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Authors: Jeremy Robinson

BENEATH - A Novel (7 page)

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Robert shook Peterson's hand. "A pleasure," Robert said.

"Robert Samuels, oceanographer and crack shot, self-taught electronics engineer."

"Correct on all counts," Robert said with a smile.

"And I've already had the pleasure of meeting out mission leader, Kathy Connelly, biologist, oceanography and my future dinner date."

Connelly's face flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and anger as she took a seat at one of the desks.

Ethan chuckled. "Boss, things move faster in space, but you're still on the ground."

"One more word," Connelly said. "And you'll have to walk back from Europa." She looked at Michael. "That goes for you too."

Willard leaned over to Peterson, who sat at the next desk over. "She's always testy with men she likes." Willard gave a wink.

"Pack your walking shoes, Ethan," Connelly said without turning around.




"I don't know," Timothy Harris said as he rubbed his bald head. "I see a lot of potential for tension."

Nancy Heintz stood next to him, watching Connelly, Peterson, Willard and Robert through the back side of a one way mirror. "Would you prefer they be serious science types? Their psychological tests came back fine. A short temper here, a tendency to talk too much there, but nothing serious."

"Still," Harris said, "If you want me commanding this mission, I need to have full faith in my crew, even the scientists. If anything goes wrong out there, we're on our own and I need everyone to be physically and psychologically at the top of their game."

A loud laugh from the other side of the one way mirror brought their attention back to the crew. They were all laughing at something.

Harris turned to Jen Choi, who had been watching the group with an unwavering eye. "What happened?"

Choi turned to Harris, swinging her pony-tailed black hair behind her head. "Willard passed gas."

Harris smiled. He willed himself not to, but he couldn't help it. He turned back to

"You see?" she said, also attempting to hide a smile.
"The only lethal gas you'll have to worry about while in Europa's orbit is from Mr. Willard."

Harris chuckled. "Fine. But I'm putting them all through the wringer and if they don't come through clean, they're not coming."

nodded. "Then make sure they all come out clean, because if they don't, none of you will be going."

The smirk on Harris's face disappeared. "Understood." Harris looked back through the one way mirror. Everyone had moved away from Willard. Connelly was waving her hand in front of her nose. Robert had his nose hidden beneath the collar of his shirt. Peterson was standing in the doorway, which was now open, moving the door back and forth to promote air circulation.

Harris's smirk returned. He looked back to Choi. "You ready to get started?"

Choi still wasn't smiling. Harris knew she wouldn't, either. Choi was a South Korean, Center for Disease Control and Prevention specialist turned astronaut. She had everything they needed for this mission and a serious demeanor to boot. Only she, Harris, Nancy and Peterson knew of the potential hazards of this mission and the death in the
. But with Choi along, they were prepared for the worst. She had handled some of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recent history and had a flawless track record. Harris wondered how many strings had to be pulled before the CDC let her go. With everything she had seen, he knew she had reason to be serious, but still found her inability to smile unsettling.

Choi nodded.

"Let's get started then."

As Choi led the way out of the room, Harris glanced back into room 117 and felt a shiver of apprehension crawl across his ribs. This mission would make or break his career. Of course, whether the mission succeeded or failed, he would still be remembered in the history books. But
he would be remembered had yet to be determined. Space travel in general was dangerous, but when you take high speed travel, unknown space and an inexperienced crew into consideration, it was downright nuts. He hadn't worked out the odds of success yet—didn't want to—but his gut said they weren't good. That they were more likely to be remembered with a plaque or a statue while their dead bodies floated through space. But avoiding that outcome was his job. And he was ready for it. Determination replaced the apprehension. He would make these scientists into astronauts or die trying.




Connelly had just sat back down at the desk when the door opened and a balding, African-American man walked into the room; his spine held straight, his demeanor friendly. The man was followed by an Asian woman with beautiful tan skin and serious eyes.

"Hello everyone," the man said. "I'm Captain Timothy Harris, your mission commander. This is Jen Choi. She's my second in command, and on this mission, what we say is equal to the word of God."

Choi walked to the front of the room, carrying a handful of file folders. Harris stood behind the desk.

Choi stood in front of them, not relaxing her posture. "We have three months of training to complete. Three months after that, we will be walking on the surface of a moon in orbit around Jupiter. Please pay attention to everything you are taught. Even the smallest detail, while perhaps boring to you now, could save your life or the lives of this crew. Any questions before we get started?"

After a moment of silence, Robert found the guts to speak. "Uh, here to Europa in three months? Isn't that kind of, well, fast?"

"We will be using a new propulsion system in an experimental spacecraft named Surveyor," Choi explained, "which will allow us to reach abnormally high speeds."

"Sounds dangerous," Willard said.

The slightest hint of a turned up smile appeared on Choi's face, but then quickly disappeared. "It is."

"Oh." Willard said. "Well, as long as we're not being pushed through space by a series of nuclear explosions. I saw that in a TV special and...I..." He noticed Harris's sympathetic smile. "Dammit."

Connelly looked at Peterson. "Not that I'm complaining. I realize that you made the original discovery, but why are you on the team? Europa is primarily composed of ice and water, and we're searching for life. Why send a geologist?"

"The meteorite we found in the arctic was composed primarily of extremely dense ice," Peterson said.
"But swirled within the ice were veins of unknown elements, which when analyzed in the lab, turned out to be highly energetic. My theory is that the microbial life on Europa survive by somehow absorbing this elemental energy. I'd be happy to show you my data."

