Infinity 7 (Part 5)

space suit

5

 

He isn’t sure where the sound is coming from. A strange gurgling rising above the hum of Infinity 7’s vibrant cabin. His eyes pop open and he realizes he’s been dreaming. Something about getting water from the O2 dispenser on board Infinity 7, but it wouldn’t give up a drop of liquid, only a thick, dark sludge oozing out like river mud. John unbuckles his chest and shoulders and sits up, turning around in his chair. There is that sound again. Perhaps it’s coming from inside Infinity 7 and he’d incorporated it into his dream.

Weightless and still strapped at the waist to his chair, he manages to turn and unbuckle completely. To his right, Dr. Lee is floating freely, his arms flailing back and forth as if trying to maneuver underwater. Hovering in front of him, as if inspecting a curiosity, is Lee’s new camera. The gurgling sound again, only louder this time. John pushes himself toward Lee, who is floating face down, toward the deck of the cabin. An alarm buzzer fills the cabin. Ground Control is trying to communicate.

Sputum and foamy vomit float in front of Lee’s face. His eyes are rolled back in his head, as he gasps for breath. John manages to get a hold on Lee’s arm and directs him to a chair. For an instant, Lee looks at John through watery red eyes, like he’d been choking or crying.

“Dr. Lee, can you breathe?”

Lee tries to speak but only gurgles.

“Are you choking? Can you breathe?”

Lee manages to move his head back and forth. No, he’s not choking.

“Heart attack?”

Lee nods slightly and clasps his hand to his chest.

Ignoring the surge of adrenaline exploding in his own chest, John takes hold of Lee’s head and looks him in the eye. “Okay, Michael, I’m going to get you strapped in. What should I do?”

Lee grunts in pain and slowly raises an arm toward the med kit. Through clenched teeth he manages one word, “Nitroglycerine.”

John pushes Lee into his chair and secures the harnesses, then pulls himself across the cabin to the med kit. A barely perceptible, high-pitched buzzing distracts him and he turns to see the camera hovering near his face. “Get away!” He swings his arm toward the camera and it zooms across the cabin. He unlatches the med box and the kit tilts open, revealing white pouches of varying sizes, all wrapped in plastic and labeled with generic blue markings. John grabs pouches marked Aspirin and Nitroglycerine, along with a water packet. Struggling to open the plastic seal on the nitroglycerine, he finally rips it with his teeth and grabs a capsule. Positioning himself next to Lee, he takes a hold under his chin and lifts his head up. “Open your mouth, Michael.”

Lee’s jaw is rigid, almost fixed, and he can barely open his mouth more than a couple of centimeters. John shoves the pill in, then plunges a straw into a water packet and holds it out for Lee to drink.

Lee takes a few sips. “Aspirin,” he says, faintly.

John rips open an aspirin packet and Lee manages to get one down. John grabs an oxygen line and places the mask over Michael’s nose and mouth. “Slow and deep. Slow and deep.” Lee takes a deep breath, then another.

Suddenly aware of a flashing emergency alert, John turns toward the navigation console. “Code 7,” he reads aloud. The bottom falls out of his stomach. Loss of cabin pressure. “Computer, check cabin pressure.”

“Cabin pressure is within normal parameters.”

“Why are we experiencing a Code 7 alert?”

The computer doesn’t respond. John looks at Lee, who seems more comfortable now.

“Computer, where is the Code 7?”

“Code 7 indicates a breach of cabin pressure. Cabin pressure is normal.”

Ground Control continues to buzz in. John ignores them for another moment.

“Then why is the damn alarm going off?”

“I did it,” Dr. Lee whispers. “Wake you up.”

John feels foolish. Had he slept that soundly?

As if reading John’s expression, Lee continues, “Couldn’t move. Pain.”

“What else can I do for you?”

“Nothing to do. Keep calm. Better tell Control about my situation.”

With those words, John becomes aware of the comm buzzer, his own heart raging in his chest. Lee’s apparent calmness helps him, and he mimics his steady breathing, in and out, slow and easy.

He presses a button on the control panel. “Standby Control.”

Vomitus floats perilously close to John’s face. The smell overwhelms him and he nearly gags. He grabs a plastic utility bag and manages to trap most of the masticated sputum inside. As he captures larger chunks of partially digested food and seals it in the bag, the smell begins to dissipate.

“Man, what the hell did you eat?” John smiles and looks at Lee, who’s unnaturally still. John maneuvers over to him and realizes his eyes are wide, and he’s struggling to breathe. “What should I do, Doctor? Tell me!”

John propels himself over to the medical kit and finds a package labeled Thrombolytic. He remembers reading something about this medicine in an emergency medical course. He holds the package up for Lee to see.

“This? Should I use this?”

Lee is dazed but manages a nod. John holds out Lee’s arm and unzips the flight suit emergency access port. Lee’s arm falls free and John sets up an intravenous drip of thrombolytic. Lee’s skin is pale.

“Dr. Lee! Can you hear me?”

Lee’s eyes are glazing over.

“No, no, don’t! You can’t! Should I use the defibrillator?”

John pushes off the chair and glides across the cabin. Near the container of meds, in bold letters he sees what he is looking for: DEFIBRILLATOR is printed across a red canvas bag. After unraveling the cord and juicing-up the machine, he secures the portable defibrillator and pulls the electrode wires from the box. John moves back to Lee, who is motionless, staring, his pupils dilated and fixed, a puzzled look on his face, as if facing an enigmatic circumstance. John pounds Lee’s chest, then puts his ear to listen for a heartbeat, but does not find one. Lee stiffens and gulps air.

“Come on, Lee. Come back.”

John continues to pump Lee’s chest for several minutes. Lee’s body is still now, no more thrashing or gulping. John rips open Lee’s flight suit and attaches the defibrillator pads to his chest. Lee’s body convulses and flies back into his chair with each shock. After a few minutes, John realizes it’s hopeless. Lee’s lips are blue, his eyes empty.

Panic rips through him. How could this happen? Lee was in good shape, wasn’t he? John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, arms floating loosely in the near zero gravity.

John’s attention switches to the navigation/telemetry hologram in the center of the crew compartment and realizes that, travelling at such high speed, maneuvering to turn the ship would be too intricate. They’d already reached the halfway point fifty-seven minutes earlier, probably when John had dreamed of the bad water dispenser. He finds it odd that he would dream of a water dispenser, since they didn’t even have one on board. The dispenser he’d dreamed of was similar to the one on Metis 3. Infinity 7 has no such device. The memory of that oozing sludge and the blank, pale-faced stare of Lee combine into a nightmarish reality.

Sweat pours down his face and he wipes it away with the back of his hand. Water droplets float free and he chases them with a tissue. Had the cabin temperature changed? He pushes away from Lee, and floats to the navigation console. “Computer, cabin temperature.”

