The planet Jupiter revolves around the sun at a distance of roughly 780 million kilometers, which is over five times the distance from the sun to the Earth. Saturn is nearly twice that far away again, at almost a billion and a half kilometers from the sun. After years of following a looping trajectory from planet to planet, the crew of the Christiaan station was a tiny, indiscernible speck in the vast ocean of emptiness between the two gas giants. It was too small to even be mistaken for a stray moon of Jupiter, too small by far to be seen by an Earth-based telescope. The gravity boost from Jupiter had given the craft a dramatic increase in velocity, and it was hurtling inexorably towards its final destination.
Lili made her way from the Beta tube into the central core area, checking off items from her routine systems inspection. Backup battery levels: nominal. Primary network link to Beta capsule: nominal. Secondary network link to Beta capsule: nominal. Core radiation levels: nominal. Core temperature: nominal.
For the most part, the Christiaan was a very reliable station. It was extremely rare for a system to fail of its own accord. Without some external event causing damage. Lili moved past the hatch to Alpha tube quickly. There was no need to check any items off of the list for that quadrant. The capsule had been damaged beyond repair, and now served as a graveyard for the unfortunate half of the crew who had not made it past Jupiter.
In the Gamma tube, Lili left the hatch closed, checking off items from the outer console. Gamma capsule now served as sleeping quarters for the crew, the seven astronauts who had started the long journey as children. They were still technically children now, but when Lili looked at pictures of herself from the beginning of the candidacy, she barely recognized who she saw.
After the accident, they had decided to stop separating themselves by family. And none of them wanted to spend time alone. Delta capsule remained in its role as a storage and hygiene space. Beta capsule was now called the “dayroom”, where they gathered to work and play. It tended to be noisy and boisterous, which served well to distract them from the tragedy that was still too fresh in their minds.
Lili finished her rounds and returned to the dayroom, where Tao and Jing were in full VR gear, sitting next to each other, both gesticulating wildly and occasionally making odd noises that might have been mistaken for singing. Ground control had recently completed the upload of a few new games, which everyone on board was eager to try.
Nicklas was bent over the 3D printer, anxiously monitoring the progress of the new valve component that they needed to repair the booster. Axel sat nearby, studying a detailed EVA plan that had been designed and practiced in the simulator by the Bell family back on Earth.
Max and Olivia were in Gamma, sleeping in preparation for their “night” watch. Most of them kept to a schedule that matched daytime in Houston, but they kept at least a pair awake and alert at all times in rotating shifts.
“How’s it going?” Lili asked Max, peering into the chamber where a thin molten stream of Titanium was being woven back and forth over the nearly completed valve.
“Almost done,” said Max. “Just a few more hours, and then we’ll let it cool and set for a day or so. Then we can stress test it.”
“What if it fails?”
“Then we start over,” said Max, shrugging. “We have a month before the next resupply capsule reaches us.”
The main reason they needed the booster, of course, was to enter the Saturnian system at the correct velocity, so that they could enter orbit, and then later leave orbit for the return trip to Earth. But a more immediate concern was docking with the resupply. In order to get supplies out to them at such a great distance, they were launched from Earth on extremely powerful rockets, but then at the end they had to be slowed down to match the speed of the Christiaan. Limited fuel remaining on the resupply booster meant that the Christiaan was responsible for fine-tuning the approach angle and speed.
“Has Houston sent the EVA procedures yet?” asked Lili.
“Yes,” said Axel. “They arrived an hour ago. That’s what I’m reading now.”
“Have we decided who’s going to perform the EVA? I assume you, of course,” Lili said, nodded at Axel. “But who else?”
“Carmen and Jay both recommended you,” said Axel. “In spite of how upset they are after your little video broadcast. You’re tall enough to fit into a suit if we make some modifications. And you always did well on EVA sims.”
Lili’s heart skipped a beat, but she tried to play it cool. There was something about the way Axel had been treating her lately that was—not exactly affectionate, but at least not antagonistic. And as much as she wanted to hate him for the way he and his sister had treated her during the candidacy, she had to admit that he was getting to be a very handsome young man. Lili had noticed that Tao became irritated whenever she spent time with Axel.
Aside from the prospect of working closely with Axel to train for and ultimately perform the EVA, she had never actually done an EVA before. The idea of floating in space outside the protection of the station’s walls was frightening. She knew it was silly to think that way—after all, the walls were barely a few centimeters thick, not much better than a space suit.
Lili realized she was distracted and had to ask Axel to repeat himself.
“Check your inbox, you should have a copy of the EVA procedures. Let’s take a few hours to study them and then we can quiz each other. Sound good?”
“Oh, yeah—sure,” she said, walking over to her bunk and tapping on her console.
“Are you up to it?” Axel asked as she sat down.
There it was. That old Svensson condescension. Lili shot him an annoyed look. “What do you mean am I up to it?”
Axel looked abashed. “Sorry, I mean, I was just asking—you don’t have to. It’s a volunteer thing. We could make it work with someone else. My sister. Or maybe Tao.”
“I can do it,” she said, and turned to her console to begin reading the procedures.
The ground control team in Houston was excessively detailed in their description of the steps she and Axel would have to follow to replace the broken valve in the booster. Lili wondered if procedures were always spelled out with this much excruciating precision, or if it was just because they still viewed them as children. Every motion of every limb was spelled out, from the moment they began donning their suits until they were back inside the station after the procedure. The entire activity would probably take less than an hour, and yet there were nearly 200 pages of text and diagrams that she would have to memorize. Maybe it was Carmen’s way of getting back at her. Then again, maybe this is what it was like to be a real astronaut.
Tao and Jing stripped off their VR goggles and Jing put her hands up in the air triumphantly. Tao was shaking his head and clenching his fists in frustration.
“That is so not fair,” he said. “There’s no way you out-danced me.”
“Danced?” Lili asked.
“Yes, danced,” said Jing with a smug smile. “We were playing Dance-Off 7000, and the crowd at the dance club cheered loudest for me. I am the dance queen of the solar system. Woooo!”
“Whatever,” said Tao. “I want a recount. You can’t touch my smooth moves.” Tao twisted his upper body in what might have been mistaken for dancing.
“A recount? There wasn’t a vote. It was just wild cheering from all my adoring fans. I beat you by 20 decibels.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Tao. “Let’s see what the intrepid crew of the Christiaan thinks about your so-called dancing skills.” Tao pressed a few keys on his console and pulled up a video replay of their gaming session on one of the larger screens. Pulsating club music filled the capsule.
“Seriously,” said Lili. “How am I supposed to study with that racket?”
“I’ll turn it off as soon as you admit that I dance better then Jing,” said Tao.
His game avatar was freakishly tall, with jet black hair that stood straight up above his head by almost half a meter. He was dressed in a shining patent leather body suit. Lili made a face and Axel laughed out loud.
Nicklas looked up for a moment from his work and said, “It looks like you’re having a seizure.”
Then the camera switch to Jing’s avatar and everyone gasped. She was voluptuous to the point of absurdity, and very scantily clothed. She gyrated in a way that caused Axel and Nicklas’s mouths to hang open.
“Jing!” Lili said in a scandalized voice.
“Jing wins,” said Nicklas.
“You know that’s your sister, right?” said Lili.
“That,” said Nicklas pointing at the screen. “Is most definitely not my sister.” He then pointedly turned back to his work, blushing slightly.
Lili focussed on the screen, quickly skimming over the high level overview of the EVA. It was really fairly simple. After all, her mother hadn’t needed any procedures at all. She had just done it. Risked her life to give the crew a chance at returning to Earth. Not just risked her life—she gave her life. What was left of it, anyway. But then, in the end, she had failed. The damage to the valve had been too severe to be repaired with a simple handheld welding torch. After analysis, the ground crew had been amazed at what she did manage to accomplish with no planning and no support whatsoever from them. But they did point out that their attempts at shielding her from the overpowering radiation from Jupiter was futile at best. She had known it. And Nicklas had probably known it, too. Lili had not brought it up with him, and never would. What was done was done. It had been nearly a month since the incident, and Lili told herself several times per day that she was over it. It was in the past. There was no sense dwelling on what she couldn’t change. And yet, several times per day, just like now, she found herself lost in the memory.
