The Long Death (Part I)

In the not-too-distant future, the natural resources of Earth have been depleted and humans are forced to undertake dangerous manned missions to the outer solar system in order to find mineral resources amongst cold moons and asteroids. But there is no margin for error in these space flights, and the corporations that fund them calculate the supplies required to the last litre of air – every astronaut fears one thing, the Long Death, the fate that befalls ships who stray from their assigned course, or which have some kind of accident, for there is no chance of rescue so far from home. In orbit of one of Saturn’s moons, an ordinary ship finds something incredible, but they must risk the horror of the Long Death to unlock its secrets.

Everyone told her she was crazy. She’d known they would too. She’d been ready for it. But they’d talked it over for a long time, weighed up all the pros and cons and, in the end, she’d kissed Clarissa goodbye and gone into the recruitment centre, happy that it was the best course of action for them both, but worried anyway. And who wouldn’t be? She was ex-military, which would help, and had some experience with high atmosphere flight. A grounding in the sciences, spoke six languages, no kids…but none of that was really required. Not really. Because there was a reason this job paid so well. There was a reason that when she came back – if she came back – it would change their lives forever. It’s because you had to be crazy to do it.

“Name?” the recruitment officer had asked her.

“Gia Sanchez.”

He looked over her papers on the tablet. “You were in the airforce?”

“I was.”

“And I see you fought in Syria.” He made a whistling noise through his teeth. “Guess that military pension didn’t pan out, huh?”

“I didn’t retire. I got culled. In the cutbacks.” It still stung to talk about it. A decorated NCO, a veteran, a career airman – or so she’d always thought – just a victim of the same thing everyone else was. Cutbacks. Shortages. It was the same everywhere. That’s the whole reason she was here.

“Well, Ms Sanchez, you’re more than qualified for this.”

“I know.” She fixed him with a cold stare.

“And…I assume you know what committing to this entails?”

She nodded. “I do.”

“You have no dependents?”

“Only a fiancée.”

“That’s nice. When’s the big day?”

“When I come home.”

He looked at her and nodded slowly. “We get that a lot.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Well,” he stood up and held out a hand, “on the behalf of the Hoshi-Wójcik corporation, I’d like to be the first to welcome you to the Trans-Jovian Exploration Project.”

“Thank you.”

It was all very simple. She knew all about it from the newsfeeds, of course, since these missions had been going on for the better part of two decades now, but the officer in charge of their training – a stern-faced man named Hawkins – still explained the whole story as part of the induction. He had a patch on his uniform with a stylised image of Saturn on it and the words ‘Titan Sojourn 2077’ stitched underneath. A veteran then. Someone, at least, had come back. Gia wondered if he’d been working for this company on that mission. Hoshi-Wójcik wasn’t the only corporation getting into the space mining business, just one of the biggest. “Too late,” Hawkins explained as he strode up and down the front of the classroom, a rippling smartboard humming behind him, causing odd distortion effects as he crossed in front of it, “mankind realised its folly. For decades we’d been warned that we were using up the planet’s resources faster than nature could replenish them. Research into renewable energy was stymied by lack of political will and, in the end, it was too late. You’re all young; you’ve never known a better world than this. You wear recycled clothes, you eat recycled food, you wear oxymasks when you walk outdoors. You are squatting in the ruins of a once great civilisation.” Here he slammed his hand down on the nearest desk, causing the recruit sitting there to jump. Gia got the impression he’d given this speech many times, and had the delivery down to a fine art. “Too late, we woke up,” he went on, resuming his hypnotic march across the classroom, “too late, we realised that Earth was used up, overpopulated, choking under garbage and smog. We turned to the only place we could: space. Out there,” he gestured to a shuttered window, “the riches of the universe. Worlds unnumbered. Moons, asteroids, nebulae. All abundant with minerals, complex carbohydrates, water and who knows what else? But the trick…ah…the trick is to get there. Only in this moment of desperation did the world’s governments finally begin investing in serious space travel. At first we sent out robotic probes, filling the sky with remote control toys, trying to find what we needed. But radio signals only travel so fast and, out beyond the asteroid belt, the scientists back here lacked the fine control necessary to guide their proxy metal bodies to where they were needed. Staring through grainy cameras, studying endless telemetry, striving for the things we so sorely needed, but unable to reach out and grab it themselves. No, what was needed was an older way of thinking. We had long ago abandoned the very idea of manned missions. Too dangerous. Not necessary. But now, with the situation on Earth become more untenable by the year, the decision was made. We would send out men and women to explore the solar system in person. Here, their intuition, their ability to make quick decisions, would be the difference between life and extinction for the rest of us. A crew of human beings, far from home, could seek out the precious resources of the void, earmark it for robotic mining vessels to return later, and then come home, safe, to a better world.”

