by Thomas R. Willits
Part 1 of 6
Ethan Santeri turned his long upward gaze away from the sky to respond to Norian’s question. “I’m sorry,” Ethan muttered, realizing he must have appeared a little ridiculous just staring at the sky. “I wasn’t listening.”
Norian, sitting across from him glanced at Ethan, deciding whether he was kidding. From Ethan’s expression he quickly noted he was not and laughed.
“You find the sky fascinating or something?” Norian asked. “I asked if you would be joining us for dinner tonight. We’ll have a place set for you if you want to join us.”
Ethan remembered earlier Norian’s invitation to join his family for diner. Now just past midday, he hadn’t thought of tonight’s invitation. He had been going over the morning’s work while eating lunch on the outdoor patio. The flight plan was important and demanded perfection. Since the minute his eyes flickered open that morning all his concentration had been on it. This was his life.
“Yes, of course. At nineteen hours, right?”
“Yeah.” Norian paused a moment considering whether he should ask Ethan and then did. “Thinking about the flight?”
Ethan gave him a smile and nodded. “It’s all I’ve thought about today. For that matter, pretty much my entire life. You know I’ve waited a long time for this. I can’t believe the old man gave the word. I really can’t believe it.”
The last five words out of Ethan’s mouth were slow and emphasized. They spelled the determination and devotion his life had given. Since a young age he had wondered about the possibilities. The planet Mirano was all there appeared to be. But what was beyond the sky and moon mystified him more. Or perhaps horrified him, to be more precise. It was the sole threat to his belief that life existed beyond Mirano. Few before him in his position believed in it and perhaps none believed as strongly as Ethan Santeri. The flight, if successful, would prove his theory correct and settle years of disbelief and confusion. The flight could also end in failure, proving the critics right. Time would certainly tell.
“You’ve been patient and it’s paid off,” Norian said grabbing his shoulder. “You will finally have your chance.”
“It’s only a preliminary agreement,” Ethan said frankly. “The final word has yet to be given.”
“True. But it will happen now, I know it.”
Norian was Ethan’s closest friend. Norian understood and respected his aspirations, and his reassurance was comforting. But it was hard to accept that the flight would go through this time. Sometimes, as Ethan had pointed out over the years, it can be best not to believe something will happen before it does. All the hope in the world can not prepare for the disappointment.
In the past, agreements had been made, and each time they did not go through. The term used was “delay.” It had a more professional sound than calling the project canceled or terminated. The directors never used those terms. A delay usually meant a year or two or even longer. Ethan had actually become used to these so-called “delays.” He knew exactly when they would come as the departure time grew closer. They would deliver the message to him at home by communicator. A face to face message might draw confrontation.
Over the years their words became infused in his mind, and almost always the excuse was their limited budget or a problem with the flight plan or something onboard the ship that required replacement. But Ethan knew it wasn’t the real reason. The real reason for delay was fear. Sending a crew to their presumable death was a hard mission to approve.
The clouds, white and nearly transparent, hung low that early afternoon. Ethan could see a clear view of the horizon through the sparse clouds. “I hope you’re right,” Ethan said from that clear horizon. “I’m going back to work. I left a few things unfinished I must see to before the conference.”
Norian looked at the half-eaten pie on Ethan’s plate. “Well at least you’ll bring an appetite for diner.”
“I’m really not hungry.”
Ethan grabbed his plate and proceeded to the wastebasket. “I’ll see you at the conference.”
“Wait!” Norian said abruptly. “If you don’t mind. May I?”
Ethan set his plate in front of him. “Enjoy.”
Norian watched him walk away. Perhaps mentioning the flight plan wasn’t such a good idea. He wondered if Ethan could take another delay. The times before he always had.
Mirano, a planet with nearly two hundred fifty million people, was the home Ethan had known all his life. Its only company was a single moon almost two hundred thousand miles away. This moon was the only real beauty in the sky, especially at night, when it gave off a faint reddish glow that was much more colorful and intriguing than the pink saturation from beyond.
