Jupiter, Florida, June 21, 2065
Captain Artemis Blayne was seated at the patio table under the intense Florida sun. Even with sunglasses, he was having trouble reading the technical report, which had been printed on bright white paper. He was also dreading the conversation he was about to have with his wife. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He took a sip of his coffee.
Blayne glanced at the overweight Jack Russell terrier at his feet. It waited patiently for the next few morsels of butter croissant to come its way. This was Sunday brunch out on the patio overlooking the intracoastal waterway. The pup usually scored big on Sundays.
Lorna Blayne came out of the house carrying a tray with mimosas, a small pitcher of milk, and two bowls of granola with fresh raspberries.
“I hope you’re not feeding the dog again,” she said.
Blayne did not look up. “Who, me?”
Lorna placed the tray on the patio table and sat down. The dog let out a quiet “yip” as if to say, “I’m still here. I’m waiting.”
Lorna looked down at the dog and said sternly, “Don’t even think about it.” Of course, she and Blayne knew that food was probably the only thing the dog ever thought about.
Blayne took a sip of his mimosa and said, “Lorna, dear, you’re too good to me.”
She smiled, and they clinked glasses.
A group of kayakers paddled by and waved to the Blaynes, who waved back.
“Don’t you just love it here?” she asked. Not waiting for a response, she asked, “What are you reading?”
Blayne looked up and adjusted his sunglasses. “Oh, another technical bulletin about the second planet found orbiting the star known as HD 70642. For now, the planet is simply called object ‘c.’ It’s emitting unexplained electromagnetic signals—a possible sign of extraterrestrial intelligence.”
“Really? That’s exciting. Where is it?”
Blayne leaned back in his chair. “About ninety-two light-years away in the constellation Puppis—the ‘Poop Deck.’”
Lorna wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Sounds charming.”
“The planet was discovered last year. It may have liquid water, because it’s close enough but not too far away from the star.” Blayne handed Lorna an artist’s representation of what it might look like.
Lorna smiled and said, “Pretty cool! Love those purple clouds and the greenish ocean.”
Blayne shook his head. “Yeah, but we really don’t have a clue what it looks like.” He took another bite of his croissant.
Returning the glossy image to her husband, she asked, “Got a picture of the first planet?”
“No, but HD 70642b—notice that I emphasized the letter ‘b’—is Jupiter-sized and too far away from the star to support life. It was discovered way back in 2003.”
Lorna fiddled with her napkin and cocked her head. “What about object ‘a’?”
“The star implicitly holds the designation ‘a.’ Every planet found around the star gets a new letter, in chronological order of the date of discovery—b, c, and so on.”
Lorna rolled her eyes. “Leave it to a bunch of geeky guys to label these heavenly bodies a, b, and c. They need an advertising guru like me to come up with exciting names.”
Blayne chuckled and said, “It’s just astronomical convention.”
Lorna poured a little milk into each bowl. “So what’s the agency going to do about it?”
Blayne put the report down on the table. Stone-faced, he looked at his wife without saying anything.
“What?” asked Lorna.
“Well, they’re putting a huge program together. They want to build two watergates, one orbiting Earth and another around object ‘c.’ They couldn’t justify the cost of building a watergate until there was someplace promising to travel to. They want to send a team to find out what’s happening there.”
Lorna’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my God.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Blayne paused, took a deep breath and then another sip of his mimosa. “They want me to pilot a new ship. They’re christening it the Telemachus.”
Lorna gasped and put her hand on her chest. “Oh, my God.”
“You said that already. One thing I don’t like—they’re not letting me pick my own team. I get who I get. Jeremy Crane is in line for a second mission, if there is one.”
The dog yipped one more time. Lorna pulled it onto her lap and stroked its back.
“I like him,” Lorna said, “but they really have their hands full with that rowdy kid of theirs. Should’ve been DINKs, like us—think of the reduced stress they’d have with their double incomes and no kid. . . . Geez, this is a lot for me to take in. What’s the schedule?”
“It’ll take about six years to get ready,” said Blayne.
Lorna leaned forward. “But this watergate business is so new. Is it safe?”
Blayne knew the correct response would be to quote probabilities, but he said, “Yes, it’s safe.”
