By Jerry A. Boggs | September 2014
What could shock you more than knowing you’re going to die in just a few seconds?
It was Megan’s birthday, and Navigator Kasey Abernathy was depressed more than usual about her daughter’s death two years earlier. Today Megan would have been nine.
Standing in her mag boots inside the spacecraft’s weightlessness, Abernathy sucked on a tube of cold coffee that had all the flavor of liquefied cardboard. For maybe the tenth time since reaching space, she fingered the wide purple head-band she’d slipped on post-launch to make sure her brown shoulder-length hair — a length that snubbed company rules — would not float around into her eyes. She padded across the metal-plated deck in less-than-graceful steps, from the control room’s food-server niche back to her nav station inside The Raven. The craft was a new Earth-Mars shuttle fresh off the Mars City assembly line. She and test pilot Toby Lewis were putting it through the paces for their employer Creighton Astroline.
Abernathy’s depression, heart-ripping at any time, stabbed her harder each time she realized Megan had died at her hand. Not literally, but nearly so. She had been killed in a car crash simply because Abernathy had been too impatient to reboot her vehicle’s unresponsive guidance system. Unaccustomed to doing her own driving, Abernathy had begun a turn just a split-second too late on a curve one mile from their North Carolina home. The vehicle bounce-rolled down a steep embankment until it smashed into a huge oak tree. Abernathy incurred severe strains and a broken left shoulder, but little Megan had been crushed under her side of the car roof that ended up closer to Abernathy than Megan was.
As a tribute and offering to her daughter, Abernathy had cajoled the The Raven’s programmers, an agreeable if harried bunch, into reconfiguring the shuttle’s computer system to respond to “Megan” and speak in Megan’s voice — a task they’d completed after compiling a database of words from the volumes of Abernathy’s audio and video recordings of Megan. A voice mimic/synthesizer filled in the words Megan had never spoken. When the computer spoke in seven-year-old Megan’s voice, Abernathy could close her eyes and easily picture her daughter alive and standing in front of her.
But she soon realized that the reconfiguration hadn’t been the wisest thing to do. Hearing Megan’s voice didn’t serve as a tribute and fill her with anticipated joy as much as worsen her guilt and depression.
A huge lump took up residence in her throat, and welling tears stung her eyes. Swiping at the wetness with her fingers, she wished to God this test-flight would hurry up and end.
Pilot Toby Lewis, a 50-ish prickly sort who predictably had scoffed at Abernathy’s computer reconfiguration, didn’t turn his cold blue eyes her way as she strapped herself in. Instead, he hunched forward a bit and froze, his attention lasering on a read-out.
“What? How? Megan! Why are we—”
“Did you hear that?” Lewis looked sidelong at her. His face showed no emotion except for a twitch in the pallid flesh below his eyes.
Abernathy heard it. Faint at first, the noise quickly grew. A memory flashed before her eyes. When she was an 11-year-old, she often stood at the rusty cyclone fence surrounding a junkyard near her home and watched as the huge compacting press flattened old cars before they were hauled off to a recycling center for further processing. That sound, the hard, brutal crunching of metal, was what she now heard echoing throughout the control room.
The instrument panel in front of her got her attention. A small rectangular button that registered the health of the starboard thruster had switched from its steady green to flashing bright red: WARNING! WARNING!
“Crap!” She toggled a lever below a small screen, then recoiled. “The nacelle!” she shouted in disbelief at the view provided by an outside camera and light. “It’s collapsing! How’s that possible!”
“According to my skin sensors,” Megan broke in with an uncanny cheeriness, “the starboard thruster is malfunctioning. Will attempt to repair… Attempt failed.”
“You might also have noticed,” said Lewis, his face now blotchy red and his carotid artery visible on his neck, “that we just came to a dead stop. How’s that possible?”
“Megan!” yelled Abernathy. “Hail Ops with an SOS!”
“Sending SOS…SOS failed.”
Another warning flashed next to the first. Abernathy leaned and flipped another lever. “Now the port nacelle’s collapsing! We have no thrusters! Look — they’re…folding into the shuttle!”
Megan droned happily: “Port thruster malfunctioning. Will attempt to repair…. Attempt failed.”
“Shut the hell up, Megan!” snapped the pilot.
“Don’t talk to my dau—” Abernathy checked herself, breathed in, let her anger drain. They hardly needed to be at each other’s throat.
“I would like to think,” Lewis said in a tight voice, “that this craft is so screwed up structurally that somehow Mars’ gravity—”
“No no no! Even if Mars’ gravity were strong as Jupiter’s, it wouldn’t do this—”
“Don’t patronize me, Abernathy. I’m well aware of the effects of gravity.”
Metal groaned and screeched, the din rising to a near-deafening pitch. The control room began to vibrate under their feet. Black smoke drifted in, first in tendrils, then in billows all around them. The smell of burnt wiring and hydraulic fluid assailed their nostrils. In the overhead panels, a series of electrical sparkings sent small globes of fire showering down over them, burning flesh where their flight suits gave no cover.
Abernathy unbuckled, scrambled out of her seat, then crouched, clinging to the arm rest. She glanced wildly about in the smoke-filling control room, desperately trying to make sense of it all. No clues to the insanity were to be seen. And no escape route.
“Megan! What is going on—!” she screamed, her voice choking off.
“Multiple systems malfunctioning,” Megan replied with a giggle that Abernathy barely heard. “Will attempt to repair…. Attempt failed.” Megan set off the overhead red emergency flasher and the ear-splitting two-tone klaxon. “I’m afraid the shuttle must be abandoned.”
“Christ!” said Lewis, coughing, still in his seat. In the decreasing visibility, Abernathy could discern that his eyes were darting from one instrument to another. A diagnostic monitor, level with his head, began to flicker as green data feeds rapidly rolled up. Then in a spasm of blinking and fluttering, the monitor went black as coal. “The whole shuttle— We gotta get out! It’s — imploding!”
“All systems failing across the board,” said Megan sweetly, “including Megan. Will attempt to….”
In one violent motion, the ceiling of the control room shuddered, then dropped 12 inches, and the floor surged upward, slamming them up against the lowered ceiling like rag dolls.
In agony, they struggled in the weightlessness to position their feet and re-anchor themselves somewhere, anywhere, and gain control.
Another violent spasm of the shuttle, and a huge, jagged, roughly triangular opening appeared in the hull near the control console. Abernathy glimpsed the blackness of space. Instantly, the air and every object not secured to walls and consoles — papers, laptops, remnants of a recently eaten meal — were cannon-balled through the opening. Abernathy and Lewis, their arms flailing and grabbing, followed as if flung by a catapult. A sharp ragged edge of the breach sliced open Abernathy’s upper arm. The snag set her slowly swirling, like a bizarre ballerina, as she plunged out into the void. The blood erupting from her arm encircled her and froze so quickly that had there been air, she would have heard the soft tinkling of delicate wineglasses shattering. She made a desperate, soundless attempt to scream. Instantly, the saliva on her tongue boiled off.
Not yet lifeless, she could see the receding Raven with each turn of her bloating body, as if viewing it in a series of photographs. The shuttle had folded onto itself several times and was now a black and silver, beach-ball-sized clump from which streams of smoke belched.
Abernathy’s joints, because she had in effect been heaved in one second from the bottom of an ocean to its surface, were jack-hammered by the bends. Without atmospheric pressure, the blood in her veins and arteries boiled as she simultaneously began to quick-freeze on the outside.
In the seconds of living that remained, though her lungs screamed for air and her entire body throbbed in unbearable pain, Abernathy tried to focus on Mars, the sun, and the stars gently whirling around her, their light dim and blurred through her iced pupils. The near-absolute-zero cold dulled her pain. She suddenly felt relief, an almost euphoric calm. She thought, “I’m free at last. I’ll never again have to grieve over my precious Megan.”
Swirling away toward Mars, she caught one last shocking sight when she again turned back toward the shuttle. Perhaps one kilometer on the other side of the smoldering shuttle — her experience helped her judge the distance — was the answer to The Raven’s self-destruction: The sun-lit underside of a motionless, city-sized alien craft equipped with what appeared to be row upon row of huge turrets girding a massive bow that was pointed straight toward Earth.
Mars: Astronomy Now Magazine
Frightened Abernathy: defunct Imagination Sci-Fi Mag, June 1957, p. 6
First, consider this at Wikipedia:
“Much of the earnings of those in the top income bracket come from capital gains, interest, and dividends, which are taxed at a maximum of 20 percent.”
Then this at MarketWatch.com:
“The market is really just a yardstick of our confidence, right? Actually, no. That’s because most of us who own stocks don’t hold much and most people don’t own any stocks at all. How is the market a reflection of this silent majority? The reality is that stocks are not only owned by a minority of Americans, but by a minority of that minority – and a very wealthy minority at that. The wealthiest 5% of Americans own 82% of directly owned, publicly traded stocks, according to the Federal Reserve. Mr. Favilukis concluded ‘changes in inequality are correlated with stock returns’ and that ‘stock market participants are on average richer and benefit disproportionately from a stock market boom.'”
Now this at The Atlantic.com:
“It turns out that wealth inequality isn’t about the 1 percent v. the 99 percent at all. It’s about the 0.1 percent v. the 99.9 percent (or, really, the 0.01 percent vs. the 99.99 percent, if you like). Long-story-short is that this group, comprised mostly of bankers and CEOs, is riding the stock market to pick up extraordinary investment income. And it’s this investment income, rather than ordinary earned income, that’s creating this extraordinary wealth gap.”
The last four years witnessed a meteoric rise in the stock market, bought into mostly by the well-off. The wages of lower- and middle-income Americans remained stagnant.
If Mitt Romney or any other Republican were president, the dramatic difference between Wall Street and Main Street would have been seized upon by liberals and the Democratic Party as undeniable proof of Romney’s lack of concern for wealth/income equality, for the poor, for minorities, for women….
The sharp difference between the “Streets” would have been portrayed, if Romney were president, as an on-going Republican strategy to help the rich at the expense of the poor. That portrayal would have gotten top billing and been showcased daily by the liberal press, most significantly by ABC/CBS/NBC/MSNBC/CNN and The New York Times. Ideologues such as Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, and Lawrence O’Donnell would be yelling for people to get out and protest, perhaps even to march on both Wall Street and the White House.
But because Obama is president, these pundits and the liberal press seem utterly oblivious of the Streets’ difference.
Regrettably, the same can apparently be said of the Republicans.
As a former HUD employee, I worked closely for years with HUD’s approved housing counseling agencies. The purpose of the agencies is to provide advice on buying a home, renting, defaults, foreclosures, and credit issues. A question for liberals and Democrats:
How many of you see the need for similar agencies to help low-wage Americans learn how to save and invest for their future — to begin doing as the wealthy do? Among low-wage earners are millions who play the lottery and casinos, smoke and drink excessively…. Many may be driven to do so by depression, but the point is they do it. Could not they be encouraged to forsake one or two of these vices and save, say, $20-$30 per month until they had enough money, first, to create an emergency fund, then enough to buy into a mutual fund (an easy way to invest in the stock market; I’ll plug Vanguard’s index funds), then continue saving until they had enough for a fund’s minimum investment on a regular basis — so that five, ten, or 20 years from now they could profit from the next meteoric rise in the stock market? (A main reason for the stock market’s run-up in recent years is that there is no competition from the low interest paid to savings accounts, CDs, and bonds, all of which are where low-wage earners traditionally put their savings.)
“…[S]tock prices, which are a function of perceived future earnings, would rise substantially, inducing a wealth effect as people see their 401(k)s and mutual funds rising in value.” -John Steele Gordon, in the Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2014, listing the reasons we should remove the corporate income tax.
But I can already hear the Robert Reichs: “Low-wage earners can’t save, low-wage earners can’t save!” That belief alone is the hammer-blow to most political efforts to help low-wage earners save and invest. But promulgating it, I suspect, is intended to divert attention from the very real possibility that if low earners begin investing in stocks, many of them may become a lot more supportive of business and might demand government do likewise — a conservative position countless liberals have long denounced as hurting the poor! If the poor are helped in this manner, many more might vote Republican.
“Most Americans didn’t share in those gains, however, because most people haven’t been able to save enough to invest in the stock market.” -Robert Reich, SFGate.com
“The poor really cannot afford NOT to save or buy insurance….they risk losing health, home and any assets.” -Patricia [last name withheld], commenting at The New York Times
Because of liberal/Democratic hammer-blows, one significant effort that would have helped low-wage earners invest — and have something to pass on to their children — failed rather quickly. In his second term, George W. Bush wanted to give young workers the option of investing part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts. The rate of return, he said, “would be higher than in the traditional system; the accumulation could be passed on to children and grandchildren.”
In my view, the Democrats who opposed Bush’s idea of giving the young the option of investing a small percentage of their income ought to hang their heads in shame.
One of the Democrats’ objections to the idea of young workers investing a very small amount in the stock market may have been that, in their view, even this relatively tiny investment by only a small segment of the population posed a risk to the Social Security fund and hence a risk to all recipients. (Think about that as a testament to the Democrats’ faith in the U.S. economy.) What they effectively said to young workers is this: “You cannot decide how to spend just a few dollars of your money which we forcefully take from you; we must spread low-wage earners’ wealth around.”
Now comes another liberal/Democratic hammer-blow — Obamacare. Its insurance subsidies may help extend the poor’s inability to save and invest: the low earners who are incentivized to cut their hours or to leave and stay out of the workforce, for whatever reason, will, despite all the benefits extolled by Democrats, have less money to put aside for their and their children’s futures. (Read about unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act in “Does Obamacare foster early retirement?” at BankRate.com, whose poll found that “23 percent of Americans would retire early if they could get affordable health insurance outside of their jobs….”)
Obamacare is also causing involuntary cuts to low earners’ pay: “Cities, counties, public schools and community colleges around the country,” says The New York Times on February 21, 2014, “have limited or reduced the work hours of part-time employees to avoid having to provide them with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, state and local officials say.” How many of these part-timers are seniors who must work to supplement a fixed-income pension, or who want to save and invest for their children to give them a leg up? Will Obama address this problem? Apparently not soon, given that “For months, Obama administration officials have played down reports that employers were limiting workers’ hours.”
Many Democrats, I sense, inwardly want the poor to believe they cannot save. After all, if the poor learn to “do as the wealthy do,” they might begin sympathizing with business and capitalism, and the Democratic Party might lose a huge portion of its dependent base (which Obamacare will enlarge).
As for President Obama, according to the Atlantic Monthly: “Indeed, Obama never uttered the words ‘inequality’ or ‘unequal’ in his 2008 convention speech. And while Obama used Mitt Romney’s wealth against him in 2012, he rarely discussed poverty on the stump.”
For more on Social Security reform and stock market investing, see the National Review’s “Get Rich or Die Trying,” by Kevin D. Williamson, author of the brilliant “The End is Near And It’s Going To Be Awesome.”
See Motley Fool’s advice to millennials.
“Some critics might charge that a Universal Savings Account [like Canada’s] can’t be “pro-family” if it also benefits unmarried millionaires. We disagree. Tax policy is not a tug of war between families and singles: All can win. The autonomy these accounts offer to everyone will make families become—and think like—millionaires.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Wouldn’t he quickly have been dragged into an emergency meeting with a handful of panicky leading Democrats? “Barack, did you bang your head on a steel cabinet or something? Are you trying to lose your base? Please, get back out there and get our message right: ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.’”
