Earth Time: Scheduled Return Date—December 15, 1980
"Hyperion, this is Titan Base. Do you copy?"
Dead air. Static. White noise.
"Hyperion, this is Titan Base. Do you copy?"
Ken Mattingly, commander of the base on Saturn's moon Titan, nodded at the communications technician to continue broadcasting the call to Hyperion. While he held the young man's eye, he made a pressing motion with one hand, a signal to keep his voice calm and business-like. That Hyperion hadn't answered the first attempt to contact them was not yet cause for alarm. Although they had expected a signal to come in from the ship over an hour ago, it wasn't unreasonable that in a five-month, nine-light-year round trip, the astronauts could have encountered delays. Hell, he'd have been shocked as shit if they weren't delayed.
But there was procedure to be followed. An hour after expected first contact, they were to broadcast a signal for five minutes. And then repeat every hour until the interstellar ship came into range and established communications.
He sat back down in his chair, set on a platform that allowed him to oversee the miniature control room. His own monitor beeped, indicating an incoming signal from Earth.
Update requested on status of reacquisition of Hyperion.
He sighed and rubbed a hand through his thinning hair. He understood Mission Control's impatience. The families of the three astronauts—no, he reminded himself, two, only two of them have families—sat in an observation room overlooking Mission Control in Houston, anxiously awaiting word of their loved ones. When they'd established the base on Titan, he'd served on the flight crew with Alan Virdon, and remembered the pretty little powerhouse he was married to. Sally. She'd be there, along with their son, waiting to hear the voice of her husband come over the radio, announcing their return.
He tapped out a reply to Earth.
No contact yet; broadcasting hourly signal per procedure.
Once they were acquired by Titan Base, Hyperion still had to travel for five more days before they reached Earth. But this outpost was the first check-in point, the first knowledge anyone would have that the mission was on its way home.
He said a silent prayer that they answered soon.
"What does that mean, exactly, that you don't know where they are?" Sally Virdon asked, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. Because behind the anger, there was only fear. She reached over and grabbed hold of Michelle Jones' hand. Michelle's other hand rested on her swollen abdomen, rubbing absently.
Robert Crippen, flight director for the Hyperion mission, had a pained look. "The ship was expected to return to the solar system at fifteen hundred hours central time. Reacquisition of communications with Titan Base should have been possible as soon as they disengaged the Hasslein drive and came out of hyperspace."
"I know all about what was supposed to happen, Bob. So tell us what actually happened."
Crippen scrubbed a hand over his face. He wished he had answers. He wanted nothing more than to tell these two women that he knew exactly what had happened to their husbands, that it was all just a technical glitch. But he just didn't know.
"Well, there are several possibilities we are looking into. They could have a malfunction in their communications system; they could be there, but unable to answer our signals. We're sweeping the area of space around their projected flight path for the hallmark radiation that would be generated by their ship's engine. But that's a big area of space to cover. If they are there, it could still take a while for us to find them."
"And if they... if they aren't there?"
"The ship could have been delayed for any number of reasons. They had a beacon they could drop in case of trouble, but we've there's been no sign of that signal, either. So whatever happened, they didn't feel it was serious enough to...to...," he let the thought trail off, as the look on Sally's face told him that she had already thought of the other alternative—that there had been no time to launch the beacon when catastrophe struck.
"But you are going to keep looking, right Bob? Because I know Alan. And if there is any way, any way at all, that he can get the three of them home," she paused and gave Michelle a meaningful look, "that's exactly what he's going to do."
"Of course we're going to keep looking, Sally," Crippen patted her knee reassuringly. "Mattingly is out there on Titan right now, heading up the search. And you know Ken—once he's got his teeth into something, he's not gonna give it up."
He looked at both woman, their faces strained as exhaustion painted dark smudges under their eyes. Michelle Jones, almost seven months pregnant, needed to rest. He glanced down at his watch. Twenty-three hundred hours. Chris Virdon slept on a sofa down the hall in Crippen's own office, where he had gone only after extracting a promise to wake him the second they heard from his father. Natalie Jones waited at home with her grandmother, slumbering in peaceful oblivion to the drama unfolding at Johnson Space Center.
