Beware The Jabberwocky

By Stephanie B

 

 

Part 1:

 

Silence. It was a rare thing in Tenkei. With over a million people packed into a space fifteen kilometres across there was always noise. Alice had lived with noise all her life and usually enjoyed it, but sometimes she needed to get away. How far away was another matter. Floating in space looking at stars was one of her favourite ways to relax. It usually helped her put things into perspective.

 

A gentle hiss from her oxygen tank was the only sound she heard as she scanned her heads-up display. Instead of its normal system status, it showed images and profiles of three people. Alice was looking at an image of her new pilot. She just didn't know which one of them it would be. It had been a long process selecting her crew and she really didn't have time to waste if she wanted to make next month's launch. Replacing a pilot was not something she wanted to do, but it wasn't like Al had given her a choice.

 

Alice was tempted to just select the group's only woman, but knew that was just avoiding her problem. With Tammy already on her crew list she wasn't concerned about having another woman, but it would be nice. Men could be so unpredictable at times. It had been one of Al's best, and worst, qualities. She pushed that thought out of her mind and tried to concentrate on her current task.

 

A flashing icon on her display indicated an incoming message. Alice re-activated her communications system and listened for who it was.

 

“Where the hell are you?” demanded Tetsuo. He sounded annoyed and Alice wondered how long he had been looking for her.

 

“I'm just stargazing,” she answered. While waiting for his reply she calculated the time lag for her radio message. She realized a two second lag would be a dead give-away, even if he didn't try to locate her signal. His reply took longer than could be blamed on the speed of light, or radio waves in this case. It was likely that her father was trying to calm down before saying anything.

 

“You do know you can stargaze from here?” he asked. “There's no reason to go to the far side of the moon to see them.”

 

“It's a better view from here,” Alice replied. Before waiting four seconds for his comment, she added, “I'm coming back now anyway. I've made up my mind.”

 

“Great,” came Tetsuo's delayed replay. “Meet me at home for dinner and you can tell me who the lucky guy is.”

 

“Okay,” she answered. Alice couldn't help adding, “But what makes you think it's a man?”

 

“You know what I mean,” he defended himself. “I'll see you in a few minutes then?”

 

“Okay, but give me twenty minutes. I need to have a shower first.” Even thought she had been in her suit for only an hour Alice didn't feel like seeing anyone without having a shower first. All spacesuits had air scrubbers to help eliminate body odour, but after getting out she always felt sweaty and gross. It was also a good reason why no one borrowed a suit, except for tourist. If anyone spent time outside, their first purchase was their own suit.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Exactly twenty minutes later, Alice stepped through another portal into Tetsuo's dining room. Her straight black hair reached to her mid-back and was still slightly damp from her shower. It was making small water marks on her red silk blouse. A black, knee length skirt was something she wouldn't normally wear, but it was expected when dining with her father. He would never say anything if she wore pants to dinner, but she could always tell that he didn't approve. He rarely commented on anything she would wear, but dinner required a different level of attire.

 

Tetsuo pushed his chair back and stood as Alice's portal flashed out of existence behind her. His bright red tie and handkerchief contrasted nicely with his navy blue suit. She smiled to herself; he looked hansom, as always. Alice wished, again, that he would find someone. Her father had no social life, at least none that didn't involve work somehow. Dinner parties for a successful launch of another business project or cocktails with perspective investors. His last 'date' was over two months ago, when he took her out to celebrate her twentieth birthday. It was the last time that Al had been able to join her and her father for dinner.

 

“I hope you're hungry,” Tetsuo said while giving Alice a hug. “Yuki has made some of your favourite dishes.” Nobuyuki Sato had been a top sushi chef in Tokyo before retiring two years ago. When Tetsuo heard, he offered him an apartment and a job as his personal chef, if he would move to Tenkei. To everyone's surprise, Nobuyuki agreed and has lived in Tenkei ever since. He wouldn't even leave Tenkei when Tetsuo would force him to take vacation.

 

“I am a bit hungry,” Alice admitted. “I missed lunch today. I was busy going through my list of replacement pilots.”

 

Tetsuo knew it was a delicate subject, but asked anyway. “You could delay the launch if you're having difficulty finding a replacement for Al.” It was an attempt to get her to admit that she needed more time to get over Al's death.

 

Biting her tongue for a moment, she finally replied, “If we delay the launch we won't have enough time before the return window closes.” It was the same reply she had given each time her father suggested a delay, it was almost true. Seventeen weeks on Mars would be more than enough time to do just about anything, but she needed to keep to her schedule. She needed at least some level of stability and structure in her life.

 

“If we don't launch on time, or if there's a chance we might miss our return date, we'll have to wait for another two years,” Alice explained yet again.

 

“I know, but if you're not ready it might be better to wait,” Tetsuo added. Before Alice could reply to her father's concerns, the door leading to her father's kitchen opened. A short, bold, barrel chested man stepped through with a tray of dishes. Each with its own delicacy on it.

 

As Yuki entered, Alice bowed and said, “Konbanwa, Itamae San.”

 

Yuki smiled and placed his tray on the table. “Good evening, Alice. It's always a pleasure to see you.”

 

After yet another amazing meal, Tetsuo asked, “So, who have you decided on?”

 

“The same person I suggested two days ago,” she answered and waited for her father to start explaining why she was making a mistake.

 

Pushing his chair back, Tetsuo stood and said, “I thought you might say that.” He made his way to a small desk nearby and pulled out a tablet. After punching in his access code he passed it to Alice. “I hired an investigator to locate him. He's scheduled to be hang gliding on Black Mesa in Arizona today. You should be able to find him there for a little while.”

 

She looked at it several times before realizing that her father wasn't arguing with her decision. A map and flight schedule was showing on his tablet when Alice was finally able to read it.

