      It was during the hour before the crew turned the lights out that she expressed the thought that had been growing on her mind since the break-up.  “This sucks,” she said amidst the silence.  All ten [living] crewmembers were in the living quarters, so they all heard her as she said, “Who brought the drugs?”  A few crewmembers gave her a puzzled look.  “Don’t look at me like that.  Somebody on this crew must have smuggled drugs aboard, and I think it’s about time we take some.”

      “Um, Lily...” Arnold began.

      “Oh, don’t start preaching, Arnold,” Lily countered.  “Why do you think STAR even invented the contraband rule?”

      The contraband rule was another special provision that Mike Romband had cooked up and decided to initiate on the Andromeda mission.  It was kept as Top Secret classified information, because if the public knew about it, support for the STAR Administration would have dipped dangerously low.  Basically, every astronaut booked to go on a long mission (over a month of no communication with Earth) was allowed to bring one item with them that they didn’t have to tell anyone about.  Those who inspected their baggage would be the only ones who would ever know what was brought, and they were sworn to secrecy.  When told that the contraband rule was in effect, the baggage inspectors knew to allow any otherwise illegal item through, with the exception of any sort of explosive or deadly weapon.

      “I always thought it was for sex toys,” said Jack.

      “That just goes with the territory,” Lily told him.  “Drugs were obviously the main reason for the rule.  Mike Romband understands...understood....that on long missions like this, people need an escape from reality, and he didn’t want to deprive anyone of that.”

      “That actually makes a lot of sense,” said Jack.

      It’s not as though drugs were illegal anyway.  Jon Clark had legalised all substances that were only damaging to the user centuries before any of the Andromeda crewmembers were born. It was almost embarrassing how drastically the crime rate dropped after that, and once the government regulated the manufacturing of the drugs, they became much more powerful and much less dangerous.  The reason STAR couldn’t let anyone know was simply a question of ethics.  If people knew that the astronauts flying the missions they contributed money to could be under the influence of mind-altering substances, they would not be so eager to invest.

      “So who brought the drugs?” Lily asked again and looked around the room.  It was obvious that no one aboard had smuggled any drugs onto the ship.

      But just before she gave up hope, Maria said, “Mark did.”

      Arnold’s eyes widened.  Ronald smiled and shook his head.  Jack nodded as if he’d known all along.

      “Mark did?” Lily repeated.

      “He told me during one of our brief conversations.  He was gonna wait until we got into Andromeda, then we’d take all of them and fuck each other’s brains out.”  Maria’s tone contrasted with her words.  She almost sounded remorseful.  “I guess that won’t be happening now.  But I know for a fact if you can get into Mark’s bed compartment and open his duffel bag, you’ll find a small case filled with stig pills.”

      The crew was silent for a moment as they all looked towards Mark’s empty bed, devoid of sheets or any indication of character.

      “So how the hell do we get under his bed?” Jason asked, making his first remark of the night.  Talk of drugs always made him anxious.

      “You need a password,” Jack told him.  “But only Mark knows it.  I don’t suppose he told Maria.”

      Maria shook her head, indicating that he hadn’t.

      “That doesn’t matter,” David said, again with that creepy smile of his.  “Arnold’s the commander.  He’s got a code that can open every goddamn lock on the ship.”

      Arnold looked around the room.  Apparently, this was news to everyone but Elliot.  That was just part of the trouble with having former commanders serve on a crew.  “That’s true,” he said.  “But it’s only to be used for an emergency.  And I hardly think Lily’s desire to melt her own brain counts as an emergency.  Besides, it’s theft.”

      “Both of those are perfectly logical arguments, Arnold,” said Jason.  “But you’re only looking at it from that 1-dimensional perspective again.”

      “Don’t start with the philosophy, Jason...” Arnold protested.

      “I’ll keep it in terms you can understand.”  The crew partially recognised what was happening.  Jason rarely spoke out of turn, but when he wanted to make a point, he made it, and argued it beyond the point where anyone could rationally disagree with him.  “They give you that code to be used at your discretion, not just emergencies, or else we’d all have the code.  And one of, if not the main part of your job as a commander—especially on a mission like this—is to satisfy the needs of your crew and keep them healthy.  If you have reason to believe that using your code will improve the mental health of the crew, you have justification.  It’s not like anyone will ever find out anyway, but since your faithfulness to the guidelines of your job means so much to you, you can know that what you did in no way violated your duties as commander.  As far as theft goes, it doesn’t even apply.  If a crewmember dies on a mission, anything he brought aboard automatically becomes property of the STAR Administration.  And since you are the highest-ranking available representative of the Administration, you have the power to decide what we do with Mark’s things.”

      “Jason, you’re a fucking genius,” Lily told him.

      “Thanks,” he said to her with a smile, but continued to look at Arnold, whom he had not expected to convince anyway.

      “Just because I have justification to do it doesn’t mean I have to do it.  It’s within my discretion to do whatever I want with Mark’s drugs.  If I decided, I could obtain them and throw them through the garbage chute.”  Arnold was satisfied with what he was saying.  “And personally I think taking drugs on a mission is a bad idea.”

      “Apparently Mike Romband would have disagreed with you,” Lily said.

      “Lily, you are a high-ranking medical officer on this ship, and I’m not going to let you fry your brain,” Arnold said sternly.  “End of story.”

      “I don’t think so,” said Jason.  “Not until you give us proper justification for your decision.”

      “What?” Arnold turned to him, wondering why Jason was attacking him so viciously.

      “The crewmembers have rights too,” Jason said, “and one of them is to have the commander explain the rationale behind any decision.  A commander is not a dictator.  I want to hear your justification for not allowing your crew to use substances that are only on board because the head of the STAR Administration allowed them to be.”

      Arnold shifted his eyes in confusion.  Jason wasn’t arguing philosophically this time.  He was using the same logic that drove Arnold’s mind, and that was dangerous.  Arnold could dismiss philosophy as philosophy, but pure logic relating to his job and his duties as commander could not be so easily dismissed.  “I just explained,” he said.  “This mission is incredibly important, and I won’t risk any of my crewmembers getting brain damage.”

      “Actually,” Elliot spoke up, and although everyone was quiet, they seemed to get quieter.  “Acidic pills like stig pose no risk of permanent brain damage.  Those pills are just about the cleanest way to alter your consciousness.  For about 6-10 hours depending on your metabolism, you’re basically useless.  After that, there’s a period of disorientation for about two days, then everything’s back to normal.”

      “He’s right,” Ronald said.  “We learn all this stuff in medical school.  I wouldn’t touch the stuff, but there’s basically no danger at all.”

      Arnold was silent for a moment.  Before he could speak again, Jason finished driving in the nail of his argument.

      “The head of STAR personally decided that the mental health of the crew was worth any small risk the contraband rule might pose,” said Jason, “and you disagree.”

      Arnold could see that by all rational justification, he was defeated.  If he refused to get the drugs for the crewmembers, it would only be because he couldn’t admit he was defeated.  No matter what he did, he couldn’t win.  Either be defeated by getting the drugs, or admit defeat by not getting them.

      “Okay, let me just ask one question,” Arnold said.  “If I get the pills, who on this crew is going to take them?”

      Lily and Jason immediately indicated they would, while Elliot and Ronald made it clear that they wouldn’t.  Maria then indicated she would do it, and Jack said he would choose to abstain from the activity.  Arnold made it clear that there was no chance in hell that he would let David do them, and to everyone’s surprise David didn’t argue.  Todd said he would.  Lauren was the only one left.

      “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she said.  “It seemed like it could get in the way of...” pursuing a career to get away from my parents, she would have said but stopped herself.  “…but I don’t have to worry about that anymore.  I’ll try it.”

      Arnold looked at her for a long time, almost feeling betrayed.  He couldn’t read the message in her eyes, but he at least had a thin understanding of the feeling.  “Okay,” he finally said.  “I’ll open it up and get the drugs.” 
 

Chapter 29

Flight Plan: Instruction 2d- Thrust, 70 dps, Day 51

Location:  Many light-years from Andromeda 

      The pills were in a small leather case, about the size of a laptop computer.  The case contained three plastic sheets with nine pills encased in each.  The pills were perfectly clear, small, smooth, and circular.  On the back of each sheet the logo for the company which manufactured the drug was written, as well as all active ingredients, instructions and warnings.

      It had taken awhile after the legalisation of drugs by Jon Clark for all of the drug lords to go out of business.  Part of the problem was the need for commercial businesses to undertake the manufacturing of substances that were safe and could be sold cheaply enough to be cost-effective.  Marijuana was safe enough already, so the sale of seeds for private growth quickly became popular, and farmers who could produce quality weed made a living off of the plant.  The only harm of cocaine besides the risk of overdose was its addictiveness, but when neatly packaged and sold for only slightly more than the price of manufacturing, coke dealers became extinct and coke companies became economically identical to tobacco companies.

      The main problem was hard drugs such as heroin and acid.  Both of these drugs were extremely dangerous, and put users at risk of either insanity or death.  A safe form of heroin was never found, so it soon became the only product for the struggling drug dealers.  Fortunately, it became so expensive that hardly anyone could buy it, and the drug dealers had to give up their businesses.  Unfortunately, many hopeless addicts died before heroin itself became obsolete.

      It took years of experimentation in labs to find a safe chemical combination to produce the same hallucinogenic and consciousness-altering effects of acid.   
It seemed they would never find it when disaster struck the first group of volunteers to test the drug.  Twenty people were given the pill, and twenty were given a placebo.  The twenty people who were given the placebo reported no hallucinations or changes in consciousness.  The twenty people who were given the actual pill suffered the most traumatic experience of their lives.

      The word quickly got out that the minds of these twenty people became so intensely altered that they had started speaking in tongues and mutilating themselves.  Even after the drug wore off, after-effects and flashbacks haunted them for the rest of their lives.  In almost all of these subjects, excessive damage was self-inflicted to their hands.  After the formula was perfected and the drug became perfectly safe, the pills were still referred to as the “stigmata” drug, or “stig” for short.

      Elliot Larken explained all this as he took five pills out of their encasement on the first sheet, and handed one to each crewmember who had volunteered to take it.  “It’s perfectly safe physiologically,” he assured them, “but the trip you have can be the most extremely horrific experience of your life, especially if your head is filled with negative thoughts.  Which is why I won’t take it.”  What he didn’t tell them was that he used to take stig all the time as if it was candy, but he had given it up when having a good trip became impossible.

      The five crewmembers held their pills in closed fists as they listened to Elliot continue to talk to them about what to expect.  “This is not a drug to drown your sorrows in,” he told them.  “All it will allow you to do is escape reality, but you can’t tell whether the reality you’re going to escape to will be a heaven or a hell.  If you start thinking bad things, push them out.  If you need help, the rest of us are here to talk you through it.  I probably know the most about it.  Consider me your anchor to reality.”

      “Thanks, Elliot,” Todd said.  “I’ve actually done this before, and I’ve seen someone go through a bad trip.  It’s good to know there’s someone here if we need help.”

      “Okay,” Elliot said.  “Now if none of you are having second thoughts, just put the pill on your tongue and close your mouths.  Wait for it to dissolve completely into liquid, and then swallow.  It won’t taste like anything.”

      Todd, Lily, Maria, Jason, and Lauren did just as Elliot had told them.  Lily put the pill on her tongue and closed her mouth.  She could feel it react with the chemicals in her mouth, and slowly wear away into a liquid state, like the juice from a hard candy, but devoid of any flavour.  When she could no longer feel the solid object in her mouth, she swallowed the acid and saliva, and let the stig work its way up to her brain.

      When Jason had finished, he immediately got up and broke out his music-discs.  He then played the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, music that was almost, if not completely, drug-inspired.  After the forty minutes of psychedelic rock, he put in their second album, Saucerful of Secrets.  By the time the third song, “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” came on, all five crewmembers who had taken the stig were beginning to feel the effects.

      “Oh my God,” Todd said.  “Of course.”

      “Coming to revelations already, Todd?” Jason asked.

      “Yeah,” he said.  “I think I just figured out why super-light speed are possible in spite of all the known laws of physics!”

      “Craig might have liked to hear your theory,” Jack said, watching from his bed with maximum interest.

      “He probably knows it now,” Jason put in.  “And I think I understand too.  It has to do with the curvature of the universe.  But only this universe.  Others don’t have curves.  Some have more.  Some have things more complicated than curves.  This might be one of them.  Or maybe it only appears that way because we’re inside it.  Or maybe...” he faltered.  “Oh shit.”

      Now Todd smiled.  “I was following you until you started talking about other universes.  Isn’t there only one?”

      “No,” Jason said.  “There are infinity.  Existence is infinite, but the universe is just one reality.  But no universe is actual reality.”

      “Then what is reality?” Lily asked, speaking for the first time.

      “It’s Love,” Jason said, and looked at Lauren involuntarily.  Lauren was looking at him.  Maybe she had just turned to him.  He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, whether or not she was contemplating her Love for him or plotting to kill him.  All of a sudden, this became the most important thing in the world to know.

      “Just wait,” Todd said to Lily.  “Pretty soon, you won’t be able to talk about all the things you figure out.  It’ll just be coming so fast and the new stuff will be piling on top of the old stuff and you won’t remember any of the revelations you come to.  It can get frustrating, but you just kind of have to let it go.”

      Jason had his eyes closed, thinking of Lauren.  She had never done this before.  What was she thinking?  He could see her in his mind.  He also had the sensation that he was being propelled upward on an elevator going the speed of light, and it was making him dizzy.  If he didn’t open his eyes soon...

      “This is fucking intense,” Maria said.  She didn’t say much of anything else.  She just got up and made herself a sandwich. Ronald followed her to make sure she didn’t start mutilating her hands with the knives.

      Jason pried his eyes open, and with a sudden surge of adrenaline...he faltered again.  This was now the task.  Here he was, on this intense trip in the middle of nowhere, closer to Andromeda than the Milky Way, and Lauren was right there.  Sitting across from him.  Thinking.  What was she thinking?  She had to be thinking something.  Jason had to find out.  He had to know.  Until he could overcome this barrier and say something to her, the rest of the trip would be one of anxiety.  It could even become very negative.  But if something positive came of it, he would be in heaven for the rest of the night.

      “I need to do something,” Lily said.  “I need to get up and move around.”  Lily stood up and began to walk in circles around the living quarters, forever journeying back to where she started, thousands of light-years from where she began.

      With a real surge of adrenaline, Jason let go of all self-restrictions, and said, “So what are you thinking, Lauren?”

      Lauren blinked very slowly.  Then she looked at the ceiling and answered Jason’s question.  “Every question I’ve ever had is suddenly being answered.  But then I forget the answers.”

      Jason smiled with such relief that a tingle ran through his entire body.  “Just consider the fact that you’ll keep all the answers you want to know.  You’re catching a glimpse of the Truth, but part of the Truth is that you don’t want to know all of it.”

      And then the most wonderful thing happened to Jason.  Lauren smiled.  She closed her eyes, and smiled so widely that all of her perfect teeth could be seen.  “Yeah...” was all she said, and then her muscles all simultaneously relaxed and she sunk deep into her trip, for the first time seeing what she knew, and understanding why she didn’t. 

      David O’Brian had been watching in amusement for the entire time.  He was glad that Arnold had forbidden him from taking the drug.  He knew where his thoughts were, and he knew that enhancing them could only mean trouble, for him as well as the rest of the crew.  But while he was sober, his mind was immune to the insanity it could now provoke...

      When Lily walked by his bed for the sixth time, with a sudden jerking motion, he threw his blanket over her head.

      With a shriek of pure terror, she fell to the ground.  “That’s how suddenly life ends, Lily,” he said in the voice of Satan.  “You move in circles until one day...you die.”

