Part 1- While You’re busy Making Other Plans
On the other side of the door, newly arrived from his evening prowl, a small black cat eagerly pressed a wet nose against its bottom seal, where through even the finest crack, a curious feline could smell the chicken dinner his master had just cooked and placed on the table. Each day at the same time, the cat knew to come to the door and he would receive scraps from the meal. His owner had named him Achilles because of his fondness for Greek mythology and because he had found the stray fighting off a dog for a piece of jerky. A pink tongue lapped up the fragrant air in anticipation of its next meal. But today was different.
After a few minutes, the cat pawed furtively at the door and gave a few pleading meows. There was no comforting sound of acknowledgement from his master. Slowly, the low mewling turned to a rhythm of anxious yowling. Claws scraped futilely at the metal door. Clearly, the power of the aroma and the established routine were powerful enough to keep Achilles at the door, waiting for the precious moment when the panel would slide and the treasures beyond would be open to him. Yet, for all his struggles, no one seemed to care about Achilles or take notice of the small creature’s incessant racket. The door remained closed and the halls were void of activity.
After an hour or two of pawing and wailing, the cat tired and curled up beside the stubborn door, a black spot on an otherwise pristine white hallway. But the cat had not surrendered. His eye stayed fixed on the crease at the bottom of the door and only left it momentarily when the lights flickered ominously in the hallway and then began to dim, as if a power source was beginning to lose strength.
Finally, spurred back to action by gnawing hunger, Achilles returned to his regimen of clawing and wailing. This time, it was less about desire and routine and more about survival. Achilles didn’t know where else to scavenge for food and he’d never had to worry about it because the door always opened to him before. And, yet, hours later, the door stood unmoved. Days later, when even the hardened blast doors of the Mercury-class spaceship bore the numerous marks of cat claws, it would still be so.
Achilles, emaciated and starved, held a single paw against the door long after his strength to claw and speak had left him. He couldn’t fathom why his master had forsaken him and everyone had left him alone on the ship millions of miles away from their home planet. But his attempts to get through the door had become perfunctory. The door was not going to budge and the smell of the chicken had gone from ripe and sweet to stale and rancid. More disturbingly, another scent mixed in with the spoiled food and it too was a smell of decay and putrefaction. It crept through the door crease and also permeated the hall from throughout the ship. It was the smell of death and rotting bodies.
* * *
Oedipa knew something smelled funny as soon as she turned from the refrigerator. She had been so distracted in dissecting fresh pumpkin from seed for the pie, she had lost track of the stuffed peppers. She opened the oven door and was greeted by billowing black smoke.
“Dear, do you need help?” Joe coughed as he waved the fumes from his face. “Is something on fire in here?”
Oedipa gave a squeal of frustration. “Just the sides of my temples. This dinner is ruined.” She doused the smoldering peppers with water and then dumped them in the waste disposal. “And since the turkey is still frozen, I guess we’ll have to just move on to dessert.”
“Which is currently pumpkin guts and raw flour?” Joe said, pinching the squishy orange pulp between his fingers.
“I’m not. Eddy, you’re the best biophysicist the company has… and an athlete… and an artist… and have great taste in antiques,” Joe said. “Why do you seem hell bent on becoming a gourmet chef all of the sudden? You didn’t have to have all this from scratch.”
“But I’m a biophysicist who can’t cook. There should be some overlap in skill sets there. I just want to be able to do this for you, Joe,” Oedipa said, pushing him away from the counter. “Also, you’ve told me that your parents are pretty conservative. I want to show them that their son is in good hands.”
Oedipa saw Joe momentarily blush.
“Sorry, I pushed.” she said. “But I didn’t mean—”
Joe interrupted her with a kiss.
“—to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“Oh, I feel comfortable now,” Joe said. “And it’s okay to push. But you’re perfect the way you are, more than enough to impress the Casta family. You’re the One, you know, and we’ve got time not to rush ourselves.”
“Thank you, dear. It’s good to hear that every once in a while.”
“In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind—I ordered Chinese.”
“You jerk! You anticipated my failure?”
“The food should be here in fifteen minutes,” Joe said. “Why do you think I set out chopsticks for turkey?”
“Fine, I’ll make some tea then. I can’t imagine how I could ruin that—or burn it.”
“Well, you could put salt water in the tea kettle and then expose it radio waves. Freeing the oxygen atoms would allow the water to burn.”
“Now you’re just being an ass!”
Oedipa was about to smack Joe on the butt in mock rage, but Joe hopped out of the way. As he did so, he knocked over a salt shaker and several bottles of dried herbs. With a sweeping gesture over her right hand, Oedipa collected them all before they could hit the floor.
“Nice catch, honey,” Joe said.
“Enhanced reflexes,” Oedipa said. She could remember when she was younger, such displays caused her embarrassment in school and ridicule from her classmates, who called her a “tube worm” when they learned she was genetically modified before birth by her parents. “They come in handy sometimes.”
“Sometimes when I’m flying I wish my parents had given me some enhancements,” Joe said, and Oedipa became withdrawn. “Just sometimes, Eddy. Most of the time, I’m happy just being Plain Old Average Joe. And there’s no shame in being enhanced. Your parents’ hearts were in the right place when they did that. They just wanted you to be the perfect daughter.”
“My mother demanded that I be the perfect designer daughter. It was always the prerequisite for being loved, or what passed for love in her mind. That’s why I love you, Joe. You love me unconditionally.”
“You don’t make it hard,” Joe said, with a sly smile. “Unless you burn dinner.”
The faint ring of the door chime could be heard.
“Dinner must be here. That was fast,” Joe said.
Oedipa followed him into the dining and living area. It was the only room in the apartment where it was apparent the unique location of the Aquarius building. The furnishings were all neutral beige of a bachelor pad but the wall was translucent, opening to the vast undersea diversity of the Gulf of Mexico. Almost hidden against the backdrop of kelp and fire coral, a brown shark was gliding cautiously by the reinforced window, inspecting the couple as the approached the door. Joe grabbed a few bills from his wallet.
The door slid open, but instead of a delivery man, a tall man in a tweed suit who appeared to have stepped out of a Sherlock Holmes story stood at attention.
“Craven—Dr. Giles—what an unexpected pleasure… on a Sunday,” Joe said.
“Yes, well, I apologize for the abruptness of my visit but I have matters of some urgency to discuss with you—and Ms. Maat, specifically. May I come in?” Dr. Giles said in a clipped but well-manicured London accent.
“Certainly,” Joe said. “We were just about to sit down for dinner.”
Dr. Giles stepped awkwardly through the threshold and sniffed the air suspiciously. “Is that actually turkey?”
“It was—or perhaps could be some day if the center ever thaws before the outside burns,” Oedipa offered. “I was trying my hand at manual cooking, not very successfully. We’re having Chinese sent in so no worries.”
“Ah, yes, well, best let the experts handle that. Fresh turkeys cost an arm and a leg these days.”
Oedipa shrugged nervously and looked anxiously at Joe.
“So you’ve met my girlfriend Oedipa before?”
“Of course, we met at the convocation last year. Her presentation on cooperativity in host-guest biochemistry was quite remarkable.”
“Thank you, sir. I didn’t think anyone would remember that. It was more than a year ago—two, if I recall.”
“Your ideas made quite an impression on the senior partners. That’s not easy to do,” Dr. Giles turned serious. “But that’s not why I am here.”
The three sat down at the dinner table. Giles removed his wire-rimmed glasses. “What I’m about to tell you is of the utmost confidence.”
“You can count on us, Dr. Giles.”
“As you know, last year, a ship called the Intrepid was sent on a mission to resupply and check up on our colony on Tempest. We received automated confirmation via buoy that the Tempest had arrived on schedule and returned through the wormhole as planned and then nothing. The crew made no attempt—or perhaps we unable—to contact us with their coordinates. We feared an explosion shortly after the Intrepid made the wormhole transit. However, a few weeks later a listening post in the Outer Asteroid Belt picked up a transponder signal. It was independently confirmed as the Intrepid by our observatory on Mars. As best we can tell, the Intrepid is still on course but losing power.
“Though not officially in the purview of the Research and Development branch, I have been tasked with coordinating the cleanup team that will intercept the Intrepid. We need to keep this quiet, but, more importantly, we need to find out what happened. SETECH’s exclusive rights to planet, the wormhole and the entire shipping lane between Earth and Tempest depends upon the perception that our operations are smooth and incident free.”
“I can understand the importance and secrecy, Dr. Giles, but where do Joe and I fit,” Oedipa said. “Surely they don’t want Joe—”
“It’s okay, Oedipa. It’ll only be a year or so,” Joe said, putting a calming hand on hers. “It’s an important mission. They’re going to need an experienced pilot.”
“It’s okay, Oedipa. It’ll only be a year or so,” Joe said, putting a calming hand on hers. “It’s an important mission. They’re going to need an experienced pilot.”
“Actually, Joe, your considerable suborbital flight experience and your unquestionable talent notwithstanding, this is a deep space mission. You weren’t chosen,” Giles’ eyes turned to Oedipa. “She was.”
“I was? But what use could I be? My skill sets aren’t exactly compat—” Oedipa looked at Giles suspiciously. “You suspect foul play?”
“We can’t rule it out,” Giles said. “And don’t shortchange your skills. I’ve had my eye on you for quite some time. Whether there was foul play or not, your knowledge and experience could prove to be useful. While we don’t know much about the Intrepid’s disposition apart from its whereabouts, initial indications don’t suggest any catastrophic mechanical failure of the ship. Whatever happened to it, there’s a good chance that it was chemical or biological. That’s still a fairly broad spectrum of possibilities.”
Oedipa saw the look of disappointment in Joe’s face. “But couldn’t I analyze evidence from here? Why would you need me to actually go with the team?”
“We can’t risk transmissions leaked. It’s happened in the past and contributed to the loss of one of our Jovian colonies. This must be self-contained as possible with as little communication with Earth as possible,” Giles said. “Which is why I will be going as well. But this is strictly voluntary, so I won’t force you to go.”
“I don’t know—it’s a great opportunity, but a long commitment,” Oedipa said. “I have projects and Joe—”
“Don’t worry about Joe,” Giles gave a slight smile. “I said he wasn’t selected to the team. But as I realize this is a serious commitment on both your parts and his absence might make you hesitant to leave, I have already requested that Joe be assigned as co-pilot on the mission.”
“You could’ve mentioned that earlier,” Joe growled.
“What do you say, Oedipa?” Giles asked. “I wish I could give you both time to think and consider, but our ship leaves first thing tomorrow.”
Oedipa glanced at Joe. His eyes glistened with excitement. Oedipa wondered a moment if she should be excited too. Even though manned exploration of space had established bases on Mars and even tourist spots on the moon, the vast majority of humanity never got to tread the surface of another planet or moon except through virtual tours or see their home planet from outside the cocoon of its atmosphere. In fact, most people lived in squalor, scraping together just enough resources to make their next meal. Oedipa should feel honored to be invited on a mission that offered adventure and career advancement, except that she didn’t. “I guess we should start packing, Joe?”
“I’ll clean up the kitchen and get the Chinese to go.”
Giles smiled and stood. “Good show.”
* * *
“Two paths diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” said Chatty Cathy Charles, Oedipa’s neighbor. Oedipa could tell Joe hated being stuck in the lift with this woman. He always made a loud obnoxious clucking noise with his tongue. “Are you two going to be away long? Oh, I love long trips. My ex-husband once took me on one of those old style cruises to Alaska and then surprised me with a horseback ride through the mountains. Of course, the trip made me sick to my stomach and the food gave me explosive diarrhea, so the horseback riding didn’t really happen, but it’s always the thought that matters, I always say. I’m sorry, you were you going to tell me about your trip.”
Oedipa was most certainly not, but it was a nice try, and she certainly didn’t want to squander a rare opening in the conversation with the dowdy purple-haired woman to hopefully conclude the conversation. “I’m afraid it will be a fairly long trip,” Oedipa said. “I have business in the Seychelles.”
“The Seychelles? That sounds Greek, isn’t it? My other ex-husband—husband number two—planned to take us on a cruise through the Greek Isles. Oh, the magnificent ruins. Or so I’m told,” the lady said. Joe clucked. “Of course, that was during my cancer scare, so we couldn’t go. Oh, you’ll write, honey, won’t you? And we can still chat through vidphone?”
Oedipa glanced anxiously through the portal. The blue-green surface of the Caribbean was clearly visible. She sighed in relief.
“Oh, I don’t know. Seychelles is pretty remote,” Oedipa lied. “Lack of modern conveniences and all. But we’ll keep you in our thoughts, Mrs. Charles.”
“Oh dear, what a pity.”
The lift doors promptly opened onto the brightly lit atrium of Aquarius’ surface hotel and spaceport. Joe quickly shoved Oedipa and their luggage out of the lift and onto the people mover that crossed the bulk of the atrium. “Goodbye, Mrs. Charles. Don’t let anyone rent our apartment while we’re gone,” Joe called back over his shoulder and leaned to whisper to Oedipa.
“Remember all the things I told you that I’d miss about Earth? And how none of them were that insufferable woman?”
Oedipa lurched forward to catch her balance on the people mover under the weight of two suitcases. She suddenly wished she hadn’t taken any medication to calm her jitters for the flight. “Joe, she’s just trying to be nice. She’s just someone who’s not comfortable with awkward silences and feels she has to, you know, fill the void with talk. Although, I have to admit, between her incessant prattling and your clucking, it’s a wonder I could think enough to keep our cover story straight.”
“I don’t cluck.”
“Yes, you do.”
“It’s more of a click. I do it when I’m annoyed—or nervous. It’s sort of a nervous tic click. It’s part of the idiosyncrasies you love about me.”
“Honey, you cluck,” Oedipa said. “And no, not so much.” She kissed him on the cheek.
The Aquarius Atrium was cavernous, branching off into numerous tunnels which ended in massive platforms dotted with towers and gardens. From space, the whole SETECH facility unfolded like a leaf on the ocean with Atrium and its sprawling complex of hotels, restaurants and security facilities as its palm.
Oedipa and Joe made their way through the central tunnel to the middle of the frond. There, a sleek, small sub-orbital spaceplane sat perched on its pad. Robotic baggage handlers took the couple’s luggage, scanned it, processed it and whisked it away to the belly of the ship. Oedipa looked past the palm trees and out onto the ocean. Dolphins, ever curious about the human activities at the Aquarius spaceport, frolicked among the waves. The roar of engines could be heard briefly behind her as another spaceplane, one of the larger, dowdier passenger airliners, streaked towards the heavens. Oedipa wondered if she could see the white twinkling day star of the Asgard Space Station against the expanse of blue sky above, but realized it would be in someone else’s sky right now.
“I’ll miss it too. One of the reasons I prefer suborbital flight. Mother Earth always fills my cockpit window,” Joe said. “I’m sure the year will fly though and we’ll be back here laughing like we never left.”
“I wonder if we’ll get a full briefing before or after we’re headed off into deep space,” Oedipa said.
Joe leaned in close. “Given the stakes that Dr. Giles suggested and the fact that he doesn’t want to be seen together with us on this flight, I would say we’re not going to get the full scoop until we reach the destination. You know how the company works—protect trade secrets at all costs.”
Oedipa glanced around. “Speaking of which, do you remember where Mrs. Charles said she was going?”
Joe shrugged. “You think I didn’t zone out after the first monologue?”
“Well, I could have sworn that I just saw her board our flight.”
“Seriously?” Joe asked. “Are you sure? She wouldn’t be going up into space, would she? That’s woman’s all hat and no cattle.”
“Cattle? Are you calling Mrs. Charles a cow?”
“Sorry, honey, that’s probably an expression I picked up from living in Texas. I mean, she talks about long trips and then always winds up in south Florida. That couldn’t have been her,” Joe said. “Besides, with her bad hip, how would she have gotten ahead of us.”
“I know, I know,” she said. “It’s just my nerves talking. Let’s just get on the plane.”
Oedipa took one last look about the platform, took in a lungful of sweet sea breeze and climbed the stairs into the spaceplane. Inside, the cabin was all sterile whites and beiges like the Atrium. Crew members scurried about as passengers found their seats. One of the co-pilots greeted Joe on their way past the cockpit—one of his old buddies from flight school, but Oedipa didn’t recognize him. They found their seats towards the middle of the plane. Still nagging her from the back of her mind, Oedipa began cataloging the crowd of passengers milling about. Though a small craft by spaceplane standards, it was still large with three columns of four seat rows. She spotted Dr. Giles five rows behind them in an aisle seat, conspicuously ignoring them with his nose buried in what appeared to be an old leather-bound book of some sort.
A man with sandy brown hair and a thin scar across his eyebrow sat down across the aisle from Oedipa. His fingers twitched nervously on the armrest as he leaned over to stow his carry-on under his seat.
“Pardon me, miss, but this is my first trip off-planet and I tend to get a little airsickness when I fly,” the man told Oedipa. “I just wanted to give you fair warning.”
“It’s okay. My first time too.”
A small army of what appeared to be fresh United States Space Corps soldiers marched down both aisles and filed into the rows in front of and behind Oedipa and Joe. Oedipa wondered if they had mistakenly booked in a special military section of the plane. To Joe’s left, two small girls—sisters most likely—squirmed into their straps as a steward helped them settle in. Joe tried to help the closest girl with her clasps but was having a hard time getting around the child’s restlessly shifting body.
“Let me get that for you, darling,” Joe told the girl. “My name’s Joe. What’s yours?”
“Gwen,” the little girl said. Oedipa guessed she was about ten years old. “And my sister’s name is Stacy.”
“Both pretty names,” Oedipa said. “Are your parents aboard?”
“Our parents are at home. But our aunt and uncle work at the Lunar Colony,” Gwen said. “We’re supposed to go live with them for a while, while our folks get separated. I’m sad because I’ll miss summer vacation with my friends. The moon is so boring.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Gwen,” Joe said. “But the moon has some cool stuff—low grav jungle gyms, lunar putt-putt. Plus, you’ll still be able to see home from the window of your aunt and uncle’s place. Give it a chance.”
“I heard there’s dust everywhere,” the other girl—Stacy—said. “That it gets into your clothes and into your hair—and even into your nostrils.”
The girl poked a pink finger under her sister’s nose causing Gwen to flinch and there was a short scuffle while Joe and the stewardess separated them. Finally, the last strap made a satisfying click.
“There,” said Joe. “All settled it. That puffy red jacket you’re wearing is what’s the problem. You know, the moon is cold, but I’m sure that your aunt and uncle have the heat turned on to a comfortable level.”
“I told her that,” Stacy said. “But Gwen hates being cold.”
“Thank you, sir,” the steward told Joe.
Oedipa smiled as Gwen pouted at her sister’s remark, pulling her puffy red coat sleeves tightly against her chest in defiance. To her right, Oedipa heard an old couple bickering in French about meeting relatives at the Lunar Colony. The man, wearing scruffy suit and fedora stood and motioned emphatically with his hands while the lady tried to put a calming hand on his shoulder. Apparently, the spat was brief, because it ended with the gentleman kissing his wife on the forehead and then the two took their seats at the behest of the Oedipa looked wistfully back at Joe and wondered if they would be bickering about relatives in 30 or 40 years. At least, they wouldn’t be bickering over her relatives. She had none close enough that she kept in contact with.
