A note from the author: The first time I tried my hand at writing sci-fi, I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, and I'd recently become obsessed with the genre. I sketched out this whole plan for a lost-in-space-type book series and began typing away with abandon. After maybe two years of this (in which I actually managed to finish 3 novel-length manuscripts), I went back and reworked the first book (I was 14 or 15 -- it was freshman year of high school). Below is the prologue (because I didn't know that prologues were frowned upon) from that second go at the manuscript.
Though the epic seven-book series I envisioned never materialized (I ditched the whole project -- and pretty much writing altogether -- around my junior year of high school and focused my creative energy toward filmmaking and music instead), I eventually completed a different sci-fi manuscript (also a space adventure), which ended up becoming my debut novel (Artificial Absolutes).
I recall a period of time between ditching my first sci-fi project in high school and picking up creative writing again after college when all those years spent clattering away at an (admittedly not great) abandoned project felt like a waste. But now with the benefit of hindsight, I can draw a direct line from those early scribblings to my current works. And now, without further ado, here's the prologue to The Improvisers...
Nōn est ad astra mollis ē terrīs via
Come one, hurry up, Rostal thought excitedly for the umpteenth time as he watched his employees prepare to open the box. Every nerve in him itched to be in that laboratory with them instead of standing behind a silly pane of glass.
Seconds felt like hours as the scientists finished their safety checks.
Hurry up! Rostal thought again, wishing he could shout it out as they looked at each other nervously, unsure of what to do with something so alien.
Finally, the scientists approached the box, and one of them reached out with a gloved hand and touched it. Suddenly, the box rose up off the floor, and its walls burst outwards and clattered to the ground, leaving its contents to float alone in the air.
Rostal pressed his head harder against the glass and stared at the thing that was floating in the air.
Amazing, he thought. Not surprising, though, considering where it came from.
The box had first been spotted silhouetted against the sun as it floated limply near the planet Earth. From the time it was first spotted by their Oculus telescope, Rostal, head of the Astronautics and Space Exploration Administration (ASEA) knew that it was a significant discovery. Little did he suspect that everything he would do for the next decade or more would trace back to it.
Technically, the ASEA, whose only facilities were nestled within the boundaries of a modest, bucolic estate, was only called an “administration” to sound impressive. In reality, it was a private organization run by an eccentric man who had inherited billions and had a passion for space exploration: William Rostal.
Evidence of the informality of the ASEA ranged from the quixotic employees, who were mostly promising dilettantes, to the artsy logo, which was a bright sun on top of an inverted twin with seven miniscule globes forming semi circles to the right and left. The flaming blue letters that spelled “ASEA” across the top had been designed by Rostal himself. After dealing with government restraints and formalities ad nauseam, he had decided to begin his own non-profit organization based on his own whims. From the very beginning, its sole purpose had not been to gain money, power, or fame, but simply to explore.
When it was but a nascent organization, people saw the ASEA as a truly promising group that, because of its free and boundless ways, could do things no government administration could. But, over time, Rostal’s dreams, such as sending a spacecraft to Jupiter’s core, had to be toned down. Even he began to realize that many of his ideas were unrealistic.
Because of his wild ideas, impatience, and limited resources (compared to the government), he rarely finished anything. His telescopes only brought back fuzzy, incomprehensible pictures and almost all of his other unmanned spacecraft crashed. Manned spacecraft were out of the question. Over the course of five years since it was founded, the ASEA plummeted from an aspiring space exploration program to a lame joke.
But that did not stop William Rostal. He was not only impractical, but he was a downright visionary. Even though he was in his mid sixties, he had the verve and gusto of a college student when it came to running his organization. If he wanted something done, he would forget all security measures and such and simply do it. If one of his sponsors backed out, his only response would be to curse and insult their intelligence. Sometimes he regained their support by apologizing and convincing them that the ASEA’s “big break” was coming. Only sometimes.
It came in the form of that object floating near their Oculus telescope. Rostal had it brought down immediately by an unmanned craft, which was only the third to pass the stratosphere. Many were concerned by this action because the object could contaminate the world with strange diseases and bacteria. A handful of skeptical government officials, upon hearing about its existence, wanted to confiscate it.