      “DAVID!!!” Elliot shouted.  “Don’t make me call Arnold out here.”  The commander was in his office, thinking.  He refused to take part in this event, and had left Elliot in charge of the crew for the night.

      “Oh, I’m so fucking scared,” David said.

      Lily tossed the blanket off of her, and from across the room, Ronald Stark could recognise that look of terror as if he’d seen it a thousand times.  He was a surgeon.  He had seen it more times than that.  That was the look of a person who had just barely escaped death, but wasn’t sure they were still alive.

      Elliot recognised it too, because he remembered looking that way himself, and immediately ran to her side.  “It’s okay,” he said in his most calm voice.  “You’re alive.  You’ve never been more alive.  Everything is fine.”  He kept repeating these words until they became like music, and Lily’s face returned to a state of calm.

      As Saucerful of Secrets came to an end, Jason rose and put in Wish You Were Here.  There was silence throughout the entire first track, the first half of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”

      When Maria finished her sandwich, she drank as much water as she could handle, and then stumbled to her bed.  She laid facedown for a while, clutching to the sides as if she were being spun around and upside-down.  By the third track of the album, she was asleep.

      Todd was lost in another universe.  Sitting with his back against his bed, his eyes were closed and his head was moving around and around with the music.  Lauren remained perfectly still, only her eyes moving.  They darted from one area of the room to another.  Focussed hard, then lost focus.  The walls became the ceiling, the colours became emotions, and three dimensions became ten.

      Jason was lost in the same state of comprehension and illusion when the song “Wish You Were Here” came on.  He noticed Elliot, who was sitting next to Lily, suddenly look up when the melody came on.  When this happened, Jason got his first actual look into his eyes.  He saw deeper into Elliot than he had ever seen before.  He recognised the pain instantly.  And he recognised its nature.

      “Elliot,” he said.  “It’s Loss, isn’t it?”

      Elliot looked over at Jason, and with a sigh and said with a smile and a nod, “It’s Love.”

      Jason smiled one last time.  “The two go hand in hand with you, don’t they?”

      Maybe the tear running down Elliot’s cheek as he nodded was just part of a hallucination. 

      The last song of the album was the second half of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”  When the tempo picked up, David got restless again.  Very subtly, so neither Elliot nor Ronald noticed, he licked his fingers, and blew on them until they became very cold.  Then he leaned over the bed Lily and Elliot were sitting against, and grabbed Lily’s neck with his icy fingers.

      “That’s death,” he said again as Lily screamed.  “Its cold grip grabs you when your guard is down.”

      Elliot shouted at David again, and pulled Lily away from his clutches.

      “That’s how it will end for you,” David continued.

      Lily was now bawling.  Through her wet eyes everything was blurry.  The blurriness turned every image into something else.  Every image she saw became dark.  It became death.  And just for an instant, she could see into the future.  She could see her own death.  She could see exactly how it would happen.  And then it was gone, and forgotten, leaving only the most dreadful emotion behind.

      As he watched Lily, a fire inside Ronald lit up.  He’d seen enough dead eyes to recognise them on the living.  For a fraction of a second, he saw that same quality in Lily’s eyes.  For one instantaneous fragment of time, Lily had been dead, and David had killed her.

      “David, you fucking moronic piece of shit!!!” Ronald yelled.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

      David’s sinister smile disappeared as soon as Ronald’s shouting began.  This was supposed to be his friend.  This was supposed to be the one on his side.  Mark was on his side.  Mark was dead.  And now Ronald...

      “You’re inflicting psychological wounds that may never be undone,” Ronald continued.  “That is just about the worst crime you can commit.  Nobody should be subjected to the thoughts you just sparked in Lily’s mind in such a fragile state.  Can’t you even see that?  Are you so fucking ignorant that you can’t see that what you just did is just about the most evil thing a person can do?”

      Throughout Ronald’s speech, all of David’s facial muscles became tense with rage.  His eyes burned with fury and desperation.  He stared at Ronald for a good long period of silence before he finally answered.  The answer, it seemed, was directed more at himself than Ronald.  “If this is my punishment for wounding her,” a lump in his words indicated a tear suppressed before its formation, “then who punishes the one who wounded me?”

      With that, David rose from the bed, and entered the cockpit, now with no allies remaining.  The betrayal was complete. 

      When Elliot had finally calmed Lily down, Arnold had come out of his office and gone to sleep.  He indicated that he’d heard it all, but didn’t want a word of explanation.  It had been several hours, and Todd had gone to sleep along with Ronald and Jack.  Only Jason and Lauren were awake when Lily told Elliot she loved him.

      “Your emotions are deceiving you,” he told her softly.  “But if you really mean that, I should tell you I’m perfectly capable of giving my love to you.  But I’m afraid it might be too dangerous.”

      Lily looked puzzled.  Jason understood.  Lauren sighed heavily and made her way into her bed to go to sleep.

      “Danger?” Lily asked.

      Elliot paused in thought.  “Just relax right now.  You’re past the peak.  You’re getting over it.  I’m with you.  There’s no danger when I’m with you.  But you don’t want my Love.”

      The end of Richard Wright’s Broken China came, and Jason shut down the computer.  He found his bed just in time to see Lily lean over and press her lips against Elliot’s.  Then Jason laid down and passed without transition from one state of illusory consciousness to another.

      At first, Elliot turned away, but the sensation of the breath from Lily’s nose against his cheek turned something on inside of him that he’d been trying to keep out of reach.  He opened his mouth, and returned her passion.

      Loss and Love.  Hand in Hand.  In Elliot, the spark was once again ignited.  He carried Lily to her bed and tucked her in.  Although he was extremely tired, Elliot watched her sleep until the morning. 
 

Chapter 30

Flight Plan: Instruction 2e- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Light-years from Andromeda 

      That last chapter may be a bit controversial, although I can’t see any reasonable justification of why.  I mean, the book already has sex and rock n roll, so naturally I needed to incorporate drugs.  Trust me, it has a purpose.  Everything in this book has a purpose.  Except these pointless self-commentary blurbs, which serve no purpose at all.  Or do they? 

      The Andromeda galaxy seemed to grow exponentially on that last week of Instruction 2d.  What was once just a fuzzy patch of light out the window was now a giant, magnificent spiral almost completely covering the cockpit window.  As the crew took their seats for the next time-scale deceleration manoeuvre, they stared in awe at the Milky Way’s sister galaxy, twice its size.

      There was no disputing that this galaxy was one of the most beautiful sights any of them had ever seen.  The billions of stars flowing in a whirlpool around the bright centre gave it a purple tint.  The tint grew dimmer as it reached the edge of the galaxy, and brighter towards the centre, where it exploded into a magnificent bright white light from the densely packed hot yellow stars near the galactic core.

      “Reminds me of a Jimi Hendrix song,” Jack Peskie commented once all the crewmembers were in their seats.

      The window for the second period of communication was to begin on July 25 2,157,504.  Naturally, Lauren Samalc had the ship moving at 1 second per second at the very beginning of that period.

      The excitement was noticeably weaker than it had been during the moments before the first transmission.  There was almost no doubt in the minds of the astronauts that the human race was still alive and well.  As Jack fiddled with the communications box, it was not apprehension but merely a slight feeling of uneasiness that took hold of them.  It was the year 2 million, and the human race was most likely still the same.

      “STAR, this is the Andromeda, do you copy?” Jack Peskie said.

      Andromeda, this is the STAR Corporation, we read you loud and clear.”  The response came almost immediately.

      Jack turned off the microphone for a second and turned to the crew.  “They always have to say, ‘loud and clear’.  You’d think these clichéd phrases would have gone out of date by the year two million.”

      “Just set up the transmission, Jack,” Arnold said.  “We’ll discuss our pet peeves later.”

      “We’d better,” Jack said, and turned the microphone back on.  “Good to hear that you’re still alive,” he said.  “Still in that old building in Tallahassee, I presume?”

      “Of course,” said the voice.  “We presume you’re all still alive?”

      “Yeah, we’re pretty proud of ourselves.  We’ve managed to go a whole two months without anyone being killed,” said Jack.  Arnold shot him a nasty look, but Jack paid no attention.

      “Well, um...” the voice stumbled, “...we’re glad to hear that.  This is Jack Peskie, I presume?”

      With an extreme amount of effort, Jack managed to suppress his overwhelming urge to be sarcastic.  “Yes it is.  Would you like to speak to our commander?”

      “Yes, we would,” said the voice.

      Jack handed the microphone to Arnold.  “STAR, this is Arnold Juciper, commander of the Andromeda spaceship.  Who am I speaking to?”

      “I am the C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation, Milton Fitch,” he said.  “You can give your report whenever you’re ready.”

      “There’s not much to report,” said Arnold.  “The only manoeuvres we’ve been through since the last communication were the acceleration and deceleration of the time-scale, and those went perfectly.  We’ve had no other procedures to carry out.  Most of the work will be done in Instruction 3, which we’ll begin just as soon as we conclude this coasting period.”

      “As we expected,” said Fitch.  “Interestingly, the past million years back here has been rather uneventful as well.  When you’re ready, we’ll give you the report.”

      “We’re ready for the report right now,” said Arnold.  “We don’t expect much communication to be done during this particular transmission.”

      “All right, then if you’ll give us a moment, I should have the list of the major events of the past million years ready,” said Fitch. 

      The list of events was in sharp contrast to the first list that the Andromeda crewmembers had heard during the first transmission.  There was nothing about discoveries of alien races or interstellar wars.  Instead there was only an announcement of a scientific “break-through” every few thousand years.

      Most of the so-called “break-through”s had to do with terra-forming and faster methods of space-travel.  Apparently, colonies could now be set up on the surfaces of stars and floating on the upper atmospheres of gas planets.  The limit to how fast the time-scale could go was now non-existent.  Apparently STAR had stumbled upon the technology to duplicate light-energy without limit.  This meant that speeds anywhere from 200 years per second to 10 billion millennia per second and beyond could be reached.  Any point in the future was accessible to mankind.  But there was a ban placed on the application of this technology as soon as it was discovered.  Although any point in the future was now within reach, there was no return journey.  One could still not travel back in time.  Therefore, STAR did not let anyone jump forward to the future.  No spacecraft was ever built with the capability of travelling faster than one century per second, which was still mind-bogglingly fast.

      The only other interesting scientific developments were further advances in human genetic engineering principles.  Humans could now “breathe” in a vacuum due to newly designed lungs which did not require oxygen to sustain.  Also, humans could hear through a vacuum.  The same technology that made identical crystals vibrate in identical ways through limitless distances could apparently be applied to other structures.  A generation of humans were bred with these new lungs and a specific gene that could vibrate identically to anything in the universe within a certain range.  An astronaut on a space-walk above Earth would now be able to hear the ocean hundreds of kilometres below, no oxygen supply necessary.

      After hearing all of this, the astronauts still didn’t know what to think.  In spite of the new technology, it was especially difficult for Jack Peskie to picture the STAR Administration building he knew, still standing after two million years, and still the centre of the entire human economy.

      “We’ve got half the Milky-Way populated,” Fitch was saying.  “According to our computer models, we should have every star system explored and populated by the year three million.”

      When he was finished, Jack took the microphone.  “I’m sorry,” he said to Arnold.  “But there’s just a few problems in my head about this whole thing that I need to clear up.”

      “Please, Jack,” Arnold said as he handed him the microphone, “don’t cross-examine the human race.”

      “I’ll be nice.”  Jack turned it on and faced the communications box as if Milton Fitch was actually inside.  “Milton, buddy,” he began, “a few of us are having kind of a hard time swallowing the reality of the situation back there on Earth.”

      “Hearing in a vacuum is impossible,” Fitch said as if he thought this was the only problem they were having, “but hearing through a vacuum is quite possible.”

      “Yeah, we understand that,” said Jack.  “But back in 8th grade geology class, we learned that two million years is actually a relatively long time as far as the earth itself is concerned.  It seems that no species has ever really dominated for that long a period of time.  The fact that the human race is still alive and well after all this time, and that Earth is still the planet at the centre of power is just kinda weird.”

      “I’m not sure what you mean,” said Fitch.  “Perhaps two million years seems like a long time to you, who only had to remember four digits when writing out the date, but we’ve been used to seven for thousands of generations.”

      “Maybe you’re right,” said Jack.  “But in those two million years, haven’t there been any natural disasters on Earth?  It seems mass extinctions are not uncommon on our home planet.  In fact, if I remember correctly, ice ages seem to occur in only twelve thousand year cycles.”

      Milton Fitch did not respond for a long time.  “Oh, I understand,” he said.  “Yes, I’ve just been given some information regarding this point.  At first, I didn’t understand what you meant by ‘ice age’ but now I remember learning about that.  Yes, the earth did for a long point in its history go through cycles in which the average temperature dropped and went through a glacial period.  But that was before intelligence.  The human race knew that an ice age was coming, and we figured out how to stop it.  Using fairly primitive terra-forming skills, we were able to regulate the average temperature of the earth so that we didn’t have to worry about glaciers forming or ice caps melting or any such natural disaster.”

      That was a satisfactory answer.  (Almost believable, from a science fiction point of view.)  “Okay, that makes sense,” said Jack.  “And I suppose asteroid and meteor impacts could be prevented as well?”

      Another pause ensued as Fitch was given the necessary information.  “Quite so,” he said.  “Our scanning technology was able to show us the position and trajectory of every piece of junk in every solar system.  If we saw that anything was on a collision course with us, we could simply disintegrate it before it came anywhere near us.”

      Jack nodded.  “So Earth has been completely safe.  What about other planets?  Have you had any trouble with unforeseen natural disasters?”

      This time, Fitch didn’t need any help.  “Mr. Peskie, you don’t give your own species enough credit.  The word ‘unforeseen’ is just about as out of date as the word ‘ice age’.  Our science can predict anything well before it occurs.  Even seemingly chaotic systems, such as the weather, have an underlying order to them.  We can accurately predict simple weather patterns weeks in advance without error.  And we can predict global weather patterns from now until the end of time.  Earthquakes are not a mystery; therefore they are no longer a problem.  Volcanic eruptions, tsunamis...we have enough warning time to protect every human who may be in danger.  The battle of man vs. nature is over, and we have reached a comfortable peace in which we are on top.  Mother nature has done its part for us, and we are now independent of her.  She has not claimed the life of any human being in thousands of centuries.”

      Fitch’s last comment sent a chill down Jack’s spine, and a few of the other crewmembers as well.  “Well, hell.  What are your plans for when a sun goes nova?”

      “We won’t have to worry about our sun for another five billion years,” Fitch said.  “But as far as other stars go, they give off plenty of warning signs before any sort of disaster occurs.”

      “So when Betelgeuse explodes, you’ll have plenty of time to evacuate?” asked Jack.

      “Betelgeuse is gone,” said Fitch.  “It’s had its supernova.”

      This caused a minor gasp to erupt from the crewmembers.  Arnold looked at Jason, and they exchanged stupefied glances.  They had stood on the twelfth planet from that star only a few years ago.  Now that very planet no longer existed.

      David’s eyes were wider than they had ever been.  When Arnold looked at him, his facial expression didn’t change at all.  He had no idea what to change it to.  The star that had caused him so much grief due to Arnold was now absent from the universe.

      “It’s actually interesting that you mention that,” Fitch was saying.  “Betelgeuse’s supernova explosion occurred only a few centuries ago.  I can actually remember my great grandfather talking about how even though it actually happened before his time, he was alive to watch it from Earth as a child because of the relative slowness of the speed of light.  Betelgeuse was still in the night sky long after it had exploded.  They knew the exact instant the explosion would be visible from Earth, and he remembered watching it with his parents who had lived in that system for a long time.  And even for years to come, it was so bright that it was visible in the daytime, and lit up the night sky.  We can’t see it anymore, but there are still places in the galaxy where the explosion can still be seen, and some places where the star can still be seen intact.”

