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Pathfinder

By Dan Ladle All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Pathfinder

It had been three long years since the alarm had sounded. In that time every resource available had been drawn upon to build mighty ships capable of carrying sufficient technical and scientific classes, animals, plants and knowledge away from the Earth to seek somewhere to settle and terraform a replacement planet. Perhaps one which would be far enough from any asteroid belts to minimise the risk of a similarly catastrophic meteor strike to the one which currently threatened the end of existence on the planet.

Hank still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d been selected as one of the “Chosen Ones”. A geologist by profession his main interest was palaeontology, Precambrian for preference. It was a bit of a niche field of study, and for some reason it had removed him from his comfortable laboratory and his sedimentary rocks and placed him here amongst the intelligentsia and those with special abilities.

There were some up-sides, of course. For one thing when the town-sized meteorite “Delendis” actually struck, destroying an estimated 95% of life on Earth, he would no longer be there to suffer the resulting climate swings and environmental upheaval. There was also the fact that he would be heading off into the infinite blackness of Space. It was what every child dreamed of and many adults aspired to, but he wasn’t so sure it was as exciting when the crew was 2,000 strong and he wouldn’t have anything to do with pressing the buttons that changed course, accelerated or slowed down the “Pathfinder” - as the ship had been unimaginatively designated following a six month long world-wide brainstorm.

Another advantage that he hadn’t originally foreseen was that the average age of people picked for the mission was 23. Hank was slap bang in the middle of this demographic and couldn’t help but notice that a good percentage of the other passengers were quite attractive. He wasn’t sure that anyone in the planning consortium had thought about this, let alone the sexual tension that would be created under these circumstances. A couple of thousand frustrated scientists, engineers and, for the most part, geeks, who weren’t generally used to hanging out with the opposite gender, let alone being stuffed into a flying box. The box itself was, admittedly, about the size of a large tower block although one designed by someone who had spent too much time in their own company in a darkened room. Still, Hank had always been more comfortable around the fairer sex than a lot of his contemporaries and optimistically hoped this might give him a bit of an advantage, when it came to finding something to do on those long, or in fact constant nights!

The overcrowded living conditions were also leading to tensions of other sorts. On more than one occasion Hank had entered a room to be greeted with angry silences from the engineers and aerospace technicians who were attempting to get the machine ship-shape, so to speak, before the planned take off in less than six days’ time. Just now though, this was none of Hank’s concern. Hunger had visited him early tonight so he had made his way to the eating quarters at around seven o’clock, instead of his usual nine. He’d always been a bit of a night owl and the habit had persisted, even after leaving university.

What a difference a couple of hours made! There were people from wall to wall and the conversation bounced off the ceiling, almost deafening in its intensity. Hank headed for the food bar and got himself some salad and something that vaguely resembled meat; then looked around for a seat. They seemed to be in short supply and he had to jostle through the crowds of bespectacled people to wedge himself unceremoniously between a thin, drawn looking guy and an overly curvaceous lady, both of whom appeared slightly uncomfortable at his incursion.

He started eating, slowly becoming aware of the conversation taking place around him. The skinny fellow was trying to speak quietly to a muscular bloke across the table, but the volume of people and conversation made this difficult. What they were talking about sounded like it should have been more confidential. Apparently, ‘One of the rocketists,’ this being slang for the actual rocket scientists, ‘was telling the flight planner that he didn’t think the materials they were using were man enough to take the strain. He said that they were better before we went all biodegradable! Apparently a thousand years ago we’d have been using carbon fibre and metal, instead of all this Plastech and Polymet garbage. It wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t returned all the non-recyclables into the earth, let alone the fact that it seems to have upset the tectonic stability of the planet.’

The talker’s confidante leaned back in his chair and placed his long, sturdy hands behind his shiny head. ‘Last I heard they were worried about the lateral stabilisers. My guess would be that we’ll get into space and start spinning like a Ferris wheel. On the bright side at least we might make ourselves some artificial gravity in the process.’

Hank had heard many such conversations in the two weeks since he had been relocated to this place, most of them were one sided put-downs of another worker’s or divisions’ attempts to fix things and keep to schedule. But the volume of complaints had been steadily increasing over the last week and everyone was getting closer to breaking point. He finished his meal and left the table, shoving his tray through the hole beside the doorway, which took the dirty dishes to who knew where, to be cleaned and redeployed. As he walked out of the room he almost bumped into Maggie.

‘Hi Hank.’ She had a way of talking which twanged at his baser instincts, but he didn’t know if it was the tone of voice or the fact she wore less clothes than was strictly necessary for any given occasion. It certainly didn’t help him think.

‘Hey, Maggie. How’s it going? Have they fixed that air conditioner in your room yet?’ His eyes attempted to find somewhere innocent to rest his gaze but had to give up and settled on her face.

