The last page of the structural engineering report appeared on her display. “Thank God, Buddha, Jesus, assorted other deities, and the Devil,” Danya whispered as she closed it. The floating diagrams around her apartment workstation mercifully faded. The results had been solid, only minor wear and tear. The hull had held up, a miracle considering how many new materials were at play.
“When is enough enough?” a voice echoed through another one of her many displays. He was an older man in an impeccable three piece suit with silver hair. “First there were the colonies, then this? It’s like we don’t even care. It’s like we’ve given up. Most of our arable farmland is gone thanks to climate change. We have regular food shortages in the poorest countries so bad that only the most unnatural GMOs can keep us all from starving. We’ve overfished most of the ocean to near extinction. We’ve clearly thrown in the towel on our own planet. So we go to another one? Rinse and repeat?”
“Isn’t that the point?” A second voice said, a younger woman in a pantsuit almost as expensive. “We’re doing this because we’re not exactly brimming with choices here. This mission is the only way we survive long term, period. I can’t believe anyone could see what happened today and not be excited for the possibilities. We are no longer bound by this planet or our past. And you’d have us abandon this because of naturalist fallacy? Maybe instead of finding new worlds and moving forward we stay here and make this planet our tomb. Sometimes I think that’s what it would take to appease people like you.” Danya Fund watched them argue for awhile, a panel of so-called “experts” on a news talk show skewering each other with stock arguments. Either today was the most momentous event in human history, ushering us into a new post-human future, or it was some weird admission of failure. She sipped the Malbec in her hand, its hints of spice, berry, and acidity a welcome distraction.
“You don’t think this is a bit problematic, at all?” a third voice said. He was more disheveled, a little overweight. His voice had slouched way past calm and gone into full on enraged. “So it’s possible for us to travel to other star systems now. Fantastic. Excuse me if I’m not filled with childlike wonder thinking about what might be out there waiting. Or, even worse, what might’ve noticed us leaving our bubble here.” Another tired meme she’d heard a hundred times in the past few days. She switched the newscast off. She’d hoped it would be entertaining, a blend of hysteria and excitement. Instead, it was like watching children fight over a new toy. The ones that didn’t get to play with it only wanted to talk about how stupid the toy was and how they didn’t need it anyway.
A new message arrived in her personal account. “Congratulations, Danya,” she read out loud, grimacing at the identity of the sender. “I always knew you could pull it off.” The rest of it went on and on about how remarkable it all was and how he’d always had faith in her. How everyone must now see what he always saw. Apparently he’d seen even more in his lab assistant. “Fuck you, asshole,” she verbally responded, summoning some fantastic memories of leaving all of his belonging in the hallway outside of their apartment. She didn’t bother writing him back, deleting the message.
Danya took a bigger glug of her Malbec, swirling it her mouth. As much as she’d labored to build humanity’s first successful manned Faster-Than-Light mission, she couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the same anxieties as everyone else. She wanted to believe she’d been above it all, but watching the test flight had filled her with dread. It had been a success, the small manned crew leaving and returning in only a matter of days. Sure, it had followed a series unmanned drone test flights launched over previous years, but to the media and everyone else those had been curiosities more than real events. Sending people was different. No one knew the next move, though. More colonies in other systems were on the table, and like the colonies elsewhere in the solar system they would likely be a wonderland for corporate exploitation and starry-eyed fantasies. So many had expected this day would never arrive, so the powers that be weren’t exactly well-prepared.
Where are you? Another message trickled in from Paige, one of the chief financial analysts on the project. You aren’t still working, are you?
She opened yet another message from her work account, the medical team. The crew was boringly normal. No indication that the FTL drive had taken them to Hell and they’d come back possessed by a malevolent supernatural force. No evidence that they were filled with inter-dimensional parasites that would spawn eldritch horrors once they matured and burst forth from their hosts. No evidence they had a mysterious plague or microbe that would wipe out the human race. Not even space madness. Some morbid bastards she’d heard about who’d started an office pool would be very, very disappointed.
Danya, or “Dr. Fund” as the team called her, rose to her feet and moved around her apartment as she finished her Malbec. She’d left the displays broadcasting headlines from the feeds, the quiet breathlessness of them much more revealing than listening to people talk or watching the same video footage of the crew returning she’d seen a dozen times. The headlines were entertaining enough. Source: Vanguard Astronauts Report Anomalies While in Faster Than Light Travel. Of course they did, considering no human had ever witnessed FTL travel. Reports that Vanguard Astronauts in Critical Condition. There was a difference between a precautionary quarantine and critical condition, not that the news media would care. Vanguard Astronauts Flee Hostile Anomalies, Barely Survive another one alerted. Previous FTL Drones Missing, Government Cover-up Suspected. Some of them were missing because their drives had failed to activate on the return trip, and it hadn’t exactly been covered up. Then there were the corporate press releases. First human colonies on nearby Earth-like world expected within ten years, says IEI CEO. ADS Unveils New Line of FTL Starships Ready in Six Months. One day she’d need to get one of her old artist friends to make some sort of collage out of this madness.
