Rolf looked around the shuttle's cockpit with a large smile, unable to contain his excitement. He was seated at a station at the rear portion of the cockpit, just to the right of one of the mission scientists, Thad Benir, and immediately behind Nimi Cedmen, the ship's operations officer. Left of Cedmen, in front of Benir, sat Kendel, Rolf's mother and the second resident scientist in the cockpit.
For the time being, of the four of them, only Cedmen had any real significant duty to perform. Rolf's mother and Benir would go to work as soon as the ship launched, when it would be time for them to monitor the ship's lightspeed drive, and as for Rolf himself, all he was supposed to do was observe, so that he could report later to the children of Algo what it was like to sit in the cockpit of the first space ship to leave the system. Hey, Rolf told himself, being the son of Algo's premiere trans-light theorist and the best space ship pilot on Mota does have its privileges.
The only real work was presently being done by the two crewmen who sat in the first row of the cockpit's control stations, in front of Rolf's mother and Cedmen. As Rolf, Kendel, and Benir glanced out their viewports at the snow and ice of Dezo, Jerr Wellun, the shuttle's co-pilot and navigator, consulted with Captain Grent Hansen, Rolf's father, the above-mentioned best space ship pilot on Mota, and the man in charge on this mission. Captain Hansen and Wellun muttered things to each other like, "Transient booster protocol on-line?" and "Check, roger that," and "Hatch down that cevek interlock, will you?" Rolf didn't understand practically a word they said, but he watched his father in awe all the same. Maybe someday I'll pilot a space ship, he thought. Just like my dad.
At that moment, Grent turned around and glanced at the rest of his cockpit crew. Noticing Rolf's gaze, he fixed his son with a smile, which Rolf returned. "You all strapped in there, Rolf?"
"Aye aye, Dad," Rolf answered. "I'm ready for take-off."
Grent chuckled, then brought his hand to his forehead and saluted his son. "Yes, sir," he laughed. "Say, can you see Shir or Mister or Misses Gold over in the grandstands?"
"Nahh," Rolf called back, though he looked out his viewport at the distant spectator area anyway. "Too far away. Shir said her folks bought front row seats, though."
Beside him, Benir whistled appreciatively. "Your girlfriend must have some meseta."
"She's not my girlfriend," Rolf quickly clarified. "We're just friends."
"You're right, though, Thad," Kendel said, turning (as much as she could when strapped into her seat) towards her assistant. "Her family is loaded. You should see their house sometime."
"Space Command to shuttle Outworlder," the ship's comm system crackled. "Come in, Outworlder."
"Outworlder here, Space Command," Wellun answered for Captain Hansen.
"We just received word from Governor Lyten," the representative from Space Command started. "He and the first lady wish you all good luck and report that all the newsbeam monitors in the Governor's Mansion in Camineet are tuned in to your launch."
"Aye to that, Space Command," Grent called back. "We're ready for launch. Do we have final clearance?"
"Shuttle Outworlder on Algolian Space Command Flight 1000," came the reply, "you're all clear to make some history. And best of luck to you."
Grent said, "Thank you," cut the comm channel, and turned to his operations officer. "Is the rest of the crew ready?"
Cedmen consulted one of her screens and nodded. "All eight crew members in the rear report all clear."
"And the light drive, sweetheart?" Grent asked his wife.
"It will be on-line once we clear the atmosphere," Kendel answered.
"Well," Grent said, releasing a deep breath. "How about you, Rolf? Ready to see what's outside of Algo?"
"I'm ready, Dad," Rolf nodded, and it was true. His heart was beating so fast he thought it might burst out of his chest, but he was ready.
A low whine started to sound throughout the ship. Rolf had been aboard enough inter-system flights to know that sound meant the shuttle's engines were charging for blast-off. Soon, he also started to feel the subtle shake in the floorboards. All these sensations, while familiar, were also now suddenly new. He'd been on Dezo before, as he sometimes went on flights with his father, but this time, he was on Dezo because it was the planet farthest from the Algo sun, and this time, rather than shoot away from the planet and head deeper into the system, the Outworlder was going to break away from Dezo's permafrost, put the sun to their backs, and blast off for deep space.
"Engines prepped," Grent called to the others in the cockpit. "Launchers charged. Crew reports ready. And... ignition!"
The g-forces slammed Rolf back into his seat as the shuttle, hovering just above ground on repulsorlifts, shot like a blast from a Sonic Gun across the spaceport. With a line of orange ignited plasma streaking behind them from the launchers, the Outworlder pointed its nose towards the sky and slowly started to climb. Rolf looked out his viewport and saw the ground getting farther away, while the clouds got closer and closer.
