AFTER A HECTIC WORK session in the briefing room, we have a plan.
Our first-contact protocol is clever. I certainly couldn’t have come up with it alone. So is the communications solution between the two ships and our probes. It’s truly ingenious. And requires no electronic transmissions. Maybe it will save our lives.
I’ve spent the last four hours creating a list of robotic components for the mission. It’s hard to choose. I keep reviewing the list, wondering if I should have picked something else—like a student agonizing over a multiple-choice test as the clock ticks down. And this is a test. The stakes are huge. We only get one shot at this.
Right on time, there’s a knock at the door, and Harry enters. He’s got his list with him. He lays it on the desk and extends his hand for my list. We both made component lists to see if either of us would come up with an idea the other hadn’t thought of.
“Don’t know if you remember, but we met once, before all this,” he says. “At IROS one year?”
“I remember. I’m glad to finally get to work with you.”
“Likewise.” He sits. “Hey, I was real sorry to hear about your—the… what happened to you. Pretty unfair, I thought.”
“Thanks. So, what’ve you got?”
THE NASA STAFFERS charged with my crash course education start with some introductory exercises in zero gee, and follow that up with a rundown of the capsule I’ll be launching in. It’s like drinking from a fire hose, but I try to take it all in. The reality is that ground control will handle the launch and capsule maneuvers. My job won’t really start until I get up there and the ship is assembled.
I have eight hours to sleep before I report for launch. The astronaut crew quarters are in the NASA headquarters building, and they’re pretty nice. Compared to my last place of residence, it’s a palace.
I lie on the bed, clothes on, because I’m too tired to take them off. I stare at the ceiling, willing my brain to sleep. It’s like a TV I can’t turn off, constantly jumping from idea to idea, trying to imagine what I might have missed, the piece I haven’t thought of.
It’s funny: last night I stayed awake because I was sure the other prisoners would drag me from the cell and kill me. I thought that night would be my final night on Earth. Now I’m even more certain that this is, in fact, my last night on Earth—one way or another.
Last night, I was ready to fight for my life. Tonight, I’m preparing to fight for everyone else’s life.
To do that, I need to sleep.
I focus on my breathing, and I’m out in seconds.
I’M SOMEWHERE between sleep and consciousness when a knock sounds at the door.
I feel almost paralyzed with fatigue, as if I’m lying under the mattress and can’t get it off of me. There’s no way I’m getting up to answer the door.
My voice comes out weak and distant. “Come in.”
Fowler enters. “Sorry to intrude.” He stops. “You were asleep.” I roll and try to get up. “Sort of.”
“Good for you. You need it. I’ll be fast.”
He lays a folder on the bed, and I flip it open. It’s a personnel file for Emma Matthews, PhD. She’s a geneticist. Crew commander on the ISS. I expected the picture to be a standard NASA head shot with an astronaut in a space suit, staring into the camera, no smile. It’s not. This must have been
taken before launch—in this building, in the crew mess. She’s sitting at a table, smiling, hands held out as if telling a joke. Her energy radiates off of the page, like a kid at her first day at camp, a person with a passion for life.
I scan her biography. Her life looks a lot like mine. Never married. No kids. Dedicated to a field that she became interested in at a very young age. And a single-minded focus on that goal. Her choices led her to space. Mine, to prison.
“Commander Matthews is the person I mentioned when we first met. She was on the ISS when the solar event occurred. It destroyed the station, but she made it out alive.”
“Instincts. Some guts and smart moves. And a lot of luck.” “Is she…”
“Still up there? Yes.” “What’s the plan?”
“Originally, it was to bring her home after your launch.” Fowler pulls over the desk chair and sits. “We’ve had a setback.”
He hands me another folder. This one contains photos, the first of a space capsule leaking atmosphere, the second showing the capsule still against the black of space. Fabric protrudes from a puncture like pillow stuffing leaking out.
“Her capsule was hit by debris.”
I nod. I know where this is going. She isn’t the mission. I shouldn’t be listening to this—for my sake. For the sake of the mission. For the sake of the billions of people on Earth. But I wait, silently. There’s something about her. The innocence in that picture. Her energy.
“James, we’re putting it all on the line for this mission. Once we’ve launched the components for your ships, that’s it. That’s everything. We won’t have a way to get her back. Not before her oxygen runs out.”
Fowler hangs his head and studies his feet. “NASA, ESA, JAXA, Roscosmos, we’ve all put the orders in for more engines, more modules, capsules, you name it. Governments are opening their checkbooks—while they still have a checkbook, and while there are still banks to cash checks. Private contractors are ramping up. We’re doing everything we can to be ready to respond with future launches, no matter what you find. But it’s going to take time. And Emma Matthews doesn’t have time. Bottom line is, we sent her up there, but we can’t rescue her.”
“And you’re here because I might be able to.”
“Maybe. We don’t know what will happen after the launches begin. The entity could scatter our pieces to the wind as soon as they go up. Or it could do nothing. It didn’t react to the capsule we sent, so that’s promising.”
“How would it work—conceivably?”
“Conceivably, we wouldn’t change a thing about our launch plans. We send the ship components into low Earth orbit and wait.”
“And see if any of our capsules end up in a position close to hers.” “Exactly.”
“You’re having this conversation with everyone on the mission, aren’t you?”
“Yes. There are a lot of risk factors. Docking. Taking on another crewmember. And the obvious: her rescue is not the mission.”