Just outside Mirano and the moon was the barrier. Most on Mirano referred to this phenomenon as “The Beyond.” It was a gaseous field that completely encompassed Mirano and the moon, leaving no evidence of anything else. All the best scientists had concluded the same answer. This field was an impenetrable barrier of gas and energy. They also reasoned if one could travel through the barrier, there would be nothing waiting for them on the other side. The previous missions gave little information on their ultimate answer to this mystery.
Mirano was a beautiful planet after all, full of lush landscapes and vast oceans. Certainly the planet provided all the requirements the inhabitants needed to survive. “Unlikely it is worth the risk,” the great minds had said. “An attempt to breach the barrier is a waste of time and money. We should concern ourselves with Mirano.”
Ethan was haunted by the barrier. This unexplainable field blocked his ability to know what existed beyond. At night the barrier was visible by a pinkish glow, even though it appeared to radiate no light of its own. The Beyond began nearly a million miles from their moon and completely surrounded everything.
Daylight only emerged from the barrier on one half of their world as the planet rotated every twenty-six hours giving it day and night. At night a softer pinkish glow was still visible but less radiant.
Ethan often wondered where the light came from. Did the barrier produce it? Or did it come from beyond the barrier? And what was it that provided the light? A thing so powerful and brilliant it produced light to cover half the planet. Was it, too, surrounding them or did the light originate from a single point? Perhaps a single celestial object like their planet. People laughed when Ethan suggested these ideas. But they were questions that could not be answered. There was in truth no way to know until someone went through the Beyond. Or more precisely, if someone made it through.
Ethan wanted to prove a point by breaking through the barrier. Not just that there was an existence outside their universe but also that listening to what the majority of people say isn’t always the right thing to do. If Ethan was right, others should do the same. One thing Ethan was bothered with was everyone’s lack of adventure and curiosity. Norian, more than the rest of the crew gave him support in what seemed a hopeless mission.
The crew assigned to the flight was small. Only four were approved for this mission. Director Droverson, referred by many in the hallways and cafeterias as the “old man,” would not allow any more personnel aboard the ship. Perhaps he was unwilling to risk any more than four on this mission.
Ethan looked around the conference room once inside and seated himself in the chair across from Director Droverson. Five seats surrounded the oval table centered in the large rectangular room. He noticed a flight plan in front of each seat on the table. Five copies in all. One for each crew member and one for the director.
Next to each binder was also a notepad and pen by each binder. The words “Pegason” were displayed at the top of the pad in bold letters. Pegason, the name of the institution where Ethan had devoted his last ten years. Ethan grabbed the pen and pad in front of his own seat, clicked the pen and began to scribble on the pad just below the words “Pegason.” He drew a simple circle then a smaller circle just beside the first. He made a huge circle next surrounding them both. Clearly it displayed their planet, moon and the barrier. Just below that he drew a straight line from Mirano to the outer circle and through it. Finally he added: ‘I will make it though’. Just before Droverson and the rest entered he tore the note page from the pad and crumpled it, giving it a quick toss into the trash basket.
Director Droverson had seated himself across from Ethan. To Ethan’s right was Norian, his closest friend, who he would have dinner with later that evening. To his left was the rest of the crew: Merril and Renato. They were both a few years younger than Ethan, and neither had as much space flight training. Most of their training was in simulation exercises, which for most missions would suffice. Training in space for normal work in the ship had greatly been reduced by recent advances in artificial gravity.
Nearly all ships had artificial gravity and were much easier to pilot than before. A new propulsion system replacing rocket engines had been designed using magnetic fields. A core unit provided the means to warp the areas around the ship and send it moving in any direction they desired. Ethan had trained on many flights in the past ten years learning how the ships operated. He, as well as several others at Pegason, were some of the best pilots on Mirano.
Other institutions had made flights into space and the moon. However they were mostly interested in the profit of space flight. There was the upcoming colonization of the moon projected in the next decade. The time to make a profit was now. This bothered people like Ethan who were in this business for exploration and research. Profiting from this business seemed foreign to him.
The old man looked down at the flight plan in front of him and picked it up. Ethan could detect no feeling there and wondered why. Less than two weeks from leaving and you’re not even a little enthusiastic? Ethan thought.
