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Book I: The Milky-Way 

Part One - No Direction 

Chapter 1

7:00 p.m. February 27, 5211295, Eastern Time

Juciper Residence, 76 Glenn Drive, Florida, Earth 

      As Jason Floyd made his way up the walkway to the house of his former commander, he could not suppress the feeling of anxiety inside of him that rose with each step.  It had been well over a year since his last visit, and he’d assumed that the Jucipers no longer wanted anything to do with him.  The invitation he’d received several days prior to join them for dinner that evening was a completely unexpected surprise.

      He remembered visiting Arnold Juciper at the same address only a few years ago after the mission to Barnard’s Star, on which they had met and become friends.  But although to them it had only been a few years, to the rest of the world it had been millions, and a lot had changed between them and in the world.  Barnard’s Star was no longer the second-closest star to the sun, and Arnold and Jason were no longer friends.  Even the house, once a humble suburban residence, had grown into a mansion which took up the entirety of what was once a small neighbourhood.  It all belonged to Juciper now, author of the number 1 best-selling novel of all time, To Andromeda and Back: The Memoirs of Arnold Juciper.

      Arnold had become the most famous man in the galaxy the moment he returned from the mission, and the publication of his book gave him the status of richest man in the galaxy as well.  He was one of humanity’s greatest heroes—the first man ever to reach another galaxy. Even more people knew his name than that of Brian Davis, the current C.E.O. of the STAR Corporation, which governed every aspect of life in the vast, fully-populated galaxy.  Conversely, almost nobody knew the names of the other three surviving crewmembers of the Andromeda, and almost nobody knew of Jason Floyd’s book.  Simply titled, Andromeda, it had sold virtually no copies at all.

      But Jason knew of one person for certain who had bought his book, and he was sure it was the reason behind Arnold’s breaking contact with him.  Although he’d tried to be fair in describing the commander, he had not done a good enough job in masking his animosity for the man who had taken the woman he loved.  He’d told the story in third-person, trying to be just as hard on himself as he had been on Arnold, although in the end the commander came across as an arrogant, almost heartless man.  In addition, he was sure that the scene in which he fully described Arnold’s first sexual encounter with Lauren had not been appreciated.

      So when this man actually invited him back to his home, Jason was understandably surprised, and for the past few days a great feeling of uneasiness had been growing in Jason, and now his anxiety was reaching its peak.  This angst, however, had less to do with seeing Arnold again than seeing his wife, the woman he’d loved for over a decade of his life, Lauren Samalc Juciper.

      He had grown up in the same neighbourhood as Lauren, and had fallen in love with her in high school.  But he had been too afraid of rejection to approach her, and resigned himself to admiring her from afar until he graduated, expecting to leave her behind forever.  When he had become a STAR Astronaut, however, he was shocked to learn that she had chosen this career as well.  And when he volunteered for the mission to Andromeda and learned that Lauren was to be the pilot, he was so nervous that he almost resigned his position on the crew.

      During the mission, Jason had tried to keep his feelings for Lauren a secret, but some of the other crewmembers, including the Communications Officer Jack Peskie, could see what was going on.  Although Jack had kept his secret, Jason broke down during the return journey and nearly beat the other pilot David O’Brian to death for constantly insulting Lauren.  He was then forced to reveal his secret to Lauren, who told him that she had known the whole time.  Once this last bit of hope of ever being with Lauren was crushed, Jason had gone completely insane.  But by the end of the mission, he was on good terms with Lauren, only to ruin things a year later by writing his book.

      Jason rang the doorbell, and in a moment it was opened by the commander himself.  Arnold Juciper outstretched his hand and greeted his old friend.  “Jason,” he said, in a voice masking any contempt he may have felt, “It’s great to see you again.  I’m glad you could make it.”

      “The pleasure’s mine, Arnold,” Jason said as he took the commander’s hand and gave it a friendly shake.

      “Come in,” said Arnold, leading Jason into the foyer and taking his coat.  “Dinner will be ready shortly.  The family’s waiting in the game-room.”

      Arnold led Jason into the hallway and down a flight of stairs which led to a massive, fully-furnished basement complete with two billiards tables and a bar in the corner.  Two women were seated at the bar, and Jason immediately recognised them both.  Rachael Juciper, Arnold’s daughter from his first wife, and Lauren.

      “Jason!” Rachael cried and ran to meet him.  “I haven’t seen you in forever!”

      Jason held out his hand to take hers, but before he knew what was happening she had thrown her arms around him and was hugging him tightly.  He responded with similar affection.  He’d known Rachael back in the fourth millennium when she was just a child, and apparently she still had some fond feelings for him.  Rachael had spent her seventeenth year as a passenger on the Andromeda II in order to be with her father, and now at age twenty she was beginning a career of her own at STAR.

      When Rachael was finished hugging Jason, she moved aside so that Lauren could greet him.  Jason felt his knees buckle beneath him as he looked once again upon the woman who’d possessed his heart for most of his life.  It had been so long since he’d seen her.  She was even more beautiful in person than she was in his memory.

      “Hello, Jason,” said Lauren, and moved closer to where he was standing.

      “Hey, Lauren,” said Jason, relieved that his voice hadn’t cracked.

      She held out her hand and he shook it, his heart already sinking from the cold and disappointing greeting.

      “Oh, give him a hug, Lauren!” said Rachael.  “You’re not still scared of him, are you?”

      Jason’s head spun for a moment, as Lauren gave a slight, embarrassed smile, and finally opened her arms to him.  It was probably the most awkward hug he’d ever had, but for Jason it was still a remarkable experience.  He had not hugged her in years, and regardless of the reason, there was something magical to Jason about any intimate contact with her.

      His mind flashed back to the moment on board the Andromeda just after he had saved Arnold’s life during the incident at the black hole, when Lauren kissed him on the lips.  He remembered the moment when he regained his sanity, watching Arnold pulled out of the ship by David O’Brian and clutching to the ledge for his life.  It was seeing Lauren kneeling at the edge, crying hysterically and desperately trying to save the man she loved, that had brought Jason out of his madness.  He suddenly understood that something horrible was happening to the woman he loved—that if he did nothing she was going to have to suffer for the rest of her life.  His mind became clear in an instant, and the next thing he knew he had leapt out of the ship with an electronic rope machine, catching Arnold before he fell into the black hole and reeling him back to safety.  Yet as both men understood, Jason had done this not to save Arnold, but to save Lauren from the pain of losing him.  When Lauren gave him that kiss it was simultaneously the most joyous and the most painful moment of his life.

      “Would you like something to drink, Jason?” Arnold asked from behind the bar.

      “Uh…sure,” Jason said, as Lauren returned to her seat.  Rachael had a giant smile on her face, and Lauren shot her a curious glance.

      “What’ll you have?” asked Arnold, attempting to stifle the awkwardness of the moment.

      Jason had no preferences.  “Whatever’s good.”

      “Everything’s good,” Arnold responded, his voice now betraying a hint of agitation.  “I spare no expense with my liquor collection.”

      “Maybe just some wine,” said Jason.  “Port, if you have it.”

      “Ah, good choice,” said Arnold, and opened one of the cabinets to take out one of the most expensive bottles of wine he had.  “Perfect for special occasions, and I believe this night qualifies.”

      Rachael sat down beside her mother, and motioned for Jason to take a seat next to her.  As Jason sat down, he asked, “What year is it?”

      Arnold smiled and examined the bottle.  “Well, look at that,” he said.  “5211211. Interesting year.”

      “That would make it eighty-four years old.  Wow,” said Jason.

      “Still a lot younger than us, though,” Rachael commented, “chronologically speaking.”

      As Arnold poured a glass of the thick red wine, the doorbell rang again.  “I’ll be right back,” he said, and made his way upstairs.

      Jason took a sip from his glass and was blown away.  He hadn’t tasted anything so fine for as long as he could remember. 

      He turned and noticed that Rachael was still smiling at him.  “I read your book,” she said.

      Jason nearly choked on the wine as he swallowed it.  This was the last thing he’d expected anyone to bring up.  He proceeded to cough for a moment, then managed to squeeze out a, “Did you?”

      Lauren looked away and took a sip from her white wine.  Rachael said, “I thought it was great.  It was much more emotional than dad’s book.  But don’t tell him I said that.”

      “Believe me,” said Jason, “I wasn’t planning on mentioning anything about books to your father.  I imagine he’s not too happy about some of the stuff I put in there.”

      “Oh, that’s just dad being dad,” Rachael said.  “I thought you did a great job of describing him.”

      Now Lauren spoke again, “Rachael, could we talk about something else?”

      Jason took a much larger sip of his wine in an effort to warm the chill that Lauren’s comment had just stirred in him.

      “What’s wrong, Lauren?” asked Rachael.  “He made you out to be some sort of perfect angel.”

      “Maybe Lauren’s right,” said Jason.  “I don’t think this is the best conversation to have right now.”

      “But I’ve been waiting for a year to ask you about it,” Rachael argued.  “It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever read.”

      Jason was caught between two conflicting emotions.  On the one hand he’d never received such a warm compliment on his writing, and on the other he didn’t want to make Lauren uncomfortable, which this conversation was clearly doing.

      “Thank you,” said Jason.  “Really, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that, but maybe we could talk about it some other time.  What if I give you my internet address and you write to me?”

      Rachael’s eyes widened with excitement.  “Great idea!” she said and immediately ran off to grab a pen and paper.

      As she did, Jason heard a familiar voice coming from the staircase.  “Mr. Floyd!” it called.  “Hello, hello, hello!  Is there anybody in there?”

      Jason stood up and moved to the bottom of the staircase, where the former Communications Officer for the Andromeda spaceship was making his way towards them.  “Jack Peskie,” said Jason, outstretching his hand.  “It’s damn good to see you.”

      “Good to see you too, buddy,” said Jack, ignoring Jason’s hand and giving him a hug.  “It’s been too long.”

      “Where have you been all this time?” asked Jason.

      “I’m a privateer, remember?” Jack answered.  “I got myself a spaceship and I’ve been flying all over the solar system, delivering cargo between the planets and space-stations.  If you don’t mind the people, it’s a pretty sweet job.”

      “That does sound like fun,” said Jason.  “How much did it cost to get your own spaceship?”

      “Not that much, actually.  I got mine for two hundred grand, but that’s on the expensive side.”

      Before Jason could respond, Arnold called from upstairs.  “Dinner’s ready.”

      “We can continue this conversation,” said Jack.  “First I’ve got to say hello to Lauren.”

      Lauren was already up, and she greeted Jack with a smile and a hug as Rachael returned with a piece of paper for Jason to scribble down his contact information. 

      Arnold’s chef had prepared a three-course meal for the family and their guests.  While they ate, Jack Peskie told them about his experiences as a privateer.

      “And I have an announcement to make as well,” said Jack.  “During one of my visits to Ring Station 4 I met another privateer named Rebecca.  Long story short, we fell in love and we’re getting married.”

      Jack received his congratulations from everyone.  Jason felt slightly depressed that he would now be the only original Andromeda astronaut to still be single.  Then he remembered that he was already the only Andromeda astronaut to be a virgin, and that was far more pathetic.

      “That’s wonderful, Jack,” said Arnold.  “And while we’re making announcements, I might as well explain why I invited the two of you here.”

      Jason took his final sip of wine and listened closely.  He noticed that Rachael was looking at him, but he gave all of his attention to Arnold.

