“Okay, now how about some clothes?” he pleaded.
“Of course, these men will help you get into your suit.” Muriel pointed to the other side of the room where Evan could see two space suits hanging on a rack.
The suits were similar in overall appearance to the large, bulky space suits that Evan remembered from the days of NASA and the space shuttle but they were smaller, lighter and far less cumbersome to get into. With a little practice, Evan figured that he could get in and out of one on his own but he appreciated having two of the three men helping him on his first go around. The other man helped Chen into his suit.
In less than ten minutes, both men were fully suited with helmets in hand. Evan rubbed his hand over the fabric and found it had a similar texture to the under-suit but the fabric was not as smooth, nor did it have the same elasticity. It was form fitted but it felt and moved as an exterior garment should rather than something molded to his skin. Evan also appreciated that it adequately concealed all the appropriate parts.
The three helpers led the men to a door at the back of the room where Muriel was waiting.
“Comfy?” she asked Evan.
“Yeah, it feels pretty good, actually. I feel a slight tingling sensation every so often but it's not uncomfortable.”
“That would be your nanosuit integrating with your body. It sends out microscopic nano-fibers that plug into your nervous system, so it can monitor and respond to physiological changes. The tingling sensations you feel are new connections being made. It should subside in a few minutes once they are fully integrated.”
“You mean this suit is literally fusing with my body?” Evan said with a shocked and horrified look on his face.
“Sort of,” Muriel replied. “You can remove the suit at any time without risk of harm to yourself or the suit. The nanofibers are harmless and will cease functioning within a few hours of removing the suit. In the meantime, they will serve the valuable function of providing your suit with all the information it needs to ensure that you have a safe and comfortable trip.”
Evan looked at Chen. “I am not sure how I feel about all these nano-things being injected into my body. If these things are this pervasive in the rest of society, who can say that they aren't causing the mutations?”
Chen paused for a second to consider the idea before responding. “I seriously doubt it but we can certainly investigate that possibility once we get to Mars.”
He waved his arm toward the door, “Shall we?”
“Please tell me you thought about the nanites as a possible cause?” Evan persisted.
“Believe me, Evan, when I tell you that we have investigated every possible cause. Although I personally have not pursued nanites as a causal factor, I am quite confident that someone on the team has.”
Muriel stepped between the two men. “I am sorry, gentlemen but you will have to continue this later if you want to catch your ride.”
One of the assistants stepped forward and put his palm on the scanner next to the door. It slid open with a soft hiss to reveal another long corridor. Muriel led Evan and Chen into the hallway and down a short flight of stairs to a platform with a hovercar sitting on it.
“This car will take you to hangar seven. It's on the other side of the complex but it will only take a few minutes to get there.”
Chen signaled for Evan to get in first. While Evan was climbing in, Chen turned back to Muriel.
“Thanks to you and your team for everything you've done. It couldn't have been easy pushing the launch schedule up two weeks but you came through. You're amazing.”
He embraced her in a warm hug and then shook hands with the assistant standing next to her. “You too, Ian, you guys did a fantastic job getting everything ready on such short notice.
“No problem, Doctor Hao,” Ian replied. “I am glad we could accommodate you and your guest.”
Muriel gave Chen a soft pat on the back. “We had the easy part I'm afraid. Now it's all up to you and Doctor Feldman. Good luck, and Godspeed.”
Chen slid into the car next to Evan and said, “Hangar seven, please.”
The car hummed to life and lifted into the air. “Time to destination is one minute forty-two seconds.”
The hovercar shot down the long tunnel like a bullet fired from a gun. The rapid acceleration sucked Evan deep into his seat and he felt the now familiar tingling sensations as his suit adjusted his posture to compensate. Evan was unnerved by the thought that his suit was interfaced with his nervous system. If it could cause him to sit differently, what else could it do?
The tunnel angled upwards with the occasional dip and turn but the hovercar didn't slow down until the last few seconds of the ride. Evan saw a large door appear in the dim light of the tunnel. He thought they might not stop in time but the door slid open as the car approached. Once inside he saw that the giant hangar was almost completely filled by a large airplane-looking craft parked in the middle of the space.
Evan observed that the spacecraft was about the same size as a large commercial jet. It was about seventy meters long and ten meters wide at the fuselage. The top of the craft was about ten meters above ground at the cockpit, but the V-shaped tail soared another seven meters above that at the rear of the craft. The delta-shaped wings were folded into the rear of the craft but Evan could see that they would easily double in size when fully extended. Two large engines were mounted under each wing with two more mounted at the rear of the craft at the bottom of the tail structure.
