1858 words (7 minute read)

Chapter 1 - Outset

William Flynn held his breath as the Shepard vanished, taking with it the woman he loved. He reached into his pocket, again grasping the jewelry case inside. He felt its solidity, its reality, as if its presence could assure her safety. He would stand before her on the surface of a new world as he opened this case. She knew the proposal was coming, but she would smile in amazement all the same.

A subtle beep emitted through his earpiece, reminding him that the largest audience of his career was watching and waiting. The view through his VR visor, provided by one of five drones floating around the UASD Valentina Tereshkova, still showed the space where her sister ship, the Shepard, had vanished. An audience of billions on Earth, Mars, and Luna were watching that empty space with him now. Flynn sent a mental command to the visor, willing it to play the next part of his prerecorded narration.

“And with barely a visible flash,” he heard his own voice say through the earpiece, “The Shepard is gone! We can’t see the wormhole it opened, but it is out there, now collapsing to microscopic size. It will remain intact just long enough for the ship to send us a quick OK.”

The view from the drones faded out as Flynn willed his visor to switch focus. The glass of his visor became transparent, indicating that he and his audience could see the environment around him. As he stood from his tight chair, the magnets in his boots activated with a clunk. He panned his view around the cockpit, taking in the array of panels and controls. The closely packed space wrapped around and above Flynn. The Captain, Joseph Konev, sat above Flynn, on what was the ceiling from the reporter’s perspective. The burly, bald captain caught a floating tablet, and tapped its screen a few times before tossing it back. Flynn followed the tablet as it floated and was deftly caught by a darker skinned and more muscular officer. This officer winked as Flynn centered him in the visor. The officer slipped the tablet into a holder on his arm, and turned to sit properly in his seat. Once he was in position, he turned his head back to Flynn.

Ready? Flynn mouthed to the officer.

The officer nodded, and Flynn began his live commentary.

“As you can see, we’re now in the cockpit, where Communications Officer Esan Green sits ready to receive confirmation. Officer Green?”

“Thank you, Mr. Flynn,” Green smiled generously as he spoke, “You know I saw your reports on Hephaestus Colony – you really captured the struggles our families have faced.” A message flashed on Green’s console, and he kept talking as he turned to check it. “Oh, there it is! That’s the OK from the Shepard. They sent us a short video – I’m putting it on screen.”

“There you have it, viewers,” Flynn said to his audience, “Not only have we received the OK from the Shepard, we have video from that ship. Let’s watch as the video is played on the main screen here in the Tereshkova.”

“Hey, Billy!” Flynn’s heart leapt as Darya’s face filled the screen. He was glad his audience couldn’t see his ridiculous smile. She winked as she continued speaking, “Hello again to everyone watching. This is Darya Fitzgerald, and … we made it! Everything is A-Okay here in the Tau Ceti system as we head toward the fourth planet.”

Her image abruptly vanished, replaced with a view of the dull gray lunar surface looming outside the Tereshkova. Flynn looked again to Green, who offered an apologetic shrug.

“There’s no more, sorry – that’s all they could send before the wormhole closed.”

Flynn stammered for a moment as he felt the weight of the visor on his face. It was the weight of billions of viewers anticipating humanity’s expansion to the stars. Flynn breathed, steeling himself as he continued.

“Thank you, Officer Green. That’s just enough to let us know that everything is on track.”

Flynn cued his next narration, sighing as the recording took over for him. “I’d like to remind viewers that there will be plenty of future reports from Tau Ceti after this live broadcast. Once all ships are safely docked above Gaia Frontier, we’ll be able to send regular video, audio, and text updates from the colony.”

His heart jumped at the mention of Gaia Frontier, where his new home awaited. Darya’s alive. Relax. The reassuring thoughts played over in Flynn’s head as he panned the view back to the captain. Captain Konev’s smirk betrayed a hint of contempt for the camera and the reporter on his ship, but the look was quickly replaced by a well-practiced smile.

“All right, viewers, here is Captain Josef Konev,” Flynn said, “Sitting in the best seat in the house. Captain, is our ship ready to join the others in the Tau Ceti system?”

“Indeed, Mr. Flynn, all reports are positive,” Konev said, “Chief Park in Engineering informs me that the drive is prepped and all systems are go. Our pilot, Officer Clarke, is taking us into position.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Flynn looked around the cockpit, continuing his running commentary, “I’m panning around the small cockpit here, where we see Officers Green and Clarke strapping in for the jump. This reporter will soon have to join them, but first, let’s hear from Officer Clarke at the helm. Hello, Helena!”

