THE DRONE CAPTURED the image of the ship at an extreme distance. It’s grainy and blurry. But I would know that ship anywhere. It’s the Pax.
For several seconds, James and I float in the bridge, staring at the image on the screen. Oscar says nothing. He doesn’t prompt us, only gives us our time to process this. In my experience, Oscar rarely shows emotion. I’ve come to believe that his emotional range is very limited, but he seems to understand people on a very basic level and he knows James and me very well—and he knows what that ship and the people aboard it mean to us. He knows we want closure. Need closure.
I try to wrap my head around what the Pax is doing out here. It’s so far from where it encountered the solar cell. Why? How did it get here, so close to Earth? The ship may be adrift. It likely is.
Heinrich, Sparta One’s German navigator, floats into the bridge. “Impossible,” he says when he sees the image of the Pax.
The rest of the crew joins us on the bridge, no one able to resist the mystery and focus on their own work.
“Alter course to intercept,” James says, never tearing his eyes away from the screen.
Heinrich shakes his head. “Recovering the Pax is not our mission. It drains our fuel and time.”
“You have your orders,” James says softly, not in a confrontational way or with any aggression. His eyes are still fixed on the screen.
I expect a fight. I expect the crew to dig in their heels and try to convince him and me to not go after the Pax. But they must sense defeat. There is no dissent or further argument. The course change is made. Comm
drones are dispatched to the rest of the Spartan fleet, instructing them not to alter their own course, but to proceed to Ceres and with the mission as planned.
In the lab, I float over to James and hug him. Seeing the Pax has unleashed a flood of emotion in me. I know it has in him as well. We hold each other a long time, floating in zero-g.
“They could be alive,” I whisper.
“They would have run out of food a long time ago.” “What if they… rationed or found a way somehow.” “We can’t get our hopes up, Emma.”
“I know. I can’t help it.” “Me either.”
THERE ARE things I miss from Earth. My family. My friends. Gravity. But most of all, I miss the habitat I shared with James and Oscar, and in particular, our bed, where we read, and talked, and slept every night, even when it was almost unbearably cold.
Up here, we’re separated at night by necessity. I feel farther away from him. And he is different up here. On Earth, he was laser focused on his work during the day, and different at home at night after we’d finished working for the day. He was more carefree. Happier. I think that was a learned skill for him. I think disconnecting at home helped. Here, he’s always focused. Always working. Always thinking. He’s like an engine that’s redlining, never able to turn off. It’s worrying me. He puts so much pressure on himself. Since seeing the Pax, he’s also been putting pressure on the rest of the crew. For me, that means building a high-speed drone to make contact with them.
I’m in the drone lab putting the finishing touches on the control board when he floats in.
“How’s it coming?” “Almost done.”
“Good. We need to hurry.”
In those words, I know that he, like me, is holding out hope that the Pax
crew might have survived and that we can save them. If we can, we have to.
They saved us. Their sacrifice might have saved the whole human race. And more than that, they’re our crew, the crew we lost. They’re our family.
Everyone gathers on the bridge to watch the screens as the high-speed drone launches. With luck, it will make contact in a few days and return within a week.
EVERY NIGHT, I record a video. It’s mission protocol—to comment on all the data we saw during the day and all the work we’ve done. The idea is that comm bricks will be sent back to Earth just before engaging the harvester on Ceres. The hope is that there might be something in the commentary that someone could use in the future, in the event we’re unsuccessful.
But data doesn’t tell the entire story. To understand what goes on during a mission like this, you have to know what the people aboard are thinking— why they made certain decisions, what they might have seen that they didn’t include in the data, even the things they thought weren’t important. Because sometimes they turn out to be very important.
After my official report, I always record a message to Madison. I’m fully aware that these videos could be the last time they ever see me.
JAMES and I are in the lab, discussing the design for a new attack drone, when Oscar’s voice comes over the comm.
“Sir, we’ve made contact with Midway.”
We race to the bridge, both eager, both dreading what we’ll learn.
As usual, Oscar’s face is a mask, betraying no emotion or hint of what Midway has found.
James works one of the terminals on the periphery of the room and the data appears. There’s a lot more than I expected.
He clicks the map and puts it on the main screen. I stare in awe. The drones have traveled farther than we programmed them to. How? Why? Someone—or something—altered their programming.
“All crew to the bridge,” James says.
Like the bubble in the Pax, Sparta One’s bridge has a table in the middle with multiuse terminals. When the crew is here and tethered to the table, James says, “We’ve just gotten our first data burst from Midway.”
Several of the crew stare silently at the screen, a couple of mouths drop open, and someone whispers, “My God.”
The count so far, James says, is 24,137 solar cells, all en route to the sun, all traveling along a vector that is consistent with a Ceres-based origin.
Seeing the scale of the threat in black and white, on the screen, makes it even more real to me. It would seem that James has guessed correctly once again: there is something waiting on Ceres, camouflaged from sight. Or beyond.