I bet this thing chews through fuel!
The hovercar continued to slow down as it approached the craft, finally coming to a complete stop near the stairs on the left side of the spacecraft. The hovercar doors opened automatically and Chen leapt from the vehicle as soon as they were open enough for him to get out. Evan followed closely behind as Chen led them up the stairs to a platform about seven meters above the ground. Evan could see a ramp spanning the short distance between the platform and the door into the craft. There were two people just inside the craft and they turned when they heard Evan and Chen approach.
“Miss me?” the smaller of the two said. It was Yin.
“What are you doing here?” Chen said with a note of alarm in his voice. “What happened?”
“It seems that the GSSA identified me during our little escape and I am now a wanted woman. So, I decided that it would be prudent for me to tag along a while longer. If you don't mind?”
“Of course not. I am sorry that happened. I was hoping we might get lucky and make a clean getaway.”
“No such luck. There are pictures of the three of us all over the net. We are now officially the top three on the GSSA's most wanted list.”
“Bounties?” Chen asked dejectedly.
“Yep, one hundred mil for him and twenty-five mil for each of us.”
“Shit. Are you kidding? Every bounty hunter between here and Mars is going to be after us now!” Chen's exasperation with the news was made obvious by his tone. “Oh well, nothing we can do about that now.”
The man standing next to Yin spoke. “Welcome aboard Doctor Hao. Captain Dieter Bauer at your service.”
After a quick handshake with the doctor, he continued, “The crew and ship are ready to depart on your command, sir.”
“Thank you, Captain. We are ready to leave when you are.”
Chen turned back to Yin. “I'm glad to have you along. Would you please help Evan get buckled in so I can have a quick word with the captain?”
“Of course, right this way Doctor Feldman.”
Yin led Evan into the ship. To his left were stairs leading to the cockpit and in front of him were two rows of what could best be described as large, egg-shaped pods that looked similar to the one he was resurrected in. Each pod was about 2.5 meters long and a little over a meter wide, and contained what looked like a very comfortable leather recliner. The pods were angled toward the central walkway so that thirty of them fit on each side of the aisle.
“Wow,” Evan said as he took in the full length of the cabin.
“Yeah, wow,” Yin replied. “This is the latest and greatest in near-Earth space travel. It takes off like a jet plane but is capable of interplanetary space flight. It used to take two days to get to Luna. Now we can get there in about ten hours—faster if we really push it. I am not sure what the passenger craft speed record is but I suspect that our pilot will do his best to beat it on this flight.”
“I thought you said we were going to Mars?”
“We are but we have to get to Luna first. As fast as it is, this craft would take weeks to get to Mars and we don't have that kind of time. Once we get to Luna, we have to catch a ride on another ship that will get us to Mars in about three days.”
Just then a young woman appeared at the end of the walkway coming toward them from the rear of the craft.
“Good afternoon,” the woman said. “I am Elise and I will be your attendant on this flight. It's just your group today so please feel free to choose any pod. Is there anything I can get you before we depart?”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Evan said.
“I'll take this,” Elise said as she took Evan's helmet and stored it in a drawer underneath his pod.
“I'll have some water, please,” Yin said after Elise took and stored her helmet.
“Of course, I'll be right back.” The attendant headed back the direction she came.
“Now, let's get you strapped in.” Yin grabbed Evan's elbow and guided him toward the closest pod.
“Does this thing close?” Evan asked as he eased into the pod.
“It can for long trips or emergencies but this is a short flight and the pilot will probably leave them open unless we run into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You know, space trouble. Micrometeorites, space junk hitting the ship, engine malfunction, that kind of stuff. It rarely happens but once you get out of the atmosphere anything is possible.”
“Well, let's pray for smooth sailing on this trip,” Evan said hopefully.
“I'm sure we'll be fine. Now sit back.”
Yin helped Evan with the padded safety bar that came up over his head and settled softly on his chest. Another bar swiveled across his legs. Evan felt like he was getting strapped into some kind of high-speed roller coaster.
“Here's your console,” Yin pointed to a glass panel built into the chest restraint. “You can also use voice commands. Just say release if you want to get up, entertainment if you want to watch some video or listen to music and service if you need the flight attendant.”
“Release,” Evan said. The restraints retracted back into the pod.
“You'll get a warning message if the captain has the pods locked because of turbulence or something but you can override it if you want. I wouldn't recommend it but it’s up to you. Just say ready or restraints when you want the restraints.”
Evan leaned back in his seat. “Ready.”
The restraints slid back into place.
“Entertainment,” he commanded.
A holodisplay projected above his chest and presented a selection of video and audio entertainment options, including several games.
