Prologue – “a chance to live amongst the stars”
“…I understand your frustration, but Ramsay’s missing over 24 hours. Sol embarks in a week, Reginald, we’ve run out of time.” Gillian Knight’s voice was calm and firm, her bright red lips pursed in a harsh grin.
Reginald Bush rotated back in his soft pivoting chair, suspended several feet off the ground. The slender silhouette of the Board President for the Sol Program loomed imposingly over the arching rampart of his desk. A tight red dress clung to her petite, curvaceous body, wavy golden-brown hair jingling as she cocked her hips to the side.
Reginald’s gaze left Gillian and fixated on the illuminated San Francisco skyline, visible through the transparent walls, from the top floor of Sol Tower. The immense space-station Sol rose in the darkening sky, a second moon in the twilight.
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the gravity of losing Ramsay Wilkins as core operator a week before launch. He is critical to this operation. He basically designed Sol’s Core System!” Reginald’s voice cracked and eyes narrowed, battling to stifle his fury. “He hasn’t shown up on my scans which means he’s off the network altogether! You needed to get a team on this yesterday! What use is Taurus to the pro…” Reginald stopped himself short, his frustration having outpaced his commonsense.
Gillian’s lips creased in a callous smile, “I have been on the Board of the Sol Program for eight years. I have been Board President for the last six. I hired Ramsay five years ago because he was the best in the world.” Her voice was soft, calm and unwavering, blue predatory eyes glowing. “I don’t need you lecturing me on the gravity of losing his experience and knowledge a week before Sol embarks. You won’t be among the billions suffocating in space if the core fails.”
Stepping forward, Gillian placed a hand on the desk, her grimacing smirk widening. A knot tightened in the pit of Reginald’s stomach. “As of yesterday at nineteen hundred, the Gallagher team has been dead air with one target: Ramsay Wilkins. We are rapidly approaching twenty four hours…at nearly six times our average acquisition, Mr. Wilkin is not long for this world.” Her eyes narrowed, smile fading. “There are only so many places on this planet to hide.”
Reginald sat his chair up, “And what if he’s been kidnapped, which is probable, or held hostage or dead, for fucks sake!” he spat, anguish rupturing his stern façade.
Gillian coolly ignored the outburst, “Finally, you don’t put up with Taurus, my dear, Taurus appointed you to the Board and can have you…removed.”
Reginald’s mouth opened and closed again. Gillian’s loyalty to her family’s Taurus Corporation had never been in question. The company’s substantial investments and political connections had been paramount in crafting the Sol Program from concept to reality. Their military prowess and cyber-espionage capabilities had consistently and substantially cleared insurmountable obstacles when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Regardless, the Sol Program’s association with the largest and most powerful defense and cyber-military contracting company on the planet – and beyond – came with strings attached.
Reginald simultaneously rolled back his chair and eyes, slowly massaging his temples; he would certainly work late into the night. Gillian’s mouth moved slowly and deliberately. “We are continuing with the next wave of candidates.”
“Gillian, listen to me. Ramsay has been working on the Sol Program for eight years. The core systems are his brain child. He’s given up nearly all his friends, destroyed countless relationships…”
Reginald stopped, suddenly studying Gillian’s face. Her broad smile never broke but…perhaps a fleeting shade of a memory behind her eyes…Gone. Was it ever there?
“We need to find him. The program…will not be the same without him.” Reginald took a long deep breath and sighed, “He knows too much to fall into the wrong hands.”
Pathetic; reducing a friend’s life to a plea of cost analysis, but calculating risk was Gillian’s strength as well as her weakness. She did not leave anything to chance.
“Ramsay will be found. But we cannot be certain of his health or mental state. Inform the next round tonight, I want a brief by the morning.” Reginald opened his mouth to mount a final defense but closed it again without an utterance. He suddenly became aware of Gillian’s intensely focus gaze.
He nodded, “Of course. I’ll inform the next round right away.”
“Excellent, I look forward to the brief. We’ll speak in the morning.”
She turned and strolled out of the office her hips swinging hypnotically, Reginald eyes followed until the door closed behind her. He kicked his feet onto the desk and flicked his wrist in a swift upward motion, two fingers extended. The office blossomed to life in a vivid three-dimensional display.
“Nerobi, call up the list of candidates.”
“Right away sir”, the synthetic woman’s voice replied.
Reginald’s mind raced. Ramsay Wilkins had trained as a core operator for four and a half years. Beyond being more qualified than anyone, his team designed the system from the ground up, a feat of immeasurable complexity and perseverance.
