From her seat, McKay peered past the flight crew, fixing her eyes on the starfield beyond. The shuttle’s violent shaking contrasted starkly against the grace with which the sea of diamond and silk flowed into a veil of yellow. As the last of the stars disappeared, she looked over at the others. Bjorn and Alice both stared forward, their eyes wide, but it was clear that they were not actually looking at anything. Their hands were a knot of white knuckles. Beside them, Seif sat with his eyes closed. His face was serenely blank, and McKay thought she saw his lips moving.
As they descended farther into the atmosphere, the jet engines kicked in, and gravity at last found them. In the many months of transit, McKay had spent more than the required amount of time in the gravity simulation chamber – or GSC, as she had been told to call it – but the feeling of actual gravity was still unsettling and somehow foreign. She closed her eyes and brought her breathing under control.
“We’re at aerostat altitude now,” said the captain. Someone who did not know the captain would not have picked up on the subtle sense of relief in her voice, but after spending months with the woman aboard the Peregrine, McKay now noticed such nuances. “Extend wings, please.”
“Wings extended,” responded Angel Yeats, the copilot. As the shuttle leveled off, the sound of atmospheric friction shifted, and the whine of the ventral jet engines became less pronounced. Even with the added stability of the extended wings, the shuttle seemed to be more bat than falcon.
Bjorn looked over at Alice. “Why did we decide to do this again?” They smiled tightly to each other. Seif was still entranced.
“Distance?” asked the captain.
“Twenty-five kilometers,” came the reply.
“Yazata Station, this is Pelican Three. We’ve matched your trajectory and are approaching your position.”
“Confirmed, Pelican Three,” came the reply. The operator’s warm tone presented a distinct contrast to the captain’s militant punctuation. “Welcome to Venus. Docking mechanisms are standing by.”
On the captain’s order, control was given to the autopilot. She and Angel sat back, but they continued to monitor their instrument displays. In the distance, McKay could see it: a network of bulbs and spindles hanging darkly against the yellow sky. Opaque metal bases were held aloft by massive transparent envelopes. While the floating mass appeared stationary, McKay knew that it was actually moving with great speed through the atmosphere, as it was completely at the mercy of the planet’s winds. The aerostat habitat grew before them, and the shuttle began to decelerate to match trajectory. What had looked like a handful of grapes was now an entire floating city. The blinking lights on the spindles that connected the biospheres suddenly made McKay think of the towers and bridges back home. It was a queer juxtaposition in her mind. She was sitting in a spaceship and looking at a floating city on a foreign planet, but the aesthetic effect of the image made her feel as if she were looking at the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk.
As they approached the aerostat habitat, a single spindle became visible, jutting out below the others and hanging alone in yellow space. The ventral jets whined again, sustaining and stabilizing the craft in the air as it moved cautiously toward the docking mechanism on the end of the spindle. After a series of whirs and thumps, four finger-like docking clamps closed around the shuttle. With one final lurch, they were secure.
“All systems green,” said Angel.
The captain stood and turned to them, nodding.
“We’ve arrived, people. You may unfasten yourselves and stand.”
“We’re here!” said Alice, clasping Bjorn’s meaty paw in both hands. “We’re here! I can’t believe it!”
“We’re here,” he repeated, smiling. “We didn’t die! This is a good thing.”
Similarly excited murmurs sounded from the four rows of passengers behind them. McKay unfastened her safety harness. Holding on to her seat, she pulled herself to her feet. Even without the shakiness that came with being blown through the atmosphere by hurricane-force winds, she wondered at the captain’s ability to stand with such confidence. Looking at how the others were doing, though, she was suddenly thankful for her extra GSC time. She was having trouble, but they seemed utterly inept. Alice gave a nervous laugh as she held on to Bjorn for support – as if he were in any position to help her. Seif arose, one hand on the back of his seat and the other on a handhold above him. They met eyes for a moment, but then he looked down. McKay sighed and looked out at the yellow sky. So much for a clean slate.
She let go of that thought as soon as it came. No, she would not let this day be ruined by needless concerns. She would be absolutely giddy. Like Alice. Well, almost.
“Take your time, folks,” said the captain, viewing the disarray. “We’ve got plenty of time, and we certainly don’t need any injuries.”
