Unintended Consequences:

Part Two

by Ruth L

 

As she moved about her duties on the Jupiter 2, Maureen was beginning to realize that her emotional turmoil over John was receding into the least of her problems. She was growing increasingly concerned about the fuel-making project, and John’s borderline obsession with leaving this planet. Notwithstanding its acceptable Geiger-counter emissions, what did they actually know about this mysterious new fueling substance? What effects might it have on their environment, and on plant or human physiology?

Maureen greatly feared that in his haste to lift off, John was placing too much trust in the alien intelligence that he had acquired, while abandoning common sense. She also suspected that he was trying to purge the guilt over his mistreatment of the family by offering up the miracle fuel production technology as a sort of peace dividend.

After finishing the laundry, Maureen instructed Judy to start the dinner preparations, and then walked over to the main irrigation pipe. She was amused to see that Dr. Smith had made himself comfortable on a lounge chair, and was directing the robot in sealing the pipe joints. Startled, he looked guiltily at Maureen. “It’s my delicate back, Madame. I fear I shall ever be able to straighten up again. If you will permit me to say, dear lady, your husband has become a tyrant!”

“I am happy that you found a workable arrangement, Dr. Smith,” Maureen greeted him pleasantly. She turned her attention to the robot. ”Do you know the radioactive decay rate of the isotope we are manufacturing?” she inquired of it.

“Negative, Mrs. Robinson”, answered the machine.  “Dr. Smith has kept me too busy with the irrigation system to compute the properties of the fueling isotope.”  

“Silence, you ninny!” commanded Dr. Smith. “And just how would we survive on this dreary planet, if not for my water-delivery expertise?”  

“Robot, when your work here is completed, please evaluate the radioactivity of the new fueling substance,” Maureen requested. “And then report to Professor Robinson and myself.”

“Affirmative, Mrs. Robinson.”

               *****************************************

 

After dinner that evening, while Maureen sewed on Penny’s pullover and John updated the logbook, the robot rolled into the doorway of their cabin. “Professor and Mrs. Robinson, I have computed the radioactive properties of the fuel.”

“And what prompted that?” John inquired. The robot was not in general a proactive figure, programmed as it was to take direction from others.

“He was following my orders, John,” Maureen informed him. “I was curious, since no one else around here seems to be.”  

John hid his surprise. Maureen rarely interacted with the robot. “All right, let’s hear your report.”  

“The isotope has a half-life of 4.75 years. Insufficient data at this time on radioactive decay products”, intoned the machine. “The isotope emits high-frequency ionizing radiation colloquially referred to as gamma rays.”  

Here was a problem. Deutronium emanations were considerably less penetrating. The robot’s information meant that the radioactivity of the manufactured fuel could not be safely shielded with the canister storage method used for deutronium.  

John glanced at Maureen, and ran a hand over the back of his head. “Did you check the radioactivity at the fuel production site?” he asked curtly.

“Affirmative, Professor Robinson. The readings range between .05 and .065 mR/hour.”

“Well, those are still safe levels,” commented John, relieved. “Don and I will suit up and pack the canisters in the containment section of the power core.  That area is impervious to gamma radiation. There shouldn’t be any health risks to us.”  

“Very well, Professor Robinson.” The robot rolled away from their cabin.

John closed the folding door, and stowed the logbook. He glanced over at Maureen and saw that she was watching him.

“John, I don’t like this. We’re literally playing with fire. We know virtually nothing about this strange new substance, other than the robot’s disturbing new findings. We could be seriously endangering ourselves.”

“Well Maureen, we’re not in any danger of contamination right now. Don and I will test the engines tomorrow. If everything goes well, then we’ll be off this planet in less than two weeks. The important thing is to be on our way, fast.”

“Why is that so important? What matters most is our safety and well being. I think, dear, that we should go back to mining deutronium”..

John leaned in toward her. “Darling, that could take months. I want to get away, now, from this planet and the remnants of that alien civilization that tried to take over all of us.” He kissed the top of her head. “Everything will be all right, Maureen. You’ll see.”  

John stood, grabbed a radiation suit, and left in search of Don.

