Ground Support

Ground Support

by Mike Barretta

 

Astronaut Damian Quinn was alone, a billion miles away from the nearest human being, buried alive in the night; he was sure he was going to die, and he couldn’t wait.

She looked to the night sky and wondered where in the heavens he was.  The streetlight above cast a yellow cone of light around her.  Diamond beads of sprinkler water arced above to fall and cling to the sharp tips of the fresh cut lawn.  She stripped off the faded Stanford t-shirt and walked out across the lawn barefoot to let the cool water spray across her body.

“Where are you?” she said to the sky. Across the street a porch light came on.

“Damn it, Dawn.  What the hell are you doing?” asked Tom.  “Get in here. Do you know how much trouble I can get in?  My mission.”

“Oh, screw your mission,” said Dawn.  Astronauts, the only thing they cared about were their missions.  She turned to face him.  Light-glittered drops of water fell around her.  “I’ve got your mission, right here.”

He vanished back into the house and she laughed at him.  “Asshole.”  Her skin puckered from the cold and she shivered.  He reappeared in the doorway, pulled on his shirt, and advanced to his car.

“I gotta go,” said Tom.

“That’s what all you astronaut’s say:  I gotta go.”  She spun around, arms outstretched, looking at the sky, trying to focus on a star, a pole star, the north star, any star, as long as it would stay still.  She spun and spun like she did when she was a child.  She knew she should be embarrassed about her behavior, but that was the beauty of margaritas.  There would be plenty of time for regret tomorrow.  Tom’s car started with a soft rumbling purr.  He pulled out and vanished.  She didn’t care.  She didn’t even know why she let him take her home.

She took a step back and fell into the wet grass.  She was drunker than she intended to be.  She lay back in the grass and gazed at the stars and wondered what the allure was.  They were cold and indifferent and distant.  The sprinkler indexed around and cast beads of cool water on her body.

Far above, a light moved across the heavens.  It wasn’t him.  He was invisible to her naked eye.  She wondered how far and if he was dreaming of her in the silent depths of space.  The NASA feed to her house would tell her one, but not the other.

“You son of a bitch,” she said to the sky.

Damian blinked to focus.  He floated, tethered in the couch’s straps.  His hands moved to his face and wiped his eyes.  Something was wrong.  Darkness pressed in from all sides and at times he found it hard to breathe.  A tiny whisper inside his head explained the circumstances of his existence, and though he heard the words, they didn’t register on a cognitive level.  He lived an incomprehensible semi-waking nightmare. He would tell himself to wake up and he couldn’t.  He would tell himself to sleep and he couldn’t.  The best he could do was dip down into a bizarre dream state that was confusing, and at times, terrifying.

“I’m so tired,” said Damian.”  The sound of his voice in the vastness of the cabin frightened him. His eyes fluttered open.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered to the picture of his wife.   A hissing sound, like the noise of childhood snakes, filled his ears.  He felt coldness spread from the pit of his stomach, and the tide of unconsciousness advanced towards him pulling him not quite under.

He remembered tiny fragments of his circumstance.  The worst had happened and he became tolerant of the Somazine drug that was supposed to keep him unconscious for the majority of the trip.  Of course, he had scheduled wake times to communicate with mission control and his wife and to do housekeeping chores on the ship, but most of the time he should have been in a deep sleep consuming as few resources as possible.

He remembered he was going to die.   He was breathing too much and feeding too much in his semi-waking state.  The mission’s margins were narrow.  He turned to the picture again.   Her disembodied face floated, indistinct and blurry.  The old photograph changed to something monstrous and pale.  Her dark hair snaked out of the image to wrap around his face.  He screamed and then laughed.  His eyelids fluttered and slipped to half-mast.  He floated in the loose straps and listened to the desperate voices urging him to do this or do that.  His legs and arms contracted towards his chest and his breathing slowed.  His tears described tiny whorls in the air until the ductwork carried them away to be recycled.

Dawn sat in NASA’s Family Communications Room, the space reserved for the astronaut’s dependents, so they could record messages.  She could have done so from home, but she needed to get out of there and the drive to the facility gave her time to think about what she needed to say.  She sat in the room and keyed the microphone, terrified of the words she was prepared to say.

