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Denizens: 15 - Lightship

“Well, as the man said, last chance to turn around.” Nobody spoke, and for a moment there was silence on the bridge. Then Jonathan said, “I don’t wish to impose on anyone, Cal, but do you think it would be all right if I said a short prayer before we begin our journey? Sort of a benediction, if you like.”

A prayer is said, then Cal fires the attitude thrusters and the ship drives out of orbit and away from their home world. They watch quietly as the earth moves out of their forward view screens and the ship heads towards deep space...

Oh boy! Master story-teller Brian William Neal makes you feel as though you are in the spaceship, heading out on the greatest journey every undertaken by humans.

To read earlier chapters of this thrilling novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.


BOOK TWO

EXODUS

Here we go, here we go, here we go….” - English football supporter’s chant.

Part 3

Two Journeys

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive…..”
Robert Louis Stevenson

**

Kennedy Space Center
April 9th, 2033

“…three, two, one, ignition. We have liftoff.”

With the calm, matter-of-fact voice of the mission countdown sounding in their suit helmets, the four astronauts braced themselves for the acceleration they knew would follow. They were not disappointed.

Feels like someone’s sitting on my chest, thought Bill O’Rourke as the shuttle climbed into the hazy Florida sky. Beside him, the suited figure of Jonathan Edge sat secured in his acceleration chair. Because he had no control of his legs, they had strapped his ankles together; otherwise, he wore the same harness as the others. Jonathan sat immobile, gloved hands gripping the arms of the chair, lips moving in silent prayer behind the visor of his helmet.

In the two seats in front of them, Cal and Karen felt the acceleration build. Cal watched, with professional admiration, the two shuttle pilots, Butzbach and Miller, both of whom he knew from the space program quietly going about their business, apparently unaffected by the gee forces. Guiltily, Cal realized that they were just as affected as the rest of them; the difference was, the pilots were dealing with it. Cal gritted his teeth, reminded himself he was an astronaut, and proceeded to do the same.

Each of the four team members had spent the previous night apart from the others, preferring to be either alone or among strangers on their last night on earth. Cal had gone to one of the space center’s bars and had tried to get drunk, but had found himself wishing Joe was there, and had eventually returned to his room and slept until he was called to the ready room.

Jonathan had spent the last few hours out on the tarmac under the stars, sometimes in thought and sometimes in prayer. He thought often of his friend; he did not normally believe in premonitions, but he had a strong feeling he would not see the Irishman again, and so had said his final good-byes under the starry canopy.

Karen had spent the time in her room, trying to sleep but with little success. She had lost none of her determination that she would put up a good showing, and somehow retain her lost status as a doctor, but she was confused by other feelings, long buried, that were beginning to surface. She thought about the attention she was receiving from Bill O’Rourke, and, just before sleep claimed her, she found herself wondering why it wasn’t the lean, quiet Air Force colonel who was showing interest.

Bill, like Cal, went to another of the bars on the base, but unlike the mission commander, managed to get himself quietly plastered. After a while, he found himself becoming maudlin and wandered the base until he found a movie theater that was showing a western. There, he immersed himself in sagebrush and horseflesh until he felt he could sleep, then returned to his room.

The roar from the powerful fusion engines of the shuttle diminished as they passed the speed of sound, then disappeared altogether, leaving just a quiet hum that was more a vibration than sound. The pressure continued and the team members were pressed back in their seats. Just when Karen felt she could stand it no longer, it began to ease, then quickly diminished to nothing. She sat still, as she had been taught, and took several deep breaths. After a few moments, she turned her head and looked out of the portal next to her chair, but saw only blackness. Then the pinpoints of the stars began to resolve in her vision, and the realization hit her; they were actually in space!

