The Callisto Symphony – Chapters 9-12

Chapter 9

George awoke to the engines still operating at full speed.  He glanced out the window and it didn’t take long to see with just the naked eye that Hendrix and Joplin were getting really close.  His thrusters slowly began to shut down and his momentum decreased.  Joplin continued to travel towards him just a little while longer and then finally came to rest.

“BIM, what is their distance?”

“7634 miles.”

The plan was for Lisa to bring Joplin in the rest of the way manually.  George continued watching inside the ship and could see her take a seat behind the command center.  She was up early and ready to go.

He saw Joplin’s thrusters light up behind her, and soon she was making her way closer.  George took a deep breath to help calm himself.  He stood nervously watching as the ship approached.  He stopped using the Gamma Scope when he could see directly into her ship and could make out the outline of her through his window. He could see she was smiling, and George smiled back.  She waved to him as she navigated her way right alongside Hendrix, and pointed Joplin the opposite direction so that the bay doors, both located on the port side of the craft, would be easily aligned for transfer.

After a minute, her position was stabilized.  George watched her as she smiled and gave him a thumbs up before walking to the back of her craft in preparation for docking.

George went to his back bays and sealed off the open satellite bay so that it could be entered from outside the ship.  He then jumped in his Exciter, opened the door, and pulled out into space with Joplin just a few feet away from him.

He navigated the distance halfway and waited.  He noticed on the bottom of the outside bay door for Lisa’s Exciter that there appeared to be a connecting port that was 8 inches wide, something he was sure he didn’t have on his ship.  This was what she created to enable her manifold to be disconnected and reconnected.  Now, George was curious to watch it work.

The Exciter door opened and Lisa slowly pulled out.  Once she was outside the bay, she activated and closed the door mechanism from inside Exciter, which was something else George had never seen before.  As the door closed, her manifold connected to the external port she had custom built.

She was only a few feet away now and George could really see her.  She smiled with radiance, almost laughing, clearly so happy to be close and in contact with another human.  The excitement was overwhelming for both of them.  George began to feel a little shaky at the throttles, but he knew the most important part for him was about to begin.  He took another deep breath, hardly believing what he was seeing unfold before him.

He moved forward towards Lisa and grabbed hold of the large ring atop her Exciter unit.  He clamped down as hard as he could to ensure he would not lose his grip.

When he was confident his grip was perfect, he motioned to her that it was time to release her Exciter from the manifold.  She was able to do this from controls inside her Exciter, which George again knew required highly customized engineering work.  She had put a great deal of thought and ingenuity into making this disconnection mechanism.

He watched as the manifold unlocked from the port and the remaining portion swung underneath her.  If he let go now, she would start drifting away into space, and because his manifold was connected to Hendrix, there was only so far that he would be able to go to retrieve her.  He felt an enormous sense of pride come over him as Lisa clearly had confidence in him and his abilities to trust her life with someone she had just met.  And they had only met through a series of Morse code messages and hand written notes.

George processed every detail of the transfer to make sure he got it just right.  Very slowly he moved her Exciter into the open satellite bay on Hendrix.  It wasn’t a great distance that needed to be travelled, but it required a certain amount of precision to make her Exciter fit in the bay, and the hanging part of the manifold had to be tucked inside the bay which required George to use the second arm on his Exciter.  Once she was completely inside the bay, George radioed to BIM to seal it off.  Soon the door closed and George backed into his Exciter bay, his heart pounding with excitement.

His bay door closed.  Now the ship was sealed and he jumped out of Exciter.  He walked around the corner to the satellite bays and Lisa was standing there, her helmet off, but the rest of her Exciter clothes on, and there was silence as they both absorbed the moment.

Then Lisa said “Hi,” marking the first time he had heard her voice and any voice in person besides his own, and she walked over to George and gave him a hug that seemed like it lasted forever.  It felt amazing to be embraced by another human.  He felt a warmth much stronger, and more real, than the warmth he felt at the end of each of Miss Palencia’s videos.  It sent a tingling sensation throughout his body.  She squeezed him hard enough that he could feel her heartbeat pumping blood through her body.  The feeling of another human being was incredible.

They both smiled at each other following the long hug.  It seemed they knew so much about each other, yet they had just met.

“Come on in,” said George.  “This is BIM, a companion I built from left over equipment.”

Lisa was obviously impressed, “Wow, that is really smart.  Hi BIM.”  BIM beeped and blinked a small light on his head.

She glanced around the ship.  “Everything is just like Joplin.  I can’t believe it. Every wall and electronic device is the same.  They had to be built at the same time.  When did you say your birthday was?”

“November 25, 1991.”

“And I was born October 23, 1991.  So I’m a little bit older.”  She laughed.

“Indeed.  And BIM is seven years old.  He needs a little rewrite on his programming.” BIM’s light on his head went dark.

Back in the command room, George was proud to show her ACE.

“So this is how you did it?” she said.  “Impressive.”

George walked her through the entire process of creating ACE starting with the early days of the PACE project, and the breakthrough that came from the solar panel inspection.  They both surmised that her ship had a similar antenna that could use the programming George had already written to give Joplin a full functioning ACE-like communications system.  It would only require some assembly of equipment since most of the hard work had already been done.

Lisa continued walking around the ship while George followed her.  She entered his Grow Room.  “This is a lot like mine.  We have a lot of the same plants.  But I’ve been experimenting with crossing some of the fruits and vegetables.  I’ll have to show you how it works. Have you ever fermented juice from your fruit,” she asked.

“I have not.  How do you do it?”

“Oh George, you have to try it.  It makes your body feel numb all over, and it makes you laugh a lot.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“All you do is squeeze some juice in a jar, add water, place a few pieces of fruit in the jar, and let it sit for a week or so until you can separate out the yeast.  Then you reintroduce the yeast and let it marinate a bit longer.  It’s not hard to do.  It tastes different than you expect, kind of good, kind of bad, but the feeling it gives your body is a lot of fun.  I have some aboard Joplin we can get.”

“We should do that.”

Lisa walked back into the adjoining kitchen and grabbed an orange from the table.

“Do you mind if I try it?  I’m curious what someone else’s fruit tastes like.”

George nodded.  She peeled back part of the orange, took a bite, and laughed.

“It tastes just like mine do.”

George pulled another chair over to his tiny kitchen table and sat across from her. He couldn’t believe that someone else was sitting in his kitchen with him, talking, and eating his fruit.  He never imagined this day would come.

“Why are you being so quiet George?”

“Sorry, I’m still just a little overwhelmed with everything that is happening.”

“Me too,” Lisa said as she took another bite of the orange.

The two proceeded to talk for the next few hours, covering a range of topics, but particularly focusing on their life aboard the ship.  They concluded that their ships were created at the same time and that since they were both born at almost the same time, someone had put them on the ships at almost the exact same time.  Their early years were the same with memories of robotic arms helping them for as far back as they can remember.  The discarded pieces from these robots were all stored in each of their work rooms, and after sharing an inventory of everything in these rooms, it became clear they had the exact same pieces.

Their education was identical, with the same teachers, and even the exact same lessons.

“Who is your favorite teacher?” Lisa asked.

“Miss Palencia.”

“Me too.  And I also like Professor Miller.  Anyone except Mrs. Epstein.”

They both laughed.

The conversation flowed for hours.  They learned that virtually everything about their lives was the same, and they shared many of the same feelings, positive and negative.

They speculated about what they were doing, and where the instructors and the Grand Master lived.  George again mentioned the antenna transmission data, and they agreed that one of the top projects would be to follow the path of those coordinates to see what they could uncover.

They spoke about the Callisto Symphony, now concluding that it was an event that obviously required at least two people in spacecraft to work on.  Maybe more.  They were curious if there were more people like them out there.  They both spent evenings staring at far away galaxies and taking readings on satellite data and maps.  It seemed like a miracle that they hadn’t discovered each other much earlier, given their relative close proximity.

