The Rock Riders – Episode One

Episode One            “The Stars Are Calling”

[] On Board ArkBoat Liberato Prime

{ 31 MIN 00SEC TO LAUNCH }

Of course time travel is possible,” Professor Babatunde replied as she examined the glowing web-harness restraints that kept her a prisoner in the HD3D printed, green-tinted flight-couch. The frown on her ebony face, however, telegraphed her true inner thoughts.

“I’ve got one bottle of ’77 Yamazaki to wager on that one, Lieutenant.” Scott Makanna, ship’s navigator and self-professed descendant of Hawaiian royalty reached up and fingered a floating data-monitor near his face; VR-enhanced and lightly glowing.  “Who else is in?”

Captain Zimma gave his pilot a stern look; she reclined in a molded flight-couch similar to the ship’s Chief Science Officer, except outlined and highlighted in a royal blue like his;  she’d asked the question about time travel.

“We are…” glancing at his personal Count-Down Clock floating in a 3D neon cube to his left, “…thirty minutes, six seconds from launch, Commander. Let’s stow the fireside philosophy ’til our rock is closer.”

Aye, sir.” Ship’s Pilot, Commander Kunlei So’ng performed a head nod with a sharp military flare; the rest of her was just as battened down as her bridge crewmates. Her floating command monitor showed a grid-and-vector array in muted neon shades, and a bright red line that would arc them away from Earth’s orbit and headlong unto their fates, and ‘their rock.’

Materializing briefly in a soft holographic radiance in front of the main viewer, a young man, mid-20’s with short sandy hair in a white Launch Team lab-coat and a glowing headset looked into the VR-augmented bridge of this unique spacesailship.

“ArkBoat Liberato Prime, Local-Space Launch Tracking Control; mission clock sync complete with twenty-nine minutes, twenty-two seconds remaining. Crew’s final data packet transfer in progress.” The image dissolved, replaced by a larger version of the Captain’s Count-Down Clock with slowly descending digital numbers and large, lightly-pulsating red letters: LAUNCH

Japanese whiskey, Scott?” the pilot asked risking her Captain’s further annoyance, but Kunlei’s face was in ‘perfect poker’ mode; she was a master player. It sounded like a routine bridge query. Regardless, considering the current tense circumstances, Zimma apparently ignored it this time around.

“Da kine best, Commander,” Makanna shot back.

“We’ll see.”  Kunlei’s Chinese heritage was always evident in her succinct choice of words, her soft-spoken manner; and her face. She had a pair of subtle tattoos; ancient cultural and personal ideograms, one on each cheek.

Yamazaki Sherry Cask over 50 years old. The only bottle on the ship, and shortly, the entire Universe.”  The navigator’s form-flight-seat was the same color as the pilot and captain. “The Japanese whiskey-makers know what they’re doing,” Scott said it with a nod as he finished his pitch, then tapped a green circle on his display.

“Launch Manager confirms cargo transfer protocols and locks are complete.” No apparition this time; just a disembodied voice that modulated the audio output avatar above the viewer; it reminded the Professor of the oscilloscopes her grand-dad had used in his lab. The CDC ticked off another second as Scott tapped his VR-console again.

“Traffic Control has the last of the data-packets now,” Scott relayed this to Communications Officer Harlowe.

“That bottle shouldn’t be on the ship.” Bailey Harlowe had a way of sounding oh-so-serious until you caught sight of her brilliant smile. Her VR-enhanced bridge avatar made her grin seem like a perpetual sunrise. It was one reason she was still an ensign.

“You are nine-for-nine, Andy.”  She was addressing the Launch Module Communications’ flight desk; and her oldest friend on the planet from which she was preparing to depart.  Bailey hadn’t seen him for over a decade until yesterday. She turned to her left and fixed Makanna with a glare.

“You are planning to share, I hope.” Bailey in her ‘how-dare-you’ voice directed at the Navigator. She liked him a little bit; when he wasn’t a jerk.

“Ensign Harlowe, please see the doctor for your drinking problem, and in the meantime give us a rep on the ship’s computer.” Captain Zimma, sounding almost bored and businesslike despite mere seconds from making history. He’d done this launch in a simulator three times more than his crew; still, he rarely showed much emotion on the flight deck. Get a few shots of vodka in him, though…

“I share with folks who are nice to me,” Scott mumbled, then stole a quick glance at Professor Babatunde.

The crew of the ArkBoat Liberato Prime were all exceptional individuals; Captain Zimma gave them some interpersonal latitude when he could; after all, that and having children together was a critical part of this mission. But the Russian immigrant who had started his military career ‘with less than zero’ also came equipped with his own sarcastic brand of humor, and Harlowe was a favorite mark.

“Aye, sir.”  Bailey had replied with a painfully-acquired military vagueness; voice tone and vocal attitude are always a tell-tale of the heart. She’d been undone more than once by her rebel ways.

Harlowe, an American blonde from Dallas with an IQ a mite shy of 202 with eyes of blue and usually just as nice as can be, was a  Computer specialist and had an intrinsic way of interfacing with these protein-simulant-style systems. The computers, for lack of a better description, ‘liked’ her.

“Thank you, Ensign,” Ward said with a tight smile. “Professor, please report your station.”

The ‘failure-to-adapt’ and ‘insufficient synthnaptic adoption parameter’ shredded the list of acceptable machine-interactive candidates like a little league baseball team on Day One of tryouts. Psychologists were still trying to find the grounds of this condition; lots of trends, nothing substantial.

“Oh, of course, Capt’in,” she replied in a rush.  Apparently not expecting to be called on; she’d goofed up the protocol.

Certainly, Professor Babatunde was nearly obsessed with this failure-to-adapt anomaly. And, personally, she liked Bailey; they’d hit it off right from the first day of training. To solve this puzzle with her would be a thrill to match the one she was currently living.

The West African Nobel prize holder for physics cleared her throat briefly. “Our Animal Companions check in all green.” The Professor didn’t have much to do during the launch sequence as Chief Science Officer, but as a newly minted Naval Lieutenant now, she was required to be on the Bridge. So she had eagerly accepted the job of monitoring the on-board animals and experimental rodents.

“I mean, they look pret’y calm under the circumstances.” Her camera-view of the hold below containing their habs was attached to her lime-green VR command console.

“They’re tranq’ed up, Professor.” Scott and his abbreviations. “We’re on final line-up, Kunlei,” he said less loudly as he turned to the pilot.

“Oh.” That made sense. “Of course,” the SCO decided. “The Doctor wanted to do the same for me.” She stifled a giggle; but just barely.

“Thank you, Professor; uh, Lieutenant.” No one was quite sure yet how to formally address Ms. Babatunde; permanent-resident physics genius and crewmate.  She wasn’t a naval professional like the blue-seat bridge crew, but they were very fortunate that she had volunteered for this first-of-many missions. Each launch was a permanent one-way ride to destiny.

“Aye, Capta’n,” she replied formally this time as best she could; but failed to suppress the giggle. She’d been waiting weeks to say that. “Pardon, sir. The adrenaline is flowin’ now.’ Her accent thickening in the building excitement.

