What you can’t imagine is worse than the imagining. Ryan Jameson couldn’t have imagined the events of the past day, that they would lead him to this cabin in the New Mexico spaceport to face his demon. Yet here he was, staring at the red glittery substance that was his downfall, Rainbows, his favorite mix of space dust.
One line and he would unsee everything he had seen in the past four hours, two and he would forget the pain, three and he would be a junkie again. Being a junkie was easy. Running an affiliate of the Public News Network was hard. He liked easy.
A month or more of covering the First Expedition Crossing from the Santa Maria was the break The Terra Channel needed. He could be the star of the ‘A’ block, or he could be a junkie. The Viking wanted him to be a junkie, take the fall for what happened at the lottery. That plastic bag on the pillow was an invite. A temptation he wouldn’t be considering if he had not accepted that first invite, the one to the Special Correspondents Lottery.
It started five days ago, or was it four, his sense of days was fucked from trying to live on ship’s time. This started in Austin on Wednesday night. The twenty-one on his ticket meant he was invited to Earth Channel One’s tower in Alamogordo.
“Video call, Marcus Delgadillo.”
A virtual screen flashed to life, emitters hidden in the walls and ceiling shot a narrow beam of light to a spot in front of him. It opened to a twenty-inch square.
“Calaca, I was just going to bed,” Marcus stood in front of a mirror, a toothbrush in his hand.
“Marcus, I don’t know what to do.”
“Hum?” Marcus said, the toothbrush in his mouth.
“I made it to the next round,” Ryan held his tablet up to the virtual screen for Marcus to see. The emitters that made the screen doubled as cameras.
“Is this that lottery thing?” Marcus said over his toothbrush and a mouthful of foam.
“Yea, but I don’t think I should go.”
Marcus spit into an offscreen sink, “Because of EC’s involvement?”
EC, Explorer Corporation, the mega-conglomerate that owned most of Earth’s resources.
Ryan nodded. “I am not sure what I will do when I lose.”
“Because of your parents?” Marcus wiped toothpaste from his mustache, then bent over, out of frame to the sound of running water.
Marcus dried his face. “Assume you will lose, you thought the ticket propaganda anyways.”
The Earth Channel One Special Correspondents Lottery invite looked like propaganda.
Below the introduction, his lottery number covered an Explorer Corporation logo that doubled as an E-Cert. The rest of the invitation was legal-ease, including the requirement that “eligible participants must be present to win.”
“You don’t know that EC had anything to do with their deaths,” Marcus said.
“They worked for EC.”
“But not when you found them,” Marcus pulled a shirt over his head. “Do I need to come over?”
Ryan shook his head. “I am fine.”
Marcus took the shirt off. “Tell me about this lottery again.”
“It’s for the First Expedition Crossing. The winner will report from the Santa Maria, meet Keith Hobson.”
“That’s a big break, you will have credits for a change, and meeting Mr. Hobson would be legendary,” Marcus said.
Keith Hobson, the founder of Earth Channel One. Ryan had his book, The Fundamentals of an Interview, an original copy with an E-Cert to verify its authenticity. It included Mr. Hobson’s interviews with Charles Clark, the founder of Explorer Corporation. He considered it a treasure.
“I doubt any of this was his idea. Just another propaganda stunt for EC. They are probably using a robot to stand in for Mr. Hobson,” Ryan said, scrolling the invite to Keith’s signature. The E-Cert attached to his signature was ancient and matched the one on his copy of The Fundamentals of an Interview. The signature was real, but no one had seen the only living witness to the Arabian Impact in two decades. Then he appeared at an Explorer Corporation event, interviewing Michael Planck before a worldwide audience.
Ryan watched every second of that interview with pain. Mr. Hobson hadn’t aged a day since his disappearance, but he appeared distracted, and his questioning of EC’s Executive Director looked scripted, and sloppy. Nothing like the engaging and far roaming conversations he had with Charles Clark.
“Was he on that show tonight?” Marcus asked. He had moved to his bedroom, his unmade bed in frame, clothes strewn over it. Marcus was not tidy.
“Yea, it was what I expected. I edited that video for the Governor’s office while I watched.”
The broadcast event was a three-hour history tour of Explorer Corporation. It followed the standard storyline: from the devastation of the Arabian Impact the reclusive genius Charles Clark emerged with a plan to save civilization and restore Earth. The Chinese joined his Explorer Corporation first, ceding a large track of the Yinchuan desert to build a sprawling spaceport and manufacturing facility. By 2170, the Chinese had constructed a launch tower and were building a space station. When Europe and the Americas joined EC, a golden age of humanity had begun.
Keith Hobson closed the program. He sat alone, in his wheelchair, the ring of the camera’s LEDs reflecting in his gray eyes. “We have come to the end of our broadcast. I wish that I could bring all the independent reporters with us on this journey to the stars. Only two of you will be selected to cover the First Expedition Crossing, and of those two, only one will join the Santa Maria for her historic voyage.”
Mr. Hobson had a leather journal in his lap, a tablet askance on top of it. His unbuttoned white suit jacket revealed a royal blue shirt and a loosely knotted white necktie. He looked tired, and old.
“I am old,” Keith said, as if he had heard Ryan’s thoughts. “I have done my part to save humanity from a dark age that could have descended upon us after the Arabian Impact. Now it is your turn,” Keith pointed to the screen. “Explorer Bridge ushers in a new age for humanity, it will not be an easy one. Folding space will let us travel to the most distant stars in the blink of an eye. Humanity will colonize worlds around those stars. An accomplishment that is meaningless if no one brings that story home or takes our story to those stars.”