      “It’s been over two years since the end of our mission,” he began.  “The first year back was, for all of us, a period of major adjustment.  It took the whole year to settle back into our lives, now in a completely different world than the one we left.  I married Lauren and wrote my book, and then I got my daughter back.  A few months later, my book was published and…well, you all know what happened there.  I had a whole new set of adjustments to make, and now we’re living like royalty.

      “But ever since we returned I’ve been feeling like there’s something missing from my life.  I couldn’t figure out what it was until recently.  I was watching the Galactic News Network one day, and I finally realised it.  My passion for exploration isn’t gone.  I know the four of us have travelled farther and seen more of the universe than anyone else has ever done, but now it’s like there’s more to see than ever before.  Back in the fourth millennium, humanity was localised to Earth and a few colonies on random planets here and there.  Now the entire galaxy is populated.  I want to see the distant cities and explore the distant landscapes.  I want to absorb the cultures of human beings who’ve lived for thousands of generations on entirely different worlds.

      “So I talked to my financial advisor to inquire about real-estate on other planets, and she told me that although I already have enough money to buy a house on just about every colonised planet, I didn’t have to lose money in the process if I would be willing to work while I was there.  The best thing for me to do would be to tour and speak about my experiences.  She got me in touch with a publicist who said this would be no problem, and people would be willing to pay top-dollar to hear me speak. So we set everything up, and next week Lauren and I are going to depart for Mars.  We’ll spend several months to a year there, where I’ll be giving lectures about once a week at different town-halls or universities, until we decide to move on to the next planet.  We can go just about anywhere we want.

      “Rachael is working in an administrative position at STAR, and she’s well on her way up the chain.  She’ll stay here while Lauren and I go off to explore this new world we’ve found ourselves in.  I invited you here tonight to say goodbye.”

      Arnold finished speaking, while Jack and Jason contemplated this.  It was a good plan.  Jason wished he could do something like that, but the money he received as payment for the Andromeda mission, and the small amount of royalties he received for his book were not enough to get him started on such a venture.  And if the sales of his book were any indication, it was probably a safe bet that most people wouldn’t be interested in hearing him give speeches anyway.

      But what struck Jason hardest was that Arnold was now officially taking Lauren away from him.  While it was true he hadn’t seen her in over a year, she had at least been rather close.  Now she wouldn’t even be on the same planet.  It was now virtually guaranteed that after tonight, he would never see her again.

      Jack Peskie spoke up.  “That’s great, Arnold. I’m really happy for you.”

      “Yeah,” Jason said, making an obvious effort to hide his true feelings.  “Yeah, that sounds really great.  You’re bound to learn a lot doing something like that, and I’m sure you’ll have a great time.”

      Lauren had been staring ahead the entire time, completely expressionless as she’d been so often in her pilot’s seat on the Andromeda, just staring into the void.  Now she looked at Arnold and gave him what appeared to be a forced smile.  Jason didn’t even try to interpret this.

      “Well,” said Arnold, “We all spent an entire year of our lives together, and it looks like this is going to be our last night.  What do you say we have a few drinks and reminisce for awhile?” 

      The rest of the night was spent in the game-room.  Rachael went to sleep, leaving only Arnold, Lauren, Jack and Jason. 

      Jack told everyone the story of how he met Rebecca, and his plans to marry her on Ring Station 1, as close to the sun as you can get, then set up a residence in California to be in the sun all the time.  Arnold described the house they would be staying at on Mars, and where he was thinking of going after that.  Lauren didn’t say much, and Jason also kept to himself.

      When he did speak, it was to remind everyone of their time together aboard the Andromeda.  “Remember Elliot?” he asked at one point, noticeably dampening the mood.

      “Of course,” said Arnold.  “Elliot Larken was a great man.  He sacrificed his life to save Lily.  She died anyway, but…well, of course we all remember Elliot.”

      “I wonder what he would be doing now if he’d survived the mission,” said Jason.  It was a thought he’d often had, but this was the first time he was able to share it.  “I mean, he just always seemed so out of place in life.  He was so lost after Sara’s death on Jupiter.  He went to Andromeda to try and escape it, but in the end the only escape for him was his own death.  What would he be doing now?”

      “I’m he’d be doing the same thing we’re doing,” said Arnold.  “Just trying to get adjusted and piece together a new life.”

      Jason realised that it had been a dumb question.  He had asked it for himself, because he was now feeling just as lost as Elliot had been when he’d known him.  Jason was silent now, a new darkness creeping into his soul.  It was clear that there was to be no “reminiscing” tonight.  It turned out that when they looked back on the experience, there really weren’t any pleasant memories of their mission to Andromeda.

      At the end of the night, Jason said his farewell to Jack, Arnold, and Lauren, and returned to his home.  Although he knew exactly where and when he was, he had never felt more lost. 
 

Chapter 2

12:00 a.m. February 28, 5211295, Eastern Time

Juciper Residence, 76 Glenn Drive, Florida, Earth 

      Arnold Juciper felt a significant buzz from the wine as he retired to the master bedroom for the night.  Lauren was waiting for him, and she sat up in bed while he slipped under the covers.  Apparently there was more to discuss before going to sleep.

      “Arnold,” said Lauren, “I’m still not sure about this.”

      “Not sure about what, honey?” asked Arnold, knowing exactly what she was talking about.

      “You know what I mean,” said Lauren.  “To go on a speaking tour for the rest of our lives?  I’m just not sure about it.”

      Arnold sighed heavily and sat up.  “Honey, we’ve been through this.  Why do you keep bringing it up?”

      “Because I like our life here,” she said.  “I’ve never actually looked at my life before and thought that it couldn’t be better.  Up until these past few years, it’s all been shit.  But living here with you has been like a dream.  When I was young I never expected to live such a happy, comfortable life, but now I’ve got one.  And as soon as it starts you want to just leave it behind.”

      Arnold just nodded and waited for her to continue speaking.  When it was clear that she was finished, he said, “What makes you think we can’t be happy living somewhere else?  Is it me you love, or this house?”

      Lauren took offence to the question.  “Of course it’s you, Arnold.  I’d be happy living in a cardboard box as long as you were with me, but…”

      “Then what’s the problem?” Arnold asked, in a tone far harsher than he’d intended.  He was tired of this argument, and he had considered the matter settled.

      “Arnold,” Lauren said, not masking the offence she felt, “I just told you the problem.  I really like it here.  We’ve been farther away from Earth than anyone has ever gone.  Now that we’re back I want to stay here.”

      Arnold was in no mood for a debate, so he simply said, “I love you.”

      Lauren looked into her husband’s eyes.  “I love you too, Arnold, but…”

      “Come here,” he interrupted, and put his arm around her waist, stroking her hair with his other hand.  If his wife would not respond to reason he would just have to appeal to her emotions.  “I don’t want you to be upset by this.  This is a dream of mine.  I think you’re just nervous, but once we get settled into the lifestyle I’m sure it will grow on you.”

      Lauren knew she was beaten.  She couldn’t win an argument with her husband once he’d ceased to argue.  Now he was acting as though it was her decision, and he was requesting her permission.  As his hand moved from her hair to her shoulders, and finally down to her leg, she resigned herself to the defeat.  She only had one thing left to ask, “What if I don’t get settled?”

      Realising he’d won, Arnold leaned over and gently kissed her on the ear.  “If you’re not happy, I promise we’ll move right back here, okay?”

      Lauren turned to look him in the eyes and smile.  “You promise?”

      Arnold was reminded again of how beautiful her eyes were, and how powerful they could be when accompanied by a smile.  “I promise,” he said.

      Lauren leaned over and they shared a passionate kiss.  As he tasted the texture of her teeth and tongue with his mouth, Arnold brought his hand under her nightgown and felt his way to her chest.  Lauren spread her legs and he rolled on top of her.  Not a word was said for the rest of the night as they made love in silence, and planted the seed. 

      When Jason Floyd returned to his home that night, he went immediately to his computer and opened the document he had been working on.  He scanned the first few paragraphs of what he had already written, but then pushed himself away as a deep frustration set in.  Those words had sounded so good when he wrote them a few nights earlier, but revisiting them he realised just how far short they fell of doing any justice to the idea he had been trying to convey.

      He sat in silence for awhile as he often did, just contemplating his life’s complete lack of direction.  As an Andromeda astronaut, he had helped bring about one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, but all of that pride had long since been washed away by the world’s indifference.  For the first few months after his return, he had felt good about his life.  He had done something incredible and journeyed to the next galaxy—something that was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams back in the fourth millennium.  But as time went on, and people who had once been caught up in the excitement of living during the return of the Andromeda mission began to lose interest, Jason sunk once again into the feelings of worthlessness that had plagued him all his life.

      He, Jack Peskie, and the Jucipers had done something amazing, but in the end the journey was pointless.  Travelling to the next galaxy had not paved the way for further exploration and human growth—humanity was now completely stagnant.  After the first two missions, STAR never sent another ship to Andromeda, even with five million years in which to do so.  When Jason had inquired about why this was, the only answer he received was that the journey was just too far to be of any practical value.  Although STAR could instantaneously communicate across the distance (this technology had existed even in the fourth millennium) it seemed that they were worried a new branch of STAR that would take two million years to reach by spaceship might as well be a separate entity, and they would no longer have complete control.  As long as all of humanity remained within the Milky-Way, order could be maintained indefinitely.

      And so Jason’s services were no longer required by STAR, and his friends from the mission slowly drifted away.  Jack disappeared into his privateer life, and the calls from the Jucipers stopped coming so frequently.  His life, once again, had become completely worthless.

      So Jason took to writing, thinking that perhaps he could succeed as an author.  In addition to his journals, Jason had been writing a book about the events that took place on the Andromeda even while the mission was taking place.  But when he submitted this for publication, he was told it was too personal—that it needed a more universal appeal.  So he re-wrote the story in the 3rd person and included sections regarding the origins of the mission.  Instead of exclusively telling the story from his own point of view, he described what he imagined had been going on inside the minds of the other astronauts as well.  Finally, he wrote many self-referential passages, degrading his own writing as an attempt to make the readers look beyond his poor language skills and focus on the story itself.  This new version was rejected by most publishers, but eventually he found one willing to print it.

      That had been one year ago, and in the year that followed Jason made several attempts at writing a second book.  He wanted to tell the story of Elliot Larken, whom Jason had befriended on the mission and grew to strongly admire.  He conducted extensive research into the STAR Corporation of the 3400s.  He learned all about Elliot’s involvement in the first manned missions exploring Jupiter’s core, and thought it would be easy to write a book about the fascinating events that surrounded these missions.  How it was discovered that Jupiter had a solid core, the first mission to this core which resulted in the death of every astronaut but Elliot, as well as Elliot’s relationship to a woman named Sara and her tragic death on the first colonisation mission.  He had it all planned out, but after writing only a small portion he realised that there was no point to the story other than describing the events that took place.  There was nothing deep or universal about it.

      So he did further research in an attempt to find another story that could possibly contain enough inherent meaning for him to write a book.  He was particularly fascinated by the life of Ian Landon, who had been bumped off the crew of the original Andromeda mission due to a terminal heart condition that was sensitive to use of the time-scale.  After serving as a communications man aboard the Zeus cargo ship for several years, Landon had volunteered for a mission that became available when STAR developed a new, temperature-proof type of metal.  Landon agreed to go on a suicide-mission to the core of the sun, the data from which yielded more information about the inner workings of stars in a few minutes than the previous hundreds of years of research had done.

