By Andy Cooke
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books.
Today, we have The End and Afterwards by Andy Cooke
It took three things to bring about the End of the World:
- A space drive that was to open the stars to humanity. - Exiled Warlords willing to blackmail the world to restore their tyranny. - Their intended victims, desperate to avoid them.
But even though the Earth might be doomed, Hope could still survive.
Pip Allen was desperate to go to the stars after he graduated.
Charlie Jennings was seeking a new life and meaning.
Joe Mbutu was striving to protect his people from the callous Warlords.
Corbin Anders was trying to prevent what he saw as an abomination.
The Endeavour would tie their stories together at the End of the World... and afterwards.
The end of the world, like so many other events through history, was caused by a mixture of fear, greed, mistakes, corruption and good old-fashioned bad luck.
It was what happened afterwards that showed mankind at its best. And its worst.
T-4 years, 4 months, 27 days
"I’m sorry, sir, but the dangers are too high if we do it like this. It’s just bad practice!" The stocky programmer was looking frustrated.
With a sigh, his line manager shook his head.
"Osaze. Do you really expect me to go up to one of the Warlords and tell him that he’s ‘following bad practice’? Seriously?"
"But there’s so much at stake! It’s not necessary. When the lockout happens, we’re the only people who can send commands, so why set the suicide command now? Anything could happen in the next four years."
"That’s what they’re worried about. If we get all the commands we want set up now, then all we’ll need is a one second uplink to be successful at the later stages. The abort command is already in there; it just needs that one line to activate it. So it stops the Americans and their allies from simply rolling in and flattening us. It’s called a "dead man’s switch’, I believe." Reuben Ibrahim rubbed his eyes. "Come on, Osaze. As soon as the trajectory changes, they’ll give us everything we want. Then we send the last line and it's all over."
"Have they even read the details? Do they understand how short a time is involved at relativistic speeds?".
"Probably not, but so what?"
"So what? So they’ll have far, far less time than they could ever imagine. It could be just a couple of days between them finding out about the trajectory change and it being too late to do anything. If the Americans don’t believe us until that, it’s too late."
"A couple of days? Coming from Alpha Centauri? It’s not the Starship bloody Enterprise!" scoffed Ibrahim.
"Have you read the details in the report?" demanded Uche.
Ibrahim looked at his subordinate’s defiant face. "Look – I’ll read it tonight and pass on any concerns up the chain. I promise. If it is dangerous to do it that way – and I mean really dangerous – then we’ll do it your way."
"Thank you!" Uche looked profoundly relieved. "Look, I’ve coded an alternative set of commands. I’ll send the file to you now." Uche hurried off.
The concerns of a busy line manager were manifold. Despite his promise, the file languished unread until Ibrahim forgot all about it..
Nine days later, the satellite upstation twenty miles outside of Lagos beamed a carefully crafted set of commands towards the Star Pioneer 1. It did not include Uche’s proposed amendments to the lines of code that latched on to the ‘back door’ in Star Pioneer 1’s software. As soon as the radio signal had crawled out towards the turnover point, to intercept the probe just over halfway between Sol and Alpha Centauri , the unmanned probe would be under new management.
Deep interstellar space
The probe checked the instruction set one last time and implemented it. Despite its sophisticated programming, it was still a machine, obedient to whatever its masters told it to do. Careful preparation spread over several venial programmers – all ignorant of what others had been bribed to do, all certain that the tiny tweak they’d agreed to do was insignificant – had left a crack in the security, into which slipped this instruction set. All of it would be acted upon, even the final suicidal subroutine – unless countermanded, of course.
The Warlords' plan was, of course, to countermand that subroutine. As soon as they had what they wanted, of course - free rein to retain to the country that had so unceremoniously evicted them.
So, as instructed, Star Pioneer 1 shut out the input signal channel that its creators had originally used. It would now only accept orders on the new channel that its latest instruction set had described, using the new encryption codes.
Deep between the stars, the huge probe maintained its heading, rather than flipping over for its long deceleration. It continued boosting at a continual three gravities, still accelerating instead, building speed remorselessly, aiming just away from a yellow dot that was not much brighter than the other stars. It would be more than two years and two months before its original controllers could even notice that it wasn't doing what they had planned, and it would arrive hard on the heels of that information, a mere three days behind the lightspeed radio alarms
T-3 years, 2 months, 9 days.
