Chapter 3

Out of Place

Robed in dark gray, a gaunt African man stood in darkness with his arms folded.  His silver hair pulled back tightly into a ponytail, he stood in front of an oval platform, which filled the center of the room.  A holographic image of the star, Tau Ceti, levitated above it.  Around the star, gas and rock orbited peacefully.  On either side of the image, symbols appeared and drifted with the flow of gas and rock.  Arrows reached out from the symbols and touched different sections of the star system.

The man studied the symbols and scratched his chin in thought.

“Hmm, CLARA?” called the man impatiently. “CLARA!”

A faceless voice spoke from the ceiling.  “Yes, Doctor Yeatman.”

“Have you completed the Monte Carlo simulation on the Tau Ceti and Proteus data?”

“Not yet, Doctor Yeatman.  My processors-”

“This work, CLARA, is critical to the understanding of high frequency impacts on proto-planetary formation.  What possible reason could there be for the delay?”

“System resources have been allocated elsewhere on Tesla Prime.”

“Will the heavens never cease in testing my patience?” muttered Isaac.

Isaac turned toward the ceiling.

“Get me the Commander,” said Isaac.

“Yes, Doctor Yeatman.”

After more intolerable moments of waiting, Thomas answered the call.  “Yes, Isaac, what can I do for you?”

“I require priority control over ship resources.  I am doing critical research at the moment.”

“Sorry, we need CLARA on other things right now.”

“What in God’s good name could be more important?  This research meets one of the prime objectives of this mission.  Scientists on Earth are waiting for this analysis.”

“Well, we are still in the process of locating Earth.”

“Pardon?”

“Julie’s been trying for hours.  She’s running diagnostics on the telecom system now.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“We’re meeting on the command deck now to talk about it.”

“Oh dear.  I’m on my way.”

Isaac stepped away from the table and strode toward the GravLift.

CLARA began her announcement. “Attention Crew of Tesla Prime, Commander Warfield requests that all-hands report to the Command Deck immediately.”

The hologram went dark.

* * *

On the Command Deck, Stawford sat silently in the corner staring out into a starry space.  Behind him, Daxman stepped out of the GravLift and strolled to one side of the room.  Jack, Thomas, and Julie soon followed.  Each of them settled into the leather chairs around the oval table at the center of the room.  Thomas touched a screen in the table and scanned the latest telemetry.

A moment later, Isaac emerged from the tube and raised his hand.  “I heard that we are unable to communicate with Earth.  What seems to be the issue exactly?”

Thomas glanced up.  “We’re still waiting for one more.  CLARA, where’s Sophia?”

“I’m here,” said Sophia delicately with a faint Russian accent as she stepped onto the Command Deck.  Her auburn hair flowed over the shoulders of her long white lab coat.  Her teal blue eyes peered through glasses balanced on the end of her nose.  She was not alone.  Perched on her shoulder sat a jade-colored primate-like creature with large hazel eyes, and a long furry tail.

“Oh, you brought Winnie,” said Julie, with a smile.

Winnie, who has spent much of the journey in her own mini Cryostasis chamber, leaped off Sophia’s shoulder.  She landed on the ground between them and jumped just as quickly onto Julie’s back, wrapping her soft tail around Julie’s neck.

“Julie, we’re all here,” said Thomas.  He sensed her uneasiness.  “Go ahead.  It’s okay.”

Julie shifted as she flipped through her notes.

“Okay.” Julie sighed.  “Well, diagnostics were fine.  No problems with the telecom system that I could find.  I scanned four-pi steradians on all known frequencies.”

Julie paused and took a deep breath.  She looked up from her data pad, glanced around the room, and then returned to the information in front of her.  “I couldn’t find a signal.”

“What?” asked Isaac.  Winnie cowered, hiding behind a lock of golden hair.

“There’s nothing there.”

“That simply cannot be.”

Thomas grabbed another data pad from a nearby table.  “Is it possible that the Deep Space Network is experiencing some sort of power outage?”

Sophia shook her head.  “Not over the whole planet.  They would have activated one of the backup stations in Madrid or Canberra.”

“It isn’t there,” added Daxman calmly from the cold darkness.

“What?” said Thomas.

