Pete Hannigen made the seven hundred mile trip to FIUE to spend a few days with his daughter before the launch. Though Petra knew her father was happy for her, simply for the fact that she had been able to accomplish something unheard of, she could also tell there was a part of him that couldn’t help but be nervous that she was about to leave for a semester long trip to another star system.
Of course he had good reason to be nervous. No matter what the spokespeople at NASA or the FIUE fliers tried to convince the public, they all knew deep space travel was far from safe. Sure it had come a long way in the last ten years, but if it were really safe, it wouldn’t still be restricted to government run programs. This wasn’t like a jaunt to the Moon Colony, commercial ships carting off a new batch of tourists each week. This was still experimental, in the initial stages of exploration. And no matter how much the NASA officials wanted to pretend otherwise, it was still dangerous.
Petra knew there was nothing she would be able to say that would comfort her father in the slightest, so she didn’t even try. Besides, she was a bit nervous about the whole ordeal herself, though she tried her best not to let her dad see because she didn’t want to give him even more cause to worry. Therefore, the two spent the few days they had together completely avoiding the topic of Petra’s upcoming journey into space.
During the days Petra was spending with her father, Stanford was busy with the last of his packing. His mood had brightened greatly since finding Petra to be his assistant. During the half hour he had spent with her, the idea of having to bring a student along had gone from unbearably daunting to something he would be able to live with. His mood had brightened so much that he even found himself whistling as he went around his office finding the equipment he needed and packing it into several heavy duty traveling cases that would keep it safe on its long journey to Nochva.
What Stanford was unaware of was that his joyful whistling traveled all the way down the hall of the social sciences building and through the walls of Dean Leitner’s office. With each off-key note, the dean could feel his anger and irritation rising just a little bit more. Stanford wasn’t supposed to have turned the student interview process into a game to satisfy his own amusement. This assistantship should have been a very high-honor opportunity for a hard-working, seasoned student who was devoted to building the college’s reputation, not something to be passed off to a first-year on a whim. Leitner had tried to reason with Stanford, telling him that it wasn’t fair to the students who had been studying with them for years and that he would have to call Ms. Hannigen and tell her that there had been a mistake. But Stanford had refused, stating that if it was going to be a requirement that the student wasn’t a first-year, then that should have been stated on Leitner’s obnoxious ads from the outset. Leitner couldn’t admit to Stanford that he had never imagined such a young student would dare to apply. And so Stanford’s choice of assistant was allowed to stand and Petra Hannigen, as a first-year student, was approved to be the first student the social sciences department of FIUE ever sent into deep space.
Petra’s father drove her to the launch site Monday morning. The site was located along the North American East Coast, roughly 150 miles from the capital where FIUE sat. He didn’t mind the drive, though. He wanted to be able to see her off, and he also wanted to get a good look at Stanford for himself. Though his daughter had told him everything she knew about the tenured professor, Pete had yet to meet the man, and he wasn’t about to let his only child go off on a trip like this with someone he had never even seen before. They arrived promptly at seven-thirty, passing through several security gates on their way to the site.
Security at launch sites had always been strict. Only those with government clearance could make it past the outer gates. Petra and Pete had both been given passes for the event today, allowing them to pass through checkpoint after checkpoint. It didn’t mean they had a free ride through, though. They were still stopped multiple times on their way to the site, their bags checked and their car scanned, just in case.
When they finally arrived at the launch site and Petra got her first glimpse of the craft that would be taking her on her journey, she couldn’t help but be amazed by the technology and raw power that was sitting there in front of her. The spacecraft was roughly the same size as a regular commercial plane, but its design suggested it was built for a purpose much more impressive than ferrying people between the continents.
It had a sleek, metallic exterior that reflected the brilliance of the morning sun. It had a flat, aerodynamic shape, no doubt a feature designed to help smooth that tricky step of re-entry into the atmosphere when returning from a trip. The wings were thin and stretching out to either side from the base of the craft. The body of the ship was flat and triangular in design, the forward-facing tip rounded liked the font end of a bullet.
This was a machine built to be in flight. It was almost heartbreaking to see it tethered to the ground, like a whale that had been unexpectedly washed up onto the shore. It didn’t belong there.
The craft was surrounded by dozens of bodies moving back and forth, all of them shouting and signaling to each other, finishing the final preparations to send the ship back into space where it belonged. They were checking the fuel gauges, loading the last pieces of equipment, responding to requests from the two pilots who would be conducting the journey, double-checking calculations, and making sure everything would be ready when it was time to go. The commotion was overwhelming and Petra felt a haze set in over her just trying to take everything in. The site stirred a mixture of excitement and fear in her unlike anything she had experienced before. Even the last time she had been to a launch site hadn’t felt like this. Maybe it was because at that time she had known it wasn’t her who was going to be sent up into space.
As the Hannigens got out of their car, they found Stanford and Leitner already there awaiting their arrival. Stanford looked delighted when he saw them pull up and came forward to greet them. Leitner followed behind more solemnly. Even Pete, who had never met either of these men before, could sense the tension that existed between them.
“Welcome, welcome,” Stanford said as he approached them. “Professor Stacey Stanford,” he introduced himself as he took Pete’s hand in his own. “You must be Mr. Hannigen.”
“Pete,” Pete said. “So you’re the professor Petra will be traveling with?” Leitner could sense the suspicion in Pete’s voice even if Stanford could not.
“Mr. Hannigen,” Leitner interjected as he put his arm around Pete’s shoulders and steered him away from Petra and Stanford. “Randolph Leitner. Dean of the College of Social Sciences at FIUE. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He shook Pete’s hand gruffly, in a manner that suggested he was not there to waste time. “I assure you, Professor Stanford is one of our most distinguished professors. The grant he has been awarded is the best thing that has happened to our college since we were founded. Petra has been given a great opportunity. She is going to be making history with the research she helps to conduct for us. You must be very proud of her.”
