St. Cloud, Minnesota
JULY 21, 3151
TRANSMISSION INTERRUPTED flashed across my retina, and the last word of Ariel’s narrative ended in mid-spelling, no doubt the reason my meter had calibrated reading time to a fraction of a second. Ariel’s personal account abruptly stopped at a critical point, cut short by an unexplained technical glitch. Had she even been aware of or perhaps a part of the gaff that delivered it to Earth Base with little likelihood it would ever get to me? I again attempted to transfer Ariel’s story to my embedded memory, but when I reflected on it my mind remained blank. I tried every code breaker in my arsenal, but the random letters, e b l t d a v o n prevented me from downloading the document.
I recognized the abbreviation for lieutenant from my father’s rank as a retired science officer of Earth Federation in Mogadishu, and I assumed the letters e b represented Earth Base located in mid-Atlantic. The lieutenant who delivered the program to my doorstep had placed a lock on her copy of the program. Fearful she might have added a self-destruct command after a single usage, I kept the program open in my reading cocoon until I talked to either Lt. D. Avon or Lt. Davon.
I found the mid-Atlantic coordinates for Earth Base and transported my presence to its central office. The receptionist politely suggested I report in person, accompanied by my teacher or parent, before she’d honor my request to summon any Earth Base personal.
I anticipated my father’s disapproval of my actions when he returned home, and I wasn’t disappointed. In my defense, I digitized and projected my best memory of the lieutenant glancing over her shoulder as she placed the computer chip in my hand. My detailed summary of Ariel’s plight struck a nerve with Father who distrusted isolated societies flinging through deep space.
He asked to peruse Ariel’s journal and agreed to squeeze his head into my media cocoon, rather than chance losing the document by transmitting it to his laboratory at the university. A habit of his when he concentrated, he paced around my room bumping into things. He resembled a cartoon character with his head stuck in a small kayak.
In half the time it took me to read Ariel’s account, he emerged, his ears slowly regaining color after the tight fit. He said, “I want a transcript of every communication that has taken place between females here and there, including that between you and Ariel.”
I reminded him that two thousand exchanges had occurred, twice that many, including responses.
He paced and added, “And at least as many technical exchanges.” Twice around my bed and half way out the door, he said, “Tell your mother I’ll be secluded in my lab at the university for a while.”
My mother’s response, “Send a message to the cathedral when he reenters civilization.”
I again put my university course work on hold and appreciated the solitude at home to locate and read four thousand pen pal letters.
Forty-eight hours later, Dad summoned me to his lab, where I watched him dangle a couple feet of twisted string emitting vapors as room temperature warmed it from a cryogenic state. I couldn’t begin to guess the quantity of data he slowly wrapped around a spool like dental floss.
He said, “Reserve two passages on the Trans Atlantic submerged tube. You and I are visiting Earth Base.”
The receptionist recognized me from my tele-presence and stood to salute my father. “I’m sorry, Sir, for inconveniencing you and Marty.” Obviously, she did some identity research since I last communicated with her. “Lieutenant Avon is expecting you.”
An image I recognized as that of the female officer who visited my mother’s rectory back in St. Cloud appeared and voiced, “Welcome. I’m Lt. Dawn Avon’s tele-presence. Please come to her office where we can talk privately.” The apparition passed through the wall that opened as a door for my father and me to follow down a hallway to another door already opened. Lt. D. Avon stood inside her office and saluted my father. “It’s an honor to meet you, Colonel Haggart.”
She reached out to shake my hand, and I nearly failed to reciprocate. When had my father been promoted and why? He’d retired as a lieutenant ten years ago.
She gestured toward two chairs and waited until we were seated before taking her place behind the desk across from us. “I’m sorry you were put through this inconvenience.”
“That’s quite all right,” Dad responded. “I haven’t been back on base since my last flight thirty years ago.”
“The Kuiper Belt mission, I believe, where you were summoned to resolve some claim disputes.”
“Yes, a trifle matter but blown clear out of proportion by international mining corporations. Hardly worth the five years away from my wife.” He cleared his throat. “I’m afraid my daughter and I won’t live long enough to personally settle the deep space problem confronting us today.”
“If you’re suggesting a rescue mission, remember that habitat has a thousand-year head start. The best a space craft could do with our improved technology would be to arrive at Proxima Centauri about the same time, three thousand years from now.”
