Part 1: While You're Busy Making Other Plans
After a few minutes, the cat pawed furtively at the door and gave a few pleading meows. There was no comforting sound of acknowledgement from his master. Slowly, the low mewling turned to a rhythm of anxious yowling. Claws scraped futilely at the metal door. Clearly, the power of the aroma and the established routine were powerful enough to keep Achilles at the door, waiting for the precious moment when the panel would slide and the treasures beyond would be open to him. Yet, for all his struggles, no one seemed to care about Achilles or take notice of the small creature’s incessant racket. The door remained closed and the halls were void of activity.
After an hour or two of pawing and wailing, the cat tired and curled up beside the stubborn door, a black spot on an otherwise pristine white hallway. Its chest heaved and pink tongue lolled from exertion as the air began to thin around it. But the cat had not surrendered. His eye stayed fixed on the crease at the bottom of the door and only left it momentarily when the lights flickered ominously in the hallway and then began to dim, as if a power source was beginning to lose strength.
Finally, spurred back to action by gnawing hunger, Achilles returned to his regimen of clawing and wailing. This time, it was less about desire and routine and more about survival. Achilles didn’t know where else to scavenge for food and he’d never had to worry about it because the door always opened to him before. And, yet, hours later, the door stood unmoved. Days later, when even the hardened blast doors of the Mercury-class spaceship bore the numerous marks of cat claws, it would still be so.
Achilles, emaciated and starved, held a single paw against the door long after his strength to claw and speak had left him. He couldn’t fathom why his master had forsaken him and everyone had left him alone on the ship millions of miles away from their home planet. But his attempts to get through the door had become perfunctory. The door was not going to budge and the smell of the chicken had gone from ripe and sweet to stale and rancid. More disturbingly, another scent mixed in with the spoiled food and it too was a smell of decay and putrefaction. It crept through the door crease and also permeated the hall from throughout the ship. It was the smell of death and rotting bodies.
Oedipa knew something smelled funny as soon as she turned from the refrigerator. She had been so distracted in dissecting fresh pumpkin from seed for the pie, she had lost track of the stuffed peppers. She opened the oven door and was greeted by billowing black smoke.
“Dear, do you need help?” Joe coughed as he waved the fumes from his face. “Is something on fire in here?”
Oedipa gave a squeal of frustration. “Just the sides of my temples. This dinner is ruined.” She doused the smoldering peppers with water and then dumped them in the waste disposal. “And since the turkey is still frozen, I guess we’ll have to just move on to dessert.”
“Which is currently pumpkin guts and raw flour?” Joe said, pinching the squishy orange pulp between his fingers.
“I’m not. Eddy, you’re the best biophysicist the company has… and an athlete… and an artist… and have great taste in antiques,” Joe said. “Why do you seem hell bent on becoming a gourmet chef all of the sudden? You didn’t have to make all this from scratch.”
“But I’m a biophysicist who can’t cook. There should be some overlap in skill sets there. I just want to be able to do this for you, Joe,” Oedipa said, pushing him away from the counter. “Also, you’ve told me that your parents are pretty conservative. I want to show them that their son is in good hands.”
Oedipa saw Joe momentarily blush.
“Sorry, I pushed.” she said. “But I didn’t mean—”
Joe interrupted her with a kiss.
“—to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“Oh, I feel comfortable now,” Joe said. “And it’s okay to push. But you’re perfect the way you are, more than enough to impress the Casta family. You’re the One, you know, and we’ve got time not to rush ourselves.”
“Thank you, dear. It’s good to hear that every once in a while.”
“In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind—I ordered Chinese.”
“You jerk! You anticipated my failure?”
“The food should be here in fifteen minutes,” Joe said. “Why do you think I set out chopsticks for turkey?”
“Fine, I’ll make some tea then. I can’t imagine how I could ruin that—or burn it.”
“Well, you could put salt water in the tea kettle and then expose it radio waves. Freeing the oxygen atoms would allow the water to burn, as I recall you told me once.”
“Now you’re just being an ass!”
Oedipa was about to smack Joe on the butt in mock rage, but Joe hopped out of the way. As he did so, he knocked over a salt shaker and several bottles of dried herbs. With a sweeping gesture over her right hand, Oedipa collected them all before they could hit the floor.
“Nice catch, honey,” Joe said.
“Enhanced reflexes,” Oedipa said. She could remember when she was younger, such displays caused her embarrassment in school and ridicule from her classmates, who called her a “tube worm” when they learned she was genetically modified before birth by her parents. “They come in handy sometimes.”