We need to figure out what happened to Midway. The possibility strikes me then: Could the data be fake? Did our enemy intercept the fleet? Could we be flying into a trap?
JAMES and I have done the math. We’ve timed the return of the comm drone we sent to the Pax down to the minute. We are on the bridge when that minute arrives, both tethered to the conference table, working at our stations, or at least trying to work, trying to make it look as if we’re working. The other crewmembers drift in and take their places.
The drone is late. No one announces it. No one wants to make a big deal out of it. But I’m worried.
Three hours later, the main screen flashes a message:
I expect to see text data scrolling by. Instead, an image appears. It’s extremely low-resolution, in grayscale, but it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The crew of the Pax stares back at us. In the photo, they’re floating in the bubble, waving at the camera. Grigory is stoic. So is Lina. Izumi looks concerned. So does Charlotte. And Harry has a big grin on his face.
My heart sinks as I study the image. Their faces are gaunt. They’re starving.
A message appears on the screen beside the photo.
To the crew of Sparta One,
Welcome to the artifact Easter Egg hunt.
I figure Harry wrote that part. I get a good chuckle out of it.
We figure you’re not out here for us. We figure you’re out here to end the Long Winter. Don’t let us get in your way, and don’t spend any energy trying to rescue us. Just tell us what you need, and we’ll do our best.}}
–— the crew of the Pax
Definitely Harry writing.
Heinrich is the first to speak. “Should we alter course?”
“Yes,” James says. “We’re going to rendezvous with the Pax. Plot a course and send the drone back to them with coordinates.”
THE FIRST OF our high-speed drones has reached Ceres, performed a long-range fly-by, and returned. It found nothing. Just a barren chunk of rock floating in the asteroid belt.
This has thrown us into chaos. We have assumed that the harvester is camouflaging itself somehow, perhaps using its hull to project an image identical to what we see on the surface of Ceres. But we’ve also assumed that our survey drones would be able to detect some sign of it. We were wrong.
James insists it must be a mistake. We run a diagnostic on the drone, issuing the commands via the comm patch. It’s fine. The systems check passes.
The certainty that we felt after seeing the data from Midway is gone. The only thing we’re certain about is that the Pax is out there. We’ll meet up with them soon and hear their story.
OUR SECOND HIGH–SPEED survey drone to Ceres has returned and comm-patched its data. Nothing. It found nothing on Ceres.
The arrival of a drone has become an all-hands event. Everyone is gathered in the bridge. When the data flashes across the screen, all eyes turn to James. His face is a mask, a player at a poker table who just drew a card and can’t afford to make any reaction.
Even his voice is nonchalant, as if he expected this.
“Run a diagnostic. And I want to download the full telemetry this time.”
WE’VE STUDIED the telemetry from the second drone. There’s an anomaly: a power surge two days before it reached Ceres. It could be a random malfunction. But it has inspired our curiosity—and hope. Maybe the data’s wrong. Maybe there is something on Ceres, and it intercepted our drone and altered the data. That’s our working hypothesis. It’s a hypothesis that gives us a chance.
A third scout drone returns, and its data reveals the same thing: nothing.
We run a similar diagnostic, and it too has an anomaly, but in a different location. This one occurred much closer to Ceres.
Is there a mother ship or harvester out there? Is it altering our drones to hide itself? Or is it a design flaw in the drones themselves?
WE’RE FINALLY CLOSE ENOUGH to the Pax to form a daisy chain of comm drones. It reminds me of the same maneuver we performed with the Fornax
—the ship we lost out here. I can’t help but wonder if that’s the fate of the
Pax too. Or Sparta One. But as quickly as the thought appears in my mind, I dismiss it. James has a plan. He always has a plan.
We gather on the bridge and watch the seconds tick down to the establishment of the real-time link with the Pax.
James types furiously on his tablet, but a message from the Pax appears before he can send it.
James smiles. I can’t help but let out a laugh. Has to be Harry on the other end.
SPARTA_1: Polo! We read you, Pax. Status? PAX: Nominal
James glances at me. We’re thinking the same thing: this is not going to
be easy—getting the truth out of them. They have probably guessed our mission out here. They don’t want to get in the way.
SPARTA_1: Harry, I need a real status update. We can’t go on with our mission and just leave you guys out here. I know you’re
running low on provisions. How have you made the food last this long?
PAX: The ship took a fair amount of damage from the explosion at Beta. Grigory repaired the engine. We lost some reactor fuel. We searched the wreckage of the Fornax and used the arm to recover its provisions and some fuel.
SPARTA_1: Smart. What else? Engine status? Environmental?
PAX: We’ve got some issues over here. Nothing we can’t deal with. Since the artifact, we’ve focused on monitoring the Midway fleet, giving it new instructions and refueling the drones.
SPARTA_1: So that’s how the Midway drones traveled so far. We were surprised at the range of the survey. You’ve been refueling them?
PAX: Yep. They’ve run up a monster tab. SPARTA_1: Stand by, Pax.
