The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 23

“Bottoms up, Gentlemen.”

Paol Joonter drained his pint-sized bottle of clear blue liquid immediately, but Blade Slater hesitated slightly. Glancing over at Paol, Blade gained the confidence to follow his lead. As soon as the pair had completed the instruction, two prison security guards pulled out their wand-like laser keys and the sound of metal against concrete ensued as each pair of hand and ankle cuffs dropped from each prisoner—a sign of quasi-freedom that the two prisoners would now enjoy.

“As a reminder to both of you,” began the prison warden, “the contents of the fluid will remain attached to the blood stream for nearly three weeks. Therefore, every two weeks, a member of my staff will remotely monitor your consumption of the beverage by video feed. You will continue to be monitored by a central team of minimum security guards from Knoxville, Tennessee. You may not leave the borders of the continental U.S. and any attempt to get within 50 miles of a border must be preapproved and done under accompaniment of a federal officer or guard. For you, Mr. Joonter that means you must be very careful on home leave. Your home in Washington State is only 90 miles from the border. I wouldn’t wander to far north if I were you.”

“Understood,” Paol acknowledged the order.

“Mr. Edwards,” said the warden as he turned his attention to a young man standing to the right of the prisoners. “I release these prisoners to the custody of NASA.”

Edwards thanked the warden and escorted the pair to a van, waiting to drive them to the airport. As the pair left the prison building dressed in brand new street clothes, Slater paused on the front steps in a dreamlike state of wonder at his release.

“What’s the deal with the blue water, Paol?” Slater asked as they walked a few feet behind Edwards. He continued to gaze around at the outside of the prison and took in views which were new. He had not seen anything but the same concrete walls, whether inside the prison cell, or outside in the prison court. Trees, flowers, grass, cars and pedestrians passing by… it all seemed so new.

“It’s a little concoction that was invented several years ago. It’s called a minimum security beverage, or MSB.”

“But what’s it fo’?

“It’s a cocktail of chemicals—all FDA approved, I assure you—which will track any individual in the USA.”

“The devil, ya’ say.”

“No, really. It works like this. Each prisoner has a specific ratio of two different chemicals. The combination of these chemicals will prevent the passage of a high-frequency signal. Around the US, there are transmitters which send a constantly-emitting variable-frequency signal. That signal disperses until it reaches your body. The chemicals in the blood stream will reflect the exact frequency which is tuned to your chemical composition. It then bounces back to the receiver, and based on the location of detection and the time of flight, your exact location is calculated and mapped in Knoxville. So, it’s like a tracking device which you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try.”

“And it stays inside the body fo’ three weeks?”

“At least.”

“And there’s them transceivers placed all over the US?”

“You got it.”

“And they can cover the whole country?”

“Except for the non-continental states.”

After a pause of reflections with some low, quiet grunts, Slater spoke up. “What if I get me a transfusion?”

Paol appreciated how quickly this thought came to him. “Who’s going to do that?”

“Maybe I got me a friend or uncle who’s a doctor.”

“Well, what would happen is that you would fade on the map, go blank, raise an alarm, and have local law enforcement at the doctor’s office within minutes. Your friend would either have to turn you in or spend time in jail himself for aiding and abetting a criminal.”

“Ok, but what if I decide to hop on an airplane and fly outta the country?”

“You have to register all air travel. If you’re on a flight that you haven’t registered for, your speed will become an alarm, the flight will be tracked by radar, and the plane will be diverted to land in the States by federal law enforcement jets. The bottom line is that there have been thousands of petty criminals tracked this way. Instead of being stuck inside of jails for months or years, they are able to continue a semblance of a normal life. They can work, be with their families, and as long as they keep themselves clean, they can serve their sentence.

“It was actually invented to track cattle on open ranges. Ranchers would get an alarm if the herd wandered towards the edge of the network and be able to track and intercept cattle more quickly. Politicians dealing with prison over-crowding realized that it could be used to track criminals more cheaply, without the expense of putting them in prisons.”

“But, what if the criminal goes back to his old behavior?” Blade asked.

“Well, because they are very trackable, it’s nearly impossible to get away with subsequent crimes, because they can be tracked back to the scene of the crime, and then they are taken back to jail. Some opponents claim that it actually hurts crime, because people know that if they have a free pass on small crimes, then they are more encouraged, because they know that even if they’re caught, they can be back in society after a conviction. There really isn’t a whole lot of data to back up the claim, though.”

“Right over here, Gentlemen,” Edwards interrupted the conversation as they arrived at the vehicle. Edwards took the driver’s seat, while Paol and Blade went to either side of the back.

Before climbing in, Paol looked over the top of the car at Blade as he opened his door. “I know what you’re thinking, and I know you won’t do it.”

“Do what?” Slater asked raising an eyebrow curiously.

“I know you’re not planning on escaping, Blade.” He said with a wry smile.

“Oh, really… and why not?”

“Frankly, you know that the mission would abort, and I’d be sent back to prison. You wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt. You should know that many have tried to escape, but none have ever succeeded. Besides, I know that you are a changed man. You want to give back to society and repent for past doings. You wouldn’t be able to do that as a man in hiding and on the run from the law.”

As the car engine started, Blade shot back, “I wasn’t thinkin’ ‘bout doin’ it myself. I’m worried ‘bout you doin’ it to me.” He smiled and ducked into the back seat, leaving Paol standing with a mock expression of disdain at the offense pronounced by his good friend.

