by Kevin Helock
This had better be important, Maxim Ridley thought as he made his way to the CEO’s office—his office—on the top floor of the Titan Industries Space Center. His great, sweeping stride threatened to become an irritated stomp. But he kept each step fluid, a forward march of progress: eyes front, chin up, the slightest smile resting on his lips. It was a practiced posture, one that usually came easily. But he wasn’t used to things not going his way. What the hell could Bobby want? The timing suggested a complication. He hated complications.
Moments ago, he had been alone on the press room’s stage, a crowd of hungry cameras aimed at him. His back had been to the enormous window facing the twin launch pads and the expanse of ocean that had once been Florida.
From the press room floor, the window perfectly framed for the cameras the twin colossi ships Romulus and Remus, with Maxim just a head taller in the center. And when the countdown on the stage hit zero, he had stood there, not so much as flinching while the room was washed in a flash of intense violet light that enveloped him in brilliant halos of energy. His shadow had leapt from his feet and across the room, his monolithic presence consuming the crowd below him in the light of his achievement.
He had remained perfectly still, his trademark smile his only trace of emotion as the ferocious chatter of the cameras erupted to capture the moment when Romulus blinked into sky—there one moment and gone the next—and became the second manned vessel to travel faster than light on its expedition into the depths of space.
It took mere seconds for the pictures to circle the globe. This very moment the images were making the twelve-minute journey to Mars and its three thousand colonists. Every one of them would be eagerly watching their screens as they awaited new images of what they had already witnessed from their planet’s surface: a trail of purple mist arcing from the tiny speck that was Earth, skimming the edge of the Martian sky, disappearing into the stars.
Then he’d received the message. It came on his chip, the tiny piece of electronic mesh he and his executives had implanted in their brains. The technology was still primitive, but it could communicate a basic thought to another nearby chip. The message had come from Robert Dougal, Director of Faster-than-Light Travel at Titan Industries. It said MEETING. Or perhaps it was TALK? The chips couldn’t send words exactly; more the feeling of what a word meant.
Maxim had still been standing for the cameras, the last of the purple mist behind him fading into nothing, when the message reached him. His eyebrow twitched—likely not enough to show on the cameras, but he didn’t like the possibility. He thought back BUSY, hoping the chip would convey the proper level of irritation.
The response came immediately, and there was no mistaking the intended word: EMERGENCY. He resisted the urge to sigh, then nodded once to the crowd and began making his way to the executive offices while an assistant hurried onto the stage and the countdown clock reset to fifteen minutes.
He’s sitting behind my desk, Maxim noted with a flash of indignation as he opened the door to his office where Dougal was waiting. He was momentarily tempted to knock this man down a peg or two with choice words over the chip, but he dismissed the thought as soon as it came. This was hardly the time for inane bickering. Or for an “emergency.”
“They’re dead,” Dougal said evenly.
“Who?” Maxim answered as his measured stride carried him into the office.
“The crew of Romulus.”
The office was a long, rectangular box. The walls of the first half were adorned with models of famous exploratory vessels—the Santa Maria, the Endurance, and Apollo 11 among them. Halfway to the extinct-redwood-paneled desk, the models were replaced with oil portraits of Maxim’s favorite “Great Men”—Carnegie, Ford, Jobs, Musk—their eyes gleaming with the light of industry. Now Robert Dougal and his printer-paper features looked out from between the double row of faces. His thick-rimmed black glasses framed empty eyes. “All of them,” he added.
“Nonsense.” Maxim closed the door behind him. “It went perfectly, just like with Aeneas. They’re probably breaking into the champagne now.” He frowned at the man sitting behind his desk, but Dougal made no attempt to get up.
“Well, the champagne is certainly broken,” he said, “and scattered across space from here to the Kuiper belt. Oh, and Aeneas as well. They both broke up on launch.”
Maxim crossed to the front of his desk, staring down warily at Dougal. What was his game? He was supposed to be a professional, not some third-rate journalist filling the space between known facts with speculative tabloid fodder.
Dougal’s face was unreadable. Maybe he meant it. Maybe he was right.
The press smile eased back into Maxim’s face like an ironed-in wrinkle. His voice slipped out in a quiet purr of moneyed confidence he didn’t feel anymore. “As I’ve said before, radio silence comes with the territory. It’s expected that we haven’t heard from them. Even if they sent an electromagnetic message immediately, it would be hours before it reached us. And that’s ignoring the way a broadcast would be stretched into uselessness, ripped apart by the space Romulus covered in the moment the message was being sent. It would be like . . .”