But the data coming across the satellites was clearly being manipulated when compared to what they could see with the Gamma Scope and the naked eye.  Something in the programming of the ship and its control center did not allow it to recognize other similar ships, and each ship was emitting what appeared to be some sort of field around it that helped render it invisible to certain satellite systems.   They decided that getting to the bottom of this was also a top priority since it might help them find other spacecraft that were hidden from them.

“George, we’re getting a big list of things to do.  What about installing an ACE system on Joplin?”

“That too.”

“How are we going to do all of this?”

George replied, “We have plenty of time.”

As they continued talking it became clear to George that they had lived parallel lives, each aboard a ship that was stationed at a location not far from one another.  They agreed on almost everything, stated ideas in a similar way, and almost knew what the other was thinking before they said anything.

The biggest point of differentiation was what they had chosen as their “specialties.”  George had clearly chosen to follow a path using his engineering and computer programming skills.  He also had a strong interest in the physics side of things.

Lisa had experimented with food and growing in an uncanny way, constantly creating new fruits and vegetables, and hybrid growing beans and wheat and other ingredients, which she used to make healthy and delicious meals that became an important part of her everyday life; something she said she always looked forward to everyday.  Lisa had also decorated the inside of spaceship whereas George had done very little except keep his clean.

Both were extremely fluent in Astronomy, and they never tired of looking off into the distant galaxies and letting their minds wander about what or who else might be out there.  It was so vast, and seemingly empty yet so full of life.  They both knew other life existed because they had seen it in instructional videos with professors their whole life, and in the Grand Master’s regular communications. But where?

“George, I meant to ask you, why did you have one of your satellite bays empty?  Did you not always have three in there?”

George proceeded to tell her about the sun flare event that occurred years ago, and how he had to program and send off one of his satellites near Saturn to monitor the approaching comet.

“And are you able to monitor what the satellite is broadcasting?  It must still be there?”

George paused for a minute.  “I wasn’t able to at the time.  But I might be able to now,” he said thinking about ACE.

“You said that Professor Maule believed the satellite would provide a better understanding of the Callisto Symphony, for them.  If we can tap into the satellite to see what data it is reporting, and even where it is pointing, we might learn something about the Callisto Symphony too, something we were not supposed to know about.”

George knew then that they were going to be a great team.  Their training was too similar, and their interests were identical.  They hatched a plan.  Lisa liked plans and efficiency every bit as much as George did.

Even though Lisa’s ship was better decorated, more comfortable, cleaner and overall nicer than Hendrix, they had to use the open satellite bay to bring her Exciter in.  So they decided to make Hendrix their home base.  In a relatively short amount of time they had agreed that it would be more fun to be together on one ship, than to be separated on two.  They had been alone their whole lives, and now it felt so good to have someone to talk to, someone to relate to, and to be around a real human being who cared.

Lisa estimated that it would take two trips back and forth to Joplin to move her essential food, clothes, and equipment over to Hendrix via her Exciter.  George worked on an equipment list that included more circuit boards, monitors, and other pieces of the discarded robots he thought they might need.  He thought for a minute about detaching her antenna among the solar panels, but decided to leave it in until it became necessary to use it.  For now, his antenna should be fine.

Lisa would also grab some of her fermented juice, along with as much of her water supply as she could.  She would also double check her MANOOLA reporting data and the custom program she wrote to ensure that it would turn over for an indefinite amount of time.  If she needed to go back to Joplin it wouldn’t be too difficult.  It was just that each trip back and forth took an hour to complete in logistics of opening doors, connecting manifolds and using the Exciter arm.  They felt they had an immense amount of time, but after they spent the afternoon conversing together they realized that they had a great deal to accomplish.

After Lisa moved her items over to Joplin, she would prepare a nice meal for the two of them, using some of special ingredients, along with some of her fermented juice.  She laughed after asking George again why he had never fermented the fruit.

“You must have skipped the chapter on that one?” she joked, knowing full well they had both probably read the exact same texts their whole life. She had just been a little more adventurous in her extracurricular work.

They would enjoy the evening together and then the next morning, George would share with her the coordinates for the Grand Master’s transmission location, and they would again try to hear any outgoing communications being emitted from that side of the galaxy.  Lisa was thoroughly engrossed with George’s hand built communications infrastructure since it opened up possibilities that she had only dreamed of.

The retrieval of items from Joplin went smoothly.  George again became nervous every time Lisa’s Exciter disbanded from her ship.  She was entirely in his hands each time, but he felt confident in his handling abilities and the maneuverability of his Exciter.

She brought more with her than George was expecting, and he helped her carry everything to the various points on Hendrix where things belonged.  She brought almost her entire fruit and vegetable collection saying, “I couldn’t bear to let it sit there alone and die out.”  George’s Grow Room now had plants stacked in every corner.

She was also able to fill old cylinder tubes from her work room with water and George emptied them into his recycling system.  It was now almost completely at capacity and should provide them much needed water for the foreseeable future.

There were clothes and an assortment of handmade figures that she had crafted many years ago from discarded ship equipment and old clothes that had worn through.  The figures themselves showed wear and tear, obviously having been with Lisa for some time.  “These are even more important to me than the plants.  I’ve always had them.  Kind of like BIM.”

After everything was put away, Lisa began preparing the meal.  She perused George’s stash in the Grow Room, but decided to use all ingredients that she had grown.

Like George, she had also been experimenting with sauces to pour on top of the meal, and she brought a few of her favorite creations.

Before long, they were sitting together at the kitchen table, a nice meal before them, consisting of fresh beans, peppers, spinach, and squash with rice and a dark sauce that was spicier than anything George had made before.  It took him a while to get used to the bite of the sauce, but he came to enjoy it.

“And now for the fun part George,” she poured a small amount of her juice mix into two cups and they each took a drink.  George didn’t find the taste particularly appealing but he didn’t say anything.

“Just a couple more drinks and you will begin to feel your body respond.  It makes you feel a little dizzy so make sure you are careful moving around.”

“I’m ready.”

They finished the meal and poured another glass of juice.  George was beginning to feel light headed and started laughing.

“This does make you feel funny.”

Lisa was laughing now too, “I know.  One time I had three big glasses, almost my whole mix and I started seeing circles spinning on the ceiling as I laid on my bed.  Then next thing I knew it was the next day and Kang was on the screen saying ‘come on Lisa, you can do it, keep moving.'”  They both laughed hysterically.

“It is always funny to wake up to Kang.  Did you ever notice his videos only have exactly 365 days of programming and then they restart back with the first one?”

“And then he acts like you’ve never seen any of the videos before, but you’ve seen them all ten times,” Lisa said laughing even more.  “It’s kind of fun to skip all the instructional videos like we’ve been doing.  I never thought about doing that.  It just seemed like a requirement so I did it.”

“Same here,” said George.  “Until I got thrown off course by a gravitational field when I wasn’t paying attention, and then everything just sort of happened after that.  No thanks to BIM on that one.”  George ran over and started pushing buttons on BIM while Lisa laughed along with him.  Then he started to give BIM orders and they would make fun of him.

“Go in the bedroom BIM, and hide.”

BIM would go in the bedroom and respond, “I do not understand the meaning when you say hide.” More laughter ensued.

They both continued having a great time, laughing and sharing stories about their life aboard the ship and the cast of instructors they had growing up.

That night Lisa slept on the floor in the bedroom after having made a makeshift bed out of old blankets and pillows.  She laid down on it, “George, it’s more comfortable down here than in that bed.  Trust me, I know what that bed feels like.”

“Actually,” she continued, “it doesn’t feel comfortable at all.”  They laughed again.  “I’ll make due though.” And soon they were both fast asleep.

 

The next day George awoke first.  He had never felt like he did that morning. His head was pounding and his body was aching.  He rubbed his eyes and then was startled when Molly’s alarm began sounding.  He reached over to turn it off and took a deep breath.  Lisa was still asleep on the floor beside his bed.