He made it sound almost heroic. But Gia, and she was willing to bet everyone else sitting in that room, were only in it for one reason: the money. Go on one space mission like this and you’d never need to work again. Only a few hundred people out of the seventeen billion now crowded into Earth’s troubled biosphere had ever done what she was soon about to do. And all of them had been financially secure for the rest of their lives. Or, in some cases, their next of kin had been the ones that reaped the benefits. One in ten missions never made it home. That was all down to a brutal equation.

“Never forget that space is a hostile environment,” Hawkins explained on another day, “perhaps the most hostile you will ever encounter. This should go without saying. You are a mammal, and all your ancestors going back billions of years, were born and died in this warm, safe gravity well we call our home planet. You were not evolved for space. Your mind cannot cope with space. Your body…” he chuckled, “…space is death for your body. But it’s not the vacuum you need to fear. No. What you need to fear is the Long Death. You must understand that space travel is an expensive endeavour. Monstrously expensive. If there was some other way to save ourselves, you’d better believe we’d take it. When you are sent into the black of space, it will be on the understanding that you will be paying your way. The recourses required to dispatch you on this mission are calculated down to the cent. Your height, your weight, what you eat, what you crap, what you breathe…in space, it all costs something. And there is no margin of error. Margins of error are luxuries Hoshi-Wójcik cannot afford. Your mission will be precisely calculated. Your course, your speed, the fuel and oxygen you will expend getting where you need to go and, fate willing, coming home again, is all planned out. Out there, in the black, there is nothing. It is the most parched desert imaginable. Everything you have, you take with you, on your ship. And you, that ship’s crew, maintain the instruments, record data, keep the mission going. But if something goes wrong…” He leant forward, staring at each of them in turn. There were only a dozen of them. Most of the desks in the classroom were unoccupied. His voice was low. “If something goes wrong, you are further away from help than you can possibly imagine. There’s no lifeline. We will not send a rescue mission, because no ship would reach you in time, and more would die. If you use more resources than you require, if you fall behind schedule, if some accident befalls you, then it will be your fate to suffer the Long Death. You will drift in the cold of space until you use the last of your food, water or oxygen – whichever comes first – or you kill yourselves or each other. Look.” He turned and activated the smartboard. Names and photos scrolled past. “These are the men and women who never came home. They died the Long Death. What happened to them? We don’t know. They radioed us, mostly, to report the accident, the mistake, whatever it was. But the signal took hours to arrive. They may have already been dead. There is a reply that we send, just two words. Pray to whatever archaic supreme being you may believe in that you never hear it yourselves. All of these people met their end in the infinite void of space, and that is no way for warm little mammal to die. But that is the risk we take. And all of you, when and if you return, will be uniquely privileged to understand the truth of our predicament. You who have known and faced the horror of the Long Death will know that, on Earth, we are all facing it too. What is Earth but a ship, sailing through space, with finite resources of its own, slowly dying? Yes, my brave recruits, you will look into the darkness of your souls and find what you’re made of, so that all the people living here on this rock can go on pretending they don’t have to. And that,” he concluded as he turned around to face them again with a big smile, “is why we must do what we do. I promise you, those of you who go ahead with this mission will be changed by it. Changed more than you could ever believe.”

