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Chapter no 28

Winter World

WE HAVE PROBLEMS. And they’re popping up like a litter of kittens.

I’m stressed. Izumi is all over me about it. She’s all over each of us about our stress levels. She’s mandated we take downtime—at least one hour each day for each of us alone, outside our labs or workstations. So I hide out in my sleep station and review design specs and take notes.

We also spend an hour each day together in the bubble, all eight crewmembers, conducting a team-building exercise Izumi designates. Board games, talking about ourselves (which is excruciating for me), our feelings (a form of torture, in my view), and how we feel the mission is going (everyone lies).

Gone is the camaraderie we shared after the Janus launch, that night we ate and laughed and were like one big family.

Somehow, everyone is looking to me for a plan. I guess it makes sense: the drones are our primary method of completing our mission at the moment, and drones are my department.

I feel the weight of the next decision like an entire planet on top of me.

Guess wrong, and everyone on Earth dies. If they’re not already dead.

In prison, I felt cut off from the world. And given the way the world treated me before my incarceration, that was fine by me. This is something else entirely. Not knowing what’s going on back on Earth is eating at me. I think that’s true of all of us. It’s part of the tension, and it’s worse for those crew with the strongest bonds to their family and friends. They want to know if their loved ones are alive and well, if they’re safe or if they’re freezing to death in a refugee camp right now. We keep telling ourselves we’re doing the best we can, but so far our best has come up short.

We’re facing three principal constraints: material, power, and time. In the material department, drone engines are our most critical constraint. We used half of our supply on the Janus fleet. As for power, the Pax’s reactor can only supply so much, and we need that power for the drones and to reach our destination quickly. And then there’s time. There are only so many hours in the day to work, and within those hours, only so many when any one of us can work at peak efficiency. We need good hours. The prevailing feeling here on the Pax is that our next move might be our last shot.

But I have a plan, and I call the group together in the bubble to discuss

it.

I motion to Harry and Emma, whom I’ve come to see as our core team.

“First, we favor sending a small drone to intercept the Fornax and comm-patch the news that the artifact isn’t in the expected location. And of course get a status update from the other ship.”

Charlotte seems annoyed at the idea. “Are we sure this is a good idea?”

Grigory seems just as annoyed. “Yes. We thought it was good idea before, and it still is.”

“It was a good idea when we thought we had news to share,” Charlotte shoots back.

“This is news!” Grigory shouts.

Izumi holds up her hands. “You all know the rules. No raised voices. No attacking people—only ideas. We’re taking a ten-minute break. Then we’ll return to the bubble and start over.”

There are eye rolls and exhales, but the crew obediently unsnaps from the table and sails out in all directions.

Harry, Emma, and I regroup in the robotics lab. “That went well,” Harry says.

Emma is pedaling the desk bike, which I built for her from spare parts. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll meet more resistance than we did with our first plan.”

 

 

IZUMI TAKES charge of the meeting when we return to the bubble. She passes out small slips of paper.

“We’re going to take a straw poll on the question of whether to send a drone to the Fornax. Simply write yes or no and the number one reason behind your answer. I will tally the results and collate the reasons.”

Grigory throws up his hands. “I can barely read my writing.”

“Then just write a zero or one, Grigory. One being yes. I assume your numbers are legible.”

He stews but stays silent.

When Izumi has tallied the votes, she announces, “We are six for and two against.”

Min shakes his head. “When did we decide this was a democracy? Just because there are more votes for the plan doesn’t mean we should do it. There could be a reason against that negates everything.”

“So much for anonymity,” Lina mutters.

Izumi exhales. “The point of this exercise was for everyone to state their first reaction and reasoning—so that we can examine them without fighting. And then we vote again.”

“Can we just talk about this?” Min says. “Like adults?” Izumi raises her hand, but Min presses on.

“We have a limited number of drone engines, correct?” I nod.

“And once we launch them, and they use up their power, they’re done.” “Not necessarily,” Harry says. “We’ve been working on ideas to reuse

the drones. Reload their power cells and issue new instructions.”

Min squints. “What, like some kind of landing bay? Open a hatch on one of the capsules and bring the drones into a space lab? We’re moving at

—”

“No, nothing like that,” Harry says. “We’ve been designing a mother drone. It could recharge the cells in the other drones and issue new software.”

“Very cool,” Lina says. “Very,” Grigory adds.

I motion to Harry and Emma. “We’re still working on the specs. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But it’s feasible. We’d also be able to launch power bricks from the ship to the mother drone to resupply its power bank.”

