Chasing Stars: Chapter 5

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There were very few applications for which petroleum was still essential in the mid-22nd century. The jet powered aircraft under which the orbiter Markus was sitting in was being attached to was one such continuing emission source.

He'd travelled on commercial orb-liners before, but never private. It was usually a privilege reserved for those even wealthier than the Bowland family. This one existed more out of necessity than luxury though. The New Horizon team couldn't rely on commercial travel and shipping given their hectic and demanding schedule and security, so a private orbiter was rolled into the overall cost estimates for the project. It was bought and paid for, and after the gala a couple nights earlier, fuel cost wouldn't be a problem.

The orbiter was being secured to a much larger launcher craft. Markus saw Molly watching with rapt attention as it rolled over top of them, and then lowered onto the secure mounting points between mother and daughter craft.

There were a series of softly felt jolts as their orbiter was secured to the mother craft. It had no crew, and a fairly simple design. It was as light as possible, but had long delicate looking plastic and carbon fiber wings designed to maximize lift at high altitudes. On each wing, four powerful jet engines were moulded into the wings, fed by a gaping air intake at the nose of the craft.

Molly looked back at him nervously, and it occurred to him that she must never have been to orbit before. He'd certainly never taken her; it's not the kind of thing one typically does with their prostitute, and she hadn't had the autonomy and freedom to get up by herself before they were together. "It's your first time, isn't it?"

"Yes," she answered with wide eyes somewhere between fear and excitement.

"Honestly Molly, if I'd have realized that earlier I would have taken you up just for fun. Everyone should go at least once."

And most people did make it to orbit at some point in their lives at one point or another at least. It was much like intercontinental travel. A rare luxury for most, a work requirement for some, and for the very few, something fun to do on the weekend. There was a fair bit to do up out of the world. There were places to visit out there in the solar system, but they were all still dependent on Earth's existence in one way or another for their continued survival.

"I'm just happy to be going now…" She was clearly more interested in watching the take off than engaging with Markus. He didn't mind; he remembered how exciting it was when he went up for the first time.

Two cycles from the warning klaxon blared a warning to all inside and out of their impending launch, and he watched with her out her window as lights on the side of the launch tunnel started to move past them. They could hear the jet engines spool up to full power in anticipation of their need, the computers testing for any error codes which would require them to emergency brake the whole assembly if it could still be done without killing the passengers.

Magnetic linear accelerators worked against metal strips along the length of the mother aircraft, causing the lights out the window to speed up to the point at which they seemed a punctuated continuous stream of light racing before their eyes. A single klaxon blast warned of the impending upturn and Markus braced himself. The launcher's path veered upwards towards the sky, pressing the passengers into their seat with some force.

Molly let out a small whimper of pain as the hypnotic stream of lights outside the window was replaced with the blinding might of the late morning sun glaring at her as they emerged out of the launch tube.

"Sorry I forgot to warn you about that… it used to get me every time before I learned my lesson too."

Molly punched him gently in the arm. "Asshole…" she teased.

Markus looked over at his brother across the aisle. His face revealed nothing, but his white knuckles offered much more insight.

Lucas hated travel to and from orbit ever since their parents had died. It was understandable, but Marks had been much younger and had made no such associations. Lucas was able to make the trip, and was quite practiced at feigning comfort with the process, but if he could ever send someone else to orbit in his place he surely would. This contract was too important to leave the final important details to underlings. Lucas had started out as a plasma physics engineer at the company and worked his way up, and he still wasn't afraid of getting his hands dirty when it mattered.

Markus began to worry he was going to rip the foam arm rest off of the chair, and he wondered what might be adding to his stress. Probably just how important this job was, he figured.

The mother craft took them to ever higher altitude and speed. Once at the maximum altitude which the aerodynamics of the wing could carry them, three long klaxon blasts warned everyone of the most dangerous and physically demanding part of the process.

