I AWAKE to the worst hangover of my life. Or what feels like it. My head swims. I’m nauseous.
My helmet has been removed. So have my gloves.
It was a nightmare. The ship being destroyed. Just like the ISS. I tried to save them—the crew—again.
I failed. Again.
There’s a strap around my abdomen, pinning me to the wall. I reach for it, but a hand catches mine. I’m not alone.
James comes into view. His expression is blank, but I can see sadness in his eyes.
My voice comes out in a rasp, like sandpaper running over a wall. “What happened?”
He doesn’t respond. Only averts his eyes. He unfastens the strap, and I float free.
We’re in one of the auxiliary modules. There’s a small porthole window, padded walls, and a screen on the end of the barrel-shaped space.
“What is this?” My voice is scratchy but getting better. “This, apparently, is home. For a while.”
“I’ll let Harry tell you.”
James activates the screen. Harry’s face fills it. He’s in his sleep station, speaking quietly.
“Hi, James. Hi, Emma. The crew elected me to make this video. Forced
is more like it. Please don’t hate the messenger.”
He takes a deep breath.
“We’ve talked, and we think if something goes wrong during the strike on the artifact, that you two should get back to Earth.”
“James, there’s not another mind like yours on Earth. You’re irreplaceable. You’ve always been a step ahead of the rest of us out here. You made the big leaps. If this is going to be a war with the artifacts, it will likely be fought with robotics. The world needs you more than we do—and more than it needs us.”
He pauses again, swallowing. His discomfort is obvious.
“Emma, you have been an amazing crewmember. The best we could have ever asked for. But you didn’t sign up for this. I know you would have, but you didn’t. And your health is failing. You can’t stay out here much longer. It had to be you two—if any of us survived.”
The words break me like a stone smashed into an anvil. The hard bits of me shatter and crumble away and lie there, unmoving. Tears stream down my face. I feel hurt, deep down inside in places I never knew existed.
James is stoic. I wonder how many times he’s watched this video. I wonder if it’s the sadness or the anger possessing him now.
I take a look around the module. There’s an exercise bike, resistance bands, and food cartons. For the second time since I went into space, I have been saved by an act of unimaginable kindness.
Harry takes a deep breath. “James, I know you’re probably wondering how we did it. It wasn’t easy. You almost caught us a few times. Lina edited the cargo list from the Fornax, deleted four of the larger engines from it. Grigory and I built the escape module while you were sleeping. It’s bigger than the Pax’s standard escape modules, obviously, and has more acceleration capability. You two will be back on Earth within two months.” He raises his eyebrows. “And James, don’t even try hacking the nav system. Min programmed it to make a beeline for Earth. Lina closed any loopholes you might exploit in the software. It’ll be autopilot all the way. Silent running. You’ll get control back when you reach Earth, but you won’t have any fuel to go anywhere.”
His expression softens. “We did this for you two, but that’s not the only reason. We did it for our families. You’re their best chance of survival. They need you back on Earth. Figuring this out. Studying the sample and data from Midway. We’re counting on you. If you’re seeing this message, then
the worst has happened. Don’t come looking for us. If we’re still alive, we’re going after the Midway fleet to try to figure out what’s out here. That’s the other key point, James. You and I made a great team—but we’re redundant. With you and Emma gone, we still have a full crew out here. We’ll miss you in the lab, Emma, but Min and Grigory can help me patch up the drones.”
He’s getting choked up now. “We’ll miss you. But get home safely, okay?”
He reaches up and presses a button, and the message ends. A long silence stretches out.
“What do you think happened?” I ask.
“I think… the artifact detected the nuke. Or it detected the broadcast from the Fornax to the nuke—for flight control. Either way, the artifact traced it back, struck the Fornax, and then the blast after… It was too big to have been the nuke alone. My guess is the artifact did some kind of self-destruct. Maybe a power overload.”
“To take out anything hostile in its vicinity. Or records of its existence.
Or maybe it was trying to destroy the sample that was sheared off.” “You think it succeeded?”
“I don’t know. The drone carrying the sample would have been at the very edge of the safe zone for the nuclear blast. The Pax was farther out than that, and it got rocked, for sure.”
“I saw a module break free.” “Me too.”
James sits there, staring at the wall. I’m still a little woozy from whatever they put in my suit. Maybe he is too.
“Harry was right, you know.” I take James’s hand. “The world needs you. I still have family on Earth, and for their sake, I’m glad you’re coming home. If anyone can figure this out, you can.”
He exhales heavily. “Still don’t like it. Leaving them. I haven’t had friends like that in a long time.”
I take his hand in mine. “Me either.”
FOR THE FIRST week of our journey home, James stews. He reviews every piece of data and video from the Pax. I know what he’s doing: second-guessing. He was the de facto mission commander. He feels responsible. He’s blaming himself right now.