“Damian, the kids miss you.  I miss you,” said Dawn.  “But I have some news, and I have to tell you now.  It can’t wait any more.  I know I shouldn’t, but I am.  I’m filing for divorce.  I love you, but I can’t do this anymore.  I won’t do this anymore.  I’ve been a good wife.  The kids and I have supported you all these years.  Sometimes we would wonder if you were coming back from the Moon and Mars, and now this.  I’m not doing it anymore.  There isn’t anyone else, but . . .”  Her voice choked off, and she wiped tears.  “I . . , I . . , damn.”  She unkeyed the microphone.

The booth door opened and the director of Manned Space Flight Operations stepped in.

“Dawn, can we talk in my office?” said Marcus Stein.

“No I have to record this for his next wake up, I have to . . . ”

No, Dawn you don’t.  We need to talk in my office,” said Marcus.  “Please.”

The way he said please indicated it wasn’t a request.

“What’s wrong?”

“Let’s talk.”

She deleted her message and followed Marcus to his nearby office.  It was not the fancy one that he kept in the administration building, but nicely appointed nonetheless.  Marcus was single, and much to the dismay of his staff, he lived at the complex.  He opened the door for her.

“Dawn, please have a seat.”  She looked around, waiting for him to sit. The office was graced with framed engineering drawings of Artemis Mars landers, the second generation CEV’s, and the new-fangled gravity-neutralized utility lifters.  An admiralty model of the proposed unmanned starship sat on a sideboard. He took his seat behind the mahogany desk. “You’re not sending that message,” said Marcus.

Of course, she wasn’t.  Sitting in the office, she couldn’t imagine anything more cruel or stupid.  What was she thinking?  But still she was angry.  She had always suspected that NASA monitored what was sent to her husband, but as long as the illusion of privacy was maintained she was content.  She wanted to just agree and say: I know, but instead she said, “It’s a private matter.”

“No, it’s not private.  We never promised you privacy,” said Marcus. “Tell me what is happening.”

“You’re not my counselor, and you heard. Didn’t you?”  Her voice sounded weak and tired.  She was weak and tired, tired of supporting Damian’s NASA missions to the moon, and Mars, and this one to godforsaken Titan.

“Okay,” he said. The silence stretched between them till it grew tenuous.

“I need to find someone, someone with his feet on the ground,” said Dawn.  “I want a life.  I deserve it.”

“Have you found someone?” asked Marcus.

“No.” The perfect astronaut wife facade failed catastrophically like a liquid hydrogen explosion.  Cool reserves flashed over to emotional, white-hot heat.  “I don’t know him, anymore.  Our children don’t know him.  Daddy is a picture on a mantle.  Daddy is a midnight phone call because he was too stupid to figure out time zones.  Daddy is the astronaut hero.  He is everything, to everyone, but he is not a husband, and he is not a father,” said Dawn.  She turned away from Marcus, embarrassed and angry.  She took a deep breath and her outburst cooled.  “You can’t be those things when you’re a billion miles away from home.  I’m done.  That’s all,” she said.  “I’m alone.”

“Listen, I sympathize, but . . . this mission is important.”

She hated being patronized by the usual NASA lines.  “They’re all important, aren’t they? Otherwise you wouldn’t be going, so screw your sympathy, Marcus.  I said, I’m done.  I’m telling him.  I’m leaving. That’s all there is to it.”  She turned away, trying to get a grip on her emotions.  “I don’t know when,” she added.  “When he’s back.  That’s fair.”

“Dawn, we don’t know if he is going to make it back.”

Her heart sank.  Marcus broke the cardinal rule of manned space travel since it was invented:  Unrelenting optimism. “What do you mean if?”

“What do you care?  You’re leaving him.”  He sighed.

“Jesus, Marcus, don’t be an idiot.”

He opened a file on his computer, and spun the monitor around for her to see.  She knew that the idea of traveling in space was romantic and glamorous, but the practice was exhausting and tedious for everyone.  She’d lived the reality for as long as she could remember.  Damien had always come home weak and tired and pale, but this time she barely recognized him.  He looked fragile.  A gaunt bearded skeleton with sunken, surprised eyes gazed back at her.  He was a little old space man, grizzled and weary, like the most expensive street person in history.  Every trip they learned some unthought-of way in which space travel was dangerous to the human body.

“He is farther out than anyone has ever gone and he is dying,” said Marcus.

Tears blurred the high definition image of the horror that was her husband. “I didn’t know . . .”

“Of course, you didn’t.  Only a few know what’s happening.  He hasn’t sent back a coherent message in four months.”

“He texts me,” she offered.

“No, I text you,” said Marcus.

