Three days—the countdown had signalled. And now there was less than one left. The sixth day of the seventh month. This day would go down on her calendar forever as the day before the launch.
Sarah sat silently in her little candle making room. There would be no making candles once on the trip. Too bad her hobby did not transport well. She was not allowed matches on board, but she had decided to take one unburned candle anyways. As a reminder. ‘The Bible says that He is the light of the world. We have to believe that he is also the light here, far above that place called Earth.’ Her aunt’s voice whispered softly through her thoughts. Do we have to believe? No. Belief is a choice. And she did not believe. Sometimes she longed to. Longed for that certainty and calmness that Aunt Martha had. But she knew it would never be hers.
But now there was hope. They were leaving. It had been a shock, three days ago, when the countdown had begun. She had been absorbed in her planning, her thinking. How best to go about making suggestions, accusations. How could she, by herself, force the mission to start. It seemed an impossible task. Maybe it was. But that was not going to stop her from trying. She had finally decided what to do—not because she thought it would work, but because she was sick of waiting. She had been rehearsing her statement to the council when the small Com machine that kept her in contact with Headquarters began to beep, and the voice of the admiral proclaimed that the ship would be launched in three days.
Why now? What had suddenly happened, somewhere in the depth of the complex bureaucracy that set the ball rolling? She wondered and she did not know the answer. But she was glad it was beginning. And her secret was still safe. If anyone found out, she would be out of the game before it began. They could not have someone deathly ill on a mission like this. Part of her felt the same way. Was she endangering the success of the whole mission simply by climbing aboard that ship?
Now she sat, two days later, and no closer to the answer to any of her questions, trying to pick out a candle to take with her.
The com, which was hooked onto her belt rang. She had become used to it and its annoying little beep these past few days. She unhooked it and answered the call. The admiral Nex’s voice was tight, as if he were in pain. “Sarah, please come to headquarters immediately. I’ll explain more once you arrive.”
Something was wrong. Seriously wrong. Had someone found out her secret? She set down the deep purple candle, keeping the sky-blue one in her hand and dashed out of the room.
In less than ten minutes, Sarah entered the central room in headquarters. Almost everyone was there—four of the seven crew members were standing near the admiral. Everyone by herself, Jake, and Isaac. But Jake was always a little on the late side, and he lived farthest away. The Admiral was answering the questions that Stephanie, the only other girl the expedition was asking him.
“It happened three hours ago,” he said.
“Did they take him to the hospital?” she asked.
He shook his head wearily. “There was no body to take. Completely incinerated in the flames.”
“How did it happen?” she asked.
“How did what happen?” asked Jake in a loud voice as he made his entrance. Sarah was about to ask that very question.
“Isaac died in a freak transport accident this afternoon. We’re not yet sure where he was going, but it was on his regular routine. An investigation is being made…”
The Admiral’s voice became very distant to Sarah and she sat down on the ground, her ears ringing dully. Isaac dead? Her one friend in the crew. How could this be? So soon before they were to leave!
She had been wrong earlier: the sixth day of the seventh month: this day would go down on her calendar forever as the day Isaac died. She clutched the blue candle to her chest. Jake was crouching next to her. His bright red and gold jacket, that had always reminded her of the jackets that the mythical hero Napoleon had worn, blurred in her eyes then came into sharp focus. This can’t be an accident. Her heart told her. And her heart only sometimes lied.
Markus was nearing the end of his careful review of all the medical supplies onboard the Jericho when he let out a loud groan.
“The Fluoride is missing! They expect me to be doctor, dentist, chiropractor, emergency surgeon, and medical scientist and they can’t get me a few simple bottles of Fluoride! What, do they think I can clean people’s teeth with my fingers? Staples!” he yelled for his assistant, the one he would shortly be leaving behind, and continued his rant, “The magical doctor man. That’s what I’m to be. Fluoride simply comes out of his finger tips! And if you need him to perform emergency surgery, don’t worry, he’s got a great mechanical hand that is equipped with all the tools necessary.
“Staples! Where is that brat? Oh, right. He’s already gone. His job is over. He gets to go home to his wife and kids. Wife and kids. Maybe if I had those I wouldn’t be here. I knew there was a really good reason to get married that everyone was keeping a secret from me.”
“Need anything Markus? I think Staples has already gone.” It was Kylie. The tall, pretty blonde stood in the doorway, her head cocked slightly, and her dark blue dress whispering about her ankles. You wouldn’t have guessed from looking at her that all that gorgeousness hid even more intelligence and a super quick wit.
“Yeah, they forgot the Fluoride. I’ll have to send a note in.”
“I’ll look after it. How many bottles do you need?”
“No, I’m sure you have other things to do.”
