Chapter no 48

Winter World

TWO DAYS BEFORE WE LAUNCH, Emma and I host a family dinner at our habitat. It’s the first one in a long time, months at least. Everyone is here. Fowler and his family, Madison and hers, and Alex and his. By the numbers, it’s just like the gatherings we hosted in warmer, brighter times. By appearances, it’s anything but normal.

You can tell who the government has marked as vital personnel: those essential to the Sparta Mission. Emma, Fowler, his wife, and I look tired but well-fed. Alex, Abby, Madison, and David are all gaunt, skin ashy, almost gray. They’re sluggish in their movements and even in conversation, as if focusing is an effort.

Some things can only be understood after you’ve experienced them. Total war—that’s the word that comes to my mind tonight. I’ve read the phrase before, mostly in reference to the Second World War. But I’ve never understood it until now. This is what total war looks like. It claims lives on the battlefield but it doesn’t end there—it reaches beyond and digs its claws into those you love. It’s all consuming. And it’s heartbreaking.

We managed to procure some extra rations for tonight’s dinner. The AU probably figures it’s akin to a last meal for Emma and me. It might be one of the last for all of us. As such, the adults take our time eating. I imagine it’s a force of will for Abby, Alex, Madison, and David. The kids, as usual, wolf down their rations in a race to see who can be the first to ask to be excused from the table to go play. Jack wins the race and the others aren’t far behind him, leaving the table for the living room. I wish they could play outside. Or even at the rec center, but the expense to heat the cavernous space is far too great.

The adults try to keep the mood upbeat, but it’s a losing battle. We all know that this may be the last time we ever see each other, and I think we all want to cling to this moment, savor every bit of it, as we did with the rations. Finally, Fowler and his wife rise to leave, and when they’re gone, the men and women separate, Emma, Madison, and Abby at one end of the table, David, Alex, and me at the other.

“How many ships will there be?” David asks.

The answer isn’t public information. I doubt David or Alex will tell anybody or that it would even matter at this point, but there’s no reason to take a chance.

“Quite a few. Backups, and backups for the backups.”

A kid starts crying and an accusation of a stolen toy echoes in the habitat. Abby stands, but David beats her to it, waving her off and rushing over, his stern voice carrying. “Give it back. That’s not yours.”

Quietly, Alex asks, “You scared?” “Yeah.”

My relationship with Alex has grown into something I cherish. We’re not like we were before—close brothers who joked often and were always there for each other. He’s still guarded around me. But he cares. It’s a sort of clinical detachment, the way a person cares for someone when they think that person might hurt them, and they’re scared to get too close but can’t stay away. I understand that now. I feel much the same way about my new crew.

“Is Oscar going?”

“Yeah,” I reply, not making eye contact. “What did you tell them about him?”

“That he’s my assistant and that I’ll need him in the robotics lab on my ship. That was good enough for the committee overseeing the crew selection.”

“Abby says that Emma’s going too.”

I look down the table at Emma, who’s smiling as she tells a story that’s cracking up Abby and Madison.

“She is. That’s what scares me the most.”

For a while, we sit quietly, watching the kids play with reckless abandon. They’re like a beacon of hope—proof that things really will be all right. Kids are more adaptive than we give them credit for. That’s why our species has survived and thrived for so long. I tell myself that these kids

will mostly forget all about this—if we do get through it. I hope I’m right. The adults, well, I’m not sure any of us will ever be the same. But the future isn’t about us.



AFTER DINNER, Emma and I lie in bed, both staring at the ceiling, too tired to read. After a while, she leans over, kisses me on the head, whispers good night, and says more forcefully, “Light off.”

I’m left in the dim glow of my bedside lamp. This close to the launch, I can’t help second-guessing myself. About the ships. About the mission itself. And about one very important decision I made.

“Can I ask you something?”

She rolls over to face me. “Of course.” “Will you consider staying here?”

She sits up. “We’ve been over this. I have to go.”

“If the mission…if we’re not successful, you would live longer down here. You’d have more time with your family.”

“Going on the mission is about more than adding hours or days or weeks to my life. It’s about our future. It’s about my crew from the ISS. The entity killed them. It was my job to protect them. And I failed. I haven’t talked about it, but I’ve carried that burden—all the way to that solar cell, all the way back to Earth, and every day since we returned.”

“Destroying whatever’s out there won’t rid you of that burden.”

“Maybe. But I have to try. It’s not only the ISS, it’s the Pax too. It’s Harry, and Grigory, and Min, and Lina, and Izumi, and even Charlotte, even as stubborn as she could be. I miss all of them. We have family here, people we love. But we had a family up there too. And I had a family on the ISS. I’ve lost too many people to let it go. You’re not going without me.”

I exhale, knowing the discussion is over. It was worth another try. She turns on her light.

“Hey. What if we’re wrong about what’s out there?” “What do you mean?”

