“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” -- U.S. Congressman Hiram Johnson, 1917
There were nine of them, five men, four women, in a ship built to hold twice as many. Granted, even when half full the ship would never be called roomy, but technology had not yet reached the point where spaceships could contain dead space. It was still too expensive to build, fuel, and supply them; every cubic centimeter on board needed to be utilized in order to recoup the initial costs of construction. At least that was the plan.
On this voyage, though, there was plenty of empty space, and the open areas bothered the astronauts. After years of cramped corridors and cabins no larger than one’s sleeping rack, it felt odd to float through rooms without bumping into objects or other people.
Even worse was knowing the reason for the roominess: the space program was winding down. Weary of constant battles over the program’s funding, the world government had finally pulled the plug. The yapping hordes had won. So much for the stars: mankind would return to a life bounded by the heavens and eventually forget that they had once soared among the cosmos.
“I can’t stand it,” the mission astronomer snapped, turning off the news program that Ground Control had beamed to them. “If I hear one more pinkie-brained groundling claim that the space program funding took food from his child’s mouth, I’ll scream.”
“Calm down, Zvi,” the tall, dark-haired physicist soothed. Her Italian accent made her words even more lilting. “You shouldn’t let them upset you so.”
“Why not?” Kim, the team’s xenogeologist, grumbled from his seat on the opposite wall. “They did it, you know. They destroyed the space program. We’re all ancient history. We’ll end up as a footnote in the textbooks years from now.”
“Don’t say that!” Carlotta’s eyes were troubled. “This is just a temporary setback. Maybe next year, they’ll vote the money for us.”
“Ha!” Zvi and Kim chorused. They were of similar height, although Kim had the stocky build common to many Koreans, while Zvi was small-boned. His elfin appearance belied his abilities; in addition to being an excellent astronomer, he was a highly decorated fighter pilot. Although he was most comfortable in the cockpit of a jet airplane, he was also qualified to pilot the spaceship in an emergency.
The regular pilot entered just in time to hear the last exchange. “I see I came in time for the news,” Svetlana said, her native Russian accent almost undetectable.
“Why do they bother sending it to us? It’s all bad,” Kim said darkly.
“Que pasa? Is this a private party or can anyone join in?” Gutierrez and Rajan swam in from the science lab. A physiologist and physician, they were the only members of the crew who had never spent time in the military. Gutierrez had had no chance to do so -- his homeland of Costa Rica had no army -- while Rajan had simply joined the space program as soon as his residency in general medicine was over.
“What’s going on in here? I can hardly hear myself think!” Shiru Oladajo demanded from the doorway. Reams of computer paper floated behind her. “How am I supposed to reconfigure the computers if -- “
“Don’t bother,” Zvi interrupted. “It looks like this will be our last voyage.”
Her complaints stopped, and she gazed at him with alarm. “It’s official then?”
“They just announced it,” Kim confirmed. “‘The world council, after much deliberation, has bowed to the demands of the Earth Movement. All moneys previously reserved for the space program will now be funneled into social programs for the needy of the planet.’ Flipping idiots!” he ended savagely. “What sort of future do they think they’ll have without space? We’ve already outgrown that tired old globe.”
“If those dimwits would spend half as much of time preaching contraception and conservation as they do howling about the space program, there wouldn’t be so many needy people in the first place!” Zvi agreed. “We can’t survive so long as every third world family insists on having eight children! And how can they confine us to Earth when we’re squandering her resources at a record rate? If the South American deforestation continues, we’ll all be dead of starvation or skin cancer by the turn of the century!” Abruptly, Zvi remembered Gutierrez’s presence. “Sorry, Juan,” he offered sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to imply that South Americans were the only ones who need a lesson in conservation.”
“No offense taken,” the Central American replied promptly. “Your people have been irrigating their lands for centuries; it’s only natural that you’re an expert on land management.”
“How can you blame people for wanting babies? It is a natural desire! Since Adam and Eve, we have had children. “ Carlotta’s dramatic gestures underscored her words.
“Speaking as a member of one of the most populous nations in the world,” Rajan said slowly, “I know from personal experience how hard it is to change people’s minds on this topic. Since history began, children have meant security for one’s old age, and the more children, the more security. Trying to convince people to limit the size of their families is virtually impossible. That’s why I joined the space program in the first place: I could see that humanity will soon need more room than Mother Earth can provide.”