Staring in wonder out of the portal on his side of the shuttle, Jonathan could see the curve of the earth, shimmering with a faint golden aura. He thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. His gaze took in the mottled blue and white of the oceans and clouds, and the indistinct masses of green and brown land, seen through the thin haze of the atmosphere. That shallow layer, so insubstantial that above four miles it could not support life, was all that stood between man and extinction. He pondered the complexity, the exactness of God’s plan, and wondered at the sight. Most of all, he was struck by the planet’s vastness. In galactic terms, the earth may be an insignificant world out on the edge of nowhere; seen like this, however, up close and personal, it was huge.
Turning ceaselessly, never stopping or even varying in the slightest from its eons-old schedule; surely such precision could not be accidental, the result of purely random occurrences. Surely, he thought, here was proof, if any was needed, of the existence of God. For a moment, he thought of Sean, already so far away. If only he could see this. After a moment, he turned away from the window and, as he had resolved, put thoughts of earth from his mind.

Jonathan looked around the shuttle; the others seemed withdrawn and pensive, just as he knew he must appear to them. The realization that they were finally, really on their way was difficult to come to terms with, and each of them was coping in the same way. A moment later, their introspective meditation was broken by the soft Texas drawl of the shuttle commander, Colonel Butzbach.

“If y’all care to look ahead, y’might just be able to see our destination.”

The four craned in their seats, trying to see through the portals, and Cal exclaimed, “There she is! Eleven o’clock.”

As the others strained to see, and the pilots began the maneuvers to match orbit and trajectory with the waiting lightship, Cal watched it approach. At first, it appeared as a silvery ball, little different from the millions of stars, but it grew in size rapidly. After a few minutes, it was clearly visible, and soon they could even make out the markings on its hull. From behind him, he heard Bill mutter, “That’s no moon, that’s a space station,” but he didn’t have time to ponder who or what the man was quoting.

Slowly, the Federation logo became clear to the approaching astronauts. Their excitement grew as they drew closer, and Cal felt a knot of nervousness in his stomach. This was it; this was the real thing. God, he thought, look at the size of it!

The ship that was to take them on their epic journey was an almost perfect sphere, measuring seventy-five meters in diameter. Much of its internal area was taken up by the propulsion system, Cal knew, and the slightly flattened section on one side that marred its otherwise spherical perfection was the external housing surrounding the engine outlets.

From there, the almost unimaginable force produced by the six huge fusion engines, the largest ever constructed, would power them through space at unprecedented velocities. At those speeds, certain safety precautions had to be taken, one in particular. For the duration of the journey, the entire vessel would be surrounded by an intense magnetic field generated by the power plant. Space, as they all knew, was anything but empty, and contact with even the smallest particle at the speeds they would be reaching could be disastrous. If the field were to fail, the consequences did not bear thinking about. Mistakes in the harsh environment into which they were venturing were not forgiven.

The strident sound of an alarm buzzer brought the four out of their individual musing, sounding throughout the shuttle. They looked anxiously at each other, wondering what disaster was about to befall them, even before they had boarded their ship.

“Relax, folks,” said the pilot. “That’s just a proximity alarm to tell us what we already know. We’re docking with the Hermes now.”

A few moments later there was a satisfying clunk, felt rather than heard, as the shuttle married its docking facility with that of the lightship. Colonel Butzbach turned in his seat and addressed them all.

“Well, this is it, folks. All ashore that’s going ashore. Next stop, Earth.”

There were one or two nervous grins, and the pilot looked at Cal. “It’s all yours, Colonel. And if I may say so, it’s good to have you back, Calvin.”

Cal grinned. “Thanks, Carl. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be back before you know it.”

The team members began to gather the few items they had brought with them, mostly last-minute, spur-of-the-moment personal things. The bulk of the equipment and stores was already on board, having been ferried up by shuttle over the past few weeks. One of the advantages of having such a large ship to themselves, they often reflected, was the amount of personal gear they could take.
Each of the four had their own quarters, and they had each filled them with things; objects, anything that would remind them of home. Personal furniture, video and audio equipment; Bill had spent almost his entire savings on a ten thousand dollar guitar, a custom-made Martin acoustic, which he fawned over like a child, and played at every opportunity.

