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The Eternity Wall

July 21, 2015

In the course of doing research for my next Dark Fire novel, I was distracted by the recent, and quite amazing, New Horizon space mission to photograph Pluto.  One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had decided to write a short story inspired by that journey. The result is The Eternity Wall, set forth both in the text below and in the attached Word document.

I hope you enjoy it!

 

 

                                                              THE ETERNITY WALL

                                                                                   By

                                                                      David M. Benson

 

© David Benson 2015

 

The bar was called Another Day in Paradise and had it not been nestled in an agreeable spot at the back of the lobby of Lenowicz’s hotel, the name alone would have made him pass it by. But it was late and he was tired, despite the pampering he had received on Lee Meadows’ Gulfstream jet on the five hour flight from Maryland to Barbados. Despite the name, there was just no upside to searching for another bar that might have a Martini of the quality he had been served on the plane along with his perfect New York strip.

The hotel itself was one of several upscale properties set on the platinum coast of the island, in Saint James parish, where the easternmost edge of the Caribbean Sea lapped against what were said to be the whitest of white sand beaches. But it was an hour after sunset when they landed and darker now, the moon having already set, so he had yet to see ocean touch land. Perhaps in the morning, he thought, before I see Meadows, as a pretty bartender laid an oversize glass sporting two plump green olives down in front of him and proceeded to fill it nearly to the brim from a dimpled steel shaker. It was picture perfect, much like the bar itself once you got past the tacky name, as was his room and as the plane ride had been, his first on such a luxe private craft.

There was little doubt that Meadows would offer him a job and that the job would involve the launch facility that one of Meadows’ many companies had established on the island a few years earlier. But hurling communication satellites and international space station supply capsules into orbit was one thing, hurling people up there was quite another and rumor had it that Meadows was about to get into that business in a big way. It was the only reason that Lenowicz had entertained the billionaire’s invitation and he would be insulted if the offer was for anything less than to run the rumored program.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing,” Lenowicz said softly to no one in particular as he picked up his drink and took a sip.

After all, he was certainly on the market. He had been among a small group of heroes when the New Horizon craft had sped past Pluto and sent back copious amounts of data, including staggering photos of what turned out to be a surprising icy small planet. But within days all communication with New Horizon, which had functioned flawlessly for the duration of its nine-year mission, had been lost and no amount of clever thinking could get it back. It was quite the mystery, if only to the mission team. The rest of the world had merely been fed a suitably vague tale of technical problems and promptly lost interest.

Of course, one the corollary consequence to severing a stream of data that was supposed to continue arriving for another year or more was that the mission team was no longer needed. So much the hoped-for deep space follow up that NASA had hinted at. The younger ones could move on to other things, but at fifty-eight Lenowicz was too old to be seriously considered for another years-long mission to, or past, the outer planets, his only real expertise. The Advanced Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins in Laurel, Maryland had been his home for the life of the mission, which included the three years leading up to the launch of New Horizon, and he had grown fond of living in the Baltimore suburb, as well as its proximity to Washington, DC, and of his colleagues. No, Lee Meadows had made contact at the right time, something that Lenowicz suspected he had done on many previous occasions to get where he had gotten.

Barbados had next to nothing in common with Cape Canaveral or any other space center and was hardly the place you would expect to find some of the world’s leading rocket scientists, at least not until Meadows had come and established it as a place for launching rockets into orbit. And it was an ideal location, better even than Canaveral, being closer to the equator. So there was a good reason to come there now, beyond the beautiful beaches, and although he had yet to see it in daylight Lenowicz suspected that Barbados was not such a bad place to spend the twilight years of one’s career.

Would Meadows ask him about New Horizon, Lenowicz wondered as he took another, larger sip of his Martini. The semi-reclusive billionaire might offer a few words of consolation and perhaps even a congratulatory handshake, Lenowicz suspected, but he doubted there would be anything beyond that, certainly not any kind of probing into what the ostensible technical difficulties might have been. After all, Meadows did not seem the type of man to dwell on failure.

