My body trembled slightly as I waited to connect, and I felt a little sick to my stomach. When my father answered the holochat, I was stunned. My father avoided holochatting like the plague—he claimed it was like talking to an avatar and not a real person. I hadn’t seen him in over a year, not since the last time I visited my parents.
“Hi, Dad.” My voice was barely more than a whisper.
“Hi, Sweet Pea, how are you?”
I forced myself to speak louder. “Good, Dad,” I lied.
“Your mother is worried about you. She’s been watching the news and she wants you to come home.”
“I know, Dad, I talked to her earlier today—” I almost added: before I knew what was happening, but I stopped myself.
“I don’t know, Sweet Pea, none of this makes sense to me. But I’m an old man. What do I know?”
“I promise you, Dad, what they are saying in the newsfeeds, it’s not true.”
“If you say so, then I believe you.”
I felt a lump in my throat.
“Do you remember that joke you used to love when you were a little girl?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“How did it go? What did the ion say to the atom? I think I lost my charge. Then the atom asks, are you sure? And the ion says, I’m positive!” My father laughed, and I was reminded of when I was younger, when he was younger. I remembered when he taught me to ride a bike, how he held me in his arms when I’d fallen, knees bloody and tears streaking my face. He had loved me. I was loved.
“You’re a good dad,” I said.
“And you are a good daughter.”
I felt my eyes fill with tears. I had been so angry with my parents for so many years, I realized, and had buried that anger deep inside me. No, not angry—hurt. Hurt that they didn’t understand me, that they couldn’t truly accept me for who I was. But then again, I hadn’t accepted them, either. Now that it was too late, I felt all those years of pain wash away, to be replaced by a profound sadness.
I desperately wanted to change the subject. “How’s the kitchen remodel going?” I managed, keeping my face neutral. It was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life.
“It’s going beautifully. Your mother convinced me to hire a few young men to help. You know my back’s not so good.”
“I know, Dad. Is Mom there?”
“No, Sweet Pea, she’s taking a walk with her friends.”
I felt the heat in my face. Seeing my father, so old, so frail, looking at me, his face trusting, almost childlike, I felt my heart break. I couldn’t tell him, couldn’t say what needed to be said. There was so much, too much.
I knew it was only a matter of seconds before I broke down, and I didn’t want my father to see. I wanted this, our very last conversation, to be easy. I would send them a holomessage, explain everything, there was still a little bit of time left. “I have to go, Dad, I love you so much. Tell Mom I love her.”
“We love you, too, Sweet Pea.”
I ended the connection, and burst into heaving sobs.
Eleven months earlier
A few months after I had finished my postdoc, Diana, a woman from the foundation, Portal al Porvenir, contacted me to discuss a possible employment opportunity. I had a vague recollection of reading something about the Foundation—a privately-funded scientific organization—in a journal, but couldn’t call up any details. I was surprised that any private research establishment would be interested in me. My area of expertise, faster-than-light (ftl) space travel, was, at that time, a rather esoteric field. There had been a flurry of interest seventy-five or so years earlier, but not much progress had been made since then, and there weren’t many of us who were willing to dedicate our careers to the pursuit, which was considered by most to be a dead end. But I had never been much for conventional wisdom.
Several weeks earlier, I received an offer to work for my government in the National Physics Laboratory. I had gone through the interview process, and I just needed to let them know my decision. But the truth was that if we ever did achieve ftl travel, the government would undoubtedly make the technology classified, and use it to fortify the military. The idea of restricting access to scientific achievements was antithetical to my entire being, and I was not even remotely interested in supporting the military industrial complex, which is why I was dragging my feet, and hadn’t given them a definite answer. But the government lab was excellent, there were no other offers on the table, and my field was so specialized that I was on the verge of accepting when I got the call. Diana explained that her organization was interested in recruiting a scientist with my specialty. The Foundation, she said, had interests not only in space travel but also the natural environment. That got my attention. Also, she told me that they were ready to offer me the job based on my prior work and publications, which was very unusual since they hadn’t even interviewed me.
Naturally, there was the question of the laboratory and funding, and Diana assured me that the Foundation’s laboratory had state-of-the-art equipment, and the funding to pursue any line of research. It sounded too good to be true, but I had nothing to lose, so I agreed to meet with her in the city center the following afternoon at two p.m., at a small but well-known organic restaurant, unusual in that the waitstaff consisted of actual humans instead of robots.
