The Comet’s Curse (Excerpt)

Starting today and going until July 6, Dom Testa’s Galahad series is going on sale as one of the Kindle 100! If you’d like to give the series a look, we’ve got the first five chapters of its opening installment: The Comet’s Curse. Check it out!

When the tail of the comet Bhaktul flicks through the Earth’s atmosphere, deadly particles are left in its wake. Suddenly, mankind is confronted with a virus that devastates the adult population. Only those under the age of eighteen seem to be immune. Desperate to save humanity, a renowned scientist proposes a bold plan: to create a ship that will carry a crew of 251 teenagers to a home in a distant solar system. Two years later, the Galahad and its crew—none over the age of sixteen—is launched.

Two years of training have prepared the crew for the challenges of space travel. But soon after departing Earth, they discover that a saboteur is hiding on the Galahad! Faced with escalating acts of vandalism and terrorized by threatening messages, sixteen-year-old Triana Martell and her council soon realize that the stowaway will do anything to ensure that the Galahad never reaches its destination. The teens must find a way to neutralize their enemy. For if their mission fails, it will mean the end of the human race….

What you’re holding right now is kind of like the oldfashioned message in a bottle. Poor souls who found themselves shipwrecked on an island would jot down a message—usually pretty simple: HELP!—seal it inside a bottle and toss it into the ocean. The idea being that someone would scoop it out of the water and come to the rescue. The idea also being that this someone would not be a bloodthirsty pirate looking for possible treasure that might’ve washed up onshore with our poor little castaway.

Except this message in a bottle is different in a couple of ways. First, it’s a story and not just a simple HELP! It’s full of pretty interesting characters, not the least of which is me, thank you very much. They face danger, deal with issues like fear and jealousy and loneliness— things that make me glad I’m not human—and learn as much about themselves as they do one another.

And although there aren’t any true pirates, there are some fairly nasty types.

Second, our heroes aren’t on your typical island. This island is made of steel, the size of a shopping mall, and the sea is a sea of stars. They’re stranded, sure; but they chose to be stranded here because their only other choice was . . . well, their only other choice was a gruesome death.

Okay, easy decision.

Castaways who have been rescued years later often say that—strange but true—in some respects it’s hard to leave the island. It’s become home, a place of security in an ocean of fear. And although deep down they want to be rescued, part of them wants to remain nestled within their cocoon. An observer might think the island a prison; the shipwreck survivor sees it as a haven. It’s all perspective.

This story has its own island, and its own castaways.

I guess I’m the bottle. The message—or story—is sealed inside me.

I like that responsibility. And I don’t think anyone else is better qualified to tell the tale.

So let’s get on with it. Let’s pull the stopper out of the bottle and see what pours out. I’ll try not to interrupt (much), but sometimes I just can’t help myself.

 

 

1

 

There are few sights more beautiful. For all of the spectacular sunsets along a beach, or vivid rainbows arcing over a mist-covered forest, or high mountain pastures exploding with wildflowers, nothing could compare to this. This embraced every breathtaking scene. Mother Earth, in all of her supreme glory, spinning in a showcase of wonder. No picture, no television image, no movie scene could ever do her justice. From two hundred miles up it’s spellbinding, hypnotic.

Which made saying good-bye even more difficult.

The ship sat still and silent in the cold, airless vacuum of space. It was a massive vessel, but against the backdrop of the planet below it appeared small, a child teetering at the feet of a parent, preparing to take its first steps. Soft, twinkling lights at the edges helped to define the shape which could not easily be described. Portions of it were boxy, others rectangular, with several curves and angles that seemed awkward. To an untrained eye it appeared as if it had simply been thrown together from leftover parts. In a way, that was true.

Its dark, grayish blue surface was speckled by hundreds of small windows. Two hundred fifty-one pairs of eyes peered out, eyes mostly wet with tears, getting a final glimpse of home. Two hundred fifty-one colonists sealed inside, and not one over the age of sixteen.

Their thoughts and feelings contained a single thread: each envisioned family members two hundred miles below, grouped together outside, staring up into the sky. Some would be shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun, unable to see the ship but knowing that it was up there, somewhere. Others, on the dark side of the planet, would be sifting through the maze of stars, hoping to pick out the quiet flicker of light, pointing, embracing, crying.

Many were too ill and unable to leave their beds, but were likely gazing out their own windows, not wanting to loosen the emotional grip on their son or daughter so far away.

The day filled with both hope and dread had arrived.

With a slight shudder, the ship came to life. It began to push away from the space station where it had been magnetically tethered for two years. Inside the giant steel shell there was no sensation of movement other than the image of the orbiting station gradually sliding past the windows. That was enough to impress upon the passengers that the voyage had begun.

Galahad had launched.

After a few moments Triana Martell turned away from one of the windows and, with a silent sigh, began to walk away. Unlike her fellow shipmates’ eyes, her eyes remained dry, unable, it seemed, to cry anymore.

