The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 25

Six years had passed since Joram Anders, Kather Mirabelle, and Reyd Eastman began their graduate studies at CalTech. Since then, all three of them had received their doctorate degrees in astronomy and had filled post-doctoral positions as researchers with Carlton Zimmer. During those years, they had helped discover a superluminal comet as well as the first extrasolar planet with specifications nearly identical to that of Earth. While each had opportunities to work for different research institutions, all had decided to stay on for the time being with Zimmer, mainly because they were interested in continuing the study of the superluminal comet and had a host of experiments lined up to gain a greater understanding of its origins, construction, and operation.

At the moment, however, they had set their work aside to be a part of the event that their research had made possible. They were filled with nostalgia as they began to realize that their years of research were about to be put to practice. Reverently, each took positions in the back row of the room. Even though they were the most responsible for the discoveries, they were too absorbed to notice the irony of being placed in the position of least prominence among the crowd. 0020`Ahead of them, several rows of padded folding chairs held occupants of diverse backgrounds. Some were huddled in pleasant conversation, while others waited intently for the table ahead of them to fill. The vacant table was covered with a black velvet cloth and skirt. Four black chairs sat empty behind the table, while four microphones and two tumblers of ice water had been prepared for the panel that was to assemble presently. Name placards located on the front of the table indicated the two scientists and two astronauts who would shortly be attending the press conference.

Behind the table, a wall-sized banner provided a photographic backdrop. It depicted the deep blackness of space, its depth implicated by the thousands of stars of varying brightness and color. A thin yellow beam cut through the mural at a gradual curve, while a smooth silvery-black spaceship with three blue-white rocket engines thrust the vehicle towards a rendezvous with the beam. In the middle of the mural, the artist had placed a depiction of Earth in a three-quarter illumination. A spotlight recessed in the center of the ceiling acted as the imaginary sun shining down on the blue planet with its swirling white clouds. At the end of the yellow ray, was an identically apportioned planet almost too small to make out. Written in brilliant gold letters above were the words:

Earth2 Mission – ST3

Joonter / Slater

The researchers studied the banner, admiring the artist’s efforts in capturing the essence and emotion of the mission. Just as Kath’s eyes began to moisten with emotion, she noticed a few heads turn towards the door at the front of the room. She elbowed her colleagues on either side of her, in order to focus their attention on the spot that everyone else was now monitoring. Through the door, Dr. Gilroy led the procession to the table. Paol Joonter and Blade Slater followed, with Carlton Zimmer in close pursuit. The crowd now stood and in unison respectfully began to applaud this historic group of individuals.

All four men had become household names in the United States and throughout most of the world for the roles they assumed in the Earth2 mission now in its sixth year of its preparation and twelfth digit of its funding. The media portrayed these individuals as both champions of space exploration and consumers of $267 billion in wasteful spending for which nobody would reap the benefit for at least a dozen years, even if the low-percentage mission actually succeeded.

Only after the men took their seats at the table, did the applause taper off. Throats cleared, and the shuffling noise of chairs on the tile floor indicated the adjustments being made to settle comfortably into the press conference. Gilroy spoke first and addressed the audience with prepared remarks, which he read from a yellow manila folder that he opened flat onto the table.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, esteemed colleagues of NASA, and dear dignitaries, we thank you for your presence here today, and trust that you are as excited as we are to enter the second phase of the Earth2 mission. These two unlikely and yet extraordinary astronauts—” Gilroy paused while gesturing to his left where Paol and Blade sat donning their teal spacesuits. “These two astronauts have been examples of inspiration to all of us. Even in the most desperate and unfortunate of circumstances, their stories have given us hope to overcome our difficulties, to correct our own courses with courage and determination. In the last five and a half years, these two fine gentlemen have become some of the highest caliber astronauts that I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Perhaps it is the nature and complexity of their mission, but I can say without any reservation that they have done everything humanly possible in preparing themselves to face any obstacle they should encounter on this mission. Tomorrow, we will bid farewell to these men, as we send them on a journey of more than 150,000 light years. We commend them to the far reaches of our galaxy as ambassadors of Earth1 to the inhabitants of Earth2. Never in the history of scientific study does one mission have the promise of so much learning. We are eager to take our learning of this universe in which we live to new heights previously unanticipated.”

Addressing the astronauts directly, Gilroy concluded, “Mr. Joonter, Mr. Slater, may God speed you on this journey to bridge the inhabitants of the Milky Way.”

Paol and Blade bowed graciously to their program manager and to the audience as an even more generous ovation ensued.

Through the din, Kath turned to Joram. “Look… I have goosebumps.”

Joram nodded understandingly. “I know. It’s overwhelming to be a part of this. We all feel it, Kath.” Through the years, Joram had to proverbially pinch himself for the role he was taking in the scientific community. Under the tutelage of Professor Carlton Zimmer, some of the most exciting and unprecedented research of the century was taking place. And he—a humble farm-boy from Kansas with a passion for star-gazing—was a part of that effort.

Joram leaned forward and looked over at Reyd as Kath’s eyes followed. Without words, he concurred knowingly through a wink and a single nod of his head. The experience was clearly surreal for each.

“Now,” continued Gilroy, “we will be pleased to hear a few remarks from our esteemed astronauts, and then we will open up the session for questions and answers. Mr. Joonter, you have our attention.”

