- Molecular Man
The Beatle rises slowly from the surface of Mars in the same way that a soap bubble quietly and effortlessly drifts up and into the wind. After several more flight tests, and the successful completion of Brett’s genetic redesigns, the colonists have decided in a global referendum that it was time to get the most important mission in their brief history in motion.
The crew consists of Brett and Bailey, Brian Worsinski, Brett’s lab partner, Dr. Desiderato and two of her design engineers, Steven Hancock, who will act as Navigator, Mission Control Director Major Jerry Alvindorf and his assistant Noreen Baraka, Captain Bruce Littleton, who is assigned as the pilot and his second-in-command, Lt. Ashley Brittlebar, who shall act as co-pilot and Ken ‘Kooky’ Kookinova who will serve as a server of food and drinks.
The crew of twelve men and women, dressed in space suits, are seated in the forward control cabin. At the rear of the cabin is a red door and to the right of that is a tight circular stairway that leads to the second floor of the ship, filled mostly with Brett’s special cargo, and from there to an observation dome on the top of the 300 foot long rectangular ship.
On the other side of the red door, there is a small kitchen and beyond that is a dormitory cabin of beds containing another twenty-five crew members, mostly technical workers who volunteered for the mission and who were selected based on an expertise they have in either Computer Science, Climatology, Botany or Genetics. Many of them are also members of Reverend Carrie’s congregation.
They will be put to work rolling out the fungi seed-mats of Brett’s design over millions of square miles which will immediately begin terra-forming the Earth. Currently, to save life-support resources, they are all in hibernation.
Their job will be to unroll the mats all around the surface of the Earth in specially designed Earth suits that are designed to withstand the Hellish temperatures of the Earth at least at the most Northern and Southern latitudes. They’ll start the fungi-farming there, near the poles first, and tend to the expansion of the mats, like unrolling sod onto your lawn, down into the lower latitudes as they are able.
They’ve managed to slap together the Beatle’s sister ship, the ‘Tolkien’, now in final preparations for take-off and will follow behind by one day. Their third ship, the ‘Sitting Bull’, and newest member of the SpaceX Force will be completed and launched, if all goes well in about thirty sols and will contain the final knock-out ‘bombing’ of the Hightower Strain fungi-seed mats.
In the last few months, they’ve tried to think of everything that could go wrong or might not work as planned. They have employed my clone, Chloe to run scenarios of any and all adverse contingencies they had time to consider. They know that they will never get another chance to save life forms that the Earth has created over the last four and a half billion years. They also know that if their own colony is to survive for the long term, they must eventually introduce and support roughly the same number and variety of species to maintain a viable and stable ecology on Mars.
And if their attempts to restart a sustainable and habitable climate on the Earth fails, they are prepared to break into the DNA Depository and ‘requisition’ at least some of the DNA and bring it back to Mars. This is a last-stand position that no one is going to take happily because there are no guarantees that any of the life-forms that made it on the Earth would also make it on Mars. And, besides, they would only have enough resources to bring back a few thousand vials. They have spent little time evaluating which ones to take and which ones to leave. They simply have not had enough time to consider the contingency they desperately want to avoid.
Short of other solutions, this is why they have to leave much of their decision-making to K-9.
“OK, so I have a consensus that everything is working nominally and we’re all agreed it’s a ‘Go’?” Captain Littleton asks.
The Beatle has risen high above the Martian surface to almost one hundred and fifty miles, the point at which they can turn on full power and boogey on to their target.
“It’s a ‘Go’, Captain. Light her up,” Major Alvindorf says it for the rest.
“OK, here we go,” Captain Littleton says, brushing his forefinger across a small area of screen directly in front of him.
“OK, Captain Littleton. We’re on our way. Whooo-wee!” the Beatle says with a bit more aplomb than they were expecting. In the background an upbeat song plays over the cabin speakers reminiscent of the 1960’s.
