I swear - I've been growing greyer by the day.

Some days, I hardly recognise myself when I look at my reflection. It seems so unfair when one considers the still pristine appearances of both Tia and Midge; they've not changed one iota since I first met them. They are designed for deep space travel, and I am not. Where there is still some muscle tone, I look pretty good if one discounts my skin color. My head however, is not just grey in color it's also quite swollen. I bet that I've grown at least two hat sizes since we first boarded the Nina. I'm certain that just the sight of me would near petrify a young New-Euron child with fear. I'm certainly not by any means the romantic image that we all once dreamt of as a deep space explorer. It's no wonder we leave most space exploration to remote technologies, but we'd have no heroes if that were always the case now wouldn't we?

A few months of some real sun light and a bit of gravity of course would fix most of this, but there will only be a week or two of respite from deep space travel when we dry dock on the bright side of planet Zeta 50071's only satellite for a quick overhaul and a 'look-see' as Midge describes it. I've been dreaming for months of just walking about freely inside the rather un-spacious confines of the Nina's tetra. A few meters this way and that way will seem like heaven to my aching legs. There will even be some soil to kick around. I'll have to be careful kicking the dust up because the gravity on the satellite will be only fifty or so percent of what I would call ideal. It's true: Until it's gone you can never imagine how much you miss something and especially so for something like the feel of earth beneath your feet. I dream of dirt. And I dream of a real wind and how it feels blowing over my uncovered flesh.

Our crews' first goal is almost within reach: Donald's Great Abyss and aptly named after a man who spent his entire life exploring nothing but that vast empty space. That was all near one hundred years in the past now and no one has found anything much larger than a dinner plate in it in all that time since, but they didn't have the use of the Nina - which is a superlative science ship as ever one was designed. She was: tiny, extremely fast, and outfitted to maintain herself from top to bottom and a small crew too, - for fifty serviceable years guaranteed. And, she was just a baby. Not yet fully commissioned even. Tia estimated that the Nina in ideal conditions could perhaps double the speed of the Beagle, - literally out run any weapon that we were aware of and of course I was banking that she could find whatever there was on the other side of Donald's Great Abyss.

Zeta should be the last time that we'll need to watch our backs. We've been on the lam since the destruction of the Olympia and it's a certainty that at least some of the Colonists' depleted resources are being spent at this very moment in an effort to capture those who were responsible for her demise. The remaining crew of the Olympia would have reached port months ago and the logical need to recapture the lost Nina and her crew of pirates would become a priority of no small importance for the Colonist fleet. So as soon as we can get Zeta behind us the better will be able to rest our worries.

Once the doves are forward enough the Nina will be able to double her speed and no ship will be able to catch up to her and that will be the case shortly thereafter our dry dock on Zeta's satellite. The doves are a key component to the Nina's navigational system. They are already out in front by near a year in the case of Hector the lead dove and the others nine in all, between he and the Nina relay his data back over space and time to the Nina`s navigational system. They are plasma technology and have virtually no mass, - they're just balls of energy. They can operate a program, record and send data, but besides being a little faster than the Nina there is not much else to tell of them. But it is Hector who is the golden one: it is he who charts our course for the most part and it is he who will find the next Nouveaux Paris - at least we all hope that becomes the case.

The hybrids get along well. The two of them split their responsibilities and share tasks according to their size. There are places and things aboard the Nina that are in need of monitoring and repair that Tia cannot reach and that is where Midge helps out. We'd be going nowhere without Midge on the crew because she by far has the most experience with Colonist technology. Me, - I'm the captain and the navigator. I command the ship but I can't make it run without the technical support of the hybrids. Sometimes, I feel more like cargo that should be stowed safely out of the way from these two. They've already organized shifts for duty once we reach speed in the Great Abyss. I'll share time with each occasionally, but I expect with the aid of my kit to sleep for most of the travel. The two of them don't even think of the mission in terms of time. I expect to find nothing for at least several years and then hopefully Hector will send us some good news and we can then watch the light of stars never seen before grow brighter and brighter.

Our reality, - that is for Tia, Midge and I: is that we will not be permitted to live in the world we are about to leave and that is likely for good, so spending the remaining years of our lives as adventurers is far more appealing and a far more preferable task when compared to the alternative even if we do find nothing in the Great Abyss any bigger than a dinner plate just like all the others before us. There were many others who come to mind, who were not much different than us, - those who once lived on the Thirteenth Colony for instance and those too, on Nouveaux Paris that had no choice but death. We live on for them.