Then Kang popped on the screen, “Good morning George.  Are you ready for today’s routine?”  George shrugged and Kang’s appearance woke Lisa up.  She was groggy too, rubbing her eyes as she looked around.

“For a minute, I thought I was aboard my own ship.”

“I need to find a way to turn the audio on this screen off.”

“Add it to the list George.  I am really looking forward to some of the projects we discussed today, even if I do feel sick after drinking that juice.”

“I didn’t want to say anything, but is that a normal feeling?  Even the next day?”

“Sometimes.  It depends how much you drink, and last night we had quite a bit. You will feel better soon.”

“That was fun though.”

The two had breakfast and then Lisa expressed an interest in seeing how George’s entire communications infrastructure had been set up.  She couldn’t believe he had found the secret solar panel that served as an antenna.  He showed her the programming where the coordinates for the Grand Master outbound communications were contained.  Lisa was immediately interested in laying them out on a map.  They went back to George’s command center and BIM helped them transfer the data as he had done before.

“Have you studied the interstellar properties between us and the sun much?” George asked.

“Not much.  I was always instructed to look toward the outer band of the galaxy as well as studying nearby movements of planets and moons.”

They looked at each other for a minute and didn’t have to say a word.  Just as their satellite data was being blocked from one another, this was another controlled situation.  They were never compelled to study the inner galaxy because the instructors obviously did not want them to.  There must be a reason.

“We need to turn the Gamma Scopes around,” said Lisa.

BIM was able to bring up a red blinking light showing the coordinates, again in the same approximate location as when George had brought it up.  Lisa’s eyes grew wide.

“George, this has to be it.  There has to be something near here.  Why else would the signal go towards the inner planets?”

Just then, George noticed a second red blinking dot on the screen.  He pointed it out the Lisa.  “I did not see this before.  BIM, what is that second indicator?”

BIM loaded the communications log from the previous night on the screen and George noticed it right away.

“We picked something up.”  They both peered into the code, which contained the coordinates for the second blinking light.

“BIM, load those coordinates on ACE.  Right away.”

BIM plugged into ACE and moments later they could hear white noise from the incoming signal as it searched.  The white noise continued for a few minutes, and then suddenly it was interrupted by a high pitched voice, speaking quickly.  Lisa and George stared at each other, with completely blank faces as the gravity of what they had discovered settled in.

After a few seconds Lisa spoke first. “It’s Mandarin.”  George nodded.

 

 

Chapter 10

“Can you make it out?” George asked.  “It sounds like something about winning a game?”

“It is just that.  There are at least two people playing some sort of game, and then there’s a leader who is doing most of the talking.  That is the loud voice.”  They both listened some more.  It was almost more exciting for both of them than the discovery of each other.

“One of the people just lost something and the other person won it.  I can’t tell what the object is they are talking about.”

“Yes, I’m only picking up a few phrases here and there,” said Lisa.  “They are speaking very fast.”

George had learned six different languages since as far back as he could remember.  As he grew older he started to lose his vocabulary but at least once every couple of years, there would be a special instruction on each of the languages to keep it fresh in his memory.  Most of the coursework was done through actual workbooks, and having gone through the workbooks a number of times, George had retained a great deal.

“How did you find this location?” Lisa asked.

“Randomly.  I set my antenna to stagger its position throughout the night a few evenings ago, and I guess at sometime in the night, it came across this coordinate.”

“I wonder if there were any others.”  They combed through the code together, but didn’t see any record of additional contact.

“What about video?” said Lisa.  “Do you think we could pick any video up from these coordinates?”

“We can try.  I am using a small video board from the battery room, so I wonder how it will project.”

George went into the code and changed the audio and video settings.

“I have a feeling there’s going to be a significant lag in the video given test transmissions I did even just on this ship.”

“And your transmissions to me were at times almost a minute behind the audio.”

“We can try.”  George finished the code.  “This might take a while, but we can let it run.  And I know one other thing we can do quickly.  Let’s quiet this video screen in the other room.”

“Good idea.”  They proceeded to program out the audio from the incoming signal.

“But what if the Grand Master comes on with a message?” George asked.

“Can we program BIM to detect the Grand Master’s signal, and then have him plug in and change the code back?  We might miss the first few seconds, but we should be able to hear most of the message.”

“I can program BIM so that when the red lights flash, he will take that action.  That’s a great idea.”  George finished this small project while Lisa continued to listen to, and be enamored by, the voices on the screen.  They had sent the signal from ACE to be broadcast over the video screen now that the instructor audio had been cut.  This way they could both listen to the Mandarin broadcast they had picked up, and each would try to decipher more about what they were saying.

All of a sudden the video on the screen changed from the instructors to broken up shaky images of people. They stood side by side watching as the images struggled to appear on the screen.

“Wow,” was all they could say.

“Looks like Kang,” joked George.

“It does.  I wonder who these people are.”

“It’s hard to make them out, and the audio continues to be a challenge.”  George was frustrated with the computing power of ACE.  “I would like to use some of the extra equipment you brought over to make ACE process and output this data faster.  I know we can make it faster by adding another board or two to jump start the signal processing.”

“You can use any of my equipment that you need.  I know there are some circuit boards in there, but they are old, back from the days of the robots.”

George shrugged, “I’ll make it work.”

They moved the equipment in the bedroom so they could watch what they could on the video screen.  Images would pop up and then disappear a minute later, with lots of dead time in between.  The audio would cut in and out, making it difficult to understand what they were saying, although they were able to pick up bits and pieces.

“Instead of adding an old board, what about recircuiting the board, or maybe even all the boards, to be faster.  That is a more long term solution, and I think it will work better,” Lisa said.

“I might have to get out one of the old electrical engineering books.” And that’s exactly what George did.  He studied it thoroughly for 30 minutes before passing it to Lisa. “Oh I remember this one,” she said.

George disassembled three circuit boards from Lisa’s pile and reassembled them in a more direct and efficient processing path.  Instead of each board working separately, George made them work as a whole, as one more powerful board.

“I should be able to remove my boards and place this one complete board in its place.  Then testing it should be a breeze.”  Lisa helped him swap the equipment, and before long, the audio signal became clearer and the video speed almost doubled from its previous stagnant pace.

Lisa made another important suggestion.  “What about using those other boards to boost the antenna capability?”

Now that George had done one board, he could do many others too.  The overall efficiency of the systems aboard the ship could be dramatically increased.  He agreed with Lisa and began reengineering the boards powering the secret antenna by the solar panels.

The work took much of the day.  Lisa made notes in the other room about what she saw on the screen.  A whole new world was opening up to them.

George finished powering up the antenna, and now the video and audio were even more crisp and clear.  There was a lag but it was reduced to twenty seconds.  Now watching the characters on the screen move their mouths was close enough to the audio to help make out what they were saying.

Lisa shared some of the notes on what she had seen.  She talked about a beautiful, lush scene where plants grew all over the place, some of them 50 or 60 feet tall.  She had seen vehicles that went on water, and vehicles that traveled on land.  The land was covered with living quarters and big structures.  She had seen a place stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and other food she had never seen before.

George continued to listen to her and watch the screen simultaneously. They would stay up throughout the entire night, learning about animals, even a “dog” like George had seen that spurred his development of BIM.  There was talking and people disagreeing with one another.  There was laughter and jokes.  During one segment, they both laughed as two people tried to climb over structures without falling into the water below them but both would end up falling in anyway.  The voices associated with the video images would laugh along with them.

All through the night, there was a combination of being awestruck and laughter.  Lisa and George shared their thoughts on everything they saw.  They knew a world existed out there that was far different than the world they were used to.

“George, look at this,” Lisa was standing over his command center. “When you use your satellite and radar to cover the same area where this signal is coming from, there are a lot of blank areas, and the signal gets fuzzy.  But when you move away from that planet and even attempt to view a greater distance, the signal is clean again.”