The Captain nodded and graced her with a brief smile as well, then returned to his console where he noted the time.

”Twenty-three minutes, fifty-nine seconds ’til the fireworks show.”  No actual fireworks, however; the RailGun Launch Injector used induced juice from the sun.

“Post-launch guidance and attitude control systems are green, Captain.” She didn’t really need to say it; the check was performed twice already, but Kunlei was feeling the rising electromagnetic by-product of the RailGun Injector, and it made her anxious.

“RGLI spin-up at 94 of 99,” she concluded. There was an itchy sensation of un-discharged static even here on the bridge in the VR Environment; it felt like a million tiny fuzzy bugs all laughing at once.

“Lieutenant Domingo, what’s the eye-ball status on Uncle’s cabin? Monitor shows green, but I want an FHR.”  Ensign Harlowe had a thing for First-Hand Reports; probably as a result of being continuously intimate with a protein-machine on a neural-to-know basis. At the bleeding edge of this frontier, Reality was a fragile item on an unstable table within the newly emerging humachine coexist construct symbiosis.

“Aye, Ensign. Containment Section for Uncle is five by five.” That had a military tone to it for the record. A breath and then; less severe, “Don’t worry, Bailey, it’s good and locked down. Once we’re past acceleration phase, ain’t nothin’ to fret about.” Ramona, despite living most of her life in Mexico City, displayed a perfect Texas twang now and then; probably left over from her training days in Houston. She had a thing for languages.

“Thanks, Mona.”

The Prime‘s computer, a SpaceCluster Industries BioDesign Model One Ulysses-9  was a Protein-Based Synthnaptic Intelligence System.  Instead of silicon-resident data storage and random-retrieval, this nanotech-augmented ‘cyber-organism’ swam in a reinforced tank of manufactured amniotic fluid as a host to nearly 987 trillion protein-sized ‘Synthnaptic Nanopods.’

“Local-Space Traffic Control has updated solar wind coronal-hole arrival estimates.” Navigator to Pilot with a touch of tension in his voice now.  “Aye” was all she said.

A combination of neural-induced control commands from Bailey in conjunction with verbal input allowed a type of ‘human/machine interactive control construct,’ boosting the scope of non-linear analytical thinking and problem-solving in a randomly-introduced real environment. Or as Bailey had written in her diary, ‘Mind-sex with a machine in exchange for a good idea or two.’

A pure form of transhumanism was still seemingly light-years from retail. For now, this early version afforded a way to enjoin the computer to the crew as a ‘bonded member,’ and hopefully avoid any future misunderstandings.

Uncle reports one Amber Notification to Port, Downside, Cargo Section; remaining flight-board is all green. Standby by for Rail-Gun Launch status. Uncle, find the…” her voice drifted into a murmur as Uncle’s Comm control auto-regulated Bridge sound levels.

The synthnaptic N-pods functioned in a similar way to the strategically randomized storage-and-retrieval processes of a Human brain, but Uncle’s full-functioning potential was severely limited from achieving that status due to physical storage space; currently, as always, the Achilles Heel of every computer-modified contrivance. Despite Moore’s Law being long extinct, even molecular-level storage formats had its ceilings.

“RailGun Launch Module reports payload section inspection in progress. CDC still in descent.” Bailey reported this, her voice strained. Scrubbing now would be a gut-punch to everyone’s morale.

“Noted, Ensign.” Captain didn’t sound the least bit worried.

Uncle was not alive in any biological sense or even ‘machine-sentient.’ Head of the class in machine-learning, the Ulysses-9 was just a very fast thinker, clever at adapting to changing stimuli, a near-genius at theoretical analytics, a reasonably good conversationalist, decent chess opponent and a wily poker player. And, without a clear connection as to how, Uncle was getting faster every day.

Stereo B Solar shows a new set of equatorially-located spots forming, 1817 and 1818, going Delta with a 60% chance of a spark in the next 30 minutes.”

Andre in the Launch Tracking Control Module sounded like he needed a refreshing glass of water; his voice had the feel of sandpaper. The electromagnetic resonance affected the entire station at this stage of the launch. His image from the waist up had appeared briefly again as a floating hologram in front of the main viewscreen as he spoke; then faded away.

“We’ll be long gone by then, Control,” the Captain replied dryly.

Nevertheless, Uncle was the fastest computational object on Earth, clocked at over fifty zettaflops before being transferred into orbit, matched only by the HD3D ArkBoat Printer manager in charge of mass producing the spacesailships.  But Uncle had relatives poised for an unprecedented mass cloning once this launch was signed off as successful.

“Navigation recommends we re-calc a duck plot, just in case, Captain.”

“Proceed.” Zimma tapped an orange circular comm tab. “Engineering, what’s the deal with cargo? Is the door ajar? It’s cold in the void, I’m told.”

Domingo’s image formed in a small glowing space on Zimma’s VR-console; she glanced up at his giant form. “Chasing a bunch of clickers out of the gears, sir. Launch Mod is on it.” She winked out before he could respond. She did that often. ‘Clickers’ meant somebody else was screwing up and she was ‘fixing’ it.

After installation and testing in the ArkBoat, ‘Uncle’ – the anamorphic name the crew insisted upon – had improved its calculation-speed trials performance by nearly 4%.  Shouldn’t have been capable of it; nobody understood why yet.  This intrigued Bailey Harlowe, though, to the point of losing sleep and she vowed to solve this puzzle as a matter of principle and pride.

“We’ve got a payload section query from the Rail Gun Launch engineer on the downside-port monitoring station,” the ship’s Engineer confirmed from her station behind the aft bridge bulkhead.

Domingo’s virtual image materialized to the left of the main viewer this time for a moment. Lieutenant Ramona Domingo, Chief Engineering Officer, looked up from her virtual console and grinned.  “Launch Mod is checking the sensors. Someone spilled some salsa on it or something.”

Her image remained in the VR projection field, the sound muffled as she ‘gave instructions’ to some harried deckhand in the launch bay; her VR-hands gesticulating.  Her real arms were safely netted; her hands working the VRI gloves.

“Some Launch Mod tech getting his ōkole  kicked right now,” Makanna said, speaking in an exaggerated ‘conspiracy’ voice to Kunlei.  She ignored him for the moment, so  Scott looked up at the CDC and announced the time remaining, “Eighteen minutes, twenty-seven seconds to Launch.”

Pilot So’ng’s eyes were focused on a secondary VR-modified display that showed the Sun in a variety of observation filters; currently, her tactical analytics plotter was examining a larger-than-normal coronal hole that had been revealed on the SDO short-wave at 193 Ångströms.

“Looking at a quake uptick downstairs when that coronal stream arrives.” Kunlei briefly bit her lower lip.  Scott saw it; sure didn’t often happen, very rare; it was one of only two tells she possessed. Everyone still had family on Earth.

“They already know, Commander.” Firm, reassuring. The Navigator and Pilot team, like in baseball, depended heavily on confident and supportive responses.

