The office was a flurry of activity when I entered. No doubt it had been this way ever since the Endeavour entered a stable orbit. Two centuries of planning, prep and endless waiting, and for the first time, mankind had reached another star.
“Rosen?” A hard voice called across the medley of movement and chatter.
“Here, sir,” I called back, hurrying over to Doctor Lindborn.
“You’re late. Take this and get into the observation room. We need to prep you for entanglement.” A swipe across his tablet sent a chart from his screen to mine.
I nodded and left, weaving between rows of desks and technicians, towards the glass fronted room that would be my environment for the next week. Sutter was already there, leaning back in his chair, silver augment stretching across his brow, between his temples. Beyond him were a dozen identical chairs, each with its own attending techie.
Doctor Petrovyn entered behind me, and we were both whisked away to separate chairs by our technicians.
“Once entanglement is established, you’ll be connected to your partner through this.” My techie held up the silver headband.
“I know how it works,” I replied.
The youth blushed and fumbled to sterilise my temples and place the band across my head. There was a small sting as the augment attached itself. I waved the techie off and picked up my tablet instead, reviewing the document Lindborn had given me. It had the name of my partner, the pioneer who had boarded a ship bound for the stars, who would wake soon from a two century slumber, to explore a new planet and send me back every detail he found. Together, we would witness Tau Ceti f, making discoveries my ancestors had only dreamed of.
I found his name, Captain Robert Gardon.
Captain? What kind of scientist had a title like that? I scanned through the rest of the document, eyes widening.
“Uh, Miss Rosen? I mean, Doctor Rosen.” My technician held his hand out for my tablet. I thrust the object into his hands and jumped off my chair.
“Doctor Rosen,” he called again. I ignored him and marched back out into the main office, my techie trailing behind.
“Captain Gardon?” I demanded of Lindborn, striding up to him.
The director turned his pale eyes onto me. “He’s the head of security.”
“He’s a soldier. I joined this program to be linked with a scientist, someone who could actually examine what they discovered, not just put bullets in it.”
“Rosen, I have a list as long as my arm of scientists, billionaires and religious crackpots just waiting to get into one of those chairs. Shall I call one?”
I looked down. “No, sir.”
“Then get back to your seat.”
I returned to the observation room and my techie began loading Gardon’s details into the console beside my chair. I leaned back and he affixed a number of electrodes to my wrists and throat, then swung a screen around in front of my face.
“Quantum entanglement takes place between the augments,” he said. “Your brain is the processor, it will decode everything you partner sends you, and display it on this screen.”
I didn’t bother stopping him; explaining the Entanglement Protocol was probably the most interesting thing he would do this week. The rest would be spent watching me.
“Entanglement Protocol active in three minutes,” a voice announced through the loudspeakers.
Around me, techies hurried to perform their final checks and get to their positions.
I closed my eyes.
“They tell me I’m over two hundred,” A voice spoke from directly in front of me. “I feel pretty good for an old guy. Don’t know how you do it.”
I jerked in my seat and my eyes opened to the inside of the Endeavour’s landing shuttle. The image on my screen panned to the left and I saw the other explorers, stretching their limbs and attempting to walk around in the small cabin after their extended sleep.
“Don’t I get a response?” the voice asked. “I thought this thing was a communicator.”
“The cryo-stasis preservation slowed your body’s metabolic and respiratory functions,” I replied. “You’ve been in space for two hundred years, you’ve aged only about five.”
“Well, who’s that then? Either you’re a woman, or things have changed a lot since I left ol’ Earth.”
“I’m Doctor Rosen. I take it you’re Captain Gardon?”
“Robert, please. What’s your name?”
“You gotta have a first name. Pretty sure they didn’t do away with first names since I went in for my nap.”
“Are you ready to depart the shuttle?”
“You mean go outside, walk around on an alien planet? Wouldn’t have signed up if I wasn’t ready for that. One small step for mankind, ay?”
