Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Issue 50
Stories
Cherry Red Rocketship
by James Maxey
Jupiter or Bust
by Brad R. Torgersen
Middle Child Syndrome
by Scott M. Roberts
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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

Jupiter or Bust
    by Brad R. Torgersen

Jupiter or Bust
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

It was closing in on midnight when Dr. Debra Galton's cell phone rang. The device quietly buzzed, rattling on the surface of the side table near her bed. She groped sleepily with her hand, the tips of her fingers almost knocking the phone to the floor. She snatched the phone up and pulled it to her face, mumbling, "Hello?"

"Doctor Galton?" asked a somewhat cheerful male voice on the other end.

"Yes," she said, trying to stifle a yawn.

"I'm dreadfully sorry to have disturbed you this late, but since you're on the east coast, and working to California time--"

"I've been in New York for three weeks now. I'm adjusted. Who are you and what can I do for you?"

"Doctor," the man's voice said, his tone turning more serious, "one of my employees was kind enough to fish a little spaceship out of the fountain that's in front of the Unified Production Group building."

Debra had felt another yawn building, but she stopped short.

"That would be my little spaceship," she admitted. "I hope nobody's going to charge me with littering."

"Curious place to leave an even more curious calling card," the man said.

"When you've been turned down by the top dozen best aerospace firms in the country, your decorum tends to fray around the edges. I was upset. My little model didn't seem to be of much use to me anymore. I threw it into the water."

"Run out of pennies to wish with?" the voice said, followed by a low chuckle.

"Something like that," she replied. "Look, I really am exhausted. So if there's a fine to be paid--"

"Don't be silly, Doctor, I'm not from the city. Nor am I from UPG. Please, tell me you haven't thrown out the rest of your presentation materials."

"No," she said, growing both curious and irritated. "Look, I'd really like to know what's so important that you woke me up for it?"

"Good," the voice said. "I called, because you need to have yourself and your materials ready to give me a good show at nine in the morning tomorrow. That's nine sharp. In the executive conference room. I'm very busy. Don't make me wait."

Debra sat straight up in bed.

"Which conference room, and where?" she asked.

"Your hotel," said the voice. "Excelsior suite. Have your stuff set up and ready to roll when I arrive."

"Who is this?" Debra asked.

"You'll find out tomorrow," said the man. "Don't let me down!"

Debra halfway wanted to tell the stranger to stick it where the sun wouldn't shine, but he'd dropped the line on his end before she could get another word out. She threw her legs over the side of the bed and flipped on her hotel room's side table lamp. Was the caller just pulling a stupid prank? Anybody could have gotten her cell phone number off the spaceship model, assuming they were clever and knew where to look.

Debra rubbed her eyes with her fists, then padded across the carpet to the bathroom, where she splashed some water on her face and patted her forehead and cheeks with a towel. Looking into the mirror, Debra could still see traces of the hopeful, enthusiastic person who had gotten off the plane at JFK International in late April. Now it was the middle of May, and she was almost out of money. She was set to fly home tomorrow. An afternoon flight. No sense cancelling her itinerary, if whoever it was that apparently wanted to see her proposal wound up having the same reaction as all the others who had seen it.

That the person on the phone had been circumspect about his identity bugged Debra deeply. She was in no mood for guessing games.

Yet . . . what could it hurt? After a dozen failures, what was one more?

She went to the hotel room's desk, booted her laptop, and spent an hour going back through her video files and graphics, doing a small under-the-breath rehearsal before retreating again to her bed.

The rest of that night's sleep was fitful, the taste of serial disappointment still fresh on Debra's tongue.

The Excelsior suite was already lit when Debra arrived. A small breakfast cart with the hotel's best--bagels, croissants, sugary pastries, bowls of fruit, a piping hot carafe of coffee, a pitcher of milk, and other goodies--was being wheeled in when she passed through the double doors. Unlike some of the other conference rooms Debra had seen, this one was small. Intimate. A short, oval-shaped table filled the center of the space, with three high-backed chairs to a side, and one at each end. The big screen had already been drawn down, and the overhead projector was humming quietly, showing a bright blue box on the screen's silvery surface.

"He'll be glad you were early," remarked a hotel staffer who strolled past Debra as she looked around the suite, her briefcase in one hand and her laptop in the other.

Just three of the eight chairs had places set in front of them: tiny lamps erected from the conference table's surface, silver-bodied ball-point pens, three yellow legal pads, and the requisite outlets for various personal electronics.

"May I ask who he is?" Debra said.

"You may ask," the hotel woman responded with a smirk, then proceeded out of the suite and let the double doors close shut behind her.

Fifteen minutes.

