Houston, We Have Liftoff.
"Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World."
— Inscription on Columbus' caravels
— Inscription on Columbus' caravels
Two men sat together in the observatorium, at the very top of the highest spire on The Promise. They did this every new year, in some form of tradition. As if it was some recognition process- celebrating a new group coming aboard.
The man rustled some, turning his head lazily towards his companion who pointed toward the clear ceiling towards no star in particular.
“That, right there, is why I stay on this ship.”
“You could get that view on the ground, man. It’s pretty much the same view.”
“Yeah, but I feel closer. Y’know? Was it Sagan, or Clarke that made that ‘Alone in the universe’ quote?”
“Clarke, Henry. That was Clarke.”
“Yeah- I just… Some part of me thinks that me doing my part here helps us take one step closer to getting there.”
“Cara, how far away is that star Henry’s pointing at?”
”That star is approximately… 290 thousand light years away, Doctor Winzer.”
“Well, Henry, we have a hell of a lot of steps left.”
"Wakey, wakey! Eggs and bakey!" a voice called out, rousing Archie from his slumber and enticing him to roll over and out of his lumpy cot. He couldn't see the person outside of the door, he never could see anyone that was beyond the door, but he recognized the voice. It was the same one that had come to him cell every morning and every night, and sometimes at lunchtime- but only to annoy him.
"Wow, eggs and bacon today? You're spoiling me." He commented with an ounce of indignation as food was slid under the door and into his room. It most certainly was not eggs and bacon. It was oatmeal and bread. Just like it had been every other day since he had been placed into solitary confinement.
"Trust me, I really fought for your last meal to be different. Better eat up! It's a big day today!" the voice commented sarcastically. There was the sound of whistling and footsteps that faded, and then Archie was alone again with his... slop. He sighed and grabbed the tray, walking to the opposite wall and sitting against the concrete wall. He dipped his bread in the oatmeal and took a bite like he normally did. Despite his conditions, he was beginning to fall into a new normal of sorts. He missed the smell of the sea and the feeling of the sun on his skin, but he had learned very quickly that the fact that they were feeding him at all was a good thing. His eyes drifted to the large, ugly gouges that had been carved into the wall. He hadn't turned in a few days now, but the last time he did had been particularly bad. At least, according to the voice that came to visit him on the norm. His mind drifted to the man's words- last day. Did that mean they were going to kill him? He knew he hadn't been a model inmate by any means, but he hadn't hurt anyone yet. It hadn't been his fault! He curled in on himself further instinctually at the thought. This could be his last day on earth.
The past few weeks had been eventful, but in a bad way. He had been pulled in and out of his quarantined cell and restrained so that doctors could do whatever they wanted with him. When he had screamed and turned in that ever painful way that he always did, they had claimed it was for research purposes in preparation. Maybe they were just finding the best way to kill him? He frowned. Perhaps the worst pain he had felt wasn't the physical pain, though. That never lasted. What stung the most was the look on his adopted father's face when he was found out- trapped like a caged animal and peppered with birdshot, naked as the day he was born in the dirt. Archie averted his eyes from where he had been looking, knowing that his caretaker was not looking at him yet still being unwilling to meet his metaphysical gaze.
A few hours passed, and he spent the time the way he did any other day- which was carving something into the wall. It usually wasn't anything good, since he couldn't draw for shit, but it got his mind working and that was what mattered. He had taken a modicum of humor in scratching numerals into the wall keeping track of how many days he had spent here. Archie heard the marching of feet and turned his head towards the door. He had long since learned not to bother standing, as they would always force him back to the ground anyways. He steeled himself for what was to come, as this could very well be it. At least, if that voice was anything to go by. If he was going to die, he was going to die with dignity. Suddenly, the marching stopped, and all was silent. A pregnant pause ensued, Archie becoming more and more apprehensive of whatever was coming. He felt a heat building in his chest and panicked- he couldn't make a mess. Not like this.
A canister was thrown under the hatch of his door and quickly closed. Archie looked dumbly at the canister for a moment, unsure of what to do next, until it began smoking. Archie panicked further, the heat in his chest willing him towards the back of his cell as it began filling with smoke. His vision began tunneling when his cell door unlocked, and two heavily armed guards stood in the doorway. He tried to stand, his mind no longer functioning as it normally would, but he was swiftly stuck with a needle. His arms were wrenched back, and the heat in his chest was almost unbearable now, as if trying to turn him- but to no avail. His vision began swimming, and he felt all his strength go. He collapsed to the ground under the guard's weight and as his vision began blacking out entirely, he heard:
"Dude! Did you just Bill Cosby him? Not cool!"
