This is the first round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these first submissions, it’s the letter “A”.
Readers will have a month to vote for their favorite and points will be assigned to each writer. For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “A”.
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Copyright 2020 – E. J. D’Alise
(4,130 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“You can’t be serious!”
Brian Harris was livid. Three years’ worth of training for this mission and six weeks before launch, this?
“I’m sorry Brian. This came from above. Way above.” Rose Wayne spoke calmly, not letting the heat of the moment drive her own emotions. Not a big effort for Rose, Director of Flight Operations.
“Let me get this straight. I need to cut a member of the crew while minimizing the impact on the mission’s schedule and experiments,” Brian repeated as if hoping he’d heard wrong.
“That’s right,” Rose said. “Chose the person whose tasks can be spread to the rest of the crew members.”
“And I do this so that a stranger can be added to the mission at the last moment?”
“That’s right,” Rose answered.
Brian waited a few seconds, expecting more information. When none was offered, he fell back to his least endearing trait; sarcasm. Sarcasm that twice had him nearly be replaced and that — since the last warning — he had labored to keep in check. He wasn’t all that worried. True, there was a backup crew, but he was unlikely to be replaced at this late stage.
“Obviously, this stranger is up to speed and qualified to join the mission, so sure, why not? I’m sure they’re up to speed on the Kaizen‘s systems like life support, piloting, maintenance, and safety protocols. I mean, it’s not like the Kaizen is a new spaceship design from the ground up and like nothing anyone has ever flown in before,” Brian said. “Oh, wait, it is. Well, obviously, this stranger trained at a secret facility with dedicated simulators and knows more about the first true spaceship humanity has built than anyone, right?”
“Right,” Rose answered with a straight face.
Brian was momentarily at a loss for words. Rose wasn’t known to employ sarcasm or even humor; the answer to his factitious mini-rant had to be taken at face value while at the same time impossible to be accurate and true.
He almost continued his rant, but instead sat down, deflated.
“I’ll review the schedule of experiments and expertise with the associated equipment, but my first choice would be Steve. There are already complaints NASA is over-represented in the crew and most of his duties are assisting others. Maybe the replacement could assist . . . wait; is he . . . she . . . are they qualified to help with any of the science experiments?” Brian asked.
“Yes, but they’ll be confined to the forward quarters area. They won’t interact with the crew.”
Brian sat staring at Rose, his mind working out scenarios and options.
“This is just getting better and better,” he finally said. “I have to cut a member of my crew because we’re losing the use of the forward quarters?”
When Rose didn’t add more information, Brian tried a different approach to extract some information.
“This doesn’t make sense. Why do they need the entire forward quarters? And why isolation? It’s a 14-month round trip to Mars. You’re telling me this person will be isolated the whole trip? Do they have their own supplies and exercise equipment?” Brian stopped as he entertained a different thought.
“Wait; are you kidding me? It’s an isolation experiment for future single person missions, isn’t it? They’re doing an isolation experiment while on a live mission? What if they get hurt or have some other emergency? I thought we nixed the idea of single-person missions. Is that why it’s hush-hush?”
Rose sat through the barrage of questions without showing any emotion. When Brian stopped, she stood and straightened the traditional Director of Flight Operations vest before answering.
“All good questions. Questions to which I don’t have answers.” Rose walked around the desk and motioned to the door and waited for Brian to exit before joining him in the hallway, heading toward his office.
“Look, Brian, I don’t like this any more than you do,” she said as they walked. “I went as high up the ladder as I could and yelled as loud as I could, but we’re stuck with this and we’ll make the best of it. Let’s review the crew’s personnel files and finalize a choice before we break it to them. We’re about to make one of them mighty unhappy.”
“When do we meet this person?” Brian asked. “The longer we can interact with them before the mission, the lesser the chance of resentment from the crew.”
“You don’t,” Rose answered. “I’m told they’re already on the Kaizen.”
Rose let that sink in as she opened the door to Brian’s office and waited for the dumbfounded Brian to resume walking from where he had stopped.