“One year is all we are asking for.”
“The speed of light?” Lt. Avon glanced at the star chart on her desk. “I think I understand, but sending your tele-presence would entail serious complications. Even if you were successful, what good would it do?”
“You get permission from the commander, and I’ll figure out the details.”
Avon’s fingers worked the device in her palm until her eyes widened, and she shook her head. “A data burst of that magnitude would require more energy than used to send the past two years worth of communications combined. And that’s before your message is added.”
“Multiply that number by two.” My father’s tone barely audible, but commanding.
“A message equal to your tele-presence would be enormous. Are you sure you have that much to say to them?”
“The extra data capacity isn’t for my message. My daughter will accompany me.”
“Wow. I’ll see what I can do. You still carry a lot of influence on base, and maybe your plan could help break the stalemate that’s has lingered for the past few hundred years. Start preparing a data burst of whatever you want to send. I think Earth Base will try it. Nothing else has been able to penetrate that rogue computer out there.”
“We came prepared.” He opened a small canister and removed his spool of data, steaming and dripping with liquid hydrogen. “Transport this complete package. It contains Marty’s tele-presence and an incentive for the onboard computer to cooperate.” He dipped the spool back into the liquid gas and it emitted a slight sizzle. “Be sure to destroy it with extreme heat after it’s been transmitted. I wouldn’t want any virus to develop.”
Lt. Avon stared wide eyed at the container gathering frost from the humidity in the air. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” My father reached for my hand and we exited her office, neither he nor she saluting.
SPACE MISSION TWO
JULY 22, 3150
TRANSMISSION INTERRUPTED flashed across the ceiling monitor, and my mental dictation ended in mid sentence. Stunned, I lay in a bathtub of tepid and somewhat viscous water, cradling my arms across my chest to reduce my shivers. As if awakening in the midst of a nightmare, the replay of my past blended into the present, but the emotional residue of shock and disbelief lingered. My out-of-body experience felt too real to have been merely part of bad dream. I had experienced a replay of the past three weeks of my life, exactly as it had occurred, and its abrupt ending felt more like death than reentry into the present. I might have been recalled from a parallel string, if any such thing existed.
I pinched my arms and legs. The elevated sensitivity caused by the serotonin had lessened, but my limbs hadn’t gone numb. Despite the interruption, my narrative of the past three weeks remained vivid in my memory, but how much of it got transcribed into Anne Frank’s diary? My monitor had gone dead, and I assumed the computer had likewise crashed.
My mental command failed to reopen my tutorial, not unusual at times when my energy ebbed, especially if I’m overly tired. I opened the bathtub drain and stood under a spray of hot water until all the yellowing visages of depleted serotonin had washed away. With my head wrapped in a towel and a bathrobe draped over my shoulders, I stared into the blank screen on my desk monitor. Again, my tutorial failed to open. The problem had to be in my unit because the data library also failed to open. Repair droids should have it operating shortly.
Meanwhile, I assessed the situation as if both programs had been permanently disabled. I would merely be deprived of a meaningless tutorial, and if Albert continued his interest in Roman History, which I doubt, he’d not be able to research it. My recording of the past three weeks possibly survived but couldn’t be verified. However, my memory remained intact, and my brain would be a private and safe location. I will record future episodes of my life as they occur in real time, but I would never submit my mind and body to another serotonin experiment.
Still shivering, I wrapped my robe tight around my body and crawled under the covers. I needed sleep, if I am to take a mile-long space walk in the morning.
My farewell party on Dad’s rooftop garden included all five families. After a series of toasts and well wishes, I stepped into a suit reminiscent of the Pillsbury Doughboy dangling from the shaft of a patio-sized umbrella. Sera zipped me in and fastened the rigid ring around my neck. Mother and Dad smothered my face with tears and kisses, until Sera slid a transparent bubble over my head and fastened it to the ring on my suit.
I studied faces I might not see again for the next fifty years. My suit inflated, and I forced a yawn to counter the pressure filling the headpiece. Sera strapped a harness across her upper body and fastened it to a second umbrella. Mother approached, whispered into Sera’s ear, and placed a peck of a kiss on her cheek.
