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.
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—”
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.
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.’”
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.
The camera emits a gentle hum.
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.”
“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—”
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.”
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
F O U R
Infinity 7’s main rockets rumble on Platform A. Hydrogen steam spews out onto the launch pad. John stands on the gangplank leading to the capsule. Decked out in flight gear, and with the help of a technician, he’s about to secure his helmet.
Dr. Lee stands nearer the capsule and is already helmeted. He gives John the thumbs-up as he is escorted toward the ship. John smiles and reciprocates, then turns to the technician. Raising his voice above the rumble, he says, “Give me a second will you, Arty?”
“We have five minutes’ leeway, sir. I can safely give you three.”
“Good.” John heads to a small utility box on the walkway scaffolding, leans against the pole and unzips an arm pocket to produce a small communication pad. He places the comm pad on the box and presses the Home button. Sarah appears in a twelve-inch rectangular hologram projected in front of him.
“Hey, have you seen my daughter? She’s about so big…” John holds a hand waist high.
“Dad, I’m taller than that.” Sarah looks off to her right. “Grandma, it’s Dad!” She looks back at John. “She’s teaching me how to cook with the oven. We’re all set to watch the lift off. What are you doing, are you ready to go?”
“I’m about to get strapped in. I just…” He breaks off, wanting to tell her again how much he loves her, that everything is going to be okay, but suddenly feels needy and it quiets him. “Just…take care of your grandmother. Okay?”
“Okay. Remember, Dad: back in three weeks, right?”
Tears well in her eyes. John takes a step back so she can see his full suit. “Hey, look at me.” He smiles, has a ta-dah moment. She wipes her eyes. “See you in December, Sarah.”
“See you then,” she says. Her image freezes, then fades. He stares ahead, feeling more alone than before. The excitement of the mission, the noise, and the rumbling thrusters recapture his attention. The technician walks over and holds out his helmet.
“Are you ready, Doctor?”
The main rockets shake every ounce of blood in the astronauts’ cores as they are propelled at twenty-seven thousand miles per hour, pulling 3 gs through the earth’s atmosphere. John’s body compresses. The G-force, the importance of the mission, his life’s work, and the memory of Karen conspire to crush him as he struggles for breath. After a few torturous seconds, the force dwindles sharply and he breathes deeply. The booster rocket fires and he is slapped back into his chair. He feels like a grape squeezed between the fingers of a giant. The thrusters are jettisoned. The noise decreases sharply and he is released from gravity, weightless. Karen didn’t make it this far, he thinks.
Strangely detached from his immediate post-liftoff checklist, he forces himself to stare at the indicators in front of him, back to the tasks at hand. A trajectory chart illuminates and comes into focus. Dr. Lee’s voice startles him, as it breaks through on his headset.
“Ripping atmosphere, eh John? Like tearing a new arsehole.”
“You got that right, Michael.” John turns to see Lee smiling, as he presses buttons and flips switches, thoroughly composed and studious.
“Computers locked in, navigation checks. We’re on target.”
“Ground Control confirms trajectory looks good.”
John checks navigation off his list, and examines the console above his head. A green line displays their path. Ground trajectory maintains the tight parameters set for the mission. This is only John’s third journey into space in ten years, and he’s beginning to remember how his body reacts to such violence.
Lee nods to John. “Take a deep breath. The long ride is about to begin.” He moves to the navigation console.
Even though John is still nauseous, he gives him the thumbs-up. “Copy that, Dr. Lee. The long ride. Only, not so long now is it?” Lee smiles and touches a button, which throws the navigation hologram up into the center of the capsule.
The capsule had been originally designed to house up to six crew members, each sitting inverted and opposite one another in a circle, but the craft could easily be maneuvered by a single person. The tops of the two men’s helmets face each other on opposite sides of the command capsule at takeoff, then the seats automatically shift to an upright position upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
The intelligent design of Infinity 7 utilizes and enables vocal commands if the need arises. Having plotted the course at Command prior to departure; all that is left to do now is initiate the Navigation Drive.
Ground Control chatter breaks into the cabin. “We’re all good here, Infinity 7. Trajectory is on target. Control is yours, in three, two, one—”
“Confirm, we have control,” says Lee. “Roger that, Ground.”
“Have a safe journey, Infinity 7. Here’s a little something we found in the archives.” “Space Oddity” by David Bowie is piped into the comm feed.
John groans. “This one again? Put that puppy to bed, Command.” The song stops.
Dr. Lee presses a manual switch on his console. “Initiating Navigation Drive.”
“Roger that, Infinity 7. You have navigation. Ground Control out.”
A distinctive, provocative female voice responds, “Initiation of navigation is engaged.”
After a few seconds of silence, Lee says, “How do you like that?”
