#NaNoWriMo 2017 Short Story #7 of 10 — The Final Voyage

It was dark. It always was. 390 million miles was a long way from home. Add another 90 million and you’ve got the sun. Distance was real. Supposedly, it makes the heart grow fonder, but I disagree. Maybe it makes your heart smaller. That is what all the gravity simulating equipment is supposed to prevent, anyway.

“Hey, Ann, how is our trajectory looking?” Ann was my other crewmate. Just us two. Alone in the void for the last few years.

She replied calmly. “Launch was within the required parameters. Performance of all main systems is nominal. Current trajectory has us on six year return journey. Going to be a long haul. If only they had invented those sleep pods, like in the movies!” Chuckling, Ann gave me a soft punch in the shoulder.

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Prior to leaving on this mission, our class of astronauts, a total of thirty, were measured on many different aspects of not only physical and mental preparedness, but also compatibility. Optimal participants in this mission had to be ready to endure the rigors of fifteen years in space, three years of hard labor at the mission base at Europa, and nearly a quarter of a lifetime alone with just one other soul. Ultimately, after a year of tests and reviews, Ann and I had been chosen for the mission.

Shocked by their decision, I simply couldn’t believe it. After a long and successful history, NASA was finally finished. The federal government couldn’t afford to keep throwing money the way of NASA with so many issues on the homefront. Healthcare and infrastructure were lagging behind the rest of the world and causing problems. Somehow, everyone in Congress was motivated to compromise and solve the issues. Military spending was cut for the first time in a very long time. Space exploration just happened to be next on the list. It was hard to object the altruistic intentions of funding priorities. We all said the right things and secretly hoped the funding would come back someday or that private companies would fund these missions, but we knew the truth. There would be just one final voyage.

Deciding between dozens of mission profiles wasn’t easy. For the cost and duration of our mission to Europa, we could have done numerous other things. Moonbases. Space stations. Hundreds of satellites and probes to explore every niche of the Solar System. So why choose a costly, risky, and lengthy single destination mission like Europa? The answer, of course, was simple.

Europa had alien life, and it would take human hands and ingenuity to safely collect, analyze, and potentially recover this for study on Earth. The key to our own origins could be found in the simple organisms of this distant world. Without future missions, there would be no need for bases or stations elsewhere in the cosmos. What was needed was this last bit of discovery. To once and forever end the debate of whether or not we were alone in the Universe.

It was ten years prior to our launch that the Europa mission was chosen as the best profile for us to undertake. A probe that had visited there a decade before that made the groundbreaking discovery. However, scientists couldn’t figure out in enough time how to make a robot and unmanned probe accomplish what they wanted — a chance to bring the organisms to Earth for study. That needed a human.

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Life seems short now. We were 25 when we left for the mission and would be pushing 40 when we returned to Earth. Neither of us had families (which was a big reason they chose us) and had the best genetic makeup to resist the intense radiation of such prolonged exposure in space. Even with that advantage, we knew that our years outside the protection of Earth’s atmosphere would most likely lead to many fewer years of health at the back end of our lives. Of course, it was a no brainer. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to potentially rewrite history for all of humanity?

“That was some launch off the surface. For a moment there I didn’t think we had enough juice for the rendezvous. What were the final numbers?” My companion asked the question, trying to drum up some conversation. The front end of our trip was loaded with tasks, but they didn’t specifically script out much for the second half. We were on extreme rations, reclaimed water (from you know what), and running on fumes. Honestly, I would probably sleep as much as I could.

“Hmmm…” I looked over some screenshots and reports from takeoff. “Wow, you are right. We had less than 3 percent of our fuel left. It looks like some of chemical makeup of Europa’s air stole energy content from it. The tolerances that were planned for should have left over 10% left. That low of a margin gives us even less for course correction. Of course, I haven’t heard any new reports from NASA since before we left, so we must be fine.”

Long stretches of silence were nothing new. With the agency winding down in resources, we knew that sections of their workforce would be taken down over time as their need dwindled. In normal times, NASA had communication facilities around the globe to ensure that nearly 100% of the time, communications could come and go. However as was proposed in the plan before we left the non-United States based stations would be moved offline. That meant that only a fraction of the time that communications would get through. With only six years to go, many of the home front employees would have been let go. It was lonely not to hear from home.