Jets of air billowed the umbrellas canopies to resemble parachutes floating to the ground, but it caused us to ascend rather than descend. They began to flutter when we reached the diminished field of gravity at sky level, and jets of air reversed forming a vacuum that gathered fabric and pulled it into the hollow shafts. Against our metallic sky, Sera pressed a pair of magnetic paddles similar to ones used to shock heart attack patients on hospital sitcoms. She nudged me against a door and it revolved. I anticipated a swoosh of air, but only a wisp occurred as a second door followed the first. I was sandwiched between pressure-controlled revolving doors. Without it, my parents, their friends, and any loose furniture would have been scooped up and sucked out.
Through the glass, I observed stars and constellations that didn’t twinkle but appeared as tiny moons within a fog of distant light, the Milky Way. The chamber rotated me out and into an empty darkness. The entire mass zoomed past my field of vision until Sera’s hand caught my shoulder. I, not the sky, had continued to rotate.
Two brighter stars illuminated Sera’s silhouette, as she hooked a safety strap to the tether between our two habitats and snapped the opposite end to the back of my suit. With one hand grasping the tether, she pointed toward a brighter star and then directly opposite at one considerably dimmer. Lacking communication, she couldn’t state what I assumed to be the case; Earth’s sun and what had been our destination star. Would Marty, a light year’s distance away, be gazing at a similar sight? Probably not. The Earth’s atmosphere and light pollution from the sun’s corona spilling around and reflecting off the oceans would distort her view.
Progress was slow. Sera inched forward hand over hand, and I clung with one hand while sliding my safety strap a few inches at a time with the other. Obviously, travel between spheres had not been intended. Another example of divide and conquer? If so, we must still be a threat to the Realm, especially since it cannot conveniently destroy us.
Midway, we encountered the center hub that we had to circumvent. When Sera released my safety strap, I panicked until she connected its loose end to a length of rope attached to the front of her harness. I retreated into my comfort zone. She gestured for me to hug the tether with both arms. I shook my head, until she pushed herself out on a line tangent to the arc of the hub. Wrapping both arms and legs around the tether, I welded my body to it. Traveling at one hundred and eighty six miles a second, yet she merely drifted farther out until the diminishing slack in our connecting rope ended with a tug. Curiosity overcame my immediate impulse to pull her back and command her to give up our enterprise. She faced out into deep space, puffed her cheeks, and expelled a gust of air. Like air escaping a balloon, the propulsion moved her body inward and out of sight behind the hub.
The rope again became taut, but I had no intention of releasing my arms or my legs. Two light tugs followed a yank that broke my grip, and I retraced the arc she had made. To my horror, I sighted the silhouette of a black hole that must have swallowed Sera. Other than the yank that broke my hold, it drew me gently, not with the extreme gravitational force I would have expected. I lost all visual references, as I faced away from the hub, the tether line, and both our habitats.
With a jolt, the pressure on my back returned and pulled me away from the ugly dark vacuum cleaner toward Sera on the other side of the hub. She hooked my safety strap to the tether ahead of her, an indication I would be leading on the second half of our expedition.
Sera pointed toward the dark monster and gave a high five. We had beaten the odds. She continued to point until I rotated to face the rogue object. With the light from Earth’s sun behind it, I made out the shape of an elongated chunk of dirty ice, not a black hole but Haley’s Comet with Mission One tucked inside. I gave it a middle finger salute and worked my way toward the father of my child.
I stopped at the connection point of the cable and sphere, and noticed something not apparent on the other side, probably because I had faced away from it. The habitat that once resembled a soccer ball began to resemble a pear, its long stem attached to the hub and beyond to the other sphere probably also taking on a pear shape. Either centrifugal force elongated the spheres, or they had grown bulges that would cover the distance between them in fifty years. Sera and I made the crossing in—I glanced at the watch attached to the arm of my suit—ten hours. No wonder I was famished and exhausted.
Sera grasped her magnetic paddles and walked hand over hand across the metal surface of our destination sphere. She pointed to her feet, gestured a walking motion with her index and middle finger, and then pointed at me. She wanted me to walk over to her. I maneuvered my body to press my feet against the metal, and they stuck as if magnetized. I wouldn’t drift off into space. I released my safety strap and clunked my way to where she now stood.