His delirious mind was not looking forward to whatever was coming next.
When he came too, Archie awoke heavily restrained, but not in the fun way. He was in what was best described as a modified dolly, with his entire body belted to the device in dozens of places. He couldn't move anything from turning his head, and the heat in his chest was now completely gone. He was alone in a room that had to have... fifty or more seats in it. Some of which were occupied with people restrained, bolted down and tied up similarly to him. What the hell kind of execution was this?
"Woah! Looks like he's awake!" a voice rang out over the intercom. This voice was... nerdy for a lack of better description.
"Where the fu-"
"You're being launched into space."
Archie was taken aback.
"Yeah, see, I do this a lot, so the line of questioning gets pretty standard. There was an agent in your food this morning, a catalyst that worked with a sedative in that little grenade. Knocked you out. If you look to the left, our friend is here to also knock your powers out. Basically, some higher up decided that we're the last thing besides you and being shot into the sun, so you're taking a trip on the world's biggest rollercoaster."
Archie turned to look at a heavily armed man, similar to the ones that had apprehended him, sitting in one of the seats further away from him. The man, against everything that Archie had experienced with the North American Parahuman handlers, waved at him. As the others began to wake up, the voice answered similar questions, and after a while, it announced that the others would be arriving soon, and to sit tight. Then he heard some mumbling about coffee breaks not being often enough. After a short period, a slow trickle of people wearing bright white uniforms began coming into the room. They were chattering about 'The Promise' and how they'd been invited. Some were talking about their families. All of them had personal items and luggage- it was like they were walking into a plane or something. They had obviously known about this and had somehow agreed to it. At least he wasn't purposefully being killed. The noise in the room grew as the seats were filled- and then promptly silenced when the voice came onto the intercom once again.
"Students, welcome! My name is Elias, and I am required to sound like I give a shit."
That prompted a few laughs.
"So, I gotta brief you all- basically you'e being shot into space towards a hole that's moving really really fast. Kinda like a really big game of pool. If we undershoot, you die. If we overshoot, you die. If you leave the ship now, you probably wont die. Last chance to get off!"
No one moved. Some out of balls, and others out of fear.
"Wow, buncha winners we have here. Anyways, keep yourselves strapped in- and keep your gear secured. Don't want that killing anyone during the flight!"
The comms shut off again, and the chatter resumed. Archie was just trying to remember his family.
Some time passed. Archie couldn't be sure how much, because he didn't have a watch and he didn't even know what day it is, but the intercom came on once more announcing quiet in the launch pod.
They were lifting off soon.
The countdown began. Some students were giddy in their seats, thrill seekers eagerly looking out their windows. Others were clutching various religious objects and praying in various languages. Several joined in on the counting.
"You ready?" Someone called.
"Not even a little bit!" another person answered.
"Oh please god-"
Some students were holding hands.
For a moment, there was nothing, and Archie wondered briefly if there had been some sort of issue. Then he felt it, the hum of engines so powerful that he could feel them spooling up before he heard them. His stomach lurched as the pod's engines rocketed to life. He and everyone else felt the pull of acceleration as the amount of thrust overcame gravity- and then were pressed into their seats as the rocket picked up speed. Archie was able to turn his head against the pull of gravity and gaze out of the window- a huge white cloud of emerged from the base of the shuttle, then brightness so intense it was almost hard for him to look at- but there was no looking away. This was it. Archie's heart was in his throat as memories of nightmares he’d had popped into his head- of fears he'd had, of his family and friends both living and dead. The flames shooting out of the bottom of the shuttle were scorching a line through the sky, leaving a thick trail of orangey smoke behind them. Within moments the shuttle was soaring high above the Earth, to a soundtrack of cheering from many students. Some screaming in joy and others crying in shock. Then came the first inkling of the rumble that went on to be a wall of sound so powerful it literally shook him to his very bones. The deep rumbling built to a crescendo of popping like the sound waves were ripping the air apart, bursting their way through to them. Had he not been provided context, he would have assumed that it was the sound of an earthquake. It was like one thousand fireworks exploding all at once, with an accompaniment of an Earth-shaking rumble.
