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0 Comments | Oct 15, 2019

Icarus Falling

“The more you approach infinity, the deeper you penetrate terror”

― Gustave Flaubert


Ship and MoonArmstrong Station – Thursday, March 14, 2097, 4:42 pm EST

“This is our last case, so make it count. Supply ship’s not due for another couple of days.” Takashi lowers the large cardboard box of toilet paper to the galley floor and rises with a grunt.

Allard looks up from whatever he’s tinkering with under the microwave console and chuckles. “If twenty-three of us can’t make ninety-six rolls of toilet paper last for two more days, there is something seriously wrong with this crew. That’s like two rolls a day per person. Just steer clear of the burritos.”


Northwest Oregon Oncology, Office 2104 – 12 Days Earlier

“Year … year and a half. Tough to say with cases like yours.”

The doctor sits, upright and as professional as he imagines he should be behind his desk. Three, four times a week he has some version of this conversation. In fourteen years it’s never gotten any easier to deliver the news. Sometimes it’s operable. Sometimes it’s treatable. Sometimes it’s neither. In Katzenbach’s case, it’s neither, news made all the more difficult by the fact that the man—a seasoned pilot of over twenty years—has shown no symptoms to this point, the growth discovered only by chance during a routine physical.

“And my flight status?” Katzenbach asks, sitting in the chair in which hundreds have sat hearing similar news. “I’m supposed to go again in two weeks.”

“I’m required to file your report with the flight surgeon, of course,” the doctor replies. He hesitates, maintaining eye contact with Katzenbach. Eye contact is important in these conversations. “But I see no reason to recommend grounding you absent any discernible symptoms. And besides,” he adds, leaning back, managing a smile, a rare thing in these circumstances. “As busy as things have been around here in recent days, there’s a decent chance we won’t get around to even file the thing until after you’ve left on your mission. Misplaced folders … computer glitches … you know…”

Katzenbach smiles back, wan, but a smile nonetheless.


USS Icarus – Thursday, March 14, 2097, 5:12 pm EST

“TLI burn in three, two, one … commence.”

Icarus is a somewhat long in the tooth but still very capable cargo supply vessel, one that has made the round trip between earth and the moon twenty-six times in the past decade. The vessel can be configured for up to thirty passengers, though just six are onboard today, Icarus’s copious and flexible cargo bay having been outfitted for nearly maximum capacity on this mission. It is the first cargo resupply mission to Armstrong Station in nearly three months, and the scientists and engineers currently deployed there have begun running low on everything from ketchup to, oddly enough, plutonium. How one runs low on plutonium is not entirely clear to Icarus pilot Geoffrey Katzenbach. Nevertheless, short they are, a situation the Icarus crew is poised to remedy with the thirty-five kilograms of highly radioactive material they have safely shielded and stored in the rearmost cargo compartment.


The Pentagon, Basement Level, Rm. BE817 – 3 Days Earlier

“Are we entirely clear about the mission parameters, Doctor Danziger?” The two-star Air Force general sits behind his desk, dressed in full formal blues, the better to impress upon the nuclear physicist the gravity of his situation.

“And if I say no?” Danziger replies. He has known that he would be a member of the Icarus 27 mission for nearly a year. He has known the true purpose of the mission—and his role in it—for just over one week.

“If you say no, Doctor, you will be scrubbed from the mission due to a last-minute health problem, and your back-up, Doctor Swenson, will take your place. If, on the other hand, you work with us in the manner we’ve discussed, you will return to earth in a couple of weeks, the nation will, of course, be thankful for the role you played rescuing the crew from a parlous situation, and a few weeks thereafter, once the news of the tragic accident has passed through the inevitable news cycle, your recent grant request will be generously funded and you will not want for research funds for the remainder of your career. Of course, if you choose not to go, well, you know how challenging it can be nowadays getting grants approved.”

Danziger sits silent, pensive. As the days have grown closer, he wonders whether he should have simply said no from the very outset. But now he knows all of the facts of the mission, the goal. He doesn’t have a shred of plausible deniability remaining. He imagines for a moment sitting in a chair describing this very conversation before a Senate subcommittee.

“The cargo manifest has been suitably updated?” he says. The Icarus’s cargo manifest reflects, along with the endless containers of food, consumables, and technical equipment that the lunar base goes through every quarter, seven additional generic-looking containers, each heavily shielded, each bearing a five-kilogram sphere of enriched plutonium. The supply mission controllers are ostensibly sending up the plutonium in order to enlarge the scope and scale of a number of research experiments currently taking place in a secure building at Armstrong Station. In actual fact, despite the notations on the manifest, the cargo hold of Icarus contains not seven but eighteen such containers, their combined contents totaling ninety kilograms of the lethal material. And, in fact, the nuclear research team at Armstrong Station already has more than enough plutonium on-site to support all foreseeable research needs for the coming two years or more.

“The manifest says what it needs to say,” the general replies.

“And the navigation computer?”

“Preloaded with the coordinates to Yang Liwei Station.”

“And the engine control malfunction?”

“Doctor, we have covered this all multiple times,” the general says. “You need do nothing aside from steering Commander Katzenbach in the proper direction when the time comes. The rest will take care of itself automatically.”

“And you’re certain?” Danziger says. “The activities at the Chinese station.”

“That is far above either of our pay grades, Doctor. A decision has been made that these … activities, as you say … are no longer in our national interest. You are doing your country a great service.”

Danziger does not feel like he is performing a great service. Still, he has come this far.


USS Icarus – 5:14 pm EST

Icarus, at one hundred sixty-five meters in length and a gross weight of just under 2500 metric tons, is maxed out this time around. The ship is just completing its fourth orbit of earth, circling the planet at a leisurely 27,000 kilometers per hour. To break free of her home planet’s gravity and begin the three day journey to Armstrong Station will require a four hundred forty-seven second burn of the big ship’s three main engines, a maneuver designed to accelerate the vessel to just over 42,000 kph, sending the crew on a gracefully arcing trajectory that will intercept the moon precisely three and a quarter days from the end of the trans-lunar injection burn.

With the larger than average mass of the Icarus’s cargo load, the passengers—pilot, copilot, and four scientists beginning their six-month tour of duty on the remote station—scarcely register the increased acceleration. They are, nonetheless, safely strapped into their seats, free to move weightlessly about the cabin only after the burn is complete and one final round of operational checks have been performed by Katzenbach and his copilot Almira Karimi. After that, the trip will be an uneventful three days of reading up on their research and admiring the view backward toward earth and forward toward the approaching moon, all while trying their level best not to succumb to the sickness that so often accompanies space travel. It is Katzenbach’s seventh trip piloting Icarus. For Karimi, it’s her third run. None of the four passengers have ever been in space before entering orbit some six hours previous. One—geologist Bradley Johansson—had his head in a motion sickness bag before the end of the first orbit, but he seems acclimated now. Mechanical engineer Janine Kelly made it through the four preliminary orbits, but is looking decidedly queasy at the moment. Nuclear engineer Bryan Danziger and epidemiologist Ashraf Kumar are doing okay so far. You just never know. Despite nearly a century and a half of progress in space travel, no one has yet quite solved the problem of zero-gravity sickness. Indeed the four specialists had been encouraged during their mission training to not feel badly about getting sick, as even certified astronauts frequently succumb during their first real flight into space.