Lenowicz was sitting at the bottom end of what was a large, horseshoe-shaped bar, facing the arched entrance to the room. He had looked up a few times to gaze at the steady stream of generally well-dressed and attractive people coming and going, but as he sipped his drink and let his eyes wander again to the entry, he was rewarded with the sight of Lee Meadows.

“Shit,” was all Lenowicz could manage.

Meadows was of average height, trim and well-groomed, and looked even younger than his reported thirty-six years. He wore tailored blue jeans, an off-white tee-shirt and a dark blue sport coat that Lenowicz guessed was linen. Surprisingly, he was alone, there were no assistants or other minders in sight and, happily, no lawyers. He went largely unnoticed by the crowd, although the hostess at the entryway greeted him as the regular he probably was. After exchanging pleasantries with her, it took him only a few seconds to pick out Lenowicz’s face in the crowd.

“Good evening, Doctor,” Meadows said, loud enough for Lenowicz to hear but not so loud as to distract those around them, and Lenowicz swiveled his barstool enough to take Meadows’ outstretched hand.

His smile seemed real enough and, coupled with a handshake that was sufficiently average, put Lenowicz about as much at ease as possible given Meadows’ wealth and reknown. He managed a weak smile and parroted a good evening, leaving out Meadows’ name lest it cause a fuss.

Lenowicz had not noticed that the hostess had followed Meadows and as she smiled at him and took his Martini glass, said, “Please follow me, gentlemen.”

Lenowicz slid off his stool and followed Meadows and the girl to a booth in a quieter back corner of the room. As the men made themselves comfortable on opposing sides of the table, the bartender came over to them and put a lowball glass with what appeared to be a half-inch of Scotch on the table in front of Meadows and a fresh Martini in front of Lenowicz, whisking away his only half-finished one.

“Will there be anything else, gentlemen?” she asked and Meadows smiled and said, Chips, please.

Before Lenowicz and Meadows had exchanged a word, she re-appeared and placed a glass bowl of hand-cut potato chips down on a napkin on the table between them, leaving without another word.

“To discovery,” Meadows said, holding his glass out to Lenowicz.

“Discovery,” Lenowicz repeated, somewhat tentatively, and sipped his fresh drink.

“I’m sure you realize that I asked you here to talk about taking up a position at the space center,” Meadows said, putting his glass down on the table and eating a chip. “But I doubt you realize the nature of that position.”

Lenowicz began to say something but Meadows held up his hand. Then he ate another chip and leaned in conspiratorially, lowering his voice.

“Tell me, Doctor, was it really a reflection?” he asked.

Lenowicz stared at him for a moment, not moving, his eyes wide. When he had recovered sufficiently to speak, he simply said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Meadows seemed unsurprised by his answer and greeted it with a slight smile.

“I completely understand your reticence, Doctor,” he said, “but I should tell you that I’ve seen it myself.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” Lenowicz said, “even for you.”

Meadows smiled again, took a pen from his inside jacket pocket and slipped the thick white paper napkin out from under the bowl of chips, unfolded it and began drawing. Lenowicz watched with growing alarm as he did.

Meadows was no artist but what he drew was a clear enough rendering of the New Horizon spacecraft. As Lenowicz looked on, Meadows added slender arrows pointing outward from the precise points on the grand piano sized vehicle where its positioning cameras were located. As he recalled, it was one of Meadows’ many companies that had designed and built the cameras and their related systems. They had been essential to the success of the mission since New Horizon could not collect data unless it was pointed directly at the source of that data. Its so-called star-tracker cameras used sophisticated charge-coupled devices to enable conversion of very small amounts of light into digital images of the stars as New Horizon sped along. These images were fed into the craft’s computer and the positions of the detected stars were compared with a database and used to accurately determine the craft’s orientation in space. If the craft was not oriented in the desired direction, a command could be sent from Laurel that would fire small thrusters and re-align New Horizon’s position so the data could be collected. Ground commands to the thrusters were also used to position the craft so that its high gain antenna dish pointed toward the Earth, allowing it to send the data collected back to Laurel.