Designing and building a core computing system on the scale of the Sol Program had never been conceived much less attempted. The core unilaterally integrated all necessary systems for the Sol space station to operate self-sustainably. The large systems – life support, transportation, security, navigation, analytics and government operations – seamlessly integrated into a computing core streamlined for clear, concise user input, minimizing redundancies and resource use.
Over several years, Reginald watched Ramsay’s teams developed integrated life support systems which responded dynamically to failure. Advanced monitoring and security systems utilizing complex and diverse verification ranging from visual imprints and voice recognition to DNA analysis. Elaborate monitoring and analytical networking which eliminated identity fraud and enabled government and security contractors to identify and pacify potential dissidents prior to committing meaningful harm. Ramsay Wilkin’s intimate knowledge of the core systems inner workings set the necessary precedent for future Core operators…if the Sol Program was to be a success.
Reginald stretched and walked to the window, fixating on Sol as it rose in the night sky. The pulsating lights of the skyline shone and glistened, illuminating the stream of shuttles and airbuses delivering earth’s former residents into their new skyward catacombs. Reginald’s eyes blurred in and out of focus; momentarily dwarfed by his own insignificance.
A nine year old boy is standing under the canopy of a rain forest. There is a slight drizzle. The dirt is dark, damp and covered with insects. A large ant hill burrowed under the roots of a titanic Brazilian nut tree. Dense green foliage erupts from the forest floor in every direction. Ants march between the underbrush bringing food and resources to the colony. Ever more march outward in search of new land to explore and conquer.
Reginald batted his eyes repeatedly, abruptly returning to his surroundings.
“Candidate Julian Alexander is preparing to leave his office,” came his assistant’s fabricated voice, “should I let him know you need to speak with him?”
The forest and its inhabitants ants were gone.
“Immediately.” The computer beeped in acknowledgement. Reginald eyes slowly focused on the five profiles panels hovering across his desk.
“Julian is here to see you.” Nerobi chirped, Reginald flicked his wrist in acknowledgement. Simultaneously the previous display minimized and Julian materialized in the office. Despite being only a few inches taller than himself, Julian towered over Reginald. His usually dark tight curls loose and unruly adding several inches to his height. Reginald stood, raising himself almost to eye level. The two shook hands.
“This is a matter of…significance. Please come upstairs, we need to speak in person.”
Julian’s brown eyes cocked to the side questioningly. “As you wish, I’ll see you in a moment.” Julian waved off his computer and vanished. Reginald closed his eyes, struggling in vain to reclaim the serene scenario from only moments before.
“Julian is outside.” Nerobi chirped a minute later. Reginald flicked his wrist and the door opened. Julian Alexander strode into the office.
“Reginald” the duo shook hands, “to what do I owe this pleasure.”
Reginald sighed. “Not one for small talk, are we.”
“Never sir.”, Julian beamed broadly.
“Please take a seat.” Reginald sat as a chair ascended from the floor for his guest.
“Julian, you’ve worked for the Sol Program as a chief engineer for core operations over three years. During this time my colleagues and I have monitored your progress closely.”
Julian nodded, his eyes focused and attentive. Reginald continued, “Your overall performance level and efficiency is stellar. You’ve been an invaluable asset to the team and…I want to sincerely thank you for your service to the Program.”
Julian cracked a nervous smile.
“To this end…the board has elected you as a candidate for Core operator.”
Julian’s smile was gone, replaced with a look of shocked bewilderment.
“You are going to be amongst a small group of candidates during the upcoming few weeks to go through a screening process. If selected you will be appointed as one of the two core operators, with all the rights and responsibilities afforded to the role. This includes overseeing and administering any and all changes to the infrastructure of the core operating system aboard Sol. This opportunity is a tremendous responsibility and honor.”
Julian’s eyes, which opened in shock during the monologue, sullened his lips contorted into a nervous grin.
“Tomorrow morning at oh eight hundred you will meet with Gillian Knight, President of the Board of Operations for the Sol Program. She will brief you on the process you are about to undergo. These next few days are of the utmost importance. It is possible, however unlikely, that the lives of you and your family may be at risk. Only select individuals outside the Board of Directors and Core Operations team know the identity of the candidates. It is imperative to only discuss your candidacy with those who hold security clearance.”
Reginald paused momentarily, studying Julian’s face. “I know this is a lot to comprehend.”
“This is…sudden,” Reginald nodded slightly as Julian continued, “…Sir. I have many questions. When do I leave?” Julian’s eyes crossed with disillusionment.