 

          ***********************************************

 

Two days later the engine testing was pronounced a success. John marveled at the flexibility of their reactor core design. The Jupiter 2 engines had been built for the annihilation of deutronium, and the use of a different nuclear fuel had required considerable adjustment to the fuel intake and conversion systems. John was also suitably impressed with Don’s skills in recalibrating the propulsion system. Before their launch, the Jupiter 2 had often been billed as “bold in design, and brilliant in execution”. John now realized this was not just media hype. It was the truth.  

Over breakfast, his mood was buoyant as the day’s tasks were plotted out. “It’s time to start breaking down the irrigation system. We’ll leave the main valve in place for now, but Smith, I want you and Will and the robot to start dismantling the outer perimeter of the network. Don and I will collect the piping and load it onto the Chariot.”  

“Dad, when do we get to take the Chariot and break down the weather stations and the relays?” asked Will eagerly.  

“Not till next week, son”, replied John. His eyes met Maureen’s and they exchanged a conspiring smile. “You can help with the relay antennas, but your mother and I are planning to go pack up the weather stations.”

“Holy cow Dad, are you serious? That’s men’s work!” protested Will.

“Never underestimate your mother, Will. She’s got more strength and determination that all of us men put together.” John ruffled his son’s hair, and turned to kiss Maureen. “We’ll see you later today, darling.”

 

           **************************************************

“Mom, can I talk to you for a minute?” Penny stepped off the elevator, cradling Debbie in her arms. The creature had her arms entwined around Penny’s neck. She was limp, and her eyes stared dully ahead.

“Of course, Penny, what is it dear? And what’s wrong with Debbie?" 

“That’s just it, Mom. I don’t know. She’s been kind of tired the last couple of days, and I thought she just needed some rest after hanging around at the quarry with Will and I all day. But now she seems really sick.” Penny stroked the animal’s head. “Can you help her?”

Although trained in biochemistry, Maureen was no expert on the physiology of simian-like alien fauna. As the only one in their midst who was native to this planet, Debbie had presumably evolved antibodies to the local pathogens. Perhaps, Maureen speculated, she had contracted a mutant viral infection, the Priplanus equivalent of the common cold or flu.

Her mind started to race. Antibodies…mutations…GAMMA RAYS!!!

Maureen spoke calmly, trying to hide her fear. “Penny, I think you should keep Debbie comfortable, make sure she has plenty of fluids, and let her rest. You can heat up some space chowder and feed that to her. I’m sure it’s nothing serious, and she’ll be as good as new in a few days.”

“OK, Mom.” Penny kissed her mother, and descended to the lower deck with Debbie.  Maureen looked after them, trying to quell the knot in her stomach.

 

        *************************************************

 

Judy was harvesting the garden in the hopes of preparing a big green salad for dinner. For the last two days she had been keeping to herself the knowledge that the garden was not producing as well as had been expected.  The fruits were stunted, and the leafy plants had a withered appearance. There was not much time left before departure to build up a supply of produce for freezing or drying. Seeing Maureen coming down the access ramp, Judy felt that the time had come to share her concerns.  

“Mother, I think there’s something wrong with the garden. I wonder if it’s something in the soil or the water. Maybe even the air? We’re just not getting the yield that we were, even though I’ve been watering and weeding and pruning and fertilizing…”    

Maureen felt her heart sink. “Judy dear, please bring me a soil testing kit, and some test tubes. We’ll get samples of the ground soil, and the hydroponics fluids.  

“Mother, you sound like you know what this may be about.”

“I can’t be certain about anything yet.  But I’d like to rule out the possibility that the radioactivity of the fuel is affecting the garden.”

“But Dad said the emissions weren’t harmful to us. And it’s all packed safely away in the power core.”

“The emission levels may not have been dangerous to us, Judy, but we haven’t considered their effects on the water, soil, or airborne microbes. Debbie seems to have caught a cold or the flu. The radiation might have mutated the microbes here into a strain to which she has no immunity.”  

“Oh, the poor thing! Could that make us sick too?”

“Well, animal pathogens generally don’t infect humans, so whatever is sickening Debbie shouldn’t affect us.  Judy dear, I didn’t mean to alarm you. Let’s collect the samples, and we’ll take things one at a time.”

