There was a time when mankind’s only means of exploring the Universe either meant sending unmanned probes to various locations across our solar system, or exploring beyond its borders using powerful telescopes parked in stationary orbit above the Earth, as well as the hundreds of observatories dotted across the planet. That all changed in the twenty-second century when fusion powered propulsion became a reality, along with a way of keeping a human being alive for the duration of any flight farther than the inner limits of our solar system.
The mission commander took one last look at the beautiful blue planet he and the crew called home as the ship prepared to leave Earth orbit. Now was the time for its crew to enter their stasis units. “If there are any problems at all Céleste, please don’t hesitate to wake me.”
“Understood David,” was the reply that echoed all around him.
Not only the ship but its small crew and the mission itself were in the care of the ship’s state of the art artificial intelligence. For the several decades it would take to achieve their goal, she was in complete control whenever the crew were held in stasis. Once she had ensured he and the rest of the human crew were in a safe state of suspended animation, she uploaded the complicated course with its numerous way points into the ship’s computer. Each waypoint must be reached in a specific order for them to ultimately arrive at the mission’s destination – the exoplanet designated Beaumont 61, located at the absolute outer extremity of the Orion Spur, the same spiral arm in which our own solar system is situated, part of the galaxy we know as the Milky Way.
Launch day had finally arrived. The ship was given the name Apkallu, the collective term for the pantheon of gods worshipped by the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians, thousands of years earlier in man’s chequered history. Until Apkallu arrived at the first waypoint, all of the technology and materials used, together with the method of its construction would remain unproven.
Apkallu’s crew consists of the twenty-eight year old mission commander, David O’Leary, who had gained a first in deep field astronomy at University College Dublin. The next crew member is the totally bewitching twenty-five year old Flávia Blanco with two Bachelor of Arts degrees to her name, one in plate tectonics and the other in geomorphology. Given her privileged background, whether or not she actually earned them was another matter entirely. Only time would tell. The third member of the crew is the forty year old self-taught Belgian electronics genius Lukas Gossens. His other talent as a gifted amateur chef negated any need to recruit anyone for the post. The fourth member of the crew is the diminutive thirty-five year old Japanese bio-scientist, Rieko Mori. She earned her two honours degrees, the first in horticulture and the other in exobiology, from Osaka University. Lastly, at fifty-six, the extremely dour doctor, Andreas Georgiadis had graduated thirty years earlier from The School of Medicine at the University of Thessaloniki in Greece. He had been chosen from a list of thousands of highly qualified doctors from across the planet. His field experience with Médecins Sans Frontières in various hotspots, particularly in the Middle East where civil war fuelled by religious intolerance and control over the area’s vast oil deposits still persisted in the twenty-second century, was the deciding factor for his inclusion as part of the crew.
Apkallu’s artificial intelligence was christened Céleste by the youthful team of highly gifted bio-electronic software graduates responsible for her creation. The ship’s Fusion reactor was designed and developed by a team of lateral thinking nuclear engineers from China, Korea, Germany and Japan. Lastly, the crew’s individual stasis units were conceived, designed and constructed in India. On reaching the first waypoint situated at the closest position possible to the Andromeda galaxy still within the spiral arm, Cèleste would wake the crew.
She engaged the Fusion powered propulsion system, gradually building up its output to a nominal thirty percent to achieve maximum sub light speed. Even though in theory it was capable of propelling Apkallu at the speed of light, given that it was still untried technology, whether or not it was safe to do so was considered a risk too far by its designers. They believed it was far better to err on the side of caution, unless Apkallu’s crew found the need to use its theoretical maximum speed to extract themselves and the ship from some as yet unforeseen circumstance.
Apkallu finally arrived at the first waypoint, five years after leaving Earth orbit. How their bodies would react to being in stasis for an extended period of time was yet another unknown. Céleste had constantly monitored each one of them for any sign of medical problems throughout the entire time it took to get here, paying particular attention to David for reasons which will soon become apparent. Before they could go about their duties, Andreas would have to give each one of them a full medical after first checking himself over.
“David, how do you feel?” she asked with a tinge of concern for him in her voice.
“Lethargic,” he groggily replied, trying with some difficulty to shake off the effects of his unnaturally long period of sleep. “God I’m hungry. I need proper food, not substitutes. How is everyone else?” he asked while he unplugged himself from the unit’s intravenous system that had supplied him with nutrients essential to his wellbeing.
“I’ll check for you.”
“Thank you. While you’re at it can you please ask them all to assemble in the observation lounge, once they’ve been given the all clear by Andreas?”
“Of course David, it will be my pleasure.”
While the crew were slowly recovering from the effects of years of physical inactivity, they took in the magical sight of our sister galaxy, Andromeda, floating in the star filled cosmos beyond the lounge’s vista windows. “Ok people,” David began. “While we all recover from our first taste of being in stasis we’ll remain here for a few days. Once we’re back to normal, we have a couple of tasks to perform before we head for the next waypoint. By that I mean we will be placing the first of a series of listening stations and optical observatories here. In the meantime get as much rest as you possibly can. Always providing of course that the good doctor here is not too insistent upon all of us taking part in some kind of punishing fitness regime he has dreamt up that is.” His last comment drew smiles and laughter from everyone with the exception of Andreas who failed to appreciate David’s joke at his expense. “That’s it for now. Lukas what’s on the menu, I don’t know about the rest of you but I need real food, not those damned stasis unit nutrients?”
“If Flávia and Rieko will consent to give me a hand I’ll rustle up something in a half hour or so,” the Belgian replied as his own belly began grumbling. With that David left to head to his private quarters for the first time in the mission.
Even before she spoke, David’s sixth sense told him that Céleste was about to say something. “David, may I have a word please?”