“Sometimes when I’m flying I wish my parents had given me some enhancements,” Joe said, and Oedipa became withdrawn. “Just sometimes, Eddy. Most of the time, I’m happy just being Plain Old Average Joe. And there’s no shame in being enhanced. Your parents’ hearts were in the right place when they did that. They just wanted you to be the perfect daughter.”
“My mother demanded that I be the perfect designer daughter. It was always the prerequisite for being loved, or what passed for love in her mind. That’s why I love you, Joe. You love me unconditionally.”
“You don’t make it hard,” Joe said, with a sly smile. “Unless you burn dinner.”
The faint ring of the door chime could be heard.
“Dinner must be here. That was fast,” Joe said.
Oedipa followed him into the dining and living area. It was the only room in the apartment where it was apparent the unique location of the Aquarius building. The furnishings were all neutral beige of a bachelor pad but the wall was translucent, opening to the vast undersea diversity of the Gulf of Mexico. Almost hidden against the backdrop of kelp and fire coral, a brown shark was gliding cautiously by the reinforced window, inspecting the couple as the approached the door. Joe grabbed a few bills from his wallet.
The door slid open, but instead of a delivery man, a tall man in a tweed suit who appeared to have stepped out of a Sherlock Holmes story stood at attention.
“Craven—Dr. Giles—what an unexpected pleasure… on a Sunday,” Joe said.
“Yes, well, I apologize for the abruptness of my visit but I have matters of some urgency to discuss with you—and Ms. Maat, specifically. May I come in?” Dr. Giles said in a clipped but well-manicured London accent.
“Certainly,” Joe said. “We were just about to sit down for dinner.”
Dr. Giles stepped awkwardly through the threshold and sniffed the air suspiciously. “Is that actually turkey?”
“It was—or perhaps could be some day if the center ever thaws before the outside burns,” Oedipa offered. “I was trying my hand at manual cooking, not very successfully. We’re having Chinese sent in so no worries.”
“Ah, yes, well, best let the experts handle that. Fresh turkeys cost an arm and a leg these days.”
Oedipa shrugged nervously and looked anxiously at Joe.
“So you’ve met my girlfriend Oedipa before?”
“Of course, we met at the convocation last year. Her presentation on cooperativity in host-guest biochemistry was quite remarkable.”
“Thank you, sir. I didn’t think anyone would remember that. It was more than a year ago—two, if I recall.”
“Your ideas made quite an impression on the senior partners. That’s not easy to do,” Dr. Giles turned serious. “But that’s not why I am here.”
The three sat down at the dinner table. Giles removed his wire-rimmed glasses. “What I’m about to tell you is of the utmost confidence.”
“You can count on us, Dr. Giles.”
“As you may know, last year, a ship called the Intrepid was sent on a mission to resupply and check up on our colony on Tempest. We received automated confirmation via buoy that the Intrepid had arrived on schedule and returned through the wormhole as planned and then nothing. The crew made no attempt—or perhaps we unable—to contact us with their coordinates. We feared an explosion shortly after the Intrepid made the wormhole transit. However, a few weeks later a listening post in the Outer Asteroid Belt picked up a transponder signal. It was independently confirmed as the Intrepid by our observatory on Mars. As best we can tell, the Intrepid is still on course but losing power.
“Though not officially in the purview of the Research and Development branch, I have been tasked with coordinating the cleanup team that will intercept the Intrepid. We need to keep this quiet, but, more importantly, we need to find out what happened. SETECH’s exclusive rights to planet, the wormhole and the entire shipping lane between Earth and Tempest depends upon the perception that our operations are smooth and incident free.”
“I can understand the importance and secrecy, Dr. Giles, but where do Joe and I fit?” Oedipa said. “Surely they don’t want Joe—”
“It’s okay, Oedipa. It’ll only be a year or so,” Joe said, putting a calming hand on hers. “It’s an important mission. They’re going to need an experienced pilot.”
“Actually, Joe, your considerable suborbital flight experience and your unquestionable talent notwithstanding, this is a deep space mission. You weren’t chosen,” Giles’ eyes turned to Oedipa. “She was.”
“I was? But what use could I be? My skill sets aren’t exactly compat—” Oedipa looked at Giles suspiciously. “You suspect foul play?”
“We can’t rule it out,” Giles said. “And don’t shortchange your skills. I’ve had my eye on you for quite some time. Whether there was foul play or not, your knowledge and experience could prove to be useful. While we don’t know much about the Intrepid’s disposition apart from its whereabouts, initial indications don’t suggest any catastrophic mechanical failure of the ship. Whatever happened to it, there’s a good chance that it was chemical or biological. That’s still a fairly broad spectrum of possibilities.”
Oedipa saw the look of disappointment in Joe’s face. “But couldn’t I analyze evidence from here? Why would you need me to actually go with the team?”