George nodded as she walked him through her discovery.

“This is where they all are, and they don’t want us to find them.  So they changed what we can view from this ship.”

She was right, and it explained everything.  They had purposely been directed in their studies to look away from that planet and that direction overall. But when they use a different device, like ACE, that has not been manipulated, they pick up a lot more in that direction.  Plus the Grand Master was transmitting from the atmosphere surrounding that planet.  Perhaps he was in an orbiting spacecraft or living on an orbiting moon?

“Then why are we out here?” wondered Lisa.  “We have a mission, but we don’t know when it will occur.  Were they just going to leave us out here indefinitely?”

“It appears that way.  Maybe the Callisto Symphony is when we come home, although I don’t think that’s the case.  We need to understand why they sent us out here, as babies, and why they educated us in the way they did.  There’s something bigger going on here.”

“You’re right.  We need to figure out what the Callisto Symphony is before they tell us.  That should be a goal.”

“I think we can do that.  Now that we have more powerful equipment, let’s tap into that satellite I sent toward Saturn years ago.  Whatever it is broadcasting was very important to them at the time.  I can only imagine that it is important to them now too.”

Lisa offered to help with the satellite while he continued to watch the incoming audio and video.  She wanted George to see more of the images coming across the screen first hand.  Most of them were indescribable to her.  They couldn’t be shared properly.  George would have to experience them as well.

It was now the middle of the evening, but neither one of them seemed to notice or care.  The excitement of these new discoveries took control of their decision making, and they were bound to continue until they couldn’t continue anymore.

George sat and watched the incoming video signal while Lisa looked through George’s notes from when Professor Maule instructed George on the programming and launch of the satellite.  Somewhere in these notes, George had to have programmed the location he was sending the satellite to and the destination coordinates for the return transmission of its data.  Because George was younger and unsuspecting at the time, this could have easily been inserted into his work without him asking any questions about it.  His notes were comprehensive and it was evident that George had taken great pride in his work on the satellite at the time.

George stayed in the other room, completely fascinated by what he saw.  There were so many living organisms.  So much food.  So many people and structures.  Everything was so massive in size.  There were bodies full of water that stretched as far as you could see.  He never dreamed such a place existed.

He observed the characters on the screen as their emotions continued to jump between laughter and happiness, to anger and confrontation.  It left him slightly confused, but peaked his curiosity.  He still only understood a handful of the words that were spoken, but it was enough for him to grasp a context for what was being said.  He just didn’t always understand the times people chose to laugh or be mean.

Lisa entered the room.  “I found it.”  She had located both the positioning data for where the satellite was to be sent along with the coordinates for its outbound transmission.

“Let me guess.  The coordinates for its transmission match our MANOOLA coordinates?”

“They do George.  Those coordinates are clearly the hub for all who are receiving information pertaining to our mission.  And believe it or not, this satellite isn’t far from us at all.  We just can’t see it.”

George was beginning to be less surprised every time they uncovered a new secret.  It was clear that their own satellite mapping system was preventing them from seeing certain things on purpose.  And it was time for George to fix it.  It was hard for him to peel away from the video screen but his annoyance from the clear manipulation by others was driving him nuts.  They needed a full and complete view.

“We are smarter than they are.  These tricks may have worked when we were younger, but not anymore.”

Both he and Lisa walked over to the command center.  BIM downloaded the programming software for the entire control panel and put it on the screen for them to view.  George had already combed through this once when he was looking for the outgoing signal but he must have missed it.

“There must be two parts to this system,” figured Lisa. “One part is not allowing us to see certain things.  But then there must be another part that is disguising our ships from one another.”

George agreed.  This was a two part process but they didn’t want to make any changes that would be evident to those monitoring them.  George knew MANOOLA pulled from the positioning data so they had to be careful there.  They also now knew that the Grand Master and likely the instructors, along with a planet that has human inhabitants, is much closer than they originally had thought.  If they change a positioning setting, they had to make sure no one else could see the difference.  So maybe unlocking the system that was hiding the position was a later move.  For now, they needed a full, uninhibited view of the galaxy.  What else might they find?

“Wait, go back,” instructed Lisa.  “Look there.  If the H quotient matches this,” she pointed to a string of numbers on the screen, “which seems like an entry in database, then the coordinates change, with each interval automatically being moved by a factor of four in each direction.  Is that how you’re reading it too?”

“Now that you point it out, yes it is.  That string of numbers is odd though.  What kind of database entry is that?”

“It could just be a random number generated to mask an actual word.  It likely doesn’t hold any importance; it just matches the object to a known database.  So when they launched the satellite, I bet they added that number into the database, and then the mapping program seems to be written so that it automatically displays an area surrounding the object but not the actual object.”

“That makes sense,” said George.  “That is how I found you.  I could see the light bending around something on the Scope, but as I approached I could see more of an object, when the light was right.”

“So Joplin is probably an entry in your system, and Hendrix is an entry in mine, hence why we couldn’t see each other.  The planet we are looking at is likely an entry too, as is whatever seems to be orbiting it.”

“Do you think it’s as simple as just deleting this bit of code? What am I missing?”

“Let’s copy the code exactly how it is so that we can reenter if needed.  Can BIM do that, and then we delete it?  I think that should do it.”

“He can.”

BIM made a copy to his internal storage of the full code, while Lisa manually deleted it from the program.  She reloaded it and rebooted the system.

Right away, Joplin showed up on the radar right alongside them.  They both smiled, saying nothing more.

The Mandarin continued in the background.  On the video, everyone was laughing and a group of people were clapping and cheering while people made funny faces on the screen.

They were both exhausted, having broke ground on a whole new life.

“This changes everything,” said Lisa.  “My eyes are heavy, and I think it’s time to get some rest.”

“I agree.  Molly is going to ring in an hour though.”

“That’s funny, mine is called Mike.  There’s one difference between us.”

 

 

Chapter 11

When he awoke the next morning, Lisa was already up and moving in the kitchen.

“Good morning. Come and grab some fruit.”

“What time is it?” asked George.

“Almost two.   I woke up a couple hours ago.  It felt nice to catch up on some sleep, but I am still on a high from everything going on.  I spent a little bit of time trying to tune that video feed back in, but it was just playing the same video as yesterday.  It was still nice to see everything again.”

“I wonder why it’s not changing. We might need to take a look at the refresh rate to be sure we are updating our incoming transmission regularly.”

“Yes.  Also, I was going to wait for you, but I just couldn’t resist.  I learned a little bit more about the satellite we were curious about.”

“What’s that?” George grabbed a handful of strawberries that he figured came from Lisa’s Grow Room since he hadn’t grown any.  They tasted great.

“It’s sending data about the Oort Cloud.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was digging through your notes from when you sent off the satellite, and it was pretty clear what the desired location of the satellite was.  I did some mapping to try to find out why that location would be desirable, and it turns out that once a year that location provides a particularly direct view of the outer shell of the galaxy, where the Oort Cloud is.  The rest of the year it is in an optimal viewing position too.”

“Wow, you were busy this morning.  I wish we could get a look at that feed.”

“Me too, but I’m not sure how.”

“I wonder why they are so interested in the Oort Cloud?  I know it’s where most comets are formed, but what else?”

“It must be something important enough for them to contact you and spend months developing that satellite communication?  I’ve studied that area and have never noticed anything that would cause alarm.  But it is a long distance and I know we can’t see everything.”

“I have studied it too.  I wonder if it’s related to the Callisto Symphony.  It must be.”

On the screen in the other room was the video feed.  They couldn’t help but want to see the images of the other world, even if it was for a second or third time.  They noticed new details they didn’t see before, and the excitement remained high.  They spoke at length about what it would be like to walk on the ground, and be in the water, to ride in the land vehicles, and to eat all of the food.  Everything they saw also raised a lot of questions, for which answers wouldn’t exist.  What was inside the tall buildings?  Where was everyone going in their vehicles?  What is everyone doing?  What is their mission?  Why are the people so happy, then so angry?