“The reason that we can’t talk to Earth,” Daxman glanced around the room. “Is because it’s not there.”

“A whole planet can’t just go missing-”

“Perhaps the politics of the world have changed, war, famine, environmental collapse?  The Earth is still there.  It has to be.”

“It isn’t.”  Daxman tilted back in his chair.  “Ol’ Jack and I saw it down in engineering.  The gravity vector from Earth isn’t showing up on our accelerometers.”

“What about the Moon?” asked Isaac.  “If the Earth isn’t there, where is the Moon?  Or is that gone too?”

“I might be able to answer that,” responded Julie.  “I searched for all Earth frequencies but when that didn’t turn anything up, I did a search for Near Earth Ka band that hasn’t been used in twenty years.” She paused for a moment and glanced around at the concerned stares.  “I found something.  I found the Moon.”

Isaac clasped his hands together.  “Thank the Lord!”  He returned to a waiting Julie.  “What else?” while Sophia smiled and relaxed.  She turned to look out the window.  “That’s a relief!”

“Wait guys,” said Thomas. He saw her fear.  “There’s something else, isn’t there, Julie?”

Julie squirmed.  “Well, I’m not a hundred percent sure but it looks like the Moon is in orbit-” she waited and twirled her hair, “…from the data that I collected, it appears as though the Moon is orbiting Saturn.”

“Saturn?”  Jack’s eyes widened.  “Well, hole-Lee shit!  Are you for kiddin’ me?”

Sophia tensed.  “You’ve made a mistake, Julie.  Give that to me.”  She snatched the pad from Julie and began flipping through the various screens.

Julie stammered.  “I… I…”  She glanced around the room at the anguish and anger. “It’s not my fault.”

Thomas put her in his cross hairs.  “Julie, look at me.  Are you certain?”

“Well, yes and no.  I mean I… I can only be as sure as the information I get from CLARA but from everything I’ve seen…” she swallowed against the lump in her throat. “Yes.”

“Sophie?”

Sophia glared at the screen, flipping through the evidence and pieced it together.  “She’s right.”

Julie’s eyes welled with tears.  “I’m sorry.”  She covered her mouth. “It’s not my fault.”

“What’s going on, guys,” said Thomas.  “Where is Earth?”

Isaac prayed to himself quietly.

“I reckon we should ask Mister Software here,” said Jack.

“Me?”  Daxman glanced around the room to see if others felt the same way.  “How the hell should I know?” Daxman pushed back from the table and locked his eyes on Jack.

“Look, guys,” said Jack.  “I don’t know about you all, but planets don’t just up and leave.  Problems gotta be with the ship.  And this ship don’t break on its own.”   Jack turned to Daxman.  “Somethin’ did somethin’.”  Jack glanced around the room at the rest of the crew.  “Now, I trust you all.  We trained for two years together.  But this guy?”  Jack stepped toward Daxman and continued.  “No way.  This guy’s as crooked as an old man’s back.”

Daxman scowled.

Jack continued the accusation.  “So Dax, what’d you do?  What ya do to the ship, eh?”

Jack advanced toward him.  Daxman stood.

“Get away from me, Old Man,” said Daxman defiantly.

Jack moved to within a foot of Daxman’s face.  “What’d you say, boy?”

Daxman glared down at Jack.  He could see the disgust in Jack’s bent and grizzled lips, the anger in his bloodshot eyes.  “I said, if you were twice as smart as your brother, you’d both still be morons.”

Jack’s eyes flared.  He lunged at Daxman and grabbed him around the throat.  Julie shrieked.

Daxman tried to pry open his hands but Jack’s grip was strong.  The veins in Daxman’s head bulged.

Julie screamed through her wall of tears.  “Let go of him!”

“Stop this now!” ordered Thomas.

Daxman stared at Jack.  His eyes flared like a demon, cornered.

Stawford stepped to them.  He grabbed Jack’s hand and, in a pivot, turned his wrist.  Jack fell to the ground, arm torqued painfully backward.  Daxman gasped for air.  Stawford stared down at his adversary.

“Holy Mother of God!” screamed Jack. “Okay, okay!”

Thomas stepped toward the commotion.  “Everyone!  Just calm down!  Now!”

Isaac turned away.  Julie sobbed into her hands.

