This story, which begins in the year 2037, is dedicated to my granddaughter, Olivia. In it she is a major character at age 25.
I hope to inspire her, for as long as I live, to ponder the future, to peer upward, to gaze beyond the moon, beyond the sun, and to learn, and to know, and to wonder….
By Jerry A. Boggs
21,500 words: 2 hrs., 32 min.; https://archive.is/N6hPW
They fled a disaster only to find themselves facing another. Then they stumbled onto something that shocked them to the core.
The thundering, brutal vibration thrashed his weak arms against a hard surface, again and again. Where the hell was he? In a box? Or — a coffin? Was he hurtling over the world’s worst road in the world’s loudest truck?
Thirty merciless seconds dragged by before he gained the strength to jam his hands under his thighs and pin his arms against his sides. He might have been juddered senseless if not for the padding underneath him and the restraints across his forehead, chest, and ankles. Did his captor have a kind streak?
“Captain Jason Pearce.”
The metallic female voice jolted him. It thundered even over the stentorian booming. It blared from above, reverberating in all directions as if he were in the middle of a cathedral.
“Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain?”
He realized he hadn’t opened his eyes. Couldn’t open them. Yet he knew he was in total darkness -– no light penetrated his eyelids. He worked his jaw, moiled to cough a slimy substance out of his throat.
“Who…the hell…are you?”
His garbled voice, a stranger’s to him, quaked and broke in the vibration. His stomach convulsed, an angry cauldron threatening to eject its contents. Deep breaths!
“Where am I? Let me out of–! Wait. I’m…Jason–?”
His body bucked against the restraints. The memories exploded in his head like grenades. He was aboard Hope, the craft that was to deliver him and 104 others to a new home!
His eyes stung as he stifled tears. As the leader of this new home, he’d have to struggle hard in his emotional state to help everyone get through the dangers awaiting them.
“Yes,” the voice said. “Atmosphere is reestablished. Nutrients were supplied. Avionics and lighting up. Your preservation gel has been almost fully purged from your lungs and other organs and has been siphoned from your cylinder. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that all personnel must remain on board for three hours to allow their gel residue to be fully purged by the ship’s oxygen.”
The gel. He remembered. Though it had been drained from his cylinder a few minutes ago, it still thinly coated him from head to toe, inside as well as out, its smell hinting of an odd mix of charcoal and cinnamon. He forced a hand up and cleared his eyelids and ears, fighting against the angry vibration. His gummy eyes at last opened, and he saw in the dim red light the translucent canopy of his cylinder less than ten inches from his nose.
The rattling, like bombs going off in rapid succession, had joggled awake the ship’s AI, whose female voice spoke to him. The AI in turn had processed him from his preserved state – had “reinvigorated” him, as the scientists would’ve put it.
He was taking a thrashing, but at least he had survived. Thanks to the gel.
The final instruction regarding the gel and other matters had come via NASA employee and Hope’s Project Survival manager, Victor Arnold:
“Bad news about the gel experts. Supposed to be at this meeting. I wanted them to go over some technical details concerning the gel, to make sure you know what you no doubt already know. Guess what? The bastards scattered like cockroaches, like most of the other damn project workers.
“But fret not. Though you’ll have the Restoration Handbook, you won’t have any need for it. Direct your questions about the gel and almost everything else to the AI. As you’re aware, it’ll handle the whole shebang — your first pilot, flight engineer, and adviser, all rolled into one. You’re the backup pilot you were trained to be if the AI fails. I’m aware you’ve had little experience with artificial intelligence, but you can trust it as long as it functions norm–”
“Even Stephen Hawking distrusted–“
“The only area where the AI can’t help you–“
“You always ignore people?”
“A little late for that convo,” Arnold said. “The only area where the AI can’t help you, and you can thank the corner-and-cost-cutters for that, is medical. It has no physician program to assist your on-board doctor in cases of injury or illness.
“What the AI does have is a huge database to help you once you set down on the planet: wilderness survival manuals, farming techniques, architectural blueprints, civilization-building, rules of law, weapon-making – those sorts of things. Preserve the AI at all costs.”
The AI, the most advanced to date, was called DORIS, the acronym for Destiny Organization’s Restoration and Invigoration System. DORIS’ data and computational/analysis capability had been rated by Destiny’s engineers as 99 percent reliable and one percent error-prone.
“Velocity was reduced 85 percent prior to approach,” DORIS said. “To terminate the roughness of atmospheric entry and mitigate restoration and invigoration, I am taking Hope back into space and into orbit.”
The roar and bone-buffeting vibration soon subsided. Pearce heard only the distant droning of the ship’s engine.
His nerves, though, didn’t settle down with the ship. Too many questions fired at him like a nail gun. Would the air really be breathable on the surface? Would they find water? Food sources? Would ravenous beasts body-slam them before they ventured 100 feet from the ship? In such a hostile environment, would he be able to lead well enough to hold everything together beyond just the next 48 hours?
Wait! One stomach-churning worry at a time! First, they had to set down on the planet in one piece.
“Prior to restoring you,” DORIS said, “I restored and invigorated Dr. Martha Wakefield. She will be able to begin making rounds shortly. I am proceeding with Commander Breanne Sullivan, Lieutenant Tom Ross, Ensign Olivia Appleton, then the civilians.”
“DORIS, were you trying to kill us in our cylinders? Why the hell did we stay in the atmosphere for more than a few seconds? If anybody’s restraints failed, they might be hurt. Or dead.”
“The atmosphere extends higher than my data show. Hence, the ship penetrated too deeply. Hope was programmed to enter and remain in the exosphere for ten seconds to power me up. I was programmed to initiate your and Dr. Wakefield’s restoration immediately after the ten seconds. However, the ship remained in the atmosphere three minutes and 42 seconds longer than it should have.”
Was all that true? Or could 99-percent reliable DORIS have already slipped into her one-percent unreliable territory and screwed up? Even if her reliability were 100 percent, how could he put full faith in her after reading so much negative press on artificial intelligence over the years?
A coldness scuttled up his spine like an icy tarantula. Would her “errors” always be unintentional? Did she have enough “consciousness” to sense she’d be better off without humans pestering her with incessant demands?
But he’d also read quite a bit pro-AI. And Victor Arnold had advised him DORIS was not a concern.
Still, doubt about whether DORIS would get them safely to the planet’s surface gnawed deeper into his gut. After all, no matter how Arnold viewed the AI, Pearce couldn’t put a lot of trust in him, either, especially considering his history and the way he terminated their wrap-up meeting. It seemed like only a few days ago….
Arnold had been ordered by the U.S. president to stay on and complete the mission. Two Marines had been dispatched to make sure of that. They were prepared, as Arnold had said with a smirk, to “hang me upside down and skin me alive if I refuse to do my job.” Pistols on their hips, the soldiers stood on the other side of Arnold’s closed double office doors, no doubt listening.
The unshaven, bleary-eyed manager stared — or glared? — at the captain across a desk littered with plastic water bottles, food wrappers, crumbs, papers, and an over-flowing ashtray. Behind him arced a vast array of large monitors whose bright, constantly dancing blue, green, and red data columns distracted and annoyed Pearce.
The captain focused on Arnold. He blinked at the stench of stale cigarette butts and Arnold’s long self-neglect. Please make this a short meeting!
“The finals,” Arnold said in a mocking voice loud enough for the soldiers to hear. “Completed without the usual certifications. Not enough time or personnel. But you’ll be pleased to know four evenings ago I personally performed diagnostics on DORIS and all the cylinders, the last of which were installed and equipped two weeks ago. All in working order. Next I did an eye-ball check throughout.” He scowled. “In those god-awful mag-boots, I must’ve been a real hoot to my ‘guardian angels’.”
He flung a thumb in the direction of the door. His voice took on an edge. “And to those idiot union workers still up there doing structural checks. Or doing little as possible, you can bet.”
He sank back into his chair and shook his head. “The smaller more-advanced ship — goddamn it, it’ll go to waste! Mars will never be son-of-a-bitching colonized! I – we were so close! All we needed was four stinking more months and everything would’ve been in place for a go.”
Pearce exhaled, shifted in his chair. “I know all this–”
“But hell no, Orion 10 had to malfunction and wander off into oblivion. Those worthless union people! Irresponsible whack jobs! And screw those greedy-ass nations that left everything up to us!”
He sat up and swept a mess of papers onto the floor, a few scattering at Pearce’s feet. The captain, glancing back at the door, wondered if the troops might barge in after this outburst.
Arnold sat motionless, perhaps pondering the same thing. At length, he patted his armrest. “By the way, if you think the Pilgrims had to rejigger their lifestyle…. Assuming, of course, you get there, then survive past the first day or two in a place jam-packed with hazards.”
Pearce’s breathing quickened. Arnold didn’t need to state the obvious. Was he deliberately trying to torment him?
A heavy click blasted Pearce’s ears, bull-dozing away his thoughts. The canopy rotated open and mewled on its way underneath his cylinder.
His bruised arms smarting, he unbuckled his mesh restraints. He steered himself in the weightlessness to a sitting position. Mooring himself to the cylinder with one hand, he wiped and blotted off the gel residue with the other, using the towel from a foot locker that contained his personal items. He pulled on his undergarments and suited up in his cobalt-blue captain’s jumpsuit, then his mag-boots.
He peered down the length of the ship. Hope’s primary compartment, containing all 105 cylinders, sprawled long and wide under a low arched ceiling. The curved, evenly spaced support beams reminded him of the enormous ribs of a blue whale.
On the other side of the primary compartment’s bulkhead wall were the computer mainframe niche and other smaller compartments full of supplies including the exo-skeleton Pearce had insisted on.
He realized he was holding his breath. The sight before him was one he prayed he hadn’t seen for a length of time dizzying to comprehend.
The five columns of the 100 civilians’ preservation cylinders resembled giant larvae gleaming in the wall lights’ dusky red glow. The columns ended ten feet from the passenger seats nestled near the far bulkhead wall. The cylinders’ occupants would soon be emerging in their basil-green jumpsuits, not unlike butterflies from their hardened chrysalises. Except for the children, each possessed dual skills in such fields as carpentry, architecture, farming, community organization, and law and order. All had volunteered and been selected by a qualifications reviewing panel.
The other cylinders in Pearce’s row had opened. Commander Breanne Sullivan had donned a jumpsuit identical to Pearce’s except for her commander’s insignia. She was the 35-year-old First Officer whom Pearce had admired for some time and called Sull from the get-go. For a few years before the Navy, she’d been a civil engineer, her useful other skill.
“If this worked,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “I’m a dog-headed pig monster.”
Her exploded skeins of black hair, in Hope’s weightlessness, wafted about her head and face like sea grasses in gentle currents. In a few seconds a bungee would bind her hair in a floating ponytail.
Her gaunt, blanched face gave him a start.
She rocked her head, her smile thin, bleak. “Fairly sure you look as much like a dry lake bed as I do. Wouldn’t worry, though. You’ll get your rugged handsomeness back in no time.”
He breathed out, relaxing more. She sounded okay, her voice nominally raspy, and looked as good as could be expected.
And she’d get her good looks back as well.
“At least we’re not DOA, wherever we are,” Pearce said with a forced cheeriness meant to nudge up his own spirits as much as hers.
He glanced off, a catch in his throat. Despite his pre-flight psych counseling, he was sucker-punched by how much he already missed his parents, his friends, his neighbors….
He even missed his daily routine. He’d rise early in his Florida coastal bungalow and check the sky from his kitchen window. Then, before heading to the base to simulation-fly the Mars-bound craft The Raven – renamed Hope by the president – he’d settle down for an hour or so with his laptop to pore over his writing project, “What ET May Really Look Like: Not So Different.” His thesis drew from the convergent-evolution theory that species from varied taxonomic groups evolve toward a similar form.
He’d taken a refresher research-writing course ahead of starting the project. “Before laying down one single word,” the instructor had said, “do the tedious work of amassing all available facts and examining each carefully, without preconception. See where they lead.” That was the lesson drilled into his head over and over for the next six weeks.
His eyes stung and something inside his chest squeezed hard. The haunting image of his wife Amy crowbarred its way into his mind. During the heart-breaking eight months he’d spent taking care of her, he’d used his writing project and his job as distractions. All the while, he clung to hope, his life preserver. But hope slowly bled away, until she, a colorless, skeletal ghost, was claimed by melanoma in a hospital bed six months before Hope left.
All this was gone. Maybe unthinkably long gone. But memories of Amy blazed fresh and painful, and again his heart was gripped in a tight fist. He’d somehow have to keep thoughts of her at bay if he intended to fulfill his role as the ship’s captain and the leader of this group.
His thoughts drifted back to that last meeting with Victor Arnold….
Arnold leaned back in his chair and gave Pearce a long look. “Tell me, Mr. Captain Man, do you think we humans deserve to live on?”
“We’re a failure. We’re violent, full of hate. And the good things wars haven’t destroyed, unions have. Way I see it, it’s our just desserts. Even if not, you know 99.9 percent of all species have been obliterated from the face of the Earth. Why should it be any different for the human species – the only species that has never deserved to survive?”
Pearce rubbed his brow. His face warmed. “What you’re missing–“
“As you know,” Arnold said, glowering at the door and sitting up, his raised voice matter-of-factly, “the shuttle departs in three days. Ready your people and their personal effects. All equipment and supplies have been loaded.”
He retrieved a document from a drawer and slapped it down on his desk. Using his flattened hand, he shoved it toward Pearce, tipping an empty Styrofoam cup and rattling the ashtray.
“Signed by the prez, the vice-prez, and the speaker of the house. It transfers all government powers and authority to you effective launch date. The guards’ll ask to see it.”
He slumped back. His gaze slid away into in a thousand-mile stare. It was as if everything – energy, hope, life – had been drained out of him.
“That’s it,” he said, his voice flat and distant. “My last words to you?” He flipped his hand backward at Pearce, his eyes still averting the captain’s. “Get out.”