“So, Mr. Edwards, you work fo’ NASA, then?” Blade asked the driver as the car pulled onto the street.

“Yes,” Edwards replied, looking up into the rear view mirror. “By the way, call me Physon.”

“So, whatcha do fo’ NASA, Mr. Ed—I mean Physon?” Blade pressed the conversation out of excitement for his newfound freedom.

“I am an engineer working on your mission. I’ll be providing some of your training and instruction regarding the details of the mission.”

“Tell us all ‘bout the mission.”

“Well, frankly, we don’t know all of the details just yet, but when we get to Houston, you’ll be fully briefed on everything we know to date. There are a couple of years ahead of us to get all of the details ironed out. However, the gist of it is this. You get in a spaceship, you travel to ZB-5344-P1, study its geography and any inhabitants that you discover there, and return home to tell us all about it.”

“So this ZB… P1… is the official name of the planet?” Paol interjected his question into the conversation, growing curious about what lay ahead of him.

“Yes. Earth2 is its common name among those of us here on Earth1, but it is the first planet to be discovered around the star entered as ZB-5344 in the most comprehensive Milky Way star database. Thus the official designation is ZB-5344-P1.”

“Hey, Physon—I got a question,” Blade asked playfully. “How do we know that it’s Earth2? Maybe we’re Earth2, and it’s Earth1?” A roar of laughter came from the back seat. Paol shook his head at his partner’s easy joviality.

As Physon looked again into the rear view mirror, Paol felt obliged to explain. “You’ll get used to it. He’s fond of laughing at his own jokes. It kind of grows on you, and can be contagious sometimes. Even if it isn’t the best joke in the world, I’ve come to appreciate how his laughter made prison life a lot less gloomy.”

Physon nodded and replied, “Well, Blade, we know that we’re Earth1, because we are light years ahead of Earth2—literally.”

“Whatcha mean?” Blade asked inquisitively.

“Well, everything we observe here on Earth1 regarding Earth2 happened 27000 years ago, so that just goes to prove that it is 27000 years behind us in history.”

Blade’s distorted face proved that he was weighing this comment. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, considering that this remark from a trained engineer seemed so ludicrous that it must instead have been absolutely brilliant. Maybe Blade was over his head, but he felt to rebut the comment anyway. “But that’s just because it takes light 27000 years to reach—” Blade stopped abruptly as Physon started to snicker.

In between hearty fits of laughter, Blade managed to admit, “Ah, ya’ got me, Mr. Physon—ya’ got me there.”

Paol nodded slowly. “I told you so, Physon—the silly joking can be contagious when you’re around this man.”

Paol and Blade sat alone at an oblong table in a small conference room. Blinds were open to reveal a large workspace, with occasional passersby, each engaged in their workday tasks. Each of the recently released prisoners had a notepad and pen in front of them emblazoned with the NASA logo, as well as a beverage which Physon had retrieved for them after they entered the room.

As he sipped his coffee, Paol closed his eyes. “Ah, so much better than the stuff back at the pen.”

Blade appeared indignant. “Really? I’ve been cheated then,” he said as he sipped on his can of coca-cola. “Mine tastes just the same.” He could barely finish the comment before smiling and adding a spurt of choked laughter.

Conversation was suppressed, as each man was consumed in his own flurry of thoughts due to the abrupt change of events in their lives. It would certainly take some time to adjust now that they were no longer confined to their small prison cell. With the muffled sound of an occasional conversation taking place on the other side of the window, and the ticking of an old analog clock—a tremendously contrasting relic in this center of futuristic facility—the door to the conference room swung open and a pair of individuals entered the room.

Physon Edwards introduced Paol and Blade to Vurim Gilroy as the program manager for the Earth2 mission. Vurim took each hand and shook it warmly and vigorously. “I’m thrilled to meet both of you. On behalf of NASA, the United States of America, and indeed for every citizen of the world, thank you for accepting such an exciting mission of discovery.”

Gilroy invited his new acquaintances to take a seat, as he and Physon took seats directly opposite of them. Physon opened a notebook on the table, while his boss laid down a thin manila folder on the table and folded his hands on top of it.

“Gentlemen,” he began after taking a drink from his bottle of water. “We have a little over five years to prepare you for this mission. Let me explain first what the mission consists of, and then I’ll tell you how we plan to get you ready for the task.

“A spacecraft, called Star Transport, is currently under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This craft is a horizontal take-off and landing vehicle, designed to require as little facility as possible for launching and landing the spacecraft. It requires no launch pads or lengthy runways. It has a self-contained, highly-efficient, low-weight, and low-volume fuel reservoir for anti-matter nuclear propulsion. Only due to recent advances with sub-atomic replication were we able to generate the type of propellant needed for such an engine. As such, there are no external rocket boosters required as is the case with more conventional rocket designs. This is imperative as it allows for planet-hopping without requiring booster equipment on each planet. Its five-engine design is capable of speeds at 0.1 Warp currently.”

Paol, feeling overwhelmed from this rapid-fire briefing glanced over to Blade, who was copiously scribbling details down on his notepad. He looked as if everything was making sense, and Paol figured that it probably was. Here, the engineer was having a harder time keeping up with spaceship construction than was the unschooled convict.