That night, I searched for information about Portal al Porvenir on the Internet, but I couldn’t find anything of consequence. In fact, it was curious how little information there was. They did have a website, though with scant information—more propaganda than substance. What I read was superficial, but I got the gist of the focus and direction of the Foundation. According to the website, they supported pure scientific research and were opposed to the use of knowledge as a destructive force against the natural environment or any living being. To know more, I would have to wait until I could speak with Diana in person. Although she seemed to know plenty about me, or at least about my career, she hadn’t mentioned her last name. Without a surname, I couldn’t do any research on her.
* * *
I spent the morning of our meeting pacing the floor of my tiny apartment, restless and distracted. Finally, I accepted that I wasn’t going to do anything productive and caught the metro to the city center. I walked the few blocks to the restaurant, and by one p.m. I was sitting at a table near the window overlooking a small garden. I had my notebook, as always, and while I was waiting, I tried to work on my theories, but I couldn’t concentrate, anticipating Diana’s arrival. I found myself staring out the window, observing the bees flit from flower to flower, moving with such purpose and clarity, at ease with their role in the Universe.
Before Diana’s call, I felt myself sinking into despair. I had assumed that my only option, if I wanted to continue with my research, was to work for the government. Even though I didn’t agree with the government’s ideology, I definitely wasn’t interested in working in the private sector, where my time would be consumed by projects outside of my field, or teaching, with the accompanying long hours and low pay, desperately trying to carve out a few moments here and there to focus on my own research, or, even worse, to abandon my life’s work. At least with the government position, I would have access to a lab, which I desperately needed in order to put my theories into practice. Thought experiments could only take me so far. Diana’s obvious interest in my specialization was like a glimmer of light at the end of a dark tunnel. I tried my best to curb my growing excitement, and to keep my expectations low, because at that moment I still didn’t know much about the Foundation or the position, but I couldn’t help myself. Hope springs eternal.
I heard the soft tinkling of the bell attached to the front door of the restaurant, and glanced at my holographic wrist computer: two o’clock on the dot. The chatter and clinking of dishes and silverware faded, replaced by silence. I looked toward the door. A woman stood in the entrance. All eyes were on her. I, too, stared. It wasn’t her looks that caught my attention, even though she was stunningly beautiful, with wavy black hair that cascaded over her shoulders and down her back, tawny skin glowing with health and vigor, perfect, symmetrical features, and dark eyebrows framing her luminous eyes, which were even more striking thanks to her astonishingly long, dark lashes that I could see even from where I was sitting. No, it wasn’t her breathtaking beauty, it was her presence. She stood with her arms hanging loosely at her sides, her tall, powerful body perfectly relaxed, a hint of a smile on her lips. An image of a panther sprang to my mind. She was clearly comfortable in her body, relaxed but alert as she scanned the room. She exuded confidence, power. As conversations picked back up, the woman looked in my direction, meeting my eyes, and, smiling broadly, made her way toward my table. I felt my heart skip a beat. I stood up quickly, almost knocking over my chair in my haste, feeling clumsy and awkward. She didn’t seem to notice my discomfiture and offered me her hand. I took it, thankful that she couldn’t hear my heart beating rapidly in my chest. Her handshake was firm yet gentle.
“Hello, Callisto,” she said, her voice rich and sonorous. Her accent, as I had guessed during our phone call, was Latino—Colombian, maybe? “I’m Diana.”
“Nice to meet you.” My voice was not as strong as I would have liked. I cleared my throat. “Please, call me Calli.”
“Calli,” she repeated, pulling out the chair on the other side of the table.
When we had spoken the day before, Diana had been surprisingly informal with me, as if we were already friends. It was strange talking so casually to a potential employer, but Diana, it seemed, was an unusual woman. She had been so open and amiable, and I had been perfectly comfortable talking with her. But seeing her in person, I felt out of my league. She was so striking, so poised and self-possessed.
Diana settled into the chair, and smiled again. “I’m sure you are curious about the Foundation,” she said, glancing down at my open notebook.
I resisted the instinctive urge to close it. It was always that way with me when I didn’t have well-formed ideas, I was reticent to allow other people to see my work until it was perfectly polished. Though, she might have simply been curious that I was using paper and pen, an anachronism in this era of electronic devices. I nodded.
“Let me tell you a little about us. But, first, are you hungry?”
At that moment, the last thing on my mind was my stomach. I barely responded with a slight nod of my head.
“Good. Me too. You’re vegetarian, correct?”