“Bridge, Engineering; Launch Mod has cleared the clickers,” Ramona’s VR-hand swiped the air, ending with an OKAY hand sign. An orange flash feedback spark where her ‘fingertips’ touched.

“We are clear to steer. Count is on. Engineering, out.” Her image winked out in a sprinkle of orange photons.

The Latina engineering phenom from Mexico City looked comfortable there in her flight-acceleration couch; ‘strapped in like a mental patient on a gurney.’  That’s what Dr. Abulafia called it; he was in a  similarly custom-molded couch nearby – his with a vibrant medical green coloring. “Salsa? Don’t look at me.” The Doctor said it and vented his stress with an edgy chuckle.

“Likely never eat again after this.” The seconds-left-to-departure was slipping away as Dr. Hasan Abulafia, honorary Naval Commander and ship’s senior medical professional focused on the CDC; he felt the rising tension in his gut; an unfamiliar copper taste. His nervous laugh sounded brittle in his earbuds; so he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Live or die, Doctor; you knew the risks,” Captain Zimma in an attempt to distract the ship’s physician and surgeon with a starker reality. They had had this discussion over a few shots recently. “Either way, we’ll all know in,” he looked again. “…exactly sixteen minutes, thirty-two seconds.”

Ensign Harlowe’s flight-seat was a lighter blue with pulsating darker spots that ran a chase pattern all around her form; more eye-candy as the ship’s computer interacted with Bailey as a VR tell-tale. Her avatar looked exactly like her carbon-based form; a body Scott described as a blond Hawaiian goddess in a vac suit; but, then again, nearly everything was somehow Hawaiian in Makanna’s estimation. Not all avatars were as accurate; the navigator’s displayed more actual pectorals than he possessed on the corporeal plane.

“That’s very comforting.” The doctor’s prescription for sarcasm. “Guess I’ll see you in Hell, then.” An old Earth joke that never died; another unofficial cargo item outbound for the stars.

That made the Captain laugh, however; another rarity. “I’ll bring the vodka!” But he always said that; and then, less jovially, “Fifteen minutes, thirty-eight seconds.”

The computer’s synthetic voice began a series of readout reports directed at Bailey in her flight-deck space, but it was still audible over the bridge monitors as a kind of intelligible mumble; another psychological adornment in the VR environment.

“Not kidding,” Makanna said, ignoring the captain’s effort at bracing his crew; he took a quick look at the large countdown timer hovering nearby; it was bordered in a raging neon blue at the moment.

“Prove actual, factual time travel to me, Tomeka, and it’s yours. A priceless artifact that goes down smooth.” That goofy surfer’s laugh. They’d become good friends in the last few months.

[] [] []

{} DATABASE RECORD 2022/JN30-open

{} LIBERATO- define/expound, language tab, exposition to query

LIBERATO – \ Lih -brrr –ah -toe / VARIANT/long A – Lihb -err –aa -toe

 LATIN ORIGIN: Escape; Freedom From Bondage; Flight To Safety; Acceptance Of Fate, Preservation Departure, Sacrifice For The Species,  New Age Manifest Destiny

{} DATABASE RECORD 2022/JN30-close

[] [] []

The bridge crew sat in a tight semi-circle on the upper-front quadrant of this eight-section ‘space-sailship’ that had been printed in orbit only last month. Lacking the usual large-scale chemical internal propulsion systems that 20th Century rocketry had demanded, these single-piece ArkBoats contained reliable Newtonian-based compressed-gas attitude-correction systems to direct the craft after launch.

Every external surface of the ArkBoat could be affected by attitude jets using Newton’s Second Law to a practical advantage, giving Uncle and Commander So’ng near total guidance control.  The only vector outside of their direct influence was the boat’s initial forward sailing velocity; that was determined by the launch injector, and once in flight, that was all the propulsion that would theoretically be needed.  The trajectory would bring the ArkBoat up behind its chosen asteroid and the pilot, aided by the ship’s computer, would perform an intricate ‘brake and land’ maneuver jokingly called the Downtown Dust-Down. It was a one-way trip.

A space-based Attenuated Rail-Gun Vector-Injection System had been augmented and built into the orbiting production platform. The Rail-Gun Injector angled and set the declination for the ArkBoats and then flung them into an intersecting vector-path with their chosen candidate asteroid.

The High Definition MultiPlane Orbital Vehicle Printer, fed by modularized chemical resource tanks containing a specialized long-chain polymer created for the space vacuum environment intricately layered each single-piece spacesailship design, dubbed an ArkBoat.

An SCI BioDesign Model One Ulysses-8 helms the immense printer that creates thousands of internal data-transmission cavities throughout the vessel as well as scores of air-tight input slots that house simple external nanotech sensors and attitude-affect ports.  These provide a bionetic-influenced central nervous system to the ship’s computer; Uncle’s arteries and senses.

That, at least, was the theory and the running results of 86% of all the simulations and live-limited trials, so far. The successful launch of the Liberato Prime would set the stage for an evacuation of Earth by those qualified and/or lucky enough to be accepted as a Rock Rider.

[] [] []

{} DATABASE RECORD 2022/JN22-open

{} ROCK RIDER- define/expound, history tab, exposition to query

ROCK RIDER

  • MODERN HYBRID/slang ORIGIN: An individual born on Earth, selected through testing for robust physical and mental abilities, psychological stability in unknown environments under extreme conditions, trained in a science or skill-set that aids in survivability and the perpetuation of the species and possessing a biologically fertile reproductive system.
  • A Rock Rider is a SpaceSailship crewmember tasked with a successful launch and landing on a chosen Asteroid to be utilized as their transportation into the Local-Space neighborhood.

{} DATABASE RECORD 2022/JN22-close

[] [] []

“RailGun Launch manager with a private message for the captain of the Liberato Prime; Secure DC line, sir. A post-launch postcard code correction packet.” Ensign Harlowe, all business now.

“Very well.” Zimma tapped a shortcode into his hovering console; the VR feedback system built a small opaque cage around the pulsing display niche. “Proceed.”

“Mission clock sync,” Makanna read the update from his console. “Twelve minutes to launch.”

Directly in front of the main viewing screen, a three-foot circular pad, currently lit in a dull reddish light, remained offline as there was no holographic telemetry being transmitted from the Local-Space Control Module. The five crew members sat in their molded launch couches, strapped in to overcome the near-weightless condition while poised on the launch rails. Later, there would zero gravity for quite a while.

“Tomeka? You okay over there?” Kunlei saw the Professor struggling against her restraints; colorful virtual representations of the actual polymer webbing keeping her safe.

The ship’s science chief looked across the silver and chrome highlighted bridge at the pilot. “Oh, yeah. I’m jus’ not use ta sittin’ so long.” She grinned as the adrenaline surged and she continued fidgeting with a phantom construct using pretend hands. “Just trying ta get a lil breathin’ room.”

“Virtual hands won’t work on those.” Kunlei; sympathetic and genuine. It took everyone a while to get used to this virtual environment.

“Mission clock sync,” Makanna repeated; this update flashed on the main viewer. “Eleven minutes, twenty-seven seconds to launch.”