“What gives you the right to do that to me…to us?” asked Dawn. Pointless anger flared.  Operational necessity protocols would let Marcus do whatever he deemed fit to preserve the mission.

“I’m sorry, but we had to.  We thought we could find a solution,” said Marcus.

Empty platitudes, she thought.  Marcus was never sorry.  It’s what made him such a good mission director.

“What’s happening out there?”

“He’s become tolerant of the Somazine.  He is semi-awake and delusional. We’ve been working to keep him stable and our efforts are failing.”

She calculated consumables against time. As a civil engineer by training, numbers were second nature to her. She used to build bridges. Realization swept through her.  Gravity seemed to loosen its hold and she steadied herself with a hand on the mahogany desk.  “He can’t make it there and back awake, can he?”

“No, he can’t,” he admitted.  “Even semi-conscious he is consuming too many resources.”

“Rescue?” she asked.

“That multi-billion dollar CIA spy satellite that failed to reach orbit last year is a rescue package.  We launched when it became clear the Somazine wasn’t working.  That package has consumables and a new formulation of Somazine. It will intercept him in three weeks.  We need him to be functional for the rendezvous and the only time he is remotely coherent is when he receives your messages.   He listens to your voice and reads your messages.  We are hoping to build on that.”  He walked around the desk and sat in the chair next to her.  He took her hand and she knew she was being played.   It was a clumsy and unnecessary ploy.

“He can make it,” he said. “But we need your help.”

“I’m so tired of this,” said Dawn.

“Will you help us?”

“Of course.” Tears ran down her face.  She pulled her hand away.  Damian was her husband, which meant that it was perfectly logical to love him, and hate him, at the same time, and she didn’t owe anybody an explanation, least of all Marcus.

She spun the monitor away from her sight.

Marcus pushed the buttons of the cypher lock.  “The code is 2375 and you have unconditional access.”   He pushed the door open, and the lights came on. A wall mounted repeater of Mission Control’s master display exuded a soft blue glow.  Mission data cascaded like waterfalls down the display. Icons changed color according to some cryptic matrix. A computer console with a separate monitor sat on a desk beneath the repeater.

She followed him in.

“Sit here,” said Marcus.  He pointed to one of two Laz-E-Boy recliners in the room.

She sat, sinking into the chair, letting it take the weight of a day filled with briefings. A strange headset, like a high-tech silver octopus, rested on a stand between the two recliners  Marcus pulled over an Aeron office chair from the computer console desk and sat facing her.

“The computer beneath the display is the QTC console, an alternative communication path to Eos.

Eos?” asked Dawn.

“It’s what he named his ship.”

“I didn’t know.”  Her breath hitched. How could she not know?

“Dawn, stay with me. QTC stands for Quantum Tele-Communications.”  He reached and took the rubbery headset from its stand.  The tendrils writhed, seeking purchase, looking for a connection.  “With this headset and that machine you will be able to communicate with him in real-time without any time lag.”

“I don’t believe that’s possible.”

“It is.”

Marcus looked to the ceiling as if answers floated above him.  The headset ceased its movement, giving up on a connection.  He looked back down.

“Someone told me that science gives you what you need, but magic gives you what you want.  For all intents and purposes you can consider this magic.  There is a chip of quantum entangled matter built into this machine and another on the Eos. These chips are connected across space and time.  What happens to one, happens to the other, instantaneously, but the catch is that they are a consumable resource. Nothing lasts forever, right?

“Some things should,” said Dawn.

“Be that as it may, every transmission uses a bit of this entangled matter, and once it is gone, it is gone.  We were conserving it for the most important aspect of the mission, surface operations on Titan, but you have priority now.  That should give you some idea of the dire straits we are in, and the importance we are placing on your ability to bring him around.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Talk to him at the scheduled times.  We will have a flight surgeon and mission psychologist here with you.””

“No, I won’t have them listening and taking notes.”

“Dawn, this is a delicate . . .”

“Non-negotiable,” said Dawn.  She watched his face for signs of resistance.  It would be pointless.  She was resolved.  She wouldn’t have NASA giving her advice on how to talk to her husband.

“Okay, we’ll work with it, but I’ll have them available to you for debriefing purposes, for you, as well as him. The QTC is a dangerous piece of equipment.  It has an immense amount of bandwidth.  It is a truth machine and it is impossible to lie to someone.  What you think and what you feel, he will know, and the same is true for you. It can be disorienting and intimate. No one likes to use it. Imagine what it would be like to have no secrets, to know someone better than you know yourself.”

