Today should have been the happiest day of Eliana Nelson’s career. She had successfully climbed her way through the ranks of the Earth Fleet, and now she stood moments away from earning her first command. She should have been feeling butterflies at the prospect of her upcoming speech and the farewells with her family that will follow, but all she could seem to feel was an aching numb dread that left her wanting to run home and hug her family in Mexico City.

One did not successfully rise to the rank of commander in Earth Fleet by running from bad news, and so Eliana pressed on. She walked briskly down the clean white hallways of Earth Fleet Command in Toronto. Her booted footfall echoed back to her rhythmically belaying the uncertainly she felt. Eliana always walked briskly. She wasn’t tall, and putting a little pep in her step kept people from noticing how short her strides actually were.

Plus, when you look like you’re in a hurry people tend to leave you alone.

Being left alone was precisely what she desired at the moment.

In a few moments she would be surrounded by the Earth Fleet brass. She would be expected to give a rousing speech before she set out on her first command, and the mission that the entire world would be watching.

Not just this world, all the worlds. She mused.

If it hadn’t been for the commander’s eyes only briefing she just endured Eliana might have actually had some hope to inject into her upcoming speech. The briefing had only included her, the admirals of the fleet, and a few select Earth Fleet scientists with security clearances that topped hers.

Like every meeting these days, the topic was the dark spot, or as they had taken to calling it the ‘wave’. It had been first detected before she was even born, and written off as another peculiarity of deep space. The spot appeared on the opposite side of the galaxy from little old Earth, and even the thousands of human colonies in the near galaxy only reached a few thousand light years toward the galactic core.

The highly secret briefing covered the history of the wave, but that she already knew. Then the scientists revealed the piece of information that Earth Fleet was keeping hidden from the public. The wave was increasing speed, and with it moving faster than light already it would be years before civilian astronomers were able to gather enough data to estimate when the wave would reach Earth. They were keeping that date a secret to stave off the panic that they assumed would quickly spread across the planet and the colonies.

Eliana couldn’t disagree with their assessment, but she also felt like humanity deserved to know they were potentially living their final days. Earth Fleet had already begun planning for the worst case, which seemed increasingly inevitable at this point. According to the classified reports she had read no vessel that had encountered the wave survived, and the crews that got close enough to observe the blackness left by the wave had gone insane more times that Eliana wanted to contemplate. There was something about the endless nothingness that was too much for the human mind to accept.

She shuddered subconsciously.

That was where her mission came in. It was a Hail Mary in humanities final hours. She would captain the first vessel to visit the strange beacon that had begun broadcasting decades before. There were still limits to faster than light travel, and it took a great deal of energy to fold space. Her ship was the first of a new design that would be able to fold continuously allowing them to consider making the journey to the opposite side of the galaxy in a single lifetime. Technological limits had long prevented Earth Fleet from sending a team to investigate the beacon. They would have to send a generational ship, and that was a tremendous amount of resources on a long shot.

But now long-shots are becoming much more appealing. She thought and brushed a single strand of her dark hair back into the bun it escaped from. Now that Earth Fleet scientists realized the wave wasn’t showing any signs of stopping its unexplained desolation of the galaxy, and that it would reach Earth in their lifetimes, there was a new urgency in their search for salvation. In the meantime, Earth Fleet would continue building arc-ships to ferry at least a remnant of humanity across the stars if Eliana could discover a safe haven from the wave.

No pressure.

Eliana had been a little girl when humanity cracked the mystery of true faster than light travel. The colony ships of old used a mixture of near light speed travel and cryostasis to make decades long trips, but by the time they arrived at their distant worlds humanity had realized they could use energy to fold space allowing for near-instant communications and travel at a fraction of the time. Human curiosity was a force to be reckoned with, and with their new ability to travel the stars they built the Indomitable to investigate what they assumed was the largest black hole known to exist.

“And instead they realized the universe as we know it is ending.” She muttered glumly.

The logs of the Indomitable were required reading in Earth Fleet training, and in the twenty-two years since their last transmission it had become the biggest mystery in human history. The theories ranged from super-powerful aliens who were destroying the galaxy in a mass xeinocide, to a reverse big-bang implosion of the universe.

Eliana found both extremes amusing. In all their explorations of the galaxy so far they had found evidence that alien life did indeed exist, but it had apparently either died out or moved on from the Milky Way. They found ruins on a hundred different old worlds, and they found long dead skeletons of massive installations in space abandoned for thousands of years, but they had yet to find anyone in the vast galaxy. She found it amusing that humans were still self-absorbed enough to believe that an alien race powerful enough to end entire sectors of space would care enough to destroy the mostly uninhabited human galaxy.

She had a background in physics with a little dose of astrophysics and theoretical mathematics, so the reverse big-bang theory held a little more weight in her mind. Aside from the basis that the wave was a scientific phenomenon there was a fundamental problem with the theory. It was moving the wrong direction. The center of the universe was the assumed place a collapse of the same universe would begin, and the wave was on the wrong side of the galaxy.

