Chasing Stars: Chapter 3

GSS Image Not Found

Markus tugged at his cuff linked shirt sleeve. The expensive material and precise fit had never felt comfortable to him.

"Stop fussing." Molly scolded him as she adjusted his bowtie. "You look great. You clean up pretty well," she said with a wink. Her instinct had been to wear a sexy red dress to show off for him, but after being reminded that they were trying to downplay her presence she opted for a more conservative black dress which still managed to set her apart in the crowd.

He sometimes wondered about her. As a sexim she was made to be accommodating and flattering, so whenever she accommodated or flattered him, something in the back of his brain made him wonder how much of it was out of genuine affection and how much was merely automation. He could never really know, but neither could she for that matter.

They had just arrived at the front reception for the party. The ballroom was well lit, and had the gaudy gold trim to everything which existed more to display wealth than to provide a pleasing aesthetic. He grew up in this world yet seemed to hate so much of it.

Lucas noticed Markus and made his way over. Markus could see the expression in his older brother change from relief and delight at his brother's appearance, to disappointment as he realized who the woman at his side was.

"I see you've brought your, um... girlfriend," he observed icily. "Sorry," he offered, still a polite man, "is that what I should call you?" he asked her.

"Good to see you again too Lucas." They had met on several other more private social occasions when Markus had brought her along.

"You too Molly, it's just... not a great night, you know? I'm sure Markus has told you what this is about?" Lucas seemed unhappy and concerned, but rubbing his chin the same way Markus tended to as he regarded them, he didn't seem angry.

"Don't worry, we're not here to make a scene. We have every intention of avoiding making any of this about us."

"That's good," Lucas responded flatly. "Guess that's all I can really hope for at this point."

Molly's smile flattened, with one corner of her mouth upturned in mild anxiety.

"In any case," Lucas continued, "try to enjoy yourselves. Sadhika should be giving her presentation soon."

"I'm looking forward to meeting her," Markus said. Most super wealthy and successful people didn't hold much interest for Markus. He'd met enough to know they didn't tend to differ much. But Sadhika had always seemed different, at least from afar. She was somehow the opposite. The more powerful she became, the more humble she seemed to get. Still wildly proud of what she'd accomplished, but she'd either developed or always had had, the understanding that she didn't get where she had alone. He'd seen her describe in an interview that she felt some urgency to make her power and resources count for something, that she'd long ago passed any quality of life concerns which ever more wealth could enhance.

Markus held the same disdain for aimless accumulation of wealth, but never developed that urgency to do something meaningful with what he had. He wondered if her having earned her wealth made the difference. Maybe it was just how much more astronomically wealthy she was. Well, used to be. Once the wealthiest person in the world, now here she was begging from them. It was actually a little pathetic the more he thought about it.

It was obvious that the beginning of the presentation was imminent, so Markus and Molly grabbed drinks and found a good place to stand and watch. Sadhika shortly took the stage.

"Hello everyone! My name, if you didn't know," she winked and the crowd chuckled. Every person on the planet knew her name. "is Sadhika Manjula Sengupta, and I used to be the richest person in the world." The crowd of wealthy socialites cheered sarcastically.

"I know, I know," she said, raising her hands in admission." "I know this is a worst-case scenario nightmare for most of you," she gently teased back in her understated but still impossible to miss Indian accent.

"I am here on stage tonight, to answer for you in person the only question I'm usually ever asked by people outside the project."

"Why!" someone in the crowd yelled.

Sadhika pointed to them. "Yes, exactly. Why. Why would I drain all my resources for this single project?"

Sadhika narrowed one eye briefly, and the screen behind her revealed a live feed of a large vessel in orbit. Everyone had to develop their own way of issuing commands through their brain chip. Markus blinked, Sadhika narrowed an eye.

The ship on the screen had a long cylinder through the center of it. Around it, suspended from it by struts, was a large, wide, thick ring slowly rotating around the inner structure. All along the length of the inner section were spherical storage tanks in rings of four from stem to stern. At the rear were 4 modest rocket bells.