Babatunde ceased her struggle at the pilot’s gentle reminder. “Oh, of course…” she trailed off and smiled at So’ng who had a pair of fine lines creasing across her forehead. Her jaw was tight, as well. “I’m fine, dear. Really.”

“Too late for a ticket refund, Lieutenant.” Captain quipped with a quick look at his special crewmember. “If we survive the launch, the first round of drinks are on me.”

The acceleration webbing also prevented ‘a rapid unscheduled molecular disassembly’ of their bodies during acceleration from the RailGun Launcher; often referred to as ‘The Splat Effect.’

“Aye, Captain,” was all Babatunde could manage; the electromagnetic fluctuations and building stresses were unavoidable, so she just closed her eyes.

“ArkBoat Liberato Prime, Local-Space Traffic Control shows all green after the last check.  Launch still ‘go’ with ten minutes, thirty-three seconds remaining.  Go or No-Go notification on next trans.”

Rimmed with a pleasing violet color above the main external view-screen, the sound-bar modulated with the voice; one Andre Eckstein, 2nd Lieutenant jg speaking from Orbiting Launch Modual-12 mission tracking station, the first one built despite its numerical designation and where the first Rock Riders were about to be flung into space.

“Thank you, Control,” Bailey, also ship’s communication officer, sounded nervous for the first time since they had all boarded. She’d let herself actually look at the CDC just now for the first time and her personal objective time frame did a heart-hitching re-sync: Nine minutes, fifty-one seconds and she and her crew-mates would leave the Earth behind forever.

Professor Tomeka Babatunde, eyes popping open suddenly, unable to let a conversation be left ‘a-danglin’ like a ripe fruit on a hot day‘ without a resolve, spoke up again as the tension and palpable itchiness continued. “Time travel is doable, Scott. Ya know; you’ve got a bet there, Sailor.”

“We’ve got a helluva lot of postcards to deliver,” the Captain said to the bridge in general after the private call. “Close out, Ensign. Miles to go before we drink, Comrades.”

“Aye, sir.”

Lieutenant Babatunde cut a diminutive form in her molded seat; short for a traditional Rock Rider as described in recent popular tunes on the Net, but fiercely brilliant and a very high survivability quotient.  She constantly repeated that she was the furthest ideal of a sailor, sea or space. But she and the navigator shared a love of the ocean; what there was left of it at any rate, and they had held long conversations about the sea over drinks in Galveston.

“I look forward to being schooled,” the navigator replied in a manner befitting a space naval officer, but there was a mischievous tone that suggested maybe something else.

The Captain heard it, ignored it as well. “Eight minutes, forty seconds and we’re go.” He tapped a green, pulsating VR button as he said the last word.

The physics Professor’ flashed a finger-to-thumb ‘OK’ with her VR-enhanced hand; it flashed an emerald green quite unexpectedly. This new VR flight-environment was heavily stocked with visual feedback.

“Professor, please.” Captain Ward Zimma, Russian by nature and everything else, hadn’t even looked up from his floating command console; his virtual hands were busy. “Final checks, ladies, and gentlemen. This flyin’ boxcar is our ticket to Liberato; let’s make it count.”

A chorus of ‘Aye, sirs’ followed; that always made Zimma smile НЕМНОГО; just a bit. Being a leader on some epic journey suited Ward Zimma; birth name Mikhail Strudosky Zimmaskosvich – his name changed by his adoptive parents for political reasons.

“Harlowe, let’s get one more computer status update before we go. What’s Uncle say?”

“Right and tight, Captain.  The computer wants to know if there’s a movie on this flight.” She had a wicked sense of humor. Another reason her rank wasn’t higher.

“A guy named Ridley sent one over, I heard. Something about a space freighter and a cat.”  Scott with his macabre sense of humor.  However, on this flight,  there was a cat onboard with a famous theatrical name.

“People. Steady.” Zimma looked around at the others tucked into their flight-couches, and though this was a VR-augmented flight deck, it mirrored the real thing just under their feet. The rising tone from the monitor mixed with a building static charge; it filled the small bridge with a keening tactile vibration. The VR avatars appeared indistinct as though they were drawn with a dull crayon.

Everyone’s skin tingled with a varying-frequency pulse-current for a moment, then it subsided with a wash of tinnitus, and a light ‘pop’ in the ears.  The avatars solidified instantly and snapped back into a high definition orgy of finely-tuned color and clarity, but the ‘itchiness’ remained unabated.

“The stars are calling, my fellow Earthers, and we are finally going to call on them!”

The Captain’s voice rose with the audible launch klaxon sounding now in the launch bay and cabin speakers; the building EMF circulation and emitted static continued rising until Uncle finally lowered the speaker output; a bit delayed, in Bailey’s opinion.

“Stand by for launch!” The CDC showed six minutes,  twenty-two seconds.

Harlowe noticed because she sensed Uncle vacillate on the definition of ‘lowering’ the level. Probably routine in a Live VR Active Duty Situation, and given the current stresses, more than likely normal.  But who knew what that was now? They were inventing new normals every day.

“ArkBoat Liberato Prime; call it: Go or No-Go!” Eckstein’s voice had an even tighter edge to it now. Even with endless practice and simulations, ‘going live’ was always a gut-twisting, sphincter-tightening visceral event.

“Mr. Makanna? The fires are lit. What say you?”

The Captain’s pre-arranged signal for the stations to sound off on final.

“Navigation is GO.”

“Pilot station is GO.”

“Science station is GO.”

“Computer station shows… GO.” Bailey had hesitated only slightly because the computer had…something odd again. Could a Synthnaptic computer be…nervous?  She had felt a momentary ‘darkness’ within her neural-interface.  It was an ‘unscheduled hesitation’; apprehension. And then, all green.

That wasn’t possible, was it? Regardless, Uncle was now ‘good to go.’

“Harlowe?”

“We’re GO, Captain!” Can’t stop now, she thought in a rush. Her bio-connection with Uncle, consisting of a neural lace implant and full bodysuit packed with sensors, felt hot and slickly metallic; like chainmail dipped in honey.

“All in,” she thought…and Uncle: what? Just flinched? Bailey was a poker player, too, and had conjured an image of a big pile of chips being flung headlong into a dark void lit only by tiny star lights.

“Local-Space Launch Control, ArkBoat Liberato Prime is GO for launch!” Zimma said it like reciting a menu.

Somewhat more excited – now by this unexpected connection with her machine – Bailey, her adrenaline coursing, repeated her captain’s words over her comm-link to Local-Space Comm Control. Andre repeated them back and added, “Be safe, Bailey. Sorry I couldn’t ride along. I’ll miss you. Again.”

Surprised! Harlowe felt the unexplored emotion of loss as her heart heaved a bit for the second time. They had been friends many years ago as kids and teens and only recently reunited. “Goodbye, Andy. I’ll take our memories with me. You’ll be there.”