“I’m not busy at the moment.”
“Three, no, let’s make that four bottles, then. Are you sure.”
“Yes. I’ll place the order,” and she was gone.
“Thanks!” he called after her. She was always so quick in and out. And always down to business. Nice girl, though. He genuinely liked most of the crew. This wouldn’t be such a bad trip. He turned back to his cupboards. Click, click click came from the hallway.
“Yes Ishmael?” Markus turned to greet the middle aged historian.
“I’m sure this is a dumb question, so please don’t be offended. But I just wanted to make extra sure that—”
“Go on,” said Markus gruffly. Clearly Ishmael had heard that Markus could sometimes be short tempered. Or maybe had had bumped into Kylie on the way in and had heard that he was in a bad mood.
“You do have all the supplies and things to look after cats, right?”
“Yes indeed. Don’t worry, your feline will be well looked after.”
Ishmael’s relief, which was likely just as much at the content of Markus’ answer as at the tone in which it was given, was clear.
“Thank you Dr. Markus. See you at launch time.”
Click, click, click, and Ishmael was gone.
“And we can add veterinarian to the list of things this super-doctor does.”
“The crew is taking this pretty hard,” said Admiral Nex, trying to eat the soup in front of him but finding that he didn’t have much appetite. “Sarah especially. It seems she was pretty close with him. I’m beginning to wonder if we rushed it a bit to much, announcing his replacement so quickly after the accident.”
“No one reacted to that particularly negatively, except maybe Sarah.” Captain Florin spoke in his calm, deep voice. “Everyone can see that Absalom is the obvious person, and he needs at least twenty four hours to prepare. We explained all that. You also told them that there had always been a back-up for every crew member—someone ready to step in in the case of an emergency. I’m not sure that was necessary, but it did help most of them to understand.”
“Isn’t there some way that we can delay the take off, give them more time.”
“No. There is not,” there was finality in Florin’s statement. “You know that yourself. If we delay it now, it will never take off and all our effort will be wasted. Everything will be over before it begins.”
“It’s now or nothing, Admiral. Quite literally.”
The Admiral finished his soup in brooding silence. Forcing each bite down.
Steve did a final systems check for the third time. No one would accuses this technician of not being thorough. All the crew members had stowed their belongings aboard, as had the three passengers. Steve felt like there was something missing, or that he was forgetting something. But he didn’t know what. He had said his goodbyes an hour ago. His mother and sister had cried a lot, but he had shed no tears. Until he said goodbye to Dr. Speilze; kissing the old man on his wrinkly forehead. But no one except Dr. Speilze had seen those tears, so they didn’t count.
Steve was the youngest crew member at two months past sixteen. There had been a big fuss about him being allowed on such an important venture, but Guyrok had insisted. Guyrok was the captain of the mission, so everybody listened to him. And Guyrok had listened to Dr. Speilze. Dr. Speilze was the man who should have been going instead of Steve, but he was nearly eighty, and had recently had a stroke that had left him confined to a wheelchair. Dr. Speilze had designed and constructed most of the vessel they would be taking. And Steve had been his assistant. Steve had practically lived in the ship the last few years as Dr. Speilze added unnecessary touches to pass the time until takeoff. The boy knew the ship better than he knew his own body.
But what could he be forgetting? All his worldly belongings were carefully stowed in the little cupboard by his bunk in the tiny room he shared with Jake. The passengers had a lot more allotted space for personal belongings than the crew did. They had all come on board with two bulging bags each. Steve hoped that the lady, Mrs. Douglas, hadn’t packed enough of that detestable strong perfume she had been wearing to last the whole trip.
Then he realized what was missing. Isaac. Isaac and his smart Siamese cat. Steve swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. There would be no Isaac and no cat on this trip. Isaac had always been friendly to Steve, even when everybody else either thought he was a worthless nuisance, or paid him no heed.
“Ah, Steven!” Steve nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice and spun around to find himself staring wide-eyed at the very person he had been just been thinking about. There was Isaac, standing in the doorway, his cat in one arm, his small back in the other.
“I was wondering if you might do me a favour,” said Isaac. Steve just stared at him, so he went on. “Might you tell me where everyone had gathered? The ship appears to be empty, except for you.”
Steve had been ready to ask Isaac if he was a ghost, when Isaac’s last words sunk in. The ship was empty? He glanced at his watch. He was late for the final briefing! He jumped up.
“Final briefing!” he exclaimed. “Come on.” Isaac stepped aside and followed Steve as the teen dashed down the narrow hallway and out of the ship. “But you’re supposed to be dead!” Steve said as he walked hurriedly.
“Well, yes, I know.” Isaac wore a bemused smile. “But looks like I’m hard to kill.”