George took particular interest in the computers that people were using.  They seemed to have small portable computers in their pocket, and then sometimes they would use larger computers.  And everyone was talking or typing on them.  He knew that these computers must be generating signals, and with so many people using them, there should be a lot of signals that they could potentially pick up.  But where exactly were they located?

“You know, I wonder if I could send a signal ping back to the source of this transmission, just to see if anything comes back to us?”

“But if someone is monitoring it, wouldn’t they notice?”

“Yes, maybe, but we already aren’t supposed to be viewing this, so I’m figuring that no one is monitoring it for activity.  That’s not where they expect us to be doing anything. What do you think?  We might learn something.”

“It’s a good idea.  I think we should first try to scan the area in more depth, similar to how you discovered this transmission.  Perhaps we can find others?”

“It could take a while.  We can mark these coordinates, and try to open the auto field scan while we are sleeping.  That way, we can just wake up in the morning and see if any new signals are detected.”

“Let’s do that for sure.  And can’t you scramble the return ping to hide location data, or at least make it more difficult for someone to see where the information was sent?”

“We could, but it wouldn’t be hard for someone to unscramble it.  It might work as a first line of defense in the chance that someone was monitoring the signal.  But I imagine we will be ok.  It’s our only way of learning more.  Even if we find more signals, we still will want to do a ping, sometime; it will just be a matter of choosing among a larger number of signals.”

“Alright, let’s just do it then.  But let’s do the scrambling just to be on the safe side.”

George left the kitchen and headed to the control room.  He typed a quick command into ACE and hit send. “BIM, let me know if we receive anything.”

George walked over to the Gamma Scope and noticed that Lisa had left some notes near it that contained a variety of coordinates.  Soon he realized these were the coordinates for the satellite, and he zeroed in on the location enough to get a nice view of the satellite that he had launched many years ago.  It was so close yet he was sure it had never appeared in his Gamma Scope view before.

He scanned across the blackness, noting the star constellations that he would use to instinctively approximate his location.  It almost happened as second nature.

He moved the Scope back toward the planet that was transmitting the signals.  He could see much more than before.  The clarity in the Gamma Scope changed dramatically now that they had deleted the hidden database code.  He could see what he thought were a number of satellites orbiting the planet.  He knew that the orbit of this planet in relation to their current location would only bring them closer together every day that passed.

BIM beeped.  George got up and walked towards him.  He had received a signal back.  It was mostly numerical but contained small parts that were in Mandarin interspersed with a bit of English.

“Come here,” he called out to Lisa, who quickly joined him.  “This is the message I received back from the ping.”

“What are all these numbers?  Wait what’s that towards the end?”  She read it aloud translating a few Mandarin phrases with English.  “This message is sent on behalf of Lingdao Broadcast Company. If you are not the intended recipient you are notified that disclosing, copying, distributing or taking any action in reliance on the contents of this information is strictly prohibited. Lingdao Broadcast Company accepts no liability for the content of this email, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided, unless that information is subsequently confirmed in writing by Lingdao Broadcast Company.”

“Are we the intended recipient?” George joked, elated at his accomplishment.

“George, I can’t believe it.  You are actually communicating with someone else.”

“It was only a ping, so it’s likely a computer generated message.  We need to work on those numbers to figure out what they mean.  But there are a lot of them.  BIM might have to process them and look for commonality to determine context and meaning.  And that could take a while to run all these combinations.”

BIM downloaded the message, and George moved him on to his charging platform to make sure he would have enough power for what might be a lot of work.  But BIM didn’t stay on the charger.  He started moving toward the bedroom, confusing both George and Lisa for a moment.  Then the ship went dark and the red lights came on.  George and Lisa froze, looking at each other in disbelief.  BIM switched the feed on the main screen just before the Grand Master began speaking.

“George, I hope you are doing well.  Your coursework is coming along smoothly.  I am excited to tell you that you have now reached the Platinum level in your studies.  This is quite an achievement George.  We are all very excited for you.”

Lisa and George just looked at each other emotionless and then back at the screen.

“As such George,” the Grand Master continued, “we have determined that it will be important to focus on the Physics studies over the next 6 months.  I know that you are already studying Physics right now, but we want to continue to advance your knowledge in this area so we will move to the next year of study immediately following this quarter’s work.  Please be sure to follow your instructor closely in your coursework.  And pay attention to all details.  You cannot make mistakes.  You have to be 100% right in all of your work.”

“George, we are counting on you.  Good day.”

The screen turned off.

“That was pretty uninteresting,” said Lisa.

“I agree. I have never understood the levels we reach. What does it mean?”

“I’m not sure either, but I assume the same message was broadcast over on Joplin.”

“I guess some good news is that our MANOOLA reporting is working perfectly, plus the ping was not detected, and our code deletion on the satellite map appears to be safe,” George said.

“Yes, that is all good to know.  I would imagine he would have said something if it was to the contrary.”

“I wonder what the focus on physics means.  I am starting to get the sense that something is close to happening.  I just have no idea what it is.”

“Me either George.”

The video from their feed came back on the screen.  Images of a sunny place with a huge area of water captured their attention.

“Look at all that water George.  It’s blue for as long as you can see.”

“It’s amazing,” George said as his mind began to drift and he began pacing between rooms. Everything they were seeing had to be happening on the blue planet where the transmissions were originating from.  The message he received was from a broadcasting company who must be generating many different signals since they are a company that specializes in broadcasting.  As the planet continued its orbital path, it would get closer and perhaps they could see even more.  The planet also had other satellites orbiting it, which no other planet in the solar system has.  He was beginning to conclude that this was in fact the center of the world.  And now it was within reach.

“BIM, how many days to travel to origin of signal.”  George picked him up and put him back on the charger.

“1184 days at full thrust.”

George shook his head.  There had to be a way to do it faster.  Lisa walked into the room.

“You want to go there?  Are you serious? George, what about the Callisto Symphony?”

“I don’t know, but we’ve been waiting around for it way too long.  Didn’t you want to move from our current location and explore?  We have spent our entire lives in the same part of the solar system.  Luckily you and I were able to meet.  But this whole universe exists out there.  I know you want to go as bad as I do.  Let’s just do it.”

“We can’t leave George.  Think about what BIM just said.  It will take more than three years.  We have a purpose here.”

“Our purpose is changing.  Look how much we know now.  And we’re on the verge of learning a lot more.”

“It’s true, our whole lives have changed, but why not learn more using all these new communications tools?  And someday the time will be right.”

“Let’s think about it,” George said and walked into the bedroom.  He knew Lisa was right and that he perhaps had started to pursue his idea without fully thinking it through.  He was excited about the possibilities of communicating with the broadcast company.  They presumed the Callisto Symphony might be more imminent given the Grand Master’s communication, and they now had an area of the galaxy that seemed to be central to the mission.  And the blue planet was getting closer every day.

Their sense of purpose about their mission had been instilled for so long it was impossible to ignore, even with so many new developments happening every day.

That night George lay in his bed.  The ship was quiet.  Lisa was in the living room, and George just wanted to stare out at the stars and dream.  His analytical mind couldn’t stop trying to put the pieces together, while at the same time trying to assemble a plan for what to do next.  If they could determine what the Grand Master intended regarding the Callisto Symphony, then they would know exactly what they should do next.  Traveling to the planet where they believed other people lived would be an adventure, and it wouldn’t be a trip where returning back to orbit around Jupiter was an option.  It was likely a one-way trip.

But then again, they were on a one-way trip right now; a one-way trip that didn’t show any signs of progressing in the near term.  Sure, there seemed to be a little flurry of activity but this isn’t even as much attention as he received when the solar flares where darting around the ship years ago.