It was cheerful stuff. Gia knew all this. She was smart, educated. She’d read the reports of those who, like Hawkins, had gone on these missions. Most were a two-year commitment, but some went out further. People were gone for half a decade. There were some missions still out there, on their way out or their way home. The things they searched for were out on the moons of the gas giants. The asteroids were interesting, but they were too far flung and their movements too erratic to be of any use. But the moons were big targets, easy to find, easy to land the mining probes on if necessary. Even now, tankers made their way back from Ganymede, Europa, Titan, and others. Each of these was another Earth, a rocky world filled with complex geography and valuable strata, ripe for exploitation. They brought back fuel, to be turned into energy, to give heat and light to a struggling world. Gia had to admit it didn’t seem to have made much difference to anything yet. Most people were still starving. The shanty towns still clustered around every city. There was still war, disease, crushing poverty. Clarissa hadn’t worked in a decade. Almost everyone they knew was the same. There were no jobs. Everyone just existed, getting by on increasingly meagre State rations, living in overcrowded hab blocks, defending what they had from thieves and rapists. But out there, twinkling through the smog clouds were the Towers. In every city, there still existed a cluster of palaces that housed the wealthy. It was all anyone Gia knew every dreamed of. Living in the Towers, having your own home, your own life, being able to work and have kids and live like they did in the old movies. Gia was old enough to remember a better time. Her parents had a house, and she dimly remembered playing in a park. There were no parks now. Any patch of ground not being lived on had been turned over to recycling plants, trying to extract fuel or nutrition from the few scraps of fossilised biomatter buried in the Earth’s crust. So, doing this thing, this crazy thing, was their only hope. At least, the way she saw it.

But that was months ago. Not everyone who’d been in that classroom had gone through with it in the end – there was a high dropout rate, understandably enough. But there were other recruits, even a few who’d been on missions before. Doing this once was insane enough; twice was unimaginable. The boredom was the worst part, Gia had decided after the first couple of weeks. At first there was the thrill of just going up into space, seeing the world and all its horrors recede through the window of the shuttle, become a glowing, flawless blue marble suspended in the firmament. It was impossible not be moved by that. Their ship, a many-times refurbished fusion-driven junker the size of a skyscraper that had, in some former life, been given the name Little Orphan Annie, was docked at a sprawling station in geosynchronous orbit. The ships used by Hoshi-Wójcik and the other corporations that undertook the trans-Jovian missions had to be constructed in orbit – they’d fall apart in Earth’s gravity. The commander of the station was a grizzled cosmonaut called Vysotsky gave them the tour of the place that would be their home for the next two years. Only a small part of Little Orphan Annie was habitable: a huge disc-shaped section towards the front, with an interior chamber that rotated fast enough to generate enough centripetal force to create the effect of gravity, only half a g, but enough to maintain sanity. Into that small space was crammed bunks, a dining area, recreation room and the main control room. The rest of the ship – which would be without any simulation of gravity – was given over to engines and instruments. They’d all spend some of their time floating weightless in that environment too.

Gia missed days and nights. The crew’s shift patterns were arranged to give them some facsimile of a terrestrial routine, but it was still all too strange, too discombobulating, too dreary and monotonous. Within a few weeks, everyone had settled into a kind of bleak, unthinking routine. “Think about the money,” was what everyone said, like a mantra, over and over. “Think about the money.” Years ago, when there’d been oil left on Earth, ocean-bound rigs had drilled it from the beneath the ground. Men would go out there for weeks at a time, away from their homes and families, then come to shore and spend the next fortnight blind drunk before they had to go back again. But this was like a prison sentence.

One night, six months in, Gia lay in her cramped bunk. Alone at night, the main thing was not to think about home. Some of her crewmates, they’d started off talking about Earth all the time, about all the things they were going to do when the mission was over. That soon got pretty tiresome. Other immersed themselves in life on the ship. Some were committed – scientists and engineers who’d been planning to work with whatever jury-rigged piece of tech they’d been given custodianship over all their lives. Some were like her; opportunists, just in it for the money. Everyone had been extensively psych-screened, and they’d all spent a lot of time together before they went up into space. There were stories about early missions that hadn’t been so stringent – the Long Death wasn’t the only danger out in the black when you were cooped up with virtual strangers. Gia wasn’t too interested in making friends though. Or in the clandestine fucking that had gone on in the first few weeks. It was still going on, of course, it just wasn’t clandestine any more. She’d read all about this online too. It wasn’t at all uncommon for crews on these missions to cycle through every available partner on the ship, and all combinations thereof. There was, she’d be interested to discover, a whole body of erotic fiction dedicated solely to the idea of ‘orgy ships’, isolated and far away. Ships where some bureaucratic hiccup had put one white former cheerleader with a ship full of black ex-cons, or the cute straight twink with a veritable gang of hulking leatherboys. Most of them followed that basic pattern anyway. More troubling were the only somewhat exaggerated stories about sexual assaults, but these fell into the category of things that only happened before the tests to weed out the sociopaths and so on. Or so it was hoped. Who knew what might happen if something went wrong though? What sort of anarchy did those ships lost in the void erupt into?