“No this is something else…” She mused quietly as she turned down the last hallway to the commencement room.

The rest of the crew would be there already. The briefing had gone a few minutes late, and she guessed she was cutting it close already. Eliana had met all of her crew already of course, and she had been allowed a great deal of latitude in choosing the officers that would accompany her on their special mission. Her ship was a brand new design, and with most of its daily operations automated it could be crewed with a skeleton crew compared with traditional deep space exploration vessels. With fewer crew, their food supplies would last far longer, and she hoped they would be better able to weather the psychological dangers of deep space travel. The current hypothesis was that a small crew could function much like a family rather than a large crew who tended to internalize their stress more. She was usually skeptical of new psychological theories, but for her sake she hoped this one proved correct.

She arrived at the commencement room and was waved to a side passage by one of the attentive aides regulating traffic into the grand meeting room. She was set to enter the stage as the President finished giving his highly political speech touting the advances of Earth Fleet. He was using their expedition as a plank in his bid for reelection, and a way to distract the populace from the wave. With their attention directed toward the opposite side of the galaxy they would be oblivious as the night sky grew ever darker. The promise of finally contacting an alien species was exciting and there would be billions of eyes watching their voyage.

Eliana spotted her crew cloistered around the door they would enter through when the president reached the conclusion of his speech. He would introduce them, and give Eliana a chance to give her remarks before they officially christened her ship the E.F. Aether.

The name harkened back to Greek mythology, and she appreciated the subtle irony of naming the ship after the god of light when their mission was to outrace the darkness.

“Good Morning Commander.” Balt Shran called as she neared her crew.

“Morning Shran.” She said lightly.

Shran was her first officer, and also her astrophysicist. He hailed from one of Earth’s most remote colonies, Apllan. She had never visited it, but she knew it was an extremely dense large water-world. The size of the world meant increased gravity, and as such in only a few generations the natives had already developed rather striking physiological differences. Shran was shorter than most Earth born humans, but he was built like a tank. In Earth gravity he moved with an effortless grace that made her jealous. His skin was dark as the night was the increased melanin needed to combat Apllan’s harsh solar radiation. He was also the person who had given her a history lesson on the origin of the name Aether. He was like a walking encyclopedia when it came to literature, mythology, and all things culture.

Their crew was made up of eight officers, artificial intelligence software to regulate the ships systems, and an army of robots to handle maintenance. In addition to Shran, her bright faced too-young looking engineers Joli and Kory Stevens leaned casually against the white walls of the hallway. Their uniforms were the same black with gold piping as her own, but their specialty badges marked them as engineering where hers and Shran’s had the command star.

Joli and Kory were twins, veritable prodigies along their classmates at the academy. Eliana had yet to see them apart except for the couple times she had bumped into Joli in the bathroom, but she had no doubt even on those occasions Kory was waiting patiently outside for his sister. Joli struggled with expressing her conceptual genius and Kory served as an interpreter of sorts. They graduated at the top of the class, and had their choice of postings, with the understanding that wherever they went it would be together. They were on the Aether team because it was believed their twin bond would be helpful in dealing with the stress of deep space travel.

That and they are damned good engineers.

Her Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Alhen Zane was conversing quietly with their counselor Doctor Becca Foster. Both medical professionals hailed from Earth, and had at least some knowledge of the unique challenges facing their mission. They were assigned to the mission to deal with the obvious dangers of space travel, but also to fortify the crew to combat the pressure of carrying the hope of their species of their collective shoulders. Zane grew up in Morocco, and had a hint of a European accent, but his most striking feature was the pair of metal rimmed glasses he wore. Corrective procedures for almost all eye defects had been common for many generations, and seeing a pair of glasses was a rare sighting outside of a Halloween party. He was the oldest member of her crew, and she made a mental note to ask him about the glasses the next time they had a chance to sit down.

She was glad to see Zane and their psychologist Becca Foster were already forging a working relationship. Eliana knew the truth of their species impending doom would get out eventually and when that happened every human eye would turn to watch their expedition to the farthest reaches of space. That would be a tremendous strain on the crew, and the pair of doctors would be the backbone of their support system.

Foster gave her an encouraging nod and turned back to her conversation with Zane. Eliana tipped her head to the taller woman. Foster wore her uniform, but as always with unauthorized accents. She wore a shell necklace, and some kind of cloth woven into her hair. Foster’s hair was a bright sun bleached blond, and vacillated between being kept in a loose ponytail to borderline dreadlocks. It was almost as if the psychologist from New Zealand got so distracted with her work that she forgot the simple things like brushing her hair. Normally eccentricities like that would have led Eliana to cast a veto when Foster was nominated for the team, but Foster had won her over during the first interview. The Kiwi had a matter-of-fact approach to life, and a potty mouth that reminded Eliana of her grandfather when he would tell stories about his days as a Mexican merchant marine. Eliana found she was instantly comfortable talking to Foster because the other woman had no pretext when she spoke, and she had a way of diffusing all the tension out of a room. Her qualities made it easy to overlook her lack of Earth Fleet professionalism.