“We’re not scheduled to begin our orientation on the actual ship for another week. When did they get up there?” Brian’s structured view of the mission and of his place in it was being severely tested.
“Another great question,” Rose replied without offering an answer.
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The next four weeks sped by as last minutes details, reviews, systems checks and double-checks, occupied everyone’s time. Once on Kaizen, Brian and the crew were in non-stop mode. Even so, Brian noticed the same behavior in others as what he experienced himself. Namely, stopping and staring at the forward crew compartment sealed hatch. Even the porthole was blacked out.
A day before departure, a calm fell on the ship as it was now a matter of waiting for the burn window to open up. Maintenance and construction personnel were parked in nearby orbits just in case, but mostly this day had been scheduled as a wind-down; a way to let the crew gather their thoughts, converse with family, and generally relax before the big moment.
Instead, the lull awakened the crew’s suppressed curiosity about their mystery guest.
“I tested the hatch lock mechanism,” Gina confided to the assembled group. “No way to open it from our side.”
“When I ran the system checks, I included the forward compartment, but the system skipped the report.” Wanda was the technical expert on the ship’s systems.
Brian listened as Frank and Ryan, the ASA and ESA members of the crew, reported on testing the life support for the forward compartment and getting no results.
Leiko Sanu, representing JAXA, and Fen Sung, representing the CNSA, said they tried testing emergency protocols that would open and shut the pressure hatches of individual compartments, but the program didn’t recognize the forward compartment hatch as being part of the system.
And so it went with the representatives from ISRO, ROSCOSMOS, and the other five space agencies collaborating in the plan to establish a viable base on Mars.
Everyone’s attempt to learn anything at all about their mysterious guest was foiled from the get-go.
Brian listened to it all before summarizing.
“We’ve been saddled with a mystery we can’t solve. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve officially and unofficially asked every contact I knew for any information on our mystery guest and ran up against a brick wall at every turn.”
The other members of the team nodded in agreement.
“What I know is that we can’t let this mystery deter or distract us from our duties,” Brian continued.
“Tomorrow we leave Earth’s orbit and when we do, we’ll be on our own. There’s no backup plan or rescue ship or any type of safety net once we leave. It’s why we must focus on our tasks and not be distracted. As romantic as space travel sounds, space is inhospitable and downright dangerous to humans and distractions could have deadly consequences,”.
He paused, letting his words sink in. Everyone knew the truth of what he said, and yet, it bore repeating.
“One question,” Ryan said. “We don’t know who, but do we have any inkling of why? Did you receive any extra instructions? I mean, if we’re supposed to act like they’re not here, then why are they here?”
“Let me give you the same answer I got from Rose,” Brian said. “Good question.”
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It was easier said than done, but a month into the voyage, the purpose and identity of the mystery guest ceased to be a thing. Routines were established; sleeping and exercise schedules, and schedules for the experiments and studies relating to long-term space travel. The crew no longer paid attention to the front compartment. They even cleared one of the storage areas for their exercise equipment and stacked the supplies along the wall of the front compartment, securing the containers with nets. While not blocked, the hatch was at least partially obscured from view; out of sight, out of mind.
Except for minor flare-ups, Brian was satisfied the psych teams had done their job. The crew showed no undue signs of stress, cabin fever, or getting on each other’s nerves.
Each day was as boring as the next and Brian liked it that way.
That all changed in the middle of the fourth month.
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Brian was jolted awake by a sharp pain to the leg concurrent with the pressurization alarm and the screams of other crew members. Taking a moment to orient himself, he looked down at the blood escaping the wound in his leg, the drops forming undulating spheres as they floated away from him.
There was more blood in the cabin than could be accounted for by his wound. Four others were also bleeding, with Leiko bleeding the most. While two others rushed to help her, Ryan launched himself across the cabin and reached Brian. He had his emergency pack open and thrust a large bandage at Brian before pushing off against the wall and launching himself away and toward the direction the blood was traveling; the small hole that was venting their breathable air.