The aisles began to clear as boarding found their seats. Apart from the stewards, the only passenger that Oedipa could see was a tall man in a black trench coat moving steadily up the left aisle. He was ruggedly handsome but apart from that and a spiky coif there wasn’t much remarkable about him—except that he stared back intently as ambled two rows behind her into an aisle seat. He seemed to pay no attention to the steward’s directions and only averted his gaze from her when he at last past them, his coat brushing casually against Stacy’s knee as she fumbled with a talking doll’s hair. Oedipa peeked over the back of her seat and then flinched as her eyes met his again.
“Joe, that man in the trench coat. Did you see him?”
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. Why, Eddy?”
“He’s been staring at me since he boarded the plane. It’s creeping me out.”
“Maybe he knows you,” Joe said. “Did he look familiar?”
“Where is he now?”
“Two rows behind. Aisle seat.”
Joe peered behind him and then turned back to Oedipa. “You mean the really attractive guy with the lame hairdo, with a brooding, angry look on his face?”
“That about sums him up.”
“What do you want me to do about him?”
“I don’t know,” Oedipa whispered. “Do you think he’s a government agent? Or a corporate spy?”
“For starters, I don’t think Mrs. Charles is on this plane,” Joe said. “Second, we can’t assume stalker boy is anything more than a garden variety pervert who wants to check out my girlfriend—a very beautiful woman with soft black hair to die for and eyes and a smile to match.”
“Third,” Joe’s voice softened. “I think we should perhaps discuss sensitive matters like this in a less public location.”
“Third,” Joe’s voice softened. “I think we should perhaps discuss sensitive matters like this in a less public location.”
Oedipa sighed. “You’re right. I’m letting my imagination get the best of me. First time off-planet is making me a little nervy.”
About this time, the stewards were going through the pre-flight routine. Joe tried to comfort her by explaining what the crew was doing in the cockpit and what she could expect to feel as the suborbiter shot away from the pad.
“Just a slight kick really,” Joe said. “These babies are so automated these days that they almost drive themselves as well your own car back on old Ohio freeways—and just as safely. Soon, a trained amoeba will able to be flying to the moon.”
“Sweetie, are you saying that a trained, experienced pilot like you isn’t needed anymore? Are you talking yourself out of a job?” Oedipa said, then added. “I’ll be okay. The pills kicked in. The paranoia’s probably just a small side-effect.”
Oedipa rested her head on Joe’s shoulder. A few minutes later, she felt the rumble of the plane engines, then the sudden kick and the ground through the portal windows sped away. She glanced over to the sandy-haired man in the aisle seat. He was hunched over, gagging into an airsick bag. Oedipa wondered if she should have offered him some of her meds.
They weren’t in flight more than a few hours when Asgard came into view. Oedipa remembered when it took two or three days for Joe and his crew to make the trip to the station. Now, planners had figured out how to arrange it so the launch windows of each spaceport were maximized so that most flights caught up with Asgard’s orbit on the first pass.
Joe seemed pleased that Oedipa was handling the transition to weightlessness well—at least better than the sandy-haired man—except for a pesky ebony curl that kept snagging on the corner of her mouth every time she turned her head. She wished she’d thought of bringing a hairclip. Space adaptation syndrome was rare because medication and patches doled out to the passengers pre-flight but there were a few who still complained of mild—or occasionally severe—nausea and the stewards floated about checking on and caring for those cases.
A small viewscreen was lowered in the front of the compartment to allow passengers to watch the plane’s approach towards the station. As Oedipa recalled, Asgard was the ancient abode of the Viking gods, where Odin ruled over feasts and drinking parties, a celestial palace at the end of Bifrost’s ethereal bridge. Oedipa had to admit, the space station, which looked like sea foam washed up on some ink-blackened shoreline, was as close to heavenly as man could hope to achieve with his own hands. But that’s where the comparison ended. The place of Viking myth had been devoid of the radiancy of joy. It was a grave and solemn place because the gods were doomed to ruin. The cause the forces of good were fighting to defend were hopeless and even the gods were helpless against evil. The human Asgard was pleasure dome, a hub for human travel off-world but also a destination, decked out in lights like a flying Las Vegas.
At the center of Asgard’s bubble cluster, a giant dark rested amongst the smaller glowing ones, a black pearl in the foam. This was the renowned headquarters of all SETECH’s off-world divisions—the envy of its competitors, who by law were allowed to using docking facilities and repair stations, for a stiff fee, but were never able to breach its formidable security perimeters and various firewalls.
The plane maintained geosynchronous orbit with the station until it slid easily into a docking bay cradle. Clamps snapped down on the nose of the flyer and, with only a slight shudder, crawl tubes slithered out like large suckers from the recesses of the station and latched onto the side of the ship. The stewards released the passengers from their seat harnesses, leaving them free to float about the cabin for the first time. Gwen and Stacy were first to spring from their seats and do somersaults towards the ceiling.
“Be careful, girls,” Joe called after them after Gwen nearly kicked him in the head. “They pad that area for safety but still a good thump on the noggin won’t feel so go so ease up on the backflips, huh?”
Joe and Oedipa helped the girls collect their carry-ons and then Joe helped them all learn the basics of weightless locomotion. While the passengers were slowly filing towards the exits—some more clumsy than others—Oedipa kept the spiky-haired stalker in the corner of her eye while she scanned for anyone who might have looked like Mrs. Charles. She shuddered as the man made a move towards them and unconsciously grabbed Joe’s elbow as he passed. But the man passed without incident and Oedipa noted that this time he was conspicuously ignoring them as he exited the plane. Perhaps I was wrong, she thought to herself. Maybe it was just the side-effect of the pills and they had worn off early. Oedipa had never had good reactions to medication anyways.
“Watch your head, Eddy,” Joe said. “You ready?”
Most of the passengers had left the cabin, including Dr. Giles, who also ignored the couple. Oedipa slung her bag over her shoulder and found the nearest handhold to stabilize herself. Joe already had hold of Stacy’s hand so she grabbed Gwen, who was still squealing with excitement from her last pirouette. Through the intercom, the pilot’s voice introduced them to the station facilities, admonished them to heed the rules and policies and explained that the central “pearl” were marked as artificial gravity areas.
“Okay,” Oedipa. “Let’s go.”
When the couple emerged from the plane and station umbilical, they entered one of the smaller outer bubbles. Yet, Oedipa was astonished at the contrast with the sterility of the plane. Asgard was an oasis, with lush green sprouting from every corner. The air seemed light and a faint aroma of cinnamon permeated the air and Oedipa recognized the small waxy leaves of one of the original cultivars of basil—cinnamon basil—edged the flower beds of marigolds and vincas. Each bed was protected by a transparent dome, permeable, Oedipa deduced, to allow the aromas of the plants and their oxidizing effects to benefit the station inhabitants.
Stacy and Gwen were first to notice the enlarged open space and pulled at the adults hands feverishly. Even Gwen’s earlier glumness had dissipated and she told Oedipa she wanted to spin. The stalker from the plane was nowhere to be seen.
“You mean like this?” Oedipa said. She let go of Gwen’s hand so that she could float a safe distance to a bare patch of wall and then pushed off with one foot. She raised her right foot and slid it gracefully against her other ankle. She held her chin up, folded her arms against her body and began to spin.
Gwen gasped at the spectacle as Oedipa pirouetted several times and then pulled her arms out to slow her spin. She felt a sudden rush of adrenaline and satisfaction. This was something she couldn’t really in the cramped confines of her apartment and labs under the sea. She thought she must have looked ridiculous because she heard Joe give a muffled chuckle behind her.
“You are full of surprises, Eddy,” he said.
“I took ballet classes when I was younger,” Oedipa said. “One of the by-products of having your parents overschedule your childhood. Should we escort the girls to their connecting flight? I don’t see any attendants available at the moment and I don’t feel right abandoning them in the station.”
“We’re big girls, Ms. Maat,” Gwen said. “We can find our way.”
“Still, it won’t hurt us to help you, Gwen,” Joe said. “I’m sure you two are hungry anyways. I can show you where to get the best space dogs on Asgard. And you wouldn’t want to miss any impromptu dance performances.”
Joe winked at Oedipa. He obviously knew his way around the station as well as any native did and easily led them through a labyrinth of chambers and tunnels until they reached the “Pearl.” It was this huge facility which contained the largest area covered by the artificial gravity. It was also the largest man-made structure orbiting the Earth. The Pearl featured a four-star hotel, three restaurants, crew facilities, a variety of shops and an atrium that rivaled the one on Aquarius with all the flash and glitz of Las Vegas or Times Square. Just as it took Oedipa a few minutes to adjust to zero gravity on the plane, it took just as long to find her balance to move about after they passed through the airlock.
“It feels weird,” Gwen said, stumbling into Oedipa. “I feel dizzy.”
“That’s probably the Coriolis effect,” Oedipa said and then she noticed Stacy’s blank expression. “It doesn’t look like it, but this part of the station is rotating three times every minute. It’s what helps make the artificial gravity that ensures you stay on the ground, which, in this case, are the walls of the station. What you’re probably feeling is your inner ear having difficulty adjusting to the Coriolis forces.”
A hologram advertisement fluttered by on cartoon butterfly wings. A cheery voice promised spectacular views of the original Apollo lander from a lunar orbiter. “It’s a marvelous night for a Moondance, with the stars up above in your eyes,” the voice sang as Gwen hopped on one foot trying to catch the cartoon rocket ship. “So fly Moondance tours tonight. Located at docking bay Zeta Alpha.”
“That’s where you girls need to go,” Joe said. “The outbound flights to the Lunar Colony leave from Zeta Alpha. But let’s grab a bite to eat first, eh?”
Joe found the corndog vender he’d been talking about and got hot dogs for himself and the girls. Oedipa wasn’t yet feeling up to eating, so she found them a place to sit in a tiny garden that she guessed was supposed to be a version of Versailles in miniature. Asgard was an engineering miracle, but understatement was not its strong suit, Oedipa assumed. Though open to all, most people who were not wealthy, important or employees of the company in some capacity or their relatives would ever see the inside of this space station.
After their brief repast, they made their way round to the other side of the Pearl where another airlock took them through another maze of Asgard’s outer bubbles. Joe had no trouble leading them to the waiting area, where the lunar lander was docked but had not yet begun to take on passengers.
“We’re here,” Joe said.
Gwen gave Oedipa a quick hug. “What do you say, Stacy?”
“Thank you for the hot dog, Mr. Joe and Ms. Eddy,” Stacy said.
Oedipa stifled a giggle. “You’re welcome, ladies. Have a good trip to your aunt and uncle’s. Send us some pictures when you get the chance.”
“Goodbye, girls,” Joe said, and then turned to Oedipa. “Shall we?”
“Certainly,” she said. “We don’t want to be late for our rendezvous. By the way, where are we supposed to meet the others?”
“Zeta Gamma. But we’ll have to go back through the Pearl to get there. Our rendezvous is at six hundred hours. We shouldn’t be too late though. It should only take about fifteen minutes to get there.”
Oedipa and Joe returned to the Pearl. A small lift skirted the shops and wall gardens which took them two thirds north of its equator. They were halfway to the next airlock when Oedipa felt eyes on them.
“I know, Eddy. I think we’re being followed. Someone—” Joe winced. “Someone just put a gun to my back, I think.”
A large hand clamped on Oedipa’s shoulder and steered her towards a darkened alcove. She was able to turn her head enough to glimpse the stern face of the stalker from the plane.
“Lady and gentleman, if you’ll please step this way, please. I’d like to have a word with you both,” the stalker said in a low growl.
He shoved the couple into the alcove. They turned to face him. The stalker had seemed imposing on the plane, but his frame was even larger than Joe’s and his clenched jaw promised a violent temper. Yet Joe’s face turned from concern to anger.
“Hey, that’s not a—”
“Gun?” the stalker said. “You nitwit! You really think I could smuggle a weapon onto a domestic flight? Clearly you aren’t part of the Espionage Division.”
“Who the hell are you and who do you think you are?” Oedipa said.
“Mr. Arthur Radley,” a voice called from behind the stalker. Oedipa recognized Dr. Giles’ voice though she couldn’t immediately see around the large stranger. “I assumed I’d find you here.”
“You know him?” Joe asked in disbelief.
“Of course,” Giles said, glowering at the three of them. “However, a public place may not as good a venue for a reunion as, say, our rendezvous on the Icarus.”
“Giles,” Radley said, wheeled around to face the SETECH director. “Glad to see you, sir. Which is more than I can say for these two stool pigeons.”
“Mr. Radley, don’t forget that we are all on the same side,” Giles said and then addressed Joe and Oedipa. “I thought I mentioned while were Earth side that discretion was a paramount requirement for this mission.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Giles,” Oedipa said. “I didn’t know he was part of our team.”
“Then why did you stare at me during the entire flight?” Radley said. “Were you aware that you probably made me and put all our lives in jeopardy?”
“Hey, you stared at me first! I thought you were a creeper, stalking me. How was I to know you weren’t planning to kill Joe and me? I’m not sure that I don’t still think you are a stalker.”
Radley tapped his ear. “I have a chip in my inner ear that taps into my optic nerve. I can isolate sounds with it and listen in on conversations. I was staring at you to calibrate the chip, not ogle your lady parts.”
“Now I’m sure you’re a stalker.”
“What are you supposed to be?” Joe asked. “Some sort of spy?”
“Counter-espionage, actually,” Radley said. “I’m the guy the spies fear. Or I would be, so long as the girl and her boy toy didn’t ID me for the nice lady spy from Global and Galactic.”
“Boy toy? Really?” Joe said. “This from the man dressed like a psycho interpretation of a teen pop star.”
“Children,” Dr. Giles interjected. “Could we really continue the insults somewhere else? We are behind schedule as it is. If we miss our launch window it could be days before we get a chance to leave again—days which could mean the difference between life and death for the crew of the Intrepid.”
“Right then,” Radley said. “The next twelve months are just going to be peachy.”
Oedipa glanced over at Joe, concerned that his testosterone and pride might get the better of him. The muscles in his jaw clenched and his fingernails dug into her arm, but he was keeping himself in check.
“We better follow them,” Oedipa said. “It’ll be okay.”
The group left the alcove and made their way towards the Zeta Gamma airlock. Oedipa noticed several of the soldiers from the plane congregating at a bar near the opening. The bar was dressed up in fake palm trees and grass-skirted women served unnaturally colorful drinks in strange-looking glasses. The bar must have been specifically situated in a dead spot in the Pearl’s artificial gravity, because one soldier bobbed for an amber bubble apparently made of beer while his mates watched and laughed. Oedipa hadn’t questioned why a whole unit would travel on a commercial flight to Asgard when there were military stations they could have used. Were they on leave? If so, why were they in uniform? Were they a security detail come to provide extra protection for some reason? Oedipa felt a pang of panic and knew this time it wasn’t the chemical variety, but the soldiers continued to carouse without noticing Dr. Giles and his secret team.
As they approached the airlock, Oedipa prepared herself from the transition to zero gravity. The floor seemed to tremble a bit and she caught herself before a stumble but then the whole station seemed to shudder and shake. Oedipa completely lost her balance and fell into Joe. Apparently, not all of her ballet training had prepared her for life in space.
“Sorry,” she said. “Still getting the hang of this no gravity thing.”
Joe gave her a concerned look. “I don’t think that was gravity, sweetie. It felt like—”
Suddenly, the lights flickered and then the entire station darkened momentarily. With the light, all sound exhaled from the Pearl. They all stood motionless from shock as the station violently shook for several seconds. Finally, a siren rang out and the Pearl was bathed in emergency red.
“What just happened?”
“It felt like something hit us,” Joe said. “Something big.”
People began to panic around them. The soldiers had fled the bar area and without apparent orders began traffic control to help the local security teams flow like ants from the various corners of the station to wherever the source of the emergency was unimpeded.
“Maybe we can see what’s going on. There’s an observation at the northern pole of the Pearl,” Joe said.
The lifts were inoperable, so Joe led them to a ladder that swarmed with people. Eventually, they made their way to the observation deck, a large cupola of windows that gave a panoramic view of the station from its core. People had already started to gather there or stopped as they passed by, mesmerized or puzzled by what they saw. The effect was eerie.
Initially, Oedipa couldn’t see out the side of the cupola that was drawing all the attention. Radley helped clear a path through the crowd and she followed his lead.
“What’s all the hubbub abou—” Radley said. “Oh.”
Looking to her right, Oedipa scanned the outside of the station. Three other bubbles looked like giant red-speckled eggs nesting atop the blue arc of the Earth. It was hard for her to judge distance, but he lights in the right bubble flickered and Oedipa thought she could see movement through one of the bay windows which she guessed made it the closest. Nestled in the middle, the smallest and furthest of the station bubbles was almost completely dark, except for a flickering on the exposed side of its north pole. What appeared to be a geyser of confetti had shot a plume across the sky as though someone had uncorked a bottle of cosmic champagne. Oedipa pointed out the geyser to Joe.
“What’s that?” she asked, but even as the words left her lips she had her answered. That wasn’t confetti; there were people out there—bodies.
* * *
“So that’s it, right?” Radley said through pursed lips. “This operation is over. We’ve got no ride and half of our team was just flushed out into space.”
“Is that all your care about?” Oedipa said. Her head was throbbing now as she strained to hold back tears. “People died today. They were probably murdered.”
Joe put a hand on her shoulder, but it didn’t help. “Gwen and Stacy were in Zeta Alpha. I don’t think it was affected by the explosion. They’re safe and sound.”
The door to the waiting area opened and Dr. Giles entered solemnly. The room was unfinished, with only a small white conference table and chairs. This probably was the best room because Radley could assure that no listening devices or surveillance could eavesdrop on their conversation. The walls were white but looked sickeningly yellow from the poor quality ambient lighting.
“I was finally able to speak with the station commander,” Giles said. “The fire in Zeta Gamma was contained rather quickly, so there appears to be no further danger to the station but Smith, Patel and Miller were all killed in the initial explosion. Initial count places the causalities at a few dozen. The death toll could have been much worse, but the attack happened during a lull in traffic. There was only one other ship moored on that dock. There’s no word on the cause, but they can’t rule out foul play at this point.”
“That’s perfect. Just perfect. I hope Julius and Ethel here are happy with this covert op fiasco,” Radley spat.
“Listen you—” Oedipa said.
“Oedipa,” Joe interrupted. “Look, he’s probably right. We screwed up and probably gave ourselves away. We’re not trained spies or counter-spies. But we weren’t really prepared properly for this mission, were we, Dr. Giles?”
“No, you were not, and that is entirely my fault,” Giles removed his spectacles and began cleaning them. “However, even if it was foul play—and we have to assume it was—we don’t know for certain that the act was directed at us. There are many ships that depart from that docking area every day.”