She unfastened the shaft of the umbrella attached to the rear of her harness, motioned for us to sit back-to-back, and she spread her canopy over our heads. Starlight disappeared as she fastened the edges around a portal similar to the one on the other side minus the revolving door. A crack of light followed by a whoosh of air, and the umbrella canopy billowed nearly to the point of bursting. The door swung open, and we floated through and into a habitat identical to the one we’d left ten hours ago. The door closed, my umbrella sprung open, and arm in arm we accelerated downward as the field of gravity increased. We landed with a thud on the top of my parents’ rooftop, or so it seemed, except for the absence of Dad’s lawn and garden. Albert’s and his parents’ home? Sera removed the umbrella shaft from my back and the glass bubble from my head. She peeled the suit from my body, and I unhitched the straps across her chest.
“Shall we knock?” I asked, as Sera fidgeted with the latch to the trap door, probably not used since Albert and his parents were dumped into their living cubicle. “We might need my umbrella to avoid falling to the floor.”
Sera said, “It’s locked from the inside, and I doubt anybody’s home. I sense no heat or vibrations.” She walked to the roof of the iron-gray pentagon, not white like the central one on our side. “My system needs an immediate charge.”
A portal opened and a head appeared, human or droid, I couldn’t tell.
He or it brushed a tuft of red hair from a freckled face and glanced up at us. “Shall I summon my master, Albert?”
I couldn’t resist. “Aren’t you supposed to be a dog? One that eats and poops?”
A near invisible pad on which he stood lifted him to eye level. “I am not a dog, but you got the other parts right.”
“Who are you and were is Albert?”
“Jimmy, at your service.” He smirked. “And am I to assume you are twin Avon Ladies?” His voiced cracked. “Ding dong. Avon calling.”
“The Data Base is open.” I exclaimed. Where else could he have come up with such an image?
“Nope. Locked tighter than a well digger’s ass.”
Sera interrupted. “If you will stand back young man, we’ll share your lift to the laboratory level.”
“Ain’t mine, but suit yourself.” He stepped back allowing space for Sera and me to squeeze onto the pad. We passed a circle of four doors on the main floor and dropped one more level to an area equivalent to Mother’s laboratory. Again caught off guard by the increased gravity, my legs buckled. Jimmy grabbed my arm and we stepped off the pad. Sera continued to the lowest level.
“Hey, you ain’t ‘posed to go down there.” An octave rise in his voice betrayed his throes of pubescence. “You’ll get zapped and crushed.”
“She’s a droid, you idiot. There hasn’t been a set of twins in over a thousand years.” I glared at this Huck Finn wannabe. “If the Data Base is closed, where did you learn about Avon Ladies and twins and pick up that stupid accent?”
“Albert tapped into a program of radio waves beamed during the Twentieth Century back on Earth. I had been watching Star Wars when you barged in on me.” He pounded his chest and mouthed some gibberish. “I pretend Albert is Han Solo, and I’m his pal, Chewbacca.”
Albert not only stole my tutorial, but he’d made a game of it for this space monkey. No doubt he’d figured out my specialty is a fraud. However, fair game. By faking his impregnating me, Sera and I bilked him beyond comprehension with his future daughter as my ace-in-the-hole, a gross reference to my vagina.
“Where’s Albert now?”
“In my parent’s apartment. He’s fixing my computer so I won’t have to come down here to watch my favorite programs.” He clawed his fingers, grunted, and touched his knuckles to the floor, as he shuffled toward the lift apparatus in the center of the room. “I’ll tell Han Solo that his Princess Lea is waiting for him.”
“Don’t mention Princess Lea. Just the droid, R2D2.”
“Okay. He pressed three fingers just above his left breast and recited, “Beam me up, Scotty.” The transparent disk elevated him to the upper floor creating an illusion of him being levitated.
Moments later, Albert appeared, feet first. “Aha. Jimmy’s riddle about R2D2 makes sense.” He stepped off the lift and put his hands on his hips. “Boy, will my dad be glad to see you.”
He obviously mistook me for Sera. “Forget the boy part of your fantasy.” After the dig about his sexual encounter with Sera, I enjoyed additional well-deserved sport at his expense. “Your hateful stupidity nearly destroyed us. I need to know exactly what you did so I can repair the system.”