“Dr. Gilroy, thank you. Thank you for your leadership of this mission, your encouragement through the difficulties, and your meticulous oversight of so many details along the way. Your example and efforts over the last few years have given me great confidence that everyone involved has made every effort to provide the mission with the highest opportunity for success.”

Turning to face the audience, Paol continued. “Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I thank you for your attendance here today. Because of your efforts in following this mission from its most unlikely beginnings until this very moment, you have made the world aware of the exciting future facing Earth, our galaxy, and indeed the universe. While I know there have been skeptics, I do not scoff. There certainly were many occasions when I found myself in their camp.”

A few chuckles filled the room, mainly because of the way in which Joonter rolled his eyes, conveying the overwhelming nature of the preparation which he and his companion endured.

“Your reporting of this mission, both encouraging and critical has helped fuel a healthy and needed debate over the necessity of this effort. I applaud each of you in raising awareness of the issues, the difficulties, the risks, and the benefits that such a mission could entail. Tomorrow, we turn the page in the history books to a new chapter. Many of you will be in the envious position to write this chapter, and I can assure you that my companion and I will do our part to give you the best possible material. Thank you.”

The audience applauded vigorously as Paol expressed his gratitude with a slight bow of his head, and a tip of the baseball cap, emblazoned with the ST3 mission logo.

Once the applause died down, Dr. Gilroy spoke clearly and proudly into his microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, please give your attention to Mr. Slater for a few comments now.”

Blade had been scanning the crowd the entire time, and had mapped out those who were friendly to the mission and had easily honed in on those who were clearly antagonistic. He was encouraged that the overwhelming majority of journalists were proponents of the mission, and this gave him the ability to speak comfortably.

With deep, yet hushed tones he began, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a most humblin’ experience. Many years ago, I made a mistake—a most terr’ble mistake. I thought I’d pay fo’ that mistake the rest of my life. As I sat in a cold concrete cell, while many my age was makin’ somethin’ of their lives in school and college, I suspected that my life was over befo’ it’d begun. But somehow, fate plucked me outta that cell, and put me here. It is a position I do not deserve—a position I did not earn—a position fo’ which there’s many more who’d qualify better. I ain’t the most eloquent, and I ain’t the most learned, but seein’ where my life was and where it is today, I am the most fo’ knowin’ that where there’s breath, there’s life. And where there’s life, there’s hope. And that’s what I bring to the mission. In a world where doubt and despair are more common than hope, I intend to use the latter in this mission. I’ll work with my colleague and dear friend, Paol Joonter, every day we’re together fo’ the next twelve years with hope. I’ll fight to make this mission a success, and bring back hope to all the world. When we come back to ya’ a dozen years from now, my hope is that the word ‘impossible’ will be replaced with ‘hope’, ‘cuz if two average guys can safely travel so far at speeds which should tear us to microscopic pieces, then I think Mr. Joonter and I certainly have a case to make fo’ hope!”

With this last word, Blade realized that his voice elevated gradually throughout his speech. What began as a soft tone, ended in a piercing trump. The contrast and intensity of the ensuing moment of silence was broken by a controlled whisper: “Thank you.”

The audience leaped to their feet and applauded vehemently. Each felt the emotion and determination in Blade’s delivery. While the applause continued, videographers raced to upload their recordings over wireless links to a mass of vans, buses, and trailers outside. In a flash, Blade’s speech was delivered around the world, interrupting television programming everywhere. His speech, while delivered in simplicity, would become instantly famous, and media, would latch onto the word ‘hope’ as an endearing connection to Blade Slater, and the ST3 mission.

Once order was restored to the room, Gilroy laid ground rules for the question and answer session. Each individual was entitled to ask one question of any of the four panelists when he gave them the floor to do so. With hands aloft, Gilroy selected a front-row participant to begin the questioning.

“Mr. Slater, thank you for reminding us of hope. Can you tell us of a time when you needed to reach deep to find hope while preparing for this mission?”

“One time? Why I could tell ya’ of a hundred fo’ sure.” Blade stated sincerely while shaking his head. His voice softened as he continued. “But, I can tell ya’ of one time where I had to reach very deep. Paol and I—we had to do some wilderness survival trainin’ in some very rugged areas. The worst, fo’ me, had to be the time we were told to jump out of a plane in the Arctic Circle. It was a long cold drop to the ground. As the ground rushed up at us, I have to say that I’s too ‘fraid to enjoy the view, but when we landed, my breath was taken away. We was in this small valley, with mountains towerin’ ‘bove us on either side. A lake at the end of the valley met a glacier comin’ down the chute ‘tween two mountain peaks. As we walked to the edge of the shore of the lake, there’s icebergs so big I had to look up to see the top of ‘em. I never saw anythin’ so amazin’ and beautiful, and was taken back such that I didn’t even remember that it was darn cold and I was put into the middle of the wilderness to survive on my own.