Outside the office, the captain paused inches from the closed door.
“Bastard,” he said, not caring if the approaching soldiers heard.
With a personality that possessed all the qualities of sandpaper, Arnold had never trafficked in warmth, and Pearce recalled the gift of a broken cheek bone that a year ago Arnold had bestowed on a union leader after he refused to call off a strike. But this was the first time he’d given Pearce the genuine scum-bag treatment.
He sighed. He understood Arnold’s scaled-up bitterness.
First, the man had been forced to give up on his decades-in-the making Mars mission, the mission he’d had been banking on to secure him a place in the history books.
Then Arnold learned that his psychological profile – “not-so-latent hostile tendencies” – had classified him “Unsuitable” for the journey.
Instead of the fulfillment of his dream of history marking him as the person who put people on Mars, and instead of living on to bask in the glow of endless admirers, all was lost for him and soon he would be dead.
A figure approached — Lieutenant Commander Martha Wakefield. “On the wrong side of 50,” as she’d put it, she had spent the first 22 years of her life in Britain and still had enough accent at times to throw Pearce. Hope’s Flight Surgeon and Psychologist, she preferred the tag “Doc” to “Lt. Commander.” In the weeks prior to launch, she wore her psychologist hat and held sessions with everyone to discuss ways to cope with shock, loss, and what lay ahead – though right away she had admitted what lay ahead wasn’t something she herself could even come close to imagining.
Her sickly gray-white face told of less energy than she evidenced. She seemed to have already come to terms with their staggering achievement to this point, and showed no signs of damage wrought by the ship’s seismic plunge into the atmosphere.
One hand smoothed out her white smock, which Peace reasoned, with an inward smile, that she may have donned for attachment to the past. The other clasped the scanner she frowned at. She’d taken both the scanner and the smock from one of the wall storage units containing small items of direct need.
“Ahhh!” she said, mostly, it seemed, to herself. “No wearable scans – am I expected to do great things with this retro piece of crap? Forget it!”
She expelled air and studied the captain over the top of her rectangular glasses.
“Have to ask,” she said in a lowered voice, her British accent lucid, “and don’t go getting all stoic on me. I need the truth about the captain. How are you coping with the, you know, the de–“
“Weight considerations, natch.” He lifted his chin toward her scanner. “Must have beat out the latest version by at least a milli–”
“Bloody avoidance. Deflection.” She kept her voice low, leaning in to him. “Your philtrum — it sometimes quivers when you’re uncomfortable.” The corners of her mouth drew down. “We’ll talk. All right, how about the body? I have to know if anything’s come loose.”
He waved off her offer to scan his vitals. “Ehh, been beaten up worse than a ketch in a hurricane, just like you and everybody else. DORIS green-lighted me on the majors — though I really can’t trust her a whole hell of a lot with her limited med capability. Damn near feel fine, now that I’ve stopped marinating in my misery.”
“Probably lying through your choppers, but you’re the boss on this little caper. In fact, congrats are in order. You are our new prez–”
“Need you to get moving to see if DORIS mangled anybody in the Civ-Div.”
Her brow raveled. “DORIS?”
“I don’t trust her. Try to keep everybody calm. Tell them we’re in orbit and we’ll know soon if it’s the right one. Then have them secured in the rear seats to wait for my instructions from the cockpit.”
Her eyes darted about his face, as if she were making a final assurance he was up to the job. She nodded a “got it,” whip-lashing her gray-streaked ponytail, and headed toward the civilian passengers. If trying to be graceful in her mag-boots, she wasn’t doing well.
“Just remember,” she said without a look-back, “my prehistoric med gear and no physician program in DORIS mean we’ll run into trouble if there’s an emergency. Contagion or such.”
She halted and, like a kid new to roller skates, came about to face him again. “Oh, DORIS says it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in most of the desirable landing sites, which are in the northern hemisphere — hope it’s summer there, not winter! Glad you scratched me from your away-team. My low heat tolerance, you recall. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have made old bones.”
Pearce remembered her condition. Something to do with her thyroid, wasn’t it? If the landing site turned out to be a hot house, she’d stay inside for the remaining days of the ship’s cooler interior, venturing out on short stints only as necessary. Why force her to suffer before she had to?
“You know,” she said, her British accent thicker than a bulkhead wall, “you could think of me as having a hot bod.” She scrunched her cheeks into a smile of sorts, said, “Cheerio,” wriggled her fingers at him, and moved on.
He levered himself off the pad and let his mag-boots engage. The lights having brightened up, the stirring civilians were visible beyond the retreating Doc. The majority were flexing their limbs, talking, and examining themselves and each other. A number were high-fiving – a positive sign. But maybe 20 leaned against their cylinders, bent and sobbing uncontrollably. Wakefield would have to put on her psych hat again.
Evidently doing fine was 27-year-old Lieutenant Tom Ross, uniformed in his cobalt-blue jumpsuit and flexing his joints at his cylinder on the other side of Commander Sullivan’s. His hickory-brown hair billowed atop his rangy, six-foot-three frame.
When penciled in for Project Survival, Ross had been serving for nearly a year as a combat flight instructor at Naval Air Station Key West. Before the Navy, he had trained in emergency care. To maintain his medical skills, he had often volunteered at the NAS Key West hospital.
He stopped flexing and planted his eyes on 25-year-old Ensign Olivia Appleton standing on the other side of her cylinder next to his.
Four months prior to launch, Appleton had been transferred from Radiation Safety Training to NAS Key West as one of Ross’s combat-flight students. She soon found herself romantically entangled with the lieutenant.
“‘Morning, Livvy,” he said with a wry grin. “Sleep well? Say, just wondering – you jonesing for me again yet? Or still working that same old attack-doggy stuff of – we hope – oh-so-long ago?”
She gave her jumpsuit a yank at the hips and the knees.
“Problem with your onesie?” Ross said. “Huh. Too small probably. Bring your bling?”
“Right there. Why you’re my favorite emetic. Don’t crank me so soon, Tommy-boy. I attack only he who’s got it coming. Go stick your Roman nose in somebody else’s business. Yeah, that nose with the little brown warty thing on your columella.”
She showed him her back, swirling her russet hair, shoulder-length in gravity, into a floating mess about her head. Banding it at the back, she said, “By the way, did you have to watch me dress?”
Ross’s face contorted. “Still flying on angry. Got some deep scar tissue, y’know that, Appleworm? Oh, a by-the-way for you: Nothing I haven’t seen already.”
Pearce’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Both of them, without acknowledging anyone else around them, and despite the nightmare they’d all suffered so far and the hellish uncertainty still awaiting them, were picking up right where they’d left off on the day Hope launched. Did they think they were in some kind of joke, had been played as fools, the gel hadn’t worked, and maybe they’d been asleep for just a few days?
He blinked. If they did believe all that, the harrowing, jolting truth was, they might not be wrong.
He’d heard the back-story on the couple, how their marriage plans had been whacked a few weeks before departure….
Early one morning Appleton had wanted to surprise Ross with a carry-out breakfast. She’d stopped at a restaurant on the Navy base where they and the rest of Hope’s passengers were secretly sequestered and being prepped for their epic journey.
Approaching Ross’s small condo in her car, she spotted him outside. He stood next to a white SUV, a long-haired blonde at the wheel. Ross bent and kissed the woman, then stood waving as she drove off.
Ross explained that she was a close cousin he’d grown up with. She’d obtained permission to drop by and congratulate him on his engagement and see him one last time before leaving to be with her husband and children.
Appleton sneered. “And if I talked to her, I’d hear a lie you two concocted just in case.”
She had suffered through a string of bad relationships, including a brief marriage that had left her often unable to crawl out of bed. She had been convinced she’d plunged into this latest relationship as a sort of solace for the horrors awaiting her and everyone else. She’d given back – thrown back – the ring Ross supposedly still carried in a zipped pocket.
Pearce had heard the story from Doc, who violated confidentiality rules with the captain in the name of “insuring greater efficiency.” He’d worried the couple might be a problem, but by that time it was too late to find and prepare replacements.
He gestured for Appleton, Ross, and Sullivan to follow him.
“DORIS, open the cockpit door.”
They entered the low-lit compartment, Ross and Appleton bickering at each other. The instrument panel brightened and the computers, beeping and chittering, seemed to vie for their attention. But all eyes riveted on the scene dominating a side-viewing window: the huge, bright, atmosphere-arc of the planet’s night side against the coal-black oblivion of space. The quips and finger-pointing from the carping couple evaporated like a drop of water on the sun-side of Mercury.
Pearce stared, unable to speak or breathe, his heart pounding. Was this real? Was he dreaming? When would life stop shocking him? His head rotated toward Sullivan like a rusty old gate. Her face gleamed in the bluish-white light. Her mouth was slack. She gave a quick shake of her head as if trying to dislodge something.
Pearce motioned and the two of them fumbled their way into the forward seats at the curved instrument panel. Ross and Appleton fell into the two rear. They were, at least for the time, silenced.
Pearce opened the safe and pulled out the captain’s log. He penned his update, his trembling hand a hindrance.
“Hard time processing this,” Sullivan said. She took a fast breath. “DORIS, scan for a suitable landing site to accommodate our humanly needs. Include in your search evidence of metal deposits – in case we survive long enough to recreate the Bronze Age.”
She gave Pearce a quick-fading smile and keyed on the chronometer.
“No need to remind anybody,” Appleton said, her voice low, “but our departure date was August 11, 2037.”
Pearce glanced back and saw Ross swing his head toward the ensign and say, “Then why remind–?”
“My birthday, August 11.”
“Brace yourself.” Sullivan toggled a switch.
Ross snorted. “Cruel joke’s all I’m bracing for.”
Red lights sputtered in a read-out panel. Numbers that were being calculated from a shielded radioactive-decay-based “clock” raced incomprehensibly fast.
A distressing nine seconds later, the numbers stopped. The cockpit’s occupants sat dumb-founded.
“DORIS, cockpit only,” Pearce said, laying aside his log without taking his eyes off the numbers. “From your own internal system, can you independently confirm the date we see?” His chest stilled as he waited for what seemed an eternity.
“The current Earth time and date,” DORIS replied without the reverberation normally heard throughout the ship, “are as follows: 13:24, Wednesday, December 9, 139,023.”
Pearce felt his cheek twitch. He looked at the commander. She looked at him. Neither spoke.
He knew the AI wasn’t 100 percent error free. “DORIS, scrub your date and time data, recalculate, and give us just the Earth year.”
Five seconds later: “The Earth year, Captain Pearce, is 139,023.”
Ross’s whistle was soft. “One mind-melting long time to be mothballed.”
The captain pressed. “DORIS, state the distance traveled, and ID this planet.”
“Distance traveled: 20.517 light years. Planet: Gliese 581g.”
“DORIS, I assume your ID is based on the atmospheric signature and the planet’s location in the GNS.”
“That is correct, Captain. To be brief, Hope’s position-shift relative to the locations of The Twenty Pulsars in the Galactic Navigation System’s Sub-Region Two corresponds to the exact distance and direction from Earth to this star.”
“Was that brief?” Appleton said. Nerves speaking? “I love her name, but boy….”
With an appreciative look, Sullivan turned her head back toward Appleton and Ross. “Nice to see you two paying attention to something besides each other. Beneficial to our survival.”
“If anyone wants to let the tears flow,” Pearce said, his own nerves on fire, “or if you want to throw up, go ahead. We can forget we’re suck-it-up military for a moment.”
“Please. Only a moment,” Ross said.
“I have located a suitable landing site,” DORIS said, “in an otherwise hilly terrain near an ocean. It satisfies all of your parameters.”
Sullivan clasped her hands. “Thank God. An ocean!”
“Which,” Appleton said, “we should be able to see coming around real soon at this speed.”
“DORIS,” Sullivan said, “what’s the atmospheric composition relative to Earth’s?” To herself in a low, through-the-teeth voice: “‘Course, it’s a tad late to fret about such things.”
“The atmosphere contains 0.5 percent less nitrogen and nearly six percent less oxygen than Earth’s. The oxygen is nine percent less than Hope’s. You will be able to adapt with modest side effects that will cease in a short time.”
Pearce rubbed the back of his neck and leaned back. One crisis down? Maybe.
“DORIS,” he said, “forgive me, but you and I are on our first date. Wish I knew you better. I do worry about your one-percent unreliability.”
DORIS paused. Was she searching her database for an appropriate reply? “Captain, I–”
“Forget it, DORIS,” Sullivan said. “He’s delirious with happiness.” She cocked her head at Pearce, an impish smile playing across her lips. “Tell me, why on Earth would you want to date DORIS instead of me?”
“Because we’re not on Earth?”
“Commander,” DORIS said, “you do not have the authority to countermand or interfere in anything between the captain and me.”
Peace gave Sullivan a teethy grin. “Did humorless DORIS put you in your place, or what?”
If only for a while, everyone’s morale seemed to be boosted by their good fortune thus far.
He toggled the all-personnel mic. “Doc, what’s up back there? Any injuries?”
He thought again of Sullivan’s date remark. Had she joked, or revealed by way of a joke a sentiment she hadn’t intended to reveal? Or maybe had intended to?
The depressing image of his dying wife swam in front of his eyes. It crushed his buoyancy and shattered his musings about Sullivan like glass.
The Doc’s voice cracked on. “Everyone’s settled down. Finally. All seem to be coming to grips. No serious injuries. Arm bruises only. Some upset stomachs, headaches – things I’d expect from our jolly good bumpy ride, and the preservation and restoration, and general stress–”
“Good. Good. Attention, everyone,” Pearce said. He looked at Sullivan, who nodded. “Commander Sullivan and I have just verified that our long, long journey…” – he hesitated for effect – “…is a success! We have reached Gliese 581g!”
After a full two seconds of silence, the cockpit speaker exploded with noise.
Pearce checked the time. The three hours the gel needed to be out of their bodies had elapsed. He and his three officers could disembark on an exploratory mission immediately after landing.