“The spacecraft is—um—cozy. There are just two main compartments; namely, the cockpit, and the SAR chamber. All flight activities naturally take place in the cockpit, with the pilot seated on the left and the navigator on the right. Behind the cockpit is the main hatch for entry and exit of the vehicle. The SAR chamber is required for regeneration of all fuel, water, and nutrition. Waste is recycled in order to increase the range of the spacecraft, but even so, the engines are not 100% efficient—they do lose some heat and exhaust that cannot be reclaimed by the SAR. The vehicle requires refueling where raw materials can be obtained to reproduce the necessary fuel.

“Because of the immense speeds that the craft will obtain, the entire skin of the craft will be coated with a shield that will prevent a breach, by avoiding or pulverizing any objects which gets hurled at the vehicle. At the same time, this shield will allow the tail of the comet to propel the vehicle at speeds of 27 KiloWarp—that’s around eight billion meters per second. In other words, fast—so fast that nobody can comprehend what it means to travel at these speeds.”

Gilroy paused after this description of the Star Transport allowing for questions to be asked. Blade spoke up immediately.

“How do we knows what health effects there is with humans travelin’ at these speeds? I mean… won’t we get torn to shreds up there?”

“Actually, no… we don’t believe that you’ll be harmed in any way. Physicists are rapidly converging on a set of mathematical models which are very encouraging. They suggest that traveling faster than the speed of light merely requires the escape of the electromagnetic force. It turns out that the mechanics of escaping EM isn’t at all destructive to the atoms which comprise any physical body.”

“But we won’t be subject to electromagnetism?” Blade’s question was animated.

Edwards looked intently at Gilroy who was weighing the answer. “That’s right.”

“Absurd!” responded Blade in agitation. “Without the EM force, we’d be nothin’. All the molecules that make me who I am are kept together because of EM. Without it, the finger attached to my hand will float off into space. The hand attached to my wrist? Same thin’. Wrist? Arm? Shoulder? Like I said, we’d be shred to pieces without electromagnetism. It’s—it’s—it’s responsible fo’ darn near everythin’ we ‘xperience in life.”

“Well, this led physicists to some concern, but as Dr. Zimmer reiterated, there must have been an answer to that question, otherwise there would be nothing keeping the comet together once it had obtained warp speed. It turns out that recent mathematical models indicate that once matter obtains warp speed, it enters a state of suspension. All atoms effectively remain frozen in place. While it is true that there is no electromagnetic force to keep atoms together, there are very small sub-atomic particles which act as a glue to keep everything intact.”

“But without electromagnetism, how we s’pposed to see or hear anythin’? Light and sound travel in EM waves, y’know.”

Dr. Gilroy leaned closely over the table. “Blade, have you ever heard of cryogenics?”

Blade instantly realized where this was going. “You mean yer gonna freeze us? I thought the technology was still unproven and dangerous. If traveling the speed of light don’ kill us, then freezin’ us certainly will.”

“No, no…” Gilroy asserted. “We won’t be freezing you at all, but we believe that warp speed yields effectively the same result. You will be suspended in time. It’s like being frozen without having to lower the core temperature of your body. In fact, even the 98.6 degree body temperature that you will have at that velocity will remain suspended until you slow down below the speed of light. It’s really like stopping time. And why shouldn’t it be? Einstein gives us the relationship of time and speed. The faster you go, the slower time goes. Once you hit the speed of light, time stops. And now we know the reason why… because the EM force fades to zero. The strength of electromagnetism yields to weaker quantum forces that simply preserve the state of the body traveling faster than the speed of light in freeze-frame as it were.”

Blade’s mind kept whirring with excitement over these newfound theories. “Ok, so then if we have this comet that’s goin’ faster than the speed of light, and it’s frozen, why is there a tail? Shouldn’t it simply stay frozen? If the freeze theory is right, then tell me how’s it sheddin’ matter.”

Gilroy sat back in his chair with a smile. “You really think through everything, don’t you, Blade? Let me answer your question with a question. What do you think happens when an object traveling faster than the speed of light strikes another object which is not?”

Blade thought for a moment, but Gilroy didn’t give him enough time to think through his answer. “The tail of the comet is due to material stripping away from the comet because of particle impacts. As it hits matter in front of it, tiny atomic-level explosions result that cause the matter to unfreeze and drop back to sub-warp speed.”

Blade was not appeased. “When we’re ridin’ in the tail of the comet, won’t we be bumpin’ into other matter? Won’t our spaceship tear apart?”

“No, because it only happens when you hit matter which is subluminal. By the time the Star Transport obtains warp speed, you’ll be comfortably in the middle of the tail with nothing but particles that are traveling faster than the speed of light. You will gradually accelerate towards this point and then gradually decelerate away from this point, all under computer control. Effectively, you’ll be riding behind the comet, which will block everything... kind of like a windshield keeps the bugs from hitting your face as you drive on the freeway.”

“But won’ the computer be frozen too? I mean, once we’s travelin’ faster than the speed of light, there’ll be no control of the system.” Blade volleyed back across the table.

At this Gilroy leaned back, and cocked his head while wearing a playful smiled. “Ah, did I forget to mention the time bombs?”

Blade’s eyes grew into large circles, while Paol quickly whipped his head forward as if to hear better.

