Prologue - Chapter 1
“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
---U.S. Congressman Hiram Johnson, 1917
There were nine of them, five men, four women, in a ship built to hold twice as many.
Granted, even when half full the ship would never be called roomy, but technology had not yet reached the point where spaceships could contain dead space.
It was still too expensive to build, fuel, and supply them; every cubic centimeter onboard needed to be utilized in order to recoup the initial costs of construction. At least that was the plan.
On this voyage, though, there was plenty of empty space, and the open areas bothered the astronauts. After years of cramped corridors and cabins no larger than one’s sleeping rack, it felt odd to float through rooms without bumping into objects or other people.
Even worse was knowing the reason for the roominess: the space program was at an end.
Weary of constant battles over the program’s funding, the world government had finally pulled the plug. So much for the stars—mankind would return to a life bounded by the heavens and eventually forget that they had once soared among the cosmos.
“I can’t stand it,” the mission astronomer snapped, turning off the news program that Ground Control had beamed to them. “If I hear one more pinkie-brained groundling claim that the space program funding took food from his child’s mouth, I’ll scream.”
“Calm down, Zvi,” the tall, dark-haired physicist soothed. Her Italian accent made her words even more lilting.
“Why?” Kim, the team’s xenogeologist, grumbled from the opposite wall. “They did it, you know. They destroyed the space program. We’re all ancient history. We’ll end up as a footnote in the textbooks years from now.”
“Don’t say that!” Carlotta’s eyes were troubled. “Surely this is just a temporary setback.”
“Ha!” Zvi and Kim chorused.
They were of similar height, although Kim was stocky build, while Zvi was small-boned. His elfin appearance belied his abilities; in addition to being an excellent astronomer, he was a highly decorated fighter pilot who was also qualified to pilot the spaceship in an emergency.
The regular pilot entered just in time to hear the last exchange. “I see I came in time for the news,” Svetlana said, her native Russian accent almost undetectable.
“Has anyone come up with a new argument to try?” Gutierrez and Rajan swam in from the science lab. A physiologist and physician, they were the only members of the crew who had never spent time in the military. “I can’t believe they’re just going to mothball everything – the engineering companies, the support staff, us…”
“What’s going on in here? I can hardly hear myself think!” Shiru Oladajo demanded from the doorway. Reams of computer paper floated behind her. “How am I supposed to reconfigure the computers if—”
“Don’t bother,” Zvi interrupted. “It all will just get sold off or junked.”
Her complaints stopped, and she gazed at him with alarm. “It’s official then?”
“They just announced it,” Rajan confirmed.
“Flipping idiots!” Kim added savagely. “What sort of future do they think they’ll have without space? We’ve already outgrown that tired old globe.”
“Good, you’re all assembled here.” The mission commander propelled himself through the door, closely followed by his first officer. “It saves me the trouble of seeking you out. I’ve some news.”
“We know,” Kim forestalled him. “We heard the announcement.”
“What?” For a moment the captain looked puzzled, then his brow cleared. “Oh, you mean the press report about our funding.”
“What else is there?” Shiru asked blankly.
“She’s right,” Zvi agreed. “What can compete with the news that we’re all obsolete and jobless?”
“Oh, I think we might surprise you,” the first officer replied in clipped British tones. Sarah Ellesmere spoke with quiet authority. “Will and I have been keeping a few secrets from you all.”
“Who cares about those pinheaded politicians anyway?” Captain Will Young snorted in contempt. “They’re not only burying their heads in the sand, they’re covering up the whole damned human race.”
“Can’t we do something? Stage a protest?” Carlotta offered.
“Have you forgotten that we’re in outer space?” Raj asked her. “What could we do? Not return home on schedule? Refuse to carry out this scientific survey of the asteroid belt? It’s all immaterial anyway—it’s not like anyone’s going to be coming out to mine the belt. Not now.”