      David gave that last bit of fascinating science some thought, and it all made sense in his head once again.  The source of the pain was gone, but there was always somewhere that it would live on.  Arnold thought about it much differently; that it took a long time for these things to truly fade away.

      Jason thoughts were much deeper, and he had a near-religious epiphany as he considered it.  No matter how much time passed, Betelgeuse still existed as a star someplace in the universe where the light of its supernova hadn’t yet reached.  That went for everything, and it stretched on infinitely.  There would always be a place where Betelgeuse still existed.  Where Jason hadn’t been born yet.  Where dinosaurs still roamed the earth.  Where the sun hadn’t even formed yet...

      “But to answer your question,” said Fitch, “we did evacuate the system a long time before it happened.  Is there anything else you want to know?”

      Jack was just as mesmerised as the rest of the crew.  “No,” he said weakly.  “I think we’re done for the day.  We need some time to digest all of this.  We’re going to end the transmission until tomorrow.”

      “Very well,” Milton Fitch said.  “Signal us tomorrow when you’re ready to continue.”

      Jack switched off the communications box and sat in silence next to it for a while.  The rest of the crew did the same.  Even David was completely lost in thought. 

      That night, the crew discussion about the events on Earth that Arnold had cancelled during the first coasting period was held.  Arnold made it clear that he wasn’t going to cancel this one under any circumstances.  The crew didn’t put up much of a fight anyway.  They actually wanted to talk, and clear up a few things in their own minds.

      “I’m not bothered by the idea that the human race has changed so drastically since we left,” Jack said early in the discussion.  “What bothers me is how little it’s changed.  I mean, you’d think after two million years...”

      “It’s not so unbelievable,” said Jason.  “It actually makes sense on a few levels.”

      “He’s right,” Ronald said to Jack.  “The human race has expanded so widely and grown technologically enough to maintain a kind of comfortable equilibrium.”

      “But you’d think that we’d have evolved into mind-reading super-creatures by now,” Jack argued.  “That we could just teleport to anywhere in the universe by using only our minds.”

      “You’re reading too much science fiction,” Jason laughed.

      “But if we haven’t destroyed ourselves by now...” Jack began.

      “...It makes more sense that we haven’t than if we had,” Elliot interrupted.  “You and I as well as most people here are used to the idea that technology is a dangerous thing.  That’s because we were alive during the awkward period where intelligence and civilisation were just beginning.  Even when we began exploring space, technology was still a relatively new thing.  The humans species by nature doesn’t adapt to change very well, so it’s only natural that we inherently developed the notion that we wouldn’t be able to make it last.”

      “Exactly!” Jason said.  “What we weren’t ready to accept was that after awhile, we’d get the hang of it.  With weapons and wars, technology seemed like it was going to be mankind’s ruin.  But eventually, our minds evolved to the point where we could make the natural and the artificial co-exist.  In equilibrium, as Ronald put it.  And once we reached that point, there was no need to continue advancing to a point where perhaps we could reach another level of intelligence that we couldn’t handle.”

      Jack seemed to accept this explanation, but now Arnold was curious.  “So when did it happen?” Arnold asked.  “Aside from terra-forming techniques, hearing and breathing in a vacuum, and a limitless time-scale, it seems like our technology hasn’t changed at all since the time we left.”

      This time, to everyone’s surprise, Lauren put one of her ideas into the conversation.  “Even in our time, we needed only a relatively small amount of technology.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Expansion was our only necessity.  All of the dangerous technology came from periods of turmoil.  Once the human race was united, and war was a thing of the past, we stopped advancing in that respect.”

      “I see,” said Arnold.

      “That’s exactly what it was,” Jason said, trying to compliment Lauren without over-complimenting her.  “It was the hydrogen bomb that had the human race preparing for Armageddon for so long, and it was the third world war that nearly caused it.  But I think that was the peak.  That was when we realised that we’d better watch it, and use technology to create rather than destroy.  It took a thousand years for someone to come along and implement that theory socially by uniting the Earth under one government, but after Jon Clark, from that point on, intelligence was a security rather than a threat.”

      “Jon Clark,” Elliot said to himself and everyone.  “Saviour of the human race.”

      “Amen,” said Arnold, Jason, Jack, and Lauren.  The others just nodded.  Only David scoffed and rolled his eyes.

      “My brain is throbbing,” said David.  “Can we please end this conversation?”

      “If you can’t handle it,” Arnold said to him, “you can go to the cockpit and start your shift early.”

      “Actually, Arnold,” Jack said, “I think we’re done.”

      “Yeah,” Elliot put in.  “But I think we needed this.  To put everything in perspective.  It all makes a little more sense now.”

      Arnold agreed, but he hadn’t wanted to end it on David’s suggestion.  “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.  We should stop before Jason starts taking this to the ‘third dimension of thought’ and confuses all of us to the point of insanity.”

      Jason managed a smile through his murderous feelings of jealousy towards Arnold.  At least that was kind of a compliment.  He looked at Lauren, who may have been thinly smiling at him.  He didn’t look for a long enough time to find out if it was reality or wishful thinking.  He decided he’d rather assume the best and be happy for a while. 

      Two days later, after Arnold got the news that the Andromeda II was doing just fine and Rachael had given him a message a million years ago that she loved him, the Andromeda began the next portion of the flight plan.

      It was time for the deep rendezvous.  It was now that they could turn their thoughts away from Earth, and direct them towards the great unknown of the unexplored galaxy before them.  And the great unknown of the unexplored portions of their minds. 
 

Chapter 31

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3a- Thrust, 30 dps, Day 2

Location:  The edge of the Andromeda galaxy 

      It had been estimated that the ship would pass into Andromeda on the second day of the Deep Rendezvous portion of the flight plan.  When this was to occur, the crew was supposed to send a signal to STAR indicating that they had made it into the galaxy.  This would obviously mean a nearly galaxy-wide celebration of mankind and exploration.  The only trouble was that the crew couldn’t tell exactly when they were inside the galaxy.

      Jason Floyd solved that problem quite easily.  No stars in Andromeda could be accurately studied before; therefore their orbital patterns and distances from the galactic core were all yet unknown.  Yet the computer was tracking every large celestial object for millions of light-years.  So while the exact distance of the orbit line of the furthest star could not be known, the computer was tracking that star, as well as every other star and nebula in the immense galaxy.

      It knew whether the ship was moving toward an object, or away.  Jason used the computer to confirm that as of now, the ship was still moving toward every object in Andromeda, meaning it was not yet technically inside the galaxy.  But as soon as the ship passed a star or object that was a part of Andromeda, the computer would indicate the ship as moving away from that object.  So Jason programmed the computer to let out a “beep” as soon as it detected the first object that the ship was moving away from.

      Arnold had complimented him on his genius, but Jason simply said that any idiot with the most basic reasoning and computer programming skills could have figured it out.  The hard part was explaining it to dumb people.  No offence, of course.

      So the first day of the new instruction went by very slowly.  It was the last day they would live before mankind had entered Andromeda.  Yet not much was done.  The crew basically just sat around waiting and contemplating what it all meant.

      About halfway through the second day, Jason requested cockpit privileges to talk to Elliot.  Elliot made it perfectly clear that he was willing to listen, but he wasn’t planning on talking.  Nevertheless, Jason was overwhelmed with curiosity.

      “So who was she?” he asked.

      “Who was who?” Elliot responded.

      “Oh, come on, Elliot,” Jason continued, “you know what I’m talking about.  You lost someone.  Who?”

      “My wife,” he said.  “She divorced me.”

      Jason wasn’t satisfied.  “How long ago was that?”

      “Over a decade,” Elliot responded.

      “I’ve seen the pain in your eyes,” Jason asserted.  “It’s fresh.  This has nothing to do with your wife.  You lost someone recently.  Someone you Loved.”

      “You sound like you’re some sort of expert,” Elliot said.  “What do you know about pain and loss?”

      “I know about loss,” Jason said, thinking of his mother, “but that’s different, and has nothing to do with my pain.  My pain doesn’t come from loss, but the feeling is exactly the same, only...”

      “Only what?” Elliot asked.

      “Only with mine there’s hope.  That annoying little thing that’s so microscopic you can’t see it but it’s constantly there, taunting you.”  Jason lost his train of thought for a second.  “But I didn’t want to talk about me [for a change].  I want to know about you.  You intrigue me.”

      “I should admit you intrigue me as well,” Elliot said.  “So quiet, yet so outspoken when you get going.  You have such intense ideas, but you don’t share them unless you’re asked to.  And you act like you’re above human emotion, but you’re still chained down here by your pain.”

      “That’s pretty much me,” Jason said.  Elliot seemed to be right on the money.  And Jack had read him like a book.  Was he really that obvious about his emotions?

      “So where does your pain come from?” Elliot asked.

      Jason took a deep breath, and thought about it.  Someone he now trusted already knew.  And someone he didn’t trust also already knew.  What harm could it do to let somebody else whom he could trust know?  “If you tell me about the source of your depression, I’ll tell you the source of mine.”

      “I can’t,” Elliot said.  “I just can’t talk about it.  If you want, I can tell you her name.”

      “Then all I can tell you is the name,” Jason replied, knowing that his name was going to reveal much more than Elliot’s.

      “Fair enough,” said Elliot.  “That way we both unload, but neither of us really accomplishes anything therapeutic.”

      “That’s the idea,” Jason agreed.  “So what was her name?”

      Elliot now took a deep breath.  A very deep breath.  His breath was taken as if his mind was still on Jupiter, and his lungs were taking whatever they could from the thick jovian air around him.  “Sara,” he said finally. 

      “Ah, the most beautiful name in creation,” Jason said.

      “You’ve known a ‘Sara’?” asked Elliot.

      “Many.  My very first unrequited Love was named Sara.”  Jason flashed back to his middle school days for a moment.

      “And you?” Elliot asked.

      “Her name is...” Jason stopped before he began a deep breath, and just let it out, “Lauren.”

      “You mean the Lauren?” Elliot inquired, just as Jason had hoped he wouldn’t.  “This Lauren? Not the pilot?”

      Jason wasn’t going to lie to this man.  He just gave him a look that basically told him everything he needed to know.

      “A lot more makes sense now,” Elliot said.  “Now I understand.”

      “This is the most difficult situation I’ve ever been in,” Jason continued, although he knew he was now going beyond just a name.

      “How long have you loved her?” Elliot asked.

      “Millions and millions of years,” Jason answered, because that’s what it felt like.  “But to me it’s been over well over a decade.  It’s hard to tell when so many years of your life have been sped up due to a time-scale.”

      “And you’ve never talked to her about it?” Elliot continued his questioning.

      “No, and I don’t plan to.  Especially now…”

      “…that she’s with Arnold?” Elliot said.  “Yeah, I can see how it must be very difficult for you.”

      The two men sat in silence for another moment, and Jason noticed that he felt very odd.  The source of his pain was now known by three crewmembers, but for the first time he felt a true release.  This man actually understood him.  And now Jason had to understand him.

      “What happened with Sara?” he asked, looking directly into Elliot’s eyes.

      Elliot just sighed heavily and maintained his silence.  But Jason continued to stare, indicating that he was not going to be satisfied until he had an answer.  Elliot was conflicted.  He’d kept this to himself for so long that he didn’t know how to open up about it.  But Jason had revealed himself to him, so it wouldn’t be right for him to remain closed.  “It was…” he began, but immediately stopped, his heart pounding at the thought that he was actually about to tell the story.  And he had no idea where to begin.

      “It’s okay,” Jason said.  “No matter how painful the memory is, you’ll feel better once you get it out there.  I’ll share the pain.”

      Elliot was touched by this, and he took one last deep breath before beginning the story.  “I met Sara on the first manned mission to Saturn, where I served as a surgeon rather than a commander like on most of the Jupiter missions.  It was only the second time we’d made a landing on a gas giant, and Sara, the pilot, was so adamant about being the first person to set foot on the planet.  It had always been her favourite since she was a child, and to be the first astronaut to step on the surface of its core would be a dream come true for her.  But the commander of the mission didn’t take her request seriously, as it was customary for the commander to always be the one to take the first step.  I took up the issue with STAR, and because I held a lot of weight in the company they took my side under the justification that the public would like the idea that a woman had been the first to set foot on a new planet, which had never happened before.  And so she did, and was so happy.  We became great friends after that.

      “The next few years of Jupiter exploration missions were wonderful.  Because of what I’d endured on the first mission, having lost my entire crew, STAR had basically put me in charge of the entire program.  So I was able to take Sara along on just about every mission.  We explored the whole mysterious core of Jupiter together, with its hills, valleys and inexplicable dried-up riverbeds.  None of it made any sense, but there it was.  The two of us got so close that we quickly became more than friends.  There were some hard times on Jupiter and our Love was able to sustain us.  I’d never formed a bond so deep with anyone in my life and I never will again.

      One of our missions was to scale the tallest mountain on the planet, which was also the tallest mountain in the solar system.  And on that mission, as I’m sure you remember hearing about, we lost a crewmember, Gary Wilson.  We were moving along a rope to pass between peaks, and the weight was too much for him.  He slipped and I shouted instructions to him, telling him he had to swing back up.  But Gary couldn’t hold on and he plummeted to his death.  Sara, having seen the whole thing, was stunned and she slipped as well.  Without a word I raced back on the rope to grab her hand and lift her back up onto it.  When we returned to Earth, charges were pressed against me because many felt I hadn’t done enough to save Gary.  I was tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

      “This was a huge problem for STAR because they had just discovered how to colonise the planet by digging tunnels in the core, and already had a colonisation mission under way with hundreds of volunteers to start a community.  But they needed me to command the mission because I was the expert, and nobody wanted to go without me.  It was Sara who convinced the judge to reverse the decision, and I was set free in time to be trained for the colonisation attempt.  Just before the mission began I proposed to her, and she accepted.  We would get married on Jupiter and raise the first family on that planet, which we’d both come to love.

      “Then…then the colonisation mission came.  Sara was the pilot and I was the commander.  The landing site was the crater that had been created by the first impact of the Shoemaker-Levy comet which collided with Jupiter in the twentieth century.  But what we didn’t count on was the severe and unpredictable weather.  The crater was just a few kilometres south of where the Great Red Spot circled the planet daily.  On this one particular fucking day another patch of weather got in the way of the Red Spot and pushed it down into the crater just as the ship had landed and we were moving the passengers to safety into the cave inside the canyon walls.

      “I’d been in the Red Spot before.  We’d made the mistake of getting too close to it on the first mission, and it engulfed us, killing the last two members of my crew.  I still don’t know how I got out alive.  But now I was back inside, sand being tossed about everywhere, tornados raging as far as the eye can see…the worst weather imaginable times a million.  Sara and I had just led the last passengers out of the ship and we were running towards the crater wall when a tornado got too close to us and lifted us off the ground.  Clutching each other we were tossed through the air and miraculously landed on top of the crater unharmed, but unfortunately too close to the edge.  The suction pulled her over the side and I managed to grab hold of her arm, trying to maintain my sanity amidst the nightmare around us.

      “The memory will be ingrained in my head forever, Jason.  Her hands clutching my arm, her beautiful face looking up at me paralysed with fear.  Her eyes…oh god, her eyes.  Bright, brown, beautiful eyes filled with tears, filled with Love for me.  Her begging me not to let go, just shouting over the roar of the winds how much she Loved me.  And I was powerless.  All I could do was say, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ over and over again, but in the end it wasn’t enough.  The gravity was too strong.  Her hands slipped down my arm and she fell…she fell to her death while proclaiming her love for me.