I watched as Robert, and half of the explorers prepared, themselves to leave the confines of their shuttle. The rest would remain behind; their turn would come tomorrow. Our readings said the atmosphere was breathable, if dense. The air would be cold, but not unbearable. Tau Ceti f was the first planet that was habitable without the need of a giant, glass dome.
One of the explorers opened the airlock and I heard Robert draw in a breath. The door swung back to reveal a rocky landscape under an orange sky. Robert stepped out onto flaky stone, mountains rising to the left and right, and a low hanging star between them. A river curved through the centre of the valley, catching the dawn light. The explorers formed a small cluster, faces turned towards Tau Ceti, watching the rise of a sun that was not their own. I leaned forward in my seat, eyes fixed on the orange glow from my screen.
Robert turned away from the rising star, looking out to the dark, night sky. I saw a few familiar constellations. Even on another world, we shared the same sky.
“You seeing this, Doc?”
“How long are we going to be in each others’ heads, exactly?”
“A week, until the comms unit generator can be fully set up. Until then, you can’t break this link. If it goes down, at this distance, we’ll never reestablish contact.”
“You know what I don’t get, Doc?” Robert continued. “This star is twelve light years away from Earth. Now, I don’t have a fancy PhD, but shouldn’t that mean it takes at least twelve years for a transmission to get from you to me? So how is it I can talk to you like you’re in the next room?”
“That augment you’re wearing isn’t a transmitter,” I replied. “The particles in your augment and mine no longer have independent quantum states. They’re entangled, which means anything that happens to your augment, simultaneously happens to mine, regardless of the distance between them.”
“Sounds like science fiction to me.”
“I wouldn’t expect a soldier to understand.”
“Touch of resentment there, Doc? Hey, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t ask for you either.”
“Why did you even sign up for this? You’re not a researcher. You wasted two hundred years, everyone you knew is dead.”
“I didn’t know anyone, Doc. Besides–” a gun swung up into my view, “–someone’s gotta keep the stiffs safe.”
Robert returned to the others, and they began trekking across the surface, following the river, and collecting samples for analysis back at the shuttle. I watched the screen avidly, but said little to Robert.
The sky became brighter as Tau Ceti climbed above them. The air must have still been cold, but I noticed Professor Bratworth, the landing crew’s geologist, frequently wiping perspiration from his brow.
“Is he alright?” I asked Robert eventually. “Bratworth.”
Robert turned to look at the scientist. “The air’s heavy here, guess he’s just feeling it.”
I glanced over to Sutter, Bratworth’s partner. He was lying back in his chair, watching his screen. I was about to look away when Sutter raised a hand and dragged it across his brow.
“What are you waiting for?” a voice demanded suddenly. Robert turned to face Doctor Martin, whose wide eyes were darting between him and Bratworth. “Shoot it.”
“Shoot what?” Robert asked, scanning the valley.
“Shoot it!” Martin screamed and grabbed for Robert’s gun. I jumped in my seat as Martin’s wild eyes filled my screen.
Robert threw him off. “Professor, what are you doing?”
Martin grabbed a rock and charged Bratworth, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Arm raised, he prepared to bash Bratworth’s skull in. Robert grabbed his arm, overpowering the doctor, forcing him to drop his weapon. He fastened Martin’s wrists in a cable tie and frog marched him back the way they’d come.
“Everyone back to the shuttle, now,” he barked.
Lindborn burst into the observation room. “What happened?” He marched over to Petrovyn.
“There was a…a thing, a monster,” Petrovyn stammered.
“What monster, what are you talking about?” Linborn leaned over him to stare at his screen.
“I swear it was there, he saw it, right where Bratworth was standing.”
Lindborn looked across the room at each of the stricken-faced scientists and their stunned technicians. “Did anyone see anything? Was anyone watching Bratworth?”
“I was, sir,” I said and all faces turned to me. “There was nothing there.”