All of this went though her head, as it did every night, and got her no closer to sleep. She removed her oxygen mask and unlocked the hatch on her bunk. It was never dark outside in the corridor that curved up and away in both directions. Someone was always on shift. She experienced the usual stab of nausea as she started walking towards the control room. All of the living areas were arrayed against the outside edge of the turning chamber, so as you walked along, you found yourself directly above the room you’d just left, along a curved path. It took some getting used to. She scrambled through another door and into the control room, a shabby little space covered in banks of buttons and computer monitors. There were no windows anywhere on the ship. The living area was buried within the body of Annie (as they all called her now), and views of the outside were provided by remote camera. Not that there was anything to see. Just space. Black, dull space. Peters, a tall, white American  – the only one in the crew besides Gia herself – was sitting in one of the bucket seats, watching a monitor. He turned to look at her as she sat down next to him. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

She shrugged. She didn’t know Peters too well. Their shifts never intersected. “Couldn’t get off tonight.”

“So take something. That’s what all those pills in the infirmary are for.”

“I’m good. We’re ahead of schedule anyway.” That mattered because the masks they wore at ‘night’ reduced their intake of precious oxygen. Stay up late reading, and you’d use more than your fair share. But the mission had a week in hand thanks to a planned detour to a hopeful looking asteroid on the way out proving fruitless. Without having to hang around and take readings of that rock, they could just move on. Good for them; not good for the mission. Still, they were bound for Saturn, and there should be plenty to find out there. Gia looked at Peters. He was ten or fifteen years older than her, and she wondered what his story was. “Have you been to space before?” she asked him.

He chuckled dryly without taking his eyes from the monitor he was watching. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“This far?”

He shook his head. “No. Never gone out past the asteroid belt before. My first trip out was to Mars aboard one of the ice freighters. Ever been?”

“Where? To Mars? No, this is my first time off Earth.”

“Hell of a way to start.”

“It’s all there was.” Without being asked, she started tapping away at one of the screens, checking on her own instruments, even though someone else – Kuar probably – would be back in the drive section, doing what was normally her job during her ‘day’ and everything would be well in hand. “Where else did you go?”

“Went to Mercury.”

“Yeah? What was that like?”

“Cruddy.” He laughed. “We were on this beat up old shuttle; made Annie look like a lunar pleasure cruiser, me and fifteen damn Russians. No one could speak a word of English. That was with TransSolar Enterprises. You might be too young to remember them, but they were pretty notorious back then for cutting corners. Worst seven months of my life.”

There was a bank of monitors on the wall in front of them set up to display the output from the cameras mounted on the front of the ship, like a window. Gia stared out into the inky blackness. “So how come you’re here? You must have made enough on those missions to retire.”

“Retire to what? I don’t have a family. First time I came back, I had more money that I knew what to do with. Bought a new place, got a car, threw a few parties. But it gets old, you know? Just money. Things. Sitting on that used-up dirtball we all call home, staving off boredom for another day. And, before I knew it, the money ran out. So off I went to Mars. Same story. Now, I guess I’m after something more.”

“More? Like a bigger payday?”

“No, not like that. Just…to see something. Explore. We used to dream about that. About getting out into space and spreading across the universe. Now it’s just about survival.”

“Isn’t everything?”

“I guess.” He looked at her. “You got someone back home?”

“Uh huh. My fiancée. Clarissa.”

“Ah.”

“When I get home, we’ll get married.” She ran a hand over her scalp. “Once my hair grows back anyway…” Of the many treatments they’d had prior to going up, one of them was to inhibit hair growth. It was just easier that way. Not that it made it any less creepy to see everyone’s bald heads bobbing around the ship. Gia had never realised how much she took eyebrows for granted too.

“That’s good. It’s good to have someone.”

