As Pilot Gina Cho finessed Space Shuttle Discovery II into its dock at the Second International Space Station, its crew finally began to relax.
The launch and flight had not gone as smoothly as the newly revitalized NASA had hoped. A series of false alarms caused by overly sensitive early warning systems had stretched everyone to the limit, but quick, professional reactions by Cho and calm leadership from Commander Carter Benson had brought them through.
NASA and its international allies were eager to make up for lost time after a sinking economy and deep budget cuts had crippled space exploration. Now new momentum was being gathered, and shuttles were bringing technology and researchers back to the International Space Station. In addition to Cho, who was a former fighter pilot with the US Navy, and Benson, an internationally recognized astronomer, Discovery II bore a second renowned astronomer, Doctor Paul Harding, and a journalist, Margaret Visser, a late addition to the mission whose task was to convey NASA’s sense of excitement and rejuvenation to the public.
A new space telescope had recently been put into operation, and Benson and Harding would be spending the next two weeks calibrating it and guiding its use in probing the mysteries of the universe. They were eagerly anticipating the gathering of enough data to keep them busy well into retirement age.
Benson was the first of Discovery II’s crew to board the station. He waited for Harding to follow, and together they retreated to their new quarters. They had been assigned adjacent bunks in the common sleeping area. Their beds were little more than fold-out trays with velcroed-in pillows and straps to hold their weightless, sleeping bodies in place.
“Here we are!” said Benson, bracing one foot against a hook in the wall and fluffing his pillow.
“Safe and sound in the bosom of space,” said Harding, stretching his arms above his head.
“There were a few times I thought we weren’t going to make it,” Benson admitted. “But Gina brought us through.”
“She was at her best,” Harding agreed, “probably because she didn’t want to be remembered as the pilot who was flying the shuttle three Nobel prizes and two Pulitzers died in.”
Benson chuckled. “Don’t forget the ‘Man Booker’ Visser got for her novel, too!”
Harding sniffed in mock derision, pursed his lips, and thrust his nose into the air. “I hadn’t forgotten it. I just don’t think something published under a pen name is worthy of recognition when placed alongside such true, esteemed achievements as ours.”
Benson smiled. “My son liked it.”
“Ah, well that changes my entire perspective!” said Harding, with a theatrical rolling of his eyes. “Your son is a young gentleman of discerning tastes. How can I disparage what he has applauded?”
Benson said, “What are you doing in space, really? You should be gracing Broadway!”
Harding dipped into a mock bow.
“On the subject of drama,” Benson continued, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, is there something going on between you and Margaret?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ever since she joined the mission, I’ve noticed the two of you exchanging glances now and then. I didn’t think much of it, but we’re in space, now. This is the most hostile environment there is. I don’t want there to be any… interpersonal complications.”
“We aren’t engaging in some secret romance, if that’s what you mean,” Harding said, an edge creeping into his voice.
“Those aren’t the kinds of glances I mean…”
Benson was interrupted by Visser’s arrival. The two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, also honoured with a Man Booker Prize for fiction, wafted into the room, her fiery red hair floating around her face like a portrait of a mermaid. “Which one’s mine?” she asked, gesturing to the bunks.
“Take your pick,” said Benson.
“The one over there is open,” said Harding, pointing to the bunk the furthest away from the one he had chosen.
“Suits me fine,” said Visser. A brief moment of eye contact passed between the journalist and Paul Harding. Not for the first time, Benson wondered what emotion was passing between the two of them. He never should have let it get this far without bringing things out in the open.
Benson said, “You know, Margaret, with all the training modules and briefings we’ve been put through over the past couple of weeks, I’ve never found a chance to really get to know you that well. I wish I’d had time to read more of your work. I was telling Paul how much my son enjoyed The Inadvertent Emperor.”
“I’m glad someone did,” said Visser. “I’ve never really liked it, myself, but it’s sold well enough. My PR firm does good work.”
Harding narrowed his eyebrows. “Oh, I agree. I mean, they managed to get you up here somehow, didn’t they?”
Visser turned her back and scowled.
Benson shot Harding a look and decided it might be better to find some alone time later to get to the root of things. He changed the subject: “Would you two like to do our post-flight debrief right away, or would you rather take a bit of time to rest and get acclimated to our new environment?”
As if in answer to his question, Gina Cho swung herself through the door frame. She was breathing rapidly, and was clearly excited. She grabbed onto a handle to halt her momentum, and a braid of jet black hair whipped around her face, catching her in the mouth. She sputtered.
“What is it?” said Benson, pushing off from his bunk.
“Something outside,” Cho breathed. “Come on!” She swung herself back into the hallway towards the airlock.