“Who’s got the medic?” Lindborn asked.
“Me, sir.” Doctor Bowden raised her hand in the corner.
“Have him give Martin something for hysteria.”
Lindborn marched back out of the room. The scientists returned to their hushed conversations with their respective partners.
“They think it was a hysteric fit,” I said to Robert, his view was of the back of Martin’s head and the approaching shuttle. Robert offered only a grunt in response.
“You did good back there,” I said. I thought I heard Robert chuckle.
“If Bratworth had been killed, it would have killed his partner too. The link would fry his brain.”
“Would’ve been nice to have known that sooner.” Robert opened the airlock door and shoved Martin through. Cooper, the medic, opened it from the other side.
“He had a fit, or something–” Robert began.
“I know,” Cooper said, grabbing Martin and dragging him in.
Robert backed out of the airlock and it closed again.
“We should go back out,” Bratworth said. “We’re wasting daylight.”
“Someone just tried to kill you,” Robert said.
“Well, he’s not trying now. I didn’t travel twelve light years to sit outside the shuttle.”
“You stiffs’ll do anything for a new discovery, huh?” Robert said, following the others back outside.
“You boarded the ship, same as them,” I reminded him.
I watched the screen, in particular Doctor Velasquez, walking to Robert’s left. He was rubbing the side of his neck, just under his jaw, repeatedly. Again, his hand rose to his jaw, massaged the skin, and dropped, leaving a small red mark.
I looked around for my techie.
“Who’s Velasquez’s partner?”
The techie scanned his tablet. “Doctor Munroe, over there.” He pointed to a man three chairs down.
“You see something I don’t, Doc?” Robert asked.
“Maybe.” I watched Munroe raise a hand to the red mark on the side of his neck.
Before Robert could ask anything more, Velasquez screamed and began clawing at his face. Robert ran towards him and grabbed his arms, but Velasquez threw him off with surprising strength and grabbed at his augment.
The others began shouting at him to stop, but Velasquez continued to scream and tear at his face and the silver attachment. I glanced over at Munroe, his face was scrunched up and his fists clenched. The shouting peaked as Velasquez got his fingers under the augment and ripped it off. I gasped and jumped, the silver band came free with a splash of red.
Munroe spasmed and went limp, a trickle of blood running from his temple.
Robert pulled out his gun and fired it once into the sky, silencing everyone on both worlds.
“Back inside, no questions.”
The explorers ran for the shuttle. Robert followed them inside and locked the door.
“There’s something out there,” Bratworth said. “They both saw something.”
“Impossible,” Cooper argued, emerging from the medical bay. “There’s no life on this planet. Nothing but rocks and air.”
“Why is that?” Robert asked quietly, stepping away from the others. “Air, water and sunlight, isn’t that what you need? Air’s fine, water’s fine. Why’s there no life here?”
“Two of our men have experienced violent hallucinations,” Bratworth continued. “I think at this stage we have to accept that there is some kind of undetectable toxin out there.”
“Whatever that thing is, you should have left it outside,” a voice growled. One of the scientists pushed his way to the front, eyes wide and breathing heavy.
“Neilson?” Bratworth asked. “What thing?”
“That.” He pointed to the middle of the cabin. “What is it?”
“What?” Robert stepped forward. “Neilson, what do you see?”
“What is it?” Neilson shrieked.
Cooper lunged for him and jabbed a syringe into his neck. Neilson’s eyes rolled back and he went slack. Cooper caught him as he fell and lowered him to the floor.
“What did you guys find out there?” he demanded, looking at each of them.
Bratworth shook his head, all colour drained from his face. “Neilson wasn’t in our group,” he said. “He never left the shuttle.”
“Robert, you have to isolate them,” I said. “Anyone who’s behaving strangely. Bratworth too.” My gaze drifted to Sutter, his face white as alabaster.
“Doc, what are we dealing with here?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s spreading.”
“Spreading? What, like some kind of virus?”
