Chapter 1

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The Earth hung silently in the stillness of space. Many a poet had described its beauty as it sat there in all its calmness, a blue orb surrounded by the cold expanse. George Archer did not share their view. For all its outer serenity, the Earth was a crowded, chaotic place. He found much more beauty in the stars. They were always in the same place, forever static even as the planets turned and the people moved and the clouds glided and blossomed above the bright blue.

Looking away from the suspended sphere, George studied the vast metal column that floated nearby. It gleamed in the sun, rotating slowly. Shuttles and transport drones hovered and whizzed around it, docking and releasing from ports across the titanic structure.

His own shuttle approached the column. It was a utilitarian little spaceplane, with scarcely enough room for five people. He sat alone. The floor was bare, a simple metal plate, but the rest of the cabin was clear quartz glass, giving him a full view around the craft. This feature was unfortunately wasted on him at the moment, as most of the provided view was taken up by the hulk of ugly metal ahead.

The spacecraft looked rather like an hourglass, widening at the extremities. The two larger ends were vaguely cone-shaped, flaring out like bells. They were each capped by five massive engine nozzles, each one a black hole set in the flat base of the bell. The structures appeared to serve as twin propulsive blocks, pointed in opposite directions. One of the two was painted a brilliant blue, while the other was maroon, almost red. Between the engine blocks was a basic column, its surface riddled with antennae and radiators. It was much smaller than the engine blocks and shone bright silver. If memory served, this was the habitation module, the area where the cargo and passengers were to be held. A vividly blue triangle, with a red streak running boldly through the middle, was etched on one side. George guessed the whole ship was approximately five kilometers in length.

It was the EXN-150 003 Facem, a newly constructed spacecraft designed to travel between the stars. More primitive versions of the vehicle had already taken small crews to Alpha Centauri and back, but this one, twice as large as any other spacecraft, was made to finally spread humanity's reach beyond the light of the sun. It was a city-builder, with the capacity to carry two-thousand people to some distant, life-bearing world.

The shuttle continued to float toward one of the many docking ports situated along the outer surface of the habitation module. Periodically, a burst of pale gas flashed at the nose of the shuttle, bringing it to a gradual halt. After an excruciatingly slow final approach, a click and hiss resounded from the front of the vessel. He was docked.

George unstrapped from his seat near the back of the shuttle and pushed off with his arms, soaring with ease through the nil-gravity cabin. He quickly reached the nose of the spacecraft, where he expertly climbed through the airlock and into the transfer chamber. Once through, the airlock swerved back into a closed position, hissing as airflow was cut off.

George waited a moment inside the pristine transfer chamber as the pressure equalized with barely an audible whisper. It still smelled of plastic and paint, a perfect cube of white without dirt or smear. Clean and new.

The whisper of air tapered off after a few minutes and the door to the rest of the starship slid open. Outside, there was more blank plastic, stretching on in a slightly curving corridor. Rungs of silver metal jutted at regular intervals out of the corridor, with an occasional dark patch of Velcro interrupting the pure white.

Using the rungs, George pulled himself into the passage, soaring through with a grace that spoke of experience. The corridor curved down, following the arc of the cylinder, so George occasionally pushed off the "ceiling" to match the curvature.

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