The CDC read four minutes, eight seconds as the holographic receiver plate on the floor of the Liberato Prime flashed to life in a cyan sparkle and Andre’s image reappeared. His face was strained, and in the background several launch workers were busy at their tasks. A set of floating data panels to Eckstein’s left with rapidly changing data-sets and the last few seconds of the Count-Down Clock. He raised his right hand and waved; weary.

Nevertheless, he smiled…

 

[] Orbital Launch Platform 12, Mission Tracking Comm Module

…and repeated what he’d been practicing all week.

“Crew of the ArkBoat Liberato Prime, we, Earth’s remnant, salute you and your courageous endeavors. Godspeed, Earthers; we’ll be along shortly! Until then, we’ll be waiting for our postcards! Farewell!”

Andre Eckstein, nearing the end of a 32-hour shift and moments away from witnessing history, tapped his transmission panel, then keyed an internal mic to his supervisor, and spoke in a tired voice. “The Prime is Go, sir. MTC is online.”

“Thank you.”

Two heartbeats later and the entire station began to shiver.

 

[] Orbital Launch Platform 12, RailGun Injector Control Module

{ THREE SECONDS TO LAUNCH }

“Clear to launch!” The RailGun Master’s voice from the control module’s flying bridge mixed with the warning klaxon and bounced off the shiny hulls of the Capacitor Counterweight components rigged opposite the launch rails where the Liberato Prime vibrated in harmony with the entire station. Massive contacts embedded in a system bowel were poised to slam together, unleashing energy gleaned from the Sun temporarily captured for this moment.

{ ONE SECOND TO LAUNCH }

“Grounding protocol engaged! Start! ” Embedded in the high-security console at his post, the Master turned a red metal key on his last word; five more Launch crew stationed nearby simultaneously turned theirs as well on his signal.

{ 000 SECONDS —  MISSION CLOCK RE-SYNC }

“Launching ArkBoat Liberato Prime!”

{ 001 SECOND —  MISSION: Liberato Prime, Day One }

His voice, on full broadcast to the entire orbital station and emitting from the external bay speakers, radiated off into space just ahead of the first ArkBoat departing from an ailing Earth.

 

[] Orbital Launch Platform 12, Mission Tracking Comm Module

Andre Eckstein focused on the main viewer at his communication station; another dozen screens arranged in an analog-clock fashion floated in his augmented reality space. His post was tucked into the top-forward ring of the Tracking Module with an actual view out of a port window.  He would’ve preferred it to this unreal intrusion called Virtual Mixed Reality.

“Mission clock sync is green. We have…”

For a flashing moment, a phantom current seemed to pass thru him; there was a highly uncomfortable sensation where every cell in his body seemed to strain at its molecular bindings.

An impossible frequency rang in his ears; felt it with every cell, rather than heard it.

Andre saw his own body in his mind’s eye as though it was held together for an instant by a network of perforations – any sudden movements would bring irreparable tearing.

“…is green,” said his mouth, on autopilot; untorn.

Andre blinked a bit and wondered what he’d just said. “Tracking Mod is online…” hoping that would be sufficient.

That was weird. Quite likely everyone on the station had a similar experience; there would now be a new round of medical inquiries and psych evals soon in addition to endless official debriefing seminars.

Big deep breath; in through the nose, hold, out the mouth.

“Visual on the Prime is Ex, Index 10,” Andre reported as a kind of second wind was taking hold; the effects of the electromagnetic induction field and ‘flash channel contact’ was passing; if that’s what it was…

Andre completed his observations from his post, informed Local-Space C&C, then handed it off as he’d practiced a thousand or more times.

“MTC now releases full observation and control to Ulysses.”

All of Andre’s senses had somewhat returned; exhaustion notwithstanding. The floating monitors in his VRE showed various angles of the departing ship at the moment of release. In real time, the disengagement and push from the rails occurred quickly.  An immediate replay was required for a Human-eyes after-action report that would be added to the automated monitoring system’s account.

Two of the images had odd greenish cracks spidering across a portion of the screen.

“Log entry: Launch Bay Twelve, Cam 8 and 10 appear damaged after launch. Green cracks noticeable on the lens.”

ArkBoat Liberato Prime was a rapidly diminishing dot on all the monitors now, and from the look of the green, glowing numbers on the data readouts on his console; the mission post-launch profile was excellent.

“Ulysses, MTC Andre Eckstein, requesting time.” A big yawn.

“MTC Andre Eckstein, Ulysses; proceed.” Today’s U-voice was low and female. It changed monthly based on crew voting. Andre liked this one; he’d voted for it half-dozen times.

“Recall and replay, Bay twelve, MLB Cam eight and ten. Cue to Launch minus three seconds and hold. Replay, slo-mo. Observe for anomalies. Freeze to examine on the catch.”

“Main Launch Bay camera eight on D-one three; camera ten on D-one four.” The station’s version of Uncle – sounding more like a sexy Aunt  – brought to life two new VR displays in Andre’s visual field.

“Ulysses; before we scan, what’s the fast-status on the Prime?”

“The ArkBoat Liberato Prime is on target to Asteroid 2022 PaulVictor-501, current down-range relative eight, seven, seven thousand kilometers – mark – vector path deviation less than one percent, at two, point, two minutes, declination nominal minus  seventeen seconds. Laser telemetry link is green at four point four of five; mission elapsed time at three minutes – mark. Liberato Prime is Mission Green, five by five. Liberato is freedom.”

That last comment was ad-libbed; not usually part of the fast-status response during training. Ulysses-7 was apparently getting a personality adjustment as well as a vocal change.

“Thank you…” Andre paused as a rather simple thought struck home: they’re never coming back. Out into dark space; sailing probably forever. Damn, how long is that? And Bailey…

“MTC Andre Eckstein; medical feedback is registering a change flag; iris focus and metabolic rate fluctuation…”

“My what?” Andre, imprisoned in the tracking station, had been picturing Bailey waving to him as she sat upon a massive rock as it whooshed past.

“You have been on active duty beyond prescribed limits, Lieutenant Eckstein. You are fatigued outside of safe parameters. I am recommending you relinquish your post now and transit downside immediately.”

“Didn’t realize ’til just now…” Andre trailed off, then nearly dozing off.

“MTC Andre Eckstein; you are relieved of this post per order of Chief Raymus, Mission Tracking Communications Module Commander. An escort will arrive shortly.”

Andre laughed, but he was annoyed; he didn’t need an escort. Standing slowly, stretching to the point where he got a bit light-headed, the exhausted comm-tech let out another YAWN – this one loud and obnoxious – then sat back down slowly.

“Let’s see the launch in slow-mo anyway, Ulysses.”

“Main viewer, projector to personal, at minus 3 ex speed from countdown at contact.” Sexy voice, all business.

“Proceed.” Andre blinked away a  tear and watched the launch unfold in a VR-3D playback at 1.9 billion pixels in a projected space about a foot from his face, enhanced by thin data tracking cubes dancing around the edges.

The playback began with his point-of-view of the ArkBoat Liberato Prime from his perch at the top of the Mission Tracking Communications Module; Andre thought of it as the puffy ball on a beret.

