Unknown Horizons – CJ Birch

Two minutes. A lifetime in a hundred and twenty seconds. It’s enough time to save forty-five thousand lives, enough time to end a career. Or both. As first officer of the Persephone, my decision to eject an engine core without authorization could be a quick maglev ride to a court martial, but if I succeed, it’ll be worth it. “Did we list?” I yell at Hartley, the head engineer. He doesn’t remove his focus from his console, just shakes his head. So, this is Hartley in crisis mode. It’s welcoming to see he can play grown-up when needed. I begin to pull myself up, using the rail surrounding the pit of the engine well, and the ship banks to the left. I lose my balance. My head smashes against the rail, and it takes a moment before my vision clears. In space, there are any number of anomalies that can throw us for a loop: space debris, asteroids, cosmic dust, gravity wells. The hazards are endless, and the trick is to be prepared. Hartley shakes his head in exasperation.

“Why do you always have to be such a hero, Ash?” But I’m not a hero. A small puck-like device—one of Hartley’s inventions—careens toward the edge of the well. If it falls over, any hope of ejecting that core will be gone. Without thinking, I reach for it, and when my fingers grip the smooth surface, I realize what a colossal mistake I’ve made. I’m the result of happenstance. When I was ten, I remember having to study the Great Migration— when humans fled Earth to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A whole series of downloads focused on the role of Angus Shreves, the first captain to land on Ceres (later known as Alpha Station). The way they spoke about him, brave, steadfast and without flaws, made it sound as if he was superhuman. He wasn’t. I’d always known him as a hard-of-hearing old man, my quiet and moody grandpa.

A few months before I was set to join the academy, my grandpa once asked me the year the Great Migration started. We were in a cafe on Alpha, just a few years before he died. I knew the answer but doubted myself and named a different year. He nodded in his quiet, gruff way and didn’t say anything. I missed my opportunity. Maybe saying the right year would’ve been a key to learning more about the way he helped change humanity’s future. But he never did correct me. Ever. In truth, I think he kept quiet because it was second nature. For him, it wasn’t special to be selfeffacing.

He wasn’t the superhero everyone made him out to be. Here we go. Sirens have begun to blare all around the engine room. In seconds, one hundred amps barrel through my fingertips and cut through my system like razor blades. Everything goes hazy. The sirens fade into the background, and chaos erupts in a muted play of colors and sensations. Hartley grasps at me before I go over. He seizes my arm, and a surge jolts me backward. The only other time I can remember feeling such intensity is with Captain Jordan Kellow. I remember why I’m doing this.

Even if I never again get to touch her creamy skin or run my hands through that wild black hair, this last act is for her. * Four weeks earlier I step over the threshold of the Persephone and feel an excitement well up so quick and so fierce, it brings tears to my eyes. I blink fast before the corporal beside me sees and thinks I’m an emotional basket case. This is it! The last time I will ever watch the sun rise over the asteroid belt. The last time I will ever see Earth from the giant telescopes on Alpha Station. The last time my dad will ever hug me good-bye. It’s a heady feeling, this combination of excitement and sadness, and I swallow it deep. In less than four weeks we’ll dock at the Posterus, the first generational ship ever constructed, and begin the most important journey humankind has ever undertaken. More important than discovering fire and creating language. Or even more important than abandoning Earth to live confined in biostations among the asteroid belt over one hundred years ago.

“Lieutenant?” The corporal verbally nudges me. “The captain is this way.” He points down a long hallway lit by strips of yellow-tinted LEDs. They’re supposed to simulate sunlight but do a poor job on ships this old. Even in the biostations we have sunlight—it’s remote and weak, but at least it’s real. I hoist my duffel and follow the corporal down the corridor. Our footsteps echo on the metal grates. From what I remember, the Persephone is one of the older ships still in commission, but thanks to a lucky mishap with a stray communications buoy, the engine is new and probably one of the fastest in the Union fleet, traveling at 160,000 kph. That’s ten thousand kilometers faster than any other ship in the fleet and more than a hundred times the speed of craft humans first used for space travel. The new engine is the only reason the ship was one of two from the Union fleet selected for this mission.

