Mission Control looks just like it does in the movies. Lines of desks aimed at giant screens, scores of scientists and engineers chatting excitedly in front of their own smaller monitors. Across the room from me, Carlo Costa leads a gaggle of excited VIPs from workstation to workstation, waxing lyrical about the Nautilus Probe and the billions of dollars he’s spent on all this.
‘Remember, Darsha,’ my boss whispers in my ear, ‘we need the pH and any dissolved minerals as soon as the raw data arrives.’ It’s the fourth time he’s reminded me in as many minutes.
‘Got it,’ I answer, not quite managing to keep the irritation from my voice. I was brought in two days ago to replace an oceanographer Costa fired and my boss is still terrified I’ll screw up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please.’ Mission Control falls silent as Costa speaks from the centre of the room. ‘We didn’t find evidence of life on Mars,’ he begins, in what is clearly his big rehearsed moment, ‘but Saturn’s moon Enceladus and its subterranean ocean was the next best bet.
‘And so it became my dream to go there and see what we might discover, and that dream is about to become a reality. We should receive the Nautilus Probe’s transmission any moment now, and then we will make history as the first humans to ever peer into the depths of an alien ocean.’
A round of jubilant applause follows, even the trio of stoic military guys in the corner clap.
As the applause dies down, all attention turns to the biggest screen at the front of the room. There are audible gasps as the word Searching… turns to Receiving Data, and then excited yelps as a shaky image forms. I see the tech guys at the front of the room working furiously to clean it up.
‘That’s the view from the Nautilus’s camera,’ Costa exclaims, as the image sharpens. ‘It’s filming the bottom of the borehole, it should leave the ice and descend into the ocean any second now.’
A few moments, a lot of bubbles and the Nautilus Probe is finally submerged. Slowly, it moves through the water, filming everything its searchlight illuminates.
The first one is a shadow, a murky shape in the water at the extreme of the camera’s reach. No one dares speak as the Nautilus inches towards the object, but all that changes once its searchlight illuminates her pale, contorted face. A woman’s face. A human woman wearing a flowery summer dress.
‘What the hell?’ one of the VIPs beside Costa cries.
‘Look,’ someone else shouts, ‘there are more.’
And he’s right. The probe’s camera is panning now, and there are others; men, more women, even children. All of them floating lifelessly in an alien ocean 750 million miles away.
‘Is this some kind of sick joke, Costa?’ a musclebound VIP demands.
For once, Costa is speechless. None of the scientists know what to do either, most of them are just gawping at the screen.
‘Look at that one,’ one of the tech guys shouts.
The probe’s camera has taken aim at a man. A man wearing a tunic, cloak and sword belt. If it wasn’t so utterly impossible, I’d say I was looking at a dead Roman soldier.
‘Cut the feed!’ The three military guys are storming towards the middle of the room. ‘Cut the feed now!’
The screen goes black as the trio reaches Costa. ‘I’m General Fraser,’ the oldest of the trio announces, ‘and I’m retroactively declaring everything you all witnessed on that screen as Strictly Confidential.’
‘But … the media,’ a shell-shocked Costa manages to whimper, ‘they’re waiting to see what the Nautilus filmed.’
Before he answers, General Fraser nods to one of his subordinates. The younger man heads towards the door.
‘The press will be informed that the mission failed due to technical difficulties,’ Fraser declares to the room at large. Then he says something about risking nationwide hysteria to Costa, shutting him up.
As Fraser speaks, I notice his subordinate take up a position by the door. He’s blocking it. Blocking it so we can’t get out and tell anyone what we saw.
Before I really know what I’m doing, I stand. ‘People need to be made aware of this discovery, General Fraser,’ I contest, my boss looking horrified below me. ‘Surely you can’t be insinuating that we cover it up?’
‘Young lady,’ Fraser responds, ‘please return to your seat. This is now a matter of national security.’
‘What we just saw goes way beyond one nation,’ I say. ‘Everyone on the planet needs to know about this.’
‘She’s right,’ a VIP I recognise as a TV talk show host says. ‘I started out as a journalist, there’s no way I can sit on something like this.’
‘May I remind you all,’ General Fraser booms, over the growing murmur of the room, ‘that you all signed a legally-binding agreement. It explicitly prohibits—’
‘Screw some piece of paper,’ I snap, as I sense the room beginning to side with me, ‘the world needs to know that there are a bunch of dead people floating around in an ocean humans have supposedly never visited before. However this happened, it changes everything.’
‘The girl’s right,’ the TV host says. ‘I’m calling my old newsroom right now.’
As she pulls her phone from her pocket, General Fraser nods at his other subordinate, the one still standing beside him. In an instant, his subordinate unholsters his sidearm and puts a bullet in the TV host’s head.
Her body crumples to the floor and the room is stunned into silence.
‘Anybody else keen to speak to the media?’ the general asks.