Thursday, October 28, 2010

Excerpt: "Leaving Home"

 “Tonight,” Quinn continued, “get some sleep. Most of you will spend tomorrow in the acceleration chamber to keep you from getting hurt as we leave orbit.”
The next day it took us 35 minutes to get belted in. A few people were crying but most of the travelers, as we’d started calling ourselves, had crazed-looking grins on their faces, like they were belted into the biggest roller-coaster ride of their lives.

If they were looking for a thrill, they were all disappointed. There were no wild swoops or stomach-churning drops, just a steady pressure that pushed us all back in our seats and a vibration that we felt through the deck plating beneath our feet. Ion engines weren’t powerful, but they were thrifty and steady.
Captain Trask had ordered us all to secure our quarters, essentially putting any loose items away, and then sent us running to the acceleration bay. He'd had his crew stop the rotation of the habitat rings, putting a temporary end to our artificial gravity. The colony ships were designed for marathon flights over vast distances; getting them stopped or started up put the most strain on their aluminum and carbon-fiber bones.
The ships looked nothing like the sleek, stainless-steel or gun-metal-gray space whales in the movies. They were hodge-podge and piecemeal, cobbled together from spun carbon and recycled space debris. Even the construction crews' booster rockets, usually sent back to Earth to be reused, had been stripped out and added to the mélange. The Sam Walton was twice the eyesore the others were, with many of the tanks and pods doubling as billboards for corporate sponsors. I wondered what the golden arches might mean to an alien species. Maybe they’d think we were the fast food.
“How long do we have to stay in here?” Dobby said. “I want cake.”
He’d been so quiet I'd almost forgotten about him. Four weeks into our big “adventure” and Dobby might as well have never set foot on Earth. He was taking advanced-math classes with a gaggle of other micro-nerds and having the time of his life.
“Just a few hours,” Mom said. “You can use your fone to play a game or watch a movie if you want.”
Most of us were watching the screen at the front of the room. It showed a split-screen image: Earth, the planet formerly known as the Big, Blue Marble, on the left and Sam Walton, engines aglow on the right. The image of the Walton was being recorded and transmitted by satellites; the Earth's by cameras on the colony ship. The Walton was getting smaller a lot faster than the planet. Nearly 10 billion people down there, a little under 300,000 up here — were we the future of the human race or just a drop in the bucket of history?
Dobby nodded and started using his fone as a calculator. I guessed he was figuring out orbital vectors or gravitational-force units.
Then he turned to show me his fone screen, where he'd entered the numbers 0.7734. The numbers flashed and changed to 55378008. They flashed and turned back to 0.7734. He grinned at me and turned the fone upside down. The cycle repeated.
“Mom, tell Dobby to stop!”
“Stop what?” he said. “I'm just doing math!”
“Dobby, quit bothering your sister,” Dad said. He turned to me. “Hayley, quit reacting. You know that's what he's looking for.”
I sniffed and looked back at the split screen. Based on old pictures I'd seen, Earth was a lot browner than it used to be, and the blue of the oceans had distinctly turned green. It was algae or something, using up the oxygen so the fish couldn't breathe. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been a vegetarian all my life.
The east coast of the United States came into view. Home was directly below me and about 120 miles straight down.
I looked over at Mom, who might as well have been relaxing in the living room for all the reaction she showed. She was writing, code, as usual, on her lapdesk.
“We're leaving, Mom. You're going to miss it.”
She nodded and pointed to an icon on her screen. “I'm recording it for our scrapbook.”
Dad was watching the big screen with a strange look on his face. It was like part giddiness, part horror.
I nudged his elbow with mine. “You OK?”
He nodded. “I'm just hoping we made the right call. It's going to be a long trip.” The vibration underfoot shifted frequency as the pilot, somewhere in the bowels of the ship, put his foot down. “And there's no turning back now.”

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