That reversal fairly well gauges where, on the spectrum of evolving political ideology, apparently most liberals have thus far landed since Democratic President John Kennedy uttered those famous words – now infamous, I suspect, to most modern Democrats – in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961.
Consider another change, the new trend of Democratic presidents (Obama and Clinton) winning a second term, a rarity for Democrats since FDR.
This trend, along with the Democrats’ shift toward asking for government help, might signal that the USA is lurching toward PIIGSville – the out-of-control spending ways of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. Hence, PIIGS may soon become PIIGSUSA. I pronounce it pig-soosa.
As with PIIGS, the United States does seem to be witnessing more of what Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly calls people who in our “Where’s mine?” age “want stuff.” To them, the promise-them-something-for-nothing Obama is the perfect president; he is, in fact, the president who made roughly twice as many campaign promises – over 500 – as either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
In what demographic groups are there more people who demand stuff they believe can be provided for nothing (or by raising taxes on the rich — which to them is never a bad thing, or, more than likely, always a good thing)?
The young, women, and minorities. The groups that elected Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.
Let’s examine why.
In which of the following two groups are there more of those who are knowledgeable about the economy and politics:
High school grads or college grads? (Notice I didn’t ask, “Which group is more knowledgeable….?” That’s framing it the wrong way. If I had framed it that way and you replied, “College grads are more knowledgeable,” you’d suggest that you might believe and want others to believe, especially if you are a college grad yourself, that every college grad is more knowledgeable than every high school grad. Which is extremely improbable if not impossible. Such a suggestion is the danger of dispensing generalizations,* as the media in particular so often do, without, I think, realizing what they’re saying.)
No doubt many high school grads are quite knowledgeable about the economy and politics, and many college grads are not. In fact, some high school grads conceivably are more knowledgeable than all of the college grads.
But we are talking about which group has the bigger number of the knowledgeable. That is college grads by virtue of their higher education and their likely already greater job experience in politics and the economy.
What about the youth vs. the old? The same analysis applies as above: some youth know far more than many of the old. But by virtue of the old’s greater free time and longer experience with politics and economics (and bigger viewership of the network evening news**), the number of the old who are knowledgeable is bigger than the number of the young who are.
And minorities vs. whites? Again, the analysis applies. But whites’ greater number of college grads, office holders, and workers in politics and economics obviously means there are more whites (many more, given their much bigger population) who are knowledgeable about politics and economics.
Finally, what about men vs. women, whose vote Obama won by 11 percentage points? Once again, the analysis holds: there are a lot of women who know a lot more about politics and economics than a lot of men; as a matter of fact, hordes of women may know more than any man in the country.
But men don’t just outnumber women in jobs grounded in politics and economics. Based on my empirical evidence, men also outnumber women among individuals maintaining an active personal interest in the two topics. (My wife admits she doesn’t know anything about politics and economics, and doesn’t care to know. In the ’08 elections, she voted for Obama. We’re still married and talking to each other.) So reasonable people, I think, can say there are more men than women who are knowledgeable about politics and economics. This is supported in a study by the UK’s very liberal Guardian that says, “Women living in developed countries that promote gender equality, such as the U.S. and United Kingdom, either have equal — or even wider — knowledge gaps” than in less developed countries.
It appears the most inexperienced candidate was elected by the most inexperienced voters.
You already know my conclusion: the groups who have the bigger number of the less knowledgeable about how politics and the economy function, and who have the bigger number of those who’d likely adopt the credo “Ask what your country can do for you” because they falsely believe liberal politicians can give them “stuff” with little or no pain – these are the groups who are taking us inexorably down the PIIGSville lane, possibly to Obama’s and Democrats’ glee.
*Decades ago, I learned the value of not making generalizations (though I still make them when I’m too lazy, too tired, or too impatient to do it right!). A writer by the name of Gene Marine illustrated in the 1970s: He said you can’t say — and I take great liberties in my paraphrasing — “Men are bigger than women, suggesting to many that every man is bigger than every woman. Here’s how you laboriously must put it: The biggest men are bigger than the biggest women, and the smallest women are smaller than the smallest men. But in between, a huge number of men and women are the same size.” What this importantly means is that millions of big women are bigger than millions of small men.
**The evening network news programs report regularly on the economic riots and protests in Spain, Greece, and the other PIIGS countries. Thus, they serve somewhat as tutors on both economics and politics. Want to know whether the programs are watched more by the young or by the old? Hint: check out the ads on the news shows.
Young voters hit the polls in droves during the 2008 election and most cast their ballots for Barack Obama. And in 2012, 60% of millennials ages 18 to 29 voted for Obama; only 37% voted for Romney, according to exit polls by the National Election Pool. Voters over 40, on the other hand, were more likely to vote for Romney.
“…[O]ur young adults already have been molded to be the first generation of American socialists.
“It’s not some wacko conspiracy theory. It’s just research that shows the influence of our education system, media and pop culture have instilled in most young people a lack of understanding about economics and free markets, as well as a misconception about the proper role of government in our daily lives.”
“People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.” -SuperFreakonomics
What are the unintended consequences as the growing number of insured Americans meets up with moral hazard and a growing shortage of doctors?
By Jerry A. Boggs | Last updated December 3, 2013 | Originally published on May 21, 2012
Most of us drive our vehicles very carefully, even though we have insurance to cover accidents.
But suppose you had no insurance. Think how much more carefully you’d drive. And how much more slowly. Yes, you would. And you’d likely drive less. (And maybe walk more and become healthier for it.) I think one thing’s for sure: there would be a lot less dangerous texting while driving!
“With automobile collision insurance, one is more likely to venture forth on an icy night,” writes Harvard economist Richard Zeckhauser.
For many people, I suspect, the more vehicle insurance they have and the less their deductible, the more they might tend to drive and the faster and less guardedly. (To check that in yourself, keep imagining how you’d drive without insurance.) That means more accidents in which people are killed and injured. Vehicle insurance is a wonderful thing, preventing bankruptcies and poverty and bestowing peace of mind. But it is disquieting to know that insurance has the unintended consequence of providing these benefits at the cost of more accidents, more injuries, and more deaths than if no one had insurance.
In a report on how to fight pandemics, the March 2012 Discover magazine says the secret to fighting them is “knowing their real cause: disease factories built by people. Ironically, hospitals turn out to be highly efficient disease factories. They allow the proliferation and spread of dangerous germs among patients, and the evolution of those germs to extreme levels of virulence.”
Yet over a decade ago the news from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was even more alarming:
“America’s healthcare system is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., causing between 230,000 and 284,000 fatalities per year, behind only heart disease and cancer.”
The report didn’t say the third leading cause of death is poor health. It said the healthcare system itself. In other words, our country’s third leading cause of death is the legions of good-intentioned doctors, nurses, and others whose ultimate duty is to help us avoid death.
JAMA provides a breakdown of the deaths caused by healthcare (for other breakdowns, go here):
- 12,000 deaths per year due to unnecessary surgery [Emphasis mine]
- 7,000 deaths per year due to medication errors in hospitals
- 20,000 deaths per year due to other errors in hospitals
- 80,000 deaths per year due to infections in hospitals
- 106,000 deaths per year due to negative effects of drugs* (See also the Nov. 19, 2012, report by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent.)
“Pharmaceutical drugs are 62,000 times more likely to kill you than supplements.” -Dr. Mercola
To the JAMA list we must add the figures cited in September 2012 by Shannon Brownlee, Acting Director, Health Policy Program, New American Foundation: “The estimates are that tens of thousands of cancer deaths are being caused by medical radiation.” (CT scans, MRIs, etc.)
Then add the nearly 200,000 hospital patients that may be killed each year by blood clots, following surgery or illness. A growing problem, blood clots are the leading cause of preventable hospital deaths in the U.S., according to David Goldhill, author of the article “How American Healthcare Killed My Father” and the book “Catastrophic Care, released January 8, 2013, citing a report in The Wall Street Journal. (Watch Goldhill’s video.)
It’s almost enough to make one ask, “Why don’t we drop our health insurance except for catastrophic coverage and stay away from doctors except in a dire emergency?”
Of course, I’d never advocate getting rid of health insurance, catastrophes being one obvious need for it. But suppose, for a moment, that no one had health insurance. Because of the law of unintended consequences, lots of things could happen, good as well as bad. A good:
In 2008, shortly after the economic collapse, I was watching TV as a CNN reporter interviewed a woman on the street. She had just lost her job. The reporter asked how she was coping.
“Along with my job, I lost my health insurance,” she said [I paraphrase]. “Now I have to really be careful to watch what I eat, lose weight, exercise, and take better care of myself.” I got the impression that while she had health insurance, she tended to be a bit reckless with her health, figuring she was covered if she got sick.
In January 2014, I read this story:
Chelsea Byers of Flagstaff is insured for the first time in her life through Healthcare.gov and couldn’t be more pleased. She might even go skiing for the first time, now that any injuries from an accident would be covered. -Arizona Daily Sun, January 21, 2014
Some people, maybe many, take on more risk when they feel they have a safety net under them. That’s because, according to a Slate.com article, “Insurance is also the source of what economists call ‘moral hazard,’ where those who are protected against the consequences of their actions take greater risks than they otherwise would.” “The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment” adds: “Although health insurance is expected to improve health through increases in the quantity and quality of health care, it is also possible that by reducing the adverse financial consequences of poor health, health insurance may discourage investments in health and thereby worsen health outcomes.” In the May 5, 2013, Business Insider, Joe Weisenthal says of a study done by the RAND Corporation:
But the study also tracked the health outcomes of each group, and there the results were more surprising: With a few modest exceptions, the level of insurance had no significant effect on the participants’ actual wellness.
In that study, did moral hazard mitigate the benefit of insurance on wellness, since the well-insured might generally be less vigilant about watching their health than the poorly-insured and the uninsured? Similarly, will moral hazard, along with the patient harm created by the increased stress on doctors by the increased demand for their services, offset the wellness gains promised under Obamacare despite its preventative services provisions?
A hint that moral hazard may indeed undermine Obamacare’s goal of better overall health is in a July 2, 2012, Time.com’s commentary: “But in the end, it’s hardly certain that health care for all will give us a healthier nation. It seems logical that when we have insurance, we are more likely to access and utilize healthcare resources, and so we will be healthier. But there’s increasing evidence showing that much of the care we receive probably provides marginal clinical benefit, and that more care isn’t always better. Good health is still determined more by personal choices than insurance, hospitals and procedures.”
“To be clear, there will always be some baseline benefit to being insured versus not being insured, even if you account for the moral hazard. A major Institute of Medicine report in 2009 found that uninsured adults are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage of cancer, more likely to die from a heart attack and less likely to recover from a serious injury.” -Dr. Sanjay Gupta
(The number of people affected by moral hazard can depend on the type of moral hazard; i.e., private insurance vs. a government bailout, which is also insurance. And how legitimate or valid one sees moral hazard may depend on one’s political bent. Liberal Times columnist Joe Klein may not think moral hazard is triggered by health insurance for individuals, but he apparently does think it’s triggered by government bailouts to big banks, which he ought to know aren’t things but collections of people who make decisions just like people such as CNN’s woman on the street. Says Klein, “Sadly, neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney have addressed the ‘moral hazard’ that accrues from having banks that are too big too fail….” See a New York Times argument. There needs to be a non-partisan study of the real, determinable effects of moral hazard.)
Returning to CNN’s interviewed woman: Without health insurance, she became like the driver without car insurance.
And what if insurance — liability insurance for protection against malpractice lawsuits — were unavailable to doctors? Would doctors, too, become like the driver with no car insurance, the result being more-careful doctors, which is to say less injury and death to patients under their care? (Without liability insurance, of course, we’d no doubt have fewer doctors, and healthcare would be harder to get — but perhaps that would not be entirely bad!)
How many more people, because they have insurance, will pay less attention to diet and exercise like CNN’s woman on the street, and develop medical problems (such as diabetes) that require visits to the doctor that they would not have had to make while uninsured and cautious?
Enter President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), which requires millions of uninsured to buy insurance.
In 2014, the ACA may bring into the healthcare system an estimated 32 million newly insured people, mostly young adults (though an astonishing 26 million other people will be left out, meaning the ACA is not very universal). Economic studies indicate that these young adults “will try to consume twice as much medical care as they have been,” often, I suspect, merely “to get my money’s worth.” (The rate of consumption may be mitigated by high deductibles and co-pays.) Moreover, the ACA will bring countless others into the healthcare system more often. It’s obviously supposed to do all that, since Mr. Obama rightly wants to spread the health around.
He also wants to spread Medicaid around to include millions of the uninsured poor. Yet according to a large study by the University of Virginia, surgical patients on Medicaid, the expansion of which President Obama himself described as putting “more people in a broken system,” are 97% more likely to die than those with private insurance and 13 percent more likely to die than those with no insurance at all.
“It’s like we’re handing out bus tickets and the bus is already full.” -Perry Pugno, vice-president for medical education at the American Academy of Family Physicians, Bloomberg’s “Doctors Brace for Health Law’s Surge of Ailing Patients,” September 24, 2013
And let’s not forget that every day for the next 18 years, 10,000 Baby Boomers, whose health on average is very poor and getting worse, will reach age 65 and become eligible for Medicare. Many Boomers will seek healthcare services before losing their employer insurance, and many others who’d had no insurance and had put off healthcare will put it off no longer.
Moreover, we have a fast-growing obesity epidemic (chart), especially among the young, for whom obesity, a condition worse than smoking, has jumped from 9% of the adolescent population in 2000 to 23% in 2008, and threatening to overwhelm our health care system. The main threat is the costly diabetes that is often obesity’s side effect — some people call it diabesity — and the costly Alzheimer’s disease that is often diabetes’ side effect. (But see a less alarming report on obesity at PsychologyToday.com.)
We also have these troubles brewing:
- More than four in 10 U.S. physicians said they were emotionally exhausted or felt a high degree of cynicism, or “depersonalization,” toward their patients, according to researchers whose findings appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
- “The high rate of burnout has consequences not only for the individual physicians, but also for the patients they are caring for”…. -Reuters, August 21, 2012; more at Medscape.com in a report dated March 28, 2013
- Six in 10 physicians said it is likely many of their colleagues will retire earlier than planned in the next 1 to 3 years. -Every Day Health, March 21, 2013. Even more doctors may want to retire earlier than planned if Kathleen Murphy, running for the House of Delegates, has her way: she wants to require Virginia doctors to accept Medicare and Medicaid patients despite these insurers’ much lower reimbursements.
The pressure and stress on doctors may explain why President and CEO of the Mayo Clinic John Noseworthy, drawing from his nearly 30 years as a neurologist, could say of his experience even before the Obamacare patient surge: “Probably 30 percent of the patients I saw were misdiagnosed, had the wrong tests done.” (He hopes this is redressed by modernizing reimbursement methods to “motivate and stimulate moving towards a more efficient system.”)
Finally, “one flaw in the Affordable Care Act,” says Business Week, “is that by prohibiting insurers from taking health risks into account in setting rates, it gives people no incentive to lower their premiums by losing weight….”
Against this worrisome backdrop, millions more may soon engage the overburdened healthcare providers who are, according to JAMA, our nation’s third biggest killer.