"Enjoy your trip. ETA: ten minutes. See you all soon." Eli's voice came onto the intercom.
The launch was immensely powerful, and he truly felt himself in the centre of it. It was like riding an enormous- overpowering wave, or being pushed and lifted by an enormous hand, or shaken in the jaws of some gigantic animal. The pod shook and vibrated, and he was pinned hard down into his restraints by the acceleration. As one set of engines finished and the next started, he was thrown forward and then shoved back once more. The weight of over 4Gs for many minutes had been oppressive, and the sudden shift rocked him once more to his core. As if an enormously fat person had been lying on him, until suddenly, after 9 minutes, the engine shut off and he was instantly weightless. The engines were silent now, but still firing. He lifted his head against his restraints and realized that he had sweat an imprint of his head into the cushion.
Outside, The Promise was rotating around the planet at seventeen thousand miles an hour, and as the pod approached, the port at the bottom of its central spire opened- and the pod flew seamlessly into it. Archie and many other students lurched forward when a series of braking systems enclosed around the pod as it flew through the port's bowels, adjusting just in time to be thrown forward in their seats as other braking systems activated. As it finally came to a stop- the seat belts released from around the normal students.
The whole process of transporting the group several hundred miles had taken twenty minutes.
The doors opened revealing people of all shapes and sizes on the other side. A woman approached Archie and unlocked his restraints, offering him a hand. He weakly raised an arm and took it, and was pulled up slowly but all too quickly at the same time. He fell against the woman, who held him until he was steadied. It dawned upon Archie how fast his heart had been beating, and he placed a hand against his chest and tried to keep himself from coughing.
"One hell of a ride, huh? Nothing quite like it."
Archie noted that her voice had a British accent. He nodded wordlessly, and the woman helped him to his feet. Many of the other students were leaning against the walls of the room or their luggage, and others were walking into a bright corridor outside.
"What's your name?" Archie questioned. The woman smiled and answered easily: "Arianna."
Arianna pointed towards the corridor, and Archie looked to her incredulously. Did she really expect him to walk after all that?
"The first steps are a special thing. It's tradition to take them on your own." Arianna stated.
Archie gulped, and took a tentative step forward. She nearly collapsed under her own weight and leaned heavily onto the wall. Only a few more steps. He repeated this process, gaining slightly more strength as he did so, and eventually stepped into the bright corridor, and followed the large arrows on the floor directing him where to go. When he stepped into what couldn't be anything other than his destination, he was greeted by a massive hub. There was a large variety of people- most of which were those on the pod, but some were others that weren't dressed in launch uniforms. They were dressed like normal people, and they were in a ring around the new arrivals yelling something about 'The Promise' and 'School Spirit'. They were loud and proud. Archie nearly threw up in her mouth- but he couldn't tell if it was because of the kumbaya shit or leftover queasiness from the launch.
Arianna walked up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Welcome to The Promise."
He turned his head to respond, but she was gone. He was pulled by his arm into the group by one of the people who weren't wearing a uniform, and quickly shuffled into cafeteria of sorts. There were tables with food on them along the edges of the room, and other tables with seats- obviously meant for them to sit. There was an empty stage before them, with only a podium at the center. In the background, there was a projection of The Promise's logo, with the words "Be With You In 10 Minutes!" on it. Archie looked between the projection and the tables of food. He supposed that it was time to put something in the tank and maybe meet a few people, assuming he could even eat to begin with.
Today was the day. All of that time being vetted in physicals, taking shots, and having strangers put their fingers in every possible orifice has all culminated to this. Whether you have been excited, fearful, or a combination of both, the time has come.
Today is the day you realize, as you slide off of your bed in your quarantined room and press your bare feet onto the ground, or as your officials pick you up and buy you breakfast on the way to the launch station, that this is a day of lasts. This is the last time you will shuffle into a line to get breakfast, the last time you would see see your family for a long time, and the last time your feet would touch Earth for years.
But it is also a day of firsts. The first day that you won’t have the man breathing down your back. The first day that you will feel completely and totally weightless. The first day you had something to really look forward to.
Today is the day for launch.