The Horizon Mission was the first mission of its kind and as such it had its risks. It required reaching new worlds, finding interesting samples and perhaps answering questions we had of the universe. The risks were mainly financial, rather than technological. We had no problem sending astronauts up and on their way, just problems keeping the station going for many years. The solution was to cut costs and keep a single, low-paid employee; me.
I entered the station every day for nine years, waiting for a message to be received. It was around this time that the astronauts were expected to have crossed several solar systems, wake up and land on the nearest planet with a hospitable atmosphere. Of course, we have no way of knowing this until they send us...me a message.
The only signal I had to go on was the annual signal their ship sent me once a year.
A signal that in the last two years I hoped would never arrive. Afterall, I had given so much of my life for this expedition. No amount of meaningless hobbies could make up for such lost time. It’s eighties for god sake, I deserve a life just like everyone else!
At least, that’s what I told myself in the most tense moments. That I might as well abandon it, give the job to someone else or close operations. I could pretend I never received the signal,thus ending the Horizon mission on a disappointing note, but ending it nonetheless. Of course, I’m an emotional sucker and could never do that.
Each year I receive the ‘OK’ signal from the ship I feel an incredible sense of wonder. That out there, light-years away, there is a lone metal craft with a group of brave explorers. That to them, only a few months have passed, not nine years. I’d give anything to see what they were seeing when they woke up. The beauty of endless, unexplored space.
Of course, I was given my opportunity, just not in the way I expected.
March 15th, 1986, the broadcast was received. My day had just about ended and I was going to return home. The video began. Footage of the inside of the Horizon played, a shaky camera lifted from a table by a recognisable figure. All this information came so suddenly, I found myself clinging to one of the many empty desks.
The footage was of the first astronaut awake, Dr. David Browning. Unchanged by time, he still had frozen water hanging off his face. He related his feelings, his emotions. He described how little feeling he had in his body at that moment, how everything was slowly waking up. As he spoke, the second and third astronauts awoke. Robert and Morgan Taylor, brother and sister, wrenched their cold bodies from the pods they had been sleeping in.
I was already in tears when I saw Browning, but seeing the Taylor twins had me weeping.
I started making calls as I watched the video, contacting the old team and then the officials, who in turn contacts the investors and the media. It was front-page news across the world, the Horizon mission had progressed, the astronauts were awake. Funding poured in as new investors joined the old. Non-believer became believers as the Horizon starship had proven that interstellar travel was now possible.
I was no longer alone. Joined by many of my old colleagues, who embraced me with incredible joy, I felt a new found energy within me. I never left the station, I didn’t sleep. I continued to watch the footage from the moment it started and much like cinema, more and more people entered to join me. We watched as all fifteen astronauts rose from their pods, laughing and warming up in the starship.
There were only four of us in the station. We continued to watch the broadcast, although now we watched it in shifts. Pieces of the broadcast were shared on the news to verify our claims, a few days later it got its own channel. The world was watching with me.
Watching it all unravel.
First, Browning had started a second broadcast, a camera focused on one of the windows of the ship. We could watch the stars pass by, intrigued by the clusters of light. Browning explained the readings he was receiving, on how the ship was doing as well as the health of the astronauts. A necessary second channel for us in the station to follow.
However, it ended up just being me, as everyone was more interested in the interactions and discoveries of the main crew. Browning provided ample information, but what really intrigued me was the view of space. A visible distortion in the stars.
There was no point in pointing it out to Browning, as he would only receive the message a year from when I sent it. A confirmation of receiving their broadcast is the only signal we can send their ship with any sense. We, the ground control, the heads of the operation, were stuck with the role of observer and nothing else.
Still, at that moment, it was only a minor problem. Money was rolling in, upgrades were being made as a lot had changed in a decade. People were talking about us and our work in almost every home and I will admit I even got lost in the fame. A month passed before my eyes caught something else.
A conversation between the Taylor twins I overheard on Browning's camera. The twins were arguing, but before I could catch anything, Browning had silenced them. The three walked away to discuss it further. Worried, I rewinded the audio, isolating their voices and listening to a much clearer conversation.
“How long? It looks close…”
I identified it as Morgan’s voice, but Browning and Robert were hard to seperate.
“We don’t know, it’s just there.”
“It has no predictable trajectory...which is worrying, as everything has a trajectory in space.”
“Then what is it?”
“We think it is another ship.”
“We need to keep this from reaching earth. We were briefed on this, we can’t let it get out.”
“Why? This is huge! It’s...it’s groundbreaking, Bob.”
“You know how people will act. Can you imagine how Johnson will act? Imagine millions of him, fueling a confused, scared and then angry mob mentality.”
“But what if it’s good news? What if they are good? Can we make-”
“Please, you two, shush. We will inform the others, one-by-one and keep it off camera. If you want to discuss this further, come with me.”
The voices faded, yet the camera remained fixed on the view of space. My mind was blank, I was unable to speak. I suppose I was simply trying to process the information, but at that moment I really didn’t think at all. I felt confused, but not confused as to what I heard and what it meant. I was emotionally confused, as if I didn’t know the best way to respond.
It was an anomaly.
I cut the tapes, disposing of several sections as quickly and quietly as I could. With everyone fixated with the showmanship of the rest of the crew, the wonders of space and all, I packed my suitcase and left early. Over the next week, I re-routed Browning’s broadcast to my office only.
I watched the footage again. I analysed the shape that I vaguely recognised. I compared data and received expected results. I looked back at the door, hearing the merriment from the command centre, feeling a deep sense of fear.
It was happening again.