With a jolt their seats fell under them and they were held in by their restraints as the orbiter uncoupled from underneath the aircraft. Once the two vehicles were at a safe distance from each other, They were all slammed into the back of his seat as the oxygen-hydrogen rocket engines at the back of the craft exploded to life.

There wasn't much to do during the dozen or so minutes it took to get up to orbital speeds, it was usually too loud and vibrating to think let alone speak. He did find himself looking over at Molly as she looked out the window at the darkening sky.

He wasn't sure what to do with her. He was pretty sure he loved her, but he was pretty jaded on the idea of love overall. He'd had some very intense love affairs, a couple that almost destroyed him in one way or another a time or two. He'd been alone for quite a while before Molly, seeing various sexims before leaning exclusively towards her. They wound up just talking as often as they'd have sex. He found her simplicity soothing. There were no stakes, no risk.

They'd discuss philosophy as Markus took a deeper interest in her, and became more interested in her nature, in her sense of self. He suspected that it was these conversations which had caused her to fault, and he was happy with that. She insisted it was a lot of things, but he could have a big ego sometimes.

He enjoyed what they had, but cracks had started to show. He wasn't sure how to describe it as anything other than a 'flatness' to her that he was noticing more and more. He didn't know if it was him becoming ever more aware of the finite limitations of her programming, or if it was the absence of something between them. It had been a long time since he'd really fallen in love hard with someone, and he was at the point of being unsure if he just couldn't anymore, if it was exclusively an artifact of youth, or if he just couldn't feel it with her.

And she had expressed her own concerns about him as well. She was blessedly much more direct than he was though, much less inclined to keep things to herself. She said it was hard enough keeping things straight without deception and censorship. She had begun to wonder if it was appropriate for them to be together given how they'd met. He asked her if she wanted to stop and she said no, but it somehow wedged into their relationship the understanding that what they had couldn't last forever. Her journey was just beginning and it was larger than him.

The last vestiges of blue disappeared as a blanket of stars fell over their view out the window. If they looked up they could see a brilliant waxing Earth above their heads as the underside of the shuttle guarded them from the sun. The rocket engine throttled down to zero, and they were left floating in their restraints.

"There it is," Sadhika called out, pointing through their window from her seat.

Markus and Molly saw the ship come into view. It was something to see it in person. The habitat ring was half a kilometer wide, and light glinted off of one large section. The light flared at them and it stung his eyes for a brief moment before the windows' automatic filters adjusted.

"What is that?" Markus asked, "that high reflective?"

"The arboretum," In-Su answered from behind him. It was the first time he'd heard the old man speak in person.

They approached the ship on puffs of air and docked on the central section just aft of the struts connecting it to the ring. Markus had a brief private conversation with Molly to offer advice on moving around in microgravity after realizing this had to be her first time. He wasn't as experienced as some, but he could get around pretty easily. He'd never spent enough time in microgravity for it to ever come to feel normal though.

Sadhika unclipped her harness restraints and moved over to open the hatch on what used to be the ceiling. Markus and Lucas exchanged a look of curiosity. They were used to travelling commercially, where attendants opened the hatches and controlled their exit. This ad hoc personal ship and its ensuing absence of familiarity made things more interesting for them. Sadhika said nothing as she eagerly pulled herself up through the open hatch. Wiremu held up his hand in invitation for them to follow her, and following Lucas, Markus pulled himself through to see Sadhika with her feet secured in rungs along one surface.

"Welcome aboard the New Horizon," she beamed after Molly had poked her head up. "I can't wait to show you what we've done here."

After they all climbed through the strut down onto firm footing on the upper most level of the habitat ring, the other three mission founders broke off to attend to preparations while Sadhika conducted the promised tour. After an elevator trip down to the lowest level, she led them to a nearby door not far down the wide central hallway.

"This is your suite," she said as she opened the door and invited them in.

"Well, the suite in question, at least," Markus reminded her as he stepped in. It struck him that whoever did assume the spot would probably die in this room. This would be their last living quarters.

