WE’VE SENT a comm brick to Earth with the video footage of the drone being fried by the artifact. Grigory, Harry, and I have spent hours debating how the artifact even did it. Radiation or some kind of charged particle burst are our best guesses. We’ve decided to harden the Midway fleet against similar attacks. I don’t know if it will work.
Charlotte has spent every waking hour studying the message the artifact broadcast. She’s had no luck. I’m glad she’s trying, but I doubt she’ll solve it, even as smart as she is.
I know what I think happened. The comm drone broadcast a simple message. The artifact assumed it might be someone on its side, a simple messenger. It broadcast the next Fibonacci number back, then an encrypted message in its native format. When the drone didn’t respond in the same language, the artifact figured out they weren’t on the same team after all.
The debate about our next move is surprisingly short. We’ve sent the scout drone back to the Janus fleet. It will give the intervention drone the go-ahead to fire the rail guns at Beta. We’ve decided to take a larger sample of the artifact, almost twenty feet square, assuming it breaks as we anticipate. The transport drone that will take the sample back to Earth launched yesterday. In the bubble, during the launch, it occurred to me that the sample would be the first known alien artifact to ever be brought back to Earth: a piece of what we believe to be an enemy, possibly an invader, recovered with the sole purpose of studying it so that we can be ready to kill it and defend ourselves.
I’ve thought a lot about the artifact since I saw the video. Its outer material is clearly pliable, or at least broken into segments small enough to
bend into the shape we saw. Countless times during this mission, the crew has debated what exactly the artifacts are. Could they be living creatures? A hive of creatures floating through space? A machine, perhaps a drone similar to the ones we’re launching? Or perhaps it’s a spaceship crewed by beings far smaller than us. All are possibilities. I have no clues that might reveal the truth.
But I will soon.
The mood on the Pax has changed. We’re less talkative. People smile less. We speak in shorter conversations. There’s an urgency, and a tension in the air. This must be how it felt in Pearl Harbor and across America after the attack. We have a sense of foreboding. We know a battle lies ahead. And we know that though it’s one we could never prepare for, it’s a fight we must take up, for our loved ones and for our entire species.
I know Emma felt betrayed that I didn’t tell her what I suspected earlier. I hope she understands now. The burden of it was just too great—is too great. Now that it’s out in the open, the weight of our decisions is crushing us out here. And Emma is already carrying the weight of the deaths of her crew from the ISS. I know it’s eating at her, though she won’t admit it to me. Or maybe even to herself.
I also know that Emma’s worried about her sister and her family. She recorded a video message to them that we sent in the comm brick to Earth (there was plenty of room for data). In fact, all of the crew recorded messages home. I don’t know what most of them said—they were spoken in Chinese, Japanese, German, and Russian—but the messages from Emma, Harry, and Charlotte to their loved ones followed the same pattern: get to safety, hunker down, and I love you.
I’m the only crewmember who didn’t send a message. I considered sending one to my brother, but I doubt he’d even view it. He doesn’t want to hear from me. If this is the end, I have to honor his wishes and leave him in peace.
I’d desperately like to contact my only friend, Oscar, but I can’t give away his location. That would be another kind of betrayal.
WE GATHER in the bubble for the launch of the Midway fleet. The ship vibrates and shakes as the rail launcher discharges. The drones zoom into the black of space, faster than we can see on the screen. We simply watch the launcher status to make sure all systems are functioning.
The drones will travel away from the sun, looking for the mother ship that sent out the artifacts. If there is one. That means the launch vector is behind us, so unlike with the Janus fleet launch, the rail gun recoil is actually propelling us forward. As such, Grigory has poured more energy into the launches. In fact, he’s using too much energy—too much for the Pax to ever make it back to Earth. We might have enough power left to get one escape module back to Earth, but I’m not even certain about that. Using the reactor power is a decision we never debate, one we’ve made automatically. We all know the truth: we have to stay out here. We’re at war. We have to figure out how large our enemy is. Where they are. Our lives are less important than that.
Somehow, I think we all knew this was a one-way trip when we left.
There’s no doubt now.
We’re not going home.
LINA IS BRILLIANT. She’s devised a compression algorithm for the comm patches that will allow them to send images of the artifact. Her breakthrough was that we don’t need high resolution to know what’s going on—in large part because almost everything in space is black. So her solution is for the drones to take a full image first, but to not store the black pixels or nearly black pixels. They won’t record the sun, either; the drone will simply note the sun’s position, and the software will then fill in the sun and stars in the background. Even better, once an initial image is established, all the drone really needs to relay is what Lina calls “delta caps”: partial images that record how the original image has changed.
The best part is that we’ll be able to see the “images” in real-time. We’re aligning all of the scout drones at our disposal to make a data relay link. Even though we’ll be out of line of sight and far away from the artifact, we’ll see exactly what happens.
The artifacts are killing our world. Soon we’ll strike back. And we’ll be able to witness it.
