As James hikes north along the rocky flats, a translucent map on his faceplate rotates so that his forward position is always up. It’s a bit like playing a video game. Pulsing icons show Ava and Hitoshi’s positions beside him. Overhead, the sky is crystal blue with a hint of aquamarine, the sun just a touch brighter and larger than Earth’s. One moon and the speck of another follow the extended line of the ecliptic to the sky’s apex. Behind James’s group, the rocky landscape slopes back towards the ship. Even from two kilometers, it’s still prominent. They’ve lost sight of the red team, last seen descending west from the ship behind some plateaus.
Ava walks beside James, matching his pace. “You know, when you came to me last year at Cayman, if you said I’d be hiking on Astris next Thanksgiving, I’d have thought you were nuts.”
James squints. “Has it been that long?”
“Time flies.” She chuckles. “Especially for us.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“It’s uncanny how Earth-like it is. People could probably live here. The soil could likely be terraformed to grow Earth crops. It raises all kinds of ethical questions if there is pre-existing life and we introduce new life.”
“Oh,” James says, “that’s the scientist speaking. But what do you think?”
She slows as they approach the overlook. When James takes a few big zig-zagging steps to the apex, the entirety of the basin comes into view, sloping mountains fading into the distant haze. Another kilometer out, swathes of green vegetation welcome them and the red-and-white splash of their probe’s parachutes are small disks a few hundred meters shy of the field. Ava takes a deep breath. “It’s unbelievable. It’s a dream, really, to be here.”
Hitoshi approaches James and sets his hands on his hips. “Have to admit, this does look pretty awesome.”
James points to the right. The slope along the cliff face is gradual, with exposed slabs forming natural steps. “Here we go. Watch where you put your feet.” When he walks to the edge, the first step down is almost casual, although the sense of height — ninety meters — is intimidating. Nothing worse than he had hiked with Will back at Yosemite. He advances twenty meters and descends a few smaller step-downs to another ledge. The rhythm is starting to kick in. “This reminds me a bit of hiking down the crater wall at Janus. Not quite as cold, though.”
“You freaked us all out with that one, boss,” Hitoshi says.
“Silver Star was there. Had to go find out what it was all about. Just like our mystery grass.”
“I’m curious,” Ava says. “How’d you decide to do all that? Take your ship down to Janus, knowing you couldn’t take off, hike to the crater with your last bit of air. You couldn’t have been sure Gossamer Goose would’ve made it there in time.”
James shuffles sideways along the slope. Loose pebbles skitter down the landscape. “I didn’t expect anyone to rescue me. Didn’t really think about it and decide, either. It was just what had to be done.”
“Always seems to work for you, though,” Hitoshi says.
James continues leading the group down. In fifteen minutes they’ve reached the bottom, everyone breathing a little more quickly. From here, the basin stretches forward, covered by sandy drifts and scattered boulders. He toggles to COM2. “Red team, how’s it going?”
Isaac’s voice responds. “Hi, James. We’ve arrived. It’s quite remarkable! Have a look.”
The video inset reads Cartwright.I EV Suitcam 3 11.21.83 10:03. In it, Willow’s blue-and-white State department suit is prominent as she kneels beside a wash of purple and green, grabbing something with forceps and depositing it into a sample container. The video view pans down to Isaac’s orange forearm, his left glove typing on a keypad. When the view lifts back to Willow, a reticule zooms onto a trumpet-like purple bell. The bell’s top is smooth with a divot at its center. Isaac narrates. “Twenty centimeters tall. Found some with spores intact on the bell. We have not removed any living ones, but found some broken stems which we collected.”
Ava joins the channel. “It’s very similar to Cooksonia. Spore bearing, possible vascular system.”
“Spectral analysis suggests presence of chlorophyll,” Isaac says.
James glances at Ava. She’s grinning ear-to-ear. “Alien evolution of chloroplasts is a bit of a holy grail for xenobiology. If it’s similar to how it evolved on Earth, that means there’s probably cyanobacteria, which live in water. I’ll be very curious to see the results of the sea sample.”
Isaac pans around, showing the purple plants covering the area like grass. “We found single patches of these along the way. Spores probably carried by air. Now for the red stuff.” When he turns, mossy red undulates in hypnotic patterns along the cliff face. “All the vertical walls are coated in this. Also shows possible chlorophyll.”
“Interesting,” Ava says. “Might be accessory pigments like anthocyanin.” She looks over at James. “It’s what makes autumn leaves so colorful.”
“We’ve got a few more samples to collect, and then we’re going to the beach. Should be there in twenty minutes,” Isaac says.
James nods. “Great. We’re at the cliff base now and walking to the green patch. Stay safe.” He closes the channel and glances up into the aquamarine sky. So Earth-like. Just over a year ago, he piloted Bernard’s Beauty back home to a similar sky.
In his memory, he’s there, a blistering summer day with cirrocumulus clouds dappling the sky like fish scales. Four Needletail aerospace interceptors flank Bernard’s Beauty, bristling with armaments.
