“SORRY I kept you waiting, General.” I hurried into the room set up for me. I’d met with Dr. Perkins at Roswell a few weeks before regarding some of the artifacts discovered there, and when he’d called today to discuss his latest find—2060 was proving to be an excellent year not only for him, but for the future of Terra—I’d been so fascinated that I’d lost track of time.
“Not at all, Dr. Van Allyn. We just got here ourselves. Thanks so much for meeting with us.”
“I’d say it was my pleasure, but there’s nothing pleasant about this.” I glanced at the major who stood at his elbow.
“Major Reiner is the liaison between the Air Force and the press. Major, this is Elwyn Van Allyn, the premier authority on—”
I cleared my throat.
“—nanoparticles.” He gave a tight smile.
“Dr. Van Allyn.”
“Major.” I nodded at him. In the normal course of events, there would be some civilians involved in a meeting of this nature, but this wasn’t normal in any sense of the word, not with Air Force Air Police cordoning off the building to discourage anyone who was curious about what was going on inside. Mankind had been going into space since the first Sputnik more than half a century ago, and there were still conspiracy theorists who believed we’d never been to the moon. They’d have liked nothing better than to throw a monkey wrench in the works, even if that meant the ultimate destruction of the human race.
“I’ve read a good deal about your work.” The major laughed deprecatingly. “Of course, I could only follow two words out of five.”
“That many?” General Banks patted his shoulder.
Major Reiner smiled, then became serious and tapped the com-link in his ear. After listening for a moment, he murmured something, tapped it again, and turned to the general.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment, sir? There seems to be a minor glitch….”
“Yes, of course, Major.” Banks waited until we were alone before saying, “All right, now, let’s get on with this. Just let me make some room on this table.” He pushed aside the platter of sandwiches the commissary had provided.
“Thanks.” I opened my briefcase, took out the specs regarding this meeting, and spread them out.
“We’re finally, really doing this. I can hardly believe….” The general looked over them, his expression becoming more and more dazzled. “This drive you’ve developed is absolutely amazing, Doctor! Sheer genius!”
“Mmm.” It was amazing, but I could hardly agree that I was a genius. What I was supposed to have discovered had been with an assist from Roswell.
Roswell had been—was still—so highly classified that most people had forgotten about it completely. Everyone thought we scientists had discovered all this new technology on our own.
Except for the same conspiracy theorists who expounded that nothing indicated our science was advanced enough to come up with any this.
It was fortunate no one took them seriously.
I tapped one of the images. “This is what enabled us to launch the MRV two days ago. Venus was closer to Terra at that point, only about twenty-six million miles, and we needed to get the MRV aloft.”
“Hmm. But you’re taking off for Mars this afternoon?” Banks asked.
“Yes. After a few last minute tweaks, we got the final approval to launch earlier today, which is great: Mars will be about forty-two million miles away. The next time it’s closer than this will be in 2287. That’s more than two hundred years from now, General, and we just can’t wait that long.” Unbeknownst to many, the population of Terra would reach critical mass a good deal before then. “Unless mankind gets its head out of its collective asses and pays attention to what the ecologists have been telling us for decades, we’ll need to find a planet suitable for colonization. And if neither of these happens before 2100, then Malthus’s theory will unfortunately come to pass.”
The general shuddered. He was a smart man and knew what that meant. But it wasn’t just cannibalization that Homo sapiens had to worry about. We’d poisoned the seas and the air, and the population had grown to a point where soon we wouldn’t be able to sustain the billions on Terra.
“But, of course, once the population balances out…?” He sounded hopeful. Did he think that if the population decreased to a more manageable number, Terra would be able to once again feed her children? His expression became grim. “Unless there’s a possibility we’ll develop a taste for our fellow man?”
“That’s a valid point.” I couldn’t help the gruff tone of my voice. I was sixty years old, and I had another good sixty years to look forward to. I was going to do my damnedest to make sure it didn’t happen on my watch. “However, it’s not one we need to be concerned about just now.”