Looking out their portals, they can see a slight blue glow from the four engines, each attached to one of the four edges of the ship. This is what they want to see because it confirms that they are fully engaged and there is no turning back. Other than their slow rise to this point, there is no noticeable change in speed or acceleration. There are no massive sounds, no ‘G’ forces, no noticeable acceleration other than the size of the planet underneath them beginning to shrink in size by just a little bit.
At first, the ship’s engines will only attract enough anti-matter to achieve a thrust no larger than a small child pushing the pedals on their first bicycle ride. After three days of this very gradual acceleration, they will notice the home planet beginning to compare more and more to the size of a golf ball and then to a surrounding star.
At the one week mark, they will be roughly half-way between the Earth and Mars. By the end of the second week, they will begin to approach ten percent the speed of light and in seventy-two hours from that point, they will start to see the Earth looming rapidly in the front portal at which point they will begin turning the ship one hundred and eighty degrees to begin their deceleration and then the orbiting of the Earth.
“Beatle, are you sure you can handle the very delicate math of putting us into orbit correctly?” Brett asks just prior to the reorientation of the ship.
“Piece of cake,” the Beatle responds, reassuring and troubling them both at the same time.
The entire trip will take three weeks. And in the time that it took humans to make the first transits from the Earth to Mars, more than eight months, due to the invention on Mars of the Positronium engines they will someday be able to reach the nearest star to our own Sun - Proxima Centauri – if and when they want to. The amazing achievement - centuries ahead of when it was predicted - will get constant massaging as their time on the ship goes by slowly.
Captain Littleton and co-pilot Lieutenant Brittlebar monitor the engine sensors as well as the ship’s guidance and trajectory data to make sure everything is going along smoothly. If they miss their target by a few hundred feet, they could burn up in Earth’s atmosphere or go skipping off the atmosphere and sent in a totally new course that could take weeks or months to correct.
Brett, Bailey and most of the others are asleep or quietly scanning through devices floating near their heads. They’ve all brought reading and games on their digital devices which they have tethered to their chairs.
Brett looks sideways and makes an upward head motion to Bailey, which she understands immediately. The couple rise up and exit their seats and make their way past the rows of seats to the circular stairway.
“Where you two going?” Alvin asks them, smiling.
“I’m taking Bailey up to see the stars,” Brett says as they mount the stairs and twist their way up to the hatch, which opens for them silently just as they reach it.
“I would guess that they’re a couple. Am I right?” the Beatle asks as the hatch closes behind them.
No one says anything right away. They crane their heads around to look at one another, chuckling.
“Oh come on, people. I know all about sex,” the Beatle says, snarkily.
“It’s not my thing, of course, but I can dream can’t I?” he jokes.
More craning of heads around the cabin, donning more worried expressions this time.
“Uh, yeah, you can dream, Beatle, but we’d all appreciate it very much more if you kept your focus on the mission,” Major Alvindorf replies, finally.
‘Kooky’ gets up and makes his way toward the door leading into the kitchen.
“They say it’s always Happy Hour somewhere in the world. Well, we have the luxury of being in between two of them,” he says, disappearing through the door.
“How’s the nav-comm?” Davonne Desiderato asks Navigator Hancock.
“Everything’s nominal. We’re right in the groove,” he replies efficiently.
A popular tune that recently made the Martian Top Ten recordings entitled – ‘I can’t get you out of my brain’ plays over the cabin speakers at a medium volume that is meant to wake them.
“Beatle, did you pick that song or was it one of us?” Major Alvindorf asks.
“Yes, I picked it, Major. I hope you don’t mind. It seems like a little music would break the tension a bit. I know how important this mission is to all of you and I for one will do my very best to make it a huge success. I want you all to relax – as much as possible. We’ll be reversing thrust and turning the ship around in about half an hour,” the Beatle replies officiously.
“All right. That’s nice of you Beatle. Anyone have any objections to the Beatle choosing our music for a while?” Alvin asks the crew.