"Look, I've arranged for someone to take you both home." He held up a hand to forestall Sally's protest. "There's nothing you can do here, and we'll contact you the moment we know anything. We'll give you a direct line to my office, so you can pick up the phone anytime you want and get an update. But Alan and Steve will both have my ass in a sling—pardon my French—if I don't take good care of their families. So go home, and we'll stay in constant contact."
But it would be months before they detected any signal from the ship.
Burke stared up at the stars, trying to pick out any familiar shapes. A thousand years shouldn't have made that much difference in the position of the distant stars, but there were just so many of them. Without the pervasive light pollution of the late twentieth century, the Milky Way stood out as a ribbon of illumination across the sky, making it difficult to pick out the usually brighter points that formed the constellations he'd grown up seeing.
He thought back to what he'd said to Virdon in Fallon's shelter the first night after the crash. As a kid, he'd struggled to see any stars through the smog and incandescent glow that hung over Jersey City. Now, he couldn't see the constellations for the all the stars. He smirked, thinking, kinda like not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Trees. He was already so very sick of trees and of sleeping on the ground. Right now, what he wanted more than anything was a hot shower, a soft bed, decent clothes, and a thick steak. They'd been on the run for five days since engineering Galen's escape from prison. At Virdon's insistence, they were slowly working their way back to the ship, travelling in a round about way, laying false trails when they could, in hopes that Urko and Zaius wouldn't figure out where they were going. They'd had to change direction several times to evade gorilla patrols, hopefully adding to the impression that they were interested only in getting as far away from Central City as they could, with no specific destination. With no sign of pursuit for the last two days, they began to circle back around toward Chalo; Galen reluctantly agreed only after Virdon's repeated reassurances that the apes were not hot on their trail.
The sound of Virdon's restless shifting broke the stillness of the night. Tomorrow, they would try to get to the ship so Virdon could retrieve the flight record. If the crash hadn't damaged it. If the apes hadn't destroyed it. And if they recovered it, it was still little better than wishing on a shooting star. Unless...
Burke whispered the question, knowing that Virdon was still awake. "Do you think they'll send out a rescue mission?"
For a long time, Virdon was silent, and Burke was beginning to think that he was asleep after all. "I don't know, Pete. I guess it depends on whether Jonesy activated the beacon."
The unspoken thought that ran through both their minds was that any attempt at rescue would probably just result in more stranded astronauts. Assuming that another ship hit the same time anomaly they did, there was still no guarantee that it would bring that ship to the same year. For all they knew, the ship carrying the astronauts Zaius had talked about arriving years ago had been their rescue mission, but had crashed on this crazy version of Earth before they did. And those astronauts were dead. Like Jonesy was dead.
Like everyone they'd ever known was dead.
The sobering thought cut through him like a fresh wound. In recent years, he had not been close with his family; he'd always been too busy with college and then his career to return to New Jersey very often. But he tried to imagine how Virdon felt, to have a wife and kid who had lived out the rest of their lives and died a thousand years ago, each never knowing what happened to the other. Eventually, he and Virdon and Jones would be declared dead, even if NASA never found out what happened to them. Would his family mourn him? Put up a headstone over an empty plot in Arlington?
He shook himself to dispel the maudlin thoughts. But he understood a little more Virdon's desperate need to cling to any hope, no matter how remote, that they could find a way home. Even if he didn't share that hope, he knew—knew instinctively, in a way he'd never be able to explain to anyone—that that small grain of hope was all that kept Virdon going. So until Virdon accepted their fate, Burke was going to do whatever it took to keep his commanding officer—his friend—from surrendering to his grief.
Now he just needed to convince himself.