“We’re assuming there’s a harvester in the belt creating all the solar cells to build a solar array to harvest our Sun. What if it’s something completely different? What if there is no harvester on Ceres? What if

there’s a mother ship out there? What if there are a hundred ships, ready to do war? Or what if there’s nothing out there to find? What if the solar cells are like locusts, traveling from system to system, simply flying in and grabbing the solar energy over millions or billions of years, before returning to some central repository, unloading, and going somewhere else?”

She’s asked the questions that have haunted me for weeks now. The same ones running through my mind right now as I second guess myself. In truth, I don’t know what we’ll do if I’m wrong about what’s out there. I can tell her we’ll adapt, but she’s too smart for that. If the harvester isn’t there, or even if it’s harvesting farther out than Ceres—perhaps on one of the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, or Uranus—we simply won’t be able to reach it. The mission will fail.

I tell Emma what I’ve told myself, and NASA, and our allies. “Ceres is the logical choice. It’s close to the Sun, but not close enough for us to monitor it closely. It has to be Ceres.”

I hope I’m right. It’s a guess that will determine humanity’s fate.



THE DAYS and hours before launch are frantic. We check everything, and we check it again. There’s no room for error now. If this launch isn’t successful, we don’t get a do-over. We live or die with this mission.

And it’s a complex mission. The journey to Ceres in the asteroid belt will be the longest manned spaceflight in history. The ships are the largest we’ve ever built and easily the most advanced.

The three-way alliance chose me to lead the mission. I suspect it’s because I have experience with the solar cells, but I also wonder if I owe the honor to the videos the Pax crew sent back with Emma and me. The voices of their countrymen inspired the Caspians and Pac Alliance to put their trust in me. To me, that trust is like a debt I must repay.



ANASA HEADQUARTERS, Emma, Oscar, and I sit in the front row, along with Heinrich, Terrance, and Zoe. I don’t know about the others, but I hold

my breath as I watch the modules soar into the air. They reach low Earth orbit and hang there, drifting. But the entity makes no reaction.

I have a sense of déjà vu from the first contact mission, when I sat in a similar auditorium at NASA headquarters in Florida and watched the modules soar into the air and wait in space to be assembled. Or attacked. It’s colder in this room. The world is different now. And I hope this mission ends differently.

I try not to think about the crew we lost up there. I’m starting to understand what Emma must have gone through after the ISS. Losing people in the line of work is a hurt that never really goes away. It’s always there, lingering, emerging when life reminds you.

About halfway through the launches, they usher us from the room and suit us up and we load onto a helicopter and fly toward the sea. As we approach the ocean, my eyes pan left and right and finally spot the launch pad. Sparta One towers there, our last hope of survival. This launch will be the main body of the ship, which is far larger than any of the other components. A bigger target.

Inside the ship, Emma, Oscar, and I are assigned to different sections for the launch. The reasoning is that if the ship is damaged or if the entity attacks, one or more of the sections could survive. Separating us increases the mission’s chance of survival. Still, I wish Emma and I were together. I wish I could hold her hand while this massive ship lifts us into the air. Instead, I’m alone in a white padded cylinder, my helmet on, listening to the countdown, a small porthole window looking out on the snow-covered land and blue water.

The rumbling begins. The ship shakes. Mission control speaks non-stop, like a stream of consciousness narration of everything happening.

Emma’s voice breaks on my line. “James?”

“I’m here.”

“I’ll see you up there.”



WHEN WE REACH low Earth orbit, I unstrap myself, remove my helmet, and float through the modules.

We’re supposed to wait a few hours. I can’t. Apparently, neither can she. Emma is already on the bridge, watching the passageway that connects to my module.

She raises her eyebrows. “So far so good.”

I smile.

Behind that smile is a worry like I’ve never felt before. Seeing Emma floating there, in a NASA space suit, reminds me of when I first met her, here in orbit, her freezing, unconscious, near death. Space made her sick. Nearly killed her. She can’t take it out here for very long. If I’m going to save her, and anyone else down there, I have to get this right. There’ll be no second chances.



TO MY SURPRISE, the entity makes no reaction to the launches of the Spartan space crafts. There are nine ships in the fleet, all hanging in low Earth orbit, waiting.

Twenty-four hours after launch, the ships begin commanding the modules to dock. When the fleet is fully assembled, we set out for Ceres.



WEEK INTO OUR JOURNEYSparta One launches its first fleet of drones. Their mission is simple: reconnaissance. Mainly, I want to find the Midway fleet and rendezvous with them. I need to see what else they found.

I’m in my sleep station, somewhere between consciousness and sleep, when a buzzing alarm goes off. Oscar’s voice comes on the comm.

“Sir, please come to the bridge immediately.”

I bound out and push through the modules. I meet Emma coming out of the drone lab. She should’ve been asleep too. She’s working too much. We’ll take that up after the emergency.

“What is it?” I ask as soon as I reach the bridge.

“One of the drones found something,” Oscar says placidly. “What kind of something?” Emma asks.

“A ship.”

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