When the World Looked Up

Welcome to the fourth of twelve.  For those who don’t know, I’m writing twelve short stories this year, one each month.  On the last Wednesday of each month, instead of my regular blog post I will be posting the short story from that month.  Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments!

 

“Wait…you’re saying it’s going out over the air?”

“Yes. I’ve been getting calls about it all morning…hang on there’s another one. Hello? Yes ma’am, we’re aware of the interference…yes we’re trying to fix it ma’am…I…wow. She hung up on me.”

“How is that possible?”

“I have no idea. Look I’m trying my best here, but I gotta get back to work. I barely have enough time in between all the phone calls. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

The producer leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes with a combination of tiredness and frustration. Working the morning shift was not an easy one. The hours were odd and sleep was a luxury most days. The strange interference wasn’t helping matters. It was a constant pulsing noise that came in through their headsets as well as the speakers. There were five people including her in the production booth and they could all hear it.

It started without any warning. She had been sitting back in the newsroom writing the script for the show when the master control operator, Keith, called the phone at her desk. He seemed hurried and didn’t say much…but she could tell he hadn’t dealt with anything like it before.

That was almost two hours ago.

“Didn’t sleep well?”

The producer turned her head and gave the director a smile.

“Yeah…just one of those nights I guess.”

“Gotta say, I don’t envy you. I have enough trouble trying to be here by five in the morning, much less one-thirty.”

The producer laughed.

“Well you haven’t missed a day yet Martin, so I’d say you’re doing fine.”

The two of them looked up at the giant clock. It read “5:45:23” in big red numbers. Fifteen minutes, she thought to herself. If we can’t get this problem fixed…do I call off the show?

“What do you think? Do we go on as usual,” the director asked, almost as if he could read her mind.

The producer shook her head.

“I don’t know…”

“I’ll say this…if the interference is already going out over the air I don’t really see any point to canceling the show. Might as well report on it.”

“But it’s been going on for almost two hours. How do we know it’ll stop?”

“We don’t,” the director said. He cracked his knuckles. “In the end it’s up to you Sarah. This is your show after all.”

The producer glanced at the clock again. Fourteen minutes to go…

“Hey Sarah,” a voice buzzed in her headset.

“Yeah Keith?”

“It’s not just our station.”

The producer sat up straight.

“What?”

“I just got off the phone with the local CBS affiliate. They’re getting the same interference. Apparently it’s affecting all of the local stations.”

“What…how?”

The master control operator opened his mouth to answer but was cut off by the phone ringing.

“Hang on a minute,” he said. Through the window she saw him set his headset down and grab the phone.

“You know I’ve been here about six or seven years…and I gotta say I’ve never seen anything like this,” the director said. “I mean there’s interference in our headsets every once in a while from the radio stations, but something that can actually transmit itself over the air? It would have to be one hell of a signal.”

“I don’t even understand how-”

“Hey Sarah?”

“What’s up Keith?”

“I’m on the phone with the main ABC station down south. They’re getting it too.”

The producer stared at him, incredulous. “Wait…are you saying that it’s affecting the entire state?”

“It might be…I don’t know. I need to-”

He wasn’t able to finish. Everyone looked up in shock as the droning noise suddenly stopped and was replaced by a new sound. It was no longer a hum, but a pattern of beeping noises that repeated itself every few seconds.

“What the hell…” the director muttered.

But the producer didn’t hear him. Her eyes narrowed as she listened to the pattern. “Dot dot dot…dash dash-” Then it hit her. “Oh my god, that’s an SOS signal!”

The director stared at her.

“What?! You’re kidding!”

“No I’m serious,” the producer insisted. “Three short, three long, three short,” she said. “It’s Morse Code!”

“But who the hell is sending it,” the director asked.

The producer lifted her eyes and stared at the speakers, a chill falling over the room.

“I have no idea…”

 

“Welcome to the Morning Show on channels five and ten! Now here’s your host, Olivia Redding!”

“Good morning, I’m Olivia Redding. Normally we would go right into weather with Devin, but this is not a normal morning. For just over two hours now, a signal has been going out over our airwaves. It started as a pulsating drone, but then about ten minutes before we went on the air it changed. You are hearing that signal now.”

The anchor paused to let the audience listen.

“It may be familiar to some of you…it is an SOS signal in Morse Code. Morse Code was first invented back in the 1830s and was used to send text information as a series of tones, lights, or clicks. The international Morse Code signal for an SOS or distress call is three short, three long, three short. At the moment we have no idea where the signal is coming from, but we do know it is affecting television stations all across the state.”

She paused, holding a hand to her ear.

“I’ve just been informed by our producer, Sarah, that we are turning you over to Good Morning America for a special report. We now go live to Christopher Emerson in New York.”

 

All across the nation, television screens were filled with the image of a man sitting behind a glass desk. He had dark black hair, brown eyes, and wore a black suit and tie. The expression on his face was one of utter seriousness.

“Good morning America, I’m Christopher Emerson with this special report. Approximately two hours ago, a signal was picked up going over television and radio airwaves, a signal you are hearing presently. It has been determined that it is a Morse Code SOS, a distress call first adopted by the German government over a hundred years ago. The signal has affected over two hundred different television and radio stations across the nation. And we have just recently learned that it is not isolated to our shores. Several major television networks over in Europe have confirmed that they are picking up the signal as well. We are expecting more confirmations to come in from our country and beyond as the morning continues.”

