Copyright 2017 by C R Hinckley All Rights Reserved
In the conference room, Dr. Michael Lee, a man of distinction with dark rimmed glasses, sits at the end of the table opposite John. To his left is Dr. Beck. Next to him is Dr. Elaine Susman, and across from her is Dr. Andrew De Flanders, who sits stroking his mustache. All the scientists are middle-aged, with graying hair.
The red ball that hovered over John’s desk now floats ten inches above the long conference table. “Read Level 3 communiqué. Authorization: Collins.” The ball opens up, a bright and dazzling holographic light brightens the room, then resolves into the ghostly image of a female head, over which layers of deep-red liquid spreads down into a cascade of dripping goo. The liquid quickly solidifies and coalesces onto the face of a beautiful woman with cherry red skin, flaming red hair and dark blue eyes. The woman blinks a few times, then opens her mouth to speak.
“Freeze message.” John turns to Dr. De Flanders and smiles. “Dr. De Flanders, your three-dimensional holoskin looks fantastic. Do you anticipate a breakthrough in the skin tones?”
“They shall be resolved soon,” De Flanders replies in a thick French accent. “We don’t want anything too human, but subtle enough to not be a distraction.”
“Well, it is a bit distracting.”
To John’s alarm, De Flanders looks crestfallen. “Well, these things take time,” he says hastily. “I’m loving it so far. Shall we have her pick up something from the table?”
De Flanders turns a pale shade of high-blood-pressure red and shifts in his chair. “Yes, by all means. Have her pick this up.” He tosses a small I.D. card onto the table.
“Messenger, please pick up that card.” John points to the thin plastic object on the table.
The holographic image, who now has half a body and two arms covered in the shiny red holoskin, reaches out and fumbles the card in her fingers. The scientists eye the hologram in worried anticipation. She tries again to retrieve the card, this time firmly grasping it, then holding it up in front of her face.
“Incredible!” says John. “Your formula and software are almost complete, Doctor?”
De Flanders, who is now almost as scarlet as the hologram’s hair, clears his throat and says, “Indeed. With your permission, John, I have software ready to be uploaded to Metis 3. Also, a canister of holoskin to be used in trial. I’d like to see what they can do with it, in practical terms.”
“Absolutely, Doctor. As would we all. Tech Greely would love to get her hands on your prototype.”
More excited murmurings arise from the group.
“Indeed, indeed,” says De Flanders, who nods and smiles, taking in the group’s adoration. He hands John the small metallic square containing the prototype holoskin and John places it on the table in front of him.
“Excellent. So, now that this incredible demonstration is complete…” John turns to De Flanders, who is still beaming with pride, and nods, then looks to the others, his smile instantly falling away. “The reason we are called…the message from Metis 3. I have to confess: I’ve already watched it. Without the skin, of course.” De Flanders chuckles and appreciative murmurs arise from the group. “However, before we watch, I want you all to consider our current financial situation, which no doubt may soon change if this holoskin is practicably marketable. Let’s dim the lights, shall we?”
The scientists look at each other in bewilderment, a faint grumbling rising as the lights fade.
John nods at the holographic woman. “Continue message.”
The eyes of the beautiful face above the table blink twice, then begins to speak in a calm, serene voice of harmonic triads so musical, it immediately relaxes the gathering. “The crystalline organisms found on the lunar surface at 4.59 degrees south, 137.44 degrees east, in Crater 255, may be active. Metis 3 requests investigative analysis team on board. Further onsite testing requested, within strict stabilization parameters.”
The scientists glance at each other. Dr. Lee smiles. “Organisms? Can you be specific?”
“Crystalline structures similar to the ones found on Asteroid 752 last year.”
A projection of several small, blueish crystals appears above the table.
“Ahhh…more crystals,” says Beck, a tinge of excitement in his voice.
“And they want us to send up a team?” asks Susman.
The hologram’s eyes blink twice, then it turns to face Susman, who leans back in her chair, somewhat flustered by a three-dimensional newly skinned hologram staring at her. “Metis 3 Space Station has requested a team arrive as soon as convenient.”
“What makes the Metis 3 crew think these are living organisms?” Susman asks. “Did they indicate if these specimens could just be more potential fossils?”
“I am not programmed with that information.”
Dr. Lee clears his throat. “What tests do they want to run? They have a full complement of protocols there already.”
The holographic woman’s eyes enlarge until they appear as projections of the testing procedures. A list of requested names and protocols is superimposed over an image of scientists in white lab coats performing tests.
Dr. Susman addresses the group. “A full team is out of the question. Our budgets are tight now; we all know this. Why the urgency?”
The hologram appears to think for a second, then turns to Susman. “I do not have that information.”
Dr. De Flanders clears his throat. “I understood, John, that all messages would include biomedical information of the crew. I am not seeing this.”
John responds directly to the hologram. “Give me the biological data of the crew.”
“All crewmember biosigns are within normal parameters.”
De Flanders has a look of concern. “That’s rather a broad statement. Who sent this message?”
“Metis 3 Space Station.”
“Yes, yes, but who among the crew sent this message?” asks Susman, her cheeks flushing.
“I do not have that information.”
“This is highly irregular,” Susman continues. “Why the urgent request for a team?”
“This request comes from Dr. Brie Thompson.”
Susman shakes her head. “I don’t understand the meaning of this. We speak with the crew weekly. Why this strange message? What specifically requires this breach of protocol?”
“I do not have that information.”
John says, “I would suspect, Dr. Susman, that secrecy is the motive for this mode of messaging. We all know our communications are monitored by outside entities.”
De Flanders chews on a laser pen, then points it at the hologram. “But this is shit, John! All samples are to be properly transported here, to this lab. And a blanket statement of the crew’s health is absurd.”
The scientists stir in their chairs and talk to each other in low tones. John raises a hand to stop the chatter. “I’ll go to Metis 3. And I want Dr. Lee to come with me.” He looks at Dr. Lee, who sits up. “A two-man team is better than no team at all.”
Lee taps his hand on the table. “I agree.”
Dr. Beck leans forward. “I understand the latest search for indicator minerals for gold—arsenic, antimony, tellurium, and selenium—have been found in Area 19. What are we doing about that?”
John feels his pulse surge and his face flush. “We’re talking about alien life here, Beck. Not your search for gold.”
“My search, as you so dismissively argue against, time after time I might add, is what pays the bills around here. I think it best you keep that in mind on your trip to Metis 3.”
“How can I forget it, Dr. Beck? This miserable reality stares me in the face at every meeting.”
Beck’s eyes widen. “I will not be insulted by—”
“Easy, Beck.” Dr. Lee places a hand on Beck’s shoulder.
Beck stands and addresses the group. “A full report of the trace minerals and indicator minerals must be sent to Plutus Mining as soon as possible. I’m sure they will want to have a hand in your latest adventure to Metis 3. In the meantime, I want all mineral reports on my desk forthwith. This alien thing, which I’m sure we all know is another false alarm, is simply just another excuse to delay exploratory excavation efforts.” Beck straightens his tie, pulling it off his ample belly and smoothing it with his hands. “Presently, I have a conference call with Plutus. Good day.” He leaves the room with hurried steps.
The remaining members of the group sit in silence. Dr. Lee smiles at John and says, “I think the hand that feeds us needs a few strokes, John.”
John can’t help but smile. “Indeed…We all know Beck is a company spy for the mining interests, brought on board at their insistence when they took on a substantial amount of our budget. I can barely stand to look at him, not only because he is a spy, but because he’s an over-educated social disaster. An unlikeable fellow with a perpetual sneer on his lips.” John looks around the table. Reading his colleagues’ reactions of shock and astonishment, he hastily admonishes himself. “I’ve wanted to say that for months. Forgive me.”
But each member of the group is smiling now. John can hardly contain his excitement. So many emotions are rifling through him, it’s hard to pin one down. He finally settles on happy. The excitement of getting back into space and the prospect of finding alien life are simply overwhelming.
“Beck is a spy sent by greedy landlords to highjack our mission to the moon. But Beck can be handled. Perhaps he is nothing more than an irritation to be salved and smoothed over. However…finding alien life…now that changes things!” He pauses and looks round, seeing his own enthusiasm mirrored in his colleagues’ eyes. “Funding from the government will return. Private money will no longer be an undue influence. The Metis Foundation will prosper. The real mission, the one that inspired The Metis Program some thirteen years ago, to explore our solar system, will continue as intended. After all, space exploration and the development of scientific investigation are our founding principles.”
The group bursts into spontaneous applause. Dr. Lee leaps to his feet and pumps John’s hand with vigor.
As John basks in the moment, the contents of the hidden coded message remains troubling. The part of the message he hadn’t shown the committee was most troubling indeed, and must remain a secret, for now. He’d be damned if he was going to see his course changed by a lack of funds.
“Beck needs his reports, Dr. Susman. Make sure you give him everything…related to minerals. The other information, anything along the lines of say, alien life, omit from his reports. Understood?”
Susman smiles and nods her approval.
John leans in toward the group. “Our mission has not changed. The spark that lit this company has grown into a flame. I’ll not see it extinguished by greed.”
They all nod. The electricity in the room is palpable.
“Yes, we have an obligation to Plutus Mining. But that cannot, will not shape our future.” John stands and the others follow suit. “We leave as soon as practicable.”
John looks at the hologram above the table. She is frozen in an obsequious smile.
The woman blinks twice and vanishes in a brilliant flash of lightening. A snapping thunderclap quickly follows, leaving small bits of translucent holoskin on the table.
Dr. Susman frowns. “Who the hell set that contraption to those ridiculous settings?” She looks around the room to vague smiles from the men.
Lee finally says, “I think he already left the room.”
In his private office, John sits behind his huge blonde maple desk. Dr. Lee sits off to the side in a rather uncomfortable white plastic polymer chair. They both stare at the equation as it floats above the desk.
4Al + 3O₂ = 2Al₂O₃
Lee points at the hologram with his unlit pipe. “What’s this, again?”
“This is the rest of the Level 3 message, Dr. Lee. I wanted to share it with you privately.”
“Oh.” Lee leans in toward the image, hesitates, then leans back. “And the others?”
“They will know. Eventually. However, you may not reveal anything you see here until I give clearance, understood?”
Lee nods. “What’s going on, John? Secret messages?”
“The moon rover problem, Doctor. You remember the beating we took on our funding after that fiasco. If the press gets a hold of the real reason we are going to Metis 3, it could spell disaster for future funding.”
“Has something gone wrong on the station?”
John nods at the holographic equation. “Does it look familiar?” The equation slowly rotates left to right, above his desk.
“Not really. It’s an equation. But why?”
“I wanted a code word to be sent by the Metis 3 mainframe the minute it detected something wrong with one of the onboard systems.”
“Have you reviewed any recent orbital path reports from Metis Command?”
“Yes, but I haven’t noticed anything out of the norm. I thought all systems—”
“Variations in the Metis trajectory reports and ground trajectory reports are…troubling.”
Lee shakes his head, and clenches the unlit pipe in his teeth. “I see. But I haven’t seen anything—”
“I’ve intentionally kept it quiet. Not a huge problem. But, one that needs resolution.”
“I see. And this message?”
“It arrived today with the other one.”
“No, I mean, which system is malfunctioning?”
“Well, this particular equation is an indication of a navigation problem.”
“The mainframe sent this?”
“Perhaps it’s the mainframe that’s malfunctioning?”
John stands and walks to the large window overlooking the parking lot. The sun is bright. The grass is lush and green. The sky is clear. It’s a beautiful, cloudless spring day. “Think of this message as my version of Amazonian frogs.”
“A canary in a coal mine, as it were.” John turns to Dr. Lee. “There’s something going wrong on Metis 3. I chose you because you are a medical doctor as well as a top-notch engineer. Not a word of this to anyone, Dr. Lee.”
Lee nods his head. “Of course.”
John frowns. “I think the orbital reports we’ve been getting are inaccurate.”
“Computer, show me the telemetry reports for Metis 3’s last dozen lunar orbits.”
Above the desk, next to the equation, a five-inch diameter holographic moon appears, then a smaller Metis 3 Space Station appears in orbit. As the space station moves, a series of three-dimensional lines trail from it, tracing the lunar orbit. The yellow lines are wide enough to display trajectory data, illuminated in small black font on each trail.
“Rather dramatic visual…What am I supposed to be seeing, John?”
“Computer, starting with this month’s calculations, speed up the orbit and align the data for the third day of this month with each day of this week, and overlay those numbers on the graph.”
The moon and Metis 3 appear at eye level above the desk. The hologram representing Metis 3 rapidly orbits the faux moon. Each orbit lines up with the next until a single yellow line appears to ring the moon. They match up precisely, indicating no variation or orbital decay.
“They appear together, as one,” says Dr. Lee.
John looks concerned. “Precisely. Now watch this: Computer, match all identical data in telemetry reports from Metis 3 for the past month. Increase speed by ten.”
As the holographic Metis 3 Space Station moves furiously around the moon, more orbital data aligns until it is apparent most of the orbits are identical, wrapped like a single yellow ribbon of overlapping data.
John leans in toward the hologram and points. “The orbits appear identical because they are. Most of these yellow lines are repeated calculations. No new orbital data has come through in weeks. This…glitch, for lack of a better term, is apparent in most of the navigational reports.”
“But our tracking—”
“Granted, these are the figures from Metis 3 only. Our Earth tracking station has the more accurate telemetry data, but I won’t bother superimposing those now. Most of the differences are nominal, but they are there.”
“What does Command have to say?”
“We’ve had several meetings. Maneuverability tests show she’s in great shape. There doesn’t seem to be a major concern at this time. It’s just a strange anomaly we need to investigate.”
“I see. So, you’ve spoken directly with Mission Commander Davies?”
“Of course, and I’ve noted this information to him personally. We’ve gone over it several times with no absolute conclusions. He seems to think it’s a simple systems failure and offered to have it fixed in a day or two. That was two weeks ago. The reports are still the same. Since then, I’ve spoken to him and gotten a similar response.”
“And you’re thinking he’s doing this intentionally?”
“I don’t know what to think.” John looks again at the hologram, then sighs. “Perhaps.”
“For what purpose?”
“To cover something up. A problem with navigation, the thrusters perhaps. As of now, not life-critical, but he knows our funding is at a crucial stage. If this mission does not succeed in all respects, we’re done.”
“I see. So, you think it’s a matter of self-preservation on his part…”
“And now we get this urgent request for additional team members to analyze potential alien life forms.”
Lee rubs the side of his face and frowns. “Do you think the request is genuine?”
“Our daily communications, as you know, have been limited due to various glitches, sunburst activity, and hardware issues. At this point, I can only take the request at face value.”
Lee pulls the pipe from his mouth and examines it, as if looking for answers.
“I want you on board, Doctor. For the crew’s sake.”
“So, you think Dr. Kern is…what, unreliable?”
“On the contrary. She’s been a formidable team asset, up until now. But, I want all her records examined. Currently, her medical reports are within standard protocol, just like the orbital reports. The crew appears to be in fine health.”
“Appears? Are you saying the medical reports are duplicated as well?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know what purpose that may serve, but I was hoping you’d have a close look at them.”
“Yes, of course. I understand.” Lee sits up in his chair. Sweat beads on his forehead.
“I want you ready by Thursday, next week.”
“That soon, huh? That gives me what, seven days?” Lee removes a hanky from his back pocket and wipes his face.
“Are you all right, Michael? You seem a bit unnerved.”
“No, no, it’s just…”
“Look, I know this is short notice. It can’t be helped. Your readiness reports are all good. You’re in excellent physical health.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“But?” John sits on his desk, and stares at Dr. Lee. “It’s Aiko, isn’t it?”
“She’s having a tough pregnancy. Her delivery date is only a few months away. She’s going to be very upset.”
“I understand…” John’s voice trails off.
Visions of his own wife’s smiling face pop into his head. She’s in her spacesuit, ready to head into the Source 1 capsule. She turns to him, a broad smile upon her face as she mouths the words, I love you. Her lovely lips form the words as if captured by a slow-motion camera. But she’d actually said it that slowly. Or was that just in his mind? Perhaps she hadn’t said it at all. It was just a memory and memories can be unreliable, haunting. This one usually comes to him at night, as he lies in bed. He imagines her as she died, engulfed in flames, her smile melting like wax. He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the image, and nods, as his focus returns to Dr. Lee. “I’ll ask Dr. Harper, she’s ready—”
“No, no. I’ll go. I want to go.” Lee’s eyes shine with the same intensity John saw when he first interviewed Lee for the program. The burning hunger is still there. “Of course I’ll go. She’ll be upset for a time, but this is…”
“Important.” John says finally.
“Yes. Of course it is,” Dr. Lee offers, somewhat unconvincingly. “She knew I was an astronaut…”
“You are my first choice. My only real choice, Michael, actually. Dr. Harper has never been in space. I need your expertise in evaluating the crew in their current environment.”
Lee sucks on the unlit pipe, a look of concern etched on his face.
“Honestly, Michael, when I speak with my chief science officer, Dr. Thompson, she says it’s all fine, but I know the navigation/telemetry reports were generated, then sent as duplicates. The Metis programming has so many fail-safes. I find it impossible to believe the computer could or would generate these duplicate reports without a human hand involved.”
“So, you think Commander Davies is hiding something. What about this message? There are no alien life forms, then? The message was a fake in order to get you up there?”
“Oh, no. That message is very real. They do believe they may have found alien life. Although the message, as you saw, was vague. Again, everything is vague. Not like the crew at all. Completely unacceptable.”
Dr. Lee stands up slowly, as if the gravity of the information is weighing him down. He turns toward the window. John joins him, and they stand side by side looking out at the parking lot. A small, sleek podcraft pulls into the lot. Its aerodynamic egg shape and clear polymer dome allow the passengers little privacy. An attractive young woman and a toddler get out of the craft. The little boy stoops to pick up something off the fresh green grass. On the curb, walking a few steps ahead, the woman stops and encourages the child to hurry. The boy stands up, delighted by something he holds in his hand. The mother leans down and speaks and the child releases a butterfly into the air. They both look on in amazement as the insect flutters away.
“Alien life,” says Dr. Lee. “Amazing…”
John puts his hand on Lee’s shoulder. “The mission stress studies you’ve authored in the past are crucial to informing our crew re-evaluations.”
“Thank you. And thanks for your vote of confidence. I’ll begin preparations immediately.”
“One other thing, Michael.” John stands directly in front of Lee and looks him in the eyes. “This is classified information. The telemetry, the crew evals, all of it is top secret. No one is to know of our deeper concerns.”
“Yes, of course.”
“That includes the Committee.”
Lee nods. “I understand, John. You can count on me.” His face brightens. “I do have a question, though.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.”
“About my filming the mission. I have an idea. You know I’m an amateur documentary filmmaker? I’d like to take a new camera I’ve been using. To document our journey.”
“A new camera, huh?”
“This thing is amazing, John. I call it Smarteye. It does every type of filming you could ask, and it downloads directly into an editing program, even making the edits on its own, if you want that. I prefer to edit things myself, of course.”
“I’d have to give approval before any recordings go public.”
“Of course. Who knows, if there is alien life aboard Metis, it would be a huge media event, and we’d already have a good visual document.”
“You realize Metis is already loaded with visual and audio equipment? Each compartment is covered.”
“I guarantee you, Smarteye will amaze you.”
“Smarteye, huh? Well, I can see you’re enthused by the idea. How can I say no to that?”
“Thank you, John. You won’t regret it.”
“Excellent. Your new camera may record, but only I can approve what will be released.”
“And say hello to Aiko for me.”
“I will.” Dr. Lee walks to the door. Not bothering to look back, he adds without a hint of cynicism in his voice, “She’ll appreciate that.” But John knows it’s there. He knows Aiko didn’t want Dr. Lee to go on any of the three missions he’s already undertaken in the last five years. Lee stops and turns, looking again at the holograms. “So, that equation. Are you going to tell me what it is for, or am I supposed to work that out for myself?”
John smiles and says, “Besides it being an alarm code, you mean? I’ll tell you when we’re aboard Metis 3.
To Be Continued…