The last thing Pearce heard before Hope again smashed into the planet’s atmosphere with a deafening roar and a violent shaking was more whoops and applause. His hand, though, as a sickening knot laid woe to his belly, never retreated more than an inch from the recessed autopilot-kill switch.
In a vertical descent, DORIS lowered Hope and its 105 passengers without mishap to a level field near a gently sloping hill. The ship’s huge bulk rocked twice on its massive shock-absorber legs.
Pearce gripped his armrests and took a long, deep breath. Up until now the dangers had pretty much been known. Now they weren’t.
Fingers shaking, he scribbled in the captain’s log the date and time of the landing.
He hurried aft with his team of three to the compartment where the still-buckled-up civilians and Lt. Commander Martha Wakefield were seated. He made a brief, earnest statement regarding their historic journey. He told them no one could leave the ship until he and his away-team returned from their mission, which was to explore the ocean coast, locate and test water for usability, and determine the area’s security level, weapons at the ready.
“Captain Pearce,” DORIS said, her voice plangent throughout the ship, “you need not worry about security. The planet is at a stage roughly comparable to Earths’ Cambrian Period in the Paleozoic Era of 570 million to 500 million years ago. Only marine invertebrates likely exist.”
Pearce clenched his teeth. A machine telling him what not to concern himself with! “May be, DORIS, but I can’t take comfort in your hedge words ‘roughly’ and ‘likely.’ This is an alien world. Unlike Earth’s Cambrian, it has soil and plants, so it might also have a velociraptor or two. Please don’t share your recommendations that might get us killed.”
Wakefield was sitting up front, five feet from Pearce. “DORIS, reconfirm the exterior temperature.”
“Ninety-four point three degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Ouch. Wouldn’t do me well at all.”
“I’ll take a copious supply of drinking water,” Lieutenant Ross said. “Gotta stay hydrated.” He stood with Sullivan and Appleton just behind and and to the side of Pearce.
Ensign Applegton seemed to regard him as if he were a pile of frass. “Gonna drag along a Johnny-On-The-Spot?”
Chuckles rippled across the sea of haggard, ashen faces, then once again, nervous-born, it seemed.
The captain continued: “While my team and I are away – no more than 24 hours – Dr. Martha Wakefield will mind the helm. If we don’t come back – well, you’re in capable hands.”
He paused, swept his eyes over the anxious faces. “There’ll be plenty of time later for all of your questions. But, okay, I will take one right now. Just one.”
A hand shot up. It belonged to 12-year-old Rachel Duncan, the daughter of Ainsley Duncan, the big brown-bearded Scot sitting next to her. Ainsley Duncan, who would don the exo-skeleton for heavy lifting, had trained as a cyber-security cop at the National Security Agency. He could, Pearce recalled, run diagnostics on DORIS if she became too unreliable or turned “spooky,” which Pearce interpreted as showing rogue tendencies.
“Captain, sir,” Rachel said with a polite smile, “could anyone on Earth have survived the impact?”
That question no doubt burned like a hot coal in everyone’s mind. It was the one Pearce dreaded most.
“You’re a brave young girl to ask that.” He lifted his chin toward her dad, who nodded. He breathed in, collecting his thoughts. Might as well get it all out and over with.
“Consider first the immediate monster earthquakes and shock wave tearing through Earth’s crust. Maybe a billion were killed in a flash. Of course, lots of people survived that, but fires, hundreds of millions of them, were sparked worldwide when the white-hot impact ejecta that was launched high into the atmosphere rained down. That dramatically raised Earth’s temperature – global warming on steroids. It poisoned all the oceans.”
He paused. Not a soul moved.
“In the following months, a winter holocaust developed, created by the shroud of ash and toxic chemicals that spread globally, blocking sunlight, ending photosynthesis, and putting Earth into deep-freeze. Remember, this asteroid was 20 miles wide, more than three times larger than the one that annihilated the dinosaurs 65-million years ago. The consensus was that it had too much speed and mass for our nukes or laser cannons to have an effect. So to answer your question, no – no one could’ve survived for long, no matter how deep underground.”
He lowered his head, scratched a brow. “I’ve probably said too much, but I’ll add one more thing, something most of you have already accepted.” Fighting back tears, he labored to get the words out. “Earth as we knew it — is gone.”
Rachel Duncan’s polite smile had not left her face, but it had left her eyes.
Captain Jason Pearce and his team of three, each with a backpack, advanced down Hope’s ramp.
The utter absence of sounds, except from their boots, surprised him — then disturbed him. Were the eyes of silent beasts watching from behind the adjacent hill’s sporadic trees that resembled the witgats he’d seen in South Africa? Or from close-up, concealed in the tall lime-green grass blanketing the field Hope had set down on? Had their scent already been detected by a hunger-crazed, velociraptor-like carnivore brandishing ten-inch teeth? Would this brute any second now come galloping over the top of the hill, smashing down every tree in its path to get to them?
But the quietness could mean the ship’s roaring retros had scattered away every critter within ten kilometers. Still, he eased his hand up to his weapon for good measure.
A warm, easterly breeze lapped against the side of his sweaty face. He thought he caught the salty whiff of ocean water. The familiar smell, along with the possibility one of their mission goals was achievable, notched his stomach-churning down a bit.
The planet’s early-morning red-dwarf sun peeked over the horizon between distant silhouetted mountains forming claws and sharks’ teeth. Its peach-orange radiance shot long, black shadow-fingers across the landscape.
Overhead, shards of mauve and pink clouds stretched across the blue-green sky. Nearly opposite the sun, barely clearing the hill-top, was the tiny pair of faint, milky-silver disks that were the planet’s moons.
The heel of his hand still rested on his weapon. Raking his gaze from side to side, he led his team 75 yards out to the foot of the hill.
He took two deep breaths, as much to vent his tension as to gauge how his lungs would cope with the air. “Well?”
The other three took stock of their surroundings for another moment, then glanced at each other. They shrugged and nodded. Appleton said, “What difference does it make?”
“Olivia,” Pearce said, “your clunky old Geiger’s acting civil. Another win.”
The yellow, black-trimmed Geiger counter had been given to Appleton by Ross. He’d found it in a cluttered, musty backroom of the base antique store. It was in perfect working order. After Ross had cleaned it to a shine, he’d handed it to Appleton figuring she’d love it. She did. “It’s older than I am,” she’d said, giving Ross a hug. “I’ll keep it forever.”
So far she’d kept it for 137,000 years.
With her free hand, she extracted her weapon and pointed. A red-hot line hissed. A smoldering foot-deep hole appeared high on the hill.
“A double-tap of that’ll give our velociraptors something to ponder,” she said.
Ross’s huge grin suggested he was beside himself with joy. “What a sharp-shooter! Hit the broad side of a mountain standing right next to it.”
Pearce hailed Martha Wakefield on his radio. “Doc, so far the air’s good to go. Hopefully long-term. No threatening teeth seen – yet.”
“…Big relief,” her voice sizzled. “Don’t die out there. I don’t want your job.”
“Heading out. Give me 100 percent antenna. Have a rescue team on standby. And start unstrapping and moving essentials to the off-load deck.”
“Copy all, Cap. Good hunting. Buzz me if you find anything interesting. Ha! As if nothing out there were.”
Pearce pulled his palm computer from the side of his backpack, studied an aerial scan downloaded by DORIS. He pointed toward the top of the hill.
“The ocean’s that way, about three klicks. Half that distance up the coast is a feeder river — hopefully with decent water. One problem on the other side of this hill, standing between us and the ocean: a pretty dense forest containing who knows what.”
The three seemed to reflect on that with minimal angst.
“One bit of good news,” Pearce said. “Ground-imaging’s a little grainier than I like – guess I can’t expect perfectly intact electronics throughout the ship after over a hundred-thousand years – but it looks like we’ll pass near that possible metal-ore deposit DORIS detected. If we find it, maybe we can chisel out a few chunks for analysis. Bronze Age, here we come. Again.”
Ross jostled his backpack higher on his shoulders and nodded toward the hill. “Need a lift, Apple Of My Eye?”
Her snicker erupted in a way that told Pearce she was more nervous than she was letting on. Like probably all of them were.
“I’d rather pick my eyeballs out with a toothpick. Surprised you think I need you for anything.”
Commander Sullivan’s narrowed eyes slued from Appleton to Ross, then back to Appleton. “Can you two not just…not? Try keeping your eyeballs on the surroundings, not on each–“
“Yes. A into G,” Pearce said, flipping a hand.
The three other officers fell in line up the hill behind him. Pearce, his face warming to the rising tangerine sun and the 90-plus-degree temp, wove past bramble-like shrubs and hip-high, green-gray ferns of a sort. On the spine of the high hill, Pearce squinted at the shadowed forest rising from the hill’s bottom. The forest stretched for maybe a mile, rising midway at another, smaller hill they’d have to scale. Above a gap in the treetops, a silver curve of ocean water glistened in the low-hanging sun like thousands of tiny shards of glass.
What word would describe a state of joy underlaid with a maddening unease?
Pearce jammed into a side pocket the small field glasses he’d been using. Though he’d spotted nothing curious inside his 180-degree sweep, there were too many areas hidden from view.
Where fun goes to die. He granted himself a morsel of humor as medicine for his nerves. He put a finger to his lips. “Let’s keep it down and toddle forward with all due caution.”
“Yup,” Appleton said in a low voice. “Not good to ring the dino dinner bell, especially when skylined.”
They descended to the line of towering broad-leaf flora bordering the forest.
“Leave a trail,” Pearce said. “Our butts might need saving. Knives out. Weapons in the other hand. Heads on a swivel from side to side, up and down. Ears tuned to any rustling anywhere.”
Pearce took a gulp of air. They stepped forward and were swallowed by the Cimmerian forest.
For the next hour, they weaved through multi-colored under-brush and chopped lower limbs off the trees. They hacked as if a swing too hard might bring a herd of ravenous creatures down on top of them. On occasion they paused to inspect and smell various odd-looking vegetation, an alert eye on the broader environment and weapons in tight grips.
Although the sun had climbed higher, the light piercing to the forest floor was still less than optimal.
“Wasn’t a mountain I hit,” Appleton said. “A hill, as you well know.”
Ross glared at her, continuing to step forward. “What?” He turned his head back to the front. “For crying out–” and walked his face into a tree limb, the collision audible. He grunted and clasped a hand against his nose.
“Hope you didn’t rip off that warty thing,” Appleton said.
“The down side for me?” Pearce said. “You’ll survive. Damn it, Tom, pay attention.”
Forty-five minutes later and tiring in the heat, they entered a tennis-court-sized clearing of carob-brown soil, green grassy patches, and a loamy scent. It sprawled at the base of a treed slope whose dimensions were hidden by the dense trees.
Pearce fingered sweat from his brow. “We’re all breathing heavy. Let’s take a beat and eat. Afterwards, I want to spend a little time scouting for the metal ore. Supposed to be right around here somewhere.”
Ross swilled from a canteen, the second time in the last half hour. Pearce wondered if he’d considered slowing down.
Weapons were holstered and backpacks lowered. Commander Sullivan, hands on her hips, surveyed the forest up the slope and bordering the clearing.
“Not a single little critter scurrying around anywhere. Maybe 99-percent-accurate DORIS is right.”
Appleton’s lips did a borderline-rude raspberry burst. “Pretty sure her faulty one percent was dominant on that. My money says the little critters would be hunted by the big critters during the day, so they dig in till night.”
“Makes sense,” Sullivan said, “except where are the big–”
“Doc,” Pearce said after hitting his radio, “no threats to report – yet. Negatron on breathing issues. No worse than the Mile-High City. Why not go ahead and start off-loading – after you harden up around the ship: establish a perimeter, post guards, sensor fence, bells on a string, anything.”
“How wonderful to copy that,” Wakefield said back.
“Remember, always close the airlock behind you, coming and going.”
“Really think you have to worry about that?” Her sarcasm, administered as usual with a heavy laying-on of British accent, knifed through unadorned and lucid.
Appleton took her weapon back in hand. “There. See? The Cap feels the same way. Doesn’t want a five-ton meat-eating thingy wandering on board looking for an easy meal.” She eyed Sullivan. “That make sense too?”
Ross apparently couldn’t repress himself. “Meat-eating thingy? Tell me, when you were a kid – not terribly long ago, factoring out our little trip across the void – did your nightmares turn you into a bed-wetter?”
She compressed her lips, her face taking on a painful look. “Uh, umm. Odd thing to say.”
“Had a potty break on my mind.” He about-faced, headed up the slope.
“Not surprised, water-holic,” Sullivan said. “Watch your step. And stay mindful of meat-eating…thingies.”
Ross’s fist pumped. “Not to worry. No thingies on this planet!”
“Famous last words,” Appleton said to Sullivan. To Ross, a soft yell: “Should the Cap go with you? Hold your hand and talk encouragement?”
As Ross continued to climb, his fist reappeared and sprouted a middle finger. He boomed, “Very funny, little hemorrhoid.” Five seconds later, he vanished up into the forest.
Pearce sighed. “Well, if the thingies didn’t know about us before–”
“You know,” Commander Sullivan said to Appleton, frowning, “I worry about dangerous animals, too. But honestly, if a T-Rex came rampaging through here, I don’t think either you or Tom would notice.”
Captain Pearce eyed one of them for a beat, then the other. “Chow time.”
They plopped down and plucked water and MREs from their backpacks.
“What delicious, synthesized entrees do we have for our first meal in more than a thousand centuries?” Appleton asked. She wriggled into an alert face-out guard position and leaned against her backpack, MRE in her lap and weapon on the ground by her hip.
“Chicken and roast beef,” Sullivan said. “But word is they taste the same.”
Appleton clucked her tongue. “So one could say we have…chicken and chicken?”
“Or roast beef and roast beef.” Sullivan put up a finger. “No, wait, I’m going with a mélange of roasted marten.”