“What happens if we retrieve her?” I quickly correct myself. “After we retrieve her. Do we put her in an escape pod and send her home?”
“It was proposed, but the committee decided against it. There are only two escape pods. Each holds three comfortably, four at the absolute max. Losing one would mean at least two people from one of the ships wouldn’t come home.”
“She’d go with us to the artifact?”
“She’d have to. Look, James, we both know there’s risk here. And it’s not part of the core mission. My job here at NASA is making sure we do everything we can to protect the people we send up there. That’s why I’m here. I have to ask.”
I flip back through the folders, as if I’ll find an answer to my dilemma there, a reason to commit to saving her or declining Fowler’s request.
Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t. The risk-reward profile doesn’t justify it. This mission may well determine whether the human race lives or dies. With that on the line, it simply makes no sense to take unnecessary risks. That’s the scientist in me talking. But the truth is, I can’t leave Emma Matthews behind to die. It’s not how I’m made. It’s certainly not what she deserves.
I hand the folders back to Fowler. “I’m in.”
I AWAKE FEELING as though I’ve been sleeping in that dryer in prison—sore, battered all over, and dizzy.
I stumble into the adjoining bathroom, shave groggily, because I don’t know when I’ll be able to shave again, and stare at my bloodshot eyes and weathered face. I bet I’ve aged ten years in the last two days.
A knock at the door, and then two NASA handlers are here, walking me through everything that’s about to happen.
It barely seems real. I’m going into space in a matter of hours. Through my nerves, I try to focus. I’ve often found that fear of what’s going to happen is far worse than the actual event. A long time ago, I came up with a mental hack to calm my nerves: I tell myself this is just a trial run. This isn’t really it. That helps put some distance between my mind and what’s happening.
The handlers lead me to an auditorium, far grander than the briefing room. NASA leadership and some dignitaries are standing on the stage, looking grim. The vice president is there, along with a senator I’ve seen on TV. I’m ushered to the front row, and I stand while the three other Americans on the mission enter and join me. Dan Hampstead. Harry Andrews. And Andy Watts.
The next group to enter is clearly our alternates. I nod to the roboticist who might have taken my place, and she smiles. I know her—or at least I know her work. She would have been a good choice. Better than Chandler.
The vice president speaks. Then the senator. And finally Fowler. I can barely focus on the words. In my mind, I’m already up in that ship, in the lab, building what I need for the mission.
The screen behind the podium comes to life, showing a launch platform and a rocket ready to lift off. It’s not here at Kennedy; the scene is at night, and it’s nine a.m. here. The text at the bottom of the screen reveals the location: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
Roscosmos and their partners are launching first—an unmanned payload. The countdown in the lower right ticks down to zero, and the rocket spews white smoke, trembles, and lifts off, climbing out of the camera’s view. Another camera tracks it soaring into the atmosphere. Then nothing.
I hear murmurs behind me. I glance back. There must be two hundred people in the auditorium, and every face is stricken. The unspoken assumption is that the rocket was destroyed before it reached orbit.
The screen flickers to life again. The view is from space, looking down at Earth. The payload made it. The rocket detaches and tumbles back toward the ground. The capsule floats free, the thrusters occasionally puffing out white smoke.
Cheers go up around the room, and we all watch and wait and hope— and several minutes later, the capsule is still up there, unharmed.
There’s a muted Russian dialogue in the background. Fowler steps to the podium and translates.
“Ladies and gentlemen, capsule 1-P achieved low Earth orbit five minutes ago and has experienced no solar anomalies.”
The crowd erupts, most standing, clapping, high-fiving, and cheering. Dan Hampstead whistles. As someone who will shortly be blasted into space in a similar capsule, I have to say, I’m pretty thrilled about the news myself.
The screen changes to another launch site: Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China’s main launch facility for large payloads and manned flights. It’s located in the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia, and its lights glitter in the darkness.
The rocket lifts off and achieves orbit with no interference.
The Japanese are next, launching from the Tanegashima Space Center.
Another successful launch.
Then the rotation starts again: Baikonur, Jiuquan, and Tanegashima all send up a second payload.
Finally, it’s time for the first manned launch. It’ll come from Baikonur, and though they don’t say the name of the cosmonaut, I know it’s Grigory
—he’s the only Russian on the crew. Unexpectedly, I’m overcome with nervousness. It was one thing to watch the payloads go up. This is someone I know—one of my crewmates on the Pax. I’ve known him less than a day, but I consider him a friend. And I’m worried.
As before, the rocket climbs to space and darkness follows. Another wave of celebration rises as the screen switches to the view of Earth from Grigory’s capsule.
Jiuquan launches next. Min is in that capsule. Tanegashima follows, with Izumi. Half of my ship’s crew is already up there, waiting.
They launched the first payloads under the cover of night—when the launch sites and rockets were on the dark side of the Earth, out of the line of sight of the Sun. That was smart. It upped the chances of success. But
Kennedy and the Guiana Space Centre will launch in sight of the Sun. If there is something out there watching, from the vantage point of the Sun, it will see our next launches. And those launches start now.
The screen switches to the launch pads where rockets are waiting. They take off one after another, like a fireworks show—the crescendo of the greatest Fourth of July in history.
None of these payloads are harmed, either. No alterations to their vector.
No debris impacts.
That reminds me of Emma Matthews. She’s up there, still in geosynchronous orbit with North America. If she’s awake, I bet she can see it all. I hope she can. And that it gives her hope. Because we’re coming for her.