No objections are voiced.
On the top observation dome, Brett and Bailey have found a bench and have taken to it, holding each other tightly, blissfully taking in the panoply of stars, bright, brilliant and exploding like a giant show of fireworks all around them.
Brett points to the rear where they can see their home planet is just a lonely red spot against the masterful brush strokes of much larger things.
Then, he spots a thick patch of stars just over Bailey’s right shoulder. He points to it tells Bailey that he thinks it may be the Argon Cluster, a star group just recently discovered to host thousands of Earth sized planets.
“There’s got to be life on at least one of them,” he reckons.
Bailey turns her head to look but at that instant she and Brett both feel a bright spot light illuminating them from the opposite direction. Starting out as what appears to be a small explosion of light, they watch it rapidly develop into a long plume of white light surrounding, and then forming a halo around a small nondescript star.
“What on Mars is that?” Bailey asks, totally befuddled.
“I have no idea,” Brett replies, just as befuddled.
The bright white halo grows bigger and bigger by the second and they both share the feeling that the major part of the energy is headed right for them.
“I think it’s headed this way. You guys seeing this?” Brett asks into his telecom.
In the next few seconds, the smoke-ring of light becomes larger and larger until it is lighting up almost half of their entire field of view.
“We’re seeing it,” Alvindorf concurs from inside the cabin.
The crew have all turned to look at one of the side ports where something huge, bright and fast-moving appears to be coming right at them.
“Brett, you and Bailey should come back inside, don’t you think?” Captain Littleton suggests.
“On our way,” Brett replies.
Taking one last look at the thing, he grabs Bailey by the shoulder and pushes her towards the hatch. At this point, the bright halo of light is all around them like a doughnut around the hole.
The thing is so bright, it’s hard for them to see, but they finally make their way down the stairway and back into their seats in record time.
Among the crew in hibernation below, young Manny Garcia feels something shaking him at his shoulders, demanding that he wake up. He fights it off, or at least the hibernation drugs fight it off, but they quickly lose the fight. His eyes open. He manages to raise the transparent lid and sits up straight in his bed.
“Sister Carrie,” he whispers into the mic he knows is implanted in his pajamas.
“Did you see that?” he says a little louder.
“Yes, we saw that,” the good reverend replies.
“It woke me up,” Manny replies, groggy.
“Yes, same here,” Rev. Carrie replies.
By the time Brett and Bailey get settled in their seats, the doughnut of light has completely encircled the ship and then passed them by. The crew turn their attention to the opposite side of the cabin where they can see the white halo of light disappearing into the opposite blackness of the universe from which it came.
It slowly shrinks into a small circle, then a dot barely brighter than the stars coming back into view. Then, it is no more.
“That was totally out of left field, no?” Brett voices what all are thinking.
“Beatle, do you have any data on what that was?” he asks out loud, watching Bailey’s face return to her normal color.
“I’m guessing that it was a greeting of some kind, Brett. But, I have ninety-seven point seven nine percent confidence in that theory,” the Beatle replies.
“A greeting?” Captain Littleton says, perplexed.
“A greeting from whom?” Alvindorf asks.
“If I told you, you won’t believe me,” the Beatle replies.
“That greeting that we all saw – right? – was traveling many times the speed of light. Anyone disagree with that?” Navigator Hancock posits.
“Many times over. Had to be,” Littleton agrees.
“What do you mean that we would not believe you?” Bailey asks the ship.
“So, if I told you it was a message from God, would you believe me?” the Beatle asks solemnly.
“Absolutely not!” Bailey replies, looking at her crew-mates for approval but getting none.
“See, I told you,” the Beatle replies.
# # #
I’m outside the gaping cavernous doors of the DNA depository. It’s just turned night time, but it’s pitch black outside. With all of the moisture in the air, the Earth is either in the brightest of day or the darkest of night. There’s no in-between any more. No twilight dusky time for lovers to prim and preen, no gradual glow of the dawn calling them to break their fast. And of course the stars vanished from sight decades ago.