 

           *****************************************

 

Late that afternoon, the irrigation crew returned in the pipe-laden Chariot to find the women on the Jupiter 2 very preoccupied.  Penny was anxiously tending to Debbie on the lower deck, and looking rather haggard herself. Maureen was taking readings in the laboratory, while Judy recorded the data on a clipboard. They greeted the men with a pleasant but abstracted air.

“Gosh, Mom, I was hoping that dinner would be almost ready by now,” hinted Will, brushing sand from his clothes.

“It’s in the refrigerator, and just needs to be heated,” returned Maureen.  “Now, I want all of you to wash up, you’re covered in dust. Judy, we’re finished here for now. Can you please get dinner on the table?” Maureen turned to her husband. “John, I’d like a word with you, please.”  

With the clipboard under her arm, she led him into their cabin.

“John, Judy told me that the garden was not producing well, so we ran some tests. I have detected alpha particles in the soil. Thankfully, there is no trace of contamination in the vegetables themselves.”  

 John looked at her soberly. “Were you able to identify the source of the alpha radiation?“

“No. But I think, dear, that ultimately it originated with the radioactive emanations of the fuel.”

“But that half-life is almost 5 years. The material is safely shielded, and the emission levels weren’t that high to begin with.”

“John, there’s more. Debbie is sick. It could be just one of those things, but think about it. We transmuted the planet’s bedrock into a substance that emits gamma rays, and now Debbie and the plant life are presenting some strange symptoms. Perhaps the local microbes were altered by the radiation.”  

“Maureen, darling, I can see that you’re worried. But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. There are forms of radiation that are always present on this planet, such as cosmic radiation. We’ll have the robot investigate, and take it from there.” He left the cabin to wash up.

 

         *************************************************

 

Two days later, Maureen noticed that somebody was missing from the breakfast table. “Has anyone seen Penny today?”

“She’s probably hanging out with Debbie”. Will’s voice sounded exasperated. “Honestly, Mom, there’s more important stuff to do around here than nurse that bloop.”  

“Now Will, you know that Penny is very attached to Debbie. And perhaps if you looked for things to do together, she would spend less time with Debbie and more with you,” Maureen admonished. “Please find her and tell her to come to breakfast.” Reluctantly, Will went off.  

“Judy, my dear, is there any possibility that the strawberries have ripened?” Dr. Smith asked with an ingratiating smile. “They would complement these pancakes so exquisitely!”  

“That’s a splendid idea, Dr. Smith”, replied Judy. “Why don’t we both go check out the berry patch?” Unable to think of a graceful way to refuse, Smith complied.

“Don, it’s time to start breaking down the drill site”, announced John. I think you and I should-–“  

“Attention!” The robot rolled toward the breakfast table.  “I have computed the source of the radioactivity in the garden.”

“Tell us”, prompted Maureen.

“The fueling isotope is undergoing a natural radioactive decay process, resulting in the formation of a gaseous substance that emits alpha particles. Owing to its high density, this gas is found primarily underground. An appropriate Earth analogy is the production of radon gas from the decay of uranium.”

The adults at the table all exchanged looks.  “Radon is a health hazard on Earth when it seeps from the soil into poorly ventilated spaces,” stated John. “But there is no pathway for this native radon counterpart to enter the Jupiter 2, since the hull is entirely above ground, and impenetrable. Can you confirm that, Robot?”

“Affirmative, Professor Robinson.”

“Well, then there is no danger for us--“

 “AAAAAAACK!!” A piercing scream came from the direction of the garden. Seconds later, Smith bounded toward the breakfast table. “Something dreadful has happened! We’re all doomed, I say, doomed!”

The other adults leaped up. “What the devil is going on, Smith?” growled Don West. “And where’s Judy? What do you think you’re doing, just leaving her behind?” 

Judy appeared in the distance, carrying a pail of garden produce. She set it down next to the breakfast table.  

“Mother, Dad, the garden is producing mutant vegetables, like when we first settled on this planet.” With a gloved hand, she pointed to some large slithery bean pods that she had collected. The squirming, pulsating pod seeds were not a pretty sight. Instinctively, everyone recoiled.

Maureen observed dryly, “It would appear that this native radon may be a hazard to our food supply, if not to us.”

“Robot, what is the half-life of this radioactive decay product?” barked John.

“Three point one days, Professor.”