      “Then the storm let up.  The Great Red Spot, which had been raging in Jupiter’s atmosphere for centuries had gone too far south and the winds which kept it going no longer fed it.  The tornados dissipated, the winds calmed, and the storm ended just as soon as Sara fell.  It was as if the storm had been put there by God for the sole purpose of taking her away from me.  I laid there for hours and hours until someone finally came up to rescue me.  I’d never felt more horrible, and the pain still hasn’t gone away.

      “Every second I spent on Jupiter was a constant reminder of my loss.  I had to get away.  Everyone knew it.  So when the Andromeda mission came along I saw it as my chance.  My chance to get as far away from that nightmare of a world as I could and leave it behind.  But there’s no leaving it behind.  That pain will never leave me.  I’ll never stop seeing Sara’s face every time I close my eyes.  I’ll never stop feeling that if I could have just held on for a moment longer…everything would be different.”

      Elliot couldn’t go on any further.  He had been choking up for awhile now, and Jason had begun to cry.  He had never heard such a tragic story, and he had never been endeared to another human being the way he felt endeared to Elliot right now.  Jason forgot completely about his own pain and embraced Elliot, trying to share some of his unbelievable burden.

      “Thank you,” Elliot said to Jason as their hug came to an end and the two men wiped their tears from their faces.

      “No, Elliot,” said Jason, “Thank you.”  They sat in silence for another hour, staring out of the window at the fresh, untouched galaxy ahead of them. 

      More accurate computer readings indicated that the beep would occur between 19:00 and 20:00 Mission time.  So at 19:00, Arnold had everyone awake and seated in the cockpit for this historic event.

      “I assume most of you appreciate the magnitude of what is about to be accomplished,” said Arnold as he stood in front of the crew to deliver his speech.  “You see Andromeda outside this window, so close you can almost touch it.  It’s only been about four months since we left home, and here we are.  Think about how far we’ve come.  How much distance we’ve covered.

      “In the 31st century, only a few hundred years before we left, this mission would have been impossible.  But even more mind-boggling is that if we sent a crew of twelve people on a mission to Andromeda starting from this point back then, we still wouldn’t have been able to make it.  It looks so close, but it’s still hundreds of light-years away.  Even if they lived their whole lives, they wouldn’t reach the galaxy.  And here we are, about to enter and fly all the way through it.

      “In times before the 20th century, it was impossible to fly.  Then the Wright brothers came along, and invented a way to do it.  Yet it was still impossible to leave Earth, to travel to the moon.  But NASA proved it could be done with Apollo 11, and Neil Armstrong walked on it before the century was even over.  The first manned landing on another planet came with Hermes 5 which took a crew to Mars.  It was centuries before the next ‘first’ came along, and we entered another star system with Alpha Centauri 1.  Elliot Larken made another landmark ‘first’ with the Jovia 1, when he became the first person to set foot on a gas giant’s core.  And now, the ten of us, in Andromeda 1, will become the first human beings to enter another galaxy.

      “But after this, that’s it.  This is the last true ‘first’ in the exploration race.  Others may be the first people to enter other galaxies, but that barrier will be broken.  The race is about to come to an end.  I know there’s a lot of inner turmoil among us, but I think for the next few moments we should forget about all that and just sit silently in appreciation of this incredible milestone.  The first ‘first’ happened before recorded history.  God only knows who made that accomplishment.  But the last ‘first’ is happening now, and the accomplishment belongs to us.”

      Arnold could see from the expressions of the crewmembers that his speech had actually seemed to have an impact on all but David.  He knew he couldn’t reach him, so he didn’t really care.  But the others, especially Jason and Elliot, seemed deeply entranced in contemplation.  This was it.  The last true milestone.

      From his seat between Lauren and Jack, David O’Brian, silently scoffed at the rest of the crewmembers for buying into Arnold’s bullshit propaganda.  The accomplishment belongs to us.  Us?  Bullshit.  Everybody knows that only the commander is remembered for these missions.  Arnold would get all the credit.  Who remembers the service module pilot in the Apollo 11 mission?  Everyone knows Neil Armstrong.  Almost as many know Buzz Aldrin.  But almost nobody knows that it was Michael Collins who waited in the command module while the other two were prancing around on the lunar surface.

      And does anyone remember the rest of the crew of Alpha Centauri I?  There were twelve astronauts who first established orbit around that star, but only Jack Aaronson was remembered for it.  Even something that had happened in David’s lifetime, the Jovia 1 landing, was credited only to the commander, Elliot Larken, who also served as medical personnel.  But there were three other men on that mission, and nobody would be able to name them if asked except Elliot himself.

      So back at home, when the teacher asks the schoolchildren, “Who was the first man in Andromeda?” they would only answer “Arnold Juciper.”  Arnold fucking Juciper, who deserved the job about as much as a drug-addicted child abuser deserves to be president.  Would anybody remember David O’Brian?  Not bloody likely.  Maybe if some college student were to do a report, he would mention O’Brian as the 2nd-string pilot of the mission, but nothing else.

      And there was Arnold goddamn fucking Juciper, standing in front of the crew speaking about milestones and making history, when he knew damn well that it would only be himself who would become the household name.  Only Arnold goddamn fucking sonofabitch Juciper, who drove Mark Staff to murder and death, who let other crewmembers take drugs during the mission, who cheated his way to becoming commander of the Betelgeuse XII mission, who ruined David’s entire life...

      Just as he was reaching the height of his anger, the ship’s computer let out a “beep”.  The Andromeda had entered Andromeda.

      Jack Peskie pressed a button on the communications box, which sent a signal to the other box to release the pre-recorded message that the objective had been accomplished.  To let the human race know that they had entered the next galaxy.  Just a fraction of a second after Jack pressed the button, celebrations rose up all over the Milky Way.  Every man woman and child living at that time could now say that they were alive on the instant mankind had broken the last barrier.

      A fraction of a second later, those celebrations were over, and life as normal continued in the Milky Way.  A few minutes later, all of those people were dead, and a new generation of human beings was born that had never lived in a universe in which mankind had not entered another galaxy.  In the span of five minutes, the world that the human race had known for millions of years became past history.  Five minutes later, it was ancient history.

      The crew remained silent.  These thoughts circled through their minds, sent chills down their spines, made them tingle in deep thought.  Nobody spoke for a long time.  Nobody knew who would break the silence.

      David knew.  Arnold would break the silence.  He was the commander.  His words were to be the first words spoken by a human being who had entered another galaxy.  Who knew what stupid bullshit phrase he was about to say?

      While he waited, David lost himself in his hatred.  Everybody hated him.  Mark had been his only true friend, and he was dead.  Ronald was a sympathiser, but now even he had turned against David.  Jack and Todd hated him, as did Maria and Lily.  He could only assume that Jason and Elliot hated him as well.  Lauren must hate him because she loved Arnold. And he knew Arnold hated him because he loathed Arnold.

      Arnold would get all the credit for this mission.  It had already happened.  The textbooks were already published.  Statues were already erected for the hero of the Andromeda mission, the first man to enter another galaxy, the last true pioneer.  When the ship returned, parades and praise would be given in Arnold’s honour.

      Unless Arnold was dead...

      How he wanted to kill Arnold.  Every urge within David begged for him to murder the arrogant sonofabitch as soon as he got the chance.  But what chance did he have?  If he killed Arnold, there were eight other people who could make sure David didn’t get away with it.  But they were such bleeding-heart saps that they wouldn’t be able to kill him.  They would find a way to hold him prisoner, and when they returned, David would be forever thought of as the great villain.  David Gregory O’Brian, the man who assassinated Arnold Juciper, the greatest hero of all time.  He would be remembered, but his grave would be spat on, if they even did him the honour of burying him.  No, killing Arnold would bring about a worse fate.

      David would have to have enough people on his side.  He would have to kill everyone who was against him.  But none of these people would ally with him.  His shit list had reached seven names, excluding only Elliot and Jason, but he knew where their loyalties lied.  They would never join him, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be enough.  Elliot was too old, and Jason was too weak.

      He would have to kill all of them.  That was the only way to set things right.  If he could kill all of them, he would be commander by default.  Killing Arnold would make Lauren commander, then he was third in line, but he would never make it that far.  Unless he did it in secret.  But it would be far too suspicious if freak accidents killed off two commanders thus putting David in charge.  No, he would have to kill them all.  He would have to do it secretly.  And he would have to do it randomly.

      But how could he cause enough “accidental” death without the crew getting extremely suspicious?  Naturally, all eyes would be on him.  He could make it look like natural causes.  Diseases could kill people “naturally”.  And diseases were contagious.  If he could let loose a disease...but that would put him equally at risk.

      Unless he controlled it.  David knew the formula for a particularly nasty poison that could slowly eat away at a person’s heart and make it look like a disease.  If he could infect Arnold with that disease, then infect everyone who came in contact with him...no, again that would be suspicious.  Arnold would be sick, Lauren would touch him, and they would both die, leaving David as commander, and suspect number one.  He could infect all of them at the same time...that would certainly kill them all, but they would see he wasn’t sick, and they wouldn’t let him get away with it.  If they didn’t kill him, they would send a message to STAR about what David had done, and then he couldn’t return.

      So he would save Arnold for later.  He would take care of someone else first.  His only problem was that if a medical officer looked hard enough, they might be able to find that the source of the illness was a poison, and logic would take it from there.  He would have to infect a medical officer.  Todd.  No, Todd was a man.  People were less likely to touch him, thus the disease couldn’t “spread”.  Lily was the perfect choice.  She was a woman, and the men would naturally want to comfort her by touching her.  Thus, David could infect whoever touched her, and the disease would spread like a forest fire.

      The more he thought about it, the more perfect it sounded in his mind.  David would use the medical supplies to inject Lily Zaw with his poison while she slept, and then subsequently inject the poison into anyone who came in contact with her and anyone whom that person touched.  They would attribute the disease not to a person, but to Andromeda itself.  Who knew what strange things could happen in another galaxy?  Perhaps humans were not compatible with this type of space?

      Yes, it was perfect.  David would...

      His thoughts were interrupted as Arnold broke the silence, just as he’d expected, and said the first words spoken by a human in another galaxy, “We’ve made it.  We’re in Andromeda.  That’s one more flight for us, and the last great flight of all time.” 
 

Chapter 32

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3a- Thrust, 30 dps, Day 6

Location:  Light-years inside the Andromeda galaxy 

      The day after the ship had entered the Andromeda galaxy, Elliot Larken began exercising his duties as a scientist.  Every day, he would release a few sensors from the ship through the garbage chute.  The sensors served several purposes.  For one, they would emit signals and interpret data from the galaxy around them, thus mapping the celestial objects of the Andromeda galaxy relative to the spaceship’s path.  It also picked up any particles of matter that were floating around in empty space.

      The sensors could not be retrieved, and once they’d floated out of range, their signals could no longer be picked up, but while they were close enough, they sent data via the crystal method of communication to the Andromeda’s computers.  It was Elliot’s job to filter all unnecessary information from the data, and interpret the readings enough to classify them into separate categories having to do with placement of objects, speed and trajectories of stars and objects, chemical build-up of any particles traced, and a number of other things.

      While he was just finishing his work on the computer on the fourth day of the experiments, Lily came up behind him and started giving him a back massage.  As he finished typing, he relaxed and closed his eyes, letting her work her magic on his neck and shoulders.  Her hands caressed his neck to the bottom of his face, down his shoulders to the sides of his arms, and finally under his shirt to his chest.

      When she could see that he was lost in her sense of touch, Lily leaned in close to his ears, and said, “Come to the bathroom, Elliot.”  Without a word, upon hearing this Elliot stood up and followed her.

      The crew watched as the two of them entered into the notorious room for the first time since they’d been together.  Jason smiled for Elliot.  Todd glared at the door with a tiny hint of jealousy behind his eyes.  Jack could tell that his jealousy was purely sexual; it had nothing to do with Lily.  Todd was just dying to get laid.  Ronald glanced at Maria, and they silently agreed to follow suit once the two of them were finished. 

      As soon as the bathroom door closed behind him, Elliot began to get nervous.  He still wasn’t quite sure what was happening.  All he knew was that he felt strongly for this woman, and he knew how frustrated he was making her.  She loved him, but he wasn’t giving her what she needed physically.  He couldn’t let her suffer any longer.

      Like an expert, Lily began to undress Elliot.  She pulled his shirt up from being tucked under his pants, and undid his belt.  He then removed his shirt and tossed it to the side of the tiny room next to the shower.  His bare chest revealed his strange physique.  His face was stretched with the ravages of time and age, but his abdomen could easily have belonged to a 30-year-old body builder.  As Lily examined his tight chest and abs with her hands, they leaned in to kiss.

      As their mouths exchanged love, Lily pulled her shirt off and tossed it aside, then temporarily broke away from him as she took down her pants and threw them on the growing pile.  As Elliot did the same with his pants, Lily undid her own bra, revealing her medium-sized breasts for him to see.  They embraced again and kissed, as she pressed herself against him.

      The feeling of her erect nipples against his chest made Elliot quiver for a split second, but he ignored the growing feeling of uneasiness inside of him, and continued to sacrifice his passion to her.

      Then Lily broke away, and stepped back.  She tore off the band holding her hair in a ponytail, and let it fall to her shoulders.  Her face was framed in her medium-length blonde hair, the beauty peaking in her bright blue eyes, glowing with love.  She then removed her underpants, and threw them with the other clothes, leaving her body complete bare.

      Elliot’s level of discomfort rose too high for him to handle, and he looked away with his eyes closed.  In an instant, he felt the coolness of Lily’s hands against his face, guiding it upward, and as he opened his pale eyes he found hers staring directly into his.  For an instant, he forgot all his pain in the desire to touch her soft skin.

      As he put his right hand on her face, she took his left and placed it on her side.  Without ever breaking eye contact, she took his right hand and guided it down until it was over her breast.  She then pressed herself closer, and his erection was complete as he rubbed her nipple with his thumb and guided his left hand down to her buttocks.

      Then all of a sudden, a feeling of panic overtook him.  He began to sweat.  Lily was bringing his boxer shorts down from his waste as he immediately dropped his hands from her.  Memories of Sara flooded his mind.  Nobody had touched him since her.  He didn’t know if he could let anyone touch him again.

      It was all over in the instant he pushed her away.  Her look was not of anger, but of shock and sadness.

      “I’m sorry,” was all Elliot said.  He immediately began rushing to put all of his clothes back on, and she just stood there naked and silent.

      When he was completely clothed again, he put his hand over the button to open the door, and turned to face her again.  “I’m sorry,” he said again.  “I love you, but...” he couldn’t find the words.  He couldn’t even see her face anymore through his tear-stained eyes about ready to overflow.  Sara’s face was all he could see through them.

      He opened the door, and closed it behind him, leaving her once again to face being alone. 

      Nobody ever asked about what went on in the bathroom between the two of them.  It was obvious when Elliot ran out and immediately ran for the privacy of Arnold’s office that the act had never actually taken place.  Jason understood exactly what had happened, and it depressed him enough to play The Final Cut.

      It was a good twenty minutes before Lily came out, her clothes thrown on her without much care.  She asked for cockpit privileges with Maria.  Ronald, who had been waiting for his turn with Maria, knew he couldn’t argue.  The two women entered the cockpit, sending Arnold and Lauren out.  Roger Waters sang, “Through the fish-eyed lens of tear-stained eyes, I can barely define the shape of this moment in time.  And far from flying high in clear blue skies, I’m spiralling down to that whole in the ground where I hide.”  The most poetic lyrics ever written.  Lyrics that defined Jason, and now it seemed as though they were describing Elliot’s pain exactly.  Jason almost broke into tears himself. 