James sits in Bernard’s cockpit next to Beckman and Isaac. When he glances over his right shoulder, the nearest Needletail is close enough that he can see the pilot’s mirrored visor. James raises his hand, points two fingers, and gives a casual salute.
“Easy,” Beckman says. “They’re not the honor guard. Shooty-McTrigger-Finger there might get a little twitchy.”
“I know,” James says. “This is my old stomping ground.” He taps the coms icon, and the video feed shows Hitoshi sitting on a jump seat in the engine compartment. “How’s everything looking back there, Hitoshi?”
Hitoshi shimmies from the ship’s atmospheric buffeting. “I just want you to know that this was a horrible idea. Right now there are lots of red blinking lights that I know probably aren’t going to kill us. We could have at least finished repairs first.”
“Didn’t get much of a choice with the Hermes holding our hand all the way here.”
“You know they’re not going to give it back once they quarantine it.”
“Yes, they will,” James says. “It’s the only Riggs ship we have.”
Coms pings and a voice says, “Bernard’s Three Five Niner, turn left, heading two two three.”
James keys the mic. “Left two two three, Bernard’s Three Five Niner.” He turns Bernard’s and the horizon pans, a wash of sandy tans and sun-bleached rock. Up ahead, Rogers Lake is a dry kidney-shape looking like spilled flour across creamy coffee. Just beyond it, the runways of Edward’s Air Force Base stretch towards him.
“Cleared to land, runway two two left.”
James repeats the instruction and taps the overhead intercom. “Crew, secure for landing.” A glance at the video feed from the galley area shows Ava and Julian sitting in fold-down seats along the wall. James toggles back over to tower. “Edwards Tower, you, uh, know I don’t have wheels, right?”
“So, it’s going to be a really short rollout. Pretty much wherever the struts touch down.”
“Don’t really need the runway, then. It’s more like landing a jump fighter than a jet. Sure you don’t want me to plop her down on the main apron?”
The voice hesitates. “That’s a negative. We’ll bring out tugs and tow it.”
James glances over to Beckman, who smirks.
Beckman says, “What’d you do the last time you were here, crash into something?”
James clicks the mic. “Acknowledged. Final, runway two two left.” He shrugs. “They just want to separate us from the ship, get a good look at it. Not sure if they realize Goose was the one that made all the contact, not Bernard’s. No worries.”
Beckman tilts his head. “Well, Bernard’s was alone on Janus all that time.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
The runway widens as they descend, flattening out parallel to Bernard’s flight path. James pulses the forward thrusters, and everyone leans as the white runway lines tick by. Just before midfield he hovers the ship to a stop and descends onto the struts.
“Work for you?” James says to the tower.
“Affirmative. Power down and exit the vehicle.”
James unhooks his harness and taps the intercom. “Alright, game on.” He looks over towards Ananke. “Got everything?”
“Core download complete,” Ananke says.
“Riggs control system erased.”
“Okay,” James says. “If they want to reverse-engineer the Riggs tech, they’re going to have to earn it. The emitters are the easy part. Software’s the pain in the ass.”
“I knew there was something I liked about you,” Beckman says.
He flicks a few more switches and completes the shutdown checklist. After a moment he unhooks Ananke and attaches her to his belt mount. Beckman moves to the left towards the narrow aft passage as Ava and Julian emerge from the starboard galley corridor. The group proceeds towards the airlock, joining up with Hitoshi, before opening the door.
James looks left and right. Everyone wears his brick-red and navy-blue Hayden-Pratt flight suits with the Janus 2 patch on his sleeve. Beckman, Hitoshi, and Isaac’s faces still bear scratches over yellowing bruises, and Beckman’s right arm is in a gel cast. Ahead, through the sunlit door, two military vehicles with flashing police lights coast to a stop. A half-dozen men disembark.
“Here we go,” James says, moving forward onto the stairway. The desert heat blasts him as he emerges onto the runway. He walks towards the military group.
The group’s leader is a forty-something man with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and airman camos. As he approaches James, he smiles. “James Hayden, you old dog.” He claps James on the back and shoulder-hugs him.
James pats him. “Who’s old? Good to see you, Jackson. How’s Emily?”
“Keeping me on my toes.”
The Needletails rocket across the sky with thunder rumbling behind them. James motions upwards. “Really rolled out the red carpet for us.”
Jackson sets his hands on his hips. “Orders are orders. You know how it is. Follow me, we’ve got some rooms set up for you.” He turns and starts walking.
James takes the cue and follows. Based on the five soldiers with him, it’s not a request. “You know, I’m sure we can find a Marriott around here.”
Jackson chuckles. “Still the same James. You’re our guests overnight, and then we’ll get transport back tomorrow morning. Once everyone gets settled in, we’ve got to do a debrief. Going to need access to Bernard’s logs, sensor data, and all your EV suit cameras.”
“The guys on the Hermes were pretty thorough with their debrief back at Cassini,” James says.
Jackson reaches the military vehicle and opens the door, pausing. “That’s a U.N. ship, and this is a U.S. base.”
James squints. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all work together?”
Jackson swings into the driver’s seat. “It would.” He closes the door.
The solider beside James opens the rear door, waiting. James slides into the back seat. Beckman comes in next to him. In the other car, Julian, Isaac, and Hitoshi fill the seats. The air conditioning is on full, and the crisp breeze is refreshing. When James looks over his left shoulder, three tank-treaded tugs amble down the north taxiway, orange lights flashing.
“Whatcha going to do with my ship?” James says.
Jackson slips on a pair of sunglasses and looks back over his shoulder. “Putting it in the north hangar. Sorry, but it’s grounded until further notice.”
James leans forward. “I’m not okay with that. Didn’t have much choice to bring it here, what with the battleship escort and interceptor handoff.”
“You can take it up with Senator Larson,” Jackson says, engaging the truck’s engine. As it turns in an arc heading towards the south buildings, he adds, “when you testify before him next week.”
* * *
The Senate Space Committee watches the media screen from their seats along the panel. James sits at a table with his hands clasped, Ananke to his right and Beckman to his left. At the second table sit Hitoshi, Ava, Isaac, and Julian.
The video reads Gossamer Goose Emergency Escape Vehicle, airlock camera #1, July 28th, 2082, 22:31 Earth UTC. The view is a fisheye ceiling mount capturing most of Goose’s passenger cabin. Crimson light strobes as a three-meter tall metal wrecking ball spins through the ship, tearing up everything it contacts. It resembles a chrome asterisk with pulsing embers at every arm. Hitoshi is in the cabin against the wall, curled up into a ball as the wrecking ball rolls towards him. A muscular figure appears just inside the camera’s view on the lower left, both arms extended holding a pistol. The gun flashes. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. The cabin flares with blue as each pulse connects with the alien shape, orange sparks spinning and bouncing off the deck. The figure — they can see Beckman’s face now — advances. Pop. Pop. Pop. One of the asterisk’s arms fragments and spirals out of view. The alien cycles its lights from red to cyan, retracting its arms, and rolls in a blur towards Beckman. Beckman doesn’t flinch. Pop. Pop. Pop. The wrecking ball collides with him as the video pauses.
The Senate panel shifts and murmurs, turning back towards Beckman.
Beckman straightens, the gel cast still on his arm. The bruises and scratches on his face are mostly healed.
Senator Larson takes a deep breath. “Well, Mister Beckman.”
Beckman nods. “Senator.”
“You shot it.”
Larson references his notepad, counting. “Nine, ten, eleven. Eleven times.”
“I know,” Beckman says, pausing. “In hindsight, I wish I’d grabbed a second gun.”
“Aren’t you worried you might’ve started an interstellar war?”
“No, I was worried Hitoshi was about to become hamburger.”
Larson rubs the spot on his forehead between his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Beckman adds, “I’d like to remind you that four minutes later that thing destroyed Gossamer Goose.”
“Because you shot it,” Larson says. It wasn’t intended as a question.
“Pretty sure that was going to happen either way. It wanted Ananke, and it took her.”
Larson writes something down. While he does, Senator Richards speaks up. “Ananke, why do you think that was?”
Ananke’s screen pulses blue and red. “Dr. Kelly is better qualified to answer questions on extrasolar intelligences, but I suspect it was because I am a quantum intelligence. It’s reasonable to infer that the alien probe has either previously encountered, or is, a quantum intelligence.”
“You think the probe may be an AI?”
From the second table, Ava Kelly clears her throat. “We theorize the probe may be related to the crystal cavern life we found on Janus,” she says. “They don’t have to be created. Intelligence could have simply evolved differently.”
“You were successful in communicating with it?” Richards says.
“Very basic logic patterns using our suit lights. Getting Ananke back was more of a leap of faith than science.”
Larson waves his hand, interrupting. “People are fairly agitated, Mister Hayden. Video of this is already out there.”
James leans forward. “I know, but the leak didn’t come from us.”
“We traced it to the Hermes, and someone’s got hell to pay,” Larson says. “Even if that didn’t happen, it wouldn’t be hard for people to pick up on the fact that two ships went out and only one came back. It’s flooding the news feed and our offices. You’ve got protestors already. Down with the Riggs program. Quit poking the bear.”
James unclasps his hands, leaning back. “You’ve got just as many people who want more Riggs ships, even the odds.”
Larson leans forward, pointing with his thumb over his closed first. “Are you finally agreeing, then, Mister Hayden, that we need to apply this technology to military applications?”
“No,” James says, “that is not what the Riggs program is about.” He gives a sideways glance to Ananke. Ananke’s screen glows a bit brighter, orange ripples mixing with the blue. “But we do need to install armaments on the Riggs ships so that we can defend ourselves against threats.”
“Ships?” Larson says. “Last I checked, you had one ship, and it was parked at Edwards.”
James nods with a slight smile. “You can keep me from getting to the one grounded at Edwards, for now, but you can’t keep me from building a new one.”
Larson sets his notepad aside, folding his hands. “Now how do you plan to launch your fancy new ship once we yank your clearances?”
James hooks an elbow over his chair, leaning. “Space is big, Senator. No one says I have to launch it from Earth.”
* * * *