London, Imperial College
Pip Allen rolled out of bed with a groan. He had a tutorial at nine am and still hadn’t done any work for it. He’d been expected to research… oh, what the hell was it now? It was something he knew already, which gave him a chance, because he had to analyse something about it.
He blinked away the muzzy sleep from his eyes. Dammit, he always woke up slowly. Right, there was his notebook. He flicked it open. Yes, that was it. The effects of the new materials from zero-gee production being used for manufacture of high-stress structural components. He’d done a project on this at Sixth Form College, so he had the background at least. Just got to ensure that it went a bit deeper and met with Doc Tedman’s biases. It’d be an oral quiz and he only had to talk for about fifteen minutes. He looked at his watch. Two hours before he’d have to leave his room. Easy.
As Pip hurried across the campus, he glanced up, automatically. And pointlessly. Even had the skeleton of the starship been in an orbit visible from London, the lengthy days at the moment would make visibility impossible. Still, he wanted to be on that thing when it went, and if the timings worked out well enough, he'd calculated that he might actually have an outside chance.
His first year at University had been a wake-up call to someone who had cruised through school with hardly any need to work hard, but he reckoned he had the hang of it now. Then again, if he persisted in leaving preparation to the last minute, sooner or later, he’d come unstuck. Quietly, he resolved to improve his working habits. He had a goal to work towards.
Later, his head buzzing from the reaming he’d received from his tutor, he headed to the Junior Common Room to snatch a mid-morning snack. Dr Tedman had not been impressed with his recycled research – there had been significant advances in the past eighteen months and some of what he’d accepted as factual back in Sixth Form had not survived a more detailed grilling. "Superficial and shallow" were not words he ever wanted to hear again with respect to his work.
Pip picked up a bag of crisps, a can of drink, and a seat on an empty table near the window facing the Queen’s Tower and sat down for some welcome solitude to reflect upon his future. Solitude that lasted less than two minutes before Jamie Milne and Samantha Montfort sat down opposite him.
Jamie reached into Pip’s bag of crisps and fished one out for himself. "What’s up, mate? You look like you’ve lost a tenner and found a quid."
Pip tried to glare at Jamie, but the sandy-haired student was unfussed by his scowl. "Nothing, really. Just a tough tutorial."
"Doctor Tedman?" asked Sam sympathetically. "He can be harsh, but he’s usually quite fair in the long run. If you put in the effort, you can pull him round."
"That’s the problem. I didn’t put in the effort."
"Nothing to complain about then," said Jamie cheerfully. "Self-inflicted wound, mate."
"I know!" snapped Pip. "I wasn’t complaining. You came over and started pinching my food. Will you stop that?"
Jamie had just retrieved a small handful of crisps from Pip’s packet. He blinked. "Sorry, Pip. I didn’t realize you really meant it. We always share, don’t we?"
He made as if to return the crisps. Pip’s anger faded as quickly as it had blossomed. He was taking his own frustration out on his friends.
"No. I’m sorry. It’s just – the starship thing. No-one knows how many people are going to apply, and…"
"…And you’re Mr Flash Gordon who’s desperate to head out into the wild black yonder and leave all of this behind." Sam finished for him.
Pip smiled ruefully. "I know. It’s a bit obsessive, but I’ve wanted to explore ever since I was about five years old."
"We all did, mate, but most people grew out of it," said Jamie.
He made as if to ward off Pip’s glare –it was obviously now working. "Hey – maybe I was a bit less than diplomatic."
"Maybe?" asked Sam with a faint smile. She turned to Pip. "I’ve got to be honest – I'm curious as well. Seeing as there are going to be crewmembers who’ll go out, do the survey, and return back home ... well, consider all the discoveries to be made. Some people are going to make a name for themselves."
"People who doesn’t mind being away from home for eight years and finding everyone they knew back home are actually thirteen years older than when they left," said Jamie.
Sam looked at him. "Many people have sacrificed a lot more than that to science to make the key discoveries. They’re going to want a bunch of physicists, so maybe I might be in the right position when they’re ready to go. If a bit junior…"
"Yeah – they’ll want post-docs, at least, and you’ll barely be a post-grad. Just starting your doctorate," said Jamie. He noticed her disappointment. "Look, guys – I’m sorry, but it’s best to face facts. We’re just that bit too young for this trip. Maybe if they get round to building that second starship."