John made a decision. ”We’ll uproot the garden, destroy the mutant vegetation, and let the soil radioactivity attenuate naturally -within a week it’ll be down by 90%.  Since the source is shielded in the power core, this is a one-time emergency. In the meantime, we’ll have to rely on the hydroponics garden.”

Will returned to the table, alone. “Penny asked to be excused from breakfast. She’s not feeling well.”

Maureen was fighting off a sense of despair. For all the damage control that John was heroically orchestrating, everything in their world seemed to be falling apart.  

John took note of her expression. “We’ll look in on Penny after breakfast, darling.”  

“John”, Don spoke quietly. “I’d like to help Judy decontaminate the garden this morning. Are we still going ahead with plans to break down the drill site today?”

Here, then, was their dilemma framed in the starkest of terms. Would the space pioneers pursue a strategy of high-risk energy independence, or persist with the drudgery of mining nonrenewable resources?

For Maureen, the answer was clear. It was time to concede that the experiment with tabletop neutron bombardment was shaping up to be a serious biohazard, if not an all-out disaster waiting to happen.

The tension in the air was palpable. All eyes were on John.  He regarded the silent group with grim determination. “We’re breaking down the drill site as soon as the mutant plants are destroyed. Now let’s all eat.”

 

     ****************************************************

 

John and Maureen descended to the lower deck and knocked on Penny’s cabin door. After a moment, Penny admitted both of them to her room. She threw herself back onto her bed, breathing hard.  

Maureen smoothed back her hair and placed the palm of her hand to Penny’s forehead. It felt feverish. “How are you feeling, dear?”

“Not so good, Mom. My head hurts, and I ache all over.”

John was inspecting Debbie, curled up on a pile of old blankets on the floor. She was lying very still, and panting softly. Her eyes were open, and she fixed John with a mournful gaze. Generally he paid Debbie very little attention, but her helplessness made his heart turn over.

He moved over to sit next to Penny. “You’ll be all right in a day or two, sweetheart. Just let Mom take care of you.” 

“Daddy, do Debbie and I have the same sickness?” Penny rasped.

“I can’t answer that for sure, Princess. It’s uncommon, but sometimes diseases can jump from animals to people. It’s happened on Earth, with swine and avian flu.”

Maureen stood. “Penny, I’m going to bring you some hot tea and aspirin.”

John patted her shoulder. “I’ll be in to see you later, darling.”

They left Penny’s cabin together. Maureen motioned to John to follow her into the galley, but he protested.  “I should get back to the garden to help Don destroy the plants.”

“Then we’ll talk after that’s finished.”

 

             *******************************************

 

Wearing gloves and protective eyewear, John and Don incinerated the mutant vegetables with laser rifles. When the slithering action had finally halted, they, along with Judy and Will, uprooted the vegetation with trowels and spades. It was a tedious and arduous process.  Finally, the former garden was reduced to a brown expanse of soil, and piles of dead vines and stalks.

“Our work here is finished for now”, John pronounced. “Tomorrow, after these plants have dried out more, we’ll haul this stuff away and burn it.  Don, get the Chariot and meet me at the drill site in an hour. Will, if you check out the galley, you might find some of your mother’s space cookies waiting for you.”

Will happily laid down his spade, and ran up the Jupiter 2 access ramp, almost colliding with Maureen as she exited the ship.  John headed toward her, and presently the two of them walked away from the campsite toward their stargazing rock, deep in conversation.

Don removed his gloves, and turned to Judy, “How about let’s you and I take a walk too?” He and Judy strolled over to their rocky retreat, a safe distance away from John and Maureen’s perch. They sat together in the warm midday sun.  

“Don”, Judy ventured. “What’s going to happen?  Will we still be able to lift off within 2 weeks?”  

“That’s for your Dad to decide, as mission commander. If you’re asking whether we have sufficient fuel and engine functionality, the answer is yes.”

“So it’s an easy decision.”

“Maybe. If it were up to me, I would resolve the little issue of that fuel machine first.”

“What do you mean? The fuel is packed away safely in the power core, and the machine isn’t harmful…is it?”

“Well, as you can see, our fuel production operation has had a lot of unintended consequences.”

“Can’t we persuade Dad to do more research?”