“Not ever,” Young put in. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but we’re the last flight. Ever. When we get back, the space agencies will all be officially disbanded.”
That was a shock. Even after the morning’s announcement, they hadn’t realized it would be that fast.
“We’re the last ones?” Gutierrez repeated slowly.
Young nodded. “Come on, why are you so surprised? There’s been only a skeleton crew on the space stations for the past two rotations, and the moon base is nearly defunct already. The writing’s been on the wall for over a year now. Everyone in the Agency brass knew it was just a question of time before the Council caved, and they’ve been quietly cutting back orbital and extra-orbital facilities. Didn’t it even strike you as strange that this particular group would be selected for this flight?”
They looked around at each other. “What do you mean?” Kim was the first to ask, but the others were just as puzzled.
“Will means that we were carefully selected,” Sarah explained, “not only with an eye towards our abilities but also towards our country of origin.”
“It’s better box office,” Young amplified, a look of disgust on his face. “When we land and disembark, the political types will have a field day. Think about it: practically every segment of the world is represented by someone on the crew! The Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa… We’re a freakin’ soda commercial! The brass knew about this announcement a long time ago. They knew that with the space program gone they’d need to find new jobs, and to do ~that~, they’ll need the goodwill of some big politicians. That’s where we come in. Each of us is going to be a part of history: the crew of the last space shot. And every region wanted to be represented.
“The Agency bureaucrats selected us in a deal cut with the Council. The Council members got figureheads that they could trot out at photo ops, and the Agency guys got places in the new order.”
“If this is true, why weren’t we consulted?” Raj asked.
“We’ve all done our fair share of public appearances,” Sarah reminded them. “I imagine the Agency officials thought we enjoyed them and would welcome a sinecure. They probably thought they were doing us a favor, providing for our futures.”
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you”—Young’s deep voice drowned out the others—“but I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life showing up at mall openings.”
“What choice do we have?” Gutierrez asked, frowning.
“Several days ago, Will and I spotted—something,” Sarah said carefully. “We noticed it purely by chance, hidden behind one of the asteroids. We were already aware of the World Council’s decision, so we decided not to notify Mission Control. We knew they’d just tell us to ignore it. With the demise of the space program around the corner, nobody wants to rock the boat.”
Young took up the story. “So we made an executive decision and moved closer. We did it gradually, so that the ground wouldn’t realize it—not that they could do anything if they did,” he added in a scornful aside. “But now we’ve gotten close enough to be sure.”
“Sure of what?” Zvi pressed.
“Sure that it is an object of alien origin,” Sarah said quietly.
For a moment, there was dead silence. Then chaos broke out as everyone spoke at once.
“You can’t keep this a secret! The government—”
“—have any idea what this means? This is the most important find—”
“What does it look like? What is it?”
“Quiet! ~Quiet!~” Young bellowed until the others were quiet once more.
“Sarah and I went through everything that you’re feeling right now,” he said. “And let me tell you, it wasn’t an easy decision to keep our mouths shut.”
“Will, we are not equipped to handle this ourselves!” Raj protested. “This requires specialists who—”
“Raj, there ~are~ no specialists for this. It’s unprecedented,” Sarah said gently. “Nobody’s prepared to handle this. Nobody.”
“Look, if Sarah and I had contacted Mission Control when we first spotted the object, they would have waved us off. There have been too many little green monster stories and the politicians don’t want to start another ~War of the Worlds~ affair. Then, once we were certain that it was extraterrestrial, and not just a discarded Soyuz rocket or space trash, we thought again about sharing the news.”
“But this is wonderful! Don’t you see?” Carlotta said excitedly. “This is what will revive the space program! They can’t disband it now! We need ships to examine this—this—whatever it is! This is our salvation!”
“She’s right!” Kim exclaimed. “Quick! Tell them now!”
“Stop,” Young ordered, holding up his hand. “Think about it. We tell them about this thing, and then what?”