“Hey, Tree,” she heard a voice call out behind her. “Don’t you want to watch?”

“You won’t notice anything,” she said over her shoulder. “It might be hours before you can tell any difference in the size. We won’t have enough speed for a while.”

“Yeah,” came another voice, “but you won’t ever see it again. Don’t you want to say good-bye?”

Triana slipped around a corner of the well-lit hallway, and when she answered it was mostly to herself. “I’ve already said my good-byes.”

With the entire crew’s attention focused on the outside view, she had the corridor to herself, and appreciated it.


2

 

The discovery of a new comet usually didn’t cause much reaction. Astronomers, both professional and amateur, would make a fuss, but the general population was rather immune to the excitement. What was one more in a catalog of hundreds?

Yet this one was different. A rogue, named Comet Bhaktul after the amateur astronomer who had first spotted the fuzzy glow amid the backdrop of stars, was slicing its way towards the sun, and its path would cross just in front of Earth. Several early reports had sparked a brief panic when some astronomers wondered if the comet might actually be on a collision course, possibly impacting in the North Atlantic ocean. But soon it was confirmed that Earth would instead coast through the comet’s tail, an event that might cause some glorious nighttime light shows, but nothing more.

Dr. Wallace Zimmer would later recall that for two days the sunsets were indeed brilliant. The horizon appeared to be on fire, with dark shafts of red light streaking upward. Comet Bhaktul’s particles at least provided a romantic setting for couples in love.

The truth was that the particles were providing much more than that. They were delivering a death sentence to mankind. No one knew it at the time. Earth swung through the remains of Bhaktul and continued on its path around the sun, and life went on without missing a beat.

Seven months later Dr. Zimmer pulled up a news report on the vidscreen in his office in Northern California. Just a blurb, really, but as a scientist he was immediately interested.

The story called it an outbreak of a new flu strain. Not just a handful of cases, but dozens, and—this was what amazed Zimmer the most—not concentrated in one region. Most flu variations began in one part of the world and spread. Not this time. These reports were scattered across the globe, and yet the symptoms were all the same.

The lungs were being attacked, it seemed. The only difference was how rapidly the illness progressed. According to the news story, some people slowly fell into the clutches of this new disease, with breathing difficulties and intense bouts of coughing that might last weeks or months. Others were hit more quickly, with paralysis of the lungs that brought on death in a matter of days.

Dr. Zimmer looked at the clock and considered the time difference on the East Coast. Then he switched the vidscreen to phone mode and dialed up his friend at the Centers for Disease Control in Georgia.

“Not much else to tell you besides what you’ve read,” Elise Metzer said to him. “Of course, hundreds of people have called claiming that it’s some form of germ warfare, and demanding an antidote. The conspiracy nuts are having a field day with this.”

“What about other symptoms?” Zimmer said.

“Well, we know that it’s attacking the lungs. Most every case begins with coughing, and eventually coughing up blood. But there’s also been a few mentions of blotchy skin, some hair loss even. That’s probably just each individual body reacting differently.”

Elise scowled and added, “I don’t think the immune systems have any idea what’s going on, and they might each be interpreting the attacking agent in a different way.”

“Well,” Zimmer said, “with only a few dozen cases I can see why there’s no real data yet.”

“Uh . . .” came the reply from Elise. “That story is a little outdated now.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that this morning I heard there are already over a thousand cases, and growing.”

Dr. Zimmer sat stunned. Before he could speak Elise ended the conversation by predicting that the next news report he heard would be front page and screaming.


3

 

I used to live in a box. Okay, maybe “live” is a poor choice. I existed in a box. And not a very big box, either. Just a small, metal container with patch bays, microchips and a mother of a motherboard. If you ask me about my first memory, I could tell you, but you’d start to nod off pretty quickly. It’s not an exciting tale: a string of ones and zeroes, a few equations, a bazillion lines of code, and a ridiculous sound that signaled when I was “online.” The ridiculous sound would have to go. Roy was a genius, but he had no sense of hip at all. Just look at his clothes.

Roy Orzini put me together. He used to say that I was “his baby.” If that’s true, then I’ve got a few hundred siblings because Roy put an awful lot of computers together. My oldest brother was born in a cluttered bedroom just after Roy’s tenth birthday, and the little genius has been popping them out ever since.

I’ll spare you the false modesty, however, and tell you right up front that I’m the masterpiece. The other kids were pretty good; a few of them have worked on the moon, Mars and a couple of research stations around Jupiter and Saturn. But I got the big assignment, the biggest ever. Roy’s pretty proud, and that feels good. I’m proud of him, too.

These days I’m not in that cramped metal box anymore. I’m everywhere within the greatest sailing ship ever built, sailing to the stars.

I like the new digs. I like the crew I’m sailing with. I like the challenge.

Roy called me OC-3323. Remember, Roy is a geek.

Everyone else calls me Roc.