“Long time, no see stranger,” Clarke addressed the camera with a southern drawl, “Darya sure looks happy – you taking good care of her?”

“Just doing what I can,” Flynn said. He imagined his professor from his first Journalism course scowling at him, affronted by the inclusion of personal details. Helena Clarke had convinced Darya and Flynn to relax those rules – after all, The Galactic Observer wanted them to travel and live with the colonists whose lives he would document. This isn’t like the Mars Landing or the first jump drive; you can’t be purely objective here. Helena had a point; Darya and he couldn’t avoid being a small part of this story. Plenty of other journalists would go to the colony to cover the historical expansion of the human race, but Darya and Flynn could offer a personal, more human take.

Flynn nodded at Helena as he continued, “For viewers who don’t know, Helena here is the youngest cadet ever recruited for a mission such as this. Ms. Fitzgerald and I had the pleasure of interviewing Helena when she flew test missions for UNC Suborbital Defense – been while since then, huh?”

“Yeah, just a while. You propose to that lady, yet?”

Flynn shook his head in amusement at the question Helena had insisted on including. What the hell, he thought. Two young reporters cover the jump to a new colony, and get engaged once they arrive? If Flynn and Darya didn’t report it, someone else surely would. “There might be something in the works regarding …”

“Excuse me, Mr. Flynn,” Konev’s voice cut him off.

Flynn jerked back to the captain. Konev scowled as he joined his fists together, gruffly miming a seat belt. Flynn nodded slightly. “Of course.” He turned back to Helena and said, “Thank you, Helena. The Captain has reminded me that I must now take my seat.”

Flynn sat again, exaggerating his hand motions so his audience wouldn’t miss the seat belt. He played the next narration and heard his voice say, “As a safety precaution, all transmissions will be cut, allowing the ship’s systems to focus on conducting the jump. I am allowed to continue recording, so the remainder of our broadcast will be made available after the jump has completed and we are safely at Gaia Frontier. Your live feed will switch over to my good friend and colleague Shen Heng on the Yang Liwei. This is William Flynn, signing off this live broadcast from the Tereshkova.”

Flynn’s visor slowly darkened, mimicking the fade to black that the audience would see. A well-groomed Chinese man faded into view as the visor showed him the current live broadcast. “Thank you, William Flynn. I am Shen Heng, reporting for the Galactic Observer from the Yang Liwei …”

The broadcast cut off as Flynn switched from live broadcast to recording.

 “This is William Flynn, reporting for Galactic Observer Media from the Tereshkova,” his voice said, “This begins the recorded portion of our broadcast, which we will send back once we have arrived at the newest colony established by Ulysses Corp., Gaia Frontier.

“It is currently thirty seconds to jump. I’ve taken my seat in the rear of the cockpit as we accelerate to jump velocity. The screen now shows the star Tau Ceti among the countless lights visible from this vantage. Like the Apollo program two centuries ago, Ulysses Aeronautics and Spaceflight Development is taking another small step and another giant leap ahead to humanity’s future. As some viewers may be aware, the ships in this fleet are no strangers to historic feats. They are the same ships that brought civilians to Mars and helped establish the great Aries Colonies, refit and refurbished to convey civilians to a new home entirely.”

Just as the narration finished, Officer Green turned to the camera and gave a thumbs-up. The screen on the console before him showed large red numbers counting down.

“We have final countdown!” Flynn said, “Five … four … three … two … one …”

The view outside the window shifted. The lunar surface and the stars around it were gone, replaced suddenly by a silver capsule set against a star-filled canvas. In that first instant, it was a tiny silver pill, like the nanobot-filled capsules given by doctors for internal checkups. Flynn thought it could be the Shepard or the docking station above Gaia Frontier, somehow presented as the capsule by a glitch in the screen’s rendering software. He dismissed the thought as the object grew to fill the viewscreen.

“What the hell is it?” Clarke exclaimed, just before Flynn could ask the same.

“We’re heading straight at it,” Konev said, “Evasive maneuvers!”

“Emergency thrusters are firing, but we’re turning too slowly to avoid it.”

“Brace for impact!”

Flynn’s visor went dark. On instinct, he peeled it off, but his vision blurred and he could no longer understand the world around him. What was this tight place? What was the shiny thing in front of them? It wasn’t moving now – that was good, right?

His hand went to the box in his pocket. Yes, the box is good. She will like it. But who was she? The world was going black around him, but only she mattered. Darya. Yes, what a nice name. Was she okay? An image of a red-haired woman filled his mind. She winked at him, and his last conscious thought was Please come back.