It was this antenna that Meadows was putting the finishing touches on as Lenowicz re-focused his gaze on the table, and he kept drawing as Lenowicz watched, sketching out a vertical barrier in front of New Horizon to which he added some minor accents that made it look like a pane of glass or a mirror, before adding his final strokes, a series of lines that hinted at a reflection of the spacecraft on the face of the windowpane.

“I’ve seen the data,” Meadows said, finally looking up, “and this is what I saw immediately before you, ah, lost communication, with New Horizon.” Staring straight into Lenowicz’s eyes, he added, “You saw it, too, of course, Doctor. Tell me, what do you make of it?”

Lenowicz became very pale and for a moment Meadows worried for his health. But he recovered quickly, took a sip of his drink and folded his hands on the table before answering.

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss any matters relating to the loss of communication with New Horizon,” he said. “I’m sure you saw the press release that APL and NASA…”

Before Lenowicz could finish, though, Meadows again held up his hand. Lenowicz remained silent while Meadows retrieved an iPhone from his coat pocket, touched an icon and held the screen out toward the doctor, who stared at it long and hard.

“How on God’s green Earth did you get that?” Lenowicz finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“I told you I’d seen the reflection, and I can’t un-see it, can I,” Meadows replied, his tone less harsh than his words, “so there’s really no point answering your question, Doctor. I’d actually hoped not to have to show you this. In any case, the relevant inquiry is, what now? And please don’t give me any more of the party line.”

Lenowicz sighed and drank half of his Martini in one large swallow.

“It’s not the party line in the sense that you mean it,” he told Meadows once he put down his glass. “Only three of us saw what you just showed me and we agreed that one of us, and I was elected since I was the project leader, should take it to the head of NASA. She and I met with the President and his chief national security advisor at the White House and everyone agreed that it should stop right there. As far as Johns Hopkins or the NASA team or any of the others know, it was simply an unexplained equipment failure. Oh, for sure some people are spending lots of time trying to find out what might have happened and speculating about what might have caused it. But since the mission was already a success,” Lenowicz said, shrugging, “officially the book’s been closed.”

“So you deleted that last few packets of data?” Meadows asked.

Lenowicz nodded once, his eyes closing as he did, then turned and got a waiter’s attention and pointed at his glass.

“I should add that the President, ah, insisted on that,” Lenowicz said, turning back to Meadows, “and on a few other things and he was, shall we say, uncharacteristically forthright in describing his orders and the consequences of not following them.”

Meadows smiled.

“So you’re taking a big risk having this conversation with me?” Meadows asked.

 

”It appears that you had back-up data,” Lenowicz said, “and I’d guess that very few people know that.”

“I did and only one other person on my side knows about it,” Meadows replied. “Look Doctor, the fact is that neither of us should be having this conversation.”

“Although they know that I know and they don’t know that you know,” Lenowicz said.

“Feel free to call and tell them,” Meadows said, his gaze squarely on Lenowicz, who made no move to get his iPhone out of his pocket.

“Perhaps it’s better that I don’t,” he said.

Both men were silent and continued to size each other up as the waiter came and put a fresh drink down in front of Lenowicz and replaced the napkin that Meadows, who declined the offer of another drink, had made his drawing on.

“So,” he said, once the waiter was gone, “let me ask again. What do you make of it, Doctor?”

Lenowicz picked up his glass, held it out toward Meadows and then took a long swallow.

“I saved the data for myself, of course,” he replied, “despite the President’s order, and I’ve reviewed it several hundred times.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. And?”

“Well, I can say that the data’s not corrupted and that there doesn’t appear to be any other hardware or software anomaly,” Lenowicz said, “which leaves the fact that what we both saw is, in fact, a reflection of the spacecraft.”

“Immediately before it stopped communicating?”

Lenowicz nodded. “To the millisecond,” he added.

Meadows remained silent, taking a sip of his drink. Lenowicz cleared his throat.

“A straightforward interpretation would suggest that New Horizon ran into a glass-like object of some kind,” he went on, “but I’m confident that there aren’t large sheets of glass floating around out there, which suggests something else entirely, and that something else defies any sort of straightforward interpretation.”

“Which is no doubt why the President wants to make sure this stays under wraps,” Meadows said, “since the only other explanation is that New Horizon ran into the end, or whatever you want to call it, of the solar system. And if that’s the case, what about everything else that appears to be out there, beyond that point?”