“Counting down ten seconds to TLI cutout,” comes Karimi’s voice over the vessel’s intercom system. All the passengers are plugged in and free to share in the crew’s communications or not, as they prefer. However, during critical flight phases, like the current TLI burn, they have only passive listening capability. “Four … three … two … one … cutoff.”

Icarus’s three immense engines are located some seventy-five meters behind the heavily insulated crew cabin and there is no sound discernible to the passengers, even at the present full throttle. There is, though, an ever-so-slight vibration that resonates through the cabin, and, of course, also the slight backward push of acceleration as they are thrust toward their rendezvous with the moon. The four passengers have arrived here with no preconceptions of what engine cutout ought to feel like, aside from the cursory verbal description provided during flight training. Expectations aside, what they feel at the moment of scheduled cutout is utterly unchanged from what they have been feeling for the four hundred forty-seven seconds of the TLI burn, both the gentle push of acceleration and the faint vibration through the walls of the cabin. It is as though the engines are still running as before. Katzenbach and Karimi, however, don’t need the vibration of the ship or the feel of acceleration to realize that the engines have not cut off at the prescribed time.

The TLI cycle is a fully automated process controlled by the flight computer, and no action is supposed to be required of the crew to either initiate or terminate the burn. Their role during this critical maneuver is simply to observe and ensure that things happen as they have been programmed to happen, intervening only if necessary. And while they have a myriad of instruments and computer screens before them to inform them about every aspect of the ship’s operation, there is one situation they are utterly unaware of, one that, in any event, they could do nothing about even if they did know, one that will have a profound impact on the journey they are only now embarking upon. It is a rare but entirely plausible event that will be explored and written about at immense length in the investigations to will be conducted in the days to come. Just seventeen seconds prior to TLI cutoff, the official post-accident account will assert, a stray cosmic ray—with which space is densely populated, and against which incursions space vehicles have been shielded since the dawn of the space age—has, against all probability, made its way through the shielding adjacent Icarus’s main flight computer and into the microscopic integrated circuitry that governs the operation of the ship’s automated flight controls. This single photon has impinged upon a critical spot on one of the flight computer’s millions of logic gates, in this case the logic gate tasked with sending the signal to turn the ship’s engines on and off. Also, the official story will continue, it is this same logic gate that is responsible for sending the shutdown signal whether said shutdown is automated or manually commanded. But there is no reason why Katzenbach or Karimi would have had any knowledge of such an event, whether real or imagined, nor any understanding of how it might have come to pass. They are pilots trained in the fundamentals of operating a spacecraft, and while there’s a decent chance they know what a cosmic ray is, at least at a basic level, they lack utterly the avionics engineering or physics knowledge to appreciate, much less do anything about, this rarest of phenomena that all future accident records will swear has befallen them.

Six seconds after scheduled main engine shutdown, Karimi is the first to verbalize the problem. But no one—least of all Katzenbach—finds this in the least surprising. Karimi has spent a lifetime being first to notice things and first to say something about them, irrespective of whether or not it is her place to do so. First is the word that anyone who knows Karimi would conjure if asked to reduce their assessment of her to a single syllable. Firstborn in her family and first of nine siblings to attend college and graduate school. First to complete an MIT graduate engineering program in less than twelve months. First to obtain atmospheric and transatmospheric flight credentials in fewer than six months. And first Iranian female to copilot a supply flight to Armstrong Station on the moon. Perhaps not the most exotic space mission in history, but still, first is first.

“Failure of auto engine shutdown,” Karimi says, her voice the monotone of a professional. “Initiate manual override.” The cabin PA system remains on, so that the four passengers hear the statements.

“Confirm manual override,” Katzenbach echoes. He reaches above his head and flips a series of switches, then leans forward and makes a quick gesture on a touchscreen before him. “Manual override complete.” The light thrum of the engines through the cabin walls does not change. It is twenty-four seconds since scheduled cutoff.

“Manual override ineffective,” Karimi responds. “Engines remain at one hundred percent. Velocity forty-seven thousand, twelve percent above nominal.”

“Icarus, this is Dallas control,” comes a new voice over the intercom, “Please advise, we are registering TLI burn plus thirty-three seconds.

“Roger, Dallas,” Katzenbach responds. “We are addressing major system error. Automatic engine cutoff failure. Stand by.”

“Velocity fifty-five thousand, thirty-one percent above nominal,” Karimi says, and flips a switch that cuts off the cabin intercom. Her voice is still calm and in control, but there is no need for the passengers to hear what is transpiring. She glances quickly toward Katzenbach, who does not look back. The four passengers, none with any prior spaceflight experience, have, though, heard enough to glance at one another expressing, if not concern, at least uncertainty. The conversation does not sound routine.

“Nav system recalculating trajectory,” Karimi observes laconically as she glances at a large screen in the center console that separates her seat from Katzenbach’s. Although the engine control portion of Icarus’s flight computer has malfunctioned, the ship’s navigation system is fine, and it is doing what is was designed to do, i.e., guide the ship to a landing on the pad at Armstrong Station with a circular error probability of not more than twenty meters. The ship’s increased speed means it will arrive at Armstrong seven hours sooner than expected and, as a result, the moon will have traveled fewer miles in its orbit around earth than expected. Hence the complex recalculation of the ship’s trajectory, calculations that are continuing since Icarus has not yet stopped accelerating.

“Damn it,” says Katzenbach, the first thin crack in his cold veneer of experience. He has amassed more than nineteen hundred hours as command pilot on both orbital and translunar flights. “Dallas, all efforts at engine cutoff are ineffective. We are at full burn, now one hundred sixteen seconds past scheduled shutdown. Velocity fifty-nine thousand and still increasing.”

More dialog ensues, the voices of Katzenbach, Karimi, and the mission controller in Dallas growing increasingly intense as the seconds pass. Dallas attempts to transmit remote shutdown signals while the pilot and copilot try every step they know to stop the ship’s three immense fuel-hungry engines. For seven and a half minutes the crew, and their controllers on the ground, struggle to regain control of the vessel’s propulsion. Another minute passes, then another. Finally, after nearly twelve minutes of unabated thrust, the cabin walls suddenly, abruptly cease their vibrations, the thrust-level readouts on the pilot and copilot screens fall to zero, and the ship’s acceleration ceases. There is silence on the intercom for a few seconds.

“Icarus,” comes the voice from the ground controller, “we show you with engine cutoff. Please confirm.”

“Dallas, that is a roger,” Katzenbach responds. “We have zero main engine thrust, zero acceleration. Velocity stable … at eighty-five thousand.”

“Icarus, please confirm velocity eighty-five thousand. Say again, please confirm stable velocity.” The vehicle’s final velocity is more than double the nominal value that it should be following a normal translunar injection burn.