 

~ ~ ~

 

As Alice stepped through her portal, she was immediately assaulted by heat and bright sunlight. The thin, dry desert air was only made bearable by a strong wind coming over the cliff edge several meters away. A short distance from its shear drop, someone had set up a table with water bottles and radio equipment under a canvas tent. A heavy set man knelt behind the table adjusting settings on some equipment that Alice couldn't identify.

 

After walking closer Alice said, “Hello.”

 

It was obvious that he wasn't expecting anyone, as he jumped from her greeting. “Where the hell did you come from?”, he asked after finally getting to his feet.

 

“Tenkei,” answered Alice with a smile.

 

“Yeah! Right.” After looking past her for something he added, “Well if you're here to fly you seem to have forgotten your gear.”

 

“I'm not here to fly,” she replied. “I'm looking for Neil Dollie. Do you know where I can find him?”

 

Before answering he checked his tablet. “He's about half a kilometre out and a hundred meters up, in that direction,” he told her while pointing into the sky over his shoulder with his thumb. After a brief pause he added, “You're in luck. It looks like he's about to land.”

 

Alice walked past him and looked up at the colourful hang gliders. “Which one is he?” she asked

 

“Flame Out?” he chuckled. “He's the red, orange and yellow one that looks like it's on fire.” Alice was able to spot it quickly. Its distinctive colours were only half the reason. It was also the closest one to them and was quickly getting closer. They watched Neil flared his glider, bringing it to a perfect stop as his feet hit the ground. Alice started to walk toward Neil and his hang glider. If he noticed her at all he didn't show it. Instead he started to take apart his glider so that it could be stored in a nearby trailer and taken home.

 

Alice was still unsure of what to say. She watched him work as she slowly made her way to his glider. Even though he was only one hundred and seventy-five centimetres, Neil towered over her by more than twelve centimetres. His well toned, athletic body showed a lifetime of good eating habits and physical activity. He was an extremely handsome man with black hair, tanned skin and dark brown eyes, showing his Hopi Indian heritage. Since he was born and raised in Arizona, Alice had originally thought he was Navajo, but he made certain of correcting her mistake.

 

“What are you doing here?” Neil asked before Alice was able to say anything. He moved around his glider to be able to see her while he continued to loosen bolts with a small tool.

 

“I came to offer you a job,” answered Alice. “I need a pilot.”

 

Neil almost sneered as he asked, “I thought you had a pilot? Or did you finally drive Al away too?” He smiled to himself as he saw Alice looking at her feet, unable to make eye contact.

 

She wasn't ashamed, as Neil believed. Instead Alice was fighting with her emotions. She wanted to lash out at Neil almost as much as she wanted to curl up into a tiny ball and cry. Her calm voice completely hid this from Neil as she said, “I guess you haven't heard then.”

 

Neil continued to disassemble his hang glider. He really didn't care what Alice had to say, but asked anyway. “Heard what?”

 

Her reply was cold and blunt, “Al's dead.”

 

It was like a slap to Neil's face. He stood and walked closer, looking at Alice in disbelief. It was difficult for Neil to read Alice at times. She always kept her emotions guarded, even in private. It was another reason he had left Tenkei. His disbelief ended when he noticed a single tear make its way down her cheek. He also saw, for the first time, sorrow reflected in her dark eyes. He was still angry with Alice; hated her for how things had turned out, but she was hurt and he saw that easily enough.

 

“I'm sorry, Alice,” he said while reaching toward her to wipe away her tear.

 

“Don't!” Alice snapped as she slapped his hand away. She struggled for a moment before finally making a decision. “I don't know why I even came here,” she said as she walked away. Her comment was directed more at herself than Neil. Since Alice wasn't walking toward anything in particular, Neil didn't attempt to follow her until it was too late.

 

He started to run toward her and yelled, “Alice, Wait.” She stepped through a portal which flashed out of existence before he could get to her.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The hanger was large, but Kasei Maru almost filled it. When Neil had left, Kasei was little more than a hull with far too many synergy thrusters dotting its surface. Its aft Dimensional Drive Thrusters, or DDTs, were still relatively new, but were already becoming extremely popular for spacecraft. The opportunity of reaction-less thrust was well worth the amount of energy required to do it. He could never figure out how Alice planned on providing enough power to run even half of them. From a distance it looked like a large animal was trying to make a home in an opening on Kasei. It was an odd sight seeing a pair of legs and a long bushy tail sticking out of an access panel. Neil recognized the tails distinctive markings, even from the other side of the large hanger. As he walked closer, Neil couldn't resist playing a little joke of his favourite engineer.

 

“What did you break this time, Chip?” Neil yelled from outside the access panel. A loud, echoing thud made Neil cringe. Suddenly the legs and tail disappeared into their hole and were replaced by a smiling face. Her face made it even more obvious where Tammy Stratus had gotten her nickname. Her light brown coloured fur with dark brown strips made her long nose even more pronounced. With puffy cheeks and black beady eyes, it was clear she was a chipmunk hybrid.

 

Tammy looked out at Neil with a wide smile. “Neil? You're back? When did you get here?”

 

Crawling out of her hole in Kasei head first, Tammy flipped over and landed on her feet like an acrobat. Neil was always amazed at how flexible she was and how she didn't even seem to notice. Standing up straight, he was reminded how tall she was. Chipmunks are meant to be small, cute, furry little animals, but she was another five centimetres taller that his one hundred and seventy-five centimetres. At least she had the cute and furry part down pat. She wore a pair of blue denim shorts, tailored to fit her tail. Her white cropped top ended less than two centimetres below her small breasts and was so tight it was practically a second skin. It was an outfit he would find in a gym or an aerobics class, not for crawling around inside a ship. It was hard to tell if her hands or feet had more grease on them. Neil had never seen her wear shoes, but he had seen her hanging by her claws on one foot to reach something down a shaft.

 

Neil decided to answer only her last question. “I got here about twenty minutes ago,” he answered.

 

“And you came to see me first?” she teased.