Debra shook her head slightly and went to the end of the table closest to the screen. She sat down, plugged her laptop into the overhead line for the projector, and got her charger set up. She cycled through her files until she found the nested set of videos and graphs, all woven together in what she had thought--three months ago--would be an irresistible sales pitch.

Debra paused momentarily, closing her eyes and swallowing hard.

It had been stupid, to spend so much money to come all the way across the country for the sake of a dream. In the end, nobody had cared what her credentials were. Stanford or no Stanford. If the fish weren't biting, the fish weren't biting. Almost nobody seemed interested in space exploration anymore, except for the few, lonely souls trying to get additional space probes pushed through the European Space Agency, across the Atlantic. And NASA? Gone. Slashed to nothingness by yet another administration more interested in buying votes than fulfilling dreams.

Debra kept her eyes closed for a few more moments, then opened them, located the little audio-video clicker in a plastic pocket under the table, tested the clicker--to make sure it interfaced properly with both her laptop and the projector hanging from the ceiling--and stood up. Now, instead of a blue box on the screen, there was a professionally-rendered computer graphics version of the little model spaceship she'd thrown into the fountain yesterday afternoon. In the distance, behind the ship, a stylized version of the planet Jupiter slowly rotated, its cloud patterns and weather formations replicated with precise detail.

In her head, Debra once again rehearsed her routine.

Suddenly, the double doors popped open. Three people strode in. Two men, and one woman. Older people. With eyes peering over the tops of their spectacles.

"Excellent" said the oldest man, who strode immediately up to Debra and extended his hand.

She took it, and he shook: not hard, but firm.

"Ben Groomer," said the man. "Nice to see you took me seriously."

Debra blinked.

"Ben . . . Groomer? The television magnate?"

"None other," he said, smiling. His capped teeth gleamed by the light of the projected image on the screen.

One of Groomer's associates handed him something.

"Mind if I keep it?" he said.

Debra looked down at her little spaceship model.

"Heck of a nifty trick," he said, pressing a tiny button on the ship's hull that shot a soft laser out the ship's nose and onto the wall, where the blue light resolved into Debra's full list of contact details, plus web site address, and in larger, impressive letters, the words, JUPITER OR BUST.

"It was a gimmick one of my students thought up," she said. "Nobody at any of the other companies even noticed it."

"Shame," he said. "But then, they weren't ad men, I take it. I love a good attention-getter. And this, Doctor, was an attention-getter."

"How did one of your employees get his hands on it anyway? Do your people lurk around the porticos of major buildings in New York, waiting for something interesting to come their way?"

"As a matter of fact," Groomer said, winking, "yes they do. And you never answered my question."

Debra looked down, then stuttered, "Y-yes, of course. I won't be taking it back to California with me. I'd much rather somebody have it, than nobody. Especially if that somebody can appreciate it."

"Thank you," he said. "Now, it's almost nine. Can we get started?"

"Sure," Debra said.

She went to her computer and picked up the clicker. Groomer sat down in his seat, where one of his associates had already laid out a small array of items from the breakfast cart. He sipped at his coffee, then began preparing a bagel. Debra cleared her throat, and recited her spiel.

Groomer and his two associates had been silent through Debra's entire fifteen minute routine. Now that she was near the end, Groomer raised a hand to halt her.

"I've only got one real question," he said. "If everything can work like you say it can, why not just go to Mars?"

"Well, Mr. Groomer, to be blunt, spending money to go to Mars--just because it's closer--is a lot like spending money to drive from New York City to Burbank, when you could fly to New Zealand for not much more."

His eyebrows went up, and he nodded.

Encouraged, Debra pressed on.

"As you can see here," she said, using the clicker to freeze the animation of the spacecraft at a particularly salient data point, "once the equipment and people are out of Earth's orbit, all else becomes a waiting game. And while Mars takes less time to reach, Jupiter has an abundance of the one resource we'd need--more than any other--to make our presence permanent."

"You mean, water," said one of Groomer's two sidekicks, who had been identified by the name of Broadwell.

"Exactly," Debra said. "Three of the four big moons of Jupiter have an enormous amount of accessible water. Much more than Mars, or Earth's own moon for that matter. Water for living, experimentation, and fuel. And with my advanced fusion thruster design--the details of which are in the folders in front of you--the total trip time to Jupiter really doesn't pose a problem. Even for vehicles with limited available crew accommodations. So, we're looking at months, instead of years. Any astronaut who has done time on either of the International Space Stations wouldn't blink at that duration."

"All well and good," Broadwell said, gnawing at the end of a silver ball point pen, "but this assumes your thruster will work as advertised. So far, all you've shown us are projections based on your own doctoral thesis paper. You've never built a working prototype."