Slapping the bandage onto his leg, Brian also launched toward the breach as he yelled out instructions and questions.
“Put something against that. Frank, the patch kit! What the hell happened?”
Frank let go of Fen’s arm, grabbed the kit and launched on an intersect course with Ryan who was almost at the hole, Brian a second behind him. It took three patches before the temporary repair held. As he worked, Brian registered the emergency air tanks coming online. That meant they’d lost a quarter of their cabin pressure.
As soon as the leak was contained and after making sure the wounded were being attended to, Brian switched to vacuuming the blood still floating around. Cleaning the various places where it had splashed was secondary but will have to be done soon.
“Can anyone tell me what happened? And can we switch off the damn alarm?” he yelled.
Fen was closest to the panel and switched off the alarm. In the quiet that followed, you could hear the emergency air tanks wind down as the cabin repressurized. The two people attending Leiko were talking to her as they worked to stabilize the wounds. Tusya, the ship’s doctor pushed past Gina who was trying to apply the last bandage on his arm and rushed to Leiko’s side.
“How bad?” he asked.
“Major bleeding, but no arterial. We stopped most of it, but my concern is the stomach wound. It looks deep and I can feel something in there,” Frank replied just as Leiko passed out.
It took forty minutes to prep her, remove the piece of metal debris, and stabilize her. She was now anchored in her sleeping berth with two positive pressure IVs attached to her arms; one for fluids and medicine, the other for blood. During that time, the crew did what they had practiced a hundred times. Checked all the systems, affected what repairs they could — including a more permanent patch — and took stock of their situation. They also received a message from Control asking about the alarm signal that was relayed back to Earth.
Brian sent a quick status response and said they would send an update as soon as they knew more.
“Report,” Brian said. Except for Leiko, the crew were anchored at their flight stations.
Everyone looked at Tusya who let his gaze wander toward Leiko.
“She’s stable, but I’ll be running ultrasounds every half hour or so to check for bleeding.” He looked back at the group and expanded. “Blood vessels don’t constrict and dilate as well in low gravity, you have less blood circulating, and your immune system and wound healing get sluggish. There’s also the danger of infection because bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics. Beyond that, I don’t know. We’ve never had major trauma in space so we have no baseline to go on.”
“Thank you, Tusya,” Brian said. “Surgery in low gravity is no picnic and we’re all grateful for what you did.” He then pointed to Stepka.
“So, what happened?”
“Best guess,” replied Stepka, the science officer, as he pointed first at the patch on the wall and then the control panel’s console, “a C-type asteroid approximately two centimeters in diameter punctured the outer hull there, and then impacted the console and shattered — exploded — much like a fragmentation bomb. Most of the wounds were from shards of ice and carbon, except for Leiko who was also hit by a piece of the bezel that got knocked loose by the impact. All in all, we were lucky the asteroid didn’t have a greater velocity differential or we wouldn’t be here talking. For the record, it’s an extreme piece of bad luck we got hit at all, let alone by something that large.”
“The impact took out the main console,” said Wanda, picking up the narrative, “and most of the controls for attitude adjustments and engine firing. I’m rerouting some systems but the repairs are beyond what I trained for. Plus, there’s damage to systems I don’t recognize and I’m not trained on. The good news is the communication and life support systems are not affected. When we contact Control, I’ll do a more detailed report and hopefully they can direct repairs.”
“And if not,” Brian said, “we can’t adjust the trajectory or slow down.”
“We vented a fair amount of air,” Brian said. “Frank, can we tell if our trajectory was changed?”
“I’m certain that it was, but I don’t know by how much. Some of the reactive force went into giving us a slight spin. One of our data banks was damaged, and we lost both the main and backup pulsar navigation computer so Control will have to let us know our trajectory based on the radio delay. It won’t be as accurate but accurate enough.” Frank paused a moment before continuing. “But, even if it didn’t alter our trajectory, we can’t make our normal flight adjustments. They’re usually small, but in aggregate, they add up. Of course, if we can’t slow down, we’ll slingshot right past Mars.”
