The blackness of space had entombed the Voyager 1 for some time. The ship turned its camera to view from whence it came. In looking back, the home star appeared no different from all the others, a small bright dot amongst billions, the home planet, no longer even visible.
No warmth from any star permeated its sheathed exterior. Despite the frigid cold of space, its equipment continued to operate. Sensors still recorded data and communications continued to send scheduled reports. But with energy at a premium, orders had been received to shut down some functions to extend the life of its power source.
The end would come in the next twenty years, somewhere out in the cold dark reaches of the galaxy. Its forward momentum would ensure the dead hulk’s arrival at a distant star.
Though not as tightly packed, the particles of the solar wind from the home star still pushed against its framework, urging the spaceship in its headlong mission. But its speed had slowed considerably. In time, sensors indicated this push had waned to the point where more particles were traveling sideways than out.
The simple analysis was the device neared the Heliosheath boundary of the home star. Soon, the stellar wind of the galaxy would interfere with its progress and the last vestiges of home would be left behind.
A sensation not felt in a long time began to envelop it—warmth. The conflicting waves of solar wind from the star against the incoming waves from the rest of the galaxy heated the surrounding particles. Hot charged protons and electrons bounced off the ship’s sheathing, transferring their energy into its framework.
As it neared the juxtaposition point, the photons around it roiled in the wake of the craft, forming a kind of slipstream. Others slipped off to head in the reverse direction, no different from the ripples in a pond when a motorized toy boat floated across. Eddies, in the waves of particles, allowed some of them to skip forward, others to slip past.
A sudden displacement of the solar wind near its port side gave the low-energy charged particle instrument pause. In an instant, the readings fell off the chart to zero. As if, for a brief moment, there was nothing there. Whatever phenomenon caused it was undetectable. Power limitations had already resulted in the termination of the plasma subsystem, the planetary radio astronomy experiment, the scan platform, and most recently, the ultraviolet spectrometer. Whether any of those devices could have analyzed the anomaly became a moot point. In the following instant, the readings returned to normal and the spacecraft Voyager 1 continued on its mission.
Brooke lay on her back, staring through the skylight at the full moon above. “Look at it, Robert. Just hanging there, calling to me.”
Her lover sighed heavily, then propped himself up on one elbow. “Your turn will come someday, Brooke. They can’t deny you forever.”
She looked over at him and played a hand across his chest. “Easy for you to say, Mr. First Mission since Apollo. For six months you got to go there. Six months! It’s not bad enough you’ve already had three other extended missions in space.”
He grabbed at her fingers. “Hey, it wasn’t all fun and games. That first mission to the moon nearly killed us. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t keep the regolith out of the air system. In the end, Trevor lost a lung.”
The recent image of one of Robert’s crewmates surfaced in her mind. He had been so big and strong but now was only a shell of his former self. “Yeah, that was too bad. I understand he never recovered his bone mass either. How long has it been?”
Robert fell back onto his pillow. “It’ll be four years next month. I’ve seen him a number of times since then. He looks terrible. I don’t think he’s getting any better.”
“Still, they have a revolving crew of six up there now. And the new scrubbers have kept the system clean for some time. I’ve been training, for seven years. I can appreciate not being part of the original team with you. NASA’s decision to send only males to set up the first base was probably based on concern with how it would look if someone died more than anything else. The American public wouldn’t have been too happy if a woman got killed up there. Look at all the noise when those shuttles went down. But men can die heroes. It’s not fair. I think I deserve my chance.”
Robert chuckled. “So you want to die a hero?”
She rolled over and tapped him with the bottom of her fist. “No, silly. You know what I mean. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to go into space, to be an astronaut, to visit the moon, the planets, the stars. Now that I’m so close, it seems further away than ever. With each rotation, they’re sending females, but not me. Not even Americans. Girls from Canada, Russia, Europe, and Japan! Girls from…from Timbuktu, for all I know!”
“Hey! Easy on the hitting. I thought you were taking those classes for self-defense, not offense.” Robert grabbed her arm and pulled her close. “I think you’re the best girl in the world.”
She wrestled away. “You’re just saying that so I won’t be mad at you.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I just want to make sure I get quality time with you.”
A nagging thought surged in her mind. Rumor on the base had Robert in the next moon rotation. “So when are you shipping out?”
He gaped, blinking. “When did you hear?”
“I have my sources, and a girl has to keep some secrets. Besides, how long do you think you could have held out not telling me…a week…a month?”
“I didn’t want to upset you. I planned on telling you, once they made it official.”
Brooke felt a sudden pang of disappointment. Passed over again. She stood up, yanked on a robe, and headed for the bedroom door.
Robert scrambled to catch up. “Hey, where’re you going?”
“The kitchen. I hear a glass of wine calling my name.”
Brooke pulled a bottle of white wine from the fridge. She grabbed one of her favorite fluted glasses and filled it to the brim. Her anger at Robert passed quickly. It wasn’t his fault. She walked into the living room and stared out the window at the quiet street. The evening dark filled with scattered streetlights reminded her of the night sky.
A solitary car rolled past, its headlights briefly illuminating where she stood. It continued on, leaving her behind in the darkness. My chance is passing me by.
Soft footsteps told of Robert’s approach, and his arms encircled her waist from behind, his mouth by her ear. “Come back to bed, Brooke. We can talk about it in the morning.”
She pulled free and turned to face him. “That’s just it, Robert. Another morning, another day without a mission. I’m forty-two. I’m not getting any younger. I’ve yet to go and they’re already recycling you. It seems I’ll never get my turn.”
Robert then slumped into the sofa. “Do we have to go through this every time? Your turn will come.”
“There must be a reason they’re not sending me.”
“Why don’t you ask administration?”
Robert rocked backward. “You did?”
“Yeah, for all the good it did me. Bart gave me the old ‘good things come to those who wait’ speech.”
“At least he didn’t shut you down. Maybe he’s got something big planned for you.”
Robert wrapped an arm over her shoulder as she sat down. “God, I hope you’re right. I’ve completed all the training. In the simulators, the diving wells, and all the other shit they run us through. Hell, I even spent four months in that mock ship in Northern Canada, and another month in the underwater lab in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m ready.”
Robert hugged her tight and kissed her. “They wouldn’t waste all that training on you if they weren’t going to use you. Come on, let’s go back to bed.”
Robert rose, but she didn’t move. “You go ahead. I’ll be along in a bit. I want to finish this glass of wine.”
“Suit yourself.” He left the room, and Brooke could hear the sheets rustle as he climbed back into bed. She ran every training exercise through her mind once again while sipping her wine.
Whatever they get for me, it better be good.