Lili shook her head and focussed her efforts to drown out distractions. She put on a set of headphones and did a quick search through the music library, which had basically every piece of music ever created, at least as of the date the computers were initialized in Earth orbit. She picked the soundtrack from a Star Wars movie and began from the first page of the procedures, taking notes as she read.
After several hours of intense concentration, Lili needed a break. She stretched out and then spent thirty minutes on the elliptical machine. The readout showed that she had burned off nearly 200 calories, and she had also contributed to a narrow sliver of power gain in the battery pack on the wall in the capsule. There was a delicate balance between staying in shape and consuming more calories than the ship’s food supply could withstand.
Jing waved her VR goggles at Lili from across the room. “Want to play?”
“Sure,” said Lili. “What have we got to choose from in the new batch of games? Anything but dancing.”
Jing looked disappointed and Lili laughed. “I don’t get it,” Lili said. “You’re so serious all the time, and you spend sixteen hours a day with your nose buried in a med-school textbook, and then in your free time you like to dance half naked in a whacky night club.”
“Games are supposed to be an escape from reality,” said Jing. “And speaking of escapes, one of the new games is called Escape Room. It’s a puzzle game.”
“I like puzzles,” said Lili. “Let’s try it. Is it for two players or do we need more?”
Jing pulled up the game description on her screen. “It says anywhere from two to six. But it recommends four.”
“Hey Nicklas,” said Lili. “Can you peel yourself away from that printer for a while?”
Nicklas shook his head. “It’s almost done. I’ve sat here this long, I’m not going to stop now.”
“Axel?” Lili asked. She got no response. Axel had his headphones on. “Yo, Acke! Mr. Svensson, yoo-hoo!” He finally looked up from his screen, which showed one of the diagrams from the EVA procedure.
“I can hear your music from all the way over here,” said Jing. “You’re going to blow out your eardrums.”
Axel rolled his eyes. “My ears are fine. What do you want?”
“Hey there mister,” said Jing. “Speaking as your physician, I’ll tell you if your ears are fine or not.”
“Since when are you my physician?” asked Axel.
“Since I decided to be your physician. Someone has to do it. And nobody can study like I can. Do you know how hard it is to become a medical doctor?”
Axel considered her for a moment. Then he nodded. “Ok.”
“Ok what? Ok that I’m the doctor, or Ok that you’ll come play with us.”
“Both,” he said. He turned off his display and crossed the capsule to retrieve his VR gear, which was neatly stowed in a drawer.
“That makes three,” said Lili. “Where’s Tao?”
“Must be in Delta. He said he had to go to the bathroom,” said Jing. “That was a long time ago, though.”
Jing spent a few minutes initializing the game and then Tao climbed down the ladder. Axel smirked at him and said “Feeling better, Tao?”
“What?” said Tao. “Um, yeah, sure.”
“You were gone for, like, ten minutes,” said Jing. “Is your tummy Ok?”
Tao blushed. “My tummy is fine. What’s the big deal?”
“Well, as the ship’s doctor—I’m the ship’s doctor now, by the way—it’s my job to monitor everyones’s health. Including bowel movements. Are you having consistent bowel movements, Tao?”
“Seriously?” he asked. Lili tried unsuccessfully to hide a laugh.
“I think we’re talking about a different kind of movement,” said Axel, making a motion with his hand. Tao smacked him across the chest, his eyes wide, blushing even a deeper shade of red.
Jing looked confused for a moment and then looked at her brother with understanding. “Oh,” she said, then made a face. “Ewww.”
Lili burst out laughing, but quickly got herself under control, for Tao’s sake. “Ok, let’s just play the game, you guys. Leave Tao alone.”
They donned their VR gear and found themselves in a staging room that was filled with clothing and paraphernalia that looked like like it came from an old American western movie. Cowboy hats, boots, shiny belt buckles, and chewing tobacco. Tao immediately took a handful of the tobacco and put it into his mouth, then gave commands to alter his appearance. He grew out a long, thin mustache, and put on a small black bowler hat.
Lili glanced at him skeptically. “That look is just not working for me,” she said.
“There were lots of Chinese people in the wild west,” said Tao. “And they always wore bowler hats.”
“I don’t think they chewed much tobacco,” she said, ducking behind a screen to put on a pair of jeans and a checkered shirt.
“Tobacco is a carcinogen,” said Jing. She had put on an elegant, full length purple dress, wth a matching parasol.
“It’s not real tobacco,” said Tao. “Watch this!” He puckered up his mouth and spit across the room at a spittoon in the corner. He missed it by half a meter and dribbled tobacco juice down his virtual shirt.
“Nicely done, cowboy,” said Lili.
Axel stepped out of a dressing room completely looking the part, with spurs jangling from his boots and a large white hat on his head. “I’m ready,” he said.
The stepped out of the staging area onto a hot, dusty street. A carriage being pulled by four horses crossed in front of them, and the sounds of music drifted from a nearby saloon. In the distance, steam billowed from a train arriving at the station. A hawk circled high in a bright, clear, blue sky.
“What did you say this game was called?” asked Axel.
At that moment, a portly middle-aged man with a graying walrus mustache came huffing towards them, holding his hat down on his head. He had a sheriff’s badge on his chest.
“Thank goodness you’re here!” he exclaimed. “I’m Eli Whittaker, Sheriff in these here parts.”
“What can we do ya for, sheriff?” asked Axel, tipping his hat upwards. Lili gaped at him—he had managed a very convincing accent.
“The bank’s been robbed,” said the sheriff.
Tao held up his hand to his mouth dramatically and sucked in a loud breath. “Say it isn’t so! Who could have perpetuated such a dastardly deed?”
Jing raised her eyebrows at him, but the sheriff responded with enthusiasm. “None other than the infamous Daniel Deakins, otherwise known as the Dark Derringer of Dawseville.”
“Dang!” said Axel.
“Dastardly deeds indeed!” said Tao.
Lili stepped in front of the boys. “I assume you need us to apprehend this criminal for you, sheriff?”
“There’s a healthy reward in it for you if you do,” he said.
“You’re the sheriff,” said Jing. “Why don’t you go after him?”
The sheriff removed his hat and wiped his brow nervously with a handkerchief. He looked down at his feet and said, “Well, to be honest, he’s outsmarted me every time I’ve come up against him. He’s the cleverest, wiliest, no-good critter in the whole state.”
“Where was he seen last, sheriff?” asked Axel.
“He ran off from the bank with all the loot and headed for the old warehouse at the edge of town.
“We’ll take it from here, sheriff,” said Axel, and he waved for everyone to follow them.
A small crowd gathered to watch the group as they made their way to warehouse. As they approached the building, a few stray dollar bills littered the road, and overly obvious boot prints marked the path.
The prints continued inside and led to a closed door, which they cautiously opened. Axel had one of his pistols at the ready. They stepped into a dimly lit room with no windows. It had a variety of furniture, including a round table with a few stray playing cards on it, a fully stocked bar, and a piano that was playing itself in the corner.
The door slammed shut behind them and they heard a loud click as the lock engaged. Tao tried the door and then shook his head.
“Oh, now I see why it’s called Escape Room,” said Lili. “Great. So to escape the reality of being closed in a tiny, claustrophobic space ship, we spend our free time locked up in this tiny room with no windows.”
“Oh, come on!” said Jing. “This is great! We have to solve some sort of puzzle to get out. I love games like this.”
“Couldn’t we have been stranded on a tropical island instead?”
“Why would we want to escape that?” asked Tao.
“Good point,” said Lili.
“So, what’s the puzzle?” said Axel. “I assume we have to find the key to this door.”