 

Neil smiled while replying, “Of course I did. Who else would I come all this way to see?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” she chuckled. Tammy knew Neil's taste in women and that she didn't fit his physical requirements. “Have you ever dated someone taller than yourself?”

 

“Well, no,” admitted Neil. “But there's always a first time,” he quickly added.

 

Tammy got a serious look on her face as she said, “We all missed you at Al's funeral. I guess you weren't able to make it?”

 

“No,” Neil started to explain that nobody even told him, but changed his mind. “No, I couldn't make it. What happened anyway?”

 

“I don't think anyone knows,” answered Tammy. “He was talking a shuttle on a test flight with some of our scientific packages and there was an explosion. But we've taken all those packages separately without any problems. There shouldn't have been anything that could have exploded like that.”

 

“How's Alice doing?” he asked, even though he already knew.

 

“It's hard to tell. You know Alice,” she answered. “I do know that she's clock over a hundred hours in her suit since his accident. If you're looking for her, she's inside getting the power online.” Tammy figured he was here looking for her. Since Alice spent more time here than anywhere else, it would be the first place anyone should look.

 

“Thanks, Tammy.” Neil turned and started walking toward Kasei's main hatch.

 

“Hey, Neil,” Tammy called. When he turned to look at her she was about to climb back inside the open panel. “It's good to see you again,” she added before disappearing inside.

 

Neil found the open hatch a short distance away and stepped through. Kasei's inner hatch was also open to allow equipment to be moved in or out easily. These two hatchways formed Kasei's port side main airlock, which was mirrored on the starboard side. Turning right, toward the back or aft end of Kasei, Neil entered the common area. This was a massive waste of space, as far as he was concerned. It was over six meters long and the entire ten meter width of Kasei, it contained their galley, dining area, entertainment centre and even an upper observation deck. He looked around at all its furnishings. It looked as if it was finished and ready for use. Another open hatchway was located on the far bulkhead. Passing though it Neil found a long narrow corridor, if you can call a two meter wide corridor narrow. With it being over twenty meters long, it just had an illusion of being narrow. From construction plans he had seen for Kasei, the first pair of doors would be port and starboard labs, followed by the staterooms for the crew members. They couldn't be called crew quarters if their size matched their design plans. Each room would be larger than his first apartment.

 

He finally came to the first closed hatch since coming aboard, other than the labs and staterooms. Turning its two locking levers and pushing its massive weight, Neil found himself in a large, but crowded room. It was a single room from port to starboard and occupied the remaining fifteen meters of Kasei. He stood between two massive cryogenic holding tanks. In the distance he could hear Alice talking with someone. Following their voices took him to one of the most bizarre sights he had ever seen.

 

An enormous donut shaped piece of equipment occupied the room and was separated by a thick clear wall. To one side of the wall was a control centre and several banks of computers. Alice sat on the floor in front of one large rack of computer equipment. A massive cable was connected to it and made its way across the floor and disappeared into a one meter hole in the floor that shouldn't be there. Through the hole a small team of engineers could be seen pouring over dozens of screens of data. The hole they were in was over three meters deep and Neil couldn't see its walls from his vantage point.

 

“Okay, now that we have ignition I want to get the RF generators tuned properly.” Alice yelled to someone in the hole.

 

Someone yelled back to her, “It'll take about two minutes to run the spectrum. Do we have time?”

 

“Yeah, but that's all. It's been open for over seven minutes now,” she answered. “Let me know when you're finished and I'll pull the data feed.”

 

“Okay. We estimate one minute and fifty-three seconds to complete.”

 

Alice stood up, stretched her arms and legs and finally noticed Neil. “How did you get here?” she asked.

 

“What was that?” yelled the voice from the hole.

 

She leaned over the edge and looked in. “Nothing, I was talking to some here.”

 

“It wasn't easy,” answered Neil. “Why did you cancel my portal access? I got all the way to New York only to find out that I couldn't go through.”

 

“New York? I thought you would have gone to San Francisco,” replied Alice.

 

“San Francisco would have added twelve more hours to the trip, and you didn't answer my question.”

 

Alice deflected his comment. “You didn't answer mine either.”

 

“My pilot's license still has orbital clearance,” he finally answered. “And a friend of mine needed a co-pilot for a cargo shuttle that launched today. I think we were delivering seafood, or seaweed. My Japanese was never that good. So, your turn. Why couldn't I go through New York's portal, like every other person on the planet?”

 

“I didn't cancel your access,” she replied. “I just asked them to put a forty-eight hour hold on it.” It was the first time she smiled since he entered. “I wasn't going to make it easy for you if you decided to come.”

 

The disembodied voice at the bottom of the hole yelled, “Okay, we're done. The on-board computers will be able to maintain and regulate the matter flow now.”

 

“Great, let me get your data cable then,” Alice yelled back to him. She disconnected the cable from its port and started to push it toward the hole, letting it fall though under its own weight. After it was gone, she yelled down, “Thanks again guys, I'll see you in the morning for the flight test.” With a quick wave the hole in the floor flashed and disappeared. It finally dawned on Neil that it wasn't a hole at all, but a portal that Alice was holding open to somewhere.

 

“Flight test?” asked Neil. “I thought you needed a pilot, or have you found someone else already?”

 

“No, I don't need a pilot anymore,” she answered with a grin. “My pilot finally showed up. But I did expect you about six hours ago.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“It may have a lot of speed and acceleration, but it's about as manoeuvrable as an ocean liner,” Neil complained again. After a week of running through test flights both with a simulator and in Kasei Maru he was still having trouble controlling her, particularly at landing speeds. Before running out of room he reduced speed and tried to get the hanger lined up. He overshot and had to reduce speed again. “GOD DAMN IT!!” he yelled at himself. “CG is so far aft it's screwing me up.”

 

“Is it going to be a problem?” asked Alice over their communications link.

 

“No,” he answered. When he overshot again he jabbed the bow thrusters and cursed again, “Shit!!”