"This is the Generational Star Ship New Horizon." With another wince of one eye, the image then shifted to a schematic diagram of the ship. "Four next generation ion engines coupled to the new 'New Horizon' class reactor courtesy of Bowland Power Systems, will get us to thirteen percent of light speed in just twenty years of continuous burn." Some murmurs rumbled through the crowd. Markus looked around and listened but just sensed an incredulity. Not that the math didn't work, just that it was crazy to expect to be able to pull all of this off without cataclysmic error. "Those storage tanks you see around the central part of the ship store all of the fuel and gases we'll need along the way."

A wince and the image shifted to show just a schematic of the outer ring, which then broke apart in one place and laid flat. "Only half of the habitat ring is living space for the crew of a hundred and fifty," she explained. "One full quarter of the ring is dedicated to our arboretum, the forest lungs on the ship which will keep us not just in fresh air, but also fruits and vegetables along the way. Another full quarter of the ring is dedicated to our persistent archives which contain, what we hope to be, the sum total of all human knowledge.

"The target," she winced and the ship reassembled itself, then reverted to the live feed, then the image expanded out to show their solar system in relation to nearby stars. "Is Sigma Draconis." The image narrowed down to it, showing the star's planetary system. "Sigma Draconis is a main sequence G type star like ours, but eighteen point seven seven light year away. It's second planet," the image narrowed down onto a simulation of the target planet, "we believe to be very much like Earth in any way we can tell from here and now.

"We will spend twenty years burning up to speed, then a hundred and ten years in cruise, turn around, then burn another twenty years to slow down again."

"Can you believe this shit?" Markus asked of the dark-skinned man beside him.

"Tell me about it. Damned idealistic fools if you ask me..." the man replied with folded arms.

Sadhika continued on stage. "Honestly I could go on for hours talking about every detail of this mission and everything we've done to prepare, but more importantly we have a very special announcement for all of you tonight," Sadhika continued, "something to further encourage you to help our cause, so I'm now going to bring up our ship's captain to explain."

The man beside Markus smiled and approached the stage. Markus's heart sank first, and then his head. Molly did her best to stifle a pitifully sympathetic laugh.

"This is Wiremu Tynes," Sadhika offered as Wiremu joined her on the stage. "Some of you may have heard of him, but for those who haven't he's one of the most decorated officers in Peacekeeper history, and has seen just about every kind of ship and every kind of incident there is to be seen out there in space, haven't you Wii?"

"Well I don't know about any of that," he dismissed, "but look. There's a raffle. If you donate more than a standard Vancouver basic payment, you'll be entered into the draw. The winner gets to come with us." He was a gruff man. He struck Markus as the hard skinned but friendly underneath type.

Some uncomfortable grumbling and shifting came from the crowd. Wiremu put up his hand. "Not to worry, only if you want to," he clarified with that same wide smile, and the relief of tension allowed the crowd's anxiety to switch to mirth.

"You should donate," Molly suggested.

"You're into this?" Markus asked with some surprise.

"No. I mean yes, but I mean... you might win."

"Trying to get rid of me?" he teased her.

"No. No, something else..." she looked away, seeming to try to find a thought she was missing.

"Of course," Wiremu continued on stage, "we can't just let anyone on the ship. You can go yourself, or sell the seat if you like, but it will be pending a thorough checkout by our people, so to be clear you would be winning nominating rights for our last open spot, not a right to fill it. Any questions?"

"Why didn't you hollow out asteroids like the Mormon mission?" someone from the crowd asked. The one previous generational starship had been launched twelve years ago by a breakaway sect of the religion who brought a heavily edited and censored archive to preserve their beliefs and culture. Their drive plume could still be spotted with telescopes, but they had severed all contact with Earth after soon after departure.

By comparison the previous starship mission was somewhat crude. Instead of a purpose-built ship, they used a drone excavation fleet to hollow out the interior of a captured asteroid and bolt a lot of off the shelf ion engines onto the back, then pair them with a lot of off the shelf fusion cores.