“How could it have not been directed at us?” Radley said. “Whatever happened, it happened at the place and time we were supposed to be departing Asgard.”
“Yes, and except for an act of kindness that Oedipa and Joe directed towards two young girls on the plane that delayed our arrival at the rendezvous point, we should all be dead right now,” Giles said coldly to Radley. “I suggest that end the finger pointing part of our mission.”
Oedipa bit her lipped. Dr. Giles’ resolve perplexed her. “But what mission? How can we carry on with half a crew and no means of reaching the Intrepid?”
“Because we must,” Giles said. “No doubt, the company can form a new team, muster the resources and launch the mission. But they will miss their launch window and it will be weeks or perhaps even months before they have another opportunity, during which time our competitors would have opportunity to exploit the apparent loss of our ship and perhaps even organize their own salvage team. More importantly, the crew of the Intrepid will most likely be dead by the time they are reached.”
“If they aren’t already dead.”
“We still need to get to that ship,” Joe said. “I think I know a way.”
Radley pretended not to notice, picking at his fingernails.
“I’m listening,” Giles said.
“Zeta Alpha appeared to be intact and operational when we were on the observation deck, right?”
“That’s correct. The flights from that dock were delayed as a security measure, but it was unaffected,” said Giles. “But there are no vessels capable of taking us into deep space, just shuttles designed for travel to and from the lunar colonies.”
“Exactly,” Joe said. “We can charter one of the smaller private shuttles to the moon, where we can then acquire a deep space vessel. We shouldn’t lose much time that way, provided the vessel we get is fueled and prepped when we arrived.”
Giles snapped his fingers. “Of course, I should have thought of that. I know the commander of the SETECH Lunar Outpost. I can have the Asgard station commander relay a message to him that we are in need of an asteroid excavator, salvage vessel or similar craft. That should be outfitted with the equipment we need.”
“And who’s going to fly it?” Radley said. “This overpaid bus driver? We don’t have a proper crew.”
“This overpaid bus driver has logged more flight time than half of the deep space pilots. The only reason I’m not flying off to Mars or Jupiter is because I—” Joe glanced at Oedipa. She knew what he meant. “I had other plans.”
Giles stood. “We don’t have many options. If this mission is to go forward, we must act quickly and resolutely. Joe’s plan has a reasonable chance of success—or as reasonable as the initial plan had of succeeding. And we can only assume that if someone knows about this mission and has targeted us, they will likely not stop whether we leave this station for the Moon, Mars, or any place else. I’m a veteran of many of these covert corporate wars and I know all sides are ruthless enough to stop at nothing not only to thwart the mission but kill all involved with it. I’m sorry that I got you all involved in this. I had feared the worst but hoped that a quick response would spare us from it.”
He removed a security card from his pocket and tossed it to Joe. “If you need me, I will be in C&C, conferring with Commander Williams and arranging our transport. Mr. Radley, I want us to be better prepared for the next time. We need weapons and security. I trust you have made connections with station security you can exploit. Officially, weapons aren’t allowed on board a civilian facility, there is a weapons locker two floors down from C&C. Joe and Oedipa, I need you to gain access to Zeta Alpha any way you can. We need information about the explosion, whether we were attacked and who might be behind this. If anyone gives you trouble, refer them to me. Any questions?”
Joe and Radley nodded in agreement. They appeared content that their missions meant that they would be separated. Something in Joe’s eyes made Oedipa nervous about his intentions, but she knew to hold her tongue, at least for the moment, until Radley was out of earshot.
“Oedipa, we have to head out,” Joe said, not making eye contact with her.
“Joe, stop for a moment,” Oedipa said. “We have to talk about what just happened.”
Joe shrugged, but Oedipa could see his jaw muscles tighten and his ring finger twitch as he picked his blue outer jacket from the chair. “What just happened is our mission. You heard Dr. Giles.”
“But why is the mission still going, Joe? By all rights it should have ended when our cover was blown and the ship with it. We should be on a transport back to Earth. And instead of a search and rescue mission, the company should be sending a salvage team. Not us.”
Joe grabbed Oedipa roughly by the shoulders. “What are you saying? Lives are at stake. Like it or not, we may be the only ones to save the crew of that ship. When I served in the Air and Space Force, I swore an oath to protect my comrades. The crew of the Intrepid deserve the same from us.”
“But, Joe, this mission has obviously gone from longshot to no chance at all,” Oedipa said. “Dr. Giles and the company clearly underestimated the risks of this mission. And Radley is right; we’re not spies or counter-intelligence or anything. You’re a shuttle pilot and I’m a scientist. If we were targeted, we’re not safe as long as we’re on this mission.”
Oedipa pushed away from him, but Joe didn’t let go. “We’re not safe on Earth. You heard Dr. Giles when he said that if we were targeted, they would come at us again. Like it or not, we have to see this through.”
“I just need to know, that you’re not risking our lives on some macho attempt to show up Radley or to prove to Dr. Giles or the company they were wrong for not picking you for the mission.”
Joe nodded but his eyes still avoided Oedipa’s. “I’m not on some macho mission to prove anything. Radley’s obnoxious alright, but he’d never goad me into risking something as dear to me as you or our relationship.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to me either.”
Now Joe looked her in the eyes. He brushed her wet cheek with his thumb. “Were those tears for the girls or for us?”
“Maybe a little of both. This is all just moving too quickly.”
“I know,” Joe said. “My head’s a little—not right—either. But we’re not going to get right if we don’t keep moving forward. Are you with me?”
“Right,” Oedipa sighed. “But we need to see if SETECH has any lab equipment on this berg—and access some databases. We’ll be checking for residual radiation from a bomb and we’ll need to look for DNA evidence.”
“I’m sure security already has that on location by now.”
“They’re not just going to let us borrow their stuff, even if we work for the same company,” Oedipa said. “There is protocol, you know.”
Joe smiled. “Let me handle that.”
Oedipa grabbed her own jacket, a lightweight brown with yellow trim at the sleeves. They left the room and made their way back to the more populated areas of the Pearl. This time, everything was closed up like a tomb, all nonessential functions shut down until further notice. However, Oedipa was sure that the panicked guests were clustered near the escape pods, in case the station was not out of danger. The only activity they encountered on the promenade was a small group of people gathered around a minister or priest, kneeling in silent reflection.
When they finally returned to the airlock, guards were posted and the opening was sealed with a blast door. The guards appeared to be regular station personnel, dressed in drab grey collarless jumpsuits and without the heavy armor or encounter suits of the space marines she’d seen earlier.
“I guess we should just knock or speak the secret password?” Oedipa asked.
“We could do that,” Joe said. “Or we could—Sam!”
One of the guards looked their way. He seemed to recognize Joe right away. A smile—or rather a smirk—crossed his face as they approached him. The man looked about Joe’s age, maybe a little older, with a touch of receding grey hair at his temples over smashed in nose and a thick scar across his bottom lip. Oedipa wondered if he acquired the scar and nose in the line of duty or a bar brawl. Perhaps he was a retired space marine.
“Joe, you old bus driver, haven’t seen you in a while,” Sam said, slapping Joe on the back. “Was beginning to wonder if you got a sexier assignment to Mars or the Belt. How have you been?”
“Better than you, apparently,” Joe said. “How’s Monica?”
“She’s great,” Sam’s smile broadened. “We got engaged a month ago. I’m sorry you missed it. She’s still working security at the main lunar facility, but we’re hoping to have an Earth-side wedding next year, maybe Hawaii. I was going to send you an invite.”
“Sure, buddy,” Joe said, and then to Oedipa. “I hooked Sam here up with his girl—fiancée a few years ago.”
“Only after he made a move on her himself,” Sam poked Joe in the ribs.
“Should I be jealous?” Oedipa said, noticing Joe’s earlobes turning red with embarrassment. “Should I be playing the jealous girlfriend?”
“It was before we met, Eddy. Funny story though. I was making a supply run to a lunar outpost, Sam was running security detail on my flight and… you were just trying to make me squirm, right?”
“You are sexy when you squirm,” Oedipa said.
“I don’t mind Joe’s sloppy seconds. She’s a good woman. I owe you big time,” Sam said, but then his eyes narrowed as he examined Joe steadily. “Ah, geez, I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I? Why are you here at this airlock, Joe?”
“Sorry to say, Sam, we were supposed to be in Zeta Gamma when the explosion happened.”
“Tough luck,” Sam said. “Or good, considering how many people we lost. Coincidentally, I might have been too except for a minor domestic dispute I had to break up on one of the promenades here in the Pearl.”
“We need to get in there. We left some sensitive equipment in one of the storage units and need to get it back, if it’s still intact.”
“Ah, I can’t let you do that. The airlock’s sealed by the station commander’s orders. The only approved personnel are already onboard Zeta Gamma, and I can’t guarantee your safety until I get the all clear sign. Right now, the only things moving in there are the robotic search and repair teams.”
“It’s important SETECH business,” Oedipa said. “It could cost the company billions of dollars if it isn’t recovered and it’s time sensitive.”
“Really?” Sam said. “What sort of equipment are we talking about? I wasn’t aware of any sensitive shipments being transferred to the station.”
Joe gave Oedipa a concerned look but she squeezed his hand hard to let him know to keep quiet. But Joe didn’t appear to be listening to Oedipa this time.
“Wait a second,” Joe said. “You said that only robotic crews are in that dock now? They evacuated even human personnel? So they don’t think foul play is involved, obviously?”
“I didn’t say that, Joe,” Sam said, eyeing Oedipa suspiciously. “As far as I know, they haven’t ruled anything out, which is why they are keeping tight wraps on the dock.”
Oedipa saw the flaw in Sam’s reasoning that Joe’s questions exposed. “But robotic crews, even controlled remotely by human hands, are a poor substitute for human investigators because of their deficiency in recognizing patterns. So either there is no concern of foul play or your superiors have made a grave error.”
“And if there’s no threat, you can help us,” Joe said. “If there is a threat, it just may be that we can help you as well. I’d like to introduce you to my girlfriend Oedipa Maat. She’s the best biophysicist at SETECH’s deep sea operations. She’s developed bacteria—right, honey?—that can identify and destroy a variety of hazardous biowaste and radioactive material. She would be a better investigator than any droids you might have aboard this station.”
Sam sighed. “I think you’re right, but I still need to pass this through the station commander before I authorize anything. It’s my neck on the line if anything goes wrong.”
“You should,” Joe said. “In fact, our supervisor—a Dr. Craven Giles, assistant director of the Research and Development branch—is probably meeting with your commander as we speak. I’m sure he’d put a good word in for us.”
Sam chuckled. Oedipa could see the tension leave his face. “Fair enough. I think we can wait and let the higher ups know if and when we’ve found your missing equipment. One big happy corporation, right? I can let you into Zeta Gamma on one condition: I go with you. My team can handle a simple guard duty without me.”
“Fine,” Joe said. “Just like old times.”
“Follow me,” Sam motioned them away from the airlock. “The airlock has to remain sealed, but I know a scenic route that’ll get us in. And you’re not packing any equipment it seems so we can grab some on the way.”
The security chief led them two levels down and through a security door. Beyond was a supply locker containing an array of tools and sensors. There were locked grey containers mounted on the far wall marked for security personnel only that Oedipa assumed is where spare weapons were kept. Her eyes were drawn to Sam’s own sidearm, which she had seen on police officers on Earth before. It was a short baton that ended not in a muzzle but a parabolic shield. It emitted a directed energy beam that “cooked” its target. It made sense for situations in which law enforcement needed a nonlethal solution to crowd control and it probably made even more sense in space, where a gunplay could put the entire station at risk or accidentally damage sensitive equipment. On the side wall, a half dozen EVA suits were lined up.
“This is what you mean by scenic route?” Oedipa felt herself freeze up.
“Don’t worry, Eddy,” Joe said. “It’s not much different from your dives. You’ve lived under the ocean for the last three years after all. The only major difference is the boots. When their active, you plant your foot using you’re the ball of your foot and rock back on your heel to release by leaning back on your heel.”
“You call her Eddy? Seriously? That’s a very boyish nickname for a very—girlish—figure,” Sam said, handing them each an EVA suit. “Grab what gear you need and suit up. It’s not a short walk from the outside.”
“I like the name,” Oedipa said matter-of-factly.
They donned the EVA suits and climbed into the airlock together. The suits were surprisingly snug and less bulky than Oedipa had expected, but not as light as the skin-tight diving suits she had worn during her work at Aquarius. Joe gave a quick tap on her helmet and hooked a tether from his waste to hers.
“I can hear you, Joe,” Oedipa said. “And Sam.”
“Just remember. Ball. Plant. Heel. Release.”
Sam gave a thumbs up, then sealed the inner doors behind them. The outer doors opened to black sky. Oedipa climbed out of the opening after Joe and immediately felt the tug of the station’s artificial gravity give way to weightlessness. She steadied herself against a set of handholds until she was sure her boots were active and planted against the outer hull. She moved unsteadily at first, but as Joe had pointed out, it wasn’t hard to master.
“Don’t look up, Eddy,” Joe said.
“Why?” Oedipa asked as she instinctively raised her eyes, then emitted a brief “oh” as she watched the vast blue and white dome of the Earth hover overhead. She was swept by competing feelings of awe and nausea. Joe must have noticed her expression through her visor and tugged on the tether.
“I said don’t look up.”
“You knew I would,” Oedipa said. “Why does anyone ever say that in this situation? Don’t look up or down while climbing. They always do.”
“Sorry, honey. It was a vain hope that I could help keep you from losing your cookies.”
“Look, guys, we’re heading for that side airlock just aft of the main connector,” Sam said. “Just follow my lead. And keep your cookies in your stomachs.”
Making their way to the airlock did take much longer than the direct route, but once there, Sam entered a security code and they easily slid into the compartment. The outer doors slid shut and after a few moments, the compartment pressurized and the inner doors opened.
“Keep your suits on,” Sam said. “I still register that we’re venting atmosphere in this section. It’s probably a slow leak, but it suggests the automated emergency systems are functioning well enough to quarantine the affected areas.”
“We should proceed with caution, then,” Oedipa said. “Let’s check out ground zero first and see if we can’t figure out what went wrong.”
“Keep your eyes open,” Sam said. “There may still be some bodies of victims who were trapped in here after we locked down the pod.”
The halls of Gamma Zeta were ghostly and dark now that power had been lost. The only light was emitted from the torches on their helmets and a few self-powered emergency lights that cast a yellow pall over their surroundings, dissipated by a fog created as the air had thinned in the depressurized sections. For some reason, the corridors felt more cramped to Oedipa than they had before, though certainly she had been in darker situations at the bottom of the ocean floor, where darkness and immense pressures covered any visitor like an immense blanket of lead. The walls and banks of plants were covered with a strange frost.
Joe and Oedipa gave each other discreet glances as the signs of the leak Sam detected led them to the docking areas on the aft side of Gamma Zeta, in the vicinity of the same sections where they were supposed to rendezvous with Giles and the rest of his team. In a few minutes, they had floated to the traffic control room for the module. Slumped over the control panel was the rigid form of a man’s body. He was frosted like the rest of the surroundings and his appearance seemed unreal to Oedipa. Upon further inspection, she noticed that he was not slumped over the panel as much as tethered to it as though he had been gripping at the panel for dear life at the moment of death. His face was twisted in pain.
“He died manning his post,” Joe said glumly.
“Help me get him off of there,” Sam said. “I might be able to restore power to that terminal and we can collect data from the moment the explosion occurred and see what he saw right before things got frakked up.”
They moved the body from the terminal and carefully anchored it out of the way. Sam tagged it for the droid crews to identify and retrieve. Then, he drew a portable generator out his pack and began to work on a panel on the underside of the terminal. A spider-like shadow flitted across the wall in front of Oedipa, causing her stop dead in her tracks.
“Don’t worry, Eddy. Just a repair droid. There are dozens of them searching the wreckage,” Joe said, and then Oedipa saw what he meant. Several little eight-legged mechanical drones skittered through the room on their way to assigned tasks. She was used to the worm-like drones that serviced Aquarius, but these were no different, though their insectoid shape made them look creepier.
“Is there any way I can get to ground zero from here and check it out visually?” Oedipa asked Sam.
“I would guess that since the ship that was docked near here was severed from the station during the blast and from the radiation signature I’m getting, it would have to be near the umbilical if not dead on. Use the service corridor and go one level up. That would seem like a good place to start.”
“I’ll come with,” Joe said.
Oedipa and Joe followed Sam’s directions towards the umbilical that connected one of the ships that had been. It was not hard to locate ground zero of the explosion. The umbilical was ripped to shreds and the concourse open to the vacuum of space. There were no bodies here but likely because they were all sucked out of the compartment with everything else that wasn’t bolted down. Miraculously, the docked ship dangled precariously by the bare remains of the umbilical. The cigar-shaped ship was tilted and appeared to be almost twisted, with a crater partially visible on its portside. It was listing so that its underbelly with the shadowed form of the SETECH monogram could be seen.
“This doesn’t look good. We won’t be able to examine the ship,” Joe said. “I don’t trust the stability of that umbilical and we don’t have the equipment on us to make it navigable should it decide to break loose and send us on a collision course with Earth.”
“I’m not sure we need to,” Oedipa said, running her hand against the blackened marks along the wall nearest the blast area. “You said it felt like we were hit by something. The blast pattern and the faint radiation signature I’m getting suggest this wasn’t an internal explosion. I think we were hit.”
“Micrometeorite? Space garbage?”
“Can’t tell. However, most space garbage has been mapped or neutralized at this orbit. A micrometeorite is possible but I don’t recall any reports of meteor showers and this damage seems too severe. Anyways, traces of iridium or even particles of the silicate chondrules would be fairly obvious on the sensors,” Oedipa said. “Let me get some more readings.”
“A missile, perhaps? Rogue satellite? No, that doesn’t sound right. A missile or satellite would have been armed with some sort of nukes or neutron bomb. They could have utterly devastated this station.”
“Unless they were trying to avoid detection. A nuke or other weaponized device would have been spotted thousands of miles away and countermeasures against it could have been deployed. This must have hit without warning.”
“So… conventional explosives then?”
“I—” Oedipa was scanning the outer hull when something strange caught her eye. “There’s something odd about this hull. It appears to have been changed at the molecular or atomic level.”
Joe floated towards her, peering over her shoulder. “That’s unusual?”
“It is because it’s still happening.” Oedipa’s heart caught in her throat. She had never seen anything like it. She checked the calibrations on her scanner, certain that there must be something faulty with the equipment. But the readings were the same. “The chemical composition of this wall is changing.”
“Is that possible?”
“I can’t answer that. I can’t imagine what sort of agent would cause a spontaneous reaction like this. Fluoroantimonic acid?” Oedipa said. “Dammit!”
“It’s okay. Just think this through. Let’s start with the obvious. The molecular morphing probably didn’t create that hole in the hull,” Joe said, flashing his helmet about the compartment as he tuned his scanner. “Wait. There’s something. Fragments. Not part of the station.”
Joe crouched in the far corner of the compartment. He picked up shards of something and turned them over in his gloved hand.