“In the last several months, we’ve come to understand that superluminal matter is not subject to the speed of light. The other forces, however, remain in tact. In our case, in order to start moving the ship back out of the tail, we’ll use the weak nuclear force to our advantage. By calculating the half-life of a heavy metal, we can combine the exact ratio of masses between a certain gas and the decayed material. At a point where we desire, the decayed matter will be of sufficient mass to cause an explosive reaction with the gas. The explosion will be used to propel the vehicle back out of the comet’s tail. Once the ship has hit the outer reaches of the tail, where matter is traveling at sub-warp speeds, it will act as a breaking system that will slowly decelerate the vehicle. Once the Star Transport is traveling less than the speed of light, the computer will be able to take over and make course corrections based on its position. Of course, since the computer is coming out of a deep sleep, it really won’t know initially where it is at. It will use image sensors to scan the sky around it in order to calculate its exact location and then put the spaceship back on track with its rendezvous with Earth2.”

After a pause, all that Blade could muster were the words, “Time bomb.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that Blade. The explosion will be very small, not enough to damage the ship, of course. It’s no more harmful than the explosion of fiery gasoline that occurs in your car’s engine.”

Paol was dumbstruck by all of these concepts. “Sounds a whole lot like sci-fi to me,” he said in deep, serious tones. He wasn’t appeased by Gilroy’s response.

“It is—at least for the next couple of years. As we refine all of these mechanisms and concepts, we’ll need to do extensive testing to see if we can pull it all together. We remain optimistic that we’ll be able to pull it off.”

Questions flooded the minds of both Blade and Paol, and as quickly as they could come, Gilroy did his best to either answer them or defer them to their normal course of training. In due time all questions would be answered. He did proceed to tell them of the mission in its basic form. Hitch a ride on a comet tail, orbit the Milky Way, visit another Earth, study it for a few years, and return with oodles of data.

Blade asked one final question at the end of the two-hour overview briefing session. “Dr. Gilroy?”

“Yes, Blade.”

“Why’d we get tapped fo’ this job? Ya’ gotta have hundreds of astronauts more capable of this job. We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout bein’ astronauts. It don’t make sense.”

Gilroy sighed. “I think you know the answer to that question, Blade. Our astronauts think it’s too much of a commitment at best, and suicidal at worst.”

Paol interjected. “So, give it to us straight, Doctor. I’m guessing you’re a man with a conscience. Tell us—if you wish to continue to sleep at night—what are the odds of the mission?”

“Well... that’s impossible to say, Gentlemen.”

“Humor us, then,” Paol goaded. “Tell us what you think the odds of success are. It sounds like there is just so much that could go wrong, don’t you agree?”

“There certainly is, but we have five years to get everything as perfect as possible. After we’re done, and Star Transport takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, all we can do is put it in the hands of God.”

Gilroy gave no indication that he was going to answer the question. Paol gave every indication that he wasn’t satisfied with this approach, but for the time being, he deferred questioning to allow the briefing to continue.

“Let’s turn to logistics,” Gilroy said after an insufficiently basic briefing of the mission. There simply wasn’t enough time to answer every question and placate every fear just yet.

“Typically, an astronaut candidate comes to us with a set of skills that is mandatory for mission training. Neither of you have any of that, so the first step will be to make potential astronauts out of you. A physical, intellectual, and training regimen will be required to make sure the basic sciences and physical conditioning result. Further, you will both need to be trained as jet pilots and will need to log hundreds of hours of flight time in order to get you comfortable with the concepts of flying. Only then will real mission training begin.

“Your schedule will be as follows. You will wake up at 5:30 AM every weekday morning. Personal trainers will meet you in the gym on Mondays and Thursdays at 5:45 AM. You will be at the gym until 7:00 AM. You will have one half hour of personal preparation before reporting to the astronaut candidate cafeteria for breakfast. At 8:15, you’ll be in class, learning aeronautics. At 11:00, you’ll turn to the simulator to get cockpit training on the XJ-20 fighter jet. Lunch is at noon, and then at 1:00, you’ll return to the classroom for instruction on mathematics and physical sciences. Teachers will finish with you at 4:00, where you will then have an hour and a half to yourself for any personal business you’d like to attend to—email, laundry, etc. Dinner from 5:30 to 6:30, and then on to the library for personal study after that. You’ll need to be back in your living quarters by 9:30. Lights should be out no later than 10:30.

“Of course, this is just for the next several weeks. We’ll be mixing it up with field trips to Edwards air force base for in-flight training, you’ll be tutored on psychology, philosophy, and other social studies in order to know how to relate to any sentient beings that you discover on the planet. Eventually, there will be a host of other astronaut training—spacewalking, scuba diving for weightless conditioning and functioning, wilderness survival training, medical training, emergency procedural training, atmospheric pressure conditioning, mechanical and electrical engineering, earth sciences, orbital mechanics, earth and space navigation—let’s just say, you’ll know everything that you could possibly need to know by the time you launch several years from now. This is a crash course which will be about as mentally difficult as a PhD program and as physically grueling as boot camp.

“So, gentlemen! Good luck, and enjoy the adventure.”

After a deep breath and pause, Gilroy stood up. “Mr. Edwards will give you the tour of the facilities from here and answer any logistical questions that you have.”

He paused as he walked through the doorway. With his hand on the lever of the door, he turned back and said, “One in three.”