In fact, the orbital construction station and launch-platform did look like an inverted cereal bowl with a dimpled golf ball glued to the middle. Below the station’s equator, six arched pylons extended ‘downside’ – toward the planet – to a nearly-conjoined point under the station where a behemoth skeletal cube constructed of poly-carbon steel tubes lay clutched in their embrace.

Extending out of the cube and graduating away from the entire structure in a graceful three-quarters circle, a pair of thick round rails, cobalt blue at this angle, and supported by an army of trusses.

And finally, circling the equator, another double-rail extending out in a fixed complete-circuit diameter to accommodate the Counterweight Capacitors. These massive, bullet-shaped vehicles absorbed the torque and weight displacement from the departing spacesailship, and also stored the electrical energy needed to power the RailGun launch system; lovingly referred to as the ‘Vector Injector.’

The launch bay, situated near the ‘East Panel’ of the cube, sequestered the ArkBoat until the launch. At release, the spacesailship moved along the rails in a levitated and near-zero frictionless glide path around the station and departing in the direction and angle to catch up and ‘claim their rock.’

The Prime exited the bay at a 90 degree offset with her starboard side facing the planet, and as it accelerated around the station, rotated back to its optimum departure angle as it left the rails and out into the spotted darkness.

The entire event from the moment the Launch Master turned the key was just under four seconds. The station-based Ulysess-7 guiding the launch would have positioned the launch bays orbital attitude precisely and calculated the exact declination and exit velocity to propel the ship to meet its intended asteroid down range within ten to twelve days.

The ArkBoat itself had always reminded Andre of a snack cake called a Twinkie; a rectangular tube with rounded ends and a flat bottom.  A pair of reinforced tubes the length of the ship along the base served as asteroid landing skids and docking anchors after launching from the rails.

The current ArkBoat HD3D UniLayer Print version contained eight airtight compartments. And at just a bit larger than a pair of luxury Class-A Recreational Vehicles lashed together, the vessel would serve as the crew’s home, habitat, laboratory, morgue, and nursery as they searched for a new patch of ground in which to plant their species’ seeds.

And the multitude of asteroids currently wandering through the system provided a way to reconnoiter and explore the local-space area for the price of a few thousand batteries per launch.

[][][]

  “For all the prep, panic and sweat, the actual launch visual is a let-down.” Andre finally spoke up after viewing the event from a number of angles; including a virtual ‘star-seat ride-along’ version. The VR simulation created a hypothetical chair on the top-middle of the ArkBoat as it sped away, placing you as a First-Person Participant rather than a detached viewer. It wasn’t for everyone.

“On-duty launch command personnel bio-sign scans at the scheduled departure detected a marked increased in respiration and neural activity, as expected.”

“I know…” Andre began; his stomach rolled as hunger finally surfaced. “That doesn’t mean there wasn’t solar-sized worry and a bunch of clenched butts.” He stood up just as the compartment hatch started its opening cycle.

The VR projectors and Eckstein’s receptor-set deactivated, revealing a uniformly gray room, devoid of furniture or fixtures save a physical comm console in a half-circle configuration in front of large, black port-windows. There was the familiar hiss…

…and Andre’s ears popped.”Yow! Never get used to that.” He turned and finished his thought. “I just meant there’s no fireworks or flash; kinda disappointing, that’s all.”

He could now hear the cheers and lingering celebration leaking in from the large central monitoring arena on this level. He fished a protein bar from his tunic and finished its existence in three quick bites.

The room pressure quickly readjusted as an early-thirties Hispanic women stepped through; she wore a white launch-team jacket with a purple stripe around the waist and three smaller ones on her left sleeve. Her black hair was cut short and military; it revealed an ear-com bud of a jade color that was quite unique.

“What’s disappointing? Person don’t wanna hear that on entering a compartment.” She said it like a drill sergeant, but her smile was friendly.

“Hey, Doctor Reyes. You’re my escort? Who’d you piss off?” Andre dotted this question with a snorty laugh and tossed the wrapper into a chute on his desk.

“The Creator, Himself, apparently,” Commander Yvonne Reyes answered instantly. “We can catch the Sundowner to Phoenix if we go right now.”

“Planetside Shuttle Flight AXA-003 to Phoenix SpaceHarbor RTP Pad 16 departs in twenty-seven minutes from Orbital Twelve Outbound Shuttle Deck, Gate One.” Ulysses employed a kind of verbal shorthand involving ‘on-duty’ situations. On other decks like the Medical or Psych Wings, the synthnaptic computer used conversational modes that had cracked an updated Turing Test on the first pass; but still wasn’t enough to be considered ‘alive.’

“Thank you,” Reyes said while assertively grabbing Andre’s arm. “Barely enough time, Ecks; gonna have to bribe the pilot when we get there.”

“I’m yours.” Eckstein shuffled willingly towards the hatch. “Thank you, Ulysses; had a swell time.” He raised his hand without looking back and stepped through the hatch.

Past the sprawling monitoring arena with its uncountable number of displays, stations, launch crews changing shifts in front of impossibly tall clear-port windows, down the gray and white sterile corridor and heading In-Station-to-Core, Andre and Yvonne stepped aggressively past more personnel and a seemingly perpetual parade of self-propelled robots and autonomous air vehicles all controlled by Ulysses from a compartment the size of an old city bus buried somewhere in the geosynchronous station.

The dull and functional reality of the orbiting space station was a far cry from the brightly flashing virtual environment of the duty stations. Pipe-work and ducting, clever negative-light directional signage plastered on nearly every surface, hatches and ladders and polycarb catwalks strung like party decorations in all the lofty places that engineers and ramp-rats inhabit.

“No kidding, Anders. That was the weirdest channel effect yet.” Yvonne had been at her station on the Psych Wing; she was second in command there and the daughter of an Admiral. “It actually freaked my assistant out; he needed a tranq.” That’s why Andre was surprised to see her as his escort.

“I was saying something to Command; I have no idea what it was.” Reaching around a courier/carrier robot and grabbing a handrail just as the moving walkway sped up from its boarding pace. “The debriefing sessions, Doctor; I don’t envy you there.”

“Yeah. We’re going to reexamine the testing protocols again for fitness on the launch decks.” That sounded ominous to Andre, but he was too tired for debate.

Moving now from In-Core to Surface-Access, the walkway shifted speed again momentarily as a large man carrying a tool of some kind pushed his way to the edge of the rolling floor.

Reyes side-stepped the irritated-looking dock-tech; his light gray jumper with red stripes bore some tears and smears. So did his face. “Take a breath, spacer,” she said to him with an official head nod as he debarked and dissolved into the sea of people and machines on the Commons Deck without a response. Ignoring Command authority acknowledgment was a bad sign.

“That one is gonna pop a rivet,” the Psychologist said in a low voice to Andre.  Reyes used worn-out sayings like other folks collected antiques.

“You think it’s…?” Andre felt a chill as the walkway lurched a bit. It always did right here for some reason.

“Rock Madness?” Reyes laughed at his cloudiness. “No. Stop it with that.”