McKay looked at the faces crowded into the shuttle behind her. Over the previous months, she had come to know them very well. Most were devout believers. A few – like her – were in search of belief. When she looked into their eyes – Paul from Florida and Sveta from Ukraine – she did think she saw a glimmer of belief starting to arise there. She wondered if she was starting to feel it herself.
Squeezing past Seif and the others on the opposite side on the shuttle, the captain made her way to the dorsal hatch in the back. After checking a few figures on the display, she pressed the necessary commands. It opened with a pop of expanding plastic. She pulled down a ladder and secured it to the floor.
“Come when you feel you’re ready. One at a time. Just like we practiced. Mr. Yeats will assist you if you have any trouble. I’m going up first because I need to speak with station personnel.” With that, she ascended the ladder and disappeared.
Feeling somewhat more confident now, McKay began to move past the others and toward the hatch. She climbed the ladder – albeit slowly – and emerged into a small chamber that was apparently the lowermost part of the station. Looking up, she saw a dimly lit shaft about one meter wide and ten to fifteen meters long. It bent and swayed with the wind. In front of her, there was a padded seat with a safety harness, similar to the ones on the shuttle. She sat and strapped in, and the system automatically lifted her toward the light.
A folding floor appeared beneath McKay, and she unbuckled her restraints and stood. The transparent door for the tube through which she had come retracted – and the room into which she emerged was not exactly what she had expected. Detailed visual information about Yazata Station had been limited; she had envisioned a collection of transparent bubbles floating through the clouds. What she saw, though, was a lounge with a flat, white floor and a collection of sofas. The floor looked like white ceramic material. A few portholes showed the sky beyond. Just ahead, the captain stood at a rectangular window, leaning against the wall with one hand as she conversed with the people on the other side. McKay saw a middle-aged man with greying hair flanked by two women who seemed to be in their twenties. McKay blinked. Actually, they were twins.
A slight lurch of the station landed McKay flatly on her behind, and she felt her cheeks warm as the others looked at her.
“That happens,” said the captain. “You’ll get used to it. Especially when your body gets accustomed to gravity again.”
“That was embarrassing,” said McKay, and she turned and pushed herself to her feet again. Keeping her hand on the wall, she walked around toward the others.
“I suspected you’d be the first out of the tube,” said the captain. “Come meet the welcome party. This is Abdas, and these two lovely ladies are his daughters Yasmin and Laleh.”
McKay moved over beside the captain and pressed both hands against the glass like a child. Abdas grinned. “Welcome to Yazata Station!” he said. “I would give you a hug, but that will have to wait until after the decontamination process.”
“I still think the process is unnecessary, Abdas,” said the captain. “After all, we went through decontamination on Earth, and we’ve been on the ship together for months.”
“It’s a rite of passage, Erika. You know that.” McKay blinked. She had never heard the captain referred to as anything but Captain. “Anyway, we can never be too careful.” Abdas put his arms around the young women. “Some of us here have never rolled in the dirt on Earth, you know. Our immune systems may not be as robust as yours.”
A sound behind them caused McKay to look toward the ascension tube. Seif was emerging. He nodded to her.
“And here’s another!” said Abdas. “Welcome to Yazata Station. Welcome. As I was about to tell your friend…um…”
“McKay,” she said, smiling.
“As I was about to tell your friend McKay, this room will be your home for the next fifty hours. As you can see, there are sofas, which fold out into beds. There are also beds that you can lower from the walls. Those three doors lead to lavatories, and we will be bringing you your first meal on Venus in a few minutes.”
“That sounds great!” said McKay. With the floor still moving under her feet, though, the thought of food was not exactly appealing at the moment. She turned to look at Seif again. Instead of making his way around to the window, he had simply collapsed on one of the sofas. The thought of sitting down with him occurred to her, but she shrugged it off. Anyway, she wanted to get acclimated to standing again.
“Once the fifty hours have passed, we will be giving you new clothes, and you can get rid of those jumpsuits.”
“Fabulous!” said McKay. “You two have very lovely dresses, by the way.”
“Thank you,” said Laleh, touching the loose purple fabric that hung from her shoulders. “We grow and weave the silk right here, you know.”