Tuning them out and mashing his tasteless “beef/chicken” with his back teeth, Pearce pushed himself to his feet and walked to the edge of the clearing. He scanned a broad range of the woods, then took out his palm computer. He referred back and forth between the woods and the LIDAR map on the small screen. Would he be able to detect where the metal ore – if that in fact was what DORIS’s scan showed – might manifest itself?
He tapped the screen twice to enlarge it. Pointless. Probably degradation in DORIS’s circuits, causing insufficient detail and distorted topography, both producing undiscernible reference points.
Something gnawed at his insides. Was it circuit degradation, or DORIS’s one-percent unreliability?
His jaw clenched. Or was it DORIS’s deliberate effort to sabotage them?
He strode back to his spot and sat down. On this mission they’d never find the ore, and so shouldn’t waste valuable time searching for it.
Appleton half-turned his way, smiling around a mouthful of MRE. She swallowed and said, “Not gonna write us up in your captain’s Log for being unofficerly, are you?”
She glanced off Pearce to the sky, her smile collapsing. Pewter clouds had scudded in, plunging the clearing into shadow. The treetops soughed in a puff of wind. With a little shudder, she refocused on the surrounding forest.
Sullivan did a slow peer-around, saying to Pearce, “Acting silly – it’s a relief value, Jason. The Doc would say, ‘If you can’t do anything about fear and stress, apply humor.’ I guess that’s how–”
“Hey,” Appleton said. “I just realized – the smell of this crappy chow could attract–“
A rapid crunching sound froze her. Her hand arced to her weapon.
“Relax,” Pearce said. “Tom’s finished killing vegetation.”
Appleton screwed her mouth to the side. “Knew that. Was just gonna graze his ear for practice. Have to be sharp when a velociraptor shows up for a meet and eat.”
Ross loped down into full view. “Tell ’em, Apple. You missed me. You always miss me. Always will, right?”
She wagged her weapon. “Only when you zig-zag.”
“C’mon, admit it,” he said, still 25 feet upslope, “you got a few embers burning for– Whoa!”
His foot whipped out from under him. He collapsed onto his side like a sack of potatoes. He rolled into the clearing, ending up less than a yard from Appleton.
“Nice pirouette, dude. But bummer, you’re still alive” was the Ensign’s dry offering after she’d given Ross a quick once-over and lifted her head again toward the cloud cover.
He scrambled to his feet. “Sorry to disappoint you, Ensign.” Dusting himself off and eyes narrowed, he sought out the uphill spot where he’d slipped.
“Wait,” Appleton said, “I’m actually opposed to the idea of you dying on us so soon. You got lots more people to annoy.”
“Another reptilian upchucking from Livvy the Lizard.”
Sullivan pinched her lips together. “Tom, do we need to wrap you in packing foam? What’s the matter with you? Your second mishap in, what, two hours? This is not you. Your last commander high-marked you for vigilance and agility. If you and Olivia weren’t always at each other’s throat, you would’ve had a better eye on where you were stepping. You could’ve hurt yourself, got yourself med-dropped. Would’ve jeopardized our mission.”
“Duly noted, ma’am.” He hustled back up the incline past the three or four low thickets he’d rolled over. He dropped to his knees near something black jutting out of the downward side of a mound of forest-floor debris. He nudged away the small sticks and leathery, mixed-colored leaves covering the object.
“Whiskey tango fox! Take a gander at this. Chunk of metal sticking out of the ground, looks like.”
Sullivan leaped to her feet. “Maybe part of the metal deposit DORIS picked up.”
Pearce strode up the slope two feet behind Sullivan. “Just when I’d given up.” He had an urge to tell Ross, “I guess carelessness sometimes pays off,” but kept it to himself.
“Maybe a meteor,” Sullivan said as she and Appleton joined them.
“Meteorite’s the word you want, ma’am,” Appleton said. “FYI.”
Ross gave Appleton a sour look. “She does that. Corrects people. FYI.”
“Nuh-huh,” Appleton said under her breath for all to hear. “Another unforced error.”
“Unclench, you two,” Sullivan said. “Enough of the insult-fest.”
After the commander let them absorb that, she attached the tiniest smile to her gaze. “Sidebar comment: I do believe you two are still in love and trying like the devil to hide it.”
That set Ross and Appleton protesting in unison.
Pearce and Sullivan gazed at each other. The color had returned to her cheeks, brightening her face. She looked beautiful – a bit frazzled still, but beautiful.
A warmth flared in his cheeks. Was he hiding something, not only from her but from himself as well? Did he have budding feelings for her? Had he begun making a transfer from a love no longer possible, his wife, to one that was? Was Sullivan hiding the same kind of feelings about him, a possibility her banter about dating had, in his mind, cracked open?
For an instant, she seemed as if she were going to say something. Instead, she broke off their gaze. Guilt and embarrassment clamped down on him, macerating his thoughts.
“Mates,” he said, “focus.” His index finger pecked toward the object.
Its oblong, rounded, 12-inch-thick tip extended eight inches or so down-slope at an angle parallel to level ground.
“Too smooth for a meteorite,” Appleton said, throwing what might have been a conciliatory glance at Sullivan. Having knelt on the side opposite Ross, she back-handed the remaining soil off the slate-gray surface. “It’s not radioactive, if you’re about to ask. My Geiger’s quiet, like I wish Tom would always be.”
Ross ignored her. Suddenly trying to be an officer and a gentleman?
“See if you can jog it loose,” Pearce said.
Ross grasped the object with both hands and pulled with increasing exertion, until his face was blotchy red and his neck veins stood out like cords. Zero movement.
Appleton peeled off from the group and four minutes later bounced back carrying an arm-load of small collapsible shovels taken from their packs. “Let’s dig.”
Dirt was heaved in all directions. The sharp odor of damp soil and semi-rotted leaves hung in the air – the smell of primordial Earth right here on an alien world. Twenty minutes later, four times as much of the metal was exposed.
“Shaping up to be right-triangular,” Pearce said.
Ross scowled. “Where does this thing end?”
The more they dug, the farther they had to excavate up into the slope in both depth and width.
On his knees and sweating, Pearce took a hard look. Seven or so feet of the object lay exposed. True enough, it was smooth, polished, and shaped like a right triangle. With his next thought, the hairs on the back of his neck bristled.
He pushed to his feet. Inhaling with care, he regarded the other three.
“This thing – pretty obvious it’s an artificial structure, made by civilized beings here.”
Sullivan scrunched up her face. “Are you saying an entire city, a civilization, might be buried here?”
Pearce tossed his shovel aside, half-stumbled backwards down the slope a few feet.
“Let me revise. It was made by extraterrestrials who may have come here thousands of years ago. In fact, if I’m right, this thing is how they got here. This,” he said, arcing his arm, “I’ll bet is part of an ancient alien spacecraft.”
Appleton sucked in a breath. “A first encounter….”
Ross blinked. “Wha…? You mean we have ourselves a real Area 51, only 21 light-years east of the phony one?”
“Sull?” Pearce said. “Look like the tip of a wing or tail fin to you?”
Sullivan had dropped into a sitting position on the ground, her face blank, still. With the back of a dirtied hand she pushed away strands of hair stuck to her forehead and nose. Her voice was shaky. “Aye aye. Was afraid to say.”
Pearce keyed his radio.
“Go ahead, Jason,” Dr. Wakefield said after a few long seconds.
He kept his voice and breathing steady. “How about a progress report.”
“Everyone except yours truly is outside. All doing well. Sensor fence up. Off-loaded some priority items: dome homes, food, water. Ainsley Duncan is doing the heavy lifting in his exo-skel–”
“Good. Good. You said buzz you if we found something interesting.” He described their discovery, gave her his idea of what it was, and paused. He heard nothing back. “Doc?”
“I know. Incredible. But I need you to keep a lid on this for now. Don’t want an uproar. This would scare the hell out of more than a few. They need to stay focused on their tasks.”
She sounded as if she were trying to catch her breath. “Uh, agree. This does numb the neocortex.”
“I want to get inside this thing,” he said, “assuming there’s more to it than meets the eye.”
He studied the structure. It had better be a forward or rear wing. If a tail fin instead, the craft was on its side and possibly destroyed in a crash landing. No crash meant it might have withstood the slow geological pressures and remained intact.
“I’m hoping we can extract parts and useful equipment, technology – if everything isn’t too degraded and we can work around the alien language–“
“Ah, yes, minor things like that.”
“Doc, listen, we need help. Deploy a crew of four or five, equipped with all the excavating tools available. And explosives, C4, whatever. Need four head lamps, oxygen tanks, masks. Include Duncan in your crew. We need his exo to remove trees. A couple of the crew members should be armed to protect the group. Still don’t know what’s out here. The crew’ll see our path on the other side of the hill. You can’t tell them why I need them. Out.”
THE crew sent by Dr. Wakefield entered the clearing. A 15-foot length of the object lay visible within the three-sided, ever-widening cavity, whose uppermost wall of brown and black soil now rose seven feet above the object’s surface.
The crew halted, their faces frozen. Then they erupted into fast-clip, back-and-forth chatter:
“Can you believe this?” “Can’t be possible!” “What the hell is it?”
Out of breath, they stopped talking and stared again.
Ainsley Duncan was in his exoskeleton and carrying the box containing the items Pearce had asked for. He lumbered over to Pearce and set the box on the ground. He was a tall, intimidating figure with cable-operated arms and legs powered by a back-positioned fuel cell. The outfit rendered Duncan, at 6-foot-five and seeming capable of wrestling a grizzly to the ground without the exo-skeleton, 75 times stronger.
Pearce greeted the man, who gave a nod and fixated again on the sight before them.
“No need to explain,” Duncan said, waving a mechanical hand. “I’ve processed it. Wasn’t easy.”
“I’d like you to first try to dislodge it. Maybe a wing or fin’s all there is, at least in this area—”
“Ainsley!” Lieutenant Tom Ross said. “For warm-up why not hurl Olivia over the trees into the ocean.” His crooked grin said he savored his little joke. Being an officer and a gentleman was out again.
Olivia Appleton, standing fifteen feet away, twirled a finger. “Bzzzt. Amygdala malfunction? No question, you’re the anchor trying to hold my ship back.”
Eyeing Pearce, Duncan chuckled. “Long-winded Navyspeak for ‘You’re a drag’?” He motioned with a thrust of his bearded chin. “Bring these two along for entertainment and distraction? Not a bad idea. Heard them right out of the box, so to speak. Genuine tension breaker for a lot of us.”
Pearce sifted that point. He had to admit the couple’s quibbling sometimes amused as much as annoyed, and so on occasion it did allow him to de-stress a bit. Maybe it did the same for Ross and Appleton as well. Maybe trying to escape from their nightmarish reality was the unconscious reason they acted like kids, as Sullivan had said.
How ironic. The two people he’d pegged to get on everyone’s nerves might in fact be doing just the opposite: helping everyone realize they could carry on in a somewhat normal fashion as they engaged this frightening new world that threatened them at every turn.
And the big burly Ainsley Duncan had recognized this before he had.
“They never tire of throwing shade on each other,” Pearce said. “When I found out they were neurotics, it was too late to toss them back in the sewer.” He flashed a faux grin.
Duncan grunted in sympathy.
Pearce dispatched another member of Duncan’s group to check out the other side of the slope. Maybe a wing or another craft part protruded there.
Duncan pushed off toward the huge slab of gray metal with surprising fluidity. His exoskeleton’s cables and pulleys chirked and murmured as the titanium-carbon Frankenstein thudded across the forest floor. He paused at the metal slab’s tip that hours earlier had sent Ross rolling down the slope. He crouched, extended a mechanical hand underneath and flattened it up against the metal. He tapped a red, nickel-sized button on his chest-plate. This activated for 60 seconds the powerful magnet in the left hand to prevent slippage. He reached under with his free hand and clasped it over the other.
He strained upward. The exoskeleton’s “muscles” whined. The jerky counter-force jack-hammered Duncan up and down off his heels. Three more frustrating attempts, and he erected himself, his feet burrowed five inches into the ground. He blew out air.
“That would’ve capsized a bull elephant. With a whale on its back.”
An hour later, Duncan had cleared trees from the slope to some 40 feet above the cavity. An immediate benefit: more golden light filtering down in the waning day.
The crewmember returned from checking out the other side of the slope. As soon as he spotted Pearce, he extended his arm and gave a thumbs-down.
Pearce instructed an explosives duo to insert small, low-power C4 packs with blasting caps into the soil several feet above the structure. He scurried off, shooing everyone away. Ten seconds passed. Then: three loud, rapid bangs. Dirt, stones, and root pieces by the hundreds flew high into the air, rained down and clattered and thrummed on the metal surface.
Pearce did a little jump. Wakefield had barked over his radio.
“Talk to me, Doc.”
“Got an ill civilian. Not one of those who were sick after restoration. Nothing serious – I don’t think. Mild nausea. Low-grade temp. Weakness.”
Pearce hesitated. “The lower outside oxygen?”
“One of the young teens. Hard to say. No way to test–”
“What about psychological after-effects? PTS?”
“Maybe he needs a hug? Leave the guess-work to me, please. I’m not overly concerned at the moment. Will continue to monitor. Will try immunity enhancers and antibiotics, but I’ll have to go sparingly. Just wanted to give you a heads-up.”
He hurried back up the slope. He asked the reconvened shovelers, including Ross and Appleton, to clear the debris pile-up from the wing. He then told the explosives duo to set up more C4.
Commander Sullivan appeared at his side. As she plucked debris from her hair and jumpsuit, Pearce told her about the ill teen. He then asked her to give the water tester to the two armed members of Duncan’s group and pack them off to the coast to find the ingress river and test the water.
Two hours later, a 50-foot long section of the metal lay like a beached whale in the huge, dug-out hollow. It was 30 feet wide where it disappeared into the slope.