      David O’Brian had taken the past few nights at his post to carefully plan out every move he was going to make.  He had to sneak into Arnold’s office a few times to do some research and brush up on his knowledge of medicine, but the formula for the poison he’d learned about all those years ago was soon fresh in his mind once again.

      He’d spent the previous few days paying close attention to Lily and Todd, waiting for either of them to open the compartment underneath their beds so he could figure out one of their passwords.  He’d seen Todd dial twelve digits in total and he memorised the first seven, which were 7326882; by plugging those digits into the computer and working out all letter combinations he deduced that this spelled “PEANUTB”.  Five more digits meant five more letters, which logic would suggest were “UTTER”.  It was too easy, really.

      The previous night, while the crew slept, he carefully snuck into the living quarters, opened Todd’s locked compartment, and took out the medical equipment.  He stole a small test tube and cap, which he doubted Todd would miss, and then he mixed the proper ingredients to make the deadly formula.

      He held this tube in his hands now, waiting for everyone to fall asleep.  It was all too perfect.  As he sat marvelling at his own genius, he thought to himself.  Mark had it all wrong.  He had been too sloppy.  He’d let his emotions get the better of him, and they’d clouded his rational thinking.  David knew what he was doing.  He was still capable of reason, of convergent thinking and problem-solving techniques.

      Maybe planning to murder people wasn’t exactly “normal behaviour” but it wasn’t like it meant anything.  To David, human beings were just animals like everything else.  Murder was not wrong, because the person wouldn’t care once they were dead.  It didn’t matter.  All those morons who believed in God and an after-life had no concept of reality.  They went about their lives living for other people, suffering because they thought that eventually they would benefit from it.  They were just fools.  They would die too, just like all the so-called “sinners”, but no reward was waiting for them because they’d deprived themselves of fun for their entire lives.  They would just be dead, and the people who actually took what they wanted for themselves and died “with the most toys” had the last laugh.

      So David had no remorse as he snuck into the living quarters that night and broke open Todd’s bed compartment once again to borrow a syringe.  He poured some of his poison to fill the tiny syringe, and screwed it together tightly.  He stared at the needle in awe of the power he held.  This was Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel.  Death would come to anybody pricked by it.  Amazing how easy it would be to kill Arnold right now...

      But he had to stick to the plan.  He could have simply killed Arnold with a knife any other night, but that would only lead to bad results for him.  Death or imprisonment, and most certainly shame.  Arnold will have beaten him from beyond the grave.  He had to follow his plan exactly, or else all would be lost.  It was 1 against 9 right now, and he had to even the odds very slowly, or he had no chance.

      He brought the needle to Lily’s bed, along with the other necessary equipment he’d found while rummaging through the medical equipment on the previous night.  David had to get the poison into a vein for it to be most effective, but that meant blood.  He shuddered at the thought, but knew he was going to have to make sacrifices.

      She slept on her side, only her head and her left arm over the covers.  David took the first necessary tool, the de-sensitising chemical.  He dabbed some of the liquid from the small tube onto a cotton swab, and dabbed Lily’s neck right on the carotid artery.  He waited a few seconds for it to dry, thus killing the top few layers of nerve cells in that area of the neck, and making it impossible for her to feel anything.

      It was a shame, he thought as he brought the needle to the artery, she would have been so fun to fuck.  A beautiful young woman.  To his surprise, she didn’t even flinch or change her sleeping position like they always did in the movies.  With only a minor amount of hesitation on his part, David pressed the needle through the skin, and injected a small amount of the poison in.  Lily’s fate was sealed, he believed.

      As soon as he removed the needle, he shuddered at the blood that began to drip from the wound, which he quickly wiped away with a tissue and applied the skin-sealant.  In a matter of seconds, the chemical brought enough platelets to the wound to have it completely covered and healed.  Ironic how modern medical technology, designed to make saving lives easier, also inherently made it easier to kill.

      Once that was done, he poured the remaining poison back into his capped test tube, and cleaned out the needle and syringe.  He disposed of the dirty cotton swab and tissue, and placed all of the materials he’d taken from Todd’s medical kit back into it.

      Not a single peep came from anyone throughout the whole time.  As he hid the poison back under his own bed compartment and made his way back to the cockpit, David felt prouder of himself than he’d ever had before.  That was the biggest rush he’d had in...well, about two million years.

      Suddenly, David O’Brian was no longer helpless against the animosity towards him.  He would have the glory now, and he would finally have revenge. 
 

Chapter 33

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3a- Thrust, 30 dps, Day 7

Location:  Light-years inside the Andromeda galaxy 

      Droplets of water nearly frozen in mid-air pounded into Arnold Juciper’s skin as he stood in the shower aboard the Andromeda.  As the rise of endorphins in his brain accelerated, he reflected on the mission’s relative success.  He had lost two crewmembers to an unfortunate and unforeseeable incident, but the ship had made it to Andromeda in one piece, and as long as he was Commander, he would make it back.

      A pounding on the door interrupted his thoughts.  He heard what sounded like a man screaming at him, but he couldn’t make out what was being shouted.  Shutting off the flow of water, he said, “Yeah?  What is it?”

      “Goddammit, Arnold, get out here quickly!” the man said.  It sounded like Jack.

      “Is that Jack?” Arnold asked.

      “Does it really fucking matter who this is?” Jack yelled.  “Just get the fuck out here and get out here quickly.”

      All of a sudden, a hot flash engulfed Arnold’s ice-cold body, and his sweat froze instantaneously as it was secreted.  Something had happened, or was happening.

      Without taking the time to dry off, Arnold threw on pants and a shirt, and ran barefoot out in the living quarters.  Jack was waiting for him right outside the door.  “What is it?” Arnold asked again.

      Jack pointed towards Lily’s bed, and Arnold directed his focus to the medical officer and the crowd of people gathered around her.

      “What’s wrong?” he asked as he ran over to her.

      Todd was shuffling through his medical supplies in search of a MedScan, but he answered first.  “She woke up complaining of severe chest pain and trouble breathing.  Just look at her, Arnold...”

      The crowd of astronauts dispersed to let the commander see first-hand the state that Lily was in.  She was lying on her bed face-up and head tilted back, struggling for breath.  Her body was shaking and she was drenched in sweat.  “Shit,” was all Arnold said.

      “Pretty sight, isn’t she?” David remarked from behind him.  Arnold ignored the pilot.

      “Don’t touch her,” Todd snapped before Arnold could feel her forehead.  “We never touch a sick patient with our bare skin until we know what we’re dealing with.  Now if you’ll just back up,” he said raising the freshly prepared MedScan, “we can find out.”

      Lily managed to sit up and remove her soaking shirt so Todd could press the MedScan against her back.  “Jason, get the computer running,” he said as he waited for the device to finish its reading.

      Jason had the computer ready in a second, and Todd removed the data battery from the MedScan and inserted it into the drive.  Arnold watched intently as the MedScan program flashed onto the screen, and Todd cycled through the screens searching for the desired information.

      As he searched, he spoke.  “Whatever it is, it’s affecting the bloodstream.  Everything appears normal except the circulatory system.”  He continued punching keys until he seemed to find the information he was looking for.  “Her blood is contaminated,” he said.  “It’s eating away at the heart.”  He punched a few more keys, and then spoke the words that Arnold had been dreading, “Within three weeks, the heart will be too weak to function.  She’ll die.”

      Across the room, Arnold heard Elliot say, “Fuck,” so loudly and sharply that it seemed to be coming from everywhere.  Elliot rushed to Lily’s bedside.  “Fuck,” he said again softly, and picked up her hand as she turned to him.

      “Elliot!” Todd yelled, “Don’t touch her!  I still don’t know if it’s contagious.”

      “Well,” David said, “What the fuck are you waiting for?  Identify it.”

      Todd hesitated momentarily as it became clear that Elliot was not going to let go of Lily’s hand.  He then turned back to the screen and began searching the MedScan database for any known disease matching the one Lily currently had.

      Arnold was too stunned to know what to do.  He just watched and waited for Todd to find something that might be of help.  And he prayed to God that what Lily had wasn’t contagious.

      “Damn!” Todd shouted and slammed the computer.  “No matches found.  Unidentified.”

      The air in the ship seemed to stand still at this word.  “Do you think it’s...?” Maria began, still not comprehending the reality of the situation.

      “From Andromeda?” Arnold completed her sentence.  “No, that’s impossible.”  The doubt in his voice shone distinctly through the thin hint of panic in his words.  “Todd, it’s impossible, right?”

      Todd shrugged.  “I wouldn’t think you could catch any sort of disease by simply being in a galaxy, but none of us have ever been in another galaxy before, have we?”

      “Now hold on!” Jack shouted.  “This is madness.  Just because a crewmember is sick we’re jumping to wild conclusions about the space-time continuum!  You can’t catch a disease from a galaxy.  This is empty space we’re in.  And the air in this spaceship comes exclusively from this spaceship.”

      “Jack is right,” said Ronald.  “I’ve heard of some strange diseases in my career, but none of us have been exposed to anything that could cause one.  Why is it just Lily who has it then?  Something doesn’t add up.”

      David then gave his input, “Still, do you really want to take chances like that?  Nobody’s ever been this far from home before.  We’re in a different galaxy now, and the laws may be a little different.  Humans didn’t evolve here.  Maybe we’re not compatible with it.”

      “Since when did you give a shit?” Jack asked him.

      “Fuck you, Peskie,” David retorted.

      “ALL RIGHT!” Arnold shouted.  “Let’s stop jumping down each other’s throats.  Does anyone have anything to say that might actually help us figure out what to do?”  Instinctively, Arnold turned to Jason.

      “I’m afraid David has a point,” said Jason.  “We survived on Earth to evolve because we had oxygen.  Any species that had evolved on a planet with no oxygen wouldn’t be able to survive on Earth.  Maybe there’s a similar principle with galaxies.  It could be that there’s something in the Milky Way, dark matter, for instance, or something undetectable by human radar, that actually keeps us alive.  And maybe there’s something like that in Andromeda that kills us.”

      “Then why is it just Lily who has the disease?” Arnold asked.

      “Could be that her type of blood is particularly susceptible to it,” Jason offered.  “We don’t know anything about this thing, if it even exists.  It may only react to certain DNA codes, and Lily is just unfortunate enough to have one of the codes that it reacts to.”

      “I still don’t think we should just start wildly hypothesizing,” Jack argued.

      “I agree,” said Jason.  “I’m simply saying what’s possible, not what’s probable.”

      “Now hold on a minute,” David argued.  “I think Jason had a point with that invisible dark matter thing or whatever he meant.  Lily was perfectly healthy up until now.  Then all of a sudden she comes down with a mysterious illness that nobody’s ever had before just as we enter a galaxy that nobody’s ever been to before.”

      Arnold breathed deeply, and scanned the faces of the crew.  They all seemed to share Arnold’s reluctant impulse to believe David.  Under the circumstances, that did make the most sense.  If the disease was attributable to anything other than Andromeda, then it was one hell of a coincidence.

      “Okay,” Arnold said.  “As of now, we’re going to assume that this disease comes from Andromeda itself.  But we’re not going to do anything crazy like abort the flight plan.  That is a last resort only.  If we abort, we can’t communicate with Earth until we get home, and that’s not something I want to do.  So for now, we continue as planned.  Lily will stay in her bed, and will be relieved of her duties for the time being.  I don’t want anyone to come in contact with her or Elliot until we know the true nature of what this is.  I’ll let Elliot be with her now, but it’s too dangerous to come in contact with him if he’s already contaminated.”

      Arnold looked at Elliot, who merely nodded, still silently staring at the sick woman on the bed whom he’d almost sacrificed his passion to.  He then turned to Todd.  “I want you working during all waking hours with Ronald to figure this out.  Do whatever you need.  More MedScan checks, blood tests, whatever...just figure out what it is, and if there’s anything we can do to cure it.  The scientific data will come if there’s any spare time.  Saving Lily’s life is now priority one.  Does everybody understand what the orders are?”

      The commander felt the rush he’d all but forgotten as the crewmembers looked at him in admiration.  There was a crisis going on, and he was handling it in the best way he knew how.  And for the first time, the rest of the crew seemed to think that he was doing the right thing.  For the first time, they seemed to be glad that their fate was in the hands of the legendary Arnold Juciper. 

      That night, David carried out the next step in his plan: spreading the disease.  He couldn’t have been luckier with the way things were going so far.  Nobody even

suspected him.  Thanks to Jason’s ridiculously open mind, the crewmembers had bought into the bullshit that Andromeda itself caused the illness, and that was very fortunate for David.

      Like an expert, David snuck into the living quarters, prepared the syringe, and made his way to Elliot Larken’s bed.  The famous hero of exploration, explorer and coloniser or Jupiter.  A legend in his own time.  Suddenly he became a lot more human as David injected the poison into the vein on his neck. 

      Elliot understood what was happening the instant he woke up.  His lungs struggled for air, and his body broke into a furious sweat as he came to his senses.  This disease, whatever it was, had been caught by Elliot.

      “Oh dear mother of shit, no,” Jason Floyd’s voice entered his skull.  “You’ve got it too?”

      When Elliot opened his mouth to respond, he found the task of speaking to be quite difficult.  “Yes,” he managed to say.  “It’s contagious.”

      He could hear Lily’s struggling voice from the bed next to him.  “Oh, Elliot,” she said.

      The surgeon just lied in a dazed state of mind, listening to the debate ensue over whether Elliot had caught the disease from Lily or it came from Andromeda.  The deciding point was that out of everybody on the crew, Elliot was the only person who had come into contact with Lily, and he was the only one who had come down with the disease now.  It was quickly agreed upon to assume that the disease was contagious, and not to have any sort of physical contact with either Lily or Elliot.

      “Why do you have to die?” Jason asked him, still standing over his bed.  He said this like an accusation.  “What purpose it that going to serve?”

      Elliot didn’t quite understand what Jason Floyd was talking about, but he figured it was due to the peculiar state of mind that his brain was in.  Yet somehow, an answer came to him.  “I need to be with them.”

      Jason nodded and walked away. 

      “We have to warn the other ships,” Arnold was saying to Jack.  “We have to let them know that if anybody else gets sick, not to come in contact with them.  I’m not going to get home only to find out my daughter died during her mission from a disease she should have been warned about.”

      “The only way to do that is through Morse code,” explained Jack.  “If we send a crystal transmission, it’ll be ringing for ages down there as we speak at thirty-five days per second and they hear us at normal time.  It’ll be indecipherable.”

      “So what’s wrong with Morse code?” asked Arnold.

      “It’s so primitive,” Jack explained.  “They might not even know what it is when I send them a recording of beeps.”

      “Well, they’ll just have to figure it out,” said Arnold.  “Do it.”

      “It’ll take me awhile,” said Jack.  “I haven’t had to use Morse code since my exam to work for STAR.”  Actually, he had Morse code training before the mission, but he hadn’t done too well.  Things like that were not one of his strong suits.

      “Well, for every five seconds you wait, it’s a year to everyone else.  There’s nothing to lose except time.”  Arnold got up to leave Jack to prepare the message just as Ronald Stark was making his way towards him.

      “I’ve got a solution,” the surgeon said.

      “You found a cure?” Arnold asked hopefully.

      “No,” Ronald said, “a solution.”

      Arnold was puzzled, but anxious to hear what the geniuses of the crew had come up with.  “Well, what is it?”

