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Chapter 6. Orbit

Over the next few days, the blue dot grew until it filled the viewports of the Duke. Eventually, its small continent emerged from among the swirling clouds. “It’s so beautiful,” remarked Sage, crammed tight into the fish-eye porthole with Dina while staring at Thalassa. “It reminds me of Earth but with two stars.”

Dina pointed out several large, tightly spiraled storm systems in the vast oceans. “Look at the size of those storms. There is definitely big-wave potential on the planet.”

Byron overheard them. “Thalassa rotates faster than Earth—it has 18-hour days—so Coriolis forces are stronger, which causes higher deflections of the atmospheric winds, including clouds and storm systems, especially near the poles.”

The next day, Thalassa’s moon came into view. It was small, slightly bigger than Mars’s Phobos, and Sage, who saw it first, named it Lona, after a Hawaiian moon goddess. Everyone began using the name, except Milo who called it a misshapen potato.

As they prepared to enter orbit, Milo convened an early briefing. “OK, everyone, it’s showtime! I’ve sent the major networks and vloggers an alert to expect a high-priority broadcast in the next few weeks. However, nobody knows where we are or what the broadcast contains, except that it’s from me and I’m in interstellar space. I want it to be a big surprise.”

“Is that safe?” Sage asked. “What happens if we need help?”

Milo waved her off. “Cutten knows we’re in the system, and they expect an update within a few weeks or so. After we’ve scouted and surfed a few spots and we get a big swell, I’ll alert them with more specific information. The major goal of this mission is to break the news with the ultimate big-wave holoscreen broadcast. I don’t want to tell them anything until we’re ready to blow their minds. Then we’ll have the world’s attention. I can’t wait for the homecoming following that!”

Sage smirked at Milo’s bravado and high expectations, but it was nothing new.

He held up a softball-sized probe. “Before Byron establishes geostationary orbit above the planet, about 15,000 klicks out, we’ll send scanning probes such as this to the surface. One array will scan the ocean bottom to create a detailed bathymetric map of the seafloor; others will pan out and deploy on the ocean’s surface to measure a suite of environmental variables—wave height, period, direction, winds, and atmospheric pressure systems. Several others will be sent down to map the continent and the islands. Although these probes are pretty fast—they are made by Cutten by the way—it will probably take a week or more to complete an initial scan then months to fill in the details.”

He walked over to the instrument panel, pushed a button, and the blue globe of Thalassa reappeared above the map table. “All the data we collect will be stored on the Duke and integrated into a cloud database linked to this holoscreen projection. When we have enough data, we’ll be able to select areas on the map to zoom in and pull up everything, including videos, scientific samples, reports, wave predictions, anything you want to view.”

Georgia brightened at the mention of wave data. “I’ll have probe buoys positioned all over the ocean plus an array around the Bulge. In addition to monitoring oceanographic and weather conditions, they have integrated sonobuoys to record sound.”

“Why is sound important?” asked Dina.

Sage knew this one. “Lots of marine animals make sounds on Earth, like fish and shrimp and whales, so it’s a great way to monitor sea life.”

Georgia cleared her throat like she didn’t appreciate the interruption. “After we receive the oceanographic and weather data, I’ll upload everything into my wave model and generate predictions for wave heights, period, and directions anywhere on the globe. A basic model will be ready in a few days; a full model in a few weeks or a month. In between swells, we’ll explore the planet’s oceanography, geology, and biology, if there is any. Milo, Sage, and I have discussed scientific missions to the continent and all major islands, and we’ve planned submersible dives in major habitats, starting with the Bulge. Hopefully, we’ll get started soon. I can’t wait!”

Milo gestured to Moshe, who spoke with a soft, low voice for the first time in days. “With Byron’s help, I’ll be shooting and editing a hyperview video for a holoscreen broadcast. The first one is a short introduction to the mission and its objectives along with our initial findings, which will be followed by Milo’s big news.” Moshe held up a button-sized black object. “I’ll install these small cameras that will film and upload an integrated data stream to the lander while you’re surfing. Your surfboards already have built-in cameras, and I’ll launch some microdrones for additional perspectives. The holoscreen projection requires a minimum of 27 cameras for a full experience, and we want to document everything in HD VR for the historical record.”

Sage smirked at Moshe’s words. The holoscreen had helped her achieve fame but constantly reminded her of past mistakes. It had also played a major role in Milo’s ascension into stardom. Given the Earth’s rapidly deteriorating environment, near-constant wars and riots, and failed governments, most people plugged into their holoscreen units to escape reality for fleeting moments of personal pleasure. Thus, the holoscreen was front and center in most people’s lives, and the focus was on “big news”—events that grabbed everyone’s attention—while the small, daily crises that slowly destroyed the planet and humankind were background noise. But, it was very useful if you had something important to say. Sage knew Milo had learned that lesson well.

