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.
Abernathy stood in her mag boots inside the spacecraft’s weightlessness and 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 May 12, 2015 | Originally posted 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.
“Our ever more sensitive technologies,” Dr. Atul Gawande, a public-health researcher, writes in the May 11, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, “turn up more and more abnormalities — cancers, clogged arteries, damaged-looking knees and backs — that aren’t actually causing problems and never will. And then we doctors try to fix them, even though the result is often more harm than good.”
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 now 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 tends to be “You must get what you can when you can in whatever form you can.” (That’s largely why government inherently is 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.
Copyright © March 2013 Jerry A. Boggs
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….
They fled one disaster only to find themselves facing another. Then they stumbled onto something that shocked them to the core.
The thundering, brutal vibration whipped his weakened arms against something hard, again and again. Where the hell was he? In a box? A coffin? Was he 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 and grip his thighs. Save for the restraints across his forehead, 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.
He was about to open his mouth and scream “Let me out of here!” when he was jolted by:
“Captain Jason Pearce.”
The metallic female voice rang out even above the fierce booming. It seemed to come from above and reverberate 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.
“Who…the hell…are you?” His voice, garbled, shook in the vibration. “Where am I? Wait… I’m…Jason–?”
The memories crashed in. A shock wave of fear ripped through him, bucking his nude body against the restraints.
“Air is reestablished,” the voice continued. “Nutrients are supplied. Lighting up. Your cylinder’s 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.”
The gel residue, smelling a bit like charcoal, thinly coated him from head to toe. He brought a hand up and cleared his eyelids, fighting against the angry vibration. His gummy eyes finally opened. In the dim red light, he saw his cylinder’s translucent canopy less than ten inches from his nose.
He realized that the rattling, now like a series of rapid explosions, had joggled awake the ship’s computer. The computer in turn had processed him from his preserved state – had “restored” him, as the scientists would’ve said – and begun speaking to him. Everything appeared to be operating as designed. So far.
He felt buoyed knowing the preservation gel had kept them alive for what his senses said was a very long time.
The final instruction regarding the gel had been given to him by Project Manager Victor Powell:
“The Restoration Handbook will be provided, but you won’t have much need for it. Just direct your questions about the gel and almost everything else to the AI. It will handle the whole shebang. Your role is minimal, a backup if the AI fails. The only area the AI can’t help – and you can thank the cost-cutters for that – is medical, in cases of injury or illness. You’ll have a doctor on board for that.”
The AI, speaking to him now, had been given the user-friendly 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,” DORIS said. “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, low whine of the ship’s engine could be heard.
Pearce’s stomach didn’t settle down with the ship. Would they survive on the planet through just the next three days?
But before fretting over that, they had to get there in one piece. One worry at a time.
“Prior to restoring you,” DORIS said, “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 arced open, mewling on its way underneath.
Not without a lot 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 items that included a watch, a behind-the-ear comm, underclothes, a dark-blue jumpsuit, weapon, mag-boots, a towel, small sheet computer, and a C4 brick with a blasting cap and fuse.
Also included was a directive signed by the U.S. president and several United Nations officials. It gave him legal authority over the group and was to be backed up by the five named passengers who formed a police force.
Holding onto the cylinder, he wiped off with the towel and dressed. He gazed down the length of the ship. Hope’s primary compartment sprawled long and wide under a low arched ceiling. The evenly spaced, curved support beams resembled the ribs of a giant whale skeleton.
It was a sight he prayed he hadn’t seen for a length of time that made him dizzy to think about.
The other 100 preservation cylinders, looking like giant larvae that gleamed in the wall lights’ dusky red glow, stretched in five columns 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 food synthesizers, a seed vault, and other provisions and tools, one of which was a fuel-cell-powered exoskeleton.
Soon the civilians would be stirring. Each of them except for the children was dual-skilled in such professions as carpentry, architecture, farming, community organization, and law and order. All were volunteers who had been lottery-selected based on their skill sets.
Many of them, in just a second or two after being restored, would be overjoyed at having survived. Others would be paralyzed by fear. Only God knew what lay ahead of them.
Pearce’s thoughts returned to the wrap-up of his final briefing in the office of Project Survival’s increasingly sullen manager….
“You know the reconfiguring of the ship was completed without the usual certifications,” the unshaven, drained-looking Victor Powell said. “Not enough time. Or enough people. Just my own tests four days ago during a walk-through in those god-awful mag-boots. Which I’m sure gave those idiot union workers there doing nothing a real laugh.”
Pearce thought it best to say nothing.
“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 four 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 motionless for a moment, then sniffed. “In the next three days, everybody and the supplies have to be shuttled up to Hope. Has to be done a month before the – before – so we’ll have time to address any glitches–” His voice trailed off.
He composed himself with slow, deep breathing.
“You’ll have to rejigger your lifestyle big time, you know. If you think the Pilgrims had it bad….” He smirked. “Assuming, of course, you get there. And survive past the first week.”
He leaned back. “Tell me, Mr. Captain Man, do you think the human race deserves to live on?”
“We’ve failed. And it’s our just desserts we’re getting now. Face it, 99.9 percent of all species have gone down this road.”
Before Pearce could respond, Powell frowned and said, “That’s it. My last words to you?” He flipped a hand. “Just get out.”
Outside the office, the Captain paused inches from the closed door.
“Bastard,” he said too low to be heard.
Powell had never trafficked in warmth, he knew, recalling the gift of a broken nose the project manager had bestowed on a union leader who refused to end a strike. But this was the first time he had given Pearce the genuine scum-bag treatment.
Pearce sighed. He had to chalk it all up to one simple, brutal truth: the man 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, say 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. It would soon be bound up on the back of her head.
The Captain stared as he took in her gaunt, blanched appearance.
She smiled. “Pretty sure you look every bit as strange 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. “Glad 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.” His premise was based on the convergent-evolution theory stating that species from different taxonomic groups evolve toward a similar form.
He’d taken a writing course beforehand. “Before writing one word,” the instructor had said, “gather all available facts and examine them, think carefully about each. See where they lead you.” That was the lesson drilled into his head over and over.
His eyes stung when he could no longer hold back thinking of his ill wife Amy. He’d spent many heart-breaking months taking care of her, until she died of cancer a half year 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,” 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. She preferred plain “Doc” to Lieutenant Commander. As Hope’s counselor, she had helped Pearce and the others cope with what lay ahead — to the extent she could imagine what lay ahead.
