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Prologue: Part One

Tila ran through the gleaming corridors of the brand new colony ship Rising Star with the intense focus and careless abandon that only an eight-year-old girl can muster.

The one-eyed head of her stuffed bear, along for the ride, rocked back and forth with every footstep. Its threadbare mouth fixed in a perpetually bemused expression.

Tila danced between adult legs which were a forest of sharply pressed uniforms, crisp and spotless. A sparse canopy of clipboards and portable computers shielded her from the twin tracks of lighting recessed into the ceiling as she ran on toward the bridge.

On the bridge, Captain Grace Vasquez turned to one of the two view screens which provided Rising Star with direct communication to her two sister ships Far Horizon and New Dawn. The captain stood tall and straight, smartly dressed in her crisp white uniform. Her long dark hair was tied back in a tight braid with not a single strand out of place.

On the view screen showing her the bridge of the Far Horizon the captain watched a man bent low over a console, concentrating on something inscrutable. He rested his chin in his hands and his elbows on the desk as he read the results of the tenth simulation he had performed that morning. His brow furrowed as he read the numbers again.

The captain tapped a control to switch the scene from a wide shot of the other bridge to the personal camera on the man’s console.

She knew he was running calculations again.

‘How are we looking, Professor?’ she asked.

He didn’t look up from his screen but took advantage of the distraction to flex the stress from his shoulders before answering. ‘I think it’s going to work.’

The captain spoke in a tone of mock horror. ‘You think? Is that the best you can do? After years of planning and the trillions this mission cost? You think?’

The man looked directly into the camera. ‘You’re welcome to come over here and check my figures.’

‘Love to. Can’t. Too busy.’ She made a show of checking her own console before a smile broke across her face.

He smiled back. ‘So we’ll stick with my best guess, shall we? It is going to work, you know.’

‘I know. You wouldn’t give the mission commander the green light unless you were sure.’

‘Or my wife,’ he winked.

‘I should hope not, Thomas!’ She bent over the console and wiggled the fingers of her left hand at the camera. Light flashed from the slim gold band around her finger. She blew him a kiss.

He recoiled in pretend shock. ‘Grace! Not in front of the crew!’

Grace grinned and stood tall once more and clasped her hands behind her back. ‘Attention all bridge crew! Anybody wishing to make a formal complaint about their captain’s conduct on the bridge with her civilian husband while we are still in Commonwealth space should address their concerns to the XO. I will give your concerns my utmost attention when our mission here is complete. Is that understood?’

Her executive officer, a lean wiry man with cropped grey hair and a face so stern people assumed upon first meeting him that he had never heard of a sense of humour said, ‘Captain, by the time our mission is complete we will no longer be under the jurisdiction of any Commonwealth systems.’

‘Emest, protocol must still be followed.’

He kept his face perfectly straight, masking the smile that danced behind his eyes. Grace had worked with her XO long enough to appreciate his wonderful sense of humour first hand, and respect that he could switch to deadly serious when the situation demanded.

It was just one of the reasons he made such a fine first officer.

‘Yes, ma’am. I also believe that all bridge officers and crew are performing their duties to the best of their abilities and will be unlikely to report any… uh… fraternising at this time, ma’am.’

‘Understood. Carry on.’

Her husband pointed at something above her head. ‘Maybe your bridge crew won’t cause us any trouble, but I think I see someone who might.’

‘Do you think it’s the troublemaker we caught spying on us over breakfast this morning?’ she whispered conspiratorially without turning around.

‘I do. And I’m beginning to have concerns about the security on your flagship when anyone can just waltz onto the bridge when they feel like it.’

Grace turned around to see a dark haired little girl watching from the viewing gallery.

The girl was searching the room for someone but struggling to locate them in the expanse of the busy command deck. Behind her stood a master-at-arms who shrugged at the captain and then snapped out a salute.

The girl’s small face pressed against the glass partition. Her quick, excited breaths fogged the cold surface. At last she found who she was looking for and waved at the captain. Then she raised a stuffed animal above her head and wiggled its paw in greeting as well.

‘Security!’ said the captain. ‘Please stop indulging my daughter.’

Tila rode an elevator down to the main bridge level to join her mother. Grace met her at the door with her hands on her hips and barred her way. ‘Now you know you shouldn’t be up here, young lady,’ she said. A smile took the edge off her stern tone. This was her daughter, after all, and this was a big day. ‘Your father is very busy right now. His work is nearly finished.’

‘I wanted to see,’ Tila pleaded. She looked like a miniature copy of her mother apart from her hair. Where Grace’s hair was neatness and military discipline, Tila’s hair has billowed behind her during her run and was now plastered all over her face. The effect was also spoilt somewhat by the bear hanging from her hand. ‘Hi, Daddy!’ She waved vigorously at her father’s image.

Her father waved back. ‘Hello, princess. You’re going to be good like we discussed and stay out of trouble, aren’t you?’

Tila nodded absently and wobbled on the points of her toes as she tried to get a better view of the control room. She pawed stray locks of hair from her eyes.

‘It’s boring back there,’ she said.

Her mother stepped away from her work and knelt beside Tila. She smoothed her palms across her daughter’s face to part the remaining hairs and finger-combed them back into place.

‘Soon it won’t be boring,’ she said. ‘But for now you have to watch from the gallery with the other children. And you will have a much better view of the stars from the observation dome.’