“If you’re referring to the data library, Dad will have to explain. Can you help me communicate with Ariel?”
“What makes you think she’ll even talk to you?”
“What did I do wrong?” He glanced over his shoulder and whispered, “Is she really pregnant with my son?”
He’d obviously gotten Sera’s Caesar and Cleopatra message. “Why do you want to know?” I nearly tipped my hand, but Albert might not understand the glitch droids have about why questions. His pouting expression remained fixed.
“I have a right to know if I am to be a father.”
“Parenting is for heterosexuals, not fags,” a judgment that Sera would never make and phraseology I normally wouldn’t use, but I needed him to confirm his orientation.
“Ariel understands. We discovered the god gene and the gay gene still exist. It’s not my fault.”
“The Realm. . . “ I corrected. “As the new Realm, I charge you never to refer to God again. There will be consequences.”
“I don’t care. Our situation is so precarious that belief in God is our only hope.” Pout transformed to determination. “Just ask Ariel, if either of us ever gets to see her again.”
“What’s your father’s take on gay and God?” Again language Sera would never use, but it appeared to pass over him.
“My father treats me like one of his droids, until he has a problem that needs more than just calculation. Then he comes to me.”
“To tap into Ariel’s Twentieth Century programming for instance, or was that your idea?”
“While reading History of the Roman Empire in the data library, as you recommended, I found a weird message referring to Ariel and me as Cleopatra and Caesar. When I stumbled across her tutorial among some archives from the Fortieth League, all I intended was to find more hidden messages. It turned out to be an outdated copy.”
I was outraged. My parents not only connived with Paul and Betty to develop my educational program, but all ten families appear to be in on the fraud. I repressed my embarrassment, concentrated on my anger, and continued to impersonate Sera. “You had no business in Ariel’s personal agenda.” A small sense of relief began to well up. My tutorial hadn’t been entirely lost, although I would never condescend to access it again.
“I know, but in the process I discovered something she needs to know.”
“Like the entire program had been fabricated just to occupy her mind?” I had the satisfaction of startling him again. “You don’t think for one moment she was fooled?”
“She sounded pretty convinced it was a significant task.”
“Ha. Ha.” I faked a humorous reaction, but real or otherwise, it gave away my identity. He moved close and stared into my eyes. I refused to blink, a droid characteristic, but none would ever laugh. He pinched the skin on my arm.
I screamed, “Don’t you dare touch me!” As Ariel or Sera, my response fit the situation. “You will respect the Realm.” I wasn’t sure how Sera with her new authority would identify herself.
He rushed me and ran his hand up and down my lower back. “No portal?” He peered into my eyes. “Ariel! How did you get here?” He slid his hands down my sides and onto my tummy. “Are you pregnant?”
“We have other matters to settle.” Suddenly he became the neighbor kid who agreed to play house with a precocious teenaged female. I had to steel myself back to my image of him as a spy and tyrant. “You purposely blocked our communication system to entice Sera to your side.” My wild guess, but the charge seemed reasonable.
“It wasn’t right that she resided over there, when we had responsibility for all outgoing communication. Father only meant to warn Paul. He tried to restore it. “ His expression brightened. “Sera can fix the problem. She’s here too, isn’t she?”
Obviously, I hadn’t been able to cross over alone, but I refused to give him any satisfaction. “She will need input from Mission One, and it doesn’t give a damn about us or our petty squabble.”
“It’s what we call our old habitat. We’re Mission Two, single enterprises divided and baited to fight each other rather than our common enemy.” I considered Marty’s letter. “Some people on Earth might still care, but the Realm on Mission One is probably relieved to be free of us. When we still lived in tree houses with a branches growing out of them, you bragged about your intelligence. It has turned you evil, and spare me the weepy story about being a victim of genetically programmed genes.”
“What have I done wrong?”
“First and foremost, you and your father are in cahoots with the Realm.”
“My father had been chosen, not the other way around. He and my mother wanted an ordinary child like everyone else. They didn’t ask to have my genes tampered with.”
“You believe the Realm did that?”
“Who else has such expertise?”
My mother with Sera’s help. I bit my lip. Had she even known Frank and his wife back then, or was she breeding random geniuses? How many such human experiments remain back on Mission One unbeknownst to the Realm? According to Paul, all children on Mission Two are genetically enhanced, probably the reason our parents were evicted. I treated Albert’s question as rhetorical and remained silent.