“What do you mean ‘outside’?” Benson called after her. “In space? Visser, grab your camera!” He followed.
Cho and Benson joined the rest of the space station’s crew at a large, translucent window that looked out upon the docked Discovery II. As Harding and Visser joined them, the group erupted in shouts of amazement.
Visser, who had been fiddling with some settings on her digital SLR, looked up. “What is it?” she said. “What’s out there?”
Cho pointed past the nose of the shuttle. Visser saw nothing but stars.
And then it appeared, swooping around the shuttle like a playful otter darting past the underwater window at an aquarium.
Visser was so startled she forgot to lift her camera. The whole group watched in shock.
“What is it?” said Cho.
“It has to be alive,” said Benson. “We all agree that whatever is out there must be some kind of life, right?”
Everyone murmured and nodded.
Harding said, “Unless we’re all breathing the same gas leak.”
And everyone was quiet for several seconds, until the creature showed itself again, eliciting new gasps of awe, looping and twisting with apparent abandon, a grey, ghostly form flitting in and out of view.
Visser clicked her camera to video mode and began recording.
Cho said, “Keep that thing running, Marg. Don’t you dare turn it off.”
In response, Visser fished a point-and-shoot backup camera from her hip pocket and tossed it to Cho. “Get our reactions. Set the scene. Shoot everything. It’s pretty dark out there. Are there any spotlights we can train on that thing?”
Visser’s business-like chatter seemed to break through the others’ reverie. One of the crew members, Kilger, pulled himself away from the viewport to a control room, where he could man a spotlight designed to facilitate docking. The rest broke into frantic conversation.
“How can anything live out there?”
“How does it breathe? It has to breathe something, doesn’t it?”
“We have to contact ground control right now. The world needs to see this.”
“Even if it doesn’t breathe, it has to eat.”
“Maybe it lives off UV rays.”
“Every TV channel in the world is going to want to put this up live.”
“Who saw it first? Turner, was it you?”
“There, the light’s on it now. Look, it has eyes! Can anyone see a mouth?”
“Turner, you’ve just become a household name, my friend.”
“See the rippling on its skin? It almost looks like tiny hairs all over its body, waving. Maybe that’s how it propels itself.”
“Where did it go? I saw it swim around the rear of the shuttle fifteen seconds ago. You don’t think the light frightened it, do you?”
“Good thing we have a real writer on board. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put this into words.”
“There it is! It’s coming closer. It seems to be attracted to the light. I bet it absorbs UV somehow.”
“Is there any way we can capture it?”
“This could be the launching point for an entirely new branch of science.”
Harding, who been standing back and watching silently amid the pandemonium of enthusiasm, suddenly stepped forward, raised his hands, and rapped his knuckles against the window.
The hubbub abated as quickly as it had broken out.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Harding said, “I don’t mean to spoil the excitement of this seminal moment in human history, but right now we have an opportunity that no other people in the history of civilization have received. Are we going to waste these precious seconds in speculation, or are we going to do our jobs and actually learn something?”
After a few quiet moments, Benson said, “He’s right. Thank you, Dr. Harding. We can celebrate later. We all have a thousand hypotheses crowding our minds at the moment. Let’s start testing them as best we’re able. Did anyone see how the creature responded to Dr. Harding’s movement? That might give us a clue about its sense of vision.”
The astronauts quickly responded to Benson’s quiet authority. Two more of them swung through to the control room and raised ground control. Within ten minutes, billions of eyes were watching them on TV.
They began designing simple experiments. They tried to catch the creature’s attention, gauging the boundaries of its senses. It seemed to respond particularly well to light, following the spotlight around the shuttle and darting towards and away from the light source. Every few minutes it pulled itself up next to the light, closed its eyes, and seemed to bask in the glow.
Some of the more excitable TV science correspondents were already describing it as a UV-based life form. Millions of suggestions for what to name the creature were pouring in through social media. Every TV network had developed its own preferred headline-capturing moniker. The astronauts stuck with “it.”
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Turner’s home nation, called the discovery “perhaps the UK’s greatest contribution to human science.” The President of the United States called it “humanity’s highest achievement,” conspicuously avoiding any mention of nationality.
Every available camera continued to roll.
It was Cho’s idea, after half an hour of frenzied off-the-cuff experimentation, to don a spacesuit and get closer to it. Cho’s first spacewalk was supposed to have taken place the next day, when she and Lucas Fish, a Canadian engineer, had been scheduled to replace a few of the station’s protective panels. The spacesuits had already been prepared and checked over.
