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Excerpt 2

The trip from Orlando to Cape Canaveral was surprisingly comfortable. Rather than a convoy of armored vehicles, Becca was driven in a limousine. There was one armored truck leading the way, but the security was differently different. The driver was a pleasant older man named Troy. He was a stark contrast to the heavily armed soldiers who had driven her around Port St. John before. Half of the checkpoints she remembered were gone as well.

When she arrived at the landing strip, two technicians quickly unloaded her luggage for her and carted it away to be loaded onto the ship. Becca took a moment to stare at the USS Prophet. The new starship sat where the Mayflower had been fourteen years before. It was much smaller than the Mayflower but still a formidable ship. Hull design for a starship has few rules. It need only be incredibly strong and hermetically sealed. Beyond that, a starship can take any shape. The Mayflower had been designed using the older NASA shuttles as inspiration. The architects added smooth, aerodynamic lines and tiny wing structures that expanded the surface area of the ship, giving it greater cargo capacity. The Prophet was a flying-brick design—actually three bricks, the large one of the hull and two smaller ones of the Heidion drives. There were no wings or vertical fins. It was about five hundred feet long, painted white with black, horizontal stripes along the drives.

For surface loading and unloading, there was a loading bay in the rear of the ship. It was a wide door that did not extend to the top of the ship but reached sides of the hull. It extended like a tongue, creating a nice, flat, inclined plane for wheeled conveyances and loaders. There were a few other vehicles, about a dozen technicians still scrambling around, and five or six passengers getting ready to board, all wearing dark blue jumpsuits with no pockets.

“Right this way, Dr. Newman.”

No medical examinations? No extra pre-flight checks? Things have changed!

As she got to within a few yards of the ship, there was a distinct smell of rubber. She was puzzled; she had expected it to smell metallic or chemical.

As she started up the ramp, she got her first glimpse of the interior of the Prophet: a cargo bay of some kind. There were supplies and equipment stacked in neat rows on each side. The containers were black, with a few yellow and blue mixed in, each with detailed markings and labels. The room was about fifty or sixty feet long, but with all the supplies crammed inside, it looked much smaller. A narrow walkway led to a wide staircase up to the residential decks.

The ship’s laboratories had been converted to crew quarters. Becca would be bunking in one of the makeshift quarters with three other delegates, all American. She followed the markings on the doorways until she found her room. She opened the door and entered, finding only one of her bunkmates had arrived.

“Hello, Ms. Maloney.”

“Dr. Newman. I was beginning to wonder if you were still coming.”

“I got held up.”

Sarah Maloney was a former Congresswoman from New York. She was Becca’s age but looked much younger. She had not spared herself any cosmetic enhancements, weight-loss treatments, hair dyes, or any other expensive procedure, and she looked like a pageant queen. Her hair was long, blonde, and voluminous. It reached just past her shoulder blades, fully concealing her neck and shoulders. Her eyes were blue, but they probably weren’t her natural eyes. The perfect whites of her eyes betrayed their cybernetic construction. She appeared almost doll-like to Becca.

Becca was envious at first but decided not to let it get to her. Sarah Maloney had probably spent tens of thousands on her appearance. Who knows what she looked like naturally, she told herself. But her proportions were near perfect; surgeons could improve the body, but the raw material had to be there too. Sarah had it.

Becca had learned Sarah came from a wealthy family in New York. Her father was a former Secretary of State, and her great grandmother was a former governor of New York. Sarah had followed the family tradition and ran for Congress about eight years ago. She held the seat but retired to become a lobbyist of some kind. Lobbying, maybe? She was quick-witted, like many New Yorkers, and didn’t appear to like Becca very much. When they had first met, Sarah proceeded to dominate the conversation with pleasantries and superficial compliments before excusing herself. Whenever the two crossed paths during the tour, Sarah nodded or said hello but little else. Becca was not looking forward to sharing a space with her.

Fortunately the quarters were bigger than she expected. There was a large common area in the center with several tables, two desks, and a couch. The walls were white and featureless. The floors were carpeted, unlike the rest of the ship, and the multichromatic furniture was currently displaying varying shades of gray. Becca noticed spaces for floating screens in front of the coach and at the desks. The bunks themselves were large, almost queen sized, with plenty of headroom and privacy curtains.

The curtains fascinated Becca. They appeared to be thin black cloth, but once slid shut, they could be turned completely opaque and soundproof. Another smart material affordable only to multinational corporations, wealthy families, and of course the government, she thought.

A voice came from overhead. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are one hour from launch. Please get yourself settled in, and be ready to strap into one of the bucket seats located in the hallway. Once we exit the atmosphere, you will be free to move about. About thirty minutes after that, we will be engaging the Heidion Drive, at which time we will ask that you sit or lie down to avoid becoming disoriented. Thank you, and again, welcome aboard.”

After a long two weeks of excitement and anticipation, Becca couldn’t wait another hour. How am I gonna get through five months?