Pip leaned forwards. "Look, I’ve been thinking about this. We know that there’s going to be two categories of crew – the permanent crew and the colonist crew, right."
"Okay…" said Jamie.
"And you may be able to switch from one to the other. ‘Cause they don’t want reluctant colonists."
"I guess," said Sam. "You could also have the situation where they’d not drop off a colony at all. If the planets don’t look too viable on close inspection."
"Either way, you could get on the return trip if you wanted to, I suppose," said Jamie.
"But don’t you want to be one of the colonists?"
"Maybe yes. Maybe no. I think I’d prefer being on exploration trips to several stars if possible. If they go on to do the other stars in the neighbourhood. But I wouldn’t mind being a colonist – and I think that may be a little more achievable for people of our age range. Listen."
Pip described what he’d come up with. After sharing it with the others, he was quietly pleased that Sam accompanied him to signing up for the University Air Squadron the following day, as well as joining the horse-riding club and electronics club. He was more surprised that Jamie came with them.
T-3 years, 2 months, 9 days.
River Butte, North Dakota
Corbin Anders adjusted his tie as he looked in the mirror. Yes, that would do. He had to look authoritative and sensible. Too many people would be expecting him to just be 'some loser from the internet'.
He'd spent four years building up his presence, starting by breaking stories of waste and corruption in the space program. He'd moved onto posting a mixture of thoughtful articles about alternative areas that were screaming for funding, and short rabble-rousing pieces against the waste and dangers of interstellar travel. Three years ago, he'd become one of the top anti-space sites, shared frequently on social media. Two years ago, he'd expanded his presence and affiliated with a major news site. A year ago had come the first requests for radio interviews and now he was to be interviewed on a main television news show.
It went to show how hard work - intelligently focused, of course - could pay off. He regretted the amount of time he'd lost, though - time that he could have spent with his family. When Jessica went off to university a few months ago, he'd realised just how absent a father he'd been, even though he'd been at home so much - but he'd had a mission.
Two hours later, he was in the studio, under the hot lights, his face covered with make-up. Make up that he was assured was required to make him look natural under the cameras, although he wouldn't put it past these technical people to try to fool him, to make him look stupid. But at last he was face to face with the host.
Darren Newman was one of the up and coming faces in TV news broadcasting; it had been a source of some satisfaction to Corbin that he'd been invited onto 'Newman Nationwide'. Despite his certainty as to his rightness, Corbin's heart was pounding faster as Newman turned his practiced false smile towards him.
"And here today, I have with me Corbin Anders, crusader against the manned interstellar space program, puncturer of egos and exposer of waste. Corbin - welcome to Newman Nationwide."
Corbin returned a false smile for a false smile and waited for the perfunctory applause to die down. "Thank you, Darren; it's an honour to be here."
"It's a pleasure to have you, Corbin. Let's get right down to business - you've been pursuing your crusade now for - what - three years?"
Corbin suppressed a flash of irritation. Newman had researchers, surely. "Actually, Darren, it's four years. And yes..."
Newman cut him off. "So what I'd first like to know is: why?"
"Umm. I'm sorry?"
"Why? What is there about such a remote subject that fills you with such anger?"
A muscle in Corbin's jaw twitched. The expression on Newman’s face was condescending and smug. His eyes had rolled slightly as he spoke. His question had been short and biased - the choice of the word ‘remote’ was telling. This was going to be a hostile interview. He'd been brought on as a kook to be destroyed. Well, he could show them. He just had to change a few words from his prepared lines.
Corbin leaned back, forcing himself to look relaxed. He couldn't show Newman that he was agitated - that would be to play into his hands. "I'm glad you asked me that, Darren."
Corbin continued before Newman could respond. "You see, the entire point of my self-appointed task is to show that the subject isn't remote and is relevant to you. To me. To your viewers. To those out there who aren't viewing. To all of us."
He took a deep breath. The waste argument first. Then a few comparisons. He could allude to the religious aspects towards the end; there was often some pushback on those, so he wanted to seem reasonable.
"Darren, do you know how much is being spent on the starship programme by the United States alone? It's over seventy billion per year, and..."
Newman interrupted him. "I'm sorry, Corbin, but I have to correct you there. The official information that I've got is that NASA are only paying twenty billion per year. You've rather exaggerated the figures there."