WE’VE BEEN TAKING our meals at random times, whenever someone gets hungry. Eating smaller, more frequent meals helps us stretch our energy and work longer periods of time. We see each other in passing, in the bubble and in the corridors, but for the most part, everyone is head-down over his or her work. It feels as though we’re pulling apart, like planets that were in a tight orbit around a star that has gone supernova, blasting them away, burned and broken.
Izumi doesn’t like it. She’s mandated a crew meal together in the bubble. We use it as an opportunity to discuss the big question at hand: what happens after we shear off a piece of the artifact?
Grigory: “Is obvious. We fire nuke from Fornax as soon as sample is clear of blast radius.”
Min: “I agree.”
Lina: “Me too.”
Charlotte scrunches her eyebrows. “I’m not disagreeing. And I know this is probably a stupid question. But how will the nuke work in space?”
I sense that Charlotte is genuinely curious—not necessarily opposed.
Harry’s voice is gentle. “It’s a fair question.” He looks over at Grigory, allowing the engineer the chance to explain, since he’s more knowledgeable than all of us.
Grigory shrugs. “Bomb will go off, of course. Nuclear fission requires no oxidizer. The question is, what is the destructive force? On Earth, in atmosphere, heat and shock wave are large part of destruction. In the void of space, there is no shock wave, no heat wave. Only radiation and plasma cloud made of bomb materials. Nuke casing has been optimized to create plasma cloud. It will be very, very destructive. Widely dispersed as well.”
Charlotte nods curtly. “Thank you.” She bites her lip a second, then continues. “Yes. I’m for the nuclear strike. I’ll defer on timing. I don’t like it. But I’ve made zero progress with the message. And given that two probes have been disabled, in addition to the supposed strike against the
ISS,” she pauses and cuts her eyes to Emma, who doesn’t react, “well, I think it’s clear that the artifact is hostile.”
“For me,” Min says, “the fact that solar radiation is nearly nominal in the regions of space outside Earth is very telling.”
“Yes,” says Charlotte. “That, too. We need to learn everything we can.
Including how to destroy them.”
I don’t wait for the rest. There’s no need. This crew is stressed, worried, and haggard—but we’re unified on our course of action.
“The question is timing.” I wait, but no one says anything. “After we shear the sample, and evacuate it, I think we should hit it with the nuke immediately. We don’t want it to have time to send a message or take off. We’ll be in range to see it via Lina’s daisy-chained comm drone line. We’ll get images before the blast and at the moment of impact.”
“Nothing after?” Izumi asks.
“Not initially. The blast will take out the comm drones. The Pax will be far enough back. We’ll get some radiation though. We’ll send a small fleet of observation drones after the blast to survey the damage.”
We agree on the plan. We’re going to war with the artifact. The hours after tick by like a countdown to an event that might change the course of human history.
IT TURNS out we have enough drone parts for two relay comm lines: one to Beta, and one to the Fornax. We’ll have real-time eyes on both during the battle. We barely had enough engine parts.
In the bubble are two large countdown windows.
Time to Fornax Comm Line Activation 2:32:10
Time to Artifact Comm Line Activation 7:21:39
I need to sleep. I’m haggard. But I can’t. My nerves are like a constant vibrating inside me, a droning alarm clock going off that I can’t reach.
There’s something else I need to do. On my way to the lab, I hear Emma’s voice floating out, clear and strong. She’s not talking to someone here—it’s too loud. A recording maybe?
“Hello, Mr. Perez. My name is Emma Matthews. I was the mission commander aboard the ISS when the catastrophe occurred. I want you to know how sorry I am for your loss. Your daughter was a wonderful friend to me and a brilliant scientist. She was also the biggest prankster aboard the station. I remember this time—”
She starts to laugh, but it changes to a sob, which stretches out until she catches her breath. “Stop recording. Delete file. Start new.”
I’ve reached the hatch to the lab, which is partially ajar. Harry floats beside it. He’s made the same decision I have: to not go in.
I motion with my head, and we both push off and drift away.
In the exercise area, I mount the bike and pedal while he pulls on the resistance bands.
“How do you think this is going to go, James?” “Honestly? I don’t know.”
WHEN I RETURN to the lab, it’s silent. I find Emma pedaling the bike, head-down over a tablet, typing.
She looks up with bloodshot eyes and smiles. “Hi.”
“Hey. How’s it going?”
That has to be the stupidest question ever. I’m nervous. Why am I so nervous?
“Fine,” she says. “Just finished some videos and letters I’d like to send back. I assume there’s room on the next comm brick?”
“Definitely. Lina’s images are very small and we don’t have much more data.”
“Listen. I just want to say this before we reach the artifact.” She stops typing. Stops pedaling. Awkward.
“I, um… before, when I was so… adamant about your exercise schedule. I was just worried about you. I don’t want us to have any sort of disagreement or conflict between us. Not now. Not at the end—no, not the end. I don’t want us to be at odds before we go into this.”
“James, I know why you did it. And I appreciate it. I appreciate you even more for it. We’re fine.”
She comes over and hugs me, and we hold it for a long time. I don’t want to let go. I don’t think she does either.
IN THE BUBBLE, we tether ourselves to the table. Every face is grim, like a jury ready to review evidence in a capital murder trial.