He continued, “My parents are as frightened by my intellect as by my sexual orientation, which they never accepted. I’m still in the closet, so to speak.”
“Well that’s the next matter for us to deal with.” I intoned a question “You were, maybe still are, attracted to me?”
“As a friend.”
“In our society that’s all there is. We’ve been denied a true bond between a man and a woman. Sex has been reduced to the status of table tennis.”
“A game that men and women can play. Ask Jimmy about it.” My anger returned in a broken sequence. He and Jimmy had invaded my private century. “And what right did you have to share my personal tutorial with Jimmy?”
“It’s all I had left to experiment with after the fiasco with the data library.”
“That’s another issue. You destroyed what little contact we had with civilization back on Earth.” I glared. “Why did you do that?”
“Father meant it to be the first warning that we had control over Paul. I accidentally routed it back to earth along with some technical feedback. The transmission got cut short for no apparent reason.”
“Including my tutorial?”
His eyes widened. “It disappeared too?” His expression brightened. “I can duplicate Jimmy’s copy. I’m even in the process of adding a new dimension.”
“For Jimmy to play with?” I stamped my foot. “You destroyed our only glimpse of life back on Earth.”
“Both data bases can be retrieved after the Realm hooks us back up.”
“Don’t hold your breath. It has no intention of ‘hooking us back up’ or maintaining any contact with us. No doubt the Realm on Mission One considers the loss of our data library a positive move to isolate us further from Earth, and not have to take responsibility.” I felt a surge of hope that some earthling will discover my journal. I would laugh if the Realm would zap Jimmy’s copy of my tutorial right in the middle of Star Wars.
“Our data library might never be restored?” Albert sounded indignant.
“Had you ever used it?”
He studied his feet. “Once, that time I learned about Rome.”
“Well, that’s more than most of the population. A thousand year old censored history of folks we have nothing in common with has limited appeal.” I shook my head in disgust. “No one will miss it.”
“It was the basis for your tutorial.”
“For my amusement.” I detested his sarcastic tone. “And now Jimmy’s.”
“What about sex and tennis? Jimmy and I might like that game.”
“Leave Jimmy alone, and you know what I mean.” I glared until he broke eye contact. “I merely made an analogy between two very different activities to stress my point.” I anticipated Sera returning fully charged in the next few minutes, so I began to unravel the plan Mother and I concocted. “Yes, I am pregnant, and if you recall, the act of planting your seed wasn’t all that painful. Once you got that thing of yours to work, you couldn’t stop toying with it.” He blushed, and I considered all the sperm he’d wasted. “We will convince your parents of your sexual attraction to me. My breasts should begin to swell quite soon.”
“I don’t think . . .”
“Shut up and listen. We’ve conceived a child, and that gives us responsibility as parents. I want you to ask me to marry you.”
“Will you marry me?”
“No. Not until you mean it. For now, hide me from your parents until Sera and your father come to an arrangement. Our two groups cannot remain at odds with each other when our survival is at stake.”
“What can I do about it?”
“Haven’t I made myself clear? I want to marry you, but hide me for now. And one other thing, use your superior brain to figure out how to bypass Mission One and establish direct contact with Earth. But first, you are to help Sera negotiate a peace between your father and Paul.”
“And if we are unsuccessful?”
“Then you will introduce me and our child to your parents. But first you have to ask me to marry you and mean it.”
He shrugged and put his hands into his pockets. He stepped onto the central pad and ascended toward the upper level.
“Announce yourself with the code name Anne Frank the next time you drop down to see me.” I continued to glare until he disappeared.
Fully charged and unblemished after her sojourn in the utility center, Sera paused on her way up and nodded her approval, obviously not requiring details of my interaction with Albert, or with anyone else for that matter. I felt confident she’d be able to repair communication links, both technical and personal between Frank and Paul. Issues between Albert and his parents would remain my responsibility, and I had the ace-in-the-hole. I must discard that expression.
In the meantime, I plopped onto the bed in a darkened cubicle similar to the clean room where my mother conjoined Albert’s XY chromosome with my double X’s. His sperm determined the sex, but I got to select which one to use. At the last minute, I had decided to have a daughter.