“Shrapnel?” Oedipa asked.
“No, too perfectly bifurcated. It looks like some sort of delivery device. Check the molecular structure of this wall.”
Oedipa held her scanner up to the wall. It showed the same signs as the outer hull. “The decay is scattered throughout the room. And it’s spreading.”
“Think it was filled with that acid you talked about? Like someone was playing some sick game of paintball?”
Oedipa shook her head. “The trigger couldn’t have been acid. The decay isn’t dissipating, but spreading and increasing from the areas of impact. Without knowing what agent’s at work here, we can’t hope to stop it.”
“Stop it? So you don’t think reaction is going to quit on its own?”
“It doesn’t appear to be,” Oedipa said. “The acid is bad enough. But something has to be producing it, either a biological agent or—”
“Nanobots. That’s the only thing that makes the slightest bit of sense. They must have been inside that delivery vessel,” Oedipa said, recalibrating her sensors. “But that shouldn’t work.”
“No power source, right?”
“None that I can detect. And without some sort of external power source, these nanobots are nothing more than inert matter, bug splatter on the walls.”
“So we need to find where the juice is coming from.”
“Yes, that would help. But first I want to find the bugs themselves and isolate them, to be sure that’s really what we’re dealing with and see how these things tick,” Oedipa turned the scanner back on the wall before her. It shimmered from floor to ceiling; the bulkhead was nearly saturated with nanobots. Just then, she caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. “What was that? One of the worker drones? How did it get in here?”
Joe flashed his light towards the corner nearest the entrance they came in. “Yep. It’s a spider drone. Must have come in before us. It’s not moving though, just sort of twitching in the corner.”
Joe moved in to inspect the drone. When it didn’t move away from him, he reached down and picked it up in his hand. “I think it’s malfunctioning.”
“Drop it!” Oedipa screamed. “It’s contaminated with the nanobots and the acid.”
Joe involuntarily tossed the spider drone and it skittered across the floor, still twitching whatever remaining limbs were still functional. “What do I do?”
“I don’t know. If you got any on you, either the acid will eat through the suit or nanobots will and you’ll start to vent oxygen,” Oedipa said. “Let me scan you.”
“Wow, so many deadly choices, death by acid, suffocation or being turned into gray goo,” Joe said. “I’m starting to think being in this compartment is bad for my health. Do you think we could leave soon?”
Oedipa scanned Joe as quickly as she could. Her breath began to come in quicker, shallower bursts as she felt panic well up inside her. She fought it off with a shake of her head. “Left glove, tip of your pinky. Just hold still. It’s not much. If I can get to it quickly enough I can isolate the nanobots in containment and off your suit.”
“How are you going to do that without taking off my finger?”
“There are only a few hundred in your glove and they are just on the surface for now,” Oedipa said. “If I just scrape the top few layers, it should be enough to get them all without compromising the integrity of your suit. Hold still.”
Oedipa used HOD display in her visor to help her isolate the nanobots, which looked like tiny molecular trucks and bacteria with their tiny flagella whipping them between the molecules of Joe’s suit. She used a microlaser and deftly cut a tiny fragment of the suit and quickly transferred it to a containment unit.
“Are we good?” Joe asked, and Oedipa nodded. Joe then spoke into his com. “Sam, have you heard all that? It’s not safe in here. We’re coming out and we’re bringing a sample of some crap that’s eating this station.”
“Acknowledged,” Oedipa heard Sam say. “I’ve had my hands full up here too.”
“Full of acid-making killer robots?”
“You got me there,” Sam said. “I’ve restored partial power and have the lab in G section operational. I’ll meet you there. Know the way?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “We’ll manage.”
When Joe and Oedipa arrived at the lab, the lights were on and Sam was already there. Oedipa knew that the nanobots in her containment unit would remain isolated for a few hours, but the material wasn’t completely impervious and it would be only matter of time before either the nanobots or the acid broke the containment.
“We need to move quickly,” Oedipa said. “There appear to be at least two different types of nanobots infecting the station. One type is making the acid; the other is manufacturing copies of itself and the other type, depending on what building materials it encounters. That’s actually a good thing.”
“Good?” said Sam.
“It means the replication of acid and new nanobots is slower than if only one type existed to complete one task. That buys us a little time. However, the contamination is growing rapidly and if the amount of nanobots reaches critical mass, it could result in growth spurts we can’t contain.”
“Too bad we couldn’t locate a power source,” Joe said. “You are sure that these things can’t activate themselves?”
“If there is a power source in that compartment, it won’t be possible to locate and disarm it. But if they’re powered externally, it also means they received their marching orders externally, transmitted through space.”
“So we can disrupt it.”
“Or give the nanobots new orders,” Oedipa said. “Like go to sleep—or disassemble. Now, I’m going to aim some ultrasonic signals at the nanobots and see how they react.”
“But wouldn’t that be a problem if whoever sent these were expecting them to work in the vacuum of space? Doesn’t ultrasound require a medium?” said Sam. “What about microwaves?”
“No, we didn’t encounter any microwave radiation in the compartment that was out of the ordinary,” said Oedipa. “But the nanobots appear to have a piezoelectric membrane and the ultrasound waves could be traveling through the hull of the ship, so long as the power source was contact with it.”
“I’ll need to contact C&C,” said Sam. “They should know about what’s really going on down here. We also need to shut down any drone that may have come into contact with the nanobots, just to be sure they don’t spread the contamination more quickly.”
Oedipa injected a saline solution into the containment unit and started the ultrasound. At first, the nanobots appeared to continue their work of seeking out appropriate molecules to manufacture duplicates and acid. Then, the sperm-shaped duplicator bots froze and began spinning in circles.
“It seems to be working,” Oedipa said. “At least, I think I’ve interfered with the original signal.”
“Can you tell them what the hell to go do with themselves?” Joe asked. “Like go back to being inert particles?”
“No,” Oedipa said, and then she kicked herself. “I have a much simpler solution. Sam, can you tell C&C to send an ultrasound wave through the outer hull of Gamma Zeta? It’ll need to be powerful, at 200 decibels. We also need to pressurize as much of the dock as possible, so you might want to keep some of those drones online.”
“I’ll let them know what we need,” Sam said.
“We need to get out of Gamma Zeta before that happens,” Oedipa said. “Ultrasound at that magnitude would kill us more quickly than those nanobots could.”
“Wonderful,” Joe said. “Another way to die.”
Oedipa wasn’t amused by Joe’s flippant remark, but she didn’t have time to think much about it. Sam called in their status to C&C. She couldn’t hear their reply, but she guessed from the security chief’s reaction that it wasn’t pleasant.
“Alright, lady and gentleman, C&C is aware of our situation,” Sam said. “And they’ve chosen to overreact. We’ve got five minutes to clear Gamma Zeta before they send a series ultrasound pulses through the hull. It’ll be localized so we just have to get to the Pearl. I guess you’ll have to retrieve the super-secret equipment of yours later. Hopefully, it’ll still be here.”
“Five minutes? I’d say we have a little more time than that. The nanobots couldn’t have reached critical mass yet. They can’t at least wait until we’re off the dock?” Oedipa protested.
“No complaints, Eddy,” Joe said. “Just move.”
They grabbed their gear, secured their tethers and scurried out of the lab. Oedipa’s memory was eidetic; she could have led the men back herself, but she felt more comfortable letting Sam take the lead as they skimmed along the darkened walls feeling for handholds even before their torches illuminated them. But four minutes elapsed before they were even near the main airlock.
“We’re not going to make the airlock at this rate,” Sam said. “C&C, this is Snyder. Please abort the pulse. We have not cleared the area. Repeat, we have not cleared the area. Abort the pulse.”
There was silence.
“I’ve got an idea,” Joe said. “Quick!”
He tugged on the tether, directing them back through the passages and halls they had used to enter Gamma Zeta. In 30 seconds, they arrived at the airlock. Sam speedily got the outer doors open while Joe fished in his pack for something. Oedipa followed the two men through the opening.
“We’re still in contact with the hull. Don’t activate your boots. Just push off,” Joe said.
Suddenly, they were all free floating. Oedipa was face to face with mother Earth with nothing between them but the timid embrace of gravity. She became aware of her breathing again which came in even more shallow, panicked pants than before. She closed her eyes and imagined floating above the coral reefs with the sergeant fish slipping through the tendrils of kelp.
“Hold on a second,” Joe said. Oedipa opened her eyes as he attached something to his belt and aimed a pistol-shaped device at the Pearl. A second later, there was small flash and a tether tipped with a grappler streaked away and scored a direct hit against the Pearl’s hull. “That should do it. I’ll reel us in. By the way, tell C&C thanks for nothing from me.”
“It’s good to have you on board, Joe. Just like old times,” Sam said, chuckling. “Oh wait, this is nothing like old times.”
* * *
The adrenaline rush Oedipa felt during her experience on Gamma Zeta carried her through the debriefing in C&C. The room was clean and well-appointed, but that was all that she noticed. The nanobots appeared to have been disabled by the ultrasound pulse but no apparent power source could be found. Dr. Giles was there, explaining that he was powerless to override the commander’s order to prematurely activate the pulse but that erring on the side of caution was a virtue even if it risked the lives of three valued colleagues. Giles’ obsessive cleaning of his glasses, however, belied his point and suggested to Oedipa that he was reciting a company line to maintain calm and their cover. The commander was a young man, outwardly polite, but clearly an ambitious corporate climber. He seemed less concerned that his station had nearly destroyed, killing hundreds of people, than he was about the embarrassment that an inquiry into the whole affair would bring.
The commander agreed to help arrange a shuttle to the lunar outpost as soon as possible. Joe agreed to pilot the shuttle and stay on as co-pilot for the rest of the mission. Giles mentioned that he had contacted a few new potential team members at the outpost that he felt he could trust, but didn’t elaborate on what exactly he told them about the mission. When they adjourned, Giles told them that they had earned a few hours of relaxation, but that they should confine themselves to the quarters the commander provided for them on Zeta Alpha. Oedipa thought she might ask if she could on the girls from the space plane, Gwen and Stacy, but she doubted Giles would approve of it.
It wasn’t until she and Joe slipped into a small blue hotel room that Oedipa allowed the wave of emotions she had been putting aside for hours to sweep over her. Her eyes burned but she couldn’t cry. The tears just welled up in her eyes until her vision blurred. She looked around for some towels or tissue. But that only made it worse.
“What’s wrong, Eddy?” Joe asked, wiping her eyes dry with the corner of his sleeve, but Oedipa turned away. Her mother had always told her that crying was emotional blackmail. Intellectually she knew this was untrue, but she still didn’t want Joe to see how distraught she was.
“Nothing,” she said. She slipped into the cocoon-like bed mounted on the wall. It must have been a honeymoon suite because a curved mirror rested on the far wall and within arm’s reach a portal revealed a sliver of ghost-like moon. “I just need some rest.”
Joe slid in beside her and nuzzled her neck and passed his hand across her stomach. Yet, she turned away from him again, involuntarily.
“That’s not nothing,” Joe said. His hand froze and his lips moved away from her ear. “That’s definitely a whole lot of something. Want to share?”
“It’s—” Oedipa struggled to form the words. “Well, haven’t you thought this thing through, Joe? We almost died two hours ago. Someone is trying to kill us, someone with technological capabilities beyond those known of governments, SETECH or its main competitors. And if we aren’t murdered, a million other things could go deadly wrong. There’s a very real likelihood that this mission will be a failure, that we won’t ever see home again.”
“I don’t think about that, Eddy, or I try not to,” Joe said. “As a pilot, I live with a certain amount of risk every time I put a shuttle in the air or into space. I have to be on top of my game 100 percent during a mission and trust my training and preparation will get me through. Doubt is what gets you killed in space, not the million things that could go wrong.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“You can. You’re strong. Stronger than me,” Joe said. “We’ll get through this. A year from now, we’ll be back on Earth. We’ll be planning a big luau wedding like Sam and Monica and deciding where we want to settle down and raise our kids. I hear that the division in Scotland is always seeking biophysicists.”
Oedipa kissed Joe softly on the cheek. He had said that to comfort her and settle her fears with the promise of a normal life. It hadn’t worked though. Doubt had already crept in.
* * *
That was the last straw. Oedipa held the wet strand of wheat in her small hand and let it roll between her fingers. Earlier, when it had been dry, her father had given her the duty of prepping the raw wheat stalks for his work. One snip above the top knuckle and she could slip straw free from the shaft and drop it in a tub of water to soak. The soaking made the straw pliable enough to bend without breaking.
Her father smiled as she passed it to him. “You saved the best one for last.”
Oedipa’s father had a gentle, youthful face that never betrayed his real age. After he took the straw, he snipped the beard off and set it aside. He then slipped the narrower end into the opening another straw and continued to weave. The straws passed one over the other as his nimble fingers worked in a clockwise motion, never stopping or slipping until the straw seemed to disappear into a complex helix like the DNA she’d read about in her schoolbooks. It almost hung to the floor from where he sat at his workbench. After he tied off the loose ends, he produced two more spiral ropes of wheat from the workbench and within minutes had braided the three ropes together to form a large wreath. He added several colored flowers to the bottom of the wreath which he’d made earlier using plaited wheat straw and dried corn husks dyed orange, yellow and red. Oedipa loved watching her father work; it almost seemed like magic.
“So what do you think, Eddy? Not bad for a first try, I suppose. Do you think anybody will buy this confection?” he asked.
Oedipa nodded and smiled. Of course, it would. People lined up at galleries and shows to pay for her father’s folk art. He was one of the best, and one of the few remaining independent artisans in the country. No matter how much corporatization and automation could dominate the world economy, there would always be a craving for human handiwork and creativity, he told her.
“Too kind. You should be a harsher critic of your old man,” he said. “Now, let’s see what you made at school today.”
Oedipa looked at her feet, ashamed. But she pulled a large piece of paper from her knapsack and handed it to her father.
“Tell me about this,” he said, examining the figures childishly drawn in ink and watercolors.
“Well, it’s a pink unicorn and it’s riding a rainbow to heaven, where grandma and grandpa live.”
“Isn’t that sweet,” her father said. “It’s lovely.”
“Mommy doesn’t like it. She told me to make a different one for art class.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“She said it wasn’t real, that I wasn’t using my… critical… thinking skills. That rainbows are just light and can’t support a unicorn’s weight. And that anyways unicorns don’t exist and if they did, they couldn’t fly and wouldn’t be pink because they’d be brown or grey to hide from predators,” Oedipa said, feeling tears well up in her eyes.
“But you don’t want a brown or grey unicorn, do you? And you wanted it to fly, right? It doesn’t matter to your imagination what’s possible and what isn’t.”
Oedipa nodded. The tears curled down her cheeks.
“It’s beautiful then. No need for tears.”
“Does mommy love me?”
Oedipa’s father didn’t seem surprised by the question. He picked up his girl and set her on his lap. “Of course, she does,” he said.
“But she doesn’t love me like you do.”
Her father shifted uncomfortably on his stool. “You know, love is universal, but there are as many ways to give and receive it as there are stars in the galaxy. Your mother is a very literal, rational person. She has trouble getting close to people and her love for you is colored by that. Never doubt that she feels love for you. You take after her more than you know. But you’re also part of me. When your mommy and I got married, she wanted to give me the part of herself that was perfect and pure. So she made you. She loves you like she loves herself, because you are the best parts of her. And you’re also the best parts of me. She just struggles to show you all the love that fills her heart. It’s bursting with it, but she just don’t know how to say I love you and feel it.”
“I don’t know. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter. She tries to show us love by making as perfect as she knows you can be, to make us a perfect family. You see this weaving?” he said, holding up the wreath again and pointing to the coils. “You remember what type of weave this is?”
Oedipa nodded. “Spiral.”
“You know why I like spiral weave the best?”
Oedipa shook her head.
“It’s the strongest weave. Alone, I could break anyone of these straws with barely a twitch of my pinky. But woven together, the straws are ten times as strong, and beautiful, as they were before they were woven. The only way that happens is if I make the straws pliable and I treat them with patience and gentleness. They have to bend to meet each other, be flexible, just like we have to be flexible with mommy. She’ll bend towards us if we bend to her. It’s how it works.”
Oedipa buried her head in her father’s chest. She wasn’t sure she believed him—maybe he wasn’t sure if he believed himself—but it made her feel better being with him. She hoped it would always be this way.
* * *
The shuttle to the lunar outpost was Spartan and cramped. Joe squeezed himself into the cockpit and began his pre-flight check. Miraculously, the clothes and scant belongings they had brought along with them had survived after all and were quickly loaded in the belly of the ship. Since there was no co-pilot available that Dr. Giles felt he could trust, Oedipa had been conscripted against her protests to perform the duties. As she considered the situation further, she much preferred being cramped and panicked with the man she loved than confined in the passenger’s quarters with Radley and Giles.
“Look, it’ll be fine,” Joe said as she strapped herself into the seat next to his. “I’ve flown this type of craft dozens of times. I can fly it myself but regulations specify we have two officially listed on the flight register.”
“Just follow my lead and it’ll be just fine,” he said. “You were a natural with the mini-subs, remember?”
“I remember that I almost got us killed over that volcanic vent and nearly wrecked a million dollar sub.”
“But we lived. You know what they say about any landing you can walk away from.”
“A happy landing?”
“Better believe it,” Joe smiled.
“Your optimism isn’t borne out by any empirical evidence.”
“That’s another reason you love me, right?”
There was no sense in arguing further, so she just smiled in reply. With the doors to the cockpit open, Dr. Giles could be heard puttering about the forward sections of the passenger quarters.
“I hope you guys are getting comfortable back there,” Joe called back to them through the intercom. “This crate will take its sweet old time getting to the lunar base. Best estimate is two days, 22 hours. And it appears that we could encounter some interesting solar activity along the way, based on the latest forecasts I’ve received.”
“Just get us there in one piece, if you please, Mr. Casta,” Giles said.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“It’s not that, Joe,” Giles said. “We just can’t afford much more ‘bad luck’ if this mission is to succeed. We’ve already had our share.”
Bad luck? Oedipa thought. Is that what we’re calling what’s happened so far?
“For what it’s worth, I have no confidence in you, pilot,” Radley said. “In my opinion, we’ll be lucky we aren’t ripped in half trying to decouple from the station.”
“In that case, it’ll be a good thing that my half of the ship will be the only part that will survive. Strap in. I’ve got the all-clear sign from C&C.”
There was a sudden jolt as the docking clamps released from the ship. Joe maneuvered the ship away from the station and locked in their course and trajectory. Then, when they were free and clear of the dock, the low rumble of the engines kicked on briefly and Asgard and Earth slowly tumbled away behind them. Oedipa followed Joe’s directions promptly if imperfectly, but he seemed pleased and seemed to allow himself to relax once they were a half hour into the journey. Just then, the comm buzzed.
“What could they want now?” Joe grumbled. “It’s a data only transmission.”
“Maybe it’s an update on that solar activity,” Oedipa offered.
