Prologue – “a chance to live amongst the stars”
Gillian Knight’s voice was calm and firm, her crimson lips pursed in a harsh grin.
Reginald Bush pivoted backwards, his seat suspended several feet off the ground. The petite curvaceous silhouette of the Board President for the Sol Program loomed imposingly over the arching desk. Gillian’s red hair jingling as she cocked her hips slightly to the side, her presence an unwelcome intrusion into Reginald’s sparsely furnished sanctum.
Reginald’s gaze lingered on Gillian momentarily before drifting from the loft atop Sol Tower outward to fixate on the illuminated San Francisco skyline visible through wall length windows. The immense space-station Sol, from whence the tower’s derived it’s namesake, rose in the darkening sky, a second moon in the twilight.
“I understand the time pressure but Ramsay is irreplaceable as core operator! This is his system, half the schematics are in his head! Julian doesn’t understand the system nearly well enough to be promoted. It’s criminally dangerous to embark with him as core operator. I won’t allow it.”
Reginald’s voice cracked and eyes narrowed, unable to contain his frustration, he continued.
“We need to find him. A team should have been on this yesterday! What good is Taurus if…” Reginald’s stopped abruptly, his frustration having outpaced his commonsense.
A callous smile creased across Gillian’s face.
“I’ve been the Board President for the Sol Program over six years. I hired Ramsay because he was the best in the world. I understand the gravity of losing him the week we embark. But you don’t allow anything. The Sol voyage begins, as planned, on the 11th. You don’t get to give consent.”
Her voice was soft, calm and unwavering, blue predatory eyes glowing. Stepping forward, Gillian placed a hand on the desk, her grimacing smirk widening. A knot tightened in the pit of Reginald’s stomach.
“If you aren’t willing to accept that reality then you can walk right out of this office and I’ll have you replaced within an hour. I got you approved as coordinator and can have you…removed.”
Reginald’s mouth opened and closed again. Gillian was not lying. Her personal connections and wealth along with her relationship with the Taurus Corporation, granted her a fierce grip on the reins of the Sol Program.
Taurus’ substantial investments and political influence had been paramount in bring the program to fruition. Their coffers provided massive funding for the project while their military prowess and cyber-espionage capabilities consistently cleared insurmountable obstacles when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. The Sol Program’s relationship with the largest and most powerful defense and cyber-military contracting firm on earth – and beyond – could not be downplayed or overlooked.
“As of nineteen hundred, Gallagher’s team has been dead air with one target – Ramsay Wattis. If he’s on earth he will be found. There are only so many places on this planet to hide.”
Rotating his chair forward, Reginald’s spat, his pent up frustration rupturing his stern facade.
“We’ll that’s fucking great! Except he was last seen shuttling up the rings so he’s not on this fucking planet anymore.”
“Taurus’s influence in the rings is expansive. If he can be found, he will be.”
Reginald pivoted back his chair rolling his eyes and slowly massaged his temples. Eye’s still closed he reached for his desk, closed his fingers around his stimpen and drew it to his lips. Deeply inhaling the sweet vapors triggered a wave of acute alertness and momentary relaxation.
Gillian’s voice dragged Reginald back from eden.
“Notify Julian Alexander that he is acting core operator.”
“Gillian, listen to me. Ramsay is the core development team. The program consumed every aspect of his life. How do you expect Julian to fill his shoes in a week? We need to find him. Sol won’t 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 things to chance. Reginald stared, studying Gillian’s face. Her broad smile never broke but…a fleeting shade of a memory danced behind her hard eyes.
If it was ever there it was gone.
“Ramsay will be found, that is certain. What is not certain is his health or mental state. Inform Julian tonight, I want a meeting first thing in morning.”
Reginald opened his mouth to mount a final defense but closed it again without an utterance. Gillian’s met his gaze with intense focus.
“Reginald, are you with me?”
“Of course. I’ll…let him know promptly.”
“Excellent, 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. Sitting up, Reginald extended two fingers and flicked his wrist upward in a swift motion. The office blossomed to life in a cornucopia of vivid displays.
“Nerobi, scan skynet for Ramsay again and pull up the most recent feeds. Everything you’ve got.”