“The press is making a big thing about these missions, you know,” the general said.
“That’s exactly what we want.” I studied the specs. “They think we’re testing a new method of propulsion, and if the major does his job right, that’s what they’ll keep thinking.”
Multiple MRs—mission reconnaissance ships—were being built around the world, but only two were ready to take off. My friend, Colonel Sam Johnston, was taking the MRV to Venus, while I was helming the MRM to Mars.
“What are the odds that the MRV will be successful, Doctor?”
“I wouldn’t bet on this one, even if I were a betting man,” I told him. “For one thing, Venus is much too close to the sun. For another, there’s that blanket of clouds.”
“Is there any hope that under the cloud layer there might be something we can work with?”
“There’s always hope, General.” I didn’t say whoever had come up with this bright idea must have read one too many of those pulp science-fiction magazines of the last century. Certainly we had terraformers who were working on the moon, but at least there they were able to set up their equipment. But dealing with clouds that rained sulfuric acid or winds that were so fierce they would scour the flesh off bones?
I just hoped Sam and his crew made it back in one piece.
“In that case our biggest hope is the Argos.” Banks pulled a sheet of paper from his own briefcase.
The launch of the MRM and, to a lesser extent, the MRV, was to give the world hope that the scientific community, aligned with the military, was doing something. But there was a third ship, whose mission was so highly classified her name wasn’t listed on the rosters. Even the men I’d be journeying with were unaware of the Argos.
“Considering what she carries,” I mused, “she really should have been called Noah’s Ark.”
The planet’s leaders had recruited as many scientists, skilled craftsmen, agrarians, and people who knew the front end of an animal from its tail as there was room to hold. Embryos of all domesticated breeds were stored cryogenically, along with human embryos, as a safeguard.
“I’m not thrilled with the selection of her crew.” Banks pushed aside the papers.
“You never struck me as chauvinistic, General.” Every nation on Terra was represented in the Argos’s crew.
“No, no, not that. I have no objection to all those civilians. I just feel a larger contingent of soldiers should have been required. A company isn’t enough.”
“This is a peaceful mission.”
“We don’t know what’s out there.”
“This is true.” The Argos’s destination was simply “out there,” and it would be foolish of us to think that we were the only intelligent life in the wide universe, especially considering what we had hidden away in Roswell. “We don’t have much choice.”
“That’s why you and your crew will be armed.”
“Weren’t you informed?”
“Do you object?”
“Of course not,” I growled. “These are good men, and I’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure they return home safe and sound.”
“I wish I understood how the eggheads plan to accomplish this thing with the Argos.”
“I’ll have you know I’m an egghead, Banks!”
“Sorry. You were one of us for so long….”
I’d retired from the Air Force five years earlier, but I still worked in the space program. “I have to bring my crew in now and brief them on what we’ll really be doing on Mars, General.” I left copies for him to give to Major Reiner when he felt the time was right and placed everything else into my briefcase. I’d be taking these with me to study during any downtime on the MRM.
“Of course. Good luck, Doctor. I’ll see you in about three weeks, and I hope to God you’ll have good news for us.”
“So do I. Good-bye.”
We shook hands and he walked out, his briefcase clutched tightly in his fist. I stared after him thoughtfully. I couldn’t tell him what the government planned to accomplish, not because I didn’t know, but because his security clearance, as high as it was, simply wasn’t high enough. He thought the Argos would maintain contact with Terra, that the new drives we were testing would enable us to send more colonists after them. But the fact of the matter was that once safely beyond Terra’s atmosphere, the Argos’s crew would go into suspended animation, except for a select few whose task it was to see the capsules stayed viable. If nothing compatible with human existence was found within the ship’s first year, they would awaken the next rotation and go into suspended animation themselves. And so on, and so on, until, God willing, they found a new Terra.
If the MRV found nothing but noxious gases, if the MRM was unsuccessful, then that shipload of colonists would be the last, best hope for the survival of our species.