The television cut to a new camera shot, showing a balding, middle-aged man sitting across from Emerson. He was wearing a white lab coat and a gray laptop was sitting in front of him.

“We turn you now to Bradley Anderson, a scientist for the CERN institute in Switzerland. We were very lucky to have Bradley on site this morning, as he was originally scheduled to talk to us about an exciting new experiment CERN was undertaking. Brad, thank you for joining us,” Emerson said as he turned toward him.

“Thank you for having me Chris.”

“Now, tell us what we know so far.”

“As you said, a little over two hours ago the signal began interfering with television and radio transmissions all over the United States as well as other countries. At approximately six-fifty eastern time here in New York, the ‘pulsing’ ceased and was replaced by a series of tones which we have identified as the Morse Code SOS.”

“Now, some people on GMA’s social media pages have been speculating that this might be some kind of attack by Russia or North Korea…an attempt to disable our communications. Could there be any truth to this?”

“It’s extremely unlikely Chris. If this was really an attack, then it failed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if it was an attempt to disable our communications, then it didn’t work because we’re still talking to each other just fine.”

“Then where is the signal coming from,” Emerson asked.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out. I’ve been in contact with some of my colleagues at CERN and they’ve been in conference calls with scientists all over the world. They’re getting very close to determining the signal’s origin. It’s been difficult because of all the interference, but we should have an answer within the next few minutes.”

“Good to hear. Now, before we went live the two of us were discussing this phenomenon. You said that the pulsing was a…’data burst’ of some kind?”

“Precisely. The noise we heard before the SOS signal was a transmission of encoded data that repeated itself every couple of minutes. It’s incredibly complex and our people at CERN are trying to decipher that as well. But it might be days before we even have an idea of what we’re looking-”

The laptop in front of Anderson started beeping.

“Well it appears we have our answer,” he said.

Anderson clicked a button and it stopped. He opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped. His eyes went wide and his mouth hung open in shock.

“Brad? What is it,” Emerson asked. “What’s wrong?”

“The signal,” Anderson finally said, “it’s not from here.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned the computer around. And as viewers all over the nation watched, Emerson’s traditionally calm demeanor twitched. Something between awe and fear registered on his face. His eyes went wide and he was unable to speak.

“If this is correct,” Anderson explained, “the signal is coming from somewhere beyond the moon.”

The two of them were silent for a moment. On the computer screen was an image of Earth and a blinking green dot past the moon. Then, Emerson managed to collect himself. He turned away from Anderson and the television switched to a straight-on camera shot of him.

“That was Bradley Anderson, a scientist with the CERN institute. It is uncertain what this latest development will mean, not just for us here in the United States, but for the world at large. We are still waiting to hear an official statement from the White House. For that, we go live to our official White House Correspondent…Tricia, what do you have for us?”

“Not much Chris. The president still has not signaled when she plans to release a statement to the press. As we know, Congress was expected to vote on the president’s budget proposal this morning. They are currently in the second hour of a massive filibuster…”

 

President Amelia Garland ran a hand through her long red hair, her shiny green eyes staring out the Oval Office window. Her bright red blazer and black pants looked faded and dull in the gloomy reflection. It was a rainy day in Washington. The sun hadn’t shown its face since the early morning.

They always said you should be prepared for anything, she thought to herself. Well I doubt they had this in mind.

Tiring of the cloudy view, President Garland turned away from the window. Her eyes fell on a small flat screen television an aide had wheeled in for her. On screen was a shot of the Senate floor. An older man was speaking at a podium. He had wiry gray hair and brown eyes. The camera bore down from above on his thin rimmed glasses and stuffy gray suit.

“This budget proposal is a preposterous measure,” he was saying. The graphic underneath identified him as Senator Scott Connelly. “These massive cuts to defense spending will not stand,” he continued. “We must protect our own. Our enemies know that the best time to strike is when we are at our weakest.”

Garland sighed. Connelly had been a staple from back when she was a senator. She never cared for him. His face reminded her too much of a smug toad.

She heard a knock at the door.

“Come in.” she called.

In stepped John Hayes, her Secretary of State. He had blue eyes, black hair, and wore a traditional ensemble: gray suit, blue tie, and gray pants. He was the spitting image of a stuffy politician, but his heart was in the right place.

“You’re still watching this,” he asked, pointing to the TV. “Who’s on the floor now?”

“Our old friend.”

“Still? He’s been at it for over an hour.”

“One hour, fifteen minutes.”

Hayes gave her a look.

“I like to keep track,” she said with a shrug.

“And now,” Connelly said on the TV, “we have this new matter of the signal from outer space. We must be prepared for any and every contingency. To that end, we must continue to fund our military to ensure that they are able to protect us from any outside threats. I remember when I was a little boy in grade school…”

“I thought he hated filibusters,” Hayes said.

“When he’s not the minority leader he does,” Garland replied.

Hayes looked at the TV and shook his head. “What a piece of work.”

“Did you have something for me John,” Garland asked.