The countdown on the screen reads:
Time to Fornax Comm Line Activation 0:15:04
Time to Artifact Comm Line Activation 5:04:33
I find Harry in the engineering section, conversing with Grigory. Izumi
and Min are by the hatch, listening, their backs to me. “Is barely enough fuel,” Grigory mutters.
Min turns and jumps at the sight of me. “James,” he says loudly. “Hey.”
They’re all staring at me. “What’s up?”
Harry raises his eyebrows.
“Double-checking the flight plan and fuel on the sample recovery drone.”
The drone is due to launch in ten minutes—that’s why I came looking for Harry. We’ve been over those calculations a hundred times already.
WE’VE GOT a visual on the Fornax, and real-time text communication. Videoconferencing, even voice conferencing, isn’t an option with the low-bandwidth daisy-chain comm setup. But we’ve synced our plan and our countdown clocks.
I know I should sleep, but I can’t. I sit in the lab, trying to think of anything I haven’t thought of.
Emma lingers in the hatchway, then pushes in.
“I want to tell you something too. Before the attack.” I straighten. “Oh?”
“Thank you. For rescuing me.”
I nod. I wasn’t sure what she was going to say. I feel… what? Let down? Is that it?
“I’m glad I could,” I manage. “Glad it was my module that landed near your capsule.”
“I’m glad too.”
She floats closer. I think she’s going to hug me, but she puts her hands on my shoulders and slowly moves toward me. She places her lips gently on my forehead and kisses me.
IN CASE THE WORST HAPPENS, we dress in EMUs. We don’t wear our helmets or gloves, but they’re close by. It’s an over-precaution—there’s no one out here to rescue us—but Emma insists on it. She still blames herself for the ISS. If this does anything to make her feel better, I’m for it. We all are. She’s family.
We gather in the bubble, tablets in hand, all tethered to the table, all eyes glued to the main screen.
The video feed of the artifact comes online. It looks the same now as it did in the first video. A black hexagon drifting toward the sun.
In the split-screen, we see the Fornax, hurtling through space like us. For the safety of both ships, we’ve put some distance between us, as much
as we can while still maintaining the real-time comm link.
I glance at Grigory and Harry. “Any issues?” Grigory shakes his head.
“We’re a go,” Harry says.
To Lina, I say, “Let’s get a system check from the Fornax.”
A few seconds later, she looks up from her tablet. “They’re ready.” “Issue the command to the intervention drone.”
I just ordered the first assault on an alien entity. It’s surreal.
Emma’s eyes meet mine, then we both focus on the screen. The seconds feel like eternities.
There’s a flash on the video—the drones firing. A segment of the artifact shears off and floats free.
“Successful sample separation,” Lina says, her voice flat, unemotional. “Recovery in progress,” Harry says. “Estimated time to clear nuclear
blast radius is ninety-three seconds.”
“I’ve apprised the Fornax,” says Lina. “They confirm countdown sync.”
Seconds tick by. I hate this—not being able to do anything. Except trust the plan we’ve made and hope and wait.
Under the table, a hand grips mine. It’s warm and moist, smaller than my own. It’s Emma’s. I glance at her, but she doesn’t make eye contact. I squeeze her hand tight.
“Fornax is firing,” Lina says. “Time to target is thirty-seven seconds.”
I can barely breathe. It feels as if the frame rate of life has slowed to a crawl, every second lasting an hour. The weightlessness and silence make it worse. There’s no sense of time, no sensation, except for Emma’s hand holding mine.
The countdown to impact ticks by.
There’s movement on the artifact video feed. The massive object folds in on itself, and light blossoms from the end.
“Fornax! Evasive maneuvers!” I yell.
But it’s too late. A white spear lances through the ship, shredding it like a soda can.
The artifact doesn’t change shape. It turns white, like a fire poker burning white-hot in space. The nuclear countdown is at three seconds when the artifact flashes. The screen turns white.
“Helmets on!” Emma yells. I’ve never heard her speak that loudly. Or forcefully. It jars me. “Gloves too!”
She flings my helmet at me.
“Brace for impact,” she says before snapping on her helmet and helping me with mine.
I slip my gloves on as the ship rocks, throwing me toward the wall. My tether to the table catches, and I yank back like a yo-yo. Through the porthole window, I see one of the modules on the arms break off and tumble past like a grain silo blown by a twister, me the trapped homeowner, watching helplessly.
The crew is bounced around the bubble, tethered just like I am, debris flying everywhere, chaos in utter silence except for the hissing of air in my suit as it pressurizes. There’s a slightly sweet smell. That’s wrong. Different from when my suit was last pressurized—at launch. Why? A malfunction?
I turn my head, and my vision blurs. As if I’m drunk. Or drugged.
Emma floats ten feet away from me, also tethered to the table. Her eyes look glassed over too. She’s not moving. Is she hurt?
I plant my feet against the wall and try to push off toward her. But my legs won’t cooperate. What’s happening to me?
I hang in the air, reach for the table to pull myself forward.
A gloved hand catches mine. Harry’s face drifts up into view. I can’t hear him, but I can read the single word he mouths.