“Yes, 27 cameras. You don’t want to miss a thing, right?” added Sage, winking at Milo.

Milo turned to Byron and Moshe. “And remember, we want to get as low as possible for the best shots. Da Bull is built to handle it.” Moshe nodded while Byron started blankly back at him.

“Continuing on,” Milo said. “After we’ve received some preliminary probe data, we’ll move the Duke into low orbit, and Byron will pilot the lander down to the surface. Our first goal will be to take a look at one of the islands and field test Da Bull. Next, we’ll launch the submersible for initial underwater explorations. We’ve planned a shallow dive to test the sub’s instruments and look for the presence of microbes. Given Thalassa’s history and Procyon’s intense UV, the best place for life will be in the ocean. If everything goes as planned, we’ll be on the surface tomorrow.”

“And the Duke?” asked Dina.

“Good question,” Milo said. “The AI will maintain the ship in orbit, but I’ve asked Moshe to stay behind as a backup. At least initially.” Then he quickly added, “Look, folks, if we have problems with the lander—which we won’t—the Duke’s control hub can detach from the torus and land on the surface. I designed it as a backup. We can also summon it remotely. However, its main role is to serve as our orbital base camp, with the lander providing transportation for the surface missions. That way we always have orbital support and safe repository for the data we collect. We are not repeating the blunders of the Proteus.”

Sage winced at the hint of her father making mistakes. “Yeah, you seem to have thought about everything. But what if an asteroid hits the Duke? How do we get back to Earth?”

Georgia came to Milo’s defense. “First of all, that’s unlikely to happen. And the lander is tough, like the real Bull. And although it’s small, it is also designed for interstellar travel. Moreover, it’s been waterproofed, inside and out, so we can get close and personal with the waves if needed. But it’s not designed to go underwater—that’s why we have the submersible. If we had to, we could all squeeze in the lander and make it back to the portal. But that’s for emergencies.”

“But how do we get back to Cassini?” asked Sage. “The worm portal disappeared after we came through.”

Sage was awed when they arrived at Cassini Station after a four-month journey from Earth. Approaching Saturn, she thought the large multi-wheeled structure with massive solar panels was like a glistening golden bird in space. Located in the outer Lagrangian point near Tethys, it served as a way station for Earth and its space elevators, adjacent to the optimal location for worm portals to several star systems, including Procyon. Cassini mined Tethys for water for the portals, which required a prodigious amount of water and hydrogen. The high level of energy required to open the portal limited the size of interstellar ships. As a result, NASA focused early explorations on 52 star systems within 16 light years of the Earth where it could send large generation ships using sub-light methods to establish space stations and planetary colonies. So far, there were colonies in two star systems, Proxima and Ross. Milo had said that Procyon was next.

Byron cleared his throat. “When we came through the worm portal into the Procyon system, I launched four communication satellites.” In response to Dina’s puzzled look, he elaborated, “The satellites allow us to communicate with the Tethys worm portal to Cassini and from there to Earth. We can transmit to the comm sats from Thalassa and send messages, video feeds, whatever, and the satellites will archive the data until they’re ready to be uploaded through the portal. Plus, we’ll use the sats to open a portal when we’re ready to go back to Cassini.”

Sage hadn’t noticed the satellite launch, but was curious about the technology. “How do they work? I mean, is the portal always open? It’s 12 light years back to Cassini!”

Byron chuckled. “It’s actually 11.46 light years, but the portal only opens upon request. It’s way too expensive to keep open all the time. When scheduled, Tethys Station creates a tiny threaded worm portal—just enough to send or receive signals to our comm satellites—then closes it. When we’re ready to go back, we use one of our scheduled times to request a portal for the ship. Bam, we’re home.”

“That’s how we acquired the data for the holoscreen projection of Thalassa,” said Georgia. “Last year, after Milo picked Thalassa as our target, Cutten sent orbiting probes through the portal for a preliminary physical scan. When we entered the system, we downloaded the data from the probes to the Duke, then uploaded them to the outer satellites for transmission to Earth. They have copies of everything.”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Milo said. “And it’ll all very expensive.”

“Then we must know a lot about the planet, right?” asked Dina.

“I wish,” added Milo, gesturing at the ship. “As I said, everything adds up, not to mention building all of this, so we just focused on a basic physical-chemical scan of the planet from orbit, which helped us develop this holoscreen map. Our job now is to fill in the gaps with additional surface and aquatic probes and personal explorations of the planet. We don’t know that much about the planet or even the system. After the failed Proteus IX mission, interests went elsewhere.”