 

Another correction finally got them lined up and he was able to relax. “This is why I hate simulators! Someone obviously screwed up the CG when they programmed that thing. She handles completely different from that piece of junk. This thing is like trying to balance a pencil on the end of your finger.”

 

“Sorry, Neil. I think that might have been my fault,” Tammy added from her engineering station over his right shoulder. “We couldn't get the reactor we were looking for. I had to replace it with another model. This one's about twenty tonnes heavier.”

 

Punching more buttons on his console to verify his readings, he added, “You'll need to balance this beast out if we want any hope of a level landing. I figure we need to move the CG forward at least fifteen meters.”

 

Tammy thought for a moment before making entries on her console. “I can add some ballast under the flight deck and flood our forward storage lockers,” explained Tammy. “That will move the centre of gravity forward by sixteen meters. But we'll be using that water and our centre of gravity will be messed up again later.”

 

“I can handle that during launch,” Neil commented. “I just don't want to make another crater trying to land on Mars.”

 

“Can the thrusters handle the extra mass you're talking about?” Alice's tinny voice asked over the radio.

 

“Are you joking?” Tammy asked with a chuckle. “With the number of thrusters you had installed, we could handle twice that.”

 

Kasei Maru slowly passed through the open hanger doors and its force field holding in air before landed on its skids with a bone crushing thud. Before leaving her station, Tammy popped the starboard hatch and then took the steps down to the main level two at a time.

 

Neil yelled, “Where the hell are you going so fast?”

 

“I have a date,” she yelled back. “Make sure you lock her up when you leave.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Wallis walked down a remote corridor of the Pentagon and stopped outside an unmarked door. He paused briefly before knocking and entered.

 

“Colonel?” he asked nervously. Colonel Anthony Davis was a career soldier, just like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He sat behind an old steel desk, typing on an equally old computer before looking at the man interrupting his work. Colonel Davis assessed him before deciding what to say to the skittish Airman. His Dragonfly Wings showed him to be an Airman First Class, but today he was just a messenger looking as though he expected to be yelled at.

 

“What is it, Airman?” he finally asked.

 

“We received a report that Kasei Maru has been certified for space flight,” Wallis said quickly and waited for the Colonel's reaction.

 

There was a long pause before he finally said quietly, “Thank you, Airman. You're dismissed.”

 

Wallis was stunned for a moment, but quickly recovered. “Yes sir,” he replied before closing the door.

 

Colonel Davis though for a long time. It was clear that his prior attempts had failed, perhaps he needed to take another approach. Turning to his computer again, Davis pulled up his personal contact list. Each person on his list was a personal friend or someone that owed him a favour. Scanning through his list of people, one name jumped up at him. William Dalton had been promoted to director of the United Earth Space Consortium recently. It was a long shot be worth a try. He dialled his number and waited.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Bill, how's it going?” Davis asked.

 

“Tony, is that you? I haven't heard from you in years.”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that Bill. It's this new job they have me working at here”

 

“What is it this time? Or am I allowed to even ask?”

 

“Well, I could tell you...” he started to answer.

 

“But then you'd have to kill me.” Bill interrupted with a chuckle. “What can I do for you? If you're calling me this late, I know your need something.”

 

“Why? What time is it?” he asked while looking at his computer screens clock. “Damn Bill, I'm sorry. I didn't even notice what time it was. I hope I didn't wake Cindy.”

 

“No, I'm in my office working late again,” Bill explained. “Cindy is working in Indonesia, somewhere, this month. She should be back next week.”

 

“Oh, so you need a good dinner then,” Tony offered.

 

“It's that big of a favour, is it?” jabbed Bill. “Okay, sure. You have a better expense account than I do anyway.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Still in her bra and panties, Alice stepping over a pile of rejected clothes. She was trying to decide what to wear and nothing seemed appropriate. Her father had called that morning and asked her to join him for dinner, but instead of being at his home, they would be dining in a private room at Everyone's Place. If that wasn't enough of a warning, he also told her that a special guest would be joining them. Which usually meant business. Finally she decided on a tasteful three-quarter length black dress. Her neck line was a little lower than she felt comfortable with, but she didn't have much time left to look for other options. With that decision made, Alice started hunting for a pair of shoes that would match.

 

Choosing not to make an entrance, Alice opened a portal outside Everyone's Place and stepped through. A pair of large double door with gold leaf lettering allowed her to check her makeup again before passing through. Before she could ask, the maitre d' stepped out from behind his podium to greet her.

 

“Welcome, Miss Sakamoto. It's a pleasure to have you join us tonight. Your party is right this way.” He indicated a separate hallway, taking her to a private room without having to walk through their main dining hall. As he opened its elaborately carved mahogany door he added, “I hope you enjoy yourself tonight.”

 

'I doubt that very much,' Alice thought to herself. Smiling, she said, “Thank you. Do you know if Gabe is cooking tonight?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Kramer is in the kitchen tonight. I believe he was specifically requested.”

 

This was definitely not going to be a good night. While Gabe Kramer was an excellent chef, the fact that someone had requested him specifically only meant that they had a very large expense account and they wanted to show it. From the doorway she saw her father as he started to stand. He was wearing a tailored black suit with a red and white tie and pocket puff. Seeing Tetsuo stand, the man across from him quickly stood as well. He seemed to be in his mid-forties and was slightly overweight and balding, but wore an extremely expensive, Italian suit. His shoes alone would likely pay for a new carbon dioxide scrubber for Kasei Maru.

 

Following her through, the maitre d' pulled out her chair and held it while she sat. Both gentlemen sat down again as well. While indicating to a nearby water boy to fill her glass he asked, “Would you like anything to drink?”

 

“No, water will be fine, thank you,” she answered. The last thing she needed was alcohol during this.

 

Tetsuo introduced his guest. “Alice, I'd like you to meet William Dalton,” he said in his business voice. She was always able to tell what track a dinner meeting would take by his voice. This was going to be all business.

