Prologue :: Across The Universe
Sounds of laughter, shades of earth are ringing
Through my open ears, inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me
Like a million suns and calls me on and on
Across the universe
Across The Universe – The Beatles
“Up and at ‘em folks!”
The bright, glaring lights of the Operations Centre’s crew dormitory as they snapped on overhead, coupled with Captain Aya’s loud, skull-piercing voice, was all it took to jolt Taylor awake. All around him the other crew members of the mission to Tau Ceti IV were waking up, their low grumbles and muttered complaints about the assault on their senses filling the narrow room.
Taylor paused in pushing his blankets back and looked over at the next bed. Antoine was already half-dressed, his regulation coverall with its mission patch on the right shoulder and American flag on the left pulled up to his waist.
“You good? Long trip ahead of us.”
‘Long trip ahead’ was a serious understatement. Until the trip to Florida in preparation for this mission, the furthest Taylor had ever travelled was nearly 1500 miles to California for college – a trip that he’d always made by road, never by air. This journey was so much more daunting – they would be travelling trillions of miles away from Earth, to a world that no human being had ever set foot on before. As much as he was looking forward to it, knowing that home would be so far away was a sobering thought.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Taylor replied. “It’s just…” He picked at his blankets. “It’s a long way from home, that’s all.”
“No kidding.” Antoine gave Taylor a smile, one that Taylor did his best to mirror, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, up you get. I’ll see you in the ready room.”
“See you there.”
He was halfway down the corridor leading from the crew dormitory to the ready room when a hand caught him by the shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. “Call for you in the comms room, Hanson,” the captain said. “Make it quick, okay?”
“Yes’m,” Taylor replied. The temptation to snap off a quick salute was particularly strong, but he held back.
The captain studied him for a little while, before offering him a smile. “Everything will be all right, Taylor,” she assured him. “Go on, off you go. We’ll be in the ready room when you’re done.”
The sight that greeted him on the wall screen in the comms room made him smile properly for the first time in what felt like days. Crowded around what he guessed was his father’s video camera, which had been set up on the back porch at home, was his whole family – his parents, his brothers and his sisters. His parents were sitting on the cane lounge that had been on the back porch his whole life, with Jessica and Avery sitting on either side of them and Zoë on his mother’s lap. Isaac, Zac and Joshua were sitting on the floor of the porch in front of the lounge.
“I miss you guys,” he said once he’d liberated a chair from one of the computer terminals and settled into it.
“We miss you too,” his mother said. “How are you feeling today?”
“Nervous,” he admitted. “This…” He let out a quiet, almost strangled laugh. “This is a huge deal. First member of the Hanson family to go to space and everything.”
“And on NASA’s first manned mission outside of the solar system at that,” his father added. “We’re very proud of you, Tay.”
At his father’s words, Taylor felt his face beginning to heat up, and he ducked his head a little. “Thanks Dad.”
“When are you comin’ home Tay?” Zoë asked. She sounded so hopeful that Taylor almost couldn’t bear it. “Are you gonna be home for Christmas?”
“Not for Christmas,” he replied. “But I bought you guys some presents and wrapped them up before I left to come down here, so it’ll almost be like I’m there. Okay?”
Zoë seemed to consider this for a little while. “Okay,” she answered at last, before blowing a kiss at the camera. Taylor automatically raised a hand to catch it and pressed his fingers to his mouth. “I love you Tay.”
“Love you too, Zo,” he replied. “Always will.”
“All right kids, time to get ready for school,” his mother said. At those words Taylor’s younger siblings headed off out of view, farewells and ‘good luck Taylor’s ringing out as they went.
“I should probably head off too,” Taylor said, doing his best not to sound reluctant but failing miserably. “They’re waiting for me in the ready room and I don’t want to hold things up more than I probably have already.”
“We love you,” his mother said. “And just remember, you’ll be home before you know it.”
He managed another smile at this. “Love you too, Mom. See you in a few months.”
The captain looked up from her tablet as Taylor stepped into the ready room, offering him a smile that he quickly returned. Around the room some of the other crew members were readying themselves for launch – Colby was tidying her halo of curls into a tight bun at the back of her head, Trotter was speaking to someone on a vidscreen, and Adair was reading something on his own tablet. On the wall nearest the exit to the world outside was a long rack holding the crew’s IEVA suits, with the helmets hanging on a separate rack. Colby offered Taylor a smile as he sat down next to her.
“All good?” she asked, and Taylor nodded.