“That’s part of the puzzle, figuring out what the puzzle is. Or where it is.”
Axel absently flipped over a few of the playing cards on the table.
“Don’t do that!” said Jing. “The cards could be a clue. Put them back the way they were.”
Suddenly a small device sitting on a wooden desk behind the bar began to tap insistently. They went to examine it and saw a strip of paper hanging down from an assembly with a rocker arm.
“This is a telegraph,” said Tao.
“What gave it away?” asked Lili. “This book next to it that says ‘Morse Code Manual’ on the front?”
Jing pulled the strip of paper away from the machine as it continued to issue dits and dahs, until it quit a few minutes later.
“It’s going to take us a while to decipher this,” said Lili.
“I can read it,” said Axel.
“You know morse code?” asked Lili.
“Sure. It was on the list of recommended study materials when we were in training.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jing. “I can read it too. You can’t?”
Lili shrugged and looked at Tao. He shook his head.
Axel took the end of the spool and began to read.
“Well, it looks like I have got the better of you again, Sheriff. I am not a heartless man, so I left you clues to escape the room. Maybe you will get out before breakfast tomorrow. By that time I will be long gone. I am boarding the 3 PM train for Mexico, with all the gold. Sincerely, D.D.”
“What time is it now?” asked Lili.
“There’s an old grandfather clock by the door,” said Tao. “Let’s see, it’s five minutes after two.”
“So we have less than an hour to escape and arrest him before the train departs,” said Jing.
“Seems like plenty of time to me,” said Axel. “I am betting the difficulty level of this game is set too low by default.”
“What game are you talking about?” asked Jing indignantly, twirling her parasol. “I am a wild west debutante detective, and I aim to capture a bank robber.”
“Yeah, stay in character,” said Lili, poking him in the ribs.
Axel tossed aside the strip of paper with the telegraph message, but Jing snatched it before it could fall to the floor. She twisted it around and squinted at it.
“There’s something written on the back,” she said.
“Morse code?” asked Tao.
“No, it’s hand-written, in cursive.”
“What’s it say?” asked Lili.
“Light spreads from the candle and the mirror that reflects it.”
“Sounds like an obvious clue,” said Axel. He looked around quickly. “There’s a mirror”, he said, pointing behind the bar.
“What about a candle?” asked Jing.
“There’s a candle on that desk in the corner,” said Lili. “Maybe we should light it and hold it up in front of the mirror.”
“Anybody have a match?” asked Tao, searching through his pockets.
Lili walked over to the desk and tried to open a drawer, but it was locked. “We’ll need a key to open this,” she said. “And I bet the matches are inside.”
“Why don’t we just light the candle from one of the gas lamps on the wall?” asked Axel.
“Those are miner’s lamps,” said Jing. “They have a screen on the outside so you can’t get to the flame.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“It’s so you don’t explode if there’s a gas leak.”
“Why don’t we just cut the screen?” Axel pulled out a large, gleaming knife from a sheath on his right leg.
Jing considered for a moment. “That feels like cheating. I don’t think we should have to destroy anything to win the game.”
“Ok,” said Axel. “But if we waste more than five minutes looking for that key, I’m cutting it.”
“You mean this key?” asked Tao, pointing at a large black key stuck to the surface of a small display table. The table held a statue of a gunslinger, who was pointing his pistol in the direction of the telegraph machine. Around the base of the statue were a series of concentric rings carved into the table. There were rows of flat blocks fixed inside the rings, and the key was attached to one of these blocks.
“Ooh, a tile puzzle,” said Lili. “I love these.” She began to rotate the blocks inside the rings. There was a single empty space where the blocks could be moved inwards or outwards on the circle. The bottom side of the blocks was cleverly shaped to allow them to move smoothly but not come loose.
“Jing, you help Lili with the puzzle,” said Axel, turning to investigate the rest of the room.
Jing gave Axel an annoyed look. “What am I supposed to do, cheer her on? I should look for more clues.”
“Teamwork, Jing. Two heads are better than one.”
“I’ll help Lili,” said Tao, removing his hat and bowing to her dramatically.
“Just don’t distract me,” said Lili. “I think there’s a picture or a pattern here that I have to complete, and then, hopefully, the key will come loose.”
Tao looked down at the rings for a moment and laughed. “Ha ha! That’s funny.”
“Don’t you see it?”
“See what? It’s just a jumble of shapes.”
“It’s a bunch of animals chasing each other in a circle,” he said. “Rotate that piece over here and then move that one up.”
Lili did as he asked and then looked where he pointed.
“Oh, I think I see it,” she said. “It all blends into the background. Looks like a wolf’s snout and maybe a sheep’s tail.”
“Yeah, the wolf is chasing a sheep, and the sheep is chasing a butterfly.” He pointed to a few blocks spread out around the table. “Put these two together and it makes a bear. And here’s a goat.”
Lili made short work of lining up the blocks, as Tao pointed out pieces that should go together.
Jing was examining a large painting hung on one wall, while Axel sat at the table holding the playing cards in his hand. The painting was a blended time lapse of seasons, and of morning, afternoon, and evening. It started on the left with the sun rising over a snow-covered church, then a colorful spring garden in the early morning sunshine, then a brightly lit stream to the right of center with the summer sun setting in the background, and finally a full moon rising over a graveyard on the right.
She ran her hand along the top of the painting, then tried to pull it away from the wall, but it was firmly affixed. She frowned at the painting and then moved on to another part of the room.
“Anything interesting about the cards?” she asked Axel as she opened a cabinet that was stuffed with a variety of fresh vegetables.
“There are only four of them. That’s odd. Poker usually has five, doesn’t it?”
“What cards are they?” she asked as she pulled out the vegetables and started lining them up on a nearby counter.
“Two Eights and two Aces. All black.”
“Dead Man’s Hand,” said Tao absently as he bent over the tile puzzle. Lili was frantically spinning the dials back and forth.
Axel looked over at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot.”
Axel placed the cards on the table in front of him. “Follow-up questions,” he said, counting on his fingers. “One, who is Wild Bill Hickok? Two, why aren’t there five cards? And three, how do you know something obscure like that?”
Tao turned and held up his hand, pinching two fingers together. “One and two: I have no idea.” Then he held up a third finger. “Three, my dad liked to play poker. He said it helped him learn how to read people.”
“That information is not much help,” said Axel, scratching his chin. “Maybe the numbers open a lock.”
“Got it!” said Lili suddenly, holding up the key.
“See!” said Tao. “Look at the animals chasing each other, just like I said. The kitten is cute.”
“Focus, Tao!” said Lili. “We’ve burned ten minutes already.” She moved to the desk and opened the drawer, smiling with satisfaction as she pulled out a box of matches and rattled it. She lit the candle and took it over to the bar, where it illuminated the array of brightly colored bottles lined up against the mirror.
Jing joined her and started to read the bottles. “These brand names are ridiculous, listen to this: Tangleleg, Snakebite, Mountain Howitzer, Coffin Varnish, Ball Lightning, Sally’s Strychnine, and Billy’s Bedtime. All whiskey, by the way. I wonder if the names are a clue? Hmm—if we look at the first letter of each bottle, that’s T-S-M-C-B-S-B. Well, there aren’t even any vowels in that.” She continued in her typically rapid fire speech, talking to her herself more than anyone else.
“Lili, bring the candle over here,” said Axel.
“Maybe if you ask nicely,” she said.
“Please,” he said in an impatient voice.
“No,” she said. “We’re checking out this mirror, like we’re supposed to.”
Axel sighed. “So am I. Can you please just do as I ask?”
Lili narrowed her eyes at him but complied, shielding the flame as she walked to his chair.
“Move behind me. Please,” he said, not moving from his seat. He was staring intently towards the bar.
Lili moved behind him, trying to see what he was focused on.
“Lift the candle up,” he said. “As high as you can.”
Lili held the candle over her head, close to the ceiling. “What is the point of this?”