Benson cautioned against it. “We don’t know how it will respond,” he said. “If it comes into direct contact with you, it could be very dangerous. It may even become hostile.”
“I spent ten years flying fighters, three of them in active war zones,” replied Cho. “Those enemy pilots were hostile. This,” she motioned to the creature, which was turned slow circles in the spotlight, mimicking two of the astronauts, who were rolling and laughing in front of the window, “this is first contact. We have to do this.”
After conferring with Filatov, his Russian counterpart in command, and talking over the scenario with ground control, Benson relented. Once the media learned of what was about to take place, they clamored for face-time with the soon-to-be heroes, and Cho and Fish were taken to the control room.
Cho had handed the second camera off to one of the other crew members, but he was called away to prep the suits for the imminent spacewalk, and the camera ended up with Benson, who had taken to bouncing back and forth between the viewport and the control room, pointing and shooting still frames almost at random. Visser grabbed Benson as Cho and Fish wrapped up their pre-spacewalk interviews and asked him to cover the viewport while she took footage of the spacewalkers suiting up.
At the viewport, Benson snapped some shots of Harding and another crewmember recording some observations. The spotlight was being swept over the shuttle in a gentle figure-eight pattern, and the creature seemed to be following its path, then breaking off, then resuming the chase.
“If you watch it closely,” Harding said, in response to Benson’s presence, “it occasionally seems to lead out in front of the spotlight. See: there. It’s moving ahead of the light. It knows the pattern. This is at least a semi-intelligent creature we’re dealing with.”
“It’s fantastic,” agreed Benson. “There are all kinds of animals on Earth that have the ability to recognize simple patterns, but to find one in orbit?”
“Breathtaking,” said Harding. He looked up from his observations and noticed the camera in Benson’s hand. His eyebrows dipped briefly, and a haze seemed to pass quickly over his eyes, but it was instantly gone. “Is that Visser’s?” he said.
“Here, let me have it. I’ll take some video.”
Benson hesitated. He wondered what had passed through Harding’s mind during that brief moment. Then he was distracted as the creature swooped past the viewport within a distance of ten feet, and he caught a glimpse of its underside, which was a deep gray patterned with a jumble of lighter colours. The kernel of a thought occurred to him, and he handed the camera over and picked up a notepad to jot it down.
Harding adjusted some settings on the camera and began to scroll through its menus. Visser swung in, and Harding quickly tucked the camera down by his side.
“CNN wants to talk to me!” said Visser. “Cho and Fish are almost ready to go, so I need someone else to get some good video of them while we record my interview for replay later.”
“This is a big moment,” said Benson. “Are you sure you don’t want to shoot the video yourself?”
“Normally I would, but it’s CNN. This could be really big for my career.”
“Sure, okay. I’ll handle it.”
Visser thanked Benson and passed her primary camera to him, showing him how to start a video recording. Then she excitedly flung herself towards the control room, already flashing her best TV smile.
“Here, let me do the video,” said Harding as soon as she was gone.
“Aren’t you using the other camera?”
“This one doesn’t have nearly as high quality of a lens. Let me shoot with that one, and that way I can get you on-screen, too. You’re a Commander; you should be on-camera for at least some of this.”
“Fine,” said Benson. “I have to get some of these ideas down on paper, anyways.” He conceded the camera to Harding and went back to scribbling on his notepad.
Harding immediately began running through options menus and mumbling about apertures and white balance.
After a minute, the astronauts at the viewport were informed that Cho and Fish were about to pass through the airlock. Benson put his notepad down and crowded around the window. Harding hung back with the cameras.
Soon, the two spacewalkers floated into sight. They gave slow, gentle waves to the viewport and the cameras, then focused their attention on the creature, which so far hadn’t seemed to register their presence, still being absorbed in playing with the spotlight around the shuttle.
Cho and Fish moved slowly closer, and pulled up at a distance of fifteen feet from the front of the shuttle. They began to cautiously move their arms in an attempt to catch the creature’s eye.
Visser was beaming as she rejoined the group. “CNN loved me,” she declared. One or two faces turned to her with half-smiles, but everyone quickly returned to being riveted to the drama playing out in front of them.
The journalist took a memory card from her pocket and swung around beside Harding. “I’ll take over,” she whispered. “The card must be nearly full by now. Do you have the other camera, too? Good. I’ll get a fresh one in here.” She took the SLR and checked its remaining data storage.
Harding turned towards the control room.
“Paul, what is this?” said Visser.
Harding didn’t look back.
“Paul, where is all my footage?”
Just outside the control room, Harding stopped and turned. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there’s a problem! What happened to all the video I’ve been shooting for the past 45 minutes!?”