"Can you figure that kook?" Burke leaned one hand against the curved ceiling inside the ruined ship, the other hand on his hip. He watched his friend struggle to open the compartment that held the ship's flight record. Virdon twisted the small lever back and forth, the muscles in his forearms bulging as he tried to work the jammed latch open. "He really thinks that flight record is gonna get us back home."
"How much longer?" Galen asked nervously, as he shifted from foot to foot in the doorway behind Burke. He'd been increasingly agitated over the last day or so since Virdon made it clear that he wanted to return to the ship.
"About five, ten minutes maybe," Virdon answered. Once he got the flight disk, he hoped to scavenge through the other components on the ship, see if they could find anything useful to take with them.
"When are you going to give up that pipe dream?" Burke asked with a touch of bitterness in his voice. While he understood Virdon's need to hold onto hope, he wished just a little bit of his pragmatism could rub off on his friend.
"When I see my family," Virdon's tone brooked no more argument. Behind his back, Burke rolled his eyes and sighed heavily.
Galen broke into their disagreement with a frustrated huff. "They'll be looking for us here. I'm surprised they haven't come already." He turned and looked out the hatch again.
"It's been a week, Galen. They probably stopped looking by now." Virdon could feel the latch starting to give. Just a little bit more...
"Zaius? Urko?" Galen hissed loudly. "They'll never stop." He shook his head. "Never!" He scrambled up the ladder out of the ship, ignoring the shocked looks from both astronauts.
With another eye-roll and a put-upon shrug, Burke clicked his tongue and went after the distraught chimpanzee. Galen sat on the wing of the ship, his legs dangling over the side, his face buried in his hands. Burke squatted next to him on the wing and laced his hands together.
"You okay?" he asked.
After a moment, Galen nodded, then raised his face to look at Burke with red-rimmed eyes. The last week had taken a harsh toll on the chimpanzee, and Burke felt guilty that he hadn't noticed it earlier or been more sympathetic.
"I'm sorry," Galen replied. "You see, uh, I had family, too." He nodded toward the ship where Virdon still struggled to free the disk that represented his last, best hope of returning to his family. "I had friends, too."
Burke nudged Galen's shoulder with his knee. "You still have friends." And was a little surprised to find himself genuinely meaning it.
"Hmm," Galen nodded again, then forced a smile for Burke. "I know. I just—"
He stopped with a startled look, and his head whipped around toward the back of the ship.
"What?" Burke asked, growing alarmed.
"Horses! Horses!" Galen pulled his feet up onto the wing and began to stand. Burke turned in the same direction and searched for the source of the sound that Galen's sensitive ears had heard before his. "Only apes have horses!" The chimp's voice rose in panic.
Burke stuck his head into the opening to the ship. "They're coming, Alan! We have no time!"
Virdon still wrestled with the door to the recorder housing. "Just... just about there." Something let go with a metallic snap, and the latch turned freely. He threw open the panel to reveal a small magnetic disk sitting amid a clutter of exposed circuitry. "There's the baby." He grabbed the smooth metal and closed his fingers around it like a drowning man grabbing a rescue line.
"Come on, Alan! Let's go!" Burke could now hear the pounding of the hoofs that signaled their approaching doom. Galen was making distressed noises and shuffling from foot to foot with the urge to flee.
Dodging nimbly through the wreckage, Virdon reached the hatch and leapt up the ladder and through the opening. Galen and Burke ran down the wing to the nose of the ship and jumped off into the soft dirt, Virdon following right behind them. They disappeared down the berm into the cover of the forest just moments before a group of apes on horseback rode into the clearing.
Zaius, Urko, and three gorilla soldiers had ridden hard from Central City. Zaius finally convinced Urko that the astronauts would eventually return to their ship. Urko thought they would be stupid to do so, and while he didn't put much stock in the intelligence of these humans, even he didn't believe these humans were that foolish. But then again, they'd returned to the prison after their escape, despite the risk of being recaptured, to free the chimpanzee Galen. Humans helping an ape they barely knew. He shook his head. Unheard of!
