Chapter no 31

Winter World

JAMES KNOWS SOMETHING. And he’s not telling us.

For a good portion of this trip, I’ve been furious at him for sharing his thoughts—mostly on my health. Now I’m furious because he won’t share his thoughts. It’s driving me nuts. I can’t help him if he won’t talk to me. Ever since we got the video footage from the observation drone, it’s like he’s carrying the burden of the whole world.

The drone fleet was launched with a specific plan: observation first, contact second, and if that fails, intervention. But it’s not certain that contact has failed. It could be a technical issue on our end.

At our next meeting in the bubble, Grigory advocates following the plan and sending in the drones with rail guns. Charlotte is naturally against this idea. So am I. Lina is against, as is Izumi. Min favors moving the intervention drones into position but waiting.

And then there’s James. He simply listens, then untethers himself from the table in the bubble and says, “We need to find out what happened to the comm drone. We can’t do anything until then.”

He just leaves. No discussion, no debate.

Harry and I find him head-down over a tablet in the lab. Stewing.

Pinching his lower lip.

“What was that?” I ask. “What?”

“In the bubble. The—I don’t know—lack of discussion.” “We don’t have time for it.”

He hands me a tablet. It’s schematics for a new type of drone. It’s ultra-small and very, very fast. This will require a whole lot of the stored reactor

energy. The fleet is called Helios, and it consists of three of these mini drones, one of which has the capability to launch ultra-small comm bricks back to Earth to report any findings. These mini comm bricks are about the size of three quarters stacked together and have most of the capabilities of the larger comm bricks, including wireless transmission.

“We need to send scout drones to the sun. Along the artifact vector. They’ll do a high-speed survey. Video recording only. Silent running. And send their findings directly to Earth.”

“I agree,” Harry says quietly.

Whatever is going on, Harry knows what it is too. Or maybe James told him what he’s thinking. And not me. The idea infuriates me. But I know James well enough to know that he doesn’t want to talk right now. He wants to get this done. Quickly.

“Okay. Let’s do it.”



I’VE NEVER WORKED SO HARD, or so fast, in my life. Thirteen hours after James showed me the specs for the Helios drones, they’re firing out of the ship. The rail gun is over its max output. The ship jostles like an earthquake as it blasts the tiny drones toward the sun.

What does James expect to find there? Why is he so afraid all of a sudden?



WE GATHER in the bubble when the Fornax pulls alongside us, every face on both ships floating in the round porthole windows. There’s no noticeable damage to our sister ship, no blast marks or punctures in the modules, but I can tell that it’s smaller than the Pax, and it doesn’t match the schematics in the mission briefing. The arms branching out are shorter.

We entertained several ideas for transferring the drone stock, including docking the ships. We finally settled on a tether. The cargo containers will be latched to the cord and carried over, like a clothesline in space. The tether will also contain a cable—a direct data link. We’re still running dark

—no emissions—but as long as we’re flying side by side, we can maintain

a hard link and swap as much data as we want—like video and the readings from the observation drones.

Most importantly, we can videoconference and actually talk to one another.

We use the robotic arms to attach the tether to the Pax, then offload the supplies.

Since I have the most experience with similar operations, I operate the arms. I enjoy it actually, and it gives me something to do while the crew of the Pax videoconferences with the crew of the Fornax. After the warm welcomes, they quickly discuss the data and what they’ve learned. James leads the meeting, but for some reason, they delay any decisions. On the whole, it’s a jovial meeting. A reunion. James has told me that the two crews only met each other once, but there’s a bond there, no doubt forged by this intense shared experience.

When I first came aboard the Pax, I felt like an outsider. A party crasher on the most important endeavor in human history. But James and the rest of the crew treated me as an equal, welcomed me, and integrated me into every aspect of life on this vessel: the work, the meetings, even the unpleasant arguments. I became one of the family. But now, for whatever reason, I feel like the newly adopted child at a family reunion, meeting the relatives for the first time. Everyone already seems to have such a history and close connection. I’m relegated to the kitchen, doing the work while the others chat.

And in truth, I’m not even supposed to be here.

When I finish offloading the last crate from the tether into the open module, I retract the arm and remain at the control station just outside the bubble, unsure what to do. Should I go to the bubble and introduce myself? I can hear them. They’re discussing the recovery of the compromised drone. James is talking around it. Buying time. For what?