End-runs are underway, though possibly thwarted by dubious funding, to address the insufficient number of primary care physicians: “As Obamacare Looms, New Medical Schools Open To Address Doctor Shortage.” (See also this Bloomberg report.)
They’d better hurry. The number of doctors working less than full time is increasing at an alarming rate: “In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.”
(See a contrary view: “We don’t need more doctors.”)
A monkey wrench has already been hurled into the efforts to address the U.S. shortage of 91,000 doctors expected by 2020 (according to the September 2012 Wired magazine): The Association of American Medical Colleges “worries that the funding may soon not be there to support residency programs for this larger number of medical school graduates in the next two to three years. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 [enacted in President Bill Clinton’s second term] capped the number of available slots for residents coming out of medical school as part of the law’s reduction in spending on Medicare, which largely funds residency programs.”
Once Obamacare is fully up and running — but with the cart before the horse — could our healthcare system then become, according to the audio book “Killer Cure,” the second leading cause of death? Or even, in the worst of ironies, the first?
I ponder this as I listen to the PBS Frontline documentary, “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” which aired October 22, 2013. Its subtext is that at a time when bacteria are becoming highly resistant to antibiotics, makers of antibiotics are getting out of the business — this at a time when Obamacare will bring thousands of more people into hospitals, most of which, says Frontline, “aren’t required to report outbreaks to the government, and most won’t talk publicly about them.”
I realize the nature of politics is such that you have to get what you can when you can in whatever form you can. (That’s largely why government is inherently ineffective.) But when you do that and forge ahead despite the torpedoes in such an important, complex, vast-scale undertaking as the Affordable Care Act, you are, I think, flirting with disaster.
Do we really know what we’re doing?
“Prescription Drugs More Deadly Than Car Accidents, Guns, and Suicide” -The Daily Beast, May 25, 2014
“We’re Still Not Tracking Patient Harm” -ProPublica, July 17, 2014
The UK’s universal healthcare system produces a huge demand on medical services. To read about the consequences at one hospital, where hundreds of deaths occurred needlessly, go here. Also read “Britain told social inequality has created ‘public health timebomb’.”
* Source list regarding prescription drug abuse, compiled by Mercola.com:
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly January 13, 2012 / 61(01);10-13
- CNN November 14, 2012
- Congressional Testimony May 24, 2011
- CNN November 14, 2012
- NYTimes.com April 20, 2007
- University of North Carolina April 25, 2011
- CNN November 15, 2012
- JAMA. 1998 Apr 15;279(15):1200-5.
- Altern Med Rev. 2010 Dec;15(4):337-44.
- Arthritis & Rheumatism, Volume 54, Issue 11, pages 3452–3464, November 2006
- The Journal of Neuroscience, 6 April 2011, 31(14): 5540-554
- Psychol Sci. 2006 Dec;17(12):1032-9.
For those who think the answer is a UK-styled healthcare system run entirely by the federal government:
By Barbara Kiviat | Time Magazine | April 19, 2010
American consumerism is a force to be reckoned with. Turn a few hundred million of the world’s most sophisticated shoppers loose on an industry, and watch companies scramble after their business. In realms from washing machines to stock trades, quality goes up and price comes down as companies look for an edge over the next guy to win customer dollars.
Not in health care. Congress has overhauled the industry, but the revolution has largely been about increasing access to health care, not simplifying it. We are left with the same opaque system of perverse incentives–paying providers for more tests and procedures, not necessarily effective ones. And we lack even the most basic element of the free market: price information. I recently went to a doctor and asked how much my office visit and X-ray would cost. Staffers told me that they didn’t know and, since I have insurance, I shouldn’t care. (See what health care reform means for you.)
I should care, though. In fact, I do. There are many reasons health care costs are spiraling out of control, but the simplest one to understand is this: nobody knows what anything costs. Providers get paid through a tangle of insurance-company agreements and billing schedules that change from patient to patient. No wonder a hospital can sneak a $100 box of Kleenex onto your bill and the price of an MRI can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. If you don’t know what something costs, you can’t know if it costs too much.
There is a bill in Congress that would attempt to fill in the blanks. The Transparency in All Health Care Pricing Act of 2010 would require health care providers–including hospitals, physicians, nurses, pharmacies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, dentists and insurers–to post prices, including on the Internet. Discounts and subsidies would be listed too. “The public will discover what people in health care already understand, that the price of any health care service is whatever they can get,” says Representative Steve Kagen, a doctor who ran a practice for 25 years before being elected to Congress.
High-deductible health insurance, which shifts greater costs to individuals, already works on the premise that enlisting the price-sensitive American consumer will lead to a more efficient marketplace. When people have skin in the game, they should use health care more prudently. But so far, such efforts have reached only a small portion of the population and have had little measurable impact on health care costs.
One reason can be found in New Hampshire, where the government has been posting on a website the cost of 31 common procedures, like ultrasounds and knee surgery, at medical facilities around the state. According to an analysis by New Hampshire’s insurance department and the nonpartisan Washington think tank the Center for Studying Health System Change, the range of prices charged by providers hasn’t narrowed. But that has less to do with consumer behavior–surgical and imaging centers report an uptick in patients selecting facilities by price–and more to do with the fact that most providers in New Hampshire, a fairly rural state, don’t face much competition. There is anecdotal evidence, though, that some high-cost hospitals haven’t upped rates as fast because those changes would be quickly and publicly visible.
Now consider LASIK. Over a decade, the cost of the conventional version of the sight-correction surgery has dropped 30% after inflation is taken into account, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change. As doctors rushed to add the lucrative procedure, the market was flooded with price signals about how cheap the surgery could be. Unlike with other procedures, such as in vitro fertilization and getting dental crowns, obtaining an estimate for LASIK usually didn’t require an office visit. A phone call would do. The result: even though people tended not to cross certain price bands (at some point, “cheap” signals low quality), transparency still drove down prices through competition. When consumers have clear alternatives, posting prices works.
But perhaps even when the supply of doctors (or hospitals, or pharmacies) is limited, consumers can benefit. After all, what a person really cares about isn’t just price, but price matched against quality and outcome. If your doctor recommends a digital mammogram, maybe the high quote on the sheet she hands you will prompt you to ask why the scan needs to be digital instead of on film. Does a digital scan lead to better results? In some cases it doesn’t. Next thing you know, you’re having a conversation with your doctor about what’s going on and why, the sort of conversation people should have with their doctors but rarely do. Nothing gets shopaholic Americans talking like a price tag. And that may have benefits well beyond cost control.
Dedicated to my adorable granddaughter, Olivia, whom I hope to inspire, for as long as I live, to look upward, to gaze beyond the moon, beyond the sun, and to learn, and to know, and to wonder….
An alien-world adventure
After fleeing an imminent Earth killer, they arrive on another planet only to find themselves facing another crisis. They then stumble onto something even more shocking.
The thundering, brutal vibration whipped his weakened arms against something hard, again and again. Where the hell was he? In a box? A coffin? And speeding down the world’s worst road in the world’s loudest truck?
Thirty merciless seconds dragged by before he gained the strength to pin his arms against his sides. Save for the restraints over his head, chest, and ankles, and the padding underneath him, he might have been juddered senseless. If he had been drugged and abducted, his captor had a kind streak.
“Captain Jason Pearce.”
The metallic female voice jarred him. He heard it even above the fierce booming. It seemed to come from above and reverberated in all directions.
“Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain?”
He realized he hadn’t opened his eyes — couldn’t open them. He assumed he was in total darkness; no light passed through his eyelids. He worked his jaw, struggled to clear his throat.
“I… Y-yes ….I think…so.” His voice, sounding muffled, shook uncontrollably in the vibration. “I’m…Jason–?”
The memories crashed in and a shock wave of fear ripped through him. His body bucked against the restraints.
“Air is reestablished,” continued the voice. “Nutrients are supplied. Lighting up. Your preservation gel has been siphoned away. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that everyone must remain on board for three hours to allow the ship’s oxygen to fully purge your body of the gel residue.”
He fought the angry vibration to bring a hand up to clear his eyelids of the film that smelled faintly of charcoal and which he could tell still thinly enveloped him from head to toe. His gummy eyes finally opened. In the dim red light, he saw his preservation cylinder’s translucent canopy less than ten inches from his nose and under which he lay naked.
He realized that the rattling, sounding now like a series of rapid explosions, had awakened the ship’s computer, which in turn had processed him from his preserved state — had “restored” him, as the scientists would’ve said — and begun speaking to him. So far, he thought, everything miraculously appeared to be operating as designed.
Most important, the preservation gel, which enveloped his body inside and out, had kept him alive.
He’d been briefed on how the gel functioned but he had little more than a broad-brush memory of it. The gel contained a protectorant that, once the gel was driven deep into his body’s cells by his cylinder’s moderate pressurization, was supposed to suspend growth of all cells and preserve them intact – miraculously with no loss to bone mass – until the gel was purged.
What he more vividly recalled was that the gel was experimental and had been rushed to a completion after being tested only a short time in monkeys and lemurs. Yet it had succeeded, preserving him for what his senses were telling him was a very long time. A mind-warping accomplishment, given that in those last weeks most of the scientists connected to Project Survival had fled to be with their loved ones, and those seeing the project through had been over-taxed and desperately hurried.
“The Restoration Handbook will be provided, but you’ll have little need for it. Just direct your questions — about the gel and everything else — to the AI. It will handle the whole shebang. Your role is minimal, a backup if the AI fails.”
The AI, speaking to him now, had the name DORIS, the acronym for Destiny Organization’s Restoration and Invigoration System. DORIS’ data and computational/analysis capability had been rated by Destiny’s engineers as 99 percent reliable and error free.
“Primary velocity was reduced 95 percent prior to approach,” said DORIS. “To terminate the roughness of atmosphere-entry and mitigate restoration and invigoration, I am taking Hope into orbit above the atmosphere.”
Moments later, the roar and bone-buffeting vibration subsided. Only the distant drone of the ship’s engine could be heard. The Captain became aware of a rising nausea, triggered less by the violent shaking, he figured, than by a mix of excitement and the dread of maybe many horrors to come.
“Before you, I restored and invigorated Dr. Angela Diaz. She is now able to begin making rounds. I am proceeding with Commander Faye Sullivan, Lieutenant Tom Ross, Ensign Olivia Appleton, then the civilians.”
Maybe ten minutes later – an eternity – a heavy click blasted his ears. The canopy yawned open with an annoying whir and receded underneath Pearce’s cylinder.
Not without a bit of sore-muscle agony, he undid his mesh restraints and in the weightlessness righted himself to a sitting position on the edge of the cylinder’s pad. In a small chest at the foot of the cylinder, he found a watch, a behind-the-ear comm, underclothes, jumpsuit, weapon, mag-boots, a towel, and a C4 brick with a blasting cap and fuse. Holding on to the cylinder, he wiped off with the towel, slipped on his dark-blue jumpsuit, then his boots.
He gazed down the length of Hope’s primary compartment. It sprawled long and wide under a low arched ceiling, the evenly spaced, curved support beams that reminded him of the ribs of a giant whale skeleton.
It was a sight he prayed he hadn’t seen for an astonishingly long time.
The other 100 preservation cylinders, resembling giant larvae that gleamed in the dusky red glow of the wall lights, were arranged in five columns that stretched to the far bulkhead wall.
Beyond that wall was another compartment containing a box-car-sized computer-systems niche and seats for Dr. Diaz and the 100 civilians. Past this were smaller compartments stocked with a seed vault and other provisions and tools, one of which, Pearce recalled, was an exoskeleton that had enough stored energy to last a month of continuous use.
Soon the civilians — each of whom except for the children was skilled in such professions as carpentry, architecture, medical care, farming, and community organization — would be stirring.
Pearce’s thoughts returned to his last, dreaded briefing with Project Survival’s increasingly sullen manager….
The unshaven, drained-looking Victor Powell removed his Coke-bottle glasses and massaged his eyes with thumb and fingertips.
“You know the reconfiguring of the ship was completed without the usual certifications,” he said from behind his desk. “Not enough time; just my own tests, four days ago during a walk-through in those god-awful mag-boots, which gave those idiot union workers who were hanging around doing nothing a real laugh.”
After the Captain gave a nod, Powell blurted, “The secondary ship – it’ll go to waste, damn it!” His face red, he swept a mess of papers onto the floor, some scattering at Pearce’s feet.
“Mars will never be son-of-a-bitching colonized! I — we…were so close! All we needed was six stinking more months, and everything would’ve been in place for launch! If only the grav tug rocket hadn’t malfunctioned. Those lazy, worthless union people! And screw those greedy-ass nations that left everything to us!”
He sat still for a moment, then sniffed. “Okay, you’ve picked your crew, so now you can pack up your allowed items. You should stay alert on the premises. I worry about some of the angry scientists around here — hey, like me! — who weren’t picked. And the few soldiers left guarding the perimeter won’t be able for much longer to hold off the mobs who’ve learned about this. In any case, the shuttles have to get everybody and the supplies up to Hope — that’s the boring new name our unimaginative Prez gave it — in the next three days so it can launch a month before…before the — so we’ll have time to address any glitches—” His voice broke off.
After composing himself with slow, deep breathing that swelled his sizable girth, he continued, “A couple reminders: As you know, weight restrictions have severely limited what you can take with you. Hardly any luxuries. Few of the high-tech gadgets you’re accustomed to. One old-fashioned, relatively light exo-skeleton to do your heavy lifting – not a four-hundred-pound, fuel-draining bot. I don’t have to tell you you’ll have to rejigger your lifestyle big time. Sumptuous living is out. If you think the Pilgrims had it bad….”
“That’s what we’re doing. We human beings don’t deserve to live on. We’ve failed and you know it, and now I figure it’s our just desserts we’re getting. Face it: Almost all species have been down this road.” He gripped the arms of his chair as if to rise. “Well, that’s it. My last words to you?” He flipped a hand. “Just get out.”
Pearce exited the office but paused inches from the closed door. “Bastard,” he whispered. Powell had never trafficked in warmth, he knew, recalling the gift of a broken nose Powell had given a union leader for refusing to end a strike. But this was the first time he had given Pearce the scum-bag treatment. The Captain sighed. He had to chalk that up to one simple, brutal truth: the project manager knew all was lost for him and soon he would be dead.
…The other cylinders in Pearce’s row clicked and whirred. Moments later, he heard Commander Faye Sullivan, his 35-year-old First Officer whom he’d admired for several years and called Sull, gasp in a hoarse whisper: “I can’t believe it worked.”
She’d donned a jumpsuit identical to his except for her commander’s insignia. Her shoulder-length black hair, in Hope’s weightlessness, drifted about her head and face like sea grasses in gentle currents. She bore the gaunt, blanched appearance of an athlete who had just completed a grueling decathlon.
She must have caught Pearce’s alarmed stare. She smiled. “Jason, pretty sure you look every bit as bad as I do. Wouldn’t worry, though. You’ll get your rugged handsomeness back in no time.”
“Yeah?” He was relieved that she sounded okay and looked as good as could be expected. “So will you — I mean, get your, uh, prettiness…back.”
She chuckled, her pleasant gaze lingering on him. Then the pleasantness withered. “If this worked, it’s…just one more shock—”
“Guess we’ll know soon enough,” he said with forced cheeriness. “At least we’re not DOA, wherever we are.”