“Come again?” asked Paol.

“Let’s just say that if you were going to play Russian roulette, you’d load four bullets into the revolver—not just one. Those are your odds, Gentlemen, but this is strictly my opinion, and it is utterly off the record.” Gilroy took a deep breath. “It was a fair question, Mr. Joonter, and it deserved an answer. But, I trust you to not repeat it—to anyone.” His intent gaze passed from Joonter to Slater to Edwards. No words were exchanged, but everyone understood each other clearly. Gilroy’s words were not to be repeated or the entire mission would certainly be jeopardized.

Observing the look of terror in the eyes of Joonter and Slater, he attempted to comfort the pair. “If it’s any consolation, I feel confident that those odds will improve by launch time.”

It was very little consolation.

The next morning, the alarm clocks went off at 5:30, just as Gilroy had promised. Blade rubbed his blurry eyes and let open a wide-mouth yawn as he turned off the alarm and rolled away from it, falling back to sleep. He was quickly wakened up by a loud rap on his room door. He sat up, and looked at the clock. 5:32 AM.

“Who’s there?” called out Blade with an annoyed voice.

A cheerful voice pierced the door. “It’s Paol. Time to wake up.”

“Oh, man… what on Earth?” Blade mumbled as he shuffled his feet across the cool floor, rambling incoherent phrases with an occasionally articulate word, like “ridiculous,” “tired,” “unbelievable.” Wearing nothing but briefs, he cracked opened the door and protected his eyes from the blinding light in the hallway outside. “Whatcha want, man?”

“Blade, get dressed. We’re due at the gym in 10 minutes.”

“It’s too early fo’ this!”

“You heard Gilroy. 5:30 AM!”

Blade closed the door, and Paol listened through to hear his partner cursing lowly as he shuffled around the room getting ready for their first day of training. Abruptly, the door opened, and Paol, leaning against it, almost fell into the room. Blade looked disheveled, but he was at least attired in a sweat suit that was given to him for his workout sessions.

At the gym, the trainers got acquainted quickly with the physical capabilities of each man. Paol was noted for having more endurance than his counterpart, but Blade had spent some time at the gym at prison, developing upper body strength. Both had their work cut out for them, and their trainers spent the session showing them the various cardio, flexibility, and weight-training exercises that they would need to do. Both were expected to return to the gym each evening after dinner.

“But we’ll be swamped hittin’ the books,” Blade objected.

“The books will be meaningless if we can’t get physically prepared for this mission!”

Blade nodded and accepted the order without further criticism.

Throughout the day, the recently released criminals were introduced to teachers and flight trainers as well. Large quantities of downloads to their iText Readers indicated the vast reading and memorization assignments that were given to both. Cockpit acronyms, pre-flight checklists, safety guidelines and more were given to them on just the first day in the simulator room.

Upon leaving the simulator building, the pair squinted in the bright sunlight and found their way to the cafeteria, with the help of some other NASA employees who happened by when they realized that they were hopelessly lost on the sprawling Johnson Space Center campus. Paol opted for the chicken Caesar salad with breadsticks, while Blade chose a bowl of Italian minestrone and a club sandwich.

“How we gonna learn all this stuff ‘bout the airplane?” Blade asked after blowing on the soup in his spoon to cool it off. “We got tons to start memorizin’ tonight, and we ain’t even been to the classroom yet!”

“Well, we begin by beginning now,” Paol said reaching in his shirt pocket for his iText Reader. Turning on the blue-white display he asked, “What does HMDS stand for?”

“Uh… Head-mounted display system,” said Blade and then slurped down his soup with an approving nod of his head. “Mmm... good stuff.”

“Close,” encouraged Paol. “It’s Helmet-mounted though.”

“Well, the helmet mounts on the head, don’t it?”

“Yes, but it’s the display that we’re talking about, and it mounts on the helmet.”

“Ok, wise guy,” said Blade, pulling out his reader to continue the duel. “HOC!”

“Hands… off Control. Right?”

“Yeah, I started ya’ off light, so fer extra credit, can ya’ name the two types of HOC?”

“Easy,” Paol said with a snicker indicating that his companion was taking it way too easy on him. “There’s gloved control, where the position and motions of the hands are calculated through glove-mounted motion control sensors. And there’s optical-sensing control, where image sensors continually scan the cockpit for visual detection of location and motion.”

“Ok, since ya’ seem to have soaked up everythin’, what’s the pros and cons of the two systems.”

“The gloved system can utilize finer motion controls. For example, to indicate a right roll maneuver to the aircraft, the right index finger makes one clockwise rotation. For a left roll, the right index finger makes a counter-clockwise rotation. You can use the same finger for both motions. However, with optical-sensing control, there is a chance that the optics will not be able to discern the direction of the roll, so the right index finger is used for right motion and the left index finger has to be used for a roll to the left.”

“Nice job, Paol. Now, can ya’ tell me what the right middle finger is used fo’?”

Paol hesitated and strained to remember. “Yeah, I remember talking about this one—give me a moment.” Rubbing his forehead and straining to remember, there was just so much that brain could absorb from the first day of instruction in the simulator room, and the teachers really did fire-hose them. Thinking out loud, he continued. “I’m sure they talked about the middle finger gesture. I just—just don’t remember.” He looked up at Blade for an answer. “You stumped me, Blade. What is the middle finger used for again?”