 

Reaching across to shake his hand, Alice asked, “William Dalton? As in Director Dalton of UESC?”

 

“Yes, guilty as charged. But please, call me Bill,” he attempted to answer in a friendly voice. “You must be very proud, Tetsuo,” he added. “Ambitious, intelligent and beautiful as well.” Alice blushed at his false flattery. Her first assumption about tonight was right; this was definitely not going to be an enjoyable evening.

 

After a wonderful meal the three remained to enjoy a cup of coffee and discuss William Dalton's real reason for meeting them. He pulled out a small thin tablet and thumbed its sensor to activate it. He opened a file before turning it toward Alice and Tetsuo. He waited while they both read enough of the document to get them interested before saying anything.

 

Tetsuo was the first to comment. “Is this real, or some sort of joke?” he asked.

 

“Oh no, it's real,” Bill assured him. “That signal was discovered by our deep space mapping satellite at L2. It was originally thought to be some sort of interference from an Earth based source, or from one of the lunar bases, but they were all ruled out.”

 

“And someone recognized it as a telepathic carrier wave?” asked Alice.

 

“We've had dozens of people scanning over these readings, Miss Sakamoto,” explained Bill. “We got lucky with this one. If this had happened even five years ago, no one would have recognized that pattern.”

 

Alice decided to cut through everything and ask the real question, “While it's fascinating to discover a signal, of any kind, from another star system, why are you telling us? Wouldn't this be highly classified information?”

 

“Yes, it is,” he explained. “I needed to get special permission to even discuss this with you. We've attempted to replay this signal and have a telepath interpret its contents, but the recording doesn't have the higher harmonics. Since that satellite wasn't designed to receive this kind of signal, there's not enough bandwidth to reconstruct it. The signal is still there, but it's weaker and getting weaker as we continue our orbit around the sun. It's turns out that it can't be detected properly from any ground station. Even our orbital satellites are getting washed out from solar radiation and other signals.”

 

It was starting to make more sense to Alice, but it was Tetsuo who responded first. “So you want to place another satellite out at the Earth-Sun L2?”

 

“Not quite,” answered Bill. “We want to put a telepath out there instead. We'd like them to monitor the signal, if they can, and then report back to us on what it contains.”

 

“But you still haven't explained why you're telling us,” Alice said. “Just launch a ship and have your telepath sit there for as long as it takes. I don't see a problem?”

 

“None of the telepaths that we have available are pilots,” Bill explained. “They'd need to take a crew with them, but that same crew would interfere with the signal. No, a telepath would need to go out there alone and preferably with as little equipment as possible to limit any other forms of interference.”

 

Alice and Tetsuo looked at each other in shock for a moment. “That seems risky,” commented Alice

 

“And that's why I'm here speaking with the two of you. We'd like to hire you, Alice, to take a telepath out there each day over the next few weeks and then pick them back up a few hours later.”

 

“Me?” asked Alice, a little surprised. “Why wouldn't you be asking my father? He's capable of opening a portal out there as well, and I'm not going to be available for much longer.”

 

“As I understand it,” he looked at Tetsuo while explaining, “you're not able to open a portal unless you can see the destination?” After seeing Tetsuo nod his head he turned to Alice and continued, “Placing a camera there isn't an option, due to interference again. However you're not restricted in this regard.”

 

“Unfortunately I won't be available until some time after mid March.”

 

Bill's face was in shock, “No, that will be too late. The signal source in coming from the Tau Ceti system. By March it will be too late. The Earth will be in the way of the signal, or causing too much interference.”

 

“I'm sorry,” Alice replied. “We're about to leave for Mars in a few days and we won't be back until mid March.”

 

“But Mars will still be there after your work for us has been completed. We have no idea how long this signal will last for, or if it will even be there six months from now, when we could attempt this again.” He seemed to be getting desperate. The thought of losing out on an opportunity to study an alien signal was something he didn't seem prepared for.

 

“I'm sorry, Mr Dalton, but I'm not available,” Alice said firmly as she started to stand. “You'll need to find another way to get there, but I'd be more than happy to help out after I return.”

 

Bill was about to panic. He looked at Tetsuo for support, “Tetsuo, please.  You don't understand how important this could be!”

 

“I believe I understand the issue,” he answered, “but I also know how much time and effort has been dedicated to our project. Not to mention the money involved. I can't ask Alice to simply put that aside for something with such a high risk of failure. You have no idea if a telepath would be able to detect that signal. And if they did, there's no way of knowing if they would be able to understand any of it.”

 

Standing and straightening his jacket, Tetsuo said, “I would like to thank you very much for the wonderful dinner.” Turning to Alice he added, “Would you like to walk home with me? I feel like a stroll to work off some of Gabe's fine cooking.”

 

It was an odd request, but Alice knew what he really wanted. “Of course. I think a stroll under the dome would be a wonderful idea.”

 

Tetsuo bowed to their host and said, “Again, thank you for dinner. Good night Mr Dalton.” Bill was too stunned to say anything. He sat there with his mouth half open as both of them walked out of the restaurant. Tetsuo and Alice made their way down to ground level and stepped out of the large building that Everyone's Place was located in. The dome lights were turned off for night and the bright stars could be seen through its glass. Turning right onto a quiet street, they made their way toward a large park at of the domes centre. The Earth could be seen occasionally between buildings as they slowly walked.

 

Alice couldn't wait any longer and asked, “So what did you want to talk about?” She knew that her father preferred to get his exercise at his gym, not walking through Tenkei's streets. Before answering, he pulled out a small black disk from his pocket and pressed a button on its surface. A red light flashed briefly then turned green before he returned it to his pocket.

 

“A white noise generator and telepathic shield,” he answered the question on her face. “It will ensure that we can talk freely, without needing to worry about who's listening in.”

 

“So, you didn't believe him either?” Alice asked as they continued to walk. A few small trees had started to appear at the side of the street, indicating that they were getting closer to the park.