“Really? I didn’t know you had silk!”
“That’s what most of us wear, actually. That and cotton. The environment in the spheres is perfect for growing them.”
The captain suddenly put her finger to the receiver on her ear. “Go ahead,” she said. She excused herself from the conversation and turned away.
“I’m told much of the work to be done here is simple farm work,” said McKay. “Is that right?”
Laleh nodded. “That’s right. Is that kind of work difficult for you?”
“Oh, not at all! When I was a kid, my father used to work us ragged in our home garden. We grew way more food than we needed.”
“Well, then I imagine you will feel right at home here.”
“I’ll be right down!” barked the captain. She turned to Abdas as she made her way back toward the tube. “Something has happened on Earth. I have to get to the shuttle. You should get on a communications console.” With that, she strapped herself into the seat and descended again to the shuttle. Yasmin and Laleh looked to their father with furrowed brows, and he moved out of McKay’s sight. McKay looked around.
“I assume that’s a communications console. May I use it?”
“Yes, of course,” said Yasmin.
By the time McKay had gotten there, Seif had already connected to the conversation between Pelican Three and the Peregrine, which was still in orbit.
“ – but you don’t understand what I’m saying. Everything is out. We are receiving nothing from Earth. No direct communications. No television or radio chatter. Nothing. It’s all dark. I don’t even think a nuclear holocaust could do this.” The speaker was Jazz Wayland. He had taken command of the Peregrine while the captain was on the planet.
“The problem must be on our side,” said the captain.
“That’s what I thought,” said Jazz, “but…”
“But we aren’t receiving anything either,” said Abdas. “Complete blackout. This has never happened before.”
There was a moment of silence as that sank in.
“Well, we have a telescope on the Peregrine, don’t we?”
“Aligning it as we speak, Captain.”
The captain shook her head. “This has to be some sort of celestial phenomenon. I didn’t think we had any sun flares coming, did we?”
“No sun flares. Anyway, that would overload us with static. We’re getting normal static levels.”
“It has to be a natural phenomenon.”
“Routing the telescope image.” The great blue marble of Earth came into view.
“Zoom,” said the captain. “You’ve got to zoom in. Give me a major city. That’s China. Give me Shanghai.”
The telescope image was magnified and adjusted. The operator zoomed in until they could see streets full of pedestrians and cars.
“Okay, show me cities in other countries. Tokyo. Seoul. Bangkok. Jakarta. Singapore.”
They proceeded through the list. Tokyo and Seoul likewise seemed to be operating normally. By the time they had gotten to Bangkok, everyone had relaxed a little.
“Well, the world is still there, I guess,” said the captain. “Zoom in. I want to get in closer. Give me one of the main streets.”
The image zoomed in, and they saw cars, trucks, bicycles, and people. Thousands of people. For a moment, McKay forgot that she was so very far from Earth.
And then, everything went dark.
“What? What was that?”
“I don’t know,” said Jazz. “I don’t know. It just…”
“Zoom out,” said the captain.
“No, I think it’s an equipment – ”
The telescope operator zoomed out – and there, clearly before them, loomed something…different. McKay swallowed back on a lump in her throat. She heard Seif murmur something – either a four-letter word or an invocation of the God he did not believe in.
“What is that?”
It was floating there – above Southeast Asia – and it was very, very large. It was roughly round in shape, but its greyish-brown skin was divided into sections, like a great legless crustacean. At first, McKay thought it might not be as large as it looked – that it could be rather small, appearing large because it was closer to their point of observation than the planet below – but then she saw its shadow cover all of Cambodia.
“That, my friends…” the captain’s voice trailed off. She began again. “That, my friends, is an alien spacecraft.”
“It could be friendly, right?” asked Jazz.
“It’s jamming all of Earth’s communications. I don’t care where you’re from: that is an act of aggression.”
They watched in painful silence as Vietnam burst into flames. A neat circle of light, heat, and smoke as wide as Japan traced across the East Asian coast like the focal point of a magnifying glass across paper.
There were expletives. There were cries of pain and fear. And then there was silence again. Tears streamed down McKay’s face as she watched a hundred million people die in less than a minute. Seif collapsed and sat against the wall, his face in his hands. McKay wanted to take her eyes away, but she could not. Like a child clutching the hand of a dying parent, she watched as the world she had once called home was systematically reduced to ash and smoke.