      Jason also found that the pilot of the Zeus cargo ship, Danny Armen, had led a rather fascinating life as well.  After saving enough money from his job as a cargo pilot, Armen retired and bought himself a ship which he named the Patriot and became one of the solar system’s first privateers.  He participated in a race around the galaxy which lasted over one million years of normal time, and was sabotaged by a pirate named Austin Greene who destroyed every other ship in an attempt to secure the victory for himself.  But the other privateer ships were also equipped with weapons systems, and Armen united them in a battle against Greene which resulted in the destruction of Greene and every other ship but his own, the Patriot.  He then proceeded to finish the race by himself and become the first man to circumnavigate the Milky-Way.

      But perhaps the most incredible story was that of Joe Cayman, a space-taxi driver who mysteriously disappeared from the solar system shortly after the Andromeda’s departure.  There was much contention about the actual story, but many believed that he was trying to escape from an extra-terrestrial species that had been abducting him all his life.  One night they came for him while he was sleeping in his space-taxi, and he refused to be abducted. He engaged his time-scale to blast away from the solar system, where he was pursued until crash-landing on a distant moon.  By unbelievable coincidence, this was the moon of a planet inhabited by another extra-terrestrial species on the fourth planet from Altair, who were defending themselves in a military struggle with the species that had been abducting Cayman.  Apparently this species, which originated from Deneb, had been spreading throughout the galaxy for millennia and studying more primitive forms of life.

      Thousands of years later, the Denebites would attack human civilization when it had expanded far enough to be seen as a threat.  The struggle with the Altairites, who were far less advanced than humanity, was merely for territory.  But once Cayman was able to impart his knowledge of interstellar travel and nuclear weapons manufacturing to the Altairites, he led them in a campaign to strike the Denebites in their own system.  The unexpected attack devastated the Denebites, who fled to the Vega system and spent centuries recovering, which gave humanity an advantage it would not even know about for almost three thousand years, as Cayman himself was abducted by the Denebites and eliminated while attempting to return to the Solar System.

      But by the time the Denebites attacked human civilization, it had already expanded too far, and had come into contact with another intelligent species—a civilization from the Procyon system calling themselves the Bahzrans—and with their help they were able to extinguish the Denebites from the Milky-Way completely.  It wasn’t until after this conflict that the Altairites were discovered and the story of Joe Cayman was finally learned.

      Jason attempted to write books about all of these stories, but he couldn’t make any of them work.  There was just no deeper meaning behind them, and therefore he had no inspiration.  Without inspiration, Jason could not devote himself to a project.  He just fell into a routine of shopping, eating, reading, watching the news, and sleeping.  His life had become just as empty as it had been before the Andromeda mission.  He had no direction, and no purpose.

      Jason breathed a heavy sigh and tried to shake himself out of this dismal stream of consciousness.  He turned back to his computer and read over what he had written one more time: 

What is this universe, and what is this awareness of it?  What is this body, with these eyes through which the universe is experienced?  What is this mind, this chemical process that generates awareness yet fails to understand it?  What is life, and why does it have a beginning and ending?  What is time, and why does it flow in only one direction?  What are the forces which move the universe, and are they unchangeable?  What is the world, this object of awareness that itself is unaware?  What is human life, this shallow experience of so deep an existence?  What is existence, and did conscious will create it?

      What is my existence, and did my conscious will create it?  This awareness—this mind in this body—has seen much of the universe.  It has experienced much time, much of the forces that bring order to chaos, and yet it remains ever on the surface of the infinitely deep sea upon which it sails.  What is this ocean, what is the I that sails upon it, and can it dive deeper?

      What are these others, these subjects of awareness not my own?  What is the freedom we have, and what are the forces that limit it?  What are the powers that control us, these systems that shape our behaviour?  What powers do they have over our awareness, and how do they influence our thoughts?  What are these values they create?  Why is one thing important and another trivial—why is one thing right and another wrong?  What are these forces that shape our existence, and did our conscious will create them?

      What is experience, and what are these others who experience?  These others—these minds who share my universe—are foreign to me.  Once a stranger in my own world, I am now a stranger in a new world.  My values, shaped by a religion obsolete in my own time, now cripple me further in a time devoid of any values.  What are these forces that make me detestable to others and detestable to myself?

      What are these unquenchable desires that consume my awareness?  What is this need for purpose?  Why must a thing have meaning to be appreciated?  What is this mystery that demands to be solved yet has no solution?  Why are there infinite questions but no certain answers?

      What is Love?  Why is its existence unique among all that exists?  How does it bring meaning to meaninglessness?  How does it cause both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows?  Why is it so large while its objects are so small?

      What is this force and why is it the most valuable in my awareness?  This love—this force within me—has been the core motivation for my every action.  It has shaped the world without by shaping the world within.  It is the most valued of all experiences, its existence the most important of all that exists, and yet its object is so simple.  Always a woman. Always out of reach.  What is this deepest of desires, and did my conscious will create it?

      What is understanding, and will it always elude me? 

This is utter crap, thought Jason, and he immediately closed the document and deleted it from his computer’s hard drive.

      He needed to get his mind on something else.  He opened his web browser and logged into his webmail account with the intention of reading the newsletters he received regarding topics of his personal interest, but was greeted for the first time in months by a personal webmail.  It was from Rachael, who had apparently written him before going to sleep that night.  He opened the file and read: 

Dear Jason,

It was great seeing you this evening.  I always enjoyed your visits before my dad decided he didn’t want you to come by anymore.  I don’t know what his problem is with your book.  I think he was just upset that you wrote what he was thinking, because he told me you got his personality all wrong.  But I don’t think you made him out to be so bad, and I like how you tell the story from other people’s points of view besides yours. 

I was amazed by how you wrote me, especially in the chapter when my dad left and I realised I could go after him if there was another mission but didn’t say anything to him.  You were so accurate about what happened it was kind of scary.

I was looking forward to asking you about it, but I guess it made Lauren uncomfortable so we couldn’t really talk about it tonight.  But they’re moving next week anyway so if you want to come over and we could talk or something that would be really cool.

Don’t let Lauren get you down.  I could tell you still love her and you were probably upset that she was acting so cold around you, but I think that mostly has to do with my dad.  She told me she thinks you’re a good guy, but she just doesn’t know how to act around you when it’s obvious that you love her.  After she read your book she got scared by your description of your intense emotions.  She doesn’t understand how you could have loved her so much when you didn’t even really know her.

But anyway, I’ve got to go to sleep now because I have work in the morning.  Write back soon.

Love, Rachael 

      Jason was unsure how to feel about this.  He was very flattered that Rachael actually enjoyed his book and appreciated the way he wrote it.  But now he had complete confirmation that Lauren was uncomfortable with him, and the book had ruined any chance of friendship he had left with her.  She didn’t understand how he could love her without knowing her?  Neither did he!  That was why it was so frustrating!

      But in any case, Jason was now confronted with the harsh reality that his life was not working out very well and he had to find a new direction.  He knew he had to leave, but he had no idea where he would go—it just had to be anywhere but here.  But where was the here from which he had to escape?  This house?  This town?  This planet?  This time-period?  This galaxy?

      He thought about Jack’s stories from his experience as a privateer, and thought that this was perhaps the right path for him as well.  But spaceships were surprisingly expensive and STAR had paid him surprisingly little upon his return from the Andromeda mission.  He had been given enough to buy a home and a vehicle, and still live comfortably for about a year without working, but not enough to make buying a spaceship a casual purchase.  Jason could afford a decent ship and have nothing left over, or he could sell his house and buy a top-of-the-line ship which would also serve as his permanent residence.  If Jason decided to be a privateer, he would want the best ship available, but there was something unsettling in the thought that a spaceship would be his only residence.  He had lived on a spaceship for a year and had almost gone insane—and that was with other people.  Jason wasn’t sure his mind could handle living out the rest of his life on a spaceship, especially when he would be alone.

      But he also suspected that he might actually do better in isolation.  In spite of his loneliness, Jason had always been more comfortable alone.  The presence of others forced him to think about their perceptions—and he had always felt that others saw him as strange or inferior.  This same phenomenon had crippled Jason when it came to matters of love.  Jason desired nothing more than the love of a woman, but he was so convinced of his undesirability that he never made more than a symbolic attempt to form a relationship.  He would merely focus on one unattainable object, as he had with Lauren, and never act on his desire out of the fear what might happen if the desire were actually fulfilled.

      This naturally left Jason in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with life.  The two things that mattered most to him—love a sense of purpose—were the two things he could never seem to have.  They had been dangled in front of him during the Andromeda mission, with Lauren never more than a hundred metres away and the mission itself providing him with a meaningful objective, but nothing came of it.  He had failed to form so much as a lasting friendship with Lauren, and their mission had actually turned out to be inconsequential.

      But the decision was simple enough—Jason could either stay where he was for another year and simply deal with the ever-present feeling of emptiness, or try something different.  The best option appeared to be a career as a privateer.  With such a lifestyle, at least there would always be something new, and he would always be moving to accomplish one goal or another.  He would also be able to get a good feel for how humanity worked in this time period, and perhaps learn some valuable things about life in general.  Jason may not have thought much of his life…but life itself and its relationship to the universe fascinated him more than anything.

      Jason understood that he had an opportunity that few others in history could ever have: to observe a period of time from the perspective of a time-period that had long since passed.  Yet this period was so outwardly similar to that which he was from that there was no sense of wonder when he looked at the whole scheme of things.  It was just humanity acting as it had in his time, only spread throughout the galaxy and controlled by STAR.  But this was only the impression he’d gathered from living on Earth and watching the news—perhaps a privateer’s perspective would show him what had really changed in the last five million years.

      At this thought, Jason made up his mind.  The very next day he would take a space-taxi to a dealership and purchase a spaceship.  As he forced himself to sleep that night, his confidence in this plan grew steadily, and he contemplated all of the potential adventures that might be in store for him.  He might even learn something meaningful enough for him to finally write another book. 
 

Chapter 3

22:00 March 19, 5211297, Universal Time

Ring Station 7, Saturn System 

      The indescribable beauty of the ringed planet outside the space station’s window had no effect on Jason Floyd, as he had already seen it over fifty times this year.  For the past several months he’d been working on a contract with Ring Station 7 to deliver construction materials from the Clarke base on Io which the station would use to build an extension.  Although it was a lucrative contract, Jason couldn’t imagine doing anything more boring or meaningless.  Several years ago he’d been floating outside a spaceship in the Andromeda galaxy, and now he was delivering raw materials back and forth between space stations.

      Jason found it more than somewhat bewildering that humans were still concerning themselves with such mundane, meaningless tasks.  After five million years, Jason had assumed technology would have advanced to the point where raw materials could simply be synthesized from hydrogen atoms or teleported across the galaxy with the press of a button.  And yet small ships were still moving cargo around within individual solar systems, drudging along at the stellar “speed-limit” of a one minute per second time-scale.

      Normally, once Jason had docked with the station, his only responsibility was to wait while the workers unloaded his cargo hold, but this time he had a request from the director of the station to see him immediately after docking.  The message had come only moments before docking, and Jason was caught completely off-guard.  He had not spoken to the director in person since he’d accepted the job.   He was also extremely tired, as he’d been up for over seventeen hours waiting for docking clearance.