Sage and Dina had pressed Milo for more information about Thalassa many times during their seven-month journey, but now he was telling them he didn’t know much about the planet. Glancing out the porthole at Procyon surrounded by the tails of comets, Sage chewed on her lower lip. “What about all those comets? Are they dangerous?” she asked. “They’re all over the place, and I want to be safe.”

“Yes and no,” Byron flatly replied, acting like it was some scientific study rather than a real danger. “I’ve run a few simulations, and asteroid collisions are more frequent on Thalassa, but still rare, every 10 to 30 million years. At least for the large dinosaur-killing megacollisions. But we won’t be here very long, so the chances of experiencing something like that are small. There’s even a smaller probability for comets.”

“But what about bolides—you know, the large meteors that create tsunamis?” she asked.

“Well,” he replied, scratching his head, “that’s a good question. Of course, they are a lot more of those. But based on my estimates, they occur every 50 to 200 years. But even when they do—”

Milo jumped in, “So that means we don’t need to worry about it.” Byron looked like he might argue, but Milo didn’t let him get a word in. “To assure you, let me quickly review the built-in safety features of the Duke.”

As Sage watched Milo talk about the Duke, her doubts about his assurances of safety grew. The idea of holding back on their location and communications until they could make a big media splash felt risky, not to mention the long intervals between scheduled updates. But she remembered that Milo loved taking risks. The first day she met him to discuss the mission she thought it was suicidal.

“But I’m invincible, Sage, don’t you know that?” Milo replied, reclining in the living room in his Sea Cliff house in San Francisco. “I’ve done so many crazy shit things in my life, I shouldn’t even be alive. Yet here I am. Remember that. I can take anything this planet can dish out, so why not take on another planet? I know we’ve had our differences in the past, but let’s make history together.”

Sage just shrugged at first, too deep in depression to comprehend a long mission in space. But as she thought about it, it made sense given their life’s trajectories. Despite surfing all her life, she had never heard of Milo until she met him a year after winning the big-wave contest at Jaws. Sage was near the peak of her career when he suddenly appeared on the competitive big-wave scene. Before that time, he didn’t exist in the media surf culture. Suddenly he was everywhere: on the cover of Surfer magazine, performing dangerous stunts on the holoscreen, in interviews surrounded by movie stars recoiling at his harrowing stories.

She heard rumors that he fast-tracked his way into the surfing world in private wave pools with the best professional trainers money could buy. As he quickly got better, he entered a few big-wave contests to test the competition. At first, he lost, but over time, with big help from cutting-edge tech and his obvious ruthlessness, he became an accomplished big-wave rider. Anyone could tell he wasn’t a natural surfer, and he didn’t bother riding small waves. As he improved, he began battling with Sage for the big-wave record, and their struggles were epic until he finally beat her, with Georgia’s help, with his record-setting 130-foot wave at Cortes Bank. A year later, after Nazaré, she disappeared from the competition circuit.

Now, his record wasn’t enough for him, and he had come up with this hair-brained idea of finding and surfing giant waves on an Earth-like planet. But not just any planet, he told her. It had to be a mind-blowing social media event. No space suits, tropical seas, and low gravity to create slow, giant waves. When Milo brought up Thalassa, she quickly rejected it as the fate of her father stabbed through her mind. Surprisingly, the idea grew in her mind. Maybe this is a way to get back on top, to regain my edge. But despite the rare opportunity to revive her career in one fell swoop, in her despair she couldn’t see her way to going down a rabbit hole to Thalassa.

She also couldn’t forget Milo’s aggressive and manipulative self-centered nature. Despite that, looking at him as he sparkled in the idea of a history-setting moment, she felt a strange kinship with him. They both had lost connections to their families and had sought it through other means; they had survived the peaks and valleys of their careers and experienced the happiness and depression it can bring. So, in many ways, she understood his zeal for attention and his quest for the big event. She came to realize that her life could benefit from renewed attention. But still, she didn’t trust him, and their previous history together held her back. Plus, if she had learned anything about Milo, it was that he was single-minded to the point of recklessness, and she had allowed his behavior to change hers. That was a mistake. Sage turned her back on Milo and his proposed mission with a firm No, then headed back to Hilo to be with her ailing tutu. But her tutu’s words had changed her mind.

Now, staring at Milo wrapping up the meeting, she began to wonder how his recklessness would play out on Thalassa. She trusted Byron and Georgia and knew they had interstellar travel experience, but this mission was clearly Milo’s, and she hoped he wasn’t holding back important information from the rest of the crew.