“Good, you’re all assembled here.” The mission commander propelled himself through the door, closely followed by his first officer. “It saves me the trouble of seeking you out. I’ve some news.”
“We know,” Kim forestalled him. “We heard the announcement.”
“What?” For a moment the captain looked puzzled, then his brow cleared. “Oh, you mean the press report about our funding.”
“What else is there?” Shiru asked blankly.
“She’s right,” Zvi agreed. “Not much can compete with the news that we’re all obsolete.”
“Obsolete? This I do not accept!” Carlotta declared defiantly. “There will be more exploration in the future, once the present fury has died down. There must be!”
“I doubt it,” the first officer replied in clipped British tones. Sarah Ellesmere spoke with quiet authority. “Once the money’s gone, it’s nearly impossible to regain. And we’ve been losing popularity with the masses. Instant gratification is all they’re interested in, I’m afraid. Concepts like the future, basic research, or intellectual curiosity carry very little weight with the electorate.”
“Goober headed rug rats,” Captain Will Young snorted in contempt. “They’re not only burying their heads in the sand, they’re covering up the whole damned human race.”
“Is this all we will do?” Svetlana demanded. “Pitch and groan?”
“That’s `bitch and moan’,” Zvi corrected with a grin. Although English was not his native tongue, he spoke it fluently and was familiar with all the American idioms. “And what else can we do?”
“Strike?” Carlotta offered half-heartedly.
“Have you forgotten that we’re in outer space?” Raj asked her. “What kind of strike can we muster? What could we do? Not return home on schedule? Refuse to carry out the scientific survey of this part of the asteroid belt? It’s all immaterial anyway -- it’s not like anyone’s going to be coming out to mine the belt. Not now.”
“Not ever,” Young put in. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but we’re the last flight. Ever. When we get back, the space program will be officially disbanded.”
That was a shock. Even after the morning’s announcement, they hadn’t realized it would be that fast.
“We’re the last ones?” Gutierrez repeated slowly.
Young nodded. “Come on, why are you so surprised? There’s been only a skeleton crew on the space stations for the past two rotations, and the moon base is nearly defunct already. The writing’s been on the wall for over a year now. Everyone in the agency brass knew it was just a question of time before the council caved, and they’ve been quietly cutting back orbital and extra-orbital facilities. Didn’t any of you notice?”
The crew exchanged embarrassed glances. “I guess not,” Young said sourly. “Didn’t it even strike you as strange that this particular group would be selected for this flight?”
They looked around at each other. “What do you mean?” Kim was the first to ask, but the others were just as puzzled.
“Will means that we were carefully selected,” Sarah explained, “not only with an eye towards our abilities, but also towards our country of origin.”
“It’s better box office,” Young amplified, a look of disgust on his face. “When we land and disembark, the political types will have a field day. Think about it: practically every segment of the world is represented by someone on the crew! The Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa... We’re like a freakin’ soda commercial!”
“Do you really believe that?” Svetlana asked. “It’s so -- so -- calculated.”
“Look,” Will said impatiently, “the brass knew about this announcement a long time ago. They’ve been preparing for it, and we’re part of that preparation. They knew that with the space program gone they’d need to find new jobs, and to do that, they’ll need the good will of some big politicians. That’s where we come in. Each of us is going to be a part of history: the crew of the last space shot. And every region wanted to be represented.
“The agency bureaucrats selected us in a deal cut with the council. The council members got figureheads that they could trot out at photo ops, and the agency guys got places in the new order.”
“If this is true, why weren’t we consulted?” Raj asked.
“We’ve all done our fair share of public appearances,” Sarah reminded them. “I imagine the agency officials thought we enjoyed them and would welcome a sinecure. They probably thought they were doing us a favor, providing for our futures.”
The other members of the crew were trying to assimilate this new information. Varying expressions flitted over their countenances: fear, anger, confusion, panic... Finally Shiru spoke for all of them: “I never thought it would end like this.”
“Neither did I!” A half dozen voices echoed the sentiment.
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” Young’s deep voice drowned out the others, “but I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life showing up at mall openings for the benefit of some pinheaded politician.”
“What choice do we have?” Gutierrez asked, frowning.
“Several days ago, Will and I spotted -- something,” Sarah said carefully. “We noticed it purely by chance, hidden behind one of the asteroids. We were already aware of the world council’s decision, so we decided not to notify Mission Control. We knew they’d just tell us to ignore it.”