 

Triana sat at the desk in her room and placed a glass of water next to the picture of her dad. She bit her lower lip as images of her home in Colorado flashed through her mind, images of both joy and sadness. Thoughts of her dad came as well, which brought a burst of pain.

She glanced at the few personal items that dotted the room. There was little that an outsider could have learned about the teenage girl from these clues. Essentials, really. One exception was the picture. Her dad, grinning that grin of his, the one that confessed to a bit of troublemaking behind the outer shell of responsibility. In the picture Triana was still twelve, riding piggyback on him, her arms clutched around his muscular chest, the tip of her head peering out from behind. His broad shoulders concealed all but the top of her head and her eyes—those bright green, questioning eyes. Any grin of her own was concealed, but the eyes conveyed infinite happiness.

Picking up the picture, she ran her finger around the outline of her dad’s face, looking into his eyes. She wanted to talk with him. All of the fun times they had shared, all of the adventures . . . and yet it was simple conversation with him that she missed the most.

Triana finally tore her gaze away from the photo and returned her attention to the open journal on the desk. Most people had given up writing by hand in favor of punching a keyboard, but Triana felt more of a connection the old-fashioned way. There was something about watching the words flow from her hand that gave vent to personal feelings she could never imagine on a computer. With items such as notebooks rationed severely, she allowed herself only a few paragraphs a day. It was enough for her.

She scanned the last few lines she had written, then took up her pen.

It’s funny how such a turbulent world can look so peaceful from space. I know there are storms raging, wars being fought (still), fires burning, people dying . . . and yet it’s as if it’s all been sealed inside a bottle, and the stopper keeps all the sound inside. And me out. Earth is subsiding, slowly for now, but will soon become smaller and smaller until it disappears. Forever.

She dated the entry then closed the notebook. After one more glance at her dad’s picture she called out to the computer.

“Roc, how are we doing?”

“Are you kidding?” came the reply from the screen. “Did you see that launch? Backed it right out of there without scraping the sides of the space station or anything. I’m sure you meant to congratulate me, but in all the excitement it slipped your mind. Congratulate me later.”

Triana had trained with Roc for more than a year, and knew better than to spar with him.

She said, “I’m assuming that means everything is running just fine. And the crew?”

“Well, that’s another story. Heart rates are very high, respiration is above normal—”

“Yeah. They’re crying, Roc. They’re leaving home,” Triana said, picking up the water glass. She took a long drink, then added, “By the end of the day things should start to calm down.”

Roc was silent for a moment, then answered in a voice so lifelike it was hard to believe it came from a machine. “Although you might not believe it, Tree, I understand what you’re feeling. And I’m truly sorry for what had to happen.”

Triana couldn’t think of anything to say to this. “Thanks” didn’t sound right.

Roc waited another minute, then spoke again. “I hate to give you something to worry about already, but . . .”

“But what?” Triana said.

“Well, I wear a lot of hats on this trip, right? Keep the air fresh, keep the gravity close to Earth normal, dim the lights, take out the trash, sweep up at the end of the day—”

“What’s the problem, Roc?”

“The problem is with the ship’s life-energy readings. They don’t add up, and to an incredibly efficient being like myself that is . . . well, it’s just not acceptable. They’re screwy, and that will make me crazy, Tree. Crazy, do you hear me?”

Triana sat up. “What do you mean? What’s wrong with the readings?”

“They’re not balanced. As you know, every person on this spacecraft has been accounted for and cataloged by their energy output. Glad I didn’t have that job. Booorrrriiiiinnnngggg.”

“Roc—”

“Anyway, for a journey of five years it’s critical to maintain balanced levels in order to sustain food and life-support systems. You know that.”

“Yeah, so what’s the problem?”

“Well, there must have been a mistake made before launch. Some of the measurements were either inaccurate or . . .”

Roc paused, as if thinking to himself.

“Or else what?” Triana said. “Could they have made a mistake before we left?”

“It’s possible, but . . . no, I don’t think so. I mean, c’mon, it’s so vital to the mission, I don’t believe Dr. Zimmer or his little elves could have botched that.”

Triana smiled at the vidscreen. “I know you’re referring to it as ‘the mission’ for our sake, and I appreciate it, Roc. No sense in us locking ourselves in this can for five years and calling it a ‘desperate last chance’ or something. But about this imbalance: what else could it be?”

“Hmm. The experts say that stress could do it. Of course, the experts also said that Barry Bonds’s home run record would never be broken, and don’t they look stupid now. But with all of the stress this crew has been under, I suppose it might knock things out of whack a little bit. I’ll check it out again in a day or two.”

Triana nodded agreement. She rose from the chair and stretched, her arms crossing over her head. Leaning back, her long dark hair fell almost to her waist. It was unlikely, she thought, that there had been very many ship commanders in history like her. But because this was no ordinary ship—and such a unique moment in history—convention had gone out the window. A sixteen-year-old girl was in charge. She sighed and turned to leave.

“Tree,” said the computer voice from the screen.