“Yes,” the Secretary of State replied, turning his attention back to the President. “I wanted to give you an update on decoding the data burst.”

“Didn’t CERN say it would take them days, maybe even weeks?”

“Not anymore.” Hayes stepped forward and handed her a sheet of paper. “Take a look at this.”

Garland ran her eyes over it. The writing made no sense to her, although she could tell it was some kind of repeating pattern of numbers and letters.

“What is it,” she asked.

“A decryption key, embedded at the beginning of the signal transmission. CERN informed us that with this key, they should be able to decode the data in a matter of hours, not days.”

“Incredible…”

“What’s our next move,” Hayes asked.

“We don’t have one.” Garland looked back up at the Secretary. “Not yet at least. We can only wait and see what they come up with. Then we decide how to proceed from there.”

“What about Congress? Hell, what about Connelly,” Hayes ask, nodding at the screen. “He’ll never go for anything you put forth. He’s consistent about that at the very least.”

Garland laid her eyes on the television.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

 

Deep in an industrial laboratory heads were scratched over and over again as minds tried to wrap themselves around massive amounts of data. The discovery of the decryption key was a great boon, as it sped up the process. But even so, the decoding was tedious at best.

No one could deny that the scientists at CERN were hard at work. Suddenly, one of them burst into the large conference room, having just made the breakthrough they needed.

“I did it,” the scientist exclaimed. “I know what it’s for!”

The other scientists gathered around him as he slapped a printout onto the white board.

“It’s anti-matter,” he said. “It’s a formula for creating anti-matter!”

“But…that’s insane,” one of them exclaimed. “How could synthesizing anti-matter be this easy?”

“Their grasp of science far outclasses ours,” the first scientist explained. “It stands to reason that at some point during their technological advancement they would figure out some shortcuts.”

“But why would they send this to us? Unless…”

The speaker trailed off and the room was silent. It hit them all at once.

“They lost power,” someone said.

“And now they have no way of getting home,” said another.

“Forget getting home,” the first scientist said. “If they’re running out of power, then a more crucial concern for them would be life-support. The air they breathe, if it even is air, is probably running out.”

They looked over the fantastical blueprints taped to the board in front of them. When they first decrypted a large segment of the data they found instructions for building some kind of containment device. It was clear that they would have to substitute materials for its creation, as the specifications called for things humanity had never heard of. But they got it done.

It was decoding what the device was supposed to contain that took some time. The translations offered by the alien signal were only partial, indicating that some words were impossible to replicate in human language. One of those turned out to be the alien name for “anti-matter”.

“How long do you think they have,” someone asked.

“I have no idea…we can’t even say for certain that they need air or that there’s even a crew aboard that ship. For all we know, it’s an automated vessel.”

The scientist responsible for the recent discovery turned his eyes away from the whiteboard. He walked over to the large wooden conference table and ran his hands along it.

“What are you thinking?”

“We can create the device and synthesize the anti-matter in a matter of a few days,” he explained. “With these blueprints it’ll be surprisingly easy. But getting it out to them is another matter. The only space shuttle scheduled to leave Earth in the near future is the Atlas, and that wasn’t supposed to happen for another four weeks.”

“Then we’ll get President Garland to move up the schedule.”

“There’s another problem,” the scientist said, still tracing the patterns on the table with his finger.

“What’s that?”

“This information…we can’t keep it a secret. If we deliver it to the United States and the United States alone…it’ll cause a massive international incident.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we broadcast it worldwide?”

“What other choice do we have? Right now we do not need to be fighting with each other.”

“But how do we know the information will be used wisely? Someone could take it for themselves and try to build a weapon.”

The scientist stood up straight and turned his eyes on his colleagues.

“We don’t. But the alternative is a mass outrage the world can’t afford.”

“Well someone needs to relay this information. Who’s it going to be?”

“I’ll do it,” the first scientist volunteered. His eyes wandered to the printout he had taped to the board. “It was my idea after all.”

 

Hours passed. Back in Washington, President Garland still had her eyes glued on the television.

“You don’t hand a child a potential weapon,” Connelly said. “Whoever these creatures are, they have handed us something that could easily be turned into a tool of mass destruction. It doesn’t make sense…unless they have some kind of ulterior motive…unless they want us to destroy ourselves.”

“Yeah he’s been going on like that since the news broke,” Hayes said as he walked in.

“Hardly surprising,” she responded.

“We should not devote our time and energy to the creation of such a device,” Connelly continued. “It would play right into their hands.”

Hayes clicked the TV off.

“I think that’s enough of that,” he said.

The phone rang. Garland put it on speaker.

“Yes?”

“Madam President, Zachary Ross is here.”

“Send him in,” she said, then hung up.

“You invited the head of NASA?”

“I did.”

“Even with Congress blocking your every move?”

“There are ways around them,” Garland replied in a cryptic manner.

The door opened. An African-American man in his mid-thirties entered the Oval Office. He had blue eyes and short brown. His face was clean-shaven and youthful in appearance. He was wearing a black dress shirt with dark gray pants, noticeably less formal than Garland or her Secretary of State.

There was a twinkle in Ross’ eyes when he spotted Garland.

“Madam President,” he said with a smile.

“Please Zach, just call me Amy. We’ve known each other for far too long.”