Axel smiled and turned back to her. “You’ll see,” he said, standing up and taking the candle from her. “Sit where I was sitting.”
Lili sat down and watched in the mirror as Axel held the candle up, illuminating a recessed cubby over the front door. In the mirror’s reflection, she could see a small poster tacked up to the wall. It would have been nearly impossible to notice it otherwise. She stood up on the chair and turned around, looking directly at the poster. It read:
Dead or Alive
“Well, that’s an odd amount for a reward,” she said.
“And it’s in bold letters,” said Axel. “That must be part of the clue.”
“What’s ‘EI’?” asked Jing.
“His initials,” said Tao. “He told us his name was Eli.”
“I wonder what the ‘I’ stands for,” said Lili.
“I doubt that matters,” said Axel. “We just have to figure out where we can use 531,770. Maybe it’s the combination to that big safe in the corner. It could be divided up, like 53-17-70.”
“The numbers on the safe don’t go that high,” said Jing.
Tao was looking at them with a bemused face and shaking his head.
“What is it?” asked Lili.
“You guys are kidding, right?”
“Kidding about what?”
“Those aren’t numbers. They’re letters. It’s so obvious.”
Lili looked at the poster again. “I’m not seeing it.”
“Sit back down,” said Tao. “Look at it through the mirror.”
Lili sat and looked at the faint reflection of the poster in the flickering candlelight and it suddenly dawned on her. “Bottles! The numbers spell bottles backwards. And the initials underneath look like the number 13.”
“13 bottles,” said Jing absently as Lili made her way back over to the bar.
They crowded around the bar and Tao started counting. “There are more than 30 bottles here. Maybe we have to take away 13 of them? Could there be a spring underneath that lets go at a certain weight?”
“Which 13, though?” asked Lili. “And where do we put them? Would that matter?”
Tao picked up a bottle to examine it more closely and they heard a slight click from underneath it. There was a large black button that was now protruding up from the wooden surface. Tao put the bottle back and the button pressed back down with another click.
“Very interesting,” he said, twisting his mustache dramatically.
Lili took a step back and her eyes grew wide. “The whole bar is one giant combination lock,” she said.
“Why didn’t I see that,” said Jing, walking around to the side of the bar. “Look here, there’s a handle and hinges. It’s a hidden door. If we arrange the bottles correctly, we can open the door.”
“How do we know which 13 bottles to leave?” asked Tao.
“13 letters,” said Jing. “We leave the ones with 13 letters in the name. Coffin Varnish, Ball Lightning, Billy’s Bedtime. She gathered up bottles in her arms and moved them to the counter behind her.”
“Here’s another.” Lili held up a bottle labeled ‘Rotten Rancher’ and then put it back down on its tumbler.
Soon they had trimmed out all the bottles with names that didn’t add up to 13.
“And what do you know, there are exactly 13 left,” said Tao.
“Now we twist the handle, and—“ Jing shrieked and jumped back away from the bar.
Lili rounded the corner and looked down at the now open door. She also jumped back in surprise. Tao looked inside and laughed, pulling out a human skull. He waved it at them and wiggled its jaw, which was attached to the head with wire.
They emptied the rest of the compartment, which was full of old vials, some of which had putrid looking liquid inside.
“Some sort of medicine cabinet?” Jing mused.
“For a witch. Or an assassin, maybe,” said Axel.
Suddenly Jing spun around and pointed at the painting. “There’s a skull just like this one in the graveyard.”
“Of course it’s just like this one,” said Tao. “All skulls look pretty much the same.”
“But this one is missing the same teeth as the one in the painting,” she said.
“How many is it missing?” asked Lili.
“Four,” said Jing. “That leaves 26. Which is double 13. That has to be significant.”
“One of the numbers to the safe, I bet,” said Axel.
Jing studied the painting, and then stooped down in front of the safe. “It’s the fourth number. These patterns on the door of the safe match the decorations along the top of the picture frame, over each quadrant.”
“That means we are one fourth the way to solving the room,” said Axel.
Lili glanced at the grandfather clock. “And we’ve burned a quarter of our time. How are you feeling about the difficulty level now, buckaroo?”
“Feeling fine,” he said confidently. “Let’s keep working as a team, and stop wasting time when I ask you do something. You have to trust me, Lili.”
“Enough, you two,” said Jing. “Let’s get these vegetables figured out. They probably have something to do with the second number, since that part of the painting is a garden. We’ve got a bunch of carrots—or is it a bundle of carrots? Anyway, there are four of them. And three turnips. Two cucumbers. And half a dozen yellow onions. I wish these were real. I miss onions. I hope they have some on the next resupply. Ok, concentrate!”
Tao had wandered to a corner of the room where there was a large pine box. It did not seem to have a door, as there were no hinges, locks, or knobs protruding from it. Above it on the wall hung a simple cross. Tao went to the painting and considered the winter scene with the church, and then came back to the box. On top of it sat a compass. He picked it up and noticed the compass needle spin wildly for a moment. He put it back, and then moved around the room with it, watching the direction it pointed.
Axel was on the opposite end of the room, inspecting a large bucket of water that splashed over onto the floor when he dipped a ladle into it.
“Is this teamwork?” asked Lili. “We’ll do better if we concentrate on one task at a time. Just like the mirror.”
“We could finish faster if we all solve something at the same time, separately,” said Tao.
“Lili is right,” said Axel. “Come over here and help with the vegetables.” Axel dropped the ladle into the bucket and joined the girls.
“But I’m onto something,” said Tao. “I think there’s a magnet in this box.”
“We’ll get back to it. Come count carrots with everyone else,” said Axel.
Lili couldn’t tell if he was being serious or facetious. She tried not to care.
Tao reluctantly joined them, shaking his head.
“You’ve been full of insights today, Tao. See anything about these veggies that jumps out at you?” Lili asked.
“Well, they’re making me hungry, that’s for sure. Can’t wait to enjoy a bowl of freeze dried protein mush later for dinner.”
Axel leaned against the counter, spinning an onion like a top. “There are 15 total vegetables. Could it be that simple? The second number is fifteen?”
“After everything we went through to get that skull, it’s doubtful,” said Lili, grabbing the onion and putting it back with the others.
Tao stared at the arrangement of vegetables for a moment and then went to the painting. “You can’t even really tell which vegetables are growing here.”
“It’s springtime,” said Jing. “You can’t expect to see much more than stems.”
There was silence in the room as they all concentrated on trying to make some sort of connection between the vegetables and a possible next clue. They could hear the ominous ticking of the clock.
“We’re not making any progress here,” said Axel. “Let’s investigate the rest of the room.”
Tao went directly to the large box with the compass. Axel followed him. Lili and Jing went to wall with the bucket. Next to it, on a thin shelf, was a set of scales. One side of the scales had four pounds of weights on it, and the other side has two empty cups. The cups had flowers painted on the sides.
“Five flowers on this one,” said Jing.
“And three on this one,” said Lili. “It’s smaller than yours. Seems proportional.”
“I wonder what happens if we fill them with water.”
Lili dipped the ladle into the bucket and filled her cup. She placed it on the scale, which budged a little but did not equal out to the four pound weights.
“Try yours,” said Lili.
Jing filled her cup and replaced Lili’s on the scale. It dipped down, heavier than the weights on the other side.
“I see what we have to do here,” said Lili.
Axel called out from the other side of the room. “Come over here and help us. There’s a magnet in this box. We need to find something else magnetic in the room.”
“Definitely not your personality,” said Lili.
“Harsh,” said Jing to Lili. Then she turned to Axel. “But we are in the middle of something here.”
“We aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t work together. Isn’t that what you just said a minute ago?”
“We’re doing just fine on our own,” said Lili. “We’ll help you with your puzzle after we solve ours. I just need another minute.”
Lili took Jing’s cup and poured it out. Then she poured the contents of her smaller cup into it.
