An adult science fiction novel about an amazing twenty- five year journey to a far planet, and the daring crews of the three ships making the voyage.  We are most interested in the loving hero and heroine who, unfortunately and at the last minute before launch, must make the journey on two separate vessels.

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Chapter One

11:30 pm, August 26, 2051

          The hard, jagged, broken terrain outside the local shuttle exit, one of the few surface facilities at MOONBASE, was ugly. The topography was especially forbidding in the small area under the beams of several high powered quartz halogen lamps for as far as the light could penetrate into the intense blackness around the perimeter zone of the little domed structure.  It was a lifeless vacuum out in the dark, with the light from the exit structure, puny in the void, seeming only to magnify one small spot on the vast, irregular, inhospitable surface.
           Still, in spite of the regular complaining from local shuttle exit workers about that one specific spot, the area outside was much like the rest of the moon, without life and deadly hot or deadly cold depending upon the position of that part of the surface in relation to the blazing sun.  The dark, unpleasant landscape, "moonscape" it was called by those who lived and worked in the immense underground factory and living area, always appeared more threatening in the lights, when the moon was turned away from the sun.  That bit of the surface, in the glare of the floodlights from the exit structure, appeared harder and sharper, lacking as the outside vacuum did, any light-bending air to soften the blaze on the hard rocks and deep canyons and sharp craters.
          What was worse, whether it was light outside or dark outside, scientists had chosen to build the gigantic subsurface facility on the terminator of the "far side" in relation to Earth, so Moonbase workers were always looking outward, away from their home.
         "Why in hell couldn't they have built this dump on the other side?" complained one of the neatly uniformed security guards for the hundredth time as he glanced out a thick plastic window of the exit structure.  He was sitting at a desk in the small guard room, his feet casually inserted into stirrups on the floor.  "It's black as coal outside and that gives me the shakes.  Damn, I'd like to see Earth once in awhile."  In spite of his words, the young security guard seemed more bored than angry.  His grumbling had the sound of every serviceman in history complaining about his duty post.
          "I don't know, man," the other guard at the final gate to the local shuttle exit shot back.  "They built it here so we work here, and that's it."  As he spoke, he turned to casually glance at the two coming up the long, upward     sloping hall.  They were carrying yet another package, probably for the orbiting vessels overhead.  Obviously long-termers at the plant, they moved easily along the hall in the one sixth gravity.  There was not a trace of the ungainly awkwardness of new arrivals.
          "Anyway," the second security guard continued, "if we worked the other side, it'd be just as damned cold and dark or just as damned hot as here...and if I'm gonna get caught out there with no gear, I'd rather freeze on the spot than boil on the spot."
          "No way I'm ever gonna get caught out there," the first guard said quickly.  "No way I'm gonna go out there at all.  You can have outside work, pal, even with the extra pay.  I don't trust outside gear."  By then, he, too, had turned with no more than casual interest to the approaching pair.  "Three more months and I'm on my way home, then you can take Moonbase duty and shove it."
          Inside the safety of the vast facility, the small surface security station and all the other underground duty areas and living spaces were hospital clean and as comfortable as several thousand men and women facing long periods away from home could make them.  They were served the best food, enjoyed the most modern recreation facilities, and looked forward to regularly delivered home audio/visuals, paid for by the government, to keep them happy.  Duty hours were easy, and time off was frequent.  All things considered, it wasn't a bad job.  Certainly not as bad as further out on Mars, or on one of the great satellites, even considering the fact that almost everybody had to work underground and seldom saw the surface or the sky.
            They had R & R's back home every six months to help keep every worker and boss level and alert.  The only real problem, other than never seeing Earth and having to live with the same people all the time, was the constant, familiar smell of space work.  This was a flat, insipid, monotonous blending of electricity, electronics and plastic.  The scent was always apparent in the inside air.  No amount of freshener or volume of air-conditioning could erase it. 
          Both guards knew, though, that it was better than outside.  Outside there was no smell, no air, and instant death for the unequipped, so few complained too loudly about what was considered a reasonably pleasant assignment in StarSec.
          The two carrying the flat package were still moving carefully along some distance down the hall.  "But wouldn't you at least rather work below?" the first guard rambled on.  "Hell, up here you feel...well, damn...all alone.  At  least down there it's more like...I don't you're inside."
          The second guard considered for a moment before answering.  "I guess I never thought about it.  I did some duty at the bottom end of the 'mag-tube' a month or so ago.  Things move faster there, I'll say that...and there's plenty of people down there, too, and humanoids... some of which ain't too bad, by the way," he chuckled.  "Man, when they sling an Earth-shuttle out from down there, it moves!"
