This is a preview of the initial chapters of my new book which will be available for pre-order in March and softcover/Kindle on April 28 on Amazon.com. To learn more about the book visit SongsofThalassa.com.
Chapter 2. Milo
Milo opened a hatch and stepped into the vessel containment area, one of eight chambers occupying the slowly spinning torus of the Duke. The gentle roll of the ship provided gravity for storage, sleeping bunks, dining areas, labs, and the workout and training rooms. He wove past supply bins and blinking panels up to an RV-sized triangular vessel that would be used to explore the planet’s surface. He had nicknamed it Da Bull in honor of the tenacious big-wave surfer Greg Noll. Noll was the first to pioneer big waves on Oahu’s famous North Shore and was known for his no-holds-barred charging style in the surf. Milo had designed the lander to be tough and versatile like Noll, and it could dive underwater or travel between the stars. He wanted to get up close and personal with the waves to create the ultimate holoscreen experience. In many ways, the lander was a complete interstellar ship in its own right—he wasn’t taking chances of not getting back to revel in his accomplishments.
“No damage here,” he said, examining the hull. He opened the lander’s door and leaned back in the pilot’s chair with his hands behind his head, reveling at his ability to infuriate Sage. Although he respected—and feared—her natural surfing talents, he knew her weaknesses well, and stirring her emotional pot always put him ahead in the water. It bothered him that he had only surfed for a few years, while she had surfed her whole life. That’s why beating her will feel so good, he thought.
Cocking back his head, he smiled to himself as he reflected on what led him to Thalassa. After many years of breaking records in other extreme sports, he became instantly captivated watching the power of big waves on the holoscreen. One night while flipping through the channels, a giant wave filled his living room as a sportscaster described the surf at Mavericks. His mouth hung open as the vivid VR projection immersed him in the cold, raw power of the thundering, mountainous waves. He heard the stiff wind blowing back the wave top, the drops of rain hitting the water, the sound of a surfboard slicing down the wave, and the heavy breathing of the surfer. He stood in awe of the indomitable spirit of the surfers that risked tackling such ocean giants. It was a breathtaking experience. The surfers looked godlike, immortal, and overnight some became famous for their death-defying exploits, and others died trying. It was the Roman Colosseum of the time, and he was instantly hooked on the heroic glory of big-wave surfing.
At that moment, he decided that was his next goal, to ride the biggest wave in the world. Then he would move on to other things. But for now, he needed to beat Sage to cement his legacy, and he planned to keep her off balance as much as he could. Dina was also a threat, but she was more focused on Sage’s well-being than setting her own record, as Milo had guessed she would be. The game is set, he thought. Let’s play.
Leaving the lander, he ran his hands lovingly along the yellow hull of his cylindrical three-person submersible. Once he set the ultimate surfing record, he knew that establishing a colony and bioprospecting for microbial resources would be lucrative, as it was on Proxima Centauri B and Ross 128 B. He would use the sub to explore the seas and search out methane seeps and hydrothermal vents, the underwater habitats most likely to harbor life. Thalassa was just the first of many planets he planned to initiate colonies on and extract a fortune. It had better, he thought. He’d spent a major chunk of his assets building the Duke and these vessels, and he couldn’t go home empty-handed. I’ve risked a great deal coming here, he thought with some trepidation.
As he walked back toward the main cabin, he marveled anew at the ship he had built to explore uncharted planets. Exiting the storage area, he entered a hatch leading to a tunnel-like spoke that terminated in a detachable central command center. If needed, the main cabin could undock from the torus and descend to the surface. Milo had been planning this trip for years and was ready for anything.
With keen interest, he stood at a distance and watched Byron and Georgia amid an intense discussion. He had handpicked them both for the mission, and they were integral to achieving his goals. Georgia stared intensely at a display of code on her screen while simultaneously flicking her pencil and talking with Byron, who was absorbed in his asteroid model.
“It just doesn’t make sense, Georgia,” Byron said with exasperation as he stared intently at the holoscreen projection. “These asteroids have a dozen different orbital trajectories, forcing me to make manual adjustments navigating to Thalassa. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unpredictable, and we’re wasting fuel.”
Milo remembered first hearing about Byron, who was a legend in the private aerospace industry, and how he became obsessed with astronomy when he was eight years old. He had looked through a telescope, saw Jupiter’s moons, and realized there was a ton of stuff in space that he couldn’t see with the naked eye and quickly embraced a lifelong career in astronomy. After getting his PhD in physics and mathematics at Caltech, he worked for NASA for a decade before switching to Cutten after NASA was dissolved and Cutten Enterprises became the leader in private space exploration.