“So what, did you just never meet the right person? What happened?”

Peters looked uncomfortable. “I had someone but…it didn’t work out.”

“Okay. Sorry to hear that.”

“I mean, it would’ve. But she died.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry,” she said again.

“It was a long time ago now. We weren’t even together that long. But my parents both died when I was young, so I didn’t really have anyone else and, yeah, I guess that first mission to Mars was a way of running away from it all.”

“Long way to run.”

“Yep. And here I am now, even further away. Nothing changes.”

“Not on this ship, no,” she agreed.

They sat there, both staring ahead at the endless starfield. Ahead of them was a white, irregularly shaped blob. Saturn. They were still two months away.

Gia had always found it hard to sleep, and she found herself sitting with Peters in the control room a few more times. She was careful about keeping tabs on her oxygen ration, and they were still making good time. She was up there with him one shift when they were only a few days out from Saturn. The huge planet filled the mock window ahead of them, and they’d already passed within the orbit of most of the moons. “That’s it,” Peters said, gesturing with his Styrofoam coffee cup.

Gia nodded. “Tethys. You think there’s anything worth finding there?”

“Could be an ocean buried under the ice. Wouldn’t that be something, eh? Tethys, named for the ancient Greek personification of the sea, home to a world-spanning ocean.”

“Sounds too good to be true.” Tethys was a bright disc, directly ahead of them. It was mostly ice, but there was something else buried in the crust too. Something that might be useful. That’s why Annie was there; to find out, and report back. The mining flotillas would follow in their wake if it was good news. And if it wasn’t, it would all be for nothing. But they’d still get paid.

“Who knows? They found fossils on Europa.”

“That’s an urban myth. How would creatures get through the ice shelf to leave fossils on the surface?”

“I’m telling you, Gia. It’s all there online. Big government cover up.”

“Which government?”

“I dunno. The website didn’t seem too sure either.” He laughed. “But imagine if we found life here. It’s not that far-fetched.”

“How many missions have there been to the gas giants now?”

“Uh…a few hundred I guess?”

“And how many found any traces of extraterrestrial life?”

“Hey, there’s a lot left to explore. No one’s been to this moon before.”

“And we won’t get there either if we don’t stick to regulations,” a voice said from behind. Captain Levitt, a short, pale Englishman, and the commander of the mission, ducked through the door and sat down on the free chair between them. “Sanchez: you should be sleeping.”

“Sorry, sir. I have trouble dropping off. I think it’s the gravity. And we’re…”

“Ahead of schedule, I know. But if something happens, we’re going to need all the oxygen on board.”

“I know, I just…”

“It’s fine.” Levitt was a kindly man, more bureaucrat than astronaut, but he believed in following the rules. Unlike the others, he’d worked for Hoshi-Wójcik for years. He was one of a corps of potential mission commanders trained in one of a number of corporate-sponsored academies. A throwback to an earlier, brighter age of space exploration. He looked from her to Peters and back again. “I’ve got no problem with fraternisation. God knows we need it out here sometimes. But let’s keep it to once a week, all right? I don’t want everyone thinking it’s okay to take off their masks and wander around the ship whenever they like.”

“Sorry, sir,” Gia said again. “Just trying to keep my mind occupied.”

“So read a book. We have everything ever written in the computer.”

“Not much for reading, sir.”

“Then don’t sign up to a two year space mission. You’ve got ten minutes, then back to your bunk, all right?”

He left with a curt nod and Gia cringed visibly. “No one’s talked to me like that since I was ten. I feel like I just got chewed out by my dad.”

“Another reminder of home then,” Peters smiled.

“I fucking hated my dad.” She put her head back on the seat and stared at the display. “Just think about the money,” she murmured to herself. “Do your job, shut up, and think about the money.” She paused. Something was blinking on a screen just to the left of her. “What’s that?”

“What?”

“Some kind of radiation.”

“Huh?”

She leaned in closer. “Yep. We’re picking up an emission. Low level. X-rays, gamma…nothing dangerous though.”

“Is it coming from the ship?” Peters was already reaching up, flicking buttons and bringing up holo-screens, a worried expression on his face. For want of a better term, he was the pilot. The course was more or less fixed, but any adjustments would be made by him, when he was on shift. His experience made him one of the most valuable members of the crew.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then from the planet? A magnetic storm in the atmosphere?”