The landing on the Zeta satellite went without a hitch but it was to be another two days before the atmosphere within the tetra reached negative ten Celsius. I won't put my toes in an atmosphere any colder than negative ten; you can call me a baby. I don't care what others think. Tia and Midge seemed to think it to be amusing though. I was New Euron and a soldier at that, and they rightfully thought I should have the mettle to deal with a little cold. Frankly, there was no real reason for me to be going out there except for the experience of having some earth beneath my feet and I wasn't going to miss out on my chance to do so because it could very well be the last chance to do just that for years to come.

The Nina being a saucer hulled ship had just two hatches; one up top and one we call the 'poop chute' down below. Literally everything within the ship had to enter through one of her two small hatches when she was first assembled. It must have taken quite some time. The tetra serves as a protective containment system for the ship from whatever harsh components that could be present on a terrestrial object large enough to have an atmosphere. Oxygen for instance was a problem should it get out of hand, so the tetra was filled with plenty of nice, inert nitrogen and if you intended to work very hard within the tetra you were going to need the aid of a rebreather. This was not a problem for the hybrids - only for me.

I chose the bottom hatch; there'd be a pinch more oxygen down there as opposed to the upper hatch at the tetra's peak.

"Captain Mark," giggled Midge seeing me standing upright in the loose dust that served as the satellite's soil. "What do you think?" she asked referring to the tetra. "Pretty useful." she answered herself after a shrug.

"The Nina . Well she was shiny when we left the Olympia?" I said.

The Nina's hull was a dark black now, and almost charcoal like in texture. It looked burnt to me.

"This is quite normal for this kind of ship, Captain Mark. She builds up a light film or a skin of carbon on the hull's surface from her travel. It has quite a protective benefit when she skips along at her highest speed. In fact, it's this film that Tia and I will be examining most carefully. You can tell a lot about how she is weathering her travel by how even her film is."

"Oh." and I pretended to have known that all along. Colonist technology; go figure. "And what's the verdict with this film then?"

"All good so far," replied Tia.

"Glad to hear that. I'm just out - finally, to stretch my legs. You two tell me if I get in your way."

I bent down to the earth and rubbed the sandy soil between my palms. Kind of like one would do before a swim but in this case it was beautiful earth running through my fingers. There's nothing quite like it when you've been away from it for a year. For a year I only touched fabric, plastics and metal; it was a joy to see and feel soil again.

"I'm losing my sea legs!" I shouted to the two.

They looked perplexed with the sight of my obvious joy and big boyish grin and they went back to their work. I don't think they were familiar with the term: sea legs. They can look it up later.

I poked about and found only a few small rocks. They were igneous in nature; both smaller than my fist and with a bit of iron in them. Nothing special and quite typical of what you might find on a dead waterless planet or satellite as it is in this case. I'd be jumping up and down like a fool right now if I found some clay or even some signs of quartz: they are signs that water was once present and maybe even just next door in a neighbouring system.

We explorers, because I'm not the captain of a warship anymore, we look for signs of water even if it has been absent for many millennia. Where signs of water are found - there is hope for life. That's what we are looking for: a water planet. Something: not too gassy and hot, and certainly not too cold. Well. If it were all that simple; there are many, many things to consider when you are out searching for a paradise.


It was all too short; in fact, just a few minutes over one hundred and twenty-five hours of a little taste of natural gravity. Just enough time to fall in love with it. And then, we were on our way once again through weightless space. I swear; I could feel my head growing again.

The Nina has some areas where artificial gravity is present. The lavatory and galley for instance and two work areas, the rest including the helm had none. We slept in tubes that had no gravity also, and that once you fell asleep in would rotate you slowly like a rotisserie. So when two or more of us were up and about while traveling, we often fought over the time we spent in those areas that had some gravity. I favoured the big tool bench and the techs resented it. Spending more than a few minutes in the lavatory was just weird and the galley was not much fun either because your kit decided when you could eat.