Other things played with your mind while away from the Earth. Things like, wow, if this spacesuit were to rupture or if a machine breaks down or if I break a leg, that’s it. Game over. After a year, you acclimate, but I can tell you there was a lot of fear at first. After that you worry about the planet. Did somebody launch a nuclear strike? Did the United States still exist? What about the climate? Is the Earth baking? Getting past the not knowing was challenging. I still ask myself these things today.

“Hey Ann, you mind checking to make sure our specimen survived the launch intact?” I was technically the mission’s commander, so I could give orders. Truthfully, we shared most of the duties. It seemed silly to be ordering around one person, especially someone as talented as Ann.

Our spacecraft was slightly larger than the Apollo crafts that you might be familiar with. You know, the ones with three people crammed into a tight space, elbow to elbow? With only two people you got more room there to begin with. However, we had a pillar in the middle where our seats where. In front of us were the dashboards with the controls and data. Underneath our seats were the sleeping hammocks that we could strap ourselves into. Behind us, we had two more sections. One was the anti-gravity section. Here we could exercise on a bicycle that was specially designed to give us muscle workouts on all of our main groups to try to avoid as much atrophy as possible.

The other section was the specimen recovery section. This was built like a super-advanced refrigerator. It would be climate controlled to the exact specifications needed. Essentially, it was configured in such a way that it emulated Europa’s atmosphere and surface conditions. Thoughtfully and brilliantly, this section was also built to detach from the rest of the spaceship for easy transport once we were home. In many ways, the mission wasn’t a success if we made it home alive. It was only a success if the organism did.

Ann floated over to the hatch. She made a visual inspection, then navigated through the system panels, looking at the hard data. “Things look great Elliot. The ecosystem is robust and the environment control systems are all operating nominally. With that task out of the way, she floated back and latched herself down. All of the excitement out of the way, it was back to filling time again.

Time in space was a slow drag. Can you imagine spending six years of your life in your room, then going into another room for three years, then back to your old room for another six? Yeah, that is what we’re going through. Having a partner was crucial to mission success, but other innovations have been key in helping move the time along.

Exercising was one such activity that was made better due to some pretty nifty technology. While on the bike we would wear a special headset. With it on, a nature trail, cityscape, desert hike, and endless other virtual landscapes would appear all around us. Lifelike and vibrant, you felt lost in it after only a few minutes. The brain can’t tell that the visions aren’t real. To it, you are actually there. After our hours of exercise each day (required, of course, or we’ll turn to mush), you truly feel like you’ve been somewhere else.

We were also allowed to bring along a personal laptop with up to one hundred terabytes of solid state storage. Lightning fast rendering meant we could play offline video games (the internet didn’t quite reach Europa, even now) and store thousands of hours of movies and television shows. Books, essentially every single award winning work written, could also fit on the hard drive. Amazingly, these computers survived for over a decade in great working order. When NASA would apply themselves, incredible things were certainly possible.

Outside of these activities, Anne and I would talk. After this many years together, doing the same things over and over again, it was challenging to find new things to talk about. Topics ranged from our favorite missions at NASA, memories from growing up, God and religion, and who we thought won the World Series every year since we’ve been gone.

You train so hard and so long to get to this point in your career that mentally you become very detached. Almost an expert at detachment. This is crucial, as it staves off homesickness and keeps you from going insane from the isolation. Our brains were the last line of defense, at least as much as the hull of the shape was. Staying sharp through gaming, talking, and exercise made surviving this experience possible.

“So, Ann. You said you believed in God, right.”

“Come on, Elliot, we’ve been through this. Yes, I believe in God. Even more so after this incredible journey and all we’ve seen and all we’ve experienced.” She was adamant, as usual, in her position. Most religious people that I’ve met are. No matter what walk of life, they stick to their faith even when faced with the most confounding evidence.

“Right behind us,” I flip my head backward, “Is an alien being. When we get that back to Earth, we will be able to analyze and test it and learn a lot about how it came to exist on Europa. Here is what that means Ann. What that means is, with this extraterrestrial specimen here, that your Lord God Jesus didn’t come to save it. What kind of God would leave out an entire planet?” I try and keep calm, but these debates make me a little angry. They probably grouped us because a debating dynamic would keep our brains stronger, but I often wonder why NASA paired me with the polar opposite in beliefs about God.