“We can’t risk transmissions leaked. It’s happened in the past and contributed to the loss of one of our Jovian colonies. This must be self-contained as possible with as little communication with Earth as possible,” Giles said. “Which is why I will be going as well. But this is strictly voluntary, so I won’t force you to go.”
“I don’t know—it’s a great opportunity, but a long commitment,” Oedipa said. “I have projects and Joe—”
“Don’t worry about Joe,” Giles gave a slight smile. “I said he wasn’t selected to the team. But as I realize this is a serious commitment on both your parts and his absence might make you hesitant to leave, I have already requested that Joe be assigned as co-pilot on the mission.”
“You could’ve mentioned that earlier,” Joe growled.
“What do you say, Oedipa?” Giles asked. “I wish I could give you both time to think and consider, but our ship leaves first thing tomorrow. I’ve made arrangements with your supervisor to allow you some leave and I can do the same for Joe.”
Oedipa glanced at Joe. His eyes glistened with excitement. Oedipa wondered a moment if she should be excited too. Even though manned exploration of space had established bases on Mars and even tourist spots on the moon, the vast majority of humanity never got to tread the surface of another planet or moon except through virtual tours or see their home planet from outside the cocoon of its atmosphere. In fact, most people lived in squalor, scraping together just enough resources to make their next meal. Oedipa should feel honored to be invited on a mission that offered adventure and career advancement, except that she didn’t. “I guess we should start packing, Joe?”
“I’ll clean up the kitchen and get the Chinese to go.”
Giles smiled and stood. “Good show.”
“Two paths diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” said Chatty Cathy Charles, Oedipa’s neighbor. Oedipa could tell Joe hated being stuck in the lift with this woman. He always made a loud obnoxious clucking noise with his tongue. “Are you two going to be away long? Oh, I love long trips. My ex-husband once took me on one of those old style cruises to Alaska and then surprised me with a horseback ride through the mountains. Of course, the trip made me sick to my stomach and the food gave me explosive diarrhea, so the horseback riding didn’t really happen, but it’s always the thought that matters, I always say. I’m sorry, you were you going to tell me about your trip.”
Oedipa was most certainly not, but it was a nice try, and she certainly didn’t want to squander a rare opening in the conversation with the dowdy purple-haired woman to hopefully conclude the conversation. “I’m afraid it will be a fairly long trip,” Oedipa said. “I have business in the Seychelles.”
“The Seychelles? That sounds Greek, isn’t it? My other ex-husband—husband number two—planned to take us on a cruise through the Greek Isles. Oh, the magnificent ruins. Or so I’m told,” the lady said. Joe clucked. “Of course, that was during my cancer scare, so we couldn’t go. By the way, I’ve always wondered why Joe always calls you Eddy. It doesn’t bother you being given a boy’s nickname, dear?’
“Uh, no,” Oedipa cleared her throat. “It’s an old nickname my father gave me.”
Joe gave her a knowing look. “You know, you explained it to me once, dear. How your mother only allowed your father to use the nickname because she thought he was referring to the fluid dynamics concept of how current reverses flow when a liquid encounters an obstacle. I thought it was a cute story so I took to calling her Eddy as well.”
Oedipa had told him no such story, but she could help but smile as he gave her a devious wink.
“Well, now, that makes sense. Of course, it’s hard to go against the current, now isn’t it, dear?” Chatty Cathy exclaimed. “Oh, you’ll write, honey, won’t you? And we can still chat through vidphone?”
Oedipa glanced anxiously through the portal. The blue-green surface of the Caribbean was clearly visible. She sighed in relief.
“Oh, I don’t know. Seychelles is pretty remote,” Oedipa added her own lie. “Lack of modern conveniences and all. But we’ll keep you in our thoughts, Mrs. Charles.”
“Oh dear, what a pity.”
The lift doors promptly opened onto the brightly lit atrium of Aquarius’ surface hotel and spaceport. Joe quickly shoved Oedipa and their luggage out of the lift and onto the people mover that crossed the bulk of the atrium. “Goodbye, Mrs. Charles. Don’t let anyone rent our apartment while we’re gone,” Joe called back over his shoulder and leaned to whisper to Oedipa.
“Remember all the things I told you that I’d miss about Earth? And how none of them were that insufferable woman?”
Oedipa lurched forward to catch her balance on the people mover under the weight of two suitcases. She suddenly wished she hadn’t taken any medication to calm her jitters for the flight. “Joe, she’s just trying to be nice. She’s just someone who’s not comfortable with awkward silences and feels she has to, you know, fill the void with talk. Although, I have to admit, between her incessant prattling and your clucking, it’s a wonder I could think enough to keep our cover story straight.”