“Shh, shh, calm down,” Harding protested. “There are cameras in here broadcasting live to the world, you know.”
“You deleted it!”
“What? No, of course I didn’t. Why would I do that? Your camera must have a glitch.”
“The camera’s working fine—you erased all my footage!”
Benson had come to check on the commotion. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Harding wiped my memory card,” said Visser, quivering as the blood rushed to her face.
“She’s crazy,” said Harding, raising his hands innocently.
The motion brought Visser’s attention to her other camera, which Harding was still holding. Frantically, she clawed at it, wrenched it from his grasp, and checked its contents.
Harding was backing closer to the control room. “What’s gotten into you?” he snapped. “Why are you making such a scene?”
Benson added, “I really think you need to calm down, Marg.”
Visser howled. “This one, too?” She flung the camera in Harding’s face. He reacted too slowly and it bounced off his cheek and ricocheted to the ceiling. Two drops of red blood welled up out of a cut on Harding’s cheek and floated in the air between them. “I knew you were a malicious pervert, but I didn’t think you’d be capable of something like this, you son of a—” She lunged towards Harding.
Benson grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
Turner popped his head out of the control room. “Do you mind keeping the drama down just a little?” he said. “We’re in the middle of something kind of important.”
Benson said, “I need to know exactly what is going on, right now. You are two of the most accomplished professionals in the world, in the middle of one of humanity’s biggest moments ever. I am not okay with refereeing a fight like the father of a couple of spoiled teenagers. Whatever is going on between you two, I want it out in the open, and then I’m putting one or maybe both of you in private quarters until we have more time to resolve it.”
Visser was seething. “He wiped both of my cameras clean, completely deleted everything on their memory cards. And I can tell you why, too. Two years ago, I was interviewing him for an article, and he tried to force himself on me. I got out of there and cancelled the article. He lost a chance for some big national coverage, and he blames me.”
“Why didn’t this come up in the pre-mission screenings?” Benson demanded.
“The article was never written. My editor didn’t know what I was working on, and we never saw each other again until I was picked for the mission. I thought the whole thing was over. Apparently I was wrong.”
“What a journalist,” scoffed Harding. “A real spin doctor. You’ll gloss over anything that doesn’t fit the story you want people to see.” He turned to the Commander. “Have you read The Inadvertent Emperor, Benson?”
“No, my son did. I don’t see what that has to do with this.”
“If you had read it, you’d know. Part of her story is true: she did walk out on interviewing me. I didn’t force myself on her. I asked her out to dinner, and she blew up. She took all the background she’d collected on me, my life’s work, my personal history, my ambitions, and she twisted them into a parody and turned them into a book. Read her novel, Carter: she made me the villain of my own biography. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s a best-seller.”
Benson stared at the astronomer and the journalist each in turn, trying to read their faces. Paul Harding’s eyes flashed with triumphant vindictiveness; Margaret Visser had gone cold, and her lips were trembling.
Harding broke the pregnant silence. “I was willing to forget the whole thing and move on. This mission was a huge opportunity for me. And then here you were, as self-absorbed as ever, assuring yourself of yet another award earned on my behalf, accompanied by pictures and video I shot for you. You can’t have another Pulitzer, Visser, not if I can help it. You don’t deserve a thing you’ve got.”
With a savage cry, Visser pulled free of Benson’s grasp and flung herself at Harding, putting her shoulder into his chest and pushing him into the control room. Their momentum carried them into Kilger, who was still manning the spotlight. They jostled his arm and the joystick, jarring the spotlight so that its path crossed over Cho and Fish, floating in space on the verge of first contact with an extraterrestrial being.
The creature, which had been following the spotlight, eagerly darted in the direction of its movement, which carried it straight into Cho’s faceplate. The thick glass chipped, then cracked, then exploded with the release of the air pressure inside the suit.
A collective cry of shock echoed through the space station.
Cho was dead.
Startled by the unexpected collision, the creature darted into the black of space and was gone.
A CNN staff reporter named Jacob Hatherley won a Pulitzer prize for international reporting the next year, on the strength of his exposé on the mission of the Discovery II, titled “First Contact and the Death of Gina Cho.” He didn’t get every fact straight—journalists seldom do—but he wove a tale of pettiness, retribution, and oversight that set NASA back by ten years and utterly destroyed the careers of Doctor Paul Harding and Margaret Visser.
NASA buried Harding under an avalanche of damage control, and he lived out of the rest of his days in bitter seclusion. Visser retired very comfortably on the skyrocketing profits for The Inadvertent Emperor, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for nearly six months after the publication of the exposé.