Rostal, however, wanted to keep it to himself and the ASEA. Therefore, he had it locked away in his home when they came to his office asking for it. He said that it had been an inconsequential space rock, and that he had (regrettably) already destroyed it on the advice of a paranoid friend of his. When he realized that this story would cause an outcry from space scientists, he revised it and “confessed” that it was all an elaborate hoax.
After a few months, the entire incident had blown over. Rostal, who had only handled it briefly before putting it away, decided that it was high time to find out exactly what sort of fish had landed in his net.
It turned out to be a metallic green hexagonal box that could never have been a natural occurrence.
Rostal had intended to simply pry it open with his bare hands, but was finally convinced by several colleagues to let the scientists do it with tools and full protective gear.
Inside was a plate-sized disk with a gold-colored frame that was slightly raised on one side. The part inside the frame was black and had the texture of a flatscreen TV. The back was smooth and silvery with swirls that played with the light.
It had dangled in the air for several minutes before gently lowering down to the floor.
Moments later, the black center flickered like an old fashioned desktop computer. Then, it came alive as several symbols scrolled across the screen. These symbols switched to familiar English characters only a minute or two later. It never occurred to Rostal, who had been watching all this from behind a glass window, that no translator could possibly pick up an entire language so quickly. Nor did he care to find out how it had “known” to turn itself on upon being removed. All he cared about were the basic conclusions of the scientists: that it was a computer with touch screen and that it was absolutely safe.
It revealed the blueprints and plans for an oddly shaped spaceship. The first things that popped up after a brief introduction were several annotated images of the craft. The command bridge and secondary command deck were two halves of a triangular body with the bridge on top. This section was separate set apart from the main body like the top half of a figure eight. The main body was oval shaped with a tail-like area at the end that narrowed into a point.
Protruding from the middle of the main body was a section that rose out of the ship and curved at a right angle, extending forward until it was right above the command bridge. The engines were set apart from the main body and were connected by two concave indoor bridges. They were inside two long, thin structures that curved inwardly towards the ship, one on each side, and ended in diamond-like shapes. These structures were as long as the entire ship, but since they curved, they appeared to be somewhat shorter. At first sight, it seemed that they were a single set, but further examinations showed that the front sections were actually different from the back. Why this odd arrangement? One could only guess. The back two were what the computer called “hyperspeed engines” that could, supposedly, warped time and space to allow the ship to travel faster than light.
The computer had everything from detailed plans of the ship’s interior and exterior to the schematics for various androids to the generators and life support to the crew it would require. It even had a name for this ship: Nikhadakiera. Several people wanted to change that, but Rostal insisted that the alien name be kept and told the people who could not pronounce to simply call her “Kiera.” To make matters certain, he added, in the same flaming blue letters, the word “Nikhadakiera” to the bottom of the ASEA’s logo. To any outsider who questioned its meaning, Rostal simply answered that it was “Ubijeroicydijian for ‘never look at the sun.’” (In reality, he neither knew its real meaning nor what kind of language “Ubijeroicydijian” might be).
But what really amazed Rostal about the box were the maps, records, and images that constituted a vast database that was included in the plans for the central computer. This computer system was the ship’s “brain”; if an object was part of the ship, it could be traced back to the computer. Rostal would have thought that such a complicated machine would have been extremely large, but it was actually designed to be spread out within the walls, thereby appearing smaller.
Although the idea of actually constructing such a ship seemed impossible at first, it turned out that whatever civilization the box had come from was very much like Earth. Though other institutes and organizations may have focused on the computer itself, Rostal decided to go ahead and have the ship built. When built, this ship would be a milestone in space travel. Also, when built, this ship would erase the possibly hundreds of years Earth would have to wait before anything could travel beyond the solar system. And, this ship would allow the ASEA to actually send humans into the reaches of space.
It took the ASEA ten solid years to secretly build the ship, a rough mixture of the new-fangled, the futuristic, and the archaic, and find a motley crew. Finally, after the decade of extensive planning and building, the ASEA Nikhadakiera was ready to launch.
Though most organizations would have first embarked missions to Earth’s next-door neighbors, the ASEA had other plans. The central computer was pre-programmed and showed the locations of several life-supporting planets. Rather than possibly going in circles and or finding nothing, the ship would be able to go on a guided tour of the universe.