 

“That satellite he said picked up the signal?” Tetsuo asked. Alice simply nodded her answer and for him to continue. “I know that satellite is currently out at the second Lagrange Point. I put it there less than a year ago for the European Space Agency. I understand they're sharing its data with the UESC.”

 

“I remember that launch,” commented Alice. “You had some trouble find a place to put it, with all the other stuff out there.” L2 was a popular place for anything that needed to be isolated from all the radio frequency noise of Earth and all the satellites around it. Since it was a sort of balancing point for gravity and centrifugal forces, it also required a minimum amount of fuel to keep it from drift off.

 

“Yes, exactly. I happen to know that there's a high powered optical telescope less that one hundred kilometres from it. Unless they intend to shut that one down it will generate just as much interference that a small ship and crew would make.” The park was lined with several cherry trees. While their blooms had closed for the night their scent was still strong. Tetsuo breathed in deeply, enjoying their fragrance before continuing. “I think this is another attempt to delay or scrub your flight.”

 

“But why?” asked Alice. “And who is doing all this? We've had so many road blocks thrown at us. What are they afraid we'll find out there?”

 

“I don't know. I wish I did,” answered Tetsuo. “It's why I'm worried about you. First the reactor, then our investors pulling out at the last minute and finally Al's death. There have been too many problems for them to be just a coincidence.”

 

Alice's voice cracked a little as she said, “You never told me that you thought Al's death wasn't an accident.”

 

Tetsuo stepped closer to Alice and hugged her gently. “No, I didn't. I didn't think you needed to hear that at the time.” He thought for a moment while holding his daughter. “Are you still going?” he asked, knowing what her answer would be.

 

“Yes,” she replied with a sniffle.

 

“How soon could you leave?”

 

Alice closed her eyes and concentrated on Mars, measuring its distance in her mind. Her telesense allowed her to judge astronomical distances without using any equipment, so long as it was within her range. Opening her eyes, she replied, “It's in range now, but just barely. But I'm still waiting for our last two scientists to arrive.”

 

“Well, I know that Doctor Sykes is already here,” he informed her. “She arrived from Brazil, when I opened that portal earlier today.”

 

“Doctor Howard is still in Ethiopia working on their draught problem. I can get him in the morning, it's only four days early,” she added. “That just leaves Mina. Are you sure you can live without her for four and a half months?”

 

He smiled as he answered, “I'm sure we'll survive. Call Tammy and Neil. Make sure they have everything ready and go as soon as you can. I have an uneasy feeling that we haven't heard the last of Mr. Dalton, or who ever he's working with.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Where the hell is she?” asked Neil again. “She was supposed to be her over an hour ago.”

 

Tammy sat in her engineering station, going through her check list. “She said to launch on time, whether she was here or not,” she answered. “She'll be here soon, don't worry.”

 

“I just want some answers,” Neil demanded again. “She bumps up our launch date by four days, but doesn't tell us why and then she doesn't even show up. It doesn't make sense! And who takes a fifteen year old girl and a paraplegic on a trip like this anyway?”

 

“I already told you, she's not fifteen,” Tammy corrected him. “She just looks that age. And I think that's her mother, I don't know. I just know that she never goes anywhere without her.”

 

“At least we already know Mina,” Neil added. “It's nice to have another familiar face on board.” When Tammy didn't make any comment, he looked over his shoulder at her. She had her head down and was turned slightly away from Neil so he couldn't see her face from his console. “Don't you agree?” he asked while turning back to his checklist.

 

“Yeah, of course,” Tammy replied. After a moment of silence she asked, “Do you think Mina's pretty?”

 

Without turning around he answered, “Duh! Yeah, she's gorgeous.” Before Tammy could say anything more, he added “I just finished the checklist, all systems are green. How about yours?”

 

“Our port cargo hatch is closed and sealed, that was the last of our supplies to be loaded. We're good to go.”

 

Neil pulled his headset on and keyed the microphone, “Tenkei Control, this is Kasei Maru requesting departure clearance.”

 

Neil almost jumped out of his skin when a new voice asked, “Are we leaving without Alice?” The young girl had blond hair and blue eyes and was dressed in a very pretty, if old fashioned dress. It looked more like a dress a teen aged girl from fifty years ago would wear. Her English accent was strange to Neil's ears, but her pronunciation made it sounded as though she was well educated.

 

“How the hell did you get up here?” Before he could get an answer from her, Neil's headset started squawking.

 

“Kasei Maru, you are number two for departure on flightpath Alpha. We have a cruise liner coming in, so we have an eight minute delay until they clear the grid.”

 

“Roger that Control. We're lighting them up now and moving into slot number two,” responded Neil. He guided their craft through the open hanger bay doors, turned into his authorized departure path and powered down the thrusters to idle. He was finally able to turn his attention to her question. “To answer your question; yes, we're leaving without Alice. But we're just getting out of the city and start our acceleration to break Earth orbit. Alice will be joining us before we get too far.”

 

As if on Neil's queue a portal started to form on the bulkhead near Tammy. It quickly grew to its full size before a hot, dry, dusty wind blew through. The wind was followed by a tall, thin man wearing mud covered hiking boots, khaki shorts and a white tee shirt. Alice stepped through behind him as her portal flashed and disappeared.

 

“Did we miss anything?” she asked while brushing dust off her clothes.

 

“Do we need this many people on the flight deck?” Neil asked more than a little annoyed. He didn't like having distractions, particularly during launch or landing.

 

Alice took his hint. “Come on Colin, let me show you our ship and where your room is. Andrea, let's give Neil and Tammy some time to get us moving, then they can come meet everyone.”

 

Before passing through the flight deck hatchway Tammy yelled to them, “Better get your mag boots on, we're going to lose gravity as soon as we start moving away from Tenkei.”