“Trying to handwrite the dictionary on the side of a passing mag-train,” Dougal finished in a bored monotone. “You forget I gave you that metaphor to use for the press ahead of Aeneas. I’m not talking about radio silence. I’m talking about the debris cloud our satellites picked up immediately after launch. Perhaps you saw it? Big, purple, stretched across the solar system?”
The smile vanished. “Debris?”
“You told me it worked.”
“I told you we could make matter travel faster than light. I never said it would stay intact.”
Maxim was silent. The facts squatted like a spider in his brain—still, unmoving, but undeniable. He didn’t breathe. At last, he started to speak. “We have to . . .”
He couldn’t look at the glass-bead gaze turned up toward him anymore. His eyes left Dougal’s and landed instead on John F. Kennedy. The words sat in his mouth.
“Have to warn them?” There was no tone to Dougal’s voice, but the words seemed to chide. NAÏVE, the brain chip would have said. “There won’t be any more faster-than-light rockets. Humanity will never see the stars up close. It will die here, on this dying planet, and our little rock garden on Mars will follow, if it doesn’t fizzle out first. Of course, that’ll happen anyway, even if we keep up the program. But no one will know. They can keep thinking they’re saved, and that you were the one who saved them. But if we tell them . . .” He gestured vaguely. “Titan Industries might survive in one form or another, but this will be it for you.”
Maxim walked quietly to the window. A half-mile away, Remus stood on the pad, its hull gleaming white in the late morning sun like an ivory tower. A row of black squares circled the top where the crew was seated, backs to the ground, eyes to the sky. Behind one of them—which window was it?—Alexander was sitting. His husband, Georgy, had been in Romulus.
“My son, Alex, is in there.”
The three of them had breakfast together that morning. As they stood up to head their separate ways for the last time, Maxim had promised to hang an oil painting of them in his office. Alexander hadn’t said anything to that. Georgy just put a hand on his arm, and they walked away.
Maxim glanced at his watch. Four minutes left. “Who knows about Romulus?” he asked.
“Just me,” Dougal said. “I can erase the data before anyone else sees. No one could replicate it. They don’t have the tech.”
On the launch pad, Remus stood patiently, a stick of dynamite in the shape of a rocket balanced precariously on one end. It was too late to defuse it, Maxim knew. That much was obvious. One way or another it was going to go off. When it did, it would take either his son or his career.
Not just my career, he thought. It would take everything. It would take his name and smash it into as many pieces as Romulus. One moment, he would be the savior of humanity, a god among men. The next, nothing. Worse than nothing: a failure.
If he didn’t act, Alexander would die. But then again, his husband was already dead. Maxim had ripped Georgy to pieces and thrown him across the void of space, and that wasn’t something which could be forgiven. His father would be dead to him. And the rest of the world would be no kinder.
Wasn’t this really what was best? For Alexander, his son, to make a name for himself? For Georgy, already gone, to earn some glory in death instead of forever being known as an accident, a bloody smudge on the margins of history? This way, he told himself slowly, at least their names wouldn’t be forgotten. They’d be remembered as heroes.
And so will I.
There was a long silence. Dougal waited. At last, Maxim said, “Okay.” His eyes were cast in the direction of the door, past the paintings and the models, past the great men and the great things they’d made and beyond.
Maxim didn’t move. Not while Dougal tapped away on his pocket computer. Not when the flat “It’s gone” broke the silence. Not as the seconds became a minute, then two, then three. And when the searing violet of the launch cast his shadow across the office to swallow up the men and models and everything else, he did not flinch.
Later, he straightened his back. He turned, and Dougal was still there, immobile. Maxim cleared his throat. “When did you realize that faster-than-light travel didn’t work?
“I was sure after Aeneas. But I didn’t have the data yet.”
“And what do you get out of this?”
Dougal shrugged mildly. “Same as always. Titan pays well. I’ll make faster-than-light rockets as long as it still does.”
Maxim nodded. Then he turned, left his office, and walked back to the press room.
The smile didn’t come easily. But in the end, he found it.
Kevin Helock is a writer and recovering teacher currently living in Morristown, NJ, with his fiancée and their twin cats, Bo and Jinx. He started writing to cope with the state of the world and doesn’t expect he’s going to stop. When he isn't writing, you can find him deep in several books at once, running a game of D&D, breaking out of an escape room, or bothering someone about Godzilla. His work has previously been featured in The Best Teen Writing of 2016, Sanctuary Magazine, and Santa Fe Writer's Project Quarterly.