Destination Empire: EXODUS!

Empires rise and fall in space as on Earth.
Long before the first stellar empire, there was only the Homeworld.
The Earth: a pale blue dot in an as-yet unexplored galaxy.
But that was soon to change…

(Scroll down to read the first chapter.)

Arista Noam seeks to develop faster-than-light travel to open the galaxy to human colonization. She is the best hope for success.

Funding, politics, and conflicting theories stand in her way as the first test run is initiated.

Conspiracies deepen, hidden enemies turn to violence and the fate of humanity rests in her hands.

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Overview of the entire series here

Chapter One: EARTH

ARISTA NOAM stared through the window as the sealed bus trundled its way across the rugged Nevada desert headed for Area 51 from Las Vegas’ secure arrivals area.
          She didn’t expect to see the Space Colonization Project’s orbital space station above her, vast though it was. Still, she longed for her first sight of the great gleaming habitat rings where plans for the future were executed. Most important to her was the comparatively tiny cargo she knew nestled against its bulk.
          The dozen other passengers chatted together or dozed. They were repeat ascenders, colleagues, or friends. Arista was a newbie, a stranger, alone. They ignored her; she ignored them.
          The bus 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 the military base—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. Thirty-two, two PhDs and a Nobel Prize, and now an astronaut!
          The reflection in the glass revealed the blond military cut she had chosen for the mission. Practical. Sensible. Especially in microgravity. And it wasn’t like she’d be looking for romantic distractions. Such frivolities lay a few years back in time, in her college days, before she fell in love with the imaginings of a genius from way back in 1994: Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre.
          His concept of bending reality around a spacecraft, warping space and time into a bubble that could permit faster-than-light travel entranced her. She discarded relationships and all social activity and launched a new direction for warp research. She’d fought the obstacles and objections thrown up by colleagues and critics.
          Dr. Arista Noam. Practical. Sensible.
          But no one else on the bus had adopted that extreme hairstyle. She bent her head low and wished she’d brought a cap.
          Stepping off the bus at the destination, Arista gazed around at the empty lands surrounding the buildings, stretching away to the distant rocky 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 quarantine and medical center building.
          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, she gave blood samples and exchanged her clothing for a sterile set of gray pants and zipper jacket bearing SciTech’s red armband. She settled down for the required ten days’ pre-launch isolation. She accepted it. Nothing was left to chance these days, not while pandemics and virus-based 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 Dr. Kaida Sato, the Asia-Pacific’s female team member.
          But confidence doesn’t initiate faster-than-light travel. Will my confidence carry through to reality? Lord, I hope so.
          After another medical check and blood test, 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. The adjacent seat was empty. She knew why.
          Once all passengers were seated, the pilot treated them to a long set of safety instructions. Arista knew they were pointless. If the shuttle failed, it would crash into the desert or burn up in the atmosphere if it were high enough. 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 took the empty seat next to her.
         It wore the standard gray outfit but lacked any color-coded armband. 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 hairless head with its fake-tan coating and gender-neutral face looked almost-but-not-quite human. She knew the technology had long existed to provide a more convincing appearance, voice, and movements. But it was not installed to avoid the human discomfort of not being able to distinguish humans from machines.
          Discomforting? More like creepy.
          It spoke. The voice could only be described as robotic. “Greetings, Doctor 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, Doctor Noam. All new station arrivals are assigned a Companion on arrival, but the nausea you experience in weightlessness and your rejection of a brain implant add to concerns 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 distant, vicious pandemic. Her parents would have been so proud of her academic success and this mission had they survived.
          “Doctor 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 into the endless emptiness of space.

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