Byron grew up immersed in the aerospace industry in southern California and was precise, low-key, and had a computer for a brain with encyclopedic knowledge. At 50, he had extensive interstellar experience and his sharp wit, jet black hair with a splash of gray, and intense eyes gave him a presence that commanded attention. Milo had paid Byron lavishly to join the mission, playing up the possibilities of a unique planet that would provide a rich learning experience. It was an easy sell.
Milo smiled as he waited for Georgia’s response, knowing it would be good. “Well, either your model is wrong or something perturbed the system. There are no alternatives.”
Georgia was Milo’s close friend and an accomplished oceanographer. She was in her early 30s and studied Earth’s ocean circulation and had significant planetary experience, including her dissertation on the ancient oceans and waves of Mars. Her wave forecasting models were legendary, and he was counting on her to give him the edge, as she had in the past. She spoke with authority, her short, curly black hair framing warm brown eyes. She was part of a large extended Mexican family with deep roots in early California history and was passionate, highly opinionated, and bright. Besides Moshe, Georgia was Milo’s biggest supporter on the team and dedicated to helping him achieve his goals.
Byron leaned back in his chair and exhaled. “Well, I’ve triple-checked the model, so something perturbed them.”
“Maybe it was a passing star or a rogue planet,” she said while moving her pencil through the asteroid projection without looking up.
“You’re probably right,” Byron replied. “But there’s no sign of anything now, at least nothing that I can detect. This system is so full of debris it’s hard to track anything. Whatever it is, it’s still around.”
Milo cut in with the daily briefing. “OK, team, huddle up. As we approach the planet, I wanted to give you some updates on—”
Dina approached him and cut him off. “You promised us more information when we got close. Well, we’re close. What more can you tell us about Thalassa?”
Milo turned to Georgia, who scoffed at Dina and said, “He was going to tell you that we just retrieved the probes we sent out last year and I’m trying to process the data, but I keep getting interrupted. These things take time, as the science is, well…complex, as I’m sure you can appreciate—well, maybe not. With luck, I’ll have my 3-D map of Thalassa up and running in a day or so, and everyone can check it out. So keep your panties on.”
Sage rolled her eyes. “Well, you don’t have to be snippy about it. We’re trying to get ready. Remember, we’re the ones taking all the risks while you’re be snuggled safely in your seat. We have a lot riding on this mission.”
Byron’s impatience boiled over. “What about the other part of our mission? You know, the part where our employer and the sponsor for the trip—Cutten Enterprises—wants us to explore the biology and geology of the planet and look for microbial resources? What about the science?”
Sage started to speak, but Milo cut her off. “Yes! Of course, the science is important, and I’ll make sure we accomplish our objectives. But remember, I paid for most of this vessel. Sure, I want to make Cutten happy—I own a significant part of the company, you know—but the big waves are what will make the news.”
“Besides,” Dina said, “who cares about a bunch of microbes?”
Byron raised his eyebrows. “Sure, sure, microbes are no big deal. We’ve already explored 11 planetary systems and found microbial life on Proxima and Ross, so, it’s reasonable to assume we will find primitive life on other planets as we continue exploring. Who cares? Ah, but what if we find something else? Something big and complex? Something sentient? That would be more important than surfing.”
“Huh, yeah,” Sage replied. “Anything’s possible I guess. But I hope we don’t encounter anything in the waves. I don’t need any distractions while I’m setting a new record.”
Georgia let out a sigh. “As we’ve already discussed—maybe you were asleep that day, Sage—it’s unlikely we’ll find anything beyond microbial life. The system is young, only 1.9 billion years old, not even half the age of the Earth, which at that point only had single-celled life. Importantly, Procyon’s white dwarf, which is about as far away from Procyon as Uranus is from our sun, was a red giant about a billion years ago and grew to a thousand times the size of our sun before it fizzled out. The red giant likely fried Thalassa with its solar wind, not to mention the crazy orbital dynamics that occurred when it collapsed into that white dwarf out there. It probably turned the system into the Wild West for hundreds of millions of years with comets and asteroids raining down on everything. Not to mention Procyon’s high UV output. If there was life on Thalassa, it was probably wiped out by those events.”
“Right,” Dina said, flinching at Georgia’s words. “So no 60-foot sharks like megalodon.”
“But remember,” Byron said, shaking his head, “Cutten made a fortune off the bacteria they found on Proxima. They’ve patented thousands of sequences, which more than paid for their investments in space. That’s why they helped pay for the expenses for this trip and for Sage to be part of the crew.”
Georgia smirked at the memory. “As I recall, Cutten wanted their chief bacteriologist, an experienced, PhD-level scientist, on the trip, but Milo convinced them to send Sage because of her surfing experience. What a joke.”
Dina grabbed Sage’s arm as she moved toward Georgia, prepared to launch into another full-blown diatribe.