“Right away”, a synthetic woman’s voice replied.
Reginald’s mind raced. Designing and developing a core computing system on the scale of the one aboard Sol had never been conceived much less attempted. The core unilaterally integrated all necessary systems for the Sol space station to operate self-sustainably. The immensely complex systems governing – life support, transportation, security, navigation, analytics and government operations – seamlessly integrated into a core computing network streamlined for clear, concise user experience, minimizing redundancies and resource use.
For years, Reginald watched Ramsay and his team develop the 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 Wattis’ intimate knowledge of the core systems inner workings set the necessary precedent for future core operators…if he Sol Program was to be a success. And it needed to succeed or the lives of billions aboard the space station would be forfeit.
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 network of skyhooks 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.
“Julian Alexander is preparing to leave his office,” came his assistant’s fabricated voice, “should I inform him you need to speak?”
The forest and its inhabitants were gone.
The computer toned a brief acknowledgement. The five pane display above Reginald’s desk filled with a plethora of video feeds, still images, written descriptions and statistical reports documenting Ramsay’s movement over the last week. With a swift focusing gesture the feed of Reginald’s last known location, stepping aboard the skyhook, pulled to the forefront.
Ramsay’s eyes were heavily sunken, wrinkles crisscrossed his face.
“Julian is here to see you.” Nerobi chirped, Reginald flicked his wrist in acknowledgement. Simultaneously the panels 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. “Certainly, I’ll see you momentarily.” Julian waved off his computer and vanished from the room. Reginald closed his eyes, struggling to reclaim the serene scenario from a few long moments before. It proved a futile effort.
“Julian is outside.” Nerobi chirped a minute later. Reginald flicked his wrist and 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 colleague.
“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 to enstate you as acting core operator.”
Julian’s smile was gone, replaced with a look of shocked bewilderment.
“During this interim period you will overtake all the rights and responsibilities afforded to the role. Particularly, final reconciliation and implementation of all changes to the infrastructure of the core operating system aboard Sol. This opportunity is obviously a tremendous responsibility and honor.”
Julian’s eyes, opened in shock, sullened as his lips contorted nervous.
“What about Ramsay?”
“Ramsay disappeared and has been missing over twenty four hours without any notice. Due to the critical implementations over the next few days we, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of time.”
Julian’s faced narrowed pensively.
“Tomorrow morning at oh eight hundred you will meet with Gillian. She will brief you on the new responsibilities of the role. These next few days are of the utmost importance. Due to the deeply polarizing interest of invested parties, it is possible, however unlikely, that the lives of you and your family may be at risk if knowledge of your appointment is made public. It is the opinion of the board that Ramsay’s disappearance is likely related to last weeks doxxing. It is imperative you only discuss this appointment with those holding appropriate clearance.”
Reginald paused momentarily, studying Julian’s face.
“I know this is a lot to comprehend.”
“It’s just sudden. I didn’t know Ramsay was missing.”
Reginald nodded slightly as Julian continued, “How long do I have planetside?”
Julian’s eyes crossed with disillusionment.
“Gillian will provide a full briefing tomorrow.” Reginald responded, “But in short, you have four days to pack and relocate to Sol. Our rigid departure timeline requires all permanent residents aboard Sol by the 8th.”
“Four days?” Color drained slightly from Julian’s bronzed cheeks. “Sir…what about my life? What about my family and my fiancé?”
“Family members can apply for add-on relocation. Their applications will be expedited for immediate favorable review. Regardless, the process is lengthy and time is short. Anyone interested should submit application immediately for relocation.”
“Beyond that your work schedule will remain very similar to its current form.” Reginald lied with a sincere nod.
Nerobi interrupted unsolicited, “New information on the Ramsay investigation.”
Reginald looked up distracted and barked, “Mute, until I’m finished.”
Reginald smiled weakly at Julian. “I have much to do and I’m sure you must be exausted. I can answer a few questions but Gillian will brief you in full tomorrow.”
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.
“You should take tonight to rest, you won’t be sleeping well for some time. 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.
“As interim core operator the implication is that I’ll eventually step down…then what?”