We had a pact that we agreed to that once the Nina was up to speed that the three of us would have a bit of a celebration: a family meal of sorts, since once the shifts started one or two of us would be absent at most times - asleep that is. A sufficient buffer between the Nina and Hector our lead dove would materialize in about ten day's time and only until then would we be able to get up to speed. There was plenty for me to do between now and then since I'd be retiring first. I had logs to complete and there were still several navigational programs that needed editing since we had no qualified co-pilot to speak of. Tia was rightfully our second in command but she was not comfortable at the helm so I was to be awakened should the need arise in a hurry. We had practised just that as a drill several times in the past year; our best time was five minutes from sleep to my seat at the helm.

There were drills for fire and drills for rapid cabin pressure decompression. And it was my responsibility that we rehearse them as frequently as circumstances permitted. Seeing how we would all be present and lucid for the next ten days we'd be rehearsing them all. Space travel in general and certainly at the speeds and distances we had planned required a high degree of professionalism else we become lax and prone to disaster. No one was more professional than Tia; she put other hybrid techs to shame. She took nothing for granted and once she knew the correct way of doing something - there were no short cuts to be taken thereafter. Sometimes, I had to insist that she hurry at a task that was wanting.


"So this is it," I said to my crew and friends.

I had a glass of weak wine raised in the air and the three of us bumped glasses together in a toast as we sat in the Nina's galley.

There are some rituals that seem rather timeless. How many times I wonder has a captain toasted his crew before a mission begins. I bet the number is in the millions. From the ancient seafarer to the space explorer, - I bet millions of times.

I've caught both hybrids gazing at the empty charts of the Great Abyss. You can fully see it now on the Nina's view finder: behind us there's a universe of starlight, ahead - nothing but lonely black darkness. It was formidable alright. Hector had been out there for months now and he had found nothing. It was like we were leaving the edge of our world.

"Well, here's to the next five years - because that's how long it will take us, mind you if we can keep our speed up, to pass the deepest point that any prior probes have achieved successfully into the Great Abyss," I said and we crashed our glasses again.

"Here's to ten if needed!" piped in Midge.

"That's the spirit!"

"How about you? Tia."

"I'm just so happy to be part of a real mission, on a ship that I feel I'm a part of!"

"The Nina would be lost without you, Tia!" added Midge.

Tia looked away. She was flattered with Midge's remarks but Midge was the most familiar with the Nina's technology and her smaller size allowed her to access all of the Nina. Tia could only pass tools to Midge for many of the jobs that came up.

"I say we do this every year; as an anniversary celebration," said Midge enjoying a fruity confection.

"I like that. What do you think Tia? Though, will we be still friends? Two? Three? - years from now."

"Of course we will," assured Tia rather emphatically and obviously not completely understanding the levity of our conversation.

"It will be the toughest on me you know. You two are designed for this kind of thing," I said to the two of them.

"We'll keep you in line Captain Mark. We'll send you to bed if you become too difficult."

"It sounds like a mutiny already," I laughed.

Tia sat quietly and smirked. She was terrible with small talk. The only time you could chat and kid with her were in the few minutes before she would have a rest. Tia was always - on the job. I have never met a more conscientious hybrid. Midge however, and I suppose it was a result of her years of experience as a team member on the Olympia was far better socialized and liked playing the part of the crews' entertainer. If I had to guess I would suspect that she liked to tweak her kit a bit too much because at times she often appeared to be far too jovial.

"What if it takes longer than five years?" asked a pensive Tia.

"I don't know. The reality of that question is we won't know the answer until we near the five year mark. A lot can happen in five years. We'll talk about it each year just like we are doing now. Each of us knows there is no turning back right now. If we find something out there - maybe we'll be looked at differently. Today however, we are the enemies of the Colonists and we are traitors to the Republic."

"Five years is a long time to go without a proper dry docking to mend what things that may break. The Nina is a machine; she needs her maintenance. I can't make some of her repairs that might be needed while she's hurtling through empty space," replied Midge.

"The worst case scenario would be, - we coast to a controlled near stop. It might take a few months or so to even manage that. I know the repairs will take longer and be more difficult in a weightless environment, but it can all be done if the need arises," I offered back.

"I know Colonist engineering: it's long on promises and short on guarantees. The Nina is no different, Captain Mark. I'm onboard with the mission but I'm also a realist - the Nina is a machine. She might be fresh today but five or ten years of space travel is a long stretch for her to go without some down time in a dry dock."

"Well, - we shall soon find out how well built the Nina really is. We are adventurers now, and real risk is going to become a bigger part of our business. We are all going to have to adopt a can-do attitude for as long as it takes. I know full well there are going to be challenges - and we, are going overcome each one of them."