“Dallas, confirming eight-five thousand final TLI velocity,” Katzenbach replies after a moment’s hesitation. “And, Dallas, that is the good news,” he continues. “The bad news is that all system readings indicate Icarus has fully exhausted its onboard fuel supply.”

“Say again, Icarus,” comes the voice from Dallas.

“Dallas,” Katzenbach says, his voice bearing a low but discernible waver, “Icarus onboard fuel tanks are at zero capacity. The only reason the TLI burn stopped is because we exhausted the fuel supply.”

“Roger that,” comes the voice from the ground controller. “Zero fuel.” He says nothing further for the moment.


USS Icarus – 5:29 pm EST

Janine Kelly has spent nearly the entire fifteen minutes since the start of the TLI burn with her head buried in a technical journal. She is of the view that engrossing oneself in something requiring concentration reduces the likelihood of getting sick from weightlessness. This has turned out to be only partially true. On the one hand, she, unlike two other passengers onboard Icarus, has not vomited since entering orbit several hours earlier. On the other hand, her stomach has felt somewhat less than settled since that time. It is possible that her initial theory is a flawed one. But it is also possible that the experiment was imperfect in that only part of her attention was given over to the journal in her lap, the remaining portion having, for some time, been focused on being reunited with her husband who has been working at Armstrong Station for the past three months. At the moment, though, her eyes are back on the journal, and so she is mildly startled when Katzenbach directs a few brief comments to Karimi before unbuckling his seatbelts, rising, and turning to join the passengers. The ambient noise level in the cabin is low, with nothing but the faint hum of electronic equipment to interfere with his voice. Each of the four specialists on board is uniquely well trained in their area of expertise, but none has the training or understanding to appreciate the gravity of the situation in which they are now playing such an integral part. Katzenbach has come to bring them up to speed.

“We have an extremely rare but serious situation developing,” he begins. His tone is once again even and professional. Although this is his first bona fide emergency while on a space flight, he has experienced more than one in his days flying aircraft for the military. He knows how to maintain his cool.

Even though Katzenbach has had limited time working with his four passengers prior to the launch, he knows them all reasonably well and is on friendly terms with each. His utter lack of friendly demeanor in this moment is immediately apparent.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” he continues, “but there is a high likelihood that we have just suffered a catastrophic failure.” The fact that the ship is preceding along its planned route in what appears to be an uneventful manner leaves the four unclear as to what Katzenbach is talking about.

“Has something broken on the ship?” Kelly asks, the first of the four to respond to Katzenbach’s opening comments with anything other than a fixed stare. There was no reason for the passengers to be conversant prior to launch in the specifics of the flight profile, meaning there is no reason for any to be aware of how long the TLI burn should have taken.

“A failure of some sort—we don’t know exactly what yet—caused the translunar injection burn to last far longer than it should have, about two and a half times longer. There are, or may be at any rate, several problematic consequences of that fact.”

“But at least we are successfully out of orbit and en route to Armstrong,” Kelly responds.

“Oh, that we are,” Katzenbach says. For all of his adult life, and much to his wife’s continuing annoyance, his go-to approach to difficult situations has been humor. He is speaking now somewhat slower than he otherwise would, uncertain what is the best rhetorical approach to take in delivering the message he needs to deliver. “We are well on our way to the station. As I said, though, several problems now face us. We are supposed to have left earth orbit at about 42,000 kilometers per hour. Instead, by the time the engines shut down we were traveling at 85,000. In and of itself, even though that is excessive by any estimation, it would not be an unrecoverable situation, as our navigation computers are easily capable of altering our trajectory to compensate for the increased velocity.”

Without turning his gaze away from Katzenbach, Danziger, the nuclear engineer, summarizes the situation more concisely than the pilot would have managed in ten more minutes of talking.

“We can’t stop the ship,” he says. “We’re out of fuel.”

Katzenbach stares back for a long moment, uncertain whether to be annoyed at Danziger for his impertinence, or grateful for his brief but entirely accurate delivery of the message that everyone on board will know soon enough anyway.

“What does that mean?” Kumar asks. She is the only medically trained person on board, possibly even the most intelligent among the six, but her knowledge of the operation of the vessel in which she is now hurtling toward the moon is limited, to put it kindly.

But on this journey in particular, Kumar is more inclined to be aware of potential safety issues on the ship than are any of the other passengers or crew. For the plutonium is not the only item in the Icarus’s cargo hold that presents a serious potential hazard in the event of a landing at Armstrong Station that is other than successful. Indeed, while the rationale for sending an epidemiologist to a moon research station in the first place is far from obvious to the layperson, her presence aboard at this inauspicious moment is entirely understandable upon a more detailed examination of the cargo manifest. Three steel cases in the cargo hold—each secured with far greater care than even those holding the plutonium—contain samples of viruses developed for potential weapons use, but subsequently deemed too dangerous to be stored anyplace on earth. Kumar’s purpose during her six-month tour at Armstrong Station is twofold: safely deliver the samples to the viral laboratory for long-term storage, and continue research into the viability of the viruses for their intended purpose in the presence of an extremely hostile environment like the moon’s, one replete with zero atmosphere, profound cold, and high levels of ambient radiation. No one on board is aware of the cargo she bears, save for herself and Katzenbach.

“It means,” offers Danziger, “that unless we pull something seriously clever out of our collective behinds, we are, in about twenty-nine hours if my math is right, going to make a fairly dramatic arrival at Armstrong Station.”

“You have a way with words,” Katzenbach replies, managing a wan smile. “Dramatic is certainly one way of putting it. We are, at the moment, passengers on a missile being guided by a navigation computer whose sole purpose in life is to ensure that we intercept the cross hairs at the base of the Armstrong Station landing pad. And if, as Doctor Danziger here says, nothing changes in pretty short order, we are going to strike those crosshairs with a velocity sufficient to leave a very large crater where the station used to be.

“Based on lunar geology,” chimes in Bradley Johansson, “and our approximate mass and velocity, a crater about seven hundred meters in diameter, maybe seventy-five deep.”

“Whereas Armstrong Station is, if memory serves, something like one hundred thirty meters in diameter, roughly speaking,” Danziger adds. “What advice do our colleagues in Dallas have to offer? I’m guessing they don’t find this state of affairs to be at all satisfactory.”

“They are evaluating the situation as we speak,” Katzenbach says. Another long moment of silence as electronics continue to hum in the background.

“What about the shuttle?” Kelly says. “They said during flight training that it’s got room for twenty, right?”

“Yes,” Katzenbach says, “the shuttle is functional and has more than ample space.”

“And it has an isolated fuel system,” Danziger says. “Whatever malfunction caused the main engine shut-off to fail may not have affected the tanks in the shuttle. Katzenbach cannot imagine how Danziger is aware of this detail of the Icarus’s construction, but the nuclear engineer is correct in his statement. The ship’s emergency vehicle can support up to twenty passengers and has onboard provisions for up to two weeks in space. During normal launch and inflight operations its fuel system is isolated from that of Icarus. Katzenbach swings his mouth mike down and mumbles a few words to Karimi, still sitting alone in the front of the vessel. She reaches out, taps a few buttons on the center console, then speaks back to Katzenbach.