      Nevertheless, he couldn’t refuse.  It was in his contract that he was at the total mercy of Ring Station 7’s director.  He had to be on call at every moment, ready to wake up in the middle of a deep sleep to answer a call, or fly to Ring 7 and personally meet with him should the request be made.  He’d already been bothered repeatedly in this fashion, usually when his shipment was running behind schedule.  But this time the director had waited for him to dock, and now wanted to see him personally.  Jason was only sure of one thing: this was not good news.

      The director’s office was close to the docking bay, and Jason made it there in three minutes, wishing intensely that he could just check into a guest room and go to sleep while the workers unloaded his ship.  But he forced himself to a state of alertness and entered the door.  The director was busy pummelling his computer’s keyboard so quickly that Jason suspected he wasn’t really typing anything but just randomly hitting keys in order to make himself appear busy.

      “Ah, Mr. Floyd,” the director said while continuing to type furiously.  “I am glad that you could make it.  Please have a seat.”

      Jason looked around the small office and found that the only seat besides the director’s was a small metal chair on the wall opposite the desk.  He sat down and sighed heavily, as he already had a good idea as to what was about to come.

      For the next few moments, the room was silent except for the sound of typing.  The director pounded away at his keyboard, not even stopping for an instant.  It occurred to Jason how bizarre it was that after five million years, humans were still using such a primitive device as the keyboard.

      Suddenly the typing stopped and the director spoke.  This happened so swiftly that it seemed as though there was no transition between the typing and the speaking.  “Mr. Floyd, would you mind telling me why your shipment is three days late?”

      Jason sighed again and proceeded to explain.  “Aside from the day I lost here just waiting for docking clearance, I also lost two days at Io waiting for them to put the shipment together.  Apparently Ring Station 4 required the same materials and their order took precedence.”

      The director didn’t seem to hear him.  “This is the third time you have been late, Floyd.”

      “Delays are normal, sir.  When the people at the base tell me to wait, what am I supposed to do but wait?”

      “I am not paying you to wait.  We have dead-lines, Floyd.  If I do not have this extension built by the time it is needed, what am I supposed to tell Brian Davis?  ‘I am sorry, but delays are normal’?  No, Mr. Floyd, it does not work like that.  I do whatever I have to do to make sure work on this station is done on time and I do not tolerate being told to wait.”

      “I understand that, sir, but…”

      “…do not say, ‘but’ to me, Floyd!” the director yelled.  “You may think that because you are a celebrity that you have a right to be irresponsible, but you are mistaken.  I called you here to let you know that I am terminating your contract.”

      “What!?” Jason yelled.  While he knew this was imminently possible he’d never expected it to happen.

      “You heard me, Floyd.  Your contract is terminated.  You are no longer needed to make any deliveries.  I have already given the job to another privateer.”

      Jason was dumbfounded.  He was almost too tired to process this information.  “Sir, how can you do that?  I haven’t violated the contract.”

      “Your contract includes a detailed schedule of delivery dates, which you have not met.  Three times you have delivered your cargo on a date not specified in the contract.  Therefore you have violated the agreement and I am free to terminate it.  I have been extremely patient with you up until this point but I can no longer afford to tolerate your incompetence.”

      “Incompetence?  I’ve been doing the job as you asked!  Couldn’t you just call the people at Io at ask them about it?  There was really nothing I could do!”

      “You could have called me!” the director yelled.  “Do you think I could not have worked out an arrangement that would have allowed you to deliver your shipment on time?  Of course not.  Why would you want to return on time when you could spend two days on Io with no work to do?”

      Jason didn’t respond for a moment.  There was some truth in the director’s accusation and he knew it.  Still, it was ridiculous that he was being fired over such a triviality.  Nevertheless he knew he had no choice but to accept it.  “What about payment?” Jason asked.

      “You will receive one thousand for each delivery you have already completed, with a deduction of half for those shipments which were late.  Of course you will not be paid for the shipments you have not yet made and there will be no lump payment for completion.”

      Jason winced.  Had everything gone according to plan, he would have received 50,000 for ten months of work.  Now, for seven month’s work he was only going to receive about 15,000.  The injustice was immense, but Jason couldn’t argue.  In the three years he’d been living in this time period he had never won an argument with anyone.  The people of the time were all, seemingly without exception, stubborn, rude, and arrogant.  They were always right and could not be convinced otherwise, especially by Jason.  After all, he was a naïve relic of the past.  These people were the product of millions of extra years of human experience and evolution.  How could he know better than them?

      “If you have nothing else to say would you mind leaving my office?” the director said.  “I am a busy man.  The amount of work I do in a day would most likely kill someone like you.”

      Jason nodded and left in silence, suppressing the overwhelming urge he had to leap across the desk and repeatedly punch the director in his smug, superior face. 

      The next day Jason was back aboard his ship, the Comfortably Numb, once again heading in no particular direction.  He sat in the pilot’s seat staring at the window and listening to a Pink Floyd album, contemplating what he should do next.

      He knew that there were other jobs out there.  Every space station in the galaxy offered contracts with privateers, but every contract was equally inflexible and difficult to meet perfectly.  And everyone demanded perfection.  Jason was sick of dealing with the people and of trapping himself in these long, extremely restricting endeavours.  He had become a privateer for the freedom to explore the galaxy, when in reality all it provided him with was new ways to get stuck and new places to get sick of.

      He thought about Jack and how wonderful it would be if he could also meet a woman, fall in love and get married.  Maybe even have children and raise a family.  To live surrounded by loved ones, never lonely, always having someone close by who actually cared about him.  It was such a simple thing, something that the vast majority of human beings were able to take for granted, but for him it was an impossible dream.  Jason always found it difficult to talk to women, and the women of this time period were even less approachable than they were in his own.

      So he resigned himself to living alone for the duration of his life.  Lauren was gone, hopping from planet to planet with Arnold.  She was the only person his heart had ever truly belonged to, and he would never see her again.  He still loved her, but his emotions had long since gone stale.  He rarely even thought about her anymore, only occasionally reminded by a dream of being back on the Andromeda and trying to talk to her while she ignored him.  He had this dream less frequently every year, but it continued to haunt him and paralyse him with emotion for a good deal of time after waking.  He’d spend countless hours lying awake in bed after dreaming of Lauren, wondering how she was and if he would ever see her again.

      What Jason really wanted was to explore the universe and learn everything he could about how it worked.  He dreamt of flying through a stellar nebula or some other wonder of the cosmos.  The galaxy was filled with all sorts of incredible phenomena, but he only ever saw the same rocks and space stations over and over again.  Though all star systems were controlled by STAR, there was very little travelling between them, as interstellar journeys required the use of high time-scale rates, and people did not want to age slower than their friends and families.  As a result, there were no jobs available which would take Jason the kind of distances he really wanted to travel. 

      But there was another option for Jason to consider, and it had been in the back of his mind ever since he’d learned of the possibility.  One of the only major advances that STAR had made while the Andromeda was gone was the discovery of a system of propulsion which allowed for an unlimited time-scale.  With the technology developed by Arthur Romband only about a century before Jason was born, the maximum speed any ship could travel was at a rate just below 100 days per second.  Now there existed a technology that abolished all such limits.  Ships could fly at centuries, millennia, even millions of years per second.  Andromeda could be reached in the blink of an eye, and beyond that the rest of the unknown, unexplored universe.  The system which made this possible was called Infinite-Capacity Thrust, or ICT.

      ICT was highly-guarded technology that only STAR Security ships were equipped with.  It was illegal for civilian ships to possess the technology, thus making the galactic speed limit 100 days per second by default.  Civilians could cross the galaxy in months at the fastest, while ships under STAR’s control could be anywhere in seconds, though the same amount of normal time would pass either way.  Although Jason was a civilian, he did not think it would be much trouble for STAR to install ICT onto his ship and let him leave the galaxy, so he was constantly entertaining this idea.

      But the thought of equipping the Comfortably Numb with ICT and blasting away to the far corners of the universe was also rather terrifying.  With just the flick of a switch he could be billions of light-years away from the Milky-Way and billions of years in the future.  And then there could be no going back.  If he were to do such a thing he would sentence himself to a life of complete, irrevocable solitude, and he could not be sure he would ever be able to bring himself to actually do that.  As much as he was already living in isolation, there was still a minuscule amount of hope that kept him going.  Just because he had always been alone did not mean that he would always be alone.

      But he also knew that unless he really worked towards making something happen, there was no way anything would.  A loving family was not just going to materialise around him one day without warning.  He would actually have to go out and attempt to build a relationship from scratch.  And with absolutely no experience in doing such things, coupled with the fact that he neither understood nor cared for any of the people he’d met in this time period, this seemed an impossible task.

      Upon having this thought for the millionth time since becoming a privateer, Jason pounded on the control board in anger and let out a frustrated yell.  He was sick and tired of this.  Was this going to be the way he spent the rest of his life?  A bitter, lonely privateer, wasting away in his spaceship while delivering scrap metal from point A to point B?  No, it was clear that he could never be satisfied with such an existence.  When he got right down to it, there were only three options: attempt to outfit his ship with ICT, sell his ship and get a planetary-based job, or kill himself.

      The only one of those options that Jason had any interest in was the first.  He would never deliberately end his own life.  Though he would welcome death if it came to him, he would not cheat his way out of life by ending it of his own volition.  Getting a job on Earth and remaining grounded for the rest of his life, on the other hand, seemed like a fate worse than death.

      And so he was left with only one option, and as terrifying as it was he finally resolved to take it.  He had altered his life many times already, but things somehow managed to remain the same through everything.  Before and after the Andromeda mission, on Earth or in space, he was still completely alone and isolated, a perpetually unimportant and useless individual.  The universe was incomprehensibly big, and Jason was incomprehensibly small and insignificant by comparison.  Why he existed at all, he did not know, but he knew his existence was inconsequential.  The universe would keep on expanding whether he was a part of it or not.

      But he was a part of it, and that was an unalterable fact.  He could not change the universe and he could not change himself.  He would be alone and unimportant forever, so why not accept total isolation and see as much of the universe as possible?  Nobody would miss him, and there was nobody that was his to miss.  Why not just remove himself from the rest of humanity and become one with the cosmos?  Exist for ages and travel farther than anyone had ever dreamed?  Maybe even discover something out there which could explain everything and make him understand why he existed in the first place…

      And so he made his decision.  He would obtain ICT and blast himself away forever.  The only thing he had to do now was obtain permission from the head of the STAR Corporation.  So Jason set a course for Earth and called in to STAR Headquarters to make an appointment with C.E.O. Brian Davis, the most powerful man in the galaxy. 
 

Chapter 4

11:00 a.m. March 22, 5211297 Eastern Time

STAR Corporation Headquarters, Florida, Earth 

      It wasn’t long after the departure of the Andromeda spaceship that the STAR Corporation became humanity’s dominant ruling power, exceeding even the government of Earth in its influence.  This transition came about naturally; those in control of the company did nothing to overtly take power, but merely to keep the power it had already acquired.  In the mid-fourth millennium, STAR had already controlled all space-faring traffic as well as every colony on the moons and other planets of the solar system.  Once these colonies grew in size and number, and humans residing off of Earth began to outnumber those living on it, STAR’s influence over the human race was already technically greater than the actual democratically elected government of Earth, in which extra-planetary colonies had little or no representation.

      Initially, STAR helped to establish independent governments for each of its colonies.  For instance, it created the United Martian Colonies, or UMC, to oversee the internal affairs of each colony on Mars.  The UMC did not have to answer to Earth’s government at all.  Its leaders were either elected by the Martian citizens from a list of candidates selected by STAR.  While the UMC cooperated with the government of Earth, most of this cooperation was done through STAR, as the only thing Martian colonies needed from Earth were natural resources, and the deliveries and distribution of these resources was STAR’s responsibility.