“Your mother and the robot are just starting to play catch-up there."

“But your father is opting for damage control. He seems determined to continue on a path to energy independence, even if it means conducting a gigantic uncontrolled experiment with the environment.“

 

             *************************************************

 

Seated at their stargazing perch, Maureen looked directly into her husband’s eyes. She chose her words carefully. “John, I know how much work you invested in the new fuel-making device, and how much promise you think it holds for us.  But we have to set it aside.”  

“What do you mean, ‘set it aside’?” John demanded.  

Maureen shook her head.  “We just can’t keep manufacturing our own fuel. It’s too dangerous. And we can’t put the device on the ship. The components have been penetrated by gamma radiation.”

“The emissions are within acceptable ranges.”  

“Except they have caused Penny’s and Debbie’s sickness. And the fallout from the radon has destroyed half of our food supply!”  

“Those are surmountable obstacles, Maureen. The garden will come back, and Penny and Debbie will recover.”  

“But we can’t be sure what kind of mutants we might create with ionizing radiation on a different planet!”  

John spoke earnestly. “Let’s not get carried away imagining horror scenarios. We need to focus on the long term. This technology will liberate us from our dependence on deutronium. It’s our only hope for powering the journey to Alpha Centauri. Without it, we’re at the mercy of the resources of whatever planet we land on!”

Maureen met his gaze defiantly. “Then we’ll have to find a way to manage, as we have done here.”

John glared at her fiercely. “Maureen, all I want is to take care of our crew, and bring us all safely to Alpha Centauri! Why do you insist on fighting me so hard?”

“I’m not fighting you. I want what you want! But our safety comes first!  And, we have a responsibility to our environment. That means not poisoning the local habitats, no matter how much promise the technology may hold. We didn’t undertake a mission to build a new world on Alpha Centauri, just to reprise mistakes made back on Earth!”

John stood to leave.  “I’ve heard enough. Don and I have work to do now.” He turned and set off in the direction of the drill site.

Maureen dropped her head into her hands. What didn’t he understand?  

 

    *******************************************************

 

The mood at the dinner table was somber. Maureen and John confined their conversation to necessary formalities. Judy was morose over the loss of the garden, her chief source of fulfillment on Priplanus. Don’s conversation alternated between consoling Judy, and defusing the tension between John and Maureen. Will tried, not very successfully, to savor a mock hamburger concocted from freeze-dried string beans. Dr. Smith’s banter failed to elicit any responses from the group.

When the interminable meal finally ended, Maureen pushed back her chair and stood. “Please excuse me. I’m going to check on Penny.”

John seized the opening. “I’ll come with you.” 

The parents walked up the ramp of the Jupiter 2, and descended to the lower deck.  They knocked on Penny’s door, and entered without waiting for an invitation. The scene that greeted them was ominous. Penny was awake and fretful, her breathing harsh and labored. Stifling a gasp, Maureen turned and quickly left the room, closing the door after her.  

John sat down on Penny’s bed, taking her hand in his. “Don’t try to talk, sweetheart.” He felt overwhelmed by helplessness. 

The accordion door retracted to reveal Maureen, and Dr. Smith with a black medical bag. “Well, well, what have we here?” inquired the doctor in a lilting yet authoritative tone.

“Hurts to breathe,” wheezed Penny.

Smith turned to Maureen and John. “If you will permit me, Professor and Mrs. Robinson, I should like to conduct a brief examination”. Nodding, the two of them left the room. Moments later, Smith exited the cabin, wearing his stethoscope. 

“Professor and dear lady, the child is presenting all the symptoms of viral pneumonia. I can confirm the diagnosis after I analyze a sputum sample.”

Maureen felt oddly calm. “How bad is it, Dr. Smith?”

“There, there, Madame, things could be worse! Give her something for her fever, and plenty of fluids, and she’ll stay out of danger. A humidifier would be very helpful. And, as a precaution, I suggest isolating her from the other members of the crew.”

“Thank you, Dr. Smith, for your help and reassurance”, offered John humbly.  The doctor bowed slightly, and headed to the laboratory in search of some specimen slides. 

Maureen turned to John. “Judy shouldn’t sleep in there with Penny. I suggest that she and I share our cabin, and you sleep in Will’s spare bed until this crisis is over.”