“No, that’s not right. We need four. So if we fill the big one—“
“I think I see where you’re going with this,” said Jing. “Fill up mine, then pour it into yours.”
Lili poured the large cup into the smaller one.
“Now there’s two left here,” she said. She poured out what was in the smaller cup and then poured the contents of the other one into it.
“There you go,” said Jing. Refill the big one, pour into the smaller one until it’s full, and we’ll be left with four.
Lili took the nearly-full large cup and placed it on the scale. The sides evened out, rocked up and down a few times, and then there was a loud click. The shelf holding the scales dropped six inches, revealing a hidden compartment. Inside were another set of weights.
Jing took them out and held them in her hands, reading the numbers engraved on the front. “These add up to twenty two pounds.”
“The third number is twenty two,” said Lili, raising her voice towards Axel and Tao. “Now what were you saying about a magnet?”
Tao showed her what looked like a wooden shoe box. It had a combination lock on the front. “This was behind the cabinet under the cross. It sounds like it has metal in it. Might be magnets.”
“Why do you need magnets?”
“The compass needle goes crazy on top of the cabinet. So there must be a strong magnet in there. That’s probably how it opens.”
“Did you try putting the box on top of the cabinet?”
“Of course,” said Axel.
Tao stood if front of the cabinet, clenching his teeth, willing the pine box to give up its secrets. Axel and the others wandered somewhat aimlessly around the room, looking for anything that might be magnetized. They rummaged in drawers and peered into every nook and cranny in the room, but found nothing. The grandfather clock ticked incessantly. Eventually Axel sat down at the table and absently flipped the playing cards.
Tao was pacing back and forth. He put the locked shoe box down on the ground and stood on it to get a better view of the top of the cabinet.
“Looks like something was on here. There’s a faint X shape.”
“An X? Or a cross?” asked Lili.
Tao looked at the wall and then tried to pry down the iron cross that hung there. It wouldn’t budge. He banged his fists down on top of the cabinet in frustration. Then he stopped, leaving his fists balled up on the surface. He turned his head to one side and then the other.
“Axel, give me your pistols,” he said.
“Just give them to me. I’m assuming they’re made of iron.”
Tao took the pistols and crossed them over each other, placing them down onto the wood where he could see the faint impression. He was rewarded with a clanking noise from inside the cabinet.
“Watch it,” said Axel, taking a step back. From the bottom of the cabinet, metal balls were cascading out onto the floor.
“What are those?” asked Lili. “Marbles?”
“Ball bearings, I think. Or musket balls.”
“It’s the wrong time period for musket balls.”
“Well, whatever they are, let’s gather them up,” said Tao.
They picked up the metal balls, careful to check the floor so that they were sure they had all of them.
“Twelve,” said Tao. “Let’s assume that’s the first number to the safe.”
“Well, now that we have those two solved, all we have to do is get back to these stupid vegetables,” said Jing. “I hate turnips. What a ridiculous color. I couldn’t something that shade of purple.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tao. “There’s a purple stripe that same color on that little lock on the shoe box.”
He went to the corner where they had left the box, the only thing left in the room other than the safe that they hadn’t opened. “Oh, it’s really obvious now. The paint is faded and chipped, but each number is color coded. Orange for carrots, purple for turnips, green for cucumbers, and yellow for onions.”
Jing laid the vegetables out in a row. “There are four carrots—“
“Way ahead of you,” said Tao as he unfastened the lock and opened the box. Inside were six bullets. “The last number is six!”
Lili stole a quick glance at the clock as they converged on the safe. “We can still make it!”
Axel put his hands on the large dial. “Which way first?”
“Left,” said Tao. “Four turns. Then right, then left, then right.”
Axel spun the dial quickly four times to the left, and then stopped on twelve. Then he carefully spun it back to the right. They all counted under their breath each time the dial made a full rotation.
“That’s three rotations,” said Tao. “Stop on six.”
“I know,” said Axel. He stopped the dial and then spun it back again to the right. After 22, he made one final quick motion back to the right to stop on 26, for the 26 teeth in the skull. He pulled the handle and the door made a satisfying ‘thunk’ sound, swinging open.
“Please let the key be there,” said Lili in a whisper, her eyes closed and fingers crossed.
The key was in fact inside. But it was encased in the center of a large, complex mesh of enclosed wire cages. Axel shook it and tried to reach his fingers in through the gaps, but the key was out of reach. He groaned in frustration and slumped his shoulders.
“Give it to me,” demanded Lili. “We still have time. It’s just one last puzzle, I’m not giving up.”
Lili held the cage up high in front of her, letting the light of a lamp shine through it. As she did so, the central cage around the key shifted slightly to one side on a delicate pair of rails.
“I see how this works,” she said. “I can do this.”
“I see it too,” said Tao excitedly. “It’s like a 3-D maze. Slide that middle part over and I should be able to flip this lever.” He slipped his pinky finger through an opening and pried a long piece of metal away from where it was blocking the movement of an adjacent section of the cage.
“That’s it, Tao!” said Lili. “We’ve got this.” She smiled with satisfaction, but then their attention was suddenly broken away by the loud gonging of the grandfather clock. It was striking three in the afternoon. They were out of time.
“Game over,” said Axel. “We lost.”
Jing sighed and sat down, pulling a pin out of her hair and letting it fall.
“There might still be time,” said Lili, clinging to hope. “Trains move slow, maybe it’s late leaving the station. I almost have it.”
Tao continued to help her with the puzzle, but his enthusiasm was gone.
Lili slid the last section of the wire maze apart and the key fell into her hand. She quickly went to the door and opened the lock, letting in light from the open front of the warehouse.
The sheriff was waiting for them, with a large number of people peeking out from various corners along the street. “Was he in there? Did you catch him?”
“He’s boarding the three PM train for Mexico,” said Lili.
“Three PM? Why, that train has left the station.” The sheriff held up his pocket watch, which showed that they were several minutes too late.
“But—but—“ Lili stumbled. “We solved the puzzles. Maybe we could catch the train. Do you have horses?”
The sheriff shook his head. “I’m sorry, young lady. He got away. He’s outsmarted us all once again. Maybe we’ll get him next time.”
With that, the sheriff and the townsfolk wandered off. It was obvious that the game was over.
Lili stalked off towards the staging room to begin the transition out of VR. The props and the clothes disappeared, and slowly, the room faded into a haze, to be replaced by a real image of the inside of Beta capsule. Noises from the station began to filter in to their headphones. They peeled off the gear and sat blinking for a few seconds, adjusting to being back in the real world.
“That sounded like fun,” said Nicklas. “Now I wish I had gone.”
Lili shoved her gear under her chair. “It would have been funner if we hadn’t lost.”
“Maybe we would have won if you had followed my lead,” said Axel.
“Oh please,” said Lili. “You had no idea what to do. You didn’t solve anything.”
“Who was it that noticed the wanted poster? And besides, that’s not the point. We needed to stay focused and work together.”
“You just want to be in charge of everything all the time. Who put you in charge?”
“I should be in charge,” said Axel. “A ship needs a commander. Who else would it be if not me?”
“How about Max? He’s the pilot. Or maybe I should be in charge.”
Lili put her hands on her hips. “Why is that funny? You think a woman isn’t qualified to be a commander?”
“Woman. Please. You’re still a girl.”
“Well, you just a spoiled brat of a little boy.”
Nicklas broke in to their conversation. “I hate to break up this lover’s quarrel—“
Axel and Lili looked at him with disgust.
Nicklas continued, “I thought everyone would like to see our brand new valve control arm assembly.”
They gathered around the 3-D printer and looked down at the completed part. There wasn’t much to it, but it represented so much of what had gone wrong so far, and what could still go wrong. And yet, it looked solid. Reliable. Maybe it was a sign of their luck changing.
Nicklas grinned with pride. “Now that the hard part is done, all you two have to do is install it.”
Lili woke on the scheduled day of the repair to Axel shaking her shoulder.