She took a deep breath, and then offered her rebuttal. “Behind us right now is a simple organism. We are human. Totally different things. To me, this shows the power of God’s abilities. All we know is how life survives on Earth. We couldn’t even imagine how life might grow on other planets and systems. Yet here we have life that clearly doesn’t play by our rules. Can’t we drop our pride for one second and realize that this is beyond our understanding? I’m a scientist, just like you. This is my life too. You know as well as me there are many things that science can’t account for. Do I have the answers to them? No? Does it feel like a cop-out to say God? Sometimes, if I’m honest, yes. But why can’t it be?”

Having these discussions was important, but we also needed to set a limit on it. After all, we had to spend fifteen years alone together. We could afford to mentally joust, but we couldn’t afford to all out fight. I put up my hands to signal last turn, and she, begrudgingly, obliged.

“Let’s say you are right. God put this specimen here. Why? Why would he pick Europa out of any other body in the solar system? It doesn’t make sense. Yes, you can have your “passes all understanding” but in my life and before me, almost everything was discovered by science. There is always a logical reason. Ways of explaining things that don’t need God. Ultimately, and we can discuss this later, I believe the last reason to believe in any God is because we are afraid of death. Scared of what comes. Petrified of oblivion. Truly, that is quite the terrifying thought isn’t it? To be rent from existent? How does it happen? What is like to no longer exist? With God, you don’t have to approach those questions. Without, I just accept my fate.”

“What about the possibility of hell?” she quietly stated back my direction.

This annoyed me. We had rules for a reason. “Nope. Not now. We are done with this discussion as per our agreed upon rules. Let’s take this up another time.”

She persisted. “No, seriously. I have grown close to you, Elliot. A decade alone together and there is not a soul back home that I care about as much as you. If tears worked normally in zero gravity, I would cry every time before I sleep over you. If something breaks. If we hit the Earth’s atmosphere too fast. If we get sick and don’t have the medicine. Any of these things, we die. No, I’m not afraid of the oblivion. I’m more afraid that there is a God and you won’t be in heaven with me.”

The emotion in her voice struck me. How dare she use that as an argument? It was unfair to play on our relationship to each other. It had nothing to do with the discussion. “Yes, we are emotionally attached. I’m sorry that it hurts you I don’t believe in God. But it just isn’t going to happen. The afterlife is a fantasy.”

With that comment, the conversation ended. She turned away, clearly upset. This isn’t the first time we’ve gone a little too far in an argument, but this was definitely the furthest. Making this work for as long as we have is pretty amazing. Surprisingly, I can’t remember her looking this shaken by my words. There wasn’t much I could do at this point. This was a fundamental disagreement. No way to apologize when neither of us really did anything wrong.

Quiet now overtook the spaceship. For the next several months, we barely spoke. It hurt that she couldn’t let this go, but we’re stuck here. Ann doesn’t have a choice but to find a way to interact. Right now, our conversations are reduced to the basics of mission objectives and daily tasks. This has to change. The silence will kill us. Despite not being afraid of death, I am determined to complete this mission. We have to work together to do that. Hopefully, she’ll come around.

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A year into our six year journey and our trajectory was still looking good. Ann still reacted very coldly to me, which was unfortunate. Thankfully, we were able to sustain some basic conversations, like what foods we missed from back home and if we could live on any planet, which one would we? To make it more fun, we decided to ignore the laws of physics and the complete impossibility of certain arrangements. Improvements were made, but I could tell the relationship wasn’t back to normal yet.

Part of me is getting antsy now. Yes, we are still five years away. With only minimal fuel left, it isn’t like we can speed the process up much. In fact, thanks to the beauty of orbital mechanics, it wouldn’t really help. Our path is taking us on a maneuver that will slow us down with assists from Mars and the moon. Then, we aerobrake through the atmosphere of Earth for our landing. The heat shield on our craft is the most robust ever built, meant to take a beating. Even so, that part is going to be nerve wracking as can be.

Unfortunately, the sights until that point are pretty minimal, and those all happen in the last 14 months. The planets are aligned in such a way that we won’t see Jupiter. Furthermore, despite what you’ve heard, the asteroid belt isn’t so much a minefield as a loosely scattered collection of rocky masses. Escaping the black of space happened in our dreams and in the exercise room.