Facing the dirt wall, Ainsley Duncan stood on the wing gripping a shovel. The wall rose two feet above his tall figure and oozed tendrils of smoke. He rammed the shovel blade into the soil at waist level, a powerful blow that would have brought down a full-grown mammoth. A blunted clank rang out.
Everyone froze, eyes on the shovel whose blade was buried some twelve inches into the dirt wall. Had Duncan struck rock? Or metal? He did several more thrusts along a roughly level line. Each time, the same unvarying clank. Definitely a metal-on-metal clank.
Duncan sported a wide grin as he turned around and hoisted the shovel overhead a couple of times.
“By my beard, we have it!” He marched toward the structure’s tapered tip as if on stage and loving the victorious moment.
“Good work!” Pearce said.
After Duncan dismounted the wing, the explosives duo packed another series of their small C4 bricks into the bank six feet above the expanse of metal. But Pearce signaled them to hold on. The teen boy’s illness returned to mind, and a thought chilled him: What if any alien remains inside harbored pathogens they had no immunity against? Was he going to open Pandora’s box?
Commander Sullivan drew up from behind. Her brown eyes measured him. “Afraid your curiosity will assassinate the cat.”
It wasn’t a question.
He studied her for a long moment. “Should I be rolling the dice with the few human lives left after we’ve gone through all this and been given a second chance?”
He swung his eyes from her to the buried craft. “We can’t go inside that thing. We won’t do it. It could be rigged with–“
Her hand touched his arm. It had been there often, helping to assuage his misery in the months before and after his wife died. He remembered how comforting the gesture had always been, and felt grateful for Sullivan’s kindness. Was it her way of showing she cared for him as more than a friend? Or was it merely her style of communicating? Like her date joke in the cockpit may have been?
For the first time, to his surprise, wondering about her in this way did not loose a debilitating swell of guilt in him.
“It’s calling us, Jason,” she said. “You know sooner or later we have to get in there to haul out any needed materiel, anything and everything our mechanical engineer can reconfigure for use.” Her touch changed to a slight squeeze, electric on his arm. “So it might as well be now while everything’s in place and a minimum of us are exposed. We’ll take precaution, hang back for a while after we come back out. If something goes wrong, there are still nearly 100 others–”
A sizzle on his communicator interrupted.
“Go, Doc. What’s the good news?”
“Get that from somebody else,” Wakefield‘s tinny voice said at his ear. “The teen has worsened. And five more have become ill. Same symptoms. Now I’m concerned. About a contagion.”
Pearce felt his stomach rising in his throat. Weren’t half of the Pilgrims vanquished early on by disease, as well as by starvation? Was a total wipe-out awaiting Hope’s people?
“I don’t have a lot of arrows in my quiver,” Wakefield said. “My crappy scanner analyzes 60 biomarkers for disease — nothing showed up. Can’t do a proper diagnosis, not even comparative blood tests or a panel for toxicology. And not even a single simple oximeter on this ship to measure blood oxygen. No way to test for such things as hypoxia. Am I supposed to be a miracle-worker? I feel like a 19th-century quack.”
The sound of her sigh heaved into Pearce’s ear. “I fed all the known facts to DORIS,” she said, “knowing full well she doesn’t have a physician program. She was just a little more helpful than my mag-boots. Tells me only if a brain and heart are ‘Normal’ or ‘Not Normal,’ or tells me ‘No access to data,’ which I don’t exactly under–”
“Close but no Havana–”
“Could we have brought a flu bug with us?”
“Oh, do keep guessing. Actually, some of the symptoms do mimic influenza – fever, weakness, fainting. Remember, before launch Hope was scrubbed and all of us were found to be free of anything more than a cold. As for sepsis, who knows. Possible. Another possibility: anaphylaxis. But I–“
“English, Doc, the American kind, with as little accent as possible. I’m too–”
“Try letting me finish. They might be having a serious allergic reaction. But from what? Could be bites from insects we can’t see or feel. And of course I have no epinephrine.”
Pearce heard her take a breath. “I may give antibiotics to one or two more of them to see if I get a difference in–”
“What about radioactivity in the soil, though Olivia hasn’t detected any yet?”
“I’ll give it a think. Hmm…. Nugatory. The symptoms would be very different. But it’s an alien world. We checked anyway, 200 yards out in every direction. About 150 samples taken with the soil tester we thankfully have. I of course don’t have any dosimeters. I can test the soil better than I can my patients! The sick didn’t go anywhere the others didn’t go. Didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.”
“This does not inspire confidence. Want us to come back?”
“And do what? Get sick so I can quarantine you, too? Put on your masks and venture forth. Maybe we can use some of their med equipment – if we can decipher the language enough to tell the difference between the craft’s food synthesizer and their poop-and-pee recycler. Gotta go.”
Pearce called Ross and Appleton over and briefed them and Sullivan on Wakefield‘s reports on the mysterious disease. Once they’d recovered somewhat from the blow, he waved a go-ahead at the explosives team.
Half a minute later, light dirt and debris showered down. Pearce, having crouched behind a tree, rose, took one step forward and halted. His mouth opened but he found himself unable to speak. Exposed was a large curved wall of slate-gray metal that dispelled all doubt about whether here on this planet was a long-buried alien craft.
In the fading daylight, something grabbed his attention: the indistinct outline of a door! His heart pounded. Access to the interior.
The door’s size suggested a maintenance and/or escape hatch. Both the size and the door’s location convinced Pearce the structure they had dug out below the door was a tail wing, a horizontal stabilizer. Pearce’s entire body shook. He recalled the times when as a small child he stood in his living room on Christmas morning. Those times didn’t excite him nearly as much.
While everyone else gawked in silence, he strode over, mounted the wing, and bridged it to the hull. He palmed away the dirt along the door’s edges. Leaving the wing, he called out to the explosives team, “How about a dabble of C4 on each side of that door?”
Pearce told everyone the escaping air might be noxious, and to keep a distance of 75 feet until he gave the all-clear.
A few minutes later, the blasts warped the door but left it attached and unopened. Along its edges, irregular separations would allow Duncan to wrench the door off.
Twenty-five minutes later, Pearce could wait no longer. He nodded at Olivia Appleton. She strapped on her O2 tank and mask and carried her Geiger to within five yards of the hull. The Geiger chattered like a metallic cricket. Pearce gasped, his shoulders sagging.
“Harmless!” Appleton said in a loud, muffled voice. “Only nine microsieverts. On Earth, average natural background yields two. You get four to 88 with a dental X-ray. Source is probably a well-shielded nuclear eng–.”
“The green light,” Sullivan said at Pearce’s side.
Pearce flipped a hand at Duncan. “Grip and rip!” A light-headedness rocked him a half-step back. The moment of truth.
On the wing again, Duncan wedged the rivet-jointed fingers into a gap on each side of the 50-inch-wide door. He tugged. Metal groaned and screeched. The sounds ruptured through the forest like the keening cries of strange beasts. The door snapped free of its internal hinges and anti-blast moorings. Duncan carried it out of the way to the side of the wing. He let it drop onto the slope.
In the dimness of dusk, Pearce saw a vertical rectangle of ominous black. His spine tingled. This was it, human beings’ first encounter with extraterrestrials, dead though they were. At the very least, it was a first encounter with alien technology. A pretty decent second best.
Ross and Appleton, her mask doffed, rejoined Pearce and Sullivan.
“We’re all going in,” the captain said. “Olivia, I obviously need you, to continue rad-checking. I need Tom’s medic background if somebody gets hurt – most likely himself. Anyway, four sets of eyes beat two. All right, tool up. Tom, grab your med-pack. Everybody, masks, tanks, head lamps. Side arms we have but shouldn’t need.”
Wakefield‘s voice sputtered: “–there, Cap?”
“Doc!” he said, ”’Fraid to talk to you!”
“You wanted good news. Got some, but it’s qualified. My sick-bay numbers are still growing – eight more have acquired the symptoms. The good news, three of the first ones appear to have stabilized.”
“The ones that received antibiotics?”
“They were the last ones brought in. They’ve deteriorated somewhat. But antibiotics sometimes have a delayed effect.”
“Hmm. Part good news, part bad. Is that what you meant by ‘qualified’?”
“Neg. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people stabilize like this and even improve – only to relapse and die.”
Pearce took that in, his heart racing. He did a jerky half-nod. “Right, shouldn’t get too optimistic. All we can do is play wait and see, I suppose. We do have an uplifter here. We got us a tail wing and it’s attached to a hull that looks to be in excellent shape. A door’s already open.”
“It’ll be bloody hard to keep this to myself.”
“Mum’s still the word, Doc. We’ll be going in pronto and we’ll be out of contact until we come back out, in about an hour. We hope.”
“Tell me, is it a crashed ship?”
“No way to tell yet,” he said. “If it is, that could mean aliens aboard, though they’re probably just clumps of alien dust. And they may be hard to get to, depending on how mangled the interior might be. If it’s not a crash, we may have something even more interesting to figure out. Oh, another piece of great news on my end: The team we sent out to find the ingress river just returned. They say the water is safe and tastes sweet as honey!”
“That may be the best news since Adam and Eve! Or since I found out I have a hot bod.”
“Wish us more luck on humanity’s first close encounter.” He paused, a heaviness gathering in his chest. “Which reminds me. If things go sideways in there, humanity’s in your hands. Stay frosty.”
“You know I intend to, for as long as I can.”
Pearce turned to Ensign Appleton. “Lucky you, you get to take point on this. The second that ticker beeps trouble, you back us out of there.”
“This ought to be above my pay grade.” Was that a pout on her face? She seemed careful to avoid eye contact with Ross, as if she knew she’d opened herself up to more of the usual from him.
“Great T-shirt idea,” Ross said. “‘Sacrifice Ensigns First’. Oh – fun fact about your pay grade: nobody gets paid anymore.”
Pearce told Duncan to return to Hope if they weren’t back in 65 minutes and to talk only with Dr. Wakefield in private.
“It’s her job to tell the others. She’ll know what to do.”
He faced his three officers. “Check your time. One hour of O2.”
At the door’s blackness, Olivia Appleton tweaked her green-back-lit Geiger counter to its highest sensitivity. The team of four strapped on their oxygen masks and head lamps and lined up.
From the end and behind Sullivan, Ross said in a mask-dampened voice, “Sweat not, Appleworm. Got your six.”
“A real howler, Tom. Somehow that worries me more than not having my 12 covered.” She mumbled something that sounded to Pearce like ”Only 60 more soul-crushing years with him around.”
Over Appleton’s shoulder, Pearce saw the ten-foot-long airlock ablaze with their lights. Its interior door was ajar. Appleton stepped in, the other three following. They filed through the airlock, Pearce as skittish as a gazelle on the edge of a croc-infested river. They emerged onto a narrow catwalk that ran 30 feet to a ladder descending into darkness.
“Still harmless rads,” Appleton said with a half turn of her head.
“Excellent. Soldier on, Ensign.”
After negotiating the ladder to the bottom, they found themselves standing between two bulkhead walls in a 15-foot-wide passageway that seemed to span the craft’s full width. The bulkhead’s permeating cold gave Pearce a chill.
Lieutenant Tom Ross did a scrutiny, sweeping his lamp light back and forth, up and down.
“Not one alien scribble or symbol anywhere, including the airlock, I just remembered. Embedded, I’m guessing. Nothing shows up till she’s powered up. Same as with Hope. The catwalk and ladder are similar in size to ours.”
“Not surprised,” Pearce said. “The aliens – assuming they aren’t robots and the ship itself isn’t one – probably aren’t a lot different from us. I believe the evolution of intelligent beings favors a physicality like ours. Factoring in the influence of varying gravity, etc. etc, ETs probably range in size from primordial dwarfs to the tallest basketball players. That’s what I learned when researching for my — ha — never-published article ‘What ET May Really Look Like.’ If we find a preserved alien, or at least some clothing, I think it’ll support that.”
“Why wasn’t the ship crushed?” Appleton said.
“It’s under a hill. Under a mountain, different story. Not to mention the ship’s structure might be at least as strong as Hope’s. Pretty sure Hope could survive the same slow piling on of weight over a long time.”
“Want to spec on the ship’s origin?” Commander Sullivan asked.
“Been wondering. A likely candidate is 118 Libra c. Just 15 light years from here, directly opposite Earth. It’s in its sun’s goldilocks zone, and spectral analysis showed its atmosphere could support organic life.”
“Why didn’t Earth receive signals, if the planet has an advanced civilization?” Sullivan asked. “Non-cable television. Radio. Heat signatures.”
“Their civilization — their technological development — may lag Earth’s. Let’s say it took the aliens 100,000 years to get here in this ship, which so far looks no more sophisticated than ours. Add, say, another 10,000 for geological processes to bury the ship. These numbers aren’t hard-and-fast, of course, but one hundred and ten thousand years ago, Earth had already been gone for 27,000 years. And 27,000 years before these aliens left their planet, their ancestors probably hadn’t even learned how to send smoke signals to each other.”
“If you say so, Captain Einstein,” Appleton said.
Was she overly tired, stressed? He hadn’t said a thing any of the three couldn’t have figured out on their own in five seconds.
Sullivan shined her light just below Pearce’s face. “Buried ten thousand years! In all that time, no second effort? No rescue attempt? Makes me think their planet–“
“Was threatened and might be gone, too,” Ross said.
“Life…it’s so much more fragile than I ever imagined,” Appleton said softly. Her eyes searched the captain’s face, her forehead ridged. “Not going to make it, are we?”
Pearce regarded the young Ensign. He’d better bring her in line.
“Damn it, we didn’t come all this far just to die as soon as we got here. Somebody once said, ‘There’s no education like adversity.’ What say we plan on becoming very educated.”
“If we fail to prepare, prepare to fail,” Sullivan said. “Ben Franklin, I think.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Ross said. “Somebody around Ben’s time.”
Pearce strode to a closed door he’d lit up seconds ago. He knew they were aft and which way was fore, based on the shape and pitch of the tail wing they’d dug out. This door’s location told him it would lead them the way they wanted to go.