“Well, Paol pulled me back to reality, and we used our global positionin’ devices to locate where we were and where we needed to go. As we studied the terrain, we saw that we had a fifty-mile journey to get to our destination—the Anaktuvuk Pass. There’s an airport there where our support team would be waitin’ fer us to take us home. We located a valley pass connectin’ the lake with the Anaktuvuk valley, where the outlet of the lake cut through. It was at the end of Spring, so the river was pretty swollen, and there’s all sorts of ice blocks floatin’ down the river, but we needed to make good time, so we pulled out our sponge kayaks—little things in the pack, but when ya’ put ‘em in the river, I’s surprised at how big they swell up, and make a perfect floatin’ craft.

“At first, it was a nice float, but then the river picked up as we went through a narrow steep part of the valley. Over a small rapid, I didn’t even see that large chunk of ice churnin’ at the bottom of a small drop. When I hit it, I flipped over into the river, and slammed my shoulder ‘gainst the ice. Pain shot through my arm, and at first, I tried to swim to the shore with my good arm, but I knew that the current was too strong. I had to use the other arm. Reachin’ overhead, I could feel my whole arm convulse in pain, but with big strokes, I’s able to power myself over to the shore with as few strokes as possible.

“I fell down onto the shore exhausted and hurtin’, but worse, I started realizin’ that I was freezin’. Within moments, Paol brought his kayak to shore, and was by my side, warmin’ me up with a fire and a wrap. As dusk was settin’ on, we had no choice but to camp right there that night. I slept on my other side, to make sure I didn’t put any pressure on my shoulder. In the mornin’, I was still in pain, but was glad to discover that it was just a nasty bruise. We were just six miles into our journey, and I was devastated when Paol mentioned that we’d lost my kayak—it floated downstream, and our only hope was that we’d find it just a little way down.

“Mile after mile we walked that day. We never did find the kayak. In the afternoon, the valley started to open up, and I heard a splash just behind us. Spinnin’ ‘round, I saw this monster of a grizzly bear, splashin’ across the river ‘bout 30 yards behind us. I suspected that he was comin’ to get his dinner. When he dragged himself on shore, he shook his fur of the icy water, stood on his hind legs and stared at us intently. He stepped slowly towards us, and I was just standin’ there frozen. I mean—where’s I goin with a ragin’ river to one side of me and a sheer cliff on the other. Good thing my partner had the sense of mind to climb onto a ledge nearby, wave his arms frantically, and make some noise. I thought it would just agitate him, and at first, he looked to charge, but then he got a sniff of us, turned and bolted.

“I thought I’d never be so scared again, but then two days later, as the canyon started widenin’ into a marshy plain, I saw somethin’ outta the corner of my eye across the river. I looked across to see a gray wolf scramblin’ down a mountain. At first, I wasn’t sure if he’d seen us, but then he bolted towards the river, and stood erect on the bank, just starin’ at us, and bearin’ his yellow-white teeth at us. We continued to walk, as if to pay him no attention, and he simply followed along the bank, keepin’ an eye fixed on us. I could also see some frothy drool in the corner of his mouth, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was plottin’ to get at us fo’ some meat to chew on. My heart raced, and my stomach was all in knots fo’ nearly an hour, as he continued to follow on the other side.

“At one point, Paol here stopped and turned to me. He pointed out that the river was widenin’, and we knew that it also meant it was gettin’ shallower too. We worried that the current would be easy to traverse fo’ the wolf if we went much further. In fact, we could see ‘bout three miles downstream, where the canyon opened up to the Anaktuvuk valley that the river was splittin’ up into a delta. Had we continued on, the wolf woulda had no problem gettin’ to us had he wanted us bad ‘nough. So we waited there to see what the wolf’d do, and he waited to see what we’s gonna do. There we was at a tense impasse, and we could do nothin’ but wait until the sun set. We don’t know when the wolf left, as we could see an occasional reflection of light off of his eyeballs, even after it was pretty dark. But I do remember sleepin’ next to nothin’ that night, worried ‘bout where that wolf was. Maybe he was gonna work his way downstream, cross over and then come up to greet us. Then, very early in the mornin’, we heard the most eerie and hauntin’ group of howlin’ in the distance. By our recknoin’ the pack was high up on the mountain across the other side of the river, but my skin crawled with each new chorus of howls that echoed across the canyon walls fo’ the rest of the night.

“At the first sign of light, we peered across the river. There was nothin’ there. As the light grew brighter, we grew more confident that the wolf had gone on—moved up hill with the rest of his pack, we s’pposed. We packed up as quick as we could and made fer it downstream, where we hoped to reach the Anaktuvuk valley befo’ that wolf came back.

“’Round noon, we had left the mouth of the canyon and entered into the vast expanse of the Anaktuvuk. We saw loads of caribou that day, and we worried ‘bout whether they’d cause us any trouble. While they knew we were there with ‘em, they kept their distance, and in some cases, bolted away from us when they thought they’s gettin’ too close. Miles passed, and we didn’t feel like we was makin’ good progress, ‘cuz the valley’s so long. We’d hoped to come ‘cross the Anaktuvuk village, but we saw no signs of it that day. When we set up camp that night, however, we could see in the distance—only ‘bout ten miles away the dim electric lights of the tiny Anaktuvuk village. It was such a welcome sight as I never thought I’d feel. It wasn’t much of civilization to be sure, but it was more than we’d hoped fer in four days of adventure.