Keith tightened the knot of his tie. “It will be difficult. You will have to be resourceful, able to overcome obstacles you can’t imagine now. We did it, Charles and I, and Earl Clark, and all the men and women of Explorer Corporation after him. I have faith that you will too.” He lifted the tablet from the journal. “To that end, those invitations starting with the numbers nine, twenty-one, or fifty will have to prove yourselves by making your way to the Earth Channel One tower in Alamogordo, New Mexico, by fifteen-hundred UTC this Saturday the twenty-sixth of May.”
Keith traded the tablet for the journal. “That is not much time, those on the far side of the globe might not make it, but the Santa Maria is at the New Mexico spaceport, and she leaves at thirteen-hundred, UTC, the twenty-seventh of May. A hundred and twenty-five years to the minute that a stone from space struck the Arabian Peninsula.” He slid the journal into a side pocket of his chair. “I will be aboard her. I look forward to working with one of you as she makes her way to Explorer Bridge. I can’t wait to see what this new generation of reporters is capable of, hearing what stories you will tell. Until then, from the EC One tower in Alamogordo, New Mexico this is Keith Hobson saying welcome to the future.”
Ryan was ashamed of his excitement. Even if he couldn’t blame Explorer Corporation for his parent’s deaths, he could blame it for all the pain that came before. His parents worked for EC until they didn’t. After losing their jobs, his family moved from one shelter to another, until his father suddenly had enough money to buy them an apartment in the Austin habitation zone. For the first time, they stayed in one place long enough for Ryan to make friends with the boy next door.
“I don’t like that look Calaca.” The viewscreen was all Marcus’s face.
Ryan wiped his watery eye. Marcus had saved him. Through his connections at the Texas statehouse, he helped Ryan become an independent affiliate to the Public News Network; The Terra Channel was born. It wasn’t much, but it let Ryan do what he was good at; telling stories. Even if he didn’t win this lottery, it was an excuse to report from the New Mexico spaceport. “I will do it. We need a plan.”
“That’s right, things won’t work out if you don’t try,” Marcus said.
The time was twenty-three-hundred Wednesday night in Austin, but it was four-hundred Thursday morning UTC. He needed to get on UTC, or “ship’s time.” He started a new clock on his tablet and set it to ship’s time.
“That doesn’t get you to Alamogordo,” Marcus said.
Alamogordo was one of two cities cleared for habitation in southern New Mexico. The spaceport with its twenty-kilometer launch tower claimed half the state. Tourist and EC personnel flocked to the location, making transportation into and out of the state expensive. Rail to Alamogordo didn’t have an empty seat until October, and—until the Santa Maria left orbit—only EC corporate could fly. That left E-Com Bus.
“I could drive you,” Marcus said. “The minivan is ready to go.”
The minivan, Marcus’s hobby, a replica of a car that people drove. It had an accelerator, a brake pedal, and even a steering wheel. That it was operational was one thing, that Marcus dared to drive it on a highway full of automated vehicles—navis—was another. Riding in the minivan was like being a target in a video game. A video game that Marcus loved playing. He raced through intersections and laughed at how the navis stopped for him.
Ryan shook his head. “Too risky, if the minivan breaks down we would be stuck. Besides, south of Albuquerque, public roads are limited.”
“It’s the bus for you then,” Marcus said.
Ryan pulled up his E-Com account on a virtual screen. Over the next three days there was only one bus seat available, it left Austin at nineteen-hundred Friday night and arrived in Alamogordo at six-hundred Saturday morning, mountain time in New Mexico, which translated into twelve-hundred, ship’s time. That left him three hours to spare. He purchased the ticket, only to discover he could not bring any luggage larger than a carry-on.
“Fuck,” he said, throwing his tablet down.
PNN had strict requirements on the gear an independent reporter had to carry. They included a full-sized camera drone and a self-contained network array to connect to PNN’s network. More than you needed to get a story. The lottery invite’s legal-ease was clear about the requirement, he couldn’t attend the event without his gear.
“There’s always the minivan,” Marcus smiled.
For grins, Ryan checked the rates on cars into Alamogordo. He was short a few thousand credits.
“See, first they take your steering wheel,” Marcus said. Then he suggested they ship his gear ahead to the Alamogordo bus station. Ryan liked the idea, only he wanted to report from the spaceport, on the other side of the San Andres Mountains.
“The Frontier Diner,” they said as one. The Frontier Diner in Truth or Consequences was popular with spaceport employees. It had lockers, showers, cheap rooms, and when he didn’t win the lottery, it would be the best place to get an interview with someone from EC.
“I like it,” Marcus said.
Express Commuter, E-Com for short, was the Explorer Corporation subsidiary that owned every automated vehicle that drove, flew, or floated anywhere on the planet. Ryan arranged for E-Com Overnight to ship his gear to the Frontier Diner.
Marcus yawned. “You know I work for the Lieutenant Governor?”
“And you won’t be free again until Friday night,” Ryan said.
“Aye. I did not think of that. If we took the minivan, we might not leave in time.”
Ryan nodded. “Say goodnight Marcus,” he swiped the screen away and asked for the time.
“Zero six hundred.”
But it was dark, and he was sleepy. He needed to stay awake. A version of space dust, Rocket Ship, laced with methamphetamine, used to keep him awake for days. He knew the dealer that worked the campus, a small hit would get him to noon. Ryan had done favors for him in the past. He could get a bag without any credits. He put on his kicks. Time for a run.