Near-zombie-looking like everyone else, Doc apparently had already come to terms with their staggering achievement. She smoothed out her white smock with one hand and frowned 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 small 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.
“How are you coming along?”
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. Some ride, eh?”
He waved off her offer to scan 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. We all got counselin, 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 bouncing her grey-streaked, banded hair, and left, 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, turned her head his way 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.” She flashed a grin and wiggled her fingers at the Captain, continuing on toward the civilians. “Have a nice day.”
Pearce remembered the thyrotoxicosis she had developed in recent months. If the landing site turned out to be a hot house, he’d agreed to let her remain inside for the remaining days of the ship’s cooler interior, venturing out on short stints only as necessary. No need for her to suffer through the adjustment until she had to.
He levered himself off the pad and let his mag-boots 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 more than a few stood bent and sobbing uncontrollably.
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, Ross had been serving for nearly a year as a combat flight instructor at Naval Air Station Key West. Before the Navy, he had trained in emergency care. To maintain his medical skills, he had often volunteered at the NAS Key West hospital.
He stopped flexing and planted his eyes on 25-year-old Ensign Olivia Appleton standing at the cylinder next to his.
“Good morning, Livvy,” he said with a grin. “Sleep well? Say, I was just wondering – you jonesing for me again yet? Or still working that same old attack-doggy persona of – we hope – oh-so-long ago?”
She peered down the length of the tight-fitting jumpsuit she’d just finished pulling on, and gave the fabric a few tugs at her hips and knees.
“Problem with your onesie?” Ross said. “Too small probably.”
“Don’t crank me so soon,” she said. “I attack only he who’s got it coming.”
Four months prior to launch, Appleton had been transferred from Radiation Safety Training to NAS Key West as one of Ross’s combat-flight students. She soon found herself romantically involved with the Lieutenant.
She turned her back on him, sending her mahogany hair, which in gravity hung to her shoulders, exploding into a mess around her head. As she banded it at the back, she said. “By the way, was it necessary to watch me dress?”
Ross’s face contorted. “Still wearing your hate face. Got some deep scar tissue, y’know that, Appleworm? Oh, a ‘by the way’ for you: Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Pearce’s jaw dropped. Despite the nightmare they’d all been through – and the hellish uncertainty still awaiting 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, how their marriage plans had been whacked a few weeks before departure.
Early one morning Appleton had wanted to surprise Ross with a breakfast carry-out from a restaurant on the base where they and the rest of Hope’s passengers were secretly sequestered and being prepared.
Approaching Ross’s small condo in her car, she spotted him outside standing beside a white SUV, a long-haired blonde at the wheel. Ross bent and kissed the woman, then stood waving as she pulled away.
Ross explained that she was a close cousin he’d grown up with. 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.
Appleton sneered. “And if I called her, I’d hear a lie you two concocted just in case!”
In despair over a string of bad relationships that included a brief marriage, she had been convinced she’d mindlessly dived into this latest one as a kind of solace for the horrors awaiting her and everyone else. She’d given back – thrown back – the ring that Ross supposedly still carried in a zipped pocket.
Hearing the story, Pearce had worried the couple might be a problem, but it was too late to find and prepare replacements.
He gestured for the two, still antagonizing each other, and Commander Faye Sullivan to follow him.
“DORIS, open the cockpit door.”
They entered the low-lit compartment and the bickering between Ross and Appleton evaporated. All eyes riveted on 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.
Pearce and Sullivan took the two forward seats at the curved instrument panel.
“Still having a hard time processing this,” she said.
Pearce pulled the Captain’s Log from his small safe and began his update, his trembling hand a hindrance.
Sullivan let her breath out. She keyed her access code into the chronometer.
“No one needs to be reminded,” Appleton said, her voice low and taut, “but our departure date was June 3, 2037.”
Ross said, “Then why remind–”
“Brace yourself.” Sullivan toggled a switch.
Ross snorted. “Cruel joke’s all 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.
He knew the AI wasn’t 100 percent error free. “DORIS, 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. “That is one mind-melting 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?” Appleton said. Nerves speaking?
Pearce fought his own shock, which he had anticipated being able to control, given all the counseling he’d received.
“If anyone feels like crying,” he said, “or throwing up, go ahead. We can forget we’re suck-it-up military for a moment.”
“We did it!” Appleton said, her voice tight.
“DORIS,” Commander Sullivan said, “scan 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 a bit too late to fret about such things.”
DORIS said with 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 and near an ocean.”
“An ocean!” Appleton said.
Pearce couldn’t believe their luck. But he knew better than to get cocky. He 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,” Pearce said. 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!”
After a full second of silence, the cockpit speaker exploded with noise.
“Buckle up and prepare to descend! But don’t turn off your mag-boots until we’re safely grounded. DORIS, I believe you said we must remain on board three hours before disembarking to allow the preservation gel to be fully purged from our bodies?”
“Captain, you can disembark immediately after landing. The three hours have already elapsed.”
The last thing Pearce heard before Hope again smashed into Gliese 581g’s atmosphere with a deafening roar and a violent shaking was applause and shouts.
Hope delivered its 105 passengers to the planet’s surface, the ship’s huge bulk coming to a rest on a level field next to a gently sloping hill.
Pearce gripped his armrests and took a couple of deep breaths. Up until now the dangers had pretty much been known. Now they weren’t.
Fingers shaking, he made a notation in the Captain’s log of the date and time of the landing.
He hurried aft with his team of three officers to the compartment where the still-buckled-up civilians were seated. He made a brief, earnest statement about their historic journey. He then told them that before anyone could leave the ship, 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 I can’t take comfort in your hedge words ‘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. Please don’t come up with ideas that can get us killed.”
“Could be DORIS is operating from her unreliable one-percent error zone,” Ross whispered, Pearce catching the sarcasm.
“DORIS,” the Doc said, “reconfirm the exterior temperature, please.”
“Ninety-one point three degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Ouch. Wouldn’t do me well at all.”
“I’ll need to take a lot of drinking water with me,” Ross said.
“Want to drag along a Johnny On The Spot?” Ensign Appleton said.
Chuckles rippled across the group.
The Captain continued: “While my team and I are away — no more than 24 hours — Dr. Angela Diaz will mind the helm.” 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 Ted Mitchell, Dr. Diaz’s nephew and one of the eleven teens.
“Sir,” he said, a polite smile on his face, “could anyone on Earth have survived the impact?”
Pearce breathed in, collecting his thoughts.
“Consider first the instant massive earthquakes and shock wave tearing around the entire globe. Maybe a billion were killed in a flash. Of course, lots of people survived that, 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.”
