EXODUS!

Empires rise and fall, in space as on Earth…
Legends of the Imperium series #1
Destination Empire: EXODUS

Humanity seeks to develop faster-than-light travel to establish colonies across the galaxy.

Dr. Arista Noam is the best hope for success, but rivalries, politics, and funding hinder her team’s work until a series of events triggers a new urgency.

Colonization turns to exodus as humanity seeks to avoid disaster.

CHAPTER ONE: EARTH

ARISTA NOAM stared through the window as the sealed bus trundled its way across the rugged Nevada desert from the Las Vegas secure arrivals area and headed for Area 51.

She didn’t expect to see the Space Colonization Project’s orbital station above her, vast though it was. Still, she longed for her first sight of its great gleaming habitat rings and the comparatively tiny cargo she knew nestled against its bulk.

Her reflection in the glass revealed the military cut she’d chosen for the mission. Practical. Sensible.

The dozen other passengers chatted together or dozed. They were frequent ascenders, colleagues, friends… Arista was alone, a stranger, a newbie. They ignored her; she ignored them.

They paused at a series of security gates. Passenger certification transferred electronically and tough-looking guards waved them through. Finally, the bus pulled in at the Ascent Isolation Unit deep inside Area 51—the most secure installation on the continent and space shuttle launch site for cargo and astronauts.

Suspended realization hit her. Yes, I’m an astronaut, or soon will be. She hadn’t thought of herself that way until now.

Hopping off the bus, Arista gazed around at the empty lands surrounding the buildings, stretching away to the distant hills. Soon, her feet would never again touch the natural surface of the planet Earth.

Guards took a roll call then led the party out of the blazing summer heat into the medical center level.

Although every passenger had undergone extensive psychological, physical, and medical testing before being assigned a ticket to space, the whole procedure was to be repeated. Only the fittest could ascend.

Her few possessions were taken and examined, machines scanned her for anything hidden internally, blood samples were taken, and her clothing was exchanged for a sterile set of gray pants and zipper jacket bearing SciTech’s red armband. She settled down for the ten days’ isolation required before being allowed onto the shuttle. She accepted it. Nothing could be left to chance these days, not while pandemics and terrorism raged across the planet.

Arista spent the time working on her project, checking and re-checking the details, and communicating with the team members already on the station. She was confident the fusion engine devised by the team’s engineers would provide enough power, despite objections from Kaida Sato, another team member.

But confidence did not initiate faster-than-light travel.

Another medical check and blood test, then the travelers mounted a bus headed for the runway where a shuttle craft gleamed in the harsh sunlight, its nose pointed at the hills, its stubby wings jutting out at its sides. Ahead lay the long runway it would hurtle along to gain enough speed to rise into the heavens.

The interior looked like any aircraft cabin: neutral gray surfaces with twenty plush seats. Arista found her allocated place and strapped in.

Once all were seated, the passengers were treated to a long set of safety instructions, which Arista knew were pointless. If the shuttle failed it would crash into the desert or burn up in the atmosphere if it were that high. As a physicist, she had every confidence in the craft’s reliability. But she had no choice. It was the only way to reach the station—and she had to get there.

As she fiddled with the viewscreen controls on the seat-back in front of her, a figure approached and sat in the empty seat beside her.

She sighed. It was her assigned Companion.

A mechanical.

Anger rose; she didn’t need a chaperon, much less one made of wires and polymetal.

They always stared despite the auto eye-blink. The gender-neutral body and face looked almost-but-not-quite human. The technology had long existed to provide a more convincing appearance and movements but was not installed to avoid the discomforting experience known as “Uncanny Valley,” whereby Companions appeared to be almost-but-not-totally human.

Discomforting? More like creepy.

“Greetings, Dr. Noam. I am—”

“I know what you are. I’ve already named you Kibitzer, as you’ll be spying on me the whole time.”

“My mission is to ensure your safety, Dr. Noam. All new station arrivals are assigned a Companion. Your rejection of a brain implant adds to the concern over your safety.”

She closed her eyes and winced at a sudden memory of her mother, dying confused in morphine-suppressed agony after her implant surgery went wrong. Arista’s virologist father was not at her bedside. He was long gone, dying trying to save the lives of others in a vicious pandemic. Her parents would have been so proud of her academic success and this mission if they had survived.

“Dr. Noam, I—”

“Shut the hell up!”

Kibitzer fell to silence.

With a slight shudder, the shuttle began its long race along the tarmac toward the hills in the hope of rising above them.