Despite his pre-flight psych counseling, grief sucker-punched him when he realized how much he already missed his parents, his friends, his neighbors…. He even missed his daily routine. He’d rise early in his Florida coastal bungalow, pad into the kitchen, check the sky through the window over the sink, and collect his cereal and coffee. He’d then settle down with his iPad to pore over his latest writing project, “What ET Really Looks Like: Not So Different,” an elaboration on the convergent-evolution theory stating that species from different taxonomic groups evolve toward a similar form. “Before writing one word, gather all available facts and examine them, think carefully about each. See where they lead you.” That was the lesson a research-writing instructor had drilled into his head over and over.
His eyes began to sting when he could no longer keep his thoughts from turning to what he had not wanted them to turn to: those heart-breaking weeks he had spent taking care of his ill wife Diane, who died of cancer six months before Hope left.
All this was gone. Maybe unthinkably long gone.
A figure approached. It was Lt. Commander Angela Diaz. The ruthlessly efficient flight surgeon – “on the wrong side of 50,” as she put it – wore her round glasses half-way down her nose. She’d been degreed in medicine and psychology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and herself had once held a command position. Preferring “Dr. Diaz,” or plain “Doc,” to Lieutenant Commander, she was also Hope’s psychologist. In the weeks before departure she had helped counsel Pearce and his team of officers, as well as all the passengers, to enable them to better handle what lay ahead. A task, thought Pearce, that must have daunted her, given that what lay ahead couldn’t even be imagined.
Ashen and near-zombie-looking like everyone else, she apparently had already come to terms with their staggering achievement. She smoothed out her white smock with one hand and scowled at a med scanner held in the other. Both the smock and the scanner had been pulled from one of the wall storage units containing smaller items of immediate need.
“Ahhh! Who can expect me to do much with this piece of retro crap?” She sighed richly, then studied the Captain over the top of her glasses. “This is rough on all of us, both physically and mentally. How are you coming along, Jason?” Concern was evident in her raised eyebrows.
He nodded toward her scanner. “Weight considerations, natch. Must have beat out the latest version by at least a milligram. Hey, I’ve been shaken worse than a Moscow Mule just like all the rest of us, to answer your question. A real ride, eh?”
He waved off her offer to do a scan of his vitals. “I’m good with DORIS nominally green-lighting me — with her limited capability. Damn near feel fine, now that I’ve stopped marinating in my misery. Speaking of which, you may have to put on your psych hat again for some of the civilians…the shock of what’s happened. I realize we all got counseling, but you had to make it a rush job like we did everything else. Also, asap I need all personnel except my crew secured in the rear seats to wait for my instructions from the cockpit.”
Her eyes gauged him. Presumably she was assuring herself he was up to par. She then nodded a “got it,” the motion enough to bounce her grey-streaked, banded hair, and left, moving as purposefully as her mag-boots would allow. “Just remember,” she said without looking back, “with my limited equipment, I’ll be strapped if we have a big enough emergency. I don’t even have a disease sniffer.”
She stopped and faced him again. “Oh, one more thing. DORIS says it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit in most of the desirable landing sites in the summer hemisphere. Thanks in advance for remembering my low heat tolerance and not including me in your expedition team. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have made old bones. At a minimum, your ability to breed would’ve been compromised.” She flashed a grin and wiggled her fingers at the Captain, continuing on toward the civilians. “Have a nice day.”
Pearce chuckled at her customary disregard for diplomacy, military or otherwise. He levered himself off the pad, allowing his mag-boots to engage. He watched Diaz’ less-than-graceful retreat — heel-toe, heel-toe. Now that the lights had finally brightened, his gaze drifted past her to the stirring civilians. Most were talking, examining themselves and each other, and flexing their limbs. Some were high-fiving, but a number of others stood bent and sobbing uncontrollably. Diaz would have her hands full.
Evidently doing fine was 27-year-old Lieutenant Tom Ross, flexing his joints at his cylinder on the other side of Commander Sullivan’s. His dark-brown hair billowed atop his rangy, six-foot-three frame. When penciled in for Project Survival, he had been serving for several months as a combat flight instructor at Naval Air Station Key West. Because of his medical background, he had often punched in at the base hospital to maintain his skills.
As he continued to bend and stretch, he eyed Ensign Olivia Appleton.
The ensign, 25, had brown, minimally curly hair with a faint burnt-sienna tint that revealed itself only close-up in a certain light. When in gravity, her hair reached not quite shoulder-length. Now it was an exploded mess around her head.
She had been transferred to NAS Key West two months prior to launch, and had been one of Ross’s students. She stood at her cylinder next to his peering down the length of the jumpsuit she’d just pulled on. She seemed to be ignoring his scrutiny.
Ross spoke: “This is totally mind-blowing … if it worked. Say, Ensign, what’s the matter? Your onesie doesn’t fit? Too small, probably.”
The ignoring did not waver.
“Just wondering,” he said, ” if you’re jonesing for me yet. Or still amped up and working that same attack-doggy persona of — we hope — oh-so-long ago?”
Her dark eyes bored into him. “Way out in the weeds on that one, loo-tenant.” Ross was known for his water consumption and frequent bathroom trips. “I attack only he who’s got it coming.” She turned away, doing a few last adjustments to her jumpsuit. “Is it just me, or is it stupid in here? Doesn’t the man understand I’m a no-go zone?” She gave him a sidelong glance. “By the way, was it necessary to watch me dress?”
Ross looked exasperated. “Still wearing your hate face. Got some deep scar tissue, y’know that, Appleworm? And a ‘by the way’ for you: Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Pearce was stunned. Despite all they’d been through — and all that still awaited them — the two of them were picking up right where they’d left off before Hope launched.
He’d heard the backstory on the couple. Late in their training for the journey, they’d become involved romantically, intending to marry before departure. Early one morning Appleton had wanted to surprise Ross with a breakfast carry-out from a restaurant on the military base where they and the rest of Hope’s passengers, volunteers selected by lottery based on skill sets, had been sequestered and were being secretly prepared. Approaching his small condo in her car, Appleton spotted him outside standing at the driver’s side of a white SUV in which sat a woman with long dark hair. To Appleton’s astonishment, Ross bent and kissed the woman, then stood waving as she pulled away. Ross explained to Appleton that the woman was a close cousin he’d grown up with and who lived near the base; she’d obtained permission to stop by and congratulate him on his engagement and see him one last time before leaving to be with her family in Arizona. When Appleton sneered, he’d pleaded, “Just call her. She’ll tell you.” “Sure,” she’d spat, “I’d hear a story you two concocted just in case!” In despair over a string of bad relationships that included a brief marriage, and convinced she’d mindlessly dived into this latest one as a kind of solace for the horrors ahead, she’d given back — thrown back — the ring which it was rumored Ross still carried in a zipped pocket.
When Pearce heard the story, he’d worried the two might be a problem, but it was too late to find and prepare replacements.
He gestured for the two, who were grumbling and frowning at each other, and Commander Faye Sullivan to follow him.
“DORIS, open the cockpit door.”
As they entered, Pearce’s eyes adjusted to the low light. The bickering between Ross and Appleton dried up faster than a spoonful of water on the sun side of Mercury. All four officers gasped, almost in unison, their eyes riveted to the scene occupying most of a side viewing window: the huge, bright, fuzzy arc of the planet’s night side against the black oblivion of space. In the weightlessness, Pearce and Sullivan took the two forward seats at the curved instrument panel.
“Still having a hard time with this….” Sullivan said, Pearce only half-listening. As he pulled the Captain’s Log from a small compartment and nervously began writing in hand, she added, “Sorry, but I can’t wait.” She keyed her access code into the chronometer.
“June 3, 2037,” Appleton reminded them unnecessarily, her voice low and taut, “was our departure date.”
Sullivan toggled a switch. “Brace yourself.”
Ross snorted. “Cruel joke’s what I’m bracing for.”
Red lights sputtered behind a read-out panel. Numbers that were being calculated from a shielded radioactive-decay-based “clock” raced incomprehensibly fast.
An agonizing 30 seconds later they stopped. The cockpit’s occupants sat dumb-founded.
“DORIS,” Pearce said, laying aside his log without taking his eyes off the numbers, “cockpit only. From your own internal system, can you independently confirm the date we see?” He held his breath as he waited for what seemed an eternity.
“The current Earth time and date,” DORIS replied without the reverberation normally heard throughout the ship, “are as follows: 3:19 p.m., Wednesday, December 9, 139,023.”
Pearce felt his cheek twitch. He looked at the commander. She looked at him. Neither spoke.
“DORIS,” Pearce ordered firmly, knowing the AI wasn’t 100 percent error free, “scrub your date and time data, recalculate, and give us just the Earth year.”
Three seconds later: “The Earth year, Captain Pearce, is 139,023.”
Ross let out a soft whistle. “Mind-melting. One hell of a long time to be mothballed.”
“DORIS, state the distance traveled,” the Captain pressed, “and ID this planet.”
“Distance traveled: 20.51 light years. Planet: Gliese 581g.”
“DORIS, I assume your ID is based on the atmospheric signature and the planet’s location in the GNS.”
“That is correct, Captain. To be brief, Hope’s fractional angular shift relative to the locations of The Twenty Pulsars in the Galactic Navigation System’s Sub-Region Two corresponds to the exact distance and direction from Earth to this star.”
“Was that brief?” muttered Appleton. Nerves speaking? Pearce wondered.
Pearce fought his own rising shock, which he hadn’t anticipated considering all the counseling he’d received.
Sullivan shook her head once as if to shake loose something.
The Captain whispered, “If anyone feels like crying – or throwing up – go ahead. We can forget we’re suck-it-up military for a moment.”
“We did it!” whispered Appleton tightly.
“DORIS,” said Commander Sullivan, apparently having pulled herself together, “commence scanning for a landing site on the planet’s day side. Also, what is the atmospheric composition relative to Earth’s?” She breathed to herself, “Never mind that it’s too late to fret about such things.”
DORIS replied with her almost singsong placidity, “The atmosphere contains one percent less nitrogen and nearly three percent less oxygen than Earth’s and four percent less than Hope’s. You will be able to adapt with modest side effects that will cease in a short time.”
A pause, then: “Suitable landing site located in an otherwise hilly terrain.”
Lieutenant Tom Ross said, “This is happening too fraggin’ fast.”
Pearce toggled the all-personnel speaker. “Dr. Diaz, what’s up back there?”
Her voice cracked on. “Everyone’s settled down now. All seem to be coming to grips. Health-wise, some upset stomachs, headaches — things I’d expect from the preservation and restoration, not to mention the stress of—”
“Good,” said Pearce. He looked at Sullivan, who nodded.
“Attention, everyone. Commander Sullivan and I have just verified that our journey…” — he hesitated for effect — “…is a success! We have reached Gliese 581g!”
The cockpit speaker exploded with loud cheering and applauding.
“Buckle up tight and prepare to descend to a field on a hilly terrain near an ocean and an ingress river! DORIS, I believe you said we must remain on board three hours before disembarking?”
“Correct, Captain. Only 35 minutes of that time remain.”
Pearce twisted toward his three officers. “Ready?” He then said for all to hear: “DORIS, take us down!”
After Hope delivered its 105 passengers to the planet’s surface, rolling its huge bulk to a stop on a level field next to a gently sloping hill, Pearce updated the Captain’s Log. With his team of three officers, he went aft to the next compartment where the still-buckled-up civilians were seated. Speaking loudly to the huge group, he informed them that the three hours needed to purge themselves of the preservation gel had elapsed, but before he could authorize anyone to disembark, he and his team would go out and explore the ocean coast, search for drinking water, and determine the area’s security level, weapons at the ready.
DORIS spoke, her powerful, metallic voice plangent throughout the ship: “Captain Pearce, you need not worry about security. The planet is at a stage roughly comparable to Earths’ Cambrian Period in the Paleozoic Era of 570 million to 500 million years ago. Only marine invertebrates likely exist.”
Pearce couldn’t hide his annoyance. A machine telling him what not to worry about! “May be, DORIS, but look, your operative words are ‘roughly’ and ‘likely.’ This is an alien world. Unlike Earth’s Cambrian, it has soil and plants, so it might also have a velociraptor or two.”
“Could be DORIS is operating from her unreliable one-percent error zone,” Ross whispered, Pearce catching the sarcasm.
“DORIS,” said the Doc, “Reconfirm the exterior temperature, please.”
“Ninety-one point three degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Ouch. Wouldn’t do me well at all.”
“Way I sweat, I’ll need to take a lot of drinking water with me,” Ross said.
The Captain continued to the group: “While my team and I are away — no more than 24 hours — Dr. Angela Diaz will mind the helm. She’d be too uncomfortable adjusting to the heat out there, and I need a team that won’t be hindered from staying alert and focused.” He paused, swept his eyes over the sea of anxious faces. “There’ll be plenty of time for all of your questions later — but I will take one right now. Just one.”
A hand shot up. It belonged to 15-year-old, bright-eyed Ted Mitchell, Dr. Diaz’s nephew and one of the eleven teens. “Sir,” he said with a polite smile, “could anyone on Earth have survived the impact?”
Pearce gazed uncomfortably at the boy. The children had been left out of most of the briefings on the pending disaster, so he thought just the broad strokes would be the best approach. Then Dr. Diaz spoke: “I think they can handle it at this point. Yes, they should hear the whole unedited story so we can get it out of the way.”
He breathed in, collecting his thoughts. “Consider first the instant massive earthquakes rippling around the entire globe. Millions were killed in a flash, many by – I probably shouldn’t add this – having their legs rammed up into their bodies. Of course, lots of people could have survived both the earthquakes and the blast shock waves. But fires, hundreds of millions of them, were sparked worldwide when the white-hot impact ejecta that was launched high into the atmosphere rained down. That dramatically raised Earth’s temperature — global warming on steroids — and poisoned all the oceans. In the following weeks and months, a winter holocaust developed, created by the shroud of ash and toxic chemicals that spread globally, blocking sunlight, ending photosynthesis, and putting Earth into deep-freeze. Remember, this asteroid was three times larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65-million years ago. And, not to get overly technical, in addition to high velocity it had a rapid spin that contributed a lot of angular momentum and rotational energy. The consensus was that the asteroid had too much speed and mass for our nukes or laser cannons to have an effect. So, no — no one could’ve survived for long, no matter how deep underground.”
He looked down at the floor, pushing the edge of a thumbnail back and forth across his forehead. “Here’s the thing, though. Everything I just said is child’s play compared to the real damage. Nearly all the leading scientists considered the asteroid so massive it might not only alter Earth’s rotation, but also nudge Earth out of orbit into a spiral toward the sun. I’ll say out loud what probably most of you have already accepted: Earth is gone.”
Ted’s smile had not left his face, but it had left his eyes.
Captain Jason Pearce and his team of three, each with a backpack, advanced down Hope’s ramp. The utter absence of sounds, except from their boots, surprised him. No, disturbed him. Were eyes watching from the lime-green grass blanketing the field Hope had landed in and running part-way up the adjacent hill? Had their scent been detected by a hunger-crazed carnivore the size of an elephant and baring ten-inch teeth? Would that beast any second now come galloping over the top of the hill, smashing down the sporadic baobab-like trees that stood between it and the crew? His stomach told him what his mind tried to suppress: He was more frightened than he’d been at any time in his life except when he learned his wife was terminal. Easing his hand up to his weapon, he hoped the quietness meant the ship’s roaring retros had scared away every creature within ten klicks.