Young took up the story. “Instead, we moved closer. We did it gradually, so that the ground wouldn’t realize it -- not that they could do anything if they did,” he added in a scornful aside. “But now we’ve gotten close enough to be sure.”
“Sure of what?” Zvi pressed.
“Sure that it is an object of alien origin,” Sarah said quietly.
For a moment, there was dead silence. Then chaos broke out as everyone spoke at once.
“You can’t keep this a secret! The government -- “
“ -- proper channels -- “
“ -- have any idea what this means? This is the most important find -- “
“What does it look like? What is it?”
“ -- evidence -- “
“ Holy shit.”
“Quiet! QUIET!” Young bellowed until the others were quiet once more.
“Sarah and I went through everything that you’re feeling right now,” he said. “And let me tell you, it wasn’t an easy decision to keep our mouths shut. But after we explain our reasoning, I think you’ll agree.”
“Will, we are not equipped to handle this ourselves!” Raj protested. “This requires specialists who -- “
“Raj, there are no specialists for this. It’s unprecedented,” Sarah said gently. “Nobody’s prepared to handle this. Nobody.”
“Look, if Sarah and I had contacted ground control when we first spotted the object, they would have waved us off. There have been too many little green monster stories and the politicians don’t want to start another ‘War of the Worlds’ affair. Then, once we were certain that it was extraterrestrial, and not just a discarded Soyuz rocket or space trash, we thought again about telling the ground.”
“This is what we needed!” Carlotta said excitedly. “This is what will revive the space program! They can’t disband it now! We need ships to examine this -- this -- whatever it is! This is our salvation!”
“She’s right!” Kim exclaimed. “Quick! Tell them now!”
"Hold it,” Young ordered, holding up his hand. “God knows I’ve followed correct protocol all my life, but this is one time I’m willing to buck the system. Think about it. We tell them about this thing, and then what? The politicos move in, the agency brass cover their butts, and we get left out in the cold.”
“Do you trust the government to handle this properly?” Sarah asked, looking from one person to the next. “Because when we began thinking about it, Will and I realized we didn’t.”
Zvi looked thoughtful. “I’ve got to admit, I have my doubts about any government that can axe the space program. If they’re that short-sighted...”
“And what about the object itself?” Will put in. “Who knows what secrets it contains? The world council is still pretty new. They have enough trouble handling minor skirmishes between two countries nobody’s ever heard of. What’s going to happen when the big boys hear about the find? As an American, I can tell you that my government’s going to be mighty interested.”
“As will Britain.”
“India will insist on her fair share,” Raj nodded.
“Let’s not forget China, Africa, Japan, the rest of the European Community...” Shiru’s voice trailed off. “And if the fanatics in the Middle East -- oops.” She glanced apologetically at Zvi.
He grinned and shrugged, much as Gutierrez had done earlier. “I know what you mean. This might be the one thing that could get my people and their enemies to stop fighting each other long enough to take on someone new.”
“This find could well cause the downfall of world government,” Ellesmere said soberly. “Wars have been fought over much, much less.”
“We can’t keep it a secret forever!” Kim protested.
“No one is suggesting we do,” Young replied. “Sarah and I think that we should examine the object more closely, and then make an educated decision about our next step.”
Svetlana swallowed. “I had a notion you were going to propose such a thing.”
“You’re taking a lot on yourself,” Rajan objected, his face wrinkled with doubt and concern.
“On all of us,” Young corrected. “But think, Raj, who better to decide? Some short-sighted politicians with secret agendas? Agency bigwigs?”
“We do represent most of the voting blocs in the world government,” Sarah pointed out.
“How can I represent all of Africa?” Shiru protested, her voice squeaking in agitation.
“Half of India would never accept me,” Raj agreed. “And what about Southeast Asia?”
“Short of polling every person on Earth individually, we can never hope for a complete representation,” Sarah replied, “but each of us is at least somewhat familiar with the concerns specific to his or her native area. In that sense, we can represent our countries.”
“Besides, I place a lot more trust in you folks’ good sense than I do in your politicians’. Or my politicians’ either,” Young agreed. “Why shouldn’t we be the ones to make such a momentous decision? Who better?”
There were uncertain looks, but no one voiced an outright objection. At fifty-one, Will Young was the oldest among them by several years, and he had logged more time in space than anyone else in the program. In a crisis, there was no one better; he was cool and deliberate in assessing the situation and addressing it. In more relaxed times, however, his volatile temper often got him into trouble, and he had the deep suspicion of authority common to many Americans.