Jonathan had virtually transported the entire contents of his rooms at Oxford up to the ship, and had arranged his belongings so that it was difficult to tell his quarters from the cozy digs he had left behind, right down to the softly burning fireplace. Although it was only a hologram, it nevertheless gave the room a feeling of welcoming snugness and warmth.

In addition to personal effects, a very large inventory of stores and equipment had been ferried up to the Lightship. Each item had been checked by Cal and at least one other team member before shipping, and not everyone had been in agreement with some of the items chosen. Everything from camping gear to state-of-the-art weaponry had been included. Karen had been particularly opposed to this last, saying that if they did meet any aliens, Cal and Bill would probably shoot first and ask to be taken to what remained of their leaders later. However, the others had overruled her objections; to her surprise, even Jonathan had been in favor of some kind of weapons being included, if only for self-defense. As Bill remarked, just because they had been raised on a diet of Stephen Spielberg movies didn’t mean that any aliens they might meet were necessarily going to be friendly.

When the shuttle was safely docked, Butzbach opened the connecting hatchway and gestured towards the darkened interior of the lightship. “Well, there y’go, folks. She’s all yours.”

Hesitantly, the four pulled themselves through the hatch to the larger vessel. The pilot came through after them, and for a moment they all floated quietly, looking around at what they could see in the dim light leaking through from the shuttle. Then Bill pushed himself over to a recessed panel in the wall, touched a yellow pad there, and the area was illuminated by rows of overhead lights.

After a moment, Butzbach shook them all by the hand and wished them luck. Then with a final salute, which only Cal returned, he pulled himself back through the hatch and closed it behind him. With Cal leading the way, the four pulled themselves up a short flight of steps to another level. This was one of the observation decks, and they crowded together next to the large portal and watched as the shuttle disengaged itself from the ship.

Jonathan watched, floating in the zero-gee environment, as the shuttle fired its forward thrusters and began to fall behind the lightship. A few minutes later, it was lost from view. The Englishman stayed a moment longer, reveling in the weightless conditions. He, more than any of them, appreciated what it meant to be so free, so mobile, after half a lifetime imprisoned within his shattered body.

For the first time since his accident Jonathan could move around without his wheelchair, or having to rely on someone else’s help. The feeling was at once exhilarating, humbling, and just a little frightening. He decided to make the most of the time, knowing it would not last. As if reading his mind, Cal broke the silence.

“O.K., why don’t we get to the bridge and fire her up; then at least we’ll have our feet on the ground.” He glanced apologetically at Jonathan. “Sorry, Professor. I know you’d prefer to spend the whole trip at zero gee, but this short time is the best I can do.”

Jonathan smiled. “Please don’t give it another thought, Colonel. Even this brief moment of mobility is more than I had dared hoped for. I’m ready when you are.”

In single file, they pulled themselves up two more flights to the command level, where the bridge was located. Together they floated along a corridor of light pastel blue until they came to a door set into the bulkhead.

Cal placed his hand on panel on the wall and the door slid open with a sigh; they entered, and it slid shut behind them. Bill touched another panel, and lights flickered on, each station illuminated as a separate island of light while the rest of the bridge remained in semi-darkness. This allowed them to see the stars through the view screens in all their glory.

Cal broke the silence. “This is sure a lot different from the simulator. Everything’s in the right place, but that view! I can’t imagine getting used to that.”

They remained by the door for a moment, taking in the scene, then Cal moved to the pilot’s station while Bill took the engineering seat. Jonathan floated to the astrogation chair and began powering up his screens, while Karen began testing the equipment that would monitor the personal telemetry of each of them. The ship hung silently in space like some swift beast waiting for the starter’s gun, while the earth turned slowly, majestically, beneath them.