      However, while kinds of independent governments had an outward appearance of sovereignty, it was no secret that they were completely dependent on the STAR Corporation, and thus subordinates to it.  A colony’s government could not act against the company’s will, or it would be threatened with a cut-off of supply shipments, which were absolutely essential to the life of any colony.

      In the early stages of this massive power shift, those who had noticed what was going on were terrified of the implications and many efforts were made to try and stop it.  The UMC attempted to set up its own trade organisation to bring resources from Earth without any involvement on the part of STAR.  But this was to no avail, as the UMC was a creation of STAR and therefore could make no official decision without the corporation’s approval.  The proposal for a government-run trade organisation was immediately vetoed with extreme prejudice.

      Several independent companies were also established in an effort to rival the power of STAR, but these were crushed rather easily as they had to start from scratch, whereas STAR had centuries of experience which made them by far the best choice for all interplanetary deliveries.  Smaller companies were invariably swallowed by the corporation before ever having a chance to grow independently.

      The final attempt at opposition came from the Earth government itself, where the president and many members of congress were worried about the ensuing transfer of all power into the hands of one corporation which was not accountable to the public.  A bill was brought before congress which would transfer jurisdiction over the shipping of natural resources from the STAR Corporation to the hands of the individual governments of the colonies.  Had the bill passed, the structure of society in the galaxy may have evolved quite differently.

      But it was too little too late, as STAR was already far too powerful to allow a bill of such magnitude to be passed.  The company used every resource at its disposal to keep the bill from passing, bribing some politicians and blackmailing others.  During the hearings, they had a slew of congressmen making statements about how such a bill, were it to be passed, would result in nothing less than the worst catastrophe known to man, with countless separate sovereign governments all vying for their own resources with complete disregard for the needs of other colonies.  This of course would mean the complete breakdown of the unity of humanity achieved by Jon Clark at the beginning of the fourth millennium.  It could even lead to civil war and the deaths of billions of innocent people.  On the other hand, with STAR in complete control, it would see to it that resources were distributed fairly and only according to the colonies’ needs, as well as serve as the unifying force which would bind humanity together in peace for as long as it existed.

      The bill was beaten by a wide margin, and there were no further challenges to the absolute authority of the STAR Corporation.  Throughout the generations, people forgot that there ever was any opposition or that there even could be.  As far as the average person was now concerned, STAR had always existed, had always been in complete control of humanity, and would continue to do so forever.  Only the ancient history books suggested otherwise.  Most people in the year five million would say that STAR and humankind were practically one and the same.  One could not exist without the other.

      For the most part, STAR’s presence in people’s daily lives came through its security program.  STAR Security served as police and military force throughout the Milky-Way.  Each planet or colony had its own internally-run branch of STAR Security, but all were directly accountable to STAR Headquarters on Earth.  STAR Security was the unassailable muscle of the corporation, stretching from one end of the galaxy to the other and employing more people than any other organisation.

      But in spite of its extreme power, STAR did not rule like a tyrannical dictator, and most people were quite satisfied with the way the company carried out its business, leaving each star system to function more or less on its own.  Most people’s grievances were small, directed only at their local governments and not at the system as a whole.  People did not see the company as a tyrant because STAR was not an individual person but an entity composed of trillions of people—everybody knew somebody who worked for STAR.  While there was no doubt that the C.E.O. of the corporation was always by default the most powerful person in the galaxy, the person occupying that position changed with such frequency that people were scarcely even aware of who was running the company at any given time.

      However, most people in the galaxy knew who Brian Davis was, as he had been the C.E.O. at the time of the conclusion of the Andromeda mission, the most famous mission of exploration in human history.  From the outer edges of the Milky-Way to its core, nearly ever human being alive had been watching on the day the ship splashed down in the waters off the coast of the Florida peninsula and Brian Davis gave the welcome home ceremony to Arnold Juciper and the rest of the crew.  Instantaneously, Davis became the most well-known C.E.O. since STAR’s defeat of the Denebite invasion millions of years prior.

      And this was the only reason that Davis granted an appointment with Jason Floyd, as he was not the kind of man who would normally occupy his time with civilians.  Though his popularity was not important to him, Davis knew it would simply be easier to grant Floyd an appointment than deal with the negative press he might receive for refusing to meet with a celebrated Andromeda astronaut.

      Jason Floyd entered Davis’s office and took the seat on the opposite side of his desk.  He could not help but feel intimidated, as he was aware of the frightening amount of power that the C.E.O. possessed.  If he was anything like the others of his time period, Jason was afraid of what might happen if he were to make Davis angry.

      “So, Mr. Floyd,” Davis began, “what brings you here today?”  He was using his mock-friendly tone, the same one Jason had heard on board the Andromeda when the ship crossed back into the solar system and re-established contact with STAR.  That tone had disappeared completely when he had ordered the ship to splash down in the ocean instead of granting Arnold Juciper’s request to have workers from Ring Station 4 escort them out of their damaged ship and into the space station.  It became clear at that moment that this man was not someone who could be argued with.  When he made up his mind about something, there was no force in the universe great enough to change it.

      “I just have a simple little request, sir,” said Jason, trying not to let his intimidation show.

      Davis’s eyes already betrayed a degree of impatience, though the thin smile on his face did not falter.  “Yes?”

      “I’ve been working as a privateer now for a couple of years…” Jason began.

      “Yes, I hear that is what many of you Andromeda astronauts are doing,” Davis cut in.   

      Jason was suddenly reminded of the Andromeda II, which had brought Rachael and twelve other people from the 3420s to this time period.  This meant there were twelve others out there who might be in the same position as himself, trying to adjust to this world….

      “Mr. Floyd,” said Davis.  “You were saying?”

      “Oh yes, sorry.”  Jason tried to collect his thoughts once again.  “As I was saying, I’ve been working as a privateer for awhile now, and….well….it’s hard to explain.  But let’s just say I don’t um…I don’t really think I belong here.”

      The smile on Davis’s face was replaced by a look of confusion.  “You do not belong here?  Where?  What?”

      “In this time period, sir,” Jason clarified.  “Everything is…different.  I seem to be incompatible with it.  I can’t seem to make any friends or connect with anybody.  I’m completely isolated and I see no reason to stay.”

      Now Davis was beginning to show his aggravation.  “You are not planning to commit suicide here in my office, are you, Floyd?”

      Jason laughed out of sheer nervousness.  “No, of course not, sir.  That’s not what I’m saying at all.  I’m just saying I’d like to leave.  Not by death…by spaceship.”

      Davis breathed a heavy sigh.  “So what is stopping you?  Go.  Blast yourself away and never come back for all I care.  Why bother me about this?”

      “Well, I’m not going to get very far in my ship,” Jason said, then took a deep breath and finally got to the point.  “All it has is the standard interstellar drive.”

      There was silence now.  Davis no longer made any effort to mask his true feelings.  With an unmistakable look of irritation, he stared at Floyd as though he’d just been asked to give up his position as C.E.O. and become an asteroid miner.

      Jason got the feeling that that Davis was waiting for him to break the silence.  “So…”

      “…so you want me to allow you to equip your ship with Infinite-Capacity Thrust,” Davis interrupted.  “Well the answer is no.  Thank you for wasting my time.  Good-bye.”

      “But why?” asked Jason, not ready to be defeated so easily.  “I understand why you don’t equip normal ships with them.  People could just disappear forever if they press the wrong button.  But the case with me is different.  I actually want to disappear.”

      Davis was clearly aggravated that Jason had dared to question him once he’d made his decision.  “Mr. Floyd, you do not just march in here and demand that I equip your ship with the most priceless technology that STAR possesses.”

      “I’m not demanding anything.  And I can pay for it.”  This was true.  As incredible as the ICT system was, it was fairly inexpensive to produce.

      “This is not about money,” Davis said.  “ICT means power.  Do you want to know the real reason we do not allow civilian ships to have it?  It has nothing to do with worrying about people accidentally blasting themselves to the edge of the universe.  That is no concern of ours.  We are concerned about power—the power that allows us to keep things running exactly as they have in this galaxy for millions of years, which is why we only install the system in our top-level security ships.  Nobody else has the system, so nobody can outrun STAR Security.  Think about it.  If everyone could just blast billions of light-years away in the blink of an eye, it would not be too difficult to carry out a massive terrorist attack and disappear forever, never to be brought to justice.  That is a possibility we simply can not allow.”

      This hadn’t even occurred to Jason, but it made perfect sense.  It was also incredibly frightening.  Even so, he still wasn’t ready to give up so easily.  “I’m not going to carry out any terrorist attacks, sir.”

      “And am I supposed to take your word for it?  You said yourself you do not think you belong here.  How do I know you are not going to try something radical before you go?”  Another thought suddenly occurred to Davis.  “And were you not the astronaut who went completely insane on the Andromeda anyway?  You are mentally unstable, Floyd.  Allowing you to equip ICT on your ship would be one of the most foolish things STAR has ever done.”

      “You could keep me under constant surveillance, I don’t care,” Jason pleaded, knowing that the argument was already lost, and had been since before he’d arrived.  “Have security on board my ship right until the moment I blast away, and track me until I’m far enough out of the galaxy to no longer be a threat.”

      Davis actually seemed offended by this idea.  He stood up to indicate he no longer had any interest in continuing the conversation.  “Mr. Floyd, if you honestly think you are important enough for us to go through such trouble…”

      “…believe me, I couldn’t be further from that belief,” Jason interjected.

      “Do not interrupt me, Floyd!  I do not like being interrupted!”  Now Davis was shouting.  “The answer to your question is no.  It will always be no.  Now once again, I would like to express my deep gratitude to you for inconveniencing me today.  Unfortunately I have no more time to let you waste.  Good-bye.”

      “But…” Jason blurted involuntarily.

      “Enough!”  Davis pressed a button on his desk.  “I have just called for security.  If you are not out of my office by the time they reach here, which should be about three seconds, you will be arrested.  Do I make myself clear?  Now to use the language I understand was common in your day, get the fuck out of my office!”

      Without any further protest, Jason turned and left just as the security guards entered. 
 

Chapter 5

11:20 a.m. March 22, 5211297 Eastern Time

STAR Corporation Headquarters, Florida, Earth 

      Jason’s mind was boiling with rage as he made his way to the exit of the STAR building, wondering just what in the hell he was going to do now.  But just before he reached the door, a familiar voice called to him from down the hallway.

      “Jason!” It was a young woman’s voice, and Jason had heard it before but couldn’t put a face to it.  “Oh my god, I can’t believe it!  Jason!”

      Suddenly Jason realised who it was, and all of his rage suddenly disappeared as a very strange, warm feeling took hold of him.  The voice belonged to Rachael Juciper.  Jason had forgotten that she now worked at STAR Headquarters.

      “Rachael!” Jason called and turned to see her running up to him, a stack of papers in her hand.  She embraced him with warmth so unfamiliar to Jason that he wasn’t sure what to make of it.  As she hugged him, some papers fell out of her hand.

      “What are you doing here?  I thought you were a privateer now.” Rachael asked as she bent down to pick up the fallen documents.

      “It’s a long story,” said Jason, bending down to help her.

      “Well what are you up to now?” Rachael asked.  “Have you got a delivery to make or something?”