“The cabin temperature is currently sixty-nine degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Lower temperature one degree.”

“Acknowledged. Be aware: a decrease in temperature will result in two percent less energy consumption.”

“How about if a crew member dies? What energy savings then?”

“A saving of approximately—”

“Stop.”

John realizes he has to tell Control something. He can’t put it off any longer. “Hold on Ground Control. Having a bit of a suit problem up here.”

Lee’s camera buzzes in front of John, then darts across the cabin. John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, his flight suit ripped open, electrodes attached to pale wires, like strange microtubules emanating from the spindle poles of some parasitic creature. Pale blue tinges the side of Lee’s face and lips, and exhibits pallor mortis: the drained, white look of the dead. Had he had a secret health problem? John hovers over Lee for a few seconds, trying to process what has transpired, then reaches into a cabinet marked Containers. He retrieves a thermal Mylar body bag, stored on board for such contingencies.

Despite his feelings of horror and dissociation, John can’t help but think of the negative impact this may have on whole Metis program. If Lee’s death, while on a mission, were to leak to the press, it would finish his quest for government funding. The anti-science factions would have a field day. The last time a crewperson died while on a mission, the accident with the moon rover, he hadn’t realized the potential repercussions. The story falling into the hands of the anti-science dark news media outlets ripped apart the Metis Program, and its pitiful mission of exploration and search for extraterrestrial life became fodder for blasphemy. It cost him dearly in funding and prestige.

In comparison, Karen’s fatal mission had been early on, and no one specifically blamed the Metis Program. Since the founder’s wife had been on board, they had taken mercy on him and the program. However, an esteemed scientist dying on this mission, albeit of natural causes, would be catastrophic. It would be spun endlessly in the dark media and used to illustrate the folly of space exploration. His life’s work would be in mortal jeopardy. Either he’d maintain control of Metis and all that he had achieved—the first manned mission to Mars, exploring the moon, and potentially finding alien life—or it would be diminished to one more untimely death, and destroy the whole program. The rover accident had fueled the wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment among the politicians, and had forced him, after major cuts from federal programs, into finding private funding. Even now, the mining companies were hedging their bets, starting to develop their own outer terrestrial mining interests based purely on off-world mineral speculation. It was only a matter of time until space exploration—true scientific exploration for its own sake—would be diminished drastically, leaving only commercial mining enterprises.

Metis is the last scientific program dedicated purely to scientific discovery. A handful of other programs exist—the Chinese, the Russians, and the Japanese—but John’s is the only program not entirely dedicated to the raping of off-world mineral wealth. No, there will be no deaths on board any of his missions. Not if he can help it.

John releases Dr. Lee from his restraints and lifts his body into the Mylar bag. He pulls the zipper closed, carefully pushing Lee’s head forward, smoothing his thick, gray hair clear of the zipper elements. Once the bag is secured, he presses the Evacuate button and a whooshing sound indicates the air is being sucked from the bag, leaving a distinctly eerie outline of the corpse. Dr. Lee will be preserved, frozen if need be, and brought back to Earth for his untimely death. There will be no evidence of it ever occurring on board Infinity 7.

“Ground Control, this is Collins. So sorry. We’ve had a malfunction with Dr. Lee’s suit. He’s had a bit of a mishap, stomach issues. We’ve taken it offline. Will update as soon as practicable.” John doesn’t wait for a response. He disconnects the comm, silencing his connection to Earth, and turns toward Lee.

Golden light reflects from crags and peaks of the death wrapping, as John hoists the ghostly bundle through the cabin. He unlocks cold-storage locker B and slides Dr. Lee’s corpse inside. Bowing his head in reverence of his friend, he turns the lock and seals the door. John turns away, not wanting to focus on the sadness of the situation. Lee’s pipe floats freely nearby. John drifts over to it. Teeth marks dot the mouthpiece. Lee’s habit had been a benign one: John had never seen him actually load the pipe with tobacco or smoke it. John reopens the locker and places the pipe inside before turning the key once more

“Rest easy, Michael. I’m so sorry…” John bows his head and tears fill his eyes.

A small chunk of masticated and partially digested pork floats in front of him. John captures it in a plastic bag, seals it, and places it into a recycle container for later redistribution. Realizing his mistake, he tries to retrieve the bag, but it is locked in place in the recycle chamber. “I’ll have to remember to retrieve that bag,” he says aloud. They’ll pull it from recycle and wonder what it is. Ask questions.

Shit.

Everything is being recorded.

A wave of anxiety sweeps over John and he begins to hyperventilate, then realizing his breathing is off, he consciously takes slow deep breaths. In for five seconds, out for four, in for five…After a few minutes, his head begins to clear.

“Computer, hold all visual transmissions.”

“All visual transmissions on hold.”

He knows the recordings will not be seen right away as they get further from Earth, due to the transmission lag.

“Computer, halt all personnel vital signs transmissions and scramble all future health transmissions, authorization Level 3.”

“Transmissions halted. All health data transmissions have been scrambled.”

“Show me the last transmitted visual image from Infinity 7 to Command.”

A holographic visual pops up in the center of the cabin. In the projection, Dr. Lee is busy working on the navigation console. The lights are low. John is asleep in his chair. Dr. Lee turns and bends over. He clutches his chest and appears to convulse, then vomits spews across the cabin. It snakes around into the air in front of Lee, then holds in place. The visual stops. Lee is freeze-framed, bending over the console. A time stamp runs across the bottom of the visual: less than an hour ago.

John’s heart pounds as he sits in his chair. “Computer, send the following message, unscrambled, to headquarters: ‘Dr. Lee’s motion sickness is under control. Having problems with suit health monitoring capability. That function has been disabled. Standby for updates.’”

“Message sent.”

John wipes moisture from his eyes. A tear floats up in front of his face and lingers in front of his nose. “How long until rendezvous with Metis 3?”

“Six hours and fifty-three minutes until scheduled docking.”

He snatches up the tear and places it onto his suit.

A blur in the corner of his vision, above and to the left, is Lee’s camera, hovering a few feet above the console, coding a 3D holographic record of the whole mess. John pushes off his seat and reaches for the hovering object, but it moves to the left, then buzzes to the opposite side of the cabin. The camera repositions itself, the lens now focused squarely on John.

“Camera, pause.”

The camera emits a gentle hum.

“Camera, stop.”

Again, the teardrop synthetic polymer-encased robotic camera doesn’t respond.

John moves toward the camera. The object simply moves away in equal measure. It’s as though the thing is alive, instinctively aware of some unknown peril. What did Lee call it?

“Uh, camera…uh, Smarteye, move three meters to the left.”

The camera darts right, across the cabin and turns to face him.

“Smarteye, pause recording.”

The red light on the front of the camera continues blinking.

“Smarteye, shut down.”

The camera does not respond.

Perhaps the batteries will die soon, John thinks. Although he’s doubtful. Crystal batteries last months. “Smarteye, stop recording.”