“I’d like to drop my duffel before we get there.” I shift the hemp bag holding everything I own farther up on my shoulder. It’s not much, a few books that survived the Great Migration, family pictures, and bits and pieces I’ve collected from scavengers on their return trips from Earth. Junk that doesn’t mean much up here in space, but helps me recreate what life must have once been like on Earth. The corporal stops and turns. The slump in his posture tells me everything I need to know about what he thinks of my statement. “Your cabin is on the other side of the ship. The captain won’t like to be kept waiting.” I don’t want to report for duty lugging a lumpy bag coated with ten years of asteroid dust, hardearned from being dragged from ship to station to ship. My eyes narrow.

He huffs toward the ceiling, his bald head reflecting the yellow of the LEDs flanking us. I hate people who wear their attitude like a badge. “Tell you what.” The duffel drops from my shoulder with a loud thump. “I’ll leave it here, and you can deliver it to my cabin after you show me to the captain.” I stroll away before he can protest. The captain’s cabin is only three decks up, but the corporal is panting before he’s even climbed the chute ladder. I spend the rest of the climb imagining all the fun I’m going to have whipping this crew into shape. He leaves me at her door with a flippant salute. Dick.

I bite my tongue and then knock before my fist roams somewhere less professional. When I enter, I take in everything at once, like watching an instaflash of data dump on my screen. First, I see the knickknacks on every surface, then the view of splayed asteroids from the windows behind the bed. It’s unmade, all twisted sheets and tangled duvet. I inhale the scent of apricots, and it conquers my senses. My eyes settle on the woman behind the cluttered desk, and to my chagrin, I am immediately enchanted by her raven hair and milky skin. Captain Jordan Kellow. When her gaze shifts first to the unmade bed, then back to me, my cheeks flush. I force myself to keep eye contact and try to forget that I’ve just seen such an intimate part of her life. I don’t know what it is about seeing the unmade bed, but it unnerves me, and my confidence bolts, leaving me feeling like I’m reporting for my first assignment as a low-ranking aviator.

“I apologize for the mess. We’ve switched to Posterus time already. I want the transition once we get there to be as smooth as possible, but right now it’s proving to be a bit of a hiccup.” She stretches back in her chair, arms high above her head. The beginnings of a yawn reach her mouth before she clamps down and stifles it. I sit and know I’m going to embarrass myself somehow. My heartbeat picks up and my system floods with adrenaline. As soon as I sit down, I realize I’ve already made a mistake. She didn’t ask me to be seated. I shoot out of the chair so fast that I knock it over.

For Christ’s sake, Ash, calm down. This is no way for a first officer to act. She’s going to think I’m spastic. “Have a seat, Lieutenant,” she says, and her voice is like warm honey. She pushes aside the mess on her desk and taps the surface twice to pull up my service file. I cringe as my ID picture materializes in the air between us. I’ve always hated that picture: my face is pinched as if I’ve just swallowed a ball of wasabi and am trying to hold in the upcoming explosion. It doesn’t even look like me. My auburn hair is pulled back so tight that I look bald, and the flash has washed out my already pale skin, making the constellation of freckles stand out. Thankfully, it disappears as she swishes through several pages to bring up my last assignment.

“How did you like working on the science station?” She sweeps her dark hair back away from her face with her long fingers. She’s only half in uniform, and her tunic is unbuttoned. She’s wearing what could only be described as pajama pants. Her bare feet are tucked under her chair, lending credence to her unspoken statement earlier. I’ve disturbed her sleep. In truth, I want to shrug because I don’t remember much of my time on the Europa Science Station. Five months, and I can’t remember more than the first month, but a shrug is not the correct response to that question, so I lie. “It was informative. Colonel Lundy is one of the most efficient officers I’ve ever had the privilege to work under.” She frowns and I suck in my breath.