“It appears that Doctor Danziger here is correct, with bonus points awarded for taking the time to read the ship’s technical specifications. Major Karimi indicates that the shuttle is, in fact, fine and that its fuel stores are unaffected by our unfortunate state of affairs.

“So that’s good news, right?” Johansson says.

“Less than you might think,” Katzenbach replies. Even if we abandon Icarus, and even if the available fuel onboard the shuttle could slow us enough to manage a rendezvous with Collins Station—which is an exceptionally big if for a shuttle that would still be moving at the same speed as Icarus—that does not in any way change the fact that following our flight to safety, Icarus would continue making a beeline for Armstrong at eighty-five thousand kilometers per hour.”

“Commander, how much fuel is onboard the shuttle?” Danziger still running numbers in his head. “And can it be transferred into Icarus’s main fuel system?”

“Yes, the fuel can be transferred between Icarus and the shuttle in either direction,” Katzenbach says. “But it only holds enough to maneuver the shuttle itself, meaning a bit more than one percent of the fuel volume of Icarus’s full capacity. We’d need to check with the computer, but it’s enough—maybe—to gradually slow the shuttle and get it into lunar orbit. It’s not enough to do a damn thing for Icarus. Besides which, given the malfunction that got us here in the first place, there’s no way of knowing how the Icarus’s main engines would respond to the sudden availability of more fuel. Maybe they do nothing. Maybe they do not respond when we try to turn them back on. Maybe they start up again on their own and waste the whole lot.”

“Didn’t you also say,” Johansson says, “that the flight computer is going to try to ensure that the ship lands at Armstrong regardless of what velocity the ship is traveling?”

It suddenly occurs to Katzenbach that these four individuals, none of them in any way flight qualified except as passengers, are taking part with remarkable stoicism in a discussion about whether or not there is any likelihood of them surviving the journey.

“With a bit of work,” he says, “the navigation computer can be overridden.”

Kelly rises gracefully from her seat, pulls herself weightless toward a large viewing port, and stares out for a moment at the blackness. There is no appreciable sense of motion provided by the distant stars. They could just as easily be standing still.

She spins slowly to face Katzenbach again. “Which way is the shuttle oriented on the ship?” she asks.

“Oriented?” Katzenbach responds. “How do you mean?”

“Which direction is the thrust vector relative to our direction of travel?”

It seems an oddly incongruous question given the circumstances.

“They are collinear,” Katzenbach replies after thinking for a second. The shuttle is on the bottom of the hull aiming forward.”

“Can it be changed?” Danziger says. He thinks he gets what Kelly is considering. “Look,” he says, “try this on for size. If we move into the shuttle, disable Icarus’s navigation computer, then separate from the ship and maneuver so that the nose of the shuttle is against the side of the Icarus, then hit the engines on the shuttle, that pushes Icarus off-course, right? With over a day of travel to go, just a tiny push should allow it to miss Armstrong.”

Katzenbach ponders the proposed scenario for a moment. “That is all actually possible,” he says, “except for one thing.”

Johansson finishes the explanation. “Except that performing this maneuver, pushing Icarus off-course enough to miss Armstrong Station, leaves the shuttle with no fuel … which leaves us sailing off into … wherever, instead of rendezvousing with the orbiting lunar station.”

“We save ourselves …” Kelly says, grasping an armrest and awkwardly pulling herself back into her seat.”

“Or we save the station,” Danziger finishes her sentence.

A long pause ensues while all reflect on this choice.

“Could the staff at Armstrong make a run for Yang Liwei? At least get out of harm’s way?” Kelly says. “Doesn’t help the station, but at least …”

“Dallas has already let them know what’s happening, but the rovers are no good on two counts,” Danziger replies. “The Chinese station is nearly four hundred kilometers away and the rovers max out at ninety-five kilometers range. Also, only two rovers and each carries just six passengers. No way twenty-three people fit. Best they’re gonna manage is putting on suits and walking clear of the impact area. Then they’ve got seven, eight hours of air in the suits, after which …”


35 Hazelwood Drive, Denver, Colorado – 5 Days Earlier

“Yeah, we leave Monday morning around 5:30. I’ll be up all night beforehand, I expect. Good thing I’ve got three days on the flight to sleep.” Janine Kelly stops for a moment, allowing the brief audio delay to catch up. Phone calls from earth to Armstrong Station are not only expensive, but also slightly awkward due to the round-trip signal delay.

“Well,” comes Will Kelly’s voice—its audio quality, delay notwithstanding, quite good, remarkable considering the number of hops the signal needs to go through to get from Armstrong to the Kelly’s home in Denver. “I hope you manage to get plenty of sleep en route. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do once you arrive. Three months surrounded by nothing but two dozen scientists is not exactly a recipe for marital bliss.”

“I know, love,” Janine replies. “Believe me, I feel your pain. If all goes smoothly, we should be in sometime around midday on Thursday. Can you hold out that long?”

“Guess I don’t have much choice, now do I?” he replies. “Of course then we get three months together here and after that another three month moratorium while I head home and you stay behind. We really need to talk with somebody about the scheduling of these rotations.”

“I’m not sure who that would be exactly, but I can’t disagree.”

“Well, see if you can make that happen before you leave, huh? The monastic lifestyle isn’t exactly my thing. Oh hey, beautiful, gotta go, okay. Specimens are barking my name. Travel safe and I’ll see you for lunch on Thursday.”

“All right, Will,” she replies. “Stay warm up there, okay? Don’t be roaming around outside in that three hundred below. Sweet dreams.”

Janine punches the disconnect button on her phone. Will Kelly has been working at Armstrong Station for nearly twelve weeks, conducting biology experiments, specifically learning whether there is anything remotely nutritional about lunar regolith that would make it worth gathering for agricultural purposes. Three months away from home for a work assignment is a significant sacrifice, though certainly nothing compared to the yearlong deployments that military members routinely endure. All in all, though, it’s been a tougher challenge for Will than it has been for Janine.

“You’re gonna have to talk to him about this at some point, you know.”

On the other side of Janine Kelly’s king-size bed, wearing nothing but a sheer pair of boxers as he bends down to pull on a sock, sits Bradley Johansson, who will, in five days time, be leaving with Janine for their three-month deployment to Armstrong Station.

“Yeah,” she replies, lifting the duvet cover searching for underwear. “Yeah …”


USS Icarus – 5:43 pm EST

“There’s also the small matter of the plutonium,” Johansson says. “The kind of impact we’re talking about would vaporize all of it and contaminate miles of lunar surface. Of course, Doctor Danziger here is far more qualified than I to opine on all the unfortunate details of such a cataclysmic event, but I feel safe in guessing that, given the moon’s low gravity and the violence of our impact, the radius of radioactive contamination would vastly exceed the dimensions of the crater that we create.”