“While we sat there enjoyin’ the shimmerin’ lights, we were treated to a light show of even more impressive caliber. The Aurora Borealis—wow! I was awe struck at the curtains of yellow, green and electric blue that waved ‘cross the sky. It was mesmerizin’, and at some point durin’ the light show, I drifted off to sleep, and I done slept better that night than any while I was in the Arctic, I’ll tell ya’ that much.

“Well, to make a short story long,” Blade chuckled to himself for his inversion of the common cliché, “The next day, we marched on and arrived at the pass late in the afternoon, where the Nunamiut eskimoes was waitin’ fer us and took us in—quite hospitable they was… Well that was it—the most frightenin’ adventure of my trainin’. It took a whole heap of faith and hope to get through that.”

The room stood still, riveted by Blade’s dramatic story-telling. All felt as if they had experienced some of it for themselves, and so they remained rooted in their seats. After a brief moment, a tentative hand raised into the air. And then another, until most were clamoring to ask the next question. With a point of his finger, Dr. Gilroy yielded to another for the next question.

“Mr. Joonter,” beamed an eager journalist with large spectacles in the front row, “Since your colleague has shared his most concerning experience with us, how about you? Can we hear about your biggest trial?”

“I suspect that most would assume this to be the plane crash in Nevada, and I will attest that it was my most frightening moment to that point in my mission, but there were worse. The Alaska experience that Blade shared with you was truly bothersome, but remember that we had to endure many different wilderness survival training adventures over the last few years. One very big concern with our mission is the unknown elements of Earth2, and while the highest powered telescopes have been focusing their attention on that planet for the last several years, there is still very little that we really have come to understand about the geography and climate of that planet. Besides, since we are 27000 light years away from there, the data we do have is from the very, very distant past. While scientists believe that we will be subject to very similar conditions that we have here, we don’t know if we’ll be subject to generally warmer or cooler climates, and whether we will have to face more extreme biomes than here on Earth1.

“Because of this, we received wilderness training on the most extreme of all environments our planet has to provide us. Blade has given you one example of this by recalling the Anaktuvuk as his most harrowing adventure. I will share the Anavilhanas for mine.”

Paol looked at his companion with a smile, and noticed the very expressive Slater grow wide-eyed at the mere mention of this word. He exhaled strongly through pursed lips while nodding in agreement with Joonter.

“Once we had completed our tundra adventure, mission trainers sent us to the Amazon for our rain forest adventure. Leading up to the experience, we spent months studying up on the resources and dangers of that area. Our task was to parachute into a very remote area a couple of miles away from the Black River, navigate through the dense forest maze of archipelagos called the Anavilhanas with our sponge kayaks (and by densely, I’m talking as much about insects as I am about trees or the islands along the river!) and find our way down to the Amazon and on towards Manaus, nearly 50 miles away.

“As we broke through the canopy on our way to the ground, we remained for a few minutes in the underbrush taking in the scene. Never had we anticipated such a diverse environment. Dark even at midday, we could not look up through the trees to see any portion of the sky, and while at first, we could see no life, we knew the forest was rich with hiding birds, insects, and other animals. The incessant cooing, whooping, chirping and burping made us reel, as we looked without success for the source of this orchestra of sounds.

“Leaving our parachutes, we ventured towards the west, where we had seen the river on our way down. What at first was a minor annoyance quickly became an unbearable bane—insects! All shapes, sizes, colors. Some airborne, some under our feet, some dropped from tree branches. At one point, I quipped to Blade that there must be a million insects out here, to which he knowingly replied, ‘thirty million, Paol.’ He pointed out that it was a fact that he had discovered during his study of the region. At first, I laughed, assuming he was simply trying to lighten the situation with his trademarked humor, but once we returned home, he proved it too me in the book he had read. To this day, however, I still wonder how on earth there are so many insects in that jungle, considering the number of birds there as well. I would think that the thousands of birds we heard on our trip would’ve had to make a dent in the insect population.

“At any rate, we did receive some respite from the insects, and I’d like to say that it was welcomed, but it was not. During several occasions, our focus on insects was diverted to predators. Shortly after reaching the Black River, we launched our kayaks along the river, and were engulfed in a maze of long thin islands that run with the current of the river. Some of these islands were just several feet wide, but miles long. Navigating through them was a chore. At first, we assumed that as long as we caught a downstream current, we would be safe, but on a couple of occasions, the channel between two islands became too narrow to navigate, and we were forced to walk our kayaks across the island to another channel on the other side.

“Anyway, as tense and stressful as it was to walk along that river in Alaska with a wolf on the other side, this river didn’t exactly protect us from predators. Our first predator experience was preceded by a high-pitch screeching that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Looking over at the bank, I saw leaning on a branch of a tree in the river, a jaguar eying us with clearly malicious intent. I was relieved to be on the river instead of on the bank, and I thought that we were surely safe from the big cat, but much to my horror, the animal lurched and then dove headlong into the river. Seeing the thing swimming straight towards us, I nearly panicked. We couldn’t out-paddle him, for he was paddling with much more ability than we could.

“Not knowing what to do, we had hoped that the beast couldn’t take on our kayaks, but we continued to look behind us with the cat in pursuit. Blade was just ahead of me and to the right, and I saw him look often over his left shoulder. Eventually, the thing gained on me and clawed at my kayak. I swatted at it with my paddle, but I didn’t have a good swing since the thing was directly behind me, and I dared not try to stand or pivot my body for fear of capsizing in the river, where the jaguar would certainly have the advantage over me.

