Author: Alastair Millar

I think I was probably weeding when it happened; my status in the International Planetary Exploration Corps has given me the enviable privilege of a small garden, high on the roof of our building. Later I spent an inordinate amount of time worrying over the calculations, factoring in the length of time it took for signals to travel from Jupiter at perigee, trying to prove to myself that I’d been doing something more worthwhile, but the result was always the same: it had happened late on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.

They were my former students, you see; I’d taught them everything I could about propulsion dynamics, flight theory and fuel management – and what to do if something went wrong. Basically, it’s my job to make sure that IPEC’s kids can get to wherever they’re meant to be going. What they do when they get there, well, that they learn from other people, scientists and specialists. As a result, I’d not paid much attention to what was going on once I knew that they’d made it, and the Aquila IV was in orbit. Perhaps I should have. Not that it would have helped, but maybe I’d be feeling better now.

Even for me, detached from the nuts and bolts of the mission, not knowing exactly what happened is the worst part; I can’t imagine what Nwadike and Reynolds, left floating above, are feeling now – and they still have to make the three year journey back, with the empty seats and extra workload a constant reminder of those they couldn’t recover. Gods help them.

The 90 minute round trip to Earth even for questions and answers sent at lightspeed meant they were on their own when contact with their friends in the drop pod was lost. Apparently the telemetry was all normal, until suddenly it just stopped. Best guess? Implosion under the immense pressures in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere – which, of course, should have been impossible, after the years of testing and preparation for the mission. There was a reason we sent robot probes first.

We’re supposed to console ourselves with knowing that at least Chan and Martinetti wouldn’t have had time to feel anything, crushed to paste in an instant. But I wonder if they first had time, freefalling, to realise what was going to happen, and be terrified in their final moments.

In public there are countless talking heads, recriminations, and a desperation to find someone to blame: the pod designers, the material suppliers, the mission controllers, the crew instructors, the pilots in the orbiter, the explorers themselves… grief is apparently best displayed through a collective determination to explain the unexplainable.

We though, the ones who taught and loved them, the ones they left behind to go adventuring, feel the weight of their loss every day. We could not have stopped them from being true to their natures, but should we have been so insistent on sending men where our machines had already been? What was the point, beyond our inherent pride? Every day since I have questioned whether encouraging them to go makes me somehow complicit in their deaths.

I go back to picking weeds in the sun, finding no answers but a sadness that will not fade.