He threw the recessed lever and slid the door open, its sigh the only sound in the alien craft’s tomb-like quiet. The colder, eons-old air from the ship’s deeper interior drenched them like a wave in the sea. Appleton shivered at the freezer-locker effect.
In his cone of light, a vast, empty compartment sprawled in front of them. Rows of evenly spaced bull-ring retractable tie-downs dotted the floor. Long scrape marks intertwined toward a huge side door interrupting a line of wall carabiners from some of which hung lanyards. The door likely opened out and down to serve as an off-loading ramp.
“No indication so far the ship crashed,” Sullivan said.
“So what the hell happened?” Ross asked. “Looks like they off-loaded provisions.”
“Olivia,” Pearce said, “I don’t hear Ms. Geiger talking to you.”
She sidled closer to him, and in his light, her forehead glistened.
He palmed her shoulder. “We’re going to be just fine.” Had his words sounded as hollow to them as to himself?
They hurried across the compartment to a corridor roughly 40-feet long. At shoulder height on one wall was a row of hooks. For hanging apparel? At the end of the corridor, from what Pearce could discern in his light, was an open area. He took a couple of fast, deep breaths. What in this great universe were they about to find?
Appleton slipped past him and trudged ahead along the corridor. She paused on occasion, perhaps to steady her nerves. The fingers of her free hand skimmed the wall as if it offered protection or kept her anchored to sanity.
Pearce and the others took up behind her. At the opening, Appleton stopped. Pearce heard her thick breathing.
She took two more steps, hesitated, and turned out of view.
“Olivia, wait!” Pearce said, five feet from the opening. His head throbbed. Was he about to lay eyes on alien remains and confirm his theory that extraterrestrials resembled humans? Would they find technology to reverse engineer or at least scavenge for parts?
Appleton reappeared and almost bumped into Pearce, giving him a start, her light blinding him for a moment. Above her mask, her wide-opened eyes flitted.
“I– This can’t be!” she said.
The other three hair-pin pivoted into the opening. Their shaky lamps lit up what appeared to be the ship’s computer main-frame.
Pearce’s mouth opened but emitted no sounds. He staggered backward, reaching for a wall and trying to comprehend what he was seeing.
Ross gripped the top of his head and spun half-way around. “You’re kidding me. You’re kidding me. You’re kidding me.”
Sullivan slumped against the wall near Pearce. “How is this — possible?”
Pearce squeezed his eyes shut, then gaped again at the silver inscription across the upper edge of the mainframe:
Destiny Organization’s Restoration and Invigoration System
“DORIS.” Appleton’s voice rasped just above a whisper.
Pearce ripped his mask off and flung it over his shoulder, letting it dangle. A cough burst from his lungs. He sucked in the stale air that was slowly being replaced by outside air. He bent, his hands clasping his knees. As his strength regathered, he shoved a shaky hand and wrist across his forehead, removing sweat. He straightened.
“This,” he said, “is the smaller ship assembled in orbit alongside ours. It was to be used either to rescue Hope if Hope had launched for Mars and run into trouble, or to transmit more supplies and settlers. In my meeting with Victor Arnold, I remember him exploding over this ship going to waste.”
Appleton struggled for a second to tear away her mask. She shook her head. “Wait, what?”
Pearce took a moment. “To know anything for sure, to answer all the questions flying around in our skulls, we have to find the captain’s Log. Let’s pray it’s a hard copy like mine and preserved.”
The other two removed their masks. Ross swore, his known way of expressing almost anything. Commander Sullivan, still leaning against the bulkhead, nodded. The circle of her lamplight danced up and down on the opposite wall.
“It obviously left Earth months after us,” she said after gaining control of her breathing. “Had to be reconfigured, a crew trained and prepped–”
“It’s smaller,” Pearce said. “Same engine as Hope’s. Capable of higher speed. That’s how it arrived here apparently thousands of years earlier.”
“What in God’s name happened?” Sullivan said, pushing off the wall. “On Earth and here?”
Pearce removed his O2 tank and trained his light on a door leading fore. “Let’s hurry. Want to do this quick and clean.”
“Do what clean and…quick and…?” Appleton asked.
“On me, Ensign.” Had she not fully recovered from her shock?
They laid their O2 tanks and masks on the floor to be collected later. Pearce angled toward the door.
Sullivan stuck her hand in his way. “Wait. The asteroid – it must have missed.”
“Or did less damage than projected. Which seems impossible.”
“So if civilization survived, why is this ship here?”
“We need the log,” he said.
“The ship’s passengers. Did they die off soon after arriving? I mean, in all that time wouldn’t they have reproduced exponentially, built whole cities, states, nations?”
A chill snaked up his spine. “Die off? Or were killed off, by an error DORIS made? Or maybe not an error.”
“Jason,” Sullivan said in a tight voice, grabbing his arm, “they might still be in their cylinders.”
“Tom…,” Appleton said. “Feeling funny…hot….”
Her Geiger slipped from her fingers. When it hit the floor, it sounded like a ball hammer tapping an anvil. Commander Sullivan scooped it up and secured it to loops at the waist of her jumpsuit.
Appleton’s knees buckled.
“Livvy!” Ross said. He caught her and laid her down on the cold metal floor. He put a hand under her neck, tilting her head to keep her light out of his eyes. “Look at me!”
Her damp forehead knitted as her eyes strained to focus on his face.
“Talk to me!” Ross said, his voice rising.
“Tom–? My wing man… You – really did always have my six. My…bad. Go on…without me. Will wait….”
“No way I’m leaving you,” Ross said. “You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Embers burn – burning for you.”
“Now I know you’re delusional.”
She tried to put her eyes on Sullivan. “Commander, please don’t lose my – Geiger.” To Ross again: “Is she…really your cousin?”
“Wha–? Christ. Yes, was my cousin. Look, the most dangerous thing anyone in the universe could ever do is get between Tom Ross and Olivia Appleton.”
“If she’s in shock from all this,” Sullivan said, “it’s understandable.”
“I think she has what Doc says the others have,” Pearce said His chest tightened and sweat formed on his lip even as a coldness washed through him like ice water.
Ross twisted, fixed his headlamp on Pearce and Sullivan. “She’s running a temp. You two go on. I can haul her up the ladder. Ainsley will help me take her to Hope.”
“Don’t speak to anyone but Wakefield about this ship,” Pearce said. “And remind Ainsley and his crew to keep quiet. Some civilians will ask about Sull and me. We’re still exploring and will return shortly. I don’t want rumors flying all over the place. And panic. Sull and I will explain everything to them when we get back, hopefully with some clues about this mysterious disease–”
“And the story on Earth,” Sullivan said. She seemed to be fighting back tears.
Ross hoisted Appleton to her feet and heaved her limp body up over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. As light washed across the lieutenant’s face, Pearce glimpsed skin bunching around his eyes.
“See you later,” Ross said.
Pearce pivoted to Sullivan. “Flank bell.”
Captain Pearce and Commander Sullivan dashed into a long, wide compartment, then halted in their tracks. Their lights illuminated row after row of preservation cylinders, all open and empty.
At least DORIS hadn’t murdered them – purposely or not – in their sleep.
He tapped Sullivan’s elbow. They bolted past the cylinders toward the cockpit. The pounding of their boots echoed off the bulkhead walls, his heart pounding in his ears nearly as loud.
He kept his light aimed ahead with a minimum of shaking.
“The cockpit! It’s open!” He didn’t need the C4 he’d brought along. They bridged the distance in under ten seconds.
Inside, he found the safe sitting in the same spot as Hope’s. He wrenched the handle and pulled, the hinges screeching an animal’s soft cry. “A log identical to mine! Good old ink-pen technology.”
He stood and unbuckled the book-sized chronicle on a pull-out shelf. Sullivan leaned in at his elbow.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Look. Last entry dated 17 November 124,583. More than 14,000 years ago.”
A soft gasp escaped from Sullivan’s mouth. He scanned the log, his finger tracing down the lines of the first page.
“Essential personnel data. Crew names, ranks. Passenger list. Fifty total. Ship’s captain … Norma Binson. The ship was renamed Hope II. Decent of them. Here. Departure date 24 May 2039. Two friggin’ years after we left!”
“So what in holy hell happened?”
“Binson must’ve made notes. Captains are -– were — instructed to maintain detailed records-– Wait, bingo.”
He read aloud from a section Binson had dated 14 May 2039, ten days before they left Earth. Binson had dubbed the section “Pre-Launch”:
Immediately after the grav-tug rocket malfunctioned and veered away from the asteroid, people everywhere in the Global Media began demanding that nukes and the orbital laser cannons be used to deflect it, despite scientists’ warning that even if both the cannons and the nukes were used together, they would be useless to deter an object of this mass and momentum.
Several countries – Russia, China, and France, as well as the U.S. and others – coordinated a simultaneous launch of hundreds of missiles programmed to detonate together as laser cannons fired. This effort did destroy most of the asteroid, but left a 2-klick-wide chunk that slammed into the caldera at Yellowstone National Park.
Pearce recoiled. What unbelievably bad luck! Had Victor Arnold been right — humans didn’t deserve to live on? Pearce shook the crazy thought out of his head. Feeling sick, he gave a look at Sullivan’s pallid face and trembling lips. He steeled himself and pressed on.
The impact and the subsequent bouncing of the Earth’s crust set off a series of immense earthquakes that instantly killed hundreds of thousands. It also created such a perturbation in the caldera that volcanologists predicted an extinction-class eruption to occur sometime in early June 2040.
Hearing Sullivan’s puff, he realized he was holding his own breath.
Extinction-class! The massive caldera — everyone knew about it. The 70-kilometer-wide volcano beneath it erupted on average every 600,000 years, the last eruption occurring 640,000 years ago. An eruption could end life as efficiently as the asteroid.
In the oppressive darkness and silence of the buried Hope II, a numbness quieted him. If you shook a can of pop, and snapped off the tab – boom. That was what the asteroid’s gigantic core had set up to happen to the pressurized magma and poisonous gases trapped below the caldera.
He put the edge of his light on Commander Sullivan’s face just enough to see the shimmering gleam of her moist eyes.
“Jason…we’re the last of the human race.”
Had she just now realized that? Or had she until now, like him, clung to the hope that life on Earth somehow hadn’t perished and would go on? No sane person would not harbor and nourish that hope.
“Why,” she asked, her voice breaking and her arm sweeping an arc, “did Binson’s ship make a 124,000-year journey to a planet that might turn out to be uninhabitable? Why not just stick the ship in a Lagrange-point orbit around the sun for a few thousand years to give Earth time to heal?”
“Snowball Earth, my guess. They couldn’t take the chance. But let’s see if Binson…. Hell yes. She brings it up in the very next paragraph”:
Scientists feared the winter holocaust might soon turn Earth into a freezer locker. A snowball Earth, completely encased in ice.
It had happened once already, in Pre-Cambrian times, and had lasted millions of years – far too long for anyone to be suspended in the preservation gel.
He returned to the log. “She says here that none of the gel experts could be found. She and her crew relied solely on the advice about the gel from Project Manager Victor Arnold: just do what the AI says. According to her, he inspected and tested the cylinders, etcetera etcetera. Oh, the day before Hope II launched, Arnold committed suicide. His psych profile probably barred him from this trip, too. Bet millions of people took that route — go out on their own terms, in a controlled, less gruesome manner.”
He shoved that last thought out of his mind and flipped to the last pages of the log in Captain Binson’s “Post-Arrival” section.
His finger zig-zagged over the next two pages. Then: “Believe I have something:
“Date 7 Nov. 124,583, 13:46: Johnson and Tarasov became ill this a.m., and later Dr. Sato. Sato described her symptoms as flu-like but ruled out a virus. She will do more tests with the minimal equipment she has. But her energy is fading.
“Date 8 Nov., 09:15: Four more are ill. Sato has quarantined herself and the others in a dome home on the fringe of the camp. She’s communicating via radio, though her voice is weakening. She said her air and soil tests revealed no toxins.”
The captain shot a look at Sullivan. “This–!”
“The same thing affecting us!”
His breathing shallowed and quickened, his dizziness tilting the cockpit.
Binson’s handwriting was no longer an easy read:
“Date 10 Nov., 21:36: Five more sick. Dr. Sato is barely able to work. Moments ago she said she initially had wondered if DORIS had erred in her analysis of the atmosphere. So she scrapped DORIS’s analysis result and had her do another from scratch. The exact same analysis was reached. The doctor then reviewed the data on the effects of 581g’s atmosphere. A table in a pamphlet displayed a range of extremes of atmospheric compositions and where in that range humans could endure. Sato confirmed that 581g’s atmosphere fell well within that endurance range. She admitted to being perplexed. She said she will continue thinking about it, but her physical state is deteriorating rapidly.
“Date 11 Nov., 10:19: Sato dead. We without a doctor. Johnson and Tarasov also dead. Another 5 ill. Converted 2 more dome homes into quarantines, though I think this is of little value, since don’t believe we have contagion. Something else on this planet is killing us.”
Binson’s words, underlined, jabbed an icy finger into his heart.
Her handwriting had become that of a first-grader’s.
“Date 15 Nov., 18:27: Hopeless. 44 dead. Filled a total of 5 dome homes. I, too, ill. Difficult to write & think. A disease ‘that cannot be a disease’ throughout this tiny group of brave souls. Now certain we not achieve objective of starting a civilization to await Hope.
“Date 17 Nov., 07:33: Final entry. Only 3 left. Rachel and Phillipe still have a little strength, will turn on transponder, tho will last only few years. They will open or unlock all interior doors. Then we exit Hope II for last time, sealing it up behind. No Thanksgiving for us.”
“To: Captain Jason Pearce of Hope: If by miracle u find this, know it saddens me, what awaits u. I pray that somehow u escape this ‘disease’ that has killed us. May God be with u.”
Pearce slammed the log shut and pinned it under his arm. “We’d better get back and figure this out. Otherwise….” He mimed a gun at his head, pulled the trigger.