The planet’s red-dwarf, early-morning sun peeked over the horizon between distant silhouetted mountains forming claws and sharks’ teeth that only jacked up his nervousness. Its peach-orange radiance shot long black shadow-fingers across the landscape, from which emanated an uplifting fruity scent.
Overhead, shards of mauve and pink clouds stretched across the blue-green sky. Nearly opposite the sun, just clearing the hill-top, was the tiny pair of faint, milky-silver disks that were the planet’s moons.
His body floated, it seemed. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Had they really journeyed to an alien world?
A warm breeze lapped against the side of his face, dislodging him from his trance. He thought he could now smell ocean water. That, for the moment, notched down his edginess a bit.
Sweat dampened his forehead. When he swiped at it, his hand trembled. Little wonder he was already becoming a basket case: This world, though tantalizingly beautiful, might pose more danger than their eons-long journey across trillions of miles of unforgiving space. Would they be able to endure past the next few weeks? Or even the next few days? He took in a sharp, involuntary breath. He believed Project Manager Victor Powell had understated it when he said they would face as many risks as did the Pilgrims in 17th-century America.
Raking his gaze from side to side, the heel of his hand still resting on his weapon, he led his team 75 yards out to the foot of a hill. He stopped, inhaled deeply. “Well?”
The other three, glancing at each other, shrugged and nodded.
“Olivia, your Geiger’s acting civil,” Pearce observed, squinting at the sunrise beyond Hope’s bow.
“One hazard down, how many to go?” said Appleton. She extracted her weapon. Twice a red-hot line hissed and chipped out a smoking, foot-deep hole high on the hill.
“A double-tap of this’ll give our velociraptors something to ponder,” she said.
Ross’s grin was copious. “What a sharp-shooter! You hit a mountain standing right next to it.”
But he followed suit behind Peace and Sullivan.
The test firings completed, Pearce hailed Angela Diaz on his comm. “Doc, so far the air’s good to go. Hopefully long-term.”
“…Big relief,” came the crackling reply.
“Heading out. Give me 100 percent antenna. Put together a rescue team, just in case. And start unstrapping and moving essentials to the off-loading deck.”
“Copy that, Captain. Good hunting. Buzz me if you find something interesting — as if nothing on the planet were!”
Pearce pulled his sheet computer from the side of his backpack, studied an aerial photo downloaded by DORIS.
“The ocean,” he announced, pointing toward the top of the hill, “is that way, about three klicks. Half a klick up the coast is a feeder river. Hopefully with decent water. One problem when we get to the other side of this hill: a rather dense forest is in our way — containing who knows what.”
The three seemed to reflect on that with minimal angst.
Ross jostled his backpack higher on his shoulders, then, nodding toward the hill, he spoke to Appleton, who despite a calm, sometimes icy exterior had not stopped scrutinizing their surroundings. “Need me to carry you, Apple Of My Eye?”
Her snicker erupted in a way that told Pearce she was more nervous than she was letting on. “I’m surprised,” she said, her voice thick with indifference, “that you think I need you for anything. Why don’t you be nice and quit while you’re way behind?”
Commander Sullivan alternately gave Ross and Appleton a sour look. “Can you two not just…not? Try keeping your eyeballs on the surroundings, not on each other.”
The three officers fell in line up the hill behind Pearce. Feeling the warmth of the rising orange sun on his neck, the Captain wound through waist-high thickets of brush as he ascended. When they reached the hill’s spine, a silver curve of ocean water sparkled just beyond the rolling forest that loomed darkly at the bottom of the hill.
Ross, after drinking in the uplifting view and, no doubt, their accomplishment thus far, traded “Booyahs!” and high-fives with Commander Sullivan.
Pearce jammed the small field glasses he’d been squinting through into a side pocket, satisfied that he had detected no movement within a wide range between their position and the forest edge. He snapped, “Let’s not spend any more time on this hill’s skyline announcing our arrival.”
Appleton’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah. Not good to ring the dino dinner bell.”
They continued down to the line of towering broad-leaf flora. Pearce said, “We need to leave a trail, troops. In case we need a rescue. Machetes out. Weapons in the other hand.” He stepped warily into the dark forest.
For the next hour, progress was slow. They hacked as if one swing too loud would bring a herd of ravenous creatures down on them. Weaving through multi-colored under-brush, they chopped lower limbs off the tall flora and on occasion paused to inspect and smell various odd-looking vegetation, all the while an eye out for their environment.
Although the sun had climbed higher, the light reaching the forest floor was still less than optimal.
“Wasn’t a mountain I hit,” mumbled Appleton. “A hill.”
Ross looked at her, continuing to step forward. “What?” As he turned his head back, he said, “For crying out–” and walked his face into tree limb, the encounter audible. He grunted in pain and clasped his hand against his nose.
“Let me see,” said Pearce. He moved Ross’s hand. “You’ll live. No blood. Tom, damn it, pay attention. Do I have to gag the two of you?”
Ninety minutes later and tiring, they entered a tennis-court-sized clearing at the base of a treed slope that, as far as Pearce could determine, rose perhaps 150 feet.
Pearce wiped sweat from his brow. “Let’s break.”
“I’ll take that as an order,” said Ross. He took a drink from this canteen, his second in the last half hour.
“Considered slowing down?” the Captain asked.
“Everybody’s gotta have something to believe in. I believe in staying hydrated. Another canteen-full in my backpack.”
After weapons were holstered and backpacks lowered, Commander Sullivan, hands on her hips, surveyed the forest up the slope and around the opening. “Have you noticed? Haven’t seen a single little critter scurrying around anywhere. Maybe 99-percent-accurate DORIS is right.”
Appleton snorted. “It’s her other one percent that concerns me. My money says the little critters are hunted by the big critters, so they dig in for the day.”
Pearce faced the direction of the ship. He assumed the antenna was high enough for a decent direct line of sight. He hit his comm. “Doc, no threats to report — yet. Why don’t you go ahead and start off-loading, after you harden up around the ship: establish a perimeter, sensor fence.”
“Wonderful!” Diaz replied, though the signal was weak. “Best news in a hundred millennia!”
“Remember to always close the airlock behind you, coming and going. Out.”
Appleton looked at the Commander, then spoke to the others. “There, see?” She took her weapon back in hand. “The Captain feels the same way. Doesn’t want a six-ton meat-eating thingy wandering on board when everybody’s guard’s down.” She arched her brows at them. “Make sense? Duh.”
Ross apparently couldn’t stop himself: “Meat-eating thingy? Tell me, when you were a kid — not terribly long ago, factoring out our little trip across the void — were you a bed-wetter?”
He evaded her disgusted look by turning and striding up the slope. “Reminds me. Going to the potty.”
Appleton: “A loo-tenant’s gotta do what a loo-tenant’s gotta do.”
“Not too far!” Pearce shouted at the retreating figure. “Stay mindful of meat-eating…thingies.”
Ross’s fist pumped. “Not to worry. There aren’t any fraggin’ ‘thingies’ here.”
“Should the Cap go with you,” Appleton yelled, “to hold your hand and talk encouragement?”
As Ross continued to climb, his fist reappeared and sprouted a middle finger. He boomed: “I’ll tell you what you can hold.” Six seconds later, he’d vanished up into the forest.
“Well, if the thingies didn’t know about us before, they do now,” groused Pearce.
Commander Sullivan frowned at Appleton. “You know, Olivia, I worry about dangerous creatures, too. But honestly, if a T-Rex came crashing through here, I don’t think either you or Tom would notice.”
Captain Pearce eyed one, then the other. He said only, “Chow time.”
They plopped down and pulled water and MREs from their backpacks.
“What delicious, synthesized garbage do we have for our first meal in more than a thousand centuries?” asked Appleton. She wriggled around into an alert face-out guard position and leaned against her backpack, MRE in her lap and weapon on the ground by her hip.
“Chicken and roast beef,” said Sullivan, more upbeat. “But word is they taste the same.”
Appleton clucked her tongue. “So one could say we have…chicken and chicken?”
Sullivan put up a finger. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s roast beef and roast beef. No, wait — chicken entrails and—”
Pearce sighed loudly. “Any chance you two can just eat?”
Appleton’s smile was small as she half-turned his way. “Going to write us up in your Captain’s Log?” Her smiled collapsed and she glanced off Pearce to the sky. Slate clouds had suddenly moved in, darkening the clearing. She did a little shudder and refocused on the surrounding forest.
Sullivan, too, took in the sky. “I guess acting silly is our way of dealing with all the wear and tear on our nerves.” She gave the forest an uneasy scan. “With a lot more wear and tear to come, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” said Pearce. He tore off a piece of the “chicken/beef” and eyed it suspiciously.
“Hey,” said Appleton. “I just realized, the smell of this crappy food could attract—“
Rapid crunching sounds quieted her. Her hand arced to her weapon.
“Relax,” said Pearce. “Tom’s finished his business.”
Appleton had a wicked grin. “Knew that. Was just going to graze his ear for practice. Gotta be sharp if a velociraptor shows up for a meet and eat.”
Moving fast, Ross came into full view on the slope. “Tell ‘em, Apple. You missed me. You always miss me. Always will, right?”
She patted her weapon. “Yup, I’ll always miss you ’cause I don’t want to go to jail.”
“Hey, admit it, you got a few embers still burning for me— Whoa!”
His foot whipped out from under him. He collapsed onto his side with a heavy thud and rolled into the clearing just two yards away from Appleton.
“Awww…you’re still alive. Bummer, dude” was the Ensign’s dry offering after she gave Ross a quick once-over and lifted her head again toward the cloud cover.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Livvy the Lizard.”
Sullivan shook her head. “Tom, what is the matter with you? The second accident in, what, two hours? This is not you. You’re one of the most cautious and careful people I know. If you and Olivia weren’t always at each other’s throat, you’d have had a better eye on where you were stepping. You could’ve seriously hurt yourself and jeopardized our mission.”
Ross got to his feet, his eyes retracing his steps. “Duly noted, Commander. Now what the fraggin’ hell did I—? Ah!” He hurried a short way back up the incline and dropped to his knees next to something dark poking several inches out of the side of a small mound of forest-floor debris. He nudged away the little sticks and mixed-colored leaves covering the object. “Hey, take a look at this.”
“What?” asked Pearce as he and Sullivan approached.
“Chunk of metal sticking out of the ground, looks like..”
“Meteor maybe?” asked Sullivan.
“FYI, ma’am, meteorite’s what you want to say,” said Appleton, joining them.
Ross looked at Sullivan with a scowl. “She does that. Corrects people. FYI.”
“Nuh-huh,” Appleton said under her breath for all to hear. “And another unforced error.”
“Unclench, you two,” snapped Sullivan. “Enough of the insult-fest.” At the edges of her mouth, a tiny smile formed. “Sidebar notation: I do believe you two still love each other and are trying like the devil to hide the fact.”
While Ross and Appleton were sounding off in unison a “Like hell I do!” Sullivan glanced at Pearce. Their eyes locked. Pearce noticed the color had returned to her cheeks, and she looked beautiful — still a bit frazzled, but beautiful. He wondered: Was he hiding something? Was he making a transfer from a love no longer possible, his wife, to one that was? Guilt – and an uncomfortable warmth – stopped him from thinking about it.
Sullivan slowly took her eyes off him, and he said, “Mates, let’s focus, shall we?” His index finger pecked the air toward the object.
It was shaped like a slightly flattened horizontal cone, its rounded, 12-inch-thick tip protruding about a foot down-slope at an angle parallel to level ground.
“What about fossil bone?” Sullivan asked.
“Too smooth to be that or a meteorite,” Appleton said. She had knelt on the side opposite Ross and now wiped away the remaining soil from the dark-grey surface. “It’s not radioactive, if you’re about to ask. My Geiger’s quiet, like I wish Tom would be.”
The Captain bobbed his chin at Ross. “See if you can jog it loose.”
Ross grasped the object firmly with both hands and pulled with increasing exertion, until his face was blotchy red and his neck veins stood out like cords. Zero movement.
“Let’s dig it out,” said Appleton. She peeled away to the clearing and returned in less than two minutes with an arm-load of collapsible shovels taken from their packs.
Dirt was heaved in all directions. The pungent smell of damp soil and semi-rotted leaves hung in the air. Twenty minutes later, four times as much of the metal was exposed.
“Shaping up to be right-triangular,” said Pearce.
Ross scowled, “Where does this thing end?” He gave the object a couple of hard yanks. “Frag it! Stubborn as a brachiosaur tooth!”
“Impressive,” said Appleton coolly. “Didn’t know you were a dentist back then.”
Ross appeared disconsolate. “Livvy the Ankle Biter.”
The more they dug, the deeper they had to excavate up into the slope. Progress slowed.
When six feet of the object lay exposed, Pearce took a hard look. It was indeed shaped like a right triangle. And smooth, polished. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled.
Commander Sullivan, on her knees digging across from Pearce, stopped. She pushed the back of her wrist across her forehead, studied the Captain’s face. “What’s the matter? Your heart stop—?” She looked back at the object. Almost inaudibly: “I think I’m thinking…what you’re thinking.”
A queasiness assaulted Pearce’s stomach. “Try one more time to move it. As if our lives depended on it.”
Ross said, “Let me try this first.” He sprawled out on his back and began kicking the thing hard with both feet.
Appleton threw her arms up. “Tom! What the hell are doing? You might damage it!”
“Just…church-mouse it, Ensign. It won’t…give…one fraggin’ millimeter! No vibration, nothing!” Ross sat up, grimacing. “’Cept I may have flattened my arches.”
“Serves you right.”
Pearce lightly palm-slapped the side of his head. “There’s a reason it won’t give, and I feel like a fool for not thinking of it sooner.” He pushed to his feet. Inhaling with care, he regarded the other three steadily, trying to keep his composure. “People, this thing – it’s pretty obvious…it’s an artifact, I believe made by civilized beings here.” He let his shovel drop, then half-stumbled backwards down the slope a few feet. “Or…it was made by extraterrestrials who came here thousands of years ago, from the looks of it. In fact, if I’m right, this thing is how they got here. I’ll wager that’s because” — he threw an arm in a sweeping gesture — “it’s part of an ancient alien spacecraft!”
Appleton’s brows furrowed. Her lips parted but no sounds came out.
Ross blinked. “Wha…? You mean we got ourselves a real Area 51? Only 21 light-years east of the phony one? But wait, maybe it’s part of a buried building, a home — or who knows, maybe an entire city!”
“Sull,” said Pearce, “you cut your teeth in cockpits, and know a thing or two about aircraft design. Tell me this thing doesn’t look like the tip of a wing or tail fin.”
She froze. She turned her head to the object, then back to the Captain. “Yes, yes, thought it could be…. Was afraid…to say….”
Ross was obviously humbled. “A first encounter….” he said quietly, amazement in his eyes.
Pearce keyed his communicator.
“Go ahead, Jason,” Dr. Diaz crackled after a few long seconds.
He kept his voice and breathing steady. “How about a progress report first.”
“Sensor fence up. Off-loaded some priority items: dome homes, food, water. Charles Duncan is doing the heavy lifting in his exo-skel—”
“Good. You said buzz you if we found something interesting. Sitting down?” After describing the object, he heard silence. “Doc?”