 

         ***********************************************

 

“Gosh Dad, we haven’t shared quarters since our survival training days at Alpha Control.” Will was delighted by the unexpected stint of quality time with his father. “That’s too bad about Penny, though. And Debbie. They’re going to be all right, aren’t they?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes Will, Dr. Smith says Penny will get over it with proper treatment. And Debbie too.”

“How did Penny get so sick all of a sudden, Dad? And, is it contagious?”

“Dr. Smith said that Penny caught a sort of flu from Debbie, and it developed into pneumonia. Influenza is usually contagious, so we’ll all have to be very careful.”

Will was silent for a while. “I heard Don and Judy talking. They said that Debbie and Penny’s flu, and the problems with the garden, all happened because when we manufactured our own fuel, the radioactivity changed the microbes here. Is that true, Dad?”

“It’s a reasonable hypothesis, son. But we don’t have the equipment or the conditions for testing it scientifically.”

“Then are we going to keep making fuel?”

“That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Do you think we should?”  

“Well, if the fuel machine isn’t safe, we can’t use it, can we?”

 “Safe is a relative term, Will.  The fuel machine had some unintended consequences, but we can overcome those. If we don’t synthesize our own fuel, we’ll have to make additional planet landings. That’s risky. Do you want to go through all that again?”

“Through all what again, Dad?”  

“Through all the dangers we’ve had to deal with here: Food and water shortages, extreme weather, alien encounters.”

Will pondered the matter. “Well, we survived the weather and the food problems. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the aliens we’ve met.  Some of them didn’t really seem all that different from us, when you get right down to it. The Tauron boy and I understood each other fine, even though he didn’t talk. And that warrior boy Quano, all he really wanted was for his dad to love him, and spend time with him. Like you and me.”

“That’s all true, Will. But we’ve dealt with some pretty bad aliens, too.”

“Yeah. But in the end, we managed to get some of them to see things our way. We got the Keeper to give us our freedom. And –and--the other night…” Will’s voice faltered. 

John said, soothingly, “Some aliens did seem powerless in the presence of love.”

“Right. So you see, Dad, we’ll all make out OK, even on another planet.” Will yawned. “Anyway, it sure was neat building that accelerator. Well, g’nite, Dad”.

Building an accelerator. An idea started taking root in John’s mind. 

“Good night, son.”

 

              ******************************************

 

For the next two days, the crew of the Jupiter 2 adjusted their routines to the odd new circumstances. While Debbie’s condition started to improve, Penny continued to run a high fever. Maureen spent much of her time nursing her, leaving Dr. Smith to take over the breakfast preparations. The crisis seemed to have galvanized the doctor into action. He set up a rudimentary outdoor laboratory to analyze colonies of virus cultured from Penny and Debbie’s samples, with the goal of developing a vaccine.  

Twice a day, Judy and Will swabbed down every door, tabletop, countertop, wall, and console on the Jupiter 2 with antibacterial cleanser. When not helping with that task, Don and John fabricated a magnetometer from spare parts strewn around the laboratory. Since nobody relished the job of mopping the floors, the robot was shown how to perform that task.

On the morning of the third day, Maureen stepped out of Penny’s cabin, stripped off her gauze mask, and washed her hands at the galley sink. “Those flapjacks look very appetizing, Dr. Smith,” she praised him as she took her seat with the others at the breakfast table. Looking around, she asked “Has anyone seen John this morning?” 

“Dad and the robot went out early, to survey the area for magnetic elements”, Will informed her. “He said to start breakfast without him.”

 

             ***************************************

John and the robot stood at the entrance to the cave. John held the magnetometer, while the robot suspended the Geiger counter from its right hook.

“Do you detect any magnetic fields inside?” queried John.

“Affirmative, Professor Robinson.”

“How strong?”

“Insufficient data.” 

“And your earlier surveys have indicated no other naturally occurring magnetism within a 30 mile radius of the Jupiter 2?”

“That is correct, Professor.”

It figured, John thought.  He had no memory of obtaining the materials for the accelerator, and had been racking his brains for the source of the magnetic components that were key to the functionality of the device. He had finally concluded that the alien would most likely have provided them to him from the cave’s artifacts.