"We... considered that," Wiremu looked back at Sadhika. This wasn't his domain but he was happy to answer if there was no objection from her. "But we wanted to have more control. We wanted to design something purely purpose built from the first weld. We thought with all the unknowns we were going to face, the more things we could be deliberate about the better. Plus I mean..." he turned around to look at the image of the ship in space, "look at it! I've never had the privilege of commanding such a vessel. Nobody has ever built anything like it."

"Will drugs be available on the ship?" someone called out. "It's a long time with nothing to do once you're out there!"

"That's uh... not really up to us," Wiremu answered with a chuckle. "That will be up to the governing structure on the ship. Our genetic transcoders can recreate any plants we have on file and we'll have a sophisticated chemistry lab, but... Oh hell let's just say probably!"

The crowd held up their drinks and cheered as Sadhika and Wiremu laughed.

"How do you know for sure the planet is habitable?"

"Yes," Sadhika said, "great question. For that I should bring up our mission' all things astronomical expert Sasha Tyson. Sasha come on up here."

Polite applause welcomed her to the stage. "The short answer is... we don't," she conceded. She was a woman somewhat on the petite side, with straight shoulder length brown hair with just a couple grey strands in it She had the posture of someone who had spent a lifetime hunching, but was now trying to stand straight. "We do know a lot thought," she continued. "We know that there is free oxygen in the atmosphere, and that the only mechanism we know of that can produce this is the existence of plant life which is perpetually replacing the oxygen as it's being destroyed by solar radiation. After over a century of trying to figure out other ways this could happen, we haven't found any. That's the best we've got," she shrugged. The crowd grew quiet.

"And it's even worse than that to be honest," she continued, speaking plainly and seemingly unaware or unconcerned that she was bringing the crowd down. "That says nothing about whether or not the life there is digestible to us of course, or whether or not earth plants can grow in its soil, or whether or not there are exotic diseases there, or whether or not they'll even be similar enough to us genetically to be able to infect us. Bottom line is, we won't know if we can survive there until we land and try."

"Well, that certainly made it sound like the most elaborate and expensive death cult of all time," Lucas said to his brother after the presentation. He took a drink before continuing. "And that Sasha Tyson... well, she certainly knows how to work a crowd doesn't she?" He was being sarcastic, but the woman had had a certain detachment that Markus appreciated. He could understand why others could find it off putting though. Most people tended to live in very shielded bubbles around their head, and people with dispositions like that had the habit of bursting them.

"I think it's noble," Molly stated quietly but with certainty.

"Noble?" Markus asked.

"Yeah... I mean, they'll never know if it works or not. Look at them," she pointed over to the table where Sadhika, Wiremu, and Sasha were sitting. "They're middle aged at best. They said it's a hundred and fifty year mission. They'll be lucky to make it to the end of the first burn. All this effort, all this expense... for a dream they'll not only never see realized themselves, but will never even get to find out if it was successful!"

"Makes you wonder why..." Markus said as he started to wonder himself.

Lucas seemed to ignore Markus' musings. "Right, well, in any case, hopefully this raffle they've come up with puts them well over the top of what they owe us." A woman in the crowd called to Lucas and he left to go speak with her.

"You should make a donation to get a raffle ticket," Molly urged.

"You said that before, I thought you were joking."

"I guess I was," she conceded. "But now I'm not."

"What's changed?"

"I find myself wondering what would make someone choose to commit to a dream they'll never get to see realized?" Molly asked with a thousand-yard stare.

"I don't know."

"Well I think it's worth finding out."

"Alright then, let's find out." He took her hand and led her over to the table where the mission founders were sitting. "May we join you?" he asked. He noticed as over a fraction of a second the four seated at the table recognized Molly, recognized what she was, looked at each other, and then acknowledged amongst themselves that they weren't going to say anything about it. He was used to it, and it was better than any other possible reaction he'd witnessed.