But then again Droverson never bothered showing any emotion. Any emotion he had left him long ago. Ethan examined the director’s expressionless face as he thumbed open the binder of flight plan 136 to the first page.
Then at last there was something. “I want to congratulate you all on your hard work.” The director looked up from the folder and gave a simple smile, nothing too impressive or noteworthy but at least something just the same. “You’ve given your best and I appreciate it. I appreciate your patience. No one appreciates it more than I.”
Ethan felt a little impressed with the director, as if he’d been mistaken all these years. Was he finally coming around? Ethan remarked, “We appreciate your patience with us. We’re all anxious to get out there. Me especially.”
“Well,” Droverson said. “We’ve all given a part of ourselves to this job, to this company. Each of you have shown me your abilities and skills and dedication. I feel very confident in each of you. In all of you. You must believe that.”
Everyone watched closely accepting the commendations. The credit was certainly due but peculiar coming from the director who rarely showed this side of his personality. For the first time in the last ten years Ethan was utterly dumbstruck at what Droverson said next.
“I’m especially proud of Ethan,” Droverson remarked looking at everyone and gave Ethan a short gaze before continuing. “You most of all. No doubt about it. We wouldn’t be going up if it weren’t for you.”
Which was of course true. Without his participation this flight would still be in the early stages. Perhaps not even that far. Ethan tried not to smile, but gave an embarrassed grin anyway.
“I know what it is you have done for us and our future,“ Droverson said. “Whatever it may be. I guess it doesn’t matter if we succeed or not. It pains me though. To be this close and...”
Droverson set down the folder of flight plan 136 just beside his coffee. Ethan, still smiling at the remarks of the old man, glanced at the director’s flight plan. The same plan Ethan had spent so many hours on. Flight 136 was now perfect, except something was... wrong.
“Well, we’ve all been excited about this flight,” the director went on. Ethan’s smile was fading a little but he really wasn’t listening. It was something that caught his eye just below what read: flight 136. All four names of the crew were there in big letters, Marril, Renato, Norian, and Ethan. But where Ethan’s name was supposed to be... was Droverson. Ethan’s smile was now a distant memory.
“We’ve all been excited, and I want to add that I’ve been excited too. Almost as if I were young again and were going up myself. I’ve really started to believe in this mission. I know you all...”
Ethan picked up his own flight plan and tossed it across the room. It fluttered apart and landed somewhere near the door. “Stop this shit and just say it,” Ethan said resentfully.
Ethan was still looking at the flight plan in front of Droverson. The plan that had Droverson’s name there in place of his own. How did I not notice it before? I really didn’t see this!
Droverson looked at them all and nodded. “I am taking Ethan’s place aboard the ship, aboard flight 136. This is too important for me to sit aside on this one. I’m reinstating my flight status.”
So there it was. Yet again Ethan had been delayed and without any warning this time. All the previous times had been by communicator while sitting at home enjoying the evening or a day off. Ethan usually could brace himself for the big let down and disgust, but this time it was unbearable. This time he was so close. And to be cut out like that. From his own mission. His own dream. The director even admitted this flight wouldn’t be happening without Ethan’s help. The director had some serious ambition to take over the flight and lead it. Droverson hadn’t flown a single mission in over ten years. This was wrong. But there was really nothing to do.
So Ethan did the only thing he could. Nothing. Raising a dispute wouldn’t get him on the flight. Going berserk right here in conference room fifteen wouldn’t put his name back on the cover of flight 136. He listened to how the director’s interests and curiosities had come alive in the past week and months. He listened and waiting for this nightmare to be over.
Norian had given him a quick look but turned away just as quickly. Norian couldn’t look at him now. It really just wasn’t a good idea. He too was utterly surprised in the director’s decision. Taking over the flight was really unexpected. Ethan could only stare at the flight book in front of Droverson’s chair as if in a hypnotic trance.
He had to get outside and away from this room. This room, this place was killing him. Listening to the director ramble on right here in front of him how he was fully prepared for the flight and was determined to guide them through the barrier and discover what lies beyond...
Copyright © 2005 by Thomas R. Willits