          "Yeah, I asked for that, but I got this.  I don't know...I guess this is easier.  There ain't much pressure up here."
          "Well, think about it this way.  If you could smash out that port there, everybody in this sector would be in trouble right along with you until the computers shut things down.  You ain't alone up here."
          "Hey, Sam, what'ya really think about this crazy mission?" asked the first guard, abruptly changing the subject as he gestured vaguely upward with his thumb.
          "I don't know, man.  Like you've said, it's crazy.  I mean, who'd want to go away forever?  You think it's bad here, think how it'll be on those ships."
          "Yeah, I know what you mean.  You better damn well like who you're going with, cause that's it."
          "I thought about it, you know," confessed the first guard.
          "You gotta be kidding!"
          "No, I did.  I'd just broke off with Jan...I was, you know, hurtin'...thought I'd never see her again.  You know..." he said with a shrug.
          The other guard shook his head.  "So...?"
          "So I went in and got the papers."
          The second guard shook his head in mock pity.  "Shit, then what?"
          "Oh hell, I made up with Jan and dumped the papers in a shredder.  You think I'm nuts?"
          "Sounds like a close call to me.  I heard they grab you if you even smell like a volunteer."
          "Nah, that ain't true.  They even put me off about it.  Said I might not have what they're lookin' for.  Ah, you've met Jan over in supply.  Can you see her waiting for me on a mission like that?"
          "No way..." the second guard shot back, chuckling.  "I mean, I like Jan OK, but hey, that's a one-way trip they're makin'.  There ain't no future in that."
          "You know one thing, though?" asked the first guard thoughtfully.
          "What's that?"
          "I've never met Marty Branson...only seen him go through here a few times.  But I've heard plenty about him.  He's a good officer.  He's done plenty in StarSec.  I mean, if I had a tough mission to fly, I could do a lot worse than have him in charge."
          "Yeah, I know what you mean.  He's been on a few and brought 'em back in one piece.  But hey, man, why would a guy with a record like his get duty like PNW? You suppose he asked for it?"
          "He must have.  Everybody is a volunteer."
          "I guess so, but it's crazy.  He's not gonna come back from this one...never gonna come back...and that's the bottom line.  That's what it's all about.  I mean, they all know it."
          "OK, OK, I tore up the papers."
          "Well, you were smart."
          Once again, both men turned casually to the thick port window by their desk.  "I mean, it's murder out there," complained the first guard for the hundred and first time.
          The outside cold and lack of air would not have hurt the two carrying the neatly wrapped package easily between them up the long hall to the shuttle exit.  Not that the two security guards could have known that.  In fact, the two carrying the package had been outside before, and without bulky equipment.  It didn't matter to them.  Nor did they seem worried as they approached the final security checkpoint before boarding a work shuttle.  After all, they were well-known to anybody who counted, and all the correct credentials and red "unlimited access" identification badges had been arranged. There would be no problem. Stepping around a lone robot janitor polishing the gleaming tile floor of the brightly lit hall, they used the handrails with one hand and supported the package with the other as they approached the final checkpoint.
          The package was two feet by three feet, a few inches thick, plastic-wrapped, and appeared only moderately heavy as they supported it one on one side and one on the other.
          "Last checkpoint," the one leading said softly.
          "Yes," the trailing one answered, looking forward without emotion at his companion.
           Both carriers, velcro-soled shoes giving them an extra grip on the rug runner down the center of the hall, were neatly dressed in light blue coveralls.  Each fleet work uniform displayed the distinctive phoenix-rising-from-the-fire emblem of Project New World, a small edition on the chest over the heart and a larger one on the back.  The package carrier in the lead was somewhat shorter, with close black hair and a hawkish face.  The one following was taller, softer looking, with lackluster brown hair and dark eyes.  They looked average, normal, two who could have been passed in a crowd without a glance.  Both spoke in short, clipped sentences, secure in what they were doing and apparently unconcerned about the package they were carrying.
          "Captain Branson's ship first," reminded the one with dark hair.  "Then the Nina, and finally the Pinta.  Should be easy."
          "No problem," the taller, brown-haired one agreed.  "I understand the procedure."
          Smiling cooly as they approached the two guards, they stopped. "More gear for the project," said the shorter one.
          The guards appeared disinterested, the senior one waving his hand as he pushed a button on his panel. 
          "What is it?" asked the younger guard, though he didn't appear to care much what the answer might be.