“I was so focused on the cat that I hadn’t noticed that Blade had slowed and pulled behind my foe. Likewise, the cat was so focused on me that he hadn’t noticed Blade either. Then I noticed Blade lift his paddle high over his head and bring it down on top of the jaguars head with crushing force. The cat howled in pain and instantly relinquished its grip on my kayak, sinking into the water.

“Blade quickly pulled beside me, and the river seemed deathly quiet while we looked all around for evidence of the cat’s location. Would he spring up from the river and fly at us for our attack? After about a minute, I noticed an object slowly emerge to the surface about fifteen feet behind us. The cat glared at us, opened its mouth to reveal sharp fangs and bellowed in a manner that seemed to rattle the entire jungle. Worried that he would recover and make a fresh attack, we prepared ourselves with handguns. We weren’t eager to unload ammunition so quickly, because we still had at least three days ahead of us, but we certainly didn’t want to deal with this cat any longer. Fortunately for everyone involved, the jaguar thought better of its plan, slipped back to the shore, and disappeared into the dense vegetation.

“As dusk settled over the river, we found a beach on one of the Anavilhanas islands and set up camp there. With all of the scares in the jungle, we did two things to survive each night. First, we lit and kept a fire burning, in the hope that nocturnal predators stayed away from light, perhaps out of fear of human populations. Second, we took turns sleeping, or at least that was the theory. I found it very difficult to sleep at all. With the calls of nocturnal animals, and the sound of rustling brush on one side of our camp or the splashing river on the other, my attention was constantly focused on trying to gaze into the darkness to assess the source of each new sound or movement.

“One night, while Blade was sleeping, I saw an anaconda try to sneak into camp. While throwing a rock into the sand on one side of it, I diverted its attention while rushing to the other side with my switchblade. I stabbed down with the blade clenched tightly in my fist, thrusting the blade clear through the snake about a foot below its head. I rushed away as the thing started writhing all over the place with my knife staking it to the ground. It wasn’t until the morning when I went back to reclaim my knife, and I had noticed the snake, and my knife missing. After a search of the surrounding area, we found the dead snake draped over the branch of a tree with my blade still lodged tightly in its neck. It took some exertion to reclaim my weapon, but I was not about to leave it behind. I figured I might need it again, and again before this was all over.

“As we were preparing to launch our kayaks for what should have been our final morning, a black caiman shot out of the water from underneath my kayak. This thing was frightening beyond all belief. With the body of an anaconda and the head of an alligator, I was completely unprepared for this attack. Quickly, the thing latched onto my arm with powerful jaws and sharp teeth. I dropped to my knees in pain. My arm burned as teeth bore down to bone. Thanks to Blade’s quick acting, I was spared from certain amputation, as he got behind the monster and stabbed him with his switchblade. Turning to deal with this new threat, it dropped to the ground and slithered aggressively towards Blade. With one shot of his gun, Blade ended the threat as quickly as it began with an efficient shot between the eyes. The last thing I remembered was looking up to see Blade’s horror-filled expression, a bloodied blade in one hand, and a smoking handgun in the other.

“Blade quickly dressed my wound, wrapping a towel tightly around my arm to stop the bleeding, but the damage was significant, and I figured I would not be able to use it to continue paddling down the river. With some thick vines and other materials that we had available in our packs, Blade fastened a makeshift tow-line between the kayaks, and tugged me down the river slowly. That day, we didn’t make it to our destination as we had expected, so we camped one more night. I was finally able to get some sleep, but was awakened by a call and nudge from Blade. Gaining my senses, I noticed that Blade had just whacked my good arm with a long stick he had in his hand. And then I saw him thrashing at the ground with the same stick. I looked down at the ground and noticed that with each jab at the earth, Blade’s stick was driving a bright blue frog back into the jungle. Here while we had dealt with predators of such a large scale, we were completely unprepared to deal with such a little menace as was the poison dart frog that Blade had discovered climbing up my arm.

“The next morning, Blade knew he had to get me to Manaus for medical attention. If the damage done by the caiman wouldn’t start a threatening infection in my right arm, the growing deep purple spot on my left arm left from the toxic secretions of the frog would do me in.

“So, while I was completely helpless, here was my partner, paddling with all of his strength to get us downstream as quickly as possible with my dead weight dragging behind. Well, fortunately for me, as you know today, my partner did deliver me to Manaus quickly, where I was attended to, and then rushed by air back to the States for continued attention and recovery on not one, but two badly damaged arms.”

“So, clearly, I have to say that if we do land in some harsh environment on Earth2, I’ll take Alaska over the Amazon any day.”

The astronauts continued to be probed on their training experiences for about thirty minutes. Questioning varied widely from light-hearted to optimistic, to skeptical, and occasionally downright angry. The nation, and indeed much of the world had formed vastly polarized opinions of the mission, and that became all too apparent, when the professor of astronomy was drilled by an antagonist reporter.

“Professor Zimmer,” called out one reporter, as a corner of Zimmer’s mouth turned downward almost imperceptibly in recognition of the tone with which his name was called.