Smiling in triumph for finally stumping his fellow astronaut, Blade stated matter-of-factly that “of course, when pointed up, the middle finger gesture is used to indicate someone’s vehement displeasure with another individual to whom the back of one’s hand is extended.”

Paol chose the worst of all times to put a large bite of salad in his mouth, as he laughed involuntarily at the joke that was played on him, and the salad found its way back onto the plate. After wiping his mouth with his napkin, he turned towards Blade, doubled over in laughter. “If I were a less civil man, I would try the gesture on you to make sure I got it right.”

“Hoo boy that was a good one,” Blade said as he struggled to regain his breath. “But, all kiddin’ aside, I think it should be used as a legitimate signal.”

“Yeah? And why is that?” Paol said trying once again to consume his chicken salad.

“Just think ‘bout it, Paol. If I’m caught in the crossfire, and my plane gets riddled with bullets, I’m gonna be in such a state of panic that I ain’t gonna remember no hand signals—except one. When I realize that I’m so totally screwed, I’ll extend both middle fingers to indicate my vehement displeasure with the bastard that gunned me down, and it will save my life, as I hear the pleasant cockpit voice say, ‘Thank you fo’ choosin’ to fly the XJ-20. Fo’ yer safety and protection, the vehicle will now eject yer seat into the atmosphere.’”

Curiously, Paol poked at the display of his reader while Blade finished the joke. His smile was quickly replaced with an open-gaped mouth. “Unbelievable!”

“What?” said Blade as he tried to peer in at Paol’s LCD display.

“I just searched the XJ-20 manual for ‘middle finger’ and it came up with this: ‘Extend both middle fingers towards the top of the vehicle in order to open the canopy and complete seat-ejection sequencing.’ Looks like you’re not the first to think of that clever little usage of the ubiquitous hand signal.”

Blade continued to chuckle while concluding the conversation with a final thought. “Great minds thinks alike!”

“Ok,” Paol said steering the pair back on track. “We need to finish this lunch, and get back to business. What does MPS stand for?”

“Main power system,” Blade fired back quickly. “When comin’ up from a cold start, the first step is to switch on the MPS.”

“And then what?” Paol drilled.

“Uh.... Put the ignition in standby... er... idle the throttle, and the OBC, or on-board computer, takes over fo’ the rest of ignition sequencing.”

“You are a quick study, Blade Slater,” Paol approved with a bow of the head. “I’m glad to have you as my partner on this adventure.”

Humbly, Blade deferred the recognition. “Ah, we got a long way to go, my friend. I suspect that we’ll be needin’ each other lots to get through this effort.”

Noticing that time was limited, they finished their lunch quickly and quietly, each consumed in his own thoughts.

During the afternoon, classroom instructors were impressed that both students were farther ahead of schedule than expected. Expectations were high for Paol, but nobody could’ve imagined that a high-school dropout and drug-dealing convict would already have a strong grasp of trigonometry and calculus. His math instructor attempted to stump him with question after question on differential equations, analytical geometry, infinite series, trigonometric equivalences. Blade was able to work through nearly everything, balking only occasionally for a quick prompt from the teacher. Paol was much more rusty, having been farther removed from some of the more abstract concepts. Blade seemed naturally geared towards the subject, however.

Paol was quicker than his younger cohort in a chemistry overview, but both performed admirably in both static and dynamic physics. Blade, however, was much softer in the computer sciences. He had studied these topics, but had little opportunity for hands-on study or experimentation during his prison years. Paol understood this field through many years of experience.

As the pair left the classroom at 4:15, they conversed lightly but felt the weight of the mission that lay ahead.

“Boy, this reminds me of my college days,” Paol reminisced.

“It’s a darn shame I didn’t apply myself and go on to college. Learnin’ is so exhilaratin’. If I only knew then…”

“But here’s your second chance,” affirmed Paol with a smile and slap on the back.

“This time’ll be different, fo’ sure. This time, I’ll take the bull by the balls.”

Paol gave a start at the imagery invoked by this adage. “I don’t think you want to do that, Buddy.”

“Why not?”

“I think you want to take the bull by the horns.”

“Nah… from what I hear, everybody takes the bull by the horns… I’m takin’ it one step farther.” Blade laughed jovially and enjoyed his newly coined saying. Paol appreciated his partner’s optimism.

“Anyway,” Paol redirected the conversation. “Looks like we survived the first day, Blade ‘ol buddy.”

“Not yet, we ain’t.”

“Why not?”

“Tons of books to hit tonight, and Kai ordered me back to the gym too.”

Shaking his head in understanding, Paol replied, “I’m starting to wonder whether we’re more likely to die during the mission or before the mission.”

The embrace was powerful and emotional. Tears fell freely on each shoulder and even the three bystanders were moved to emotion. Closest to Paol Joonter and his wife were their two teenage sons, ages 12 and 16. Paol looked at them through blurry eyes, trying to imagine what they would make of their lives while he was gone. By the time he returned from his mission, they would be in their 30s.