On the Far Horizon a technician apologetically ‘ahemed’ his way to her husband’s side. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but it’s time.’

Her father nodded. ‘Time to go now, princess.’

The aide exchanged words with the captain of the Far Horizon then spoke into a communicator clipped to his uniform, ‘All stations commence final preparations.’

Orange hazard lights sprang to life on all three bridges simultaneously and an artificial voice announced, ‘Time is minus ten minutes to jump. Repeat. T minus ten minutes.’

‘I’ll see you both on the other side,’ Thomas said to his family.

Tila pouted, but despite the tiny frown that wrinkled her forehead, her sulkiness was not heartfelt.

Her mother kissed it away. ‘Come on now, off you go.’ Tila held up her stuffed animal for a kiss too. Grace smiled and kissed the toy to indulge her daughter one last time.

‘Be good,’ she said to Tila. ‘It’s going to get very busy in here. You have to go now, honey.’ Tila nodded. They had told her this was a very important day, and she had already promised to be on her best behaviour. Just like her mother, she kept her promises.

‘Look,’ added her mother, ‘this will be over soon. When it is, I’ll come and find you and we can find your star together. Deal?’

Her daughter gave this weighty matter serious consideration over another frown.

‘Promise,’ she said. It wasn’t a question.

Her mother smiled at the way her little girl could take charge of a situation when she wanted something and wondered if she was any different at that age. She held her daughter’s chin between her finger and thumb and looked her directly in the eye. ‘Tila, when this is all over I promise I’ll find you.’ Grace held Tila’s hand as they walked back to the elevator together. She kissed Tila on the forehead one last time, stood up and pressed the button to close the glass doors.

Sudden quiet enveloped Tila as the door seals muffled the increasing volume coming from the bridge of the colony ship.

‘Promise?’ she mouthed again at her mother through the glass.

The elevator rose swiftly and smoothly, separating them.

‘I promise,’ her mother mouthed back across the growing distance. She blew her daughter a final kiss as she vanished from sight.

Meanwhile, the bridge had sprung into action like a beehive under attack.

Huge screens overhead displayed mission-critical data beneath schematic outlines of the three colony ships. Below each schematic another screen displayed a large translucent cone on the black background. The vertex sat in the lower left of the display and the base in the upper right.

The colours graduated from green at the point to red at the base. A sharp, white line sprang from the vertex to the centre of the base and wavered almost imperceptibly, like a nervous conductor before a big concert. Next to the cone, numbers flashed by too fast to read.

Below this double layer of screens a wider display spanned the bridge. On this the images of the three cones were stacked on top of one another. Each one trembled in time with its counterpart, and as the seconds passed the trembling faded, the images aligned, and the conductor steadied.

More number sequences bordered the cones on the wide display, but all were close to zero and falling fast. As the numbers crept closer to zero, the images of the three cones sharpened until they were almost a perfect match.

On the bridge of the Far Horizon a technician addressed Tila’s father. ‘Sir, the quantum cores are in ascendance. We have cross-checked the stochastic simulations and we are holding at a ninety-seven per cent probability of success.’

‘Margin?’

‘Less than point-one-two per cent.’

Thomas spoke to his wife. ‘It’s not going to get any better than this, is it? What’s that phrase you like so much? Now or never?’

Grace nodded. She put aside the role of wife and mother and spoke as captain to the first officer. ‘Begin final sequence for jump to Baru.’

The XO repeated the order into his console microphone. ‘We have a go for jump. Repeat, we are go.’

A klaxon sounded across the bridge and the overhead screens changed to prioritise the schematic displays of the three colony ships.

Around the bridge, crew members called out checks and counter-checks in sequence. Each person finally performing for real what had been simulated a hundred times. The stations sounded off one by one, each call bringing the ships a moment closer to their destiny.

‘Has fleet network been established?’

‘Network is locked and coded, sir.’

‘Engines?’

‘Ready.’

‘Jump drive is online and operating within normal parameters.’

‘Gravimetric compensation is available.’

‘Stochastic models have been confirmed and verified.’

‘Stellar drift check?’ said the XO.

‘Confirmed. Stellar drift calculations have been finalised and real-time simulations are now available.’

Rising Star mass displacement has been confirmed,’ reported a technician.

‘Have our sister ships confirmed final mass displacement?’ said the captain.

New Dawn mass is in. Far Horizon mass coming through. We are synchronising data among the fleet now,’ the first officer answered.

‘Pilot-wave generator standing by.’

‘Bohr’s-field construct is standing by.’

The XO turned and made his final announcement to the captain.

‘Ma’am, all systems report nominal. We are ready for system jump.’

Tila’s mother nodded once more. This was it. She looked to her husband on the bridge of the Far Horizon. Even now, in the seconds before they left, he was checking and rechecking calculations. Six years of planning and he was still nervous. She pressed the button to open comms to his ship, then crossed her hands behind her back.

‘Are we ready?’

He swallowed, nodded and crossed his fingers.

‘It’s all down to luck now,’ he said. ‘We’re as ready as we can be.’

Tila’s mother squeezed her hands together and wished it was her husband’s hand she held.

‘You don’t need luck,’ she told him, then to her own bridge she gave the final order, ‘Begin final sequence.’

‘Now or never?’ said Thomas.

‘Now or never,’ she replied, and smiled at her husband. ‘I’ll see you in fourteen light years.’