“He looked really pissed.” The walkway smoothly regained speed again; the breeze felt good.  Body odor was something a spacer in a confined station got used to after awhile, or he didn’t last long. The occasional fresh breeze reminded one of that fact. “Can’t wait to sleep for a week.”

“You need it.” Yvonne took a drag on a vape pen as she looked closely at Andre’s face. “You really look beat.” She handed it to her charge; he took it but hesitated.

“Stimulant compound; fresh-up your brain for the ride home.”

He touched the lit stud on the pen and took a drag. Cherry taste and the effect took him instantly; a gentle, pleasant kick in the pituitary gland and Central Nervous System. The world seemed to actually brighten a bit.

“Impressive, Doctor Reyes. What is it?” Andre, handing it back, smiled as he turned and looked out of the massive station port windows; a portion of the Arctic and Canada were visible right now. The cloud cover was scant, and a few of the hundreds of impact scars drifted into and out of view.

“A Dopamine enhancer gene tuned with an analog peptide-resident nanometer nozzle. No more RailGun rides on the Endorphin express.” She laughed at her own joke, but it was too noisy as a security drone buzzed over their heads. Andre would’ve missed it anyway; he was gazing at an ailing planet; his mind in a slideshow of memories from the hit.

“This stuff makes me realize how much I’m gonna miss Bailey now. We just reconnected yesterday and…” Andre paused; assessing his feelings.

“You guys were a thing once upon a time?” Yvonne had a thing for chromosomal types that resonated with her own, but from a clinical perspective, her interest in Lt. Eckstein was professional. She’d been the one to deny him is Rock Wings; he wasn’t able to convincingly pass the psychological stresses test associated with space travel beyond orbit. “Had you pegged for a professional bachelor.”

“We were kids in middle classes, then buds in high school. We had some great summers before she moved away.” Andre shifted his body as the walkway slowed; people and machines moved off to other places. “Before the world went to hell.”

“Neighbors? Girl next door?”

“Yeah. She was the local blonde goddess with a brain, and I was her best male friend. Not her best boyfriend. We confided in each other and; I dunno. We kissed a few times,” Andre broke off, going red-faced. The vape had shifted his long-term memory into overdrive.

“Sounds serious, Eckstein.” Yvonne Reyes, Andre’s psych evaluation officer and sympathetic counselor, had heard many things from his past and youth during his assessment exercises, but not this chapter. It made her wonder why he hadn’t mentioned her.

“Probably would’ve been if she hadn’t moved.” Andre nodded. “Best thing for her that she did, that’s for sure.”

“You aren’t worthy of her specialness, is that it?” Reyes; ever the shrink.

But it pushed a button in her companion. “No!” The word had a sudden, negative energy; but then Andre actually burst out laughing. “I mean, yes. She’s a genius, Yvonne, and everything else.” He was composed now and winked. “Yeah. Definitely not worthy.”

“This chapter isn’t in your psych file, Anders. I don’t remember this…” She’d always used his first name in a slightly unusual way; a psych trick to get his subconscious to trip him up. It hadn’t yet, but she still called him that…

…the doctor stopped, blinked once, then moved to dig her personal communicator from her tunic pocket. “Have to take this,” she said after glancing at it, and without waiting for a response, turned her back as she lowered her voice.

“I had forgotten,” Eckstein said it softly, the internal slideshow ending, then re-looping, with a vivid memory of those kisses, then dark sadness. No wonder he’d…

As the moving walkway took them around a gentle curve to the departure platform, his attention was attracted by the bulk of a planet-bound shuttle slipping into view, currently moored to a gantry and horizontal passenger ramp. A departure timer for Gate One up ahead displayed just over five minutes to castoff. Nearby a number of arrival and departure monitors were active as well. The noise level rose as the air temperature dropped in this busy terminal.

“We’ve got a table for two in the Bar Car,” Dr. Reyes said in Andre’s ear; startling him. That vape hit had really stirred the memories, he was a mile down Memory Lane and turning onto Arousal Street.

Damn, doctor!”

“Sorry. That was a friend on board the Sundowner; she’s got a couple jump-seats for us in the crew’s quze.” Reyes stepped forward, edging a delivery autobot into the handrail; its internal collision avoidance sensor reacting to keep it stable. “Pardon, Ma’am,” the device responded.

“See that hatch with the number zero-four?” Reyes asked with a head gesture to a bulkhead beyond the check-in gate, again very close to his ear. The din was intense here; an ocean of white noise against a nearly black and silent sky.

“Yeah.” Practically yelling. “I thought that was an alien restroom.” A large white-haired man in dark grey station overalls with an orange stripe at his waist bumped into him, mumbled something in a language Andre didn’t know and kept moving. “His, maybe.”

“Funny. Stay behind me, keep left of the security desk; keep your ID ready, and no smart-ass remarks.” Reyes grabbed his hand anyway and parted the crowd with a few rank-privileged commands.

Five minutes later with only twenty-three seconds until final hull-hatch-lock, Eckstein and Reyes were belted into a pair of couches intended for injured passengers or individual infirm transport. The crew’s cabin contained some personal items, photos, travel bags and a restroom; otherwise, it was the same non-color as everything else that was HD3D printed now; the hue the crew called  ‘graeige.’

“Then why do I feel like a stowaway?” Andre had been scrutinized by shuttle security and would’ve been dry-docked had it not been for Dr. Reyes’ formal tone and subtle threats.

“My diagnosis? Hallucination from exhaustion.” She offered the vape pen, but he waved it away.

“Thanks. No. That stuff jacks the mind theater into overdrive.” He closed his eyes finally as a subtle vibration he’d sensed since boarding increased to a hum.

“A variant of this took Alzheimer’s down permanently. Now you know why.”

“So what?” Andre asked; he was feeling a bit woozy now. “The world is screwed from flying space rocks, and we’ve cured one of the most devastating ailments known to this reckless species.”

“Some of those flying space rocks are also going to save us.”

“Too ironic, Yvonne.” Then, in a sad, sleepy tone; “Mother Earth; thy name is frailty.”

Backassward Shakespearian snowclones now, Anders? You’re at maximum level of susceptibility. I should hypnotize you, Lieutenant.”

But Andre had closed his eyes; the vibrations from the shuttle levving to her launch attitude, cargo doors locking and purging, the subliminal musical tones and soft background sounds from hidden speakers that included whispered calming phrases had done its work.

“Name is Andre,” he said in a whisper, followed by a snore.

[][][]

            The old brown dwarf star that had wandered up from down south of the galactic plane in the early 2020’s pushed and pulled thousands of asteroids as well as dust and debris right through our local space.  Gravitational disruptions troubled the routine orbits of another several thousand Near Earth Objects, all assorted sizes, weights and masses that found their blinding way onto the planet and her many cities of all sizes.

Morphed into tortured new contours, Earth’s  famous coastlines, skylines, and landmarks alike were reshaped by the flotsam of space that swept into and out of the atmosphere.  Detailing the planet’s new scars and counting the dead became a daily ritual as the first wave of rocks, relatively small from buckets of dust to truckloads of marbles, gave way to denser objects whose trajectory was more easily influenced by the incalculable forces acting on everything that had mass.