All sit for another long silent moment contemplating the gravity of Johansson’s comment. Despite his expertise in the matter having been invoked, Danziger feels no need to expound on what has been said. At last Katzenbach speaks once more, saying more or less what they all know to be true.

“Look, there’s really no choice, is there? We take the shuttle and do what we can to push Icarus and ourselves away from Armstrong. With more than a day yet before arrival, it shouldn’t take much of a nudge now to get it off course. With two weeks worth of rations onboard the shuttle, who knows? Better than being at the bottom of a smoking hole on the moon.”

No one appears keen to dispute either the chosen course of action or the captain’s graphic imagery.

“All right then,” he says, “gather up whatever you feel like you need to bring. We’ll get the navigation computer shut down and meet there in twenty.”


Twenty-six minutes later, all six crew and passengers have moved from the Icarus’s main cabin into the shuttle. In the intervening minutes, Karimi has been on the radio with Dallas explaining what they mean to do. Everyone is in agreement that it’s not a great plan, but it’s the least bad choice from a short list of bad ideas. While Karimi has been engaged in this conversation, Katzenbach has gone through the numerous technical machinations required to take the ship’s navigation computers offline. The Icarus was never intended to operate in manual mode, and disabling the autonomous guidance systems is a non-trivial series of steps that have required consulting the ship’s technical documents. No one has memorized the steps, as it was never imagined that a scenario would occur that might call for it. But the displays are all dark now in the main cabin, and the only onboard computers still active are those in the shuttle cockpit, which Karimi is now bringing to life.

The shuttle’s tanks contain sufficient fuel for one uninterrupted full-power burn of about ninety seconds. However, the tiny ship comprises only about one percent of the mass of the Icarus, even with the larger ship’s now-empty fuel tanks. Still, with a bit of analysis they have determined that their best approach to save Armstrong Station from obliteration and leave at least a lingering hope for themselves thereafter, is to push Icarus from the side for sixty or so seconds, and to then disengage from the big ship and use their remaining fuel to reduce their own velocity as much as possible. There is no chance of making it into lunar orbit, as the greatest reduction they can possibly manage will still leave them traveling in excess of 48,000 kilometers per hour, far too fast for lunar orbit insertion. With several weeks of supplies onboard, the crew’s only hope of survival is that they can slow themselves enough to allow an earth-based rescue mission to catch up to them, a mission that Dallas control assures them is already in the works, but which cannot launch for at least ten days. With a maximum fuel load and skeleton crew, Dallas control estimates that the rescue vessel could reach them in something like two months time.

Therefore, in preparation for what promises to be a long and boring ride, the six have moved as many additional supplies and water containers into the shuttle as will fit, which is quite a lot actually, given all of the unoccupied seats. If there’s a longevity challenge for the six, it will be on the life support side of things. Even though equipped with adequate oxygen scrubbing systems to sustain a full complement of twenty for a week or so, the air in the shuttle will be getting pretty gritty by week six or thereabouts. That doesn’t set too well with control’s two-month rescue estimate. But it’s what they’ve got.

In any event, the immediate priority is moving Icarus off its current course toward Armstrong Station. Katzenbach glances back over his right shoulder for a second at his passengers, then reaches up to an overhead console where he grips a large red handle and draws it down firmly. The only sense of a resulting action is a series of loud bangs from outside the shuttle’s hull. They are free of Icarus. Through the shuttle’s side windows they see only open space and there is no discernible change in their motion for the first few seconds. Only then they feel the slightest nudge of acceleration as Katzenbach begins burning a bit of the shuttle’s precious fuel to move it toward the center of Icarus’s massive hull. It’s not like changing the course of a boat or aircraft on earth, where you can simply point the nose and the rest will follow. In the vacuum of space, pushing the nose to one side will simply spin the ship around its center of mass while it continues on its original course, not a solution to the problem at all. In this case, they must move the entire massive vessel—all 2,500 tons—to one side.

With more than twenty-four hours remaining en route, the slightest nudge off course should be sufficient to steer the Icarus out of harm’s way. But because they cannot access the cargo section of the ship in flight, they have no ability to offload Danziger’s plutonium or Kumar’s viruses, and so must ensure, as best they can, that the big ship misses the moon entirely. Dallas’s calculations match their own and all are in agreement that sixty seconds of maximum pushing in the proper direction should do the trick. With a bit more delicate maneuvering, Katzenbach has the shuttle alongside the section of the Icarus that Dallas’s engineers have indicated to be the center of mass of the fuel-less vessel. With a twist of the control stick, he performs a ninety-degree pirouette at the conclusion of which the massive body of the supply ship fills the forward screen of the shuttle. They are, though, still twenty or so meters away and Katzenbach taps the stick forward with quick delicate movements. All he can think as he does this is that with every puff of thrust, that’s a bit more speed they will be racing away from earth with, away from the rescue vessel.

Ten interminable seconds later, the Icarus growing impossibly large in the shuttle’s forward window, and there comes the gentle bump of contact—metal on metal, for the two vessels were never meant to meet in such a manner. And then, as quickly, the shuttle begins to drift gently backward, Newton’s equal and opposite reaction. Katzenbach brushes the control stick once more, and the rearward movement stops. The shuttle hovers inches from the side of Icarus.

“Okay,” Katzenbach says, “we ready to do this?”

But he is only a voice on the intercom system at this point, his eyes staring forward in concentration. No one has ever done quite what he is about to attempt. How will the shuttle respond to full thrust and an inability to move forward at anything but the snail’s crawl dictated by the mass of Icarus? Will it remain straight? Or perhaps the shuttle will squirt off to one side if his contact with the large ship isn’t perfectly orthogonal? There are no do-overs, no room for error.

“We’ll ramp the thrust up slowly to make sure we’re aligned properly,” he says, an authority in his voice that he does not actually feel. “Karimi, start the clock on my mark. Then give me a countdown from fifty seconds to sixty.”

“Roger,” Karimi replies. “countdown for the final ten seconds of the burn.”

“On my mark,” Katzenbach says. “Five … four … three … two …”

“Wait! … Stop! …” comes a voice over the intercom system that is neither Katzenbach’s nor Karimi’s. Katzenbach lifts his hand from the control stick.

“Is there a problem Doctor Danziger?”

“Yeah … there … there kind of is a problem.”

“One that affects what we’re about to do here?”

“Yes, I’m afraid … very much so.”

Katzenbach removes his headsets and undoes his seatbelts. Pushing upward from his seat, he turns gracefully, weightlessly, and draws himself back into the passenger area of the shuttle, pulling himself into a seat between Danziger and Kelly. Everyone has heard his comment over the intercom system and all eyes are now fixed in his direction.

“Please make it quick, Doctor Danziger. You’re aware that the longer we wait to do this, the less likely it is to be successful.”

“It doesn’t matter. It won’t work,” Danziger begins. Despite the cool temperature inside the shuttle, there is noticeable perspiration on his forehead. “And besides, you’re working from false information.”

“And you are, no doubt, about to enlighten us,” Katzenbach says.

“Yes. Yes, I am. But I’m afraid it won’t be that quick. There’s a lot to explain.”