I know exactly how he feels. I might be the only person who does. I wonder if that’s the other reason they sent me with James. To help him with what he’s feeling. He was there for me when I went through it. That’s what I’m going to do for him.
He looks up from the tablet. “We need a plan.”
He nods absently.
“And a schedule. We’re going to work this problem—together, you and me, one day at a time. And we’re going to take some time off every day. Sound good?”
“First things first. We can’t change what happened back there. The truth is simple: you advanced the mission way beyond where any of us could have gotten without you. We’re ahead of the original mission schedule by months. And we found an artifact and learned a lot. We might have even gotten a sample of it. That’s incredible, given what we’re up against.”
His eyes meet mine. I know what he’s thinking.
“The Pax crew could still be out there,” I say. “We have to assume they are. And they’re counting on us.” I float closer to him. “They’re counting on us to get back to Earth and make a plan and come get them. Their survival is in our hands. We may be the only two people who know what happened to them.”
I can almost see him coming back to life, like a man in a coma waking up, re-entering the world, finding a reason to live again.
“You’re right,” he says.
“I’m glad you’ve finally admitted it.”
A smile tugs at the edges of his lips. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I hold my hands out. “Let’s start with our biggest problem: how to safely land on Earth.”
“I’ve been thinking about that.” He crosses his arms. “I think the biggest danger is getting shot out of the sky.”
“Yeah, that feels like a big danger.”
“Indeed. As far as we know, Earth has no functioning orbital satellites. Unless they launched more while we were gone. Add to that the fact that we probably shouldn’t broadcast anything on our way to Earth. Silent running is still safest. The other artifact, Alpha—or whatever else is still out there— could pick up our transmissions.”
“So we’re going to look like an unidentified bogey heading toward Earth.”
“Yeah. And they’re not expecting us.”
“Harry’s message said we’d get control of this capsule when we reach Earth. How long will we have?”
“I checked the software. Roughly forty hours before touchdown. Ground-based telescopes will definitely pick us up before then. Nukes will have time to reach us before then.”
“The crew was betting Earth wouldn’t take us out.”
“Clearly,” James says quietly. “It’s a good bet. But we need to be prepared.”
“You think you can break Lina’s lockout?” “Not a chance.”
“You have another plan?” “The start of one.”
“Now we’re talking.”
JAMES HAS RIPPED the inside of the module apart. It looks like a bomb went off in here. It’s also given us something important to do, which has taken his mind off the Pax. I’m glad for that—the distraction—and to have a problem to work on.
His plan is simple: a comm buoy. We’ll place the small broadcast satellite in the airlock and jettison it. Once it has drifted ten thousand miles from our vessel, it will start transmitting a signal to Earth, one that’ll get there long before we will. And if the artifact reacts to the transmission, it’ll destroy only the buoy—not us.
James has erred on the side of paranoia in his message.
“Repeat,” he says into the microphone. “Our estimated arrival time is as follows. All numbers taken from the mission briefing manual. We will
reach Earth in first number on page three, third number on page eighteen. Time is in days.”
When he saves the file, I say, “Kind of cloak and dagger.”
He shrugs. “We’re at war. The artifacts—or whatever is out there— could have technology that understands our language. If they know our arrival time, they could cause a solar event to affect us when we arrive at Earth even if they can’t see us.”
“Wars have a purpose. Something each side wants to gain. I think it’s safe to assume the artifact—or artifacts, or whatever else is out there—is causing the Long Winter. But why?”
“Not sure,” James says.
I grin. “Don’t give me that. I know you have theories.”
He cocks his head as he closes the panel of the buoy. “Okay. Here’s what we know: Alpha attacked the probe. Beta destroyed the Fornax and I think tried to destroy the Pax when it self-destructed. Both artifacts were hexagonal. That implies there are many more, and that they likely fit together. They’re here for a reason. Maybe for our sun or our planet or us.”
“What’s your best guess?”
He withdraws. I bet he knows why the artifacts are here, and he’s withholding the knowledge because it would disturb me.
“If they’re here for us,” I say, “they could have already invaded Earth. It could be occupied when we arrive.”
“Or it could have been occupied a long time ago. Aliens among us.
Spies planted to watch us.” I raise my eyebrows theatrically. “You have quite an imagination.”
He has no idea.
AFTER JETTISONING THE COMM BUOY, we settle into a routine. I exercise. He exercises. We talk about what we’ll do when we get to Earth. We talk about finding the Midway fleet and launching more ships to trace the artifacts. I can tell there are things James is keeping from me, about his conclusions. I don’t press him.
We play cards after work hours. Work consists of analyzing the data from the Pax and especially the confrontation with Beta. It’s busy work, and I’m grateful for it—anything to keep my mind off of the Pax crew or my ISS crew for that matter.