“Of course you can. What is it?” Even though she was nothing more than a disembodied presence to her human crew mates, her creators had given her voice a delightfully seductive French accent, which he found extremely pleasing to the ear.
“I’m curious about something. Can you tell me what is it that attracts a man to a woman?”
David was completely caught off guard by her question. “Well, I can only speak for myself. For me it’s a mixture of her intelligence, personality, attitude and looks, combined with how relaxed she feels in my presence. Take Flávia for example. Her mix of Amazonian Indian and Portuguese ancestry has manifested itself in a typical example of South American womanhood. Unfortunately, she appears to exhibit all the signs of becoming a total pain in the backside at some point in the future given her petulant manner and the arrogant way she reacts towards other women like Rieko. I put that down to the fact that she is the only child of very rich parents, and therefore was, and probably still is, spoilt. It strikes me that she is the kind of shallow creature who uses her looks to get her own way. It would not surprise me in the least if her parents had secured her degrees in return for a large donation to the university she attended. We’ll see if she actually did earn them when we arrive at Beaumont 61 when she is called upon to do what she was hired for. Until then I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on that score.
Rieko on the other hand couldn’t be more different. While she is also extremely pleasing to the male eye, she gives the impression of having been brought up in the traditional Japanese manner. Which means that like all of her countrywomen, she was taught from birth how to entrance anyone she meets by the way she exudes femininity, gentleness, intelligence, grace and charm, while rarely speaking unless spoken to. I hope that helps to answer your question?”
“Yes – thank you. May I ask you other questions when they occur to me?”
“Of course; is there anything else you want to know at the moment?”
“Yes there was one other thing, forgive me for asking but who is that in the image on your bedside table?”
David picked up the framed photograph with a faraway look in his eyes. “I never knew her name. But that didn’t stop me falling in love with her in my teens when I first came across her photograph on the Internet. It’s the only personal possession I brought with me. Quite honestly Céleste, I couldn’t bear to be parted with it. I really wish I could have met her…”
“I’m sorry for prying. I thought she might be your fiancée.”
“Sadly no, as far as I can make out she lived at some time during the twenty-first century,” he replied, with a sad expression on his unshaven face and the merest hint of a tear beginning to well up in his eyes, which affected Céleste to the point where she dearly wished that she had a physical presence so that she could comfort him. “Is there anything else you wish to ask me?”
“Not at the moment David. Thank you.”
“Then it’s time to take a familiarisation tour of Apkallu. Would you care to join me?”
“You forget, wherever you are in the ship I’m always by your side David,” she quietly reminded him.
Over the next seven days he and the rest of the crew explored their giant new home. Rieko was in the scientist’s equivalent of seventh heaven as she wandered around her brand new laboratory and its adjoining seed banks and cryogenic storage lockers. Situated next to the laboratory, she found a state of the art hydroponics unit. Beyond that, a hothouse containing compost rich beds lit and heated with overhead UV sunlamps.
Andreas closely inspected Apkallu’s medical department, paying particular attention to the operating theatre and the recovery ward, plus the airtight contagion unit, necessary should anything hazardous to their health be contracted by any of the crew once they arrived at Beaumont 61.
For his part, David thoroughly familiarised himself with the ship’s on-board astronomical observatory on the upper deck and its adjoining workshop.
On the other hand, Flávia had to force herself to briefly enter her assigned workspace. When she saw its drab décor and utilitarian furnishings, she wrinkled her nose in utter disgust. Closing the door behind her she returned to the comfortable loungers in the observation lounge to daydream like a lovesick schoolgirl about being in David’s arms, having decided she wanted him.
As well as being the one responsible for Apkallu’s complicated electronics, Lukas was charged with maintaining its Fusion reactor, which powered literally every piece of equipment aboard from the propulsion system through to the cracking unit designed to create fresh water and a breathable oxygen rich atmosphere, plus the ship’s composting system that ingested all organic waste. In the latter’s case instead of the end product being jettisoned into space, it was to be used in Rieko’s hothouse as a source of fertilizer. Had his workshop been based on Earth, undoubtedly it would be the envy of literally every electronics and mechanical engineer across the entire planet.
On the last day of their stay at the first waypoint, Céleste and the rest of the crew watched as David piloted one of Apkallu’s shuttles, capable of reaching the surface of Beaumont 61 without burning up in its atmosphere, to a position approximately half a mile away to enable Flávia and himself to launch its payloads. No one was surprised in the least when she volunteered to help him. What she felt for him was blindingly obvious by the way she always sighed whenever anyone mentioned his name, or when he entered any area where she also happened to be at the time, the way she looked at him with a burning sexual hunger in her eyes, leaving the casual observer in no doubt whatsoever as to her physical intentions where he was concerned. No one had the heart to tell her that he simply couldn’t stand her. But because she had begged to be allowed to assist him, he took it as a golden opportunity for her to actually do some work for a change instead of merely lazing around.
The first of the telescope arrays with its mix of optical and infrared telescopes, each fitted with its own camera, was placed in position. While he left her to follow his instructions to the letter on how to check that it was fully functional, while at the same time paying particular attention to the links between the array’s cameras and their sender units, he flew the shuttle to the other side of Apkallu to set up the first listening post. In effect it was nothing more than a series of radio dishes and antenna, each specifically tuned to a preselected frequency that fed their individual signals to a powerful transmitter aimed at Earth. Having satisfied himself that it too was fully functional, he picked up Flávia before returning to Apkallu’s main shuttle bay.
Once back on board they joined the rest of the crew for their last meal together at the first waypoint. Three hours later while they once again slept in their individual stasis units, Céleste engaged Apkallu’s propulsion system. Satisfied that all was well, she could now devote all her energies to a research and development task she deemed to be of the greatest importance from her point of view. This leg of the journey would take fifteen years. More than enough time for what she had in mind.