George knew it was time for change.  So many things had happened recently that he knew he couldn’t go about the same way in his thinking.  He had to reach new levels of thought, with new approaches and new strategies.  These thoughts consumed him the entire night.  He did hear Lisa come in later.  “See you in the morning, George.”

“Yes, see you then Lisa.”  His thoughts returned to assembling the plan.  He decided to propose the idea of them splitting duties, and then depending on the outcome, or lack thereof, they would switch duties to see if the other could perform them better.

George wanted to work on studying the Oort Cloud.  He felt something out there was important to the mission.  He would propose that Lisa continue to monitor the satellite transmissions and try to communicate more with the broadcasting company.  Other than that, BIM would continue crunching the numbers from the ping back, and they would all think about ways to increase their travel speed should they decide to change location.

The next morning George shared his plan with Lisa who agreed.

“But that doesn’t leave much time for our extended physics studies,” she joked.  She also wanted to go back to Joplin to retrieve a few more items.

They began their plan.  George was deeply focused on observing the outer galaxy and was digging through his Astronomy and Physics course books to refresh his knowledge about certain equations, events and properties.  He knew the closer Kuiper Belt was responsible for more short term comet development, while the Oort Cloud is where billions of comets with longer orbits live. These comets would only occasionally be pulled out of the cloud from the force of a nearby galaxy depending on its proximity.

He began to ponder why he was studying each of the chosen subjects with his instructors?  Who determined the curriculum, and why this subject matter?  Understanding the answers to these questions might prove to be more important than what he actually learned in the coursework.

Since he focused on Physics, which the Grand Master was emphasizing even more right now, along with Astronomy and Mathematics, everything was pointing to his acquiring deep knowledge of the solar system and how it worked.  That appeared to be what he was really learning through this coursework.  These three areas of study would provide him with incredible knowledge.

The more he pondered this, the more convinced he was that there would be an interstellar event of epic proportions.  George became convinced this was the meaning behind the Callisto Symphony.  He also had a clue in that Callisto was a nearby moon of Jupiter.  Perhaps he just had to work backwards from there.  In each transmission, his instructors are “counting on him.”  What are they counting on him to do?

Meanwhile, Lisa was working away on ACE trying to learn more about the transmissions that were going both directions now.  The signal varied significantly depending on the changing rotation of both their craft and the target planet.  She received several more pingbacks that were similar to the first one.  They too contained a long string of numbers followed by a similar message regarding ‘intended recipients.’  She couldn’t help but wonder who the ‘intended recipients’ really were.  Maybe that referred to the people in the video, which continued to attract her attention.  It was hard to look at anything else.

They also went back to her ship to grab some additional items.  She thought about staying on her ship for a few days, but Hendrix had become the command center for all of their operations.  Every once in a while the two of them would get silly and drink some more of Lisa’s fermented juice.  And she had taken one night to make some more so they wouldn’t run out anytime soon.

They worked hard most days and spent the nights talking and looking out the windows.  Both were very interested in how the other had felt at various increments in their lives.  Everything they knew was the same.  Every word that had been spoken to them had been calculated, and likely had been the same words that were spoken to the other.

Neither one felt lonely anymore, but they did feel anxious.  Anxious for what the future held.  Anxious for what they would discover next.  They felt as though a big secret was slowly being unveiled to them and they were ready for the next chapter.

Just two days later, as they were working away in the middle of day, as the ship was silent, BIM began beeping and walked toward George.  George expected a reminder about something, or a lack of charge, so casually brought up BIM’s screen.  BIM had decoded the numerical code, and it produced a series of images.

“Lisa,” he shouted into the other room where she was working.  “The numbers make a picture.  Come look at this.”

Lisa hurried in.  “Amazing.”

There were five images in total.  The first was a photo of a man sitting behind a desk in an office with a large window behind him through which you could see a number of large buildings.  The second was what looked like a map with the word ‘dizhen’ and an arrow pointing in the middle.  That seemed to be Mandarin but the word was unfamiliar to both of them.  The third photo showed a group of people in the same uniform walking together.  The fourth showed one of the vehicles for the air like they had both seen in the video but this one looked much different.  It could only hold a few people and it appeared as though it could travel much faster.  The last photo showed a broken brick building and people standing beside the rubble with their hands over the face.

“This is incredible.  I wonder what this is,” said Lisa.

“It is incredible, and there is a lot of code surrounding each picture, structured to be some sort of directory if I had to guess.”

“Let me see.”  Lisa peered into the screen.  Now that the long numerical strings had been replaced by the pictures, she could see the context for how they were integrated in the communication. “This is odd, but we need to find out how to access these directories.”

George flipped through the photos on the screen again, slowly observing every detail.

“Absolutely incredible,” he broke the bewildered silence.  “There must be more.  We might have overlooked the importance of undecipherable long strings of numbers before, but now we know they actually can produce a photo.  See if we can find some more.”

“And I’ll try to find how to access those directories.  They don’t look like they are protected by security or data scrambling.”

That night, George gazed out in the direction of the Oort Cloud and he monitored current and future projected activity in the cloud on his satellite screen.  He noticed that a large cluster of comets seemed to be traveling together in a large elliptical orbit not far from the estimated location of the Oort Cloud. They stood out from the rest because of their sheer number.  There were so many and they were so close together that it was impossible to count them accurately from such a distance, even with the Gamma Scope, or the Saturn orbiting satellite.

He then observed the nearby moon of Callisto. With more than 60 moons orbiting the planet of Jupiter, what was it about this one that was so special?  Callisto’s orbit was consistent, arching around the planet, then trying to veer out until Jupiter’s gravity pulled it back and around the other side.  It had been doing this exact pattern ever since George started studying the planet and its surroundings.

Since it didn’t appear that Callisto was going to change, there had to be an event that would be affecting it.  He continued to observe the area towards the Oort Cloud and forecast, as much as he could, the solar system’s movement in relation to the more stagnant cloud.  The cloud would shift slightly when the gravitational pull of the planets reached a closer vicinity, although the distance between the inner solar system and the Oort Cloud was still 4 trillion miles away.

BIM was helping compute the numbers which sped up the process.  George watched as BIM produced a previously charted map of the movement of the entire solar system with movement of the Oort Cloud layered on top. It covered the span of the last 40 years of recorded activity and was still mostly calculated through projections given the vast distance.  BIM sped up the calculations and George watched the map begin to move month by month.  As Saturn made its orbit toward the direction of the cloud, George noticed a slight pull in the outer edge of the cloud.  He knew this was how comets entered our galaxy, and he began to speculate as to what would happen if the gravitation pull increased significantly more than just Saturn.

As the map continued to move approaching 1988 and 1989, he began to see a pattern.  The planets had aligned.  First, Uranus matched in line with the Oort Cloud; then Saturn stayed close.  In June of 1990, Jupiter had made its way close to the Cloud at which point the map showed a huge bending of its shape as Jupiter pulled at it.

George heart raced.  Something big was coming.  “BIM, stop there.  What is that exact date?”

“June 22, 1990”

“BIM, show me your projection on the contents of the Oort Cloud on that day?”

“Computing.”

A map of the cloud came up with the objects swirling about inside it.  A large cluster of comets and asteroids were located right at the part of the cloud that the planets’ gravitational pull was going to affect.

He gasped as he realized what was about to happen.

Just then a voice came over the video screen, startling an already edgy George.

“Foreign ship, please identify yourself.”

“George,” Lisa called out from the other room.

He ran in and noticed the video screen was on.  There was a figure hidden behind a blanket.  They could only make out a shadow.

“Please identify yourself.”  It was a man’s voice.

George and Lisa looked at each other in disbelief.

“What do we do?” said Lisa.

George raised in eyebrows.  He didn’t immediately feel threatened.  He was nervous and baffled.  “We should respond.”

“Wait, George, we don’t know who that is.”

“And they don’t know who we are.  It can’t be the Grand Master.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t be, but I want to know who they are?”

