The thirty-man crew of earth's first starship, the Icarus, had been interviewed on hundreds of programs televised on earth's WTN, or World Telecast Network. The men and women of the plasma-driven Icarus were heroes, the first humans to soon leave the confines of the solar system and voyage into the interstellar void. More precisely, of course, they were going to enter hyperspace once the star drive helped the mile-long craft attain 85% of the speed of light in its trip to Tau Ceti, a G-class yellow dwarf in the constellation Cetus. Tau Ceti, had five earth-like planets, one of which was thought to be a habitable, earthlike planet, a proverbial big blue marble with oceans, land masses, and oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere capable of sustaining human life. The project's chief scientific advisor, Professor Emilio Gonzales of the Western Alliance Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, predicted that the vessel would slip into a black void for a period registered as one month on the chronometers of the Icarus before breaking thrusters brought the ship to sub-light speed near the solar system of Tau Ceti.
"We have worked since the early twentieth century to achieve superluminal speeds," Gonzales told reporters. "Einstein is no doubt turning over in his grave. We also calculate that slipping into the artificial wormhole created by the plasma drive's rapid acceleration will cancel most of the distortions predicted by the theory of relativity. The Icarus will explore the Tau Ceti system for approximately one year and then return to earth. Our fourteen-month journey will register on the clocks of earth as two years, meaning that the time dilation one would expect at superluminal speeds will be minimal. The relatives of the crew will be alive and well when we return."
Andrew Peterson, Captain of the Icarus, had done his obligatory interviews many months before the scheduled departure date of April 20, 2188 so that he could supervise the final onboard preparations and calibrations of the plasma drive. And, of course, tender a proper farewell to his wife, the beautiful thirty-year-one-old Dr. Marta Christenson, a Harvard exo-biologist who had been rejected for the mission. No relative of any crew member was allowed to be part of the interstellar expedition given that this was the first "light jump" ever attempted by a craft with humans aboard. Two remote-controlled unmanned ships had been lost in 2176 and 2182 respectively. A third ship had successfully gone to and returned from Alpha Centauri in 2186. The voyage was deemed safe but, as the media reported, not without considerable risk. Captain Peterson therefore tried to spend as much time as possible in February of 2188 with his gorgeous and somewhat pouty wife, green with envy at her husband's coming opportunity to make history. Her long, straight black hair fell below her shoulders, her brown bedroom eyes swimming above fair kin and high cheekbones. Her envy at her husband's good fortune had been tempered considerably by news from her physician in January that she was pregnant with a male child, their first.
The couple had endured a tumultuous period in their four-year marriage when Marta discovered a lone cyber message on Andrew's crystal touch screen computing station at their home in the woods outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her own station had malfunctioned the previous December, denying her access to the World Digi-Light Com Network, so she'd used her husband's station. Before she could type in her own password to access the Satellite Photon Exchange, a small blue square on the clear rectangular screen on Andrew's desk had flashed, signaling an incoming message. Why had she opened his personal mail? Andrew had been distant recently, and the couple had not made love in over a month. Technology had changed, at least for earth's Western Alliance, but human nature was as predictable and transparent as ever.
Marta touched the screen, which shimmered and turned blue, with white letters scrolling filling the middle of the display.
My dearest Andrew,
Our bed is so empty when you are away. I turn and reach for you and my hands clutch only the cold satin pillow. Your last visit in October was so precious since I know that you will soon be headed for the stars. How I wish I could be with you, my darling Captain, as you go to wondrous places and new worlds. But have not you already taken my soul to amazing places when we make love or stroll along the summer grass and picnic with a bottle of wine. I am sending you a photograph with this message, a recent one that I hope you will bring with you on your mission. Look at it often and think of me. You will remain in my heart though you travel light years from New Leningrad.All my love forever,
Marta had raised her right fist to smash the crystal station, but she had broken into tears instead. Although he'd been an experienced pilot who had logged many missions to the Martian colonies, the forty-one-year-old Andrew had been an ambassador to the crumbling Eastern Alliance in the many years after the war of 2156. After the turn of the century – 2100 – the earth had been divided into two alliances, the Eastern and Western. The Western Alliance, comprised of North and South America, was a loose federation of democratic states that opposed the totalitarian philosophy that had dominated Europe, Asia, India, and Africa by the end of the twentieth century. After decades of saber-rattling, followed by conventional missile attacks on the United States, limited nuclear exchanges in Europe and Asia had left the Eastern Alliance powerless. Starvation, unemployment, and disease had decimated once-great countries. Technology existed only in small areas in a portion of the world where migrant populations scavenged for food and lived in buildings damaged from the war. Radiation sickness was rampant.