“Yes?”

“Not to get too sappy or anything, but I think it is a mission. I think it’s the most spectacular mission of all time.”

Triana smiled again and walked out.

“Remember, you’re supposed to congratulate me later for that very smooth launch,” Roc said to the empty room.


4

 

It was a university professor in Japan who solved the mystery.

Nine months after Earth’s close call with Comet Bhaktul, and two months after the initial reports of illness, he announced the bad news.

Samples collected from the atmosphere during the pass through the comet’s tail revealed microscopic particles unlike anything ever seen before. Something in the gaseous exhaust of Bhaktul had contaminated the planet, and its effect on human beings was fast . . . and fatal.

In almost no time the spread of the flulike disease had escalated at a frightening pace. Scientists calculated that perhaps 10 percent of the population had already begun to show the physical signs, and tens of thousands more were pouring into hospitals every day. It didn’t matter where you were. No place on Earth was spared.

News reports began to include stories of people abandoning their homes, their careers, and setting off for a secluded place in the mountains, or to a remote location in the South Pacific. They assumed that the disease was spread from person to person, and if they left densely populated areas they would decrease their chance of becoming infected. The problem was that you couldn’t hide. Bhaktul had saturated the atmosphere, and human contact had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Nobody, it seemed, was excluded: rich, poor, black, white, male, female . . . this disease did not discriminate.

That was hard for many people to accept, because now lifestyle wasn’t important, there were no risk factors to avoid, and no vaccination was on the horizon. And when the most advanced medical teams on the planet threw up their hands in frustration, it sent a shock wave of fear throughout the civilized world.

Strangely, the illness seemed to spare the children. In fact, there were only a few scattered reports from around the world that mentioned a child suffering from any of the symptoms. Test after test was run on both children and adults, but without any definite answers. All that could be determined was that kids were immune to the disorder . . . until they reached the age of eighteen or nineteen.

If you were older than eighteen, Bhaktul was coming for you.

There were many more questions than answers. What were these particles in the comet’s wake that triggered the sickness? Why were some people affected sooner than others? Why not young people?

And how much longer did Earth have?

That question, in particular, led to millions of workers walking off their jobs. The attitude was “Why should I bother? We’re all going to die anyway.” Society began to break down into two groups: those who wanted to fight, and those who preferred to just give up and wither away.

On the West Coast of the United States, a group of scientists led by Dr. Wallace Zimmer reached the conclusion that an alternate plan should be developed in case no protective vaccination was found. Their plan was radical . . . and not what anyone expected.

“We believe,” Dr. Zimmer said, “that there are only two possible measures capable of sparing the human race.”

The faces of hundreds of colleagues looked up at him on the stage with wide-eyed wonder. For the past two days they had listened to a parade of experts discuss their ideas on defeating the disease. Now, at the close of the scientific assembly, they were emotionally drained and hopeful for something that could work. All morning there had been a buzz that Dr. Zimmer, a well-respected researcher and scientist from California, would be delivering a speech that would electrify the attendees. Now he had their rapt attention.

His large frame dominated the podium. He stood exactly an inch over six feet, with wide shoulders and a stout neck. Although the lines on his face gave evidence of his fifty-plus years of age, his hair had remained full, even while losing the battle with the gray. He adjusted his glasses and looked out over the crowd.

“The first solution would be to remove or filter the deadly particles from Earth’s atmosphere,” he said. “As you are aware, we have barely identified the particles responsible for the destruction, and it could be many, many years before we could even begin to understand how to contain them.” He looked over the rim of his glasses at the packed auditorium. “By that time, it would be too late.”

The silence was grim. Dr. Zimmer leaned forward on the podium. “The other idea is extremely radical, but at least a possible alternative. After careful discussion, we feel that if we can’t take the deadly organisms away from our kids . . . we should get the kids away from them.”

A gradual low hum of chatter spread throughout the assembled scientists and world leaders. Finally, as the room began to quiet down, a biology professor from Michigan stood up and addressed Dr. Zimmer. “Are you suggesting that we build some sort of bubble or domed environment and stash a group of young people? They’d have to come out sometime, you know.”

“Yes, that’s right, and to doom the race to living out its existence in small, cramped domes would be brutal,” agreed Dr. Zimmer. “We believe the planet’s atmosphere could remain contaminated for possibly hundreds of years. For that matter, it might have been altered permanently. People living in a dome might never be able to leave.”

“Then what are you saying, Dr. Zimmer?”

“A spacecraft. Or, to be more precise, a lifeboat.”

This time the room exploded in sound. Dozens of individual arguments broke out spontaneously throughout the auditorium, and Dr. Zimmer simply folded his arms and waited. After a few minutes order was restored, and a woman from Texas rose to be heard.

“Dr. Zimmer, you’re not serious, are you? A spaceship?”

“Absolutely serious, madam. A spaceship. But unlike any other craft ever assembled. I mentioned the word ‘lifeboat’ and that’s exactly what it would be: a haven for protecting the lives of several hundred kids.”