The voice spoke again. “Who is there?  Please identify yourself.”

“They might now know that we can hear them unless we respond,” said Lisa.

“True.”

They looked at the picture on the screen more closely. Lisa noticed something.  “George, look at the floor.” It was exactly the same as the floor aboard Hendrix and Joplin. Both of their bodies went numb as they looked at each other.

Lisa said, “It’s one of us.”

 

 

Chapter 12

George scrambled to ACE and booted it up as fast as he could.  Lisa was smiling beside him. “I can’t believe this George.”

“Me either.”

“Can you hear me?  Identify yourself,” the voice said once again.

“We’re trying,” said George.

ACE booted up and George began hunting for the incoming signal.  He couldn’t get ACE to connect.

“BIM, get over here now,”

BIM slowly made his way over and plugged in to ACE.

“We need to speed him up,” George said in frustration at BIM’s slow pace.

Soon the signal was up on the screen.  The lights were on for both the microphone and speakers as the video screen slowly showed the figure once again behind a curtain.

“What’s with the blanket?” wondered Lisa.

“No idea, let’s ask him.”

George spoke into ACE.  “Um, this ship means no harm, thank you for your communication.”

George and Lisa looked at each other confused as George motioned with his hands indicating he wasn’t sure what to say.  The excitement was clouding his ability to think. He continued, “We noticed your ship is the same model as ours.  We believe we are all on the same mission, Callisto?”

The figure was quiet and didn’t move for a few seconds.  Then he pulled down the top of the curtain and two eyes appeared underneath a head of blonde hair as he looked toward the screen.

“Are there two of you?”

“Yes, George and Lisa.  We recently found each other and boarded my ship, Hendrix.”

“And you are on the Callisto mission?”

“Yes.  I believe we all share similar lives.  We have lived aboard our ships our whole lives, under the guidance of the Grand Master.”

When he heard the words ‘Grand Master’ they could see his eyes light up.  He stepped around the curtain revealing his tall frame, dressed in the standard uniform of tan colored pants and a faded green t-shirt.

After a brief pause, he continued, “I’m Jason.  My ship is Clapton.  I didn’t know there was anyone else out here like me.  I can’t believe this.”

“We didn’t know that either until recently.”

Lisa jumped in, “We can’t believe it.  But this is very exciting.  Where are you located?”

“Not far from you at all.  The moons moved out of my view yesterday and as my orbit carried me, all of a sudden I saw your ships appear on my control panel.  I was stunned.  It was as though you appeared out of nowhere.”

“We turned off the scrambler on our location beacon and internal mapping systems because it was inhibiting our view.  It was programmed to hide certain parts of the solar system.  Have you noticed that too?”

“I have not until right now.  But I was suspicious because certain things didn’t add up from my studies.  Certain objects seemed harder to identify than others that were further away.  I attributed it to some sort of galactic fog because of the consistency.”

“We experienced the same thing,” said George.  “But it looks like you figured out how to communicate?”

“You as well.  Let me guess – the solar panel?”

“Yep.”

“Now I feel left out since I didn’t discover that,” joked Lisa.  “You are both pretty smart.”

“I only noticed it because two of mine went out,” said Jason.

“Same for Hendrix.  I guess the parts on these ships have a similar lifespan.  Speaking of, how old are you?”

“I was born on September 10, 1991.”

Lisa laughed.  “George, you’re the baby in the group.  Jason, that makes you the oldest, but just by a month.”

“Were you all born in 1991?” Jason asked.

“Yes, all of us are within a few months of one another,” said Lisa.

They continued to share details of their lives.  George was impressed by Jason since his knowledge of engineering and communications rivaled his own.  And Jason seemed even more knowledgeable about Astronomy and the makeup and motion of the galaxy.

Jason told them he had speculated about what the Callisto Symphony was, and that he believed that it was not going to be as eventful as the Grand Master was preparing them for.

George shared the insight he had just gained, and it matched Jason’s predictions.  But Jason had spent the last month working through calculations, and he determined that the Oort Cloud had in fact released a series of comets into the solar system thirty years ago, the number of which he couldn’t be certain but he had started to catalog them all.  He labeled them numerically JC (Jason Clapton) 1 through JC 232.

“So there are 232 comets that were released?” Lisa asked surprised at the high number.

“That’s what I’ve counted so far.  There are many more.”

“And why are you not alarmed?”

“Because according to my calculations, Jupiter is so close right now to the comets’ projected path that its gravitational strength will pull many of the larger ones into its orbit.  And then they will circle Jupiter until they burn through and eventually fall into Jupiter’s gases.”

“I didn’t get that far in my projections,” said George.  “If these aren’t a threat then how do you know that this is the Callisto Symphony that the Grand Master warns of?”

“Easy.  I’ve spent my whole life up here around Jupiter.  I have felt its gravitational pull.  And it’s different than what we were taught.  Let me guess, your understanding is based on the coursework of Professor Maule?”

They both nodded.

“What they know and what is really out here are two different things.”

“You’re saying they’re wrong?” asked George.

“Absolutely.  I’m almost certain of it.  The only way we could have an impact on the Callisto Symphony with what we have aboard these ships is with the solar panels.  We have the ability to shine warm light on the comets to diminish their size, make them weaker and play a role in controlling their trajectory.  That is what I think our mission is.  They know that hundreds, maybe thousands, of new comets are released from the outer edge of the galaxy and that several of those would be headed toward the third planet from the sun.  I estimate that’s where they live.”

“We did too, based on following the transmission data coordinates back.”

“I did the same thing once I discovered the antenna in the solar panel.  They are either on that planet, on its moon, or orbiting around it in a ship like ours.”

“Fascinating,” said Lisa. “So shining the light is our mission?”

“I believe so, but it’s not necessary.  They aren’t aware of the fact that these comets will not make it past Jupiter.  And if they do, they certainly won’t make it to that planet.  I have to calculate a few more of the objects to be certain, but I think everyone, including them will be safe.”

“Jason, you won’t believe this,” said George.  “But we received a ping back from a signal we sent toward that planet, and it included a video feed from that planet.  There are trees, creatures, and vehicles on land and huge buildings.”

“What? Really?”

“BIM, come here,” George commanded.  BIM entered the video frame.

“Is that a robot companion?  I have one too but it doesn’t look anything like that.  Mine is built into my control panel.”

“It is.  It is modeled it after a creature from that planet.  I saw one run by the screen during the coursework years ago.”

“Wow.”

George instructed BIM to play the video and he made it visible to Jason over the screen.

They watched the whole video, and there was small conversation between them at the beginning, but soon Jason was completely immersed, and didn’t speak a word, except the occasional, “wow.”

They decided there was so much to talk about that they needed to dock up and all board the same ship.  Hendrix would be the vessel of choice, given that Joplin was already stationed adjacent to it, and their ability to travel would be more complex with two of them than Jason’s would be.  Jason however, had not diffused his location beacon, but it took all of a few minutes for George to walk him through it.  He understood how it worked right away.

Jason estimated it would take seven days for him to reach them.  He would begin the trip this evening.  Once he reached them, he would have to disband his ship using his Exciter, similar to how Lisa had done it.  And Lisa would walk him through how to build the disconnection manifold for Exciter.  The empty bay with Lisa’s Exciter already in it would make for a tight fit, but they figured it was their best option.

During the days of travel, the group would continue to communicate, and share things they had learned.  The communications with the planet remained a popular topic, as did the Callisto Symphony.  George began to track the comets just as Jason had done, naming them in a similar convention, beginning with GH1.  They wanted to make sure their data matched.  Jason believed that the largest comet, the one he named JC189 might be the cause for the biggest concern from the Grand Master, and the projections they had made.