Katzenbach waits silently. Everyone waits silently. Danziger shifts his gaze uncertainly from one passenger to another.

“Two and a half months ago, the U.S. Department of Defense learned that the Yang Liwei Station, located three hundred and eighty-seven kilometers from Armstrong Station, is not engaged in purely scientific research as they have asserted for the past several years. In fact, they have been for some time actively developing weapons. I don’t know what sort, but the fact that the Chinese government deems them too secretive or risky to develop on earth has generated a good deal of concern in Washington, as you can imagine.”

“And what,” replies Katzenbach, “does any of that have to do with us?”

“”The U.S. government—under the very highest levels of security clearance—has, since that discovery, been actively planning a mission to … neutralize the Chinese station.”

“Let me try again, Doctor. What does such a plan have to do with a supply ship that is currently on course to collide with Armstrong Station—in just over twenty-five hours as it happens.”

“Because Icarus is not heading for Armstrong Station,” Danziger says. More silence, in this case the silence of incomprehensibility.

“Doctor, the ship’s navigation computers show us quite incontrovertibly on a direct trajectory for Armstrong. Dallas control confirms as much.”

“Captain, you don’t understand. I’m afraid we are participants in a complex plan to destroy the Chinese station. That plan began some seven weeks ago with the development of a modified version of Icarus’s navigation and flight control software, software that was uploaded into the ship’s computers about forty-eight hours before we launched earlier today. That software is designed to do several things in order to achieve its mission.”

“That mission, according to you, being to fly at high velocity into the Chinese station,” Katzenbach says.

“Plausibly deniable as just a tragic accident, no doubt,” Johansson adds.

“Something like that,” Danziger says. “One of the functions of the modified software was to cause the extended TLI burn and to thus exhaust most of our fuel. It was also programmed to show an incorrect fuel level on the Icarus. In fact, Captain, the ship still retains something like one percent of its original fuel—not enough to slow the ship appreciably, but enough to maintain its course back toward Yang Liwei in the event that we attempt to divert it off course.”

“As we were just about to do,” Katzenbach says.

“Exactly. We would have moved Icarus slightly off-course, then used the remaining shuttle fuel to attempt to drop into lunar orbit, only to have Icarus realign its course and careen into Yang Liwei anyway. The revised nav software also displays a false destination—Armstrong Station. The real destination coordinates—the coordinates of Yang Liwei—are hidden within the code.”

“Would it be safe to assume that this is not exactly an officially sanctioned government operation, Doctor?” Katzenbach says, though he knows the answer all too well.

“To my knowledge only two people are aware of what is happening here. Major General Alistair Sheldon at the Pentagon, architect of the plan, and one DOD software developer. Even the technician who uploaded the new software into Icarus believed it was a legitimate build, created simply to add a couple of minor diagnostic upgrades.”

“Then, of course, there’s you,” Katzenbach wryly adds.

“Yes, well, I’m nothing but a cheap insurance policy.”

“So, the theory was what exactly?” Katzenbach says. “That we would all die diving into Yang Liwei. No witnesses, just a good clean accident, apologies to our families from the state department, and everything good to go after that? Tell me this, Doctor. How does the plutonium on board Icarus factor into this grand plan? Contaminate the site so as to preclude any future reconstruction by the Chinese?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, Captain,” Danziger says. “And I suppose at this point it won’t surprise you to learn that there’s rather more of it onboard than is stated on the manifest—three times more in fact.”

“So did the good general seriously imagine that we’d all just serenely dive into the moon once we believed we were out of fuel?”

“No, he gave you a bit more credit than that. He imagined you’d do exactly what you were getting ready to do just now. If he’d had his druthers, he would have found a way to remove the fuel from the shuttle or consume it in the extended TLI burn. But even he wasn’t clever enough to figure out how to do that undetected. Next best thing was to leave a little bit of fuel on Icarus, to counteract anything you might try to do with the shuttle.”

“So, to summarize, what you’re telling us is that you’re part of a conspiracy that could quite possibly start World War Three.” Danziger sits silent in response to this assertion.

“Which begs the obvious question—why are you bothering to tell us all of this rather than simply letting the plan play out as you’ve described?”

“Captain, you still don’t quite understand. Me telling you this IS part of the plan. Had I not, you’d’ve wasted two thirds of the shuttle’s fuel futilely pushing the Icarus aside, only to have it realign its course anyway. In doing so, you would have likely eliminated our chance of a successful lunar orbital injection and rendezvous with Collins Station. It was never the intent to take the lives of anyone onboard Icarus. This way, now that you know all the facts, you simply let Icarus go on its way to Yang Liwei, and we’re left with plenty of fuel for a lunar rendezvous. Your government is pleased that everyone is safe and sound—”

“Except, of course, for the nineteen people at Yang Liwei.”

“Well, yes … there’s that,” Danziger replies.

“Judged by your General Sheldon to be expendable, no doubt.”

“Either him or someone above him, in any event, someone vastly above our pay grades.”

“Tell me this, Doctor Danziger,” Katzenbach says. “Is it your apparently very well informed view that there is nothing at all we can do to stop this outcome, save for abandoning Icarus and heading for Collins Station?”

“Afraid so, Captain. Everything is automated from this point on.”

“And what happens when we get to Armstrong Station and share your account with the commander there? It will all sound rather treasonous, don’t you think? Are you prepared to take one for the team?”

“Oh not at all, Captain. Remember, Icarus is going to arrive well ahead of us, and in rather a spectacular fashion, I’m afraid. Of course, there will be no evidence left, just a lot of dust—very radioactive dust, as it happens. No one is going to be too terribly keen to do any on-site investigations for quite a long time. All you’ll have is my account of things, which I, naturally, will be obliged to deny vehemently, in the interest of national security, you understand.”

Katzenbach considers Danziger’s words for a moment before placing his headphones back on his head.

“Tell me, Lieutenant Karimi,” he says into the mike, “I haven’t had a look at your resume in some time. Do I recollect correctly that in addition to being an able pilot, you are also rather handy with computer programming?”

“It was my minor in grad school, Captain,” she replies. “Operating systems mainly. Bit out of date, I expect.”

“Tell me this, Lieutenant, if I get you back onboard Icarus, do you imagine that you could access the nav computer code and make a couple of changes?”

“It’s not really meant to be modified in flight, but worth a shot, Captain. We still have a fair bit of time if Doctor Danziger is correct and there’s some fuel left onboard.”

“Excellent,” Katzenbach replies, rising to return to his seat. Within moments, he has the shuttle re-docked with Icarus and all six crew and passengers are back in their original positions in the main cabin.

“How do you imagine this is going to work, Captain?” Danziger says. “You can’t slow Icarus.”

“No, Doctor, we cannot. But here’s what we can do. As soon as Lieutenant Karimi finishes with her system updates, we can update the destination coordinates so that Icarus misses the moon entirely. Once the ship’s trajectory has been suitably modified, we can then access whatever fuel remains and transfer it onto the shuttle to make up for all of our maneuvering earlier. Good to have as much of a buffer for our lunar rendezvous as possible.”