“I am,” Pete said. “But not because she was accepted for this assistantship.” Pete glanced back at where his daughter and Stanford were getting her bags from the car and handing them off to a work crew to load onto the spacecraft. “Will she be safe?” Pete asked Leitner. “I mean, as safe as possible given the circumstances.”
“We wouldn’t be sending her up there if she wouldn’t be,” Leitner informed him.
Though it wasn’t entirely reassuring, Pete knew it was the best he was going to get. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t give him more to rely on. Space was still full of uncertainties. Though it had become safer, it would be years, if ever, before Pete would actually believe it was safe. He walked back over to where Petra was waiting to say her good-byes.
“Be careful,” Pete whispered to his daughter as he hugged her good-bye.
“I will, Dad. I promise,” Petra assured him. “Don’t worry. I’ll be home in time for Christmas.”
Pete kissed his daughter on the forehead and stepped back from her, giving her permission to go off on this adventure that neither of them had ever imagined she would be taking.
Petra waved to her dad one final time before she stepped onto the craft with Stanford.
“Have you ever been to a launch site before?” Stanford asked her.
“Yes,” Petra said. “But that was a long time ago.”
“Well I’m sure many things have changed since then,” Stanford informed her. “We’ve found more efficient ways to get through the atmosphere and out of orbit. Much easier for traveling and it wastes less fuel at the outset. This craft is called a deep space glider,” he said as he waved his arm to take in the craft around them. “It’s a newer model, very dependable. It won’t be a very long trip, only three jumps. Maybe six days max. The mechanics of it all are very interesting. Perhaps once we are in flight I’ll explain it to you.”
“Don’t let him explain anything,” came a voice from just inside the cockpit. The head of a man in his mid-thirties popped out through the doorway. “Just because words are coming out of his mouth doesn’t mean Stanford knows what he’s talking about.” The man was light-skinned and blonde, with green eyes that shone brightly even in the pale morning light around them.
Petra heard Stanford scowl under his breath at the insult, though it was evident the two men were familiar with each other and nothing in the quip had been malicious.
“This is Jon Richards, the pilot,” Stanford said by way of introduction
“I prefer flight engineer,” Jon corrected him. “Pilot makes it sound like I just steer the thing, and it’s a bit more complicated than that.” He extended his hand to Petra. “You must be Petra. Pleasure. This is my flight partner Mina Kalowski.”
“Hi there!” Mina said, appearing in the doorway behind Jon. Mina had dark hair and East Asian features, though her name and her light eyes suggested she had some European blood in her as well.
“We’ll be piloting you and Stanford to your research location, so I’m sure we’ll get the chance to chat a bit later. Right now you should probably go get settled into your cabin. Make sure all your stuff made it on board and get it stored. We’ll be giving you instructions for the launch within the next half hour, so stay tuned.” And then Jon and Mina disappeared into the cockpit, closing the door behind them.
“Well now that the introductions are out of the way, let me show you where your cabin is,” Stanford said. He moved swiftly through the hallways of the spacecraft, as if he knew this ship like his own home. Petra couldn’t help but wonder if he actually knew where he was going or was just pretending with his confident stride and chin held high. To her, everything on board looked the same. She had a feeling she was going to get herself lost more than once before their trip was over.
“Here we are,” he said after a few moments. They had stopped in front of a door with Petra’s name attached to it on a plastic label. “Go ahead and get situated,” Stanford told her. “We can catch up later, after we’ve made it out of orbit.”
Petra tentatively walked inside and closed the door behind her. She sat down on the cot in the cabin and took a moment to collect herself. This was really happening. In just under thirty minutes, she was going to be going up into space on an interstellar flight. It was something she had never imagined herself doing. In fact, it was something she had always imagined herself actively avoiding. She could feel a panic rising in her as she realized the truth of her situation and recognized that she had come too far now to back out. She looked around the small room that had been assigned to her and located her suitcases. She started going through her bags until she found her journal and exceptionally rare and expensive felt tip pen. They had been a gift from her father last year for Christmas just after they’d discovered she’d been accepted to FIUE’s anthropology program. He knew it was customary for anthropologists to prefer recording notes by hand, and she had an affinity for older things. She was glad she had thought to bring them with her. At least she would have something to remind her of home while she was so far away.
Long before she was ready for it, the intercom dinged, and Jon’s voice came over the speaker into her room. “Stanford and Petra, we need to you make your way up to passenger seating for takeoff. And Stanford, don’t bring your breakfast with you this time or else I’m making you clean it up.”
Petra put her journal and ink pen back into her bag, hastily stored her belongings, and slowly walked back through the halls of the spacecraft, trying to remember which way they had come from. Luckily, she ran into Stanford along the way.
“Follow me!” he said, a noticeable spring in his step. Apparently he was excited to be leaving Earth behind for this semester-long investigation.
Once they had reached Jon, he showed Petra how to strap herself in for their flight out of orbit. “We’ll deal with preparing for hyperspace once we get there,” he said. He handed her a small bag with a plastic lining. “Just in case,” he said, gesturing to his stomach. Though travel out of the atmosphere had become smoother in the last fifty years, there were still some who got sick on their way up. Though it had been years since Petra had last been to the Moon Colony, leaving the atmosphere wasn’t what she was worried about. It was the hyperspace jump that she really thought was going to make her sick.
After both she and Stanford were strapped in, Jon returned to the cockpit with Mina. Petra could hear snippets of their conversation with the NASA control room personnel as they prepared for takeoff. As the countdown began, Petra closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing deeply. She felt the tremor of the ship as they rose off the surface of the Earth and made their way into space.