LOCATING Beta has given this crew a much-needed morale boost. Everyone feels a renewed sense of purpose, that we’re on the right track, and that we’re going to figure this out, one way or another. Any team, no matter what you’re doing, can’t go too long without a win. Finding the artifact is a big win for us. But this isn’t close to being over.
Yesterday, we launched Madre to seek out the Janus fleet. It will refill their fuel cells and redirect them to Beta, which is much closer to the Sun than we expected. In fact, the Icarus drone that found the artifact had a far-out search vector, at the edge of Min’s projections. He believes the artifacts are solar-powered, and that their acceleration increases rapidly as they approach the Sun.
If he’s correct, there are several implications. For one thing, we’re pretty sure the original artifact did accelerate beyond our search grid.
The discovery has forged consensus among the crew on several issues. Yesterday we launched comm drones to Earth and the Fornax. The drones are loaded with all of our data and everything we know so far. We’ve also altered course to intercept Beta.
When I asked Grigory if we could reach it, he was cagey. “Possibly.” He shot Harry a look, then went into a long diatribe about the artifact’s unknown acceleration capacity, variable solar output, and the effect of gravitational pull.
Something’s going on. I know Harry, Min, and Grigory have been meeting in private. I suspect it’s about me—they change the subject every time I get near them. And they’re not the only ones meeting in private. I’ve spotted Izumi and James whispering in the med bay. And I know that’s
about me. Specifically, my bone density. It’s bad. My gums are receding and my grip strength is waning. My fingernails are brittle too, and I’m getting cramps more often, especially at night. I feel as if I’m aging at an advanced rate, like someone in a time warp, literally disintegrating. But the fact remains: besides exercise and mineral supplements, there’s nothing anyone can do.
And this is a far better fate than dying back on the ISS or in that rescue capsule. I’ve had a chance to be part of something—an incredible mission with some of the best minds and the best people whom I’ve ever known.
None of us will stop fighting for this mission.
MADRE DISPATCHED one of the scout drones from the Janus fleet back to the Pax to report. The mother drone found the fleet, powered them up, and has them en route to Beta. They’ll arrive in two weeks. I’m counting down the days.
Because Beta is behind us and moving fast, we’ll reach it long before we would have reached Alpha. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Beta could be going so fast it zooms right past us before we can intercept.
The clock is ticking. We’ll know soon.
HARRY, James, and I are working in the lab when Grigory drifts into the hatchway.
His expression is blank. I sense bad news.
In the bubble, when everyone is present and tethered to the conference table, Min says, “The comm drone is back from the Fornax.”
The fact that the Fornax is out there is a relief. From Min’s expression, I’m guessing that’s the extent of the good news.
“I’m going to read their return message verbatim,” Min says, staring at a tablet. He clears his throat. “Be advised, Fornax compromised. Six capsules never reached assembly point.” Min holds the tablet up. “There’s a list. Grigory and I already looked it up. One was Harry’s capsule, of course,
and four were supply capsules. The sixth was Oliver Karnes. The other aeronautics engineer.”
Grigory’s counterpart on the Fornax. That’s bad.
There’s a long silence. As someone who never met the original crew and has gone through losing people in space, I’m probably able to process this a bit faster. I try to make my voice neutral. “I expect that explains why Harry’s capsule was sent to the Pax rendezvous point. Once Karnes’s capsule was lost, meaning there would be no aeronautics engineer on the Fornax, mission control must have felt that Harry’s skills would be underutilized there.”
“That’s an understatement,” Harry says. “We’d be lost without Grigory.”
The Russian shrugs. “The truth finally emerges.”
There’s controlled laughter around the room. It’s a weak attempt to conceal the disappointment we all feel. And responsibility. The mission truly falls to us now.
“The message continues,” Min says. “The crew of the Fornax favors transferring our drone stock to the Pax. Be advised: our delta payload is intact.”
“Delta payload?” I ask.
James leans over and responds. “The only thing that was different on the two ships’ supply manifests: they had a nuke, we got more drone parts.” “And one crewmember was different,” Charlotte says. “Me and Dan
“True,” James says.
“Final line of message,” Min announces. “We are altering course and preparing for rendezvous and docking. We await further orders from Pax.” Min looks up. “End message.”
After a pause, he says, “let’s talk about our options.”
“I need a minute,” James says. “I need to think about this. We all do before we make this decision.”
IN THE LAB, James pulls me aside. “You’re getting sicker.”
“But you don’t know how bad it is.” “I do know, James.”
“We—Izumi and I—can’t treat you here. You’ve got to get to a real hospital and to stronger gravity soon.”