      Jason smiled in spite of himself.  “No, I’m sort of between jobs right now.”  He handed Rachael the papers he’d picked up.yo

      “So you’ve got nothing to do?” asked Rachael, standing up straight again.  “Why don’t you come to my office and chat for awhile?  I’m not too busy at the moment and there’s always time for an old friend.”

      “Well, I was going to go stare at the walls of my ship for a few hours, but I suppose I could make some time for you.”  Jason was still trying to figure out what she meant by “friend.”  Did Rachael really consider herself to be Jason’s friend?  They had not spoken in over two years, and hardly spoke even before then.

      “Well come with me,” Rachael said, and started down the hallway to a door with her name written on it.  The two of them entered the tiny office and once again, Jason got ready to take the seat in the chair opposite the desk.  But before he could sit down, Rachael surprised him again by offering her chair behind the desk to him, which was far more comfortable.  Rachael took the other seat and brought it around the desk so they were sitting face to face with nothing between them.

      “So how’ve you been?” asked Rachael.  “You never wrote me back after I sent you that webmail.”

      Jason had not forgotten about that webmail she’d sent him on the night of Arnold’s dinner party.  “Sorry about that,” he said.  “I just didn’t really know what to say in response.”

      “You don’t like to talk about yourself, do you?” Rachael asked.

      Jason smiled.  “What gave that away?”

      “Your book, for starters,” said Rachael.  “After reading it I felt like I really knew you.  I had no idea you were so complex.”

      “I’m not really complex,” Jason responded.  “You can pretty much describe me in two words: miserable and pathetic.”

      To Jason’s surprise, Rachael laughed light-heartedly at his comment.  “All right, maybe those words best describe the character of Jason from your book, but I know the real you must be a lot more complicated.  I have a theory about self-deprecating people.”

      “And what’s that?”

      “I think that deep down everybody loves themselves,” Rachael explained.  “So people who are always putting themselves down really love themselves too, but they say they hate themselves to draw sympathy from others.”

      Jason was serious now.  “I won’t deny there’s some truth to that, but there really is self-hatred too.  Whenever I take a step back and look at myself, I genuinely don’t like what I see.  Of course I know why I am this way and that makes me much more sympathetic to my own problems, but I still feel like a worthless piece of shit for not getting over them.  And when I interact with people…I can’t stand the way I am.  When I leave here, I’m sure I’ll go over this conversation a hundred times and kick myself for everything I said.”

      “Really?” Rachael asked.  The sincerity of her interest was disconcerting to Jason, who was not used to such kindness.

      There was an awkward silence now, as Jason, tried to identify the unfamiliar emotion he was feeling.  What was it?  Human understanding? Appreciation?  Such incidents were so few and far between that he really couldn’t tell.  “What do you do here anyway?” asked Jason, trying to move the topic of conversation in another direction.

      “I don’t really have an official job title,” Rachael answered, “but I guess you could call me a secretary.  I’m an assistant to the director of the spaceflight department.  Whatever he wants me to take care of, I do.”

      “What are you working on right now?”

      “Well, right now I’m actually doing one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had since I’ve been here.  The spaceflight department is running a scientific mission, which is very rare these days, to a nearby star without planets which is about to have a supernova.”

      “Really?” asked Jason.  “I haven’t heard anything about it.”

      “It’s not really big news.  Thousands of stars have exploded since the time we left for Andromeda.  But this star is special because it’s so close.  The star is six light-years away, and it will explode in a little over six years, so we’re setting up the mission now.”

      “I’m surprised STAR even bothers with scientific missions anymore.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “People today don’t seem to care about that kind of thing.  Haven’t you noticed how everyone behaves in this world?  A lot hasn’t changed in five million years, but a lot has.”

      “Oh, you mean how the people now are so…like…” Rachael’s voice trailed.

      “Hard to think of a word, isn’t it?  I don’t really know how to describe them, but they’re definitely different.  They only seem to care about the immediate situation.  They treat the world like a human-run machine that they need to just keep oiling.  Back in our day there was something special about life.  Something mysterious and meaningful, even if nobody knew the meaning.”

      Rachael smiled brightly and for an instant Jason thought she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.  Then he thought of Lauren and the effect was gone.  “We still don’t know the meaning of life,” she said.  “We’ve given up looking for it.”

      “Exactly,” said Jason.  “They’ve given up on the question and invented their own answer.  To these people, life’s meaning is maintaining humanity’s presence in the galaxy, and to keep it running smoothly, exactly as it’s been run for the last five million years.  And everybody seems to think of themselves as nothing but a tiny molecule in the entire body of humanity, just a minuscule part of the whole, with STAR as the brain.  Nobody seems to place any value on the individual any more.  It’s just all about doing your part to maintain the status quo.  That’s why so little has changed in the time we’ve been gone.  We’ve reached a state of equilibrium where we no longer need to grow or change.”

      “And what’s wrong with that?” Rachael asked.  “Everything is peaceful, everything works right.  Resources are renewable and distributed with maximum efficiency throughout the galaxy.  Everything is in balance.  Seems like the Utopia people back in our century were still just dreaming about.”

      “But look what it’s done to the people!” protested Jason, finally expressing the thoughts he’d been keeping to himself for the past several years.  He had never thought he would find anyone willing to listen.  “Nobody cares about anything important.  Nobody struggles, nobody suffers…”

      “Isn’t that a good thing?” asked Rachael.

      “I don’t know,” said Jason.  “Maybe it is and maybe I’m just looking at everything the wrong way.  All I know is that strong character is built through struggle, and that without struggle, people become dull, naïve, and hopelessly uninteresting.  Think of the 20th century with all its wars and atrocities, when people all over the world were suffering.  In that century we underwent the greatest changes we ever went through, and produced the greatest art we’ve ever made.  Even by the time I was born, after Jon Clark united the world governments, things were peaceful enough to have set that back.  Remember sklar music?”

      Rachael smiled again.  “Of course.  I wasn’t much of a fan myself.”

      “And nowadays I can’t even listen to the stuff they call ‘music’.  It’s completely computer generated.  Melodies and beats are tried and tested until they find something catchy enough for the masses to consume and get tired of a week later.”

      “So are you saying you’d rather have anarchy and chaos if it would produce better music?” Rachael asked.

      “I don’t know,” said Jason.  “As I said, I may be looking at this the wrong way.  I just feel like I don’t belong here, you know?  I feel like I’m from a world that no longer exists or can exist.”  He took a deep breath and looked directly in Rachael’s eyes for the first time in the conversation.  “I’m still suffering.  And since I can’t find anyone in the entire universe who knows what that’s like, I just feel…outcast.”

      Rachael was silent for awhile now, trying to think of something to say.  Jason was sorry he’d inadvertently brought the conversation back to him.

      “Anyway, don’t worry about it,” he said.  “Tell me about this mission.”

      Rachael sighed and spoke again.  “Well, there’s not much to tell.  A crew of five people on a standard-size spaceship flying to the D-3655 system to monitor the behaviour of the star during its final phases of life.  It’ll help us to better prevent supernovae of stars in populated systems.”

      “I still can’t believe we can do that,” said Jason.

      “Do what?” asked Rachael.

      “Alter a star like that.  Such immense power, and we just zap it with some magic energy beam and keep it burning forever.”

      “Stars run on fuel just like spaceships.  They produce energy by fusing hydrogen into helium.  Once there’s no more hydrogen left they start to die.  We just split all those helium atoms back into hydrogen.”

      “Yeah, but how do we do that?  Stars are so gigantic and anything we build pales in comparison.  How does a man-made object completely change a star?”

      “It’s not size that matters,” said Rachael.  “It’s energy.  We can pool the energy from billions of stars and put it to work on just one.  In that way, we’re more powerful than any individual star.”

      “You don’t find that kind of scary?” asked Jason.

      “We’re capable of much scarier technology,” said Rachael.  “ICT is pretty mind-boggling when you think about it.  And have you seen what the telescopes can do nowadays?”

      “Not really.  The telescope on my ship is so complicated that I haven’t even tried to fiddle around with it yet.”

      “Well you really ought to.  It’s probably the most amazing technology we have.”

      “Why?  What can it do?”

      “Let me show you.”  Rachael hit a button on her computer and the screen flickered on.  Jason pushed his chair back so she could sit at the keyboard.  She said, “Activate scope,” and immediately one of the computer’s programs began to run.  Rachael turned to Jason and said, “This computer, like your ship’s computer, is connected to a telescope that it controls through its own internal program.  Your ship has its own telescope.  The computers at STAR are hooked up to the scopes we have in orbit.  Every time I log on to the program it finds a scope that isn’t in use and accesses its controls.  Now there’s a telescope a few hundred kilometres up that will do whatever I tell it.”

      “That’s not new technology,” said Jason.  “It was around long before we were born.

      “It’s not the remote control that I’m talking about,” said Rachael, “it’s the scope itself and what it can do.  If you could look at anything in the universe, what would you look at?”

      What a question, thought Jason.  The first answer that popped into his mind was Lauren’s face, but he decided it would be wise not to say this.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “How about Jupiter?”

      Rachael laughed.  “All right, that’s a bit dull, but we’ll start with Jupiter.”  Rachael typed a few things up on the keyboard and in a moment the screen showed a crystal clear picture of the solar system’s largest planet.  “It’s like an invisible beam was just sent from the scope to its target.  You can look at your target from any point along that beam.  From the beginning...” she hit a key and Jupiter became a tiny dot in a field of stars, with Earth’s moon visible in the corner of the screen.  “Or from the end.”  She hit another key and the screen seemed to go blank.  “We’re now looking at Jupiter from the surface of its clouds.  Here, I’ll pull back.”  She hit a few keys and soon the picture pulled back until the cloud formations of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere could be clearly discerned.

      “That’s pretty cool,” said Jason.  “What’s so scary about it?”

      “Why don’t we take a look at ourselves?” said Rachael.  She hit a few more keys and the screen flashed to a close-up view of Earth, the Florida peninsula centre screen.  She typed in something else and Florida began to grow larger.  “We’re moving along the beam at a rate I’ve set for it.  Pretty soon you’ll be able to distinguish Florida and the STAR building itself.”

      As the image of Florida on the screen grew larger, Jason asked “What if the scope had been on the other side of the world?”

      “It automatically switches to the available scope with the best view.  It’s a luxury your spaceship’s scope doesn’t have, but with the right passwords you can look through any scope in the galaxy.”  Soon the image on the screen was unmistakably the top of the STAR Headquarters building.  “Now let’s see what we’re up to,” said Rachael.  She pressed a button and the top of the building faded.  She kept pressing the key and it faded further until it was completely invisible and the insides of individual rooms on the top floor could be seen.

      “I assume the scope has some sort of X-ray function and that the top of the building didn’t really just disappear,” said Jason.

      Rachael gave a short laugh, and continued to fiddle with the scope, bringing it closer and pealing off layers of the building until the screen showed only the room they were sitting in.  Rachael looked directly upwards and waved.  Jason turned to the screen and saw Rachael staring at him and waving.  “Wow.  How does that work?”

      “I’d be lying if I said I completely understood the technology.  But I’ve asked a lot of people and the strange thing is…nobody seems to be able to tell me exactly how it works.  STAR invented it while we were in Andromeda, which was so long ago that now it’s just taken for granted.  All I can give you is the simplified explanation that was given to me.”

      “What’s that?”