“Rise and shine, Lili,” he said with a smile. His face was very close to hers.
She pushed him away with annoyance and the confusion of just waking from a deep sleep. She had been dreaming, one of those long and epic dreams that seems to have enough detail to fill a book, and yet fades away faster than a morning fog.
She rubbed her eyes and checked the clock. Apparently her alarm had been chiming for several minutes. She remembered that today was the day. In a matter of hours she would stepping out through the airlock with Axel to attempt a second repair of the booster rocket that they needed to survive. Her stomach turned. Normally she had a healthy appetite as soon as she got out of bed, but now she couldn’t stand the thought of food.
She retracted her curtains and sat on the edge of her bed, then took out a damp cloth to wipe her face, the closest she could get to splashing her face with cold water, which is what she really felt like she needed. She ran a brush through her hair and then tied it back severely to keep it out of the way. She squeezed a plastic bag of water and drank deeply, until it was empty.
She did not need to dress, as she had fallen asleep in her jump suit. She climbed the ladder and then made her way to the hygiene station in Delta capsule. Luckily it was unoccupied. There was nothing worse than waking up in the morning and then having to wait in line for the bathroom.
She used the privacy of the capsule to undress and put on one of the less pleasant items in an astronaut’s wardrobe—a space diaper, officially called a MAG, Maximum Absorbency Garment. She hoped she wouldn’t need it, but she would spend hours in the suit today, even if everything went according to plan. Better safe than sorry. She put her jumpsuit back on—which served not only as daily attire on the station but also as an LCVG—Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment. She had almost forgotten about the cleverly hidden input ports on the left side of her torso where water could be circulated through the material to regulate her temperature while she was in space, surrounded by the much more bulky EVA suit.
She met the crew in the dayroom a few minutes later for the pre-EVA briefing. Max was in the core, initiating de-rotation from the pilot’s seat, with Nicklas acting as his co-pilot. They were just beginning the eight hours of the day when everyone was awake. In Houston it was nine AM. They played a recorded message from ground control to begin the briefing.
The message was delivered by the entire Bell family. Lili smiled when she saw that they were all wearing their jumpsuits, as if they themselves were preparing to do the EVA. A part of Lili wished that was the case. Tim Bell sat with her friends, Miles and Milly, and their mother Anita. Tim looked so confident, so strong. If only he was here. And Anita was like a mountain in a storm, unperturbed and solid. Lili wondered how much differently this mission would have gone if their launch from the Cape had not ended so terribly, when their first stage booster exploded. But she reminded herself that no amount of skill or bravado could have saved them from a meteoroid piercing the hull of the Alpha capsule.
The Bells were sitting behind the CapCom console in the control room.
“We wish we could be there for you in real-time,” said Tim. “I would give anything to be a voice in your ear today as you make repairs to the booster. But, the speed of light being what it is, all we can do is give you a good send-off and wait. We have all the confidence in the world in the crew of the Christiaan. We are way past caring about your ages. You are astronauts. The best, most experienced, most qualified astronauts in the history of the space program. You know exactly what you need to do today, and there’s no doubt in my mind you will accomplish the mission. You make us all proud.”
Typical Tim, thought Lili. If she wasn’t actually listening to the words, if she didn’t actually know the man, she would have called it hyperbole, a bunch of over-exaggerated fluff. But coming from him, it was truly inspiring. He had a way of making you feel like you were up to his standards—she looked up at him in awe sometimes, but he genuinely believed and projected teamwork, that if he was awesome, then you were also awesome because you were right there next to him doing the same thing.
Anita chimed in with her more pragmatic approach. “I know you’ve been drilled on all the details endlessly,” she said. “But I want to remind you of the things that really matter. Don’t get lost in the details. There are two things that really count out there today. First, always make sure you and your partner are tethered to the ship at all times. Double check, triple check your clips every time you make a move. You have both practiced free-floating EVA maneuvers, but I would rather not see you put that training to use. And second, don’t drop the control arm. Grip it firmly. Make sure the straps are secure before you get into the air lock.”
One of the real risks in this repair operation was the replacement part that Nicklas had created in the 3D printer. At some point in the repair, they would have to detach the straps that connected it to Axel’s suit in order to secure it to the valve. There would be nothing but one of their free hands keeping it from floating off into space. Low Earth orbit was full of odds and ends, parts and tools that had slipped out of the clumsy grasp of astronauts confined to bulky space suits. What amounted to a minor inconvenience when in orbit around the Earth would prove to be a disaster for them as they approached Saturn.
“So that’s my message to you,” said Anita. “Make sure nothing floats away. I want you and that control arm firmly attached to the station at all times.”
Tim turned to Miles and Milly. “Anything you two want to add?”
“Just enjoy the view,” said Miles. “This mission is a piece of cake. You could do it in your sleep. Take some pictures while you’re out there, Lili.”
Milly shook her head at her brother’s cavalier attitude. “I just want to remind you both that this isn’t a competition. Don’t try to show each other up out there. Work together, and you’ll get through this.”
The video ended and Lili hooked her foot through a strap on the floor as she felt the rotation stop and the artificial gravity fall away. Axel floated in front of the group, while Max and Nicklas appeared on the large screen.
Axel took charge of the briefing and went over the procedure one more time. Max and Nicklas would remain in the pilot and copilot’s chars. Max was to launch all drones and position them to give every video angle possible. Nicklas was to monitor all ship’s systems, and run diagnostic tests as soon as the valve was repaired. Olivia was standing by at an airlock with an EVA suit, ready to go out and render aid if it became necessary. Tao was serving as the CapCom, and would be the primary communication link between them. Jing was in charge of monitoring life support systems in the EVA suits.
They didn’t need reminders about anything at this point. They had studied and practiced for weeks, even simulating the entire mission in VR. Ground control had sent them several accident mitigation scenarios that they had to work through. In one of them, Axel’s oxygen supply had cut off, forcing a rapid abort and replacement with Olivia in her functioning suit. In another, one of the tethers had broken, setting Lili adrift in space. She hadn’t handled that one as well as she would have liked, and needed verbal assistance from Max to stop her suit from rotating out of control. But they had passed each of these tests, and felt well equipped to complete the repairs.
Nothing could have prepared them for what actually happened during the EVA.
After Lili exited the station through the small airlock around her suit, she had a few moments to wait for Axel to complete his egress. She gave a quick voice command to disable her heads-up display for a moment and rotated away from the surface of the station. She had an unimpeded view of space. The station had been positioned so that the dim sun was shining on the side where they would conduct the repairs. Her airlock was on the other side, which put her in the ship’s shadow. She had the closest thing to an unimpeded naked eye view of the cosmos that any human could ever hope for. The stars were so bright and clear and numerous that she could barely make out constellations. It was more like looking at an ocean of sand made out of small diamonds, than looking at a collection of individual stars. It literally took her breath away. She was taken back to long, lazy nights in the fall, lying on a lawn chair in a remote field with Sergei, her father, far from the light pollution of cities. But not even the clearest nights back then compared to this. The entirety of the Milky Way spread out before her, and for the first time in her life, the dimensionality of it sank in, and she truly felt like she was in among the stars, not just looking at them from below.
The moment did not last long, but felt sufficient for a lifetime, as Axel’s voice sounded in her earpiece. He had made his way out of the airlock next to her, and motioned for her to follow. She recalled the mission procedures and quickly checked her tethers. One after another, she unhooked and re-hooked to follow Axel down the booster’s cylinder to the panel that had been damaged in the meteor storm.
The panel was neatly affixed in its position, all the bolts having been secured tightly by Julia after her attempt at repairs had failed. Every moment she had spent outside bathed in Jupiter’s light added to the toll of deadly radiation, yet she had remained to carefully put the panel back to rights.