"Of course, of course," Sadhika said while gesturing to the empty seats. "This is Kim In-Su, the fourth member of our little team here."

Markus could tell they'd worked together for years by the ease they seemed to have with each other, and the rich unspoken communication between them he observed only snippets of. He nodded to acknowledge the older Asian man as they sat down. He was almost as famous as Sadhika but for entirely different reasons. While Sadhika had revolutionized the synthetic biology industry and made her fortune selling related hardware, Kim In-Su was one of the most famous contemporary writers in the world, famous for everything from poetry to novels in several languages. What connection he had to them and what purpose he served in their team, Markus had no idea.

"I was wondering..." Molly started, "why." The four chuckled. "Not why the mission-"

"Though that's my next question." Markus playfully interjected. It didn't land with them though; their attention was held rather firmly by Molly.

"I'm wondering why you individually would choose to go. Why you would permanently commit the rest of your life to a cause that you not only won't be able to see realized, but won't even get to find out if it all works out in the end or not?"

"Two answers," Sadhika smiled. She had the slight early touches of an alcohol slur. "As for the first, it's really the kind of thing you either get or you don't. The words are 'to be part of something bigger than myself, to serve a greater purpose than my own'. But if they don't mean anything to you, if that sentiment doesn't resonate something in your bones, then I can't explain it in a way that will make you understand. In-Su might have better luck doing that with his poetry!" She laughed as she put a hand on In-Su's shoulder, who only smiled and took a sip of his drink.

"But you'll never get to see it," Molly reiterated

"No, but I'll have done it." Sadhika retorted with electricity in her eyes.

This left Markus to fall deeply into his thoughts, but Molly was still quite engaged. "And the other?" she asked. "You said there were two answers?"

"The other thing is we're cheating," Wiremu said gruffly.

Molly tilted her head and gave an expression which was half confusion, half entirely charmed by him regardless. She then offered her expression to the others seated around the table.

"We had ourselves simulated," Sasha explained.

"Oh?" Molly was surprised.

"The four of us have been simulated and they're in storage on the ship. They'll be activated once we arrive at Haven."

"Haven?" Markus woke up to ask when they named the planet.

"It's... not anything official," Sadhika clarified. "We started referring to it as a haven like, as in a haven in the distant void and it just kind of stuck."

"Simulated hunh?" Molly asked, fully aware that they were aware she was a sim. "That's fun. And you think that this will allow you to be there in a sort of way when it all goes down?"

Sadhika shrugged. It was unclear if the simulant was preparing to take offence at the notion.

"Well, I guess that's the best you meat bags can really hope for isn't it?" she mused to disarm the table as she popped the cherry from her drink into her mouth.

As they left the table, Markus led them to the donation table. Looking towards the target light at the terminal behind the volunteers, it flashed green to acknowledge his ping, which in this case carried the instructions to transfer the month's worth of basic he'd recovered from the company earlier today, plus one dollar into the pot, and the large animation of a thermometer bumped up a small notch. It was nearly halfway at this point, and it looked like they were going to hit thirty million after all. He imagined the others were probably donating much more at a time.

His brother grabbed his arm firmly and spun him around. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Lucas asked angrily.

"I'm donating, hopefully I win the spot!" He was just screwing with his brother, but somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, the idea had established the tiniest of beach heads.

"You're a fucking idiot. I assume I can expect you in again tomorrow morning to cash in more stock for this?" He was clearly annoyed with his little brother but was apparently choosing to lean more towards teasing.

Markus just shrugged with a devious smile. Lucas moved off to continue schmoozing, and Molly excused herself to the rest room. He noticed Sadhika get up from the table as she took a vid call and headed out to the balcony. Markus followed her out, but respectfully stood far enough away so as to not overhear her conversation other than to know when it had ended. He leaned over the balcony and looked out over the city from sixty or so floors up. He thought about all of the people down there and out there just living their lives. Then he thought about all of the people who had long since lived their lives. The uncounted multitudes of previous generations now long gone, their only legacy... us, still being here.