“Gillian will provide a full briefing tomorrow.” Reginald continued, “You have four days to pack and fully relocate aboard Sol. The impending embarkment date requires all permanent members aboard Sol by the 8th.”
“Four days?” Color drained slightly from Julian’s bronzed cheeks. “…what about my life? What about my family and my girlfriend?”
“Your work schedule will remain very similar to its current form.” Reginald lied with a sincere nod. “Family members can apply for add-on-relocation. Because of your extenuating circumstances your applications will be expedited for immediate favorable review. Regardless, the process is a lengthy one. Your family members should submit an application immediately to be considered for relocation.”
Nerobi interrupted unsolicited, “Another candidate is preparing to leave his office, should I instruct him to stay?”
Reginald looked up distracted, “Yes, I’m going to speak to them all tonight. Send out a message.”
Reginald smiled weakly at Julian. “I have a long night ahead of me. I can answer a few questions. Gillian will brief you in full tomorrow, in the conference room across the hall.”
Julian sat stone faced. “I understand the necessity of the Sol Program. I really do, I’ve always been an advocate. The earth’s resources are all but diminished, we have massive overpopulation, earth wrenching climate change and apathetical political gridlock…that’s why I’ve worked on the project for the last three years but, I’ve never considered leaving…San Francisco is my home.”
Reginald smiled, speaking slowly and clearly, his face stern but sincere, “The Sol Program is mankind’s greatest undertaking, the first sustainable extraterrestrial life. This is not the opportunity of a lifetime, rather, the opportunity of all human lifetimes. Mankind’s unshackling from the hollow dungeons forged on this planet for a chance to live amongst the stars.”
Reginald tapped his wrist twice. “20:34”, flashed above the desk. “My time is short. If you have any immediate questions, now is the time to ask.”
Julian’s eyes flitted back and forth grasping at the straws of his life, desperately searching for loose ends. “The interview process for core operator takes several weeks but…I’m leaving in four days…what happens if I’m cut?”
Reginald pivoted and looked to the sky. The stream of worker ants poured upwards into their hive orbiting a hundred miles above the earth surface. “Sol is a vibrant and dynamic economy. The Core Operations team will gratefully continue your employment in its current capacity. Otherwise you are welcome to join the hundreds of millions of ingenious businessmen and women, in the near infinite business opportunities aboard Sol.”
“What if I don’t want to give up my…entire life?”
Reginald scowled, “The chance to be core operator is one of the most prestigious and coveted positions aboard Sol. You know what kind of an opportunity this is.” Reginald’s face softened, “You’ve known this was a possibility.”
Julian relaxed slightly in his chair, the frustration draining from his face. “You’re right sir, this is…a lot to take in at once.”
“Of course.” Reginald stood and stretched. “Please excuse me. I must speak with the other candidates. Orientation tomorrow morning, eight sharp. I will see you then.” The duo shook hands across the desk for the third time. Julian’s brown eyes sunken in contemplation as he turned and walked from the office.
The compilation of statistical data; pictures, video, audio clips and written summaries on the fourth candidate was too much. Reginald’s eyes went out of focus as he pivoted forward in his chair, his head dropping softly to his desk. A few hours passed since he informed the last candidates of their fate; eager horrified faces burned into his subconscious. Progress on Gillian’s brief proved slower and more exhausting than anticipated, despite the sweet vapor stims ingested a few hours before.
“Nerobi, prep the last two profiles and wake me at five thirty, I need to review them one last time before Gillian does.” The profiles would be there in the morning. Regardless of what happened next Sol would disembark in 7 days, September 12th 2048. Then there would be time to rest.
Reginald motioned the computer to standby. Habitually, he detached the headpiece from his desk and fixed the lens over his right eye. Light suction automatically engaged to hold it firmly in place. Reginald strode from his office, passed the conference room, and through the waiting shuttle doors.
The shuttle launched from the top floor of the Sol Tower into the brilliant shimmering night. The majesty of the skyline punctuated by the enormous glowing orb hovering hundreds of feet above the Sol tower. Ants swarmed upward into the dark obelisk in the sky.
“Here we are!” Nerobi synthetic voice chirped, Reginald’s headpiece awakening him from the momentary lapse in consciousness.
The doors open and Reginald wandered into his penthouse. The lights remained off, Nerobi’s welcoming voice deafeningly absent from the foyer. Reginald reached for his headpiece in instinctual alertness, but stopped short.
Reginald stepped out of the foyer into a well-lit minimally furnished light living room and sighed with relief. Ramsay’s husky unconscious body sprawled across the couch, an old 90’s movie playing in the background. The man was snoring softly a tear of drool rolling down his cheek.