“If we don’t survive, we’ve made the last journey humankind will ever make,” Doc Wakefield said softly. If she expected a response, none was given.
She stood inside the closed cockpit with Captain Pearce, Commander Sullivan, and Lieutenant Ross. None of them took much notice of the outside activity visible in a side viewing window: supplies being toted into dome homes, a rectangle of land being prepped for seeding, children climbing a tree.
Like Ross, Wakefield had mostly recovered from the devastating news about Earth and Hope II’s crew. Her head down, she rubbed her upper arm as if this heat-intolerant woman had caught a chill. She lifted her eyes to Pearce.
“Ten more are sick. No disease, no radioactivity, no toxins to be found. What? It’s bloody well kicking our butts.” Stress thickened her accent.
Exhausted, Pearce dragged the palm of his hand down over his face. Utter helplessness expressed by the ship’s doctor was not the cheeriest news he’d wanted to hear. He regarded her again.
“You said Appleton, too, has stabilized since you put her in quarantine with the others–“
“Very happy to hear that,” Ross said.
“All of our sick have stabilized,” Pearce said. “Binson didn’t mention that any of hers had – though ‘stabilized’ doesn’t mean our sick are out of the woods, as you pointed out when you said patients can relapse. All of Binson’s people died. They had virtually the same symptoms. The only difference between our sick and their sick is that ours were quarantined inside and theirs outside, according to Binson. The Earth-level O2 is richer inside the ship because we kept the airlock closed behind us for safety. But that shouldn’t matter since 581g’s lower O2, which hasn’t changed since Binson’s time, isn’t harmful.”
A nausea tore through him. They were a ship listing with no safe port in sight, doom gathering over the horizon like a black cloud of vampires. Why not just accept it? The bastard Victor Arnold was right: Humans are just another species slated for the slaughter house.
No! Light a candle rather than curse the darkness! Wasn’t “Options never include failure” his impassioned pitch throughout his Naval command? What kind of leader was he if he couldn’t lead when leading was most important?
The usual nightmare about DORIS again nagged at him, a pit bull refusing to let go. Despite having shown herself to be error-free since landing, had she somehow committed mass murder after all, via either horrible error or, God forbid, roguish intent? Skimming Binson’s log, he had seen no references to suspicions or speculations pertaining to the AI, but that didn’t mean a DORIS connection to Hope II’s deaths didn’t exist.
Putting that possibility aside now, he recalled an old habit developed from a research-writing lesson: If you don’t know which way to go, put your assumptions and opinions aside, gather all the available facts, and see where they lead. What did he have to lose with this approach to a possible solution? Besides valuable time?
“We have to comb through everything,” he said to Wakefield. “Grab up all your records: atmospheric data printouts, test results acquired on Earth, anything and everything. I don’t know what to look for, but maybe something will stand out.”
He sighed, sweeping his eyes over the three of them. “My very best bad plan.”
As Wakefield accelerated from the cockpit, he looked askance at Sullivan and Ross. “I have to confess I have no idea where to start.”
“You know what they always say,” Ross said, leaning against the wall, arms on his chest.
Pearce gave him an acknowledging grimace. “‘Cept I don’t actually know where the beginning is.”
“Start with what you’re thinking about right now,” Sullivan said.
He gazed upward at no particular spot as he often did when hailing the ship’s AI.
“DORIS, I hope you can help us instead of make things worse. Play back everything you said after Hope reduced speed, arrived at the planet, and made its initial entry into the atmosphere.”
DORIS said, “Beginning playback:
“Captain Jason Pearce. Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain? Yes. Atmosphere is reestablished. Nutrients were supplied. Avionics and lighting up. Your preservation gel has been almost fully purged from your lungs and other organs and has been siphoned from your cylinder. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that all personnel must remain on board for three hours to allow their gel residue to be fully purged by the ship’s oxy–”
Wakefield had returned loaded with binders and stapled documents. She piled them onto a shelf Pearce had jerked out of a bulkhead niche.
“Bear with me,” Pearce told her. “You did verify our air quality, O2 level?”
She gave him a slow eye blink. “What do you think?”
“Bear. With. Me. Excluding me, what about everyone’s heart and brain function?”
“Took a few hours, but I checked everyone to the extent I could with my limited equipment. I found nothing and DORIS confirmed my findings, to the extent she could.”
“Okay, a ‘maybe’ we can revisit later if necessary. And the gel residue? Fully purged from everyone after three hours?”
“You know I don’t have nano probes or even a decent microscope. Couldn’t examine anything on a cellular level. Anyway, DORIS said–”
“I know. Three hours and the gel’s gone.”
Pearce nudged sweat from his upper lip with a shaky finger.
“But somebody once said, ‘Trust but verify.’ That certainly applies when it comes to a machine without 100 percent reliability and our lives are at stake. You’ve personally verified everything, to the extent you could. Everything except the gel purge. So that’s an unknown as for as I’m concerned. It’s probably a pointless trail since DORIS lately has been reliable on simple things. But we should look at it anyway. Pull out the Restoration Handbook – which Victor Arnold told me I’d never need! Find the section on the gel.”
Moments later she rotated the handbook toward him. Her finger tapped. “Here.”
“Have you read it yourself yet?” Commander Sullivan said.
“I’ve had my hands full,” the Doc said. “Saw no reason to.”
Pearce skimmed. Sullivan, brushing against his shoulder and distracting him for a moment, bent toward the handbook. He read aloud from a mid-page paragraph:
“‘In a variety of atmospheric compositions, the gel, which permeates and preserves’ … so forth and so on … ‘was found to be completely purged after three hours…’.”
“Well, I guess there’s nothing here – Wait!” Pearce thought his head would explode. “I–I can’t believe this! It says ‘completely purged after three hours in indris, rhesus macaques, and other small mammals!‘ In goddamn animals! In humans, it says ‘the minimum time for a complete and safe purging is three days‘!”
Sullivan drew back, her sharp intake of air audible. “DORIS…she made a critical error. Or went rogue. Substituted–”
“Hours for days.” The Doc, her gaze unfocused, seemed to be talking to herself.
Ross turned away. His fist backward-hammered the wall. “Well, that mucks things up real good.”
The heel of Doc’s hand was on her forehead. “Maybe I can explain. If the gel residue’s still in us when we’re outside, the planet’s four percent less oxygen can’t fully purge it, can’t burn it off. The gel is likely trapped at or below the microtubule level long enough to interfere with normal cell growth and function, blocking adenosine triphosphate from supplying the energy for powering cells. Upshot? No cell replenishment and slow, certain death.”
A dam burst loose in Pearce. “Doc….you’re our savior! What you did – you brought the sick inside. The ship’s oxygen–”
“Is rich enough to break down the gel and burn it out of our bodies.”
Sullivan spun to Ross. “Quick. Get everybody inside and lock down.”
Ross looked at Wakefield and punched the air. “You, fine doctor, saved Olivia’s life. And everyone else’s.” He hurtled away.
After falling quiet for a long moment, the Doc laid an uncharacteristically warm gaze on Pearce. Was sarcasm as a way of life yielding to a kinder, gentler persona?
“And to think I had started feeling selfish for keeping them inside the ship because of my heat intolerance. I seriously thought about moving them all outside right after you left. Figured the fresh air might help. None of you would have argued with me. Glad I told myself, ‘Quackery! What’s fresh air got to do with it? Might as well be selfish since it makes no difference. They’ll be more comfortable and so will I.’”
Sullivan shook her head, chuckling. “Who would’ve ever guessed selfishness would one day save the human race from circling down the drain.”
“Thank our lucky galaxies,” Wakefield said, “we have a five-day supply of O2 left.”
It was almost midnight. Captain Jason Pearce, along with Commander Breanne Sullivan and Lieutenant Tom Ross, had grouped up in the computer-mainframe niche while the Doc tended to her patients in sick bay. They stood slightly behind and to the side of Ainsley Duncan, their eyes unwavering from the former cyber cop’s engagement with DORIS.
A hulking presence even without his exo, Duncan had lit up DORIS’ holographic diagnostic monitors. Both of his hands gesticulated in the air, his fingers spreading, pinching, and twirling, engaging a large hologram that half-encircled him. These motions magnified, paused, and backgrounded one layer after another of a complex, hierarchical computer-code schematic.
“Scanned her neural networks and controller, cognitive and adaptive data-learning algorithms – associative memories, all twelve billion or so of her main and sub-routines, ARA – abstractions, problem reformulations, and approximations. Thought vectors…no glitches. APIs, feedback loops…in order. Nanophotonic quantum phase switching unaltered. Heuristic analysis finally shows….no viruses–”
“So what’s the plain-English version here?” Ross said, his voice tight.
“Keep your blouse on, Lieuy,” Duncan said, giving Ross glancing attention. “Don’t want to fall through a trap door DORIS may have set if she somehow went rogue. We can’t lose her. Her database is too important to our survival–”
“Our battery banks should keep her powered until we rig up a way to recharge them,” Pearce said.
Duncan nodded and did another quick turn toward Ross. “Look, we’ve all been driven bat-shit crazy over this three-hours business.” He went back to work. “Checking updates, most recent programming activity. Hold on. Rounding third…. Okay, got something. A footprint. Yeah…about that, the three-hours thing?”
He turned at the waist and eyed them.
“Can’t blame it on AI roguishness or DORIS’s alleged one-percent unreliability. Nor did DORIS retrieve the wrong word by way of, say, a referencing failure due to her aged circuitry. Nope, ‘hours’ showed up in place of ‘days’ solely as a result of human intervention.”
The officers gasped.
Duncan’s finger tapped twice on a line of green code in a narrow data column near the hologram’s edge.
“Right here. Time-stamped. The system recorded the deletion and substitution at 22:36, August 4, 2037, a week before we left.”
He turned around, his face slack. “No other way to put it. Sabotage.”
Sullivan and Ross exchanged glances, then stared speechless at Duncan.
Something heavy and repulsive slammed Peace’s insides. It soon gave way to a fierce hotness in his face. He’d never felt the urge to kill until now.
Ross’s lower lip curled, wildfire in his eyes. “What knuckle-shit would do something like this?”
“On both ships!” Sullivan said.
Duncan waved a hand. “There’s more. Here.” He had scrolled farther down into the data column. “Another quick deletion a minute later at 22:37 – the portal to DORIS’s physician program.”
“Christ,” Sullivan said, her face rust-red and contorted. “We didn’t even know DORIS had a physician program. Binson might have been able to save her people.”
“The deletion,” Duncan said, fingers still in brisk animation, “was access, not the physician program itself. Bringing it back online…now. Ah, this will really rock the Doc. Wait’ll she finds out there’s a holographic microscope and other tools.” He faced the captain. “That seems to be all. Any ideas?”
Pearce stayed with his thoughts for a minute. He caught Sullivan’s eyes boring into him, reading him as they so often had done.
“Jason? Yes. You know who–”
“A lot of the people working on the project were enraged over not being picked for the journey,” he said. “But the only person who had everything needed to pull off something like this was Victor Arnold. Only he was authorized to access DORIS. He not only had AI knowledge about DORIS, he was somewhat of an expert on the preservation gel. The only people peering over his shoulder were the union workers and the troops following him around to make sure he stayed on the job. None of them could’ve known what he was doing. He must have had the opportunity to make the change during his walk-through of the ship four nights before his final meeting with me.”
A wave of nausea hit him. Arnold had already laid the seeds for their destruction even as he sat briefing Pearce. He’d reached out across the millennia and trillions of miles in an attempt to kill them all — because in his twisted way of thinking the human race didn’t deserve to live on.
Ross’s eyes still blazed. “But why not do any one of many other things more efficient at killing us? Why not program DORIS to stay in sleep mode when we entered the atmosphere? We would’ve crashed and all been killed instant–”
“I’ll take a stab,” Sullivan said. “That kind of reprogramming would’ve required a fair amount of time, enough to attract curious eyes.”
Duncan nodded. “Same with deleting the physician program. It has hundreds of independent components. And after deleting each, he would’ve been prompted by ‘Are You Sure You Want to Delete?’”
“The union workers would’ve been curious, for sure,” Pearce said. “He was known to hate them and they hated him right back. They would’ve loved to find something that got him into trouble with his two baby-sitter Marines. Maybe that’s why he didn’t simply steal the gel handbook he wasn’t seen going up with.”
“Well, that’s that,” Duncan said. “I declare DORIS ninety-nine point nine percent reliable.” He gave a half-shrug, flashing a modest grin. “Best I can do.”
Dr. Martha Wakefield approached from her sick bay wearing the vestige of a smile despite appearing frazzled.
Pearce gave her first the bad news about Victor Arnold, then the good news about DORIS’s physician program. The latter cut her grief and anger short and put her half-smile back on her face.
“Feel like I’ve been whip-lashed,” she said. “Now I understand why DORIS responded to my medical questions with ‘No access to data.’ I shrugged it off, but in retrospect I should’ve gone to Ainsley to find out exactly what that meant. And I now know why before launch the mission planners didn’t give us the medical equipment I needed to find the culprit behind the sickness we were threatened by. Wouldn’t have needed it with the physician program the planners thought we’d be using.”
Her glance bounced from one to the next. “More from the good-news department. All of my patients are recovering, and I don’t anticipate relapses–”
“How’s this for recovery, Doc?”
Everyone pirouetted to see Ensign Olivia Appleton, at the pace of an injured snail, shuffle into the mainframe niche from the sick bay. Though pale and rheumy-eyed, she wore a thin smile that seemed to say she was grateful to be on her feet.
Ross’s face lit up. The lieutenant, too, appeared to be grateful to see her on her feet.
“Most of the others are vertical and milling around,” she said. Her gaze swept back and forth across the group, finally landed on Ross. “I imagine they’ll be coming out soon.”
The Doc nodded at Pearce. “We can go ahead and bring her up to speed.”