It was a comfortable enough size for one person, well-lit and clean, obviously hardly touched since it was originally constructed and furnished. It had a small kitchenette against the wall to his right, and further along on the same side was the dining area. To his left were the open doors to the bathroom and bedroom. At the far end of the rectangular space was the living room which had a large circular window in the floor. As he approaches the portal Markus found the Earth just hanging there outside the window, with the view slowly changing as the ship's ring he was standing in and the planet below him both slowly revolved.

"You have this small kitchen here," Sadhika waved a hand towards it, "but there are meals in the main hall four times a day and most people are expected to eat the majority of their meals there. But, if you miss it or don't like what's served you can just cook your own food in here. There's an onboard grocery where you can find schmeat and schmilk from our labs, and fruits and vegetables from the arboretum gardens and aeroponics bay."

"What are people expected to contribute along the way for the ship?" Lucas asked. Markus was surprised at his being interested enough to ask. Maybe he was just being business politely curious to his important client.

"We break it down by brain and body hours," Sadhika explained. "twenty brain hours and twenty body hours a week, that's mental tasks and physical tasks. We'll use weekly signup sheets for the jobs. Some aren't very pleasant so you'll want to be proactive on that."

"That's not too bad," Molly remarked.

"The life task as well," Sadhika made sure to add as she watched them roam the space, opening cupboards and checking toilets. "Everyone is required to be willing to risk their life for the good of the ship and crew, but they can only be asked once."

"Yes I saw that, it's kind of extreme to literally put that into the contract isn't it?" Markus challenged.

"Call it a small insurance policy," Sadhika retorted with a shrug through her crossed arms as she leaned against the frame of the open door. "I don't want anyone to be on this ship after we launch who isn't that committed."

"Maybe I should put that clause into the standard Boland Power Systems contract," Lucas mused.

"Guess you'd better soak up that view now while you can, hunh?" he suggested to Sadhika with a side smile before looking back out the window.

Sadhika shrugged indifferently. "I think a lot more about the view on the other side."

"I wanted to apologize for the other night," Sadhika offered discretely to Markus as Lucas and Molly trailed behind discussing something they'd noticed about the ship.

"For what?"

She looked at him with a hint of disbelief "Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought."

"I'm aware of nothing you need to apologize for."
"Good."

"What's next?"

Sadhika smiled. "The crown jewel."

The hallway came to an end.

Behind them the floor curved up and out of sight behind the ceiling, but before them was a large hatched doorway, more robust than any other he'd seen so far.

"When we built the ship," she began to explain as she winced at the control panel on the wall beside her. It flashed credential clearing in response, and started the motors which rotated the imposing portal up and away. "We started working on this part first after we had the core framing up."

"Wow…" Markus involuntarily marveled as the view inside was revealed. It looked like a magic gateway to a path in a lush, dense temperate rainforest like back home.

"We had to build it first because it required the most lead time and fine tuning. We had to build a self-contained complex ecosystem, and we failed several times before we got it to work. This is orders of magnitude larger than any arboretum in the solar system," she beamed.

"So this is for your air?" Molly asked as they began making their way through the snaking path. Holes in the canopy along the way revealed the several stories high glass ceiling which showed the central section of the ship beyond and the other side of the habitat ring further afield.

"Air yes, food too, but more intangible reason as well."

"Such as?" Lucas asked.

"Nature." Molly answered for her thoughtfully.

Sadhika seemed a touch surprised at her correct response. "Yes, it's for the psychological health of the crew as well, that's why we put so much work into it being a place to be, a place where people can be with nature." She waved her hand around at the forest around them. "It has proven mental health benefits."

Lucas found the recreation astounding. From soil to canopy it was rich with life, the only things missing he presumed was animal life. He thought that until he saw something rustle from one tree to another. "What was that?" he asked, almost startled.

"Bat," Sadhika answered matter-of-factly. "We need to manage complex microscopic and insect scale elements. We do this up to the level of things that eat insects, all heavily modified of course."

"Of course," Lucas said with a look at Markus that said: 'can you believe this shit?'