“No,” Joe said, his expression growing more concerned. “This message might be for you. Dr. Giles, I’m going to patch you in on this too.”
Joe sent the file to Oedipa’s terminal. It was an update on known casualties from the attack on Gamma Zeta. Under deceased, she recognized the names of their would-be team members which were accompanied by photos along with others, obviously station personnel. Under missing, there was a picture of a young husband and wife from Phoenix and their son of 12, who had apparently been boarding another ship had been docked near theirs. But also missing was a woman in her mid-40s named Betty Mimna, an employee of Global and Galactic. The picture that accompanied the name seemed to be distorted, but gave Oedipa a sudden chill. The wrinkles had been ironed out, the hair shortened and colored and the chin sharpened to a more youthful point, but she recognized the eyes which stared back at her from the screen—Chatty Cathy.
“Didn’t you say you thought you saw our neighbor on the spaceplane?” Joe asked. “Do you think she could be a relative?”
“Relative? Cathy never mentioned any contact with kin. This is either a very strange coincidence or—”
“Or no coincidence at all,” Giles chimed in. “This could be your neighbor, a sleeper agent for Global and Galactic.”
“But how? Why?”
“I’m right there with you, honey. Why would either of us be worth attaching a sleeper agent to. Before this mission, we’ve really been privy to no sensitive corporate information worth that kind of trouble. And we’ve known Cathy for almost two years.”
“I can’t answer that yet,” Giles said. “It’s another layer to what is quickly becoming a progressively intricate labyrinth of intrigue and deceit.”
“And what does our counter-espionage expert have to say about this turn of events?”
“The counter-espionage expert is looking into it,” Radley growled, but then his tone softened and almost seemed contrite. “But… this is highly irregular.”
“Have we cleared the station and locked in our course, Joe?” Giles asked.
“Yes, we have.”
“Then perhaps you and Oedipa should get some rest. Radley and I can monitor the solar activity for a few hours while we work out some theories on our attackers. You’ve both earned it.”
“Will do,” Joe said. “I’ll have the auto-pilot patched in to our quarters. It’ll wake us if we’re needed.”
Oedipa followed Joe out of the cockpit and floated past the others to the crew quarters in the rear of the ship. They strapped themselves into the sleeping bags along the Spartan walls of the compartment. They didn’t say much, but Oedipa was always amazed at how quickly and easily Joe could go to sleep. She closed her eyes too, but she couldn’t really sleep.
* * *
Achilles was too tired to move and yet too hungry to sleep. Though his eyesight was dimmed and balance unsteady, the cat finally realized that there were no people alive on the other side of the door that could save him from slow starvation and dehydration. He abandoned his post at the foot of the door and shambled back the way he had come.
The halls were almost deathly silent. The only sounds that could be heard by a feline ear were the faint hum of the engines and the cat’s own paws padding lightly against the cool white floor. Whatever had overcome the crew had done so quickly and without warning. There was not even enough time to sound an alarm or activate an emergency system. Yet, the automated systems on the ship were still functional. The environmental controls kept the ship’s temperatures from dipping into subfreezing temperatures and the scrubbers were operational enough along with the botanical gardens in the mid-decks to keep the air circulating and relatively fresh for its last living occupant. Still, the cat was dying.
Achilles recalled the path he had taken to the door after he had awoken from his nap. He had been in the botanical beds, curled up under a dwarf lemon tree. It was only a few decks away. He had originally been lured there by the scent of catnip in an adjoining tray and it was a cozy corner that was rarely disturbed, except by the ship’s botanist who often petted him and fed him some wheat grass trimmings.
The cat turned a corner and made his way towards B deck. The colors were more muted there and the lighting less harsh, at least outside the botanical sections. Halfway down the hall, a short ladder connected to the B deck. Achilles waivered when he reached the first rung. He seemed uncertain whether his weakened hind legs could support his full weight, even as the gravity weakened as the spinning parts of the ship began to lose power and their rotation slowed.
But thirst and hunger were powerful motivators. The cat struggled and slipped as his chapped paws furtively grasped at each rung. Near the top, a back leg slipped and the cat nearly toppled head over tail back into the hallway. Miraculously, ears flattened in anger as much as desperation, Achilles hefted enough of his weight onto B deck to keep from sliding backwards. The cat purred for the first time in almost three days, but it was to cope with stress. He paused to catch his breath, his bony body stretched along the floor as though he was sunbathing and his eyes closed.
Finally, he mustered the strength to pick himself up and walk the final 20 feet to the door leading to the botanical beds. Fortunately, this door had somehow been frozen open. Achilles found himself among the greenery and was somewhat comforted to find the lemon tree. He crawled into the spot in the fragrant peat-based soil and squatted there for a long time.
It was only after nearly an hour passed that he noticed not everything was as he’d left it. Even though it had only been a few days, the plants looked bedraggled or overgrown. There was a whir and then a sudden rush of air that rustled the leaves of his lemon tree and startled the cat before it remembered that it was just the automated fans circulating the air through the room. After that noise had died down, Achilles noticed a new sound—a slow drip.
The cat’s hunger had been excruciating, but once a belly has been empty for long enough, the hunger pains dissipate. Thirst was foremost on Achilles mind. He got up and drifted towards the sound of the drip, hoping that this was not like the laser lights that the botanists like to project at him, a trick of the senses.
The drip seemed to come from underneath a tray of sweet peas. The vines were no longer firmly attached to their trellis and were curled over the edge of the tray or clinging to each other suspended in a mid-air dance. Achilles noticed a spot that was darker than the rest of the floor. It was moisture, but, to the cat’s dismay, it had nearly all but evaporated. There was not even enough to moisten the tip of his nose. Achilles sniffed furtively around the spot for more signs of water.
Then, he heard another drip, this time just to his left. Looking up, he found the source. The pipes running beneath pea plant tray had cooled and enough condensation had collected to cause a slow drip. Achilles didn’t understand this, just that he had found new life. He eagerly licked the pipe with his tongue until his chin was damp from the condensation. The water tasted sweet and rich like honey to the dying cat.
After his drink, Achilles remembered his hunger and cast about for food. The strength returned to his legs and he began to climb the trays and fill his belly with whatever vegetation he could force down his throat. In the past, the botanist or one of the other crew members had scolded him about climbing into the higher trays and fertilizing it or digging up plant roots. However, as Achilles now knew, there were no scolding hands or angry squirt bottles to stop him now.
Achilles was munching on the wheat grass when the ship shuddered and there was a loud thunderous boom coming from the direction of the aft deck. The hair on the cat’s stood up and his body instinctively stiffened at the fearful noise. The explosion was followed by several rattling thuds and then what sounded like a steady rainfall in the hallway outside the compartment. The cat began to wonder if he was still alone.
* * *
“We’re all alone,” Oedipa said.
Joe seemed nonplussed by the lack of welcome at the lunar station. Their ship had landed over a half-mile from the base at a non-descript landing pad on a flat plain of grey dust. An unmanned rover was left behind, seemingly as an afterthought, for them to use to access an underground tunnel that led to the domed structure on the horizon against the jagged teeth of a lunar mountain range. Oedipa recalled Joe referring to them as the “mountains of eternal light” because they were almost always lit by the sun, although as she made her way off the ship and into the shadow cast into ancient volcanic caldera choked with the fine dust the booster engines had kicked up on landing, she considered whether it could also refer to the noticeable lack of illumination everywhere else.
“Well, maybe they heard about what happened on Asgard and decided to hide, lest they catch whatever bad luck we brought with us,” Joe said, but his hint of smile disappear when he looked around at the darkened and unamused faces surrounding him. “Or maybe they’re just gone underground on account of the dangerous solar activity headed this way. By the way, for that reason, we probably shouldn’t do a lot of sight-seeing.”
They loaded their belongings into the rover and set off into the tunnel. It was dimly lit, perhaps an excavated lava tube. An automated greeting on the rover’s front console gave them a brief history of the lunar base and a basic geology lesson about the caldera and moon in general—basic tourist information. The rover chugged slowly down the tunnel but there wasn’t much to see in the darkness and dust.
“I thought this was a tourist hotspot,” Oedipa said. “Who would want to come here?”
“There are different kinds of tourists, Eddy,” Joe said.
“I meant, who besides adventurers and scientists? This isn’t Paris or a Caribbean cruise, after all. I always thought tourists sought out more mundane pleasures.”
“You’d be surprised.”
About 15 minutes after they entered the mouth of the cave, they began to see the dim lights of the lunar base entrance ahead. The outer doors were larger than Oedipa expected and steel grey. With a thin coating of dust that seemed to perpetually hang over everything, the manmade structures of the base almost seemed camouflaged against the back wall of the cavern.
“The computer says it took two years to hollow out this ancient lava tube and install the framework of the facility.”
“Yes,” Joe said. “So I’ve heard. About every time I’ve made a shuttle run here.”
“It’s an engineering marvel to rival the pyramids. I would have loved to have been here when the robotic excavators were tunneling out the regolith or when the first surveyors were scouting and fine tuning the plans for our first off-world colony.”
“You couldn’t have, Eddy. You were in high school,” Joe chuckled. “But you’re right. It’s pretty awe-inspiring every time I have a chance to think about it.”
Radley called from the back seat: “Hey, if you guys are done admiring the view, you might notice that the garage door is still down and we haven’t been granted access yet.”
Joe parked the rover in front of the largest of doors. “Not a problem,” Joe said. “Have you ever visited the lunar base before, Mr. Radley?”
“Only once. Years ago, while I was still in college. Is there a point to your asking?”
“No need to get defensive,” Joe said, tapping a few numbers into his touchpad. “It’s just that if you’d been a lowly shuttle pilot as I have, you’d have been granted access codes to the base. In short, I have clearance and don’t have to ask to come in, at least not into the decontamination area. It’s sort of like they left a key under the mat if you know where to look for it. Eddy, would you like to say the magic word?”
“Perfect! That will suffice,” Joe said. “And voila.”
The door opened slowly, revealing an antechamber and a bright white door beyond with the SETECH logo splashed largely across it. Joe shifted the rover back into gear and drove it into the antechamber. Oedipa heard Dr. Giles stifle a brief chuckle.
“And what is it you find so funny, sir?” Radley demanded.
“Pride, Mr. Radley,” Giles said. “Yours has been on ample display thus far. In Greek tragedy, it usually is what precedes a fall. As amusing as it has been at times, that’s not why I selected you for this mission. I chose you for your competence and loyalty. But if we are going to succeed, we’re going to need to rely on each other. So I suggest that you and Joe bury the hatchet along with your egos for the duration of this mission. And that’s an order.”
“In that case, good job, Joe,” Radley said, as he slapped Joe on the back in mock congratulations, but Oedipa swore she heard him follow that with a muttered obscenity.
The time spent in the decontamination chamber was brief and uneventful. Oedipa had been through plenty throughout her career and this one was cursory, with the only added inconvenience of a few droids with magnetic hoses that emerged to suction off the moon dust from their bodies and equipment.
Soon afterwards, the inner doors opened automatically and they were ushered by more service droids through what the automated guide referred to as the Neil Armstrong Tunnel. The walls shimmered ethereally with a visual story of lunar exploration retracing many of the same the points the guide had covered back on the rover.
“When do we get out of this tourist trap?” Radley said.
“Soon,” Joe said. “Look, there’s a welcoming party.”
Sure enough, at the end of the tunnel, decked in a khaki-colored spacesuit, was the welcoming party—one person.
“Director Giles,” a curt voice said. Oedipa couldn’t tell from the shape of the suit or the timbre of the voice whether the speaker was male or female, but it sounded vaguely Scottish. “I was sent by Director Skinner to escort you to safety. Please come with me quickly. There’s no time to dawdle like the tourists.”
Radley grunted. “Dawdle? Tourists? Maybe they should stop treating us like tourists.”
“Or pariah,” Joe said glumly.
“Is this something new?” Oedipa asked Joe.
Joe shrugged. “I’ve done many runs to moon base, even during solar storms, but never have gotten a cold shoulder like this.”
The space-suited greeter paused at the entry to a smaller hallway and said curtly: “Will you follow me, please?”
“These are extraordinary circumstances, after all,” Giles said. “We should take heed of Director Skinner’s young… errrrr… pardon, but I didn’t catch your name. Are you the director’s personal assistant?”
But the greeter was not interested in small talk. The little group was led through a service corridor that led several meters further into the lunar crust. Here the walls were lined with soft lighted panels that appeared to be designed to mimic windows overlooking a watercolor beach. Oedipa thought it was peculiar that on humanity’s first permanent settlement on a heavenly body outside Earth, people’s first impulse was to try and make the this exciting new home as like their old home as possible. Finally, they arrived at a main hallway which opened into a small lobby, through which they entered into the director’s office. Even in these public areas the absence of people was conspicuous.
“Craven, you old bastard,” a booming voice called from the office. “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your ugly face in these parts, after what you pulled.”
Oedipa and Joe glanced towards Giles with looks of trepidation, but the director’s reaction to the harsh greeting was unreadable. Director Skinner rose from behind his desk, allowing the visitors to take in his imposing 6-foot, 6-inch frame, remarkable for a man who had spent time in a low gravity environment. As the man rubbed his balding forehead, his hand brushed past a jagged scar that creased his cheek all the way from left corner of his mouth to the center of his eyebrow. Oedipa was surprised to see that he had a prosthetic eye; it nearly matched his real eye but somehow seemed discolored and pale. With her own enhanced vision she barely make out the mechanical workings of the artificial iris and lens.
“I’d have thought you’d forgotten that by now, Skinner,” Giles said dryly. “It was a long time ago.”
“Why you slimy piece of British tweed,” Skinner growled and it looked at first that the big man was going to make a hostile move towards Dr. Giles as he pivoted awkwardly on his back feet. Suddenly, he burst into laughter. “How are you doing, you old tar!”
Oedipa and Joe exchanged confused looks and Radley grumbled: “Don’t look at me. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Director Skinner embraced the smaller director in his burly arms and with the flick of his wrist dismissed their androgynous greeter. Giles did not say anything, but Oedipa thought she detected a hint of relief in his eyes, suggesting that Skinner’s anger was not all a feint to obscure a brotherly love.
“You know Dr. Giles, I assume?” Joe asked.
“We go way back, Craven and I. “He and Edson and I were brash young future executives at the Disney management academy together. We were thick as thieves, as they say.”
“We weren’t like thieves, Skinner,” Giles said. “We were thieves.”
“However, at least one of us made a better thief than the others,” Skinner said. “And that thief, I assume has something to do with why you are darkening my lunar doorstep, eh, Craven?”
Giles relief seemed to evaporate quickly. “Why would you assume that man has anything to do with why I am here? What do you think we are here for, Skinner?”
Skinner returned to the chair behind the desk and turned his gaze skyward. “This moon base is the hub of space exploration and we stand at the nexus of SETECH’s future. I see and hear a great deal from my perch, and I predicted your arrival, perhaps even before you were assigned to recover a certain missing starship.”
Oedipa felt her skin crawl at mention of the Intrepid. Skinner had equal rank in the company as Dr. Giles but if Giles was to be believed, there was supposed to be no one outside of himself and his hand-picked crew who would have knowledge of the mission. Yet, at every step so far, someone had been waiting for them. Even though Skinner was SETECH, Oedipa knew that upper management was extremely competitive and a few had gained renown for dismantling whole divisions in order to climb the corporate ladder or destroy a rival. Still, she wondered if any of them were cold and cruel enough to commit murder in order to get ahead—and the loss of the Intrepid threatened to damage SETECH Corp. as a whole, not just a small branch.
“How did you know?” asked Giles. “No, let me venture a guess—a spy at corporate headquarters, perhaps one of the more attractive administrative assistants still loyal to you, or perhaps you left behind a cleverly hidden sleeper virus to track secure communications? I know your tricks well.”
“No, no tricks,” Skinner said. “You didn’t think you could keep news of a missing ship hidden forever, did you?”
“No, but we were hoping for at least a few moments in order to clean up the mess and keep things under control. Apparently, that was wishful thinking on my part.”
“Apparently,” Skinner said, and then leaned forward. “Look, we’re on the same team, all of us. And the moon base, the Bifrost wormhole, Tempest and dozens of outposts are affected by what goes out there in the black. I deduced that the Intrepid was in trouble even before corporate did. When I realized I’d been kept in the dark, I tapped into several listening posts in the Belt and the outer regions and even sent my own probe in search of the Intrepid. I don’t like being kept out of the loop. You know that. So don’t give me that look of indignation. And I also heard of your difficulty on Asgard. You need me, Craven. And I’m willing to help.”
“What sort of help are you proposing, Director Skinner? Oedipa asked.
“Well, after I heard of the tragedy on Asgard and Dr. Giles made a rather clumsy impromptu inquiry into my personnel files—yes, Craven, I noticed that you little bug you piggy-backed on the message about the excavator— I deduced that you might have been made a bit shorthanded for your mission. I also know that docks damaged by the explosion must have been where outbound ships were moored. Now that I see that Captain Casta is among your party, I know that his inquiries about an excavator vessel suggest that you are also without a ship.”
“He certainly sherlocked that one,” Radley grumbled.
Giles flashed Radley a piercing glance but continued his playful tone with Skinner. “If you know all of this and were aware of the loss of the Intrepid, why didn’t contact corporate with the news?”
Skinner leaned back heavily in his chair and grew silent, his eyes never meeting Giles. “I have reasons. As you know, the senior partners have not been fond of me for some time, which is why they exiled me to this glorified tourist trap while you and Edson have gotten the plum assignments. Still, there are advantages to being free of Earth law and prying corporate eyes.”
Giles’ tone grew more serious. “What do you mean advan… are you coyly suggesting that you intentionally withheld information from corporate about the Intrepid and launched your own investigation into its disappearance without authorization from the partners? Skinner, did you allow your paranoia and bruised ego to jeopardize your career and the lives of those people on the ship so that you could have personal control?”
“That’s quite an accusation, especially when directed at someone who’s offered to help you,” Skinner said angrily. “I might add that my own investigation is about to make contact with the Intrepid any moment now. I expect a report within a few hours from one of the drone ships I sent out and I can tell you it was millions of miles from where it should have been after leaving Bifrost. You and corporate should be thanking me for finding your missing ship and possibly saving us all public embarrassment and government intervention.”
“Thanking you for going rogue? For misappropriating company resources for your own personal hunt for glory? I think you make liberal use of the word help. How is it help to interfere with my investigation and withhold information from me?”
“Now, Craven, really—I”
Giles turned to his team, fists clenched. “Perhaps you all should excuse Dr. Skinner and I. It appears we have business of a sensitive nature to discuss.”
Oedipa was surprised by this turn of events and judged by the dumfounded looks on Joe and Radley’s faces that they were at a loss as well, so Giles added: “That was not a suggestion. I will see you all momentarily.”
Dr. Giles ushered them back into the empty lobby and slammed the door behind them. There were muffled sounds of argument as Oedipa pulled Joe into the corridor beyond. “What just went on in that room? Why do I feel like a child who’s just been kicked out of the house while the parents argue?”