But Zaius believed that Virdon, in particular, would feel an overwhelming drive to return to his ship. The brief conversation Zaius had had with the two humans in his office convinced him that their insatiable curiosity would leave them no other course. They may even have hidden weapons in their ship that they would use against the apes.
It was the threat of weapons that convinced Urko to make the journey to Chalo. Zaius just hoped that Urko's stubborn recalcitrance didn't cost them the humans.
When they rode into the clearing, Zaius saw the humans' ship for the first time. He felt the icy grip of fear clench in his gut. The technological marvel was quiescent, but he almost felt at any moment that the engines could roar to life, burning everything around it with the fires of destruction.
"See if they were here, and then take care of the ship," Zaius commanded the three soldiers.
With rifles at the read, the soldiers dismounted and climbed into the ship. After a moment, they emerged again.
"They aren't here, Zaius."
"Destroy it! I don't want it to exist another moment longer!" Zaius wheeled his horse and turned away from the monstrosity, unable to bear looking at it anymore.
Urko shook his head in disgust and began to direct his soldiers to load the kegs of gunpowder they'd brought with them into the ship.
Virdon, Galen, and Burke ran through the woods, each of them glancing over his shoulder in turn to look for any sign of pursuit. Virdon thought he remembered the way back to Farrow's secret cave, but as the landscape rushed by, he wasn't sure. And they didn't dare risk stopping to get their bearings.
As they broke through the underbrush into a small clearing, the unmistakable sound of an explosion rent the air. They stopped, exchanging shocked and startled expressions. Galen lowered himself onto a log slowly.
"The ship?" Burke's tone said he already knew the answer.
Virdon nodded. "I'm afraid so." He turned the metallic disk over in his fingers, then reached around to tuck it safely into his pouch.
Burke slumped to the ground, with exhaustion or a sense of defeat, he wasn't sure. Probably both.
"All right. Which way, Galen," Virdon asked, his urge to take command of the situation surfacing. "It's your world."
"It's yours, too," Galen replied with a sad look. He glanced over at Burke. "And yours."
Virdon stood. "All right. Let's just start walking." He slapped Burke on the shoulder as he passed him.
Burke and Galen exchanged looks of weary resignation that they would share many, many more times, then got up and followed in Virdon's wake.
Earth Time: One Year After Scheduled Return—December 1981
Ken Mattingly watched the video monitor of the signal from Earth. And even though the signal was delayed over an hour, he put on his white dress uniform and, along with some of the other senior personnel on the base, stood in formation as they watched the memorial service for the three astronauts who had been lost on the Hyperion mission. Of the three, he'd known Virdon personally, as they'd been crewmates on the mission to establish Titan Base. Burke and Jones, he knew by reputation. In any case, they were colleagues, and he felt their loss deeply.
Especially since he had been the herald of that particular bad news four months ago.
"Sir?" Mattingly looked up from his computer at the technician, an earnest young woman named Susan Tsao, who stood in the doorway. "You...you better come see this, sir. We're picking up an anomalous signal."
Mattingly frowned, his brow creased as he stood and followed Tsao out of his office into the main command center. Leading the way to the communications array, she picked up a printout and held it out to him.
"I thought at first it was just random noise; we've been picking up a lot more blips since that comet smacked into Neptune. Background radiation has been off the charts since then, and the sounds coming in are almost like this weird, technopunk music—" She trailed off when he leveled a glare at her. "Anyway, it's definitely an artificial signal, sir."
Looking over the frequency profile of the signal, the line between his eyebrows deepened. "What's the vector of origin for this signal?" he asked, suspecting that he already knew the answer.
"Fourteen hours, thirty-nine minutes by... negative sixty degrees and fifty minutes," she read off the numbers haltingly, then blanched. "It's coming from the direction of Alpha Centauri, sir."
Mattingly pulled out the chair at the communications console and indicated Tsao should sit. "Pull up the specs on the distress beacon for the Hyperion mission and run a comparison to this signal."