“Do you trust the government to handle this properly?” Sarah asked, looking from one person to the next. “Because when we began thinking about it, Will and I realized we didn’t.”
Zvi looked thoughtful. “I’ve got to admit, I have my doubts about any government that can axe the space program. If they’re that shortsighted…”
“And what about the object itself?” Will put in. “Who knows what secrets it contains? The World Council is still pretty new. They have enough trouble handling minor skirmishes between two countries nobody’s ever heard of. What’s going to happen when the big boys hear about the find? Don’t you think that this is something that could destabilize the power balance among the superpowers?”
“This find could well cause the downfall of world government,” Ellesmere said soberly. “Wars have been fought over much, much less.”
“We can’t keep it a secret forever!” Kim protested.
“No one is suggesting that,” Young replied. “Sarah and I think that we should examine the object more closely and then make an educated decision about our next step. I place a lot more trust in you folks’ good sense than I do in your politicians’. Or my politicians’ either,” Young agreed. “Why ~shouldn’t~ we be the ones to decide what to do in a situation like this? Who better?”
There were uncertain looks, but no one voiced an outright objection.
At fifty-seven, Will Young was the oldest among them, and he had logged more time in space than anyone else in the program. In a crisis, there was no one better; he was cool and deliberate in assessing the situation and addressing it. In more relaxed times, however, his volatile temper often got him into trouble, and he had the deep suspicion of authority common to many Americans.
By contrast, everything about Sarah Ellesmere was considered and thoughtful. She was not given to impulsive action, and her support of Young’s plan meant a great deal to the others.
As wild as the idea sounded, if Sarah regarded it favorably, there must be something to it.
“Will and I agreed that we had gone as far as we could without informing the rest of you.”
“This isn’t something I can order you to do,” Young added. “A decision like this should be unanimous.”
“We have no way of knowing what we would find,” Svetlana said uneasily. “What if it’s dangerous?”
“We must be prepared to destroy it.” Sarah’s tone was even. “If necessary, taking ourselves along too.”
“The ship isn’t built for self-destruction,” Shiru said, her voice trembling a little. “How—”
“It would be easy enough to rig.” Young shrugged. “The big challenge is keeping it from blowing up every time we engage the engines.”
Shiru took a deep breath. The youngest member of the crew at twenty-nine, her voice was shaky but determined when she spoke. “I agree with Sarah. If we go ahead with this, we must be prepared to kill ourselves to safeguard Earth.”
“This is madness!” Kim objected loudly. “We cannot go off on our own in this manner! You are acting like a — a cowboy!” he shouted at Young.
Rajan put a restraining hand on his arm. “Calm down, Kim. At least let us discuss the matter calmly.”
“I agree with Young and Ellesmere,” Svetlana said flatly. “In my country we know all too well what damage incompetent or corrupt leaders can do. I say we are as qualified as anyone to approach the object.”
Zvi nodded. “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”
“I agree,” Carlotta echoed the others. “Who else can we trust?”
Kim shook his head in frustration and fury. “You said it yourselves – this could topple the government! And you want to ignore our duty and act like we’re in charge of the Earth?”
“Oh, because the actual rulers are doing such a good job,” Svetlana sneered. “Wasn’t it you who was complaining they were idiots, who proved their incompetence by canceling the space program?”
Kim stared at her. “But – “
“It’s not easy for me to toss off my responsibilities,” Sarah added softly. “King and country and all that runs deep in my bones too. But I think that there are some times when one’s responsibilities go beyond the normal scope.”
Rajan let out his breath in a big sigh. “I confess to sharing Kim’s views. I am not accustomed to circumventing the normal chain of command, but this is a special case. I concur in your decision.”
Gutierrez nodded agreement. “Let’s make it unanimous, Kim?”
For a long moment, the Korean geologist stared out the viewport. Conflicting emotions chased over his face. At long last, he nodded once. “All right.” His voice was little more than a whisper.