The card games are gin rummy mostly, with magnetic cards one of the Pax crew had the foresight to pack for us. It’s important to keep a schedule. The days are shapeless. The sun is behind us, never rising or falling. We cover the porthole to simulate night and strap in to the sides of the module, across from each other, and talk for hours until one of us yawns.
I once read somewhere that after the First and Second World Wars, when most troops came home on large ships, the trips across the Atlantic and Pacific provided time for them to decompress, to mentally pack away the stresses and horrors of war and prepare for life at home—a quieter, more peaceful life. This feels a little like that. On the Pax, it was a roller coaster of emotions. Constant stress. Problems and more problems. Now it’s just James and me, and for a while, I forget about our freezing world, the six crewmembers we left behind, my sister, and everyone counting on us and everything else. It’s as though we’re in a small pocket universe. Everything outside of us exists, and we care about it, but it’s far away, a problem for a distant day that may never come. Here and now, time seems to stand still, and we rotate around each other. It’s perfect in that way.
Some nights we watch movies and TV, usually old ones. Sometimes The X-Files. And Star Trek. These are a gift from Harry. His video collection is nearly endless. When Marlon Brando’s scene in On the Waterfront plays and he says, “I coulda been a contenda,” I can’t help but think of Harry and his impression. I laugh, and I hear James laughing behind me. And I feel my eyes well with tears.
I push off and drift back toward James. I’m startled when he catches me and guides me to the back wall. We plant our feet on the floor and sit, his arm around me. At some point, my head drifts down to his shoulder, and his head gently touches mine. I can’t remember when I felt this happy. Or this sad.
THOUGH I EXERCISE DAILY, I know I’m still losing a lot of bone density. Too much. Assuming we make it back to Earth, I won’t be stepping out of this module—I’ll spill out, and I may not even be able to stand. I’ll slow James down, no matter where he goes. I would do anything for him. Except hold him back.
He looks up from his gin rummy cards.
“I want to talk about what happens when we get to the ground.” He discards a seven of diamonds. “Okay.”
I draw a card and study it. Jack of clubs. I’ve got one jack, but I can’t risk trying for a set. He’s getting close to knocking. I’m pretty sure of it. I toss the card on the pile. It clicks onto the magnetized tabletop.
“I won’t be able to walk. Probably not.”
“Uh-huh.” He draws. Studies the card and inserts it into the middle of his fan. Must have been a card he needed. He discards as he says, “Nothing medication and physical therapy can’t fix.”
“But that’ll take time.” “True.”
He looks up at me expectantly. I know that look. It says, Your turn to draw.
I take a card. A suicide king. I toss it on the pile.
“I’m going to slow you down on Earth. You need to move on once we get back.”
He lowers his cards, but doesn’t reveal them. “I’m going to move on. I’m going to start executing the mission I’ve been planning. But first I’m going to get you to the best hospital in the world. I’m going to make sure they’re treating you, and I’m going stay by your bedside until I know you’re going to make a full recovery.”
“You can disagree with me. It’s your right. I respect it. You can hate me. You can forbid me from doing it. But that’s what I’m going to do. No matter what.”
He draws a card. Discards quickly and lays his hand on the table. “Knock.”
I tilt my hand, revealing my cards.
He always does the math in his head in a fraction of a second. “Thirty-five my way.”
I glance at the running score. His victory this round puts him over a hundred. Game over. He wins.
A FEW NIGHTS LATER, instead of tethering to the wall across from me, James drifts down to the adjacent wall, into the valley between us, and straps in. He stares straight up—out the porthole, at the stars.
I unbuckle myself, drift down, and lie next to him. These stars are what I came up here for. My breath was taken away the first time I saw them. But now all I want to do is get back home.
Gently, he takes my hand in his, just like I reached out for him on the
Pax, in the seconds before the artifact struck.
I’ve changed my mind. I’m not in any hurry to get back to Earth.
A WEEK LATER, we’ve just finished an episode of The X-Files when I turn to him.
“Will you tell me something?” “Anything.”
“Why were you in prison?”
He shrugs theatrically. “I… might need to revise my previous answer.” “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because it might change how you feel about me.” “It won’t.”
“I can just look it up on the internet when we get back.” “Assuming the internet still exists.”
“Yes. Assuming that. But wouldn’t you rather tell me yourself—in your own words?”
“I would.” He breaks eye contact with me. “I will. I’ve never really… talked about what happened with anyone. I need some time.”
“We’ve got time.”
But, as it turns out, not enough.
SEVEN DAYS BEFORE OUR ARRIVAL, I awake to find James hunkered over the main terminal.
He turns, and I can tell instantly something is wrong. “What happened? An issue with the ship?”
“No. It’s fine.”
He twists, allowing me to see the screen, which shows a picture of Earth. We’ve gotten our first telemetry from the long-range telescope. I see the familiar swath of white clouds, the blue ocean below it, and where the US Eastern Seaboard should be, an expanse of white.
Earth is frozen.