“And I imagine that once all is said and done, you’ll share your ludicrous story about a treasonous conspiracy to destroy the Chinese lunar research station.”

“Actually, Doctor, I’ve thought about that, and I think we’re better off saving that one for when we’ve returned to earth and we can be sure the details are going to someone with a suitable security clearance. Wouldn’t do to have it show up in the public news. That’d be quite an international incident, don’t you think? Even if it didn’t succeed.”

“Doesn’t matter who you tell, “Danziger replies. “You’ve still got no proof except for what I said.”

“Which we have a handy copy of in the ship’s recorded voice log. Oh, and we also have a copy of your original modified navigation software, which I’m sure Lieutenant Karimi was thorough enough to shoot a copy of before making her updates.” As he says this, Karimi, without glancing back, holds up her hand in which is held a palm-sized remote memory drive. At this, Danziger’s forehead begins to perspire once more and, in a moment of sudden desperation, he tries to propel himself from his seat and toward Karimi. But he doesn’t get far. Spinning to avoid Katzenbach’s lunging grasp, he forgets that there are others in the cabin, others who have heard the entire account of their situation. The strong arm that grabs Danziger’s wrist is that of Johansson the geologist. Thrust back into his seat once more, Danziger stops struggling for a moment, only stares ahead and toward Katzenbach with something between hatred and resignation in his eyes. His gaze at Katzenbach is so intense in that moment that he completely misses Kelly moving slowly toward him from the left. Only when she has pulled tight the zip-tie around his wrist and the arm of his seat does he realize the magnitude of his situation. With a bit more assistance from Johansson and surprisingly little resistance from Danziger, the nuclear engineer is now secured in his seat and silent, though breathing heavily.

“Lieutenant Karimi, how are we doing?” Katzenbach asks.

“Nearly there, Captain,” she replies. “I’ve reprogrammed the computer to change heading well away from any possible lunar impact, but to wait for five minutes after the shuttle is clear and has begun to slow before starting the adjustment burn. No point making our rendezvous more challenging when we’re already headed in the right direction. I’ve also topped off the shuttle tanks. But there’s still plenty here for Icarus to do what she needs to do.”

“So we’re good,” Katzenbach says.

“Good as we’re going to get. It’s still going to be quite a ride slowing the shuttle down to lunar insertion speed. We should be okay though—maybe even have enough left over to help with the rendezvous a bit. The heading adjustment clock for Icarus starts the moment we undock.”

“All right then,” Katzenbach says. “Time’s a wasting.” He rises from his seat, grabs a small pouch with his belongings and moves toward the door that leads to the shuttle.

“And what about our conspirator here?” Johansson asks, gesturing toward Danziger, still tied firmly to his seat.

“Oh, I think the good doctor has seen the error of his ways. No reason to subject him and the whole country to all the grief and expense of a long trial. I think the best course would be to let him stay right here with Icarus. He’ll have plenty of time to reflect on things. Tell you what, Doctor. We’ll leave you a knife so you can cut yourself free. It’ll take a while, but you’ve got plenty of time ahead of you.”

Danziger’s eyes go wide at the realization of what Katzenbach has in mind. “Jesus, you can’t just leave—”

“Doctor, Doctor, calm down. This beats a trial for treason, life in prison. Besides, you’ll have the whole ship to yourself. There’s years worth of food and water aboard, scrubbers will keep you in air pretty much indefinitely. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Lieutenant Karimi was good enough to call down to Dallas and cancel the rescue mission. Sadly, though, you won’t be able to make any more radio calls, unless, that is, you can manage to guess a pretty long password. Course you’ll have time to play with that too. Look at the bright side—you’ll be a hero back on earth. The man who selflessly gave his life to save his crew and fellow passengers when their supply ship tragically malfunctioned. And besides that, after six months or so, you’ll have the honor of having traveled farther from earth than any other human.”

Katzenbach draws a small knife from his pouch and leaves it folded on the floor just out of reach of Danziger’s feet. It will take the bound man a while to reach it and use it to free himself.

“You’re a murdering bastard,” Danziger manages, his voice choked more with fear than hatred.

“Now Doctor Danziger, no hard feelings,” Katzenbach replies. “Remember, you were the guy ready to kill an entire station’s worth of Chinese, and possibly us in the bargain.”

He moves through the door with Karimi and the three other passengers. With a hiss, the door slides closed and Danziger is alone. He doesn’t even hurry to reach the knife. What difference will it make?

Ten minutes later, the Icarus’s shuttle unlocks once again from the main ship, pivots one hundred and eighty degrees about so that its engines are facing backward. Having cleared Icarus by a safe hundred meters or so, Katzenbach grips the control stick as Karimi initiates the command to turn on the shuttle’s engines. All are thrown backward into their seats as the tiny ship begins bleeding off velocity. After a minute of full throttle burn, with velocity safely down enough for lunar orbit insertion, she shuts down the engines and Katzenbach rotates the shuttle back around so that they are again facing in the direction they’re traveling. In the forward screen they can now see the approaching gray circle of the moon, though it is still nearly a day away. And to one side, there appears suddenly a brilliant but tiny white plume, the exhaust of Icarus as the great ship makes its final course adjustment, slipping safely to one side of the moon, racing outward.


Armstrong Station – Saturday, March 17, 2097, 11:17 pm EST

Janine and Will Kelly sit side by side on the narrow bed in her tiny crew quarters. It’s been just over three hours since the shuttle from the orbiting Collins Station delivered the five Icarus crewmembers to Armstrong Station. The initial debrief with station leaders about the events aboard Icarus leading to the supply mission’s failure had taken the better part of the first two hours. Katzenbach had done most of the talking during the debrief session, and had indicated only the high-level elements of the account—an unknown system error had caused an extended TLI burn resulting in fuel exhaustion, the crew had managed to avert a catastrophic collision with Armstrong Station, the tragic result of which had been the death of one the passengers, nuclear engineer Bryan Danziger, whose remains were unfortunately unrecoverable. Following this preliminary discussion, crew members were judged to have endured enough travail for the moment and had been released to join team members or, in Janine’s case, her husband, the meeting ending with the station commander’s assurance that there would plenty more investigating in the days to come.

“Was it anyone I know?” Will asks, looking straight into the wall a few feet in front of him rather than into his wife’s eyes. His voice is steady, perhaps surprisingly so, given the gravity of the revelation Janine has only just shared with him. She doesn’t answer right away and he speaks again. “Actually, you know what—don’t tell me. Probably better. That way we’ll both be blissfully ignorant. You have your secrets, I’ll have mine, and we’ll just start things over. If that’s what you want.”

“It’s not just about what I want,” she replies. Since arriving safely at Collins Station, Janine Kelly has decided to come clean with her husband and to accept whatever consequences her confession might cause. She has imagined all sorts of reactions—anger, disappointment, indifference even. What she had not in any way imagined was the response she had received, that her infidelity during the couple’s long separation had been matched by one of Will’s own, with someone who has shared his past three months here at Armstrong. Like Will, she has opted for not knowing, but wonders what the coming days and weeks will be like as a result of that decision. Nine of the twenty-four residents of Armstrong Station are women. Will she ever not wonder each time she interacts with one of them.