“Yeah, just said goodbye to my family.” He picked at the cuffs of his coverall. “Colby, what if-”
“Hey, we’ll have none of that,” Colby admonished gently. “We’re not going to waste any time worrying about ‘what if’s. Focus on what is. Okay?”
Just as the last crew members took their seats, the captain spoke.
“All right, ladies and gents – and believe me, I use those words very loosely,” she said, causing a wave of chuckles to ripple around the room. “Just a little bit of housekeeping before we set off.” She tapped at the screen of her tablet, bringing up a holo of the United States. She pointed at Florida with the bright red beam of a laser pointer that she took from a pocket. “This is us, right here. We launch in three hours.” She tapped at the screen of her tablet again and the map shimmered out of view, bringing up the Solar System. Earth spun lazily right in the middle of the display. “Our journey will take us through the Herschel and Kuiper belts, out of our Solar System and onward to Tau Ceti IV.” The holo zoomed out, showing a brief glimpse of the Milky Way, before zooming back in again to their final destination. “It will take us six weeks to reach Tau Ceti IV, and six weeks to return home again. We will have three weeks there to explore, during which we will hopefully confirm that it is within the habitable zone for its parent star, and therefore capable of supporting life.”
With one final tap at the screen of her tablet, the holo switched off. Aya set the tablet down on the table to her right. “Now, as I’m sure you’re all very aware, this mission is part of NASA’s Education Outreach Program. We are hosting a sophomore Life Sciences student from UCLA, Taylor Hanson.” Taylor gave a little wave as everyone else in the room looked over at him. “He will be conducting a number of experiments during his time with us. You’re all welcome to include him in your own work, but his studies come first.
“Lastly, in addition to our outreach work, we have partnered with the Lifeline Communication and Support Network in the first off-world test of their Lifeline support app. You will all have access to this technology during the outbound journey and our time on Tau Ceti IV, as well as during the trip home, and I encourage you all to make good use of it.”
Aya swept her gaze around the room, alighting on each of the members of her crew. Each and every one of them looked determined – and in the case of their guest, a little nervous as well. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asked, and when nobody spoke or raised a hand she gave a decisive nod. “Excellent. In that case, suit up everyone. We leave for the launch complex in half an hour.”
They were a week away from Tau Ceti IV when all hell broke loose.
An ear-piercing siren woke Taylor during the Varia’s sleep cycle. It was the loudest thing he had ever heard, even louder than the tornado sirens back home – it rattled his teeth in his head and sent a ripple of fear down his back. Out of instinct (and also because the captain had told him to, so he knew what to do when the different sirens sounded) he counted the siren blasts, mouthing numbers as they went off.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.
The seven short sirens were followed by one last, long siren that lasted for what felt like an eternity, after which came the most terrifying words he’d ever heard in his life.
“Abandon ship. I repeat, abandon ship. Drop whatever you are doing, suit up and get to an escape pod. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill.”
He didn’t even hesitate. He jumped down from his bunk, wincing when he landed awkwardly, and quickly changed into his IEVA suit. He snatched up his helmet before sprinting out of the crew quarters. “Colby!” he yelled as he ran down the corridor. “Colby!”
“Taylor, what the hell are you doing?” Colby called out as Taylor reached the Varia’s evacuation area. It was already beginning to fill with thick, dark smoke, through which Taylor could see that the nearest wall was lined with escape pods. “Get in an escape pod now, goddamnit!”
“Not without you!” Taylor yelled back.
Colby grabbed Taylor by his shoulders. “Yes, without me,” she snapped, the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice silencing any protests that Taylor might have wanted to make. “Your parents trusted me to look after you, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. If I get out of this alive and you don’t, they’ll kill me.” She held out a hand. “Give me your helmet.”
“They wouldn’t kill you,” Taylor said as Colby took his helmet from him.
“Yeah, well, let’s not test that, okay?” She lowered the helmet down over Taylor’s head, lined it up with the fastenings on his IEVA suit, and locked it into place. A little green light blinked on as soon as the clamps were secured. “Can you hear me?” she asked, her voice sounding a little staticky in the helmet’s speaker, and Taylor nodded. “Can you breathe okay?”
He took a careful breath, one that to his relief wasn’t filled with smoke, and gave Colby a quick thumbs-up.
“Good.” Colby slammed an elbow into the panel next to the door of the nearest escape pod. “Get your ass in there.”
“Colby-” he tried to protest.
The very last thing Taylor saw as the escape pod’s door slid closed behind him was Colby running back into the smoke that filled the Varia. The clamps holding the escape pod in place disengaged, with the force from the firing of the pod’s thrusters a minute or so later sending Taylor slamming hard into the opposite wall.
And everything went black.