      “The only danger to Lily and Elliot is heart-failure,” Ronald explained.  “The blood eats away at the heart as it’s pumped.  But slowly, the contaminated blood cells will all die off, and the body will be replenished with new, healthy blood cells.  The only problem is that by the time this happens, the heart will be too badly damaged to recover.”

      “So what’s the solution?” Arnold pressed.

      “I’m getting to it.  If we wait until the bad blood cells are almost completely eliminated, then transplant a new heart, we can save the patient’s life.  The bad heart can be disposed of, and the new heart won’t be damaged enough to cause problems before the blood is all healthy again.”  Ronald still didn’t sound enthusiastic.

      Arnold absorbed the information.  “Okay.  So where do we get the hearts you’ll need for the transplants?”

      Ronald motioned behind him with his neck.  “Craig’s body is preserved in the engine room.  The heart should still be intact.”

      For a moment, Arnold’s face brightened.  There was a solution!  But why did Ronald look so troubled?  It took him a few seconds, but then he realised the problem. “We’ve got one heart, and two patients.”

      A single nod from Ronald Stark indicated that Arnold now fully grasped the implications of the circumstance. 
 

Chapter 34

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3a- Thrust, 30 dps, Day 8

Location:  Many light-years inside the Andromeda galaxy 

      “I think we can all agree that this crew discussion is of the utmost importance,” said Arnold.  “We’ve got a very serious situation and a very serious decision to make.”

      Nine crewmembers sat on the floor of the living quarters in their usual positions, but now they were paying close attention to their commander, sitting on his bed and directing the discussion.  Lily and Elliot sat apart from the rest of the crew, sitting across from each other as their fellow crewmembers talked about their fate.

      “First of all,” Arnold said, “Jack, have you had any success with that message?”

      “I have,” Jack reported.  “I sent the message through Morse code and they sent a reply in the same fashion.”

      “What did the reply message say?” asked Arnold.

      “Oh, nothing important,” said Jack.  “Just that we have to turn around immediately and do a direct abort of the entire mission.”

      “What!?” Todd exclaimed, but quickly realised by looking at the rest of the crew that this was just a joke.

      “They said they’ve informed the other ships, and put it in their records,” Jack informed truthfully.

      “Thank you.”  Arnold now turned to the two sick crewmembers.  “Elliot and Lily both have this mysterious disease,” he said to the crew for clarification.  “The only possible remedy is a complete heart-transplant, but the only heart we have is Craig’s.  It will work for either of them, but the question is, who gets the surgery?”

      “She does,” Elliot said immediately.

      “No...” Lily began.

      You do!” Elliot exclaimed with force.  “You got the disease first, and you didn’t do anything wrong to get it.  I ignored the danger of it being contagious, so that’s why I got it.  You deserve the surgery.”

      “That’s bullshit, Elliot,” Lily continued, “you held me because you cared about me.  I can’t let you die because of that.  I won’t be able to live with myself.”

      “I haven’t been able to live with myself for years!” Elliot shouted, his voice nearly breaking through the strain of emotion and the struggle to breathe through his oxygen-deprived lungs.

      “Now hold on,” Jason Floyd interrupted.  “Why do either of them have to die?  I could switch hearts with one of them until the blood cells are all clean, then neither heart will be too damaged to function.”

      “That’s so risky...” Ronald said.

      Before he had a chance to elaborate, Arnold broke in, “You can stop right there, Jason,” said Arnold.  “I know you mean well, but I won’t hear any talk about heart transplants and what-not.  If we can save one of them, that’s great, but if we start risking other people’s lives to save both of them we could end up losing them and more people.”

      “And it wouldn’t work anyway,” said Elliot.  “If just touching Lily was enough to contaminate my blood, then putting my heart in you would merely contaminate your blood, until all the cells from the time of the transplant die off.”

      “So then I die,” said Jason.  “I don’t care.  You’re more valuable to this crew.  You and Lily are both medics.  You’re far more important to the mission.  Anyone can operate the computers.”

      “Sounds like a plan to me,” said David.  “Someone else will just have to take over Jason’s job of playing computer games and writing poems.”

      “Shut up, David,” said Arnold.  “Jason, I don’t want to risk it.”

      “Listen to him,” Elliot said to Jason.  “I appreciate your willingness to die to save my life, but the operation is too dangerous, and both of us could easily end up dead.”  The surgeon then took a deep breath, and continued to speak.  “I vote we give Craig’s heart to Lily.  I’ll accept my own death.”

      “No, Elliot,” Lily protested.  “Don’t do that to me!  How am I supposed to live after that?”

      “You’re not to blame!” Elliot shouted, his voice shaking to the point where others believed he might have a breakdown.  “You didn’t do anything!  It’s my fault!  It’s all my fault.”  The crew watched in a horrified silence as the normally composed surgeon seemed to be losing it.  He was obviously lost in his own memory, recalling the events from his past.  “It’s all my fucking fault,” he continued.  “I should have held on harder.  I could have held on...”

      “Elliot,” Arnold tried to break him out of it, but the man had his eyes closed and he was banging his head against the bed behind him.  “Elliot!” he shouted.

      Elliot Larken stopped.  In an instant, he seemed to forget every emotion he had just been feeling.  His demeanour switched from crazy to calm in only half a second, and the only indication that he’d approached tears was the slight wetness of his eyes.

      “Let’s just...let’s decide what to do,” Arnold continued, without really knowing what to do.  “You want Lily to have the heart, and Lily wants you to have the heart.  I’m not about to play God and decide which one of you lives and which one of you dies, but I don’t want to do this arbitrarily by flipping a coin or something.  Does anyone have anything to say?”

      “Give the heart to Lily,” Maria said.  “It’s for purely selfish reasons, but I need her.  If you let her die, I don’t think I could handle this mission for the rest of the time.”

      Ronald, her “lover”, looked at her with a hurt expression, but he understood.  A woman needed another woman to bond with, and for some reason Maria and Lauren did not get along.

      “I don’t think this is my place to decide,” said Jason, “but it seems to me that Elliot’s screwed either way here.”

      “I agree,” Lauren said.  “I don’t think Elliot could survive if we gave him the heart any more than he could survive without it.”

      “Exactly,” Jason said, too wrapped up in the situation to feel elation at the fact that Lauren had expressed her agreement with him.

      “I don’t want it either!” Lily shouted.

      “So don’t give it to either of them,” David suggested.  “It seems to me that if they’re both so eager to die, let them both die so we don’t have to deal with either of them whining about their guilt for the rest of the mission.”

      Needless to say, David’s suggestion wasn’t too popular among the other crewmembers.  Jack gave him the finger, and David returned the gesture.

      “Okay, does anybody else have any other suggestions?” asked Arnold. “Come on people, give me something to work with.”

      After a brief period of silence, Todd spoke up.  “The heart should be given to Elliot,” he said forcefully but with a complete lack of emotion, “simply by means of the chain of importance.  It’s been clear all along, but I didn’t want to say anything because I know this line of reasoning wouldn’t be too popular among this crew, but if we’re going to do this by protocol, there is a formula.  Elliot is a surgeon, first-string.  Lily is a second-string medical officer.  The only reason we have two medical officers is in case something happens to one of them.  Two surgeons are very useful in an operation, but it only takes one person to use a MedScan.”

      Arnold took a long time to contemplate this.  Todd knew that this was the logic that he would inevitably go by.  Arnold’s natural inclination to refer to the book for everything was too strong to be overcome by any emotional appeals.  And as he studied the commander’s face, it seemed as though he might accept it.

      “Shit, Todd,” Lily said from across the room.  She didn’t want the heart to be given to her instead of Elliot, but the reasoning behind Todd’s argument was not too flattering to her.

      “Sorry, Lily,” Todd offered.  It may have been revenge for the minor emotional pain she’d inflicted on him by hooking up with Elliot in the first place.  But Todd didn’t want to see himself in that light, so he figured he was helping her by giving a reasonable justification for Lily to yield the heart to Elliot.

      “Well,” Arnold said, “unless anyone has anything to dispute Todd’s point, I can’t argue with the logic.  In a life-or-death emergency situation, anyone in the position to save a life does so in the order of the chain of importance.  I didn’t think of this as one of those situations, but that’s exactly what this is.  Elliot, you’re going to get the heart transplant.  Lily, I hope you’ll understand that it’s nothing personal.  There’s no good way to decide this, so we have to go by the rules.”

      “I understand,” Lily said.  “Just so long as I don’t have to live with his death on my conscience.”

      “No!” Elliot yelled.  “It’s not your fault!  No death is on your conscience.  It’s my fault!  I should have held on!  I should have fucking held on tighter, but she...” Without warning, Elliot leapt to his feet.  Genuine tears were now streaming from his eyes.  “I’m not going to let you die,” he shouted through his pain.  “I’ve lost too many people I’ve loved.  I’m not going to lose you!”

      Before anyone could realise what was going on, Elliot used all of the strength he could muster through the weakness his sickness caused to rush across the room to the garbage chute.

      Arnold’s eyes widened, and he leapt after Elliot, with Jack and Ronald following not too far behind.  Everyone else just shouted at him.

      Elliot opened the outer hatch and ducked in, taking one last look at the crew.  Before Arnold had a chance to try to talk any sense into him, Elliot Larken pounded the button to release the garbage.  The hatch closed, just before Arnold reached the chute.  Furiously and desperately, the commander pounded the outside button to open the hatch, but once the command to dispose of the garbage had been made, nothing would stop it.

      The last anyone saw of Elliot Larken, he was crunched into the garbage chute of the Andromeda, with a strange smile on his face, almost at peace.  The tears on his face seemed to take decades off of his age.  In that brief instant before the hatch completely closed and the outer lock opened to suck him into the vacuum, Elliot looked young again.

      Lily stared in horror, unable to find enough breath required to scream.  Immediately, she burst into tears.  Maria rushed over to comfort her, but Ronald held her back, reminding her that Lily had a deadly contagious disease.

      Jason Floyd had not stopped Elliot.  He knew that this was what Elliot needed to do.   And he found some comfort in the idea that his friend had found peace just before he died, and all that shit and pain behind his eyes had at last been wiped away by those final tears.  Nevertheless, he got up and walked silently to the left wall of the living quarters, and kicked it to release his frustration.  Elliot was the only person on the ship with whom he’d actually connected, and now he was dead.

      Todd, Lauren, and David sat expressionless, revealing no hint of what they were feeling.  Ronald had a similar lack of expression, but he repeatedly pounded the floor.  Jack shouted obscenities and took out his anger on the wall with his fists.

      Arnold Juciper stood horrified.  He had lost another crewmember.  Elliot Larken, the hero of Jovian exploration and colonisation, who had survived countless perils on the harsh surface of Jupiter’s core, had lived only to take his own life on Arnold’s mission.  What was he doing wrong?

      “Maria!” he yelled.  “Maria, goddammit, why doesn’t this garbage chute hatch have an override?”

      “What?” the ship supervisor shouted in confusion.

      “Why can’t I stop the garbage disposal sequence after it starts?  This button does nothing!”  Arnold was beginning to feel dizzy and nauseous.

      “Because the garbage chute is meant to dispose of garbage,” Maria explained harshly.  “The designer didn’t foresee the need to prevent someone from committing suicide by abandoning ship through it.”

      “Well, we’ve already lost two crewmembers through this damned thing!”  Arnold was now about to collapse.  “I want you to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Make the button for the outside hatch override any other commands.”

      “Okay, sir.”  Maria wouldn’t argue.

      Arnold staggered into the cockpit and plopped down on a seat in the back.  By the time Lauren reached him to talk about what had happened, he was already passed out from exhaustion and emotion.

      Jason came in, also with the idea to tell Arnold that it wasn’t his fault, but when he saw Lauren holding and comforting his unconscious body, he quickly changed his mind.

      Nobody on the crew slept that night.  Nobody tried.  The lights were turned out, but they just stayed on the floor, sitting and thinking in silence about the mission, their own mortality, and whether any of this shit was worth it. 
 

Chapter 35

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3b- Coast, 1 sps, Day 1

Location:  Near the centre of Andromeda 

      The prevailing emotion of the week following Elliot’s death was mainly one of quiet, blameless anger.  Things continued as normally, with Arnold talking to Lauren and Ronald having sex with Maria, but it seemed that whatever small pleasure they took from these activities had faded away.  The other crewmembers spent their time exercising up to five times a day, and having Jason blast angry, mournful music throughout the living quarters.

      David O’Brian was the only one who didn’t seem to care.  He pointed out that nobody was this regretful at the deaths of Mark and Craig.  Jack countered by pointing out that nobody liked Mark, and nobody respected Craig, while there wasn’t a single person on the crew besides David himself that didn’t have an enormous amount of respect for the heroic Elliot Larken.  Even in the end, he had died so that another person would live.

      Many people asked Jason if Elliot had ever explained what it was that caused him so much pain.  At first, Jason felt that he couldn’t tell because it would be like betraying Elliot’s trust.  But they convinced him that it didn’t matter anymore, and Jason eventually decided that he would actually be doing Elliot an honour by telling his story.  So one night he explained to them all about the Jupiter missions, his love affair with Sara, and her tragic death.  When he finished, it was hard for the rest of the crew to hold back the tears, and thoughts of Elliot’s death became even more depressing.  Lily was hurt most by the tale, and she cried for hours after hearing it, now with a full understanding of what had taken place when she’d tried to make love to him.

      As Lily’s health degenerated, she became more and more active.  Ronald told her that she would have to wait a few weeks before the bad blood cells were completely out of her system before he performed the surgery, or else the new heart would become just as useless as the old.  Lily didn’t seem to care about the surgery, nor the fact that her body wouldn’t allow her to perform the simplest tasks without massive amounts of pain.  Yet she insisted on cooking her own food, doing her own laundry, and even exercising.

      When it came time for the Andromeda crew to slow the time-scale enough to be able to perform the extra-vehicular activity, she insisted that Arnold let her go.

      “I’m sorry, Lily,” he said, “but you’re just not in any condition to do a space-walk.  Somebody else will take your name-ball out.”

      “It’s not about the name-ball,” argued Lily.  “I can do it.  There’s no gravity to overcome, and I won’t have to move anything but my arms and fingers.  There’s no danger whatsoever.”

      Arnold paused for a moment to consider her argument.  “It just doesn’t seem responsible of me to let you go.”

      “Arnold, I’m asking you.  Please,” Lily continued.  “I’ve come all this way for this.  This space-walk is the highlight of the mission.  And by telling me I can’t go is like telling Buzz Aldrin once he got to the moon that he wouldn’t be allowed to get out and walk on it.”

      This statement reached Arnold in a place beyond his whole by-the-book mindset.  If space exploration wasn’t about experiencing the natural beauty of the universe, then what was it for?  “I...” Arnold sighed heavily, “...I’ll let you go.  But I’m going to keep a close eye on you the entire time, and if you feel yourself having any problems at all, just speak to me and I’ll bring you in.”

      The space-walk was not just the highlight of the mission in terms of the experience, but also as far as the scientific purposes would go.  The largest proportion of data that the Andromeda would pick up about the galaxy would be taken during Instruction 3c alone.  Ten astronauts were supposed to go out and take hand-held sensors with them.  They were supposed to manually scan every section of the galaxy, thus allowing the computer to draw a map of the galaxy based on the data picked up by the scanners.  With the data of ten scanners, the computer would be able to take the average location of every object it detected and draw a near-perfect model of Andromeda.

      “We’re going to do this in two groups,” Arnold announced after his talk with Lily.  “Because both Scientists and the back-up are gone, the duties are now my responsibility.  But because we have only nine crewmembers and ten scanners, I’ll need to go out twice.  Therefore, the first group will consist of myself, Lauren, David, Todd, and Lily.  The second group will consist of myself again, Ronald, Maria, Jack, and Jason.”