Garland took her seat and motioned for the other two to sit as well.

“What’s our situation,” Garland asked.

“Moving the Atlas’ launch date up shouldn’t be a problem,” Ross said as he took his seat. “But there are other complications.”

“Go on,” Hayes said.

“The problem is fuel efficiency. Atlas‘ mission was to rendezvous with the International Space Station on a simple supply run. We can add more fuel to the shuttle and help it get past the moon, but the engine we’re using is out of date. That means we could get the shuttle out there, but it wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back.”

“I see…” Garland said. Hayes gave her a sharp look.

“Tell me you’re not considering this,” he said.

“Of course not,” she replied. “It would be a suicide mission. I could never authorize that in good conscience.”

“There are other options,” Ross continued. “We’ve tossed around the idea of adding miniature rocket boosters to the Atlas life pod which could be used when the main engines run out of fuel. But such a process is delicate. If the boosters aren’t secured in the right way, the resulting heat could leak into the cabin and kill the astronauts, not to mention all the logistical issues with-”

The phone ringing cut him off. Garland picked it up.

“This is the President.”

“Ma’am,” an aide said over the phone, “I have a…General Garrett from the eastern seaboard on the line. He says it’s important.”

“Patch him through…hello? General?”

“Madam President, we have a situation,” a gruff voice said. “A Chinese cargo plane is about to violate U.S. airspace.”

“What?!”

“We estimate they will enter our airspace in less than a minute…hold on a second ma’am…yes? What is it…what? Can you confirm that? Hmm…all right…madam President?”

“Yes General?”

“We just received a message from the plane. Ma’am…they say they’re carrying a new type of rocket booster on board…a gift for the Atlas that should boost its fuel efficiency.”

“Is there any way to confirm they’re telling the truth?”

“Our initial scans show no suspicious heat signatures, but without visually inspecting the cargo it’s impossible to be certain. They’ve relayed a message from the Chinese president, but the plane will be within our airspace long before we can confirm its authenticity. We need a plan of action ma’am.”

Time never moved as slow for Amelia Garland as it did during the next twenty seconds. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temple with her free hand. These were the decisions that could make or break a president. She had no way of knowing is this was some kind of trick…an attempt at sabotage.

But if it was true…if they were really willing to collaborate…it would be just what they needed. Any help from other countries was more than welcome.

Garland felt the eyes of Ross and her Secretary of State on her. But they had no idea about the dilemma she was facing. If she let them in and something went wrong, people like Connelly would hold it over her for the rest of her term in office. Hell…she’d hold it over herself for the rest of her life.

But if she didn’t do it…

Garland sat up straight. Her decision was made.

“Bring them in,” she ordered.

“Yes ma’am,” the General replied.

“But have them land at an isolated airfield. At the very least, if it is some kind of ploy, they’ll be isolated. Bring them in, quarantine the situation until you can verify the cargo, then report back to me. And General? Take every precaution you need.”

“Affirmative ma’am.” Then he was gone.

“What was that all about,” Hayes asked.

“Apparently the Chinese have a gift for us,” Garland said as she hung up the phone. “Some new type of rocket booster for the Atlas that would boost our fuel efficiency.”

“No…it couldn’t be,” Ross said, more to himself than anyone.

“What is it Zach?”

“Have you ever heard of the Divine Hammer?”

“No,” Garland said. “What is it?”

“Supposedly it’s the most advanced rocket booster ever constructed, one that exponentially increases fuel efficiency. If that’s what they’re willing to give us…”

“It would break all sorts of precedents, that’s for sure,” Garland replied. “If it all checks out, would you be willing to allow them access to the Atlas?”

“I don’t see much choice in the matter. It’s either that or we go it alone.”

“What are we going to do about Congress,” Hayes asked. “That filibuster will stop anything we try and do.”

Garland stared into the black void of the television screen for a moment.

“Then we go over their heads,” she said. “Hayes, grab an aide and begin drafting an executive order.”

“Connelly and his friends aren’t going to like this,” Hayes said as he got up from his chair.

“They’ve made a point of disliking everything I do,” Garland replied. “Just get it done.”

“Yes madam president.”

 

There were six of them on board the plane: four engineers, one astronaut, and the pilot. They were quickly escorted off when it landed and men in green uniforms armed with assault rifles moved onto the plane. They swept their rifle-mounted flashlights all over the interior, dots of white light crawling across the walls like lightning bugs.

They paused before a massive blue tarp.

“Sir, we found something underneath a tarp,” reported one of the men. “Should we wait?”

“Pull it off immediately,” came the order. “We need to be certain what we’re dealing with.”

“Yes General. Help me with this,” he ordered his comrades.

Four of them removed the bungee straps and pulled the tarp off. When they saw the giant hunk of black metal, they knew. It hadn’t been a lie. It hadn’t been a trick. It was real. They had been telling the truth.

Standing before them was the Divine Hammer, the most powerful rocket booster ever created…

 

“Yes. Thank you General. Please, see to it that they arrive at the Atlas launch site in good time.”

With that. Garland hung up the phone. Not long ago she had been on the line with the Chinese president. He had one condition: if the U.S. was to use the Divine Hammer, one of their astronauts would be sent up into space with it. Garland saw no reason to argue. The possible implications of what was happening were too great. This was no time for artificial lines in the sand.

And yet, it wasn’t all in the spirit of their common humanity. The Chinese president knew that the Atlas was the only shuttle that could get out there in time. He also knew that whatever technology might be on board that ship would be centuries beyond anything humanity had as of yet. Whoever had access to such technology would have a great advantage. In the end, Garland knew he was being pragmatic.

The phone rang again. It was one of her aides.

“Ma’am, I have the Russian government on the line. Apparently they’ve found out about the Chinese cargo plane and are demanding a place at the table.”

Garland’s mouth curled into a half smile.

“Tell them to pull up a chair.”

 

It was the fastest the world governments had moved in recent history.

Connelly and his allies, predictably, railed against Garland’s executive order. They called it a “flagrant abuse of power”. They said it showed “terrible decision making”. They condemned it in as many ways as they could. In the end, it didn’t matter. The mission moved forward despite their objections.

A little over a week later, the Atlas was ready for launch. It had only taken a few days to get the new booster installed, thanks to the help of the Chinese engineers. The Russians didn’t come empty handed either. They provided extra fuel, so much so that the Atlas could make the trip twice over.

But still, Zachary Ross had qualms about the mission.

They were certain the shuttle would make it off the ground, but after that things were less clear. Would the shuttle make it there in one piece? Would the new booster function as advertised? No one could say.

And yet, they all knew how important this was.

“Five minutes to launch”, a voice said over the intercom.

After the first couple of days, the alien signal ceased. He wondered if they knew what humanity was doing, if they knew help was on the way. It was a crucial moment in history. What happened here could determine all of mankind’s future interactions with extra-terrestrial beings.

If we ignore this cry for help, what kind of message does that send, he asked himself.

Ross was standing square in the middle of the mission’s command center. All around him were computers and control panels manned by NASA personnel. Dominating the room was a gigantic, green-tinted screen that would show the progress of the Atlas.

“Four minutes to launch.”

Ross turned his attention to the main screen. He couldn’t help but feel anxious about the situation. The lack of proper safety checks…the rushed schedule…it was asking for trouble. But there was no choice. The aliens had sent their signal over a week ago. They could be dead by now for all they knew.

But they had to try. Contact was so close…

 

“Two minutes to launch.”

Three astronauts were sitting inside the Atlas. One was an American, one was Chinese, and the other was Russian. It was part of an international accord between the countries, so that none of them could gain a technological foothold over the others by using what they might find.

“We should get going already,” said the Russian.

“Would you rather we blow up on the landing pad,” asked the American.

“Beats just sitting here.”

The Chinese astronaut, on the other hand, sat still in his seat without a word. The other two had to admit that they found his silence a little disconcerting. Nevertheless, they knew they had to trust each other.

“One minute to launch.”

Out through the main window, the sky was bright and blue without a cloud in sight. The launch conditions had been perfect. No wind or other weather to hamper the landing pad. It was an auspicious start.

“Thirty seconds.”

The three of them adjusted their straps, ensuring they were in good condition.

“Twenty.”

“Here we go boys,” the Russian shouted with excitement.

The other two said nothing. They stared straight ahead and braced themselves.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…”

 

“Five…four…three…two…one…we have ignition!”

Zachary Ross watched as clouds of thick smoke and fire enveloped the Atlas on the main screen. Soon enough, it was soaring off into the sky.

“Everything looks good,” a man sitting at a nearby control panel informed him. He nodded and continued watching. The blinking green dot that represented the shuttle climbed higher and higher, ascending through the clouds and breaking the bonds of gravity. It took only a matter of minutes before they hit the atmosphere.

“And…they’re through! Detaching Stage 2 rockets.”

So far…so good, Ross thought to himself.

 

The launch had been a little rougher than the astronauts anticipated. But when they passed through the atmosphere, things smoothed out. Once the rockets had detached and the Divine Hammer started its work, the three of them were able to relax. As the minutes ticked by the American found his eyes drifting from the instruments to the endless void outside. He stared into it for a long time, unable to fight the crippling sensation of smallness he felt.

“Amazing…isn’t it?”

The American turned to find the Russian staring off into the blackness as well.

“For all we know about space,” the Russian mused, “our minds still can’t comprehend how vast it is. We’re so focused on our different countries, but the distance between us is nothing compared to the distance between planets.”

“You know, I never would have pegged you as a philosophical type,” the American admitted.

“Would it be better if I had a bottle of vodka in my hand?”

“Well no, I wasn’t saying-” But the Russian laughed, cutting him off.

“Lighten up my friend. We’re hurtling through a vacuum in a hunk of metal that’s been stitched together by fire. The only thing between us and certain death is mere inches,” he said, reaching out and running his hand along the wall.

“Well, when you put it that way, I feel so much better.”

The Russian laughed again.

“I think you and I will get along just fine.”

 

For Zachary Ross, life slowed to a crawl. Hour after hour passed with agonizing slowness. It took over half a day, but eventually Atlas left the moon in its rear-view mirror.

He spent most of the time sitting in the break room, watching the news. Ross couldn’t help but shake his head any time Senator Connelly or his cohorts were brought up. They had spent the entire week criticizing the president for her decision to approve the mission.

That’s how it always is isn’t it, he asked himself. They talk and talk, but nothing gets done.

Ross had never been a big fan of politics. There was too much money tied up in it. How could you count on an elected official to actually represent you when a corporation could essentially buy their opinion?

After a while he got up and made his way back to the command center.

“Report,” he said as he walked in.

“Everything’s going smoothly sir. All systems check out.”

Ross watched as the small blinking dot crept farther and farther away from Earth. No one had any idea what the three astronauts would find out there. Preliminary sensor scans had revealed that the ship most likely had a pentagonal shape. An odd choice to be sure, but maybe it had some kind of religious significance to them.

Then he wondered. Do they even have religion? Or did they cast it off centuries ago?

It didn’t matter in the end. Religion or no religion, spirituality or no spirituality, living beings had called out for help. That wasn’t something he could ignore. That wasn’t something anyone should ignore.

What will they look like? Will we recognize them as life? Or will they be so far beyond us that we can’t even comprehend them?

He was jolted out of his thoughts by a sudden, shrieking alarm…

 

A loud bang echoed through the shuttle, followed by spinning red lights and a wailing siren.

B’lyad,” cursed the Russian. “What was that?!”

“I don’t know! Our instruments just went haywire! I-”

The American trailed off. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something outside the window. It was some kind of viscous, dark liquid oozing out into space…

The realization hit him like a freight train.

“Oh shit,” he shouted. “We’re leaking fuel!”

“How?!”

“Some kind of fault we didn’t detect, some damage we took maybe…I have no idea! But if we don’t stop it soon, we’re screwed!

“I’ll take care of it,” the Chinese astronaut said. He clicked off his harness, grabbed a handle above him, and pulled himself toward the rear of the shuttle with the grace of a dancer. The Russian and the American watched him go. Once he had disappeared, the two stared at each other.

“Did you know he spoke English,” the Russian asked.

“No. I hadn’t heard a word out of him since he arrived.”

The American turned around and gazed at his instruments. Fuel was leaking at a rapid rate, and the alarm was constantly assaulting his ears. It felt like minutes had gone by, but in reality it hadn’t even been thirty seconds.

“Come on,” he muttered. “Come on…come on…” He banged his fist against the controls. “Come on you son of a bitch!

Almost like an answer to a prayer, the alarm stopped and the spinning lights turned off. Both of the astronauts let out a sigh of relief. A moment later, the radio crackled in their ears.

“I managed to clamp down the fuel valves,” the Chinese astronaut reported. “We should now have time to find and patch the leak.”

“That’s good,” the American said, “but it’s too late.”

“How much did we lose,” the Russian asked.

“Well…if these readings are correct, we no longer have enough fuel for the return trip home. Which means…once we get out there…”

“We’re stuck,” the Russian finished.

“Exactly.”

The two of them stared each other in the eyes. Nothing needed to be said. They could tell they were both thinking the same thing.

“We’ve come this far haven’t we,” the Russian asked.

“Yes we have,” the American replied.

“Might as well finish the job.”

“Might as well.”

The Chinese astronaut appeared from the rear of the shuttle, pulling himself along by the handles on the ceiling.

“What about you?” The American turned to him. “If you don’t want to do this, I understand.”

The Chinese astronaut turned and locked eyes with the American.

“I volunteered for this mission sir,” he said. “I will see it through to the end.”

 

“You’re going to what?!”

“We’ve patched the leak and we’re going to continue the mission.”

“But…you don’t have enough fuel to get back! You’ll die out there!”

“We’re all in agreement on this end mission control.”

“Yeah. What kind of hosts would we be if we bailed on the party now,” a heavily accented voice chimed in.

Zachary Ross leaned back in his chair. The headset he was wearing was like a vice threatening to squeeze his brains right out of his skull. He looked up at the main screen, at the blinking green dot that represented the Atlas. Over four hundred thousand kilometers separated them from their home…their friends…their families.

And I sent them out there, he thought.

That wasn’t completely true. All three of the men had voluntarily signed on to one of the most dangerous missions mankind had ever undertaken. They knew what they were getting themselves into, how unprecedented it was. But Ross blamed himself anyways. He couldn’t help it.

“Godspeed men…godspeed,” he said. Then he terminated the transmission and stared up at the cold, gray ceiling.

“Godspeed,” he mumbled.

 

That night, President Amelia Garland found herself staring out the Oval Office window, this time with a glass of wine in one hand and a bottle in the other. It had rained well into the evening. Even now she could hear the soft pattering of the rain drops as they hit the glass.

The news hit Earth hard. Vigils were held all over the world. News coverage of the events ran well into the night as any updates on the astronauts got eaten up by the public. Within the first hour of the news breaking, Senator Connelly issued a statement to the press. In it, he called the situation evidence of the new administration’s “lack of real leadership”.

He doesn’t actually care about them, she thought. They’re just an opportunity…a stepping stone…

Garland turned away from the window and stumbled. She looked at the bottle and her now-empty glass. Had she really drank that much? She couldn’t remember.

With an unsteady hand, she gripped her chair and pulled it out from behind the desk, taking a seat. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights, so the room was dark. The only illumination was a soft, yellow glow from the street lamps outside.

Garland set the bottle and the glass down on the desk. A moment later, she buried her head in her hands.

No one ever knew about the tears that fell from her eyes that night…

 

It was early morning in Washington when the astronauts finally made contact.

The scans had been correct. The ship was shaped like a pentagon. They almost didn’t even see it until they were right on top of it due to its dark color. There were no apparent windows on the vessel. It was just a solid shade of blue eerily floating through space.

There was no need to look for a docking point. The moment they got close enough, it was as if an invisible hand had taken hold and carried them in. A loud clunking sound indicated they had docked.

“Here we are,” the Russian said.

“Here we are,” the American agreed.

The three of them made their way to the airlock. As the depressurization sequence commenced, the three of them wondered what lay on the other side of the airlock door. What would they find in a vessel from beyond their solar system?

“Hopefully they appreciate us coming out all this way huh,” the Russian said with an awkward laugh. But the other two knew he was afraid. They knew because they all were.

In front of them sat the anti-matter containment device on a construction dolly. It was a large contraption, almost twice the height of a normal man. Cold, gray metal covered the exterior while an ethereal blue glow shined from inside.

Eventually, the airlock seal hissed and the door slid open. The room they stepped into had a hexagonal shape. And it was tall, at least five times their height. The floor was slick and their steps made a sloshing sound wherever they walked. The walls were a mottled blue, clear liquid dripping down the sides.

“Where should I put this,” the Chinese astronaut asked, wheeling in the anti-matter container.

“Just leave it in the middle I guess,” the American said, hardly paying attention. He was running his hand along the wall. “Feel this,” he told the others. “It’s soft. How is that possible?”

The three of them were silent for a long time, their eyes wandering around the room. A distant humming sound reached their ears, presumably the ship’s power system at work. As the American walked around he almost lost his footing on the slick floor, but managed to stay upright. Minutes passed by without incident.

“Is this it,” the Russian asked. He stepped up to the far wall and rapped his hand against it, the sound echoing through the cavernous room. “What a joke,” he shouted, ramming his fist into the wall. “We come all the way out here and-”

“Wait!” The American held up his hand. “Do you hear that?”

The Russian turned toward him and was about to speak when he froze. The sound was coming from beyond the wall. It was distant, but moving closer: a deep moan…like a whale in the depths of the ocean.

“What is-”

The Russian didn’t get to finish his question. There was a thunderous clunk and the wall behind him suddenly became transparent. The man flinched and jumped back, retreating away from the wall. The three astronauts stood next to each other and stared straight ahead.

The world beyond the wall was murky, dark, and distorted. It quivered and seemed to shimmer ever so slightly. It took the three of them a moment to realize what they were looking at.

“Water…” the American astronaut mumbled. “This entire ship must be underwater…”

A loud click caused them to flinch. The room around them was suddenly filled with glaring light.

The call again…this time much closer than before.

It was the American who spotted it first, a slinking shadow moving into view. Due to the intense light shining down on them it was impossible to get a clear look at the thing. His first impression of it was that it was some kind of giant squid. But then he noticed that it lacked any tentacles. Instead, it seemed to be one solid body, like a gigantic eel.

But it was the Chinese astronaut who described it best.

“Sea dragon,” he muttered.

From their estimation, it had to be at least ten meters long. Then, when it got close enough, the creature reared up before the window. The American squinted. He thought he caught a glimpse of fiery orange eyes staring back at him, but it was impossible to say for sure. The creature had four flipper-like appendages on each side of its body to help it move through the water. It also had what looked like a large fin on its head.

None of the astronauts could speak, spellbound by the figure before them.

Then, more shadows appeared in the murky depths beyond the wall. There were three. Then there were five. Then there were ten. By the time all of them had made their appearance, there were at least twenty of the creatures observing them.

“My god,” muttered the American.

The room around them started to quake. The light got brighter and brighter. A strange sense of weightlessness gripped the three of them as their feet left the ground. The world around them began to quiver and warp.

“What…what is happening,” the Russian shouted.

The light was blinding. None of them could see anything beyond the murky veil anymore. Before he blacked out, the American could have sworn he heard one of the creatures utter a soft call…one last goodbye…

 

“Anything?”

“They should have reached the ship by now. But their signal disappeared almost half an hour ago. There hasn’t been anything since.”

“Can’t you get a radio transmission out to them?”

“I’ve been trying sir. But there’s no response.”

Zachary Ross sighed. He turned his attention away from the main screen and leaned back against one of the control panels. Three men, he thought. We sent three men out there…never to return home.

“Wait! I’m picking up something.”

Ross was jolted out of his thoughts.

“What is it?”

“There’s a small object…approaching Earth fast…sir, the radio transponder confirms it. It’s the Atlas life pod!”

“What?! But that’s impossible! How did it get here so fast?”

“I don’t know. It just appeared and…I’m getting a transmission!”

“Patch it through. Atlas, this is ground control. Do you read?”

“Yes sir,” came the reply.

“What happened to you?”

“I don’t know. We delivered the device. We saw them and then-”

“Wait…you saw them?”

“Yes sir. We saw them and then…I don’t know. There was a blinding light and I felt my feet leaving the ground. I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew I was waking up in the life pod with Earth coming up fast.”

“Sir, we have a problem.”

“Hold on Atlas,” Ross said, then pressed a button to mute their side of the conversation. “What is it?”

“The trajectory they’re coming in at…it’s far too steep. The pod’s going to burn up on re-entry.”

“What?! No…there must be something we can do. Doesn’t the life pod have maneuvering thrusters?”

“Small ones yes…but they won’t be able to adjust course fast enough.”

“Well we have to try something!”

“Sir…it’s too late. They’ve already hit the atmosphere.”

“No…fuck! God damn it,” Ross cursed aloud, slamming his fist against the control panel. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. “They can’t have come this far just to die…I refuse to accept that!”

“Wait…no this…this is impossible,” the man at the control panel muttered. “Sir…take a look at this!”

Ross opened his eyes leaned over the man’s shoulder. At first, he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.

“What…how…how is that happening,” he stuttered.

“I don’t know sir. By my calculations, they should be burning up in there. But the temperature inside the cabin is…it’s at room temperature. It’s like something is shielding them from the heat.”

Ross was silent for a moment. Then, unable to help himself, he started laughing.

“What’s so funny sir,” the man asked.

“Of course,” Ross said. “Of course they’d be able to pull something like this off. We shouldn’t have doubted them. If they could send our life pod back here in record time, then they could protect them from atmospheric re-entry.”

“Ground control?” Atlas was calling. “Is there something we should know?”

Ross leaned forward and unmuted the call.

Atlas…you’re going to be just fine.”

 

They watched on televisions and computers. They listened on radios. They had their faces buried in smart phones, watching live streaming news coverage. In Times Square, thousands had their necks craned to the gigantic digital billboard with bated breath.

It was the day the world looked up.

Wishes were made, gods were appealed to, good thoughts pulsed out into the universe…all for the sake of three men. Three men from distant countries and different lives. Three men who came together and put aside politics when the world needed them most.

Seconds passed like minutes. Minutes felt like hours.

The international Coast Guard rushed to the spot where the life pod was projected to land. It slammed into the water like a missile, creating a large wave. The Coast Guard ships moved in slowly as the people watched, the water around the pod bubbling with the heat.

At first, nothing happened. Then the hatch slowly opened…

An American man in an astronaut suit stepped into view, followed closely by a Russian and a Chinese man. After a moment of expectant silence, the American raised his hand and waved.

The world erupted into cheers…

 

“You’re gonna be famous, you know,” the Russian whispered to the American, patting him on the shoulder.

“Yeah, maybe. What are you going to do after this,” the American asked him.

“Oh…I’ll probably return home, break open a bottle of celebratory vodka,” the Russian replied.

“I thought you didn’t drink vodka.”

“I never said I didn’t. You just assumed I didn’t,” the Russian said with a knowing smirk.

“Well in that case I’m going to make myself steak and french fries, then kick back on the couch and get caught up with the Kardashians.”

The Russian let out a hearty laugh.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” he said.

 

Unbeknownst to the earthlings a small white device, shaped like a spider, released its grip on the life pod. Its task done, it fell into the ocean with a slight sizzle and sank, never to be seen again by human eyes…

 

That night, President Garland shared celebratory champagne with Zachary Ross and her Secretary of State John Hayes.

“I have to hand it to you Zach, you really pulled through,” Garland said.

“I hardly did anything. Once Atlas left the launch pad, all we did was guide them to their target. No…we have them to thank for the safe return of our astronauts. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand how they did what they did, but it hardly matters in the end.”

“To three men safe,” Garland said, raising her glass.

“To three men safe,” agreed Secretary Hayes as he raised his.

“Three men safe,” Ross chimed in. The three clinked their glasses together and took a drink.

“Well,” Hayes said, setting down his glass, “it appears Senator Connelly has yet to make a statement on the matter. In fact, I heard he outright refused to answer any questions on camera.”

“No doubt he’s searching for some way to spin this to his advantage,” Ross said.

“He’ll be hard-pressed to do that,” Garland chimed in.

“To sticking it to Connelly,” Ross said with a chuckle, raising his glass.

“Hell I’ll toast that,” Hayes said. The three of them laughed as they clinked their glasses together and took another drink. But then, one of Garland’s aides came running in carrying a radio.

“Madam President!” He was clearly out of breath. “We’re…we’re getting another signal!”

“What more could they want,” Hayes asked.

“I don’t think they’re asking for anything,” the aide said. “Just listen.” He set the radio down and turned it on.

Immediately the room was filled with the sound of music. And for a moment, Garland wasn’t in the Oval Office anymore. She was carried along by a wave of nostalgia, carried back in time. She saw the smiling faces of her mom and dad at the dinner table as they ate. She heard the smooth sound of classic rock pulsing through the speakers.

“Ooh you make me live,” crooned the male singer.

“What the…is that…Queen,” Hayes asked.

“Well…at least we know they have good taste,” Ross said with a chuckle

They fell silent again, letting the song fill the room.

“You’re my best friend…” the radio continued.

“So what, is this their idea of a joke,” Hayes asked.

But President Garland didn’t hear him. She was too busy laughing.

 

Once again, let me know what you think in the comments.  A regular post will be coming your way next Wednesday.

As always, you can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Advertisements

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