"True," Debra said, "but if I had my own money for a prototype, I wouldn't be coming to companies with my hand out, right?"

"Then why not just ask a manufacturer for a research grant?" said Broadwell's counterpart, an iron-haired woman with the last name Chaffetz.

"A grant?" Debra said, blinking.

"That's a slam dunk, Doctor," Chaffetz continued. "They give out millions in such grants, all to people like you. If your thruster design pans out, you share the patent with them, and everybody makes money. Why peddle this grand scheme for sending people to Jupiter? That's a job for government, not private enterprise."

Debra let her chin sink to her chest for a short moment. This was the part of the presentation she hated the most. Because the whole thing really did come down to that single, damnable question: How is anyone going to make any money?

Debra swallowed once, screwed her courage to the proverbial sticking place, and looked directly into the skeptical face of her questioner.

"Ma'am, I'm of the firm belief that commerce--in the service of discovery--has been one of the great forces of history. How long since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon? Eight decades? And all for the sake of beating the Soviet Union to the punch? Obviously, beating the Soviets wasn't sufficient to keep America, or the world, interested in going to the moon. There has to be more there there."

"A good point," said Broadwell. "But again, why shouldn't this be a job for governments? After all, Columbus went to Queen Isabella for ships and funding, not a mercantile conglomerate."

"Sooner or later," Debra said, "businesses--not nations--are going to have to take the lead in outer space. It's why I devoted my entire career as a researcher to conceptualizing my thruster in the first place. I thought that someone with large high-tech industrial assets, and a proven desire to put money into somewhat unorthodox venture capital enterprises, would be up for breaking open a new era in human civilization--permanent exploration and colonization of the solar system."

Groomer and his cohorts just stared.

"Which," Debra continued hesitantly, "leads me to a question of my own. Of what possible interest could my project be to someone like you, Mr. Groomer?"

"You said it yourself," Groomer replied, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head. Over the course of the presentation, he'd taken his jacket off, loosened his tie, and rolled up his sleeves. Something neither Chaffetz nor Broadwell had done.

"Beg pardon?" Debra said.

"New Zealand versus Burbank," Groomer said. "I mean, who the hell takes a tour to Burbank? Now, New Zealand, whole different story. For Americans especially, New Zealand is an almost mystical destination. Think of all the movies that have been shot there over the years."

Debra waited. She wasn't putting it together yet.

Groomer suddenly sat up and pushed himself away from the table--a surprisingly deft maneuver for a man of his apparent age--and stood up. He went around the table and aimed a finger at the image of the beautiful gas giant planet behind the ship.

"That's New Zealand," he said, tapping the screen. "Mars? Mars is a dustbowl. And the many robot landers we've had slow-poking all over the surface since the turn of the century have made Mars boring. We've all seen the pictures and the movies that the probes have radioed back. So, I think you've got it precisely right, Doctor. Why go to Burbank when you can get to New Zealand for not much more?"

"Which still doesn't--"

"Answer your question," Groomer finished for Debra. "I know. Why the hell does a TV guy care about going to Jupiter? Well, to be honest about it, I think it's going to be the greatest, most-watched reality show of all time!"

Debra almost dropped the clicker in her hand.

"You want to turn the Jupiter mission . . . into a trashy reality series?"

Groomer's adventurous smile hardened.

"Sure. Why not?"

"Well," Debra said, "I mean . . . it's just that . . . reality television is . . . I mean, my God, we're talking about junk food for the brain!"

"Would you be less offended if I said this was going to be a nutritious televised snack?"

"Like, educational?"

"Sure. We put together an intrepid crew of diverse personalities, including pilots, scientists, and anyone else who might be fit for the trip, and we do segments along their route. Each week the audience gets a half hour of the mission's best material. With a little directorial massaging for drama, of course."

"This won't be a damn crab boat plowing through swells off the coast of Alaska," Debra said. "Have you watched footage from the International Space Stations? Even I get put to sleep by that stuff."

"Trying to un-sell me on the idea?" Groomer said, his eyebrow going up.

"No!" Debra stammered. "No, it's just that . . . this is like Apollo, Mr. Groomer. It's got to have dignity. I'm proposing something more awesome than humanity has ever attempted before."

"And the first couple of Apollo missions were must-see programming," Groomer said. "Every TV set in the country was tuned in for Apollo Eleven and Apollo Twelve. But, sooner or later somebody is going to do what you propose to do, and after it's been done three or four times, it's going to get ordinary. It always does. But the first time . . . there's never, ever another chance for a first time."

Debra considered.

