Chapter no 50

Winter World

AFTER PRESENT MY PLAN, a long silence stretches out. I scan the faces of my crewmates, looking for clues about which way they’re leaning. There are moments that test us, that reveal our true character. This is one of them.

I know Emma well enough to know that she is for my plan. The crew of the Pax made the same sacrifice for her and me: their lives for ours. For us, it’s an easy decision.

I know Oscar supports my plan, too. He would follow me anywhere, even to his own doom. I’ll have to do something about that someday, if there is a someday after this mission.

For the rest of our crew, well, I’m not sure. The people on the Pax are strangers to them.

But this crew surprises me. There is no discussion. One by one, around the bridge, they begin nodding their assent.

“It’s a good plan,” Heinrich says.

“I’ll start selecting medical supplies,” says Terrence. “I assume they should be distributed equally among the escape pods?”

“We should coordinate with the Pax, select a specific rendezvous point,” adds Zoe. “Then we’ll know exactly how much fuel they need to get back to Earth.”



AEXPECTED, the Pax fights our plan. They insist all is well there. Finally, I send a message telling them that we are ejecting our escape pods and that

they can either ignore the pods or use them. After a long pause, a simple message appears on the screen.

PAX: Thank you. To the entire crew of Sparta One, thank you.

They open up then and talk about their medical needs. I’m relieved that nothing is serious. Mostly old trauma wounds, the kind Emma got when the ISS was destroyed—some broken bones that have healed and scars from wounds sustained during the encounter with Beta. Everyone’s bone density is at a critical level. But that’s about it. The crew of the Pax is going to live.

As for us… well, we’ll see.

The Sparta One crew gathers on the bridge as the escape pods eject. No one says anything, but I feel that a bond has been forged between us, a shared sacrifice that can’t be undone. The ejected pods fly into the black of space, white wisps trailing in their wake, like the first shots fired in a final battle. I sense that’s precisely what they represent. If there was any doubt about this crew’s commitment, it’s gone now. There’s no turning back.



TEN SURVEY DRONES HAVE RETURNED. All carry the same result: nothing. They are telling me there is nothing out there on Ceres, just rocks and dust. I run the same diagnostic on each drone and download the telemetry each time. Every one of them has a technical malfunction. It happens at different times and at different places near Ceres—which confuses me. If there were something out there interfering with the drones, it would likely occur at roughly the same fixed position or distance each time. The data should be consistent. Or it could occur at several locations within a small region, if there were a roving enemy drone combating our survey drones. But these locations are too spread out.

I can feel the crew’s doubt growing, like a storm on the horizon, gathering, the echo of thunder distant but present. For whatever reason, it doesn’t affect me. I am certain that there is something out there, waiting for us.

We press on, into the darkness, barreling at maximum speed, the three nuclear warheads on our ship armed and ready. I feel like Ahab hunting the white whale. I am a man possessed.

When I launched into space aboard the Pax, my life was empty. I didn’t know Emma. My brother was a stranger to me. I had no family, no friends. Only Oscar. Now I have something to lose. Something to live for. Something to fight for.

My time in space has changed me. When I left Earth the first time, I was still the rebel scientist the world had cast out. I felt like an outsider, a renegade. Now I have become a leader. I’ve learned to read people, to try to understand them. That was my mistake before. I trudged ahead with my vision of the world, believing the world would follow me. But the truth is, true leadership requires understanding those you lead, making the best choices for them, and most of all, convincing them when they don’t realize what’s best for them. Leadership is about moments like this, when the people you’re charged with protecting have doubts, when the odds are against you.

Every morning, the crew gathers on the bridge. Oscar and Emma strap in on each side of me and we sit around the table and everyone gives their departmental updates. The ship is operating at peak efficiency. So is the crew. Except for the elephant in the room.

“As you know,” I begin, “we are still on course for Ceres. We have not ordered the other ships in the Spartan fleet to alter course. The fact that the survey drones have found nothing, changes nothing. Our enemy is advanced. Sufficiently advanced to alter our drones and hide itself. With that said, we should discuss the possibility that there is, in fact, nothing out there on Ceres. We need to prepare for that eventuality.”

Heinrich surveys the rest of the crew before speaking. “It could be a trap.”

He’s always to the point. I like that about him.

“Yes,” I reply, “it could be. The entity, or harvester, or whatever is out there, could be manufacturing the solar cells elsewhere—deeper in the solar system, or from another asteroid in the belt. It could be sending the solar cells to Ceres and then toward the sun, making them look as though they were manufactured on Ceres. There could be a massive bomb or attack drones waiting for us at Ceres.”

“We could split our fleet,” Heinrich says. “Send ships to all the viable asteroids and dwarf planets in the belt.”

“It’s something I’ve entertained,” I respond. “But it carries a risk. Divided forces are easier to defeat. The bottom line is that we don’t know what we face out here. We get one chance to make our first strike. We need to strike with overwhelming force.”

“You’re certain it’s Ceres?” Emma asks.

“No. But I’m certain that Ceres is the most logical location.” “Why?” Emma asks softly.


Everyone focuses on me.

“I’ve developed a rubric for what the entity is. Everything it does is driven by energy. Perhaps the most inescapable fact of all of this is that our enemy didn’t expend the energy to annihilate us directly—though it probably can. It chose to kill us with minimal energy expenditure. In fact, I think its only goal here in our solar system is harvesting energy. It chose to freeze Earth because it was the most energy-efficient way to remove us from the equation.

“We’ve seen the vectors of the solar cells, and they all track back to Ceres. The harvester could be manufacturing them elsewhere, theoretically. But to do so—to manufacture them elsewhere and send them to Ceres as a distraction—would waste energy. A lot of energy, compared to other ways in which it could combat our potential interference.”

“So at this point, what exactly do you think is waiting for us out there?” Heinrich asks.

“Exactly? I don’t know. But I know it will be war.”

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