IN THE DESIGN process for the Spartan model spacecraft, we named the escape pods “rapid return modules.” It turns out that’s a bit of a misnomer. Nothing about the return to Earth from the asteroid belt is rapid. It’s a six-week journey.
The first escape pod was hard to find, but luckily there was another intact pod close by. It has some impact marks on the side, but it pressurized and the internal safety checks passed. I hope it holds up.
As the engines on the escape pod fire and it gains speed, barreling toward Earth, I can’t help but look at the metal box that holds the computer core from Sparta One. The answer of whether the harvester was able to contact the grid is somewhere in there. We’ve won the battle. But I fear that a war may have begun. I won’t know if that’s true until I get home and analyze the data.
TWO DAYS INTO MY JOURNEY, my fellow passenger awakens. From the crew manifests on the escape module computer, I know that his name is Deshi, a Chinese engineer from the Pac Alliance.
He peeks at me through barely opened eyes, bloodshot and weary. “What happened?” he croaks.
He speaks English. That helps.
“We won. Just relax. I need to do a physical exam.”
The last time I found myself in this position—doing a physical exam on an astronaut I rescued from wreckage created by the harvester—the astronaut in question was a lot prettier. Still, I give it my all. Deshi has what I believe is a hairline fracture in his femur. We have lots of painkillers, but he’s going to lose some bone density without exercise.
IT TURNS out Deshi is a decent card player. I’m thankful for that. But I miss Emma. Being in this confined space reminds me of her. I miss Alex too, and Abby, and Madison and David and all the kids. I miss Oscar. His sacrifice made me proud. I’ll have to show it to him.
MY HEART MELTS when I catch my first glimpse of Earth through the escape pod’s small porthole. When we left, our planet was an expanse of white ice and blue ocean. Not anymore.
Here and there, through the clouds, I see a smattering of green and brown. The ice is thawing. The Long Winter is over.
WHEN WE’RE IN RANGE, I activate the radio.
“Atlantic Union command, this is James Sinclair, requesting permission to land.”
Fowler’s voice comes on the line.
“Welcome home, James. We’ll be waiting for you.”
ON THE GROUND, they take me to a quarantine facility and perform an endless battery of tests. I remain in isolation until I’m cleared and moved to
a hospital room. I know I’ll need lots of physical therapy from the mission, but I can still walk.
Fowler is the first to visit me.
Without preamble, I ask the question that’s burned on my mind. “Is Emma back?”
“Any contact from her?” “I’m sorry, James.”
“We have to go look for her—”
“We’re already launching satellites. It could be nothing. Just an anomaly in the acceleration of the two escape pods.”
Fowler seems to sense how hard I’m taking the news. He changes the subject.
“But we have recovered some escape modules.” “The crew of the Pax? How are they?”
Fowler smiles widely. “They’re fine. That was very clever, James. And very brave. That’s not all of the good news. Solar output has normalized.”
“A little while before your transmission, around the time the battle was over, the solar cells just scattered. They’re still out there, but they’re not harvesting any of the solar output directed at Earth.”
“It makes sense. The harvester got access to all of Oscar’s memories. He knew about the nukes we prepared for launch, so the harvester would have known about them, known they would destroy the solar cells if they continued to threaten Earth. Their priority is the conservation of energy. By removing the threat, they get to continue collecting energy. And they’re a lot harder to go after if they aren’t grouped together.” I chew my lip for a moment. “This may not be over.”
“It’s over for now.”
“Have you analyzed Sparta One’s computer core?” Fowler’s smile vanishes.
“What did you find?” I ask urgently. “We’re still running tests.”
“It sent a transmission?”
“We think so. James, there’s some people who want to see you. I just wanted to say thanks and tell you how proud I am of everything you all did up there.”
Before I can ask another question, he walks out, leaving the sliding door to the hospital room open.
Footsteps on the linoleum floor echo in the hall, like a stampede of people. But it’s only four: Alex, Abby, Jack, and Sarah. They last time I saw them, they were all underweight, Abby and Alex the worst of the four. They aren’t quite healthy now, but they look a great deal better, faces fuller. They barrel through the door, Alex first. He pulls me into a hug and squeezes me so tight I think my brittle, space-weakened bones are going to break. I can hardly breathe. In my ear, he says, barely audible, “I’m proud of you. Thank you.”