A tall, thin man in the middle of the room stood up, and Zimmer recognized him immediately. It was Tyler Scofield, a former colleague and now the science department head at a major university.

“And what would you do with this lifeboat?” Scofield said. “Let them orbit around Earth forever? That’s no different than sealing them up in domes.”

“No, sir,” Dr. Zimmer said. “The ship would be automatically piloted to another world. One that we feel has the best chance of sustaining the crew when they arrive.”

Once again the room erupted in sound as the various members of the scientific community argued aloud. During the chaos Tyler Scofield remained calm and quiet, looking up at Zimmer. When the uproar had died back down, Scofield addressed the stage again.

“I’m curious about your plan, Dr. Zimmer. A spaceship, which we don’t have, filled with children, who have no idea how to operate the ship, on a mission to a planet or planets that we have yet to identify as suitable for human life. On the surface one would think that you have not put much thought into this. But, of course, I’m sure you have.”

Dr. Zimmer smiled at his old friend. If the thinly veiled criticism had come from anyone else he might have been irritated. But Zimmer and Scofield had worked together for many years, and although they now rarely saw each other, they still communicated from time to time and provided whatever help they could with the other’s projects.

“Yes,” Zimmer said, “on the surface it would indeed look like a desperate, maybe even hopeless, shot.”

The audience sat quietly, listening. Tyler Scofield sat down and waited to hear what his old friend proposed.

“I will concede that the word ‘desperate’ applies. Is there anyone in this room who is not desperate to find a solution to the Bhaktul problem? Every account that I have heard has stated that our planet has five, maybe six years, before almost one hundred percent of the adult population is affected. I would say that leaves us in a desperate spot.

“But I take exception to the word ‘hopeless.’ For the same reasons I just mentioned, I feel that this is our best hope. Will we find a cure for Bhaktul Disease within the next three to five years? I hope we do. Will we be able to protect the lives of our children and ensure that they never have to cope with this disease? I hope we can. But I’m also a practical man. What if—as awful as it may be to imagine—what if we don’t find a cure? What if, after five years, we discover that we have wasted an opportunity during those many years to save something of our civilization? To at least give mankind the chance to survive somewhere else?”

Dr. Zimmer paused and gazed around at the solemn faces looking up at him. “Do we choose to give up? Do we throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, we gave it our best shot,’ and just go quietly? Or do we try to save a portion of our history, our heritage, our achievements? I can’t believe that our species would fight, scratch and claw its way up to this level, to have achieved so much, to have overcome so many improbable odds, just to give up now. It’s not our way. It’s not what we owe to our ancestors who toiled so hard. And it’s not the legacy that we owe our children.

“So, I will never say that this is ‘hopeless.’ It’s anything but hopeless, Tyler. It’s the embodiment of hope.”

The room remained silent for a few moments, an uncomfortable break that left Zimmer wondering if he had gotten through to anyone. Then, in the back of the room, one person began slowly applauding. Then, another. Soon, more than half the room was applauding, with many people rising to their feet to cheer him on. Zimmer felt a wave of relief spread over him, and nodded to the assembly, thanking them.

Yet not everyone was cheering. Looking across the sea of faces, Dr. Zimmer could see more than a handful of scientists shaking their heads, talking quietly to each other and gesturing at the platform. He had not won everyone over to his side, nor did he expect to. Most troubling to Zimmer, on a personal level, was that Tyler Scofield remained seated, arms crossed, a grim look upon his face. He was not among the believers, apparently. After a minute Scofield rose from his chair and walked out of the auditorium. Zimmer’s heart sank briefly, but within moments his attention refocused on his plan.

Questions came at him with lightning speed. Details were being demanded and he had few to offer. When pressed for at least a rough concept of the mission, Dr. Zimmer explained the idea of a ship that could hold at least two hundred kids, separated into compartments that contained housing sections, agricultural domes, recreation facilities, and more. No, it would not be an easy project, but mankind had run out of time. There was no room left to bicker about cost, either. There could be no price put on the plan or the objective. It had to be done, and it had to be done immediately.

The most pressing need, it turned out, was to design a computer brain that would act as pilot, teacher and adviser.


5

 

Let’s get one thing straight, all right? I’m not a babysitter. These kids are way too old and way too smart to need that. If I’m looking over their shoulders from time to time, it’s not to baby them; I just happen to be a natural snoop. A nosy computer, Roy called me. Okay, maybe I listen in sometimes when I should be busy testing the filtering system in the water recycling tanks, but is that interesting? Is it? No, it isn’t.

Gap Lee is interesting. A good-looking kid, too. Good athlete. Funny when he wants to be. Smart. Oh, and the coolest of the Council members.

Yes, I do know cool when I see it. Who do you think you’re dealing with here?

Anyway, Gap is cool, and one of my personal favorites on the ship. Just don’t tell anyone I told you that. Anyone, okay? Especially Gap.