“We have to strike back, Captain,” said Jazz. His voice trembled. “The Peregrine has a reactor core. We can rig it to blow those – ”
“It would take months to get back to Earth.” The captain stared out the window as she spoke, looking at no one. “Everyone and everything we knew there will be gone in a matter of hours. Anyway, if they had nothing to fear from all of Earth, I doubt they have anything to fear from us. Their weapons would pick us off before we even got close.”
“We have to do something!” he said, and he pounded the armrest of the sofa. “I can’t take this sitting down!”
“We will survive,” said the captain. “That is our mission. That is our revenge. In the face of extermination, we will live.”
“Let me do it, then!” he continued. “Let me do it! I can fly the Peregrine on my own – ”
“You would waste one of humanity’s last great pieces of technology – one of our last vestiges of hope – on a suicide mission? We need that ship. Even if you were to go alone, you would kill more people than just yourself. I won’t let you do that.”
Jazz looked down at the floor, blinking away tears. Beside him, Sveta placed a hand carefully on his back.
“No. All we can hope for now is that they will ignore us. It’s possible the entire purpose of this mission was to eliminate a possible threat. Their society may not take any chances with alien races: they might simply destroy anyone who has spacefaring technology. They may never try to colonize, and they may assume that there is no one on Venus. They may simply go away and leave us alone. What we have to do now is lie low – and hope the folks on Mars do the same.” She finally looked over at Jazz. “You’ll thank me when you live to see your grandkids.”
“What, so we have to live here now?”
That earned him a variety of looks.
“Believe it or not, Jazz, that’s what most of us came here for,” said Seif. He flicked his eyes at McKay mid-sentence.
“I don’t…I don’t want to.” Jazz put his face in his hands.
The captain pounded the bulkhead with her fist. “It doesn’t matter what you want! We’re here, they are there, and unless the Americans or the Brazilians or the Islamic League can blow that thing out of the sky – which I doubt – this is where we will stay.”
“So you’re just giving up.”
“That’s not what I’m doing, Mr. Wayland. That’s what you are doing.” Her eyes went to Sveta. “Look, you have a pretty girl there who cares about you – and who was going to be sad to see you go. Well, now you can stay with her. It may not be what you were planning, but it’s a whole lot better than what the people in Hanoi just got.”
McKay had been watching the captain very carefully through all of this.
“Captain,” she said, “do you really think they’ll go away and leave us alone here?”
“I have no way of knowing. It’s certainly a possibility, though, isn’t it? We have nothing to lose by believing it’s true, now, do we?”
McKay nodded. “I think they will leave us alone.”
As McKay spoke, a crowd of figures in silk robes appeared at the window. As the captain and the others turned toward the window, the tall, dark-skinned man at their center spoke.
“Hello over there. I want to welcome you all to Yazata Station,” he said. “I would normally leave the official welcome until after your decontamination, but due to the circumstances, I thought I should come and see you now.”
His warm eyes moved about the room on the far side of the glass, taking note of each of the figures sprawled on the sofas and the beds. “This is a dark day, indeed. When we decided to come to Venus and build a new world, it was not because we saw this day coming. We felt that Earth was destroying itself morally, but not literally or physically. Many here will most likely tell you that the aliens have come as harbingers of God’s wrath upon a decadent and blasphemous world. I do not know how true that is. However, I do believe that you – all of you – have been preserved for a purpose. We cannot ignore the fact that this happened on the day – even the very hour – of your arrival. You are here – and you are alive – for a reason.”
His eyes went to the captain, Angel, and Jazz. “I know I do not need to say this, but you are all welcome here.”
The captain nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “We’re certainly happy to have a place to come home to.”
The meals they were brought during the decontamination period were a drastic change from the paste they had been eating for the last several months: boiled tomatoes, greens, beans, chili peppers, and brown rice, with a little tofu and unsweetened peanut butter as well. McKay’s favorite part, though, was the warm honey rolls. For a moment during the first meal, she forgot that the world was ending, and a delicate veil of happiness fell upon her. It seemed that some of the others were going through the same process: spirits would begin to lift, leading to conversation, but each conversation would inevitably turn to memories of soccer games, Sunday drives, stage performances, lost loves, beaches, and friends – images of a world that was being reduced to dust as they spoke. The pain of loss would cause these conversations to suddenly shift to silence, and eyes would wander to the portholes.