What else have I forgotten? She flips further back in my service record. “It says here that you called him an ass.” Shit. Did I? A now familiar sense of panic wells inside me as I realize my memory gaps are more extensive than I initially thought. “It’s okay. I’ve met Lundy. He is an ass.” She raps her knuckles on the desk as if to make it fact and not opinion. I give a lopsided shrug and grin. “Well, he was an efficient ass.

” I should just stop speaking. She laughs, it’s quick, so quick, and then she’s all business again. When I pictured my new commanding officer, this is not the image I had in mind; this woman is too vibrant, too affable. All the captains I’ve met have been pompous jackholes. “I was interested in the filter retrofitting you spearheaded. It’s one of the projects I’m going to put you in charge of. I was curious, though, how you managed to get such a large undertaking done in so short a time. You had that whole station finished in less than a month.” “Um…I…” Great stalling tactics, Ash. I should just tell her the truth.

I can’t remember the project. Not at all. But I know I can’t because if I do, I’ll be left behind. Everything I’ve worked for, every plan I’ve made, every goal, every dream will disappear just like my memories into some black hole. I can’t let that happen. When I look back at the captain, I will my face not to show my panic. Instead, I shrug. “I guess we didn’t have a lot of other things going on at the time.” She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms, scrutinizing me. If that was a test, I don’t think I passed.

“Lieutenant? Alison? Which do you prefer?” “Please don’t call me Alison. Ali if you must, but I prefer my surname.” I squeeze my hands between my legs, aware that it is an entirely unassertive posture, but aware too that if I didn’t my hands would be shaking. She nods. “If this is going to work,” she points to herself and to me, “if we’re going to work well together, I need your honesty. Everyone on this ship works as a team, including you and me. From what I’ve read, I don’t think I have to worry about you slacking or pulling rank.” My mind immediately shifts to the corporal and my duffel sitting three decks below. But I don’t have time for regrets as she continues. “I don’t want you to feel singled out, because I’ve made this speech to every crew member on this ship.

What we’re doing here is momentous, the first of its kind. And I know you’ve signed all the relevant disclaimers or you wouldn’t be here, but even then, very few people can grasp the magnitude of a generational ship and what it means. You and I will never make it to our final destination, we’ll be long dead by then. And this here,” she motions around her cabin, encompassing our surroundings and the ship as a whole, “this is our home now, and like it or not, we’re going to be stuck together for a very long time. We need to work harder at making this work. If this mission is going to succeed, it’s not just a matter of getting the ship to its destination, it’s about making this new family work, so that those who succeed us make it there as well.” I’m stunned into silence. It’s the very real need to distance myself from the shadow my family casts that had me sign up for this mission in the first place. The idea of a new family, one that won’t doubt or smother me, is intoxicating. “It says in your file that you requested transfer a month after you were assigned to the station.

What was it about Europa SS that you didn’t like?” I let out the air I’ve been holding tightly in my chest and search my mind for one honest impression from the experience. I try to picture my room, standing in the lab looking out at Jupiter peaking around Europa, and it hits me, what felt wrong about the place. “I hated standing still, every day with the same view. It felt…wrong.” One brow lifts. It looks almost conspiratorial, like we’re sharing a secret need to keep moving. Always moving forward. “Considering our current mission, I think that’s a good answer.” She regards me from across her desk as if she’s working out a puzzle. She hesitates for only a second, then says, “Would you like a tour of the ship?” Surprised at the offer, I nod and stand.

“Captain Kellow? What name do you prefer? Lundy insisted everyone call him sir, although I think if he’d had his way, everyone would’ve had to call him master.” I doubt she’s that type, and I know if I were captain I’d hate to be called ma’am. She barks a laugh as she rounds her desk. “Captain is fine. If you call me ma’am, I’ll strap you to the matter sails.” My eyes flick to her bed one last time as we leave. I can’t help myself. She sighs and looks pointedly at me. “What is it about the bed that disturbs you, Ash? Please tell me you’re not one of those OCD types?” “I’m just surprised they have your office and private quarters combined as one.” It’s a half truth.