She leaned back. “Hope you’re right about that.”
“One more thing,” said Blayne. He quickly drank the rest of his mimosa. “They want us to relocate.”
Lorna jerked, prompting the dog to jump off her lap. “I knew it. Goddamn it, we finally find someplace we really like and then here we go again. Christ, we’ve moved six times in the last eighteen years.” She sighed. “Guess I’m used to it. Sort of. I’m a military wife. I bought the whole package. Almost.” She jabbed a finger at her husband, saying, “Just one thing, though. Anywhere but California.”
Blayne snapped his head back and raised his eyebrows. “What’s so bad about California? It’s got great weather, palm trees like Florida … and movie stars.”
Lorna sighed again and shook her head. “Really scared of the earthquakes. At least with a hurricane, you get some notice.” She pushed her bowl forward about two inches, crossed her arms, and said, “Okay, where in California?”
“Palmdale. See? Palm trees.”
“Where the hell is that?” asked Lorna.
“Just north of L.A.”
Lorna stood up, grabbed her mimosa, and turned to walk back inside.
“I’m really sorry, Lorna, about having to move again.”
“I know,” she replied. “But sometimes it’s just really hard.”
Headquarters of the International Space Agency (ISA) Palmdale, California, November 30, 2071
He looked down at his right hand. It was part of him but somehow not. It was wider than most hands. The nails are a little too long, he thought. Beginning with the thumb, he played an imaginary eight-note piano scale on his thigh—1-2-3, 1-2-3-4-5. We should have been born with eight fingers, he thought. Then he turned his hand palm side up, clenched a fist, and watched the veins pop in his wrist. Relaxing his fingers and squeezing them once more, he admired the hand’s flexibility, a marvel of biodynamics.
A booming Virginia baritone broke into his thoughts: “You with us, Commander Crane?” Astronaut and pilot Jeremy Crane jerked with surprise and managed a “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” His colleague and supposed subordinate Aston Coddington scowled at him.
Admiral Kevin Kerry was finishing his briefing on the upcoming mission. With a heavy, old Richmond drawl, he said, “Look. You’re the new jefe. Bes’ pay attention. Okay. Liftoff in five days. Be here at 0730 for final flight simulation. Weapons training at 1100 hours. Language . . . and, uh, pitch recognition . . . courtesy of Ms. Morrison, here, at 1430. Dismissed.”
Metal folding chairs screeched on the white linoleum floor. Papers rustled; briefing books slammed shut. Soon the two wooden fold-up tables were bare. There were no windows or artwork of any kind in this room, only a pale green plastic wastebasket in the corner. Coddington stood up and was about to toss a balled-up piece of scrap paper into the trashcan, but noticing it was empty, he stuffed the paper in his pocket instead.
First one out, the admiral switched off the overhead light, leaving the others to exit in the dark. As they left the room in single file, Crane accidentally stepped on Coddington’s heel and apologized. Coddington responded with another ugly scowl.
Crane and his crew headed down the long hallway toward the elevator bank. Painted bright white, Corridor A-4 was nicknamed the “Milky Way.” It was “decorated” with a few convex mirrors, announcing the intersections with other equally nondescript corridors. The staff had suggested—actually, had pleaded for—paintings, photographs, anything to break up the monotony. Their requests were ignored. The budget-strapped agency had other priorities.
The crew walked without talking and listened only to their footsteps along the Milky Way. In addition to Crane and Coddington, the team consisted of Sandra Morrison, a Harvard-trained linguist and cultural affairs expert; Dimitri Yanov, the Russian systems engineer, physicist, and Crane’s former college classmate; and Wei Cheng, a medical doctor, originally from Shanghai. This troupe was ill equipped to deal with potential hostilities. Replacing them, however, with a combat-savvy but otherwise undertrained crew had been rejected. They were stuck with what they had. In the last five days before liftoff, the squad was to receive a rather inadequate crash course in weapons handling and unarmed defense.
Crane recalled his jujitsu course in Navy ROTC many years before. His instructor was fond of saying, “Call me sadistic, and I’ll gouge your eyes out.” On the very day Crane had completed this course, a street hoodlum in West Philadelphia accosted him as he walked to his sister’s house for dinner. It was dark. There was only one streetlight, but it was half a block away. The thug’s long-sleeved army fatigue jacket was pulled down to cover his hand. Was the hoodlum concealing a gun under his sleeve? Probably not.