Lili and Axel secured themselves tightly in position around the panel so they would be free to work with both hands. They did not need to be coached on the correct tether points, as they had memorized the exact locations of the small rings used to fasten the clips. Axel began to unscrew the bolts with a tool pulled from his pouch. Lili had an exact copy of Axel’s tools in her own pouch, along with a backup copy of the valve’s control arm, just in case. In an abundance of caution, Nicklas had actually managed to scrounge enough titanium to print three copies.
They retracted the panel and looked in to see the half-welded, broken arm exactly where her mother had left it. The first job was to detach both halves of it and carefully stow it away. Ground control wanted Nicklas to run a thorough analysis and transmit data to engineering teams so that they could modify their future designs to be more resilient.
Axel attached his wrench to the nut affixing the smaller half of the arm and engaged it. Lili deftly caught the nut as it detached from the assembly, stowing it away and securing it. They did the same for the remaining pieces, and then Axel slowly, carefully retrieved the replacement arm, which was firmly strapped to his suit in two places.
He gripped it with his right hand and Lili recited from the procedure manual.
“Firm control?” she asked.
“Firm control,” he replied.
Lili reached over and unclipped the straps, which were too bulky to leave in place during the repair. Axel made a smooth motion with his arm and slipped the arm onto its connection points. At this point his job was to simply stay in place, making sure the arm didn’t fly away. Lili pulled newly fabricated nuts from her pouch and screwed them into place with her handheld drill. Everything was going exactly according to plan.
Repairs were complete. Tools and remnants of the old valve assembly were safely stowed away. Axel and Lili stared into the open panel, waiting for Nicklas to run the diagnostic that would flex all of the assemblies and make sure they acted normally. Make sure they could endure the torque required to regulate the flow of fuel to the engine. This was the moment they were all anticipating. This was the moment where everything had gone wrong for Julia.
It should have been an absolute impossibility for the control circuits in the booster to misinterpret Nicklas’s commands to test the assembly. There was a big difference between a test and the real thing. Several safeties were in place to keep the actual booster ignition sequence from firing. But the engineers who had designed the ship never expected for that panel to be open in such close proximity to Jupiter. The same radiation that had enveloped Julia also made its way into delicate integrated circuits, subtly altering programs that had been scrutinized and tested more than any other software ever written. All it takes is a flip of a single bit to drastically alter the makeup of computer instructions, and in this case, it led to a sequence of events that sent the Christiaan accelerating through space, powered by a plume of rocket exhaust.
Lili hadn’t expected the noise when the valve started to move. There was no sound in space. But she felt it through her contact with the outer hull of the booster. A low vibration, coupled with a hiss that sounded like moving liquid pulsing through the valve. And then a tremendous rush of light and noise from below the exhaust bell.
She had nothing to grab onto except for Axel, as they were both flung backwards to the extent of their dual tethers. The force crushed them together, and Lili worried that their face masks would shatter. Her face was inches from Axel’s, and she could see both her own frightened reflection in the glass and Axel’s terrified expression superimposed on it.
Chaos reigned inside the station. Only Max and Nicklas were strapped in, but even they were shocked into submission when the G-forces pressed them back into their chairs. Everyone else was pinned to whatever inconvenient surface was below them, in most cases quite painfully. Jing was doubled over, half on and half off her chair in the day room next to Tao, who was face down next to her. Olivia and her EVA suit were flung down to the bottom of the core. She was bleeding from several scrapes she had acquired during the fall from the auxiliary air lock.
Luckily the engine was firing at its lowest setting, 20% of maximum thrust, and the settled in at less than 2 Gs.
“Shut it down,” yelled Max at Nicklas, whose shaking hand was reaching up to the screen. His face was a picture of shock. He couldn’t believe what was happening, and so it took him a few extra seconds to push himself back into reality to try to deal with the situation. Max had already pulled up flight controls, but his console was only indicating a test, and did not offer the usually thrust control that he would expect during a real burn.
Nicklas punched a few keys to cancel the valve diagnostic routine and the booster, thankfully, complied. The burn stopped, and they were all bounced forward by the sudden lack of acceleration.
Lili and Axel were clutching at each other, hearts racing, hyperventilating, still not fully understanding what had happened, or what might happen next.
It took a minute for Tao to get himself back into position so that he could talk to them. He found that she wasn’t sure what to say. “Um, Axel? Lili? Are you still there? Are you Ok?” He got no reply and reached up to toggle the view on his screen. He could see them, still attached to the booster, a few meters up from the exhaust bell, which was glowing orange.
Finally Axel replied. “We’re Ok, I think. What happened?”
“I have no idea,” said Tao. “It felt like an engine burn.”
“Well, that’s pretty obvious,” said Axel. “I think it’s safe to say the valve is repaired. Works a little too well, if you ask me.”
Max spoke over the intercom. “Get them back inside, Tao. And everyone else get strapped in. Let’s be ready if the engine decides to fire again. We can figure out what happened later.”
Jing pulled on her straps and then tapped her screen, bringing up telemetry from the EVA suits. “I’d like them to just hang tight for a while until their heart rates and breathing are under control,” she said. “Much higher and they will both pass out.”
“We might not have time for that,” said Max. “Nicklas still as no idea what he did wrong.” There was a bit of venom in his voice, directed at Nicklas. Nicklas still sat with a shocked look on his face, absently poking at buttons, completely mystified.
Axel couldn’t hear their exchange, but he had the same idea as Jing.
“We need to catch our breath out here. Tao, please read off the next steps in the procedure so we don’t miss anything. Let’s focus on completing the repairs, everyone.”
“Max wants you inside ASAP”, said Tao. “But Jing wants to see your heart rates come down first.”
“We’re going to follow the procedure,” said Axel. “No shortcuts.”
Lili and Axel took a full minute to just breathe, still holding each other’s arms, still faceplate-to-faceplate. They actually started to laugh.
Then Lili started to shiver almost uncontrollably.
“Jing, can you check my environmental controls?” asked Lili. “Seems cold in here all of a sudden.” Her teeth were chattering as she spoke.
“Everything looks normal,” said Jing. “Sounds like an adrenaline letdown. You probably never had that high of a dose before. Shakes are a common symptom.”
Jing really had been studying those medical textbooks, thought Lili. After a few more moments, her breathing relaxed, her heart stopped beating wildly in her chest, and the shivering subsided.
She and Axel secured the panel back into its place after a last look at the valve assembly, and then made their way back up to the airlocks. The doors had slammed shut during the acceleration but were otherwise undamaged. Axel entered first, and then Lili.
It was a huge relief when the internal door popped open and Lili breathed the relatively fresh air inside the core. Jing and Tao were there to assist them. Jing winced as she bent over, clutching at her back, and Tao had a shining black eye.
“What happened to you?” asked Lili.
“I took a boot to the face,” he said.
“A boot? Someone kicked you?”
“No, I had left my boots unsecured before de-rotation, and one of them happened to be right there on the floor when I fell.
“So you kicked yourself in the face.”
“Basically, yeah,” said Tao sheepishly.
“Only you could manage that, Tao,” she said, chuckling. Then she hugged him tightly and started to cry.
They were interrupted by a whimper from the other side of the core.
Jing looked around in panic. “That sounds like Olivia,” she said.
They rounded the corner together and saw her crumpled up in the corner, stuck against the bulkhead, blood staining her jumpsuit.
“Oh god, I forgot to check on you, I’m sorry,” said Jing.
“It’s Ok,” said Olivia in a strained whisper. “The EVA was more important. But can you please get me off the wall now?”
That turned out to be a complicated affair. Olivia had been pierced by a broken shard of plastic covering that had shattered when she fell onto it. They couldn’t tell exactly at which angle it was, and they didn’t want to make it worse by pulling her the wrong way. Jing ended up cutting most of her clothing away and then shearing off the plastic itself near the skin. They carried her to Gamma capsule and laid her down so that Jing could evaluate the wound.
It turned out to be fairly shallow, and after a quick handheld scan, Jing determined that it hadn’t gone deep enough to do any real damage. She pulled the plastic out and Olivia cried in pain briefly. Jing sewed her up as well she could and then gave the others a close examination, to make sure none of them had any hidden injuries.