Her body was sore from the first intense and solid workout she’d had in weeks. They’d crashed hard on finishing the Vanguard XX and checking everything before launch. She was finally able to come up for air and restart her routine. She started to put on her dress. Judging by more messages, most of her coworkers were way ahead of her on drinks. She had a lot of catching up to do.
The last report she’d been waiting for arrived. She opened it. Danya, as the Deputy Program Manager in charge of Quality Assurance and Program Controls, basically had to read and summarize everything from all of the other engineers into words that politicals, public affairs flacks, and budget wizards could understand. She liked to joke that she was a translator more than a PM. In the coming days, all those people would be voracious consumers of whatever information she could give them. It was a hell of a position for someone who was only 34. Everyone would want to pick apart Vanguard to understand if this was what it appeared to be: real.
Sure she had her PhD in astroengineering, the sexy replacement for what had been aerospace engineering, but that didn’t mean even she understood everything on Vanguard. As much as being a Deputy PM on the Vanguard FTL program was her passion, the oversight role took her out of doing real engineering. She was starting to feel like she was losing her knowledge of what that even looked like. It didn’t help that they were working on the bleeding edge of technology with just about every work package.
The data from the propulsion team showed way below expectations. The stability of the engines had barely held together. The FTL drive had nearly burnt out in overload twice during the return trip. That would’ve been lovely, stranding a historic manned spaceflight with no way to return. They’d had similar problems with the earlier drones, but it was supposed to have been corrected. The Product Manager had an elegant list of excuses. “Shit,” Danya said, setting the wine down. She was in front of her bedroom mirror. Her slight frame reflected back to her, reminding her how little she’d eaten in the past few months. Danya had always been thin, but she was getting near-skeletal. Her fridge was a graveyard of heavily fortified yogurt and spicy kelp. Her pantry only had a nearly spent bulk bag of oatmeal. That was all she’d subsisted on for months. That and Malbec.
“Danya?” Paige said. Danya looked up, seeing a projection of Paige’s face. Danya silently cursed the day she’d given Danya rights to open video chat without permission when she was online. “You’re working aren’t you? You’re still reading reports? You really can’t help yourself, can you? You have a disease. Maybe more than one. You’re addicted to data and allergic to enjoying yourself.” There was a lot of noise in the background, things at the bar starting to get out of control.
“Tough talk coming from a spreadsheet engineer. Listen, I’m almost done,” Danya said. “Really. It’s not my fault the propulsion team waited until the last minute to get this to me.”
“Danya,” Paige said. “You’re missing the finest the Huntsville bar scene can possibly provide here. No one is going to notice if that waits until tomorrow morning. You can read reports when you’re hungover in your office with the blinds closed. There will be plenty of time to dissect every scrap of this thing. It’s months until our next launch. That’s if the higher-ups don’t delay it, which we all know we will. The Government is a substantial player in this, after all. You need to get here. General Diamond is having a pretty intense drinking contest with Mary Fillmore, that VP from ADS. I’m giving the edge to Mary right now. She’s drinking the old man under the table. You have to see it.”
“That would be worth seeing,” Danya admitted. Rubbing her eyes, she checked the time on her portable interface. More than work or play, she needed to go to sleep. That was defeatist thinking, though. “All right, I’m leaving.”
“Now?” Paige asked.
“Now,” Danya affirmed. “You can see me. You can see that I’m dressed. I just have to walk out.”
“Easier said than done for you. I’m sending a search party if you don’t show in like ten minutes,” Paige said.
“I’ll be there,” Danya said to her friend’s image. “You have my word, whatever that’s worth.”
“Danya?” Paige asked.
“Yeah?” Danya said.
“We broke the light barrier, bitch,” Paige said.
“Hell yeah we did,” Danya laughed in response. She closed the chat with Paige, then headed straight for the door of her Huntsville two-bedroom. Before she knew it, she was out of the apartment and in the elevator. She stopped thinking about propulsion, and starting thinking about how many bottles of wine she would kill tonight.
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgment: R. O’Connell (University of Virginia) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee with Photo Manipulation by J. Hamlet