“Or crash on Mars,” Ryan added.
“Thanks for the cheery thought,” quipped Fen.
“Right,” said Brian, jumping in to keep things on the positive. “What’s our current communication delay?”
“The current TWLT* is twenty-three minutes,” Wanda answered.
“OK. Let’s put all this in writing, and we’ll update Control on Leiko’s status and the technical challenges we face.”
(*) Two Way Light Travel
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The painstaking back and forth of questions and responses took three hours, and now, a day later, they waited for an update. Spirits were low, and no one had spoken in several hours because the last missive from Control hadn’t sounded hopeful. Worse yet, Leiko’s condition had deteriorated, and an infection was taking hold despite the antibiotics. No evidence of internal bleeding but her fever was spiking.
Counting down the minutes to the response time, they avoided looking at each other, each occupied with their thoughts.
The time for the response came and went, and they waited an additional hour before the communication console lit up.
It was a secure video message. Not a good sign; it meant they didn’t want it monitored, and it took a few minutes before Brian tracked down the security key and Rose appeared on the screen. She sat alone in a room.
“Brian, before I begin, you and the crew need to understand that as of now, the secrecy and non-disclosure provisions of your employment contract are activated and in full force. All of your future communications are to be encrypted and I’ll be the sole point of contact.”
Rose paused and kept looking straight at the camera.
“It’s the consensus of the engineers and scientists that repairs cannot be affected by members of the crew. I’m sorry, but it’s in your hands now. Control out.”
Brian stared at the fading image of the video.
“What does that mean?” Gina asked.
Brian turned to look at the faces staring back at him.
“I . . . I’m sorry, but I have no idea . . .”
Brian stopped speaking and, along with the other crew members, turned to stare at the hatch of the forward compartment. They could hear the locks clicking and watched the hatch open.
Brian didn’t have kids, so he was a bad judge of children’s ages. He guessed the Japanese girl who stepped out of the forward compartment was about twelve years old, give or take a few years.
“That was a message for me,” she said.
She held what looked like a toolbox in one hand and her other hand held a vial.
She pushed off, and as she floated past Wanda, she handed the toolbox to her. “Hold this,” she said as Wanda stared at her and took the box out of reflex.
She continued toward Leiko and stopped in front of the unconscious woman. The girl’s movements and spatial control were more precise and effortless than any of the crew’s. She did something with the top of the vial, a needle snapped out, and she injected the content into Leiko’s arm.
Fen was the first to snap out of the apparition-induced trance.
“Who are you?”
No one moved as the girl retrieved the toolbox and floated in front of them.
“My name is Opaline,” she answered. “I helped design the systems of this ship. You have questions, but right now, we need to implement repairs. I’ve stabilized the rotation of the ship using the attitude jets of the supply module, but those aren’t powerful enough to adjust the trajectory or slow the ship.”
Wanda and Opaline worked for the next three hours, bypassing the damaged control panel circuits and connecting the firing control for the main engine and attitude jets to a jury-rigged joystick installed in the fishbowl, the observation and photography glass bubble protruding from the hull.
When finished, Opaline floated in the fishbowl and, after observing the stars for a few minutes, pulled a small device from her flight suit and held it up in front of her as she fired the main engine twice and the attitude jets once. She then sat there, alone in the fishbowl, until the Comm fired up with another video message.
“On course,” Rose said. She hesitated before adding, “Thank you.”
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They listened to Opaline in silence.
“If everything would have gone according to plan, you’d never have seen me. The forward compartment has access to the supply pod you were supposed to park in Mars’ orbit. Within the pod, there’s a small EVA unit I’d have occupied until you left orbit.”
She glanced toward the fishbowl as the group stared at her with understandable curiosity and expectation for answers.
“You were going to remain on Mars?” Brian asked.
“I was going home,” Opaline replied in a soft voice, still staring out the fishbowl.