“English mother fucker, do you speak!?” the two dimensional projection shouted and Ramsay sat up frantically, alerted to his guest. His eyes were bloodshot, clothes disheveled, hair tangled, face contorted in deranged horror. Ramsay exhaled heavily, shivering despite the warmth of the room. Reginald dropped onto the couch next to his old friend, “Thank god you’re alive.” None of the terror receded from Ramsay’s sunken eyes.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. Where have you been?” Those wily horrified eyes. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. I just…” Air projected inaudibly from his lungs. Ramsay stared at the headpiece. “Did she activate a team? Please tell me there isn’t a live team.”
Reginald nodded, his head cocked questioningly.
“Fuck me…fuck me sideways. How long have they been active?”
“Gallagher’s been dead air over 30 hours now. You’re heading for a record at this rate.”, Reginald responded.
Ramsay’s face relaxed and he smiled, the twisted smile of a broken man.
“Ramsay, you need to talk to me.”
“Dead air over 30 Hours…” A warm stomach jiggling, gut wrenching laugh erupted from somewhere deep within the overweight man’s body. “They’re already on their fucking way.”
The look on his friend’s face frightened Reginald. He gazed into the sunken vortexes, a portal to a broken soul. “Ramsay, listen to me, what do you know?”
Ramsay smiled broadly, “Nothing. That’s the hilarity of it. I know nothing except…” He sat forward, eyes flickering to life. “We’ve been misled and manipulated…they’re secretly developing a second core.”
“There was a budget discrepancy, I noticed it last Saturday approving work orders. It started…” Ramsay took a deep breath. “There was a long trail. Nerobi can get the records. An admin edited work and materials orders. Some were missing others were processed multiple times. It was very…sloppy, done quickly, as if there was no expectation…”
“Slow down.” Ramsay took a depth breath as Reginald wrestled with the influx of knowledge, “Someone with admin clearance altered work orders off record?”
“No, well yes but…”
A deafening blinding blanket of sound and light erupted through the walls of the living room. Reginald felt himself leaping to his feet, unable to hear his screaming over the shrill oscillating onslaught. Covering his eyes he grasped at fleeting silhouettes, invisible in the incapacitating wave of sensory input. Seconds multiply and elongate for brief eternity.
As abruptly, the cascade of sound and light ceased. Reginald fell to his knees, eyes closed, covering his ringing ears. Staggering, his eyes opened and he rose, wincing in discombobulation. Ramsay Wilkins was gone. In his place stood the broad imposing Rufus Gallagher, Taurus captains badge emblazoned on his chest. Three airships sporting the same cherished bull head hovered noiselessly through the now shattered walls. Four contractors stood at attention behind their captain.
“Good to see you again Reginald.” The man’s voice gruff, a thick Irish accent. His hair dirty blond with light blue eyes.
The middle airship whirred, pivoted and dropped out of Reginald’s line of sight. He blinked repeatedly, cocking his head to the side in residual discomfort. “I see you let yourself in.”
Rufus let out a brief amused snort. “I apologize for our entry. You understand the weight of the situation.” Reginald nodded, his lips contorting silently in various O-shapes as he struggled in vain to pop his ringing ears. “It had to be you to find him…”, Rufus sighed sincerely.
“Rufus, I had nothing to do with this.” Reginald’s ears wrung and his head pounded uncomfortably, “You know that. You saw the tape…” Rufus’ cheeks creased in a dissatisfied smile.
“You know that’s not my decision.” Uninstructed, the four contractors broke formation and spread around the room, the four corners of a square.
Reginald’s mouth flopped open and closed noiselessly for a few moments before he managed to speak. “I know as much as you do. You heard what he said. You know I haven’t been in contact.”
His old friend’s face contorted almost unnoticeably with a sad cringe, “I do know that at least, but again…this isn’t my decision.” Reginald’s jaw quivered silently. “Come now, we’ve got to go.”
“…I can’t Rufus…I’m getting old. I don’t know if I’ll make it out of this…” The contractor placed a heavy burly hand on Reginald’s shoulder and looked him squarely in the eyes. “Roy knows you. I’m sure he’ll be monitoring you closely. Now come.”
“I have so much left to do…” Reginald’s arms rose in a frantic motion, eye’s bulging. “The program needs me.”
Another heavy hand firmly gripped his alternate shoulder. “The program is out of your hands now.” The voice slightly quivered. Hands lifted gently from his shoulders. Reginald never heard the charge fire. His nervous system locked rigidly as he fell into Rufus’ outstretched arms.