“All right, I’m going in. Hand me the Geiger counter. You wait out here until I assess the magnetic field strength.”

John easily negotiated the cave entrance, and entered the ancient warrior’s sanctuary.  Setting down the Geiger counter, he surveyed the strange, cult-like setting. Clearly, this locale had exerted considerable influence on him, yet now he regarded the surroundings with complete detachment. Before their launch, he and his family had been featured in several documentaries and educational films, and the cave interior looked to him like a production set from a B-grade movie. No rational person could take this place seriously, John thought.

Magnetometer in hand, he inspected the cave interior for ferromagnetic substances. Most existed in the form of metallic objects fashioned into spears, or other poker-like devices. He went from one artifact to another, but the instrument readings indicated they were far too weak for use in an accelerator. Frustrated, John stood at the foot of the stairway. Could he have been mistaken?

His eyes fell on an article tucked behind a column. He walked over to it, and saw that it was a sword like weapon with an odd, corkscrew-shaped blade and a sharp, pointed tip. John stared hard at the blade. A fleeting image of an electrified swordfight flashed through his mind. He picked up the weapon, stood, and brandished it in a series of circular, arcing motions. He felt his skin prickle, and saw sparks bouncing off the blade. Guiding the probe of the magnetometer to the blade, he watched the instrument readout panel. The numbers shot up rapidly, increasing several orders of magnitude until stabilizing at 16,000 Gs. Detaching the hilt, John carried the blade over to the Geiger counter, and noted with relief that the magnetized object registered no significant radioactivity.

He shouldered the Geiger counter and the magnetometer, walked to the cave entrance, and draped the articles over the robot. The machine made a noise that sounded like an electronic cough. “Professor Robinson, this is something Dr. Smith would do. This behavior is out of character for you.”

John explained. “I have identified an artifact from the cave with a 16,000 Gs magnetic field, that I’m bringing back to the Jupiter 2.”

The robot raised its bubble dome in a gesture of cybernetic astonishment.  “That is an exceptionally powerful magnet, Professor. May I presume that you intend it for future use in a particle accelerator?”

“You may.  And this magnet is not healthy for robots and other delicate electronic devices. Return to the Jupiter 2, and I’ll follow a safe distance behind you.”

“Affirmative, Professor Robinson.”

 

      *********************************************         

 

Late that same afternoon, Maureen left Penny’s cabin and ascended to the upper deck. Through the viewport, she spied John working on the fuel machine, clad in a radiation suit. He appeared to be dismantling it. Exiting the Jupiter 2, she tried to call out to him. He shook his head, and motioned for her to re-enter the ship.

Approximately one hour remained before dinner preparations needed to be started. Aside from Penny and herself, the Jupiter 2 was deserted. Don and Judy had taken a walk, and Will was collecting rock samples. While outside, Maureen had overheard Dr. Smith bickering with the robot over some data from his vaccine project. Trying to decide how to use her unexpected leisure, Maureen decided to freshen up after 3 days of near-confinement in Penny’s sickroom.

She washed, changed to a freshly laundered set of fatigues, and brushed and styled her red-gold hair. Opening a drawer, she brought out a small flask of fragrance, one of the few personal and purely nonutilitarian items she had brought with her when leaving her life on Earth behind forever.  Maureen dabbed a drop behind each ear, and at the base of her throat. Returning the flask to the drawer, she spied a small framed photograph that she kept underneath the clothing. With the pitching and yawing motions of the spacecraft, and occasional wild shaking, the Jupiter 2 in flight was no place to display breakable objects.

She gazed at their wedding photograph: Herself, in a simple yet elegant tea-length dress and short veil, wearing her hair in the popular wedge style of the time.  John, with longer hair, and looking awkward in a blue suit.  It was not the wedding her parents’ old friends had expected for the wealthy youngest Tomlinson daughter, but it was exactly what she and John had wanted: An afternoon ceremony in the garden of her sister Colleen’s beautiful home, surrounded by their families and their college friends. How young she and John looked! They had been young, barely 19 years old. They knew they were taking a risk. Most of their higher education still lay ahead of them, which they ended up combining with early parenthood. Together, she and John believed they could meet any challenge that life would throw at them. But how predictable their trials on Earth had been, compared to what they faced out here in space!