"Sounds romantic," Willard said.

Before Connelly could shush Willard, Harris broke in. "All right, folks. Stay focused. You're about to get five years worth of training in three months. You don't learn this stuff, we don't go." Harris looked at Willard. "You following me?"

Willard smiled and gave a salute. "Let's do this."



Glistening stars sparkled in the dark sky above Connelly's head. She had been staring at them for several minutes. As she gazed into the expanse, her chest felt as though it were being compressed, similar to her experiences with deep water diving. Every breath was work and soon she felt her lungs growing tired. Her breath became labored and quick.

Connelly felt as though she would suffocate. She was in no danger of suffocation, but the tightness in her chest squeezed tighter with every passing second. Her thoughts drifted to the cause of this
. The word slammed into her mind and added weight to her chest.

This was an anxiety attack.

It had been many years since Connelly's last anxiety attack, and that had been a minor episode. She had seen a psychologist, had worked through the problem, which had been brought on by witnessing the death of her closest friend, and had only taken meds for half a year. But she remembered the feeling of impending doom, of looming death, like it woke up next to her every morning.

The stars above her became blurred swirls of light that danced in her vision. The lack of oxygen was taking its toll on her mind. She was beginning to hallucinate. She was going to pass out.

Connelly reached back into her mind and plucked from the lessons she had learned on how to deal with anxiety attacks. She concentrated on her breathing first, slowing the rise and fall of her chest, breathing deeply, sucking in air, ignoring the pain. The tightness subsided some and her vision began to clear. The stars came into focus and the atmosphere seemed to cool around her.

Before she could register a physical change, the stars grew closer, larger. She knew it was impossible. Stars were light years away. Traveling to the outer fringes of our own solar system wouldn't increase the size of stars. But these enlarged as she neared them, like they were painted on a flat surface.

Connelly turned her head and looked back. The Earth was below her, floating away. With the realization that she was hovering in space came an incredible coldness that tore through her skin and made her bones feel brittle. She faced forward again and felt her body strike a surface. It was soft, like silk, but firm.

The impact made her gasp, but when she sucked the air into her chest, she inhaled a mouthful of the silky surface. It filled her mouth and oozed into her lungs. Then gravity returned and pulled her body down. The material was yanked from her lungs as she began to fall. Connelly reached out for the surface, searching for a handhold, but her fingers flailed against the smooth ceiling. There was nothing to hold on to.

Spinning her body to face the Earth, Connelly began to think. None of it made sense. It wasn't real.

But it

With the ground approaching rapidly, Connelly's body tensed, bracing for a deadly impact, but her mind was somewhere else. Connelly reached her hands down toward the ground and saw a vision of her arms being disintegrated even before the rest of her body hit. It was her left middle finger that struck first.

Then the rest of her body plunged down—and bounced.

Connelly lay in bed, flat on her back, her body still bouncing from the impact. With the surreal world fading away, Connelly's logic began to take over.

It was all a dream—a stress induced dream—but still just a dream. Connelly stared up at the ceiling and began to wonder about the feeling of impact that she had felt. When she woke, she was very aware that her body had, in fact, felt like she had really fallen. It was so real that even after she was awake, her body was still bouncing.

Memories of past discussions entered her mind. A scientist named Gunthar Holtz worked on the same research vessel as Connolly for a summer. It was a brilliant research ship, equipped with submersibles, shark cages and the best mobile labs she had ever seen. But at night, when the day's work had been finished, there was nothing to do but enjoy the sweet sea air and exchange stories.

It was Gunthar's stories that filled her mind now. He was a staunch believer in telekinetic powers, extra sensory perception, out of body experiences, astral projection, all the powers of the mind beyond the body. Gunthar explained once how he would have recurring dreams of falling; sometimes from an airplane, sometimes from a building, but always falling. Just as his body struck whatever surface he was falling toward, he would awake to find that he had really fallen. He explained that the human mind, while in REM sleep was more open to the hidden powers it possessed. His fear of falling was so great that the anxiety he would feel was strong enough to trigger a telekinetic event—on his own body. When he woke from a dream of falling, the telekinesis was disrupted and he would fall back into his bed.

Connelly had never experienced such a thing, but was now beginning to wonder. As a scientist, she was always interested in exploring new frontiers, but mental powers seemed more in the realm of the paranormal than scientific. It was a subject of hot debate that summer, but she hadn't given much thought since.

Connelly sat up in bed and rubbed her warm hands across her forehead. They felt greasy. She stood and wandered over to the small bathroom attached to the meek quarters provided her by the GEC. The bathroom was small, like the bedroom, but it was functional and modern. She turned on the faucet and let the stainless steel basin fill with cold water. Once full, she plunged her face beneath the water and counted to thirty. She felt the remaining clouds in her mind vanish and her thoughts become clear.

Water poured from Connelly's cheeks as she pulled her face up and glanced in the mirror. She looked tired.
Three months of intense training will do that
, she thought. The rest of the team, with the exception of Jen Choi and Captain Harris, looked just as tired and beaten as she did.
As the water dripped away from her eyelids, a wisp of motion caught her attention. The shower curtain behind her had moved ever so slightly, as though a gust of wind had swept through the room, but there were no windows open and her door was locked.

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