He startles me when he appears in my module. “Hey.”

I hold a hand to my chest. “Hey.” “You all right?”

“You just scared me.” “Any issues?”


He looks at the video screen showing the module holding the drone supply crates.

“Looks like all of them.” “Yeah. I got them.”

“Well… what’re you doing now?”

“I was… I don’t know. Wasn’t sure.”

He gently grasps my upper arm. “I am. Come on. There’s some folks who want to meet you.”

In the bubble, I tether to the table and look at the smiling faces of the

Fornax crew.

James motions to me. “Fornax, this is Commander Emma Matthews, sole survivor of the ISS catastrophe and, on this mission, the sole reason we’ve been able to launch so many drones so quickly. She’s been building circles around Harry and me.”

I haven’t blushed this hard since middle school. “Well, I doubt that.”

“Don’t believe her, guys,” Harry calls out. “She’s the all-star in the lab.”

James introduces the Fornax crewmembers by name, and they greet me in their native tongues.

“Bonjour.” “Ciao.”

“Hi, Emma.”

And last, Dan Hampstead. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.” And just like that, I feel a part of the family again.

James addresses both groups: “The last thing to discuss is what to do from here. We’ve transferred the plans for the Midway drones to you all. We’re going to launch the fleet as soon as it’s assembled. After that, we’re going to inspect the unresponsive Janus comm drone when it returns. I don’t think we can make a plan until we know what happened to that drone.”

There are nods among both crews.

Antonio, Min’s counterpart on the Fornax, is the first to speak. “That sounds reasonable. Listen, we’ve had a long discussion here. Without drone-building capability, we feel the Fornax’s best use is offensive.”

There’s a long pause, neither side reacting.

Dan Hampstead speaks for the first time. “Just so we’re all on the same page, I want to add that the nuke isn’t like the drones. It will need to be piloted from the ship. That means active comm traffic. The artifact could be

capable of evasive maneuvers, and it might trace the nuke back to the ship. Whatever ship fires the nuke needs to be able to fly it—and we should recognize the risk profile of that action.”

The implication is clear: once the Fornax launches the nuke, it’ll have a target painted on its back.

There’s no hint of hesitation from the Fornax crew, only unblinking resolve. Their selfless act has given us all pause. It’s humbling. And inspiring.

James nods. “All fair points. Let’s see what we find out from the comm drone and go from there.” He looks up at the screen and the crew of the Fornax. “It was so good to see you all.”

An hour later, the tether is detached and the ships are drifting away from each other, and I think every single one of us on the Pax is thinking the same thing: that may be the last time we ever see the crew of the Fornax.



THE JANUS COMM drone has returned. The scout drone attached itself to it and has pulled it in.

We’re all gathered in the bubble, waiting for Lina to establish a comm-patch connection with the scout.

“Contact,” Lina says, hunched over her tablet. James asks the first question.

“When did the drone lose power?” Lina: “Right after first contact.”

Charlotte: “A software glitch?”

Lina bristles at the comment. “Possible. Doubtful.” James: “What can the scout drone tell us?”

Lina: “Not much via comm patch.” She works the tablet. “The comm drone issued the Fibonacci numbers via multi-frequency broadcast. Response from Beta after the forty-sixth number. The comm drone issued the forty-eighth Fibonacci number. Response from the artifact is non-numeric. A complex message. Then nothing. Log file ends.”

Charlotte: “We need to see that message.” Min: “I agree.”

Harry unlatches from the tablet. “Shall I prep the guest suite? I mean, the cargo module?”

That gets a few laughs. Except for James. He’s looking away from the group. I can almost see the wheels turning in that big brain of his. Harry is almost out of the bubble when James speaks, quickly, his voice distant. “No.”

Everyone stops.

“No, Harry, we need to keep it outside the ship.”

Before Harry can answer, he continues. “Emma, use the arms to get it from the scout. Attach a data tether. Lina, we need a firewall. Not a software firewall. Full isolation.”

She nods. “Of course. I can attach a system directly to the tether. It will have no connectivity to the ship’s systems.”


Charlotte seems annoyed by all this. “Can I ask what’s going on here?” “Drone could be Trojan Horse,” says Grigory.

James still doesn’t look up. “Yes. That complex message could have been a virus. Or the artifact could have disabled the drone some other way. And lastly, it could be a simple malfunction. We need to figure out what happened to it. And fast.”