          "We don't know," said the taller of the two carrying the package.  "They just told us to get it up to the ships.  Who knows what they send up there...just so I don't have to go along when they leave."
          "Yeah, I know what you mean," said the younger guard in agreement.  "That sure ain't for me, either.  OK, go ahead," he said with a jerk of his head.  "And have a nice trip," he added.
          "Thanks," said the taller one with an emotionless grin.  Tilting the package slightly sideways, the two went through the personnel door of the small structure and, as the guards returned to their complaining, down a short moveable ramp and into a waiting work shuttle.  The young pilot looked up from his magazine with a mixture of irritation at being disturbed and anticipation at having something to do other than the pure killing of time.
          "Which one?" he asked.
          "The Santa Maria," said the dark haired one.
          "You got the paperwork?"
          "Of course.  You want to see it?"
          "Nah, let's just get going."  In a routine born of repetition, the pilot punched a button that disengaged the loading ramp.  Both doors slipped shut with a hiss, the one in the shuttle and the one on the ramp.  The ramp moved away.  Slowly at first, silently, the craft lifted off the pad, turned, and headed up and away from the little surface structure.  If the pilot or either of the passengers had looked back they would have seen the domed shuttle exit dropping swiftly away, a bright area of spotlights trying to penetrate the inhospitable blackness all around.  Soon the area was a tiny dot of light joining other similar dots of light in a cluster on the dark surface of the moon.  But almost that quickly, the shuttle craft slowed, hovered momentarily, then reattached itself, this time to a massive, flat steel wall.  With another hiss, the doors slid open.
          "Maria" the pilot announced unnecessarily.  "Need me anymore?"
          "Yes, in twenty minutes.  Will you wait?" asked the taller passenger.
          "Nah, I'll buzz around a little.  I'll be here in twenty, though."
          The two lifted their package and moved weightlessly to the door.  "Be certain you are," ordered the taller one.  The pilot glanced back as the package-carriers glided off the shuttle and into the airlock of the immense  space vessel.  Handrails helped them maintain their position as the airlock hatch closed behind.  They didn't hear, and didn't seem to care, when the shuttle glided smoothly away, a tiny toy rowboat easing away from the side of an enormous ocean liner.
          The gigantic Santa Maria hovered in space, serenely orbiting the moon. She was a brand new dirigible-shaped vessel four thousand yards long and a thousand yards thick, one of only three such vessels in the fleet. Her vast white polymer, carbon and stainless steel skin gleamed dimly from the light of stars and the shine from distant Earth which, at that altitude, could be seen on the horizon.  If it was possible to stand off in space and study the magnificent ship, the tiny reflections from the several surface facilities of MOONBASE could be located on her gleaming side.  She was vast, immense, and beautiful in her slow orbit.  She appeared to be waiting for some great mission, as did the other two identical vessels hovering in space nearby.
          On her side in one hundred-yard-high letters was her identification, StS 4597.  They, along with the letters just below, were quite visible in the light from outside spotlights which had been fared into smooth grooves in the hull.  Below, in letters of the same height, was her name, though all of the letters and numbers, on such a large hull, seemed small.
          Inside, assisted by handrails and foot stirrups, the two carried their package along a passageway until they reached a second wall.  The second wall was moving slowly past from ceiling to floor.  They paused and the shorter one pressed a button on a stationary post.
          "This shouldn't take long," said the taller one as they waited.
          "No, it should be simple.  You have the tools?"
          "Yes, of course."
          Balancing the package between them, they watched as an opening in the moving wall rolled into view, then stopped on sliding rails.  Like an elevator in an Earth building, a door opened and the two stepped inside a small steel room.  The door closed, the room rejoined its rails in motion, and with the ease of experience the two stepped to the surface where the opening had been, balancing the package between them, as the weight of gravity reestablished.
          "It's always a relief to get into the gravity area, even for me," said the shorter one, shifting the package to a more comfortable position.
          "It shouldn't matter," answered the taller one.
          "I know, but it does."
          "Let's concentrate on what we're doing."
          "You're right."
          The movement stopped and a door opened in the side of the elevator.  The two stepped out, still sharing the increased load of the package.  Ahead was a long hall with doors spaced along each side of its length.  At the end of the hall was a larger door. They moved carefully down the hall toward the end.  It wouldn't matter that much if anybody stepped out of one of the rooms and confronted them, but they wanted no complications at all.
          The taller one glanced at his watch.  "We are on schedule, but let's not waste time."