Stawford released Jack’s wrist.  Jack massaged it for a second, glanced up and glared at Stawford, who stepped away slowly.  Jack rushed at him.  Stawford felt the rhythmic vibrations in the ground and stepped to the side.  Jack flew through the empty air and crashed into a tired heap at the base of one of the workstations.

Jack pushed himself off the ground and nursed his hand.  Daxman coughed and labored to breathe.

Thomas restarted.  “That’s enough!  Everyone, just settle down!”  He let out a tired and anxious breath and straightened the front of his suit.  “Let’s just figure this out, alright?”  He looked around the room and into the eyes of each member of his crew.  “Together?  We need to find out what’s going on and to do that we need four things.  Calm, focus, cooperation, and information.  Alright?”

Jack nodded.

Thomas shook his head and pressed his eyes with his fingertips.  “Alright.  CLARA, can you double check the origin of that signal?”

“Yes, Commander, the Ka-band transmission in question has been received from outside of Earth’s orbit.”

“Where from, exactly?” interjected Daxman.

“The signal originated in close proximity to Saturn.”

Jack continued to massage his wrist.  “That jus’ ain’t right.  How’s somethin’ like that happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Julie, wiping the tracks of tears from her cheeks.  “I only know where the signal is coming from.”

“Alright.  Well… so if it’s a signal, what’s it sayin’?” asked Jack.  “If there’s a signal, there’s gotta be a message, right?”

Julie glanced down at her pad to check.  “Sorry, it’s just a carrier signal, just a beacon.”

“Like a distress call,” added Sophia.

Julie nodded. “Exactly.”

An uncomfortable silence descended over the room.  The fact that a distress call was being broadcast was unsettling enough.  The fact that it was coming from the Moon in orbit around Saturn tossed the crew’s hopes out into space.  Several displays of the solar system flickered beneath the table.  Winnie jumped off Julie’s shoulder and bounded over to Sophia.  Winnie clutched Sophia’s calf and nestled gently on her left shoe.

“Well, ain’t that a stick in the eye.” Jack pushed back from the table.  “How the hell could somethin’ like this happen?”

“Jack, just calm down,” said Thomas.

“Calm down?” Jack stepped toward Thomas.  “Calm down?”

Stawford moved to intercept.  Thomas waved him off.

Jack continued.  “How can a whole planet jus’ up and disappear like that?  There’s gotta be somthin’, some clue or somethin’.”

“Jack, we are working on that.”

“Pfft.”

Thomas stood.  He stepped back from the table and began to pace.  Folding his hands together, he pressed his fingers to his lips.

“We need to figure out what’s going on.”  Almost everyone agreed. “Daxman, rerun a diagnostic of CLARA’s core programming, both processes and sub-processes.”

Daxman looked around the room.  “CLARA’s fine.  What we need-”

“You have your orders Dax.”

“Orders?  No.  We don’t-”.

“Dammit Dax, just do it!”

Jack smiled with a smug satisfaction at the scolding.

Daxman pushed his chair back from the table and stood.  His eyes narrowed as he glared at Thomas.  As Daxman walked toward the GravLift, Winnie stared up at him cowering behind Sophia’s leg.  Daxman scowled and Winnie pulled back, squeezing the calf of her pants.  Daxman turned and left the room. Thomas paused for a moment and closed his eyes.

“What would you like the rest of us to do?” asked Sophia.

Thomas paced and the crew waited.  He glanced around the room.  He knew they were counting on him, his leadership, his guidance.  Thomas searched for answers.

“Commander?  What should we do?” asked Julie.

Thomas stared out the forward window.  The veins on the sides of his neck bulged.  His head pounded with the thump of his heart.  Thomas turned away from the crew.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t know.” He closed his eyes to think.

# # #

January 18, 2041 – Twenty-seven years earlier

John Spinner, a dark imposing figure by any standard, stood at a large window toward the back of an oversized military office.  The walls were adorned with generations of decades old spacecraft replicas: Sputnik, Voyager, Cassini, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station.  The insignia for the International Space Collective hung above the large glass window in the back of the room.  A photo of John Spinner shaking hands with the President rested on a bookshelf near the door.  An engraving beneath the photo described the event: “General John Spinner – Appointed Administrator for the International Space Collective”

Beyond the window, Tesla Prime waited vertically for her maiden voyage.