“Not very official.”
“You want me to change it?”
“No, that’s okay. I enjoy the twang.”
“That bit of Southern twang she has.”
“I hadn’t noticed any regionalism.”
“Oh yeah, there’s a twang. Upper crust Southern. North Carolina, maybe? Mild, but noticeable. Voice of a…let’s say, middle-aged female.”
“You’re quite the regional expert, Dr. Collins. I’m impressed.”
“Nah. I used to live in North Carolina, then went to school at Texas Tech. Finished up at M.I.T.”
“That part I knew.”
Although they are traveling at nearly eighty thousand kilometers per hour, the ride is smooth, and once they acclimate to the weightlessness, somewhat uneventful. Although they still use the conventional hydrogen booster thrusters to leave Earth’s atmosphere, the speed in which they travel is much faster than the older missions. The first orbiter to reach the moon took three days to reach lunar orbit. Now, thanks to the new MEPS propulsion system, which allows for constant acceleration, they can make the trip in seven hours. Approximately ninety minutes to reach the halfway point and another four hours of deceleration. The remaining time will be spent normalizing trajectory, velocity, and prepping for a safe docking.
The Super Microwave Electronic Propulsion System, or MEPS, had been developed by Galileo Labs in La Jolla, California and first used during the Metis 1 missions, some ten years earlier. The faster trip was possible since MEPS allowed for a continuous propulsion through space, rather than using an occasional thruster burst. The first mission to Saturn, scheduled for early next year, should take only ten days.
John’s thoughts turn to a newer system currently in development and enabling time/warp propulsion. This new unit, expected to be rigorously tested starting early next year, should be capable of initiating time/space to warp in front of the vehicle, allowing much faster travel than conventional propulsion, theoretically reaching speeds beyond that of light. For now, though, MEPS is the best system available, and Metis 3 still uses conventional thrusters to maintain a safe lunar orbit.
John looks up from the navigation data, curious about the computer vocalization program. “Computer, what’s the origin of your vocal accent?”
“My voice pattern and regionalism is a reconstruction of actress Sarah Crenshaw’s vocal idiosyncrasies. She was a popular multimedia actress born December 30, 2025, and died January 19, 2075 from cerebral—”
“That’s enough.” He turns to Dr. Lee. “See, Michael, I told you.”
“Good catch. I don’t remember Sarah Crenshaw.”
“She was good. I saw something she’d done at a retro media theatre a few years ago. Don’t remember the name of it. Some interstellar war flick. It adds spice to the voice though, don’t you think?”
Lee is setting up his new camera. Similar to an Ultra Drone, it is compact, fast, and silent, and capable of responding to voice commands.
“Is that the Smarteye?”
“Check this, John.” Lee holds a small, sleek teardrop-shaped object in the palm of his hand. “It can reach speeds up to fifty miles per hour and altitudes of up to twenty thousand feet, for up to two hours. It has multi-lens capabilities including close up and panoramic, makes instant three-dimensional holograms, and works in low light situations. Any light at all. Even in the dark.”
“Impressive, but does it do portraits?”
Lee doesn’t stop to acknowledge the joke. “This camera can recognize and analyze most anything—chemically, tactically and digitally. I’m linking it to our mainframe right now. It makes instant visual data streams and analyzes everything it sees. It also scans faces and does an instant media and background check of all known databases on Earth.”
“Chem-tactile sensing. I’ve heard of it. Gases too, I think. Yes?”
“Absolutely.” Dr. Lee releases the camera, and it flies freely around the command capsule, recording and analyzing everything in its path. “Right now it’s recording the mission, using my preprogrammed parameters.”
“That’s fine. But remember, I get to see results first, before any public release.”
“Of course. Hey, as good as the auto editor function is in this thing, I much prefer to do all the editing myself. You’ll be the first to see it.”
John nods and smiles at Lee. “Okay. Let her rip.”
Lee points to the camera already in motion above them, then gives the thumbs-up.
“Michael, I want you to take a look at Infinity 7’s propulsion system data stream as it comes off the station.”
“Sure.” Dr. Lee begins pushing buttons and downloading the reports.
John gives him a passing glance. He can tell Lee doesn’t care about the computer voice. He doesn’t have much of a personality, but is great with analytics. It’s part of the reason he wanted him on this trip. And he’s a fine physician, as well.
Residual queasiness from the liftoff has left John unsettled. “I’m feeling a bit nauseous. I’m going to catch a few winks. See you in about an hour.”
John looks again at his crewmate, who doesn’t look up from his calculations. This invokes a feeling of security as he sits back in his chair. The camera buzzes overhead, and he smiles. Lee is having fun, and that’s fine with him.
To be continued…
Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved
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?”
“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.
The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.
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.
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.