He paused. Not a soul moved.
“In the following 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. The consensus was that it had too much speed and mass for our nukes or laser cannons to have an effect. So to answer your question, no – no one could’ve survived for long, no matter how deep underground.”
He looked down at the floor, pushed 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 just alter Earth’s rotation. It was likely to also nudge Earth out of its orbit into a spiral toward the sun. I’ll say out loud what probably most of you have already accepted.” He could barely get his mouth to form the words: “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 adjacent hill’s sporadic baobab-like trees? Or from close-up, from the lime-green grass blanketing the field Hope had set down on? Had their scent already been detected by a hunger-crazed, velociraptor-like carnivore baring ten-inch teeth? Would this beast any second now come galloping over the top of the hill, smashing down every tree in its path to get to them?
He eased his hand up to his weapon. The quietness, he hoped, meant the ship’s roaring retros had scared away all the creatures within ten klicks.
A warm breeze lapped against the side of his sweaty face. He thought he smelled ocean water. That tiny bit of familiarity, for the moment at least, notched down his stomach-turning edginess a bit.
The planet’s red-dwarf, early-morning sun peeked over the horizon between distant silhouetted mountains forming claws and sharks’ teeth. Its peach-orange radiance shot long black shadow-fingers across the landscape.
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.
The heel of his hand still rested on his weapon. Raking his gaze from side to side, he led his team 75 yards out to the foot of the hill, where he stopped. He took two deep breaths, as much to vent his tension as to gauge how his lungs would accept the air. “Well?”
The other three, glancing at each other and their surroundings, shrugged and nodded.
“Olivia, your Geiger’s acting civil,” Pearce said.
Appleton extracted her weapon. Twice a red-hot line hissed, and twice a smoldering foot-deep hole was seared out high on the hill.
“A double-tap of that’ll give our velociraptors something to ponder.”
Ross’s grin was copious. “What a sharp-shooter! Hit a mountain standing right next to it.”
Pearce hailed Angela Diaz on his comm. “Doc, so far the air’s good to go. Hopefully long-term.”
“…Big relief,” the crackling voice said.
“Heading out. Give me 100 percent antenna. Put together a rescue team, just in case. And start unstrapping and moving essentials to the off-load 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’s that way,” he said, pointing toward the top of the hill. “About three klicks. Half that distance up the coast is a feeder river. Hopefully with decent water. One problem on the other side of this hill: a pretty dense forest, 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 said to Appleton, who despite a calm exterior had not stopped scrutinizing their surroundings.
“Need me to carry you, Apple Of My Eye?” he said.
Her snicker erupted in a way that told Pearce she was more nervous than she was letting on.
“Surprised you think I need you for anything. Pretend you’re nice and quit while you’re way behind.”
Commander Sullivan gave first Ross, then 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. The Captain, feeling the warmth of the rising orange sun and the 90-degree temp, wound through waist-high thickets of brush. When they reached the spine of the hill, which appeared to be the highest point in sight, a silver curve of ocean water sparkled just beyond the forest that loomed darkly at the hill’s bottom.
Ross drank in the view. He turned to Commander Sullivan with a “Booyah!” and high-fived her.
Pearce jammed the small field glasses he’d been peering through into a side pocket. He’d spotted nothing curious and detected no movement within a 180-degree range.
He put a finger to his lips. “Let’s move.”
“Yup,” Appleton said, her voice low. “Not good to ring the dino dinner bell.”
They descended to the line of towering broad-leaf flora that bordered the forest.
“Let’s leave a trail,” Pearce said. “Our butts might need saving. Machetes out. Weapons in the other hand.” He stepped warily into the dark forest.
For the next hour, they weaved through multi-colored under-brush and chopped lower limbs off the tall flora. They hacked as if a swing too hard might bring a herd of ravenous creatures down on top of them. On occasion they paused to inspect and smell various odd-looking vegetation — with alert eye on the broader environment and weapons in tight grips.
Although the sun had climbed higher, the light reaching the forest floor was still less than optimal.
“Wasn’t a mountain I hit,” Appleton said. “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 a hand against his nose.
“The bad news for me,” Pearce said, “is you’ll survive. Damn it, pay attention.”
Ninety minutes later and tiring, they entered a tennis-court-sized clearing at the base of a treed slope that rose perhaps 150 feet.
Pearce dispatched sweat from his brow. “Let’s break.”
“I’ll take that as an order, Cap,” Ross said. He swilled from this canteen, the second time in the last half hour.
“Considered slowing down?” the Captain asked.
“Everybody has to 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? Not a single little critter scurrying around anywhere. Maybe 99-percent-accurate DORIS is right.”
Appleton’s lips did a borderline-rude raspberry burst. “Pretty sure her faulty one percent was dominant. My money says the little critters would be hunted by the big critters during the day, so they dig in till night.”
“Makes sense,” Sullivan said, “except where are the big–”
“Doc,” Pearce said after hitting his comm, “no threats to report – yet. Negative on breathing issues. No worse than being in Denver. Why not go ahead and start off-loading, after you harden up around the ship: establish a perimeter, sensor fence.”
“How wonderful to copy that!” Diaz said.
“Remember to always close the airlock behind you, coming and going. Out.”
“There, see?” Appleton took her weapon back in hand. “The Cap feels the same way. Doesn’t want a five-ton meat-eating thingy wandering on board when everybody’s guard’s down.” She arched her brows. “Make sense too?”
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 — did your nightmares turn you into a bed-wetter?”
Her eyebrows gathered and she started talking to herself.
Ross turned away, headed up the slope. “Reminds me. Going to the potty.”
“Not surprised, water-holic,” Sullivan said under her breath. “Keep leeward. And watch your step.”
Appleton: “A loo-tenant’s gotta do what a loo-tenant’s gotta do.”
“Not too far!” Pearce said. “Stay mindful of meat-eating…thingies.”
Ross’s fist pumped. “Not to worry. No thingies here.”
“Famous last words,” Appleton said to Sullivan. To Ross: “Should the Cap go with you? 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.” Eight seconds later, he’d vanished up into the forest.
“Well, if the thingies didn’t know about us before, they do now,” Pearce said.
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. “Chow time.”
They plopped down and pulled water and MREs from their backpacks.
“What delicious, synthesized entrees do we have for our first meal in more than a thousand centuries?” Appleton asked. 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,” Sullivan said. “But word is they taste the same.”
Appleton clucked her tongue. “So one could say we have…chicken and chicken?”