He leaned over Tsao's shoulder as she rapidly keyed the request for the data into the computer. The computer beeped with the answer. "It's a match, sir. The signal is Hyperion's beacon."
Scrubbing a hand down his face, Mattingly took a deep, steadying breath. After all this time. "All right." He began issuing orders in a crisp, carefully controlled tone. "Get our Lagrange satellites locked onto this thing and triangulate. I want to know exactly where this signal is coming from."
"Yes, sir," Tsao responded automatically as she was already entering the commands into the computer.
He resisted the urge to pace behind the woman's chair as she worked. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the console. He didn't have to wait long.
"The signal is coming from... from just inside the orbit of Uranus." She shook her head. "I'm running it again to double check."
Uranus! If the beacon was that close, they should have been picking up its signal for months before this.
Tsao frowned. "I... I don't understand how it's possible, but the signal's origin is inside the solar system. And it's traveling this way, on a course toward Earth."
"Get me JSC on a live feed."
The information from the beacon had been downloaded and analyzed by the geniuses at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Mattingly didn't know all the specifics of what the record had shown, but he knew even before the announcement came down that the ship had been destroyed. Now, four months later, almost a year since the mission was due to return home, NASA held a service memorializing Virdon, Burke, and Jones, who were declared lost.
Mattingly had sent a personal letter to Sally Virdon—he was sure one of many she received—expressing his condolences. Alan Virdon had been a damn fine astronaut. And he made a promise to come visit when he was finally rotated back to Earth.
The live feed shifted briefly to Sally Virdon and Michelle Jones as they were presented with the folded flags that had hung in state in the White House atrium in effigy for their husbands. Chris Virdon sat next to his mother, looking far older than his twelve years in his dark funereal clothes. Jones's children were not present; the four year old girl and not-quite-one-year-old son were too young to understand the austere proceedings.
The third flag went to a dark-haired woman whose resemblance to Burke declared her a close relative. His sister, probably. He remembered from the obituary that Burke had two sisters and an elderly mother.
Mattingly snapped a salute, mirroring the servicemen in the video feed, as the quavering, mournful sound of Taps was played on a bugle.
Sally Virdon had rarely looked up at the night sky in the last year. Alan had tried to teach her how to pick out Alpha Centauri AB, but it was only visible for a few weeks at the height of summer just above the southern horizon in Houston. He'd had a little more luck pointing out brightly glowing Saturn when he'd been gone for months on Titan. But now she couldn't tell one planet from another at night.
Chris, on the other hand, devoured astronomy. For his last birthday before his father left for deep space, he'd received a real telescope. He'd watched faithfully every night during the months they had awaited Alan's return. When the ship had failed to materialize last year, Chris spent hours looking through the instrument; Sally suspected that Chris somehow believed that as long as he searched with his limited capabilities, his father would be found. Then the awful day when they finally discovered the beacon from the ship, the one that would only be deployed in the event of serious trouble. Since then, the telescope languished in the corner of his bedroom, collecting dust.
No, she couldn't look up in the sky anymore without the entire sparkling spectacle turning into a blurry, watery mess.
But tonight, on the one-year anniversary of when the ship should have returned, she put on a sweater against the chill night air, poured herself a glass of wine, and went out to the chaise on the back deck. She leaned back against the cold fabric of the cushion with a shiver, and looked up at the bulbous moon. Just a few days past full, its light, combined with the city glow, drowned out most of the stars. But that didn't matter. The only star she would want to see was far below the horizon at this time of year.
The last few days had been horrible, probably ranking right up there in the top three horrible periods in her life, all of which could be counted in the last year. She separated each on in her mind, neatly categorizing it, because it was the only way should could deal with the strain.