“Cancel,” Evan said. The holodisplay disappeared.
“Good, you're getting the hang of this.” Yin nodded her approval.
“Yeah, Chen let me poke around one of the terminals at Telogene and it worked the same way as this one.”
“You know you can get an implant that gives you full-time access to the GeoNet, right?” Yin asked.
“No, I didn't know that. I suspected since I've seen several people interacting with something I couldn't see. I assumed it was some kind of ocular implant.”
“You should consider getting one. I have one and couldn’t live without it, you can do some really cool stuff with it.”
“I'll think about it,” Evan said. “I'm not sure how much technology I want inside my body. The whole idea of nanites and implants unnerves me, to be quite frank.”
“I understand, it's all new to you—no worries. Take your time and think about it. I am sure Chen can arrange it for you if you change your mind.”
“What can I arrange?” Chen said from behind Yin.
“I was just telling him about implants and stuff. I said you could arrange it for him if he decides he wants one.”
“Oh,” he replied. “Well let's give him some more time, shall we? He's only had two days to acclimate and getting an implant may be a little ahead of where he is in his recovery process.”
“You can say that again,” Evan said. “When do we leave?”
“Now,” Chen answered. “Let's get into our pods. Yin, you take that one and I will take the one across from Evan.”
The flight attendant brought Yin her water and asked Chen if he needed anything. He didn’t, and a few minutes later Evan could feel the ship rock slightly as it taxied out of the hangar and onto the runway.
“What are the odds we are going to encounter more of those drone things?” Evan asked Chen.
“Pretty low. We have numerous surveillance drones up and interceptors are on standby. They are probably on their way but they won't be able to touch us once we get airborne. This ship is way too fast for them.”
“Doesn’t the GFN have anything bigger they can throw at us?”
Chen took much longer than Evan would have liked to answer. “Well, there is no point lying to you. They have a large array of aircraft and spacecraft that can take us out but only if they can find us. Do you remember that errand I ran this morning?”
“Yes, is that where you got that data cube?”
“Yes, that was it.”
“What's on it?”
“Well, it would be very complicated to explain but let's just say that it's a very special computer program—an artificial intelligence, really. It's designed to send false signals to the GFN's global surveillance network and should make us invisible to their sensors. It obviously won't help us if a human-piloted craft finds us but it will keep the drones away. At least long enough for us to get out of the atmosphere.”
“Can't they follow us into space?”
“They can but I will be surprised if they do.”
“Because the GFN's jurisdiction ends at the upper boundary of the atmosphere and any action by them beyond that point would be a treaty violation with the colonies.”
“Yeah, I remember seeing somewhere that the space colonies were independent. Wasn't there a threat of war at some point?”
“Kind of. The GFN tried to annex Luna a few years back, and both Luna and Mars responded by threatening to embargo any country that voted for annexation. That would have meant no new colonists from those countries as well as restricted raw material sales from all space mining operations.”
“That sounds bad.”
“Yeah. The vote was close but in the end, the measure was defeated in a general session of the GFN assembly. It's been tried twice since and defeated handily both times and I don't think things will change any time soon. I also don't think that the GFN would be willing to break the current peace treaties just to get at us.”
“Wow, that sounds complicated. I sure hope you're right. I would hate to be the cause of an interplanetary war!” Evan said with more than a hint of anxiety in his voice.
Just as Chen was about to respond the pilot's voice echoed from the headrest-mounted speakers in each pod.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have been cleared for takeoff and are ready to go. Please follow all directions from your flight crew and sit back and enjoy our approximately nine-and-a-half-hour flight to Luna.”
A female voice came over the speakers as soon as the pilot finished. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared to launch. Your seats and safety restraints will automatically adjust as we transition to space and we ask that you please do not override them except in the case of an emergency or when instructed to do so by your flight crew. I'm Elise and you also have Anika and Talia on board today to assist you during the flight. Up front, we have Captain Bauer, First Officer Antonelli and Navigator First Class Panagakos. Please don't hesitate to let us know if there is anything we can do to make your trip more comfortable. Flight attendants, please secure the cabin.”
Two flight attendants that Evan had not seen before walked down the aisle to check on each occupant and their pod. They read through a checklist and double checked each step to ensure that the cabin door was secure, the cabin pressurization system was functioning properly, each pod was working correctly and that each passenger was secure in his or her pod. Once satisfied, they took their seats in two slightly smaller pods located behind the stairs leading to the cockpit.