Sadhika ended her call, and similarly looked out over the city. Markus approached her.

"I donated," he said, trying not to startle her with his unannounced presence. "One month's basic plus one dollar."

"Hoping to join us now are you?" Sadhika smiled at him. It was a different kind of smile here outside alone with him, one with a hint of suggestion. She turned around and leaned back against the railings with her hands out to her sides, arching her back over the railing.

"I'm not sure." He turned to look at all the glass and lights of the night time Vancouver skyline. "Ninety-nine percent just to annoy my brother," he admitted.

"Oh so you're that brother," Sadhika said with a roll of her eyes. "I have a brother like that. Huge pain in my ass. You can only imagine what he thought of me 'pissing away my entire fortune' as he put it."

"You have all this careful screening for every participant of the mission, maximum control over all aspects of everything that goes out, and in the eleventh hour you parachute in some rich asshole to spin the whole mix?"

"Who ever said capitalism wasn't alive and well in our supposed socialist utopia?"

Markus chuckled. "Still, it's... pretty extreme though." he said a little more seriously. "Do you ever think about the people who come after you? The ones who have to live and die on your ship through no choice of their own, utterly devoid of any meaningful choices in their lives?"

"Tell me about the other one percent," she asked, turning to look out at the world with him instead of answering his question. Markus made a mental note of her evading the question.


"You said ninety-nine percent to piss off your brother. Tell me about the other one percent."

Markus didn't know what to say at first. Eventually he just repeated her words that were still gnawing at his consciousness. "To be part of something bigger than myself, to serve a greater purpose than my own. You said you either felt that in your bones or you didn't, that it can't be explained."

"And you feel it." Her speech was much softer now, perhaps she'd sensed he was more vulnerable than she'd imagined and was adjusting.

"Let's just say that one percent does."


"I've certainly felt the absence of something my whole life. It's weighed on me. But I've never understood it, never been able to articulate it. But what you said gave it words. I always knew it was about purpose, about not feeling one, but I never thought there could be any solution."

"You don't think meaning and purpose just drop out of the sky, do you?" Sadhika asked. "That it just finds you? You can't think that if you have any real sense of self-determination. I don't know about you, but myself I'd balk at any purpose coming looking for me . Real purpose, purpose with teeth is something you have to choose to attach your destiny to. Meaning only exists in as much as we construct it for ourselves. That's what's brave about living a real life Markus, knowing it's all for nothing, but doing it anyways. Doing it anyways if only to defy the absurdity of it all instead of just surrendering to it."

" Real life, hunh?" Molly interrupted. Markus felt like he'd been caught despite not doing anything wrong. She had that innocent look which Markus still could never tell if it was genuine innocence or if she was just waiting for him to incriminate himself.

"I didn't mean real as in biological versus synthetic," Sadhika attempted to explain. "The kind of real I'm talking about is the same for both of us."

"I don't think we have much in common," Molly answered somewhat icily. Markus figured she was jealous, and that he was in for a lot of smoothing over later tonight.

Sadhika's gaze at Molly lingered as though not sure if wise to continue. "You're a Maggie King, right?"

"I was modelled after Maggie King, yes." Molly answered defensively.

Sadhika held up her hands. "I meant no offence. All I mean is that if you're here, then you've clearly transitioned, or are in the middle of doing so. That presents you with the same dilemma as Markus and I face. You've been given a life, and you've been given freedom. What we can and can't do with those two things, how to make your life one worth having been lived, how to bridge the gulfs between our needs and our means, these things will haunt you now as much they haunt us."

Sadhika finished the rest of the liquid in her glass and turned to head back in. "Thank you for the donation Markus. And Molly, Godspeed on your journey," she said with sloppy salute of her drink hand. Maybe she was more drunk than Markus had thought.

Back inside, the thermometer graphic had reached the top, and everyone was in a pretty good mood as they started the raffle draw. They had a big drum with a hand crank at the front with the names of everyone who had donated enough. Sadhika was cranking the drum with enthusiasm as she called Lucas on stage.