For the next several hours, they spoke only in soft, muted tones, punctuated by the occasional conversation over the communications network as they checked some function or systems procedure with earth control. The work went on through five meal periods and two sleeps before they were satisfied they were ready; at last, Cal sat back in his chair and touched the control that swiveled it around to face the center of the circular room.

“Well, as the man said, last chance to turn around.” Nobody spoke, and for a moment there was silence on the bridge. Then Jonathan said, “I don’t wish to impose on anyone, Cal, but do you think it would be all right if I said a short prayer before we begin our journey? Sort of a benediction, if you like.”

Cal looked at the others, then nodded. “Sure, Jonathan. I don’t think anyone objects to that.”

Jonathan clasped his thin hands together in his lap and bowed his head. After a moment’s hesitation, the others followed suit.

“Almighty God, look upon us, Your servants, as we embark upon this journey. If we but know it, we go to do Your will, and enhance the glory of Your name. We ask that You shield us from harm and danger, and deliver us from those of evil intent, should we encounter them. We ask this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

The others murmured their ‘amens’ and smiled self-consciously at each other, the way people do who are not accustomed to praying. Then Cal said, “Thank you, Jonathan. I think we all feel a little better for that. God knows, we’ll need all the help we can get. All right, folks. Time to rock and roll.” Then he rubbed his hands briskly together, and began issuing commands.

“Engineering. Power up.”

Bill began touching small squares of light on the surprisingly small board that controlled the ship’s massive engines, and Karen moved to a second chair at his side to act as his assistant. Although she did not have Bill’s knowledge or expertise, the system was largely automated. She had been able to learn its various functions and could, she hoped, operate the system alone if it ever became necessary.

Jonathan sat at his station, monitoring the space around them, and plotting their trajectory of embarkation. A crash course in astrogation had been his task before they had left earth. Normally, it would have taken six months for a student to grasp the basics; however, such was Jonathan’s intellect, he was able to complete the course in less than two.

Cal gave one last look at his panel, then turned to his crew as Bill said, “Full power at your command, Cal.”

Cal took a deep breath. “O.K. Jonathan, better make sure you’re secure in your chair. Let’s have some gravity.”

He touched colored panels on the board before him, and a low, distant hum began somewhere in the bowels of the ship, a few seconds later, they felt weight returning to their bodies. Cal touched another panel, and a large digital counter appeared above the forward viewing screen. As they watched it, the numbers on its face began to climb.

“At the moment,” Cal explained, “those figures are showing in miles per hour. Later on, they’ll switch over, and will show in miles per second.”

From her position beside Bill, Karen asked, “How long will that take?”

Cal glanced at Jonathan, who said, “We ought to see a change in configuration in about a week, Karen. We will be accelerating at one and a half gee, which means we will all weigh half as much again as we actually do.” He smiled, and added dryly, “ I would suggest we all practice economy of movement.”

The others smiled as well, and then concentrated on their tasks. The Hermes made three orbits of the earth, gaining velocity all the time, until they had sufficient momentum to break away from the planet’s influence. Then Cal fired the attitude thrusters and the ship drove out of orbit and away from their home world. They watched quietly as the earth moved out of their forward view screens and the ship headed towards deep space.

Cal switched on one of the rear screens, and the earth appeared, hanging in space like a jewel. Karen was the first to break the silence.

“How long before we can’t see it?”

Jonathan replied. “Only a few days, I’m afraid. It will soon become a star among all the others, but we will always know where it is.”

They were quiet for a few moments, watching the earth recede, then Bill said, “All right, pilgrims. Better start earning our pay.” Then they turned to their panels, and busied themselves with the running of the ship. Once they cleared the solar system, they would have less to do, but now there was observation and monitoring to see to, and little was said for the next few hours.

While the others carried out their tasks, Karen had little to do, and she sat quietly, her eyes on the screen. The planet that was home to them all was receding rapidly, and a glance at the digital counter told her that their speed was increasing at an amazing rate. All too soon, the earth would disappear from their sight, and become just another star among billions. None of them knew when, or if, they would ever see it again.


***

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