“Plus,” said Georgia, “Cutten didn’t just pay for some of the expenses. They paid for the jump through the worm portal, didn’t they? That alone probably cost half a billion dollars.”
Milo answered in a soft voice, trying to tone things down. “Yes, that’s true. And we will make sure they get a good return on their investment.”
Byron shook his head. “But all this assumes that the new CITETS amendments won’t pass, right?”
“What’s CITETS?” Dina asked.
Byron answered, “It’s the Convention on International Trade in Extraterrestrial Species, and they’re pushing a draft UN amendment that would regulate the trade of extraterrestrial life. If ratified by the international community, it would regulate, or even ban, trade in extraterrestrial life, such as the microbial life on Proxima and Ross, potentially slowing or halting a new and rapidly growing part of multinational space commerce.”
“But why? Who cares about protecting bacteria?” asked Dina.
Georgia laughed. “We’re already violating the PPP the second we get there. Cutten doesn’t give a shit about indigenous life.”
“The PPP?” asked Dina.
“The Planetary Protection Protocol of the Space Research Council,” Georgia said. “The protocols were written to prevent contaminating a virgin planet with Earth’s life forms. They also protect Earth from alien life, especially microbes. That’s why we have a one-month quarantine at Cassini when we get back.”
Milo frowned at Georgia. “Cutten felt the PPP was broached by the Proteus IX when it crash-landed on Thalassa, so it doesn’t really matter. Plus, they’re just guidelines, not a legal mandate. Besides, Sage will take microbial samples to check for compliance.”
Sage rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I just do what they tell me.”
Byron let out a heavy sigh. “With CITETS, it’s not about the microbes but what we might find next. The environmentalists are trying to get ahead of the discovery of complex life or sentient animals, which they believe is inevitable. It’s a classic conservation strategy, and frankly, it’s annoying. Since it’s easier to mine our local asteroids for metals and minerals, we need microbial space commerce to fund explorations outside of our solar system. I mean, I don’t believe alien sentient life even exists. Why else would—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” replied Sage, cutting his lecture short. “The Fermi paradox and all that.”
Dina shook her head. “What?”
“Look, Dina,” Milo said. “Cutten, like most pharmaceutical companies, is a multinational corporation, so they are fighting to defeat the CITETS amendments and other laws that might limit commerce in space. Since they have most of the commercial space community behind them, it’s not likely to pass. Nor are the proposed amendments to the UN Outer Space Treaty. In fact, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the ‘wacko enviros’ that keep pushing this down everyone’s throats, particularly the ‘Āina Defense Coalition, the major group from Hawaii lobbying for the amendment.”
Milo smirked at Sage as her face turned red. “Hey, don’t look at me. I can’t control my family! The campaign is their idea, not mine. I haven’t talked with my auntie Kēhau in years. I’m not interested in life on other planets, sentient or otherwise, so don’t blame their actions on me,” Sage continued. “In my opinion, this planet is a resource for Earth to exploit. I’m just here for the waves and to grab some cultures for Cutten. That’s it. Then we can go home.”
Milo couldn’t help himself. “Is that really all you’re here for? Have you forgotten about your father?” he said, trying to annoy her further. “I’m sure you want to know what happened to him on Thalassa, right? I don’t think everyone here knows the story.”
Sage clenched her fists. “Shit, Milo, the Proteus is ancient history. Leave my family out of this!”
“Oh, wow,” Georgia said. “I knew your father was an astronaut, but I didn’t realize he was on the Proteus mission to Thalassa”
Milo said, “Yes, as you may recall there were 12 Proteus missions, but three of them never returned.”
“Unfortunately,” Byron said, “the Proteus IX never sent any data back so we’re flying blind.”
Milo kept going despite Sage’s visible discomfort. “One of those missions landed on Thalassa 12 years ago. And most people don’t know or remember their biologist, Daniel Thompson—Sage’s father—or the other crew members. We have very little data from the mission—they lost communication after they began orbiting the planet—which is why we don’t know much about the Procyon system or Thalassa. So, while we’re here, we want to see what we can find out about the fate of the Proteus IX. They must have suffered a systems failure or crashed or maybe even a—”
“OK, that’s quite enough,” Dina said, glaring at Milo.
As Sage’s eyes began to tear up, Dina put her arm around her shoulders. Sage shrugged her off, took a slow, deep breath, and walked away toward her sleeping quarters.
As they closed the hatch, Milo laughed and slapped his leg. “I knew that would get her.”
Georgia cocked her head at his amusement. “That’s cruel, Milo. I understand what you’re doing, but you don’t need to bring up her dead father.”
Byron shook his head and turned back to his console as Milo responded with a wide grin. “Anything is fair game out here and I know her family is her weak spot. I’ll do anything to win.”