As they progressed along the path, they kept coming across things which seemed rather out of place. At one point he saw a collection of banana palms, which seemed completely out of place in this kind of forest, but you had to be right in front of them in order to see that they were there at all. This is what he found over and over, and he wondered if this was the purpose of the ever winding pathway. He was particularly relieved to see the coffee shrubs when he came across them.

They occasionally passed park benches which Markus observed as places which would probably become one of his favourites on the ship after they left. If he came along that was, he reminded himself.

As they rounded the corner, they found In-Su sitting alone on one of the benches. He was looking up to the sky and tapping a pencil softly against his angular chin with a paper notebook open on his lap. His straight jet-black hair came down below his ears, but not so low as his sharp jawline.

"In-Su!" Sadhika exclaimed at sight of him. "I was just showing our guests here our accomplishments.

"What do you think of our garden?" In-Su asked the three newcomers. "I designed it and Sadhika made it."

"With some help obviously," Sadhika chimed in with feigned modesty.

"Why did you settle on the forests outside Vancouver?" Markus asked.

"Didn't, actually." In-Su corrected his misattribution. "It is based on the Korea rainforests, but we did study all incarnations of coastal temperate rainforest, the pacific northwest of North America included."

"It's amazing, I've never seen anything like it," Markus admitted in admiration.

"That's because nothing like it has ever existed before."

They left In-Su to his notebook and continued down the circuitous path until it eventually found the heavy door leading back into the rest of the ship. They made their way through a section with very few doors on either side, which Sadhika explained was the section containing the massive physical data archives. They passed various people in the main hallway, all seemingly preoccupied with whatever they'd been tasked with. He wasn't entirely sure why, but he was surprised to see everyone just wearing street clothes instead of some sort of uniform.

Just beyond the archives section Sadhika stopped in front of one of the doors.

"This is my toybox," she said with smiling eyes, "also known as the bio lab," she finished as she opened the door for them.

Markus was surprised that it appeared no larger than the main living space of his supposed quarters on board. Two opposite walls were entirely covered with drawer fronts arranged in a grid, each about a quarter meter squared. There were two women in the room, one of whom was observing a monitor displaying the optical output from a microscope. On the display were several small clusters of circles; they appeared to be zygotes after only a couple rounds of division. At the far end of the room the other older plumper woman was sitting reclined in a chair, intently engaged with her medium sized scroll and tapping at it with a stylus. They both looked up inquisitively as the door opened.

The two scrambled to their feet when they saw Sadhika enter behind the strangers. "Master Sengupta! What can we do for you!"

"Again, just Sadhika please, and nothing right now, don't worry. I'm just showing these find folks around some of the ship. This is Markus and Lucas Bowland of Bowland Power Systems, and this is their… friend, Molly" Friendly waves went all around. People didn't tend to shake hands much anymore. No one really knew why, it had simply fallen out of fashion.

"What do you do here?" Markus asked. He'd met enough academics to know that he only had to get them started, and then the hard part would be getting them to shut up again.

"Well, our first job after we launch is to screen the crew for discrete genetic anomalies," the older woman answered. "Primary testing was to screen out people with existing anomalies, but it will be our job to project potential problems between genomes, and to direct breeding away from those potential problems. Our second responsibility is to keep living gametes from every individual we launch with through our eventual arrival, so we can match an original launcher's gametes with someone several generations down the line if we want or need to. Our third responsibility is to do just that, the selective genetic combination, incubation, and implantation."

"Right off the brochure," Sadhika teased her.

"Along this wall," she motioned towards the surfaces covered with grids of drawers, apparently choosing to ignore Sadhika's comment, "we have storage capacity for twenty-five hundred live gamete samples." One of the drawers along the wall opened, presumably in response to a thought from his host. Condensation mist rushed out as the warm ambient air met the chilled air from inside the refrigerated chamber.