Evan tried to relax as his pod adjusted to a partially reclined position. The chest and leg restraints inflated slightly, so he was held securely in place but not to where he felt uncomfortable. The wing mounted engines screamed as the space plane surged down the runway. Evan couldn't see the plane's wings from where he sat but he correctly guessed that they were fully extended. The plane quickly built up speed and within a few seconds, it jumped into the air. The craft climbed steeply and made several shallow turns as it gained altitude.
On a whim, Evan said “Show position”—a display appeared that showed a satellite view of the space plane along with readouts for altitude, heading and speed. They were already at 7,000 meters and climbing fast. Their speed was 2,000 kilometers per hour and increasing. Their heading was roughly due north, which meant they were flying toward Mongolia, Russia and the North Pole.
Over the next fifteen minutes, the plane continued to gain altitude and speed and Evan couldn't help but be amazed at how fast they were flying. In that short amount of time, they had climbed to twenty-five kilometers and were traveling at more than 7,400 kilometers an hour. That was over six times the speed of sound and fast enough to fly from New York to London in under an hour!
Chen saw him watching the display and called over, “So far so good. Get ready, the fun part is about to begin!”
Five minutes later, Captain Bauer's voice came over the speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are at 45,000 meters and are ready to initiate transition to orbit. The upper atmosphere is pretty stable today and we don't expect a lot of turbulence along our flight path but please make sure that you do not remove your restraints until instructed to do so. If you direct your holodisplays to the exterior cameras, you will get some great views of the Earth and space as we make our roll. Enjoy the ride.”
Elise came back over the speakers. “Okay folks, for those of you who haven't taken this trip before, this is the fun part. When the pilot initiates the burn, you are going to experience approximately three Gs of force pushing your body into your pod. That means that you are going to weigh three times what you do now and you might find it difficult or uncomfortable to lift your head or arms during peak acceleration. We don't recommend that you try but knock yourself out if you want to give it a go. If you watch your holodisplays, you will see that a countdown has started. The burn will initiate when it hits zero. Enjoy the ride!”
Evan watched as the countdown timer worked its way down from sixty to zero. When the counter reached thirty, he heard a noise he interpreted as the wings being retracted into the fuselage. The noise stopped at ten seconds and everything went quiet. Even the loud droning sound of the engines had died down to a low hum.
Evan heard an explosive roar from the tail-mounted engines. The speed readout climbed rapidly and in just a matter of seconds, they were traveling at more than 10,000 kilometers per hour. Evan felt the pod adjust to compensate for the increased G-forces, and he also felt his suit subtly adjusting his body. The tingling sensations were less than before but he still felt the occasional tinge as his suit fully integrated with his nervous system.
The craft continued to accelerate, and they were now experiencing three times the Earth's gravity pushing their bodies into the seats of their pods. Evan felt parts of his seat inflate and deflate to form to his body and ease pressure points as they developed. The angle of the seat had also changed so that he was almost laying down with his head just slightly above his chest.
Out of curiosity he raised his right arm and found it felt dull and extremely heavy, like lifting a 30-pound dumbbell. The same was true when he tried to lift his head and look around the cabin. He could do it but it felt like he had a giant weight strapped to the top of his head and it strained his neck muscles to lift up more than a couple of inches above the headrest. He decided it was better to relax and let the suit and pod do whatever was necessary to keep him comfortable.
Another few minutes passed and Evan saw they were traveling at more than 16,000 kilometers per hour at just over sixty kilometers above sea level. He checked the moving map and exterior camera views and saw they had crossed the North Pole, flown briefly over Greenland and were now somewhere near the equator in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He could see on the map they would soon fly over the southern Caribbean Islands and Central America. From there they would pass over the wide-open spaces of the Pacific.
The flight had been pretty smooth so far, with only the occasional jostle as they hit pockets of unstable air. Things got progressively rougher, however, as they climbed higher and the atmosphere became progressively thinner. The space plane shook so hard at times that Evan thought for sure he would be thrown out of his pod but the active restraints and his neurosuit did their jobs keeping him in place. He was, however, feeling sick again.
The nausea came in waves and Evan was sure he would lose his lunch if the shaking didn't stop soon. Just when he thought he could take no more, the jostling subsided and Evan felt the pressure on his restraints ease. The plane rolled over onto its back and he could see that the bottom-mounted cameras now showed the blackness of space. The cameras on top of the craft showed that they were somewhere over Indonesia flying west along the equator.
The readout showed that they had just passed 110 kilometers above the surface of the Earth and they were climbing at a speed of almost 32,000 kilometers per hour. He looked over at Chen who gave him a thumbs up. Evan attempted to return the gesture but was overcome by a sudden wave of nausea. He reached for the vomit bag and put it to his mouth just in time.
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