“Roast beef and roast beef.” Sullivan put up a finger. “No, wait, I’m going with a mélange of roasted—”
Pearce sighed. “Any chance you two can just eat?”
Appleton half-turned his way. A little smile played on her lips. “Going to write us up in your Captain’s Log?” Her smiled collapsed. She glanced off Pearce to the sky. Slate clouds had moved in, darkening the clearing. She did a little shudder and refocused on the surrounding forest.
Sullivan did a slow look-around. “I guess acting silly is how we deal with all the wear and tear on our nerves. Lot more wear and tear to come.”
“Hey,” Appleton said. “I just realized — the smell of this crappy food could attract—“
A rapid crunching noise stilled her. Her hand arced to her weapon.
“Relax,” Pearce said. “Tom’s finished killing vegetation.”
Appleton had a wicked grin. “Knew that. Was just going to graze his ear for practice. Have to be sharp if a velociraptor shows up for a meet and eat.”
Ross came striding down the slope into full view. “Tell ’em, Apple. You missed me. You always miss me. Always will, right?”
She showed him her weapon. “Yup, I’ll always miss you ’cause I don’t want to go to the stockade.”
“C’mon, admit it, you still have a few embers 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.” He scrambled to his feet. His eyes searched out the spot where he tripped.
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 would’ve had a better eye on where you were stepping. You could’ve seriously hurt yourself and jeopardized our mission.”
“Duly noted, Boss. Now what the hell did I—? Ah!” He hurried a short way back up the incline and dropped to his knees next to something dark poking out of the downward 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.”
The other three joined him.
“Chunk of metal sticking out of the ground, looks like,” Ross said.
“Meteor maybe?” Sullivan asked.
“Ma’am,” Appleton said, “meteorite’s what you want to say. FYI.”
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,” Sullivan said. “Enough of the insult-fest.”
After she let that sink in, her lips formed the tiniest smile. “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 protested in unison, Pearce and Sullivan glanced at each other. Their eyes locked. He 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.
“Mates,” he said, “let’s focus, shall we?” His index finger pecked toward the object.
It was shaped like a slightly flattened horizontal cone, its rounded, 12-inch-thick tip protruding about eight inches 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 with both hands and pulled sideways with increasing exertion, until his face was blotchy red and his neck veins stood out like cords. Zero movement.
“Let’s dig it out,” Appleton said. She peeled away to the clearing and returned in less than three minutes with an arm-load of small 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,” Pearce said.
Ross scowled. “Where does this thing end?” He gave the object a couple of hard yanks. “Frag it!
The more they dug, the farther they had to excavate up into the slope in both depth and width.
On his knees and sweating in the heat, Pearce took a hard look. About seven feet of the object lay exposed. True enough, it was shaped like a right triangle. And smooth, polished. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled.
“Let’s try one more time to see if it’ll move.”
Ross said, “Let me try this first.” He sprawled out on his back and began kicking the thing hard with both feet.
“Tom!” Appleton said. “What the hell are doing? You might damage it!”
“Anchor that tongue, 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 artificial structure, 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. This,” he said, arcing his arm, “is part of an ancient alien spacecraft.”
Appleton’s lips parted but no sounds came out.
Ross blinked. “Wha…? Yes. We have ourselves a real Area 51, only 21 light-years east of the phony one.”
“Sull?” Pearce said. “Look like the tip of a wing or tail fin to you?”
She raked the back of her wrist across her forehead. “Yes, yes. Was afraid…to say….”
“A first encounter…,” Appleton said, quiet amazement on her face.
Pearce keyed his comm.
“Go ahead, Jason,” Dr. Diaz said 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.”
“I want to get inside this…craft, assuming there’s more to it than what we see.”
If it was a stabilizer fin he was looking at, it had better be the horizontal stabilizer it appeared to be.. 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. Doc, listen, we need help. Dispatch a crew of four or five, equipped 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. You can’t tell them why I need them. Out.”
When Dr. Diaz’ crew entered the clearing, 15 feet of the object lay visible within the three-sided, ever-widening cavity that now rose seven feet at its highest up-slope point.
The crew members stopped, their faces frozen, then 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 that were powered by a fuel cell on its back. The outfit 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 refixated on the sight before him.
“You don’t have to tell me what this is,” Duncan said. “I’ve processed it.”
“I’d like you to first try to dislodge it. Maybe a wing or fin’s all there is. At least in this area.”
“Charles!” Lieutenant Tom Ross called out. “For warm-up why don’t you hurl Olivia 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.”
Eyeing Pearce, Duncan chuckled. “Navyspeak for ‘You’re a drag’? Bring these two along for comic relief, did you? Not a bad idea. Heard them right out of the box, so to speak. Genuine tension breaker.”
Pearce thought about that. 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, as Sullivan had said. 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 chirped and whirred as the titanium-carbon Frankenstein thudded across the forest floor. He stopped at the tip where Ross had tripped hours earlier. He extended his left mechanical hand underneath and flattened it up against the metal. He tapped a red, dime-sized button on his chest-plate. This activated for 60 seconds the powerful magnet in the left hand to prevent slippage. Next he reached under with his right hand and placed it over his left.
He strained upward. The exoskeleton’s “muscles” protested with jerky fits and starts. Three more frustrating attempts and Duncan erected himself.
“That would’ve flipped a bull elephant over.”
Excited by that, Pearce asked Duncan to clear away 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 in the waning day.
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.”
“We have an ill civilian. Nothing serious, I don’t think. 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?”
“Haven’t ruled it out. At the moment, I’m not overly concerned. Will continue to monitor his vitals. I’ll try immunity enhancers and antibiotics, though I’ll have to go sparingly. Just thought I’d inform you right away.”
He hurried back up the slope. He told the regathered shovelers, including Ross and Appleton, to remove the debris pile-up on the metal and set more explosives.
Commander Sullivan appeared at his side. As she plucked debris from her hair and jumpsuit, Pearce told her about Ted. He then asked her to dispatch a pair from Diaz’ group to the coast to find the ingress river and test the water.
Three hours later, some 50 feet of the metal lay exposed in the massively dug-out slope.
Charles Duncan stood on the structure with a shovel in his hand, facing the dirt wall that rose two feet above his head and oozed tendrils of smoke. He rammed the shovel blade into the soil at waist level. A loud clank rang out.
Everyone froze, eyes on Duncan’s shovel, buried about twelve inches into the dirt. Rock? Or metal? Duncan made several more thrusts along a roughly level line. Each time, the same unvarying clank. Definitely a metal-on-metal clank.