The camera emits a faint hum. John pushes forward and tries to swat it from the air, but it darts away. On the side of the camera, he sees the recharging port. Devices like these are made to recharge by capturing energy up to one foot away from any charging outlet. John pushes off the chair, floating over to the med kit. Among the white packages, he spots one labeled Scalpel. He opens the package and pulls out the sharp bladed knife. If he can only jam that recharging port. As he pushes off toward the camera, the little beast races to the top of the cabin, continuing to record.

That’s enough. He’ll catch the camera later. He replaces the scalpel in the med kit and pushes himself back into his chair. Resting his head on the support, and taking a deep breath, he begins to relax a bit, then buckles himself in. From his zippered sleeve pocket, he retrieves two Lorazepam. They dissolve quickly in his mouth. The camera hovers near the top of the module, darting left, then right, all the while emitting the little buzz that says it’s still working. He’ll deal with that little beast once docked at Metis.

A tear trickles from the corner of his eye and he dabs it with an absorbent tissue before it floats away. His eyes sting. Perhaps the air is too dry. Or is it that his trusted friend is dead, stuffed into a body bag and placed in a storage locker? The thought that the brilliant Michael Lee is stuffed into a golden Mylar bag makes him feel unimaginably sad. The stark realization of being alone, absolutely alone, in space, in life, in the universe, washes over him. He unbuckles and pushes off from the chair. He floats freely in the cabin, away from the instruments and the chairs, away from the shame and the guilt and the adrenaline coursing through him.

The feeling of weightless compounds his isolophobia, overpowers his thoughts, and he imagines himself outside Infinity 7, soaring untethered, thousands of miles above Earth. The bright blue ball below reflecting blinding light as the sun bursts around the earth’s crust, illuminating the hydrosphere in blinding rays. Brilliant silver sunbeams reflect off the Pacific Ocean, and a startling array of multi-colored lights dance around the planet. These remarkable electromagnetic interactions rise up, beckoning him to join in the fluid dance. Alone in lifeless space, he imagines inhaling these cosmic beams, taking the electrical charges into his body. The warm currents dance through him, bounce off the walls of his throat and stomach, and course through his chest. They snake around his beating heart and massage his ventricles, arteries, and veins, gradually returning his heart muscles to a slow, steady beat. Ultimately, the cosmic rays diminish, washing away like oil in a stream, dissipating in colorful hues, gently fading away until they are gone. He is alone, floating peacefully in a silent, colorless void.

A droning echo awakens him. Red lights flash on the communications panel. He wipes his eyes and stares at two lights flashing in unison below him. One indicates Ground Control is calling. Still floating near the ceiling, he pushes off the wall and glides over to the panel, taking hold of a handgrip to steady himself. The other flashing light, he realizes, is a navigation warning signal. He’s approaching Metis 3. “Computer, cancel alerts.”

“Alerts cancelled.”

“Show Infinity 7’s position relative to Metis 3.” The holographic navigation screen appears in the center of the cabin, depicting a three-dimensional representation of the station as it orbits the moon. A small dot indicates Infinity 7 as it approaches. A digital readout indicates the ship is two hundred kilometers away from the space station.

“Comm, open a channel to Metis 3.”

The computer replies, “Comm open.”

“Metis 3 Space Station, this is Dr. John Collins aboard Infinity 7. Initiate your computer Link-up Control for docking.” John waits a few seconds, but hears only the electronic hum of the ship. “Computer, link to Metis mainframe and prepare for assisted docking.”

The Infinity 7 computer’s voice breaks in. “I cannot find the Metis 3 station mainframe.”

“Link to spider-comm. Any other channels active out there?”

“Negative. All navigation link-up channels to Metis 3 Space Station are blocked.”

“Blocked? What do you mean?”

“All Metis 3 channels are firewalled at this time.”

“Metis 3, this is Dr. John Collins of Metis Command. I am approaching in Infinity 7, as scheduled. Please initiate LUC for docking.” A few seconds of silence. “Computer, are they getting my signal?”

“Output signals are at full strength.”

“Why aren’t they answering me?”

“Response variables depend on—”

“Never mind.”

John stares at the communications panel. Small white lights pulse in unison. “Is this firewall one that we programmed at Command?”

“I do not have any information pertaining to the firewall.”

The hum of the ship seems louder now, almost invasive. He hadn’t prepared for a manual docking. Variables such as velocity and sheer could make a manual docking next to impossible, even for the most seasoned pilot. “Computer, navigate as closely and safely to Metis 3 as possible, nearest to Docking Station 1. Keep sending comm alerts. If they answer, put them through immediately, acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged.”

John glides to the navigation station console and straps himself into the chair. He flips up the NAV GRIP switch and two black handles pop up from the panel. He places his hands on the handles and squeezes the soft, rubbery grips. They quickly mold around his fingers. Safety straps automatically secure around his chest and waist, as a 3D map lights up in front of his face. Smarteye hovers just out of reach, its red light flashing.

“Go away, you little bastard.”

As if on cue, the camera moves aside to reveal the 3D map image of Metis 3, and Infinity 7 on approach. A blinking speck, thousands of meters away from the station.

“Zoom in on the map 400 percent.” In the enhanced image, Metis 3 appears pitched at an odd angle. “That doesn’t look like standard attitude. Computer, is Metis 3 listing?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is listing approximately 2.5 degrees starboard.”

“Has the station deviated from standard orbit?”

“Negative.”

“Has orbit eroded since last transmission to command?”

“Orbit appears degraded by fifty kilometers since last transmission.”

“How much has orbit degraded since…uh, let’s say last August?”

“Computing…”

“While you’re computing, tell me what would cause the station to list like that?”

“A navigational malfunction on port side thruster foils could cause listing, if thrusters on starboard side were engaged without reciprocal bursts.”

“That’s my first instinct as well. Would a malfunction of port thrusters explain the degrading of orbit?”

“Orbital integrity could be compromised.”

“So, why haven’t they reported this?”

“I do not know the answer to—”

“I want you to launch a Starlus surface probe to Metis 3. I want a complete analysis of the outer shell. Specifically, any defects in structure, electromagnetic or carbon emissions build-up at the thruster ports.”

“Probe is prepped and ready for launch.”

“Launch Starlus probe.”

“Probe successfully launched. Calculation complete: Metis orbit has degraded, adjusted, and degraded again a total of approximately five times, adjusting ninety-five cumulative kilometers since transmission August 15th of this year.”

“Considering how unstable she is without full thrusters, I would have expected at least that.”

A low hum emanates from the comm panel, followed by a cracking whip sound. A soothing female voice, with a standard American accent, fills the cabin. “Hello Infinity 7. This is Metis 3 Docking Capture Program 7.5–327. We are tracking you. Please maintain present speed and course. Metis Link-Up will take navigation control in three minutes.”