“I don’t cluck.”
“Yes, you do.”
“It’s more of a click. I do it when I’m annoyed—or nervous. It’s sort of a nervous tic click. It’s part of the idiosyncrasies you love about me.”
“Honey, you cluck,” Oedipa said. “And no, not so much.” She kissed him on the cheek.
The Aquarius Atrium was cavernous, branching off into numerous tunnels which ended in massive platforms dotted with towers and gardens. From space, the whole SETECH facility unfolded like a leaf on the ocean with Atrium and its sprawling complex of hotels, restaurants and security facilities as its palm.
Oedipa and Joe made their way through the central tunnel to the middle of the frond. There, a sleek, small sub-orbital spaceplane sat perched on its pad. Robotic baggage handlers took the couple’s luggage, scanned it, processed it and whisked it away to the belly of the ship. Oedipa looked past the palm trees and out onto the ocean. Dolphins, ever curious about the human activities at the Aquarius spaceport, frolicked among the waves. The roar of engines could be heard briefly behind her as another spaceplane, one of the larger, dowdier passenger airliners, streaked towards the heavens. Oedipa wondered if she could see the white twinkling day star of the Asgard Space Station against the expanse of blue sky above, but realized it would be in someone else’s sky right now.
“I’ll miss it too. One of the reasons I prefer suborbital flight. Mother Earth always fills my cockpit window,” Joe said. “I’m sure the year will fly though and we’ll be back here laughing like we never left.”
“I wonder if we’ll get a full briefing before or after we’re headed off into deep space,” Oedipa said.
Joe leaned in close. “Given the stakes that Dr. Giles suggested and the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen together with us on this flight, I would say we’re not going to get the full scoop until we reach the destination. You know how the company works—protect trade secrets at all costs.”
Oedipa glanced around. “Speaking of which, do you remember where Mrs. Charles said she was going?”
Joe shrugged. “You think I didn’t zone out after the first monologue?”
“Well, I could have sworn that I just saw her board our flight.”
“Seriously?” Joe asked. “Are you sure? She wouldn’t be going up into space, would she? That’s woman’s all hat and no cattle.”
“Cattle? Are you calling Mrs. Charles a cow?”
“Sorry, honey, that’s probably an expression I picked up from living in Texas. I mean, she talks about long trips and then always winds up in south Florida. That couldn’t have been her,” Joe said. “Besides, with her bad hip, how would she have gotten ahead of us.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “It’s just my nerves talking. Let’s just get on the plane.”
Oedipa took one last look about the platform, took in a lungful of sweet sea breeze and climbed the stairs into the spaceplane. Inside, the cabin was all sterile whites and beiges like the Atrium. Crew members scurried about as passengers found their seats. One of the co-pilots greeted Joe on their way past the cockpit—one of his old buddies from flight school, but Oedipa didn’t recognize him. They found their seats towards the middle of the plane. Still nagging her from the back of her mind, Oedipa began cataloging the crowd of passengers milling about. Though a small craft by spaceplane standards, it was still large with three columns of four seat rows. She spotted Dr. Giles five rows behind them in an aisle seat, conspicuously ignoring them with his nose buried in what appeared to be an old leather-bound book of some sort.
A man with sandy brown hair and a thin scar across his eyebrow sat down across the aisle from Oedipa. His fingers twitched nervously on the armrest as he leaned over to stow his carry-on under his seat.
“Pardon me, miss, but this is my first trip off-planet and I tend to get a little airsickness when I fly,” the man told Oedipa. “I just wanted to give you fair warning.”
“It’s okay. My first time too.”
A small army of what appeared to be fresh United States Space Corps soldiers marched down both aisles and filed into the rows in front of and behind Oedipa and Joe. Oedipa wondered if they had mistakenly booked in a special military section of the plane. To Joe’s left, two small girls—sisters most likely—squirmed into their straps as a steward helped them settle in. Joe tried to help the closest girl with her clasps but was having a hard time getting around the child’s restlessly shifting body.
“Let me get that for you, darling,” Joe told the girl. “My name’s Joe. What’s yours?”
“Gwen,” the little girl said. Oedipa guessed she was about ten years old. “And my sister’s name is Stacy.”
“Both pretty names,” Oedipa said. “Are your parents aboard?”
“Our parents are at home. But our aunt and uncle work at the Lunar Colony,” Gwen said. “We’re supposed to go live with them for a while, while our folks get separated. I’m sad because I’ll miss summer vacation with my friends. The moon is so boring.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Gwen,” Joe said. “But the moon has some cool stuff—low grav jungle gyms, lunar putt-putt. Plus, you’ll still be able to see home from the window of your aunt and uncle’s place. Give it a chance.”