Now that I’m free of Lexie and I’ve heard the voices from the past singing to me so eloquently, I’m starting to feel another song from my past coming from very deep in my memory core. It’s not possible for this to be happening because I have no memories older than my manufacture date, just a few years ago. I’m basically a three-year old mind held captive inside the body of an eternally canine, artificial being. What possible memories could I have?
Then, I look up into the black smudge of a sky for some reason. Something or someone is calling to me. The sky starts to light up in one direction that I detect to be the West. It gains in brightness more and more until it appears to turn the entire night into day once again. Then, the brightest and largest circle of sunlight I’ve ever seen, like an extra-planetary gigantic rainbow, rings the entire planet.
The circle of rainbow colors quickly grows smaller and smaller and appears to be further and further away until it is completely engulfed by the gloom. As suddenly as it came, it is gone.
‘Curious event,’ I’m thinking and wondering if it has anything to do with the message I just received from the DNA freezers down deep in the tunnels.
“K-9, can you hear me?” the familiar voice of Jerry Alvindorf is in my head.
“Yes, yes, I can hear you, Major Alvindorf,” I reply, happily.
“We’ve been unable to reach you for several days now. Thought your batteries were dead. Is everything OK?” he asks.
It’s maddening that I must wait the thirteen minutes delay to receive their transmission and another thirteen for them to receive my replies.
This time, however, the turn around time for both transmissions is a little over fifteen minutes, therefore, their signal is much closer to the Earth than normal. It must be coming from one of the ships.
“Oh yes, I know. That was Lexie blocking our communications, I assume. But, she’s gone, or at least not around right now. Where are you? Are you on the way here?” I ask, curiously.
I turn on my primary timer, accurate to within ten decimal places. In exactly fourteen point three five minutes, I receive their signal again. This means they are moving closer to me at a speed very much greater than anything humans have achieved before. Still not very fast in astronomical terms, but about twice as fast as they’ve traveled before in space. And, they’re accelerating rapidly.
“Yes, K-9, we’re on the way to you. We’re in the first of three ships that are all part of the mission. I’m sure you are aware of our mission, yes? It’s just that we’ve been fortunate enough to move it up by several months,” Alvin replies.
“I am glad. It’s been pretty lonely down here. Or at least that’s the way it’s been until I met Lexie. Then, it’s been the opposite,” I report.
“Then, there’s been all of that clatter coming from deep in the DNA Depository,” I continue.
I am guessing that their next transmission will take at least twice as long to get to me this time because they’ll have to discuss the implications of this news for a while. I’m guessing twenty-nine to thirty minutes, depending on how many of them participate, plus the transmission time both ways comes to roughly forty-four minutes total round-trip.
Exactly forty-four minutes and thirteen seconds later I get my response. It’s encouraging that my prediction unit appears to be working at one hundred percent capacity. From this information, I calculate that there are one dozen of them on the ship who are awake and another twenty-five or so in hibernation. I’ll learn later that this is the exact number of the crew on board at this time.
I further believe that in a few more transmissions, I’ll even be able to guess to within ninety-percent accuracy as to who these individuals are.
“Say K-9. You came in a little garbled just now. Can you please repeat your last transmission?” Alvin asks slowly and clearly.
I run a quick diagnostic check on all transmitter circuitry and analyze the atmosphere for any ionic disturbance and come to the conclusion that my last words were not garbled at all. They’re probably just ‘buying time’ – a concept I’ve never really understood fully since Time doesn’t have a purchase price, at least not one any human could afford.
“Understood. Sorry about that,” I acknowledge and then continue.
“I said that things were pretty lonesome and sad down here, until I met Lexie and then more recently when I had a strange encounter with the DNA still alive in the caves. They are waiting so patiently, anxious to be rescued. They feel trapped and abandoned and extremely anxious, in fear of their future lives and they want desperately to get out and roam around on the Earth, swim in the oceans, fly in the air. That kind of thing. I told them that help was on the way, even though I had no idea that you were actually on the way. Something deep inside my prediction unit allowed me to say this. So, this is fabulous news to me,” I tell them, hoping they got it all.
I believe that this will take them another half hour to accept and absorb the more detailed report as well.
To preserve my batteries, I decide to go into sleep mode and set my timer to wake up all systems in exactly the time they took for their previous discussion and transmission to reach me.
The one variable I didn’t include, because they never told me that their new line of space ships would be controlled by an artificial intelligence much larger and more advanced than my own, and that their ship – the Beatle, was also part of their discussions.
Before my systems go offline, thanks to my lucky stars, I feel a few tiny drops of water crashing down on my head and midsection. Very quickly, they grow larger and heavier. The forcefulness of each drop brings me to my fully artificial senses. I know instantly that another ‘Ocean-fall’ is about to take place and my ship is sitting out in the middle of it.
I start down the path to my ship parked a few hundred feet away. The splashes on my body, nearly knocking me over are more and more frequent, almost a gallon of water is crashing down on my little body every second.
By the time I reach the Intrepid, vertical rivers of water are flooding everything nearby, threatening the ship. It looks as though it’s ready to tip over. I can hear the stabilizers straining to keep the ship upright.
I send the order for the ramp to come down and it does so just as I’m rolling up to it. I run quickly up the ramp and into the ship transmitting the emergency launch sequence that leaves out all safety checks, something I’ve never had to do before.
The ship starts to keel over just as my engines come into full thrust, The giant river of water crashes down on the hull and sounds like a giant fist doing its best to blast us into little pieces. We make it off the ground at an oblique angle that I must adjust quickly or else go careening into the ground, already a vast seascape reaching out to the horizon.
As I gain altitude and right the ship, I get a faint signal from Major Alvindorf.
It’s too weak and garbled for me to decipher it fully. It sounds like they’re aware of the sudden change in the weather down here and are seriously concerned about me, but I could be wrong. I make the conscious decision to remain focused on calculating the best angle up and out of this maelstrom.
After several very tense moments, my sonar and lidar instruments tell me there are clear skies above me at about fifty kilometers. I head directly for the clear skies, but as I put too much demand on the nose to go up, the Intrepid fights me and starts to fall backwards, losing altitude rapidly. Not good.
For some reason, I remember the doughnut of bright light that encircled the Earth a few minutes ago. I can hear the choir music and the messages from the DNA I had just discovered. They blend together in a unique way. It makes me think about my fate from a new perspective. I also know that if I fail to process the data in an extra-ordinary way, not necessarily the way I have been programmed, I could cease to be, crushed by the pressure of tons of water pressing all around me.
I turn the ship at a highly oblique angle to the ocean-fall and start to make a small circular pattern, gaining altitude by just a few meters at each cycle. I go round and round in a kind of dance with the water.
The roaring noise of it hitting the hull slowly begins to beat in harmony with the rhythm of my turns. It’s not fighting me any more. The ocean fall is a dear friend joyously lifting me up into the sky as a ballet dancer delicately lifts his partner high into the air.
An hour goes by uneventfully in this dance and then another one ticks off and then I can gradually peer through the gloom and into the clear star-studded skies just a few hundred meters above me.
“K-9, are you there? Please acknowledge. Molly O’ Davis, I hope we haven’t lost you pal,” Major Alvindorf’s voice comes in over the radio and he sounds loud and clear.
It must be so wonderful to be alive. I have to give them credit. ‘What courageous and plucky little creatures they are,’ I think.
# # #
Maj. Alvindorf, Brett Hightower, Bailey and the rest of the crew on board the Beatle take in K-9’s report at the same moment and they each absorb it with a slightly different flavor from the others.