First there was the Not Knowing. When Alan's ship had not returned when it should, she spent months going through every conceivable stage of grief, some of them multiple times as she tried to hold onto hope in the face of hopelessness. Denial—Alan would find a way to come home. He just would. He had to. Anger—what had he been thinking, going on such a dangerous mission when he had a wife and son at home who needed him? Bargaining—if she could just keep believing that he was still ali... still going to come home, then it would happen. One day he'd just pop up, with the wildest tale to tell about where they'd been. Depression—she thought she had been depressed while she didn't know her husband's fate. It was only later that she realized she had not yet experienced its true depths.
Then came Knowing. When the distress beacon had been recovered, they learned that the ship had broken up while on an emergency trajectory back to Earth. They'd been on their way back when the ship had been destroyed. And suddenly, as much as she hated Not Knowing, she absolutely despised the finality of Knowing. But she'd had to hold it together. For Chris. For Michelle, who in the midst of it all had delivered a beautiful baby boy, who she immediately, without thinking, named Stephen. Sally had ended up being Michelle's substitute labor coach.
Still, in the middle of the night, when she woke from a nightmare soaking with sweat and swallowing down the scream on her lips, when the bed was big and empty and comfortless, she let the despair have free rein. Those were the nights when she cried out her grief into her pillow, trying to keep the sobs that wracked her quiet enough not to wake Chris.
But this week... This week, NASA finally decided that it was time to put Alan, Steve, and Pete—or at least their spirits—to rest. They'd held an elegant memorial service at Johnson Space Center. The President had even been there, presented them with flags that had hung in the White House for the past year as a reminder that the country—the world—was holding its breath and wishing fervently for the three men to return home safe and sound. Many of the directors at NASA had made speeches—John Young, Bob Crippen, even Senator Glenn had returned and reminisced about the beauty and danger of space. So many people had expressed their condolences, an unbelievable number of people who had never even met them, but felt moved by their human connection.
And now, now she was supposed to feel acceptance. Find closure. Move on. NASA would make sure that she and Chris would want for nothing and expedited as much of the legal process as they could. There were still a few details to be taken care of; at least she didn't have to wait the seven years that would have usually been required for a death in absentia declaration. The data on that damned beacon had obliterated any thought that her husband might have somehow survived.
Alan Virdon was declared... dead.
She still had trouble thinking in those terms. Because the last time she'd seen Alan, he'd been so vibrant, ready to embark on the most exciting journey of his life.
There was no body, no image of destruction that would make his death real to her. The memorial service was a start. When the headstone in Arlington was unveiled in a few months, that would be a very visceral declaration of finality. But until then, she would have to find her own way to mark the moment in her mind.
She looked up at the sky and raised her glass in salute to the cold, unforgiving moon before taking a generous draught of the wine.
Where possible, the names of real people leading up to 1980 have been used in the flashbacks. Walter Cronkite retired as the anchor of the CBS Evening News in early 1981. Dan Rather, his successor, was Chief Correspondent up until that time. Parts of Cronkite's speech at the launch of Hyperion were lifted from his coverage of the launch of Apollo 11.
Most of the positions at NASA are also as accurate as I could make them. The Test Director is responsible for astronaut training for a given mission; however, the names of real people in that position are difficult to find. Jake Rousch is an homage to a college friend who did go on to work at Johnson Space Center. John Young was Chief Astronaut from 1974-1987, as well as commander of the first shuttle mission STS-1 in 1981 and STS-9 which launched Spacelab in 1983. I promoted Robert Crippen, pilot on STS-1, to Flight Director for Hyperion, since there was no active Flight Director in 1980. Ken Mattingly, famous for his role during Apollo 13, commanded shuttle missions STS-4 in 1982 and STS-51-C in 1986. Instead, I made him the commander of the base on Titan.
I am indebted to my mother-in-law, who worked as an administrative assistant for the highest levels of NASA in Florida during the Apollo era, for information about astronaut candidacy, training, and pre-mission procedures. And my father-in-law provided first-hand knowledge about the USAF and piloting.
All other dazzling theories and jargon regarding the mechanics of faster-than-light space travel are my own, for better or worse, based on my 25-year-old degree in planetary science.