‘No luck! On the bright side, it makes bedtime interesting when you don’t know if you’ll need to wear a fur coat or a negligée until you step into your bedroom.’ She accompanied Hank as he walked down the corridor, ‘what’s happening in the world of prehistoric beasties?’

Hank vaguely studied the back of his hand as he thought about an answer, ‘To be honest, I think the only reason I’m on this trip is to pad the numbers and give the botanists someone to ridicule.’

Maggie put her hand on Hank’s shoulder, sending a shiver down his spine, ‘I can’t imagine anyone laughing at you. I tell you what, do you want to come back to my room for a drink?’

Hank was momentarily taken aback but managed to gather his senses and form a reasoned response, rather than blurting out “really?” Which was the first thing that came to mind. ‘Yeah, I don’t seem to have a lot on until we make planetfall, which should be in about fifteen thousand years’ time.’

Maggie led the way as Hank tailed her, wondering which of the 439 decks her quarters would be on and whether she would have time to realise her offer had been a mistake before they got there. But it was only a couple of levels up and, before he knew it, he was standing in a strangely perfumed room while Maggie went to find “something more comfortable” to wear, which in Hank’s estimation was always a bit of a misnomer.

He visually investigated the room, although there was no reason for this as pretty much every berth on the ship was identical, so his eyes soon alighted on the display stretched across part of the wall opposite the bed. The screens had their own power supply and turned on as soon as you entered the room, or at least were meant to. More often than not though, you came in to find it merrily announcing current mission stats and a likely launch date to no one at all, or it’d turn itself on at three o’clock in the morning after you’d only just got to sleep because of some badly timed ventilation testing in the laboratory down the corridor.

There was currently a news story playing which showed the projected date, roughly three weeks away, for the impact of Delendis into the Earth. Hank stalked over to the monitor and popped out the fuse holder at the bottom left corner, the screen showed an agonised pattern of random noise before it lost its picture and became just another section of the plain matt white wall.

The sound of the door to the bathroom sliding open reminded him where he was. ‘Sorry, I might have disabled your monitor.’ Hank turned round to see what Maggie’s idea of something more comfortable was. She appeared to have gone for the less is more approach, the diaphanous material hung in just the right way to make Hank’s major intellectual functions temporarily leave him for a better viewpoint, he momentarily realised his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut, nearly biting his tongue in the process.

Maggie stood by the bed, ‘Are you planning on using that for something?’ she pointed towards his hand. Hank looked down, as if seeing the fuse, and his hand, for the first time. He reached back and placed it gently on the desk without removing his eyes from the sinuous form in front of him.

Hank lifted his hand up to rub his head then walked towards her, slowly loosening his flight suit. Not the attire he would have chosen for such a situation, but with a choice limited to that or nothing, it was probably preferable.

The two stood in front of each other, Maggie patiently waiting, Hank struggling with the unforgiving fastenings that held the suit in place. When he had finally removed the top he looked into the piercing and intelligent green eyes looking back at him, he glanced down, then up again and started to think of a polite way to suggest they might be more comfortable on the bed, ‘Well I don’t know about you but…’

Suddenly the lights went off, Maggie gasped, ‘Hey, how did you do that?’

‘I didn’t do anything,’ Hank replied, ‘probably just another power cut.’ As he finished saying this a red light started flashing in the corner of the room, it was the sort of light that suggests to the observer that its presence is not a sign of good times to come, ‘What on Earth is that for?’

Maggie pointed towards the small piece of electronics laying on the desk, ‘It might be a good idea to plug that back in.’ Hank almost managed a fast but casual walk over to the screen, trying not to look as worried as he felt.

After a couple of abortive attempts the fuse slid back into its housing and the screen crackled back into life, a calm voice droned out of it “…please prepare yourself. An error has occurred. Await further instructions.” The screen showed a live shot of the Pathfinder in its entirety, lit up from below, with the night sky framing the uneven crenelated upper surface of the ship.

Maggie’s smooth face creased momentarily, ‘How can we prepare ourselves if we don’t know what’s going on?’

Hank shrugged, then moved his head closer to the screen and squinted at the ultra-high definition picture, ‘Hey, come take a look at this,’ he continued to inspect the night sky as he felt Maggie press into his back, this close contact should have set his teeth on edge, but his mind was too busy trying to make sense of what he was looking at, ‘is that what I think it is?’

Maggie’s eyes flashed back and forth with the small moving objects on the screen, ‘Comets? Lots of comets! You don’t think that’s why the alarm’s going off, do you?’