"No, Darren, I haven't. NASA spend twenty-three billion, the Department of Defense have contributed two billion this year through one of their experimental science programmes, the wider federal science community another three billion, state-funded universities one billion and another billion from other miscellaneous government sources."
Newman raised a single eyebrow - his personal identifying quirk. "And that comes to thirty billion, Corbin. I'm afraid you're still forty billion short."
"And the US consumer stumps up forty billion for merchandise, in support of advertising, for spin-off television shows and films produced by the Starship Foundation, and, of course, for all the various contests that they hold. My sums hold up. And that’s all before we get into what ESA and the European consumers are paying…"
"But that's their choice, surely. People can spend their money as they see fit. They'll spend it on things that they want, so if they are being provided with what they want..."
"And if it wasn't dangled in front of them, they could spend it on things that they need. Or if the Foundation weren't producing these films or this merchandise - if it's genuinely wanted, someone else will. And the money from that would stay here on Earth rather than being blasted across the stars to Alpha Centauri. Do you have any idea just how many free hospitals could be funded by..."
T-3 years, 2 months, 8 days.
London, Bakerloo Line
Charlie Jennings sat down with a sigh. He’d managed to find a seat again. His new schedule was working out better for him – an earlier start with an earlier finish was the sensible way forward. At six am, he could almost always guarantee a seat on the Tube and when heading home at 4 pm, he always beat the rush hour in that direction as well.
He leaned back and reached into his pocket for his phone. He had ten minutes before they’d pull in at Charing Cross tube and he’d climb out of the Trafalgar Square exit to head down Whitehall to the Cabinet Office. His contract as an advisor would be up in under a year and he had no idea what he wanted to do afterwards. Something far away from Government, preferably, and something where classified materials wouldn’t be necessary. While it was still a secret thrill to be given access to information this highly protected, it definitely scared the hell out of him too often. Blissful ignorance would be welcome during his next job.
He unfolded his phone into tablet form and touched the newsfeed icon. It was often amusing just how divorced the news could be from the actuality of what he saw on a day-to-day basis. Then again, sometimes it could be frighteningly close to what he knew was actually happening. Sadly, with no apparent correlation to the news source, the importance of the issue, or the record of the reporter.
So – the Star Pioneer 1 was a good year or so into its return trip from Alpha Centauri. There was an article on how the unmanned probe worked and why it was that it had to be nearly home before it could transmit the vast bulk of its information back. The author had made a fine stab at simplifying the problems of getting high data rates into a signal that would be not much above that of background radiation. Bit rates against power levels didn’t exactly make for a riveting read to the morning rush-hour commuter, but the graphics helped a lot to show the scale involved. Then the distances involved and the delay while the lightspeed signal crawled over the staggering distances. The few tantalizing glimpses into the huge dataset that awaited transmission were already well known – it appeared that there were up to three potentially habitable worlds, next door on interstellar scales.
Okay, but why was this in the news at the moment? "Probe about a quarter of the way home, no real news for another three-and-a-half years" usually didn't make the newsfeeds.
He skipped reading the stories in the International News section. East Africa could wait another half hour or so. There was another section on the space program; he flicked to it. They were covering the manned starship construction. The launches from Ascension were well under way now; daily heavy-lift launchers thundering up to orbit with the various pods to be connected together in space to form the largest spacecraft ever constructed. The fact that it hadn’t even yet been established that the worlds around Alpha Centauri were actually habitable was causing a great deal of argument in the various editorial lines.
Charlie sighed to himself. They were just regurgitating previous positions that had been argued to the point of nausea. The argument that the ship could just as easily be a survey vessel as a colonisation ship had been made again and ignored again. That the ship could have the capacity to go to stars other than Alpha Centauri – the zip drive would work for longer trips and the time-dilated on-board duration wouldn’t be hugely extended – had been glossed over again. That the total funding from public sources was a small fraction of the amount spent on such things as agricultural subsidies, or military sources was, however, starting to get traction. Was that why it was in the news again right now?
Ah, no. This was the reason. The "Name the Starship" competition was entering the final week. The private company that was making up nearly half of the funding had had yet another brainwave; they'd had hundreds of millions of entries from around the world at about one pound per go - he couldn't remember the exact figure. Maybe he should put in an entry?