Min drums his fingers on the table. “Interesting. I feel the drones are our most precious resource. Prioritizing their deployment should be our focus.” He glances at Izumi. “That’s why I feel that voting on each drone

deployment is not wise. We should look first at our priorities and what the drones could be deployed for, and select missions accordingly.”

He pauses, perhaps waiting for dissent. No one gives any. I, for one, agree with what he’s said.

He continues. “I feel that locating one of the artifacts is our top priority.”

“We’re already doing that,” Grigory says.

“For one of the artifacts,” Min shoots back. “We’re looking for the Alpha artifact. But what if it’s not even there? What if it self-destructed when it saw the probe? What if the explosion is what stopped the probe feed? The Janus fleet could be chasing a shadow. And the position is only a guess. We don’t know its flight capabilities. For all we know the artifact completed its mission weeks ago and isn’t even in our solar system.”

“What’s your point?” Harry asks.

“My point remains the same: finding an artifact is our top priority at the moment. And I feel we’re doing that for the Alpha artifact. But the time has come to launch a drone—or drones—to search for the second. We need to consider the possibility that the Beta artifact is the only one we can reach.” Min sets a tablet on the table. “I’ve been working on a flight path to intercept Beta—extrapolated from its last known position and what little we know about Alpha’s velocity.”

“Can we even reach Beta?” Charlotte asks. “And even if we do find it, does the ship have enough—whatever, fuel or reactor power—to get to it? And return home?”

Grigory shrugs. “Depends on where it is and how fast it’s going.” He leaves unsaid my feeling that none of us are getting home.

“Once we have that information, we can plan accordingly,” Min says. “And to be clear, Charlotte, the Pax doesn’t need to reach the artifact. The ship just needs to be in range of our drones in order to run tests—and wage war if needed.”

A silence settles over the group. Finally, Min says, “Look, I want to know what happened to the Fornax too. But that curiosity doesn’t justify another drone right now. We need to find one of the artifacts.”

Min makes some good points, but his focus is too narrow.

I hand my tablet to him. It shows the Pax and Fornax docked while moving through space.

“Actually, contacting the Fornax is about more than just solving the mystery of what happened. It’s related to your point: drones. We,” I point to Harry and Emma again, “also feel that drones are our primary resource limitation. The Fornax should have drone components that we could transfer here. We know that without Harry they have no way of building drones themselves.”

Min passes my tablet to Grigory, who squints and taps at it. Lina is beside him and leans over to study the screen.

“How feasible is this?” she asks.

“Feasible,” Grigory says. “Will take some work.”

In the end, we decide that we will begin on that work: preparing to dock with the Fornax. Grigory and Min will lead the project. And we decide not to launch a drone to the Fornax for now.

The next launch will be a small, high-speed drone fleet sent to look for the second artifact. We entertain the idea of sending another high-speed drone to search for the first fleet of drones, but decide to wait.

When the meeting breaks, I don’t return to the lab immediately. I go to the med bay, where Izumi is head-down over her tablet.

“Iz.”

She turns to me.

“It was a good idea—breaking the meeting and the straw poll. We’re all stressed out, and we have to be able to debate ideas. That ups our chances of success.”

“It didn’t work.”

“That’s not the point. You tried your best idea, and I bet you learned from it, and I bet your next attempt will be better.” I motion out the small porthole. “That’s what we’re doing out here, every one of us. Trying our best idea and learning from it.”

“Maybe you should be ship’s doctor. You seem to know people.” “Trust me, Izumi, I’m much better with robots than humans.”

On my way out of her station, I call back to her, “Chin up. You’re doing great.”

As I bound through the modules, on my way back to the lab, I’m struck by how hard Izumi’s job is. The rest of us have our field here on the ship and with the core mission—drones, propulsion, navigation, software, and first contact. Izumi’s focus is secondary and much more unpredictable. Her job is us. Keeping us functioning at optimal efficiency. I don’t envy her.

In the lab, Emma is strapped to the work table, legs pedaling the bike below, hands soldering a circuit board above.

“I feel like a hamster in space,” she says without looking at me.

“So is this a bad time to talk about a ceiling-mounted water bottle with a spout?”

She smiles. “Yes, it’s a bad time to talk about that.”

She studies the circuit board, seems to like what she sees. “How’d you think the meeting went?”

“Pretty good.”

She scrunches her eyebrows. “Really?”

“Really. Everyone on the ship sees the mission differently. That’s good. Min is right. We need to find one of the artifacts, and the one we’ve been chasing could be long gone.”