“That ship has sailed. We both know it.”
“Not necessarily. We’re on a rocket ship. And we’re about to have another. One with no real purpose other than to release a nuke and then fly back to Earth, double fast.”
“No, I’m not going. You’re not putting me on the Fornax and sending me home. I’m staying here and working. You know we need the Fornax in the hunt for the artifact. If for no other reason than to observe and relay findings to Earth in case the Pax is compromised. You can’t waste that ship on hospital transport back to Earth. We’re all expendable.”
“We are. End of discussion.”
“Do you have any idea what your deterioration and death would do to this crew?”
“This crew is strong enough to take it.” “Don’t be so sure.”
“Are you speaking for yourself or them?” “Both. Please, Emma. Think about it.”
“I don’t need to.”
He throws up his hands. “You’re nuts, you know that? Nuts! And you’re driving me nuts.” He barrels out of the lab. It’s a good thing spaceships don’t have gravity or slamming doors, because he would have been stomping away and rocking the hatch off its hinges as he shut it.
I believe I’m doing the right thing for the mission and everyone on Earth, including my sister and her kids. I feel miserable about it.
AN HOUR LATER, we reconvene in the bubble and make the decision: we’ll rendezvous with the Fornax and transfer all drone components to Pax.
James is still sullen, either from our conversation or the weight of the decisions upon him. His plan isn’t elaborate, and there’s no mention of my going over to the Fornax or of the other ship turning back. But I wonder if he’s planning it.
IN THE LAB, James, Harry, and I discuss what to do with the new influx of parts. It will almost triple our available stock. Most importantly, we’ll get more engine parts.
I voice my first reaction. With the exception of the contentious conversation I just had with James, the lab is a safe zone, where we are free to throw out ideas, and debate is civil and productive. It reminds me so much of the ISS.
“We could take more readings. Send a fleet ahead of the artifact, see how it reacts after our encounter with it.”
“True,” James says, eyes on the table. “But we need to consider the big picture.”
“Attaching my wide-view lens,” Harry says jovially.
That gets a chuckle out of James and me, but neither of us looks at the other. He’s still mad at me. That sort of makes me want to be mad at him.
“We’re out here for more than these two artifacts,” James continues. “Our mission is to get Earth the data they need to survive.”
I cock my head. “I don’t follow.”
“Think about it: two artifacts on the same vector. Think about what that implies.”
It hits me then. “A mother ship.”
Harry pinches his lower lip with his fingers. “What are you proposing?” “A massive drone search fleet. Sent along the artifacts’ vector. Running
silent, collecting their findings. Another mother drone, larger than Madre, to coordinate the other drones and send comm bricks back to Earth with the data.”
Harry smiles. “A mother mother drone? You should have led with that, James. You had me at ‘We’re gonna need a bigger drone.’”
“You’re so shallow, Harry.”
“Size matters. E equals mc squared.”
It’s got to be the nerdiest joke I’ve ever heard. But I laugh, and so does James. He glances over at me, and I can tell he doesn’t really want to be mad at me. And I don’t really want to be mad at him. We’re fighting, essentially, because he cares about me and I care more about the mission.
IN THE BUBBLE, we present our plan. To my surprise, the crew is pensive. Maybe it’s because we’re technically going outside of our mission objective, which is to find and assess the known artifacts.
We don’t reach a consensus. We break and return to our departments. Shortly after, Grigory drifts into the lab.
“If we send the other drones on search, we need to be ready to support them.”
“Madre Two,” Harry begins, but Grigory holds up a hand.
“Not talking about bigger mother drone. Talking about fact we have two ships now. One possibly without purpose.”
To my surprise, he doesn’t elaborate. He nods and floats out of the lab. His meaning isn’t lost on James, Harry, or me. But we don’t discuss it. We all return to our work, stewing on the idea.
THE NEXT DAY, James, Harry, and I form a plan. We don’t include the Fornax in it. Mostly because we’re scared to make plans for the ship— because those plans might sentence that crew to death.
IN THE BUBBLE, the meeting about the drone deployment is contentious. Battle lines are drawn. Harry, James, Grigory, and I are for sending the remaining drones along the vector to search for more artifacts and a potential mother ship.
The rest are against, some more vocally than others. Min points at James. “This isn’t our mission.”
“Of course it is. Our mission is to do whatever we have to do to save Earth.”
Min taps on his panel. “The mission—”
“Is more than what’s written in the briefing, Min.” James is mad. He’s trying to hide it, but he’s losing control. “Why do you think they sent us up here? To follow that document to the letter? No. We’re here to use our heads and figure this out. We need to find that mother ship.”