      “The telescope picks up light.  Whenever light reflects off something, it sends rays of information in every direction.  The scope just picks up that information…all of it, in every minute detail.  And it doesn’t matter whether solid objects are blocking it.  It just ignores that light data and picks up what’s underneath.”

      “Are we seeing things instantaneously?” asked Jason.  “When we looked at Jupiter, was that Jupiter as it exists now or as it existed several minutes ago, when all that light was reflected from it?”

      “Several minutes ago.  We get a nearly instantaneous picture of objects on Earth because the scope is so close.  It only interprets the light that’s reaching it.  And light from everything in the accessible universe is reaching it simultaneously so we can look at virtually anything in the universe.  And because it’s so precise we can look at it as though we were right next to it.”

      “So if we pointed a beam at Andromeda we’d be seeing it as it was two million years ago?  Back when we were inside of it?”

      “Yes.  And if there was programming to recognise our spaceships the scope could find and track them.  We could actually look at ourselves from when we were still back there.  Believe me, I’ve thought about it, but our ships were built before they had this technology and weren’t equipped with any of the right tracking devices.  But you can search for any catalogued spaceship or celestial object and the scope will focus on only the light coming from the direction of that particular object.  It’s just nearly impossible to look at anything that hasn’t been catalogued.  If you wanted to look up close at a star system in another galaxy, you would have to just keep pointing beams in that direction and hope it hits something.  But the odds of your tiny telescope beam just randomly hitting a star or a planet millions of light-years away are infinitesimal.”

      Jason’s mind was racing with possibilities.  He had been in possession of this technology ever since he bought his ship and he hadn’t even made us of it.  Not that it would make his life any less lonely and meaningless, but it certainly opened up a lot of possibilities that he hadn’t realised he had.  He didn’t have to travel all around the galaxy to see everything.  Everything there was to see was right at his finger tips, although he would only be seeing things as they were at the time their reflected light actually reached his ship, and he could not look at anything outside of the Milky-Way.

      “Pretty cool, huh?” asked Rachael.

      “It’s beyond cool,” said Jason.  “Thank you for showing it to me.”

      “You would have figured it out sooner or later.”

      Jason was already thinking about what he was going to do with it once he returned to his ship.  Could he just go back to the life of a privateer and explore the universe in his spare time through that telescope?  He didn’t think so.  He still felt that he had to get out of that life and actually go somewhere, he just couldn’t figure out a direction…

        All of a sudden, an idea occurred to him.  “What’s the name of that star you say is about to explode?” he asked.

      “It doesn’t have a name,” said Rachael.  “They don’t name stars with no planets, so it’s just designated as D-3655.  Why?”

      “I think I might go check it out up close,” said Jason.

      “But it’s six light-years away,” said Rachael.  “If you go, you won’t be back for twelve years.”

      “That sounds good to me,” said Jason.  “I really need to get out of the solar system anyway.  Explore the galaxy a little more.  See something that’s worth seeing.  And a supernova definitely sounds like something worth seeing.”

      Rachael’s expression changed to one of concern.  “Oh, Jason.  I wish you could just find some peace of mind and settle down to a comfortable life.”

      “Believe me, I’ve been wishing that for…millions of years.  But it hasn’t happened yet and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen.  I just want to get out of here, I…I don’t know.  I know there’s nowhere to go.  I’ll feel the same here or billions of light-years from here.  It’s like the universe itself is a cage.  Like my life is a trap that I can’t escape from until I die.”

      “You’re not thinking about killing yourself, are you?” Rachael asked with great care.  “You’ve got so much to offer…”

      “Please, Rachael,” Jason cut her off.  “I know what you’d say and I really appreciate that you care enough to say it, but don’t even bother.  You’d just be wasting your energy trying to help me.  I hurt everyone who tries to help me, and I don’t need to put you through that.”

      “Jason…” Rachael shook her head and let out another very heavy sigh.  “I’m sorry.  Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?”

      Talk to Lauren for me, Jason wanted to say.  Ask her if she’ll let me visit.  Ask her if she’ll let me talk to her about all this stuff.  Jason knew that she may be afraid of him, but she was still the only person he knew who even had a prayer of understanding him.  If nothing else, Lauren knew what it was to suffer.

      But Jason didn’t say anything of the sort.  Even if Rachael could somehow convince her stepmother to see Jason again, no good would come of it.  Blasting away for a dozen years would work well for Jason.  Barring a catastrophe they’d all still be alive when he came back, but they would be older and wiser and perhaps even a little more willing to give him a chance.  And if not, he could just blast away again.  He could fly all over the Milky-Way, seeing whatever there was to see with no concern for what year it was.  If he needed money there was always work for a privateer.  It was possible.  This twelve-year-voyage would be the first step.

      Finally he spoke again.  “I shouldn’t keep you any longer.  It was great talking to you.”

      “I was hoping we could stay in touch,” said Rachael, not hiding her disappointment.  “To be honest with you, I do understand what you mean about the people here.  They’re not like us.  Have you ever noticed how they don’t use contractions when they speak?”

      Jason laughed.  “I have noticed that actually.”

      “This was the most interesting conversation I’ve had in years.  You’re the most interesting person I know.  You say you feel alone and isolated all the time.  Well, I’m offering you my friendship.”

      Jason’s brain was hurting.  “Then come with me,” he offered.

      “I can’t go,” said Rachael.

      “And I can’t stay,” said Jason.  “Look, I really can’t describe how grateful and happy I am that you would want my friendship, but I don’t think it would work.  I’d be out there living my miserable life, writing to you with my miserable thoughts all the time and bringing you down.  I’m not the kind of person that’s easy to be friends with.  I told you, I end up hurting everyone who tries to help me.  You don’t need that.”

      Rachael was silent.  “All right, there’s no point in trying to convince you.  I know I certainly can’t make things better for you anyway.”

      Jason was surprised to realise that a part of him had been hoping she would say the opposite—that she could help him and would not let him leave until she’d made him better.  But now that she was also acknowledging the truth, it added another layer of hopelessness.

      “Go ahead and see that star explode,” said Rachael.  “But I want you to promise me that you’ll contact me as soon as you come back.”

      This relieved some of the pain Jason was beginning to feel.  “Of course.  I promise.  And by then you’ll be about the same age as me.”

      “Yeah,” said Rachael.  “That’ll be weird.”

      “Yeah.”  And that seemed to bring the conversation to an end.  Jason stood and got ready to head for the door.  “Actually, there’s one thing I wanted to ask you.”

      “Go ahead,” said Rachael.

      “The other astronauts from the Andromeda II—do you still keep in touch with them?”

      Rachael thought for a moment.  “Kind of, but not really.  They’ve scattered themselves all over the place.  Occasionally I’ll get a webmail from one of them addressed to the rest of us to let everyone know what they’re up to, and sometimes I’ll send one myself, but for the most part I don’t hear from them.”

      Jason thought about this for a moment.  Even the only people in the galaxy who could possibly relate to each other weren’t trying.  “Were there any beautiful single women on your ship?” he asked as a joke.

      “They were all single on the mission,” said Rachael, “but that changed pretty quickly.  They all paired up by the time we got back and now they’re starting their own families like dad and Lauren.”

      Jason smiled and nodded, then headed to the door.

      “Goodbye, Jason,” said Rachael.  “And good luck with everything.”

      As Jason took one last look at Rachael, he was suddenly struck with an impulse to leap across the room and passionately kiss her…but she looked too much like Arnold for him to seriously consider it.  “Bye, Rachael.  And again, thank you for caring and everything.”

      “It’s what I do.”  Although Rachael was smiling, there was a look of profound sadness in her eyes.  As Jason had expected, he had ended up hurting her.

      Before he could say or do anything that he might regret, Jason decided it was best to leave her alone and walk away.  Closing the door behind him was one of the most difficult things he had ever made himself do. 
 

Chapter 6

16:20  March 29, 5211297 Universal Time

Larry’s Supply Depot, Northwest Quadrant, Pluto 

      Rachael’s smile was still haunting Jason one week later, when he arrived at his favourite supply shop in the solar system, Larry’s Supply Depot.  As Jason walked into the small building literally in the middle of nowhere, his mind was still entertaining the crazy possibility of heading right back to Earth and asking Rachael to marry him.  He wasn’t certain why this seemed like such an imperative—he really wasn’t attracted to her, and the thought of Arnold as a father-in-law was enough to scare him to his senses.  Just the fact that it might be possible is what bothered him.

      Business seemed slower than normal at the shop today.  There were only two customers walking up and down the aisles of the warehouse, examining the merchandise.  Most of the shop’s patrons were owners of smaller supply stores on terrestrial colonies, who came here to stock up on items they would sell at an increased price.  Because Jason was a privateer, he had the advantage of being able to buy supplies directly from the warehouse.  It was also a lot easier for him to fly out to Pluto than find accommodations in a large terrestrial city.

      And so aside from business owners, Larry’s was the supply shop of choice for anyone who made a living in space.  The location wasn’t very convenient, but because of its isolation—the only other structures on Pluto were a few scientific outposts hundreds of kilometres away—it was extremely easy to land, get in, and get out without any of the hassle of entering a city.  As nearly every customer was a regular, the clerk knew everyone who came by.

      “Hey Jason!” the clerk called as Floyd entered the shop.

      “Hi, Steve,” said Jason, glad to see that it was the same person who always seemed to be working there.  For some reason, he found it easy to get along with him.  He was different from most of the other people Jason had met since the end of the mission.

      “What’ll it be today?” asked Steve.  “The usual stuff?”

      “Yeah, but maybe a little bit more of it this time,” said Jason.  “I’m sorry to say that this might be the last time you see me.”

      Steve frowned.  “What’s the matter?  You planning on quitting?”

      Jason gave a short laugh.  “No, of course not.  But I’m going on vacation.  A twelve-year vacation.”

      “Twelve years, huh?  So you’re planning to do some dabbling with the time-scale, eh?  Where are you going?”

      “To a star called D-3655.  It’s going to explode in six years, and I’m getting front row seats.”

      “Suicide?” asked Steve.  “Well, to each his own.  I can’t say that’s not a damn fine way to go.  A lot of people fly themselves into the black hole at the galactic core, but hey, if there’s a supernova going on…”

      “…no, it’s not suicide,” Jason stopped him, wondering why everyone always assumed he was planning on killing himself.  “I just want to experience the event close up.  It’ll be a real experience.  That’s what I’m looking for.”

      “And you need to stock up before you go,” Steve smiled.  “Well, you’ve come to the right place.  Of course, before I sell anything to you I feel it might be a responsibility of mine to tell you about a thing called a ‘telescope’.  It actually allows you to watch distant events like a supernova from the safety of your own star system!”

      Jason laughed.  “Thanks, Steve, I had no idea.  But it’s not so much the supernova as it is getting away from here for awhile.”

      Now Steve spoke in a serious tone.  “Still having a hard time getting adjusted?”

      “Yeah, and that’ll never go away,” said Jason.  “So I think I’m just going to fly around the galaxy and look at cool stuff.  Maybe try and learn something about myself and the universe in the process.”

      “Not a bad plan, but you still don’t have to go blasting yourself off to who-knows-when every few weeks.  I’m telling you, the scopes we have are amazing.  Are you familiar with what they can do?”

      “I wasn’t until a week ago, but that doesn’t change my mind,” said Jason.  “There’s a big difference between watching a projection from your telescope on your cockpit window and actually watching the real thing through your window.”

      “Maybe,” said Steve.  “But it’s all equally real.  It’s just light, in one case picked up by your eyes and in another case picked up by a telescope.  But seriously, when it comes to a supernova it’s usually better to watch those things through a scope.”