Reginald rotated his chair to look towards 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. Core Operations will gratefully continue your employment in its current capacity. Otherwise you are welcome to explore the hundreds of millions of opportunities for ingenious businessmen and women such as yourself, in the near infinite business opportunities aboard Sol.”
“What if…I don’t want to give up my life on earth?”
Reginald face twisted into the mild scowl of a overworked father juggling the lives of hundreds of children with insufficient sleep.
“Core operator is arguably 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.”
Reginald stood and stretched. “You must be overwhelming but rest tonight and digest and prepare. You have quite a lot of work ahead of you. Now please excuse me. I have much to do. Orientation tomorrow morning, eight sharp. I will see you then.”
The two 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 plotting Ramsay’s life over the past few years had Reginald’s mind in a twisted whirlwind of emotion. He tapped his wrist twice.
Reginald’s eyes went out of focus as he pivoted forward in his chair, his head dropping softly to his desk. A deck of Ramsay’s faces burned into his subconscious. Despite newfound feeds leading up to Ramsay’s disappearance, progress on locating the core operator was nonexistent.
“Nerobi, prep Gillian’s brief for tomorrows meeting and wake me at five thirty, I need to review it last time beforehand.”
The work would be there in the morning. Regardless of what happened next Sol would disembark in one week and, finally, there would be time to rest.
Reginald motioned the computer to standby. Habitually, he scooped the headpiece from the desk and fixed the lens over his right eye. A 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 majestic 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.
“You’re home!” 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. He stepped out of the foyer into his well-lit, minimally furnished 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.
Spotting Reginald, 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.
Reginald reached out and touched his friend’s shoulder, “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. I just…”
Air projected inaudibly from Ramsay’s lungs his eyes transfixed on the headpiece.
“Is a team live? Please tell me there isn’t a live team.”
Reginald nodded, his head cocked questioningly to the side.
“Fuck me…fuck me sideways. How long?”
“Gallagher’s been dead air over 30 hours. You’re heading for a record at this rate.”
Ramsay’s face relaxed and he smiled. A uncomfortable tingle swept down Reginald’s spine as Ramsay’s eyes twitched erratically, his lips quivering; the twisted smile of a broken man.
“Ramsay, you need to talk to me.”
“Dead air for 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 two men stood locked in eye contact. Ramsay’s twitching faced frightened Reginald. His eye’s were dark, sunken and bloodshot, a glimpse of a desperate vulnerable 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 developing a second core.”
“I found a budget discrepancy approving work orders and audited the records…”
Ramsay took a deep breath.
“There’s a long trail, Nerobi can access it for you. An admin edited work and materials orders. A few were missing others were processed multiple times. It was very…sloppy, done quickly, as if there was no expectation…”
“Hold on. 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 inst…”
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 own screeching 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. Moments passed before he staggered to his feet, eyes opening slowly, wincing in discombobulation.
Ramsay Wattis 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 emblem 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 was gruff, with a thick Irish accent, his dirty blond hair flapping slightly in the night breeze.
The middle airship whirred, pivoted and dropped out of sight. He blinked repeatedly, cocking his head to the side in residual discomfort. The ringing in his ears echoed for several long moments as he surveyed the intruders within his living room.
“I see you let yourself in.”
Rufus let out a brief amused snort.
“I apologize for our entry. You understand the severity of the situation.”
Reginald shook his head, his lips contorting silently in various “o” shapes as he struggled in vain to silence the pitch vibrating throughout his inner ear.
“It had to be you to find him…”, continued the sad pointed voice.
“Rufus, I had nothing to do with this.”
Reginald spoke slowly, his ears echoing an absent sound in sync with his pounding forehead.
“You know that. You saw the feed…”
Rufus’ cheeks creased in a dissatisfied smile.
“You know that isn’t my decision.”
Uninstructed the contractors broke formation and spread around the room, the four corners of a square. Reginald’s mouth flopped open and closed noiselessly.
“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 it’s not my decision.”
Reginald’s jaw quivered silently.
“You have to come now.”
“Please Rufus…I can’t…I’m getting old. I won’t make it out…”
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, let’s go.”
“I can’t. There’s still too much left to do. Sol is leaving in a week.”
Reginald’s arms rose in a frantic defeated motion, eye’s widening grotesquely.
“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.