“I know. Incredible. But I need you to keep a lid on this for now, Doc. It’d create an uproar. They need to stay focused on their tasks.”
“Doc, I want to get inside this…craft, assuming there’s more to it than what we see.” If what he was looking at were a stabilizer fin, it had better be a horizontal, he thought; otherwise, the craft would be on its side and likely in pieces, hindering or blocking interior movement. “I’m hoping we can extract useful material and technology — if everything isn’t too degraded and we can work around the alien language. I need you to dispatch a crew of six. Equip them with all the excavating tools available. And explosives, C4, whatever. We need four head lamps, oxygen tanks, masks. Include Duncan in your crew. His exo will remove trees. They’ll see our path on the other side of the hill.”
When Dr. Diaz’ crew of six entered the clearing, 15 feet of the object lay visible within the three-sided, ever-widening cavity that now rose six feet at its highest up-slope point.
The crew members stopped, their faces frozen. They quickly erupted into fast-clip, back-and-forth chatter: “Can you believe this?” “Can’t be possible!” “What the hell is it?”
Pearce approached the exoskeleton, worn by the helmeted Charles Duncan, a 36-year-old, 6-foot-five, brown-bearded Scot and former cyber-security cop who had trained at the National Security Agency. The exo-skeleton was a tall, intimidating robot-looking apparatus of bulky metal arms and legs moved by cables which, powered by a fuel cell on its back, rendered Duncan, a muscular weight-lifter who looked capable of wrestling a grizzly to the ground, 75 times stronger.
Pearce greeted the towering man, who gave a curt nod and again fixated on the sight before him.
“You’ve worked hard,” Duncan said.
“Charles, I’d like you to first try to dislodge it. Maybe a wing or fin’s all there is. At least in this area.”
“Very possible. Will give it my best.”
“That’d do it!” Lieutenant Tom Ross bellowed. “Say, Charles, for warm-up why don’t you hurl Olivia back to the ship? No, wait, into the ocean.” His crooked grin said he savored his little joke.
Olivia Appleton, standing fifteen feet away, twirled a finger. “Bzzzt. No question — you’re the anchor holding back my ship.”
Duncan chuckled lustily and eyed Pearce. “Navyspeak for ‘You’re a drag’? Bring these two along for comic relief, did you? Not a bad idea. Genuine tension breaker.”
Pearce gave that serious thought. He had to admit the couple’s quibbling sometimes amused as much as annoyed, and so on occasion did provide him a bit of relief from the stress. Maybe it did the same for them. Maybe escape from their nightmarish reality was the unconscious reason they acted like kids. How ironic, he thought; the two people he’d pegged to get on everyone’s nerves might actually be helping, in some small way, to prevent everyone’s nerves from unraveling in their new, frightening circumstances. And the big burly Charles Duncan had recognized this before he had.
He dispatched another member of Diaz’ crew to check out the other side of the slope. Maybe another wing or fin was protruding there.
Duncan strode away to the huge slab of grey metal with surprising fluidity, his exoskeleton’s cables and pulleys whirring as the titanium-carbon Frankenstein thudded across the forest floor. He stopped at the tip where Ross had tripped hours earlier. After extending his left mechanical hand well underneath and flattening it against the metal, he tapped a recessed button on his chest once to activate for 60 seconds the powerful magnet in the palm of that hand to prevent slipping. Next he reached under with his right hand and placed it over his left.
“Let’s liberate this thing!”
He strained upward. The exoskeleton’s “muscles” protested with louder whirring and jerky fits and start. Three more attempts, and Duncan erected himself. “No way. That would’ve flipped a bull elephant over.”
Excited by that, Pearce asked Duncan to clear away some of the trees higher up the slope. Forty minutes later, only the thickest trees remained there in a large, roughly semi-circle patch. An immediate benefit: more light filtering through.
When the crewmember returned from the other side of the slope with nothing to report, Pearce instructed an explosives duo to insert low-power C4 packs with blasting caps into the soil several feet above the metal. He then scurried off, shooing everyone away.Ten seconds passed, then three loud bangs. Dirt, stones, and root pieces flew high into the air, rained down and clattered noisily on the metal surface.
“Jason!” Pearce did a little jump, then realized it was Diaz barking over his comm.
“Talk to me, Doc,” he practically yelled. “What’s going on?”
“We have an ill civilian. Nothing serious apparently. Mild nausea. Low-grade temp. Weakness.”
“One of those that got sick after restoration?”
“No. Ted, my nephew.”Pearce paused. “Psychological after-effects? Post-traumatic stress?”
“You did right. ‘Preciate it.”
“And I appreciate your not asking me to come along with you. It would’ve taken me too long to get accustomed to the temp. I would’ve been a drag. Out.”
He hurried back up the slope, telling the regathered shovelers, including Ross and Appleton, that he wanted the debris pile-up on the metal removed and more explosives set.
Commander Sullivan appeared at his side plucking debris from her hair and jumpsuit. Pearce told her about Ted, then asked her to dispatch a pair from Diaz’ group to the coast to find the ingress river and test the water. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to get to the hull of this thing — if one exists.”
Three hours later, 50 feet of the metal lay exposed in the massively dug-out slope.
Charles Duncan, holding a large shovel, stood on the structure facing the dirt wall that rose two feet above his head and oozed tendrils of smoke from the explosions. With one hand, he rammed the shovel blade into the soil at waist level. A loud clank rang out, the cavity in the slope amplifying the sound in Pearce’s direction.
Everyone froze, eyes on Duncan. He had struck something solid. Rock? Or metal? He repeated the thrusting at different points along a level line. Each time came the same solid clank.
A grin cut across Duncan’s bearded face. “Found something!”
“Good work!” replied Pearce.
The explosives duo inserted a series of low-power C4 packs into the soil six feet above the expanse of metal. But Pearce signaled them to hold on. Ted’s illness re-turned to mind, and a thought chilled him: What if any alien remains inside harbored pathogens that he and the others had no immunity against? Was he about to open a Pandora’s box?
Commander Sullivan came up. Her brown eyes measured him. “Afraid your curiosity will assassinate the cat.”
“Don’t know, Sull.” He looked off at nothing. “But I think we should worry. At least you and Diaz helped me realize I should continue on here.”
His next words were jubilant: “I’d say we got ourselves a tail fin, a horizontal stabilizer. Not a wing!”
While everyone else gawked in silence, Pearce quickly bridged the fin to the hull and wiped dirt away along the door’s edges. He called out to the explosives team, “How about a dabble of C4 all the way around?”
Pearce warned everyone that the escaping air might not be exactly healthy, and told them to stay 100 feet away until he gave the okay.
After the C4 blew, the door was crumpled but still attached. Around its edges were gaps big enough for Duncan to get a handle and wrench it off.
Twenty-five minutes later, Pearce could wait no longer. He nodded at Olivia Appleton, who donned her mask and O2 tank and moved to within five yards of the hull with her Geiger. “Harmless,” she said loudly, her voice muffled. “Only 0.2 millirems. You get ten with a chest X-ray. Source is probably a nuclear engine.”
Pearce flipped a hand at Duncan. “Grip and rip!” The moment of truth.
The exoskeleton clanked along the fin. Duncan inserted the rivet-jointed fingers into a gap on each side of the warped, 40-inch-wide door. He pulled. Metal groaned and screeched, the sounds rippling through the forest like the keening cries of strange beasts. The door snapped free of its internal hinges and anti-blast moorings. Duncan carried it, parts dangling, out of the way to the far side of the fin, where he carefully laid it down.
“All aboard, Captain!” He gave a salute. “What else you need? Got a dinosaur you want knocked out cold?”
In the dimness of dusk, the opening was a vertical rectangle of ominous black. Pearce felt a tingling in his spine. This is it, he thought, human beings’ first encounter with extraterrestrials, dead though they may be. At the very least, it was a first encounter with alien technology. A good second best.
Lieutenant Tom Ross, sporting an expansive grin, edged closer to Pearce. “Cap, if you think it’s too dangerous, send Livvy in first.”
Appleton, who had rejoined Pearce, flipped Ross the finger. “You’re so brilliant, you shine like a black hole.”
“Just thinking out loud’s all.”
“Loud, yes. Thinking, no. I’m thinking you’re truly a sign of the apocalypse.”
“Haven’t you noticed? We’ve already had the apocalypse.”
Pearce eyed the two with pseudo-sternness. “C’mon, stay on-problem. You’re both coming in with Sull and me. Olivia, I obviously need you, to continue rad-checking. And I need Tom’s medic background if somebody gets hurt. Anyway, four sets of eyes beat two. All right, tool up. Tom, grab your med-case. Everybody, masks, tanks, head lamps. Weapons we have but shouldn’t need.”
Diaz’ voice sputtered: “–you there, Captain?”
“Doc!” he replied, “‘Fraid to talk to you!”
“You wanted good news. Got some, but it’s qualified. Although my binnacle list keeps getting longer — eight more have acquired the symptoms — three of the first ones appear to have stabilized.”
“The ones that received antibiotics?”
“No. The ones I gave antibiotics to were the last ones brought in. They’ve deteriorated somewhat.”
“Hmm. Part good news, part bad. Is that what you meant by ‘qualified’?”
“No. Over the years, seen far too many patients stabilize like this and even improve — only to relapse and die.”
Pearce chewed his lip. “Right, shouldn’t get too optimistic. All we can do’s play wait and see, I guess.” He took a breath. “We do have good news here. It’s a tail fin and it’s attached to a hull. And a door’s already open!”
“Christ, it’ll be hard to keep this to myself.”
“Mum’s still the word, Doc. We’ll be going in pronto and we’ll be out of contact until we come back out.”
“Is it a crashed ship?”
“No way to tell yet,” he said. “If it is, that could mean aliens aboard, though they’re probably just clumps of dust. And they may be hard to get to, depending on how mangled the interior might be. If it’s not a crash, we may have something even more interesting to figure out. Wish us luck on humanity’s first close encounter. Speaking of, Doc, if things go sideways in there, humanity’s all in your hands. Gotta jump. Stay frosty.”
She chuckled. “I intend to. Feel sorry for you guys in that heat. I’m much better off in here, at least as long as the ship keeps the cool.”
Pearce faced Ensign Appleton. “Tom’s right. You have to take point on this. The second that ticker bleeps trouble, you back us out of there.”
“Understood,” she said, tight-lipped. “But this ought to be above my pay grade.” She seemed careful to avoid eye contact with Ross, no doubt to deny him the chance to gloat.
But Ross still twisted the knife: “Yes, a great T-shirt idea – ‘Sacrifice Ensigns First’.”
Pearce told Charles Duncan to return to Hope if they weren’t back in sixty minutes and to talk about this only privately to Dr. Diaz. Facing his three officers, he said, “Check your time. We have one hour of O2.”
“Good. Soldier on, Ensign.” Already Pearce’s nerves were jangled.
Behind Pearce, Ross called out over the Captain’s shoulder, “Sweat not, Apple. Got your six.”
“A real howler, Tom,” came the mask-dampened reply. “Somehow that worries me more than not having my 12 covered.”
After negotiating the catwalk and arriving at the bottom of the ladder, the four found themselves standing between two bulkhead walls in a ten-foot-wide passageway that apparently ran the craft’s full width.
Lieutenant Tom Ross glanced back and up. “Catwalk and ladder similar in size to ours.” His breathing was ragged in the mask.
“Not surprised,” Pearce said looking around, his nervousness ratcheting up. “The aliens — assuming they aren’t robots and the ship itself isn’t one — probably aren’t a lot different from us. I believe the evolution of intelligent beings favors a physicality like ours. Size-wise, the vast majority of ETs probably range between primordial dwarfs and the tallest basketball players. If we find a preserved alien — or at least some clothing — I think it’ll support that.”
“Want to spec on the ship’s origin?” asked Commander Sullivan.
“Been wondering about that. A possibility would be 118 Libra c, a planet in the goldilocks zone of 118 Libra, a dwarf star, like Gliese, discovered just two years ago. Electromagnetic analysis showed that Libra c’s atmosphere is as conducive to organic life as Gliese 581g. Maybe more so. But it’s another 15 light years away from Earth. Too distant for Hope, I imagine.”
Pearce found a partially opened sliding door that he was certain would take them forward. Another door was on the other side of the ladder in the opposite bulkhead wall; he presumed that door provided access to the engine room. Adjacent to the first door, he found a recessed box and threw the lever inside with unexpected ease. The sharp clunk of the lever startled him in the alien craft’s tomb-like quiet. Under his effort, the door receded into the wall with surprising smoothness. Colder, eons-old air from the ship’s deeper interior washed over them.
“Brrr,” said Appleton. “Nice freezer-locker effect.”
“Sure could use that robocam we couldn’t bring,” said Commander Sullivan. “Among other things.”
Ross snorted. “All that and not very high techy to boot. Look. Not one alien scribble or symbol anywhere.”
“I suspect it’s all embedded,” said Pearce. “Nothing shows up till she’s powered. Just like Hope. So I’d expect at least the same on this ship.”
He peeped through the door, slowly directing his light from side to side. Sprawling out before him was an empty compartment, maybe four times the size of the basement of his house. On the floor were intertwining scrape marks and what appeared in the poor light to be rows of evenly spaced bull-ring retractable tie-downs.
“A supply compartment,” he said. He lit up the side bulkhead wall and was not surprised to see a huge door that interrupted a line of carabiners. “Probably opens out and down into a ramp. No indication so far that the ship crashed.”
“Then what the hell happened?” demanded Ross.
“Patience, please. Olivia, your Geiger talking to you?”
Ross asked, “How you holding up, Apple?”
She answered neither. As she stepped past Pearce and through the door, he caught a flicker of fear in her eyes.
“We’re going to be just fine,” the Captain said, briefly palming her shoulder and not totally believing his own words.
“Into the belly of the alien beast,” said Ross.
Appleton pointed. “A regular crew door.”
Once they’d crossed the compartment, Appleton wasted no time sliding the door open. They entered a narrow corridor that ran about 40 feet before ending at an opening. Pearce’s nerves were ready to fly out of his skin. What in hell would they find there?
Appleton spoke: “Here goes, if you want me to be point….” She started moving down the corridor slowly, her free hand sliding along the wall as if it were protection. Close to the end, she stopped. “If my hunch is right, their computer system’s in here.” Her breathing sounded irregular and hard, and she’d struggled to get the words out. She advanced a few more steps, hesitated for a moment, then proceeded quickly into the opening. She made a turn and was out of sight.
“Olivia, wait!” shouted Pearce. His heart pounded. They were about to lay eyes on an alien technology they could possibly reverse engineer, or at least scavenge for parts.
Appleton abruptly reappeared, startling Pearce and almost bumping into him, her light momentarily blinding him. The expression on her face stopped his heart. Above her mask, her eyes darted wildly. She struggled to speak. “No! I…. I can’t believe this!”
“What?” Sullivan shouted.
In two seconds the other three turned into the opening, with Appleton trailing. Their shaky lamps lit up the banks of a large computer main-frame. Pearce’s mouth opened but emitted no sounds. He staggered back, reaching for a wall. “What in…?”
“This is not poss—” Commander Sullivan’s voice choked off.