“Hello Metis 3. Maintaining speed and course,” says John. Relieved to finally have a response from the station, he loosens his tight grip on the NAV Controls. The pliable, slightly sticky surface of the grips reluctantly release his hands. “Metis Computer, I was worried. You should have been in contact twenty minutes earlier. How are things on the station?”

“All systems are running at peak efficiency.”

“Really?”

“Infinity 7 trajectory is on target for docking in approximately forty minutes. Relax and enjoy the docking, John Collins.”

“I’ll grab some popcorn.”

The Infinity 7 computer chimes in, “Popcorn is maintained in Freezer Bin 19. Shall I pop some for you?”

“No, thank you.”

“Very well.”

John rolls his eyes and almost chuckles at the obsequious program. The Southern accent takes a bit of getting used to. Most computers speak in a brisk standard American accent. The Dixie twang is unusual. His smile instantly melts when he glances toward Dr. Lee’s temporary resting place, the cold-storage locker B.

Twenty years of dedicated work, first as an undergrad, then as a starving graduate student, then the fellowships, and his entrepreneurial exploits, fighting for funding and patrons, arguing for the active search for extraterrestrial life, fighting the big money men, the mining companies, the autocracy of government regulations and funding, has led to this moment. The moment it may all end. If funding is cut off now, it will be a disaster. There are plenty of mining ventures, but only Metis is fully vested in the search for extraterrestrial life. The mining exploits are only meant to pay the bills. He is not going to let an unforeseen mission mishap, or even the death of a friend and colleague, collude to end his dream. Dr. Lee’s demise will come at a place and time of little consequence. On Earth. He will see to that.

“Metis 3, I want to run a diagnostic of your mainframe. Link-up, please.”

The Metis computer breaks in, “Request compliance uninitiated at this time. Prepare for docking.”

“Uninitiated? On whose authority?” No response. After a few seconds, he says, “Metis 3, engage mainframe link-up protocol.”

“Mainframe link-up is currently unavailable, John Collins.”

A slight vibration runs through the ship as a super-laser tractor beam envelops Infinity 7. The Metis 3 Navigation System begins to guide the ship toward the docking station. As John sits back and waits for the operation to be completed, Smarteye hovers just a few feet away, a blinking nuisance.

 

 

Infinity 7 (Part 3)

Space stattion

Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved

 

3

 

John stares sullenly at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He’s hardly touched his vegetables since the conversation started. His daughter, Sarah, doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other, about anything he says. Not about the mission to Metis 3, the possibility of alien life, none of it. Now, a three-inch yellow ball fluoresces above the table. Shimmering beams of light pulsate as it slowly expands, then shrinks back down. Brilliant rainbow colors dance off the ball and illuminate his daughter’s face, accenting her delicate, preteen features in a multicolored glow.

He glares at her. “You know how I feel about that game at the table. It’s distracting.”

She gazes into the orb’s core. Spiraling rays spread out, long spindly tentacles from its circumference, then begin a rapid-fire reproduction of themselves. Beams of red, yellow, and orange spring from the sphere in long sparkling arches then fall back onto themselves, creating tiny rippling explosions when they impact the orb. Tracers of missiles in an atomic annihilation. The war, in miniature, has begun. The streams fade to white, and intensify as more rays fall back onto the planet, exploding reds and blues and pink conflagrations.

“Sarah, can you please answer me?”

She glances up at him, her eyes glassy, unfocused as she searches the dark area at the end of the table where his voice emanated from.

“Sarah, for cripes’ sake, put that thing down!”

“Just a sec,” she yells, and reaches up and spreads the ball out even wider. The sparkling fireworks and spraying lines of color grow in intensity. The orb begins to pulsate, vibrate, emitting a low rumble born of destruction.

John takes a mouthful of mashed potato and waits for it to dissolve on his tongue. The lumps don’t melt and he swallows hard, feeling them slide down his throat. Has she always been this way? No, he doesn’t think so. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She has worked hard in school, done well on tests, works well with others. Her mother’s death has changed her. She’s more distant now. Almost resigned…but, to what? Life sucking? He remembers her saying her life sucked, offhandedly, the way kids do. Things have changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. He’s well acquainted with being resigned to the darkness. Being totally resigned. Not to life sucking, but to the fragility of it. Life is but “a dream, within a dream…”

He has goals. Had personal goals. The old ones are gone now, either by meeting them or disillusionment. Death does that. Priorities change…

“Sarah!” he yells, trying to shake her from her trance. She scowls at him, her eyes dark, but alive with fear. Or is that contempt? “Put that thing away!”

“But Dad, the battle just started!”

“I don’t care. Save it for later.”

She grabs the sizzling orb and compresses it to the size of a pea, then slips it into a small blue pouch dangling from her chair. Immediately, her hands prop up her head, as if she’s been in hyper-sleep for six months, the weight of her skull too much to bear.

He takes a sip of wine and carefully places the glass next to his plate. “So, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“Haven’t you been listening?”

“If that’s what you want…” She listlessly pokes at her food. The peas roll into the potatoes. She quickly herds them away. Each vegetable must maintain separation. Contamination is not acceptable.

“I don’t have much choice, Sarah. The funding just isn’t there for a full team.”

He tries to lock eyes with her, but she avoids his stare, holds her head with her right hand and pushes her food with her left. A blank stare of resignation contrives her face.

“It’s a family decision. I want to discuss it.” They both know the decision has already been made, but he persists with the charade. “I’m the only one qualified in engineering and crew psychology. It’s only a short month. Grandma—”

“Great,” she interrupts.

“It’s a family decision—”

“Sure, a family decision. Chance to go to the moon. Why not?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is orbiting the moon. I won’t be setting foot on the surface. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I know, Dad. I’m just being incorrigible. Oh my God, how can you stand it? Enjoy your research. Can I go now?” Sarcasm drips from her as she stands, and snatches the still glowing orb from the bag. A few seconds of silence pass as he tries to think of what to say to soothe the situation, but nothing comes. The explosion of Karen’s booster rocket flashes into his mind, and for an eternity he feels the sharp pain of losing her all over again. Guilt from that event hangs over him like a shroud. Sadness takes hold and he sinks into his chair, unintentionally mimicking Sarah’s usual posture.

He tries to read his daughter’s expression. Could she be thinking the same thoughts right now? The interminable sadness of losing someone you love. The pain rises from deep within. “Go,” he says, resigned to his melancholy. Sarah throws the tiny ball up into the air. It expands and radiates brilliant yellow as the planetary battle continues, illuminating the way to her bedroom.

He sits alone in front of a cold dinner. Another sip of wine offers no resolution.

“Cleans-All, clear the plates.”