One Year

A year has gone by since leaving Zeta. It seemed like nothing as far as time's passing goes. In fact, I was only awake for a couple of months of it. Today marks one week that I've been awake since my last hibernation. One month up and five months down; that's been my pattern of late. The hybrids have changed their shift pattern thrice in the past year. It seems that they'd rather not sleep and would rather work together as a team. Whatever suits them, I s

We've been traversing at near maximum speed and in a straight line for virtually all of it, too. There was a zig made a few months ago, and then a zag back but only just this once and that was to test the Nina's steering. And, there's been nothing newsworthy reported from Hector our lead dove; he charts our course and I fear he's growing tired of charting a straight line into nothing but empty space.

Though there is some good news to report of a personal nature: I think my head has stopped growing. Its fifty-seven centimetres in circumference now and that's three centimetres larger than as I remember. I even have a difficult time now fitting Sophie's old kit on these days. It's tight I must say, and thankfully her head was bigger than mine back in the day but at least it's a kit that fits me for now until I find time to modify my own. I often think of her. She saved my life by sacrificing her own. How do you forget something like that? I bet she would be pleased with the Nina's mission because as strange as it sounds the universe as vast as it is has already become too, small for humanity.

Some say that Donald's Great Abyss isn't actually an abyss at all and that it's really the edge of the universe. Imagine that? All I know is that it's the least explored frontier and that fact interests me. When will I turn around? When will I abort this mission: - to find what lies beyond the Great Abyss? Well confidentially, the answer is quite possibly - never. The Nina will continue its course beyond the margins of all the former charts and past all the trajectories of previously known probes until she finds the other side.

"Captain Mark. It's time to toast our first anniversary."

"I'm coming Midge. Save a glass for me!" I shouted after her and I left the helm for the Nina's galley.


Year Two

Well little Midge was right. We are about to find out how close we can achieve a full stop in deep space for a maintenance need that has suddenly reared its head. A main drive component needs a part replaced. And since there is little in the way of solar activity out here which is traditionally our normal back-up power source; we'll be on battery power for eight hours. That's a scary thought: relying on battery power while in the middle of nowhere.

Following the repair, the hull will be inspected by the hybrids without any gravity and in near zero light. A full stop is desirable for the inspection and normally when you try this in free space something somewhere is pulling you into one direction or another, but we are presently deep within an empty abyss. There will be nothing to pull us anywhere. There's been no matter of any sort seen since we entered the abyss two years ago let alone something large enough to exert a gravitational force upon us. I don't think such conditions have ever been encountered like this before on a space walk.

"Midge? Certainly you are not telling me that the engineers who designed this ship never thought there would be a need for hull maintenance without dry docking?"

"Well, Captain Mark. We can dispense with the inspection if you want, but I don't recommend it. This mission is an unusual one. I mean, - in normal use we'd have docked a half dozen times or so for the distance we've travelled."

"Very well. We'll do the hull inspection."

It took about two days to come to a full stop. The repair to the main drive took an extra four nerve wracking hours on battery power. It's the absolute worst thing - to be completely un-powered in the middle of nowhere.

The hull inspection was extremely interesting. The hybrids could literally walk the hull. They could put a tool anywhere about them - and nothing moved. Nothing drifted away unless it was pushed.

This got me thinking and while they were out there. I tried everything I could think of to measure some kind of extraneous movement of matter within the Nina's cabin. There was only going to be a few more hours of this so I recorded everything that I tried for future examination.

I'm not a complete fool. I know that I can't chart a course continuously in a straight line to nowhere, - and forever. I can't chart by intuition either. There needs to be some logic. I need to send Hector into the right direction.

Following the hull inspection we gathered in the galley. It had been previously decided that this would be a good time to celebrate our second year of the mission.

"The hull inspection went well, I gather?" I asked the two.

"Good for another two years, Captain Mark," answered Midge.

"If we had a foundation, we could have used the tetra," added Tia.

"Yes. I was surprised with how full the stop was, too. I think we should do these inspections when needed in the future but only if the conditions remain the same that is. There are only the three of us and I don't want any unnecessary risk taking with hull inspections if they are not needed."

"We'll do them only when needed then, Captain Mark."

What do you think? Tia?" I asked.

Of course, this is like asking a fish if it likes water.

"I love the walks," grinned Tia with a bit of wine at the corners of her smile.

"I know you do."


For Further Reading