“He’s my husband.  We don’t have any secrets,” said Dawn. She looked away from him, fixating on the mission display, pretending that the numbers meant something to her, and hoping that perhaps, he would let the lie pass unremarked.

He did.

“You have the objective list we gave you, other than that, talk about the things husbands and wives share, and we’ll hope for the best.  Hope is not a plan, but it is all we have right now.  Our timeline is critical.  We started withdrawing him from the Somazine yesterday in anticipation of the rendezvous.”  He handed the headset to her.  “When you are ready, just put it on.  The connection is automatic.  You can talk to him out loud or subvocalize.  He’ll hear you, like a voice in his head.  That’s how it starts.”

“Are you going to eavesdrop?”

“I would if I could.  Just debrief the mission psychologist after the sessions.  He’s a good guy and he can help.  I guess it’s the best we can expect.”

“Yes, it’s the best,” she said.  “I think I understand how this works.”

“I don’t think you do, but you will.”

“You can leave now, Marcus.”

The headset wrapped her head like a living thing.  She lay back in the chair as the headset’s tendrils squirmed and then pressed against her skull.  It was not an unpleasant experience.  The QTC made the connection and if she had not reclined in the chair the vertigo would have tossed her to the floor.  She saw the inside of his ship through his eyes…and the room she was in through her own.  Other senses layered on.  It was a confusing watercolor blur of thoughts, sounds, sights, and feelings.  Her mild anxiety overlapped with the mind-numbing panic of a terrified child.  It was her husband.  Her heartbeat raced in sympathy.

She closed her eyes and focused, not sure how she did it.  The lights in the module were dim.  Ventilation fans hummed.  “Damian?” she asked.  “It’s Dawn.  Do you remember?”

“Yes, but it’s hard.”

“Look at you, you’re having a hard time thinking aren’t you, baby?”

“Yes.”

She felt a surge of panic.  She wanted to escape the monotony and crushing claustrophobia of the ship.  She remembered from the briefings that the connection worked both ways.  If she succumbed to despair or panic so would he.  She relaxed, remembering that she was in a cool comfortable room and not in a can floating through a radiation-soaked void.

“Damian, do you know where you are?”

“Space, almost to Titan.  The Blue Apophis project.”

“Damian, let’s not worry about the project.”  She hadn’t heard of Blue Apophis in her briefings, but she didn’t think it was unusual.  NASA was overrun with code words for projects. Blue Apophis was probably just a working title for some aspect of the mission.

“I can’t tell you anyway.  Don’t make me say, please, I didn’t want to go.  They said they needed me.”

She felt a surge of anxiety.  “Okay, you don’t have to tell me.  Let’s not worry about it now.”

“I’m tired.  I’m going to die soon.”

Never before had her husband expressed any doubt or fear about the job.  No astronaut ever did.  A hard, impenetrable shell of competence armored everyone that went into space for a living.  “You’re not Damian.  There is a rescue package on the way so you can get home and I need you . . . to clear your head.”

“I can’t.”

“You will,” she said, as if she was talking to her teenage son refusing to take out the garbage.  “Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“When we’re done talking, Damian, I need you to manually perform the systems housekeeping checklist for your living module.  Then, I need you to do it again.  After that, change the air filters.  Do you understand?” Busy work, she thought.  The ship’s computers ran through the seventy five page housekeeping checklist several thousand times a second.  She needed to keep him engaged.

“Yes.”

“We need to have everything done by tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“Do you remember when you took me to the shuttle launch?”

“Yes.”

It was a night launch and the beach was off limits. He was fascinated by the shuttles, and going into space, and he needed to be close to it.  The shuttle was in its sunset phase and few launches remained before the ships were retired.  For him, it was worth the risk of getting caught and having to explain himself to his CO at flight school.  For her, it was worth the risk to sneak off with a boy five years older.  She wanted to be near him.  He was focused and determined, so unlike the junior college boys she encountered at school.  He was an Ensign, graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in mechanical engineering and on leave waiting to start flight school in Pensacola.  He hadn’t even flown his first flight.

They walked down the beach as the sun set and came to the border of NASA property.  He stepped on tangled wire, pressing it into the soft dune sand to let her climb over and past the salt-rusted “Government Property” and “Use of Force Authorized” signs.  Locals used to sneak in to watch, but that was when the shuttle was still new and exciting.  No one seemed to care anymore.