By contrast, everything about Sarah Ellesmere was considered and thoughtful. She was not given to impulsive action, and her support of Young’s plan meant a great deal to the others. As wild as the idea sounded, if Sarah regarded it favorably, there must be something to it.
“Will and I agreed that we had gone as far as we could without informing the rest of you.”
“This isn’t something I can order you to do,” Young added. “Granted, we’ve never been much for military discipline, but a decision like this should be unanimous.”
“We have no way of knowing what we would find,” Svetlana said uneasily. “What if it’s dangerous?”
“We must be prepared to destroy it,” Sarah’s tones were even. “If necessary, taking ourselves along too.”
“The ship isn’t built for self-destruction,” Shiru said, her voice trembling a little. “How -- “
“It would be easy enough to rig,” Young shrugged. “The big challenge is keeping it from blowing up every time we engage the engines.”
Shiru took a deep breath. “I agree with Sarah. If we go ahead with this, we must be prepared to kill ourselves to safeguard Earth.” Shaky though she sounded, there was no mistaking her resolve. She was the youngest member of the crew at twenty-six, and clearly felt overwhelmed at being asked to rule on something that would affect the future of all mankind. Her courage in tackling the problem did not go unnoticed by her peers.
Gutierrez smiled and gave her arm a quick squeeze. “It sounds like you’ve decided.”
“This is madness!” Kim objected loudly. Grumbling about authority figures was one thing; bucking a lifelong tradition of respect and obedience was quite another. Independent action of this sort might be seen as acceptable in the West, but Eastern customs placed much more value on working within the system. Playing by the rules, at least in matters as crucial as this, was as ingrained in Kim as were everyday rituals like drinking tea. “We cannot go off on our own in this manner! You are acting like a -- like a cowboy!” he shouted at Young.
Rajan put a restraining hand on his arm. “Calm down, Kim. At least let us discuss the matter calmly.”
“I agree with Young and Ellesmere,” Svetlana said flatly. “In my country we know all too well what damage incompetent or corrupt leaders can do. I say we are as qualified as anyone to approach the object.”
Zvi nodded. “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”
“Si, I too will agree,” Carlotta echoed the others. “This thing is necessary.”
Kim stared from one to the other in frustration and anger. “Have you all lost your minds? This isn’t a minor violation of orders -- they could shoot us for this! And why do we need to investigate it further? You two say it’s clearly of alien origin; that’s enough to revive the space program!”
“Is it?” Sarah demanded coolly. “We have no idea what it is. Even assuming it’s totally benign, and therefore nobody will go to war to possess it, it could still lead to problems. Think about it, Kim. We go rushing home, clamoring that we’ve found an alien artifact and the space program must be saved, and everyone jumps up in agreement.”
“They’re more likely to dive under the beds in mass hysteria,” Young put in sourly. “What if they panic? Riots and looting.”
Ellesmere held up a hand. “Assume the best. People respond in a sensible fashion, and ships are dispatched. I assume you’d agree that the only thing that would prevent conflict from arising over it is if it were proved to be completely worthless?”
Kim nodded reluctant agreement. “I suppose.”
“Then the only way to avoid global tension is for us to be proven idiots. Do you really imagine that all the people who have been stumping for the dissolution of the space program will welcome us after our big discovery is proven to be a -- a -- “
“ -- dud.” Young supplied. “The second they realize that we prompted the council to spend billions of dollars investigating a big nothing, they’ll be out for our heads.”
“We’ll be reviled as spendthrift alarmists,” Sarah continued inexorably, “and in many eyes the space program will have been demonstrated to be totally useless. They’ll take the discovery as proof that there’s nothing of consequence out here, and whatever slim hopes we might have had of one day reviving the space program will be well and truly dashed.”
Kim looked hunted as Ellesmere’s inescapable logic closed around him. “I see your point, but -- “
“It’s not easy for me to toss off my responsibilities,” Sarah added softly. “King and country and all that runs deep in my mind too. But I think that there are some times when one’s responsibilities go beyond the normal scope.”
Rajan let out his breath in a big sigh. “I confess to sharing Kim’s views. I am not accustomed to circumventing the normal chain of command, but this is a special case. I concur in your decision.”
Gutierrez nodded agreement. “Let’s make it unanimous, Kim?”
For a long moment, the Korean geologist stared out the viewport. Conflicting emotions chased over his face. At long last, he nodded once. “All right.” His voice was little more than a whisper.