“Don’t think so.” She pressed a few buttons. Spectroscopy wasn’t her field, but she knew enough to get the readings she needed. “Hold on…trying to focus on the source. Let me switch the camera.” The display changed to X-Ray, and something lit up, dead ahead. “You see that?”

Peters leaned over. “Is that coming from Tethys?”

“Not quite. Something in orbit though.”

“A moon with a moon?”

“A moon with some kind of satellite.”

“How come we never spotted this before?”

“Who knows? We’ve only done a handful of flybys of Tethys. It would’ve been easy to miss. It looks small.”

Peters frowned. “I’ll get Levitt back. This could be important.”

“Hm,” Gia said. “Let’s get some more data first.”

“Don’t want to share the glory?”

“This is the first interesting thing that’s happened on this mission. I’d rather not have it taken away from me because I should be in bed.” She leaned up and tweaked the viewing screens so they zoomed in on Tethys. There was a black speck against the harsh reflection of the moon’s surface. “That’s it,” she announced.

“Let me do some math here,” Peters murmured, tapping away at a keypad, his eyes on the screen. “Obviously we don’t know the orbital distance. But I guess if we assume it’s a stable orbit…uh…must be, what, a few hundred metres across?”

“It’s throwing out a lot of radiation for something so small. What could it be?”

“Well…nothing natural that I can think of.”

“So manmade?”

“Or…”

She gave him a warning look. “So manmade. What would we have left this far out?”

“In orbit of Tethys? Nothing. We’ve never been here. Just flybys, like I said. A probe wouldn’t have jettisoned anything, least of all something radioactive.”

“So maybe some kind of secret mission?”

“I thought you didn’t believe in government conspiracies.”

“I don’t. Corporate conspiracies on the other hand…” She shook her head. “I’ll need to use the main telescope to get a better look at this. Can you give me control?”

“No way. It’s still gathering data on the rings. It’s locked out for the next month.”

“I think this is more important than rings.”

“I agree, but it’s following a set path. If I interrupt it, it’ll take a week for Hans to put it right again. He’ll have to manually go through the records.”

“So put in a fucking bookmark or something!”

“It’s not that simple. I have to…” There was a flash of light on the screen and he trailed off weakly.

“Did that thing just flare up?” Gia asked incredulously.

“It…looks like it…”

She looked down at the other screen on the console by her chair. “X-Rays just jumped too. And it’s chucking out lots of gamma, UV, infrared, radio…hell, everything!”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Nothing changed. But if it did that before, we’d have picked it up weeks ago.”

“Did we do anything?”

“We’re thousands of kilometres away from it! But…wait…” She scrolled back on the screen, looking through the data. “There was a faint radio signal. Very low frequency, but with a harmonic. Look at this.” She detached the screen and passed it over to him. “You see that?”

“It looks like…”

“Like an artificial frequency. There’s a pattern there. Or am I just going space crazy?”

“No, it’s there,” Peters agreed, “A harmonic, like you said. It’s broadcasting a signal, the same thing repeated over and over, but it’s really low energy. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it.”

“Which we weren’t…”

“But Annie was. The radio telescope in the back is keeping an eye out for any kind of signal like this.”

“So what?”

“So look!” He passed the screen back. “That’s from us.”

“The ship bounced the signal back?”

“Yeah. That’s what it does. It intercepts the signal and repeats it back. It’s a standard response, to filter out random noise. If it gets it back again, it’ll log an alert.”

Gia stared at the dark smudge still moving slowly across Tethy’s disc. “It sent a signal, we sent one back, and it lit up. Is this really happening? Did we just communicate with an artificial satellite in orbit of one of Saturn’s moons?”

“Pretty much. Want me to call Levitt back now?”

“Yeah, I think that’d be a good idea.”