“Look, Eddy, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” Joe said, resting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ve done a few assignments with Dr. Skinner. He can be a headstrong guy and he’s a perfectionist, but I’m sure Dr. Giles can work things out with him.”
Radley let out a short grunt. “I wouldn’t be so sure, captain. I’ve done some digging on our Dr. Skinner. He and Dr. Giles have a long, painful history together, one that the company has tried to keep quiet for many years.”
“What do you mean?” Oedipa asked.
“I mean this,” Radley said and then leaned in closer so that his voice could be heard at a whisper. “Years ago, Giles, Skinner and another man named Edson formed a triad of up-and-coming executives in the corporation. They were the best and brightest and the CEO at the time, I believe it was Joseph Milan, christened one of them as his successor, though he never told anyone who it was. Giles was put in charge of the deep-space operation, Skinner the near Earth, and Edson was head of one of the biotech divisions. It was widely rumored that Edson might have had a slight edge, but it was never for certain. Then, the Bifrost was discovered. The records are unclear as to how the wormhole was discovered, but apparently all three of them had a hand in its exploration. It didn’t take things long to go sour because after the first successful mission and discovery of Tempest, the three men were separated. Edson was given complete control of the deep-space exploration and carte blanche to use whatever resources he could lay his hands on to ensure SETECH was the first to control the wormhole and profit from whatever was on the other side. Giles apparently objected to Edson’s methods, but for reasons I have yet to discover, and Skinner was exiled here to manage lunar operations.”
Oedipa sighed. “There are clearly some hard feelings between Giles and Skinner, but the wormhole was discovered almost 15 years ago. Do you think that’s it?”
“That’s an awful long time to hold a grudge,” Joe added.
“I’ve seen worse grudges,” Radley said. “Things are very cutthroat at corporate HQ. Most of the low level employees—no offense to the both of you—don’t get involved in all the politicking that goes on at the higher levels.”
“Perhaps that’s a good thing,” Oedipa said, pursing her lips. “I don’t want to be involved in corporate politics. It’s never been my area of expertise. How much can we trust Dr. Giles if he’s obviously got an axe to grind that places his own people in harm’s way. Joe, I think we need to excuse ourselves from this mission. I think those poor people on the Intrepid must be dead or will be by the time a rescue mission can be launched, if it can be sent with all of this subterfuge, and we don’t need to endanger our lives for the company, especially one in which we are being lied to by our own supervisors and targeted for murder by another company.”
“You had better reconsider those words, Dr. Maat,” Radley said. He pulled a tablet from his jumpsuit. “The company may not allow you to recuse yourself from the mission, at least not without serious penalties.”
“We were recruited on this mission with the understanding that it was strictly a volunteer basis,” Joe said angrily.
Radley sniffed haughtily and handed Joe his tablet. It was clear to Oedipa that he took some sinister enjoyment in correcting them. “What you call volunteer the company usually refers to as ‘required opportunity.’ You can see right there. It’s a nice clause that they were clever enough to hide deep within the document from the non-legal types and powerful enough to enforce when they see fit. In short, they own you. They own all of us and always have, especially out here.”
“How can this be possible?” Oedipa asked incredulously. “How can we not have been aware of this policy all these years?”
“Few of you worker drones really are,” Radley said. “And it’s really not talked about because it’s not frequently used. But you can bet your ass Dr. Giles or some senior partner would invoke it in this case. And don’t bother trying to seek a legal appeal. Earthly governments have very little jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of the atmosphere. The corporate interest groups have seen to that. There’s nothing you can do but grin and bear it.”
“We could resign,” Oedipa said.
“Eddy, are you serious?” Joe asked.
“And do what?” Radley snorted. “You know that SETECH is one of the biggest corporations with tentacles in every country and every populated part of the solar system. You won’t be able to work anywhere in your profession if the senior partners don’t wish it and, Ms. Maat, no offense, you don’t really strike me as a menial labor sort of woman.”
“But why don’t you seem upset about it?” Joe asked. “You’re just as trapped as the rest of us, right? And you don’t seem to be any more enthusiastic about this mission either.”
“I’m not,” Radley said. “I grew up in Florida, back when there was such a place. I’ve just learned when it’s best to bend with the wind, especially when it’s a hurricane that’s blowing.”
“So that’s it?” Oedipa felt a knot in the pit of her stomach. “You just concede that you are just a pawn and throw away your life and career on a mission that might not accomplish anything?”
“I haven’t thrown away anything yet, Missy,” Radley said. “Listen, apart from almost being killed at Asgard, this trip hasn’t cost me anything, besides the headache of having to tag along with the two of you. There’s still a chance this mission will be successful and we’ll have done our job and saved a lot of lives. There’s a chance those poor bastards on the Intrepid are dead, but we’ll still do our job and save the company some face. And then there’s the distinct possibility that this mission has been screwed since the beginning and we’ll spend the next several days playing moon golf and sipping on lunar shakes before we’re sent back to our normal duties planetside. You just have to play it cool, got it? Let’s not lose our heads, right?”
Oedipa was about to retort that she had not lost her head and that she understood all the possibilities, but Joe cut her off. “He’s right, Eddy. We just have to stick this one out. If Skinner sent a probe to scope out the Intrepid, maybe we’ll find out we’ve come all this way for nothing. Regardless of whether we can trust either he or Dr. Giles, our choices are limited. But I’ll stand by your side no matter what. As long as we’re together, there’s nothing we can’t handle, corporate contracts or no. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll be seeking out the nearest bar.”
Just then, the door to Skinner’s office opened and Giles stepped through. His expression was as illegible as ever, but the moonbase director loomed large behind him and his chin jutted from his scarred faced defiantly even though his posture seemed more stooped than before. They both appeared to have returned to a sort of curt civility. Giles motioned to Oedipa and Radley.
“Come with me, please,” he said. “Dr. Skinner has shown me something that you need to see.”
Oedipa gave Joe a nervous sidelong glance, but he only looked down and cleared his throat, signaling to Oedipa that she had just better go along and keep quiet.
“We’ll wait for you,” Joe said.
“You will,” Radley said curtly. “I need something to drink.”
“My assistant will see to your needs,” Skinner said.
The moonbase director led Giles and Oedipa down another administrative hall to a small observation room. On the far wall, a bay window revealed at last the bustling tourist district that Oedipa had begun wondering was a myth. Above was a skylight through which Oedipa could see a blue sliver of home in the lower right corner. She knew they were meters below the lunar surface but recognized it as he same sort of sun tunnel that was often used to bring natural light down to the lowest levels of Aquarius. A large circular conference table occupied the center and filled up most of the room.
“Dr. Skinner has received the response from his probe,” Giles said. “But I need your opinion about what it means.”
Skinner nodded solemnly and switched on a holographic image of the solar system which then zoomed in on the projected location of Skinner’s probe. Several other 2D screens along the wall came to life and started scrolling the raw data and readings. A picture of the probe appeared on one of them, a stocky bullet-shaped capsule, which Oedipa guessed had to be about the same size as the lunar rover she had just ridden in. “Based on the readings we received from one of the listening posts, we calculated Intrepid’s speed and trajectory. I only sent out one probe, but it made first contact with the Intrepid here.” Skinner pointed to a blip on the chart.
“I have to admit, I’m not familiar with the precise location of the wormhole or how it interacts with a spaceship traveling through it, but it seems to me that Intrepid should have intercepted Jupiter’s orbit by now.”
“You are correct, Ms. Maat,” Skinner said. “Given what we know about Intrepid’s itinerary, the vessel appears to be slowing down.”
“We should be careful not to prematurely jump to any conclusions regarding what that may mean,” Giles said. “The Intrepid may have simply been delayed at Tempest for some reason.”
“But you have received no transmissions from the ship? Either of you?” Oedipa asked.
“Radio silence would not be out of character for such a mission.”
“Come now, Giles, the protocol for radio silence would hardly have been applicable all the way out at Bifrost. What human threat could the Intrepid have encountered so far out from known trade routes? The exact location of the wormhole is a secret to all but a few within the SETECH hierarchy,” Skinner said.
“And I assume that you follow protocol to the letter, my friend?” Giles said flatly.
“Touché,” Skinner growled. “But we’ll have some definitive answers in just a few minutes. Let me pull up the video feed from the probe.”
The map flickered and then was replaced by a murky image of a small white fish shape against a black background—Intrepid. As the probe steadily moved closer the image grew larger and improved in focus. At the head of the fish, Oedipa could make out the conical form of the landing module. It was mounted on the main shaft of the ship. At the aft, three of the four large oblong fusion cells were visible. An even closer image showed visible light emanating from some of the ships portals and viewports, a sign that at least some power was still operating within the ship. Oedipa slipped over to the wall of monitors and reexamined the raw data.
“Is the probe able to detect any life signs at this distance?” Giles asked.
“No,” said Skinner. “But it is programmed to dock with Intrepid if it receives to responses to its hails. There are drones aboard which will then be sent in to have a look. If there are survivors, we should know instantly and there would be no risk to any more lives. I may yet save you a trip, Craven.”
“Don’t put too much stock in your drones, Skinner. They haven’t always proved effective, especially where delicacy and tact are an issue.”
Skinner grunted. They watched as the probe to move closer and it circled the Intrepid several times, but found no outward signs of damage to the spacecraft. Whatever was wrong with the ship, it had not come from an obviously external threat and yet the craft gave no signs that anyone onboard was aware of the probe’s presence. At last, the probe zeroed in on the ship’s starboard docking port and the probe performed a rendezvous pitch maneuver, flipping 360 degrees before settling nose first into the docking port.
“Still no response from Intrepid,” Skinner said. “The probe will override its docking doors and release the drones.”
Oedipa saw Giles open his mouth as if to object but then close it and bury his hands in his pockets. “Proceed,” he said.
“The drones are switching on,” Skinner said. The image darkened a moment but was quickly replaced by the image of a drone, a spider-like machine whose single multifaceted “eye” glowed green like a giant insect in the darkness of the probe’s belly. Then, another drone went online and then another. Three images of drones studying each other in the dark as each stretched its legs presumably for this first time since they’d been launched. The first lurched forward and dropped through the portal and into a white, brightly lit hallway. It was empty and ghostly.
“Are we receiving any audio from the drones?” Oedipa asked.
“Yes,” Skinner said. “I’ll patch it through and augment.”
The clatter of metal feet on metal filled the speakers, but once the drones were all assembled in the hall, the room went silent. The drones began to take their initial readings. Oedipa turned back towards the wall and scanned intently for signs of life. It didn’t take long for data to appear. She caught her breath.
“Dr. Giles, how many crew were aboard the Intrepid when it left Earth?” Oedipa asked.
“There were 30 men and women,” Giles said.
“Any children?” Oedipa said.
“No,” Giles said. “Why?”
“Unless they picked someone up from the planet, there are at least 31 distinct life signs,” Oedipa said. “But they’re very faint. It’s peculiar. Even with the scrubbers working at full capacity, there should be higher levels of carbon dioxide, either generated by living breathing people or by putrefying corpses.”
“But there are 31 life signs, as you say?” Giles said. “There are living people aboard?”
“The signs are too faint. I can’t be certain.” Oedipa said. “If these are human readings, they are either near death or in some sort of hibernation. Could the equipment be malfunctioning?”
“Hardly,” Skinner scoffed. “I checked the probe and the drones myself just before launch. Just because the mission was quickly put together does not mean it was sloppily done.”
“I apologize, Dr. Skinner,” Oedipa said. “I did not mean to imply any sort of incompetence or negligence on your part. I’m only trying to ascertain how the readings could be so ambiguous.”
The drones began to fan out in a circular search pattern. One drone took the hallway towards the landing module, the second headed aft towards the engine room and followed the second until it came to a side passage leading into the heart of the midsection where life support systems would be located. The drones skittered down the vacant hallways for several minutes but encountered no people or even signs of a traumatic event.
“The life signs appear to be scattered throughout the ship. The drones should be getting close enough to at least some of them that we could see them,” Oedipa said. “But the signals are still faint as ever.”
“What could account for that?” Giles asked.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea. None of this adds up, including the fact that there is an extra life sign detected.”
“Perhaps they have a stowaway aboard,” Skinner said. “Forgive my devious mind, Craven, but had it occurred to you that we’re dealing with Tom. Perhaps that explains why the life signs are so weak. Could he have had a reason to smuggle someone onboard and been able to put the crew into some state of dormancy or hibernation?”
“Why would he do that?”
“Why has he done anything? To pursue his own ambitions, wherever that might lead him,” Skinner said. “Through whomever that might lead him.”
Giles seemed to give Skinner a knowing glance. “Still, without proof, we cannot make any constructive conclusions. We have to get closer to one of these life signs to determine what’s causing the anomalies.”
Oedipa considered the hologram images and the data again. She watched as the first drone reached an airlock leading to the landing module. The blast doors were sealed. The drone apparently ascertained this and sought out the nearest terminal. A tentacle emerged from the underside of the spider’s abdomen and slithered into a data port at the terminal. The first blast door opened. The drone unhooked itself and turned towards the opening.
That was when Oedipa noticed the shadowy form standing in the airlock. It was so sudden and shocking her heart leapt into her throat. It was human and yet it seemed less than solid.
“Dr. Giles! Dr. Skinner!” Oedipa shouted.
“I see it!” Giles said.
Suddenly, the feed from the drone cut out and one third of the hologram went black.
“What was that?” Skinner said. “Was that our life sign?”
“We need to get that drone back online. Can we send one of the others to divert from its search?”
“Yes, but it will take hours for the command to reach the probe. I’ll check the feed from the missing drone. It could be just a transmitter problem,” Skinner said.
However, a few moments later, another drone went black and then another. Finally, all feeds from the probe ceased. The three of them stood dumbfounded.
“I suppose all we can do is wait for the probe to run a diagnostic and repair its signal,” Skinner said, clearly chastened by the sudden failure.
“If it can run a diagnostic,” Giles said glumly. “For all we know, all the drones and its probe were destroyed.”
“Can we replay the last contact with drone at the airlock?” Oedipa asked.
“Yes,” Skinner said.
He flashed the form on the hologram display while Oedipa sifted over the readings on the wall. The shadow, if it was more than a trick of light, barely disturbed the air around it. It produced little heat so it was nearly invisible on the infrared array. But just as Oedipa was about to write off the specter as simply a ghost image, she saw one reading that registered a presence—an EEG signal.
“I found something,” Oedipa said.
“What is it?” Giles asked.
“An EEG signal, unmistakably human. There were only a few seconds of readings but you can see the change over that time, from here to here,” Oedipa pointed to a small uptick in the voltage at the “head” of the shadow. “And there’s the peculiar ‘smear’ that you would associate with something like a skull bone, meninges or cerebrospinal fluid obscuring the signal.”
“Yes,” Giles said. “Good observation, Ms. Maat. And I think the ultrasonic sensors might concur with that assessment. The signal was bouncing off of something other than the wall behind it.”
“So that was a person,” Skinner said. “What does that mean? Who was it? And why did we lose the signal?”
“We’d have to review the signal itself, but only two obvious answers suggest themselves—the probe malfunctioned or the probe was sabotaged by whoever is still on that vessel.”
“My vote is that it was no coincidence that the feed died just the drone encountered the shadow. Someone—or something—didn’t want us poking around.”
“Why would they do that? If they are SETECH employees aboard, certainly they would recognize a SETECH drone and recognize as an effort by us to find out what happened to them, as a rescue mission?” Oedipa asked.
“Yes, Craven, would you like to field that question for your young assistant?”
Dr. Giles ignored Skinner’s jab. “Under ordinary circumstances, they would have contacted us and none of this would necessary. Perhaps they are not behaving like SETECH employees because there are no longer SETECH employees on board the Intrepid. But how would another company have known about the Intrepid and launched a mission to intercept it in transit without us knowing?”
“No one intercepted your precious ship and its crew in transit. It’s what I’m telling you, Craven. Your ship’s crew was replaced on the other side of the wormhole for some dark purpose by none other than our former friend and colleague. You can scoff all you want and believe the best of that man, but it’s perfectly consistent with his more recent behavior, ever since we unlocked the secrets of the Bifrost.”
“Nevertheless, there are people on board the Intrepid. If they are ours, they need our help. If they are not ours or part of some pernicious plot by Thomas Edson, they need to be stopped. Either way, our mission needs to proceed. Skinner, you may continue to work on your probes. I have seen enough for now. I’ll have your assistant arrange for some accommodations.”
Dr. Giles headed for the door. Oedipa saw an opening to get him alone.
“Dr. Giles, might I have a word?” Oedipa asked, following him out the door.
“Yes, Ms. Maat?”
“I— ” Oedipa said and then hesitated, considering Radley’s warning. “I’m not sure I can continue on with the mission.”
“Oh?” Giles asked, as they stepped through the doorway back into the hallway. “What changed your mind? I suppose it was the attack on Asgard and our less than warm welcome here. I know it’s been more than difficult even I knew about a first, but, trust me, we’ll see this through somehow.”
“Sir, you stated this was a volunteer mission,” Oedipa continued. “Yet Radley informed us that there would be serious consequences if we walked away.”
Giles paused and looked deeply into Oedipa’s eyes. “I wish I could say otherwise. I empathize with you and Joe and would release you if I could, but clearly you can see that I need you. Your quick thinking on Asgard and observations just now will be essential to the success of the mission. I wish I could tell you more but it’s not just for the benefit of the company or your career you were selected. The fate of humanity rests out there in the black and the extraordinary things we can accomplish. Do you understand?”
“Don’t you want to know what that shadow was? What it really was?”
“Yes, sir,” Oedipa replied. “But you need an armed strike team not a handful of scientists for this mission.”
Giles nodded. “Agreed. And I know just where to find them, so long as we can secure a new ship. Oedipa, I know you can’t speak for Joe, but stand by me. Whatever may occur, we will weather the storm.”
Oedipa regarded Giles’ words skeptically. It was a storm they would certainly have to weather. Yet, she thought about haunting image of the shadow and still heard herself say: “Yes, sir.”
* * *
The weather near the tiny colony of Prosperity had been tumultuous for the past several days. But for Dr. Thomas Edson, the weather was a good omen, for it distracted his mind from the events of the past few weeks. Edson carefully removed his thick gloves and wind-resistant cowl and placed them on a chair near his desk. Even though he had designed the clothes himself to withstand the wickedly harsh winds that howled through the canyons of Tempest, repeated use had begun to reduce his garments to tatters.
Edson was not unaware of the hot cup of Earl Grey tea, still steaming as though freshly brewed, that awaited him on the desk near his command console. Nor was he surprised that the lights had been dimmed in the room since he’d left earlier in the morning. Yet, he could not help but pause when his gaze fell upon the dark form and yellow eyes cloaked in the shadowed corner of the room next to the potted palm tree. The eyes regarded him with cold curiosity, but never blinked.
“Have you been waiting long?” Edson asked, carefully judging the aroma of the tea before taking a sip. The form did not move or make a sound, so Edson sat down behind his desk and feigned disinterest. “I see, the silent treatment, as usual.”