From the inside of a starship without windows, one cannot tell when the ship launches or when it exits the atmosphere. The inertial dampeners counteract gravity, eliminating any sensations of acceleration, vertical climbs, turns, or any other aerial maneuver. The ship could be doing violent barrel rolls, and the crew would be unaware. Once out of the atmosphere, the artgrav takes over, eliminating the burden of adjusting to zero gravity. Becca hoped they would deactivate artgrav so the passengers could experience zero-g, like the early astronauts.

Shortly after the Prophet launched, Becca resumed unpacking in her room.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the announcement, “we are preparing to engage the Heidion Drive in T-minus twenty-five minutes. At that time, please find a seat or lie down to avoid becoming disoriented and falling. It takes the artgrav and inertial dampeners a couple seconds to adjust once the Drive is engaged. After that, you should be able to get up and move about as if we were sitting still. For the next fifteen minutes, we will be opening the observation windows for the bon voyage. Please feel free to get one last look at Earth before we leave. Thank you.”

The bon voyage was a tradition for ships leaving Earth. The ship would circumnavigate the planet once, allowing the crew and passengers to see their home planet one last time before departure.

Becca finished unpacking and made her way up to the observation deck. To her disappointment, she could not find Khalid or Felix. There were a few other delegates about, but no one seemed to be in the mood to socialize. She realized the delegates were probably not all that familiar with one another. She felt fortunate to have befriended Marissa, Khalid, and Felix. It had only been two weeks, but she felt close to them.

Large black squares formed on the ceiling and walls of the obs deck, transforming the solid metallic gray walls into windows with a clear view of the stars. The entire ceiling was made of a unique smart material that could transform from solid to transparent. One could look straight up into the skylights or ahead out the port or starboard observation portals. Becca turned to port to see a giant blue, green, and white sphere right outside the window. It was Earth.

It was massive, taking up half the window, and bright. Its immense size surprised her. From this side she could clearly see North America, half covered in white and gray clouds, with the Pacific Ocean in darkness. The sun had not risen on California. The North Pole was partially darkened, but she could see the massive sheets of ice stretching down into Canada and covering Greenland and Iceland.

Soon it seemed as though half of the people on the ship were standing near the portside windows, their eyes fixed on the giant blue sphere. Becca shared one of the large windows with at least a dozen other crew members, all in dark blue NASA jumpsuits.

She stared at North America and looked closely for her hometown in Pennsylvania, only to find it mostly covered in clouds. The Chesapeake Bay was clearer. She looked down to get a view of Florida. The bottom of the peninsula was still a very faded green, but she could see that the color got darker until it reached the forests and swampy marshlands of the panhandle.

Where are the dust clouds? she asked herself. The haze, the paleness, the grayish layer that blanketed the surface—where is it?

She didn’t see any haze or discoloration. It looked clear. Everything looked clear. It did not look like a sick or dying planet at all.

The ship was traveling from northwest to southeast, moving the view from North America more toward Africa and then toward the Indian Ocean. After a couple of minutes, parts of South America came into view along with Western Europe and Africa. The South American continent looked even more alive. The Amazon rainforest was smaller than she remembered it in her geography classes but was still there. It was a deep, dark green, almost black. The Andes Mountains dominated the western edge like a backstop. The clouds in the south looked different. They were brighter and more scattered. There were no huge bulges or storm fronts like in the north. The ocean looked different as well. The southern Atlantic was a slightly deeper blue with no visible islands.

Rio became visible. It was large, almost as large as Mexico City, and mostly gray.

After a few minutes the rest of Europe and Africa came into view. Most of northern Europe was covered in ice, all the way down to Denmark. The rest was a mix of greens. In some areas it was darker and others very pale. As Russia came into view, she noticed what wasn’t covered in ice was a pale brown, with scattered specks of gray and black.

Becca looked up toward the Persian Gulf to see Iran, Khalid’s home country. The entire region was yellow desert with some dark blotches here and there that she thought indicated mountains. She could tell that one of the dark dots was Tehran, a city of twenty million.

Becca remembered one of the crew members warning her the bon voyage could be very sobering. As she admired the view of the planet, she could not figure out why. It was beautiful. No computer image, or movie, or holographic projection could match this.

The moon was nowhere to be seen. It must’ve been on the night side, she thought. I should ask Felix about that later.

Earth rotated farther, revealing southern and eastern Asia. She heard a wave of whispers and gasps. A few started pointing out the window. Then there was silence yet again. The awe vanished as the “human side” of Earth became visible. The enormous scar left by the White Storm moved into view.

The traditional colors of Earth came to a halt at the mountains of central Asia. East Asia was deeply charred with hideous black scars covering much of what had been India, China, and Mongolia. Becca could not discern mountains from plains. It all looked the same. There were no rivers or lakes. The only bright spot was the snow covering some of the tips of the Himalayans, but even the snow didn’t look right.

There is no life there, she thought. Everything is dead. Nearly all life has fled this part of the world.

The rest of the Pacific was dark due to lack of sunlight. They had reached the end of the bon voyage.

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