      “Wait a minute,” Todd interrupted, “I’m not going out there.”

      “Todd, please,” Arnold said, “we’re in no position to have this argument.  You’re going out there, and you’ll just have to get over your fear.”

      “You don’t understand,” Todd argued, “I can’t go out there.  It was bad enough floating in space with the Earth only two hundred kilometres away, but now it’s two million light-years away.  I won’t be able to handle it.”

      “Todd,” Arnold spoke firmly, “we need at least ten crewmembers to use the scanners properly.  We have nine.  It would have been eight if Lily hadn’t insisted on going.  You’re not going to make this any more complicated than it is.  Just take the scanner, do your job, and then re-enter the ship early if it makes you feel better.  I’m not asking you to enjoy it, I’m just asking you to do it.”

      Todd shrugged, knowing he was not going to win this argument.

      Arnold smiled weakly, “Besides,” he said.  “If you get through this, you won’t have to be afraid of anything for the rest of your life.  And the feeling of satisfaction you’ll get will be more than worth it.”

      There was a brief period of silence as the crewmembers stood waiting for the instruction.  Despite their sadness, most couldn’t help but feel excited about the monumental nature of what they were about to do.

      “All right,” Arnold said, “Let’s get the MMU suits out.” 

      With Elliot’s name-ball in his left arm, and his own ball in his right arm, Arnold Juciper stood in the EVA booth at the back left corner of the cockpit.  This was a small, telephone-sized booth that served as an airlock for allowing astronauts to go on space-walks without the risk of losing too much air all at once.  The only difference between this hatch and the garbage chute was that it was larger, and could only be controlled from the main control board, unlike the garbage chute, where the open/close command buttons were found on the hatch itself.

      Sealed in complete darkness, Arnold waited for Maria to press the button that would suck him out into empty space, into the unexplored territory of Andromeda.  As the commander, he was supposed to be the first man to go EVA in the galaxy, but technically, Elliot had beaten him to that title.

      The outer hatch disappeared, and Arnold was hurled from the tiny airlock into the abyss.  The sight may have overwhelmed him if he had not had a slight expectation of what he was going to see.  He had seen a portion of the galaxy around him from the cockpit window, but now he was surrounded by it.  The purple haze of Andromeda stretched out in every direction, twice the diameter of the Milky Way, a size so incomprehensible that Arnold dared not try to grasp it.

      Surrounded by close yellow stars, Arnold could tell he was near the core.  Very densely packed, middle-sized stars were the most brilliant objects around him.  Beyond those, stars of purple shading decreased in brightness until they faded into a thin violet cloud like a veil surrounding the entire universe.  It was without a doubt the most beautiful sight Arnold had ever seen.

      “This is for you, Elliot,” he said as he released the dead surgeon’s name ball from his arm sending it to float eternally in Andromeda.  He then took his own ball with both his hands, and sent it hurtling outward towards the edge of the galaxy.  As he watched it speed out of sight, he thought about the future, and how no matter what happen this ball would be orbiting the core of Andromeda for millions of years to come, even long after he returned to Earth.

      Arnold un-hooked the sensor gun from his suit, and proceeded to get down to business, as he turned around to face the ship.  It was the first time he’d seen the Andromeda from the outside besides simply looking at pictures and computer models.  He hadn’t seen the ship dock, and he had boarded it before he had a chance to check it out. It was an eerie thought that he’d been riding in it for over two million years, and he was just now laying eyes on it for the first time.

      He watched the hatch that he’d just been inside open up once again, and Lauren Samalc came flying out into the galaxy with him, her name-ball in one arm, and Craig’s in the other. 

      Todd was sucked out into the Andromedan void after David, and before Lily.  With his eyes closed, he waited until he was sure that he was no longer standing secure on the artificial gravity of the ship’s floor.  This wasn’t so bad.  It was just darkness, no gravity.  Like floating in a pool with your eyes closed.  Nothing to be afraid of.

      But sooner or later he would have to open his eyes and face the reality that he was floating unchained in the infinite expanse of space, two and half million light-years from his home planet, his house, his own bed with warm sheets and his wife waiting up for him...

      The thought that the sooner he opened his eyes, the sooner he could get his job finished and thus go back inside caused him to regain his senses.  “Arnold,” he spoke, the transmitter in his helmet reaching everyone currently wearing an EVA suit.  “I’m ready to begin.  Do you see me?  Where are you?”

      The reply didn’t come immediately, but it came.  “Yes, Todd, I can see you just fine.  Congratulations.”  Arnold’s voice sounded friendly but preoccupied.  “Lily will be coming out in a minute so I’ll have to keep an eye on her.  But I’m glad you overcame your fear.  Now just try and enjoy it.”

      “I’d rather just do my work and go back,” said Todd, his eyes still shut tightly, still trying to forget the situation he was actually in.

      “If that’s what you decide to do,” Arnold replied, “you can go back any time.  Just finish scanning first.”

      Todd swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and very slowly opened his right eye.  The brightness of the hot yellow stars around him caused his pupils to shrink even behind his UV shield.  He opened his left eye quickly to even out the pain.  Realising he was still clutching his name ball, he let it go.

      He then grabbed his suit controls and performed a few quick manoeuvres to assure himself that he was in control of where he was going.  He pointed himself at the ship, to remind himself that he wasn’t alone in the universe, and he still wasn’t too far from a comfortable bed and a nice warm, breathable atmosphere.  The effect he got wasn’t nearly as reassuring.  Instead, watching Lily emerge in a spacesuit from the hatch caused his bones to shiver in the realisation that even inside the ship, it was only that tiny hunk of metal that separated him from the deadly vacuum of the infinite.

      All he had to do was take out the sensor and scan the galaxy.  Then he could go back inside.  He stopped hesitating, and took the sensor from his ship-suit.  Holding the small contraption like a pistol with a funnel attached to it in front of him, he noticed that he was shaking.  A series of deep breaths calmed his racing blood, and he proceeded to scan the part of the galaxy that was in his view.  He then took his suit controls with one hand, and shifted his view so he could continue to pick up more data.

      Getting into this steady, routine system was comforting to him.  Instead of just floating aimlessly in space, he was performing a task, simple and finite.  Once the task was completed, he could go back and not have to worry again for the rest of the mission, and then for the rest of his life.

      By the time he pointed himself at the centre of the galaxy to do his last bit of scanning, he was almost feeling comfortable.  “I’m finished, and I’m going in,” he told Arnold once he was done.

      The reply sounded even more distant and preoccupied than before.  “Good work, Todd.  Just do me a favour and try to get one enjoyable moment out of this.”

      That statement struck Todd.  He re-attached the sensor to his ship-suit, and actually took a moment to think deeply about his situation.  As he stared into the core of Andromeda, he began to contemplate just how incredible it was that he, Todd Blankens, who had as a child dreamed of nothing more than becoming a doctor, was now in a spacesuit, floating near the centre of a galaxy millions of light-years from his home.  For just a brief moment before his fear returned, Todd was able to appreciate the beauty of the natural universe, and make peace with destiny. 

      Lily felt better than she had in what seemed like years.  She’d had the disease for several days, but floating weightless amidst the beautiful vista of the sister galaxy, she completely forgot the pain.  She was even able to breathe easier through the oxygen supply of the suit.

      She scanned the galaxy quickly, and then just took control of her suit and let herself experience a freedom like she’d never known before.  She used the suit jets to circle the entire ship, and perform acrobatic manoeuvres.  She knew all of this was driving Arnold crazy, but she didn’t care.  He just didn’t understand that this experience was not a challenge for her, but a break.

      “Lily, I can’t keep up with you,” he was saying.  “Just stay in one place so I don’t lose track.”

      “Really, Arnold,” she answered.  “I’m flattered, but I’d rather you just let me enjoy myself.”

      “Go ahead and enjoy yourself,” said Arnold, “but I’m not taking my eye off of you.”

      The remaining forty minutes of the space-walk went by like forty seconds to Lily, and sooner than she would have liked, Arnold was calling to the three astronauts still out of the ship to begin heading in, and he told Lily to go in first.

      Thrusting to the hatch, Lily began to feel the pain again before she was even within the vicinity of the spaceship’s artificial gravity.  The hatch opened, and she made her way inside.  As soon as the airlock closed, she felt the gravity return, and once the inner hatch slid open, she knew that her time of freedom was over.

      Ronald helped her out of her suit, making sure not to touch her or any part of the suit she’d been in contact with, and then she sat on her seat in the cockpit.  Lily continued to sit and breathe as best she could while David entered, then Lauren, and finally Arnold.

      “All right,” Arnold said when he took his helmet off.  Once the rest of you are suited up, I’ll head back out with you four.”

      “What about Todd?” Jack asked.

      Lily turned around to see Arnold give the communications man a puzzled look.  “What about him?” he asked.

      “Well, when is he coming in?” asked Jack.  “We’re short one suit until he gets back.”

      An intense chill ran down Lily’s spine as she saw the commander’s eyes wince.  He seemed to freeze in place, not even breathing.  “He didn’t come in earlier?” he asked, and swallowed a hard, nervous lump.  Lily could tell by the sweat running down Arnold’s forehead that he was almost on the verge of panic.  Not another one.

      Jack very seriously shook his head.

      “Maria!” Arnold shouted at the top of his lungs, “Get the controls ready, I’m going back out there!”

      Before she passed out in disbelief, Lily saw Arnold throw his helmet back on and disappear once again into the EVA hatch. 

      Shit, fuck, and shit again, Arnold thought as he took his suit controls in his hands and furiously blasted his way all around the spaceship, scanning everywhere for Todd’s EVA suit.  Why hadn’t he paid closer attention?  He knew Todd was afraid for his life.  He had just assumed that once he got out, he would be fine, but he had forgotten the incident at Getaway where Todd had blacked out.

      “Todd,” Arnold called, hoping the medical officer wasn’t too far away to receive the signal.  “Dammit, Todd!” he yelled.  “Where are you?”

      Shit, shit, shit.  Arnold used his jets to cancel all velocity relative to the ship, and tried to make sense of the situation, but all that came back to him was the voice inside his head blaming him for everything.  Todd, please, he had said, we’re in no position to have this argument.  You’re going out there, and you’ll just have to get over your fear.

      God-fucking dammit!!!  Arnold smacked his own helmet in extreme frustration and anger.  Like it or not, this was his fault.  There was no reason Todd had to go out there.  He could easily have made Lauren or David go out twice, or anybody else for that matter.  Why had he been so fucking blind?

      You’re not going to make this any more complicated than it is.  Just take the scanner, do your job, and then re-enter the ship early if it makes you feel better.  I’m not asking you to enjoy it, I’m just asking you to do it.

      It was an honest mistake.  Todd had told him he was finished, and he was going to re-enter the ship.  Arnold didn’t want to take his eyes off of Lily.  After all, she was the one with the mortal illness.  It would only make sense to pay more attention to her.  Todd was perfectly healthy, just a little scared.  There was no reason he couldn’t have just done his work and gone right back into the ship.

      Good work, Todd, he’d said.  Just do me a favour and try to get one enjoyable moment out of this.

      As he was thinking, Arnold noticed that the spaceship seemed to be a bit smaller than it had been just a few moments ago.  That was strange, seeing as how he’d cancelled all of his velocity relative to it.  He should still be the same distance from the ship as he was a moment ago.  Unless...

      Holy fucking shit.  Unless some object of intense gravity was pulling him away from the ship.  But then wouldn’t it be pulling both him and the ship towards it?  Sure, gravity works stronger as an object gets closer to the source, but even if Arnold was closer to the star or object that he was being pulled towards, it shouldn’t make that much of a difference.  The only object with gravity strong enough to pull that much harder on an object only slightly closer was...

      Holy fucking shit.  Arnold whipped himself around with his suit jets.  The galactic core.  Home to a giant black hole with gravity stronger than light itself.  A black hole had enough force of acceleration to rip stars apart because the gravity tugged at the closer end much more than the further end.  Any object hurtling towards a black hole would be stretched ridiculously long like a strand of spaghetti, and would soon be nothing but a string of atoms until they collided into a singularity at the exact centre along with every other object the black hole had consumed throughout the course of its existence.

      As the idea hit him, it simultaneously knocked the wind out of him, made him want to puke and want to panic at the same time; there was little doubt in Arnold’s mind that what had once been Todd was now just a mesh of atoms occupying a singular point at the centre of Andromeda’s black hole.

      As Arnold thrusted back towards the ship before the black hole could pull him too close for him to escape its now relatively weak gravity, he wondered if there were any other forces besides bad luck that were at work here. 
 

Chapter 36

Flight Plan:  Instruction 3d- Thrust, 30 dps, Day 7

Location:  Light-years to the far side of Andromeda 

      Well, now it’s starting to sound a little more like a real science-fiction book, isn’t it?  All that space-walk stuff, and black holes, etc.  But naturally, things like this can’t last for a long time, of course.  Soon enough we’ll be back to the old non-scientific, character-study like stuff.  I know a lot of you prefer that to the emotionless science and bullshit theories, so you’ll be glad to get back to the real story, which almost exclusively takes place inside the spaceship.  But for those of you who like the science, here’s one last astronomical tid-bit, and this one’s a whopper.

      Way back in the time of Einstein, black holes were purely theoretical.  Some brilliant mathematicians figured out that upon their supernova explosions, if some particularly massive stars had too much gravity for even their own detonations to contain, they would collapse upon themselves.  The result would be a singularity—a point in space so small that it could not be measured in volume, yet with the mass of a gigantic star.

      The gravitational force of these objects would be so strong that not even light could escape their grasp.  Thus, these theoretical objects could not be seen.  However, the lack of these objects and all light surrounding them would leave quite a large hole in space.  This would appear to a human eye as a giant black sphere, with nothing inside the sphere visible because any light reflecting off an object within the sphere would not be able to make it back out, and thus could not be seen.  This distinct point, the distance from the singularity at which the gravity becomes too great for light to escape is called the event horizon.

      Interestingly enough, once an object passes through the event horizon, the rest of the universe is still perfectly visible, yet nothing inside can be seen.  Even more interesting is that nobody outside of the event horizon can see an object pass through the event horizon.  Due to extremely complicated principles of quantum-mechanics which this author will never be able to grasp much less explain, the extreme gravity of the black hole distorts the very fabric of space and time surrounding it, thus making it appear to an outside observer that an object hurtling towards a black hole would slow down as it approached the event horizon, and remain outside of it for all eternity.

      Thus, every object that has ever been sucked into a black hole can still be seen around it. They surround the black hole like a flat disc of light, known as an accretion disc.  Every molecule from every star or rock that has ever been unfortunate enough to journey too close to a black hole can be seen circling around in perpetual orbit, although these atoms long ago became a part of the unbelievably massive singularity at the centre.

      All of this was theorised long before any evidence of actual black holes was gathered, and subsequently proven.  We now know that these objects do in fact exist, and there is a particularly massive one at the centre of our own galaxy.  Therefore it would make sense that a black hole may be at the centre of every galaxy, or at least all spiral-shaped galaxies.  Irregular galaxies may be held together by the gravity of the objects within them alone, but spiral galaxies, perpetually spinning around a centre axis, are probably spinning around a massive black hole with gravity that tugs on every object from the centre to the edge.

      It has been theorised that black holes will eventually be the undoing of all matter in the universe itself.  As black holes feed, they grow stronger and stronger because of the added mass to the singularity.  Eventually, in about a googol years or so (about 1 × 10^99 times the age of the universe now), every particle of matter in existence will have been sucked into black holes, leaving the universe to be a very dark and empty place.  A few more googol years, and the black holes themselves will simply die away, and then there will be nothing.