She was frightened and thrilled.  They hid among the sea oats when a NASA Security 4×4 prowled the beach.  Its amber flashers strobed the beach and it drove away.  They crept closer and he lined a shallow depression in the sand with a blanket.  They lay back and she snuggled her head against his shoulder.  The stars arced across the sky and Atlantic waves smashed onto the beach.  Loudspeaker messages around the launch facility blurred in the warm night air.  In the entire universe, they were the only ones.  They rolled to face each other, and he kissed her.

The world exploded into sound and fury as the shuttle’s three RS-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters ignited into painful bright light.  The ground trembled with 1.2 million pounds of combined thrust.  The shuttle cleared the pad, rising like an ascending star.  A warm caress of billowing water vapor washed over them.  Far above, the solid rocket boosters staged and fell away and the shuttle accelerated into the night until it was just a bright point of light.

“You missed it,” she said breathlessly.

“Almost,” he said.

“What is Blue Apophis?” asked Dawn.

“Where did you hear that?” asked Marcus.

“Damien.”

“It’s an associated project.”

“He said he didn’t want to go.”

“Need to know, Dawn,” said Marcus.

“I have clearance.  Who needs to know more than me right now?  I’ll probably find out sooner rather than later from Damien.  No secrets.  Remember?”

“Yes, okay.  Do you want a drink?”  He opened his lower desk drawer and took out a bottle of Maker’s Mark Bourbon. “Perks.”

“Marcus, tell me,” said Dawn.

“Alright. It’s complicated.”

“I’m sure.”

“Our unmanned probes send back so much information that most of it sits in computer storage for years.  Five years ago, a graduate student, data mining NASA archives for his doctoral thesis on cryo-vulcanism, uh, water volcanoes, discovered something.”

He tapped on his secure computer, the one labeled secret, and spun the monitor to her.  The false color composite image, combining thermal and radar images, showed an arrangement of blocks, cylinders, and spheres on the shore of a methane sea.

“What is it?”

“We don’t know, but it’s artificial, functioning, and not from around here.”

“Alien?”

He shrugged.  “Bad karma to say the A word around real scientists. But….”

“So you send one person,” she accused.

“We sent the best person, Dawn.  Your husband is the best in the astronaut corps and we needed him and we sent him as fast as we could with available equipment. We didn’t have the time to build the mission we wanted.  The Eos is a cluster of modules designed for other missions wrapped with structural bracing to survive an aerobraking in Saturn’s atmosphere.  This mission is an order of magnitude more difficult than anything we’ve ever attempted.”

“It’s not going anywhere,” she said, referring to the picture.  “What was the hurry?”

“The student published his discovery in an online journal.  We pulled it, and discredited it, but it was too late.  Other missions are being designed and someone is going to stake a claim.  This discovery is a disruptive event for the human race.  It could reorder the balance of power on this planet. We’ve been plodding along, secure in the knowledge that we were the state of the art in the universe.  Now, we know we are not.  Someone was out there when we were prowling African savannahs waving sticks in the air.”

“So answer my question, what is Blue Apophis?”

He sighed.  “Your husband’s mission is to land, explore the site, and if ordered, initiate Blue Apophis, the nuclear destruction of the artifacts.”

“Oh God, Marcus.  You sent him to bomb the biggest discovery in human history.  He can’t do that.  You know what kind of man he is. He can’t mow the backyard without discovering something, a bug, a baby bird, a pebble, whatever.  He goes out there to see and explore.  What did you do to him?”

“It’s not my mission,” he hissed.  “I didn’t sign up to destroy the very things we are looking for, but I have to concede that this discovery could be fatal for the human race. We are not ready.”

“No one could know what is up there.”

“But that is the point, isn’t it?  We can barely deal with the consequences of our own creativity.  Imagine if it all gets fast forwarded by tens of thousands of years.”

His head hurt, but considering where he was, he was much better.  He placed the targeting reticule on the resupply module.  It was like staring down the sight of a gun.  Six times he had spoken to his wife, no spoken was not the right word, connected with, connected was a far better word.  They talked about the mundane and the important.  They talked about his two sons and his parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party.  She made him do checklists, take observations, and write reports, stupid things that were done automatically by the Eos.  They talked about each other, and she avoided his speculation about his return.  Beneath the small talk, he felt her frustration and anger and sense of abandonment.  She felt his fear of failure, and his focus so acute that he could excise the best part of himself to achieve the goal set before him.

