History began on a small grey ship, alone in the dark corridors of space. It intersected Jupiter’s transit as it hurled itself through the void of Earth’s solar system. Jets of green flame fueled by ultra-efficient propellants followed in its wake. The rumble of its engines reverberated throughout the interior. The salmon and red-stained gas giant dominated the view from the ship’s reinforced bridge window. The communications officer, Jasper Ogland, stared at its cloud bands, wisps of gas that once enthralled ancient astronomers. He blinked and then returned his attention to the datapad next to his console. “Thou from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like sat brooding on the vast Abyss / And made it pregnant,” he murmured to himself, tapping the screen to highlight the passage.
“What are you doing?” A woman’s gentle voice interrupted his reading. He looked up. The navigation officer leaned back in her chair and cocked her head at him. Vera brushed her sandy-colored hair back from her light chocolate eyes. The lack of lines on her face hinted at her young age. Her uniform was unbuttoned at the top.
“Reading Paradise Lost, by John Milton,” Jasper replied.
“Oh, that book about angels and demons? About being kicked out of Heaven? Doesn’t seem appropriate right now, does it?” She clucked her tongue, tapping some keys on her console.
Jasper sniffed. “Just something to pass the time. I don’t think there’s much a comms officer can do right now while we wait for HQ.” He did wonder what his main role would be once they started their mission proper. Hopefully, it wouldn’t involve long hours twiddling his thumbs next to a microphone. Maybe Vera would be free too, and they could come up with something. Both were also single, and their mission would require formation of new families…
“The captain will kill you if you screw this one up. Best to pay at least some attention.” Vera tapped another key on her console. They were waiting for a final transmission from Mission Control, before distance made normal communications impossible. His job was to decrypt and broadcast it properly throughout the ship. “Paradise Lost, huh? And here I thought we were trying to create paradise.” She gave him a half-smile.
His expression stayed neutral. “I don’t read it for its ideas on colonization or space travel. Its scope is a bit wider than that. What does interest me is the role of destiny. You familiar with the story?”
Vera nodded. “Read it for a classics course a long while ago. Satan rebels against God, loses, and then turns all us humans into pricks as revenge.”
Jasper chuckled. “Kind of true. But there’s more than that. Satan was actually the victim here. He was fated to rebel against God. He was fated to lose. And he was fated to contribute to humanity’s fall. Don’t forget that we lowly humans had a bit of responsibility too.” He turned off his datapad and stretched his arms. The transmission from Earth would not come for a few more minutes as it streamed on physics-constrained electrons across the vast chasm of space.
“Slapped around and then get a bunch of bad press by forces outside of your control. What a bad deal.” Vera sighed. “Well, at least we can still do things through our own power in this day and age. Can’t blame God for everything bad that happens anymore.”
“Oh really? You sure about that?” Jasper asked.
She waved her hand. “Don’t go snotty philosopher on me. You know what I mean.” She coughed.
They continued working, with the silence punctuated by the trills and beeps of the bridge computers. Vera spoke again.
“Speaking of God and angels, I have a somewhat weird question.” The tone in her voice suggested that she was not joking. Jasper stopped fiddling with the volume control and directed his full attention to her. Her eyes looked past him, as if into some place other than reality. “We’re going to head down there, down to the grid. Some place that we don’t truly understand. Do you think there’s something like them out there, gods and angels?”
Jasper shrugged. “Who knows, all the test runs we’ve done so far showed nothing but energy fluctuations. It’s like an infinite red ocean in there. Would it be possible for anything to live in that muck?”
She clucked her tongue again. “I know what it looks like in there. I’m the navigations expert, but that just means I can only grasp one piece of the puzzle.” She stopped to consider his words. “Maybe you’re right, it’s a perpetual storm in there. It’s hard to imagine any species evolving from such an environment.” Vera stared off into a distant point outside the window. “It’s just, that, I wish we weren’t so alone. It’d be nice to have someone else out there, someone to share this universe with.” She thought a moment and then shrugged too. “Sorry, that was a little weird of me. To be serious, I don’t think anything lives out there.” She gave him a glance and smiled.
Jasper felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise up. He flexed his toes to disperse the tension. He reached his hand towards hers and lightly touched her skin. Her eyes met his. He smiled back, eager to hold onto that intoxicating feeling. “Vera,” he said. “Your ideas aren’t weird at all. I think they’re fascinating. Perhaps we could talk more over coffee in the cantina…”
“Quiet on the bridge.” Both turned around and saw the grim visage of Captain Gilson frowning at them.
