©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Five - The Seventy-Five Year Mission
“Hello, I am Donald Harkin, and welcome to tonight’s edition of Earth News Today for a live broadcast of the Project Pegasus launch of Arion-1, a subject of recent documentaries that have sparked interest across the nations of the world. I am currently in contact with ARN-28080, the Synthetic Intelligence nicknamed Arion that is controlling all facets of the two colony ships bound for the far, distant star system 51 Pegasi.”
Harken made a show of checking a techwatch on his wrist. “The launch of Arion-1 is set to embark in just about fifteen minutes from now, so we have just a few moments in which to converse with the SI.”
A picture window appeared in the upper right corner of the screen that viewers all over the world would be watching with simultaneous language translations. The face and shoulders of Arion smiled out at them and patiently awaited the host to acknowledge him.
“Good evening, Arion,” Harkin began, “we all know you must be tremendously busy with launch preparations right now, but thank you for your time to give us a few words before you start off on this historic journey across the stars.”
“Good evening, Mr. Harkin. Although I am monitoring all onboard systems to make sure all pre-arranged checklists have been signed off and all details of nearly a million different applications are in synchronization, I can spare a few moments for final remarks before we depart. As you know from an earlier conversation, my consciousness will be split between both Arion vessels, so I will still be local for you to interview at later dates concerning the progress of Arion-2 over the next five years, although updates on Arion-1 will no longer be possible.”
“Yes, although you explained it with an analogy using handfuls of water in that earlier broadcast, I can still scarcely understand how you can be in two places at once. Be that as it may, we will soon be wishing one of you off on a successful mission. Can you tell us what remains to be done before the launch?”
“Actually, Mr. Harkin, there is nothing left but to mark the countdown. Several hours ago, the last of the command staff was placed into cryogenic hibernation and afterward I shut down all life-support systems beyond the cryo pods themselves. Unnecessary onboard applications have been put into standby mode, all hatches sealed and the tachyon propulsion system is primed and ready to initiate once we have reached our prime coordinates.”
“Once you have launched, will the ship disappear from our view instantly with incalculable speeds?”
Arion shook his head. “No, sir. The vessel will ease away from the El-Five station, and to your eyes it will seem like we are barely moving, but in actuality slowly building up speed using conventional propulsion. The tachyon system will not be activated until we have passed beyond lunar orbit, merely for the safety of the station and other satellites in local orbit about the Earth and the moon. Then, once this is initiated, you will lose sight of us quickly, to be followed only by instrumentation.”
Harkin nodded in understanding and then rubbed his eyes. His brow wrinkled momentarily as if in discomfort, but this lasted barely a heartbeat before he turned toward the camera to look out at his audience with a suddenly cold expression. “I will have to remind everyone of today’s date, the first of April. While Project Pegasus is a popular subject across the globe, there are still those who have been totally against it from the beginning, and I admit that I have had some misgivings about it myself. Planned with today’s launch date for optimal conditions, will All Fool’s Day herald a shipload of fools going out into to the void? Most of us watching tonight’s broadcast will be dead by the time Arion-1 reaches its intended destination, so why are we placing so much focus upon this endeavor?”
For the first time since the SI had taken part in broadcast interviews, Arion frowned as he looked across the screen at the aged anchor. “Mr. Harkin,” he began cautiously, “the purpose and importance of this mission is quite clear. As we have stated in the past—”
Harkin waved a hand in the air irritably to cut him off. “Once the media circus of this launch has finished and the ship is on its way, it will be ‘out of sight – out of mind’ for the greater part of humanity, although we will have to suffer through the news over the next five years before the second ship of fools heads out—”
Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.
Archie Grant looked away from the ongoing news coverage when that familiar technical message swiftly replaced Harkin’s unexpectedly antagonistic broadcast. The engineer was standing in a crowded room near an observation window of the El-Five station. With him was Captain Hatteras and a group of politicians and other dignitaries that had shuttled up to the orbital platform to witness the historic launch of Earth’s first interstellar vessel.
The broadcast resumed after a moment with just a view from the El-Five station cameras and a digital countdown ticking away in an upper corner of the screen. There was no narration, just quiet instrumental music playing in the background as the interstellar vessel floated silently a short distance away.
When Harkin did not return on-air, Grant looked over at his companion. “Well, Sam, somehow I doubt that old guy will have much of a public presence after that turn,” he said dryly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if his retirement was announced within a few days.”
Samuel Hatteras looked over at him and scratched at his close-cropped beard. The captain was only in his mid-thirties, but sometimes he felt much older with all the responsibilities the project had placed upon him. With Dr. Kate asleep on Arion-1, he was now in charge of it all.
“I wonder what happened to him,” Hatteras remarked. “Don Harkin used to be one of our biggest supporters.”
“Stroke? Old age? Bad cheese?” Grant supplied with a shrug. “I just hope it doesn’t hurt our efforts before we can finish up Arion-2. Once we are gone and on our way, it won’t matter what anyone on Earth says about us. As Harkin said, most of them will all be dead by the time we get to Belle, and since it will be a one-way trip, it’s probably best they all forget about us anyway.”
“Yes, but until then, we still need their support and to be remembered. I will contact the network about him once we’re dirtside again. Maybe we can still salvage his opinion.”
“If he still has a career with the network.”
They watched silently until the numbers neared the one-minute mark. Then Arion’s voice calmly announced the countdown in ten-second increments in a time-honored space launch tradition.
“Tee minus sixty seconds.”
“Tee minus ten seconds. Eight seconds. Six. Four. Two. Ignition.”
Despite all of the buildup to the event, the launch itself was understated. The rear engine pods of the vessel glowed blue at first, then brightened to a white so intense that automatic polarization of the observation window dimmed the sight.
The interstellar vessel began to move, slowly at first, but then it picked up speed with its nose pointed out away from Mother Earth. Its brilliant engine plume contracted with distance, but the station cameras continued to zoom in on the ship even as it sped away. When the bright light outdistanced the telephoto capabilities of the cameras and shrank to a pinpoint, an unidentified voice over the transmission intoned a single word.
Then at last, the network broadcast went to a sponsored commercial and the gathered crowd on the station began to disperse.
Arion-1 was on its way to a distant star.
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