“Give me all your money, or I’ll blow your head off.”
Crane instantly recalled his training—the blocks, the flips, the kicks—and quickly pulled out his wallet and handed over all he had—forty dollars. It might have ended differently if the thief hadn’t covered up his hand.
Now, no one in Crane’s group would ever admit that they were afraid, but their demeanor showed it. Sandy Morrison’s beautiful brown eyes darted about randomly. Her face was pale and sweaty, and she looked as if she could vomit at any moment. Yanov—balding, with thin lips and a large mole above his left eye—looked straight ahead and walked stoically, with his arms across his chest. Slouching, the good Dr. Cheng, with his black hair neatly parted on the left side, looked straight down at the white linoleum floor and slowly wagged his head back and forth.
Coddington, the English astrobiologist, was furious. His face reddened as they entered the elevator. In the confined space of the lift, the Brit looked up at Crane, who was almost a foot taller, and said, “Happy now, Crane?”
“You bloody well know what I mean.”
Crane looked straight ahead toward the elevator door and did not respond.
Coddington continued. “Just so you know—we’ll be watching.”
“Oh, shut the hell up, Aston,” Sandy snapped.
The others remained silent but looked at Coddington in disgust. The light bulb in the elevator flickered uncertainly.
Crane despised the petty jealousies and turf battles that often crippled teams and even whole organizations. Yet at that moment, he didn’t feel up to defending his position on organizational behavior. He let it slide. Just like the forty bucks.
Mercifully, the elevator opened and the five stepped out into the bright light of the lobby. They marched past the auditorium and out the front door into the warm Santa Ana winds and went their separate ways—Crane to the right, the others to the left. Out of the corner of his eye, Crane saw Coddington gesticulating in anger.
As he walked, Crane thought how quickly the mission had changed. He lacked actual combat experience, but as the only military man on the team, he had been thrust into command—over the objections of Coddington, the original leader of a once purely scientific and cultural mission. Circumstances now demanded new leadership, but the change had dredged up unanticipated anxieties and insecurities. As commander, Crane would not only fly the spacecraft, but he’d also have to keep his well-educated international crew under control. Crane hoped that after this mission, given his new leadership role, the navy would finally promote him.
The communication pod, or “C-Pod,” had come through the watergate two days earlier. The message from the starship Telemachus was both confusing and alarming.
MISSION COMPROMISED. CAPTAIN BLAYNE MISSING. SHIP SABOTAGED. REQUEST MEDI . . .
And that was it. No other information about the nature of the threat or who or what was responsible. “REQUEST MEDI . . .” was naturally interpreted as a call for medical attention. But the crew of the Telemachus included an MD. Was the doctor alive? Or missing, like the captain? Which member of the crew had sent the message? Foul play was immediately suspected in the sabotage of the ship and the disappearance of US Air Force Captain Artemis Blayne. He was a no-nonsense, by-the-book commander, which made his missing-in-action status all the more troubling.
The original purpose of what was now Crane’s mission had been simple. Relieve the crew of the Telemachus. Assist with their safe transit through the remote gate and their return to Earth. Continue the scientific and cultural exploration of the Other Hands’ planet. Share information. Make new friends.
All that had changed. It was now a rescue—or recovery—mission. Were the Other Hands hostile? That did not square with Captain Blayne’s portrayal of the Other Hands as a peace-loving species. His team had been on New California for over three months. Knowing very little about the planet in advance, they had discovered a remarkable civilization, not only technologically advanced but socially too, with a governance structure and a code of ethics that brought peace, harmony, and contentedness to the population. Although they’d started out in a purely exploratory mode, Blayne’s mission had gradually evolved into one of information and cultural exchange. The Other Hands were fascinated with the humans’ ability to travel across the galaxy. They wanted this technology for themselves, but the International Space Agency considered it top secret, at least for now. Blayne was intrigued by the Other Hands’ ability to get along, to compromise, and to achieve consensus on complex issues without rancor or discord. “We could learn a lot from them,” he had said. “In time we too could grow ‘other hands.’”