"Is your broadcasting corporation ready to put its money where your mouth is?" Debra asked. "It might cost billions."

"Hundreds of millions at the worst," Groomer said. "And maybe not even that. Anything the government can do, private business can do in half the time for a quarter of the money, at double the quality."

Now Debra raised an eyebrow.

"So says the overly optimistic businessman," she said, an edge of sarcasm in her voice.

"Look, do you want this project to get off the drawing board or not?" Groomer asked. "Because I'm not here to argue politics with you."

Debra looked at him, and the lines at the corners of his brown eyes. Her father had also had those lines. They were the lines of a man used to smiling. They gave Groomer a warm, almost spritely quality.

"Yes," she said. "I do."

"Great," Groomer said, "then cancel your flight back to California. We're going to get started right away."

His hand thrust out towards her, and for the second time that morning, Debra felt his firm grip on her palm.

Groomer hadn't been kidding.

What might have taken years of protracted federal agency planning, Groomer's corporate enterprise accomplished in months. Ironically, Groomer's people contracted hardware and software from many of the same companies that had rejected Debra's fusion thruster design in the first place. But as long as Groomer's money was good, they were suddenly all for it: no risk for them, they were merely building the parts and putting them into space.

Within a year, the frame of the spaceship Determination was being constructed in Earth orbit, using the original International Space Station as scaffolding. And already, Groomer's reality television producers were milking the project for ratings. The word had gone out like a media bomb: Daring media mogul to attempt impossible with Hail Mary voyage to the outer solar system; all of humanity invited for a ringside seat. The broadcasts from the assembly sessions at the ISS weren't precisely American Idol, but the producers were slick with their craft, and the ratings--while starting out modestly--crept up the charts, week by week.

For her own part, Debra was immersed in the nuts-and-bolts construction plans for her thruster. The modules and other components for the Determination were off-the-shelf, and Russian rockets were fairly cheap. But the thruster . . . that was the key item, and something which had never been used in space before, much less on the ground. It relied on a specialized three-stage process that Debra had innovated as a graduate student. And while the fuel tanks and other items might have been fairly standard equipment, the reactor itself was not.

The day they shot the reactor core into orbit, Debra was a nervous wreck. Groomer joined her at the rail to the walkway near the Russian launch site he had rented for the project's use.

"If it blows up, we'll just build another one," he said, running a hand along Debra's shoulder to reassure her.

"This single reactor core cost as much as all the money yet spent on the whole show to date," she said. "Even you don't have bottomless pockets."

"True," he said. "But the thing is turning into a hit now. Advertising dollars are rolling in. We've been contacted by fast food chains, sports stores, pharmaceutical companies, soda manufacturers, and everyone else who wants to donate goods or services to my grand, new space effort."

"You mean," Debra said dryly, "they want to get their products in front of the cameras for some free advertising."

"Didn't I just say that?" Groomer said, grinning.

Debra shook her head, a frown on her face.

"Look," Groomer said, "I know you think it's uncouth for a bunch of logos to hijack the 'dignity' of your mission, but how the hell else is anyone supposed to make this work? You said, back when you pitched the project to me, that commerce in the service of exploration is one of the great forces of history. Well, here we are again. Columbus and his men wanted a faster route for the spice trade. Families rolled west in wagons, looking for farmland and gold. We're going to Jupiter because nobody ever has before, and we're doing it without having to beg for subsidy."

"Some marooned ex-NASA guys want seats on the trip," Debra said.

"So do the Chinese and the ESA," he replied. "I'm considering it. But then again, I don't want a bunch of military types pulling rank on my ship."

"Why would they have to be military?" Debra asked.

"All those people are, invariably. Current service, prior service."

"And that's bad?" Debra asked. "You know, Ben, I've done some checking on you, since the first time we met. You spent a little time in the Navy, when you were younger."

"Yup," Ben said. "Was proud to have done it. Hated every minute of it too."

Debra stared at him, confused.

"You'd have to have served to understand," he said. "Anyway, Deb, the point is, I don't want this mission to turn into an explicitly federal U.S. thing, nor an ESA thing, nor any other kind of government effort. Hell, why are we even calling it a mission? Sounds like we're loading up with guns and oil, so as to steam out to the coast of some dictatorship somewhere and start shelling the beaches. This is supposed to be peaceful and fun!"

"It would be more fun if I could go along," Debra said quietly, almost to herself.

Groomer looked down at her, his face suddenly turned serious.

"That can be arranged," he said.

"No," she said. "I applied to NASA once, a long time ago. Couldn't pass the first round of tests."

"Since when are their standards supposed to be the standards for everybody else? How the heck are we going to actually found permanent colonies anywhere in the solar system if barely one person in a hundred thousand is 'qualified' to go up? Look, do you think you could learn to stand weightlessness?"

"I hate roller coasters. They make me barf," she said.

"Me too," he said. "But do you think you could get over it?"

Debra considered. Then a bright light sparked in the distance, followed by jets of white vapor and dust shooting away from the base of the Russian booster as it slowly lifted off from its pad and rose into the blue sky.

"For a chance to see Jupiter and its moons up close," she said, "I think I could get over anything."

"You may have a harder time getting over being on camera, than being in space," he said.

"Crap," she said, "I had forgotten about that."

"Well, think it over. The crew goes up later this year, once our construction people have the reactor core fitted and the fuel tanks filled. Seems appropriate that the woman who invented the motor be there to help the mission on its way. Every ship needs a chief engineer, right?"

Debra smiled at her boss, and then watched the sky as the booster, with her reactor core on its tip, climbed higher and higher, until all that was left were the dust and exhaust that drifted over the launch zone.

Two years to the day from Debra's presentation in the Excelsior suite of the New York hotel, the Determination broke Earth orbit.

After a week of in-orbit systems checks and modifications, the deployment, testing, and stowing of the auxiliary solar panels, not to mention crew acclimatization--barf bags for everybody--the trip to Jupiter began, with seventeen men and women, representing all of the continents, all of them under civilian contract to Groomer's company, and all of them having some kind of skill pertinent to the creation and manning of an actual outpost on one of Jupiter's icy moons.

Which moon, exactly, was yet to be determined. Assuming the ship survived the journey, they'd select a site based on up-close readings. Jupiter's supremely strong magnetic field had to be carefully watched out for. Earlier robotic probes had always had to chart a cautious course. A crewed mission was no different.

Debra was ecstatic. Horribly space sick, but ecstatic.

"You know," said the ostensible captain of the Determination, a former airline pilot named Frank Pakinski, "the cameras might take a lot more footage of you if you could keep the green stuff out of your hair."
Debra gave him the finger, cupped her bag to her mouth, retched three times, and went back to studying her instrument panel. Thus far, the reactor was performing beautifully. Super-efficient fuel use. Low thrust, but constant. So constant, in fact, that the entire ship enjoyed a tiny dose of pseudo-gravity. Not enough to make the tornado in Debra's stomach go away, but enough so that objects left floating free gradually clunked against the rear bulkheads. As time wore on and the numbers multiplied on a per-second-per-second basis, the ship would gain not only more relative velocity, but more of a sensation of gravity.

At some point, they would have to turn the ship around and brake into Jupiter orbit, with its numerous moons, deadly magnetic field, and the best night sky view in all of the solar system--save for, perhaps, Saturn. But that was still months away. And the reactor core had only been up and running for a very brief time. Debra almost didn't dare sleep for fear of being away from her instrument panel if something started to go wrong.

However, as days wore on into weeks, the space sickness eased, along with the nervousness Debra had felt about her design. She took to minding other bits of the craft--helped by a little trio of other engineering geeks, two of whom had been plucked from the private sector, and the other from MIT. Nobody was under 25 and nobody was over 45. An emotionally mature, physically healthy lot. People used to working in teams, with an eye to getting things done. But not without points of friction.

And since there were hundreds of cameras throughout the ship, not a single moment of argument, nor even heated discussion, went unnoticed.

Moreover, everybody's space jumpsuits looked like the flame-resistant NASCAR drivers' coveralls, replete with advertising logos. Every meal had a brand name on it, too, as did every drink, every tool, and every piece of equipment. The interior and exterior of the ship looked like a vulgar Christmas tree: commercialized.

And yet, Debra found she didn't mind as much as she thought she might. After all, she was going to Jupiter. Occasionally, she stole moments of private time in the sleeping bay where cameras had been explicitly banned. Video and text letters to and from her parents and her brother's family in San Francisco were a welcome sanity saver. As were, to her surprise, candid conversations with the guy who was footing the bill.

"Pakinski tells me your thruster works like a dream," Ben said over the audio-video link.

"So far so good," Debra said. "All my math has been right, and we're doing even better on the fuel-use gradient than I anticipated."

There was a short pause as her response went all the way back to Earth, and then Ben's response had to be transmitted all the way back to the Determination.

"I told you: Anything the government does, private enterprise can do for far less cost with far better results."

"Yeah, well, you just keep thinking happy thoughts for us up here, boss. It's a cakewalk, for now. But any number of things can go wrong, and we don't dare talk about the fact that if something really bad happens, there isn't any way for anyone on Earth to fly out and rescue us."

Beat. Beat. Beat.