 

Gap Lee waited in the Conference Room, as usual the first to arrive for the meeting. He sat at one end of the table and looked out the window. It faced away from Earth, a frame filled with stars. Gap was again struck by how many you could see outside the Earth’s atmosphere. “One of you is our new home,” Galahad’s Head of Engineering said to the stars. “I hope you’re ready for us.”

He turned his thoughts to his old home, the one that was falling away at thousands of miles per hour. Soon that speed would increase greatly, propelled by the power of the sun’s nuclear wind. After shining down on Gap for all sixteen years of his life, the sun now pushed him away, like a mother bird shoving a chick out of the nest, urging it to take wing and begin its new life.

Gap thought of his early childhood in China, raised as an only child by his parents, both of whom were college professors. An early interest in gymnastics was fueled by his training with a former Olympic champion. By age ten he was being groomed for his own championship run and had caught the eye of China’s Olympic committee.

Then, on his eleventh birthday, his parents startled him by announcing that they had accepted an invitation to teach at a prestigious school in America. Within three weeks the family had packed up and relocated to Northern California, settling into a modest home amid large trees and rolling hills. And although his parents were concerned about the abrupt change in his life, Gap immediately accepted the challenge of meeting new people and forming new friendships. It seemed everyone warmed to him as soon as they met him. A year of intense language lessons quickly made him fluent in English, and his school grades reflected his obvious intellect. He kept up his training with gymnastics, keeping an eye on that Olympic future.

The only thing that drove Gap’s parents crazy was his affection for Airboarding. Even though he wore a helmet and pads, spills were inevitable. His mother would cringe every time he walked in the door with another scrape, bruise or torn clothing. “You would sacrifice a chance at a gymnastics world record, just for this silly hobby?” she would cry. Gap would always smile, melting her heart, and then kiss her lightly on the cheek. “Gymnastics is what keeps me from really getting hurt,” he would assure her. “You should see the other kids.” She would wring her hands and walk away, chattering in her mother tongue.

Gap sighed now, alone in the room, thinking of his mother. He remembered her tortured look when he was selected for the Galahad mission. He also recalled, however, the look of pride on her face when Dr. Zimmer tapped him for a spot on the Council. While home during his last visit before the launch, Gap sat with his mother on their porch, watching the rain gently fall. The air had smelled so good, so full of life, the way it always smelled during a rainstorm.

“You were born to do great things, Gap,” she had told him that day. “I always knew that. But your father and I were sure it would come through athletic achievements, not like this.” She had taken his hand and looked deep into his eyes. “Destiny does not always take the path we expect,” she said. “Yours has taken a change we could never have expected. But you were ready. And we are so very proud of you.”

Gap had slipped his hand out of hers and tightly wrapped both arms around his mother. He still remembered the words she had whispered in his ear during that embrace.

“Your path will change again and again. Do not curse the change; embrace it, and make it work for you.”

Gap had begun to sob quietly, the sound masked by the falling rain. His tears, slowly trickling down his face, mixed with the raindrops blown onto the porch by a gust of wind.

He often thought about that moment, and had vowed never to forget his mother’s advice: embrace change. As he stared out at the multitude of stars, he knew that change would be a regular occurrence over the next five years of his life. Was he ready to embrace it?

“Do you smell smoke?” came the voice behind him, the colorful British accent breaking his trance.

Turning, he looked up into the face of Channy Oakland, the ship’s Activities/Nutrition Director. Channy was dressed in red shorts and a T-shirt the color of a sunrise (Gap wasn’t sure he had ever seen her in anything but T-shirts). Her dark skin glistened; her hair was pulled back in a long braid.

“Smoke?” Gap said. He sniffed the air a couple of times, then looked at Channy. “I don’t smell anything.”

“Well, with you so deep in thought a moment ago I felt sure I could smell something burning,” Channy said with a grin. She patted Gap on the shoulder, then sat down next to him.

“Oh, you’re quite a comedian,” he said. He liked Channy, but so did everyone else. It hadn’t taken very long for her to capture the “most popular” tag among the crew. One of two fifteen-year-olds on the Council, she brought a sense of humor to the sometimes bleak atmosphere.

“Where did you watch the launch?” she said, biting into an energy block she had brought to the Conference Room.

“The large observation window outside the Dining Hall. I only stayed for a while, though. It got kinda depressing, I thought.”

“Hmm. Well, I’m going back in a little while. Lita said when the night side rolls around you can see lightning all over the place. I guess there’s something like a hundred storms going on at any one time, and the lightning is really cool. Wanna go?”

Gap thought about the lightning for a moment, which only made him think again about the rain back home. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know, Channy. Maybe. I might be kinda busy.”

“Oh yeah, lots of work to do, and we’ll only have five years to get it done,” Channy said sarcastically. “You’re goofy.”

“You love it.”

She crossed her arms, a smug expression painted on her face. “Speaking of love,” she began mysteriously, “would you agree that it’s a little early in the game for shipboard romance?”