It wasn’t uncommon to be vegetarian, but it made me a little apprehensive that she knew. I wondered what other personal information the Foundation had about me. I nodded again, suddenly aware of the medley of rich, savory aromas emanating from the kitchen. I felt my stomach growl in response.
“I would suggest the quesadillas made with tofu. They are excellent.”
“Sounds good, thanks.”
It was my first time in that venue. As a student, and later as a postdoc, I never had a lot of money, and eating out at a real restaurant, even a modest one, was generally outside of my budget. Did they know this, too? I examined Diana more carefully, this time noticing her clothes. She was wearing a sky-blue suit made from an exquisite, silky material, perfectly tailored, and a fitted blouse which accentuated her curvaceous body, its brilliant white color a striking contrast to her skin tone and jet-black hair, and high-quality, fashionable black boots. Her hair and clothes were in perfect order.
Sitting across from this spectacular woman, I felt very unsophisticated. I was wearing my best clothes: worn jeans, a little big for my petite, slim body, a gently used sweater that I had purchased in a secondhand shop a few months back, and high-top sneakers. And my hair, well, I always cut it when it bothered me, using scissors from my desk, without a mirror, because, frankly, who has the time for a real haircut? So my red hair was a hodgepodge of different lengths, and usually there were some errant tufts sticking out here and there. Ordinarily, I never thought twice about my appearance, but sitting here with Diana, I was painfully conscious of my looks.
“Great,” said Diana, breaking my reverie. She called the waitress over with a glance and a slight motion of her hand.
The waitress hurried over, two menus in one hand, computer tablet in the other, a tight smile on her mouth, and looking a little haggard.
I observed Diana closely, narrowing my eyes slightly. Coming from a working-class family, it was important for me that people employed in the service industry, such as hair stylists, medical staff, and hovercar mechanics like my father, were treated with respect. It was almost unconscious, my scrutiny of these interactions—something I always did when I met someone new, especially if that person was affluent. Judging from her attire, Diana was undoubtedly financially well off.
“Hi, my dear,” said Diana softly, her eyes gentle, giving the waitress a hint of a smile, as if she and the waitress shared a delightful secret.
The waitress laid the menus down on the table, and was about to walk away when Diana touched her forearm. “You look busy. Are you the only wait staff today?”
The woman took a deep breath and let it out, blowing her bangs off her forehead. She nodded, then glanced back toward the kitchen. “Yeah, the other waitress called in sick.”
“That puts a lot of pressure on you, I’m sure.”
“It’s the third time this week.” She looked again toward the kitchen, then lowered her voice slightly. “I like Bev, she’s really nice, and it’s not her fault, but—”
“No, I’m sure it’s not, but still, you have to pick up the slack.” Diana nodded.
“Exactly.” The waitress’s shoulders visibly relaxed.
Diana looked around the room—almost all the tables were occupied. “Well, from what I can see, everyone looks satisfied. You are clearly doing a great job.”
The woman puffed out her chest ever so slightly, and she stood a little straighter. Her lips twitched—a hint of a smile. “Thanks.”
“We’ll make it easy for you.” Diana glanced over at me as if she were including me in a great conspiracy. “We’ll take two orders of the vegan quesadillas,” she gathered the two menus and held them out, “and,” she looked at me and cocked her head, “two glasses of your delicious lemonade.” It was simultaneously a request to the waitress and a question for me.
The waitress input our order into her tablet.
“Thank you—” Diana leaned toward the waitress, reading her name tag, “Lynette.”
Lynette took the menus from Diana’s outstretched hand and Diana smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkling. It was a beautiful smile, disarming, and, with that slight twinkle in her eyes, I had the impression that we were all in this, whatever it was, together. We were a team, the three of us against the world.
The waitress smiled at Diana, a genuine smile this time, one that reached her eyes. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.” She turned and walked briskly to the kitchen with a slight spring in her step.
She had felt it, too, I realized, watching the waitress: the instant camaraderie, the intimacy, and, could it be, the love? How had Diana done it? It was magical.
Diana turned her smile to me. I smiled in return. “Let’s get started,” she said.
I leaned forward in my chair, forearms resting on the table, waiting.
“We are a small, private foundation, and our financial backers, I have to admit, are quite wealthy, with a very progressive vision of the future. So, as far as funding for research is concerned, let’s just say that money is not an issue. As I told you during our call, we have the latest equipment, and industrial, high-quality 3D printers for anything that needs to be fabricated.”