Blade Slater stood farther off, in the corner of the room. His lips were tightly pursed, and his eyes glistened with tears, which had not yet rolled down his cheeks. His emotion was one of joy seeing his dear friend reunited with his family after the long months apart. But it was also filled with the emptiness of not having a family to call his own. While his mother visited him a few times shortly after he had been sentenced to the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, her visits became farther apart, until finally he lost all contact with her. His uncle visited a couple of times as well, but they weren’t encouraging to Blade. Instead, they were just reminders of how he had failed and missed the opportunity that his uncle had offered him. How could he have been so stupid? His thoughts were broken as he heard his name.

“Blade!” It was Paol. “I’d like you to meet my family.” With his arm wrapped tightly around his wife’s waist, he introduced Blade to each of family member, and Blade graciously received his sons with a warm hand shake, but his wife refused Blade’s hands, preferring instead to throw her arms around him and kiss him on the cheek.

“Thank you, Blade,” said Joyera with red and swollen eyes. “I was made aware from my husband’s letters that when I couldn’t be there for him—you always were. It meant so much to me that Paol had been placed in the great company of a decent and good man.”

There was no sound of sobs from Blade, but the tears which had previously been contained now flowed freely down his face. “I’m so glad to meet you all. Paol’s told me all ‘bout each of ya’.”

After brief cordialities and deepened introductions, Blade excused himself. He was glad to meet Paol’s family, but he also knew that Paol needed time alone with them.

“I’ll just head be headin’ back, then,” Blade stated awkwardly. “You all have so much to catch up on.”

“Are you sure you won’t at least come have dinner with us?” Joyera asked imploringly. Blade felt like family to her, through the descriptive closeness to which she had grown by reading each of her husband’s letters from prison.

“Ah, no, Ma’am. Thank ya’ kindly, but Kai—that’s my personal trainer—has given me strict instructions to be in the gym every evenin’.”

“Well, Blade, it is a pleasure to meet you. We’ll be seeing you soon.”

Paol waved his family ahead of him, and as they left the visitor’s lounge at Johnson, he confronted his friend. “You gonna be ok, Blade?”

“Just fine,” Blade assured him. “So much to study anyways. And I got some sleep to catch up on this weekend too.”

“Ok, buddy,” Paol was still hesitant to leave Blade, but he knew he had to spend as much as time as possible catching up with his family. “I’ll see you Sunday evening. You have my cell phone if you need anything in the meantime.”

Blade nodded and waved Paol on with the back of his hand imploring him to catch up with his family in the parking lot. As he walked back to his room, an odd feeling came over him—a feeling like maybe he did have a family after all. At least there was a group of people who he felt had his best interest and concern at heart, and that was enough for Blade. His pace to his dorm room quickened, and his resolve to succeed on the mission was strengthened.

After dinner, Paol and Joyera left the boys in the hotel room watching a movie, while they drove to a nearby park, and enjoyed a fresh summer evening listening to the ducks splashing in the center pond which reflected the antique gaslights of the park. While spending a significant amount of time simply holding each other and considering the misfortunes that came into their lives over the last year, they also discussed matters of vast importance to the family.

“Joy, Dear,” Paol whispered after kissing his wife on the cheek. “Do you think I made the right decision? I agreed to the opportunity without consulting you, simply because I knew that I would have plenty of time to change my mind before heading out into space.”

“I think you said it exactly, right, Love.” Joyera spoke in a soft yet reassuring voice. “There are still six years that you will at least be away from prison. In the meantime, we will be able to see each other on the weekends.”

“But you and the boys won’t be able to come every weekend to visit, you know.”

Joyera sat up on the park bench and looked intently at her husband. “The boys and I have discussed this, and we agree that we need to move to Houston to be closer to you.”

While Paol had wondered about this option himself, he didn’t think it was a realistic scenario. “But Dear, we have such solid roots in Seattle. And the boys will leave all of their friends and activities behind.”

“There will be friends and activities here, too. We just realize that there won’t be a father—and husband—in Seattle. The boys will each be out on their own by the time the mission is underway, and then I would be left alone in Seattle.”

“But your family—”

“You are my family.” She reached up and grabbed Paol’s head in her hands to make sure that he looked into her eyes. She was always a determined woman, and Paol could tell that her resolve in this matter was stronger than ever.

“Besides, Warron will clear your name within the next six years, and then you will be a free man.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Paol spoke antagonistically.

“Then all the more reason to move here, so we can at least have the next six years with you. And all the better for you, because that would be six less years in prison. The way I see it, the worst case scenario is that you remain here in your astronaut training program for the next several years. The best case is that at some point your name is cleared, and then if we choose to, we can return to Seattle. Either way, you made the right decision in getting out of that prison, Paol.”

Paol stood up and took a few steps towards the pond with his back to his wife. After some thought, he turned back to his wife. “Honey, I have to decide now whether I am committed to this or not. It is all or nothing.”

She shook her head. “I… I don’t understand. You wouldn’t go through with the mission, would you? I mean... you’re just waiting out your freedom here instead of in prison.”

“If Warron does clear my name, I still have to go through with the mission. I can’t just leave Blade to go back into the pen. I can’t abandon him.”

In disbelief, Joyera took a moment to process this unthinkable piece of data and responded, “So, you would choose him over me? I don’t understand, Paol.”

“Joy, he has become like a brother to me. He saved me from hell in that prison. His attitude, humor, and intellect insulated me from pure torment. I to think of what it would have been like had I been cellmates with the ‘Strangler’ or with Rall McHerd—a violent man I had only heard about, but nevertheless suffered through a number of nightmares because of.”

