IT’S BEEN two days since I gave the presentation to the Atlantic Union Congress. There’s been no decision yet. I count that as a bad sign. I feel like a trial lawyer who has made his case, as best he could, for an innocent client facing the death penalty—and now that client’s fate is in the hands of people who don’t understand the case and may act irrationally or selfishly. It’s driving me crazy.
I’m sitting in Fowler’s office at NASA headquarters, talking with him about the mission, when his assistant, a Marine lieutenant, knocks and enters.
“Sir, the Executive Council is asking for you. Both of you.”
This time, we meet with the leaders of the Atlantic Union in a smaller room: a situation room at the executive office building. The elected leaders of all of the union’s preeminent nations are seated at a long conference table. The president of the United States speaks first.
“Gentlemen, you are a go for your mission.”
Relief floods through me. I can actually feel the stress draining from my body.
The feeling doesn’t last long.
“But there are two conditions,” the president says, his gruff voice getting rougher with each passing word, like a chainsaw cranking. “First, the launch will not take place until we’ve recovered and retrofitted at least two hundred nuclear warheads.”
“Retrofitted for what?” I ask.
“Deployment in space. I’m sure the two of you can arrive at the reason, but I’ll say it so there’s no ambiguity: we believe your mission could
antagonize our enemy and cause them to respond with force. We want to be ready to defend ourselves.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“That could take years.” I practically shout the words.
“Maybe.” The president fixes me with a hard stare. “But I hear you’re pretty good with robotics. Perhaps you could assist in the recovery and redesign efforts.”
Fowler shoots me a look that says, Let me handle this. “And the second condition?” Fowler asks.
“Before you inform the Caspians or the Pac, we need to be ready here on the ground.”
“Ready how?” Fowler asks softly. “For war.”
I can’t hold my tongue anymore. “What does that mean?”
“It means, Dr. Sinclair, that we need to secure our new borders, build up our military presence on those borders, and strengthen our spy network abroad so that we can be ready and able to respond to any act of aggression.”
“That works against everything we’re trying to do! A military buildup will siphon resources from the nuclear refitting—as well as the mission, not to mention putting the other nations on guard. You know they have spies here in the AU. They’ll know about the military buildup the moment it starts. They’ll respond in kind.”
The president looks me directly in the eye. “Those are the conditions, gentlemen.”
His message is clear; the decision has been made. And it won’t be unmade.
IN FOWLER’S OFFICE, I pace, fit to be tied.
“This is ludicrous. They’re talking about fortifying borders for this habitable zone that we can’t possibly defend against either the Caspians or the Pac, not to mention that huge solar array out there. Offense is our only chance of survival.”
Fowler leans back in his office chair, reflecting. His voice is barely above a whisper.
“There’s nothing we can do about it, James. Our job is science. This is politics. These are people—irrational, frightened, angry people—who sometimes make bad decisions. We have our orders.”
I’M EXHAUSTED when I get home. As I enter the anteroom that blasts me with warm air, I hear Emma’s voice inside, talking with someone, a woman. “The doctors say I simply won’t regain the bone density I’ve lost. My
recovery is plateaued.”
“Have you told James?” “No.”
I’m inclined to leave again, to give her privacy, but I know that voice— the person she’s talking to. It seems impossible.
My curiosity overwhelms me.
I push into the habitat. My nephew, Jack, is sitting in our makeshift living room-rehab center. A young girl, a toddler, sits beside him. I’ve never met her in person before, but I know it’s my niece, Sarah. The two of them are playing on their tablets, not a care in the world. It’s a beautiful sight after a long day.
Emma gets up from the table when she sees me. Abby turns. I expect to see a scowl on her face, but her expression is blank.
I walk over slowly, not sure what to say. Emma saves me.
“James, Abby came by and brought the kids. She thought you might like to see them.”
Only then do the kids realize I’m there. Jack tosses his tablet aside and runs over to me.
He practically bowls me over. I hug him as tightly as I think his little body can stand. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. I’ve wondered what their parents told them about what happened to me. About my long absence. Whatever it was, it hasn’t affected how he feels about me.
Sarah wanders over to me cautiously, eyeing her brother. He reaches out an arm and pulls her into us.
“This is Sarah. She can’t talk real well yet, but she can run.”
I shake her hand and say, in mock seriousness, “It’s nice to meet you, ma’am. And don’t worry, talking is overrated. Running is all that matters right now.”
A shy smile spreads across her face, and her big, adorable cheeks flush with red. She reminds me a lot of Abby.
I can’t help but look around, searching for my brother. There’s no one in the bathroom. No one in my office. He’s not here.
We visit for an hour. I really want to tell them the tale of the first contact mission. I admit: it’s to brag. It’s to make them think I’m important or cool or just interesting. Or maybe it’s to let them know that I’m more than a convicted criminal. That I’m a good person.
When Jack asks what my job is in the camp, I simply say that I’ve been working for the government. Emma plays it up, says that I’m working on projects to save the human race and that I may have already saved us once. Abby seems to have heard this before, or some version of it. She doesn’t look surprised. But Jack reacts as I hoped.
When they’re leaving, Abby instructs Jack to take Sarah and wait in the anteroom by the front door.
To me, her voice low, she says, “I asked Alex if he wanted to come today. He said no.”
I wait, not sure what to say.
“I’m glad you got to see the kids,” Abby continues, sounding conflicted. “Alex and I haven’t told them anything about what happened. We don’t intend to. When they’re old enough, we’ll tell them. And they can decide for themselves what sort of relationship they want to have with you.”
“I came by because I felt like you would want to see them.” “I do.”
“And that you deserve to see them.” I wait silently, sensing there’s more.
“And also, because we’ve been offered the chance to move into the habitat next door.”
That surprises me. “Really?”
“It would be…” Abby hesitates. “Quite an improvement from where we are now.”
“I see.” What is she asking me? It strikes me then. “Don’t worry. If Alex doesn’t want to see me, I won’t make an issue of it. I won’t come over, or confront him if I see him, or approach any of you if he’s with you.”
Abby nods slowly, the stress draining away from her. I think she dreaded this conversation.
I change the subject. “Abby, I’m so glad you all stopped by. You’re welcome any time.”