He leaned back in his chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose where the goggles had pinched. “Do you at least have news on the ship? There was no return beacon sent after it entered the wormhole. I’m assuming then that it met with some unfortunate accident?”
The dark form edged closer and the yellow eyes seemed to sharpen in focus. Edson suddenly felt a shooting pain up his arm that surged into his chest and clutched at his heart. He doubled over in pain, spilling his tea on the floor and nearly banging his head against the edge of the desk.
“Enough!” Edson cried out, and just as quickly the pain eased as if a magical curse had been lifted. The professor eyed the form suspiciously but he knew better than to show too much anger towards the creature. “What am I to call you anyways? I can’t very well call you Ariel Young. That person no long exists, does he?”
The figure remained silent but the head tilted and the eyes softened a little.
“Gone,” it whispered.
Edson recoiled slightly in shock. This was the first time in over three months he’d heard the voice of his former assistant since he’d become the haunted vessel of some alien intelligence. But what took the edge off the fear was the wonder at having made first contact. Another world had created this life, birthed it and sustained it, then kept it hidden, buried under a mask of a lifeless crust and endless expanses of empty oceans. While humans had been reaching out and wondering for millennia whether they were alone in the universe or whether civilizations glittered like untapped gold in God’s firmament, these creatures had been lying in wait. Edson had only begun to fathom why they hid. Was it fear of conquest by a superior race? Was it trap to lure the unwary explorer?
“As I suspected, Ariel is gone,” Edson sighed.
“No, gone.” Ariel said. “Ship, crew, brethren.”
“I don’t understand. I know the ship has left. But I didn’t want them to leave. I told you of the risk if they were allowed to leave and return through the wormhole. I simply told you to ensure they would be stranded here. We could control them here.”
“Crew, brethren, Jove’s lightning, the precursors.”
“I still don’t understand,” Edson said, picking his cup from the floor. “Ariel, what have you done?”
The figure emerged from the shadows. Edson could see clearly the body of his assistant Ariel. It seemed to have thinned since its possession by the alien entity, leading the professor to wonder whether the alien understood that its human host needed nourishment to live. “Plunged, quit the vessel, all afire.”
“Does that mean you destroyed the ship? Destroyed the Intrepid? Oh, Ariel.”
“No, Hell is empty,” Ariel whispered. “And all the devils are here!”
Edson felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. That felt like a threat, and he recalled his earlier attempts to kill Ariel and the other colonists before he knew what was happening to them, when he thought the entity was simply a contagion that needed to be quarantined. He regretted his hasty actions, both in the way he led the exploration of Tempest and then his reaction to its natives. “What devils?”
“More to come. Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains. The precursors.”
Edson began to grow tired of the riddles. “What do you want from me, Ariel?”
“Freedom,” Ariel hissed.
“Freedom? I’m not holding you back or your… brethren. In fact, our exploration of this planet has allowed you bodies to inhabit and the freedom to move and experience the universe in a way I doubt you could have experienced without us. What do you want then?”
Ariel made a muffled noise that Edson could only interpret as sort of a hollow laugh. “All hail, great master! Grave sir. We find you a grave man. To dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds.”
Without waiting for a reply, Ariel turned and left the office, but it was clear to Edson what the creature was after, what the curled clouds it had referred to meant. His ambitions were greater than simply freedom. The entity knew about the wormhole and wanted to travel through it. How long would it take the entity to then discover the home world of its human hosts and decide to spread their influence there? Edson could only hope that his assumption was correct, that for whatever reason Ariel had interpreted his request to ground the Intrepid as a command to destroy the ship. But he also knew that the company would come looking after any lost ships and it would be foolish of him to think there wouldn’t be repercussions for the sudden end of communications.
The pain in Edson’s arm had subsided, but the memory lingered, as though the alien entity were still creeping inside him. He checked the door to make sure that Ariel or one of the other possessed colonists was not lurking outside eavesdropping. He then opened a secured drawer in his desk and withdrew a syringe. It contained the only compound discovered so far that had any effect on possessed humans. It was his insurance policy that helped him ensure some semblance of control over Prosperity and Tempest. Quickly, the professor rolled up his sleeve and injected a dose into the vein. He collapsed into the chair just before a proximity alarm alerted the colony computers of wormhole activity.
Part 2- Isolation
Oedipa held her father’s hand as he stood before the urn, his other caressing its alabaster surface. At that moment, the reassuring strong, vital man that she once knew seemed small and hunched, his grip on her withered and tenuous and his eyes faded as though with fatigue. Oedipa was used to her father being a quiet man but he hadn’t spoken much since he picked her up from school and told Oedipa that her mother—his wife—had died while on assignment in Antarctica and he hadn’t spoken at all since they stepped off the plane in Cleveland. She felt afraid for her father but wasn’t certain how to break the silence, so she waited for him and hoped he would revive himself from whatever trance he’d fallen prey to.
The funeral home was a staid and traditional family-owned facility in the revived part of the Tremont neighborhood near Literary Road. Through a crack in heavy curtains, Oedipa could see an old triangular apartment building with an historic plaque and the words “Lemko Hall” engraved under a red-brick parapet with a green copper dome. It was a sunny day. Oedipa hoped someone out there was enjoying the spring weather. She wondered what sorts of people inhabited such a place and whether they were drawn to the history of the place. Few places like it still existed, if they could not be retrofitted or adapted for the needs of the mid-21st century. She imagined that the residents of community might like to play dress up and pretend to be early 20th century Eastern European immigrants, just as the Amish lived in 18th century simplicity with barns, buggies and plows. Oedipa didn’t understand what spurred this line of inquiry and knew it was trivial but it was better than thinking about the urn with her mother’s ashes and her father. They were as alien to her right now as the surface of Mars.
Finally her father turned from the urn and touched her softly on the shoulder. “What do you want to know?”
Oedipa didn’t know what to make of the question but her father’s eyes, which had been red around the edges from tears and lack of sleep, softened as they studied her intently. There was so much she really wanted to know, but she was uncertain if she’d ever be ready for it. But before she’d had a chance to even open her mouth, an elderly woman who introduced herself as her father’s great aunt and smelled of menthol pulled her father away from her.
“Olga, you know my daughter Oedipa,” he father said. “You met her at Grandma Wysoki’s birthday many years ago.”
The old woman eyed Oedipa suspiciously, but then her face brightened and her wrinkled cheeks sharpened into a smile. “I remember. Emilia’s little girl. I’m so sorry for your loss. You’ve grown so much.”
“She was five years old when you saw her last. That was a long time ago. She’ll be graduating high school early in a few months and then she’ll be off to college.”
“Oh, how nice. What will you study at school, dear?”
Oedipa knew she should have had a rehearsed answer for this inevitable question, but she had been too stuck thinking about the question her father had just asked to really formulate a response. Her father read the consternation on Oedipa’s face, though, and stepped in.
“Her mother pushed her hard to go for a degree in the life sciences and follow a career path to the one she took. She never told her directly but I know she was proud of the woman she’s becoming.” Proud of the woman she made in a test tube, you mean, Oedipa thought ruefully to herself, but then felt a pang of guilt. “However, I’ll be happy with whatever choices she makes. Oedipa’s a smart, ambitious girl so she’ll be perfect at whatever she sets her mind on. She’s already been accepted at Berkley and MIT.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Oedipa said demurely. “My school counselor says I have an aptitude for physics, so I thought I’d try that. Hopefully, I’ll be good enough to get a job.”
“So modest,” he great aunt said. “Truly, you are your mother’s daughter. I see so much of her in your face.”
Those words stung, but she had been bracing herself for comments like that and was sure it was the first of many such instances she’d have to endure today. Mercifully, her father escorted the old woman to a side room where a few of the mourners had gathered for prayer. When he returned, he took Oedipa by arm.
“Let’s get some air,” he said and they slipped away from the funeral home through the back door.
A small grass-filled lot was encircled by cramped two-story homes with back porches and verandas. A large brownstone loomed behind the houses crowned by the Cleveland Sky Spire, the only post-20th century structure visible along the skyline. On the left side of the lot, a man wearing a smock noticed them and apparently recognized Oedipa’s father and nodded, though Oedipa did not recognize him. He was stooped over a table filled with pots of dyes with a stylus in one hand and a dye pot in the other.
“Hello, David. It’s good to see you again,” the man said. “I’m sorry for your loss. Emilia was a good woman.”
“Thank you, Fedir,” Oedipa’s father said. “Did you bring it?”
Fedir put down his tools reached into a crate under the table and produced a small box. He opened it and handed it to her father, who presented it to Oedipa. Inside was a beautifully decorated egg in shades of blues and red. A double-helix of blue encircled the shell lengthwise and the sides of it were adorned with a variety of floral images. The detail of the designs was breathtaking and Oedipa was quick to notice the flowers formed a fractal pattern. Yet, the gift itself was puzzling.
“You know your mother wasn’t a sentimental woman and she was hard on you. She could be a cold and distant woman. She loved us both, but because of her peculiar condition she always struggled with how to show it,” Oedipa’s father said. “But in the last few years she was trying to come around and be a better mother to you. She commissioned this piece several years ago and was intending to give this to you when you turned 18. You see, your mom felt that her own parents had left her with nothing and she told me that she didn’t want to leave you alone in this world without something of herself.”
Her father sighed heavily. “I’m not saying it right. I wish she could have been here to give it to you herself and explain.”
“It’s okay, Dad.” Oedipa wasn’t sure if her father was being honest about the egg being commissioned or not, but she had never known her mother to buy art before.
“But if you want to know whether your mother loved you, she didn’t. She tried, in her way, but she failed you and she knew it. Moreover, she knew that I knew of her failure and it hurt her badly, because she knew how much I loved you.”
“If she didn’t love me, why did she have me?”
“She wanted to please me. When we were dating, I mentioned I wanted a daughter, but I knew she didn’t want children, so after we were married I said it didn’t matter because I was head over heels in love with her and let the matter drop. But she intuited that I still wanted that little girl. Yet she still rebelled against accepting the traditional role as mother. Her solution was—unique. She felt that she could artificially create what God might not let her make naturally. You were her progeny, both genetically and mentally. She selected the genes—the best parts of us—to make you and incubated you in an artificial womb. I had strong reservations about it, but your mother was unstoppable once she set her mind on something and I couldn’t argue with the results—the most beautiful baby girl.”
“What does that have to do with an egg?”
Her father shrugged. “Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. The Ukrainian eggs are traditionally only given to family members and are a symbol—a gift of life. Though your mother may have not felt love for you, she gave you what any loving mother could—life.”
And she wanted to control mine because hers wasn’t enough? Oedipa wanted to say, but she loved her father too much to hurt him right now. In that instant, it occurred to her what her father was really trying to tell her. Oedipa hadn’t loved her mother any more than her mother had loved her, because she was a perfect copy of Emilia Maat, with all the gifts and curses that woman had possessed and cherished. She was a living legacy to her mother, a statue of flesh in her honor and dedicated to her husband, the real and only love of her life. Oedipa was in awe—and enraged.
* * *
“Eddy, I was beginning to wonder if you were ever coming out of there,” Joe said when Oedipa returned to the atrium.
Oedipa said nothing but threw her arms round him and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“That badly, huh?” he said. “And I thought I was going to die of boredom in this waiting room. Radley’s gone off to get himself snookered in some lunar bar.”
“Joe, I think we have to go on the mission,” Oedipa couldn’t think of another way to break the news than to just blurt it out.
“Wait. What?” Joe said, giving her a concerned look. “What’s changed? What did they tell you?”
“Radley was right. There’s no way to back out of the mission without jeopardizing our careers and livelihood. And this mission could bring back vital scientific breakthroughs, even if the crew is lost.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed. “I know that look. It’s the same one that sent us to the bottom of the ocean two years ago. You saw something that tickled your curiosity. What did they show you?”
Oedipa looked away, unsure of how Joe would take her sudden change of heart. She wasn’t sure she understood herself, but the image of the shadow on the ship lurked in the corners of her mind. “I’m not sure,” she said. “But that’s why we have to go.”
“What happened in that room? What did you see?”
“It was… a shadow.”
“A shadow? I don’t follow. Where?”
“It was a human form, but it didn’t seem quite human,” Oedipa said. “We weren’t able to determine what it was. Dr. Skinner sent probes and they made contact with the Intrepid. Something or someone shut them down when they entered the ship.”
“Some ‘thing’, you say? Now you’re creeping me out, Eddy.”
“I detected a brain wave from the shadow. It was a living person even though the body seemed almost… immaterial,” Oedipa said. “I don’t know how or why, but someone interfered with the probe. They don’t want us to know they’re out there or what there about but I want to know. I need to know.”
Joe shook his head dismissively. “Maybe they have a good reason to block us out. Maybe they’ve discovered some new type of power source that will revolutionize our technology and they don’t want it to fall into our competition’s hands.”
“Or maybe the competition already has possession of the find and is trying to keep us, SETECH, from reclaiming it. Maybe that’s why we were attacked at the station and why they made sure our vessel was destroyed, so we couldn’t recover their stolen cargo.”
Joe paused and scratched his chin which was thick and unkempt with stubble from days of neglect. Oedipa could tell he was deep in thought, but wasn’t sure she totally believed what she had just said. For a moment, she wondered what her mother the scientist would have thought of her sudden insistence on pursuing this mission. She never let family or fear stand in the way of an important discovery, even if it killed her.
“So we have to go on this mission, don’t we?” Joe asked.
“Joe, it isn’t like we have a choice, you know.”
“I know, I know,” he nodded nervously. “It’s just hard to process. I’ve faced dangerous missions before, but I’ve never had this much at stake.”
“I know,” Oedipa said. She realized Joe might still be stewing about their earlier conversation about the mission and may have blamed Giles for the deception. Dr. Giles was certainly guilty of withholding information and being less than honest. “But we can’t trouble ourselves corporate politics right now. We can’t change anything that’s already transpired. We can only make the best of what we’ve been given.”
“Right, but I mean I haven’t had you as the stake to lose,” Joe whispered. He looked at Oedipa with a sudden intensity that surprised her. “We should get married. Right now.”
“We should—what? Have you hit your head, Joe?”
“Square in the noggin, dear.”
“We can’t get married, Joe,” Oedipa’s heart flew into her throat. “We talked about this. We were going to wait until we got back.”
“But we don’t have to. There’s a little church here—St. Francis Chapel of the Canticle of Sister Moon—and I’m sure they can squeeze us in. Nothing fancy but—”
“Joe…” She said breathlessly.
“Say yes and it’ll be done.”
“Say yes, Eddy.”
Oedipa’s eyes burned with tears. “No, Joe.”
“But you want this, more than anything. Why not?”
“Because you think we’re going to die. You think we’ll be killed on this mission and we’ll never have a normal family life on Earth.”
Joe took her in his arms and kissed her warmly but intensely on the mouth. Oedipa felt dampness on her cheek and realized it was not her own. After the kiss, he held her close and whispered in her ear. “It’s not that, Eddy. Someday, this nonsense will all be over. I want to marry you to remind us we always have something to live for—and that we don’t have to wait to begin. So will you?”
Oedipa said nothing, but nodded.
“I don’t have a ring,” Joe said glumly.
“I don’t need a ring,” she said, as her eyes watered.
“I guess I should have planned ahead. You’d think I’d have had enough time. We’ve been talking about marriage for almost a year.”
“Do you think we ought to ask Radley to be our best man?” Oedipa said, as she wiped the dampness from her cheek.
Joe chuckled. “Now there’s my girl.”
“In any event, we need to rejoin the others and see if they have any news—or food. I’m starving.”
“That’s my girl too,” Joe said brightly. He looked towards one of the halls that radiated from the lobby. “Let’s take a walk. There are a few neat places in the tourist areas. Maybe if we have time we can take a tour of the chapel.”
Oedipa nodded again as her heart fluttered. She had been waiting for this moment ever since she had met Joe, and, though on an intellectual level she figured reality would never meet the expectations of her dreams, know that it was here, it didn’t matter what romantic fantasies she’d conjured up for the proposal. The having was, indeed, better than the wanting.
“That would not be a wise idea, given the circumstances,” Oedipa heard Dr. Giles’ grave voice from behind her. “Or have you both forgotten the threat to our lives and mission that we just encountered less than a day ago?”
Oedipa stammered. “No, but—”
“Besides,” Giles said, removing his glasses and clucking with his tongue. “It didn’t occur to either of you to ask me to be best man first? I’m quite disappointed.”
The director patted them both on the shoulder. “I guess congratulations are in order? Oh, don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to report you to human resources and make one of you transfer to another mission. As you’ve probably already guessed, I need you at least as much as you need me. And I have some good news to announce as well, provided that you aren’t put off much by the company we are about to keep.”
“We can deal with Radley, if that’s what you mean,” Joe said. “What’s the news?”
“Well, Radley, of course, is part of the company, but that’s not to whom I was referring,” said Giles. “Let’s just say, for a hopefully insubstantial cost, we’ve been offered a new ride to our destination and a security detail to accompany and help deal with any hostiles we might encounter.”
“How did you accomplish that?” Oedipa said. “Let me guess, Skinner.”
With his hands still on their shoulders, Giles shoved them towards the hallway leading towards the civilian sections of the moonbase.
Oedipa hesitated. “Wait, I thought we were supposed to stay hidden, that enemies could be lying in wait for us anywhere, like they were on the space station.”
“They could indeed,” Giles said. “However, I feel I owe you at least some piece of solace before you sacrifice a year of your lives to this quest. At the very least I can help you start your married life together, as it were, even if it is a life temporarily in the void of space. Anyways, the attack on Asgard was designed to wipe us all out. Unless they have moles already planted here on the moon, the attack not only failed to stop us from getting here—a place we would not have needed to go until after the attack—but it also prevented anyone on the base from pursuing, since we were on the only shuttle that left Asgard for the moon. We weren’t likely followed; the solar activity has seen to that.”
Joe locked arms with Oedipa as Giles led the way down the passage. “A sensible argument, I suppose.”
“That’s a small comfort,” Oedipa said ruefully. “I expected to get wedding jitters, but not because people were trying to kill us and other people were planning to launch us into space.”
“Obviously,” Joe replied. “But I did promise you the stars at one time, as I recall.”
Oedipa, Joe and Giles stepped a pair of nondescript doors and into a cavernous dome carved into the lunar rock, which had been polished to a silver grey sheen. The sides of the cave were honey-combed on one side with hotel suites. Here, the floors were golden brick roads that wound around tiny oases of palm trees and cacti that seemed abnormally tall and thin. The whole view reminded Oedipa of a cross between the Mexican villages with their adobe buildings in the old Western movies Joe enjoyed and the ruins at Mesa Verde she’d visited while on holiday in Colorado. There were some tourists meandering about and taking pictures of the sights, but she guessed many more were confined to their rooms at the hotel, panicked by the reports of the coming solar activity, despite repeated reassurances of safety provided by meters of lunar soil. Surging forth from the stone wall to the left, the chapel formed a cross of stone that loomed over the gift shops and contrasted with what appeared to be a small amusement park on the other side of the dome.