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BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP!

I was shuttered awake, a loud alarm blasting in my head. Sleep was never satisfying or long at a stretch, but even now I was jolted by the noise. Something was wrong with our pod. Unstrapping myself, I floated towards the top of the pod. Noticing Ann over by the main control panel, I glided her direction.

“What’s wrong Ann? Any way to at least stop the blaring while we get to work?” My voice was more panicked than usual. The years have worn on me. Once, I was strong mentally, but even simple things are getting to me now. Somehow, Ann was calm in her response.

“Not sure yet, Elliot. I’m at least narrowed it down to one of our life support systems. Obviously, we have to fix it. Come, take a look at this error readings. Any ideas?”

Sliding over next to her, I observed the sequence of error codes from the log. Being the expert on the ship, these were codes I had to memorize. Even after so many years, I reviewed them periodically. But these made no sense. They weren’t codes I knew. I was sure of it. Every possible strategy ran through my mind. Only one thing made sense.

“I think we need to start with a hard reset.”

“But the specimen? There is no way it will survive a hard reset. That shuts down every single system on this craft and brings them online one by one. The climate lab is the last to boot. It could be two hours before that comes back online. As it is, we don’t have much external oxygen left for our suits. Are you sure there are no other options?” Even with her deep concerns, I was still impressed how she was so with it through it all. Her focus on the mission was as strong as mine, but I was still amazed by how much she wanted to succeed. Sadly, I didn’t think there was another option. Except, of course, that it was an error of itself. A glitch in the system.

“I mean…it could be a subsystem fault switch. A mistake. But we would have to remove the panel and manually disable the alarm. As good as they built the ship, that is the only way to do it. Unfortunately, the line of the alarm is tied into the climate lab. We can’t unplug one without shutting down the other.”

Sighing softly, she continued the thought process. “Okay, that is weird, but I get NASA didn’t have unlimited time or budget. Any way we can splice?”

Now that was an idea. We could attempt to splice the line, pulling out the cable that connected back to the climate room and separating it from the alarm wire. Then, we could reconnect the ends to the plug and solve both of our problems. However, the biggest issue remains: I’m not an electrical engineer and messing this up could destroy the connection that keeps our specimen alive. Worse, even if we succeed, that means we have no alarm for the final few years of our journey.

“Well…yes. I can’t say I’m that great at it. We are going to need luck…”

“…not luck. No such thing.” she blurted.

“Um…yeah. I need my electrical kit and tools. Have the EVA suits ready if things go south. AHHH…it is so hard to focus with that blaring!” I was losing my cool. This needed to be done and done soon.

Ann floated down below and prepped the EVA suits while I maneuvered to the small container that stored our tools. Making my way over to the circuit panel, I snagged the spacecraft manual. Now, it was time to go to work.

First, I unscrewed the panel, revealing a large mess of wires in a cavity the size of a standard cereal box. Then, following the instructions in the book, I identified the wires that led to a single port that carried the current for the climate room and the alarms. The blaring was beginning to bore into my very soul at this point. It took all of my concentration to keep my focus on the task at hand. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the tabs on the port and remove it from the slot.

The blaring stopped. That also meant that our sample would be at great risk of expiring for every second that this task wasn’t completed. Ann didn’t really have much of a role here except to hold the screws and panel cover so they didn’t float away. However, I thought it was interesting that she spent her time praying, audibly.

As quickly and carefully as I could, I stripped the wires, separating them. To my surprise, there were more cable strands than I thought. I had no way of knowing which ones brought power to the climate pod and which ones brought them to the alarms. The wires didn’t have any more length to them — after welding them in place I wouldn’t have enough length to continue trying. One shot was all we got.

Based on what I saw, I tried my best to separate the wires in half. Holding my welder to the small port, I took aim, and fired.

SNAP. SNAP. SNAP.

The wires were in place. No alarms were heard. I peered back at the section where the specimen was held. Lights were back on and the systems were whirring softly. We had succeeded.

“YES!” I exclaimed. “YES!”

Ann smiled softly back at me. “You can believe it was us all you want, but I know the truth. God wants us to get this specimen back.”