 

Neil added, “And get everyone strapped in. When our slot comes up we have a five minute burn at two point five G's to break Earth orbit.”

 

“Yes Sir,” Alice said as all three ducked through the hatchway.

 

Almost twenty minutes later, Tammy and Neil floated through the forward hatch into the ships common area. Mina was floating near the dorsal observation area looking back toward Tenkei as it slowly got smaller and smaller. The Earth could be seen beyond the slowly shrinking city. She was already further away from any home she had ever known than any time in her life. Alice was 'standing' on the aft bulkhead with Colin, testing out his mag boots, trying to get him accustom to walking with them. Andrea was at the port side window looking out at the stars. Neil couldn't put his finger on what was bothering him about her, standing there looking out.

 

Looking up at them, Alice said, “Good, everyone's here.” Neil thought they were missing one, but didn't feel he needed to correct her. “Let me introduce everyone. I know that most of you know each other, but we're going to be spending a lot of time together. We should get to know one another a little better.” Tammy and Neil continued to drift closer until they both made a midair turn and landing with Alice and Colin. Mina gently pushed off the glass wall she was floating near and expertly landed near the four already attached to the metal wall with their mag boots. It finally dawned on Neil what was wrong with their final crew mate; she wasn't wearing mag boots, but was still standing as though she was attached. Suddenly she disappeared and reappeared next to their group. She smiled at Neil when she saw him staring at her.

 

Once everyone had gathered together, Alice continued, “Again, I'd like to apologize to everyone for changing the launch date on such short notice.”

 

“Why did it get changed?” Neil interrupted. He looked at Tammy briefly before adding, “We've been working our asses off trying to get ready on time. I'm hoping we didn't miss anything.”

 

“We've had the checklist finalized for weeks,” Tammy reassured him. “I don't think there's a chance that we forgot anything. Inventory shows all items loaded and secured.”

 

“I'm sorry, but we had to leave as soon as possible,” Alice apologized again. “I believe that there's a group of people who are trying to stop us from getting to Mars. I'm not going to feel comfortable until we're away from them and beyond their control.”

 

Changing subjects, Alice continued, “But before we get into that, you all know me. The two in pressure suits are Neil Dollie and Tammy Stratus. Neil is our pilot for this little adventure and Tammy is our flight engineer. If you have any question about our flight or our ship, just ask one of us.” Since Alice noticed Mina raising her hand slightly she added, “Mina, could you introduce yourself?”

 

She seemed a little reluctant to go first, but said, “I'm Mina Priya. I've been working in Tenkei for over three years now, as part of their environmental control team. I specialize in atmospheric conditions; detecting and controlling rare gases, toxins, that sort of stuff.” She was tall and slim, with a flawless, milk chocolate complexion. Her straight black, braided hair floated around her head like a dancing cobra about to strike anyone who got too close. She wore loose fitting, white pants that would have been quite flattering normally, but just got in the way as they floated around her legs. It was obvious from her expressions that she wasn't comfortable.

 

“I have one question though,” she added after a brief pause. “How long are we going to be in zero gravity?”

 

“Oh, thanks for reminding me,” Alice jumped in. “Tammy, can you get some patches, please?” Tammy smiled before launching herself off the wall they were standing on. “We have some anti-nausea patches for anyone feeling sick. We'll have to deal with micro-gravity for at least another day and a half. After that, we should be on our first landing site on Mars.”

 

The next person in their circle spoke up. “Colin Howard,” he said with a slight smile. He paused while making eye contact with each one standing nearby. “I'm a water witch, for lack of a better name. Until about half an hour ago, I was working on finding water for some of the more remote villages of Southern Ethiopia.”

 

“You're a member of WET?” asked Mina.

 

Colin smiled like a proud father before answering, “Yeah, for more than twenty years now.” Turning to address the others, he added, “WET stands for Water and Environment Transformation. We work with a number of different agencies like the U.N., World Health Organization and UNICEF. Our goal is to help countries manage and sustain their natural water sources.”

 

Before anyone could say anything, Colin asked, “How are we going to get to Mars in only a day and a half?”

 

“You can thank Alice for that,” answered Tammy as she landed. She pulled out a small, round patch and handed one to Mina.

 

Tearing off the adhesive backing and sticking it behind her ear, she said, “Thanks, Chip. Zero gravity always makes me sick.”

 

Colin raised an eyebrow and asked, “Chip?”

 

“Well, yeah. Look at me, I'd show you my tail if it wasn't in this pressure suit.” Tammy teased. “But it's also because I'm good with computer chips.”

 

Colin just smiled and said, “I'll have to take you up on that offer.”

 

Their final group member spoke, “I guess that leaves me. I'm Dr Andrea Sykes and I'm a xeno-geologist. That's a geologist that specializes in alien rock. I was studying meteorites in Antarctica at the South Pole Station until two weeks ago.” She looked at Alice for a moment before adding, “Alice, I'm sorry to hear about Al. From what I've heard, he was a really nice guy.”

 

Alice smiled before saying, “Thanks, Andrea. He was a great guy. You would have liked him.” She paused briefly before adding, “That's another reason we left so soon. My dad found some evidence that his death wasn't an accident. Someone caused his ship's power system to overload. It was even timed to look like passing through my portal caused it to go critical.”

 

“Is there any chance that they did that to this ship?” asked Mina.

 

Tammy answered for Alice, “No, there's no way. Security has been really tight in the hanger, as with anything being loaded on board Kasei Maru. Both Alice and I have been practically living aboard for three weeks now, getting everything ready.” Tammy could see Mina sign in relief.

 

“Does he know who's responsible for it?” asked Neil.

 

“No,” Alice answered sadly, “not yet. But he still has people looking.” Alice wanted to change topics before she started to get angry again, “Okay, one last item. We're on board a space craft, heading for an uninhabitable planetary body. So that means pressure suits are required, for everybody.” Andrea coughed to get Alice's attention and smiled. “Sorry, everybody except Andrea that is.”