Beginning in 2176, the two alliances had decided to begin a long, arduous journey to rebuilding a single, stable world government built on democratic models. Beyond humanitarian aid, the first step in establishing a new world society was to help the Eastern Alliance rebuild its infrastructure and recover its shattered technology. Andrew Peterson, a skilled engineer as well as renowned space pilot, was enlisted as one of hundreds of negotiators to work with the rag-tag remnants of the Eastern Alliance. Apparently he had helped achieve détente in more than one way, Marta had thought to herself after reading the cyber mail.
Andrew had been contrite and forthright, admitting that he'd had an affair with the blond, svelte Nadia Korozanski, Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations in New Leningrad. Marta had gazed at the photo attached to the mail and seen skin whiter than snow, eyes bluer than the sky right before a winter s
unset. Her red lips were large and sensuous, and Marta wondered how many times they had touched those of Andrew."I wish I could say all the proper clichés," Andrew had said when first confronted, lowering his head and swallowing hard. "That Nadia was a meaningless relationship. Comfort away from home when I was so lonely. Or that she was a temptress who seduced me when I was weak. But none of those things would be true. Nadia and I worked together and fell in love."
"Love?" Marta said, raising her eyes, her voice cold and sarcastic.
"Yes. Love. But I knew the affair couldn't go on. You, dear Marta, are the woman I wish to grow old with. I was going to use the coming mission as a way to break things off with Nadia. I intended to send her a message from deep space via a hyperspace channel telling her that it was over and that I was resigning as ambassador, that I could no longer be part of the Superluminal Project while being a liaison to the Eastern Alliance."
"Does she know about me?" Marta asked, arms folded as she stood in the living room outside Cambridge. "Does she know you have a wife in the West?"
A tear trickled down Andrew's right cheek. "Of course. I was even going to tell her that we were expecting a child. Would you like that? Having a child, that is?"
Marta sighed deeply. "Your son is already growing inside me, Andrew. He will be born next July. He'll be a toddler when you return."
Andrew looked at his wife longingly. "Are you saying that you will allow me to return home? Are you telling me that our marriage isn't over?"
Marta turned her head and looked through a window. The snow was falling heavily outside. "Yes. A child needs a full-time father in the fractured world that we live in. Everything is uncertain. Earth's political future—even mankind's exploration of space—is fraught with peril. Our son will not be denied the guidance of two parents. But you must never see Nadia again or even speak of her. If you do, I shall take our child away from you. Before you leave, you will sign papers granting me sole custody and forfeiting all rights of visitation for the rest of your life should you ever be unfaithful again. And you will agree to wear a global tracking implant for as long as I deem it necessary.
Andrew didn't hesitate. "Anything you say, Marta. Thank you. I love you so very much." He moved forward to kiss her, but she left the room and entered the kitchen.
On the following day, Marta acted as if nothing had happened. In the days leading up to Andrew's departure, the two had grown close again, making love frequently. Together, they had converted a spare bedroom to a nursery. Most of the time, they held each other in front of a fire in the wide brick hearth in the den.
Andrew Peterson had been a very lucky man—and he knew it.
* * *
The eyes of the world were trained on their viewing screens, inside and outdoors. The Icarus would be visible for a few hours when its solid rocket boosters, to be jettisoned after thirty minutes, nudged the huge craft from its stationary orbit twenty-five thousand miles above the equator. The ships twelve nuclear engines would then fire, carrying the vessel beyond the debris field of the Kuiper Belt, a field where millions of comets, chunks of icy rocks, and planetesimals lurked near Neptune and beyond. The Icarus would clear the Kuiper Belt within two days after departure. Only then would it be safe to engage the plasma drive, which would, over the course of a month, accelerate the ship to 85% of the speed of light, after which it would enter the Great Void, a nickname for the wormhole that Professor Gonzales had taken from the Tao.
Captain Peterson sat in his leather chair in the center of the bridge, staring at his forward viewer. "Let's make this happen, ladies and gentlemen. May God be with us, and may the solar wind be at our backs."
The helmsman's fingers played over a digital console, firing the ship's long cylindrical rockets temporarily attached beneath the vessel's hull. From the night side of earth, the departure looked as if a star in a nearby constellation had suddenly gone nova. At ten o'clock in the evening, Cambridge time, Marta Christenson looked around her, observing shadows of old-style lampposts cast on the streets. From the bridge, those looking at the viewer could Barely detect any forward momentum until ten minutes later, when the bright face of the full moon began to grow larger.
After thirty minutes, Peterson looked to his left at the engineering consoles. Chief Engineer Rutger Halvorsen nodded.
"Release the rockets," Peterson ordered, "and fire all nuclear thrusters."
"Aye aye," Halvorsen said. The Danish-born engineer had been smuggled to the United States as an infant to escape the horrors of the Eastern Alliance. He had a square jaw and thick blond hair. He was a muscular, youthful fifty years old.
Over the next three hours, the ship's rear viewer showed the earth shrinking rapidly in size. The Icarus was rapidly headed away from the home that had been mankind's cradle of civilization. Captain Andrew Peterson wondered what the coming centuries would bring if men and women would be able to successfully colonize distant extrasolar planets. When his son attained manhood, would mankind be living on dozens of exoplanets hundreds or thousands of miles from the earth? And what about his grandchildren? Would they even call earth their home, or would they have been born on a planet circling a distant point of light as he and Marta sat on the deck behind their home, looking at the sea of stars that he had helped map?
The next forty-eight hours passed quickly, and the Icarus exited the solar system, the sun merely a bright star behind the gray vessel with its many observation domes, radar antenna, and sensory equipment mounted on the titanium bulkheads.
The moment had come. "Engage the plasma drive," Peterson said, again seated on the bridge.
The helmsman's fingers once more played over a digital console as Halvorsen monitored dozens of digital readouts at his engineering station.
"Anti-gravity field holding," said a technician on the far right.
There was no discernible feeling of movement as the four round plasma engines glowed blue at the rear of the ship, but after only a few minutes, the stars visible on all ship's viewers began to blur. An hour later, they looked like shooting stars, blazing quickly and then disappearing. As Dr. Gonzales explained, they weren't actually passing stars, but rather seeing the effects of what he called the "superluminal distortion" of space-time as they approached the speed of light.
"We're hauling the mail," First Officer Sheila Dalquist said from the science station, her comment echoing an old saying from the early days of the Apollo Space Program. Astronauts would use this phrase as Saturn rockets gained speed while boosting Apollo capsules beyond earth's atmosphere.
"Well done, everyone," Peterson said.
"Six days and twenty-one hours before we slip into the Great Void," announced Dalquist. "We're passing through the inner edge of the Oort Cloud at present, but navigation sees no cometary debris in our path."
The Oort Cloud was an additional field of rock, ice, and small planets that extended one light year beyond the sun.
"Very well," Peterson said. "I'm going to my quarters and make my initial log entries. Contact me if anything comes up."
Andrew Peterson stepped into the main turbo-lift and descended to Deck Three and entered his private room, which had an adjoining office with a desk and com station. After an hour of detailing the ship's latest maneuvers beyond the limits of the solar system, he stood and paced nervously about his cabin. He couldn't stop thinking about Marta. What was she doing back at home? Did she miss him? Her demeanor had indicated that their lives had returned to normal, but he knew Marta well enough to know that, despite the romantic moments they'd spent before he left, she was coming to grips internally with her discovery of his unfaithfulness. But there was more to the story of Nadia than he had revealed. What if she used his absence to investigate the matter even further?
Andrew felt distracted and restless. He left his room and headed for the dome above Section One of the Icarus.