When the fifty-hour decontamination period drew to a close, a crowd of people began to gather on the opposite side of the glass. Figures in loose silk smiled and waved at them, and they returned these gestures.
“She’s a pretty one,” said Angel, taking notice of a slender figure with coffee-colored skin and long, black hair. Jazz looked, nodding in agreement.
“Maybe you should take her for a ride in the shuttle,” he said. He then returned to his nap. Sveta was asleep on his shoulder.
McKay went over to where Alice and Bjorn were sitting. “Are you excited?” she asked.
Alice smiled. “I was. I suppose I still am.” She smiled at a little girl who was waving to her from the other side. “It all seems so surreal.” She looked over at Bjorn, but he only stared down blankly at his knees, making no reply. “I think we’ll be more excited once we get to see everything, and once the shock has had some time to wear off. It’s a lot to take in. None of this changes what we came here for, though. We’re going to start a family. Have some children. Help create a new world. The fact that our old world is gone just makes it that much more important.” She squeezed Bjorn’s hand. His eyes finally came up to meet McKay’s gaze for a moment, but he still said nothing. McKay placed her hand on the top of his head, feeling the hair that had gone from stubble to a golden fleece in the space between Earth and Venus. With another smile at Alice, she walked away.
Seif was standing at the porthole. McKay paused for a moment, looking at him from behind. Something seemed different now. His back was straight, his shoulders square, and his hands were clasped behind his back. He suddenly looked like a general reviewing his battle lines. She came and stood beside him, her shoulder against the wall.
“How are you doing?” she asked. The question seemed so trite, but she did not know what else to say.
He looked over at her, then down at the floor.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose.” He looked back out the porthole, lowering his voice. “I told you I always felt like an outsider. All my life.”
“I think that’s why I decided to come. Earth never felt like my home. I was alone in my family, in school, at work. I was always an observer. I didn’t hate the world, but it was always foreign to me. I didn’t fit anywhere. I was looking for a place that wouldn’t be foreign. I needed a home.”
She was closer to him now, listening intently.
“I never thought I would miss Earth much. But now that it’s gone, all I want is to be able to go back.”
She touched his arm.
“Everything I ever knew. Everyone I ever talked to. It’s all gone, as if it never existed to begin with.”
“I don’t think it’s completely gone,” she said. “It’s in your heart.”
He shook his head. “Please, don’t say that to me. It’s no more real now than if I had dreamed it all. It doesn’t exist. It’s gone. And when I die, those memories will die with me.”
She came close, whispering in his ear. “I told you I don’t know how much I believe in this whole Zoroastrian thing. But I do believe that there’s life after death. I do think that the people I love still exist somewhere.”
“It’s kind of like the captain said. We have nothing to lose by believing.”
He nodded. “Pascal’s Wager.”
“Pascal’s Wager. Either life has a purpose, or it doesn’t. Either we’ll face Final Judgment, or we won’t. If you don’t believe and it turns out to be true, you’ve lost everything. If you do believe and it turns out to be false, you’ve lost nothing. So there’s no incentive for disbelief.”
“It’s not enough, though.”
“As much as I admit it would be great for such things to be true, I can’t simply make myself believe. If there is no evidence, there is no evidence.”
McKay looked at the captain, who was walking around from person to person, joking with them and making plans on what they would do as soon as they got out of “the joint”.
“Maybe not. But I think you can act as if you believe. We’re all capable of that, as difficult as it may be. And if you do it for long enough, maybe you eventually will believe.”
“Maybe,” he said. “And maybe not. But that is what I’ve resolved to do, regardless.”
She smiled, and her white teeth shone. “Good. I’m glad.”
“Now let me ask you something,” he said. His eyes locked intently onto hers. “Do you believe in me?”
“What if I told you that I wanted to try again?”
She blinked. “Yes.”
“Yes, let’s try again.”
His arm found its way around her waist, and they looked down at the yellow clouds together.