The door opened. Thomas Warfield stood in the doorway at attention, arms pressed firmly against the sides of his body.  “Sir, you wanted to speak to me?”

“Yes, Tom.  Please come in.”

Thomas entered and marched across the room.

“Sit down, please.”  John motioned.

Thomas walked to one of the leather low-backed chairs in front of the large mahogany desk.  He settled in and gripped the arms at either side of him.

John paced to the front of the desk and leaned against it.  He clasped his hands in front of him.

“How is morale?  How does everyone feel about leaving friends and family behind?”

“Well,” Thomas paused.  “With the exception of Julie, the crew doesn’t have much in the way of family.  That was a criteria for selection, was it not?”

“In part, yes.”

“Well, we each have our own reasons.  But to be among the first to interact with beings on another planet is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“Along with the non-biological mission objectives.”

“Of course, sir.  Collection of the carbon deposits at the Protean equator will be a priority.”

“Good.”  John stepped around to the back of his desk.  “Tom, we need to talk about some of your selections for the Tesla Prime crew.”

“What?  Who?”

“Your Communications Officer.”

“Julie?  She graduated top of her class in xenolinguistics and she is extremely competent in deep space communication protocols.  Is something wrong?”

John glanced down at a report for Ms. Julie Anderson.

“She isn’t as seasoned as the other members of your crew and according to some of her tests, she is emotionally fragile.”

“Perhaps, but she is damn good, sir.  She speaks six languages.  She gets along with everyone on the crew, even Jack.  She’s…” Thomas paused.  “Good for morale.”

“I just hope she doesn’t crack under pressure.”

Thomas shifted.  “Sir, it’s not as if we are going to war.  The Grazier Space Telescope confirmed that life on Proteus is primitive and won’t pose a risk.”

“Alright.” John opened another folder.  “And your pilot?  How’s he performing?”

“Mr. Stawford Sinclair is the best pilot I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.  He scored in the top 1% in reaction time, critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, and -“

“And his disability?”

Thomas glanced at the floor.  It was an obstacle.  “We compensate.  Between the on-board AI and Julie, he gets the information he needs.  In fact, he says his deafness helps him concentrate.  He can quite literally, tune everything out and just focus on flying.”

“I think you are making a mistake with him.”

“No, sir.  Stawford’s the best.”

“So you say.”  John walked around his desk to a corner and rested on it.  “And Jack?”

“Jack is quite at home with the engines.”

“He knows the engines, I’ll give you that.  But there are other options.  That graduate from Harvard has more-”

“I’ve considered the other candidates,” interrupted Thomas.  “Despite his rough edges, Jack’s the best choice.”

“Okay.  They are your picks so I am going to trust your judgment.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“How are you holding up?”

“We are all excited and ready.”  Thomas gazed out the window toward Tesla Prime.  Thirty stories tall, it stood like a beacon on the horizon, a calling to those who would commit their lives to a journey of exploration, to be among the first in the history of man, to set foot on an alien world.

“Tom, look at me.”  Thomas turned back to return John’s gaze.  “I know things haven’t exactly been easy for you.  These past couple of months have been challenging.”

“Sir?”

“You aren’t a robot, Tom.  No one would blame you if you needed some time off.”

John opened a personnel file on his desktop.  “It’s only been six months,” he said as he scanned the article inside.

~~~

Los Angeles New Times

July 8, 2040

Ebola Outbreak Strikes UCLA

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that involves 35 suspected cases, with at least 8 deaths.

Based on reports from UCLA, the WHO said that the outbreak was detected in Building 200 and that an independent laboratory at UCLA confirmed the Ebola virus in samples from two of the patients.  WHO spokesman Griff Harton told the Los Angeles New Times that the building was quarantined immediately following the laboratory tests.

First responder, Dr. Maria Santos Warfield was among the confirmed dead.

“My Maria dedicated her life to the treatment of infectious disease around the world,” said her husband and recently appointed commander of the upcoming Tesla Prime mission, Thomas Warfield, in a statement to the Los Angeles New Times.  “She will be missed beyond measure.  Her loss is everyone’s loss.  She was my light, my star, and the world is a darker place without her.”