He picked up his glass and finished his drink. The waiter noticed and when he came to their table Meadows told him it was Bulleit Rye, neat, and that he would take another.

“And since it defies any sort of reason that our solar system should somehow be ringed off, so to speak, from the rest of the cosmos,” Meadows went on as the waiter walked away, “one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if the, ah, heavens and the earth that God created consist entirely of our solar system, and everything else that we humans have been clever enough to think we’ve discovered is actually some sort of, some sort of—“

“Mirage?” Lenowicz suggested.

Meadows nodded.

“Good a word for it as anything, I suppose,” he said, as the waiter arrived with his drink. “So, is there anything you’d like to add, Doctor?”

Lenowicz sighed.

“Well,” he replied, “so far I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I shouldn’t tell you this, but at this point I think it hardly matters. The President and his national security advisor are certain that the, ah, incident, involving New Horizon has done no less than prove God’s existence and they believe that most people would be inclined to reach a similar conclusion, hence, his fear of the information getting out. And there’s more, which is why the President is so convinced, understandably, I suppose.”

“What’s that” Meadows asked, tasting his drink.

“As you know,” Lenowicz replied, “the star-tracker cameras and that whole positioning system on New Horizon relied on the vehicle having current data about the portion of space all around it and comparing it with information in its computer memory about what stars should out be there and where they should be.”

“Of course,” Meadows said excitedly. “Every other star except for our Sun is beyond the barrier, if you will, so apparently the cameras could see beyond the barrier.”

“Apparently,” Lenowicz agreed, “just as we can see them in the night sky or through telescopes. But I’ve studied those last images at great length and I can tell you that no stars, no light at all in fact, is visible beyond that barrier.”

“Jesus,” Meadows said softly. “And if that’s the case—“

“And if we’re right about any of this, God help us,” Lenowicz said, “New Horizon was allowed to pick up the mirage to guide it, just as you and I can walk outside and see what we think are the stars, but if you and I were out there, this all suggests that there would be nothing for us to see.”

“Because there’s nothing out there,” Meadows said softly. “The heavens and the earth that God created are just our solar system. Everything else is merely…embellishment.”

“That’s certainly one view,” Lenowicz said said, picking up his glass. “And there’s one last thing, which seems to support your last statement.”

“Which is?”

“The surface that New Horizon ran into,” Lenowicz replied. “It’s curved.”

Meadows stared at him for a moment.

“You’re sure, you were actually able to figure that out?” he asked.

Lenowicz smiled a short-lived smile.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “given the monumental size of the, ah, barrier, but as I told the President, yes, I’m sure.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Meadows said, “as much as any of this does. Jesus, so there’s a fence, for want of a better term, surrounding the solar system.”

Lenowicz took a sip of his Martini.

“So, this probably isn’t the best time to remind you about what Jesus said about rich men and camels and needles,” he said.

Meadows smiled, shook his head slowly and leaned forward, folding his hands on the table.

“Maybe not,” he said, “but it might be a good time to tell you about the position I have in mind for you, Doctor.”

“I think I can guess,” Lenowicz said. “You want me to get more data.”

“I’m having another version of New Horizon built, with updated systems and somewhat different instrumentation. The final package hasn’t been decided yet. You can be the one to finalize it, to run the entire project. When it’s ready we’ll launch the vehicle from here and send it out to toward the outer planets, toward a different point in the outer solar system, past Pluto’s orbit—“

“To see what happens?” Lenowicz asked.

Meadows smiled.

“To see what happens,” he said.

 

*   *   *

 

THE ETERNITY WALL

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One Comment
  1. Cookie Sandler permalink

    David. I finally sat down to read your short story. It reminds me of the science fiction of the 60’s. And it certainly leaves you wanting more. Is there more coming! How are you guys? How is the house ? Done any traveling? Cookie

    Cookie Sandler Sent from my iPhone Toronto (416) 962-4077 Cell (416) 970-4766 Roches Point (905) 476-4766 Miami Beach (786) 216-7099

    >

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