“Did you say virus?” Bratworth interrupted, stepping forwards.
“Uh, no,” Robert said quickly. “Don’t listen to me, I’m just the gun.” He backed away from the group.
I turned to my techie. “Get Lindborn in here.”
He nodded and raced out.
“Listen,” I said to Robert, “just keep your distance.”
“You really think there could be something infecting us?”
“You’re the one who asked the question; why is there no life on Tau Ceti f?”
“Rosen,” Lindborn barked, coming to stop at my side. “What’s the problem?”
“Sir,” I began, keeping my voice low, so as not to alarm the others even more. “I think that whatever’s affecting the explorers may be contagious.”
“That shuttle is better stocked than a hospital. If it’s viral, or some side-effect of the cryo-stasis, they can administer their own treatments. At any rate, there’s nothing we can do from here.”
“Sir.” I stopped Lindborn as he began to turn away. “I don’t think the crew are the only ones in danger.” I glanced at Sutter again. “What if the infection uses the Entanglement Protocol to reach Earth?”
“What reasoning do you have for that theory?”
“Right before Velasquez pulled his augment out, I saw both him and Munroe perform the exact same motion, like whatever was affecting Velasquez, Munroe was feeling it too.”
“What did Munroe do?”
“He scratched his neck.”
Lindborn stared at me. “Hardly groundbreaking, Doctor Rosen.”
“The temperature out there is only a few degrees above freezing, but Bratworth’s running a fever, and so is Sutter.”
“What?” Sutter looked over at the mention of his name.
“That true?” Lindborn demanded.
“No,” Sutter said quickly, touching his forehead. “It’s a little warm in here, that’s all.”
“Rosen, get back to work.”
“But, sir.” I jumped out of my chair as he turned away. Lindborn pivoted and stopped right in front of me.
“Rosen. The augments have a shared quantum state, that’s all. There’s no such thing as a quantum virus. Now sit down.”
I returned to my seat, ignoring Sutter’s glare.
“Quantum virus, ay?” Robert said. “How in God’s name do we stop that?”
“Forget I said it. He’s right, I’m just being silly.”
“Permission to disagree. I think you’re right on the money with this one, Doc. What do we do?”
“Nothing, I can’t help you from here.”
“But you can die with us, ay? I think it’s time we shut this quantum thing down, don’t you?”
“No, you can’t. The comms unit generator isn’t active yet. If the particles are disentangled, we’ll never reestablish contact. You’ll be completely cut off.”
“And if we don’t? If this thing spreads to you and the others, to the rest of the planet?”
I didn’t have an answer. Robert seemed to have expected as much. He turned away from the others, now arguing about what to do with the infected. As he slipped into the shuttle’s command room, the sound of screaming started up behind him. I didn’t look around to see who it was.
Robert stood in front of a computer monitor and brought up a screen titled Entanglement Protocol.
“Don’t do it,” I said.
I heard him laugh. “I wouldn’t expect a scientist to understand.” He glanced back to the main cabin, two of the explorers were wresting a writhing Bratworth onto the floor. In his chair, Sutter seemed to be having a seizure.
“You know, Doc.” Robert turned back to the screen. “You never did tell me your name.”
“Nice to meet you, Alice.”
“You never told me why you joined the Endeavour.”
He laughed. “I just wanted to see the stars.”
The cursor moved to the Disengage button.
“Wait,” I said. The screen went blank.
I stared at it for several moments before my techie pulled it back and leaned over me to remove the augment.
“Doctor Rosen, are you all right?” he asked.
My eyes stayed on the screen, after a while I nodded, getting out of my chair.
“Rosen,” Lindborn bellowed as I left the observation room. I ignored him and kept walking until I reached the exit.
Stepping out into the night, I walked a few paces away from the building and looked up. Above me stretched the Milky Way galaxy. I located the constellation Cetus, and in its belly, Tau Ceti, as it was twelve years ago.