Ugh. There she was with that again. God could have done things a lot more smoothly. Why did we need the alarm to blare? Why did we need to spend the last three years without the safety net of an alarm at all? I hated to think it, but she was getting on my nerves. Hopefully we could make it the rest of this mission without another mention of that.

“Okay, whatever. No need to be silly. Superstition or luck, same thing.”

She didn’t like that.

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Eighteen months to go. Food supplies are now dwindling. Our rationing was a bit off. Unfortunately, we would need to eat half of what we were eating before. There is a chance that the lack of nutrients will cause our bodies to cease functioning prior to ever making it back to Earth. I tried to perish the thought. We still needed to make sure we were on trajectory. At least, if we died, the specimen would make it back.

After checking things out on the flight computer, we needed just a few minor adjustments to stay on course. We had to hit the right distance from Mars to slow down enough for the next maneuver. Thankfully, we were on course.

Sadly, it has been a very lonely year and a half since the alarm incident. Ann barely talks to me, so I have been watching a lot of TV shows and reading a lot. As much as human contact is important, I’ve had to settle for Jack Bauer and Tom Sawyer. In fact, I’ve even started reading the Bible. Interesting book. I’m surprised I hadn’t picked it up for purely academic purposes the past.

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With fourteen months left, we got a beautiful view of Mars. What a planet. While we were shocked to discover that no life ever existed there, it was at least accomplished without too many costly manned missions. Ann and I exchanged communications on system checks, but not much else. It was too bad that she couldn’t handle me being in a different perspective from her. I tried to tell her that I was reading the Bible, but she didn’t care much.

My vision was beginning to suffer greatly, so reading became a more arduous activity. Most of my entertainment time was now spent on mindless old movies and shows.

Everything else was starting to show signs of fatigue from the long mission and lack of food. Stomach pains. Muscle aches. Even though I knew how important it was, I found myself skipping trips into the exercise room because I just didn’t feel like moving my joins.

Only fourteen months from home.

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Why hadn’t we heard from NASA?

We were approaching the moon for our final slowdown, just weeks away from home, but something didn’t feel right.

“Ann, seriously. We have to talk now. What is happening out there? Why hasn’t NASA gotten through to us?” The pleading in my voice was almost pathetic.

Like nothing happened, she responded. “Maybe they were defunded and couldn’t get the message to us. We can figure it out when we get back.”

“How can you be so calm about this? We’ve waited so long to be home, and now we don’t know what to expect? This is craziness! Everything is riding on this. On us!” Panic was setting in. Homesick and cramped, I needed to be out. Free to run. Open to do anything. Any longer in this stupid capsule and I would blow myself out the airlock.

As she always did, she replied with a calm demeanor. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Elliot. We’ve been over this. What will happen will happen. We’ve done the work. We’ve sacrificed at least a quarter of our lives for this. I want this back as badly as you do, and you know that. But, I can only control so much. You can only control so much. The rest is out of our hands. We have to trust. We have to have faith.”

I fired back, enraged. “There you go with that God of yours. I read that book you love. God did nothing but torture his people and make promises that make no sense. Look at the poor populations of Earth. The suffering children. Where is God’s grace for them?”

She just smiled. I can’t believe it! “Elliot, I don’t have the answers. That is the freeing part! Please, find a way to calm yourself. We might have a tablet or two of sedative left. Just…let’s get through these last few weeks. We’ve been through so much.”

Realizing that there wasn’t going to be a way to win this one in her stubbornness, I followed her advice. Sleep would help calm things down for a while.

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Today was the day. That beautiful blue marble was getting larger and larger by the minute. It seemed too fast, but we were coming from very far away.

We were making final preparations. All systems were go as we checked. Everything was strapped and latched. The ship was as ready as it would ever be. We would likely be the last people ever to see the earth like this. I tried my best to take it all in. No sight was more amazing than this.

The last few weeks had led to a reckoning in my brain. All of the reading. The discussions with Ann. They were taking their toll on me. Reflecting and thinking on my life, on all of the joy and all of the pain. On all of the unexplained events, fortunate accomplishments, and lucky breaks. Maybe Ann was right. There might be something more out there.

As we slammed into the atmosphere at several tens of thousands of miles per hour, I realized science hasn’t answered all the questions like I thought. Maybe something else was out there. This voyage might be over, but the voyage for truth was just beginning.

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