They gaped in silence at the dull-silver inscription across the top of the mainframe:
“DORIS….” Appleton rasped.
Pearce ripped his mask off and flung it over his shoulder, letting it hang from the tank by the hose. A cough burst from his lungs. He sucked in the pungent, dead air he knew was slowly being replaced by outside air. Bending and clasping his trembling knees, he retched twice, burning his throat and stinging his watering eyes.
He raked the back of his hand across his mouth and straightened. Breathing hard, he said out of a dry throat, “I… believe…this is the smaller ship assembled in orbit alongside Hope. It was intended to be a rescue ship if Hope had gone to Mars and run into trouble.”
Ross ripped the mask away from his face. “Wait, what?”
Pearce took a moment. “To know anything for sure, to answer all the baffling questions flying around in our skulls, we have to find the Captain’s Log. Let’s pray it was safeguarded and preserved.”
The other three removed their masks, letting them dangle from the tanks. Commander Sullivan, leaning against a wall, nodded, her lamplight bouncing wildly off the ceiling and walls. “It obviously left earth after we did. But since it had to be reconfigured, it could not have left sooner than at least several months after. And it must have an advanced engine that brought it here…thousands of years earlier? That has to be the answer.”
“Yes. But same engine,” said Pearce, looking around, his light sweeping. “The craft’s smaller mass meant faster speed.”
He trained his light on a door opposite the main frame. “There’s our way to the cockpit.”
Sullivan took a breath and trained her light on Ross. “What’s almost as shocking as all this is that we found this ship. The odds against that — against you tripping on the damned thing — are staggering.”
“Another reason I’m a little spun,” said Ross.
“Me, too,” Appleton said. Did Pearce catch a bit of sympathy in that? She added, “Don’t take that the wrong way.”
In her light, he smiled dryly. “I won’t. Thanks anyway. Oh, and don’t take that the wrong way.”
“Ice it, you two,” said Pearce. “I want to do this clean and quick.”
“Do what clean and quick?” Appleton asked.
“Just follow me.” The Captain thought maybe the Ensign hadn’t fully recovered from her shock.
They removed their masks and tanks and laid them on the floor to be recovered later. Moving rapidly toward the door, Pearce heard Commander Sullivan shout to his back: “Jason, wait. You realize the asteroid must have missed!”
He paused at the door and looked at her. “Yes. Or did far less damage than projected.”
“So if civilization survived, why is this ship here?”
“That’s one reason we need the log, which I hope isn’t digital.”
“And the ship’s passengers. Did they soon die off? Otherwise, think about it — wouldn’t they have reproduced exponentially, built whole cities, states, even nations, in all that time?”
“I’m hoping the log will explain.”
“But what if the cockpit door is locked?”
He allowed himself a smile. “Did I mention I brought along my personal stash of C4 and detonators for just such an occasion?”
Ross and Appleton had caught up. Her light beam began wavering. “Captain,” she said weakly, “I’m feeling funny. Think I’m running a fever.” She dropped her Geiger, which hit the metal floor with an irritating clink!. Sullivan scooped it up and secured it to her belt.
Appleton’s knees started buckling.
“Livvy!” yelled Ross, catching her. He lowered her to the cold metal floor, one hand under her neck. “Look at me!”
Her glistening forehead knitted as her eyes struggled to focus on his face.
“Talk to me!” Ross demanded, panic rising in his voice.
“Tom—? My wingman… You always had my six. My … bad. Go on … without me. I’ll wait…. Still…have lots of embers burning for you.”
“Livvy, no way I’m leaving you. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Is she…really your cousin?”
“Wha–? Livvy, was! Damn it, yes, she was my cousin. Look, Livvy, the most dangerous thing anyone in the universe could ever do is get between Tom Ross and Olivia Appleton. Anyway, she’s been dead for thousands of years!” He paused as if absorbing that for the first time. He twisted, fixed his headlamp on Pearce and Sullivan. “She’s running a temp. You two go on. I’ll take her to the ladder. Charles’ll help me haul her up and back to the ship. I’ll leave your backpacks.”
“Looks like she’s got what Doc says the others have,” said Pearce. He cursed under his breath. To Tom, he said, “Don’t speak to anyone but Diaz about this ship. And remind Charles and his crew to keep quiet. If any of you is asked about Sull and me, the answer is we’re still exploring and will return shortly. I don’t want rumors flying around. And panic. I’ll explain everything to them when we get back, hopefully with some clues about this mysterious ‘disease.’ And about what happened to Earth.”
Ross nodded once. He rose and hoisted Appleton to her feet. Almost without effort, he wrangled her small frame onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. “Hasta la vista.”
Pearce turned to Sullivan. “Full throttle up.”
Captain Pearce and Commander Sullivan dashed into a long, wide compartment, then stopped in their tracks. Their lights bathed row after row of preservation cylinders, all open and empty.
“They must have died outside,” said Sullivan, her fore-head furrowed in bewilderment when Pearce turned her way.
He tapped her arm. “We have to go.” They raced past the cylinders toward the cockpit, the pounding of their boots echoing off the bulkhead walls.
Pearce held his light steady ahead. “The cockpit door! It’s open!”
Nearly out of breath, Sullivan said, “I think they were hoping we’d find their ship.”
Inside the cockpit they quickly took seats. “The safe,” said Pearce. “Where? Here! Damn! It’s locked. After all this—!”
“Sealed to protect the contents,” Sullivan suggested.
Pearce blew out air. “You’re right. If they banked on us getting inside — assuming we ever found their ship — and made it easy for us to move about, that means they wanted us to have access to everything, including the safe.”
He looked around, then returned his light to the safe. He leaned closer and scraped his hand back and forth along the front edge of the safe’s top. “Looks like…a crude etching. Numbers. Eight, nine, ten numbers. The combination! They made sure we could open it without blowing off the door and damaging the contents.”
After punching in the combination and wrenching the safe door open, he directed his light inside. “There. A log just like mine. Good old ink-pen technology.”
He opened up the log on a retractable table. “The date! 7 November 124,583!”
“That’s…more than fourteen thousand years ago!” cried Commander Sullivan. “Incredible, now that we actually confirm it.” Her tone softened. “In space…how close did they pass by us, I wonder.”
Pearce shook his head once in disbelief, began scanning the log.
“The essential personnel data,” he mumbled impatiently, his finger tracing down the lines of the first page. “Crew names, ranks. Passenger list. Fifty total. Ship’s captain is…Norma Binson.” He paused. “The ship was renamed Hope II. Decent of them.” He went on. “Here. Departure date 24 May 2050. Two years after we left!”
“So what the hell happened?”
“The asteroid obviously wasn’t a planet killer,” he said rapidly, “which is hard to believe. But maybe in time it was going to be, by destroying all life as a result of long-term effects: global fires, toxic ash encircling Earth, blocking sunlight and creating a winter holocaust that caused vegetation to die, then herbivores, then carni—”
He felt her hand on his arm. He resumed skimming pages. “Binson must have made notes about the asteroid to keep us out of the dark…. Wait — Bingo!” He read aloud from a section dated 15 April 2050, which Binson had dubbed simply “Pre-stasis”:
“Immediately after the grav tug rocket veered off and missed the asteroid, people everywhere in the Global Media began demanding that nukes and the orbital laser cannons be used to deflect it, despite scientists’ warning that both used together would be useless to deter an object of this mass and momentum. Several countries — Russia, China, and France, as well as the U.S. and others — coordinated a simultaneous launch of hundreds of missiles programmed to detonate together as laser cannons fired. This effort did alter the asteroid’s path, causing a near-miss of Earth, but the blasts splintered off a 700-meter chunk which unfortunately slammed into the caldera at Yellowstone National Park. The impact and the crust’s subsequent bounce not only set off a series of massive earthquakes, killing hundreds of thousands, but also created such a disturbation that volcanologists predicted an extinction-class eruption in the caldera to occur sometime in early June 2050.”
When Sullivan softly gasped, Pearce realized he was holding his own breath. He exhaled. Extinction-class! He knew about the huge caldera. The 70-kilometer-wide volcano beneath it erupted roughly every 600,000 years, the last eruption occurring about 640,000 years ago. An eruption could end life as efficiently as the asteroid.
In the oppressive darkness and silence of the buried Hope II, he said numbly, “If you shake a can of pop, then snap off the tab — boom. It blows. That’s what the asteroid chunk set up to happen with the magma and poisonous gases trapped below the caldera.”
He looked at Commander Sullivan. Her eyes glistened. “Jason, we are the last members of the human race.”
Did she just now realize that? Or had she until now clung to the hope that life on Earth somehow hadn’t perished and would go on? Who, he had to admit, would not cling to that hope?
She angrily arced her hand. “Why did Hope II make a 122,000-year journey to a planet that might turn out to be uninhabitable? Why not just orbit earth in a preserved state for a few thousand years to give Earth time to heal?”
“Sull, I think you know the answer as well as I do. In that time span, how often would Binson’s ship have collided with space junk and the countless satellites, to say nothing of meteors? The collisions over the years might’ve caused a decay orbit, which would’ve brought the ship back down into the atmosphere while Earth, too, was still uninhabitable. Their DORIS would’ve been activated to begin restoring everyone. Then Captain Binson, on learning of the premature entry, would’ve had to re-implement preservation — assuming they had extra preserving gel to do that — while oxygen and other valuable resources were being wasted.”
He paused, gathered his thoughts.
“I suppose DORIS could’ve been programmed to first verify the elapsed time after she was activated, detect that it was too early, then take the ship out of the atmosphere and into orbit again. But this process could have repeated dozens if not hundreds of times over just a few thousand years, putting the ship at risk of running out of fuel and DORIS’ power supply being exhausted. Not to mention that considering DORIS’s one-percent error capacity, a miscalculation with serious consequences could have been made somewhere along the way.”
Commander Sullivan did a little toss of her hand. “I know, I know. And anyway, I’m convinced they had a secondary reason for coming here: to colonize this planet so their descendants could surprise us with a new civilization. It would’ve been glorious!”
“Yes…,” he said, staring at her and reflecting on the possibilities. His attention then returned to the log. “Oh, here’s a sad note:
‘The day before Hope II launched, Project Manager Victor Powell committed suicide.'”
“Any reason given?” asked Sullivan.
“Nope. Just that statement. Maybe he wasn’t picked for the Hope II journey, either. If so, he of course knew he was doomed, had nothing to live for. No doubt thousands, maybe millions of people chose that ‘easy’ route. Powell’s bitterness, though, struck me as particularly acute; I remember those eyes….”
He sighed. “Back to Hope II’s people and what happened to them.” He went to the last pages of the log in Captain Binson’s “Post-Arrival” section. “Her handwriting has deteriorated.” His finger zig-zagged hurriedly over the next two pages, then stopped. “Listen — believe I have something:
“Date 7 Nov. 124,583, 13:46: Johnson and Tarasov became ill this a.m., and later Dr. Sato. Sato described her symptoms as flu-like but ruled out a virus. She will do more tests with the minimal equipment she has. But her energy is fading.
“Date 8 Nov., 09:15: Four more are ill. Sato has quarantined herself and the others in a dome home on the fringe of the camp. She is communicating via radio, though her voice is weakening. She said her air and soil tests revealed no toxins.”
Captain Pearce marked his place with a fingertip, looked at Sullivan. “This sounds like—!”
“The same thing affecting our people!”
A tightness building in his throat, he resumed:
“Date 10 Nov., 21:36: Five more sick. Dr. Sato is barely able to work. Moments ago she said she initially had wondered if DORIS had erred in her analysis of the atmosphere. So she deleted DORIS’s analysis result and had her do another from scratch. The exact same analysis was reached. The doctor then reviewed the data on the effects of 581g’s atmosphere. A table in a pamphlet displayed a range of extremes of atmospheric compositions and where in that range humans could endure. She confirmed that 581g’s air fell within that endurance range. She admitted to being perplexed. She said she will continue thinking about it, but her physical state is deteriorating quickly.
“Date 11 Nov., 10:19: Dr. Sato is dead. So are Johnson and Tarasov. Another six have become ill. We have converted two more dome homes into quarantines, even though I think this is of little value, since I do not believe we have a contagion.
“Date 15 Nov., 18:27: It is looking bleak for us. Forty-four have died as of last night. We have filled a total of six dome homes. I, too, have become ill, and it is difficult to write. A disease ‘that cannot be a disease’ has spread throughout this tiny fledgling group of humans, and has made it certain that we will not achieve our mission of building a civilization to await the passengers of Hope.”
“There, that confirms what you said, Sull.”
“Date 17 Nov., 07:33: Only three of us are left. This is my final log entry. I have instructed Rachel and Phillipe, who still have strength, to turn on the transponder (though it will last only a few years). They will store the Captain’s Log in the cockpit safe, open or unlock all interior doors, then exit Hope II for the last time, sealing it up as they leave.”
“Listen to this — though her handwriting’s a terrible scrawl:
“To: Captain Jason Pearce of the Hope: If by some miracle you found this, it saddens my heart knowing what awaits you. I pray that”
“That’s it. Her last sentence. Too weak to finish.” Pearce slammed the log shut and tucked it under his arm. “Sull, we’d better get back to the ship pronto and figure this out. Otherwise –“ he mimed a pistol pointed at his head – “game over.”
“If we don’t survive, we’ve made the last journey humankind will ever make. The last one,” Dr. Diaz spoke softly. If she expected an answer, she did not get one.
She stood inside the closed cockpit with Captain Pearce, Commander Sullivan, and Lieutenant Ross. None of them took much notice of the activity outside the ship: supplies being carried into dome homes, a rectangle of land being cultivated and readied for seeding….
Diaz had finished reading the highlights of Captain Binson’s log and, like Ross, had mostly recovered from the horrible story about what happened to Earth and Hope II’s crew. Rubbed her upper arm, she said, “Captain, damn it, we’ve got ten more sick! No disease, no radioactivity, no toxins to be found. What, then?”
Exhausted, Captain Pearce dragged the palm of his hand down over his face. He regarded the doctor.
“You said Appleton, too, has stabilized since you put her in quarantine with the others. All of our sick have stabilized; Binson didn’t mention that any of hers had — though ‘stabilized’ doesn’t mean our sick are out of the woods, as you pointed out. All of Binson’s people died. They had virtually the same symptoms. The only difference between our sick and their sick is that ours were quarantined inside and theirs outside, according to Binson. The Earth-level O2 is richer inside the ship because we’ve kept it on and kept the airlock closed behind us for safety. But that shouldn’t matter since 581g’s lower O2, which hasn’t changed since Binson’s time, isn’t harmful.”
“Something else….” said Commander Sullivan, her voice tense.
“Yeah,” Ross mumbled.
Pearce nodded absently, recalling his research-writing lesson. gather all the available facts and see where they lead. He looked at Diaz again. “We have to comb through everything. Grab up all your records: atmospheric data printouts, test results acquired on Earth, anything and everything. I don’t know what to look for, but maybe something will stand out. My very best bad plan.”
As Diaz accelerated out of the cockpit, he spread his hands and confessed: “I don’t know where to start.”
“Well, you know — they say the beginning’s good, if we’re going to look at everything,” said Ross.
“Yeah….” Pearce gave him an acknowledging glance. “If only I knew where the beginning is.” He gazed upward at no particular spot as he always seemed to do when addressing DORIS. “DORIS, play back everything you said after Hope reduced speed, arrived at the planet, and made its first entry into the atmosphere.”