A grin cut across Duncan’s bearded face. “Found something!”
“Good work!” Pearce said.
The explosives duo inserted a series of low-power C4 packs into the bank 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.”
“Should I be rolling the dice with the few human lives we have left, after what we’ve gone through and been given a second chance?”
Her hand touched his arm. It had been there often, helping to assuage his misery in the months before and after his wife’s death. He remembered how comforting the gesture was, and felt grateful for Sullivan’s kindness.
“I feel the same way,” she said softly. “But you know as well as I do we can’t ignore this. Sooner or later, we will go inside to extract any needed matériel. So it might as well be now while everything’s in place and a minimum of people are exposed. We’ll take precaution, and if something goes wrong, there are still nearly 100 others back at the—”
A sizzle on his communicator interrupted. “Go, Doc. What’s the good news?”
“You’ll have to get that from somebody else,” Diaz’ tinny voice said at his ear. “Ted has worsened. And five more have become ill. Same symptoms. Now I’m concerned. About a contagion.”
Pearce felt his stomach rising in his throat. Weren’t the Pilgrims nearly wiped out early on by disease, as well as by starvation? Was a wipe-out awaiting Hope’s people? After all they’d been through?
“I don’t have a lot of arrows in my quiver,” Diaz said. “Can’t do a proper diagnosis, not even comparative blood tests or a chem panel for toxicology. And not a single simple oximeter on this ship to measure blood oxygen. I feel like an 18th-century quack.”
Pearce heard her sigh, then say, “I fed all the known facts to DORIS, knowing full well she wasn’t programmed for this kind of work. She was just a little more helpful than my magboots. Tells me only if a brain and heart are ‘Normal’ or ‘Not Normal’–”
“Could we’ve brought a flu bug with us?”
“No, though I admit most of the sick have symptoms that mimic influenza – fever, weakness, fainting. Remember, before launch, Hope was scrubbed and all of us were found to be free of anything more than a cold. As for harmful agents on the planet that might cause sepsis, my chem detector — glad I have that — hasn’t found any. I may give one or two more of them antibiotics to see if I get a difference in—”
“What about radioactivity in the soil, though Olivia hasn’t detected any yet?”
“No,” she said. “The symptoms would be very different. But it’s an alien world. We checked anyway, 200 yards out in every direction. About 150 samples taken with the soil tester we thankfully have. I can test the soil better than I can my patients! The sick didn’t go anywhere the others didn’t go. Didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.”
“This does not inspire confidence. Want us to come back?” Pearce asked, half hoping she’d say yes.
“And do what? Get sick so I can quarantine you, too? If that’s an alien craft, put on your masks and go in there. Maybe you’ll find medical equipment that can help me — assuming we’d figure out how to operate it. Gotta go.”
Pearce called Ross and Appleton over and briefed the two and Sullivan on Diaz’ reports on the mysterious disease. After they had recovered somewhat from the blow, he waved a go-ahead at the explosives team.
A minute later, light dirt and debris showered down. Pearce, who’d crouched behind a tree, rose and took a step forward. He gasped. Clearly exposed was a sizable curved wall of dark-grey metal that dispelled all doubt about whether here on this planet was a long-buried alien craft.
In the fading daylight, something caught his attention: the indistinct outline of a door! His heart pounded. Access to the interior!
Not overly large, the door must have been for maintenance and/or escape. Its size and position meant that the structure they had dug out below it was a tail fin, a horizontal stabilizer.
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 be noxious, and told them to stay 100 feet away until he gave the okay.
The C4 warped the door but left it attached and unopened. Several gaps along its edges would let Duncan 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 carried her Geiger to within five yards of the hull.
“Harmless,” she said, her voice loud but 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.
On the fin, Duncan inserted the rivet-jointed fingers into a gap on each side of the 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.
In the dimness of dusk, Pearce saw a vertical rectangle of ominous black. His spine tingled. This was it, human beings’ first encounter with extraterrestrials, dead though they were. At the very least, it was a first encounter with alien technology. A good second best.
Lieutenant Tom Ross edged closer to Pearce. “If it’s too dangerous, send Livvy in first.”
Appleton, who had rejoined Pearce, flipped Ross the finger. “So brilliant, you shine like a black hole.”
“Just kind of thinking out loud’s all.”
“Loud, yes. Thinking, no. I’m thinking you’re truly a sign of the apocalypse.”
“Haven’t you heard? 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 said, “‘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?”
“They 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, I’ve seen far too many people 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 that looks to be in good shape. A door’s already open!”
“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.”
“I intend to.”
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, lips pursed. “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 twisted the knife: “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.”
At the door’s blackness, Olivia Appleton tweaked her green-back-lit Geiger counter to its highest sensitivity.
The team of four secured their oxygen masks and head lamps.
Over Appleton’s shoulder, Pearce saw the airlock ablaze with light. Its interior door was partially open. Appleton stepped in, the other three following. They moved through the airlock onto a narrow catwalk that ran 30 feet to a ladder descending into darkness.
“Still harmless grays,” Appleton said, her voice mask-dampened.
“Good. Soldier on, Ensign.” Already Pearce’s nerves were jangled.
They negotiated the ladder to the bottom and found themselves standing between two bulkhead walls in a ten-foot-wide passageway that apparently spanned the craft’s full width.
Lieutenant Tom Ross glanced around and up.
“Not one alien scribble or symbol anywhere. Embedded, I’m guessing. Nothing shows up till she’s powered up. Just like Hope. The catwalk and ladder are similar in size to ours.”
“Not surprised,” Pearce said. “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. Factoring in the influence of gravity, etcetera, ETs probably range in size from primordial dwarfs to 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?” Commander Sullivan asked.
“Been wondering. A good candidate: 118 Libra c. Just 15 light years from here, directly opposite Earth. It’s in its sun’s goldilocks zone, and spectral analysis showed its atmosphere could support organic life.”
“Why didn’t Earth receive signals from the planet, if it has an advanced civilization?” Sullivan asked. “Television. Radio. Energy signatures.”
“Technologically they lag Earth, I imagine. Let’s say it took the aliens 100,000 years to get here in this ship – which so far looks no more advanced than ours. Add another 10,000 for the ship to become buried. A hundred and ten thousand years ago, Earth had already been gone for 27,000 years. And 27,000 years before these aliens left their planet, their civilization probably hadn’t even learned how to send smoke signals to each other.”
“If you say so, Captain Einstein,” Appleton said.
Sullivan put her light just below Pearce’s face. “Buried ten thousand years! In all that time, no second effort? No rescue attempt? Makes me think their planet–”
“Was threatened and might be gone, too,” Ross said.
“Life is so much more fragile than I ever imagined,” Appleton said. “We…aren’t going to make it, are we?”
“We didn’t come all this far,” Pearce said in a stern voice, “just to die as soon as we got here. I think it was Benjamin Disraeli who said, ‘There is no education like adversity.’ I look forward to being very educated.”
He went over to a door he’d spotted. He knew they were aft and which way was fore, based on the pitch and shape of the tail fin they’d uncovered. The door’s location told him it would lead them fore.
He threw the recessed lever and slid the door open with unexpected quiet smoothness. In the alien craft’s tomb-like quiet, the colder, eons-old air from the ship’s deeper interior washed over them.
Pearce moved through the door. Before him sprawled a huge, empty compartment. On the floor were intertwining scrape marks and rows of evenly spaced bull-ring retractable tie-downs.
He lit up a side bulkhead wall and was not surprised to see a huge door that interrupted a line of carabiners. The door probably opened out and down into a loading ramp.
“No indication so far that the ship crashed.”
“Then what the hell happened?” Ross asked.
“Patience, please. Olivia, Geiger talking to you?”
She entered and stood next to him without answering. Pearce caught a flicker of fear in her eyes.
He palmed her shoulder. “We’re going to be just fine.” If only he could totally believe his own words.
The Ensign, her hand not steady, pointed to the door Pearce had already noticed. “There.”
They hurried across the compartment. Appleton pushed aside the door, exposing 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?
She advanced down the corridor slowly, her free hand skimming the wall as if it offered protection.
At the opening, she stopped.
“My gut tells me their computer system’s in here.” Her breathing was irregular and hard.
She took two more steps, hesitated, then turned out of sight.
“Olivia, wait!” Pearce said. His head throbbed. They were about to lay eyes on an alien technology, one they might be able to reverse engineer, or at least scavenge for parts.
Appleton reappeared, startling Pearce and almost bumping into him. Her light blinded him for a second. Above her mask, her wide-opened eyes darted.
“I…. I can’t believe this!” she said.
“What?” Sullivan shouted.
In two seconds the other three hairpin-pivoted into the opening. 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 and trying to wrap his mind around what he was seeing.
“This is not poss—” Commander Sullivan’s voice choked off.
They stared in silence at the dull-silver inscription across the upper edge of the mainframe:
RESTORATION AND INVIGORATION SYSTEM
“DORIS…,” Appleton said.
Pearce ripped his mask off and flung it over his shoulder, letting it dangle. A cough burst from his lungs. He sucked in the stale air he knew was being replaced by outside air. He bent and clasped his knees. He wanted to say something but the words stuck in his throat.
When his strength returned, he brushed the sweat from his forehead and straightened.
“This…is the smaller ship assembled in orbit alongside Hope. It was to be used either to rescue Hope if it had gone to Mars and run into trouble, or to send more supplies and settlers.”
Ross ripped off his mask. “Wait, what?”
Pearce took a moment. “To know anything for sure, to answer all the questions flying around in our skulls, we have to find the Captain’s Log. Let’s pray it’s a hard copy like mine and preserved.”
The other two tore off their masks. Commander Sullivan, leaning against the bulkhead, nodded, her lamplight dancing up and down on the opposite wall.
“It obviously left earth months after we did,” she said, catching her breath. “Had to be reconfigured, a crew trained and prepped….”
“It’s smaller,” Pearce said. “With the same engine as Hope’s. Higher speed. That’s how it arrived here…thousands of years earlier.”
“What in God’s name happened – on Earth and here?”
Pearce looked around, trained his light on a door opposite the main frame. “There’s our way to the cockpit.”
Sullivan turned to Ross. “What’s nearly as shocking as all this is that we found the ship. The odds against that – against you tripping on the damned thing–”
“Another reason I’m a little spun,” Ross said.
“Me, too,” Appleton said. Did Pearce catch a bit of sympathy in that? She added, “Don’t take that the wrong way.”
“I won’t. Thanks anyway. Oh, and don’t take that the wrong way.”
“Ice it, you two,” Pearce said. “I want to do this quick and clean.”
“Do what clean and…quick and…?” Appleton asked.
“On me, Ensign.” Had she not fully recovered from her shock?
They laid their O2 tanks and masks on the floor to be collected later. They rushed toward the door.
“Jason,” Sullivan said, “the asteroid must have missed!”
He paused. “Or did far less damage than projected.”
“So if civilization survived, why is this ship here?”
“Main reason we need the log.”
“And the ship’s passengers. Did they soon die off? Otherwise, think about it – in all that time, wouldn’t they have reproduced exponentially, built whole cities, states, even nations?”
“What if the cockpit door is locked?”
“Did I mention I brought along my personal stash of C4 and detonators?”
Ross and Appleton had grouped up with them.
“Tom…,” the Ensign said. “Feeling funny…hot….”
She dropped her Geiger. It hit with a jarring clink! Sullivan scooped it up and secured it to her belt.
Appleton’s knees buckled.
“Livvy!” Ross yelled. He caught her and laid her down her on the cold metal floor. He kept one hand under her neck. “Look at me!”
Her glistening forehead knitted as her eyes struggled to focus on his face.
“Talk to me!” Panic was in his voice.
“Tom—? My wingman… You always had my six. My … bad. Go on … without me. Will wait…. Know what? I 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, the most dangerous thing anyone in the universe could ever do is get between Tom Ross and Olivia Appleton.”
He twisted, fixed his headlamp on Pearce and Sullivan. “She’s running a temp. You two go on. I can get her up the ladder. Charles’ll help me take her to the ship. I’ll leave your backpacks.”
“Christ,” Pearce said. “Looks like she has what Doc says the others have. Don’t speak to anyone but Diaz about this ship. And remind Charles and his crew to keep quiet. If you’re asked about Sull and me, 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 the story on Earth,” Sullivan said.
Ross hoisted Appleton to her feet and heaved her limp body up onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. “Hasta la vista.”
Pearce looked at 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,” Sullivan said, her forehead wrinkled 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!” Pearce said. “It’s locked!”
“Sealed to protect the contents,” Sullivan said.
Pearce blew out air. “You’re right. They knew we’d get inside if we found them.”
“A big ‘if,’ considering the ship was buried, which is something I’m sure they didn’t figure would happen.”
Pearce leaned closer and scraped the heel of his hand back and forth along the front edge of the safe’s top.
“Etchings. Numbers…eight, nine, ten of them– the combination!”
After punching in the numbers, he wrenched the safe door open.
“There. A log just like mine. Good old ink-pen technology.”
He opened the log on a retractable shelf. “Last-entry date 17 November 124,583! More than 14,000 years ago!”
He glanced at Sullivan, who shook her head once in obvious disbelief. He began scanning the log, his finger tracing down the lines of the first page.
“The essential personnel data. Crew names, ranks. Passenger list. Fifty total. Ship’s captain is…Norma Binson. The ship was renamed Hope II. Decent of them. Here. Departure date 24 May 2039. Two friggin’ years after we left.”
“So what the hell happened?”
“Binson must’ve made notes…. Wait, bingo.”
He read aloud from a section she’d dated 14 May 2039, ten days before they left Earth. Binson had dubbed the section “Pre-Lauch”:
“Immediately after the grav-tug rocket malfunctioned and veered away from 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 even if both the cannons and the nukes were used together, they 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 2-klick-wide chunk that unfortunately slammed into the caldera at Yellowstone National Park.
The impact and the subsequent bouncing of the Earth’s crust didn’t just set off a series of massive earthquakes that killed hundreds of thousands. It also created such a perturbation in the caldera that volcanologists predicted an extinction-class eruption in the caldera to occur sometime in early June 2040.”
When Sullivan 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 felt numb. If you shook a can of pop, then snapped off the tab — boom. That was what the asteroid chunk set up to happen with the magma and poisonous gases trapped below the caldera.”
He looked at Commander Sullivan, keeping the edge of his light out of her face just enough to see her eyes glistening up.
“Jason…we are the last 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 would not cling to that hope?
“Why,” she said, anger in her voice, “did Hope II make a 124,000-year journey to a planet that might turn out to be uninhabitable? Why not just stick the ship in orbit around the sun for a few thousand years to give Earth time to heal?”
“Snowball Earth, my guess. They couldn’t take the chance. But let’s see if Binson…. Hell yes. She brings it up in the very next paragraph:
Scientists feared the winter holocaust might soon turn Earth into a freezer locker. A snowball Earth, completely covered over with mile-high glaciers.
“It happened once before,” Pearce said. “Pre-Cambrian times. It lasted millions of years. Far too long for anybody to be suspended in the preservation gel.”
He returned to the log. “Oh, a sad note:
‘The day before Hope II launched, Project Manager Victor Powell committed suicide.'”
“Any reason given?” Sullivan asked.
“Probably wasn’t picked for Hope II, either. Would’ve meant he had nothing to live for. Bet millions of people took that route.”
He shoved the thought out of his mind and flipped 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. “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.”
The Captain looked at Sullivan. “This—”
“The same thing affecting our people!”
A tightness constricted his throat just below his chin. He forced himself to concentrate and 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 starting a civilization to await the passengers of Hope.”
“Date 17 Nov., 07:33: My final entry. Only three of us are left. Rachel and Phillipe, who still have a little strength, will turn on the transponder, though it will last only a few years. They will open or unlock all interior doors. Then we will exit Hope II for the last time, sealing it up as we leave.”
“To: Captain Jason Pearce of Hope: If by some miracle you find this, please know it greatly saddens me knowing what awaits you. I pray that somehow you and your people are able to escape this ‘disease’ that has killed us. May God be with you.”
Pearce slammed the log shut and tucked it under his arm. “We’d better get back pronto and figure this out. Otherwise, game over.”
“If we don’t survive, we’ve made the last journey humankind will ever make,” Doc Diaz said in a soft, low voice. If she expected a response, she didn’t get one.
She stood inside the closed cockpit with Captain Pearce, Commander Sullivan, and Lieutenant Ross. None of them took much notice of the outside activity visible through a side viewing window: supplies being carried into dome homes, a rectangle of land being cultivated and readied for seeding….
Like Ross, Diaz had mostly recovered from the devastating news about Earth and Hope II’s crew.
She rubbed her upper arm and looked at Pearce. “Damn it, we’ve got ten more sick! No disease, no radioactivity, no toxins to be found. What?”
“If our Doc can’t figure it out,” Ross said, “what chance do we have?”
Exhausted, Pearce dragged the palm of his hand down over his face. He regarded the Doc again.
“You said Appleton, too, has stabilized since you put her in quarantine with the others–“
“Very happy to hear that,” Ross said.
“All of our sick have stabilized,” Pearce said. “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….” Commander Sullivan said.
Pearce nodded absently. He recalled an old habit developed from a research-writing lesson: When you don’t know which direction to take, put your assumptions and opinions aside, gather all the available facts, and see where they lead. What did he have to lose with this approach to a possible solution? Just valuable time!
“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 away from the cockpit, he spread his hands and said, “I don’t know where to start.”
“They say the beginning’s good, if we’re going to look at everything,” Ross said.
Pearce gave him an acknowledging glance. “Except I don’t know where the beginning is.”
He gazed upward at no particular spot as he often did when hailing DORIS. “DORIS, play back everything you said after Hope reduced speed, arrived at the planet, and made its initial entry into the atmosphere.”
DORIS said, “Beginning playback.”
“Captain Jason Pearce. Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain? Air is reestablished. Lighting up. Nutrients are supplied. Your cylinder’s 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 jerked out of a bulkhead niche.
“Bear with me,” Pearce told her. “You did verify our air quality, O2 level?”
A hint of irritation flashed in her eyes. “Of course.”
“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?”
“You know I don’t have nano probes or even a decent microscope. Couldn’t examine them on a cellular level. Anyway, DORIS said—”
“I know.” Pearce wiped sweat from his upper lip. “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! Find the section on the gel.”
Moments later she rotated the handbook toward him. Her finger tapped. “Here.”
“Have you read it yourself yet?”
“I’ve had my hands full.”
He skimmed, then, with Sullivan leaning in, 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, lemurs, and other small mammals!‘ In goddamn animals! In humans, it says ‘the minimum time for complete purging is three days‘!”
Sullivan drew back sharply. Her intake of air was audible. “DORIS…she made a critical error. Substituted —”
“Hours for days!” Pearce said. A petrifying thought hit him. Was Victor Powell’s prophecy being fulfilled? Did this prove humans didn’t deserve to survive?
“Well,” Ross said, “that craters my morale to hell. Those engineers couldn’t make DORIS 100 percent error-free, and humanity will pay the price. Never put your total faith in a machine. Never fly without a parachute.”