The answer was sufficiently enigmatic as to stump the crew. The only one who managed to speak was a much improved Leiko, and she just repeated Opaline’s words. “Going home?”
Opaline sighed, her shoulders slumped, and she turned to face the crew.
“The operative word is ‘was,’ as in past tense,” Opaline said. “There’s extensive damage and with the current state of the ship, you need me here if you want to return to Earth.”
A flood of questions came at her, with most of the crew speaking at once. Opaline let them speak until, one by one, they fell quiet.
She addressed the answers to each one in turn.
“Unless you can pilot by hand and steer by the stars, you can’t use the temporary controls to adjust trajectory and speed. You would have to rely on delayed directions from Earth, and in the current state, the engines are not throttled so we don’t know the output. The engines have to be fired by hand in conjunction with visual checks,” she said pulling out the device she’d used earlier.
“I was supposed to meet a lifeboat that would take me out of the solar system.”
“I am not from Earth.”
“We were genetically designed to blend in and study Earth’s cultures.”
“I’m . . . was the navigator and engineer for an anthropology mission; my team — my family — was killed and our ship damaged. I destroyed it to keep it from being discovered.”
They stared at her. Brian was the first to recover, asking a one-word question.
Opaline turned to Brian and held his gaze.
“August 9, 1945.”
Leiko’s sharp breath intake triggered the significance of the date.
“Nagasaki,” Tusya said.
Opaline nodded. “I was away from the epicenter, and my nano cells saved me from the effect of the radiation.”
“Nearly one hundred years,” Brian said. “You waited a hundred years for this opportunity? And you haven’t aged?”
“Yes,” Opaline confirmed. “Companies and organizations I control or influence built Kaizen human space exploration, but my goal was to intercept the lifeboat sent fifty years ago. And no, this body wasn’t designed to age since we were meant to move locations and the time span for the study didn’t require it.”
“You directed technological developments after WW II,” Wanda said.
“Yes, as little as I dared. As it is, I fear I’ve done great harm to the development of your species. I’ve tried using a gentle hand but invariably, the technology was adapted for war, for greed, for power.” For the first time, Opaline’s tone showed emotion. Disgust, Brian thought it was.
“It’s also why I’ve kept my existence a secret. Fewer than one hundred people know what I am. Many of the people I influence have never seen me, and no government knows — can know — of my existence. If I lose my autonomy, I’m doomed to never leave.”
With her last sentence, a chill tinged Opaline’s words, and Brian wondered if he and his crew were, in fact, already dead. The amount of influence she wielded was staggering given the multinational agreements that made this joint mission possible. Would she risk letting them live when they returned? If they returned, Brian corrected himself.
Opaline seemed to read his mind because she turned to him, but she was only continuing her narration.
“Some of you might wonder if knowledge of my existence places you in danger. Not from me. I’ll get you home safely. But, understand the knowledge you now possess puts you in danger should anyone even suspect you know anything, especially if governments get wind of my existence.”
More questions came her way, but Opaline held up her hand.
“The least you know, the better. What I’ve told you has to suffice. Also, understand I will disappear upon our return. All the ship’s records and communications will be erased both here and Earth-side, including your phones, cameras, and anything with any data.” Opaline paused, her voice gentle as she continued. “I understand the burden of carrying such a great secret, but if you love your life and your families, you will endeavor to do so.”
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Four-hundred-sixty-four months later, Brain straightened his Director of Flight Operations vest as he left his office for the Flight Control Center.
Kaizen IV was set to depart for humanity’s first crewed mission to Titan, where they would drop off a supply pod for future crewed missions to Saturn’s moons and beyond as part of humanity search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, and Titan and Enceladus were among the moons that held promise for such evidence.
As he entered the Flight Control Center, Brian looked up at the gallery of dignitaries. Seven of Kaizen‘s original crew members were in that gallery, each representing powerful multinational agencies and corporations. They exchanged a brief nod as he strode to his chair.
As Kaizen IV fired its propulsion system, Brian sent the ship a message.
“Godspeed, star sailor.”
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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