Gap leaned back and put his feet up on the table. He wanted to laugh at the way Channy wasted no time in jumping into her favorite activity: gossip. Coming from anyone else it might have disturbed him, but somehow Channy Oakland was able to get away with it. He grinned at her, running a hand through his short black hair, which, as usual, was sticking straight up.

“So your radar has already picked up romance? We only launched this morning.”

“Oh, I think this has been smoldering for a while,” Channy said with a whisper, as if the room were filled with eavesdroppers, when in fact they were all alone. This made Gap grin even more, and he whispered right back to her.

“I am so intrigued. Tell me more, Inspector. Just how long has it been smoldering?

Channy leaned over to him. “I think since the moment you met Triana.”

The grin on his face disappeared instantly. “What? What are you talking about?”

Now it was Channy’s turn to smile. She got up and walked over to the freshwater dispenser. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Gap pulled his feet down from the table and glanced around to make sure no one had entered the Conference Room. “What are you talking about?” he said again, a little more forcefully.

“Oh, come on,” she said. “I doubt anyone else has noticed a thing, but you can’t get anything past me.” She walked back over to the table holding a couple of small plastic cups of water. “You can joke all you want about my ‘radar,’ but it’s true, you know. I can sniff it out faster than anyone.” She batted her eyes at him. “It’s the romantic in me.”

With that, she sighed playfully and handed him one of the cups.

Gap started to speak, stopped, then started again. “I don’t know what you think you see,” he said, “but you can forget about it. I like Triana as much as the next person—”

“But not very many people do,” Channy said. “I’m not saying it’s her fault; she’s just very quiet and very private. She hasn’t made too many friends, you know.”

Gap toyed with his cup of water. “Her job isn’t to win any popularity contests. She’s got a lot of pressure on her right now. She’s sixteen years old and suddenly in charge of two hundred fifty . . . well, two hundred fifty pilgrims, I guess you could say. I wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility.”

“Yes, you would,” Channy said. “You might not have pushed for the job, but I’ll bet you would have taken it in a flash. You know the rest of us kind of assume you’re second in command. That’s got to be a nice feeling.”

“There is no ‘second in command.’ That’s why we have the Council.”

“Yeah, whatever. You know what I’m talking about, though. And don’t get me wrong, Gap. I like Triana, too. I know she’s under a lot of pressure, and I also know this is her way of handling it. Fine. But think about this . . .”

She paused for effect. “If I’ve noticed the way you look at her and talk to her, don’t you think she has, too?”

Gap didn’t answer. He began to roll the cup back and forth in his hands.

Suddenly Channy felt uncomfortable. “Don’t worry, Romeo,” she said. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret is that, Channy?” came a voice from the door. Gap and Channy both looked up to see Lita Marques stroll into the room alongside Triana. Lita’s black eyes and Latin American skin spoke of her upbringing in Mexico. Flashing a smile that only added to her already beautiful face, she grabbed the chair opposite Channy while Triana went to the end of the table across from Gap.

“You guys already have secrets?” Lita said.

“Yeah, I promised Gap I wouldn’t tell, but I guess it’s okay for you to know, Lita,” Channy said sweetly. Gap stared at her without breathing.

“See, Gap was a little disappointed that you couldn’t see the lines between the states and countries from space. You know, like you see on a map?” Channy winked at Lita, then shot a sly glance at Gap, who was slowly exhaling.

Lita winked back at her and fiddled with the red ribbon holding back her hair. “Fine, don’t tell me your little secret. I’ll just start keeping a few from you.”

Channy rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. You couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it.”

Triana interrupted their exchange. “Where’s Bon? It’s about time to get started.”

Gap looked down the table at her. “We’re still a few minutes early. He’s probably holed up in his crops. You know, nothing about him screams ‘farmer,’ but he sure loves that work.”

“Well, let’s face it, it gives him a chance to be by himself a lot, and that suits Bon just fine,” Channy said. “He would love this trip even more if he didn’t have to share the ship with two hundred fifty other people.”

Triana felt a little uncomfortable with the topic. Although she knew that Channy was only kidding around, she was well aware of the negative vibes that Bon could radiate. In her mind there was no sense fanning those flames so early in the trip. She was relieved when Lita changed the subject.

“Word is getting around that most of the major cities in the world are going to fire up every light they have tonight as a kind of farewell sign to us. Should be quite a sight when the dark side rolls around again.”

“One of us should watch it with Gap,” Channy said, “so we can explain that whole line thing to him again.”

Gap rolled his eyes. “You know, I am so looking forward to five years of your act.”

Triana didn’t respond. She was ready to leave Earth behind quickly. A light show meant nothing to her, other than more pain, a prolonging of the grief caused by the separation. She knew the rest of the crew felt as if they were celebrities of a sort, grand heroes being given a spectacular send-off. Chewing on her lip, she glanced up to see Bon Hartsfield walk in.