*

Everyone was gathered in the dining room. It spanned a quarter of the disc-shaped living area, so the floor curved and someone sitting at one end of the room would be at ninety degrees relative to someone at the opposite end. For this reason, everyone tended to huddle towards the middle. It was just easier. Levitt stood against one wall, his arms folded, waiting for everyone to be seated. The whole crew were there, for the first time that Gia could remember. There were seventeen of them altogether. She sat by Peters, near the front. Levitt cleared his throat. “Well, it’s no use trying to keep a secret on a ship this size. You all know what Peters and Sanchez found last night.” There was a general murmur of agreement. Gia shifted uncomfortably. She hadn’t asked for this kind of attention. “You also all know that we’re ahead of schedule. We have the rare luxury of having an additional week to explore. I don’t think any human being…no matter how mercenary…would miss the opportunity to explore this phenomenon, whatever it may be. I’ve radioed Earth, but they won’t respond for some days yet. Therefore, I’m exercising captain’s prerogative and adjusting course so we can get a closer look at whatever is in orbit of Tethys. Since we’re going there anyway, it shouldn’t really affect our mission too drastically.”

Someone coughed and raised a hand. Gia turned and saw it was Kim, a short Korean woman who, like her, generally kept to herself. “What if something goes wrong?” she asked. It was that phrase again, the phrase they’d all heard back in training. Ambiguous, covering all manner of sins. ‘Something goes wrong’ meant being stranded, never to return home. It meant…well, they all knew what it meant.

“Believe it or not,” Levitt answered, “there are regulations for this. The corporation, in accordance with international agreements regarding space exploration, has a series of procedures for investigating unknown phenomena, and we’ll be going by the book on this one, believe me.”

“How can there be regulations for something that’s completely unknown?” someone called from the back. Gia thought it was one of the Indians on board, probably Kuar, her counterpart. He was known for being outspoken.

“Trust me, there are,” Levitt told him, “we’ll keep our distance, we’ll be extremely careful, and at the first sign of any danger, we’ll leave the area. We sent all our data to Earth, and I imagine they’ll send a science vessel in due course, but while we’re here we have a duty to gather as much additional information as we can. This could be an amazing opportunity, not just for us, but for all of humanity. Ladies and gentlemen, your names could be going down in history.”

The meeting broke up, and Peters exchanged a look with Gia. “You’d think we’d get a mention at least,” he said to her in a low voice.

“Everyone knows we made the discovery. Who cares?”

“Hey, if anyone’s going down in history for this, it ought to be us.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Us? I was the one who saw the alert, not you.”

“I’d have spotted it eventually.”

“Sure.” She stood up and gave him a small smile. “I’ll be in the control room. Levitt’s stopped scolding me and told me I can watch the data come in about the object. But you’re off duty. So goodnight.”

“Thanks,” he said with a crooked grin.

As it happened, another shift passed before they got close enough to get any meaningful information, and Peters was in the control room too. Levitt and Ostenfeld, the other scientist in the crew, were all crowded in there with him and Gia as the cameras got the first clear image of whatever it was. “What is that?” Peters breathed.

Gia tried to suppress a yawn. Despite the excitement, the fact was that she’d been awake for over thirty hours now. She could barely keep her eyes open, but there was no way she was going back to her bunk now. “It looks like…uh…”

Ostenfeld was tapping away at a tablet. “Certainly artificial.” There was no trace of emotion in his voice. He was a dry, calculating Swede with pale, almost colourless eyes. There was something oddly lizard-like about him that Gia found discomfiting.

“It’s a structure,” Levitt added, “what shape would you say that is?”

Gia squinted at the screen. “It looks like…um…kind of like pi.”

Peters looked at her. “Pie?”

“Not pie, you idiot. Pi. The Greek letter. The ratio of a circle’s radius to its circumference.”

“Right, sorry.”

“See,” she gestured with her hand, “a cross piece, and two long protrusions at the bottom.”

“Like Stonehenge,” Levitt said. “Interesting…”

Ostenfeld looked at the screen dispassionately. “The ‘cross piece’, as you put it appears from the readings to be a nearly cylindrical structure, with a cross-section of diameter three-hundred-metres or so and a depth of about one-hundred metres. The two protrusions are set equidistant from one another and from the edge of the cylinder, along the same radius. I think they’re roughly cylindrical too.”

“Yeah, sounds artificial to me.” Peters was transfixed by the object. “Where’s the radiation coming from?”

“Impossible to tell.”

“Must be inside,” Gia said, “it has to contain some kind of energy source.”

“What’s it made of?” Levitt asked, making a few adjustments. A few screens changed their outputs, offering views of the structure in different spectra.

“Initial readings suggest its metallic. But beyond that…”

“We have to go there,” Peters interrupted.

“Excuse me?” Levitt turned in his chair and stared up at the American.

“A spacewalk,” he explained, “we have to get someone on that thing to take a closer look.”

“We don’t have to do anything of the sort. The regulations…”

“Had no idea we’d find a piece of alien technology!”

“There’s no evidence that object is of extraterrestrial origin,” Ostenfeld said.

“Bullshit! You know as well as I do that…”

“Oh shut up.” It was Gia who’d spoken. “Ostenfeld’s right, Peters. Chances are this is something left over from some mission we don’t know anything about. Maybe one of the ships that were lost? Maybe…maybe someone built it somehow? Maybe they found or built a habitat somewhere near here, and this is something they left. Like, a memorial to dead crew or something.”

Peters held out a hand to the screen. The structure was slowly moving in its graceful orbit around the cold, fractured surface of Tethys. “How in the hell could someone stranded in the depths of space build that?”

“Well evidently they did, or how did it get there?”

“But you’re talking about humans, in one of our ships. These recycled crud-buckets that end up being coffins more often than not. Sorry, captain, but it’s true. We’re apes, shooting ourselves into the vacuum of space, praying not to die. Whoever built this thing was clearly way ahead of us.”

“All I’m saying is, let’s not jump to conclusions,” Gia said.

“So you don’t think we should do a spacewalk?”

“Oh, I think we should do a spacewalk. I just don’t want to have a stupid argument about aliens when we’re on the cusp of the most important discovery in the history of our species.”

“No one’s going on a fucking spacewalk,” Levitt growled. “It is categorically out of the question. Regulations say we are to match the object’s orbit as closely as possible, and take readings for as long as possible. Then we continue with our existing mission. We’re not here to solve this mystery: just to catalogue it. Isn’t discovering it enough?”

“We’re the only humans within ten AUs of this location,” Peters said, “and no one else will get here for weeks. What if it’s dangerous?”

“How could it be dangerous?” Levitt asked.

“It emitted radiation in all spectra when we bounced its radio signal back to it. It’s obviously…aware….of us, in some sense. It could have the ability to do anything.”

“And you want to walk on it?”

Gia rubbed her eyes. “Look, there’s no way we’re leaving here without discovering as much as we can. And we can only get so close in this ship, right? We don’t want to collide with the thing. So you need to send people over. You know you’re going to agree eventually, Levitt, so just save us all the bother of trying to convince you.”

Levitt gave her a suspicious look, then turned to Ostenfeld. “What do you think?”

“She’s right that we’re logistically limited by the size and nature of our ship. Any closer than a kilometre to the object would put us at serious risk, and you’d need to override the ship’s fail-safes to even pilot it that close. Doing that would send an automatic radio alert to Earth, and if we ever get back, I’m certain you’d be jailed for breach of international space regulations.”

“Yes, thank you for that,” Levitt sighed. “And a spacewalk? Is it safe?”

“There’s no way to tell, but endangering the life of one person is a more acceptable risk than endangering the whole ship. If we want to know more, we have to send someone over.”

Levitt turned back to Peters. “Even if you weren’t the most qualified person to do this, you know I’d send you, right?”

“If you didn’t, I’d ask you to.”

“Fine then. But there is one regulation I’m going to stick to today: you take another person with you. All EVOs require at least two crewmen.”

“Right. I have someone in mind, actually.”

Levitt looked at Gia. “I’m sure you do…”

It took Gia a moment to catch on. She stared at Peters. “Are you…”

“You’re ex-military, so you can handle yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, you have the science background, and you speak all those languages, right?” He was counting off on his fingers.

“Yeah, but one of those languages isn’t…alienese! No, I’ve got a life back home. I’ve got a fiancée. I’m not dying out there.”

“Come on. Would you trust anyone else to do this?”

“You’re the best candidate,” Levitt added.

She pointed across the control room. “What about Ostenfeld?”

“I get nauseas in zero-G,” he said calmly, “I’d be a liability.”

“I bet you would,” Gia said under her breath. “Fine then. But I want to get some sleep first.”

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Novella, Science Fiction, The Long Death. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s