      “Well, I appreciate your concern, but I can handle myself,” Jason said.

      “Just looking out for you, man,” said Steve.  “After all, weren’t you the one who jumped out of your ship with only an electronic rope to stop you from being sucked into a black hole?” asked Steve.

      For a brief moment, Jason was stunned.  How could he possibly know that? Then he remembered.  “You read Arnold’s book?” asked Jason.

      “Who hasn’t?” said Steve.  “But I also read yours.  A lot of the stuff in there is really hard to believe.  Is it true you guys took drugs on the mission?  I’ve had arguments with my friends who swear you made most of it up.”

      “You mean you actually know people who’ve read my book?” asked Jason.

      “Yeah, it’s pretty popular among a lot of us,” said Steve.

      Jason suddenly realised the man he was speaking to used contractions in his sentences, and another switch went off in his mind.  “Who do you mean by ‘us’?”

      “I guess you’d call us a ‘sub-culture’,” said Steve.  “You know, you always tell me you have a hard time adjusting, but I just think you’re hanging out with the wrong people.  Not everyone in the Milky-Way is all gung-ho about the status quo.  Not everyone is a worker ant just doing their part to keep the galaxy spinning.  A lot of us are just out for a good time, looking to enjoy life, not caring about any of that shit.”

      Jason’s mind sank into confusion.  What did this new development mean?  Maybe he was wrong about everything.  Maybe a comfortable life was within reach for him.  Maybe he could go back and propose to Rachael, settle down, have a family, and make friends with people like Steve.  This wasn’t impossible.  All he needed was the will…

      “Then again you might not really go for that kind of thing,” Steve said.  “Basically all we do is take drugs and entertain ourselves.  Something tells me you wouldn’t be happy for too long just hanging around and getting fucked up all the time.”

      And with that, the dream dissolved again.  Steve was right.  Jason couldn’t resign himself to that kind of lifestyle.  First of all, he didn’t love Rachael, so a marriage couldn’t really work.  And second of all, spending the rest of his years sitting around, smoking psycho-active plants and accomplishing nothing sounded just as bad as the life he was already living.  With or without other people, he couldn’t just live a stagnant life of complacency.  He’d travelled millions of light-years through space and time already—the thought of settling down like that just didn’t fit.  It was then that Jason realised he wasn’t trying to escape from his situation.  He really wanted to go.  It wasn’t simply the crushing loneliness that made him want to blast away, it was a genuine desire to go out and experience as much as he possibly could while he was still alive.

      Steve saw that Jason was lost in thought.  “So what will you have?”

      Jason snapped out of it and gave Steve a list of everything he thought he would need while he was gone, which consisted of mostly food and drink.  His ship could hold nearly a lifetime supply of these items and keep them fresh, but Jason never bought more than a few cases at a time, depending on how long he expected it would be before he could return.  This was for a couple of reasons, mainly because he didn’t like spending a great deal of money all at once but also because he just liked coming to the shop.  Steve was the only person he’d met from this time period whose company he actually enjoyed.

      Once his order was assembled, another thought occurred to Jason.  “So if you can find drugs, is there any other illegal merchandise you can get?”

      “That depends,” Steve replied in a hushed tone.  “What are you looking for?”

      Jason lowered his voice as well.  “You wouldn’t happen to know of any black markets for illegal spaceship parts, would you?”

      Steve made a curious face.  “Are we talking about guns?”

      “I was thinking more along the lines of Infinite-Capacity Thrust.”

      “ICT?” said Steve.  “Shit, you’re really serious about your time-scale adventures, aren’t you?  Well, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t help you there.  There’s nothing more illegal than that.  Drugs might get you fined if you’re found in possession of them, but ICT…you’ll be lucky if you’re not put to death!”

      “So nobody makes them?  It seems cheap enough,” said Jason.

      “Cheap but not easy,” said Steve.  “STAR guards the secret of how to manufacture them very carefully.  And if anyone were actually able to steal that technology and manufacture them with intent to sell, it would be too much of a risk.  They’d have to make themselves known somehow or anybody looking for the technology would never find them.  And sooner or later a STAR Security Agent is going to follow the trail and bust their business wide open.  STAR threatens to put sanctions on any planet that allows a business like that to go on.  So unless someone is stupid enough to put his own life and the economy of his entire planet in jeopardy just to make a few bucks selling banned technology, I don’t think you’re going to find it.”

      “I guess that figures,” said Jason.  “Well, thanks for all your help anyway.”

      “No problem,” said Steve.  “I’ll see you in twelve years.  I’ll still be here.”

      “Then I guess I’ll see you next week,” said Jason.  He paid for his supplies and left the store, ready for his first worthwhile experience in years. 

      Jason sat at the controls of the Comfortably Numb, his hand on the button that would blast him away at 100 days per second towards D-3655.  This was the highest time-scale any ship without ICT could travel, but it was still the fastest Jason had ever gone, even on the Andromeda.  If he had not begun the journey from Pluto, he would be breaking the law by travelling at this time-scale, but the 1 minute per second speed limit was only applicable within the orbit-line of Neptune, which constituted the legal border of the solar system.

      Jason had been planning to take the trip through interstellar space at a slower rate, but he found that he was too anxious to wait.  He would fly fast enough to reach the star in a matter of minutes, and if his calculations were correct, he would arrive at his destination just a few minutes before the explosion.  STAR’s recording systems were so accurate that they could predict down to the second when the supernova would take place.

      With just the press of a button, Jason thought, I’ll be jumping years into the future.  Six years of life in the solar system will go by in my absence, and I won’t get any older.  Why was this so much more difficult than blasting ahead five million years?  Was it because when he made his five-million year journey, the love of his life was with him?

      Jason didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.  Lauren was gone and beyond reach, and this would be the first step he would take in putting her firmly behind him.  He pressed the button, and watched as Pluto dashed past him in an instant, disappearing into the past.  The star in the centre of his cockpit window became visible and grew brighter and brighter.  In a few seconds, Jason halved the time scale, then halved it again.  Soon D-3655 was the brightest object in his field of view, and Jason turned on the UV protection in his cockpit window, allowing his eyes to stare at the star for as long as he wanted with no discomfort.

      He continued to halve the time scale until he was once again moving at the normal rate of 1 second per second, and D-3655 was a red sphere in his window about 4 times the size of the sun when viewed from Earth.  This was the closest he could come and still remain relatively safe when the star exploded, giving him several minutes once the nova occurred to turn around and blast back to safety.

      The star gave no indication at all that it was ready to explode.  It just looked like a normal red star, covered in black sunspots and spewing plasma outward in magnificent flares.  Jason took a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the event he was about to witness.  This star had been burning for millions of years.  It had become a red giant even before Jason was born, slowly burning away its energy which in only a few short minutes would run out forever, causing a massive explosion which would brighten up the night skies of every planet in the galaxy.

      Jason used his computer to search the web for any sites with information regarding the supernova of D-3655.  He finally found a page with a live count-down to the moment of destruction.  There was less than ten minutes to go.

      Carefully watching the clock, Jason began playing Dark Side of the Moon from his ship’s computer, setting it up so that the album would be synchronized perfectly to the nova.  The bells from the song “Time” would ring just as the light from the supernova reached him.

      And so he waited, and watched and listened.  His thoughts drifted in all directions, from the extremely profound to the pitifully mundane.  When Jason saw that the count-down had reached zero, a chill ran through his body.  D-3655 had exploded.  It no longer existed as a star, but there he was looking directly at it through his cockpit window, still perfectly intact.  It would be another moment before the light reached him.  The idea that the star he was now looking at had in fact already exploded was enough to blow Jason’s mind to the point where all other thoughts vanished.

      In no time at all, but what seemed to stretch on for eternity, “On The Run” neared its end and Jason knew that the event he had come to experience was about to occur.  In that final moment before the flash, Jason felt nothing but an extremely deep, incredibly profound joy the likes of which he had never known.  He had set up this experience.  He decided to have it and he made it happen.  And he was free to do things like this again and again for as long as he desired.  The galaxy was at his fingertips.  Nearly any situation he wanted to create for himself could be created…short of anything having to do with love or other people.  But in Jason’s current state of mind, love was the least of his concerns.  Just another beautiful thing in a universe filled with unfathomable beauty.

      The star exploded.  As the sound of ringing bells and chiming clocks blasted through his ship at maximum volume, Jason saw a bright flash, then what looked like the red giant collapsing in on itself.  And finally, in one incomprehensibly violent burst, billions of tons of plasma shot outwards in every direction.  The flash was so brilliant that Jason even had to squint through the window’s UV protection.  This was, without a doubt, the most incredible thing he had ever seen.

      As he sat and watched the remains of the star spew outward and grow ever larger in his window, Jason almost felt as though it would be appropriate to blast straight into the inferno.  What more of a perfect culmination to his experiences could there be?  What better way to bring one’s own life to a spectacular end?  To journey from life to death through the death of a star which had been living longer than his mind could truly comprehend?

      Jason sat and watched the show until he saw that he had only ten minutes left to turn around and blast himself to safety before being vaporized.  No, there was no need to die right now.  Not when he had suddenly found a new reason to live…a new mode of existence…a new way to experience the rest of his life.

      Jason programmed his computer to orient the ship with Earth and blast back at a comfortable rate of 1 minute per second.  But not before pointing his scope at the remains of D-3655.  He turned his cockpit window to screen-mode, and watched the explosion continue through the image being picked up by his ship’s telescope and projected onto the window.  Then something happened which Jason should have expected, but which had not even occurred to him.

      The explosion began to grow smaller.  The plasma began to collapse in on itself as though falling right back to the star from where it came.  For a moment Jason didn’t understand what was happening.  Was the star really collapsing back in on itself?  Was it going to form a black hole?

      But once all of the plasma had collapsed again, Jason realised what had happened.  There on his screen was D-3655, completely intact.  He had outrun light.  He had reached a part of the galaxy where the light from the star’s explosion had not yet reached.  The scope was showing him the light from the star that had reached his ship, and thus showed the star as it had been days ago, before the supernova.

      A crazy idea popped into Jason’s mind, and he went back to the controls to slow down his ship.  Soon he was moving at 1 second per second again, and he watched the star as it exploded…again.  He had now watched the same star explode twice…he had watched the very same explosion.  And he could watch it again and again and again, just moving further back and slowing down, further back and slowing down…until he reached Earth.  But even beyond that, he could keep going further and watch it again and again for the rest of eternity!

      Jason was flabbergasted.  He continued to watch the star explode on his telescope as the music continued to play.  He began to speed up and slow down the time-scale as the explosion happened.  He found that he could make the supernova grow and shrink on the screen with nothing but a few keystrokes.  Soon he became so adept at it that he made the explosion dance, pulsating in and out with the rhythm.

      He continued in this fashion until his mind was moving faster than his hands and he could no longer keep up.  His head was spinning with thoughts far deeper than any he’d had in years.  Everything in the universe, it seemed, existed permanently as information carried by beams of light like ripples through space.  All he had to do in order to see anything that had ever existed was travel the correct distance to reach whatever ripple he desired.  His spaceship was like a time machine, capable of blasting him to any point in the future, and to look back at any point in the past.  The only difference between past and future was that future events had not yet created any ripples.  The future was unwritten.  The future could be altered.

      And as Jason Floyd flew back to the solar system, he knew that his future had been altered forever.