The portable Cleans-All rolls in from the kitchen and stops next to John. The waste port opens. John gazes at the contraption, thinking how much better constructed it could have been. Its appearance is that of a great green toad with amber eyes lit up like Christmas in July. The only thing missing is a vocal sac for croaking. John dumps the recyclable plates into the smiling, open-mouthed bin and presses the consume button. The machine masticates the meal and turns toward Sarah’s plate. John stares at the flashing amber light, pulsing almost in rhythm to his heartbeat.

The machine emits a low hum as it waits for him to load the plates, but he doesn’t want to move. Rather, he lets melancholy spread up from some unimaginable depth and slither through him, the emptiness momentarily blanketing out all thought. He’s naked and alone. Then Karen comes to him. She smiles, her eyes alive with empathy. He can smell her perfumed skin and soft breath. He reaches to touch her face. The Cleans-All beeps, and the past is interrupted by blinking lights. He gets up and, one by one, hurls plates into the open bin. The machine receives the ferocity with grace, rocking as each discard hits, its smile unwavering, as if understanding this as an isolated event. John launches a bowl, then a cup, a saucer, the knives. The table is cleared, and the machine stands, quietly consuming. The playful frog eyes continue to flash.

“Finished,” he whispers. The open mouth closes, and it turns and removes itself to the kitchen.

John walks into the living room and sits in his favorite levitating chair. It cradles his body like a warm glove, then ascends a few feet off the floor. Calculated to imitate the rocking motion of a calm sea, designed to lull the occupant, the chair sways in mild oceanic rhythm.

“Scotch on the rocks.”

Another machine, similar to the Cleans-All, aptly named Serves-All, springs to life from across the room. A bright yellowish light leads the way as it rolls forward. A tray pops open in front of the assembly, and a glass of single-malt Scotch slides towards John. He removes the glass from the tray and the Serves-All waits.

“Go away.”

The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.

“Memories, Karen.”

A three-dimensional holographic image of Karen illuminates the center of the room. She wears a flight suit. The hologram expands to reveal she is about to board a Metis mission spacecraft. John takes a sip of Scotch. Karen, a pretty, athletic woman in her late thirties, smiles for the camera, then moves toward the rocket. A new shot of her standing on a rocket platform. She’s decked out in a full flight suit. She stops and turns, waving unabashedly. A new series of moving images appear, spliced together in similar fashion to an old-time newsreel. The rocket lifts off, surrounded by gaseous smoke, ice, and debris as it climbs into the stratosphere. A tiny nugget in the sky now. John watches through watery eyes. He knows what’s coming. He takes another sip of Scotch, longer this time. A horrendous explosion rocks the image. The rocket has scattered into bundles of fiery debris. Part of the booster spirals off out of frame, trailing a cloud of billowing smoke. John chews on a piece of ice, mashing chunks into cold slush, until his teeth ache. He tells himself it wasn’t his fault, but ultimately, that doesn’t help. Ultimately, it was his decisions that caused the accident. He was the one who worked the numbers with the manufacturer. He was the one who, against advice, approved the cheaper, inferior paneling for the boosters. He was the one who bet the life of his wife and crew for the savings of $350,000. Guilt runs through him like dirty water. Some days it’s a river, other days a stream, but the cesspool of guilt never dries up.

The image changes. Still photos of the mission crew, his wife’s picture among the line of five lost souls.

“Freeze frame.”

The life-sized ultra-high resolution, 3D photo of his proud astronaut wife is frozen above his chair. Her pride, hard work, sacrifice, success, and heartbreak all etched on his heart, in sentences only he can read.

“Hello, Babe…” He reaches out, his hand slipping through the image. “I think of you every hour of every day.” Her eyes sparkle. How can you ever live down betrayal? “Remember Coronado…” Her left eye winks, and his heart skips a beat. But he knows it’s not real. His mind is playing tricks again.

Every heartbeat of her life has synthesized into one blistering, visual memory. The crack that led to the leak. The communion of flame and fuel. The explosion. The searing inferno. Karen’s agonized face as she is consumed in super-heated molten metal and flame. Her eyes are pools of watery viscera as they beg for his help.

It’s as if he is there, watching from a safe distance, held back by time itself, and sees the whole thing from the start. There is nothing he can do but watch. A small fragment of superheated metal has lodged in the fuselage, burning through the exposed polymers and melting into the aluminum alloys and steel beneath. The flames snake into the inner skin of the vehicle, fueled by the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the command capsule, and race throughout the ventilation systems. The inferno, led by thick smoke, snakes its way through the cockpit and ignites the instrument panels. Karen is strapped in her chair. She cannot move. The catastrophic assent is punishing, shaking her as she absorbs 3 g. At the same time, flames race through the command module, igniting the console and electrical systems. Jolted by the explosive energy beneath her, she screams as the flames lick at her flight suit. Her face is wet with sweat. Then somehow, her helmet is off, her sweat-drenched hair whips around, flying free, like in one of those shampoo ads, only it’s flames, not water, flying free from her locks, tiny orange flames consuming her hair, like a fuses leading to her brain. The flames reach her face. Pink skin bubbles up, consumed utterly, transforming into black, crusty carbon. The outline of her delicate features is traced in flakes of ash. The most dreadful horror of all—her final expression—quizzical shock and wonder as her ashes crumble into her fire-retardant suit.

She is so much dust.

John blinks this image away, but he cannot fully un-see what his mind has to offer. And the guilt slowly simmers down, back into its bottomless pit.

He strides to Sarah’s bedroom and knocks on the door. After a few seconds, he enters and stands in the doorway. She is lying on the bed, watching a bright hologram above her head, her ears covered in sound patches.

“What is it, Dad?” she asks, her voice loud, agitated.

“Done your homework?”

“Yes.”

“That was quick.”

“I’m kind of a genius.”

He smiles, pleased by her familiar sense of humor. A feeling of warmth wraps around him and he wants to hug her, but he stops himself. She wouldn’t like it. Not anymore. Not today.

“Sarah, I…” he starts, but there’s nothing behind his words. The explosion still occupies his thoughts, and for a split second Karen’s tortured face blinds him. He pushes the memory aside. “As much as I loved your mother, and she loved us—”

“Did she?” Sarah snaps, still staring at the music video above her head.

“What makes you say that?”

“Forget it.” Her face is lit in unsaturated hues. A band, live on stage in front of thousands of fans, hovers in a hologram above her head. The singer screams into the mic but John hears only the cold hum of the house. He takes a few steps into the room.

Sarah glances up, then turns back to the video. “I’m trying to watch this, do you mind?”

“I miss her like crazy, Sarah. You know that. I know you do too.” She tries not to look at him, but he can tell he’s getting through. He sits on her bed. “Turn that off a second, will you?”

She rolls her eyes, but silently complies. She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself for what’s coming, and removes the small mesh patches from her tragus.

“You know I would never do anything to hurt you or us as a family. But the funding isn’t there for a full team to go on a mission right now. We’re on the verge of losing everything I’ve worked for, Sarah.”