“I heard there’s dust everywhere,” the other girl—Stacy—said. “That it gets into your clothes and into your hair—and even into your nostrils.”
The girl poked a pink finger under her sister’s nose causing Gwen to flinch and there was a short scuffle while Joe and the stewardess separated them. Finally, the last strap made a satisfying click.
“There,” said Joe. “All settled it. That puffy red jacket you’re wearing is what’s the problem. You know, the moon is cold, but I’m sure that your aunt and uncle have the heat turned on to a comfortable level.”
“I told her that,” Stacy said. “But Gwen hates being cold.”
“Thank you, sir,” the steward told Joe.
Oedipa smiled as Gwen pouted at her sister’s remark, pulling her puffy red coat sleeves tightly against her chest in defiance. To her right, Oedipa heard an old couple bickering in French about meeting relatives at the Lunar Colony. The man, wearing scruffy suit and fedora stood and motioned emphatically with his hands while the lady tried to put a calming hand on his shoulder. Apparently, the spat was brief, because it ended with the gentleman kissing his wife on the forehead and then the two took their seats at the behest of the Oedipa looked wistfully back at Joe and wondered if they would be bickering about relatives in 30 or 40 years. At least, they wouldn’t be bickering over her relatives. She had none close enough that she kept in contact with.
The aisles began to clear as boarding found their seats. Apart from the stewards, the only passenger that Oedipa could see was a tall man in a black trench coat moving steadily up the left aisle. He was ruggedly handsome but apart from that and a spiky coif there wasn’t much remarkable about him—except that he stared back intently as ambled two rows behind her into an aisle seat. He seemed to pay no attention to the steward’s directions and only averted his gaze from her when he at last past them, his coat brushing casually against Stacy’s knee as she fumbled with a talking doll’s hair. Oedipa peeked over the back of her seat and then flinched as her eyes met his again.
“Joe, that man in the trench coat. Did you see him?”
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. Why, Eddy?”
“He’s been staring at me since he boarded the plane. It’s creeping me out.”
“Maybe he knows you,” Joe said. “Did he look familiar?”
“Where is he now?”
“Two rows behind. Aisle seat.”
Joe peered behind him and then turned back to Oedipa. “You mean the really attractive guy with the lame hairdo, with a brooding, angry look on his face?”
“That about sums him up.”
“What do you want me to do about him?”
“I don’t know,” Oedipa whispered. “Do you think he’s a government agent? Or a corporate spy?”
“For starters, I don’t think Mrs. Charles is on this plane,” Joe said. “Second, we can’t assume stalker boy is anything more than a garden variety pervert who wants to check out my girlfriend—a very beautiful woman with soft black hair to die for and eyes and a smile to match.”
“Third,” Joe’s voice softened. “I think we should perhaps discuss sensitive matters like this in a less public location.”
Oedipa sighed. “You’re right. I’m letting my imagination get the best of me. First time off-planet is making me a little nervy.”
About this time, the stewards were going through the pre-flight routine. Joe tried to comfort her by explaining what the crew was doing in the cockpit and what she could expect to feel as the suborbiter shot away from the pad.
“Just a slight kick really,” Joe said. “These babies are so automated these days that they almost drive themselves as well your own car back on old Ohio freeways—and just as safely. Soon, a trained amoeba will able to be flying to the moon.”
“Sweetie, are you saying that a trained, experienced pilot like you isn’t needed anymore? Are you talking yourself out of a job?” Oedipa said, then added. “I’ll be okay. The pills kicked in. The paranoia’s probably just a small side-effect.”
Oedipa rested her head on Joe’s shoulder. A few minutes later, she felt the rumble of the plane engines, then the sudden kick and the ground through the portal windows sped away. She glanced over to the sandy-haired man in the aisle seat. He was hunched over, gagging into an airsick bag. Oedipa wondered if she should have offered him some of her meds.
They weren’t in flight more than a few hours when Asgard came into view. Oedipa remembered when it took two or three days for Joe and his crew to make the trip to the station. Now, planners had figured out how to arrange it so the launch windows of each spaceport were maximized so that most flights caught up with Asgard’s orbit on the first pass.
Joe seemed pleased that Oedipa was handling the transition to weightlessness well—at least better than the sandy-haired man—except for a pesky ebony curl that kept snagging on the corner of her mouth every time she turned her head. She wished she’d thought of bringing a hairclip. Space adaptation syndrome was rare because medication and patches doled out to the passengers pre-flight but there were a few who still complained of mild—or occasionally severe—nausea and the stewards floated about checking on and caring for those cases.