James untethers from the table and floats over in front of the screen,
facing the entire crew of Sparta One, who are strapped into their stations.
“The crew of the Pax sacrificed their own lives to send Emma and me home. They did that for all of you, for their families, and for the billions of strangers on Earth they came out here to try to save. Like all of us, they felt their lives were less important than this mission. We are not going to leave them out here. We are going to help them. Before we talk about exactly how
we’re going to do that, I want to hear from anyone who isn’t in favor of saving these brave souls.”
James has presented the argument cleverly. I really think his time on the Pax gave him a much deeper understanding of people and, especially, group dynamics.
The group studies their tablets and the table and their hands, no one really engaging.
Finally, Heinrich speaks.
“I am for it, obviously. The question for me is very simple: What is the price? How do we help them? I am in favor so long as it does not compromise or materially interfere with our primary mission.” He motions to the screen. “It is also apparent to me that your former crewmates would agree with that. They want us to continue with our mission.”
Around the bridge, the other crewmembers nod.
“James, what do you see as our options?” I ask. I want the rest of the crew to know that James and I haven’t discussed the plan, that it is being made right now, as a crew.
“We have a few options. Some carry more cost for us, some more risk.” “We could bring them here,” I say. “We could dock.”
The bridge falls silent.
Heinrich doesn’t make eye contact with me as he speaks. “That I count as an extremely risky option.”
“I agree,” James says. “The success rate is too low to pursue and bringing them here isn’t ideal. It would double the requirements on our rations and space. Sparta One would be crowded. As talented as the Pax crew is, adding them would mean there would be people in the way on this ship. We can’t afford that.”
Terrance, our British ship’s doctor, holds up a hand. “The other issue, in my mind, is that they could be injured. We’ve only seen one picture of them. They look okay, but they could be hiding injuries left over from the encounter with Beta. Not to mention that being in space for this long is not good for the body.” He cuts a quick glance to me. Don’t I know it.
“What I mean,” Terrance says, “is that these people likely need medical treatment—as soon as possible.”
“Are you saying,” Heinrich says, annoyed, “that you are in favor of bringing them here for medical treatment? Or that they shouldn’t be brought
here because their medical needs will further drain our resources and focus?”
Terrence swings his head side to side like tossing a ball from hand to hand, measuring the weight. “I’m not sure.”
Heinrich glares at him. “What do you mean you’re not sure? How can you bring something up and not know what you’re saying?”
“I know what I’m saying,” Terrence snaps. “I don’t have to know what it means or what we should do about it. My point stands: the crew of the Pax likely needs urgent medical care.”
James holds up a hand. “Stop. We can’t bring the Pax crew over here. It’s too risky. And even if the transfer succeeded, we’re not equipped to take them on.”
He looks at Terrence. “The point about medical needs is valid. In truth, we don’t have any more medical capacity than they have. They were issued pretty much the same medicines and supplies as we have here. If they can treat their injuries with those supplies, they probably already have. At best we could provide anything they might have used up. If they need real medical care that neither ship can provide, they need to get back to Earth.”
“If so,” Heinrich says carefully, “why haven’t they gone there? The Pax had escape pods. We know they didn’t use them to send you and Emma home. So why haven’t they abandoned ship for Earth?”
“The crew themselves gave us the answer,” James says. “They felt staying out here and monitoring the Midway fleet was more important than going home and saving themselves. But that job is done now. They’ve shown us where to go. My guess is they used the fuel from their own escape pods to power the drones. They’re marooned out here.”
Heinrich turns to Zoe, a lithe Italian woman and our ship’s engineer. “Can we transfer fuel to them?”
Zoe winces. “Technically? Yes. Practically? Not really. Not enough fuel in a short enough time. It would be a massive undertaking. It would take me, well, I don’t know—days to even figure something out. Maybe a week or more to implement it.”
“There’s a very simple solution here,” James says. All eyes turn to him.
“Our escape pods. We fill them with provisions and excess medical supplies. We jettison them and allow the Pax to rendezvous with them. Our escape pods will carry them home.”
Space is a quiet place. For the most part, on Sparta One, there is very little noise. But I’ve never heard the ship as quiet as it is now. Instinctively, I feel that I shouldn’t speak first. I am in favor of James’s plan. It’s a good plan. A simple plan. We can execute it in the next thirty minutes, and I know it will save the crew of the Pax. And it won’t even slow us down on our way to Ceres. In fact, with the decreased weight of the ship, we’ll get there faster. And it will work. Our escape pods are loaded with enough fuel to get us from Ceres back to Earth, easily. Even if the pods expend a lot of fuel maneuvering and getting to the Pax, they’ll still have more than enough to get home.
The problem is, we won’t. The crew of Sparta One will be stranded. This ship doesn’t have enough fuel to get to Ceres and back. If we do this, we are sealing our fate. We are trading our lives for theirs. If we do this, it will mean making this a one-way trip.