Maureen replaced the photo, left the cabin, and ascended to the upper deck just as John, minus the radiation suit, walked into the Jupiter 2. He strode up to her and caught her in a hug. “How’s Penny?”

“Her fever has broken. She’s sleeping peacefully now.”

“Where is everybody else? And what are you doing right now?”

“They’ve all scattered. And I’m being slothful.”

“Good. You deserve it. Now, let’s take a little drive.”

He led her outside the Jupiter 2, toward the Chariot. The vehicle was empty, save for the radiation suit that appeared to be wrapped around some metal parts. As John started the engine, Maureen spied Dr. Smith and the robot ascending the Jupiter 2 ramp. Relieved that Penny would not find herself alone in the spaceship should she awake, Maureen relaxed in the Chariot passenger seat.

It was some time before she realized that the terrain was totally unfamiliar. She looked, but recognized no landmarks. “John, where are we going?”

“There’s something I need to do here, and I wanted you to see it.”

Presently, he stopped the Chariot, came around to the passenger side door, and helped Maureen down.  He picked up the radiation suit-clad materials, and motioned for her to follow him. They trekked a short distance across a boulder-strewn plateau, until they came to the edge of the mesa, overlooking a deep chasm. A rocky ledge jutted over the abyss.

Maureen trembled. Her legs felt unsteady, and her throat was dry. “John, I’m going back to the Chariot.”

He took her hand, and they walked a few steps out onto the ledge. Maureen waited, with mingled fascination and terror. John raised the bundle and held it out in front of him. Unfurling the radiation suit, he shook free the metal rods and coils, allowing them to plummet into the abyss below.

They stepped back from the ledge onto the mesa, and followed their path back to the Chariot. John tossed the radiation suit back inside, then led Maureen to a nearby flat-topped rock.

Maureen spoke first. “John, that took a lot of courage. I know how much that fuel machine meant to you.”  

“We have successfully converted matter into energy, but as you have pointed out, darling, the challenge lies in doing it responsibly”. John spoke thoughtfully.  “In a sense, we were lucky on this planet because the biosphere responded very quickly, and the results were only bad, not catastrophic. On another planet, the unintended consequences might be immediate, or subtler, or take longer to detect. But we’ll have to find a way.”

The couple sat quietly, as they each contemplated their weighty responsibilities.  The sun dipped lower on the horizon, and the air gradually chilled. Presently they stood, in preparation to re-board the Chariot.  John turned to Maureen. “And now, Dr. Robinson, when will Penny be out of quarantine? It’s been fun bunking with Will, but I’m beginning to miss adult…interaction.”

Maureen reddened, then pressed against him, smiling. “If her fever stays down for the next 24 hours, then tomorrow night we can all return to our normal sleeping arrangements.”

John put his arms around her and held her close. The smell of her fragrance was intoxicating. He brought her lips to his in a deep kiss.  “It can’t be soon enough for me.”

The sun was setting as they disembarked from the Chariot in front of the Jupiter 2. Arm in arm, they went up the access ramp. The spaceship was a beehive of activity. On the upper deck, Will and the robot were practicing a folk music duet. Judy was setting the table, indoors. In the galley, Don and Dr. Smith were collaborating on dinner preparations, to John and Maureen’s amazement. As they traded barbs, Maureen started to say something, but John caught her eye. Let them work it out, his eyes seemed be saying. The couple sat quietly, holding hands, savoring the congenial atmosphere.

As the family gathered around the table, Penny’s cabin door slid open. She stepped out slowly, clad in her bathrobe. Maureen and John went over to her and hugged her. Penny’s face looked wan but cheerful. “I’ve missed everyone so much! Can I have dinner with you all tonight?”

“Gosh, Mom, I don’t want to get Penny’s germs!” Will shuddered.

All eyes turned to Dr. Smith, who was in his element. He gave Will a stern look. “You’ll live, young man.” He pulled up a chair for Penny, and brought her a bowl of soup.  “Eat it slowly, my dear. Regrettably, it’s no substitute for my turtle soup back on Earth, but it will have to do.” Penny gulped, and her eyes widened in fear. She momentarily stared at the contents of her bowl, before joining in the laughter around her.

 

 

                                              THE END

 

 

 

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