"Nature of the adventure, Deb. Nature of the adventure. I think maybe it was Carl Sagan who once said--where space exploration is concerned--that the hazard is an inseparable component of the glory? And believe you me, there's plenty of glory to go around for the entire crew of the Determination right now."

"Is that so?" Debra asked.

Beat. Beat. Beat.

"Yup. Ratings are huge. We've got one of the best scores in the weekly slot, and re-runs throughout the week are strong too. More companies want to get in on the action. They say they'll pay us big money if we'll radio you their logos, and you print them out on the ship's color printers, then tape the printouts up in opportune spots where the cameras will see them."

"Good Lord, Ben, there's not a single inch of unpainted, unadorned surface in the whole ship! Maybe we should have considered renting screen-saver space on all of the control panels and other workstations?"

Beat. Beat. Beat.

"Heavens, Deb, that's one hell of an idea. Damn, why didn't I think of that? We could enlist any and every sponsor we wanted!"

"Shall I get myself and the other engineers on it?"

"Of course!"

"Okay. Consider it done. We'll be in touch as we get things set up. It should be easy."

Beat. Beat. Beat.

"Thanks. And Deb? Seriously. What you all are doing . . . this is heroic stuff. Ground-breaking. Nothing anyone in history has ever done it before. I mean, you're going to actually land on one of the moons of Jupiter! Set up shop! I still can't believe it myself."

"Well, keep your lucky rabbit's foot nearby, and keep rubbing it when we're in your thoughts, boss. Because we've still got a long way to go. And there are no guarantees when we get there."

Debra's words proved sadly prophetic.

Disaster struck when a tiny piece of debris--a rock no larger than a baseball--put a nice hole through one of the three fuel tanks. It took half the crew, working in space suits, to assess, contain, and repair the damage. Most of that tank's contents had bled away into interplanetary space, leaving Pakinski and the rest to decide whether or not the internal systems damage, combined with fuel loss, was severe enough for them to prematurely terminate the trip.

Debate was heated. Half the crew wanted to brake, turn back, and go home. The other half--Debra included--wanted to go forward.

They argued to the point of screaming. Some of the crew came to blows, with cooler heads prying them apart before someone did permanent damage. Pakinski ordered everyone into lockdown status, confining different people to separate parts of the ship, to cool things off. And so that Debra and the others on the engineering team could give him some hard numbers.

"Give it to me straight up," the captain ordered, as Debra met with him over cups of hot coffee in the ship's command module. They were each braced feet-first on the module's back wall, looking at a huge LCD screen which had been rotated around for convenient viewing. Debra's fingers flew across the touch-sensitive surface as she manipulated the three-dimensional diagrams and schematics on the screen.

"See this?" she said, pointing to several systems that blinked an angry yellow.

"Yeah," Pakinski said.

"That little piece of interplanetary shit damaged every single one of these items. And while the secondaries and tertiaries have kicked in, losing so much fuel means we will reach a point of ultimate no return."

"Bingo," Pakinski said.

"What?" Debra asked.

"Pilot talk," he said. "The critical point at which the fuel you have left is only just enough to get you back to your starting point. Fly even a minute farther, and you won't be able to get back home."

"And we're almost there," Debra said. "Within the next 24 hours. We go past this time tomorrow, and we won't have the fuel necessary to brake, turn around, and go back to Earth."

Debra was painfully aware that cameras across the bridge were beaming every second of her analysis to Ben Groomer's receiving dishes on Earth. Doubtless this meeting would be a supremely hyped selling point for the week's greatly-anticipated episode: Crisis on the ship! Will they turn back, or will they go on, knowing that they possibly doom themselves to no return!

"What's your gut say?" Pakinski asked.

"My gut says we've come too far to give up now. My head says we were mad to do this in the first place, so go back."

"You know," Pakinski said, his expression becoming thoughtful, "as a civilian airline pilot, they train you to be hyper-conservative. Take no chances. Make no risky decisions. Everything erring so far on the side of caution, your entire flight plan structured around decision points designed to ensure that your aircraft makes it back to an airfield--somewhere, somehow--with everyone aboard in one, unperturbed piece. Would you believe me if I admitted that I am scared out of my mind right now?"

"Me too," Debra admitted, wrapping her arms around her chest.

Pakinski rubbed his eyes, took a long drink of coffee, then sighed.

"If we go back," he said, "the whole point of the trip gets lost. The television show. The colony at Jupiter. All of it, wasted."

"And we live out our long, safe lives on Earth, never getting to say we went for the gusto," Debra said.

Pakinski's expression turned bemused.

"You don't seem like the gusto type to me," he quipped.

Debra looked at him directly.

"I'm not," she said seriously.

"But you're not going to vote to turn us around, either?" he asked.

"No."

"And if the others vote to go back?"

"You're technically in charge. Think we can go forward under mutinous conditions?"

"No way in hell."

"Right, so . . . we have to hope it's unanimous. One way or the other."

"I think so, yes. And we need to decide before the night watch is through."

"Yup," Debra said. Then she went back to her bunk and waited.

"Ratings are in orbit!" Groomer crowed. "No pun intended."

At this point, the lag time--back to Earth--was so distracting, rapid fire conversation was no longer possible. You talked, then waited, and waited, and then came the response, and you talked, and waited some more. And on, and on.

"If memory serves," Debra said, "the Apollo 13 mission was a big attention-getter too."

Many minutes passed . . .

"The Apollo 13 guys were heroes," the boss finally replied, "even without landing on the moon. And now that you're trying to decide whether or not to turn Determination around, it's like the whole world is holding its breath. They want to know what's going to happen. Do you all push on--literally, Jupiter or bust? Or do you bring the ship back home, having fallen short of the goal, but saving the crew? You should know that every talk show and every pundit is going wild with this. People saying you should go for it. Other people saying you're stupid to go for it, and that the only sane choice is to come back. And they're all watching the clock, knowing that you have to make a final choice within mere hours. There is literally nothing else more important on Earth right now, than what you're all deciding to do up there."

"I guess it's a kind of fame," Debra said unenthusiastically, her arms wrapped around a pillow. She waited while the little two-way screen stayed blank. With the tiny door to her sleep compartment closed, their conversation was exclusive.

"I'm sorry," the boss's image said. "I suppose I sound like an ass, going on about ratings when you and the crew are making a life-or-death decision. You should know that I've already told Pakinski he has my full support to turn things around and come on home. I love the fact that you're the talk of the Earth right now, but that doesn't mean I think you should sacrifice yourselves for the sake of my ambition. Really, at this point, the trip has already accomplished everything I could have ever hoped--and a whole lot more. There'd be no shame in coming back early."

"Easy for you to say," Debra replied, "you're not the one who has dreamed of going to other worlds since she was a little girl. I'm pretty sure Pakinski and the rest of us know that if we turn around now, there won't be a second chance. Yeah, the Apollo 13 guys were heroes, but Jim Lovell never flew in space again, and neither Fred Haise nor Jack Swigert got a chance to fly on future moon missions. Ratings for Determination's flight might be amazing now, but if we turn around, people are going to call us quitters. Viewers will get bored and drop out. Along with the advertisers and their dollars."

More minutes of black air.

"Hey, look," the boss said finally, "if I were in your place . . . I am honestly not sure what I'd do. I agree with you and Pakinski: It's got to be a unanimous vote. Hopefully, everybody has cooled off enough to be able to see the big picture. Just let no one say Ben Groomer forced you to continue against your better judgment. I'd rather have you back alive than marooned permanently in Jupiter orbit. I'm a man who likes to think and dream big--but not at the expense of other peoples' futures. I'll wait to hear from you all. And I will support whatever final call is made."

The screen went black, this time for good.

Debra closed her eyes again, and waited for sleep to take her. Certainly it had been an exhausting few days since the initial accident. She should have faded right out. But when she didn't, and when the silence of the sleeping compartment became more than Debra could stand, she decided to pay the ship's tiny observatory a visit.

Debra found that she had not been the only one with the same idea. Almost everybody aboard had come--against Pakinski's orders. They were all staring at zoomed-in images of Jupiter, and Jupiter's many moons. This far from Earth, the pictures were spectacular. Better than anything any telescope on Earth could capture, and also better than anything any space probe had yet sent. The color in the banded clouds was stunning. The Great Red Spot was more distinct and impressive than it had ever been before. The surfaces of Callisto, Europa, and Io beckoned.

Nobody was arguing. They weren't even talking. They were all just staring.

Debra chose to look out a porthole. To the naked eye, Jupiter was a uniquely bright point of light, the chief star in Determination's sky. Debra kept her eyes on that unmoving, unblinking point until she turned away and pulled out one of the keyboards attached to the observatory's main computer array. She rapid-typed, ordering one of the Determination's many telescopes to face back the way they'd come. Searching on automatic for a pale, blue dot.

Having acquired the target, Debra overrode one of the biggest screens in the observatory, thus showing a magnified image of the Earth and the Moon together in space. Small. Delicate. A unique pair in the solar system. Perhaps, even, in all the galaxy?

In ones and twos, the heads of the crew turned away from the images of Jupiter and focused on their mutual home. Like before, there was no sound. Peoples' faces slowly passed through a range of different expressions, and a few tears began to leak from the corners of several different pairs of eyes.

A voice suddenly broke the calm. It was Pakinski's, from the open hatch at the back of the observatory. How long he'd been there, nobody knew. He'd come upon them silent as a cat. His face was sad.

"Well . . . we sure did give it one hell of a try," the captain said.

Debra found herself nodding vigorously, her vision obscured by tears, her heart breaking.

Debra had been right. Viewers and advertisers did drop off. And yes, there were people who called the crew of the Determination quitters. But these voices were few and far between. Even the most die-hard space exploration enthusiasts couldn't bring themselves to criticize the crew for turning away from probable suicide. Coming back was the sane man's choice. And during the long, slow deceleration, alteration of trajectory, and acceleration burn--to hasten the Determination's flight toward its ultimate arrival--there was a new conversation happening back home. A conversation nobody had expected. Least of all Debra herself.

"I was approached by a consortium of industrial investors," Ben Groomer's message said, this time, to the whole Determination crew while they ate in the ship's small galley. "These aren't bit players, either. They're people with serious money and serious assets at their disposal. I think your crisis aboard the Determination finally got these folks off the fence. They said they want to arrange for a second, even more ambitious trip. With a bigger, even better ship. Using all the lessons we've learned from the Determination's voyage.

"I've already got engineers doing back-of-the-envelope sketches. We're putting a nice, wide, thick bow shield on the front of the new ship. Stupid that we didn't think of it for the Determination. Maybe if we had, your predicament might not be so bad. And for which I am truly sorry.

"Look, everybody, I don't know if the words of an old business hustler mean anything to pioneers like you, but I am grateful from the bottom of my heart for all you've accomplished. For going as far as you have. Things back here on Earth . . . well, the show isn't just a show anymore. Everyone's talking about what comes next. For Jupiter. For Saturn. People are saying it's not fair that Determination didn't make it. That we have to try again, and keep trying."

For Debra, it was a curious turn of events. Could there be such a thing as a successful failure? She'd grown up watching the United States space program fall prey to disinterest. She'd dreamed of finding a way to make people care again. And while she'd gone all-in with Groomer's suggestion that she be aboard for the ride, losing Jupiter in the short term might mean gaining a whole lot more in the long term. Her email box was now flooded with requests: from universities, corporations, government and military contractors, as well as space clubs and advocacy groups, all asking her to come and present for them. To speak about her experience. To tell them about the future.

"It's what I wanted, sort of," she told Ben Groomer one evening, just before bed. "Ten years ago, nobody was even talking about going back to the Moon. Now? Now it seems like everyone is getting excited again. To come out here. After so long."

"You know, I never told you why I joined the Navy," Groomer said, following a delay which had grown noticeably shorter of late. "See, when I was a little kid, they had this show on TV called Star Trek. And I wanted to be part of that show so bad--I mean, for real--that when the time came for me to grow up and go out into the world, I joined the closest thing to Star Trek I could find. And no, the Navy didn't live up to my hopes in that regard. But I always imagined, when I was out at sea, how some day--some day!--people would be standing on the decks of ships going between the planets, and then the stars too."

"The stars?" Debra said.

"Oh, without question!" Groomer said happily. "Give it time. A couple of centuries, I'd bet. Maybe less. Could that reactor design of yours be adapted for interstellar use?"

Debra thought about it for a few minutes, doing some math in her head.

"You'd need a reactor far, far bigger. And even more efficient. With a lot more fuel. The ship would be immense. Far larger than anything we've ever built before. By an order of magnitude, or more."

"But in theory, it could be done?"

"Yes, Ben, I think it could be done."

"Well, then, even if I am not around to see it, I hope it happens one day."

"Me too," Debra said, smiling.

"You gonna still work for me, when you come back to Earth?" Ben asked.

"Oh, probably. After I feel like I've done enough, out there on the road. Your junk food TV show has turned me into something of a commodity. I've got speaking engagements lined up forever. People seem to think I've got my finger on the pulse of what our destiny in space looks like."

"It couldn't have happened without your reactor," Groomer said.

"We both did it. You had the cash, I had the design, and we both had the desire."

"And apparently a lot of other people had that desire too," Groomer said. "They just needed someone crazy enough to show them the way. That somebody was doing something."

The smile lines around Groomer's eyes crinkled delightfully.

"I was thinking," Debra said, "about the new ship."

"Yeah?"

"She needs a worthy name. How about calling her Persistence?"

"Only if you'll volunteer to break the champagne across her bow. Deal?"

"Deal," Debra said, catching herself smiling.

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