Rostal thought this was excellent, although others were not so sure. If the ASEA had not been Rostal’s organization, the box and its contents would probably have undergone extensive study rather than being put to use so quickly. Rostal, however, just wanted the ship to fly.
The Kiera, as the ship was commonly called, was self-sufficient. It had artificial gravity, food synthesizers, recycling systems, and air generators, among others things. Also included was a garden, mainly hydroponics, that would provide a refreshing change for any crewmember who was tired of artificial this that.
Each of the crewmembers had signed a contract that stated the rules of the ship and that said that he or she would be away from Earth indefinitely. To keep things as quiet as possible, Rostal convinced everyone not involved that he was building a model. Not that anyone cared. It was good to be away from the prying public, in his opinion. He did not want to wait another ten years to launch the Kiera while spokespeople and reporters jabbered on about “issues.”
Hiding the occupations of the 1,435 people who would be going into space was not too hard. The original plans called for more than twice that number, but Rostal realized that there simply were not three thousand adventurous people on the planet that he could recruit without attracting attention. Most were bold young idealists, but there were also a couple “old timers.” Each was hand-selected by Rostal through his “employment network,” which was a system of people he knew and their obscure relatives and acquaintances and their obscure relatives and acquaintances and so on. Most of the people he ended up employing had only will and brains to their credit.
And desperation. Their acceptance of uniforms was proof of that. Rostal decided that, “to make this an adequate work environment, formality is a must.” Of course, they were allowed to wear casual clothing during their time off. Although a few people protested that this was completely unnecessary and that he had been watching too many TV shows, Rostal would not be swayed. He finally compromised by redesigning the tight, zip-up, rubber and metal jumpsuits he had in mind to something a bit more conventional. White shirt, brown belt, navy blue pants and jacket—what was so unusual about that? The answer was: the zipper down the shirt instead of buttons, the upside-down triangle that extended from the shoulders to halfway down the zipper (color-coded by sector), and the round badge on the left side of the jacket in place of a breast pocket (the ASEA logo—complete with the mini globes, inverted suns, and flaming letters). Rostal’s curt answer to the complaints was simply, “Get used to it.”
Every crewmember received a radio, which was small and easily clipped on to the belt. It provided both audio and video communications. In fact, it was more of a computer than a radio. It could be used to send images, typed messages, sounds, etc.
A second piece of equipment, a multi-purpose shooter, was limited to the security team, command crew, and secondary command crew. It was referred to only as “the shooter” because the science department lacked the creativity to find a better word (its original name was even more unpronounceable than Nikhadakiera). It was relatively small and was shaped like an elongated handgun. That fact caused quite a bit of controversy from anti-gun members of the organization, but Rostal explained that the shape had nothing to do with the intended purpose.
The shooter had an elliptical body with several buttons on top. These buttons were used to set the function. The barrel was long and thin and could emit laser blasts, heat waves, cutters, stunners, and light. Below the barrel was a gripping device with a long cord that Rostal supposed was for reaching high places without a ladder.
Since there was no one to learn from, the crew had to teach themselves how to operate the shooters (and the rest of the ship). Reading the blueprints, trial-and-error, improvisation, and lucky guesses were the only forms of training the crew undertook. For that reason, there was more slang thrown around than technical terms.
Rostal had a little trouble giving people titles and ranks, since he did not want it to sound military. The ground crew was the multi-headed “captain” and the leader aboard the ship was the “commander.” What was supposed to happen was that he would receive orders from Earth, the command crew would receive orders from him, the secondary crew would receive orders from them, and the ordinary crew would receive orders from the secondary crew. The commander would be fully in charge in case of emergency. Or if the Kiera lost contact with Earth.
Not that that would ever happen…
About The Author: Mary Fan is a sci-fi/fantasy writer hailing from Jersey City, NJ. She is the author of the Jane Colt sci-fi series, the Starswept YA sci-fi series, and the Flynn Nightsider YA dark fantasy series. Her most recent release, STRONGER THAN A BRONZE DRAGON, is a YA steampunk fantasy that came out last month. In addition, Mary is the co-editor (along with fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels) of Brave New Girls, which feature tales about girls in STEM. Revenues from sales are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund.
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