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…