~~~

“I just need to know that you’re in this.”

Thomas clenched his jaw.  “Sir.  I can assure you, there is no need for concern.”

“Tom, I just want to make sure you are going on this mission for the right reasons.  It’s a lot to ask of anyone.”

“Sir, no one is more prepared for this mission than my team and I.”  Thomas’s eyes widened and his shoulders tensed.

“I know.”  John relaxed.  “I know.  You are the right man to lead this crew.”  John opened a drawer on his left and pulled out a new folder.  “But I need to ask one more thing of you,” said John.

“Sir?”

“Tom, I need to add a person to your crew.”

“Add an extra person?”

“Yes.”

“Sir, that’s impossible.  Even if I could, there are only seven cryostasis pods.”

“Tom.”

“And we’ve been training for two years.  There just isn’t enough time.”

“Tom!”

“Not to mention medical evaluations, supply remanagement, psych evaluations, team chemistry-”

“Tom, it’s Daxman.”

“What?”

“I want him on the mission.”

“Daxman?  You want me to take your son?”

“Yes, Tom.”

“You can’t be serious!  Doesn’t he have a trial in four months?”

John walked to the window, looking out across the tarmac toward Tesla Prime.  Vents of mist drifted down from the fuel ports.  Engineers bustled about, making the final preparations for launch.

“Yes,” he said with a bitter reluctance.

“He’s charged with espionage.  I heard that he was responsible for hacking into ISC network.”

“We’ve all made mistakes in life.”

“I wouldn’t call trying to steal financial records about the Tesla Prime program a mistake.”

“Let’s not worry about the past.  This is about the future.  This, you, the crew, Tesla Prime could be a new beginning for him.”

“He hasn’t even been trained. He could jeopardize the mission.”

“You know how smart he is, how good he is with computers.”

Thomas stood up and glared at John.  “Dammit, John!  You can’t ask me to do this.  We launch in two months!”

“I know, you do.  I know.  But he needs this.”  John clenched his jaw. “I need this.”

Thomas turned and walked to the back of the room, stopping in front of a bust of astronomer, Galileo Galilei.  Beneath the bust, a quote was carved into a bronze plaque. Thomas read the quote to himself.

“Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so. – Galileo Galilei”

“And how are you going to get this passed in the ISC?  The press will be all over this,” said Thomas.

“As far as they know, the crew will remain the same.”

“What do you mean?”

“There will be no official change.”

“So, you want me to kick someone off of the team?”

“Yes.”

“And without anyone knowing?  You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“And if a word of this leaks to the public?  You’ll lose your job.”

“As will you,” responded John.  “And if you refuse, you will lose your job anyway due to medical reasons stemming from the loss of your wife.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

And with that, it was clear.  Thomas moved to the door in the back of the room and stopped. He clenched his fist, glanced at the ground and then back at John. “I want a medical eval at 0500 and I want him on the SIM at 0700 tomorrow morning.”

“Good.  Let me know by end of day tomorrow who you want to replace,” said John as he sat down in his maroon leather high back chair. “It’s your crew, your call but if you want my advice, leave Julie behind.  I don’t know why you selected her in the first place.”

Thomas left the room.

By the time of the trial, Daxman was 327 billion miles away.

* * *

“Alright.”  Thomas opened his eyes.  “Dr. Yeatman, um, the trajectory information.  Please update it for Tesla Prime.  And Jack, run another delta-V diagnostic on the ACE engines.”

Isaac strolled to the GravLift and disappeared into the floor.  Jack followed.

“Julie, can you recheck the Moon transmissions for any embedded message?  I want to know what we are getting ourselves into.  Anything will help at this point.”

“Okay, Commander.”  Her voice trembled with an unnerved fear.

“Don’t worry, Julie.  We’ll figure this out.”  Thomas pulled Julie toward him and patted her on the head.  She smiled.  “And please tell Stawford that we need to get to the Moon and fast.”

Julie turned to Stawford and signed the message.  He nodded and jogged down the stairs to the pilot’s chair.

“I’ll be in the Hydroponics Lab,” said Sophia who was waiting nearby.

“Sophie, wait!”

Sophia slipped into the GravLift and vanished through the floor.

 

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