With a snort of disdain, Joyera now stood on her feet and turned her back on her husband. As she felt his hands on her shoulders, her closed eyes released a tear down her cheek. “Joyera, you know I love you. Please don’t be mad with me. Try to put yourself in my shoes. If Warron is able to obtain my freedom, I have to make a choice between returning by your side as we both want to, but I would have to do so at the cost of my integrity to Blade. I would have to send him back to prison. It is not an easy decision, but I think you can respect the fact that there is a good man—a decent friend—a brother—who I cannot stab in the back. I can’t use him as a stepping stone to escape prison on parole and then ask him to go back there once I am freed.”

“But, they’ll find somebody else to work with Blade.”

“No, Darling. They are extremely desperate for astronauts. You have to know how desperate they are by digging up a pair of maximum security criminals to do the job. They are really rolling the dice on us. If I am freed, and I quit the mission, the entire effort is in jeopardy. Blade will return to prison, millions of taxpaying dollars will have been squandered, and the hopes and dreams of the world will come to naught.”

She now turned to face him. “Oh, so that’s what this is about? Becoming a hero to the world? Gaining immortality in the history books? Paol, you probably won’t even return—everybody is saying that this mission is suicidal.”

“No, no. Honey,” Paol sighed as he saw the discussion heading in the wrong direction entirely. “First, you’re allowing the media to convince you of that. They want the public to think it is suicidal, because it creates drama and excitement, and that’s what the media needs to sell their lousy services. Further—I don’t care about being a hero. I just want to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing, and sending Blade Slater back to prison would be crushing to me—if not to him. If you tell me that you would rather me go back and wait for Warron to find the smoking gun in prison, then I need to do it now, before this goes too far.”

Tears flowed more freely now from Joyera’s eyes. “Paol, what do you want me to say? If I say yes to the mission, I’ll lose you for twelve years at least and maybe forever if anything goes wrong in the vast distances of travel that you’ll be assuming.”

“If you say no, then you may only be able to enjoy seeing me through a thick glass window for the rest of our lives.”

“At least I’ll have hope of seeing you freed.”

“Will you? Do you think you’ll still have hope in ten or fifteen years from now? The trail to any evidence will have cooled too much to ever hope for. But I do see one thing—”

“What’s that?” She looked into his eyes that were now moistened with emotion.

“This isn’t an easy decision for either of us. Should I go back to prison and hope that something will happen soon? Or should I go on with the mission, and not know for another 20 years whether we will be able to enjoy together what remains of our lives.”

Joyera began laughing nervously. “Do you know what is wrong with us women?”

Paol’s mind worked this question at a million miles a minute. This was certainly a loaded question, but then again when would he have the opportunity to have a woman ask him that question ever again. But maybe he was being tricked into something. In the end, he opted for the only safe answer that he could give.

“I didn’t know there was anything wrong with women.”

With genuine laughter, she bowed her head. “Nice try—do you really expect me to buy that? Anyway, since you are unwilling to give an answer, I will. Women fantasize too much about their happily-ever-after. All along, I had convinced myself that we would move to Houston, wait a few more months, have your name cleared permanently, move back to Seattle, and live out our perfect little lives happily ever after. And then when those unrealistic expectations are not met, our worlds are shattered beyond repair.

“But I have to accept that there may be a different happily-ever-after for us, which is that we move to Houston, enjoy our weekends together thoroughly for the next six years, and become famously admired for giving up our father and husband to the heroic service of his country and world. I guess, sometimes in life, there are things larger than ourselves—larger than life itself. I mean, what does our existence on this planet mean unless we are engaged in bettering the world for generations to come? Your efforts in learning about Earth2 will be indispensable in gaining the knowledge we crave and need to understand our universe better, and to progress—not as just a self-centered all-important view of the universe that revolves around us, but rather a universal community of beings who share the universe with brothers and sisters that today we can only imagine are out there.”

“We don’t know that we’ll meet anybody on Earth2, you know.”

“You will, Paol—you will.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“We women may be optimistic to a fault, but our intuition can’t be refuted. I’ve always felt that there is something out there bigger than just ourselves. Can we really be so egotistical to think that we evolved as the only intelligent beings in the universe? In the vastness of the galaxies, what makes our little solar system so much more important than the trillions of other stars out there? Or—on the other hand, if we really are created by an all-powerful God, can we really think that he created trillions of stars just to populate one little planet with sentient beings? Why would he waste his time creating all of the other stars, planets and galaxies when one little star called the Sun would do?

“No, Paol—there are others out there, and I should be less selfish to keep you to myself when you have the opportunity to discover them for us. You should go on this mission—but I want you to do everything in your power to make it succeed. You are a great man, Paol Joonter—too great for your efforts to fail and be in vain.”

Words escaped him, not that they would have helped anyway, as he was too emotional at this point to be able to speak. Instead, he chose to hold his wife close to him. As he felt her head on his chest, he also noticed his heartbeat, and in that heartbeat, he felt something different—something that he had never quite felt before. He realized that his wife was right—that his life was somehow meant for something greater and that the inhabitants of Earth1 needed to learn about Earth2. He was the man chosen—either by God or by fate—to discover for his own race something of vast importance, something so vast that it might even be paramount to the future of Earth1.

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