THE CONTROL MODULE IS CRAMPED. I’m working the panel for the robotic arms, Lina sits beside me with a tablet connected directly to the tether, and James, Harry, Min, Grigory, and Izumi are all crammed in behind us.

On the second try, I connect the tether to the drone’s data port. Lina taps quickly, her hand almost a blur.

“It’s dead. Won’t even respond to a diagnostic.”

Silence. All eyes drift to James. He has that far-off look again. “Open it up.”

“Out there?” Grigory snaps. “We’re going—”

“I know how fast we’re going.” James’s voice is neutral. He doesn’t make eye contact with Grigory. Instead he looks directly at me. “Activate the cameras on the arms. Be very careful when you open it. It’s important.”

My nerves ratchet up even more. I actually feel sweat forming on my palms. What he’s asking for is no big deal. It’s just performing surgery in space with baking mitts on—while going tens of thousands of miles per hour. If the drone slips out of my hands it will be gone forever, floating in space like a grain of sand on a beach, our only clue about what happened, gone. Piece of cake.

I nod as if I’m unbothered. “What’s the target?”

“See what happened to it first. Peel it like an onion. Slowly. Inside, you’re looking for the data drive. You know where it is.”

And I do. I built this drone. I screwed that data drive to the drone’s central node. And I have the most experience and dexterity with the arms.

I dread doing this. I’m scared to screw it up. But at the same time, I absolutely want to be the one doing this. Because my crew is counting on me. The last crew that counted on me… I lost them. I’ve carried that weight halfway to the sun, and I’ve never quite shaken it. I probably never will. But I know, deep down, that this will help. I know my time on the Pax has helped.

James is watching me. “Okay,” I breathe.

“Get the black box too. If the operation goes sideways, and you have to choose between the drive and the black box, get the black box.”

I nod. The black box was Harry’s idea: another data drive buried deep inside the drone, shielded, with real-time, filtered data replication from all the drone’s systems.

I take the controls and work the robotic arms, carefully detaching the drone’s outer panels. They float away the second they come loose, like dandelion seeds in the wind, gone forever into the vastness of space.

Past the outer panels, I try to pry open the inner housing. I glance at the tension readings on the arm. Too high. Why?

James floats closer and studies the screen. “What’s wrong?” “Too much resistance. Like it’s stuck or fused somehow.”

“Use the laser.”

I swallow hard, nervous.

Holding the drone with one of the arms, I activate the laser with the other and shear off a piece on the edge of the drone. It floats away, revealing the drone’s insides.

The wires are melted like a box of colored crayons, mangled, colors flowing together like water paint in a stream. The circuit boards are flattened, the resistors, LEDs, capacitors, and diodes looking like a tiny city that has been burned to the ground.

Charlotte speaks first. “What happened? What could have done this? A solar flare?”

“This is not natural phenomenon,” Grigory says. Charlotte opens her mouth to argue, but Grigory continues: “Is statistical impossibility.”

“We’ll know soon,” James murmurs quietly. “Keep going, Emma.

Carve it up.”

Five minutes later, I’m staring at the drive on the screen. “Bring it into the cargo module,” James says.

The next hour is grueling. Absolute concentration on my part. And it’s a success. I recover both the drive and the black box. I take samples from around the drone and put them into containers. Finally, I release the shell I’ve carved up. Gutted, it drifts away into the black of space.

In the cargo module, I use smaller arms to connect the black box to a tether connected to Lina’s firewalled computer.

“I want to see that message,” Charlotte says.

“We need to see the video first,” James says quickly, his tone matter-of-fact, not challenging. No one argues.

Lina types away, then the video plays, every eye glued to it.

We see Beta in the distance, the first contact drone closing from behind.

The Fibonacci numbers scroll on the screen in white. A number pops up in red—a reply. Another number in white, then a question mark in red. That must represent the artifact’s non-numeric message.

The next second the screen goes black.

“Play it back,” James says. “End minus two seconds. Slow it way down. This thing is capturing a hundred frames a second. Play back at ten per second.”

The video plays again.

My mouth falls open. The artifact transforms. The hexagonal shape folds in on itself, forming what looks like a bean with two pointed ends. One end swivels to face the comm drone. A flash erupts from the point.

The video ends.

I now know what James has probably known for some time. What Harry realized. What they didn’t tell me: we are at war.

You'll Also Like