A few minutes later, Appleton was composed again after hearing the shocking Arnold sabotage story. She shook her head. “I feel so terrible for Captain Binson and her people.”
“They didn’t die in vain,” Sullivan said. “If it hadn’t been for them, and the Doc here….”
“Right, right” Appleton said. “But let’s not forget Tom’s big contribution.” She gave Ross a reserved smile, her forehead furrowed. Was she signaling a humbled apology?
Ross stiffened a bit and returned a questioning, semi-hard stare. “Say again?”
Pearce figured Ross had to be asking himself, Now that she’s back to normal, is she back to normal?
“Just think,” Appleton said, “If Tom hadn’t had a bladder issue out there – and hadn’t been such a clumsy oaf–”
“I’m stupefied,” Sullivan said, swinging her eyes off Appleton to Ross, then to the Doc. “Seems your selfishness and these two lovebirds’ refusal to belay their bickering saved humankind.”
Appleton edged over to the lieutenant as if approaching something emitting gamma-ray radiation. Her eyes searched his as her arms encircled his waist.
“People are too important, life is too precious. You and I have to cease being so petty and mean to each other. Can we reboot? Tom and Olivia 2.0?”
Pearce fought off picturing his dead wife, as well as the billions of lives lost on Earth. Yes, people were far, far too important. His gaze made its way to Sullivan. She was far too important — to him. And she didn’t even know it. Was he important to her in the same way?
Ross still hadn’t returned Appleton’s embrace. “Knock me over with a hummingbird feather. A hug from you? What Twilight Zone have I strayed into?”
Appleton leaned back a bit and seemed to study the middle of his face.
“By the way,” she said with a full-fledged grin, “the little wart on your columella is kinda cute. Glad you didn’t get it removed. Still have my ring? You can throw it back at me, if you’re still want of a wife.”
He slapped a side leg pocket. “Right where it’s been for…the longest.” His arms took her in. Even at this point, did he feel as though he were hugging a pint-sized grizzly?
She rested the side of her head against his chest, her eyes falling on Sullivan.
“My Geiger in a safe place?” After Sullivan signaled A-OK, Appleton said to Ross, “Why didn’t you let me go?”
“You never let me go.”
“Beg your par–“
“You just said it. Your Geiger. You couldn’t let it go – it was a gift from me. I caught you occasionally stroking the thing like it was your juju. And remember when that tree walked into my face? And when I took a spill down the slope? You micro-winced both times. Reflexive. I knew you still cared deep down.”
Her face reddened. “You were right.” She patted his chest once. “Gee, you came very close to sounding wise.”
She half-turned to Pearce, “Since you’re president and all, I do believe you can authorize yourself to hitch us up.”
Pearce laughed. “True enough.” He noticed Sullivan was staring at the floor. “Suuulll, what’s up?”
She glimpsed over, then back to the floor. “Oh, nothing…. Well, just wondering.” Her gaze lifted to Pearce in two stages. Pearce saw in her moist eyes a softening and warmth he’d never seen before. “Jason, do you think you…and I… we could ever–?” She bit her lip.
“Commander, what are you trying to–“
“No no no. I was just, you know, thinking hypothetically–” She flapped her arms against her legs. “Forget it.”
“Forget what? Sull?”
She drew in a breath and lowered her head. “Okay, cards on the table, and I don’t give a crap who hears. Remember when I told you I divorced my ex-husband because he changed his mind about wanting kids? Well, that was only part of it. The other part — the other part….”
“She needs help,” Appleton said. “Every woman can tell when another woman is afflicted. I’ve watched you, Commander. Watched your eyes. Cap, you’re her beau. Am I on target, Commander?”
Sullivan’s head did a shaky nod. “The other part is…I divorced him mainly because I fell in love with you…have loved you practically from the day we met.”
A catch seized Pearce’s throat. Did he hear her right? All along, she had cared for him, loved him, even while he was still in love with his dying wife?
Sullivan worked an uncomfortable-looking smile. “There. Thought I’d go for broke. Let’s face it, we might not make it past next week.”
His heart racing, Pearce cleared his throat twice, tried to quell his nerves. “If you think for one second I feel the same way about you–” He stopped, aimed a look at the others, then back at her. “If that’s what you think — yeah, cards on the table — you’re dead right. I’ll do you one better. How about a double ceremony? I’ll authorize Wakefield to do the duty.”
Sullivan hopped over to Peace, took his hand, and squeezed it, her brown eyes still watery.
The Doc said, “The more marrying, the better. We’re going to need lots of babies around here to jump-start this new civilization.” She threw a sly smile Appleton’s way. “Right, Livvy?”
Appleton beamed up at Ross. “The first one’s on the way. She told me I’m two months along.”
Ross blinked twice. He had the vacant stare of someone who realizes he has just been stabbed in the stomach but does not yet feel the pain. “Uh! You — you mean I’m gonna be a daddy!”
“Two months along?” Pearce said to the Doc. “After her final pre-launch exam, you kept her pregnancy a secret, even from her.”
“She would’ve had no chance to survive. This way, she did, and we’ll soon have a baby we need. I wish more of the women were expecting.”
“By the way, Doc,” Appleton said, “you’re another one that’s only 99 percent reliable. I’m not two months along. It’s more like 137,000 years!”
Everyone laughed. Pearce and Sullivan, still holding hands, turned and set out for the cockpit. As they ambled away from Ross and Appleton, Pearce heard some of the couple’s conversation before they were out of earshot.
“You know,” Ross said, “you never told me your maiden name.”
“And you never told me your middle name.”
“Ha. So that’s why you said you like DORIS’s name.”
“My Grandma Karen’s middle name. Speaking of my grandparents, something else I never told you. At a wedding reception when I was six years old, my Grandpa Jerry and I walked around exploring the building, as I was told we always did at receptions and such things. He stopped walking, bent down, and took my face in his hands. ‘Sweetheart,’ he said, ‘when you grow up, you’re gonna marry someone who’ll love you with all his heart and soul. Maybe even as much as I do.’”
At that, Pearce glanced back and saw her smile, her eyes drinking in Ross’s face. “You know, it sure looks like his prediction was right.”
Pearce strained to hear her. “One thing I know for sure,” she said, “Grandpa Jerry really, really loved me. He asked me a million times, ‘Who does Grandpa love?’ I always answered, ‘Me!'” She paused. “Grandpa lost most of his hearing in his late years. He said the most depressing thing in his life was that 80 percent of the time, he couldn’t understand me even with his hearing aids. It broke his heart. His hearing didn’t matter to me. I loved him anyway.”
Inside the dimly lit cockpit, Pearce and Sullivan stood at the side viewing window. They peered up at the two small moons, barely a hand’s width apart in the star-strewn sky. Moments later their attention shifted to the Milky Way Galaxy nudging into view. The white and gold jewel-brilliance erupted through the hill’s treetops. A soft, pinkish hue hung over everything in the cockpit. The Milky Way had captivated Pearce countless times in his life. As he took it in with Sullivan by his side, he had the comforting sensation of being not on an alien new world but right at home on the old one.
“Under my authority as President,” Pearce said, “I give this planet the name of…New Earth.”
“It really is beautiful,” Sullivan said softly. “Fertile ground, drinkable water…. We’re going to make it. We’re not going to die off under this red dwarf sun.”
Pearce turned to the woman soon to be his new wife. Victor Arnold, the vindictive, murderous madman, could not have been more wrong. “We do deserve to make it. We proved it. We never gave up.”
To her quizzical look, he said, “A full report later. Right now you and I have something a lot more important to attend to. DORIS – and you’d better be 100-percent reliable on this – close and lock the cockpit door.”
Sullivan put her arms around his waist and grinned. “You have to call me Breanne now.”
Captain’s Log, Sunday, 13:45, May 23, 139,024
This morning at 0700 hours, the Doc graced my dome. Some, including the Doc, insisted my residence should be called the White House. Never mind that there was no longer much white left to it. It was almost fully capped by a fast-growing, beautiful red-and-lavender-flowered vine that had been planted by a team two months ago at First Lady Breanne’s request. The vine resembled the bougainvillea I’d seen adorning many homes and fences in Florida.
Breanne was still getting some well-deserved rest in our added-on bedroom. Ten hours a day for the past several weeks, she’d been working hard. She, Duncan, and Akio Shimoto, the mechanical engineer, had made several trips to the buried Hope II, removing and hauling back items that included piping, insulation, and the pads from the cylinders. She’d plied her civil-engineering skills to construct not only a system for waste disposal and treatment, but also one for water delivery from the five wells dug by Duncan and fed by the ingress river curving around them on its way to the ocean.
The Doc sat down at my small table and I poured two cups of New Earth’s first tea. The tea had been confected from several herbs gathered from the field. Our cups, the table, and the chairs, like so many other items, had been carpentered from the nearby baobab-like trees yet to be named by our biologist.
I set her tea in front of her. “Here. Something that vaguely looks like tea but–“
“But which has the faint essence of weasel innards?” the Doc said, her accent laid on thick.
After I snickered, I asked how was she holding up in the heat. She shrugged. “Adapting. This grimalkin constantly reminds herself her low tolerance was a blessing.”
She shifted in her seat, then told me something she’d been meaning to tell me since they arrived on the planet.
“Before we launched,” she said, “I as a psychologist was on the panel for recommending the best of the qualified candidates for the journey. The pool of people was huge, and I had to do an awful lot of background checks. I worked for weeks, some days around the clock. I found common threads, connections you may’ve noticed for a while now.”
She put the tea to her lips as if a scorpion lurked inside.
“Well! Not bad.” She took a breath. “In the end, I saw I’d be able to base my recommendations on an attribute I believe is as important to survival as the candidates’ healthy bodies, stable minds, and dual skills. Maybe more so. It’s the one factor that best strengthens the resolve to carry on against the worst odds. The panel eventually all agreed.”
I drew from my semi-bitter herbal tea. “All right….”
“You really have been busy.”
“We presidents have a lot on our plates.”
“Why do you think I recommended Tom and Olivia?”
She smiled. “This is where I could say, ‘By all means, do keep guessing.’ As you know, they’d planned to marry but their relationship fizzled a few weeks after I selected them. Too late to scratch them. Glad it was. Look at them now – two blazing hot suns in a tight orbit around each other. And wait till that baby comes! What about Ainsley Duncan? He has his daughter, as you know. None of the selected children could be separated from a parent or caring adult relative. Of course. You also know your explosives team, Paul and Janet, are husband and wife. And all of the other passengers? Each is closely connected to at least one other passenger.”
“And Breanne and I.”
“Was saving you two for last. But I’ll ask now: What would happen if the commander was at risk or got hurt? You’d bust your butt to get to her and help her. She’d do the same for you.”
“I’d help anyone who’s hurt,” I said.
“A given. But if the person hurt was Breanne, you know you’d react faster and try harder to help. So would she in the reverse.”
I set my cup down, poured us more tea, and nodded. “Because we love and value each other.”
“Having someone to love also motivates us to care more about everyone else. That’s because we know caring about the group as a whole helps insure the survival of each individual member of the group – including the one you love.”
“Basketball coach Phil Jackson said, ‘The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.’ You recommended individuals who loved one of your other recommendations.” He tipped his head. “Even better.”
“Or who cared for one of them. I could see that budding in your and Breanne’s case.”
Her forehead furrowed as she fingered her cup with both hands.
“Sad to say, your depression over the death of your wife had me worried it would suck the wind out of you at exactly the wrong times.”
She leaned away, a smile forming at the corners of her lips.
“But the panel was rock-solid sold on your record and leadership abilities. They also reminded me that besides your alternate who didn’t have your command capability, you were the only other person trained to pilot Hope. Captain Jason Pearce would not be scratched no matter what. I then searched for a qualified person who cared about you and who you might care about. She was right under my nose — or at least right under yours. Snooping into your background, I found out a number of people in your circles thought Breanne had had eyes for you for some time, and you were the only one who’d failed to notice because of your despair over losing your wife.
“What I’d hoped would happen is Breanne would snap you out of your depression in due time after we arrived here, where there is no Navy to prohibit your relationship. The panel and I agreed you and Breanne would likely be a good paired pick. Turns out we were right as rain.”
My grin felt sheepish. “And you. You have your nephew, of course. Tony.”
“Gee, thanks for noticing.” The grin that had split across her face dissolved. “He’s the only child ever in my life and I love him like a son. While my brother and his wife were in the hospital with mortal injuries from a car accident, I promised them I’d take good care of him.”
I slid my cup aside. “You know, I can’t wait for Olivia to have her baby. What a morale booster that’ll be. They want a boy or a girl?”
“Yes.” When I dropped my head and stifled a chuckle, she said, “Sorry. My inner urges.” She, too, put her tea aside. “Our physician program allowed me test her. It’s a boy. Tom didn’t care. Just a healthy baby. Olivia wanted a boy. She said his middle name will be Paul, after her dad Rick and her Grandpa Paul. The first name will be Jerry, after her Grandpa Jerry – her non-bio grandpa! Figure that. He pushed her toward science and the military. She credits his influence for getting her selected for the journey. He saved her life, she said. She must have really loved him.”
“And vice-versa.” I looked down at my hands. “Speaking of the physician program, I have to eat crow regarding DORIS. I mean, if as an AI she’d had nefarious intent, why wake us in the first place? She performed magnificently.”
She scooted her chair back and stood up, pulling in a breath. “I believe it was Thornton Wilder who said, ‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’ Love, Mr. President. That will make this new world go around for us.”
I stood up, too, giving her a praising look. “Underneath that cold, wise-cracking British exterior–“
“You mean my healthy skepticism?”
I phiffed, stifling another chuckle. “Underneath that ‘healthy skepticism,’ the doctor-psychologist is a warm, caring fuzz-ball. I salute you. You not only saved us from being killed off, you’ve made sure we have a much better chance of staying alive. What say I bestow on you the title of MVP?”
“Oh, do go on. Most Valuable Player? If only I had a pearl necklace to clutch–”
“No. My Vice President.”