          "I agree," the second one answered as the large door opened.  They stepped through into a parklike area of trees, grass, a small lake, a miniature village green with shops and area very much like any small town, as unlikely as the location might have been.  Over one section of the park was a great clear dome, not glass but a lead plastic offering secondary protection from the radiation of the gamma bursters certain to be encountered on the mission.  This, the red coloring of the walkways indicated, would allow the human crew a view of space without harm providing the distance to any burster was great enough.  The human's quarters, the two knew, were also in shielded areas of the ship, double-walled sections indicated by red walkways and surrounded by recycled water to be used for ore enrichment at their destination. In the meantime the water was being put to another use as primary shielding from burster radiation.  Water, according to the builders of the great ships, would offer ten times the protection of any other material.
          Either of them, they also knew, could go into the green marked areas of the ship, the unprotected areas reserved for any man or machine who didn't need protection at all, or who wore heavy protective equipment, or who could be considered expendable in an emergency.
          "It always amazes me what they need for safety and comfort."
          "Yes, I agree."
          Quickly they moved across the park, intent on their mission, paying scant attention to the dozen or so men and women in similar Project New World coveralls going about on their own assignments.  The progress of the two with the package was unnoticed as, each supporting one side, they reached the far end of the park, hurried down another long hall, and paused before a steel door with a code panel built into the wall beside it.  Over the door was a sign reading "ENGINEERING."  The taller one touched the rows of buttons on the panel in a sequence.  The door slid open.
          Entering, they gave no attention to the great steel-walled room with rows upon rows of floor to ceiling dials and controls, work stations, and panels of glittering, blinking lights.  Where there were new rows of instruments higher on the soaring walls, there were projecting balconies for access.  The few workers in the vast room ignored the two with the package, concentrating instead on their own tasks as they moved about with instruments and gauges.  Computer panels blinked and flashed as the two carried their package to the far end, to a room marked "IONICS."  Repeating his action of before, the taller one pressed the locking panel buttons in a sequence and the door opened smoothly.  Finally, they paused.
           "Everything seems clear.  The ion room is unmanned as we were told it would be.  The arrangements have been perfect."
          "Then let's get to work," the shorter one responded.
          Supporting the package between them, they entered the much smaller room and went to the panel-studded far wall.  The door closed behind them.  They ignored the focal point at the far end of the small room, a single, obviously thick, less than man-sized door prominently labeled "Danger-Radiation."  Dogged shut with traditional military swinging latches, it was the only real point of interest in the room.  The little hatchway had a small, six by eight inch porthole that invited attention with its dull glow.  Instead the two stopped, lowered the package to the floor, then unwrapped it carefully to remove one of three panels.  Turning to the wall of hundreds of identical panels, they used a wrench to remove a single, specific one.  Quickly, working efficiently, they replaced it with the panel from their own package, wrenching it solidly in place until it appeared as though the wall of panels had been undisturbed.       Methodically they stacked the original panel from the wall on top of those still in the package, re-wrapped the three, and as though they were ordinary workers on a routine job, left the way they had arrived.
          As promised, the shuttle was waiting for them at the airlock.  The job had taken eighteen and one half minutes.
          "Nina," ordered the taller one.  The shuttle pilot, who didn't seem to care one way or the other since he had been rejected for the mission and, as humans tend to do, had lost interest in the whole matter, complied.  In less than an hour and half, the two were disembarking at the surface assembly plant, at the same shuttle exit they had used so recently.  They didn't thank the pilot for the tour, nor did he expect it.
          "Back so soon?" asked the first security guard, the boredom still apparent in his voice.  "What happened?  You still have the supplies."
          The taller one smiled.  "You know the bureaucracy.  Wrong supplies.  We'll do it again tomorrow, when somebody makes up their mind."
          "Hey, I know how it is.  We're always fighting for the right materials in our section.  Sorry about that."
           "No problem," said the shorter one with a cool grin.  "It happens all the time."  The two moved confidently back down the long hall with their package of panels.
          "As the Senator said, it was easy," the taller one commented.
          "Yes, it was.  How can they be so careful about what they consider the important things, and so careless about the details?"
          "They're human."
          With a knowledge of long service in a complex underground plant, they soon arrived at the administration quarters of the vast facility.  Entering, they stopped before a door in one of the more elaborate sections, then used a key to enter a well-furnished office with a huge desk, a nearby conference table, and a far divan with a low coffee table alongside.  It was an expensive office, an elaborate office, the office of an administrator of high ranking.  The top of the costly desk was clear but for a modern pen set they recognized by its tasteful seal as having come from the Senate of the United States.  Also on the desk was a photograph of a smiling young, confident-appearing Nasa staff officer.  The desk was flanked by Nasa and American flags.