I am surprised, I’ve never been inside a captain’s cabin before, but it’s not the reason I find it hard to keep my eyes away from her bed. I keep picturing her lying in it, her black hair splashed across the pillow, wrapped in sleep. It’s a consuming thought. She shrugs as she swipes her hand over her door, locking it. “This is a small ship, and we don’t have a lot of room for frivolities.” She leads the way down the corridor. “We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.” On the lower deck, she takes me down a long corridor. It’s darker than the others. At the end is a single door.

She stops at a panel. “This is kind of cool, actually,” she says and taps in a passcode. When the door opens, we’re standing in a small antechamber, and in the middle is a ladder leading down. She grabs the top rung and descends. I follow a second later, and when I get to the bottom, my breath catches in my throat. Running the circumference of the ship is a track surrounded by windows that look out into space. Right now, we’re still docked at Alpha Station, so there’s not much to see, but I can imagine the effect once we’re in space. It will be like running among the stars. “Cool, huh?” she says as we walk out on the track. I bend down and run my hands along the surface.

It feels just like the Tartan Track at Basic Training, rough and soft all at the same time, and when I push down it yields to my touch. I can’t decide if I’m about to laugh or cry as I stand. All I know is that I’ll be spending a lot of time here. “I thought the Persephone didn’t do frivolities.” She scowls in mock seriousness. “Exercise is not a frivolity, Ash, it’s a necessity.” I wish she’d tell her lower ranks that. I stroll to the edge to stare out the window at the city buried below the hard thick dome. Lights glow, exaggerated through the shield. This is the last time I will ever see it.

I’m barely paying attention, too absorbed in the excitement of leaving. “Do you have family you’re leaving behind?” She dips her head toward the belt splashed before us. I don’t say anything, just nod. “Can I ask why you signed up for this mission?” It’s a good question, and I want to answer her honestly because I know she won’t take the answer I gave the Union leaders. Or even the answer I gave my father. I can still see the hurt in his eyes when I told him I was applying for the mission. A twinge of guilt invades my happy mood for just a second as I realize that he’s the last one. With me gone, he has no one left. Staying here just feels like failure. Even though I’ll never live to see it, I want my grandkids to.

I need to believe that one day they will be able to turn their heads toward the sun and soak in its warmth, not through ten feet of metallic glass, but with nothing more between them than the atmosphere and a layer of ozone. I would be lying, though, if I said this was my only reason. My real reason is much more selfish. For once in my life, I want to have something that’s mine. Just mine. The farther we get from the Milky Way, the less my family’s name means anything. Each year we travel, each kilometer, lightyear, every sector of unchartered territory gives me back my life. Never again will I have to sit across from my father, his imposing desk between us, and hear how a particular choice or decision of mine will affect his name, our family’s name, some stupid legacy that shouldn’t even matter. Even though I changed my name before entering the academy, very few people don’t know whose daughter I am. It’s like being stuck under a rock, the weight of it slowly crushing me.

Out here I’m free. Now that I can feel freedom humming through my body, it’s like a drug I never want to kick. I want the high to last the rest of my life. And the irony is, all I had to do to get it was leave everyone I love behind. Captain Kellow watches a supply train weaving through the stockyards. Somehow I don’t think she’d understand. Instead, I give her a small portion of the truth. “I need to know the human species will move forward. If I stay here, I’ll never know.” “You have faith we’ll make it to Kepler 980f?” I cringe at the assigned name of our destination, a planet so far away it might not be the paradise we’ve made it out to be.

Below us in another dock, a small frigate pulls away, preparing to launch. “I have faith our descendants will.” The frigate unfurls its front sails for matter collection. Probably on its way to Europa. Since the attack, most ships are headed there to help with repairs. “A lot can happen in a hundred years.” “And won’t it be exciting?” I twist my fingers together, cracking my knuckles. Tiny sparks of excitement ignite within me, and I feel like I’m five, waiting for Christmas morning to arrive. As much as I’ll miss certain aspects—my father, the familiar constellations and planets—I know I won’t miss them enough to stay behind. I’d rather spend the rest of my life on a generational ship speeding into the unknown.

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