Eliana cast a glance at her Operations Officer Dean Klein. He met her gaze and offered a lopsided smirk that looked like he wanted to make a joke, but was holding it in. Klein was from Mars and one of the big favors Eliana called in choosing the team. He served with her on their first long haul assignment. They had been on day forty of a two-month long journey from Earth to the Balligrade colony when their engines experienced an emergency shutdown. A week later they managed to repair the damage from a micro meteor strike to one of the cooling pumps, and through some truly brilliant reprograming Klein managed to bring the drive back online. They had been down to eating crackers and ketchup when they folded into the Balligrade system, but Klein had never lost his cool or his witty sense of humor. She wanted that on the team as much as she wanted someone she considered a friend nearby.

They continued to wait in silence and a little tremble of a sigh escaped Eliana’s lips which didn’t escape the notice of her Tactical Officer Dervo Longus. Like Shran he had been born and raised on a distant colony, but unlike Shran he had grown up underground. The Xenthobi system’s twin stars had gone into a period of intense solar activity a generation before. The colonists refused to leave their world, and instead developed a marvel of interconnected cities encased in radiation screening domes, and underground farming complexes. It was a hard world, and youth had to learn to be tough and useful from a young age to survive. Dervo had been a police investigator on Xenthobi IV before joining the Fleet. He had a reputation for being a keen observer of human behavior, and an inspired investigator.

Eliana hoped they wouldn’t really need a tactical officer, but she wanted to be prepared for anything. Having someone solely focused on keeping them all safe and secure seemed like a wise precaution.

“I’m good Dervo.” She said nonchalantly.

“Ma’am, with respect you’re about to deliver a speech to billions of humans across known space, a little jitter is to be expected.” He smiled, the gesture clearly for her benefit rather than a natural occurrence as it looked strange on his scarred face.

“Thanks. I’ll try not to make us look bad.”

Shran leaned his head toward her. “How was the briefing?”

“Oh, all roses and butterflies.” She said sarcastically. “Mostly the same, with a bit more doom and gloom than normal.”

Shran nodded thoughtfully. “It will take us a long time to reach the beacon…”

His thought went unfinished, but she understood. “They are already working on plans if we don’t find anything.”

“Kind of a crazy long-shot don’t you think?” Kory asked. “I mean sending us into the unknown hoping to encounter aliens or technologies that can help us deal with this wave, or find a safe haven.”

“A long shot is better than no shot.” Shran replied sounding scholarly.

Eliana nodded. “Our mandate is to reach the beacon and establish communications with whatever intelligence is behind it. The timing of its broadcast is just too perfect to be a coincidence. It started transmitting immediately after the Indomitable sent the warning home.” She paused and looked at the seven officers she was trusting her life and the hope of humanity to. “Along the way we are sailing through some of the denser parts of the galaxy. If we see technology, or by chance anything we can use to save our species we will damn sure will take advantage.”

She puffed up her chest and straightened her posture. “It’s a long shot. But human history is held up by pillars of long-shots. We are not a species that just sits back and waits for the end. We will push, and we will search until we find what we need to survive and thrive. We know there were intelligent races in the galaxy once, maybe the beacon is how we finally find them.”

Nods and smiles greeted her words and she realized despite the gloom she had been feeling since the morning briefing she genuinely believed her words.

The doors opened and an eager looking aide gestured the crew into the commencement room. They filled into the room in rank order. Eliana lead the way followed closely by Shran, Klein, Dervo, Joli, Kory, and the Doctors bringing up the rear.

They took the stage as the President introduced each of the officers, and thunderous applause rose from the audience. Then it was Eliana’s chance to approach the podium and address the floating cameras and the crowd of Earth Fleet brass and dignitaries in attendance.

“My fellow humans…” She began. She cast a glance back at her crew. Their attention was focused on her, and they looked unfazed by the massive crowd.

If they can be unflappable, so can I.

“We face a tremendous time of uncertainty as the wave creeps across our galaxy…” The pause was only long enough to let them taste her words. She continued “but we also live in exciting times. We stand on the brink of contact with another advance sentient species, in a time of unparalleled exploration.” She smiled into the cameras. “I cannot promise you what we will find in the depths of space, but I can promise you that we will carry the hopes and dreams of humanity forward, and that we will strain against the darkness with all of our strength.”

The roll of applause took her by surprise. It started like a wave as her words sunk into the audience, and then like the swelling of an angry sea it surged into a thunderous crescendo. She stepped back and turned as the giant screen behind the stage revealed the E.F. Aether in its berth at the Toronto spaceport. The image zoomed in to show a champagne bottle sailing toward the bow of the ship. Then the bottle struck the ship and exploded leaving a tiny wet spot on the otherwise gleaming hull. The applause once again soared as she and her crew retired from the stage and began their transit to the spaceport.

-kurt

 

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