The module drew closer.  She called it her care package.  Two days ago the module had decelerated at a rate that would have smashed a pilot to jelly.  He inspected what he could see.  The hull was off axis and rolled slowly.  He could see acceleration wrinkles in the skin but the dock looked secure and true so he did not think he needed to EVA.  Its overtake speed was marginal so it would take two more days to reach the Eos for a hard dock.  He spun the chair around and Saturn loomed, filling the entire window. After the dock, he had about 6 hours to transfer residual fuel, other consumables that would refresh his diminishing life support, and the reformulated Somazine that would let him sleep.  Then he would have to prepare the ship for aerobraking.  The timeline was unforgiving.  He checked the clock, settled into his chair and waited.  He felt a warm sensation in the pit of his stomach.  It spread out engulfing him, buffering him further from the killing cold and loneliness outside.

“Do you remember when Sam was born?” asked Dawn.

Her voice was soft and flowing like water over moss covered rock.  He closed his eyes.  His hands stopped shaking.

“Yes.”

“He was such a tiny thing. I’ve never been so happy in my life,” she said.

“I’ve never been so scared,” he said.

It was true.

He wore his smartwatch in the tank which was against the rules.  He didn’t care.  The training schedule for the Mars flight was relentless and unforgiving.  She had gone home to be with her mother in Virginia.  She was nervous and frightened and she didn’t want to be alone while he went playing in a giant swimming pool filled with beams and ersatz solar panels.  The baby wasn’t due for another month.

Safety divers, three per astronaut, sculled the water with their hands and fluttered their fins in lazy strokes to fine tune their position.  He envied their mobility.  He was in a bulky suit, freeing a jammed spar to extend a simulated solar panel.  He anchored his feet in a latticed beam and attempted to dislodge a broken segment.  He selected the $50,000 dollar torque-less wrench and hammered away.

“Every tool is a hammer,” he said.

The diver nearest him gave a thumbs up.  The diver wouldn’t speak unless it was safety related.

The metal segment broke free and the spar extended.  His watch buzzed and he stopped what he was doing.

“You okay?” asked the diver.

“I gotta get out of here,” he said.

No questions asked.  The diver moved in.

“Clear of obstructions,” said the diver.

Tension came on the safety lanyard.  The diver hung onto handholds built into the suit and rode to the surface with him.

The crane lifted him clear and deposited him on the pool deck.  Technicians extricated him from the suit, not knowing what was wrong.  No sooner were they finished, and he was gone.

He arrived at the hospital with moments to spare.  His official NASA phone buzzed with messages from NASA and the FAA.  His unexpected departure and sprint across half the United States without so much as a fare-thee-well had set off alarms until one of his crewmates put two and two together.  NASA publicists and government liaisons smoothed over the ruffled feathers and spun gold from hay.

She held his son in her arms with a weak smile on her tired face.  He wanted to crawl into bed with her and wrap his arms around the both of them.  He was weeks away from going to Mars and it didn’t matter.  Nothing else mattered.  His son yawned.

“You smell like pool water,” she said.

“I love you,” he said.  “Both of you.”

“I love you too,” she said.  “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.”

“I couldn’t miss it for the world… any world.”  He kissed her cheek and then leaned back to take in the sight of his wife and new son.

Her eyes rolled back and her body shook violently.  Medical alarms wailed and he thought that it sounded like the depressurization alarm.

Someone put a hand on his shoulder.

Someone else said, “blood pressure.”

“You have to go.”

No, I don’t, he thought.  But he did anyway.

She slipped into his tiny world, felt him gasp at her presence, and then relax.  She waited, letting him make the first move.  Outside, the winds of Saturn raced in bands of soft gold and yellow.

“I told Marcus that I wouldn’t  go,” said Damien. “That I was done.”

“But you did go,” said Dawn.

“They needed me and I thought we would be alright.  I thought just one more time.”

“I needed you,” said Dawn.”

“I should have stayed.  We made it though, didn’t we?”

“Almost,” she said.

Almost, he pondered.  He slipped into her world and felt the loneliness and isolation that underpinned her life with him.  He saw the forced smiles and the smoldering anger when the demands of his profession superseded her needs.  She soldiered on, but she was at her limit.  He lived mission to mission.  She played a much different and much longer game.

He had stood on cratered gray desolation and watched an earthrise.  He had prized tiny spiral shells from prehistoric Martian sea beds.  At this moment, a world that had never lived or a world that had died in its infancy seemed so pointless.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“For what?” she asked.

“For forgetting.”

The module was cold.  His breath puffed in white clouds.  He worked fast transferring gases and liquids and containerized supplies.  He fell behind schedule.  The docking was more complicated than anticipated.  The engineers had sent enough supplies that he could almost make it home if the reformulated Somazine didn’t work.

He looked for anything personal.  A letter, a note, a flower, a teddy bear, something, but there was nothing.  The rescue was a secret.  He closed the door to the lock and jettisoned the module, now a multi-billion dollar tin can.  It jarred the entire ship when it separated, and he watched the empty shell fall away.  It would follow him into Saturn’s atmosphere, but whereas he would dip into the surface and come out minus enough delta vee for orbital capture, the module would break apart, and frictional heat would burn it down to its component atoms.

He worked his way forward and sat in the command chair fastening the straps against the aerobraking maneuver. Saturn dominated the view.  He was so close that he had to lean forward to see a sliver of black space.  In 96 minutes he would lose radio telemetry as Saturn’s bulk occluded Earth.  In 230 minutes he would skim the atmosphere shedding velocity at multi-gee rates behind a composite shield.  Staged carbon nano-weave parachutes, each larger than the next, and chained one after the other by mono-molecular line, would deploy, and catch Saturn’s atmosphere.  Maneuvering rockets would then fine tune the ships trajectory over several orbits so he could transfer to Titan and see what washed up on the shores of a methane sea.

If need be, he would destroy it in a flash of nuclear light.

Dawn sat in the gallery overlooking the mission control floor.  Ranks of men and women behind computer consoles fed data to the big screens.  Marcus sat down next to her.

“Dawn, if you want you can go home, and I’ll call you when the maneuver is over,” said Marcus.

“Afraid you’ll have the hysterical wife if something goes wrong?”

“Anyone else, but not with you.”

“You sound more sure of it than I feel.”

“Loss of signal,” said a technician. “Re-acquisition in 492 minutes.  Clock is started.”

Loss of signal, she thought.  Maybe that is what happened to us.

The mission icon changed from a stylized ship silhouette to a diamond, indicating that it was computer projected and not from time-adjusted telemetry.

“It will be hours before we know anything,” said Marcus. “Until then…”

“I’m going for a walk,” said Dawn.

She entered the QTC room, curled in the chair and put the headset on.  The signal bored through the vast gas giant planet and crossed light-hours of space unconcerned with mere physics. Schrödinger’s cat be damned.  She could defy physics with something a little bit magical.

She shared his view, felt his anxiety.  Cloudscapes the size of countries swirled and boiled.  The rings arced far overhead in a knife edge perspective. She could feel his anxiety over the pending maneuver.

“We don’t have much time,” she said.  The QTC counter was in the red.  At most they had a few minutes before the entangled matter was consumed. “I wanted to be with you a little bit longer.”

“Okay.”

She remembered when he came back from Mars.  He was thin and tired and his joints ached.  He bruised easily and had constant headaches.  They lay in bed together and she spooned around him to keep him warm.  He was cold when he first came back, like he had brought back a little bit of Mars with him.  Which of course, he did.  He brought back a red gem stone, unknown on Earth, polished smooth by ancient Martian waters.  She wore it around her neck on a chain and no one knew it was from another world.  If NASA found out they would take it.

“Will you wait just a little bit longer?” he asked.

“I’ll try.”

The QTC counter indexed to zero.  The matter de-resonated to its natural, un-entangled state and the connection dropped, but the message still got through.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you too,” he said.

The ship howled.  Superheated plasma burned the sacrificial cameras from the armored shield hull and his forward view screens blanked.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to see anyway.  Cameras protected by the shield hull flared white. If the shield ablated too much, a jet of super-heated plasma would vaporize him before a thought could cross his mind.  Vibrations intensified as the ship plunged deeper into Saturn’s atmosphere.  G forces piled on, crushing him into his seat.  He gulped air in quick bursts and tightened his leg and abdomen muscles to maintain consciousness.

The parachute panel armed and counted down as the ship slowed.  G-forces attenuated enough that he could move his fingers enough to push the button that would deploy the parachutes.  If opening shock was greater than predicted his ship would tear apart.  If the initial chute mis-deployed he could tumble into Saturn’s depths.

The engineers had told him that in this phase of flight he was a passenger, hostage to physics, and at the mercy of millions of computer calculations per second, but he didn’t believe that.  No pilot ever believed that.  There were always choices to be made.

“Signal acquisition.  We have an anomalous vehicle event,” said Flight Dynamics.

What’s happened?” asked Marcus.  Too much could go wrong.  The aerobraking maneuver had been practiced in simulation and in earth reentries but never in a gas giant atmosphere.  “Do we have visual?”  The Lowell telescope array, the networked multi-spectral telescopes, arranged in the Lagrange points had been assigned to NASA for the duration of the maneuver.

“Affirmative,” said Flight Dynamics.  “It’s on the screen.”

The telemetry screen changed to a wide angle view of Saturn and a bright pinpoint of light above the left most edge of the disk.

“Too much vee,” said Flight Dynamics.

“Confirm with vehicle telemetry,” said Marcus.

“Dawn, wake up,” said Marcus.

She opened her eyes and stretched from her curled position on the Lay-Z-Boy recliner.  The blanket that covered her fell to the floor

“What’s happening?” asked Dawn.

“You tell me.”

“Is Damien okay?”

“Yes, he is fine.”

She rubbed her eyes and looked over at the QTC. It indicated red, the machine’s capability, its magic, exhausted.

“He is coming home,” said Marcus.  “He exercised an abort option and it’s all gone.  The lander is jettisoned, the aerobrake package, everything.”

“The bomb?”

“Gone.  Even if it went off Saturn wouldn’t notice.”

“How long?”

“That’s the thing.  During the aerobraking he opened fuel transfer pumps and pumped in Saturnian atmosphere for propellant.  He has full tanks, and he is using them, more than making up for the velocity he lost in atmosphere.”  He walked to the wall hung monitor and changed channels.  The bulk of Saturn filled the right side of the screen.  He pointed to a tiny smudge of light.  “That’s him. That fusion flame is ten miles long.  We are predicting a maximum energy return that will loop him around the sun.  Eighteen months or so.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No, you’re not.  Don’t even pretend.”

She looked down. “I’m not.”

His phone rang and he answered it.  “Yes, tell him I’ll call as soon as I am in a secure room.”  He pocketed the phone.

“It’s started.”

“What’s that?”

“Trying to figure out another way, not just a smash and grab, but some way of sharing the Titan object.”

“It’s probably just some gas station for ET.”

He laughed.  “Yeah, an interstellar 7-11.  He did manage to deploy an orbiter.  It should capture in a few weeks and we’ll have some high resolution scans of the object.  That should give us some international leverage.  Maybe then we can combine efforts and share the space slurpies.”

His phone rang again.

He got up and walked to the door.  He crossed through it, and then poked his head back inside.

She was engrossed in the telescope feed displaying on the wall monitor.  Tears streaked her face.

“Dawn.”

She turned to look at him.  “He gave it all up.  He could have been the first,” she said.

“He didn’t give anything up.”

Saturn receded.  The engine cut out and he groaned in relief as the acceleration diminished.  He was the fastest man ever and it was still too slow.  In the rear monitor screen, the black dot of Titan moved across the face of the planet. Blade-edged rings wrapped the planet.  He had regrets, but leaving Titan’s mystery for the one left on Earth was not one of them.

He reconnected the umbilicus and cinched down his straps to keep from floating away in freefall.  The lights dimmed and life support contracted to the hibernation chamber.  The ship slipped into sleep mode, and in a few moments so would he.  The Somazine flowed and his sight dimmed.  The couch’s straps relaxed so his body could curl into a natural fetal position.  He did not dream of star pierced night, fore-shortened horizons of gray or rust, tumbling liquid gases, or twice abandoned alien machines centuries frozen.  Warmth spread from the center of his body as sleep overtook him. His heart slowed, and he could not remember breathing.  The QTC indicator was dark and useless.  Its strange matter seemed expended, and yet….

“I almost lost you,” he said before he slipped under.

“Almost,” came the reply.

_______________

Mike Barretta is a retired U.S. Naval Aviator having deployed across the world flying the SH-60B Seahawk helicopter.  He currently works for a defense contractor as a maintenance test pilot.  He is married to Mary Jane Player and they have five children.  He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Planning and International Negotiation from the Naval Post-Graduate School, and a Master’s in English from the University of West Florida. When the obligations of the day are over, he writes.  His stories have appeared in Baen’s Universe, Redstone, New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and various anthologies such as War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Military Scifi and Space Opera and The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, and now, Abyss & Apex.

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