On a Sunday morning in August, the first of the expected ‘Stage-Beta Moderate Range Projectiles’ -about the size of an old kitchen refrigerator – was tracked out of the night on every radar installation available as it struck a church in Europe and started a worldwide panic.  If that church hadn’t been the Vatican Basilica of Saint Peter in the heart of Vatican City, the hysteria might have been lessened.

But more-than-likely not enough.

As it was, the meteor, large and demonically dense enough to survive a flashing reentry witnessed in real time by more than 8 billion souls, augured in at a steep angle and impacted in St. Peter’s Square.

The Obelisk – brought to Rome in 37 AD by Gaius Caligula and considered a world wonder to some, an eyesore to others – suffered an explosive unscheduled disassembly as the lower half dissolved in the shock wave.  The pedestal and about twelve meters worth of red granite disappeared and propelled the remaining dozen or so meters toward the Cathedral, crashing into the colonnades and completely destroying the front façade.  The roof fell in the following day as another rock struck the building.

By Christmas, the number of strikes worldwide, as the planet spun like a hapless target in an endless shooting gallery, grew ten-fold. The extent of the ongoing destruction was a singular obsession, and the concept of Liberato became the only goal worthy of attainment.

Liberato; escape by any means available. There was a sudden quickening of the senses and situational awareness of the nearly 9.5 billion souls now on the planet, and a drive ‘to escape’ became an obsession. The spirit of Liberato quickly became a global anthem: deliverance and escape in any way possible. The Internet was flooded with music and spoken works, both depressing and uplifting, encouraging and damning, and every deity ever named or dreamed-up now had a chain of 24-hour shrines and a flashy website with an infusible app.

For a relatively select few, Liberato took the form of an off-planet ride to an orbital debarking platform and from there to one of several hundred passing asteroids with a tracked trajectory that saw it pass through the solar system and into the unknown.  Many others achieved Liberato by embracing spirituality or religion, pseudo-transhumanism, deep-bunker strategies, mystical ascendancy or through the spectrum of drugs, music, and Nanotecnomics.

Asteroid Astronauts, or more popularly known as Rock-Riders, saw fit to take a one-way trip out of harm’s way, while simultaneously seeding the Human species in the spaces of other parts of the galactic neighborhood.

And then there’s Rock Madness. It had a small roster of clinical names and therapeutic handles as well as psychological profiles proposing a variety of treatments. Most of it quackery and the scam variations conned people out of money the thieves would not be able to spend for long before the Rock Lotto sent a calling card crashing onto their heads. That, too, was a variant of Rock Madness, some said.

More scientific types clinging to outdated neurological models insisted it was ‘hyper-mass-hysteria’ fed and maintained by ubiquitous electronic connection devices displaying nonstop carnage and human suffering.

And a growing faction was becoming convinced that Rock Madness was brought to our homeworld by the rocks themselves.  It wasn’t too hard to accept that a virus or bacteria – original rock riders by Devine Sign or random design – were immigrating into our lungs and brains from space with an indifferent lethality.

[][][]

            “Passenger MTC Lieutenant Andre Eckstein; you have an inbound message from Phoenix SpaceHarbor RTP Comm Center. Do you wish to receive the message here?”

Andre didn’t fully understand the inquiry; he was still waking up, but he heard the voices. This was a second official attempt from the shuttle’s human comm-tech, and Commander Reyes was shaking Andre’s shoulder. “He’s beat, Zoee. I’m still tryin’ to get a pulse. It’s an urgent EOS?” Eyes-Only Security; Andre had to voice-print his ID.

“Yeah. Just need a vocal ID to send it to him.” Zoee Chase-Becker was the one who’d secured the pair of seats in the CQ.

“He’s coming around,” Yvonne said as Andre opened his eyes; smiled.

“Someone’s mad at me?” Andre asked, slurring a bit.

“No. You got a downside comm; urgent, she said. Shuttle comm wants to know if you want it here.” She saw his eyes searching for a monitor or CDC. ‘Oh, we’re still out an hour from the Harbor.”

Andre nodded. “Get a sip of something? Cold beer, maybe?”

“Voice confirmation for your message?”

“Yes, please. I confirm,” Andre said with some faux drama. He was waking up.

“Okay. Done.” Zoee had a voice as cute as her butt according to Yvonne.

“Thanks, Zee. Please be careful getting home tonight.”

“You betcha, Doctor. See you for dinner.” A click and hiss to confirm she had hung up.

“You feeling better? How about a shot?” Reyes had the vape pen in her hand, and he took it.

“Thanks. That nap felt great…” He was about to inhale, then stopped. “Did you say, ‘urgent?'”

“It was a Time-Sensitive comm with a PRI; which you should do.”

“Well, I should Please Respond Immediately then.” Andre had his phone in his hand, tapping a PIN with his thumb then peering into a biometric sensor for a retinal scan.

“I want you to make some time to come visit me, Anders.” Doctor Reyes in her professional voice; a tone not tolerant of excuses.

“Got nothing but time,” he said then sucked in his breath.

“What?”

“Shit! Jay is sick. He’s got all the symptoms.” Andre couldn’t say it; thinking it was…

…but here it was. His neighbor Peggy is stating it right here in this…

“Hey, Eckstein! You’re shaking.” She had her medical kit open and was applying a few wireless sensors to his face and hands. “Breathe, Lieutenant, In, hold, out.”

He did, and his respiration steadied. “Jay’s got Rock Madness, Yvonne. He’s got a few hours left.”

“Lemme see the message.” Reassuring and professional, she took the phone gently from him and scanned the text. The med controller in her other hand applied a light stimulating current as he breathed.

“Hardly empirical proof. Some therapy and sessions…”

“Group discussion, Doctor? For a space-borne bug?”

“Told you to stop with that crap. It’s not proven.”

“Tell that to Jay.”

“Look, Ecks. I’ll go with you to see your brother. We’ll get a room at the Testing Center. Call in a Specialist.”

“You’re that big of a wig, eh?” At least Andre smiled a bit, she noticed.

“The wiggiest. You gonna keep that pen as a souvenir?”

He handed it back. “Changed my mind.” His face had wrinkles in it; odd for such a young man. “What if it is? A bug riding those rocks, I mean. What the hell are we going to do, Yvonne?”

“Let’s wait to worry.”

“Too late.”

Ninety minutes later and back on the planet, Lt. Andre Eckstein and Commander Dr. Yvonne Reyes were in a chartered autodrone heading to his place on the outskirts of Dallas near Lake Hubbard.

“Sorry, Zee. Can’t make dinner tonight,” Reyes said. “‘Call you later. Night.” She hung up and turned to her friend and now patient again. The sleep agent she had covertly applied as they boarded the air-taxi was efficient; his eyes were closed, and he slept all the way home.

END OF EPISODE ONE

Written by

MaryLou Morning

Copyright 2017

All Rights Reserved

 

Continue with a draft of Part Two

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