“Captain Jason Pearce. Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain? Air is reestablished. Nutrients are supplied. Lighting up. Your preservation gel has been siphoned away. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that everyone must remain on board for three hours to allow the ship’s oxygen to fully purge your body of the gel residue.”
Diaz had returned loaded with binders and stapled documents. She lowered them onto a shelf Pearce had pulled down out of a bulkhead niche.
“Bear with me,” Pearce said to her. “You did verify our air quality, O2 level?”
“Of course,” she replied, a tightness forming across the bridge of her nose.
“Excluding me, what about everyone’s heart and brain function?”
“Took a few hours but I checked everyone to the extent I could with my limited equipment. I found nothing and DORIS confirmed my findings, to the extent she could.”
“Okay, a ‘maybe’ area we can revisit later if necessary. And the gel residue? Fully purged from everyone after three hours?”
A hint of irritation flashed in her eyes. “You know I don’t have nano probes or even a decent microscope. Couldn’t examine them on a cellular level. Anyway, DORIS said—”
Pearce wiped sweat from his upper lip. “I know. Three hours and the gel’s gone. But somebody once said, ‘Trust but verify.’ That certainly applies when it comes to a machine without 100 percent reliability. You’ve personally verified everything — to the extent you could — except the gel purge. So that’s an unknown, as for as I’m concerned. It’s probably a pointless trail, but we should look at it anyway. Pull out the Restoration Handbook — which Victor Powell told me I’d never need! — and find the section on the gel.”
Moments later she rotated the handbook toward him. Her finger tapped. “Here.”
“Have you read it yourself yet?”
“No. Look, I’ve had my hands full.”
He nodded. He skimmed, then read aloud from a mid-page paragraph: “In a variety of atmospheric compositions, the gel, which permeates and preserves … so forth and so on … was found to be completely purged after three hours … Well, I guess there’s nothing here — Wait —!” Pearce’s voice choked off. He thought his head would explode. “I—I can’t believe this! It says ‘completely purged after three hours in Rhesus monkeys and lemurs!‘ In goddamn animals! In humans, it says ‘the minimum time for complete purging is three days‘!”
Commander Sullivan’s sharp intake of air was audible. “DORIS…she made a critical error. Substituted —”
“Hours for days!” exclaimed Pearce. A dark thought hit him. Was this Victor Powell’s prophecy being fulfilled, proof humans didn’t deserve to survive?
Tom Ross spat his anger: “Well, that craters my morale to hell. Those fraggin’ engineers. Couldn’t make DORIS 100 percent error-free, and humanity will pay the price. Never put your total faith in a machine!”
Diaz had her head down, the back of her fist pressed against her lips. Her eyes showed she was frantically trying to gather her thoughts. Finally, understanding seemed to work across her face. She looked at Pearce. “If the gel residue’s still in us when we’re outside, the lower oxygen can’t fully purge it. The gel’s likely trapped at the microtubule level long enough to interfere with normal cell function, blocking adenosine triphosphate from supplying the energy for powering cells…which could lead to a lethal breakdown of organs….”
Tremendous relief exploded inside Pearce. “Doc! You’re our savior! What you did … it’s a wonderful thing. You put our sick into the compartment where they breathed the ship’s oxygen—”
“Which,” she said, her own relief evident, “was sufficient to break down the gel and flush it out of their bodies. As was designed to happen.” She shook her head and smiled grimly. “And to think that just before you and Commander Sullivan returned, I was preparing to put all of the ill back outside, figuring the fresh air might help! I had brought them inside because I can’t tolerate heat well. Outside, I would’ve been a wet rag for quite a while and not really good at helping the sick.”
Her smile brightened and she alternately looked at Sullivan and Pearce. “Thank our lucky galaxies, we have a five-day supply of O2 left!”
Pearce pivoted to Ross. “Get everybody inside and lock down!”
Captain Jason Pearce, along with Commander Faye Sullivan and Lieutenant Tom Ross, had gathered in the computer-systems niche near the quarantine compartment. They stood slightly behind and to the side of Charles Duncan, who, still a hulking presence without his exo, had lit up DORIS’ holographic monitors. They watched the former cyber cop intently. One of his big hands scampered back and forth across a keyboard, as the fingers of the other gesticulated in the air, alternately spreading, pinching, and twirling, engaging a large hologram that nearly encircled him. These motions magnified, paused, then backgrounded one layer after another of a complex, hierarchical computer-code schematic.
“Scanned her neural networks, cognitive and learning algorithms – associative memories, all twelve billion or so of her main and sub-routines, ARA — that’s abstractions, problem reformulations, and approximations. They all provide her with a decent version of human intelligence and common sense. No glitches. Nanophotonic quantum phase switching unaltered. Heuristic analysis finally shows….no viruses— ”
“So what’s the subtext here?” mumbled Ross. Was his patience being tested by the technobabble, as was Pearce’s somewhat?
“Keep your anchor down, Lieuy,” Duncan said, giving Ross glancing attention. “Don’t want to fall through a trap door. I know everybody’s all buzzed up about that three-hours thing…. Now rounding third…. Checking updates, most recent programming activity… Hold on… Okay, got something…a footprint. Yeah…about that, the three-hours thing? Not an error we can pin on DORIS’s infamous one-percent unreliability. ‘Tweren’t an error at all; DORIS didn’t retrieve the wrong word by way of, say, a referencing failure due to her aged circuitry. Nope, ‘hours’ showed up in place of ‘days’ solely as the result of human intervention. So what are we talking about? Not glad you asked.” His finger tapped twice at a line of green code in a narrow data column near the hologram’s edge. “Right here; it’s time-stamped. The system recorded the deletion and substitution at 22:36, May 27, 2037, a week before we left. This, sorry to say, looks like plain old sabotage.”
Sullivan and Ross, apparently stunned into speechlessness, stared at Duncan. Pearce felt the stirrings of nausea.
“A fraggin’ saboteur?” Ross spat. “What bastard would do something like that?”
“On both ships!” said Sullivan.
Duncan turned to the Captain. “I found the evidence. Can’t help you with the culprit. Any ideas?”
Pearce caught Sullivan’s anguish fading as she faced him squarely, reading him.
“Jason…? What? …Yes. I can see it in your eyes — you know who it is, don’t you?”
Ross spoke. “One of the passengers?” He then raked his eyes across the three: “One of us?”
Pearce put up his hands. “No! No no no. No one on this ship. It was …. Victor Powell.”
The three exchanged glances. “You sure?” asked Sullivan.
“A lot of the people working on the project,” continued Pearce, “were angry over not being picked for the journey. But only Powell had everything that was needed to pull off something like this. Only he was authorized to access DORIS’s database. He had knowledge not only about DORIS but also about the preservation gel. He was the only project worker who didn’t have supervision constantly peering over his shoulder. He was supervision. He must have had the opportunity to make the change during his pre-flight walk-through of the ship four nights before his final meeting with me, when he went up with a crew of inspectors.”
The Captain shook his head. Powell, reaching out across the millennia and trillions of miles, had tried to fulfill his verdict that the human race should die!
Sullivan said, “But why not do any one of many other things more efficient at killing us? Why not program DORIS to stay in sleep mode when we entered the atmosphere? We would’ve crashed and all been killed instantly.”
“That kind of reprogramming,” Duncan asserted, “is more complex and would’ve taken far too long. Powell probably wanted to get in and out of the AI as quickly as possible without attracting curious eyes.”
Pearce gave a nod. “Especially the eyes of the inspectors who may’ve been members of the union Powell despised. That would also explain why he didn’t steal the gel handbook.”
“A quick and easy word substitution was the ticket.”
“My hunch is,” Pearce continued, glancing at each of them, “it wasn’t premeditated with our ship. His bitterness and anger may have peaked and driven him mad, and the word-switching idea came to him while he was putting DORIS through a final series of tests. Of course, on Hope II, it was premeditated.”
Sullivan looked at the Captain. “My money says he committed suicide because he came to his senses and was over-whelmed with guilt.”
Ross cleared his throat. “I hope so. But I guess it really doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Well, I suppose that’s that,” Duncan said. His index finger descended on the ENTER key with dramatic flair. “I declare DORIS to be ninety-nine point nine percent error free!” He added with a grin: “Best I can do.”
Dr. Angela Diaz approached from the quarantine compartment wearing the vestige of a smile despite appearing frazzled. The smile evaporated when Pearce began giving her the Powell story.
Finally, with no small tinge of bitterness in her voice, she said, “Single-handedly he almost terminated what’s left of the human species. He was apparently not just angry but insane. Probably driven that way, like many others, by all the horrors coming down on us.”
“Yes,” agreed Pearce. “And he no doubt felt greatly cheated knowing that his life-long love — the Mars mission — was snatched away from him at the very last moment.”
Diaz continued: “He may not have premeditated his evil deed with Hope, but I wonder why he purposely okayed a not totally necessary 200-pound exoskeleton, instead of an extra 200 pounds of badly needed medical tools that might have cracked our mysterious ‘disease’ right away. I can’t help thinking the man planned in advance for us to die.”
“Noted,” Pearce said. “At least I understand now why he seemed so insistent that I rely not on the handbook but solely on DORIS for any questions about the gel.”
Diaz shook her head in disgust, then took a deep breath. “Okay, some good news. All of my patients are recovering. And I don’t anticipate relapses.”
The other three expressed their relief. Sullivan lightly applauded.
“How’s this for recovery, Doc?” Everyone turned to see Ensign Olivia Appleton. She’d walked out of the quarantine compartment without assistance. Though pale and weak-looking, she seemed grateful to be on her feet. “Most of us are up and milling around. They’ll be walking out soon.” She looked quizzically at Diaz. “Tell me, why were we affected at different times, to different degrees?”
“A simple matter of our different physiological makeups, different matabolisms,” Diaz replied pleasantly. “Same reason people are affected differently by ordinary meds.” She looked from Appleton to Pearce. “She seems strong enough. We can bring her up to speed on everything.”
A few moments later and composed, Appleton shook her head. “I feel so terrible for Captain Binson and her people.”
“They didn’t die in vain,” said Sullivan. “If it hadn’t been for them….”
“True, but let’s be honest,” Pearce said, “a lot of credit has to go to the Doc here. If she hadn’t kept the sick on board, a lot of lives would’ve been—”
Diaz waved him off. “Was only making it convenient for myself. You know, my thing with hot weather. But I had been thinking about moving the sick back outside. For the ‘fresh’ air!” She did a “Whew!” and swiped at her forehead. “Glad I was selfish.”
“You’re all forgetting Tom,” said Appleton. She directed a rueful smile at the Lieutenant.
Ross stiffened a bit and returned a questioning, semi-hard stare. “Say again?”
Though Ross had clearly been happy to see Appleton up and about, Pearce figured the man had to be asking himself: Now that she’s back to normal, is she back to normal?
Her smile broadened. “Just think,” she said to the others, keeping her eyes on Ross. “If Tom hadn’t had a bladder issue at that moment, and hadn’t been such a clumsy oaf….” She moved tentatively over to Ross, reading his face, and put her arms around his waist. “People are too important, life is too precious, for you and me to be so petty and mean to each other. You and I need to reboot.”
Pearce fought off picturing his dead wife for more than a second, then the billions of lives lost on Earth for even less than that. He nodded, thinking, Yes, people are far, far too important…. His gaze drifted to Sullivan.
“Well,” snorted Ross, looking astonished. “Knock me over with a velociraptor feather. A fraggin’ hug out of you?”
“You still have my ring?”
He patted his side. “Right here, Apple Of My Eye.”
Resting her head against his chest, she said to Pearce, “I know it’s not above your pay grade to hitch up couples.”
Pearce laughed. “True enough. But — you two must agree to head up our morale committee. I want you right off to do skits based on your interactions with each other up to now. Sort of like an old TV show….’The Honeymooner, I believe it was called.”
They looked at each other and shrugged. “Would be fun,” Ross said.
Sullivan, Pearce noticed, was gazing at the floor.
“S-u-l-l…,” he teased, “what’s going on?”
She glanced up, then off to the side. “Oh, nothing. Just…you know….wondering.” Her gaze shifted to the other side of Pearce. “Jason, do you think you…and I… we could ever—?”
“Commander!” barked Pearce. “I—”
Sullivan had put her palms up. “No no no no. I was just, you know, thinking… hypothetically—” She pushed her hands down shaping a rooftop. “Okay, cards on the table, and I don’t give a crap who hears.” After she gave the others a quick glance, her face took on an apologetic, almost painful look. “Jason, remember when I told you I divorced my ex-husband because he changed his mind about wanting kids? Well, that was only part of it. I divorced him mainly because I fell in love with you. I have loved you practically from the day we met.” Working an uncomfortable-looking smile, she interlaced her fingertips and gave him a relaxed — relieved? — gaze. “There. Sort of easy to go for broke after what we’ve all been through.”
Pearce felt himself blush. “Hey … back atcha. Sull, I was—“
“Get a grip on those emotions, Captain,” laughed Ross.
“By the way, sir,” said Appleton, “I did catch you and the Commander taking your eye off the ball a time or two and putting it a bit too long on each other.”
“At ease, everyone. As I was saying…. Sull, I was about to float an idea before you interrupted me. Glad you did now, because I didn’t know how you were going to react. I was going to put my cards on the table and ask what would you think about a double wedding. I’ll authorize Diaz to perform the ceremony.”
Her small, nervous smile exploded into a full-fledged grin. “Well, we are going to need lots of babies around here!”
“The first one’s on the way.” Appleton drew all eyes again. She beamed sheepishly up at Ross. “Dr. Diaz tells me I’m two months along.”
For a moment, Ross had the look of one who realizes he has just been stabbed in the stomach but does not yet feel the pain. “Uh!” he coughed. “You — you mean I’m going to be a daddy!”
“That gel truly is remarkable.” She looked at Diaz. “I just realized. You’re another one that’s only 99 percent error free. Obviously I’ve been pregnant for almost 137,000 years! Make me the first entry in the next Guinness Book of Records.”
As they laughed, Pearce placed his hand on the small of Sullivan’s back and guided her away.
“Sull, we have to ‘do the town’ at least once before we shackle each other, y’know.”
Cracking jokes about cheap dates and where to honey-moon, they ambled their way fore, dodging fast-moving children jinking left and right in a game of tag among the cylinders and passenger seats. Once inside the cockpit, they stood admiring the colorful landscape of the human race’s new Earth.
“It really is beautiful,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Good water, fertile ground. We’re going to make it.” She took his hand and looked at him with misty eyes. “I don’t know how to thank you for urging me to sign on with you, though you know now you didn’t have to try too hard.”
Victor Powell, Captain Jason Pearce thought, had been wrong. “We do deserve to live,” he said to her quizzical look.
“Never mind.” He quickly added without the slightest attempt to smile: “There is a way we can thank each other. DORIS — and you’d better be 100-percent reliable on this — close the cockpit door.”
What could shock you more than knowing you’re going to die in just a few seconds? See my much shorter story “Swirling Away.”
Want to contact Jerry? firstname.lastname@example.org
If you didn’t read this story as a download, getting to the end means you possess far more patience than the average Web reader, who apparently skims and then jumps to another site after about ten seconds. My congratulations on your perseverance!
Tech notes and attribution: