The world has changed: it is good now, united, peaceful. When the whole planet became a single political and economic entity, it was hard in the beginning, and restructuring took long years of strenuous labor on the part of our citizens and the Party. Finally we are able to put all of that behind us and start seeing and enjoying some tangible results of our work. The year two thousand and eleven has shown that we, the human race, are finally prepared to move forward. It is with your help, citizens, that the Party and the United Industries were able to accomplish some amazing things that will contribute to the well-being of human womyn and men today and for generations to come.
Thanks to your trust and support the Eden program colony was reopened on Mars. We finally implemented the space ed reform in schools and colleges all over the world, and our physicists synthesized a new promising model of the Big Bang, which brought us one step closer to under- standing of the world’s genesis. Thanks to a recent breakthrough in ecological research and with the help of the hard-working womyn and men of the Sustainable Manufacturing Supervision Com- mittee, we reduced the carbon footprint of the space sector by an astounding twenty-six percent.
The most important breakthroughs, as usual, came from the private sector. The ITS Corporation, founded by Ms. Anele Johnson, our distinguished citizen and pioneer civil space explorer, in collaboration with SpaceX, launched a new scientific mission to Europa with fifty-two specialists in various fields on board. If the extraterrestrial life exists in the Solar system, we are going to find it. If not, this mission will significantly improve our methodology and ultimately strengthen our expertise in detecting life forms on unexplored planetary bodies.
Two thousand and eleven was truly the first year of the rest of the United Earth’s history. We all have a goal now, each and every one of us feels like they share a common purpose. Everything the United Earth does is directed toward space exploration, and our economy has reached its historic high. Our predecessors built death machines, looked for more effective ways to destroy each other and ultimately our home world. All of my energy and that of the Party have been directed toward broadening our horizons, and you can see the results of our efforts today. It is a truly exciting time in our history, and the way our culture is shaping up continues to—
Greg flipped a switch, and the screen of a giant retro television set went black with a high-pitched analogue squeak.
“Hey, I was watching that!” Stacy didn’t sound amused. Greg knew that she watched each State of the Union address religiously. First, the United States, now, the United Earth. It didn’t matter, they had to be at the HQ in twenty minutes, and they had a pretty good idea of what President Shijuyama was going to say anyhow.
“Look, we are late, and if you wanna talk to Josh, we better get going,” he said.
“This is going to be the first State of the Union that I miss.”
“You can watch it on UStream on the way to the HQ.”
They didn’t have time to argue, and Greg knew that Stacy, despite her childish attitude, was capable of understanding that.
“I’ll watch it on YouTube tonight,” Stacy groaned and slowly lifted her massive body from the couch. Judging by her shiny forehead, that took quite a bit of effort.
“I’ve got the remote.”
Greg was the first to leave the house and reach the driveway. He stopped on the sidewalk, flipped the car remote in his left hand and pressed the Call button on it.
“Agh, it”s fucking chilly,” said Stacy, catching up. Then she stopped, drew a breath and added, wistfully: “I wonder how Josh is doing out there.”
That day’s Google Car was a green Chevrolet sedan with a cheerful ITS ad on both sides. The car looked new, but Greg could already smell a mixture of piss, coffee and baby formula when he opened the door. It was amazing how similar the suburbs were to the city in that regard.
Greg got into the front left passenger’s seat, Stacy occupied both of the back ones, assuming a half-lying position and pulling a tablet computer from the ceiling.
“International Transport Spacelines Headquarters,” said Greg, holding the Destination button on the remote control. The Google Car audio system made an electronic feedback sound that vaguely resembled a water drop, halted for a few seconds, processing the command, then asked in an unnaturally polite male voice:
“Please confirm destination: International Transport Spacelines Corporation HQ, Palo Alto, California.”
“Yes,” replied Greg, putting the remote control back into his pocket. The car made another annoying sound and started to move.
As the Google Car pulled up by the front entrance of the ITS building, Greg realized that the radio had been off all along. Not only that, but Stacy did not attempt to watch what was left of Shijuyama’s State of the Union address on the car’s tablet computer that she had grabbed in the beginning of their journey. It was either that or she had been watching it without sound, which made even less sense when you started to think about it.
When the car came to a complete halt, and the on-board sound system played its ever-annoying upbeat tune that was meant to announce the end of the trip, Greg turned toward the back seats and leaned forward in an attempt to get a better look of Stacy’s face.
She was lying on the seat, wide awake, concentrated on the car’s plastic ceiling. The tablet was back in its original slot. Greg didn’t say anything, sitting still in a taxi driver position, trying to read Stacy’s mind—a skill that he never quite learned during the eight years they’d worked together. After a while, Stacy looked at him and said:
“I am still thinking about Josh. How long has he been there?”
“I don’t know...a few months, maybe?”
“And before that, the training camp? Who are those people he’s with?”
“A few more months, and, well, half of them are ITS and SpaceX staff, the other half—”
“The question was rhetorical. I know who those fucking people are, I helped pick them myself—”
“—I just don’t understand how he could volunteer. How could it be only his decision? I know I encouraged him to follow his ambition, but—”
She didn’t finish her thought, but Greg knew what she was going to say.
“I have been getting pretty worked up about it. It’s just hard, you know? My name is still Johnson, and you know what happened to my mom when she—”
She didn’t finish her thought, but Greg knew what she was going to say.
“And now Josh goes the fuck knows where. Fucking Jupiter, of all places, seriously?”
Greg wanted to calm Stacy down, but there was no time left, and he knew that the signal from Europa was stable enough to have an actual conversation only for very limited periods of time, and only God knew when the next opportunity to talk to Josh would present itself. On the other hand, he couldn’t have Stacy scream and shout in the control room like she did the previous time. Partner at ITS or not, she still had to follow the security protocol in there, and it was Greg’s job to make sure that she did.
“Look, Stacy, we’re at the HQ, how about we—” he began.
“Do you realize how fucked up this whole situation is? Just tell me this, and we can go.”
Stacy didn’t sound hysterical, which was a relief. If he’d been in her place, Greg would probably have been beside himself. The situation was fucked up, alright.
Stacy’s mother, the infamous Anele Johnson, founder of the ITS Corporation, disappeared along with her partner and the first prototype of a Nautilus-type tourist space yacht. Some cruiser spacecraft captains claimed that they’d seen or detected the presence of the vessel in Alpha Centauri and at the far reaches of the Solar system. In some of these stories the ship sent out distress signals, in others all of its communications appeared to be dead. What all of them had in common was that they were invariably creepy as fuck and always ended with the ship disappearing without a trace. This made Stacy’s mother a ghost lady in addition to being an important historic figure.
“I understand, of course I do,” said Greg, “But who’s to say that Josh will disappear? I’m pretty sure that it would be completely impossible to make that guy just vanish. No ma’am, not with that ego.”
Stacy didn’t smile, but her eyes stopped being cloudy, and her gaze was fixed on Greg now, which was a good sign. He continued:
“Now, c’mon, let’s go inside. Promise that you won’t make a scene. It’s not a good time for that. You can be as angry at Josh as you want when he gets back. Right now he really needs our support.”
Greg helped Stacy get out of the car and, when they both were on the sidewalk, he pressed the Leave button on the remote, sending the vehicle on its way. It was kind of amazing how fast everyone got used to all things AI-controlled. At first the general public was suspicious of the new technology, just as they were suspicious of augmented reality glasses before, and of cellphones before that, but ten years barely went by before the remaining human-controlled cars, trains, boats and airplanes were voted out of existence by a Party committee as unsafe and obsolete. Then, after years of extensive testing and experiments, ITS launched the first computer-operated spaceship, making artificial intelligence a de-facto standard in the transportation industry. From that point on it was only a question of time before the public perception of the new technology caught up with the demand for it. This made Greg think of the new model of the AI module on board Europa-11, Josh’s ship. He shook his head and followed Stacy into the building.
The ITS lobby had a clean futuristic look that you would expect from a lobby of a major tech company. True, ITS was as much about tourism as it was about building spaceships, and the giant aquarium with live squid on one of the walls attested to that, but the overall Kubrick-esque vibe of the place helped sell tickets just as much. People who came there got the first taste of the space travel experience they were expecting. Comfort out of their comfort zone, as the corporate slogan went.
Apart from the front desk clerks and the customer service specialists, none of the ITS staff worked in that part of the building. It was unusual for someone from the engineering or the senior staff to enter through the front door, but Greg figured that it would take longer to give directions to the Google Car than to walk from there to the control room.
The rest of the building was all function and none of the form: white suspended ceilings, gray concrete walls and gray tiled floors. Visitors weren’t allowed to go beyond the front desk, and people who worked at ITS typically didn’t care about fancy lamps and ergonomic furniture. There were occasional colored poofs and bamboo trees in halls and corridors of the closed part of the building, but the overall atmosphere was very no nonsense.
Stacy and Greg were passing the security check downstairs when an alarm went off in the control room. This could mean a lot of things, and Greg wasn’t one to jump to conclusions, but they really had to hurry up, besides, they were already five minutes late, and, as the ITS engineering team’s saying went, spacetime was not nobody’s bitch.
“There you are, come on, we’ve got a situation,” said Ellen, chief engineer of the Europa-11 program, stepping out of the control room. She looked even more disheveled and preoccupied than usual.
“What is—” started Stacy, but didn’t finish, because they had stepped into the control room, where everything immediately became crystal clear.
The room was in absolute chaos: people were typing on their computers frantically, some were running from one workstation to another, giving and receiving orders, a few dozen phone conversations were happening at the same time. A giant computer screen on the wall showed a wireframe image of the Europa-11 spacecraft on black background with all of the vital data regarding its systems and crew floating around. The ship didn’t look good: most of it was red, with little blue dots representing the crew members. Stacy gasped and let out a muffled cry of terror when she saw that there were only eleven of those left. The life support system was in critical condition, as reported by a giant red warning message near the bottom of the screen. All but one Kliper escape pods were disconnected and drifting away from the ship. None of them had any crew members inside.
“Fuck me,” said Greg once the initial shock passed, “What happened? Where’s the crew?”
“We aren’t sure yet,” said Ellen, “It looks like sabotage. Most of the crew are dead or missing. We were able to establish contact with Josh who was in the systems bay when this happened, but the connection is unstable.’
“Is he okay?” asked Stacy.
“He is, but he won’t be if he doesn’t get to the remaining Kliper. We contacted all of the spacecraft in the vicinity, but it is unclear whether they will be able to get there before the life support system goes offline.’
“Which systems are still nominal?” asked Greg.
“We were able to restore door control and heating with Josh’s help, but the AI of the ship is blocking any further intervention, invoking the Code Red security protocol,” said Ellen.
“Shit. I knew this thing required more testing,” said Greg and then bit his tongue, realizing that it was he who signed off on the security status of Europa-11 before its departure.
Before anyone could say anything else, Josh’s userpic appeared in the top right corner of the screen, and the room went completely silent within a couple of seconds. Then the audio stream loaded, and Greg started hearing his friend’s voice. The connection quality was so poor that the words were barely intelligible:
“...I...this is not...left...the real threat...Klipers...transmission...is jamming...’
While these words were coming out of the speakers, all but one blue dots disappeared from the plan of the ship, and the life support system warning now signaled that it was no longer operational. Josh appeared online when that happened, although the blue dot in the systems bay had already disappeared. Then a loud gasp came out of the speakers, followed by radio silence.
The room was completely still, no one moved, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was looking at the screen, waiting for something to happen. After all, there was only so much they could do from the control center.
Greg was hypnotized by the remaining blue dot, making its way from the bridge to the remaining Kliper. It wasn’t Josh.
Josh was gone.
The realization didn’t come at once, but when it did, Greg threw a quick glance at Stacy. She was standing next to the nearest computer terminal with a headset in her hand, looking at the screen blankly. She didn’t have time to say a word into the microphone before the connection broke. She was shivering.
Over the next five minutes, the dot moved, really slowly, on the ship’s wireframe plan. The moment it reached the Kliper, the screen went black for a split second, then Europa-11 reappeared, this time without any indication of the Kliper or the remaining crew member. The wireframe of the ship was green again, as if nothing had happened. The on-board AI was broadcasting a distress signal in all directions.
Ellen broke the silence by saying in a dry, emotionless voice:
“The reactor. It’s gonna blow.’
Everyone in the room knew that those were the last ten seconds of the Europa-11 program. Someone cut the alarm off.
Stacy started to cry softly as she sat down on the floor, trembling, unable sustain the pressure, giving in to gravity. Ellen, Greg and a few others followed her example.
It was all over.