“So don’t go.”

“You don’t understand, there’s something…” He almost says wrong, there’s something wrong on board Metis 3, but that would only worry her. It wasn’t her problem. He doesn’t want to drag her into it. Wanting to minimize her fears, he says, “Besides, how often do I have the opportunity to go into space?”

“You mean like Mom’s great opportunity to be killed? Yeah, hope it works out for you.”

Her sharp words cut into him, but only he is allowed to turn that dagger. “Hey, what is this? Explain yourself.”

She stares straight ahead as she speaks, as if the air will understand. “Her future was so important. Look what it got her. Where is she? We don’t even know, do we? Where is she?”

“You know where she is.”

He thinks of the small urn he keeps next to her holographic image, but he knows what she’s saying. Cinders from the crash make for a lousy memorial. “I know it’s hard to understand now, but if we don’t do what we have to in life, if we don’t challenge ourselves and try to achieve all that we can, then what’s the point? You want to just sit around all day until you’re too old to get up anymore? What would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning?”

She continues to stare straight ahead. “There isn’t any.”

“Look, I need to get this resolved between us—”

“You’ll go no matter what I say.”

“That’s not true.”

She stares up at the ceiling, then at her blue painted fingernails. “Fine,” she says.

“No, no. I don’t accept fine. Fine is not an answer. You’re either okay with this or you’re not.”

“She loved us, all right? So much, she was willing to go into space and get killed.”

He practically shudders at the comment. If she only knew how he blamed himself. “Sarah. It was the accident, not the mission that killed your mother.” He reaches out and strokes her hair, expecting her to pull back, but she doesn’t. “It can’t be undone. God knows I’ve gone over every bit of footage from that day. There was nothing to warn us. We just didn’t see it. A defect in the shielding. It sucks, Sarah. I miss her…every day, every minute.”

Huge tears roll down Sarah’s cheeks. He touches his forehead to hers, then collects himself.

A small 3D photo of Karen floats above the bedside table. John reaches for it, then stops himself. He’s had enough wallowing for one night. He can’t afford to be dragged down into total depression. Next to the photo of Karen sits a static 2D photo of a smiling middle-aged man, his arm slung around a young boy. They stand on a grassy lawn.

“I was your age here, I think.” He picks up the framed photo. “You know, when this picture was taken, I didn’t even know my father. Not really. Oh, he came home at night, usually sober and would eat dinner with us and then…I don’t know what he did. It was like he disappeared. He used to yell quite a bit, I remember that.”

“I know, and he was mean and never gave you anything.”

“Hey, I’m telling the story.”

A twinkle lights her eye.

“Right?”

“Again and again. Yes, I think I’ve heard this one before.”

A practiced tone of capitulation. A routine they had settled into during his many teaching talks. He fixes a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. “Part of the reason we have what we have is because he never gave me anything. Not a smile, not a nod, not a whisper. I was made to feel I was a burden. I vowed to never, ever be like him.”

The anger rises, like it always does, from wounds deep and long scabbed over, but never fully healed. After workday’s end, with the setting sun, this vague pain rises from his gut, and he touches it, just as a reminder. Even though he assumed the old man had died years earlier (he hadn’t seen him for twenty-seven years), the father he could never please was always there, lurking behind every decision, every failure, every triumph, standing in the shadows of his mind, waiting to pounce, deny, ignore, deflect, and neglect by omission, his only son. Why was he never good enough? Had he genuinely disliked his own child? Sometimes John wondered what he looked like in his old age, the silent, brooding man at the end of the dinner table. A man whose eyes came to you only in rebuke. He wondered if he was going to look like him and it plagued him to see glimpses of his father reflected in himself. Mostly because he feared the physical similarities would carry with them his father’s lack of compassion. His fingers, at certain angles, reminded him of his father’s. And sometimes, when he was feeling low, he’d avoid looking at them all together, placing them in the nearest pocket, or if he was wearing a jersey, rolling them up in the bottom of his shirt as he sat.

John looks at his girl, the smart young woman she is becoming, and smiles. “If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I wouldn’t go. You know that.” He stares at the photo of himself, his father’s arm draped over his own small shoulders, the lost look in his dark, young eyes, the emptiness behind that smile. He could never initiate that photo into 3D. He feels sorry for the boy standing next to that stranger. Examining the lines of his father’s face, the square smile, the deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, he wonders, as he often does when contemplating this photo, what his father was looking at to make him smile with such warmth. That elusive, unseen element of the photo, hidden just out of view, is as real to him as the teeth in his father’s mouth.

He turns to his daughter. “I love you, Sarah. I will say it until I die. You are special to me, and if you don’t want me to go on this mission, by God, I will not go.”

A smile eases her tight lips, followed by a heavy sigh, the way she always sighs when he pays special attention to her, like when he used to tuck her into bed, or read to her. Just being close, in a quiet moment such as this, fans that faint flame of joy.

“I want you to go on the mission, Dad.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I guess, because you want it. That makes me think it’s okay.”

He replaces the photo back on the night table. “The day this photo was taken I said to myself, Who is this man with his arm around me? I couldn’t understand all the attention. Then later, I swore I wouldn’t be like him, the type of father he was.”

“And you’re not, Dad, okay? Can we drop it now?”

After getting to his feet, he stops at the doorway and turns back. “Hey, remember that time on Coronado? The cottage on the beach?”

She looks up. “Yeah?”

“I never saw you or your mother so happy. Remember? The white sands. Feet in the water.”

She shrugs. “Sure.”

“One day you’ll look back and realize how special that was.”

Her eyes have glazed over. She’s not listening anymore. John realizes he’s reached his parenting limit for the day.

She replaces the sound patches and throws the sphere into the air. It spreads out into a panoramic vision of a planet in turmoil. Nukes spiral out from every side of the globe and hit with devastating force, creating luminous mushroom clouds. The room brightens with the intensity of the explosions.

“What happened to the concert?” he asks.

She looks up at him again. “What?”

John gives her a last, barely acknowledged nod, and quietly shuts the door.

In the living room, holding the same glass of single malt Scotch, he stares out the window at the darkening sky. Billowing clouds reflect the last pink and yellow rays of the sun. He closes his eyes. A face appears in front of him, but he cannot tell whose it might be, until it resolves into his father. The forty-something man stands in a doorway, his arm up against the frame for support, as he sips from a highball glass. Two teenage boys stare at the man.

“Walk for me, will yah?” his father says. “Go ahead, take a few steps, let me see those bow legs of yours.” Laughter cuts through John’s head like a knife and his eyes blink open. How much damage could one man do? He closes his eyes again and his father emerges from the shadows, smiling at a boy walking up and down the hallway. He sips a glass of scotch-on-the rocks, and titters while sucking an ice cube. “Look at those bow legs!”

“Leave Andy alone, Dad!”

His father stands upright and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “What? I just want to see him walk.”

The two boys leave the room. Young John turns in time to see his father flick ashes into his empty glass and smirk. “They’re not so bad, kid. I’ve seen worse legs…”

John opens his eyes and takes another sip of his drink. The physical memory of his father usually doesn’t enter his mind unless his stress level gets burdensome, as it is now. He has vague apprehension about his trip to Metis 3. Outside the window, the wind pushes tree limbs, cloud formations darken, fading into the blue-black twilight, and he wonders where the old man is now, if he is still alive.

 

 

Infinity 7…continued…

earth_soil_creep_moon_217170

 

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.

“Message received.”

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.”

“Which system?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“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.”

“How so?”

“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.”

Lee nods.

“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…

 

 

Infinity 7

space

Infinity 7 is a science fiction novel involving space travel in the near future and first contact with strange aliens in a most unexpected way.

I am posting it in installments for all to read. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Metis 3 Communications Center, San Diego, CA

Assistant ground controller, Hailey Cantwell, stands in front of a command-and-control screen in the sterile communications room at the Metis Communications Center. The plain white carbon reinforced polymer and steel box is adorned with Roman Tuscan architectural columns, intended to create spatial tension, and as an artistic distraction from its tepid decor. Hailey wears a heavy cardigan under a white knee-length lab coat to help keep herself from shivering in the cool environment. All rooms are kept at sixty-seven degrees Fahrenheit to insure the computers run at maximum efficiency.

In front of her is a free-floating hologram. The image depicts a brightly lit black box, about three inches square, slowly rotating from left to right. She touches the space bar on the air keyboard and the box stops spinning. It begins to pulsate, expanding and contracting at regular intervals, as if breathing.

“Hey, Jeb. Come here and look at this.” A similarly dressed man wearing black-rimmed glasses walks over to her console.

“What have you got?”

“It’s a message from Metis 3.”

“Odd. When is our next scheduled communications link-up?”

“Not until 10.00 a.m. tomorrow.”

“That’s what I thought.” He leans in closer to inspect the holographic image. “That looks like an old-fashioned screen saver.”

“Yes, but it came in from Metis.”

“Why would they send that in a communiqué?”

“I was about to ask you that question.”

“Whose signature is on it?”

“There isn’t one.”

“There has to be.” He punches in a few more commands on the airboard. The box begins pulsating more quickly now, turning purple and expanding in size. “Is this a joke?”

Hailey laughs, as if suddenly getting it. “It’s Forrest. Forrest has to have sent this.”

“Or Greely. He’s a joker.”

Hailey rolls her eyes. “She’s a joker. She’s a she.”

Jeb hits the space bar again. “Of course. I know that…”

The box turns scarlet, then bright yellow. Hailey smiles. “Rainbows.”

Jeb types in a few more commands, but the box is unaffected. “Are you sure it’s from Metis 3?”

“I’ve checked the frequency twice.”

A miniscule signature code appears at the bottom of the box. “There it is. But, I don’t recognize the point of origin.” He tries to magnify the image, but the font remains small and illegible.

The box continues to expand, evolving into a shade of dark blue. As it reaches about ten-inches in diameter, there is a sudden and colorful explosion. The box fragments into a thousand miniature slow-motion fireworks streaming and falling, then fading away. As the dots dissolve, tiny red numbers emerge from the bottom of the message. As the numbers grow in size, it becomes clear they are an equation.

Jeb runs his hand through his well-trimmed hair. “This is a bad joke. A waste of time!” He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead and adjusts his glasses. Finally, he stands back from the screen and sighs. The equation grows until the font is about eight inches high, transitioning from blue to yellow to orange.

4Al + 3O₂ = 2Al₂O₃

The equation rotates, like a roast on a spit. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Hailey punches a few keys on the airboard. “Computer. What is the origin of the equation in this communiqué?”

Jeb scribbles on a small airpad with his finger. “O usually stands for Oxygen…The A means…”

A soft, feminine voice fills the room. “The communiqué originates from Metis 3 Space Station.”

Jeb rolls his eyes. “We realize that. Who on board sent it?”

“The message originates from the Metis 3 Space Station mainframe.”

“The Metis 3 computer sent this?”

“That is correct.”

Hailey looks at Jeb, who shrugs. “What’s with the equation?”

“That is not within my knowledge base.”

Hailey keys in more commands. “It’s definitely a formula, but for what?”

Jeb scribbles furiously on his airpad, as if an unspoken rivalry between them spurs him on to finish first. “It’s an equation. It has an equals sign.”

Hailey clears her throat. “Right. I knew that. Computer, who at Command has authorization to read this communiqué?”

“Level 3 clearance and password is required.”

Jeb frowns. “I’ve never heard of it.”

Hailey smirks at her coworker. “Computer, who’s authorized at Level 3?”

The computer voice drones, “I do not have that information.”

“You don’t know who is at Level 3?” Hailey asks.

“That is correct.”

Jeb runs his hand through his hair. “Damn it. Computer, forward this communiqué to command headquarters…and stop wasting my time.”

“I am not authorized to forward Level 3 communiqués.”

“More craziness.” Jeb clears his throat. “Computer, connect me to Metis Program Headquarters.”

Almost instantly, a young woman’s face appears in the center of the room. The computer-generated communication hologram turns clockwise until it faces them.

“Metis Program Headquarters, how may I be of assistance?” The young woman speaks in a pleasant, but obviously artificial tone.

“This is Jeb Craine at Communications. Badge number 314159. I need to speak to…” he turns and frowns sarcastically at Hailey, “…a Level 3 person.”

The woman’s eyes blink twice. “Please repeat?”

“I have a Level 3 communiqué from Metis 3. I need to know where to direct this.”

The holographic face freezes momentarily, obviously running through her data files, then smiles. “Hold, please.” The face fades into a relaxed expression, and her eyes go dark.

After a few minutes, the woman’s face lights up. She smiles and turns toward Jeb, who is now sitting behind a white desk across the room. “The Director’s Office asks that you download the encrypted message into a holovessel and hand deliver it to Metis Command. You are to arrive in person, no later 3:30 p.m. today to deliver this vessel. Thank you for calling Headquarters. How may I further assist you?”

“Okay, that’s fine. End communication,” he says. The face fades away. Jeb takes off his glasses and wipes the lenses with a white hanky. “I guess I’ll have to run this over myself.”

“I’ll go, if you like,” Hailey says, trying to contain her enthusiasm.

Jeb looks at his airpad, busying himself with the equation. “All right. You go.” After a slight pause, as if reading a cue card, he adds, “But I want a full report. And come right back.”

“It’s a long ride up the La Jolla, Jeb. Heavy traffic. How about I just head home after I report?”

Jeb sighs and looks up at her. “Fine. But first thing in the morning let me know exactly what they said.”

“You got it, boss.” She winks at him, and his pale putty face reddens.

 

2

Metis Mission Headquarters

Mission Director Dr. John Collins, PhD in astrophysics, stands on a small stage in Lecture Hall 1. He’s finishing up a promotional lecture on the Metis Program. The room is darkened. His handsome face is bottom-lit from a screen in front of the podium, giving him an ethereal orange glow. Behind him is an enlarged three-dimensional holographic image depicting carbonate globules attached to a moon rock. Various speckles of colored shapes dotting a forest-green rock surface shimmer like fool’s gold. The same image hovers in front of each seated audience member, their eager faces aglow from the visuals before them.

“Various structures we’ve identified, tiny carbonate globules, are indications that some form of life did exist in these rocks, it is estimated as long as thirty thousand years ago. We’ve found many types of magnetites in several morphologies. But these in particular,” the scientist points to a few gold-colored globules in the slide, “were found on the first dig by Metis Team 1, near Theophilus on the moon’s surface. As you may know, Theophilus is a huge crater near the center of the moon’s disk.”

A holographic image of Theophilus appears and rotates above them, revealing various angles illuminated in shimmering sunlight.

“Sixty-four miles in diameter, the crater is enclosed by peaks of eighteen thousand, and sixteen thousand feet. The circumference is nearly three hundred square miles. A little too much for us to explore at present,” polite laughter ripples from the audience, “however, by the end of next fiscal year, our Heavy Equipment Dig Program will be in full operation.”

The image changes to a full shot of the moon from space, then resolves onto the moon’s surface, looking across a huge desert expanse, luring the viewer’s eye up to the rugged mountains resting beneath an inky-black sky.

The next hologram reveals heavy mining equipment. Colossal drills and excavators hover a few feet off the ground on the moon’s surface. Near the equipment, troughs of ore move through the center of a large, clear tubular structure. Sparkling debris glitters as it passes through the tunnel. “Of course, with any luck, this computer-generated mining equipment will soon be replaced by the real thing.” More chuckles emanate from the captive audience.

A 3D holographic image of Metis 3 Space Station materializes into view, replacing the moon hologram. It has an appearance similar to a slowly spinning spoked wheel. “Metis 3 Space Station. She’s approximately one hundred-seventy meters in length, comprised of specialized modules.” In the center of the station is a core module to which all other modules are attached, linked together by a tubular outer walk.

Dramatic music resonates as the station glides effortlessly in lunar orbit. “Metis 3 has reached our moon in record time and will continue to probe the mysteries of its mineral-rich soil. And now, with the advent of the Heavy Equipment Dig Program, we will begin to excavate even further below the surface, eventually branching out further into the mountainous regions.”

The image behind the doctor changes to that of a vast, colorful space nebula. Its black heart is reminiscent of the pupil of a gigantic eye. Blue hues of variable chromatic tonalities, surrounding and uniformly shooting out from the dark center, complete the impression of the iris in a colossal human eyeball.

“It’s our mission, as it was in the beginning, and always shall be, to explore our universe, search for evidence of life forms, and comprehensibly study them. And, of course, ultimately share those discoveries with you.” He pauses, stares into the darkened auditorium until he has everyone’s full attention, then continues. “In knowing what’s out there, we can learn more about our origins, and the planet we call home. Remember, the Metis motto: Discovery is Our Business.”

The familiar image of Earth; the white and blue marble surrounded by the blackness of space, appears behind him.

The lights come up. The audience enthusiastically applauds, then begins to disperse.

A voice emerges from the exiting attendees. “Dr. Collins, isn’t it true that the mission statement you just read is only partially accurate, since most of your funding now comes from mining interests?” A few attendees linger to hear a response.

John has heard this question every day for two years, ever since his private foundation became partially endowed by the Plutus Mining Company. After a small glitch in the moon rover set back the project, and tragically resulted in a fatality involving one of the mission crew, the funding began to dry up. The money has to come from somewhere, and off-world mineral extraction is a very real and profitable challenge. John considers it inevitable that the search for natural resources would fund a portion of the Metis missions. However, off-world mining capabilities are still in their infancy, and something he doesn’t expect to come to full fruition in his lifetime.

“Our mission has not changed.” John smiles. “Science and exploration are our top priorities.” Amid enthusiastic follow-up questions, he heads upstage and ducks out a back entrance to the service area.

In the hallway leading to his office, he is assaulted by the shrill voice of Dr. Beck. “John, John!” He turns to see Beck blustering down the hall, his puffed-up belly leading the charge, his unfashionable tie swinging like a pendulum.

John stops and asks, “What is it, Dr. Beck?”

“Something is happening on Metis 3.”

Beck stares at John, waiting for his cue. Beck always does this: makes him wait, then wring it out of him. John wants to shake him. He takes a deep breath and takes the bait. “What’s happening on Metis 3, Dr. Beck?”

“We’ve received a coded message.”

John lifts an eyebrow. “Coded?”

“Level 3, they said. I’m not aware of a Level 3. What is that? Why don’t I know about it?”

“Not here. In my office.” Beck’s eyes flutter and his mouth gapes open. John ignores these facial tics. “Come.” The men turn together and stride purposely down the hall.

A conference room attached to John’s office holds a long, thick glass table surrounded by six chairs. There awaits the woman from Communications. John glances into the room and recognizes Hailey Cantwell. Her evaluations, he recalls, reveal her to be smart, ambitious, and loyal. Mandatory qualities for consideration at Metis. John and Beck enter. Hailey practically bows to John as they approach. This amuses him slightly, but that amusement is quickly displaced by concern. “I hear you have a Level 3 communiqué?”

“Yes, sir. We received it this morning.” She hands him a small metallic ball. John looks at it, then walks to his desk and plugs it into a slot. A hologram of a red ball appears, hovering approximately eight inches above the desk. This ball has a crystalline quality to it, smooth and reflective with cut edges.

“You may leave now. Thank you.” John nods to Hailey and she turns hesitantly, as if not sure where to find the door. “Is there something else?” he asks her.

She turns to him. “No, no, I…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing, sir, thank you. It’s just…” Again, she hesitates. “I’ve never heard of a Level 3, and…”

“Hailey, I want to thank you again for this, and for alerting me to the anomalies you observed in Metis Station’s recent lunar orbit reports. Your initiative and loyalty will not go unrewarded.” Hailey beams. He walks over to her, extending his hand, which she takes. “We need to set up a meeting. I would like to discuss your future here.” He shakes her hand while leading her to the door.

“Thank you, sir.” She nods and bows, walking backward out the door. “I’ll stay on top of those trajectory reports…” She continues to stick her head inside the breach, pulling it back just in time.

“Thank you, Hailey. Thank you.” When the door finally latches, the smile quickly falls from his face, as he turns to Beck. “Call the Committee. They should see this.”

Beck nods and scurries from the room.

To be continued…