Wellun called out their altitude every few seconds as they continued to climb, just as Cedmen called out engine readings. "All systems within optimal parameters," she reported, and Rolf always remembered hearing her say that line, because it was the last thing he heard before everything went so horribly wrong.
"My god," Rolf heard his mother exclaim. He looked towards her and saw she was looking out her viewport. Around this same time, Rolf also clearly heard Benir, who was also looking out his own viewport, emit a sharp gasp.
"Kendel?" Grent called back to her, his eyes remaining on his console. "Kendel, wha--"
"My god, Grent," Kendel Hansen continued. "Grent, there's another ship out there!"
"Impossible," Wellun responded quickly. "The airspace was cleared--"
"She's right, sir!" Cedmen called out from operations. "It's a civilian passenger shuttle on a trajectory bringing it into the atmosphere!"
"What the hell is it doing in this airspace?" Rolf heard his father shout angrily. "Somebody answ--"
"Grent?" Kendel called after her husband stopped talking. "Grent, what's--"
"I've lost manual control," Captain Grent Hansen said in quiet disbelief before flipping on the shuttle's comm system. "Space Command, this is Outworlder. Have you usurped control of the shuttle?"
"Negative, Outworlder. We read you--"
"Captain!" Wellun shouted in alarm. "Captain, our course is changing! We're banking hard to port!"
"No no no!" Grent called as his hands pounded at his console in a futile attempt to steer the ship away. "Dammit, no no no!"
"We're getting closer to that ship!" Benir cried. "They're heading straight for us!"
"Who took control?" Cedmen shouted. "If Space Command doesn't have control and neither do we, then who in the hell is controlling this ship?"
"Move, damn you!" Rolf's father shouted. Now he was attacking his control console with his fists. "Move!"
"Dad?" Rolf said quietly. "Mom?"
Rolf looked to his mother. She turned from her viewport to face him, and as she did so, for a moment, she no longer obstructed Rolf's view of what was outside her viewport. He instantly saw what had alarmed her -- what had alarmed all of them. Through his mother's viewport, Rolf saw not sky but another ship, a passenger shuttle, the kind he usually flew on with his dad on routine flights from Mota to Dezo, or from Dezo to Palm.
Except this shuttle was close to the Outworlder. Extremely close. Dangerously close.
His mother, wide-eyed with fear, stared at him. He returned her look in time to see her eyes well up with tears. He heard his father curse again, heard Benir scream, and saw his mother mouth his name. "Rolf."
And then the world went... blue.
A blue haze suddenly enveloped Rolf's vision, just as his ears picked up a THUD and then horrible, screeching, metal-on-metal sounds. The Outworlder's cockpit's viewports suddenly shattered, bathing its occupants with shards of transparisteel. Rolf grunted in alarm and shielded his head as best he could, but just when he thought the metal fragments would tear into his flesh, he felt... nothing.
Opening his eyes, Rolf (briefly) saw the others in the cockpit had not been so fortunate. Cedmen was bleeding profusely, and Benir appeared to already be dead. Rolf turned his gaze towards his mother--
And then quickly averted it back towards his viewport, slamming his eyes tightly shut after catching only a glimpse of the transparisteel shards that had been his window, and the sky beyo--
Just as quickly as he had shut them a split-second before, Rolf now again opened his eyes. He could see the sky, and more importantly, he could hear the massive wind that whipped through the shattered viewport. But, amazingly enough, he couldn't feel the wind. At all. Though Rolf's memory later became a blur from the moment his mother mouthed his name to the moment the rescue crews found him on the ground below, Rolf never, ever forgot that though he could hear the wind tearing through the cockpit through the smashed viewports and though he could see it (though that blue haze...) making a mess of everyone else's hair, he never felt it himself.
It had now been only two or three seconds since the Outworlder had collided with the passenger shuttle and the viewports had smashed. Now, the reactions set off by the initial collision came to their only possible conclusion, and the Outworlder exploded.
All Rolf saw through the blue haze was a fireball that tore through the cockpit. Again, he closed his eyes and shielded himself, but also again, he felt nothing, not even the smallest bit of heat. Opening his eyes, he saw the fire envelop him but somehow, it did not touch him. Rolf suddenly realized that the blue haze he'd been seeing was actually some sort of blue bubble surrounding him and him alone, and that bubble was now -- somehow -- keeping the fire away from him.