Diaz had her head down, the back of her fist pressed against her lips. Her eyes blinked erratically. Finally, understanding seemed to work across her face. She looked up at Pearce.
“If the gel residue’s still in us when we’re outside, the planet’s four percent less oxygen can’t fully purge it, can’t burn it off. The gel is 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 brought the sick inside. The ship’s oxygen—”
“Was sufficient to break down the gel and flush it out of their bodies—”
“As it was designed to do.”
“And to think I was getting ready to move them all outside before you and the Commander returned. I figured the fresh air might help. I had been feeling guilty and selfish for keeping them in just for my convenience.”
She looked off Pearce to Sullivan. “Thank our lucky galaxies, we have a five-day supply of O2 left.”
“Who would’ve ever guessed heat intolerance and selfishness would save humankind,” Pearce said. He pivoted to Ross. “Get everybody inside and lock down!”
Captain Jason Pearce, along with Commander Faye Sullivan and Lieutenant Tom Ross, had grouped up in the computer-systems niche. They stood slightly behind and to the side of Charles Duncan.
Still a hulking presence without his exo, Duncan had lit up DORIS’ holographic monitors. The others watched the former cyber cop intently. Both of his hands gesticulated in the air, his fingers 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. No glitches. Nanophotonic quantum phase switching unaltered. Heuristic analysis finally shows….no viruses— ”
“So what’s the subtext here?” Ross said, irritation in his voice.
“Keep your anchor down, Lieuy,” Duncan said, giving Ross glancing attention. “Don’t want to fall through a trap door that DORIS set if she somehow went rogue. I know everybody’s all buzzed up about that three-hours thing…. Checking updates, most recent programming activity… Hold on…now rounding third…. Okay, got something…a footprint. Yeah…about that, the three-hours thing?”
He turned at the waist and eyed them for a second.
“Not an error we can pin on DORIS’s alleged 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 because of human intervention. A rogue DORIS is not.”
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 stared speechless at Duncan. Shock bodyslammed Pearce, but in the next second, fierce anger exploded in his brain.
Ross’s lower lip curled. “What knuckle-shit would do something like that?”
“On both ships!” Sullivan said.
Duncan turned to the Captain. “Any ideas?”
Pearce caught Sullivan’s stare. Her eyes were reading him as they had done so many times before.
“Jason? What? Yes. I can see it in your face. You know who it–”
“A lot of the people who were working on the project,” Pearce said, “were angry over not being picked for the journey. But only Victor 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.”
Pearce again burned with intense rage. Powell had reached out across the millennia and trillions of miles in an attempt 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,” Pearce said, “would’ve taken too much time. Powell no doubt didn’t want to dally too long with the AI. That would attract curious eyes — especially the eyes of the inspectors who were members of the union Powell was known to hate. That might also explain why he didn’t just steal the gel handbook he wasn’t seen walking in with.”
[DID I SAY EARLIER THAT POWELL WAS ALONE DURING HIS WALK-THRU IN HIS MAGBOOTS?]
“Well, that’s that,” Duncan said. “I declare DORIS to be ninety-nine point nine percent error free!” He added with a grin and a shrug: “Best I can do.”
Dr. Angela Diaz approached from the quarantine compartment wearing the vestige of a smile despite appearing frazzled. Then Pearce told her about Powell.
She reflected on it for a moment, agony in her eyes. Finally, her smile returned. “Some good news. All of my patients are recovering. And I don’t anticipate relapses.”
The other three said in unison, “Oh, thank God.” Sullivan added a light applause.
“How’s this for recovery, Doc?”
Everyone turned to see Ensign Olivia Appleton. She’d walked out of quarantine on her own. Though pale and weak-looking, she undoubtedly was grateful to be on her feet.
Ross seemed grateful to see her on her feet.
“Most of them are up milling around,” she said. “They’ll be walking out soon.”
The Doc looked from Appleton to Pearce. “We can bring her up to date.”
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,” Sullivan said. “If it hadn’t been for them, and the Doc here….”
“True,” Appleton said, “but let’s not forget Tom’s huge contribution.” She directed a rueful smile at the Lieutenant.
Ross stiffened a bit and returned a questioning, semi-hard stare. “Say again?”
Though he 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?
“Just think,” she said to the others but kept 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 the Lieutenant. Reading his face, she wrapped her arms around his waist.
“People are too important, life is too precious. We have to stop being so petty and mean to each other. Can you and I reboot?”
Pearce fought off picturing his dead wife, as well as the billions of lives lost on Earth. Yes, people were far, far too important. His gaze drifted to Sullivan. It hit him. She was far too important.
Ross still hadn’t returned Appleton’s embrace. “Well, knock me over with a hummingbird feather. Finally, a hug out of you?”
“If you still have my ring,” Appleton said, her grin full-fledged, “you can throw it back at me.”
“In my pocket where it’s always been.” He finally put his arms around her.
Appleton said to Pearce, “I know it’s not above your pay grade to hitch up couples.”
“Pearce laughed. “True enough….” He noticed Sullivan was staring at the floor.
“S-u-l-l…,” he teased, “what’s up?”
She glanced over, 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, what are you trying to–“
“No no no no. I was just, you know, talking hypothetically–”
She put her hands together and pushed them forward.
“Okay, cards on the table, and I don’t give a crap who hears. 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.”
She worked an uncomfortable-looking smile. “There. I thought I’d go for broke, since we might not make it past next week.”
“Sull,” Pearce said, “I was about to put my cards on the table, too. See you and raise you one. What do you think about a double wedding? I’ll authorize Diaz to perform the ceremony.”
“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 up at Ross. “Dr. Diaz tells me I’m two months along.”
Ross had the look of one who realizes he has just been stabbed in the stomach but doesn’t yet feel the pain. “Uh! You — you mean I’m going to be a daddy!”
“That gel truly is remarkable.” She looked at Diaz. “You’re another one that’s only 99 percent error free. Obviously I’ve been pregnant for almost 137,000 years!”
As they laughed, Pearce placed his hand on the small of Sullivan’s back and guided her fore. Inside the cockpit, they admired the colorful landscape of the human race’s new home.
“Under my authority,” Pearce said, “the name of this planet is…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 just found out you didn’t have to try too hard.”
Victor Powell, he thought, had been wrong. He turned to the woman he now knew he loved very much. “We do deserve to live.”
To her quizzical look, he said, “I’ll explain later.” Without the slightest attempt to smile, he added: “There is a way we can thank each other. DORIS – and you’d better be 100-percent reliable on this – close and lock 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? email@example.com
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: