20:1 Don’t the Sun Love Its Satellite?

OUTER SPACE  |  2055

Thomas Major floated two hundred and fifty miles above the surface of the Earth tethered to the delicate contraption that was to be his home for the next five months. Below him lie the battlegrounds, homesteads, junk heaps, and parade routes of the entirety of human history.

As he turned in tandem with the planet, he could just make out the familiar coast of the Californias hiding under a delicate wash of white clouds, and from there, imagine that he could see the Hawai‘ian Islands floating, like himself, silent above a magnitude of blue.

Major was not usually a man given to reverie, but the intense pressure of their situation was beginning to affect the entire crew in unexpected ways. As Major found himself waxing philosophical, his second-in-command, Nika Polina Konstantinov, had taken to humming American hair metal tunes from the late 20th century.

Major didn’t know how much of that he was willing to put up with in the next hundred and fifty days. Konstantinov was a good crew member. It would be a shame to have to murder her out in cold, unfeeling space.

Less idiosyncratic, but perhaps more worrying, was the change that had begun to come over Soléne Pape, the mission’s exobiologist. Pape had joined the team from the French Space Agency as the leading scientist in her nascent field, a job she had taken from the purely theoretical to the tangible.

It was Pape and her team that discovered the existence of giant exoplanetary whales living under the crust of one of Saturn’s frozen moons. If someone was going to melt down a hurtling mountain of space ice, you could rest assured that Pape was going to be there to analyze whatever—if anything—was inside.

Never one to waste words, Pape had become more and more distant as the crew settled into their new home hastily assembled in low Earth orbit. She had essentially shut herself up in her lab, obsessively pouring over available data on the comet they were to intercept, readying experiments, and muttering in French.

Ordinarily, passion and a slavish preoccupation toward meeting the team’s goals were traits Major could appreciate, but something about Pape made him look forward to the day she was put to sleep for the journey.

On board to handle the job of putting the crew into suspended animation for the five-month trip, and, hopefully, waking them backup again, was Dr. Bide “Peter” Zhang.

When Major first met their medical officer, it seemed to him that Zhang was a little past his sell date to be assigned such a hazardous task as saving the planet from imminent destruction. Major understood the political necessity of the team having a Chinese component given the huge leg up the New People’s Space Agency had given the project. The American space program, especially, was in such poor shape that Major wasn’t sure he wanted to go up strapped to one of their ancient lift engines.

What he couldn’t understand was, why Zhang? Surely the nation had any number of younger volunteers, or whatever the opposite of volunteer was called in China. Apparently Zhang was held in great regard by whoever was providing the yen, and that was going to have to be good enough.

The addition of Pape’s counterpart, the noted Norwegian astrogeologist Ancher Bjoern, had rounded out their little United Nations in the stars. Major had fond memories of working with Bjoern on past missions, and now, charged with a crew he did not have the time or the luxury to develop any kind of a deep relationship with, he found himself counting on Bjoern’s company to keep him from going crazy.

 

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