Chapter nineteen of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
John Fobell, as luck would have it, knew breathing systems, and he was more than willing to pitch in to keep his mind off his missing father—another synchronicity that made Bransen smile.
After his parents’ divorce, John had discovered scuba diving—initially to explore the shipwrecks that dotted the Great Lakes like grapeshot—and with it the concepts of rebreathing and various other forms of artificial air. Almost by accident he had then designed his own modified rebreather, twice as efficient and half the weight of its nearest competitor. Howard had glowed with both pride and astonishment at the accomplishments of his son, who had yet to finish his first year of college.
And so, with Mouse, he built a rat-sized pod that could keep its occupant alive for up to six hours, and Mouse and Carlos had added the necessary components for remote control between Earth and Mars. According to the design model (and a brief test of the machine, which Mouse had inexplicably dubbed Circadia X), they would simply drive the pod into the beam of light emanating from the machine and—assuming they pointed it correctly—end up on Mars. This, Ana-loop had assured them, would be accomplished in “too little time for you to measure.” Nobody really knew how this was possible, or even what the pool of extracted psilocybin was for (though it did appear to glow as the beam of light passed through it), but Ana-loop assured them it would work. Her cryptic reply had been “one way for your body, the other for your Radiance.”
To say the PISA Mars Team was nervous about the experiment would be a vast understatement. Mouse tried to put it off until Howard returned, which Bransen could understand, but his fears about what Howard was saying to the government made him want to proceed without any delay. For all they knew, the government had taken Howard at exactly this moment in an effort to slow them down.
So, in the name of science, they said a small prayer for a lab rat scratching away in a small pod, turned on Circadia X, watched the psilocybin glow, and drove the pod into the beam of light. The moment the pod met the light, the pod simply vanished.
“My God, it’s gone!” Mouse shrieked, coining what was to become the most-quoted in-joke of the PISA Mars Team. It seemed to sum up perfectly everything about that first experiment: The joy, the surprise, and the awe at how quickly light could travel.
Carlos dashed over to a computer and tapped away, searching for a signal from the pod, sure they had only vaporized it and its occupant. About a half-hour later, the unthinkable happened: They received the uniquely-devised signal from the surface of Mars.
“Jesus, the rat’s alive!” Carlos uttered, which surely would have become more popular than Mouse’s statement, had anyone heard it.
“It’s alive!” he cried out loud instead. “It’s alive and it’s on Mars!”
Bransen was smiling ear to ear, but stepped calmly before his cheering team and held up his hands, saying quietly, “That’s absolutely fucking wonderful, guys. Now let’s bring it home. Alive.”
It took the team over three hours to remotely navigate the pod back to the on-again/off-again beam of light. For a harrowing half hour it appeared the separate spins of the planets were going to go against them, but then the scratchy, almost-worthless camera they had hastily installed managed to help the pod lock onto the beam of light and auto-pilot to it. But even before they received radio confirmation of this, the pod was back in Bransen Labs, instantly reappearing with a small thud.
And Jesus, the rat was alive.
And as the PISA Mars Team broke out the champagne and toasted a rat, General Rauchbach and Admiral Thomas were trying to make sense of an eight-foot-wide beam of light that had, for the past four hours, intermittently burst from the vicinity of Bransen Labs. They were also kicking themselves for not interrogating Howard even longer, so they could ask him what it meant.
Howard, oblivious to exactly how much had been accomplished in a single day, looked happy enough when he entered Bransen Labs that evening, but something in the flush of his face bespoke what Carlos would have called “duress.”
Everyone on the team dropped what they were doing to greet him—shake his hand; pat him on the shoulder; make sure it was really him—and John veritably flung himself at his father, hugging him tightly.
“Whoah!” Howard cried, stumbling a bit and dropping his briefcase. “Was I gone that long?” He laughed thinly and adjusted his glasses on his nose, then nodded at the smiling faces around him. “Yes, well, my former employers seemed to think I had forgotten my obligations to them. It was a bit scary in as much as I know how people can… disappear. But all-in-all, it didn’t take me more than a few hours to convince them they were wrong.”
“What did they want?” Carlos demanded sharply, backing down again as soon as he realized how forceful he’d sounded.
“Don’t worry, Carlos—I don’t think they’re coming for you next,” Howard chuckled. “They wanted to know how to communicate with conscious light.”
“So they’re onto us?” Mouse wondered. He was fiddling with some machine part or other, slowly wiping oil from it.
“Oh, sure,” Howard replied dismissively, still unaware that the team had basically shouted out its progress to the world while he traveled back from the Pentagon to the cabin, then back to Bransen Labs.
“So what did you tell them?” Carlos asked. Howard shrugged and picked up his briefcase.
“Nothing much. They wanted to know how to talk to conscious light, so I asked if they had now accepted my theories, to which they answered that I didn’t have the clearance to be told. So then I pointed out that if they didn’t tell me what they wanted, I couldn’t help them. We went around like that for a couple of hours, and I finally told them that to communicate with light they should probably use light, and that my nondisclosure agreement with Bransen Labs didn’t allow me to say anything more.”
“Hm,” Bransen grunted. “But now they may pull ‘National Security’ and take our work…”
Mouse stepped closer to Circadia X, resting a defiant hand on a random bit of the machine, his face writ with the worry of a father being told he’d loose custody of his child. Carlos and Howard both were shaking their heads, denying any such thought.
“No way,” Howard summarized. “They pull that, and we go public. That would force them to admit the reality of UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence, which they most certainly are not about to do.”
“Hold it!” Mouse declared, stepping forward excitedly. “Did you just admit that the government is covering up knowledge of UFOs?”
Howard considered Mouse over his glasses.
“After what you’ve seen here, who do you think?”
“Yeah, I know, but to hear it so plainly…”
“Don’t go calling any talk shows,” Bransen cautioned with an amiable grin. “At least, not about that.”
“Not that he could talk,” Luci suggested. “I mean, if the Feds claim national security, couldn’t they make it illegal for us to talk about… all of this?”
She glanced at Mouse with concern. He was grinning proudly and she looked away with a blush and a barely-suppressed grin: She’d been spending too much time with the biker, she realized without regret.
Howard caught their grins, then looked at the other faces around him and finally saw the joy bubbling barely beneath the relief and concern.
“What?” he asked slowly. “What did I miss?”