Markus could now see that the drawer front was just a cover, and that attached to the inside was a cylindrical central beam running far back into the wall; how far he couldn't tell. Opaque spheres were arranged around the central beam in a circle, in rows lined up one after another, extending as far into the wall as he could see. A pale blue light emanated from the inside chamber, a light near to what happened to be Markus' favourite colour.

"Twenty-five hundred, wow…" Markus was becoming genuinely impressed. He was starting to realize that this cramped space was not devoid of advanced technologies, but rather that it was a pinnacle of their miniaturization and integration. "Brahma Biotech?" he turned to inquire of Sadhika. This was the name of the conglomerate she'd founded, and the banner under which she'd taken over the world.

"Of course, only the best," Sadhika winked. "We can't exactly order replacements along the way, you know? We have practical needs for cutting edge biotech, but it was also important to me that we have the means to conduct pure research along the way and once there."

"Why?" Markus asked. "Pretty soon there'll be no practical way to communicate it to the rest of the existing body of scientific knowledge."

"Well then we'll just have to create our own won't we?" she answered back with the flash of a smile.

Fifteen minutes later the three were standing outside another door and Sadhika's expression changed. The pride was still there, but back in her eyes was a hint of that dangerously playful look from the other night.

"Molly I think you'll find this room particularly interesting." The door slid open. "This is our general secure storage bay. Weapons, hazardous materials, anything with restricted access is all here. Aside from the bridge it is the most secure part of the ship and can serve as a second bridge in an emergency. Our simulants aren't mission critical, so we don't have a lot of resources to repair and maintain them."

She led them in and then directed a panel on the wall to reveal the simulants. Four large panels slid up and out of view to reveal the lifeless forms they had concealed. "We say they're to coordinate the initial research and colonization of Haven, but we're not exactly shy about how self-indulgent it kind of is."

Sadhika watched as Molly seemed to stop listening and got very close to the Sadhika simulant's face and scrutinized it to a degree Markus couldn't imagine. She then looks over at the human Sadhika.

"Impressive recreation," she admired purely as she moved on to the face of the next. The Wiremu Tynes simulant was much more intimidating in this state than in human form. He struck Markus as a sentinel waiting to strike them down if they made a wrong move.

"I think given everything you've done you're entitled to a little self-indulgence?" Lucas suggested with some humour.

"Agreed." Markus affirmed. Sadhika nodded in a way that suggested she appreciated their positive thoughts on the matter if on offer, but also that they affected her view of the situation not at all.

"They're inactive…" Molly said in a drifting off way which only partly included question in the comment.

"Yup," Sadhika affirmed as she watched Molly move onto the next. "Can't deactivate them after you start 'em up so we're waiting." She seemed to hesitate before adding: "I'm sure you of all people can imagine us not wanting to have them walking around on the ship with us."

"No, but you could have just sent them and stayed behind yourselves," Lucas suggested. "It's not too late," he laughed, "you could still simulate the whole crew and just send them!"

"And what a marvelous accomplishment that would be for the simulants," Sadhika stated a little too icily.

Molly halted her approach to the fourth simulant and looked over at Sadhika to assess if she should perceive what she said as some sort of threat or insult, but apparently decided not. She continued on to scrutinize the Sasha simulant.

"It's creepy," Molly offered as she finished her assessment. "even for me."

"How so?" Markus asked.

"I've never seen a pre-activated sim before. They look so real but… they really seem like something between alive and dead don't they? It's like their motionlessness gives away their artificiality"

"This is how we hope to influence the arrival in a way we otherwise couldn't," Sadhika explained. "We don't know what effect full lifetimes of isolation in deep space will do to the crew psychologically or politically. These exist to right the ship so to speak, if there's trouble along the way. We can also send them down to the planet first, invulnerable as they will be to the alien biology, for our initial surface reconnaissance."

"Given everything you've put into this mission Sadhika," Lucas offered, "you've definitely earned whatever bit of self-indulgence this may be."

"Thank you," Sadhika nodded with a well-rehearsed look of grateful humility. "Next up, core room."