      I know how fascinating this is, but eventually I’m going to have to stop and go back to the actual story.  Yet I can’t end on that very depressing note.  That’s actual science, and actual science usually doesn’t give us answers we like.  I greatly prefer theoretical science, and not just the bullshit I make up in order to make my stories work. 

      It is reassuring to some, and amusing to others, that the human race does have a contingency plan for what we can do to persevere in that distant future when all matter disappears.  Yes, as early as the year 2000, we were already thinking ahead to the year 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.  We hope that by that time, we will have the technology for multi-dimensional travel.  That is, we believe we may be able to take this universe, and from its fabric actually replicate it and start a new one.  It would be impossible to picture, but you could think of it as a drop of water from a leaky faucet.  If our universe is this drop of water, the new one would be shaped from the droplet that is falling from the current drop.  It would still be connected to the original universe, thus allowing us to enter it before it finally breaks off and becomes completely separate and unreachable to the existence from whence it came.  In all essence, it would be a completely new universe.

      What this universe would be like, we have no idea.  It could be identical to our own, or it could go by an entirely new set of rules.  Or it could be the same with only a few subtle differences, but this new universe will keep us going for as long as its mathematical principles, whatever they may be, can sustain us.  Through science, the human race can maintain a kind of immortality, continuously creating new universes and experiencing whatever unimaginable wonders there may be.  And perhaps, with the right level of technology, we will be able to control what our new universes will be like, and shape them as we see fit before entering and experiencing them.

      And that, my intelligent reader, would be the ultimate 1-dimensional illustration of 3-dimensional philosophy.  Immortality through creation of new existences with infinite possibilities.  Perhaps it has been done already.  Perhaps it is being done now as you read this.  Perhaps you have been doing it for an incalculable amount of time now but don’t realise it.  And if that’s true, and it is you who have created this very universe you currently exist in, then that would make you nothing short of God itself. 

      It was the seventh day of this section of the flight plan, and the surgery was to take place in the morning.  That night, Maria Wendall sat by Lily’s bed, making sure not to touch her, but having a talk as if it would be their last.

      “Don’t worry,” said Lily, “Ronald will take good care of you if I don’t make it.”

      “Ronald’s performing the surgery,” Maria reminded her, “if he fails, I don’t know if there’s any way I could have sex with him after that.”

      Lily laughed, but then started to cough, so she stopped.  “Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically.

      “What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Maria.

      “I doubt your sense of regret is any stronger than your sexual drive,” Lily said.

      Maria didn’t take any offence to this, because she knew it was true, and on some level, she was grateful that Lily knew her well enough to call her on this.

      Lily changed the subject.  “I still can’t believe about Todd,” she said.  “Not to mention Elliot.  I can’t believe they’re both gone all of a sudden.  And to think I might be next.”

      “You won’t be next,” said Maria.  “If Ronald’s half as good at surgery as he is at...”

      “You can stop right there,” Lily teased.  She then breathed a heavy sigh, realising that Maria was going to keep the conversation light no matter how deep Lily wanted to take it.

      Maria sensed that Lily wanted to talk more deeply, so she tried to go deeper, in the only way she knew how.  “I don’t know who I’m gonna talk to when you’re gone.”

      “You’ve always got Lauren,” said Lily.

      Maria rolled her eyes.  “Right.  I’m sure I can have lots of great conversations with that mute bitch.”

      That mute bitch just happened to be sitting in the kitchen at this time, and she could hear every word of their conversation.  She didn’t make any reaction though, so Maria assumed she hadn’t heard her.

      “What have you got against Lauren anyway?” asked Lily.

      “Does it matter?” Maria countered.

      “I’m just curious,” said Lily.  “Granted, she’s not the most up-beat friend you can ask for, but she’s not bad.  She’s just shy.  Why should you hold that against her?”

      “I hate shy people,” said Maria.

      “I see,” said Lily, sighing once again.  “Well, I hope that if I’m not around, you two can become friends.  It’s easier when there’s two than when there’s three.”

      Maria had no intention of befriending the “arrogant” pilot (nor did Lauren have any intention of befriending her), but she saw no harm in humouring her friend.  “Maybe,” she said.

      Lily smiled, and the two women just sat near each other in silence until the lights went out. 

      In the cockpit, David O’Brian went over his plan a few more times.  It was perfect in its brilliance.  The execution would be no problem; it was the clean-up that would be the hard part.  He would have to pull off some incredible lying to even make his story half believable, but he was sure he could do it.

      So far, things were going unbelievably well for him.  It was nothing more than good fortune that the medics were dropping like flies.  David was amused by the fact that as of now, he was not directly responsible for any of the deaths of the crewmembers.  Mark killed Craig and himself; David had nothing to do with it.  Elliot killed himself on purpose, and Todd accidentally got himself killed.

      Yet even more beautiful was that it was actually Arnold, and not David, who was responsible for all of these deaths.  If he hadn’t been so harsh in kicking Mark of the crew, both Craig and Mark would still be alive.  If he hadn’t been so stupid in deciding Craig’s heart be used to save Elliot instead of Lily, Elliot wouldn’t have killed himself, and he would have died at the hands of David’s poison and not his own.  Finally, the death of Todd was self-explanatory.  Everyone, including Arnold, knew that it was his insistence that Todd go EVA and his negligence in not keeping an eye on him that allowed for Todd to be lost.

      David leaned back on his chair and put his feet up on the controls.  His hands were completely clean, and even when he actually killed crewmembers, it would only be because Arnold put the knife in his fist.  Arnold had taken everything from him, and he was going to pay.  David would save him for last, have him watch every member of his crew die.  He would kill Lauren right in front of Arnold’s eyes, then the bastard would know it was him.  It was David who finally bested him in the end.

      Betelgeuse may have been gone, but the light of its supernova had still not reached Andromeda.  The red giant’s light was still burning strong in the corners of David’s mind. 

      On the morning of the surgery, Lauren looked on with as much concern as everyone else on the crew.  She watched as Lily cleared her bed, Ronald put on his surgical attire and latex gloves, then hook up the MedScan so the computer could give a constant live reading of what was going on inside Lily’s body.

      Lauren liked Lily, although she never told the medical officer.  It was hard for her to tell anyone that she liked them.  Having been deceived so many times in her life, it was nearly impossible for her to trust anyone.  People form their perception of relationships based upon the first relationship they observe, and that relationship is usually the one between their parents.  Lauren’s parents were together because their parents had forced them to be.  Lauren was alive because her mother’s mother had forced her to not have an abortion.

      Still, she felt that Lily had been someone she could trust.  She didn’t want to see her die.  Lily was the only one keeping Maria from verbally assaulting her all the time.  She knew Maria hated her, but she wasn’t exactly sure why.  For a brief period of time, she had entertained the idea that it was jealousy.  Maria was slightly on the heavy side, and she had a face that would probably not be featured on the cover of any beauty magazine.  Lauren thought perhaps Maria was jealous of her appearance, but Lauren herself didn’t think she was beautiful, and couldn’t quite perceive how anyone might be jealous of her looks.

      Somehow, Arnold had taken a liking to her.  She wasn’t sure how that happened either, but she knew that Arnold was somebody she could trust.  It tore her up that everyone blamed all of the misfortunes of the mission on Arnold, and it bothered her even more that Arnold blamed himself for things such as Todd’s death.  Lauren had tried to tell him that it wasn’t his fault.  They had been too close to the galactic core as it was.  If anyone was to blame, it was her for being too precise in orienting with Andromeda.

       But none of that would matter if more people died.  Arnold’s spirit was already broken.  Lauren couldn’t imagine what might happen to him if the operation failed and Lily died, leaving little more than half of the original crew remaining.

      “Arnold,” David said, “You wouldn’t mind if I man the cockpit during this operation, would you?”

      “Yeah, go ahead,” said Arnold, too nervous to think of any arguments.  “We know how much you can’t stand the sight of blood.”

      Thanks,” David said with bitter sarcasm, and disappeared into the cockpit.

      Now, there were only five spectators sitting at a safe distance across the room including Lauren.  Sitting next to her was Arnold, then Jason, Jack, and Maria, who was probably the most nervous out of everyone.

      Ronald finished setting up the operation.  “Okay,” he said.  “I will now put the patient to sleep for the duration of the operation.  If there’s anything you’d like to say to Lily, say it now.”

      “Good luck!” Maria called.  It was all she could think of.

      “Lily,” Ronald looked at his patient, lying on her bed, awaiting her completely uncertain fate.  “Is there anything you want to say?”

      “Maria, if I go, don’t miss me too much,” she said.  “And Arnold, don’t beat yourself up too hard over the things that went wrong on the mission.  I might have been a little hard on you at the beginning.  Just take good care of Lauren for me, all right?”

      Lauren developed a lump in her throat the size of a grapefruit, but she didn’t let herself show any indication.  She looked at Arnold next to her, and saw that he was feeling the same way, but the wetness of his eyes gave everything away.  “Thanks, Lily,” he said.  “You’ve been great.  I hope you don’t have to leave us now.”

      Jason was the last person to talk before the surgery.  “Immortality lies in the soul,” he called.  “Believe in another life, and you’ll have it.  Death is merely jumping to another universe.”

      Nobody else said anything, because they were all too busy trying to figure out what that meant.

      Ronald looked at Lily, who gave him a nod, and he injected Lily with the chemical that would put her body to sleep.  He reached for his surgical tools as Lily slowly drifted off into the plane between the real universe and the dream universe.

      Lauren couldn’t bring herself to pay too much attention to the technical aspects of what Ronald was doing.  Everything seemed to swim around in her head as she watched Ronald cut Lily open and use pins to keep the skin back.  He clamped her arteries so that no blood could flow in or out of her heart.  She could barely make out the object Ronald took from a box he’d had behind the bed, and place it into Lily’s body.  It was Craig’s heart, and she watched him attach the arteries to it and unclamp them.

      The beeping of the MedScan program on the computer put her in a trance.  Lauren heard the single, monotonous tone that had been heard since Lily’s heart was taken out.  At that point, it became a steady rhythm.  The new heart was working.  The operation had been a success.  Lauren was about to smile in relief when she noticed that there was a bit more gravity than there usually was in the ship.  No, this was a lot more gravity.  She could see the other crewmembers struggling to remain seated upright, and Ronald clutching Lily’s bed to keep from falling to the floor.  Then, all of a sudden, the gravity seemed to disappear, then reverse itself.  The crew was tossed upward, towards the ceiling.  Through her spinning head, Lauren watched Lily’s body, still wide open with pins in it fly upwards off of the bed.  Then, all at once, the gravity returned to normal, and the seven crewmembers occupying the living quarts came crashing back down.  Lily landed with a thud, face down on the floor, and Lauren remembered her heart freezing at the exact instant the steady beep of the MedScan once again became a long monotonous tone, and remained that way. 

      As Arnold looked around the room immediately following the incident, only one word could be used to describe the prevalent feeling—stunned.  And Arnold was probably the most stunned out of everyone, with the exception of Ronald, who stood over Lily’s bleeding corpse, her blood on his face, the look of certain death in his eyes.  Like Laertes after being stung with the blade he knew had been poisoned, Jack would later describe.

      Almost immediately, David came rushing out of the cockpit.  “Holy shit!” he yelled.  “We almost crashed head-first into a star!  At first I was sure we’d miss it, but the computer did some calculations and...” Arnold watched him in silence as he noticed Lily’s body on the floor, her blood covering Ronald.  “Oh shit,” said David.  “Oh, shit.”

      Having no idea what to think, say, or do, Arnold just stared at the pilot, not knowing if his emotions were genuine, if his story was true, or if he even cared.  His trance was not even interrupted when Maria flipped out.

      “You fucking bastard!” she yelled, tears streaming down her eyes.  “You fucking killed her!  You fucking killed her!”  Maria leapt at David, and started pounding her fists into his chest.  But they were weakened by her shock and by her pain.

      “No, Maria,” David pleaded, obviously not being hurt very much by Maria’s weak punches.  “We were about to crash into a star, so I had to do an emergency evasive manoeuvre.  We would have all died.  I just can’t believe it happened at the worst possible time.”

      “Oh, bullshit, bullshit,” said Maria, still pounding him with all of her diminished might.  All was lost now.  Lily was gone, and even Ronald, who would now be infected, would be dead too.  That left nobody.  Basically nobody.  She might as well be in the middle of the galaxy alone.

      Arnold just stared at the spectacle, still without a clue as to what to do.  Oh, technically he knew that he had to kick Maria off the crew.  She was assaulting another crewmember, and it would be hypocritical of him to have kicked Mark off for that but not Maria even though she was doing the same thing.

      What held him back were his own emotions.  Something had switched inside of Arnold.  He could feel exactly what Maria was feeling.  The frustration was too great.  Even he had the desire to thrash out against someone, and since David was the one who had made the deadly manoeuvre...so he couldn’t punish Maria.  He wouldn’t punish Maria.  He only hoped the crew would understand; he had a feeling they would.

      “Maria,” he managed to say, in a voice about as weak as her fists.  He couldn’t say anything more.

      Maria collapsed onto the floor in a puddle of tears and mucous, crying like a ten-year old girl after falling off a swing-set.

      “Arnold,” David turned to him.  “I know it’s a little hard to swallow with all things considered, but you’ve got to believe me.”

      “No I don’t,” said Arnold.  “I don’t have to believe anything.”  He still wasn’t quite sure what he believed; what he was feeling; what he was going to do.  “I just know there’s nothing I can do.  If you saved the ship, you saved the ship.  If that’s what you say, then there’s no way any of us can prove otherwise, so there’s nothing I can do.  As to whether or not any of us believe you, I’ll leave that up to each person.”

      “He’s lying,” said Jack.  “I don’t trust that snake for a minute.  He’s lying, I can see it in his eyes.”

      Jason was equally sceptical.  “If you calculate the odds of an object as small as our spaceship actually colliding with an object as relatively small as a star in the incredible amount of empty space inside a galaxy, you’d need an extremely powerful calculator to show you a number that minuscule.”

      “Ronald’s gonna die,” said Lauren.

      Arnold closed his eyes and let his head spin for another moment.  They didn’t believe David.  He could hardly believe David.  But he had no choice.  He’d lost another crewmember, and now the loss of another was inevitable.  This was a nightmare.  This couldn’t be happening.  What could he do?  What the fuck could he do?  He was the commander, he had to do something.

      “All right,” he said in a voice as strong as he could make it.  “We’ll discuss every aspect of this incident later.  For now, we’ve got work to do.

      “Ronald, I can’t imagine what’s going through your mind right now, but unfortunately you’re the only one who can clean this up and properly dispose of Lily’s body.  Take your time; whenever you’re ready, just do us that one favour and you’ll be relieved of your duties for the rest of the mission.

      “Lauren, I want you and Jason in the cockpit a.s.a.p.  David’s manoeuvre will definitely have knocked us off course and therefore all calculations we’ve made regarding estimated arrival times and time-scale synchronisations are off.  I need Jason to use the computer to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get us back on course so we get to every step of the flight plan exactly when we’re supposed to.  And Lauren, I can trust that you’ll be able to pull it off with total accuracy.

      “As for the rest of you, do what you need.  I’ll be working on the computer doing the scientists’ job.  Maria, I suggest you take a shower; it’ll make you feel better and give you some time alone.  We’ll have a group discussion about this tonight.  I think we’ve had too much of this, and I’m gonna find a way to make it stop.  So until 20:00, just try to think of suggestions.

      “And leave David alone; even if you don’t believe him, there’s nothing we can do.  I’m not going to punish Maria for exploding, but I don’t want any more fucking violence.  We’ve definitely had enough.”