They began their mission debrief, and Lili did a quick calculation in her head. On Earth, they would have already seen the data from the repair and engine burn, and they were probably all completely freaking out. It was still going to be at least 10 minutes before they could expect any return message, which she could easily predict: “What the hell just happened?”
By this time Nicklas had mostly pieced it together.
“For the time being, I have completely bypassed the primary propulsion control units in favor of the backup system. I’m running complete diagnostics on both systems.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” asked Lili. “The last diagnostic caused the engines to ignite.”
“Nothing mechanical,” said Nicklas. “Just a software check. That’s where the problem was. I’m sure of it. The repair was perfect. For what it’s worth, the valve did exactly what it was instructed to do.”
“How do we know the backup system works?” asked Axel. “We don’t want any surprises when we get to Saturn.”
“We’ll test it out soon enough,” said Nicklas. “Luckily, the burn was close to what we needed to synch up with the resupply capsule, but we actually overshot on the velocity a bit. I’m calculating a reverse burn to correct it. I’ll run it by ground control to confirm, but we don’t have a lot of time to waste. We should do the correction burn within the next two hours.”
The first transmission from Earth was as expected. Confusion, concern, and demands for answers. Axel recorded an official after-action report and transmitted it along with Nicklas’ calculations for the correction burn, which was confirmed as quickly as light speed allowed.
Lili held her breath in Beta capsule with Nicklas, Olivia, Tao, and Jing as Max and Axel performed the burn from the core. It was a short burst of power, almost anti-climactic as the ship’s systems performed as expected. The booster was repaired and they were on track for rendezvous with their resupplies.
After the burn, Lili breathed a long sigh of relief, but also resigned herself to the fact that this was probably the last exciting thing that happen on board the Christiaan for a long, long time. They still had millions of kilometers to go before reaching Saturn.
Olivia groaned and held her hand to her side. She peeled back the top of her jumpsuit and poked at the bandage. “I need to go see Jing and get this changed out before I go to sleep.”
Lili and Olivia were on the same sleep schedule today and were alone in Gamma capsule.
“I can change it for you,” said Lili. “It’s just a bandage. Besides, Jing isn’t a real doctor.”
“She’s the closest thing we have, now that—“ Olivia stopped herself. Lili ignored the unfinished sentence and retrieved a fresh bandage from the first aid kit on the bulkhead. She put on a pair of latex gloves and hastily pulled at the tape, which had been soaked through and was barely holding the bandage in place.
Underneath, crudely woven stitches held her skin in place.
“Ugh, I hope this isn’t getting infected,” said Lili.
“Jing has me on a dose of antibiotics,” said Olivia. “It doesn’t hurt too much. It just keeps bleeding.”
Lili carefully wiped the area clean with an alcohol pad and then applied the new bandage. She taped it in place and then pulled Olivia’s top down over it. She sat up to find Olivia staring at her with a very odd expression on her face. Lili found Olivia very hard to read. There seemed to be remnants of the arrogant little girl she had competed against years ago during the candidacy, and Lili admitted that she still felt self-conscious around her attractive Swedish crew-mate, and always doubled up her efforts to make sure she made no mistakes around her. She always felt like Olivia was judging her. Harshly. And then sometimes there were jealous looks when she saw the way Axel acted around Lili sometimes.
“Thank you,” said Olivia quietly, with what sounded like genuine gratitude. She was still staring directly into Lili’s eyes, their faces very close together.
“It was nothing, don’t worry about it,” Lili said, unable to break Olivia’s gaze. She was still holding the bandage, wrapped in plastic gloves that she had just tugged off.
Suddenly Olivia leaned over, much closer. Uncomfortably close. And she kissed Lili on the lips. Lili reflexively returned the kiss for the briefest moment, then her lips went slack in utter surprise. Olivia backed away for a moment, still starting into Lili’s eyes. Olivia’s eyes were blue. Very blue. Lili had never registered their color before. Olivia leaned in for another kiss and Lili’s hand shot up over her mouth.
“No,” she said plainly and firmly.
Olivia’s gaze went from intensity to a mix of panic and embarrassment. She turned and fled up the ladder, disappearing through the hatch. At the last moment before the hatch closed, Lili heard her say “don’t tell anyone,” in a broken voice.
Lili watched the resupply capsule, named the Ann Druyan, with an odd feeling of homesickness. Here was a real physical thing from Earth, not just abstract radio signals. Inside it would be reminders of a former life. This mission had launched after the candidates had been chosen, so the cargo had been packed with the likes and dislikes of the crew in mind.
They spent days repeating practice drills to ready themselves for the docking maneuver, simulating all manner of mishaps. After everything else that had happened, Lili did not feel like it was a matter of “if” but “when and how bad” when it came to anticipating accidents. The docking ring could fail to engage, making it impossible for them to retrieve the supplies. The capsule could come in too fast, damaging the station. It could veer wildly off course, disappearing into the blackness. If they didn’t get the fuel and food on board, they would be cutting it very, very close on their approach to Saturn. And it would make the following resupply a truly life or death event.
But despite all her worries, and the worries of her crew-mates, everything went exactly according to plan. No manual overrides were necessary. The automated guidance systems mated the two craft together perfectly, and the fuel transfer went quickly.
Tao and Lili were carefully packing supplies in cubbies along the bulkheads.
“It sure did take them a long time to respond to our last broadcast,” said Tao.
“I was beginning to think nobody received it,” said Lili.
“Well, we definitely got the reaction we were hoping for. Quite the uproar on Earth. Let’s watch Carmen’s transmission again while we unpack.”
Lili reached over to a small console on the bulkhead and pulled up the video, which played on a small screen attached to a swivel near the hatch.
Carmen spoke to them in a video clip she had recorded from her office.
“Luckily, people have two different stories to choose from, so they get to believe whichever one is more comfortable for them. Or politically convenient. There is a strong anti-China contingent in congress, and they are calling for sanctions. Some of them are even suggesting war. They called us yesterday asking if the Christiaan had any weapons that could be used to destroy the Chinese outpost.
“That’s obviously ridiculous. And please don’t get any ideas about building a weapon of some sort. I wouldn’t think something like that is even possible with the supplies on board the Christiaan, but Nicklas has proven himself to be quite resourceful. Regardless of whether it’s the Chinese or if it’s truly an alien installation, we are outmatched technologically. We don’t want to do anything that could be perceived as a threat.
“Statistical probabilities dictate that any alien civilization we meet will be millions of years ahead of us. And if the Chinese managed to put a radar tracking station on Titan, they have capabilities that far exceed our own. The Chinese government is being coy about the matter. They won’t confirm or deny it. I think they’d be happy for everyone to believe they were capable of something so advanced, especially after their difficulties on the moon.”
Carmen paused and took a deep breath.
“We’re asking a lot of you. You have been through the worst possible tragedy, and you have had to fend for yourselves with little more than encouragement from us here on Earth. But, we’re asking for more. There are billions of human beings on this planet that all want the answer to a single question: Who is on Titan? And you, the crew of the Christiaan, are the only ones who can answer them.
“We don’t want you to get to Saturn and use the gravity boost to turn right back around to come home. We want you to go into orbit. And then we want you to go to Titan. We want you to stay there as long as it takes to figure out what’s going on. You don’t have to accept the mission—the original mission of the Christiaan and her crew. We’ve given up on the idea of remote controlling the station. It’s your decision. We trust that you’ll do the right thing.”
The video ended. Carmen’s frozen figure stared down at them, a Space Union logo superimposed over her on the screen.
“Well,” said Lili, hefting a package up into a storage bin. “At least we have lots and lots of time to decide. And not much else to do but think about it.”
“What’s to think about?” asked Tao. “We’re gonna do it. You know we are. We’re going to Titan.”
“Yeah,” sighed Lili in a resigned voice. “We’re going to Titan.”