Hank thoughtfully scratched his chin, ‘I’m not sure but I think it might be a good idea if we go to bed.’ Maggie gave him a look which suggested that wasn’t the suggestion she was expecting, ‘For our safety,’ Hank added, completely failing to sound as authoritative as he was trying to be.

Maggie’s frown turned into a grin, ‘I was at those safety briefings too. They mould to your body contours when the ship’s taking off.’ Her eyes widened when she realised what Hank was suggesting.

The screen blustered back into life, flashing red and white out of time with the light in the corner of the room. “Attention. The estimated time for the impact of Delendis has been adjusted. Impact will take place at twenty one hundred hours. Tonight.” Hank and Maggie both glanced at the clock next to the screen. It read 20:23. Hank looked at Maggie with his lip curling in consternation, he was about to tell her he would go back to his room and leave her to prepare when the voice inexorably continued. “Please find your nearest launch berth and assume positions for take-off immediately. This is not a drill. Launch sequence will commence in T-minus two minutes.”

Maggie launched herself towards the bed and flicked the launch mode switch, Hank looked uncertain as to what he should do until she said, ‘What are you waiting for, get on.’ He assumed the correct position, on his side as the plaque above the bed instructed, trying to lay next to her in as professional a manner as he could, while she was wearing something which left so little to the imagination. Why he thought this necessary, when five minutes before he had been assuredly stripping off in front of her, was not something he cared to think about as he settled back, feeling the odd clamminess of the biomech mattress subside wherever his skin pressed into it.

Maggie turned her head towards him, ‘The ship’s not even ready, is it?’

Hank reached out for her hand and squeezed it in as reassuring a manner as he could, in lieu of actually finding something to say which might make her feel better. The screen on the wall showed decreasing numbers, while the computer generated voice droned through a countdown from 120, which seemed to take forever. Eventually the last five digits were announced then, nothing happened. Hank glanced awkwardly towards the screen, which showed 00:00. ‘Looks like you could be right…’

An ear-splitting creak thundered through the ship, followed by the sound a planet sized central heating system would make warming up. Finally a noise like a concert hall full of radios picking up the static from the start of the Universe signalled the first Grav-Lock Impulsion engine firing, it was shortly followed by many more. The intial feeling of heaviness passed through Hank’s body and he wondered if it would get worse, just as the ship juddered off the ground with a crunch and pushed him against the padded mattress so hard that he couldn’t even turn to look towards the window.

Maggie’s hand pressed down on his, but he didn’t know if this was voluntary or because of the acceleration, he hoped it was the former. The speed of the ship seemed to constrict Hank’s lungs, it was almost unbearable and lasted, as close as he could estimate, at least as long as the countdown to take-off had done. Although there was no reduction in the ongoing acceleration of the ship there was suddenly a lurch which left Hank and Maggie floating five centimetres above the bed. Maggie huskily reminded him, ‘Don’t move yet,’ as another static crackle and an almost gentle descent back to the welcoming surface indicated that the internal Grav-Lock systems were now on-line.

‘Come on, I have to see’ she said, as she sprung off the bed towards the small semi-spherical window. She looked out, her jaw dropping at the sight of the Earth dropping vertiginously away behind them.

Hank squeezed his way in next to her and saw the inspiring sight of the planet, which every single thing in recorded history had ever happened on, drifting serenely into the starry night sky. ‘Well, that’s it then. We’re off. No more sunny days and walks in the park, no more birds singing in the trees, no more waterfalls, no more lazy days hammering at rocks in the middle of nowhere. I’ll miss it.’

Maggie looked askance at him, ‘Don’t be so melodramatic. Get a grip on yourself, this is exciting!’

Hank shook his head and brought himself out of the introspection that had carried him away. ‘The worst thing is that it’s the big ones that go first,’ Maggie gave him a quizzical glance, ‘in mass extinctions, which is what this is likely to be. It’s the megafauna and flora that go first. The Permian-Triassic extinction took out 90% of all life on Earth. Funnily enough we’re probably about the biggest thing that might survive through the radiation, re-entry firestorms, dust and debris fallout, earthquakes, hurricanes, acid rains… You get the idea!’

‘So, wouldn’t be much fun then. Makes you glad to be the most intelligent creature on the planet, or off it, in fact.’ She turned and kissed him. ‘Well, we seem to have a little free time, shall we find something useful to do with ourselves while everyone else is still panicking?’ She moved back to the bed and slid on seductively, patting the empty spot next to her, ‘Come on, before it gets cold.’

Hank stared at the retreating planet for a while longer, before turning and taking in the full glory of Maggie’s curvaceous body. ‘Ah, why not?’ He pounced across the space and landed next to her, ‘I guess we have a duty to propagate the species, after all, apart from the cattle and specimens down on the zoological decks, we Troodons are going to be the only dinosaurs that survive this impact.’

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