JC189 appeared to be on a path where it might avoid being trapped by Jupiter, and would go on to be trapped by the next largest planet.  In such a case, Jason predicted that the blue planet’s gravity would hold the comet in its orbit until it either shrunk from the warmth, grew weaker and crashed into the planet, or circled enough times, that it eventually makes contact with the close orbiting moon.  Now that Jason had seen the large bodies of water from the video, he knew that such an impact on a close orbiting moon would cause a galactic tide on the nearby planet that would likely cover the entire planet.

When Jason laid out this path and observed its relevance to the rest of the interstellar properties, he realized that Jupiter’s Callisto moon would be close to the path of this comet.  This led him to believe that the mission may be singularly focused on diminishing the strength of JC189 to a point where they could cause it to collide with Callisto, thereby prohibiting its further trajectory through the galaxy and avoiding the potential for the galactic tide.

George and Lisa were in awe at Jason’s brilliance.  They ran the projections themselves, and noticed that everything he said was accurate.  The biggest question was the path of JC189.  Would it get pulled into Jupiter’s orbit or make it past?

George had an idea and brought up his travel history log and fed it into BIM.  He focused in on the days surrounding his last emergency shift in position caused by the extra strong force from Jupiter.  Those fields were certainly stronger than what was projected on his mapping system.  Otherwise, regardless of being down one solar panel, Hendrix would have never have been pulled so far out of position, and created alarm for the Grand Master.

When they overlaid the position for that field with the path of JC189, they discovered that it would in fact pass right through this stronger than expected field of gravity.

“I have felt and fought against that field in my own ship, Jason.  I can tell you first hand, it’s a tough one.  Certainly stronger than predicted.”

Jason nodded, “I am confident that the Callisto Symphony will not occur as the Grand Master predicted.  I could of course be wrong, and there are variables out of everyone’s control, but either way, I don’t think that the three of us out here are going to be able to prevent a catastrophe of this magnitude.”

It was soon day three of travel and they could see Jason’s ship.  He was close.  They spent their days continuing to discuss the mission, their purpose, their instructors, and what they thought was on that third planet.  They pondered what it would be like to go back, and they all three agreed that there was little choice but to try to do so now that the Callisto Symphony appeared to be under control.  Their mission may in fact be at an end and they felt lucky to know about it ahead of the Grand Master and everyone else.  They speculated as to what the Grand Master’s plans were for them following the Callisto Symphony.  Was his plan just to leave them out here?  Or bring them back?

“Do you really think they sent us on a one way mission from that planet as babies, only to have us never to come back?” Lisa asked.

It seemed like a crazy thought to all of them, but also one that was rooted in the most truth, given their experiences.  They discussed the different lives of the people in the videos, and how they seemed so happy with so much around them.  They became upset at the fact that they were alone on the ships for such a long period of time.  Jason was anxious to dock with them.  At one point, he asked what it felt like to touch another human.

“It feels great,” responded Lisa.

They began to formulate a plan for their return trip.  Jason had estimated that it may take about three years, just as George and Lisa had.  The biggest challenge was consistent power, and Jason believed that he could remove several of his solar panels to hook on to Hendrix, if Hendrix was to become the ship they would use.  He figured he might be able to increase the power by 50% by installing more panels.  But he wouldn’t be able to fit all of his panels on Hendrix, plus he needed to keep some aboard Clapton to keep its communication infrastructure powered up.  They might be able to use a few from Joplin as well.

This could bring the travel time down from three years to two.  The positioning of Jupiter and the ‘swing’ they might be able to get from its gravity, actually might benefit them too and decrease travel time.  Plus the orbit of the blue planet was relatively favorable.  If they had left six months ago it would have been even closer.   And all this assumes that they don’t encounter any technical complications.

On the night before they docked, Jason raised a good point about the secrecy of the travel.

“We need to figure out how we will travel toward that planet without being detected, and also how we will maintain our MANOOLA communication.  For instance, what if we are told nine months from now to change location?  We will need to re-manipulate our MANOOLA programming.”

George believed he could program the MANOOLA to be accessible through ACE, for each spacecraft, so that they could edit the reporting data remotely.  He said he would begin writing that program.  But they were all three worried about the detection of the spacecraft as they approached the planet.

“We need to get inside their broadcasting network.  Think about it.  If they could prevent us from detecting one another at such close range, can’t we turn them off from detecting us as well?”

“Maybe,” said George, “but at some point as we get closer, they will be able to see us without their long range Gamma Scopes and mapping systems, in which case we’d have to find another solution.”

Then George had an idea as he thought about the tools at their disposal.

“What if they didn’t see a ship coming towards them?  But instead saw a satellite?”

All three were silent for a moment while they pondered this idea.  George continued to explain his thinking.  “What if we hide the ship behind one of my satellites as we approach?  We can combine that with scrambling their signal, but it might seem less threatening if they see a satellite, and they may not notice any small anomalies in the scrambling data around the ship if a satellite is out in front.”

Jason was thinking intensely about the idea.  “But the satellite is so small.  It can’t hurt and it might be fairly easy to execute such a plan, but at some point we are going to get close enough that we may need to hide even more.”

“What if we don’t hide?” suggested Lisa.  “What are they going to do?”

George didn’t like this idea at all.  “They won’t be expecting us and we have no idea how they will react.  We are obviously deceiving them through the manipulation of the MANOOLA data.  I don’t want to count on their reaction as being positive.  Sure, we think the Callisto Symphony will be done, but we don’t know for certain, and we do not know their plan for us following the mission.”

“I agree,” said Jason.  “We are already off-mission, and as we travel we will be completely disobeying their commands.  We can’t trust them.”

“I understand all of that,” said Lisa.  “I just wonder if we will be able to see this plan through to completion and actually make it all the way back without incident.  I guess we have to try at least.”

“We do.  Think about this.” Jason took command.  “We have one year before Callisto and at the earliest maybe two years before we approach the planet.  Between the three of us, we will have time to formulate a plan for avoiding their detection.  There is no reason to stay here.  It’s time to make a move.”

And so it was decided.

The next day, when they awoke, Jason’s spacecraft Clapton was just outside their window.  He had completed the disconnection manifold per Lisa’s instructions.  Because he was docking on the opposite side of Joplin, George would have to navigate further around the ship to access the bay door on Clapton.  He would then have to move Jason’s Exciter with his arm over a much greater distance then he had done with Lisa.  It was going to be a little more risky this time.

Jason indicated he was ready for the transfer.  George opened the Exciter bay door and entered the space beyond the ship.  Lisa was at the window watching anxiously.  George made his way around the thrusters on Hendrix and reached the opposite side of the ship.  He watched as Jason moved his Exciter towards him, and then after confirming that George had a grip on the top of it, he disconnected the manifold from Clapton and was completely loose.

George slowly guided him around the back of the ship.  Jason’s Exciter ever so slightly bumped Hendrix as they turned the last corner of the back of the ship, but it didn’t cause any damage.  George felt the bump and slowed down even more making sure each of his movements was precise and that he retained complete control over his cargo.

They came to the side of Hendrix and George opened the satellite door that now contained Lisa’s Exciter.  As he moved Jason towards the opening, he realized it was going to be a tighter fit than they had thought.  Jason’s Exciter seemed larger when it was matched up to the opening of the door and its proximity to the remaining open space.  After ten minutes of negotiating his way in, George was able to turn Jason’s Exciter around and drop him in facing the opposite way of Lisa’s Exciter.  The profile shapes of the two Exciters aligned with one another just enough for the door to squeeze shut.

George exited his Exciter and walked toward the satellite bay.  Lisa was waiting there as well as Jason entered the pressurized area of the ship.  When the door opened Jason immediately exclaimed, “Now, that was a much tighter fit than I imagined.  Nice work George.”

They all smiled as Jason made his way in.  He was much taller than George, standing at least one foot higher as he made his way toward them.  Jason hugged Lisa tight as he relished in the touch of another human.  He hugged George as well, stuffing George’s head into his chest.

“You’re tall.”

“I never thought about it, until now.”