Oedipa watched the faces cautiously as they passed, but none seemed to take heed of them. They all appeared to be tourists from Earth—families with kids, young couples and adventure seekers. Oedipa prayed that they were all they appeared to be.
They entered the church through two doors apparently molded from lunar rock. They seemed weighty but parted with relative ease, thanks, no doubt to the weaker gravity and the elaborate pulley system that seemed to give the new doors an almost ancient, primitive feel.
“Is that organ music I hear?” Joe whispered once the doors closed behind them. The sound softly permeated room but Oedipa couldn’t tell from where it was coming.
“Ave Maria, if I’m not mistaken,” Giles said.
Inside, the chapel looked like many Catholic chapels she’d been in Earthside. Oedipa relieved that it looked authentic, not cheap and glitzy like some neon chapel in Las Vegas. Carved stations of the cross lined the walls and a stone altar addressed the neat rows of pews at the front of the church.
A man dressed in black emerged from the vestry. At first, he appeared to be surprised by the visitors, but then a smile passed over his lips. “May I help you?”
“We want to get married,” Joe said.
The man glanced between the three of them. He was rather short and balding and his face seemed prematurely creased, betraying the youthful twinkle in his eyes. His shirt was missing a priest’s collar. “Between you and the lady?”
“Yes,” Oedipa said. “My name is Oedipa Maat and the groom is Joseph Casta. We just arrived from Earth and he just proposed and, well, we thought it’d be romantic to start to our vacation to get married on the Moon.”
“My apologies, I didn’t want to assume. Well, isn’t that wonderful. It’s a sign of God’s love when two people find their partner through life’s journey,” the man said. “My name is Father John. I am the pastor of this chapel, though I should mention not a Catholic priest. Some people assume that, because of the title and the surroundings.”
“Good to know,” Joe said.
“When exactly were you looking to get married?” Father John asked.
“Now, if possible,” Joe said. “We’re kind of in a hurry.”
The man’s expression grew concerned. “Well, that is certainly possible. This chapel is designed for impromptu ceremonies, but I must ask why the haste? You are aware, of course, that the solar storms we’re experiencing won’t really harm us. We are deep enough underground to escape most of the deleterious effects of the radiation. The lockdown is just a precautionary measure.”
“We’re not marrying because we’re afraid we’ll die in a radiation storm, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Oedipa said, but we could be killed sometime after that, she thought to herself. “We’ve been dating for several years. We’ve known for a while that we were going to marry. It’s just that we won’t be staying here long and won’t have another opportunity to do it for a while.”
“Ah,” Father John said. “Very well. My apologies again. I just find that it’s good to ask. I’ve preside over many matrimonies but sadly also many annulments and divorces.” He glanced over at Dr. Giles. “And you are the father of—”
“Uh, sorry, no,” Giles said. “Friend. Witness.”
“Very well, very well,” he said. “Again, never good to assume anything.”
“My name is Dr. Craven Giles. I am their work supervisor.”
“Nice to meet you, Dr. Giles,” Father John said warmly, though his expression hardened slightly at the mention of Dr. Giles’ title. “I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that corporate officials should take such an intimate interest in the personal lives of their employees.”
“He’s also a good friend,” Oedipa offered.
“May I ask the young couple how they met and propose?”
Oedipa let Joe take the lead. He told Father John about their first meeting. They had both been passengers on the same flight from Cleveland to Paris. Oedipa had been on her way to present at a science conference at the Ecole Polytechnique. It was her first time as a keynote speaker and she was nervous. Joe was visiting relatives in Paris and had been two rows behind her but had spent most of his time chatting with the pilot and flight attendants who had served on some of his flights in the past. He didn’t notice Oedipa and she was too busy pouring over notes to notice him. There was a mix-up with the luggage and neither noticed until they reached their hotel—coincidentally the same one—and opened their bags—brown coach bags with a SETECH logo emblazoned on the handle only to find each other’s clothes. Oedipa was the first to notice the error and was able to track down Joe’s room number. When she arrived at his door, she found Joe a pair of her cotton panties. His face was red as the Cincinnati ballcap he’d worn during the flight when he realized Oedipa was the owner of the underthings.
“You must be Oedipa? Sorry, I didn’t mean to rummage through your stuff,” Joe had said. “But I don’t think these are my size.”
“No problem, Joe. I was thinking the same thing when I saw your boxers,” Oedipa had replied politely. “The odds of us being on the same flight with same luggage and wind up at the same hotel are astronomical. It’s almost as though someone was putting us together.”
“Like fate,” Joe had said.
He gave her one of his cute aw-shucks grins and Oedipa’s heart melted for the first time. She totally forgot the science conference and the pre-speech jitters she’d been feeling all day. Inexplicably, this man filled her with excitement.
“You know, I saw a great little bistro down the street that serves crepes,” Joe had said. “Do you like crepes?”
“By another strange coincidence, I do,” Oedipa smiled brightly. “And if you hand me back my underwear and the dress I usually wear it with, I’d be glad to join you.”
So, Oedipa and Joe had crepes together and talked. One conversation led to more date plans. Dates led to endless vidphone conversations and rendezvous whenever Joe returned Earthside from a flight. And then Oedipa received the transfer to Aquarius and she asked Joe to join her. First, a drawer and a toothbrush, then a key and then the Proposal—during a scuba dive at Florida’s barrier reef. Joe had planted the ring on one of the staghorn coral while Oedipa wasn’t looking and nearly lost it to a hungry grouper.
Oedipa blushed a little at the mention of her underwear and wondered how much of the story they really should have offered even a not-real priest. However, Father John continued to smile as Joe spun the tale. When he had finished, he folded his hands and said: “It’s always a pleasure to hear how God brings together two people in a bond of love. It’s clear from the few moments I’ve watched you interact that you are truly and deeply in love. Now, let me go get some paperwork and we can work out the details so we can carry on with the ceremony. Then you can go and begin your lives together.”
Father John scurried back to where he came from and produced a tablet with the documents. They each took turns plating fingerprints, submitting to a retinal scan and signing their names electronically on the dotted line.
After Joe signed his name and as he handed the tablet to Oedipa, he studied her face carefully. “How do you feel?”
“Excited. Afraid,” Oedipa said. Panicked, she thought, like my first training dive into shark-infested waters. “Is it supposed to be any different?”
“I feel the same way,” Joe said. “And I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Father John cleared his throat. “Well, then, we’re ready for the ceremony. If you’ll step this way towards the altar, we’ll get started.”
He led them to the steps in front of the altar. The grey stone of the table was covered in a white sheet with a red cross emblazoned on the front. Framed by two small candles were a chalice and paten, with the white disks of holy bread. Oedipa surmised that the chapel was much more than just a place for a quickie wedding. She found that somewhat comforting. Oedipa was sure that the ceremony was lovely and the vows were appropriately traditional. But she barely noticed the décor or the words, except for when Joe’s lips formed a tight oval as he said: “I do” and when Father John smiled and touched them both on the shoulder, saying: “You may now kiss your bride, Mr. Casta.”
Oedipa’s body was flooded with warmth as Joe’s lips pressed against hers and the whole of the moon seemed to melt away. Impulsively, she slipped her arm around his waist and pulled him closer, kissing him harder. Before she knew it, Joe had swept her off the ground and was carrying down the aisle.
“Do we have accommodations, Dr. Giles?” Joe called over his shoulder.
“I’ll have Radley take care of the arrangements,” Oedipa heard Giles say in a half-chuckle.
She kissed Joe again before they reached the door.
* * *
“One door closes and one door opens,” Joe said a few hours later. He slipped under covers and slipped an arm around Oedipa. “That’s what they always say about opportunity anyways.”
“And how might that apply to this situation?” Oedipa smirked as she studied the bland artwork of the hotel room, abstract depictions of the stars and planets partially hidden in shadows behind a lamp shade. Some things never change in hotels—even lunar ones.
“Well, I’m just saying that we may not get the honeymoon that we had planned or start our marriage off the way we wanted, but think about the situation. I’m a pilot and you’re a scientist. We have to be where the action is in our particular fields. And this is where the action is. Otherwise, why we have pursued these careers? In a way, it’s fortunate that we found a mission of this importance that can use both our talents so that we can be together, almost like destiny even.”
“You have an odd way of looking at luck and destiny,” Oedipa said, stroking Joe’s bare neck. “I don’t care about luck or destiny anyways. I don’t trust it. I only trust us and what we can make happen together—or what we can stop, if possible.”
“It’s because of what we can do that we were brought here,” Joe said. “We have a responsibility to do our best to find out what happened to the Intrepid and her crew. At the very least, we can bring some solace to those they left behind.”
“It sounds like you’ve drunk the SETECH Kool-Aid all of the sudden,” Oedipa said and softly rolled away from Joe to face away from him.
“Or maybe the lemonade. When life gives you lemons and all that,” Joe said. “I’ve just been thinking. Anyways, it doesn’t matter what I think. Ours is but to do. Giles left a message that he’d be sending someone for us in a few minutes. Guess he gave us all the honeymoon he figured he could afford. Sounds like Director Skinner has something to show us.”
“I suppose we should get dressed then.”
“In a moment.” Joe kissed her on the shoulder blade. “We don’t have to rush.”
Just then, the doorbell chimed and Joe groaned, his forehead coming to rest lightly on Oedipa’s back.
“You were saying?” She said as they both scrambled to gather up their clothes.
Radley’s sour face greeted them when Joe answered the door. “Time for the honeymooners to return to harsh reality.”
“What does Giles need to show us?” Oedipa asked.
“Can’t say,” Radley said, noticing with a shrug that she still hadn’t pulled her pants on. Oedipa resisted the urge to slap him. “Just come on.”
“Do I have time to finish dressing or do the director and Dr. Giles need me half-naked for this part of the mission?”
“Suit yourself,” Radley snapped back. “Just come.”
Radley led them out of the hotel and back into the administration complex. They passed through the atrium and into a side hallway that abruptly ended at a security checkpoint. It was unmanned except for a terminal to key in a code and perform a retinal scan. It the corner of the ceiling, a security camera hung. It was unnecessary to have a camera that large. Most security cameras were almost too tiny to see or effectively camouflaged to the naked eye and even some forms of anti-spying scanners. This camera was placed to let a visitor know their every move was being monitored.
Once passed through the security check, they entered a tunnel where the walls looked like compacted Lunar soil, a light grey marbled with darker streaks. The tunnel descended for a few hundred feet and then opened into what seemed to be a subway station. There was a red car on the tracks—a maglev train.
“Well, I can definitely say that in all the times I’ve visited the moon I’ve never been here,” Joe said.
“You wouldn’t,” Radley said. “Only Skinner and a select few security personnel have access to this facility—and a certain nosy counter-espionage expert, of course.”
“I guess being an ass can come in handy from time to time,” Joe said.
“You have no idea,” Radley smirked, as one of the doors to one of the little railway cars opened. “Get in.”
The car was cramped and small but clean. It reminded Oedipa of the Metro trains in Paris, with similar flip-down seats and large windows that of questionable usefulness given the lack of scenery to look at through them. The car lurched forward suddenly and then sped off into the darkness. It slowed down for a moment as it crossed some sort of barrier. The car paused as doors closed behind them and another set opened before them. Then the car sped off once more.
“Was that some sort of vacuum seal we just passed through?” Oedipa asked.
“Beats me,” Radley said. “That wasn’t one of the aspects of this base I inspected closely. Does it make a difference?”
“No. Just curious. On Earth, maglev trains top out at about 400-500 mph, mostly due to air friction. In a vacuum, however, we could go as fast as 2000 mph,” she said. “Which begs a question: where are we going, Mr. Radley?”
“Hold on,” Radley removed a device from his backpack and peered at its luminescent green screen. “All clear.”
“Well, I’m glad we settled that important detail,” Joe said. “Would you mind answering Eddy’s question?”
“What?” Radley said. “Am I running counter-intelligence on this mission or am I not?”
“You’re running counter to my intelligence, Mr. Radley, and are starting to get on my last nerve,” Oedipa said. “Out with it.”
Radley sighed. “I was just about to get to that. Anyways, get comfortable, because even at 2000 mph or however fast we’re going, it’s going to be a while. We’re headed to our ship.”
“A ship?” Joe said. “So Giles found one we can use. What is it? It can’t be mining vessel, even though that’s probably the most common and easily obtained class of ship we can lay our hands on up here. The launch areas are nearby and in the opposite direction from where we’re headed, I’d imagine.”
“No, it’s not a miner,” Radley said. “It’s a deep space explorer, modified for ‘multipurpose’ missions, including those of a military nature. It’s parked on the Dark Side. From what I gather, old Skinner’s been building the ship and a secret launching facility for the past several years. Lord knows why. Nobody at SETECH central authorized this project or even fully knows about it. Skinner’s one of the few people in the company who’s allowed the discretion to operate parts of his own budget outside of the review of the accountants. Giles is one of the others.”
“So how did you uncover this mystery ship?” Oedipa asked.
“I noticed a small discrepancy in one of the requisition forms. One of the hotels shipped in a load of superconducting magnets over a year ago. That caught my attention, because what hotel would require that in bulk? The few tramways here don’t need to go very far or all that fast. So I confronted Skinner on the matter and he caved immediately.”
Joe chuckled. “Face it, Radley. You didn’t make him cave. He was probably going to tell you about the ship anyways. He wants this mission to go forward as much as the rest of the company.”
“Yes, he does want this mission to move forward. And it should be noted that he has his own agenda. That’s what I’ve been hinting at. He’s been hiding millions of dollars of assets from his own company in order to create a vessel for an undetermined purpose. And here we come along needing, you guessed it, the very thing he’s been developing. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Of course, it’s odd,” Oedipa said. “And we seem to have a bad habit of hurtling headfirst into odd situations.”
“Yeah, it’s like out of some shitty science fiction serial they used to show in the old days,” Radley said. “But there you have it. Everything I know about where we’re headed.”
“Not everything,” Joe said. “You’re withholding. You spy types are always holding back something.”
“Well, yeah, of course. Us ‘spy types,’ as you call it, have to eat too,” Radley said. “And in my line of work, knowledge means a paycheck, especially if it’s knowledge I know and you don’t. Deal with it.”
Oedipa crossed her arms. “Why isn’t Giles joining us? And what about our belongings? Are we supposed to just hop on this ship with just the clothes on our back and no equipment or tools? Is this just some trumped up excuse to see me half naked again? Let me guess, it’s all being taken care of behind the scenes.”
“I don’t care if you run around the ship completely naked, just so long as you do your job and stay out of mine,” Radley spat back. “But, yes, the arrangements and our berth are being handled. As to where Giles is, as I understand, he and Skinner are already on their way and should be arriving at any moment.”
“Great, then there’s little else to discuss,” Oedipa said. Though she felt the opposite was true, she realized that Radley was savoring this moment to flex his muscle. Joe looked equally uninterested in arguing with their so-called security chief.
Radley grunted and fished out a pad from his pocket. He tossed the little grey tablet to Joe. “Skinner was more than willing to reveal the existence of the ship, but it took plenty of arm-twisting to get any information about the specs of the ship. Kind of funny, considering that one of us in this car is going to have to fly the damn thing.”
“What is that? That’s like no other ship I’ve seen,” Joe said.
Oedipa leaned hesitantly over his shoulder to peek at the dim screen. The figure that appeared there was vastly different from what she could have imagined. Instead of the typical oblong shape that harkened back to rocket-fueled ancestors of the late 20th and early 21st century, the figure that slowly rotated above the neat script of specifications looked more like a pair of bicycle tires wedged awkwardly together at the rear. At the wheels’ hub, a bat-wing shaped wedge formed the heart of the ship.
“They expect me to fly that?” Joe said. “I can’t even tell for certain where the cockpit is from this schematic.”
“I recognize this,” Oedipa said, and Joe flashed her an astonished look. “This is—was—a theoretical design I once saw at a SETECH research and development conference back when I was just an intern. It supposed that we could use the discovery of the Bifrost wormhole to harness negative energy and make a warp drive technology feasible for space travel. But engineers couldn’t solve certain stability issues and no prototype was ever constructed. To my knowledge, the whole project was shelved as a nice concept that was too many years down the road to be economically useful and no prototype was even attempted.”
“Well, clearly, Skinner overcame the design problem in this wonderful little thought exercise and made the warp engine a reality, sister,” Radley snorted. “And soon we’ll be sitting in it.”
“Or dying in it,” Joe said glumly. “Eddy, whether we’re going into deep space or just low-Earth orbit, it takes months of training to be rated to fly just one particular type of ship. Since I’ve never even seen this type of ship before, I could put our safety and the success of this mission in jeopardy trying to learn on the job. With all due respect, I think we need another pilot—a deep space pilot on this mission.”
Radley slapped his knee and laughed, Oedipa couldn’t see what was so funny about what Joe said. “What mission have you been on? I’m in charge of security and I can tell you security and safety went out the window a long time ago. This is about getting the job done—fast and dirty. Well, fast anyways, I hope.”
“Besides,” Oedipa chimed in. “If this is the kind of ship it appears to be, this is not the kind of vessel you actually fly through; it doesn’t travel space at all; space is moved around it.”
“I understand,” Joe said. “I took quantum physics 101 in school. Nearly failed it, but I at least understand that much, which doesn’t comfort me. Maybe if someone dumbed it down for the layperson, I’d feel a little better.”
“How fortunate you have a biophysicist in the family now to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside,” Radley said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us haven’t slept in over 18 hours. Wake me up if anything exciting happens.”
With that, Radley leaned his head back against the rear wall of the compartment and squeezed his eyes shut. Even at rest, he seemed bitter and far from restful, Oedipa thought. Seconds later, though, he was softly snoring.
Oedipa took the pad from Joe’s hands and flipped through several pages of specifications. She spent the next hour explaining to him how the warp drive was supposed to be able utilize little understood dark or negative energy to create a warp bubble in spacetime. Joe nodded as she spoke and seemed to be in rapt attention to what she said, but Oedipa could tell by the slight drooping at the corners of his mouth and stoop of his shoulders that he was a bit shamed at his ignorance. Her mannerisms reminded her of a schoolboy receiving a scolding from seminary nun.
“So if the warp drive technology is similar to the tech that opened the Bifrost wormhole, what’s the big deal?” Joe asked.
“The big deal is that the wormhole is always ‘on’ and it connects the same two points in spacetime at all times. It can’t be modified, say, to connect two other points in spacetime. But a spaceship needs to be able to start and stop its drive at will and make new connections. Having the interior of the warp bubble being causally disconnected from its forward edge would be a significant problem. It’s likely that, even if this drive works, the ship won’t get us to the Intrepid any faster than a conventional ship would because that’s what we’d be using outbound. Now, on the return trip, the warp drive could shorten the journey considerably.”
“Well, think about it like we’re laying track for a cosmic railroad. The old steam engines could only travel on tracks of cast iron. On our outbound journey, we’d be modifying spacetime with the warp drive and creating a track that we can use to travel back at faster than light speeds. It’s still a big leap in space travel. I can’t believe Skinner was able to keep this hidden.”