Zimmer’s eyes quickly located the reporter, standing tall over the seated crowd. His forehead was wrinkled as his brow reached for a receding hairline. Salt and pepper hair coupled with thick inquisitive glasses indicated that this was a seasoned veteran, and Zimmer thought he recognized the individual from one of his many press conferences over the years.

The reporter introduced himself as “Cartier Landry, of the NPC.”

Zimmer managed a cordial smile, as he thought to himself, “Ah, yes... how could I forget Mr. Landry of the National Press Corps. Wasn’t it just two, maybe three years ago, when we butted heads over the parallel Earth. What was the word? Preposterous? Ridiculous? I would’ve thought that I’d convincingly won that battle now that Earth2 has been discovered. And yet here he is.”

“Yes, Mr. Landry. Go ahead,” Zimmer was pleasant in outward appearance, but was preparing for verbal fisticuffs inside.

“Pundits, statisticians, and actuaries all over the world have placed their odds on this mission, and yet NASA has not come out with any official statement against these individuals. Nor has NASA released any mission prognosis themselves.” Landry paused, to shoot a brief glance over to Dr. Gilroy turning his eyes only, not wanting to waste precious energy on moving neck or body muscles to physically turn towards the mission manager. “I understand that NASA will maintain a veil of secrecy over what is really being said about the prospects of this mission, but you,” his eyes now shifted back to Zimmer, as a condescending smile formed on his face in at attempt to goad the astrophysicist into saying something newsworthy. “You, professor, are not accountable to that organization. Are you willing once and for all to state your gut feel as to the success of this mission? What odds would you ascribe in light of what the world is saying.”

“Mr. Landry, it would be rash and imprudent of me to give you a number that would indicate my personal belief on the prospects of the mission.

“Assume with me that I give you a number, any number. If I give you a number that is less than 50%, and the mission fails, then it looks like I called it. If I give you a number greater than 50% and the mission succeeds, likewise, I must’ve known what I was talking about. If I give you exactly 50%, you will complain that I’m not courageous enough to take a stand on the matter. Let’s say, I believe the mission will succeed. Why would I give you any number other than 51%? If I say 80% or 90%, don’t I get just as much credit for calling it right as I do for saying 51%? Further, 51% is a safer number if the mission should fail, because then my reputation has some leeway for having some doubt in its success. So, I am unwilling to give you a number.

“To be honest with you, however, this is a mission without precedent. We have never attempted anything like this in the history of man. We have invited experts from professional astronomical and cosmological organizations the world around to brainstorm, troubleshoot, and review critical mission data. We have given this mission every level of success, but there is no empirical data from which any statistician could reasonable ascribe odds to its success. They can make guesses about how reliable specific mission components may be, but these are just that—guesses. And when you add guesses to guesses, you get nothing but numbers from this community of experts between 0% and 100% which are just that—guesses.

“Now, I know that this answer isn’t going to satisfy you or your readers, so let me tell you a little about what I believe to be true. I believe that this mission can succeed. If it does succeed, we will have gained priceless scientific, cultural, and sociological knowledge. We will learn more about the universe that we live in certainly more than any other mission in our history. And isn’t that something we can all agree on? Don’t we all desire to better understand this universe in which we live. I truly believe that we do, and that I have attempted to dedicate my life’s work to this cause.”

After Landry studied a set of facts on the clipboard he was holding, he continued. “Professor, my data indicates that this mission will have spent at least $230 billion conservatively. Can you say that the gain will compensate the discretionary loss of so much money?”

“First, Mr. Landry, I wouldn’t use the word loss, but rather investment. Second, I think I already answered that question with the word ‘priceless’. You really can’t put a price tag on learning, since knowledge isn’t purchased or sold—it is earned. That said, we have invested billions, and if the mission fails, then if nothing else, we will learn from those losses, and then take another stab at it. I will agree with you, Mr. Landry that money can be used to purchase goods and services that we need as individuals, but does money really mean anything in the grand purpose of the universe? I am no philosopher, but my guess is that we will not take any of our money with us when we depart this life. I do, however, strongly believe that as we depart, any intelligence that we have obtained and shared will be left to the inheritance of our children. They will benefit much more from our knowledge than they will our money.”

Landry refused to back down, and grew impatient with Zimmer. “Yes or no, Professor. Do you believe that this mission can fail?”

“Absolutely, there is chance for failure, but as I’ve stated, I believe there is a chance for success. What we gain from the success is priceless—I repeat—priceless. What we lose is money. But let’s not forget that with every failed mission in life, comes learning in and of itself. And that learning can be applied to increase the odds of success the next time around.”

“Professor!” barked the irascible reporter. “We would lose more than money. We lose two exceptional men. Does their lives not count for anything to you?”

Zimmer stood and rebuked Landry with calm yet vehement tones. “Mr. Landry, you have falsely accused me of negligence of human life. The entire team have spoken directly to both Mr. Joonter and Mr. Slater, and the risks—which they have assumed of their own volition—have been accepted by both individuals.”

Zimmer looked at both astronauts, and each nodded affirmatively.

Backing down from that angle, Landry asked “You mentioned that there would be a next time. When you say that, I trust you are referring to the next time we throw hundreds of billions at ST4, right?”

“Throw, Mr. Landry? Is that a synonym for the word lose that you used earlier? I think I was clear that this is an investment of money, not a waste of it.”

