Unknown Horizons, page 1
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About the Author
Books Available From Bold Strokes Books
The moment Lieutenant Alison Ash steps aboard the Persephone, she knows her life will never be the same. She will never again watch the sun rise over the asteroid belt, never again see Earth from a handheld telescope, and never again see her family.
In less than three weeks, the ship will dock at the Posterus and begin the most important journey humankind has ever undertaken. More important than discovering fire, creating language, or even abandoning Earth to live confined in biospheres among the asteroid belt over 100 years ago.
What Ash doesn’t expect is that by keeping her recent memory loss a secret she is jeopardizing not only the Persephone’s mission but humankind’s launch of the first ever generational ship. Nor does she anticipate her attraction to Captain Jordan Kellow, but both will change her life forever.
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© 2017 By CJ Birch. All Rights Reserved.
ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-939-6
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First Edition: April 2017
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Editor: Katia Noyes
Production Design: Stacia Seaman
Cover Design W.E. Percival
There are so many minds that go into creating a book, and this book wouldn’t exist without a lot of amazing minds! Thanks to all the early readers, especially those on Wattpad who pointed out some very basic flaws in my science and gave me the encouragement to keep going. I’ve tried to keep the science in this book as accurate as possible, although in some cases I may have taken a turn more toward fiction than science.
Also, so many thanks to Katia Noyes, my editor, for always asking the right questions, for always knowing what was lacking and where, and for teaching me that commas are important and I should use more of them. This book wouldn’t be even half as good without you.
Thanks to my mom for never once telling me that my dreams were silly.
Thanks to Jody for reading the first chapter of my first book ever and telling me that it didn’t suck. This isn’t that book, but without that first try, this book wouldn’t exist.
And thanks to Kim for being the rock when I can’t. You make even the small victories important, and for that, I love you.
To Kim, for all the laughter you bring into my life.
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 self-effacing. 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
“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, hard-earned 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,
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.”