A small viewscreen was lowered in the front of the compartment to allow passengers to watch the plane’s approach towards the station. As Oedipa recalled, Asgard was the ancient abode of the Viking gods, where Odin ruled over feasts and drinking parties, a celestial palace at the end of Bifrost’s ethereal bridge. Oedipa had to admit, the space station, which looked like sea foam washed up on some ink-blackened shoreline, was as close to heavenly as man could hope to achieve with his own hands. But that’s where the comparison ended. The place of Viking myth had been devoid of the radiancy of joy. It was a grave and solemn place because the gods were doomed to ruin. The cause the forces of good were fighting to defend were hopeless and even the gods were helpless against evil. The human Asgard was pleasure dome, a hub for human travel off-world but also a destination, decked out in lights like a flying Las Vegas.
At the center of Asgard’s bubble cluster, a giant dark rested amongst the smaller glowing ones, a black pearl in the foam. This was the renowned headquarters of all SETECH’s off-world divisions—the envy of its competitors, who by law were allowed to using docking facilities and repair stations, for a stiff fee, but were never able to breach its formidable security perimeters and various firewalls.
The plane maintained geosynchronous orbit with the station until it slid easily into a docking bay cradle. Clamps snapped down on the nose of the flyer and, with only a slight shudder, crawl tubes slithered out like large suckers from the recesses of the station and latched onto the side of the ship. The stewards released the passengers from their seat harnesses, leaving them free to float about the cabin for the first time. Gwen and Stacy were first to spring from their seats and do somersaults towards the ceiling.
“Be careful, girls,” Joe called after them after Gwen nearly kicked him in the head. “They pad that area for safety but still a good thump on the noggin won’t feel so go so ease up on the backflips, huh?”
Joe and Oedipa helped the girls collect their carry-ons and then Joe helped them all learn the basics of weightless locomotion. While the passengers were slowly filing towards the exits—some more clumsy than others—Oedipa kept the spiky-haired stalker in the corner of her eye while she scanned for anyone who might have looked like Mrs. Charles. She shuddered as the man made a move towards them and unconsciously grabbed Joe’s elbow as he passed. But the man passed without incident and Oedipa noted that this time he was conspicuously ignoring them as he exited the plane. Perhaps I was wrong, she thought to herself. Maybe it was just the side-effect of the pills and they had worn off early. Oedipa had never had good reactions to medication anyways.
“Watch your head, Eddy,” Joe said. “You ready?”
Most of the passengers had left the cabin, including Dr. Giles, who also ignored the couple. Oedipa slung her bag over her shoulder and found the nearest handhold to stabilize herself. Joe already had hold of Stacy’s hand so she grabbed Gwen, who was still squealing with excitement from her last pirouette. Through the intercom, the pilot’s voice introduced them to the station facilities, admonished them to heed the rules and policies and explained that the central “pearl” were marked as artificial gravity areas.
“Okay,” Oedipa. “Let’s go.”
When the couple emerged from the plane and station umbilical, they entered one of the smaller outer bubbles. Yet, Oedipa was astonished at the contrast with the sterility of the plane. Asgard was an oasis, with lush green sprouting from every corner. The air seemed light and a faint aroma of cinnamon permeated the air and Oedipa recognized the small waxy leaves of one of the original cultivars of basil—cinnamon basil—edged the flower beds of marigolds and vincas. Each bed was protected by a transparent dome, permeable, Oedipa deduced, to allow the aromas of the plants and their oxidizing effects to benefit the station inhabitants.
Stacy and Gwen were first to notice the enlarged open space and pulled at the adults hands feverishly. Even Gwen’s earlier glumness had dissipated and she told Oedipa she wanted to spin. The stalker from the plane was nowhere to be seen.
“You mean like this?” Oedipa said. She let go of Gwen’s hand so that she could float a safe distance to a bare patch of wall and then pushed off with one foot. She raised her right foot and slid it gracefully against her other ankle. She held her chin up, folded her arms against her body and began to spin.
Gwen gasped at the spectacle as Oedipa pirouetted several times and then pulled her arms out to slow her spin. She felt a sudden rush of adrenaline and satisfaction. This was something she couldn’t really do in the cramped confines of her apartment and labs under the sea. She thought she must have looked ridiculous because she heard Joe give a muffled chuckle behind her.
“You are full of surprises, Eddy,” he said.
“I took ballet classes when I was younger,” Oedipa said. “One of the by-products of having your parents overschedule your childhood. Should we escort the girls to their connecting flight? I don’t see any attendants available at the moment and I don’t feel right abandoning them in the station.”
“We’re big girls, Ms. Maat,” Gwen said. “We can find our way.”
“Still, it won’t hurt us to help you, Gwen,” Joe said. “I’m sure you two are hungry anyways. I can show you where to get the best space dogs on Asgard. And you wouldn’t want to miss any impromptu dance performances.”
Joe winked at Oedipa. He obviously knew his way around the station as well as any native did and easily led them through a labyrinth of chambers and tunnels until they reached the “Pearl.” It was this huge facility which contained the largest area covered by the artificial gravity. It was also the largest man-made structure orbiting the Earth. The Pearl featured a four-star hotel, three restaurants, crew facilities, a variety of shops and an atrium that rivaled the one on Aquarius with all the flash and glitz of Las Vegas or Times Square. Just as it took Oedipa a few minutes to adjust to zero gravity on the plane, it took just as long to find her balance to move about after they passed through the airlock.
“It feels weird,” Gwen said, stumbling into Oedipa. “I feel dizzy.”
“That’s probably the Coriolis effect,” Oedipa said and then she noticed Stacy’s blank expression. “It doesn’t look like it, but this part of the station is rotating three times every minute. It’s what helps make the artificial gravity that ensures you stay on the ground, which, in this case, are the walls of the station. What you’re probably feeling is your inner ear having difficulty adjusting to the Coriolis forces.”
A hologram advertisement fluttered by on cartoon butterfly wings. A cheery voice promised spectacular views of the original Apollo lander from a lunar orbiter. “It’s a marvelous night for a Moondance, with the stars up above in your eyes,” the voice sang as Gwen hopped on one foot trying to catch the cartoon rocket ship. “So fly Moondance tours tonight. Located at docking bay Zeta Alpha.”
“That’s where you girls need to go,” Joe said. “The outbound flights to the Lunar Colony leave from Zeta Alpha. But let’s grab a bite to eat first, eh?”
Joe found the corndog vender he’d been talking about and got hot dogs for himself and the girls. Oedipa wasn’t yet feeling up to eating, so she found them a place to sit in a tiny garden that she guessed was supposed to be a version of Versailles in miniature. Asgard was an engineering miracle, but understatement was not its strong suit, Oedipa assumed. Though open to all, most people who were not wealthy, important or employees of the company in some capacity or their relatives would ever see the inside of this space station.
After their brief repast, they made their way round to the other side of the Pearl where another airlock took them through another maze of Asgard’s outer bubbles. Joe had no trouble leading them to the waiting area, where the lunar lander was docked but had not yet begun to take on passengers.
“We’re here,” Joe said.
Gwen gave Oedipa a quick hug. “What do you say, Stacy?”
“Thank you for the hot dog, Mr. Joe and Ms. Eddy,” Stacy said.
Oedipa stifled a giggle. “You’re welcome, ladies. Have a good trip to your aunt and uncle’s. Send us some pictures when you get the chance.”
“Goodbye, girls,” Joe said, and then turned to Oedipa. “Shall we?”
“Certainly,” she said. “We don’t want to be late for our rendezvous. By the way, where are we supposed to meet the others?”
“Zeta Gamma. But we’ll have to go back through the Pearl to get there. Our rendezvous is at six hundred hours. We shouldn’t be too late though. It should only take about fifteen minutes to get there.”
Oedipa and Joe returned to the Pearl. A small lift skirted the shops and wall gardens which took them two thirds north of its equator. They were halfway to the next airlock when Oedipa felt eyes on them.
“I know, Eddy. I think we’re being followed. Someone—” Joe winced. “Someone just put a gun to my back, I think.”
A large hand clamped on Oedipa’s shoulder and steered her towards a darkened alcove. She was able to turn her head enough to glimpse the stern face of the stalker from the plane.
“Lady and gentleman, if you’ll please step this way, please. I’d like to have a word with you both,” the stalker said in a low growl.
He shoved the couple into the alcove. They turned to face him. The stalker had seemed imposing on the plane, but his frame was even larger than Joe’s and his clenched jaw promised a violent temper. Yet Joe’s face turned from concern to anger.
“Hey, that’s not a—”
“Gun?” the stalker said. “You nitwit! You really think I could smuggle a weapon onto a domestic flight? Clearly you aren’t part of the Espionage Division.”
“Who the hell are you and who do you think you are?” Oedipa said.
“Mr. Arthur Radley,” a voice called from behind the stalker. Oedipa recognized Dr. Giles’ voice though she couldn’t immediately see around the large stranger. “I assumed I’d find you here.”
“You know him?” Joe asked in disbelief.
“Of course,” Giles said, glowering at the three of them. “However, a public place may not as good a venue for a reunion as, say, our rendezvous on the Icarus.”
“Giles,” Radley said, wheeled around to face the SETECH director. “Glad to see you, sir. Which is more than I can say for these two stool pigeons.”
“Mr. Radley, don’t forget that we are all on the same side,” Giles said and then addressed Joe and Oedipa. “I thought I mentioned while we were Earth side that discretion was a paramount requirement for this mission.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Giles,” Oedipa said. “I didn’t know he was part of our team.”
“Then why did you stare at me during the entire flight?” Radley said. “Were you aware that you probably made me and put all our lives in jeopardy?”
“Hey, you stared at me first! I thought you were a creeper, stalking me. How was I to know you weren’t planning to kill Joe and me? I’m not sure that I don’t still think you are a stalker.”
Radley tapped his ear. “I have a chip in my inner ear that taps into my optic nerve. I can isolate sounds with it and listen in on conversations. I was staring at you to calibrate the chip, not ogle your lady parts.”
“Now I’m sure you’re a stalker.”
“What are you supposed to be?” Joe asked. “Some sort of spy?”
“Counter-espionage, actually,” Radley said. “I’m the guy the spies fear. Or I would be, so long as the girl and her boy toy didn’t ID me for the nice lady spy from Global and Galactic.”
“Boy toy? Really?” Joe said. “This from the man dressed like a psycho interpretation of a teen pop star.”
“Children,” Dr. Giles interjected. “Could we really continue the insults somewhere else? We are behind schedule as it is. If we miss our launch window it could be days before we get a chance to leave again—days which could mean the difference between life and death for the crew of the Intrepid.”
“Right then,” Radley said. “The next twelve months are just going to be peachy.”
Oedipa glanced over at Joe, concerned that his testosterone and pride might get the better of him. The muscles in his jaw clenched and his fingernails dug into her arm, but he was keeping himself in check.
“We better follow them,” Oedipa said. “It’ll be okay.”
The group left the alcove and made their way towards the Zeta Gamma airlock. Oedipa noticed several of the soldiers from the plane congregating at a bar near the opening. The bar was dressed up in fake palm trees and grass-skirted women served unnaturally colorful drinks in strange-looking glasses. The bar must have been specifically situated in a dead spot in the Pearl’s artificial gravity, because one soldier bobbed for an amber bubble apparently made of beer while his mates watched and laughed. Oedipa hadn’t questioned why a whole unit would travel on a commercial flight to Asgard when there were military stations they could have used. Were they on leave? If so, why were they in uniform? Were they a security detail come to provide extra protection for some reason? Oedipa felt a pang of panic and knew this time it wasn’t the chemical variety, but the soldiers continued to carouse without noticing Dr. Giles and his secret team.
As they approached the airlock, Oedipa prepared herself from the transition to zero gravity. The floor seemed to tremble a bit and she caught herself before a stumble but then the whole station seemed to shudder and shake. Oedipa completely lost her balance and fell into Joe. Apparently, not all of her ballet training had prepared her for life in space.
“Sorry,” she said. “Still getting the hang of this no gravity thing.”
Joe gave her a concerned look. “I don’t think that was gravity, sweetie. It felt like—”
Suddenly, the lights flickered and then the entire station darkened momentarily. With the light, all sound exhaled from the Pearl. They all stood motionless from shock as the station violently shook for several seconds. Finally, a siren rang out and the Pearl was bathed in emergency red.
“What just happened?”
“It felt like something hit us,” Joe said. “Something big.”
People began to panic around them. The soldiers had fled the bar area and without apparent orders began traffic control to help the local security teams flow like ants from the various corners of the station to wherever the source of the emergency was unimpeded.
“Maybe we can see what’s going on. There’s an observation at the northern pole of the Pearl,” Joe said.
The lifts were inoperable, so Joe led them to a ladder that swarmed with people. Eventually, they made their way to the observation deck, a large cupola of windows that gave a panoramic view of the station from its core. People had already started to gather there or stopped as they passed by, mesmerized or puzzled by what they saw. The effect was eerie.
Initially, Oedipa couldn’t see out the side of the cupola that was drawing all the attention. Radley helped clear a path through the crowd and she followed his lead.
“What’s all the hubbub abou—” Radley said. “Oh.”
Looking to her right, Oedipa scanned the outside of the station. Three other bubbles looked like giant red-speckled eggs nesting atop the blue arc of the Earth. It was hard for her to judge distance, but he lights in the right bubble flickered and Oedipa thought she could see movement through one of the bay windows which she guessed made it the closest. Nestled in the middle, the smallest and furthest of the station bubbles was almost completely dark, except for a flickering on the exposed side of its north pole. What appeared to be a geyser of confetti had shot a plume across the sky as though someone had uncorked a bottle of cosmic champagne. Oedipa pointed out the geyser to Joe.
“What’s that?” she asked, but even as the words left her lips she had her answered. That wasn’t confetti; there were people out there—bodies.