Milo ended the safety briefing. “Enough of that. I suggest you organize your gear and be ready for tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, we leave for the surface at 0600 ship time, which is synced to the diurnal time on the Bulge, our primary target. Remember, Thalassa’s days are shorter, only 18 hours, so daytime is limited, and it will take some time for us to adjust to a new diurnal cycle. So rest up.”

As the briefing ended and the group began to disperse, Sage watched as Milo pulled Byron and Georgia aside. Byron spoke in a whisper she could barely hear. “I didn’t want to say it in front of the group, but we are receiving interference that is causing havoc with our communications. It’s gotten worse as we approach the planet.”

Milo looked uninterested. “Are our messages still getting through to the outer sats?”

“Yes,” Byron said, “but they could potentially—”

Milo cut him off and changed the subject. “Once we establish orbit, can you two start a gravitational scan in the proximity of Thalassa? I want to make sure we haven’t missed anything. The AI’s been visually scanning the area, but it can’t see anything until it gets close because there’s so much debris in the system.”

Byron nodded his head in agreement, but looked pensive. “I know. We’ve tracked dozens of comets and asteroids in the proximity of Thalassa—some the size of that moon—but so far none are predicted to make a close pass to the planet, so there’s nothing to worry about. But as you said, they’re difficult to detect, and I assumed the AI initiated a gravitational scan. It was on the Procyon system entry procedure list.”

Sage watched with interest as Georgia hurled a rare rebuke at Milo. “It’s standard practice once you enter a new planetary system. The last thing we need is something coming out of nowhere and hitting the planet. Why wasn’t it started earlier? We’ve been in the system for three months!”

“You’re right, it should have,” he replied, tripping over Georgia’s tone. “But the AI’s been offline with all these debris fields, and I’ve been focusing on the video preps, training, and surfing sims. I was distracted, and I didn’t want it making course corrections without my—without your…well…it fell through the cracks. But Moshe’s scanned Thalassa, and we detected a wobble in its orbit, one we can’t account for.”

Byron’s eyebrows raised in interest. “Is that so? OK, I’ll start a scan, but it will probably take several weeks to obtain sufficient data to get everything sorted. Perhaps longer given the communication issues. It would have nice if you had—”

Milo cut him off. “Yes, yes, I understand. Thank you both. And you’ll get some time on the surface to do your work, I promise. I want to be ready if a swell comes up. No surprises, right?”

After Milo walked past Sage shaking his head, she overheard Byron whispering to Georgia, “I can’t believe he didn’t do this sooner. Does he even know what he’s doing? He’s not a scientist, but he’s leading the mission, and he holds back everything. He’s the only one that talks to Cutten, and he doesn’t tell me anything. You know, Thalassa’s anomaly could explain the strange orbital dynamics of those asteroids.”

“I trust Milo,” she replied. “But I admit, it does seem a bit…careless. At any rate, the scopes should be able to pick up any near-Thalassian objects we need to worry about, and we can evacuate to orbit if necessary.”

Byron didn’t seem convinced. “That’s true, but I always prefer to know what’s coming. I guess we’ll keep our eyes open, but I can’t stop thinking about those asteroids. Something out there perturbed their orbits. Hopefully, it doesn’t come anywhere near Thalassa.”

As they entered a geostationary orbit, Sage sat next to Byron as he launched a small legion of probes down to the planet and Georgia began a gravitational scan of the region around Thalassa. Staring at the visual tracking console, Sage was surprised by the high number of objects being followed by the ship’s AI. Pulling the map around, she looked back through the asteroid field they had passed through and saw a bright field of clustered objects, a dense aggregation of asteroids and long-tailed comets masked by the bright glare of the white dwarf. Alarmed, she turned to Byron and asked, “Have you seen this cluster? What’s in there?”

He glanced at the bright constellation of lights and raised his eyebrows. “That is what worries me. It’s so dense anything could be in there, even a small planet. Now that we’ve initiated a gravitational scan, we can sort that all out, but it will take a few weeks.”

“But we’re heading down to the planet tomorrow!” she replied.

Georgia leaned over. “That true. But even if there is anything to worry about, which I doubt, it will take weeks or months to get here. So relax, the ship will let us know of any approaching danger.”

Thinking of walking on the surface the next day, Sage couldn’t sleep and spent the night gazing at the blue planet. Although she was excited about surfing, a cauldron bubbled in her stomach. She didn’t know what she felt most uneasy about—battling with Milo, her father’s death, her fame on edge, or all the unknowns on Thalassa. Unexpectedly, her tutu’s words came to her, frightening her even more: It is time to let your past go and face your future.

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