"Come on Bowland, this is all for you anyways," she teased as the crowd encouraged him ever more loudly. He held up his hands in the standard 'okay, okay...' gesture and made his way up to the stage. Sadhika stopped the drum, released the clasp, and opened the door. She held her arm out to Lucas in invitation, while performing a comical impression of a game show prize girl.

Lucas reached in, rooted around, then pulled out a paper. "And the winner is..." he didn't answer when he read the name, instead he just let his jaw go slack. Sadhika looked over and read the name. She nearly doubled over in laughter, then took the paper from him and announced: "Markus Bowland, congratulations!"

Markus put his head down and rubbed his temples with his thumb and middle finger. 'Well that happened...' he thought.

Lucas came down from the stage to join Markus and Molly as Sadhika explained that they were done for the evening, but that everyone was more than welcome to stick around and enjoy their last fancy party on Earth with them.

"You're not going obviously." Lucas informed Markus.

"Obviously." Markus wasn't as certain as he tried to seem, but he definitely wanted to maintain that front for the rest of the evening. "Maybe I could sell it. I bet it would go for quite a bit on the open market."

Lucas gave him a look that suggested he had some small doubt about Markus' sincerity, but pushed past it, and continued to schmooze. No doubt he was going to try to entice people to continue to donate since it went directly into Bowland Power Systems' revenue.

"It wouldn't be crazy for you to go," Molly softly suggested.

"Yes it would," he argued. "I mean that's never stopped me before," he chuckled, "but yeah. It would be crazy. This whole mission is crazy. I get devoting my life to something if it's the right thing, but to throw it away on this... this crap shoot," he said, gesturing to the mission founders with a bit of a head shake.

"Maybe it loses all meaning if you get to know the outcome."

"I don't know, but... maybe that's the point."

"What do you mean?" Markus insisted with some frustration.

"I don't know Markus, okay!?" Her agitation was sudden and sharp. Half the room turned to take notice before losing interest again. "But maybe that's the point..."

"Hey, okay. Okay. Whatever it is, we'll figure it out, okay?" She was pouting, not for attention, it's just how she got when she'd absorbed too much to process, and needed time to resolve her experiences. Markus sometimes forgot that there was sometimes a disconnect between what each of them found easy or hard.

Quite soon the crowd started gradually dissipating until all that was left were the four mission founders around a table with Lucas. Markus and Molly were putting their coats on and getting ready to leave themselves as they approached the table to say goodbye to everyone. In-Su's demeanor had changed and was now scrutinizing Markus very carefully. The scrutiny was so careful it made him wonder how long In-Su had been scrutinizing him before he'd noticed. The man was looking at him as though he were evaluating what order he chose to eat the items in his lunch on the third of March in the fourth grade. It made him quite uncomfortable but he tried to ignore it.

"So your brother tells us you won't be joining us?" Sadhika asked.

"My brother likes to speak for me."

"So not out of the question?"

Markus rubbed his chin as he looked over at Lucas and then back at Sadhika. He just shrugged and smiled. Lucas was not amused but remained professional. "It looks like you've got your wad, what was the final count?"

"Thirty-eight point seven mil." Lucas answered. "Not bad for a night's work."

"Then I guess you're all square then."

"Speaking of which Markus," Sadhika said, "Your brother will be part of the team overseeing the startup and shake down of the reactor in a couple days. I've invited him to tour the New Horizon beforehand, you should join us." Sadhika was still holding her liquor relatively well, but was clearly making a concerted effort to play innocent. "You should have a chance to see what you're hoping to sell to the highest bidder."

Markus looked at Lucas with a 'really?' look. Lucas shrugged. "Thank you. I think I will. I don't get up to orbit enough anyways. I assume my invitation include a plus one?" Sadhika looked at Molly clutching Markus' right arm and he saw her realize he meant his simulant girlfriend. She looked back at him and with a subtle kind of smile he couldn't quite identify and only barely registered, she replied: "Of course."