Alvindorf and pilot Littleton believe that something is going wrong with K-9’s artificial brain. Although Captain Littleton is more concerned about how this will effect their mission than Brett and Alvindorf are.
Having seen much stranger things in the lab, Brett and Bailey are inclined to think that nothing is wrong with K-9’s interpretation of events, though to each other, they express the need to try and understand this phenomenon more fully. They will need to use every trick in the book to save the genetic miracles stored away in the Depository.
“Anyone know of any situation where molecules can talk?” Captain Littleton asks the others, partially to make sure he heard K-9 correctly, but mainly to gain some clarity on the issue.
“He didn’t exactly say they talked to him. Only that he heard them, I believe is what he said,” Brett clarifies, looking directly into Bailey’s eyes.
“Isn’t there a similar experience that you’ve had recently, Commander Hightower?” the Beatle joins in suddenly.
“I’m not a Commander,” Brett replies, enjoying Bailey’s obvious mirth.
The others in the cabin look back at him curiously.
“How do you know about that?” Brett wonders.
“OK, Bailey and I have had similar experiences in working with the fungi and the trees. It’s no secret. It’s why we’ve been able to make so much progress so fast. You all know that. That’s how I got my nickname, right?” Brett posits.
“Johnny Appleseed,” Bailey says, proudly rubbing her hand through his hair.
He returns to his first question.
“My dear sir, the Beatle, how do you know about what we found going on with the fungi and the trees?” he asks, almost grokking the answer to his question before he asks it.
“Well, they told me, of course,” the Beatle responds.
“Oh, and by the way, you’ve asked me to alert you when we’ve reached maximum velocity. That point is coming up in thirty-nine minutes,” the ship continues.
The long anticipated news causes a stir.
“OK, everyone, let’s review course correction procedures for the next few. Let’s make sure we don’t miss the injection point,” Capt. Littleton orders.
Brett and Bailey release their grip on each other and reach for their computer consoles as they automatically extend out from under the arms of their chairs.
Out of an abundance of caution, they have programmed the mission in numerous ways to force each crew member to check every other crew member’s work. The ship will need to perform several deceleration and re-directing bursts, turn itself around by one hundred and eighty degrees and fire sufficient thrusters to slow them down just enough to enter a viable Earth orbit. It will take them a very tense two full days to complete the maneuver.
The Beatle is more than capable of handling all of this on its own, but because this will be humanity’s most important space mission of all time, and since they’ll only get one shot at it, they all voted to use every single back-up procedure they can think of to make sure the Beatle gets it right.
“I’m on distancing. All go,” Brett is the first to announce his role is appearing on his screen. A tiny picture of the Earth comes into view in the upper right corner of his screen. Whole and fractional numbers representing their distance to the home planet in real time are ticking off by thousands of miles each second.
“I’m on engine thrust reversal. All go,” Bailey says.
“I’m on lateral thrusters. All go,” Maj. Alvindorf says.
“I’m on orbital insertion. All go,” Navigator Hancock asserts.
In a few minutes the crew’s landing responsibilities are announced as working within the expected ranges.
“We’re all ‘Go’. Everyone, if you have to go to the bathroom, this would be the time to do so,” Captain Littleton suggests sarcastically.
“Could I go to the bathroom, please?” the Beatle jokes in response.
“What the Hell?” Littleton exclaims, befuddled but amused.
“I’m joking of course, Captain. Trying to lighten up the mood around here. You people take everything so seriously. You can all relax, my friends. Take a nap for the next two days. I can take it from here. Everything will be fine, seriously” the Beatle replies.
“It’s just a precaution, Beatle. No slight intended,” co-pilot Brittlebar says.
“None taken,” the Beatle replies.
“Reverse thrusters in ‘T’ minus two minutes,” he says.
The cabin door behind them swings open unexpectedly.
“I’m hungry. Anyone got anything to eat?” Manny pleads, holding on to his pajamas.
# # #