 

Neil's puzzled look prompted Andrea to answer him, “I don't need a pressure suit. I'm not affected by that sort of thing.”

 

“What, you can breathe in a vacuum?” he asked mockingly. Suddenly, Andrea disappeared. When Neil couldn't find her anywhere in the room he asked, “Where did she go?” Alice simply pointed to the glass wall that was the observation deck's outer hull. Andrea was outside, smiling and waving at them.

 

“Do you mean like this?” she asked. Her voice coming from nearby, instead of where she really was. She popped back inside and added, “I guess I should explain?”

 

“Only if you want to, Andie,” Alice replied quickly.

 

She smiled at Alice's use of her nickname. “They're a smart group, they'll figure it out eventually,” she explained. “This form you see, it isn't really me. It isn't real at all. Dr. Andrea Sykes is sitting in her wheelchair in her stateroom right now. I MORF'd more than fifty years ago. Medical technology at the time was very limited compared to what's available now. I lost most of my spine and a good portion of my spinal column when I transformed. I'm paralysed below my waist and have no fine motor skills at all. I even need help just to be able to breath. But I found MORFS gave me the ability to create an illusion of myself and enough telekinesis to be able to make it look real. Almost everyone thought I stopped ageing, but a few people know the truth.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Five of the six crew members were strapped into chairs on the flight deck of Kasei Maru. They all wore the same style pressure suit, making it look like they had a ship uniform on. Their blue-grey coloured suits covered everyone from neck to toe, leaving only their hands and head exposed. The material was an odd combination of nylon, plastic and something that looked and felt like leather. While it left very little exposed, they were skin tight and accentuated each and every curve. Neil and Alice sat at the pilot and co-pilot consoles, while Tammy sat at her engineering station. Since no one would agree on who should sit at the science station it was left empty. Colin and Mina sat in spare chairs while Andrea wandered around looking at everything. Stars filled their view as they looked out the large, thick glass. The flight deck of Kasei Maru had an impressive forward view. A single sheet of glass wrapped around them and stretched from floor to ceiling. It looked more like standing in a large planetarium.

 

“Alice?” Andrea said while looking out at the stars.

 

“What is it Andrea?” answered Alice while reading through data on her console.

 

Pointing out the window Andrea said, “That's Capricorn, Mars is in Gemini. I think we're heading in the wrong direction.”

 

Alice looked up and smiled. “The difference in orbital speed from Earth to Mars means we need to lose almost five kilometres per second. We have to do one more burn to match speed before we jump.”

 

“Jump?” asked Colin. “What do you mean jump? No one can teleport that distance, what are you talking about?”

 

“You'll see in about two minutes. Until then, I need to concentrate,” she said as she closed her eyes.

 

Everyone was pushed, violently, into their seats as Neil feed power into the main thrusters. Even at this distance, Alice could feel Tenkei's singularities. She drew power from hers, storing it in the small organ buried in her chest. When she felt she had enough, she concentrated on a point in space near Mars beyond the orbit of Deimos. She released all her stored energy, ripping a hole through the fabric of space with it. Neil killed their thrust as Alice's portal started to form. It was only a precaution as the thrusters pushed against the same fabric that Alice was ripping through. No one was able to predict what could happen if those forces met, and after Al's death no one wanted to take the chance. Neil made one minor course correction before Kasei Maru shot through Alice's portal at a speed that was almost frightening. Holding her chest and taking short shallow breathes, Alice waited until the pain was bearable.

 

“Are you okay?” asked Andrea. “You look like you just ran a marathon.”

 

“She'll be okay in a few minutes,” answered Tammy. “Opening a portal that distance always take a lot out of her.”

 

After a few minutes, Alice made a feeble attempt at smiling. “I'll be okay,” she tried to assure everyone. Finally when she was able to take a deep breath and blowing it out slowly, she added, “It felt like my chest was going to explode.”

 

Still concerned, Andrea asked again, “Will you be okay?” Alice nodded while taking slow deep breaths.

 

Colin looked out at Mars in amazement, “You're able to teleport an entire ship from Earth orbit to Mars, in a single jump?” Travelling around the world for the last twenty years with every method of transportation imaginable, he had gotten accustomed to almost instant access to any region of Earth. But Mars? It seemed like a dream, or a cheesy movie from the last century.

 

“No, not teleport,” Alice corrected him. “This distance is well beyond what a teleporter could do. They'd need several thousand jumps to make it here. I'm only just able to make it here. Last week Mars was beyond even my limits, but Earth and Mars are gets closer right now. They'll be at their closest point in about two months, before they start moving apart We have about four months until Mars is too far away for a single jump again.”

 

“Okay people,” Neil said loudly, “we have about three hours before orbital insertion. If you want to observe Deimos, we'll be passing it in less than an hour as we get closer. I'll give everyone a five minute warning before our final burn. But before that, I want breakfast.”

 

“Why are we going into orbit?” asked Andrea. “I thought we were going to land on Mars.”

 

“We will,” answered Neil. “Tomorrow. We all need to decide which site will be our first landing site.”

 

“Actually, I've already decided where our first landing will be,” Alice announced. “But we still need to get current images for all the planned sites before going down.”

 

“What do you mean you've decided? I though we all had an equal say in this?” asked Colin. He seemed a little annoyed at not being given an opportunity to suggest a landing site. “Where have you decided to land then?”

 

“Crash site of the Ares,” she answered while unbuckling herself and floating free of her chair. “After that we can go to any other place we like, but remember I have very specific goals for this mission. I have a list of sites each of you would like to visit, but that decision is up to me and only if Neil says it's safe to go.” Before anyone could argue with her decision, Alice floated through the hatchway leading to the rest of the ship.

 

“I think that's a perfect place to start,” Mina said to the others. They all had solemn looks on their faces and simply nodded, not saying anything.

 

The entire MORFS  Universe can be found at http://morfs.nowhere2go.org/

 


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