“Sorry, sir.” Jasper responded as he took his hands off hers. He heard whispers from the other bridge crew members.
The captain glanced at the time on his datapad. “Transmission should be here by now. Officer Ogland, please turn on the appropriate channel.” The wide brim of his slightly oversized captain’s hat partially obstructed his eyes, giving him a cartoonish image. Jasper didn’t mind. The military would probably frown on Gilson’s dress, but being on a civilian ship allowed the crew some eccentricities.
Jasper looked at his monitor and saw the indicator flashing for an incoming transmission. Speak of the devil, he thought, forgetting his conversation with Vera. He did not notice the irony. Jasper typed a command into his console. In an instant, the ship’s speakers started broadcasting a pleasant female voice. “-historic day as the Argos undertakes humanity’s first interstellar colonization mission. Holding thousands of would-be colonists and using the newest design of the gridspace drive, it will go faster than light to a distant star and open the newest chapter in humanity’s stellar expansion. We go now to a press conference held by representatives from Musk Dynamics and the Archimedes Initiative, the backers of this mission…” The transmission cut short. He attempted to get it back, but it was gone.
“If we can travel light-years in days, why can’t we make something that allows us to talk to each other beyond pissing distance?” grumbled Captain Gilson. He nodded to Jasper. “Got our orders?”
“Yes sir. Came in with the news broadcast. Command says we are good to go. And godspeed.”
“Well, I was hoping to get a little bit more than that, but I’d say it’s time to begin. Everyone, strap yourselves in!” They complied. He wrapped his own straps around his shoulder. “Are you ready, Officer Nanten?”
“Aye aye, captain,” Vera replied.
Jasper thought of the ten thousand people stored below them in cold stasis. Theoretically, they could reach their destination in moments, but travel through the grid was not the same as in realspace. People far smarter than him predicted that the journey would take years based on current data. Still, they would be the first to step into a new star system and begin the first step towards taking their place in the universe. He marveled at being a part of such a significant moment in history. A much better decision than going into deep space finance like his father wanted him to do. Who wouldn’t want to go to the same stars that their ancestors had gazed upon from the shelter of caves?
“Grid drive fully operational. All readings are within normal levels,” reported Vera.
“I see. Good. Commence jump sequence.” Captain Gilson took off his cap, scratching an itchy spot on his bald head.
Deep in the bowels of the ship, the drive emitted a low frequency hum. “Drive now spinning up. We should begin dematerialization in ten seconds.” Vera stared intently at her screen and began a countdown. “Five, four, three, two, one. Jump!”
A flash of light surrounded the bridge windows. Jasper briefly closed his eyes. He hated countdowns. They only existed to provide maximum anxiety. When he opened them again, he saw a storm of blood-red energies surrounding them. He was right; they were in an infinite red ocean. The energy ‘waves’, for lack of a better term, swirled around them and into the distance. He felt vibrations on the ship as the force from the waves buffeted it. The only thing preventing their complete annihilation was a small bubble around the ship generated by the grid drive.
Vera keyed in more commands into her console. The drive hummed in a greater frequency. A blue opening grew in front of them, slowly expanding in diameter and emitting some sort of blue gas. In time, the opening was large enough to engulf the ship and take up the entire view from the windows. The blue and red lights mixed together in the storm at its center. The entire bridge crew stared in silence, their faces bathed by the opening’s luminescence. It was the first time most of them traveled through the grid. And it would be the last. Unknown to them, two sets of metallic structures appeared at the edges of the hole in space and time. They began turning, one set at four separate points turning clockwise, and the other set between the other pieces going counterclockwise. Brief bursts of energy crackled at the edges. An object emerged undetected and it positioned itself to the rear of the Argos.
Inside, all was calm. “Status?” the captain asked, interrupting the crew’s moment of awe.
Vera looked back at her console. “Holding. Wake appears stable.”
“Good, take us through.”
She complied and Jasper felt the ship accelerate. He could not tell if they were moving forward, but he did feel the gravity change by a small amount. At least some laws of physics still applied in this realm.
“We’ve gone through the aperture. We’re on our way,” reported Vera.
The captain closed his eyes and breathed in the ship’s air into his nose. “Well, I’d say Phase 1 was a complete success. Congratulations everyone. I think we should-” The bridge’s alarm interrupted him. Red lights flashed and console screens flickered. The captain’s eyes bulged as he took in the new situation. “What’s going on?” he bellowed.
“Captain, I’m getting anomalous readings on sensors! Our power systems are disrupted!” yelled a member of the bridge crew. Jasper froze. His spine stiffened. Vera looked at him, her eyes wide with fear.
“Where?” asked the captain.
“I don’t know! It’s all around us!” Consoles continued turning on and off around them. The ship shuddered as the alarms increased in volume. The hum of the gridspace drive stopped. Then, just as suddenly, the bridge lights blinked out. The alarms stopped. All was silent. Only the red and blue glow from the outside grid provided any illumination.
Before the captain could say anything, an earsplitting wail echoed throughout the ship. It sounded alien, inhuman. Jasper pressed his hands over his ears, trying to drive out the noise. It eventually subsided, leaving everyone shaken. A loud bang echoed throughout the bridge. The ship shook, throwing some of the bridge crew to the floor. Jasper’s hear beat faster as a large shadow slowly emerged across the outside windows.
Something emerged in front of them. It looked like sphere made out of gas. Jasper could swear that there was some sort of structure inside, but he could not make out its shape. The sphere pulsated with some sort of inner light. Jasper gaped at its size. It appeared to be almost twice as large as the Argos. From somewhere within its structure, a beam of purple light swept forth across the entire width of the ship, like an alien searchlight. Jasper could swear he felt its heat as the light caressed him.
“Navigation, cancel the jump. Now!” The captain yelled.
Vera rapidly typed some commands into her console. She gave Gilson a frantic look. “Captain, I can’t! It’s not responding to my commands!” she cried out. The purple light continued its path.
The captain turned on his communicator. He inputted some numbers and held it to his ear. “Engineering! I need a sitrep. Engineering!” A pause. “Hello! Is anyone there?” He dropped his communicator in frustration. “What the hell’s going on?” he said to no one in particular. Before anyone could answer, a flash of white light engulfed them. Jasper lost consciousness.
He opened his eyes. Outside the window he saw the void dotted with stars. They were back outside gridspace. Gingerly, he looked around the bridge. All the crew sat straight in their chairs, staring forward, as if in a trance. He looked towards the captain and gasped. The man was smiling, as if he had watched the birth of his first grandson. Vera looked at him, a blank expression on her face. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Then, without warning, Jaspar found himself outside the ship. Realizing that he was in outer space, he tried to reach for the ship, but found that he had no hands. Panicking, he then tried to take a breath but found it impossible. He had no throat either. He had no body at all. He looked around.
He found himself in a binary star system, the twin stars’ gases dancing around their gravity well. His vision peeled backwards, as if he was moving away from the stars. A planet appeared in front of him. All he could see on it was the ice caps and gray, rough terrain; no trace of greenery or ocean was anywhere. A few great valleys and ridges dotted the landscape.
A point in empty space drew his gaze. The Argos slowly materialized. Heavily damaged, it spewed gases from numerous hull breaches. The ship headed towards the planet’s upper atmosphere. As it started accelerating, Jasper instinctively knew that they were using the planet’s gravity to slingshot to a point deeper into space, a point where the barrier between the grid and the real was weakest. Wait a minute, he thought. They? Who were they? The white light flashed again.
The space around him filled with unfamiliar spacecraft cruising by, their green fusion trails as bright as the suns. He felt an overwhelming desire to reach for the lead ship. Its destination was of extreme importance and of extreme danger, but he did not know how he knew. He felt his concentration focus upon it as it sped toward the binary stars. Jasper forced his eyes closed.
He found himself back on the ship, sitting at the same console he was at before. A silence surrounded him. No one said a word. He then heard whispers that he could not make out. Images spiked his vision. He saw giants made of light and ash. He saw a wave of blood-red fire expanding outwards. And finally, he saw a pair of hands reaching towards the night sky. As the visions ended, an indescribable ecstasy mixed with fathomless tranquility overwhelmed his mind. He could feel his memories fading, his sense of self dissolving. His panic rose. Vera’s hand grabbed his own. He looked in surprise at her serene, loving face, and the anxiety subsided. In the back of his mind, he felt something watch over them, some unseen observer. But he did not worry. He smiled in joy as his waking thoughts, his subconscious, and the depths of his being dissipated and became one with the greater presence around him.
When the process completed, there was no more Jasper Oglund. Only us.