Raising his voice in agitation, Landry began to border on dramatic. “Investment?! Why not invest it in food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless? Instead, you have chosen to ‘invest’ the money in the execution of a pair of lowly criminals!”

“Mr. Landry!” It was Gilroy’s voice which objected. He launched himself out of his chair, and buried his fists on the table as he leaned over to peer hotly as the insolent behavior of the journalist. “That is enough. You have gone beyond objective reporting in favor of setting personal agenda, and even beyond that you have now slandered these two astronauts. Your questioning is complete.”

The word ‘complete’ was offered with irrefutable finality. Landry glared back at his opponent, but eventually slinked into his seat, as the nearby security detail took a couple of steps out of the darkened corner of the room, prepared to pounce on anyone to whom Gilroy gave the order. Gilroy sat down slowly, but refused to take his eyes off of Landry, until the latter broke off the staring contest with an awkward attempt to scribble notes on his clipboard.

Utter silence was broken by a deep parched voice at the front of the room. “Dr. Gilroy, may I say somethin’ to answer the question?” All eyes turned to Blade, whose face was expressionless. Gilroy, not sure of whether Slater would help the cause of the press conference or not, hesitantly yielded to the request.

“Mr. Landry, I don’t think ya’ meant those words, and I suspect ya’ might regret havin’ said ‘em later. Fo’ yer benefit, I’ll just say that I assume these was spoken in the heat of the moment. I do see where you’re goin’ with the concerns over the financin’ of the mission, but let me allay any and all concerns as to the motivation of my companion and me in acceptin’ this mission. Neither of us was forced to do this, and there was no premeditated decision by the government to seek a couple of felons as lab rats in some super-warp experiment. Paol made his decision in the presence of his lawyer, and I made my decision in the presence of Paol. No government agent spoke to us ‘bout this opportunity until after the decision had already been made.

“What’s more, if you’re worried ‘bout me takin’ this course of action just so I could break outta the pen’, then let me just remind ya’ that I would be free of my obligation to society in just under a year right now. Why would anybody choose to go on a 12-year mission away from his home planet when he’s just a year away from purchasin’ his freedom. It makes no sense. So, let me say now, on the eve of my departure from Earth1, I am not doin’ this fo’ any selfish purpose. I’m doin’ this fo’ the good of mankind.

“Let me say somethin’ ‘bout my companion here too. While I have got to know Paol Joonter in the last few years, I can tell you that this is a man who was convicted of a crime he did not commit. He was setup, plain and simple. I’ve talked to him in confidence, and I can assure you that his sacrifice is great. What’s more is the sacrifice of his family. They was not too terrible interested in the idea at first, and I mean, who would be? They won’t see their husband and father fo’ twelve years! But in time, I saw ‘em change their attitude. They went from consternation to utter pride. When they look at Paol, they see a hero who is makin’ a tremendous sacrifice fer his country and fo’ scientific discovery and progress—and he’s doin’ it at great risk, as you point out, sir.

“So, Mr. Landry, believe whatcha will ‘bout this mission, and ‘bout the pair of us who’s goin’ out there tomorrow. Paol and I know in our hearts the reasons fer us doin’ this thing, and that’s enough fer us.”

After this speech, the atmosphere was tense and electric, and all were glued to their seats, except for one person, who stood slowly in the back and began to slowly applaud this astronaut for his stirring words. Kather Mirabelle was quickly joined by Joram, who propelled himself out of his seat and began applauding even more loudly. Within moments, all were on their feet, applauding with excited anticipation for the mission. Landry alone remained seated, with a glare that bored down on Blade. How dare this crude, uneducated man best him in his attempts to spread his doctrine and gain more disciples to his ridiculous cause?

The press conference had been a success, even beyond Gilroy’s wishes. All of the major television stations were broadcasting video clips, quotes, and commentaries on the event, while Americans remained glued to their television sets. Talk was animated and cheerful around the water cooler at work, over the fence with neighbors, in shopping malls with complete strangers.

“Where did you get that ‘Paol and Blade’ T-shirt?”

“I grabbed one of the last ST3 bumper stickers on the store shelf just yesterday.”

“OFFICE MEMO: Don’t stay home to watch the launch! We’ll broadcast it live in our large conference room.”

“I heard the President is going to meet with the astronauts in the morning to wish them well.”

All were cheering for Paol and Blade. There was so much support that the skeptics were compelled to hold their peace until after the excitement wore off. They figured that they’d get their chance after the spaceship disappeared into the yellow beam. After a few weeks, life would be back to normal, and they could again begin to sow their seeds of discontent.

Carlton Zimmer’s research trio thoroughly enjoyed being at the press conference. Excitement and energy proliferated the room, but they were even more excited for their next opportunity.

“Blade, Paol, I’d like you to meet some friends of mine.” Carlton Zimmer was beaming to make the introductions, and had looked forward to doing so for years. “This is Kather Mirabelle, Joram Anders, and Reyd Eastman—my post-doc research students, who helped to discover the superluminal comet, shortly after the Camp Mars incident.”

Hands were extended warmly between the astronauts and students. Blade was the first to speak after greetings had been fully exchanged. “I’m so pleased to meet all of ya’. Thanks fo’ yer hard work in discoverin’ Earth2 and makin’ this opportunity possible.”