James looks at the group. “Odds are, it’s out there. And if these artifacts are responsible for the Long Winter, we’ve got to fight them at the source. There could be millions or even billions of these artifacts.”
Arguing ensues, voices rising. The fight, more than any of our time here on the Pax, reveals the personalities of the members of our crew.
Min, ultimately, is by the book. He favored finding the second artifact, but only because he felt that effort was well within the mission parameters. He can’t imagine going home and telling his superiors he went off on a completely different mission than what he was sent up here for.
Izumi is with him. Maybe her training as a physician has taught her to be conservative. Or perhaps she’s against our idea because it’s so radical.
For Charlotte, the sticking point is the prospect of losing the drones—of having a successful first contact and no way to adapt her approach.
Lina is somewhere in the middle. The German programmer is the least talkative of the crew. She simply asks what the risks and rewards are, which sparks another James-Min standoff.
I think Harry favors the plan mostly because he likes building the drones, and I think he would follow James anywhere. I would too. But I also agree with the plan on the merits. My gut tells me the artifacts are hostile. That’s not just because I think they destroyed the ISS and killed my crew. The evidence supports it.
Grigory is in that camp: he thinks we’re at war. He favors, in his words, “finding our enemy.”
In the end, Lina votes with us, and a compromise is struck: parts for three small drones will remain on the Pax. That wins Charlotte over, leaving Min and Izumi. Neither of them is comfortable with the decision, but they will work to support it. And in private, James and Min apologize to each other for shouting.
We’re becoming more than a crew. We’re becoming a family, one that fights and compromises and cares about each other, even when we don’t
agree. Even when we’re mad at each other.
THE RUN–UP to the Fornax rendezvous is hectic. It’s anybody’s guess which will happen first: the Janus fleet reaching Beta or the docking.
James and Harry obsess over the drone designs for the third fleet, which they’re calling “Midway” after the decisive naval battle that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. Harry, in addition to being a human repository of movie quotes, is a history buff as well. James is too, but to a lesser extent.
“Without Midway, the Japanese could have run the board,” Harry says, strapped to our work table in the drone lab. “Brilliance, that’s what it was. The greatest game of naval strategy ever played.”
I wonder if that’s what Harry thinks we’re doing out here: an elaborate strategy game against an enemy that looks as if it’s winning. And will win.
“The US fleet took down four Japanese carriers at Midway. Four of the six that attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese never recovered. Couldn’t replace those ships. Or the pilots they lost.”
James is untangling a ball of wires. “You could argue Guadalcanal was just as important.”
Harry pauses. “True. But that was a land campaign.” He smiles. “Our fight is in the air.”
I enjoy listening to them debate history. I’ve never had much interest in military history, but their enthusiasm brings it to life. I’ve learned more about the War in the Pacific the last two days than I have in my life.
They’ve named the elements of the drone fleet to align with their historical counterparts. There will be three carrier drones—Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise—and almost a hundred small scout drones, which don’t warrant names, just the designation PBY and a number. I had to ask what a PBY was (answer: a sea plane used extensively for scouting, rescue, and anti-submarine operations in the 1930s and 40s).
Finally, there are two specialty drones. Vestal is a large, slow drone with all the excess parts. The carriers will be able to offload parts from it as needed. And Mighty Mo is a battle drone with four rail guns and a huge battery to power them. It even looks mean. James and Harry laughed when
they settled on the name. Apparently it’s the nickname for the USS Missouri, a storied US battleship that hosted the Japanese surrender. It was the last battleship the US commissioned and the last battleship to be decommissioned.
It also turns out James and Harry are a bit superstitious. They’ll only name the drones after “successful” ships. Harry tells me the US never lost a battleship at sea, though four were sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s amazing the history you learn on an impromptu space mission.
My only worry is that Izumi might take offense at the carrier names. I go as far as asking her about it, but she simply stares back with a blank expression and says, “Why would that bother me?”
“Well, you know, because of the war.”
She nods absently. “No. It doesn’t bother me.” I probably just earned myself a psych eval.
I’M in my sleep station, dead to the world, when the shouts wake me. I try to focus on the words, but I can’t make them out. Something in Chinese, and Japanese, and Harry yelling, “ET phone home!”
The curtain yanks back and James lets his momentum carry him into the cramped space. He’s nearly on top of me, his lips inches from mine.
“We did it. The Janus fleet reached Beta. We’ve got observational data.
And first contact. It’s communicating with us.”