“We have another three months apart coming right up,” she says.

“We’ll do better,” he replies.

“We could hardly do worse,” she replies. Neither laugh.


U.S. Military Court of Appeals, Military Courtroom 104A – Monday, July 10, 2097, 1:48 pm EST

It’s one of half a dozen small nondescript courtrooms in the basement of the United States Court of Military Appeals on East Street NW in Washington D.C. There is no jury and there are no public attendees. There isn’t even a proper judge’s dock, only a long wooden table at which sit three men dressed in formal military attire—three officers, the lowest ranking among them a three-star lieutenant general, and all possessed of the highest possible military security clearance. Before the table sit two men: Major General Alistair Sheldon and a fifth officer, a colonel, assigned as Sheldon’s defense counsel, though the role is clearly a perfunctory one. There will be no witnesses, either for or against Sheldon. He has spoken with no one, including his defense attorney, since being escorted from his Pentagon office one week prior. The case against him has been more than sufficiently made by the damning words of Bryan Danziger on the Icarus’s audio recording, the software records provided by the ship’s commander, and a number of password-protected files subsequently found on his personal computer. Though the case against Sheldon was already more than adequate to ensure his incarceration for the remainder of his natural life, he has not improved his prospects any by refusing to divulge the name of the software engineer who worked with him to create the updates that led to the loss of Icarus and the near annihilation of the Chinese lunar research station.

As to whether or not the general’s allegations about weapons research at Yang Liwei Station are true, that is a matter for another day. For now, the only remaining work is the signing of a top secret order that will remand Sheldon to isolated incarceration at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a decision that is not so much about vengeance—indeed the generals behind the table sympathize to a degree with Sheldon’s beliefs and his actions—but rather about secrecy. Word of what has very nearly taken place must never get out. As for Sheldon’s family, they will know only that he has been sent away on a top-secret mission. Some months from now, they will receive word of a tragic accident and they will attend his funeral with full military honors, complete with the tri-folded flag of a grateful nation.


Shepard Flight Center – Thursday, December 3, 2097, 2:42 am EST

A small rocket stands bathed in brilliant spotlights on one of the seven launch pads at Dallas’s Shepard Launch Complex. A few hundred meters away, the Atlantic Ocean laps the shoreline, waiting, if required, to serve as a safety net in the event the launch does not go as perfectly as this occasion demands. For this is no ordinary launch. The vehicle has only one purpose—speed, and only one item of importance onboard—a ten-megaton nuclear warhead. But while this seems, at first blush, to be nothing more than an ordinary ICBM, it is, in fact, not destined for some rogue nation. It is, instead, headed toward the farthest reaches of the solar system.

Icarus is now nearly nine months past the moon’s orbit and about as far out as the orbit of Jupiter. Despite the vanishingly small odds of the unpowered supply ship actually coming into contact with another planet or species somewhere in the cosmos, the U.S. government has determined the risk of even the slightest chance to be unacceptable, what with the combination of nuclear material and hardened viruses stowed in the ship’s cargo hold. Today’s mission will leave earth orbit and chase down Icarus, employing all the speed it can muster, and tracking the big cargo vessel with a continuous stream of navigation data relayed from several large tracking antennae on earth. Best estimates are that an intercept will take about fourteen months. A proximity detector will detonate the warhead once the chase vehicle has gotten to within a kilometer of Icarus.

Geoffrey Katzenbach watches from the control room’s observation window as the small nimble ship rises rapidly from the launchpad on a long column of flame. For a fleeting moment, it brilliantly illuminates the surrounding blackness. Then as quickly it is gone, just another tiny white dot blending in with a billion other pinpoints in the night sky. There is no real reason for Katzenbach to be present for the launch, just his own desire for closure. He’s made his formal application the preceding week for retirement from flight duty, and even though he still feels as healthy as he’s ever felt, the results of recent tests clearly support the relentless progress of his disease.


Icarus – Thursday, February 13, 2099, 12:02 am EST

Danziger makes a note in his journal “Day 700. Icarus continues to perform flawlessly. Supplies fine. Oxygen fine. Same old.”

He’s never, in his two years alone in the vastness of space, been quite sure why he’s keeping a journal. Maybe one day, long after his supplies have been exhausted and he’s either starved to death or suffocated from lack of air, the ship will be found by someone … something. They will wonder why he came to be here. It could take years, decades, centuries. He’s considered many times simply blowing a hatch, evacuating the ship, ending it all in one brief burst of outrage. But he just can’t bring himself to do it: some oddly implausible blend of hope and cowardice. But there is no reason for hope. He’s been heading away from earth for nearly two years. As the bastard Katzenbach had wryly predicted just before abandoning Danziger, he is indeed now farther from earth than any human has ever been. He had pretty much given up on hope the moment the hatch door had slid shut. Hadn’t even bothered stretching for the knife and cutting himself loose for a full two hours after the shuttle left. No, no reason for hope at all.

And yeah, there is plenty of food, enough for eight or nine more years at least. The air scrubbers and temperature system all work automatically and flawlessly, driven by a nuclear power system that will not exhaust its fuel supply for centuries. He is forty-two years old. Can a man stand what might plausibly be fifty years alone in space? It has been nearly two years so far without a sound save for the endless low hum of the computers and air scrubber. He talks to himself from time to time, if only to hear something different. But really, what is there to say? There is no change even in the lighting, nothing to distinguish night from day save for the clock that counts off the minutes and days according to the caprice of time on a far-away planet he will never see again. No … no reason for hope at all. Only what is that low beeping sound? That’s new.

Danziger pulls himself slowly to the computer screen in the center of the cockpit display. It has registered nothing but empty blackness since the day he was first sent off on his own. Only now here is a message, a simple line of text that cannot possibly be real, a handful of words in luminous green. A vessel approaches, a ship with a U.S. serial number. But what possible explanation can there be. Just one—Katzenbach has had second thoughts, has convinced the government, military, someone, to send a rescue mission. The text on the screen rolls out a second line of information, a statement of distance. The approaching vessel is one thousand kilometers away and quickly closing the distance to Icarus. If only the radio worked. He could announce that yes there is someone alive here, someone to make the long journey worthwhile. But he’s never figured out the radios, despite months of trying. All he can do is wait. Here’s a new position update—nine hundred kilometers. It’s gaining on him at about ten kilometers every five minutes. Whatever is coming for him is coming fast. If it continues at this closing rate, the rescue ship, his unimagined deliverance, will be here in just over eight hours. Danziger wishes he could look back and watch the approach, but the Icarus cockpit windows face only forward. He imagines there must be a way to configure a display screen to see backward, but he has no idea how to make such a thing happen. He can only wait and watch the distance count down on the display. And so that’s what he will do. Nine hundred eighty kilometers. Now nine hundred seventy. After two years, eight hours will go by so fast he’ll scarcely notice. All he needs to do is be patient and wait.


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