Chapter 2: The Mission
In the elementary school classroom in
Decatur, Georgia, the third and fourth grade students turned back to the
holographic display. It wasn’t showing the spaceship any more. It was showing
the White House. The children looked at their teacher, and at each other with
wide eyes filled with questions.
Something was happening, something big.
In Times Square, rushing passers-by slowed, stopped, and watched, or exchanged puzzled glances. The president was about to speak. Thousands of voices murmured, all at once.
When was the last time the president gave an unannounced speech? Could anyone remember?
Didn’t that happen when there was some kind of emergency, some disaster?
Everyone shook their heads, shrugged, or stared blankly.
None of them had any answers. They could only wait.
In the pub in New Bankside, London, men and women looked up from their plates and darts matches, blinking, to watch. The Prime Minister was clearing his throat.
In Tokyo, commuters watched their phones and watches. Newscasters were awaiting the Japanese Prime Minister, who was expected to speak at any moment.
In an office building in Kenya, workers gathered again before the wall-sized conference room monitor. They looked at each other expectantly, asking the same question that millions of others, all around the globe, were asking at that very same moment.
What’s this about? What’s happening?
Has something gone wrong with the space mission?
# # #
Angela lowered herself into her seat at the head of the mess table and strapped herself in. Her hair floated wildly around her head, not the most dignified look for a mission commander. Especially not when she was about to make the most important speech of her career. She wished she’d paused long enough to pull her Snoopy cap on. At least the crew didn’t seem to mind. Their eyes were focused on her, anxious and waiting. Well, except for Kim. She kept her eyes focused down on her lap, studying her hands.
Angela didn’t blame her. Kim didn’t like to lie, either.
Jack sat to her immediate right, sipping grape-flavored Tang out of a tube. She sighed. They had plenty of Tang, but the grape flavor was always the first to go. For God’s sake, couldn’t any of them drink the stupid grapefruit?
Dominic sat at the far end of the table, as far from Jack as possible. Angela pretended not to notice. Frankly, she didn’t have the patience for either of them. They were the best, but for the first time in her life, Angela wondered if maybe second best would have been good enough after all.
Maazin sat between them, twitching like a jumping bean. She wondered how long his seatbelt would hold him in place.
Angela took a deep breath and activated the monitor behind her. She didn’t look back. She’d seen the footage hundreds of times. She had every last pixel of it memorized. She heard an astronaut’s crackling voice speaking: “We have liquid water. We’re sending a probe down.”
“What you’re seeing happened fifty-three years ago,” Angela said. She looked each of her crewmembers in the eye as she spoke. “You’re seeing communications from the Hobbes mission to Enceladus. Until this moment, this footage has been classified top secret.”
Behind her, the footage played. She heard the astronaut’s filtered voice again. “Hobbes, we’re sending you a visual.”
“This is what they found,” Angela said. She turned to the monitor. The image was dark but clear. The probe’s tiny camera focused on an object of metal and crystal, sunk deep in the gloom of icy water. Its size was impossible to determine, at least at first glance, and the details were murky at best.
The camera swooped closer. The object was engraved with strange pictogram symbols — clearly artificial. The camera panned over the object. Angela turned and watched, even though she knew every second. The next symbols were representations of the planets in the solar system and of star patterns far beyond.
Jack was the first to find his voice and speak. “Oh … oh my God—!”
Angela nodded. “That’s pretty much the reaction, yeah.”
“That’s … that’s—” Maazin didn’t finish. Angela understood. There were no words.
Slowly, Jack turned his gaze away from the monitor and met Angela’s gaze. “We’re going there. Now. To Enceladus. Aren’t we?”
Angela shook her head. “We’ve been going to Enceladus for fifty-three years, Mister O’Brien. That technology is alien. It’s advanced almost beyond comprehension. And it’s more than three and a half billion years old.”
Dominic’s eyes widened. “Holy—!”
Kim nodded. “Holy,” she agreed. Angela heard awe in her voice.
Maazin shook his head. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from the screen. “What is it? I mean, what … what does it do?”
“Our best minds have been working on that very question for fifty years,” Angela said.
Kim shifted in her seat and grinned slyly as she looked up at last. “I cracked it five years ago.”
Jack turned and frowned accusingly at Kim, but Angela saw his own grin sparkling in his eyes. “I thought you said you’d never been to deep space before.”
“I said I didn’t go to Jupiter.” She shrugged and pointed upward. “Saturn. Anyway, to answer the question, it’s a beacon. For navigation and communication.”
Dominic laughed and smiled at Kim. “You little minx.”
“Why, I think you’ve actually impressed them,” Maazin said to Kim. “That might be a first.”
Dominic’s smile faded as he turned back to Angela. “I don’t understand. This … this is the most significant discovery in human history!” Angela nodded once. “Why in the world would you keep something so bloody important a secret?”
Angela met his gaze without blinking. “That decision was made way over my pay grade, Mister Vance. But think about it. A dozen nations, at least, and God only knows how many corporations, have the resources to reach Saturn. Can you imagine the chaos if we’d announced the discovery of alien technology? What if it had been a weapon?”
“Why tell now?” Jack asked.
“You can’t keep a mission of this scope secret,” said Angela. “Too many people have to know. So, cover story. But space travel is cool again. We’ve recaptured the public’s imagination, and people are paying attention. Imagine the reaction when this ship doesn’t stop at Neptune?”
Before Angela could continue, Dominic interrupted. “Wait a tick. Did you say three and a half billion years? That’s almost as long as life has existed on earth.”
Angela nodded again. She’d been wondering when someone would make that connection. “Yeah. How about that?”
“You’re not suggesting—!” Dominic began.
This time, Angela was the one to interrupt. “I’m suggesting, Mister Vance, that we have a mystery to solve. A very important one. That’s all.” She took another deep breath before she continued. “Our mission isn’t what you’ve been told. For that reason, backup crews are being briefed at this very moment. If anyone wants to back out, you can. But first, this is what we know. For at least three and a half billion years, alien beings of unknown origin and intent visited the Earth every few hundred years. Approximately three to five centuries ago, the visits slowed gradually and eventually stopped all together. We don’t know why.”
“The Saturn artifact led us to a stable wormhole at the edge of our solar system,” Kim said. “Artificial. We think so, anyway. That’s how they got here. It’s a shortcut through space to … somewhere. It’s shielded by a plasma energy gate. Sort of like a door at the entrance to a tunnel. We’ve learned how to open it.”
“Probes sent back images of an opening at the far end,” said Angela. “We’re seeing stars … patterns we can’t recognize.”
“Meaning wherever this gate leads,” said Kim, “it’s not in this part of the galaxy.”
“The probes stop transmitting before they reach the far end,” said Angela. “We don’t know what waits on the other side.”
“What happens to the probes?” Maazin asked.
“Unknown,” said Angela. “That’s why we need a human crew — to solve the problems a machine can’t. More specifically, that’s why I need the very best available. For better or for worse, that’s you people. Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Vance, please understand that when I say for better or for worse, I am referring specifically to the pair of you.”
“Yeah, we pretty much pieced that together,” said Jack. He didn’t meet Angela’s gaze.
She looked at each of them again, one by one. “Our mission is to travel through the wormhole gate. Find out where it leads. Learn who visited us, and why. And last, find out what happened to them.
“So. Like I said. Back up crews are being briefed and are standing by. Anyone want to back out?”
No one did.
# # #
In the elementary school classroom in Decatur, Georgia, the third and fourth grade students watched as the ISA Michael Collins disengaged from its moorings. Maneuvering thrusters fired, carrying the Collins away from the space dock. When the ship was clear of the station and its main engines igniting, the students cheered.
A few hours later, the crowds in Times Square were watching as the Collins passed the moon, its mighty main engines firing, gaining speed.
The most important mission in human history was underway.
# # #
Jack and Dominic were ignoring each other in the mess hall, raising the tension in a way Kim couldn’t quite understand. They hovered at opposite ends of the pod and they didn’t look at each other, but the module was very small. She’d thought the expected squabbling would be bad, but somehow, the too-polite, icy silence was worse.
When the oppressive quiet became unbearable, Kim scooped up her notebook and pencil and floated through the habitat and science modules and back to the rear of the engineering module. She found a tiny spot where she could rest her back against the hull and prop her feet on the back of a life support monitor station, resting the notebook in her lap. It was a surprisingly cozy and private little nook.
Taking up the pencil, Kim began to work on some equations — the puzzles from the Saturn artifact that had defined her life for years now. She’d solved them all, of course — she had them committed to memory, solutions and all — but it never hurt to go through them one more time. There were always deeper answers to discover, and the deeper things called to her. The work would have been easier with a tablet, true, but she liked the tactile sensations of the little stub of pencil scrapping against the rough paper, and the exercise was good for her. It kept her mind sharp. Besides, she found comfort in the neat rows and tidy columns of figures. Working them stilled her, like a kind of meditation or prayer.
Besides, for all their astonishing complexity, the formulae were easier to understand than people, at least to Kim. They were orderly and reliable, predictable. With people, the equations were too complex and all the numbers were irrational.
Without thinking, Kim reached under her flight suit and fingered a silver necklace that hung there, another habit of inarticulate prayer. It was a necklace she treasured, and one that usually comforted her. It was like a charm bracelet, adorned with symbols from world religions — two Christian crosses (a Celtic cross and a regular one, because she wasn’t sure if they were the same or different), a Star of David, a Taiji Yin-Yang symbol, a Native American Dream Catcher, a Star and Crescent, a pentagram, a Dharma wheel. A few more. The holy signs, dozens of humankind’s responses to the universe’s great mysteries. She turned the page and started a new row of equations.
Maazin came in then, whistling a tune she didn’t recognize. He saw her and gave her a wink, and then ignored her, going about his work, tinkering here, making a little adjustment there. Kim was sure the work wasn’t necessary, any more than her math was necessary, and in a sudden moment of clarity that startled her, Kim realized something. She understood Maazin. His engines were his equations. He found in the predictable order and precision of his tinkering what Kim found in the patterns of her math — his source of peace. They were, on some level, alike, she and Maazin. The thought pleased her, and she smiled.
But as she watched him work, she realized something else, too. Maazin had found something she lacked. She was driven by the math to find something beyond it, some deeper meaning, something that the elegant precision of its language only hinted at. The math described reality in a way that mere words could not, but beyond the equations, beyond science, there was fire, and Kim ached for it. The call to understand was a profound need in her, like hunger, and it burned.
Maazin, though, whistled and worked. He’d found more than peace and precision, Kim realized. He was content, complete and comfortable in his defined world. That was something Kim didn’t understand. She found herself afraid, suddenly, that she was incapable of understanding it. In all her twenty-eight years, Kim had never known that feeling.
She turned the page, and started a new column of numbers, writing faster.
# # #
A few months later, the regulars in the New Bankside pub raised their glasses and cheered as the Collins passed Jupiter, slingshotting around the massive planet to gain momentum.
Two months after that, workers in the office building in Kenya met for lunch. The monitor was tuned to a news station. The Collins was in deep space. Far behind, the sun and its planets were simply bright stars, shining specs in a night-black ocean, tiny and fragile. Their conference room was somewhere on one of the smaller dots, the faint, pale blue one. They felt very, very small.
# # #
Kim sat at the mess table with Dominic. Dominic had a tablet and was reading more reports from the mission teams that had studied the Saturn artifact over the past half century. Kim was drinking hot green tea out of a tube and thinking about making conversation, but no subjects occurred to her. Small talk had never really been her strong suit in the best of circumstances, and after seven months in space, they’d pretty much exhausted every conceivable topic. She wished she’d thought to practice more, and maybe make some notes.
The hatch to the flight deck slid open and Jack floated in, pulling himself along with handholds on the ceiling. With effort, Kim kept her face still, but inside, she cringed and the contents of her stomach turned to hot lead. She wasn’t very good at tension, either.
Dominic sighed and unfastened his seatbelt. He floated away, back toward his bunk in the habit module behind them.
“I’m gonna get some sleep,” Dominic muttered. “Last chance, isn’t it? We’re getting close.” He didn’t look at Jack. Jack didn’t look at him. Kim tried not to look at either of them.
“Eight hours or so, I think,” said Kim. Seven hours, fifty-six minutes. Not that she was counting. Not that they all were.
After a second, she heard Dominic’s bunk pod open and then slide shut. When the lock clicked, Jack took Dominic’s place at the table, and Kim felt herself relax. Jack gave her a quick nod and pulled an old-fashioned paperback out of his pocket — an actual antique book, printed on paper. Kim’s nose crinkled. It smelled musty. It was vintage science fiction book, with a gaudy, colorful cover showing a barbarian space beauty in an improbable chain mail bikini on an exotic alien planet beneath twin moons.
Kim rubbed her temples, a habit she’d picked up from Angela. She wondered if it helped Angela any more than it helped her. She took a sip of her tea, but the tube was cold. She twisted her neck to look at Dominic’s bunk, and then back at Jack. She sighed.
“You guys can’t keep this up, Jack.”
Jack didn’t look up from his book. “Don’t underestimate us.”
“’Cause if you don’t stop, Angela’s gonna toss you both out the airlock.”
Maazin floated in from the engine module at that moment, pulling himself toward the flight deck. “And I’ll hold it open for her,” he added with an over-so-slightly maniacal grin.
Kim didn’t smile. “We’re almost there. Finally. After all this time. Whatever this is between you guys…. Please, Jack. Don’t let it screw up this mission. Okay?”
Jack rolled his eyes. “You’re starting to sound like Angela.” He turned a page.
“I’m serious! I’ve spent seven years of my life on this … this mystery. The ultimate mystery, Jack.”
Without thinking, Kim fingered the chain she wore around her neck, moving arranging the individual icons, one by one, like the numbers and symbols in a equation.
“I need to know what this is about, Jack. I need to.”
Jack looked up from his book, blinking, and Kim felt suddenly uncomfortable. He was about to ask questions, questions she didn’t know how to answer. If she did, maybe this trip wouldn’t be so terribly necessary. Not for her, anyway.
Kim forced herself to push the necklace back under her flight suit. She hadn’t meant for him to see it. She swallowed. Time to change the subject. Why couldn’t she think of a subject? Oh, the book. Jack’s stupid paperback book. She nodded to the dusty old antique. “How many of those relics did you bring, anyway?”
“This? Kim, this is a classic! A real collector’s item, too. Besides, never know what we’re gonna meet up there, huh? Gotta study up.”
Kim felt her eyebrows rising. “That’s what you think we’ll find? A … a … beautiful alien space princess?”
Jack shrugged. “Be prepared for anything. Didn’t they teach you that in basic?”
“You know, you’d have a better chance of mating with … with slime mold than anything that evolved on another planet.”
Maazin floated back from the flight deck, squeezing through the narrow space. “After seven months in space,” said Maazin, “I could be happy with a nice slime mold.”
Jack opened his book again. “Dominic would just steal it.”
# # #
Dominic settled back into the dark and womb-like comfort the tiny bunk enclosure offered. His tiny window was open, and he could see the luminous pale green beauty of Neptune shining in the distance, almost near enough to catch, already growing small behind them. He reached out and touched the glass. The deck vibrated slightly; the engines were firing, adjusting course.
Not much longer. Less than eight hours, after all these months in space….
Dominic tried to sleep. When he realized it wasn’t going to happen, at least not soon, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin-sized holographic emitter. He rubbed it idly. Jack would blow a gasket if he knew about it. Smiling, Dominic thumbed it on. A pretty woman in her twenties smiled back at him. Her hair, long, lush, and thick, somewhere between brown and auburn — what would you call a color like that? — was slightly disheveled, but her eyes were bright. To Dominic, at least, she had never looked more beautiful. No woman had, not ever.
Dominic had taken that image himself, on that one perfect morning. It seemed like a lifetime ago. It was the last time he’d been happy.
# # #
Anna had been asleep when Dominic woke, so he slipped out of bed quietly and pulled on a robe. He tiptoed to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, and, sipping it slowly while it cooled, came back to watch Anna sleep for a bit. He smiled a gentle half smile and went back to pour another cup. The morning was brighter then and the rain had stopped, so he opened the glass doors and wandered onto the bedroom balcony to watch the sun rise over Houston. The wind was strong and he thought he could smell the ocean.
After a moment, Anna joined him, also in a robe, and smiled, and the sunrise seemed dimmer. Anna was his light, golden and dazzling in her sleepy stretch, and in that moment, he understood, deeply in the heart, the true meaning of the word afterglow. Without thinking, he snapped a picture.
Anna stuck out her tongue and pouted. Then, forgiving him, snuggled close. “G’morning,” she said.
Dominic smiled back and slipped his arm around her. “I think it’s the best morning I’ve ever had.”
“Mmmm. I like that. Is there any more of that coffee?”
Dominic offered her his mug. She took a sip and sighed happily. Her half-closed eyes, blue-green like the sea, sparkled.
“I never thought I could feel like this,” said Dominic. He smiled again. “This … you … this is everything I’ve ever wanted in life.”
Anna must have heard something in his voice, something he hadn’t known was there, because he felt her body stiffen. “Uh oh,” she said.
“I can’t believe we let this happen.” Dominic bowed his head and closed his eyes. “We can’t do this, Anna.”
Anna pulled away and crossed her arms under her breasts. “It’s Jack.”
“He’s like a brother to me, Anna.”
“The fact that he left without even a note … that he hasn’t even bothered to call in more than a month? That … doesn’t even matter to you, does it?”
Dominic looked back at the sunrise, but a cloud hid its light. “What do you think?”
Anna didn’t look at him. “I’m just … just a notch on the … the space belt for him.”
“Space…? Uh, we don’t really have those.”
Anna hugged herself more tightly. “This … you and me … I thought we had something more.”
“He’s my brother, Anna.”
Dominic took her in his arms. After a moment, she relaxed and surrendered to the sadness of that last, long embrace.
# # #
Dominic must have slept at last, because the screech of a loud chime woke him with a start. A second later, Angela’s voice came over the comm.
“All hands on the flight deck. It’s show time, people.”
Dominic’s eyes popped open; the sharp words burned the post-sleep fog and the gloom of sadness from his brain in a blink. He reached for his flight suit and jacket.