Observation Dome One was fifty meters in diameter. Andrew pressed the pad that rolled back the dome's metallic cover, leaving him standing beneath the center of the half-bubble on top of the shift. Surveying the panorama before him, he saw the same streaks of starlight appearing and disappearing, just as on the viewers on the bridge. Beneath him was trhe vast length of the Icarus , its top and sides studded with telemetry packages of every shape rising above the hull—squares, rectangles, circles, pentagons, and others. Interior lights from various viewing ports within the ship, as well as thousands of running lights, gave the appearance of the New York City skyline at night. Andrew took a deep breath, his mind drifting back to the cold nights when he and Nadia, dressed in heavy fur-lined coats, had held each other beneath the frigid but clear Russian sky. He recalled their first kiss and how Nadia had pressed her slender body against his own. She was a peculiar mix of assertiveness and vulnerability. She knew how to pursue her goals, but at times she acted like a child in need. Given the chaos in her country after the war, Andrew was not surprised when she would occasionally let her guard down and cry.
Nadia had been more than an affair. The twenty-nine-year-old diplomat and scientist had not just been his mistress, but his wife. Andrew Peterson had been a bigamist. Nadia knew of Marta because Andrew's bio and reputation was well known. She'd accepted that the presence of Marta in her lover's life and asked only that he spend his time in New Leningrad with her, sleeping at her apartment. She was willing to share him. Healthy, attractive men in Europe were either diseased, married, or uneducated and poor. True, there were many strong-willed men in the military, but they were petulant, nursing grudges against the Western Alliance for dismantling their way of life.
Andrew strolled leisurely beneath the dome and the firefly stars. Why had he married her? The answer was simple: because of her neediness, those moments when she melted in her arms.
Andrew's father, a drunken college professor, had abandoned his mother when he was six, and Andrew had grown into the quintessential caretaker for his mom for many years, always putting his needs last. Even as her had matured, gone to college, become an engineer, and become an engineer and space pilot, he had retained a nurturing side. Like so many powerful, influential men, he'd had a private side and a private life after beginning his trips to Europe. He had married Nadia, believing the potential for scandal to be minimal since record-keeping in the Eastern Alliance had become shabby and incomplete after the war. Communications and the media had been severely compromised, and it was doubtful that anyone could find out that he had wed Nadia Korozanski in a quiet Russian Orthodox ceremony that was never recorded as a civil, governmental union. It gave Nadia a feeling of security, and Andrew, after careful deliberation decided that there was a very fine line between Nadia being a mistress or a wife when their "status" would never become public knowledge.
When he'd told Nadia that Marta had learned of their affair and that he must break it off in light of his becoming a father, she had sent him a single brief message saying that she would miss him and always love him. She claimed that she understood his situation and would not pursue him.
But why had he allowed himself to fall in love with another woman in the first place? Had he felt guilty about cheating on his wife in Cambridge?
Yes, of course he had. But although he had surrendered to the caretaker part of personality to provide Nadia with security, he was also a man of supreme confidence. Those under his command looked up to him and admired him. He was a handsome statesman and pilot, and as he looked back at the events of the years leading up to the Superluminal Project, he realized that he'd let pride rule many of his decisions. He enjoyed adulation and the perks of command. Women flirted with him constantly, but it was Nadia who had pursued him aggressively. He had indeed fallen in love with her—that part was genuine – and as he stood beneath the dome in the year 2188, he knew that ultimately he had committed adultery, not to mention bigamy, because he thought he could get away with it. It was the combination of pride, power, and opportunity that had led him into the affair.
His power would only increase, of course, if the mission to Tau Ceti was successful. He would be the first man to lead a crew into deep space, and the accolades he would receive would be numerous. Since boarding the Icarus weeks earlier, he'd done much soul searching. If he were going to become even more influential in the destiny of mankind, he would have to learn humility. And there was his future son to think about. Yes, for the sake of his son, he would need to become permanently grounded in his marriage to Marta. And permanently faithful.
He returned to his cabin. He would send a message to Marta, which he'd done each day since boarding the starship. He loved her dearly and knew that she needed all the support he could provide.
It also helped to assuage his considerable guilt.
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