An instant later, the fire was gone, and Rolf found himself no longer in the Outworlder's cockpit but in the air, in free fall, and still strapped into his chair. Debris from the two ships rained down with him and Rolf's vision blurred as he spun end over end, seeing the sky then snow then sky then snow, over and over, and it was then that the onslaught of the experience -- the ship malfunctioning, the collision, the viewports breaking, the blue haze, the fireball, the bubble, the free fall, and most of all, his parents' inevitable deaths -- finally hit Rolf. He started to panic, realizing that he was going to die. He realized that his ten years of life were coming to an end, that his body was going to smack into a nice powdery pile of snow but then it was going to hit so hard against the solid ice and permafrost underneath, and Rolf screamed. He screamed and screamed and then--
[You are not going to die] came the voice in his head. [You are not going to die because I am here, and I am going to protect you.]
This invading mental voice was too much for Rolf to bear, and so his mind simply shut down. It turned on again a few moments later when, amazingly enough, Rolf's chair hit the ground and, though it was by no means a soft landing, as far as he could tell, he survived the impact without a scratch. The strange thing was, just after he came back to consciousness and just after he hit the ground, Rolf clearly heard a pop and then the blue haze which had seemed to cloud his vision since the initial collision suddenly disappeared.
Rolf's chair rested in the snow on its side, and so for Rolf, the world had been turned to an odd angle. He saw he was lying in a field of snow, and that's all he saw. Though there were a few trees nearby, and some mountains in the distance, and though some pieces of debris rained down in the area, as well, Rolf saw no signs of civilization. And why should I? he wondered. The launch propelled us far, far away from it. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm a day's journey from the launch site.
At that, a new horrible thought occurred to Rolf. I'm going to die out here. I somehow survived the crash but now I'm going to die. Alone.
[Nonsense] the mental voice called again. And then, a man appeared in thin air before Rolf.
He was clad in a long white robe with a hood pulled over his head, though Rolf instantly saw a pleasant smile across the stranger's lips. He held some sort of tall staff in his hand, but almost as soon as he arrived, he discarded it to the snow and quickly stepped towards Rolf's chair, where he began to remove the restraints that held Rolf in it.
"Who--" Rolf began.
"Shhh," the stranger interrupted. "I'm a friend. Are you all right, Rolf?"
"I... yes," Rolf replied, climbing to his feet now that he was free of the chair. As he did so, the stranger remained crouched in front of him, looking him over to make sure he wasn't wounded.
"When I awoke two days ago and learned of the flight destined to leave Algo," the stranger explained, "I somehow knew that it would never let that happen. Then, when I saw your name on the passenger manifest, I--" He stopped, stood up, and smiled. "Well. Anyway. I should be going."
"Don't leave!" Rolf called to the stranger as he retrieved his staff.
"Rescue crews..." he began, and then he closed his eyes and paused before finishing, "know where you are. Just stay here. They'll be with you shortly."
"Who are you?" Rolf asked.
The stranger again smiled. "I already told you, Rolf. I'm a friend." With that, the strange light blue-haired man disappeared, but after he did so, Rolf heard him one last time in his mind.
[A friend who will meet you again.]
From the investigators' report on the tragedy of ASC Flight 1000:
"...In conclusion, though we can not explain how Trans-Motavian Spaceways Flight 720 from Piata on Mota to Aukba on Dezo ended up in the airspace assigned to the Outworlder on March 8, AW 1275, we can present some undeniable facts regarding issues surrounding the Outworlder itself.
"We can unequivocally state that no one at Space Command usurped control of the Outworlder from Captain Hansen, and we can just as confidently state that there was no equipment malfunction at Space Command itself which would have somehow taken control of the Outworlder without Space Command realizing it. Finally, since all analysis of the debris from the Outworlder itself presents no evidence of equipment or systems failure aboard it in any way, we can only conclude that when Captain Hansen transmitted to Space Command that the Outworlder was no longer under manual control, he was in error.
"It is the final conclusion of the investigative panel that massive pilot error on the part of the late Captain Grent Hansen resulted in the collision of the two spacecraft and the deaths of 245 individuals.
"Though we can not comprehend why Mother Brain has chosen to ban space travel in light of this tragedy, considering it was simply the result of one man, it is our job to smoothly endorse her infallible plans. Thus, we concur with her decision, even if we do not understand it.
"Finally, we also hereby endorse Governor Lyten's suggestion that, for one month, all males wear yellow headbands and all women wear yellow bracelets in honor of the dead. It seems to us a fitting tribute to those innocents who died aboard TM Spaceways Flight 720 and those brave explorers who died aboard ASC Flight 1000.
"Commander Burtik Prole, Head of the Palman Agency
"Commander Hewitt Elod, Head of the Motavian Agency"
K'Cren didn't care about anything except Dezo. When Palm exploded, he shrugged his shoulders and moved on. My interests, however, are more varied... as well as much more visionary.
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