          Neither of the two sat in the comfortable chairs in front of the desk.  Rather, they gazed about the room of luxury, looking with a mixture of disdain and contempt at the many mementos from various outposts in space neatly set about on the conference table, the coffee table, the two end tables at each end of the divan, and hanging from the walls.  On the wall behind the desk, dominating in a group of at least two dozen award plaques and certificates, was a picture of a wan-looking man with his arm around the robust President of the United States.  They recognized both the President, Montgomery Nolan, and Senator Hal Villor, MOONBASE Civilian Commander.  The huge photograph had been warmly signed by the president "To Hal...for all the good you have done for your constituents...Monty."
          At that moment the tall, thin, slightly stooped man in the photograph stalked into the room and to the working side of the desk.  His appearance, in spite of his lean build and slight slouch, was of pure command.  This was his office, and it was quite apparent.  His gray hair was longer than might have looked best on him, but in the popular cut of the day and neatly styled and combed.  He was dressed in a black uniform, the familiar adaptation of the Nasa military uniforms worn by command officers to the civilian counterpart worn by top ranking non-military personnel.  He was carrying, though he did not seem to need or use for walking support, an unmilitary cane with a solid silver ball at the end.  He carried it as a ranking fleet officer might carry a riding crop, in a style reminiscent of past centuries...if that officer had a flare for the dramatic.  He wore no weapons, as a fleet officer in a dress uniform might.  He was an imposing figure.
          Yet, for an incomprehensible reason since all the parts were there, the tall man did not look grand as a whole.  He still appeared a collection of all the right parts, but nothing more.  He did not sit down but rather stood between the chair and the desk.
          "Did you accomplish your mission?" he asked in a rasping voice, staring across the desk at the two.  His narrow, closely set eyes sought the answer before either could speak.
          "Exactly as planned, Senator Villor," said the taller one.
          "Good!....GOOD!" the Senator said, tapping his cane in time to his chuckles.  "Excellent!" he added, his bushy gray eyebrows rising and falling with the word.
          "Every arrangement was as we were told it would be," added the shorter one.  "There were no problems.  We were not noticed."
          "Perfect!" rasped the Senator, almost to himself.  Then he turned to the two.  "My office key, please."  He held out his hand, and the taller one dropped the key into it.  "Now give me the panels," he ordered.
          They handed the package to him and he leaned it against his desk.
"And now..." the thin, black-garbed man said with only a hint of sadness to his harsh voice, "to complete the job.  Please step over here to me."
          The two complied.
          "Turn around and lower the tops of your uniforms, please."
          Both did so without hesitation.
          "I know we have been together a long time," the wan-looking Senator began gruffly.  "You have been efficient and you have done your work well.  I've even grown to...well...appreciate you, in spite of what you are.  I know you don't really understand what I am about to do, but I shall...miss you and for some foolish reason I wanted you to know that."  He paused for a moment, staring at their bare backs.  "Now, unfortunately," he hurried on, "some changes must be made...though you won't understand," he repeated unnecessarily.
          Bare from the waist up, their backs to the thin man, they waited without the fear they occasionally found themselves envying, or at least wondering about, in humans.  The thin man reached to the middle of the first back and opened a small, perfectly blended panel to reveal a series of micro circuits and a small identification clip.  Reaching in, he removed the clip and one of the circuits, then replaced these items with others he withdrew from an envelope he had taken from his pocket.  He did the same to the second.  That was all.
          "Replace your uniform tops."
          Both complied at once.
          The Senator reached for a telephone in a drawer in his desk as the two waited, their backs still to him.  He dialed, held for a few seconds, then spoke.  "Security!" he barked, "Villor here.  You've screwed up again! Two humanoid basic-workers from one of the outposts have stumbled into my office by mistake."  He continued quickly over an aparently apologetic voice from the other end.  "I don't give a damn about that!  Tighten your security!  And come up and get them.  Reassign them to the next vessel outbound.  Get them out of my hair!"
          In minutes the two were led out by uniformed security guards, not a trace of memory remaining, not a hint of the job they just completed, nor a regret for leaving the high-rated jobs they had held for years to go to menial labor tasks on some unpleasant, distant outpost of NeoNasa.
           Only then did former Senator Hal Villor, MOONBASE civilian commander, pick up the package, examine its contents, then carry it to a wall disposal unit where he dropped it in along with the clips and the microcircuits he had so recently removed from the backs of his associates.  On his hollow, lined, rather unpleasant face was a look of pure confidence.

"Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall."  Shakespeare

More to come