“You think we have a real shot at finding the other one?” “I think we’ve got to try.”

 

 

SIX DAYS LATER, we launch the Icarus fleet, which consists of three ultra-small, fast drones designed to find Beta. We ultimately decided that if we’re going out there to search, we need to do it right: three drones can cover three times the area.

It’s a good plan, and the Icarus drones are an even better design than the Janus drones. But still, there’s little enthusiasm at the launch. On the whole, everyone seems to feel the same thing: we’re losing time, and we’re not even sure we’re on the right track.

At the next meeting, we debate dispatching a drone to Earth with news.

The proposal is narrowly defeated.

Harry, Emma, and I continue work on the mother drone, which we’ve nicknamed Madre. Or sometimes Madre de Dronay. What can I say, it gets monotonous some days in the lab, so we entertain ourselves. Harry is the main instigator in that regard. Today, he suggested we rename it the drone father, then “the Godfather, drone edition.” He does a pretty good impression of Marlon Brando from the old Godfather movie.

His voice is gravelly: “As a drone, you never let anyone know what you’re thinking. You don’t broadcast. You keep your mouth shut. And you

comm-patch what you know to your family. Family is everything.” The more we laugh, the more carried away Harry gets.

“We’re gonna make the artifact an offer it can’t refuse.”

Sooner or later, the quotes cross over to other Brando movies, some I don’t even know.

“This drone, it coulda been a contender. It coulda found the artifact. But now look at it. A bum. A piece of debris floating through space, its fuel cell spent.” I’m told that the contender bit came from On the Waterfront, though I never saw it.

Harry moves on to a quote from Apocalypse Now: “This drone, it’s seen horrors. Horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call it a murderer.”

From The Island of Dr. Moreau: “This drone, it’s seen the devil in its telescope, and it has chained him.”

And finally, back to The Godfather. “Look how the artifact massacred my little drone. I want you to use all your powers to clean him up. I don’t want the crew to see him like this.”

But one of his many quotes—he clearly knows these movies well—is quite timely. “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

That’s good advice. Though if the artifact is connected to the Long Winter that’s killing the human race, I don’t know if I can keep myself from hating it.

Emma hands me a circuit board to inspect. It’s perfect, as usual. She’s getting better at building them. And faster.

“Harry, how do you remember all those quotes?” she asks as she pulls another board from the pile.

“Who knows. If my head were full of useful stuff like James, maybe we’d have already found the artifact.”

“Doubt that,” I mutter.

I missed this: working. And with people I like. Sure, I worked in prison, but I wasn’t using my mind. Mental work is like a vitamin a person needs every day. A muscle that otherwise atrophies with disuse.

In truth, I had worried about my ability when Fowler first briefed me; I had been out of the lab for eleven months. I’m thankful that it came back to me so quickly. Harry has been a huge help. Not for the first time, I wonder if that’s why NASA sent him to the Pax: they had second thoughts about

my ability. Despite having little to show for our efforts, I think we’re working at peak efficiency. It feels good to be building something again.

With the Icarus fleet’s lack of contact, we’re more aware, with each passing day, that our time is slipping away. I feel as if we’re sailing past a new land we were bound for, but an unfavorable wind has blown us off course.

Madre is almost done, but we have no idea where to send her and which litter of drones she should repurpose.

I worry more and more about Emma’s bone density. The exercise simply can’t keep pace with the deterioration. It’s a progressive condition: the more bone mass she loses, the quicker she’ll lose it. Izumi is concerned too. We’ve discussed it several times, in private, but arrived at no solutions. Neither of us has said anything to Emma. I don’t know if she’s aware of the severity of her condition. I hope not.

The secret meetings between Izumi and me aren’t the only ones occurring on the ship. Harry has been slipping off to meet with Grigory and Min. More often lately. He says it’s about Madre’s propulsion, but the meetings are too long, and they all stop when I float into the nav module, as though they’re talking about me. I like Harry. I trust him. But I feel that something is going on. I’ve told no one else about my suspicions. But I’m close to confronting him about it.

 

 

I’asleep in the lab when a hand shakes me awake.

Emma’s face is inches from mine, smiling. “Come on.”

We float hand-in-hand out of the robotics lab, through a series of supply modules, and into the bubble. Half of the crew is here. Grigory is smiling— a rare occurrence.

Harry slaps me on the back, the force muted in zero-g. “We’ve got it, James! The artifact!”

“Which one?”

“The second one. Beta. James, we’ve done it.”

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