Bon, his light-colored hair hanging down almost to his shoulders, immediately walked to the water dispenser after only nodding at the assembled group. The scowl on his face was familiar by now, in contrast to the bright, toothy smile of Lita. He was a year younger than Triana, the same age as Channy, though his severe expression always painted him older. Strong, if not as muscular as Gap, his Scandinavian good looks were smothered by what appeared to be a permanent sour mood. His pale blue eyes, like ice, reflected little warmth. He took his seat, and Triana looked at the faces surrounding her.

“Lita,” she said, “I know you’ve already had your hands full down at Sick House. Thanks for breaking away for this meeting.”

“Well, I only have about twenty minutes,” Lita said. “We’re swamped with messages from the crew, lots of stomachaches, things like that. Nerves, if you ask me.”

Triana nodded. “I thought that might happen after the initial buzz wore off.”

“Yeah,” Lita said. “Anyway, I left Alexa in charge for the time being. She knows what she’s doing, but I don’t want to leave her alone too long. It’s crazy right now.”

Bon finally spoke up. “Well, why don’t we get started? I’ve got work to do.”

It took an effort, but Triana managed to keep irritation from registering on her face, even though her green eyes blazed. Things had always been tense between her and Bon Hartsfield, from as early as she could remember. There was no question of his abilities to run the Agricultural Department, or any other department for that matter. Yet his personality had clashed with hers, sometimes leaving her to wonder if he might even be removed from his position on the Council prior to the launch. But it had never happened.

“We’ve all got work to do,” Triana said slowly. “Because this is our first postlaunch meeting, I think it’s important that we spend a few minutes to make sure everyone is caught up and feels good about what’s planned for each department.”

Gap jumped in, helping diffuse the tension. “You all probably know this, but I’ll tell you anyway. The ship is running fine. No surprises, no breakdowns. Now that we’re clear of the space station and out of Earth’s orbit we’ll start to really pick up speed. The solar sails are almost completely deployed, the ion power drive is kicking into gear and Roc says we’ll be outside the orbit of Mars within the next four weeks. After that we’ll accelerate at a faster clip. We’ll pull the sails back when we do the gravity slingshot around Saturn, but then it’s almost full speed ahead.”

Channy Oakland spoke up next. “The crew was lectured constantly about exercise over the last year. But there’s a pretty good chance they won’t take it that seriously now that we’re off by ourselves.” She grinned. “I might not make too many friends over the next couple of months, but I’m gonna have to be a drill sergeant until everyone gets into a consistent routine.”

“And you’ve already scheduled a soccer tournament, is that what I hear?” Triana said.

“Well, I can’t see why we should wait,” Channy told her. “I say get active and stay active. The dance program I suggested looks like it might be a hit. Several girls have signed up. All of these activities might help with some of the nerves and depression that Lita talked about.”

“Don’t forget about Airboarding,” Gap chimed in.

Channy said to him, “Can’t wait to show off, can you?”

“Bon, anything to report from the Farms?” Triana said. She did her best to keep her tone the same with him as when she addressed the other Council members. But that was hard for her. Bon could be so frustrating sometimes.

“Everything’s fine,” he said shortly. “Since Dr. Zimmer insisted we plant the first crops a couple of months before launch, a few things are already set for harvesting. The sun panels are working. We had a problem with some of the water recycling tubes, but we fixed that. All is well. Nobody should starve on this ship for at least the first few months.”

Coming from anyone else the comment would have been met with good-natured laughter. With Bon it came out with a sarcastic tint that left the Council quiet. After a moment Lita filled the silence with her own report.

“Like I mentioned already, a few stomachaches, some headaches, but nobody really sick. We’d like to keep it that way until we at least pass Mars, okay everybody?” This was greeted with chuckles. “Other than that, I’ll just wait for Gap to come in with his first Airboarding injury. Especially since he and the other hotshots are too cool to wear their knee and elbow pads.”

“Keep waiting,” Gap said, laughing. “How much you wanna bet you’ll get a soccer injury before any Boarder walks into Sick House?”

Tree was about to bring Roc into the conversation when suddenly the intercom flashed in front of her. Snapping it on, she could hear wild screams in the background. Someone was out of control, panicking, and if there were words mixed in with the screams, they were unintelligible. Tree was able to make out other voices, apparently crew members trying to calm or restrain the person who had lost it. Cutting through the sound of the screams came the intense voice of Lita’s assistant, Alexa Wellington.

“Lita, Triana, I need you over here. We have a sensitive situation.” It sounded much more serious than a “sensitive situation,” but Triana appreciated Alexa’s composure. She looked down the length of the table at Gap, their gazes locking instantly. “We’ll be right there, Alexa,” she said. “Gap, come with us. Channy, Bon, we’ll be back as soon as possible.”

Triana reached to shut off the speaker, cutting off the shrieks that sent shivers through all of them.

The Comet’s Curse © Dom Testa 2012

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