“You’re thanking us?” Kath queried in stunned appreciation. “You two are making the hero’s journey along with a tremendous sacrifice that few could ever step up to.”

Paol stepped forward and put a hand on Blade’s shoulder. “You know, Kath, I find that some of the most important heroes in life are those unsung heroes who never make the headlines. It is a shame that my partner and I garner all of the attention from the media, when it is all because of your efforts that we are even in this privileged position to begin with.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Joonter,” Reyd interrupted softly.

“Oh, you can call me Paol.”

“Paol, then—there’s something I’ve been curious about.”

“Go on,” Paol smiled.

“I’m a bit perplexed about your attitude—actually both of your attitudes. Tomorrow, the two of you leave on an extremely dangerous journey, ranging through expanses of the galaxy that just a few years ago, nobody thought ever to be possible. At best, you won’t see your family for a dozen years, and at worst, you’ll suffer a horrendous death in the expanses between stars, or maybe you actually reach Earth2, find it to be hostile, and suffer death there, or the Star Transport fails in one of a million ways leaving you to float endlessly through space, or—”

Kath stabbed Reyd in the ribs with her elbow. “Would you get on with the question? What are you trying to do anyway—convince them to back down now just 24 hours before launch?”

Reyd blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Blade laughed heartily at the exchange between Kath and Reyd, while Paol simply gestured for Reyd to proceed with the question.

“Well, you say this is a ‘privileged position’. How have you formed such an attitude?”

Paol tried to ease Reyd’s embarrassment. “Thanks for asking, Reyd. It’s always good for me to remind myself of my personal reason. Let me assure you that I’ve thought through every horrible scenario that you have, and many more than those. Further, let me state that the decision isn’t as easy as I might let on with my language. Leaving my family behind like this is a very, very difficult thing to do. But, I take comfort in believing honestly that there is more purpose in a life given in service to others. Sure, I could wait for my acquittal in prison, and then return to the business sector and continue to build products and earn profits, but how does that help my fellow man? This is a fulfilling opportunity that I trust will give more to the world than I otherwise could contribute. In short, this is what will make my life meaningful.

“That said, it is easy to think that I am just doing this to save my own skin—meaning, I have been convicted of a murder I did not commit, and this buys me time for my name to be cleared. However, it is harder to make a case for my friend here. When the opportunity was presented to him, he scoffed at it—didn’t even give it a thought before saying it was crazy. He did the numbers, he knew that he would probably be out of prison before the spaceship even left the ground. He might have his freedom today on parole. But, in the end, he could sense what a big opportunity this was for this country, indeed this world.”

“Off the record,” Joram spoke up for the first time during the interchange. “The media is frenzied about the odds of this. You can’t turn around without seeing some update on the odds in Vegas. Does it bother you guys that most think this won’t succeed?”

Blade let out a groan.

“Every time I hear the naysayers, I remind myself of Christopher Columbus. Most people laughed him to scorn, and fo’ six persistent years, he tried hard to convince people that you could sail a ship towards the west to get someplace that’s in the east. Ludicrous, ain’t it? It’s no wonder nobody believed him. Finally Spain took a risk on him and provided him with the support he needed. It was awful brave of him to do it, but I remember readin’ a quote from Columbus that showed me why he had faith that his mission would succeed. He said:

“With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me, the fire of the Holy Spirit urging me to press forward.”

“Now, I’m not much of a religious man, and I certainly ain’t felt no Spirit urging me towards Earth2, but I believe that this mission—this exploration—can succeed. First, Columbus—as an insider—believed in himself and his mission. He knew things that the critics didn’t ever know. I can tell ya’ that with what I’ve seen in the last few years, what the critics don’t understand, is that every possible brainstormed problem, issue, and hurdle have been addressed. The odds fo’ success are certainly maximized. Second, there’s no question that we have the technology to succeed. Columbus was able to succeed with far less. Further, Columbus set sail into uncharted waters—there was no evidence that this new path would get him anywhere, let alone to the discovery of a new world. On the other hand, we actually did discover our new world befo’ we’re settin’ sail. We also know the exact path to take to get there, and the computer’s all programmed and ready to go. And that’s that, friends. There’s no use in thinkin’ it can’t be done, because it can.”

“Thank you, Blade, for the Columbus analogy,” Joram congratulated, shaking his head at his own lack of faith. “For the first time, you’ve given me hope that our work of discovery won’t be in vain, because until you return with all of your stories, data, and materials, I’ve often felt that this discovery is really meaningless.”

“Well, Joram, you just keep discoverin’ those amazin’ things out there, and when we return, you’ll have to catch us up on all that we missed out on, ok?”

“Deal!” Joram nodded and smiled enthusiastically.

The door opened to the room where the group was convened, and all attention was diverted to a rather anxious looking mission commander.

“I know that this has been a rather brief meeting,” Vurim Gilroy directed his comments to Carlton Zimmer and his students, “but there is a busy preparation schedule ahead for these two, and they are going to need their rest for the big day tomorrow.”

Zimmer reached out his hand to the astronauts. “Gentlemen, thank you for the interview. This has been a most pleasant exchange. Godspeed on your journey tomorrow. We look forward to seeing you about twelve years from now.”

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