A 3D printer would be incredible. It was an amazing tool, but high-quality ones were expensive. They were, of course, common in industry as well as in hospitals, where they were used for printing medical devices, protective clothing, skin, and organs. My university had several of them, but the waiting list was long, and it would often be months before a research team could get access to a printer. Simple 3D printers which could print cloth, dishes, and other relatively simple items were a staple in most households, but they weren’t anywhere close to the caliber of 3D printers necessary for serious scientific investigation.
“We are hoping you can join the team on our space-based lab, which orbits the Moon,” Diana said.
“The Moon?” I leaned closer, my eyes wide. I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t know of any private organizations that had an orbital lab around the Moon.
“Now I see that I have your attention,” said Diana with a smile. But clearly, she already knew this—I was literally on the edge of my seat. I looked at her intently. At that moment, Lynette silently placed our drinks on the table. Diana smiled at her then looked back at me. My eyes were glued to her face as she continued. “Yes, the Moon. I’m sure you already know that the Moon is, by international treaty, a completely open place. Everyone, or more precisely, anyone who can actually afford to go to the Moon can use its natural resources and build there, so long as they comply with the rules and regulations dictated by the Collective.”
I nodded. I knew a little bit about the loosely-structured governing body on the Moon, the “Collective,” consisting of the handful of owners/colonizers. The Collective got together whenever a decision needed to be made regarding topics which impacted the Moon colony as a whole.
“And since it takes less energy to escape from the gravitational field of the Moon than from the Earth, it was easier to transport the materials into orbit for construction, although we actually fabricated most of the parts on the Moon using 3D printers—the whole ship is modular, and we assembled it in orbit, using bots.”
I nodded again. Bots, or robots, were the obvious solution to any kind of manual labor on the lunar surface or in space. They had revolutionized construction in many other fields, and ranged in size from nanobots to bots large and dexterous enough to construct skyscrapers, and, evidently, space stations.
“We wanted a large lab, and we needed metals, such as titanium, for construction as well as other resources which are available on the Moon, such as silicon for our photovoltaics and helium-3 for our fusion reactors.”
I was about to interrupt her again, but she seemed to read my mind. “The good thing about having the lab on a spacecraft, instead of on the Earth or on the Moon, is that if we ever want to relocate, it will be a simple task. Relatively speaking, naturally.” She gave me a wry smile.
At that moment Lynette returned with our lunch. “Enjoy your meal,” she said as she placed two plates loaded with steaming food on the table. We smiled at her, and she turned to another table, tablet in hand, ready to take an order.
I was so interested in the discussion that I ate mechanically, not even registering the taste. “And how does the team manage in microgravity?” I asked between bites.
“The whole crew takes medication to protect against the harmful physiological effects of micro-G.”
I had taken these pills myself many times. “Yes, of course.”
“There is a gym, and everyone is expected to spend two hours a day exercising.”
I nodded in understanding. Although the pills were excellent for the usual ailments we Earthlings suffered when in microgravity, such as damage to the neurovestibular system, loss of blood volume, detrimental modifications in cellular and tissue function, and myriad other issues, people living in microgravity still had to deal with the loss of muscle mass and the reduction of bone density, so resistance exercise was essential.
“And, if there is any experiment that requires a gravitational field, we have the Moon, or the Earth. We have a colony on the Moon and several labs here on Earth, in different locations. But our cutting-edge research is in space.”
Diana and I spent almost three hours talking about the Foundation and its vision for the future of science. Her demeanor was disarming, and she was very charming. When she looked at me, she gave me her undivided attention, and I felt like I was the only other person in the room.
As I had read on the Internet, the main objective of the Foundation was pure scientific research, a rarity without a doubt in this world of commerce and capitalism. Most of the scientific laboratories were owned by corporations, whose main purpose was making a profit. So, although there were budgets for pure research, it was understood and expected that the scientists who worked for these companies would produce something that could eventually be commercialized. The final goal was revenue, not acquiring knowledge for its own sake. And, of course, the focus of most government laboratories was armament and war, under the guise of “national protection and peacekeeping.” Despite all of our social and technological advances, we were humans, after all, and violence was still a very real part of the landscape. Listening to Diana talk about the Foundation’s basic principles was like a breath of fresh air.
We stood together at the counter as she passed her wrist computer under the scanner to pay the bill, including, as I saw on the scanner’s display screen, a generous tip. She turned to me. “We would like for you to visit the orbital lab next week, if you are interested.”
“I would love that.”
“Fantastic!” She gave me a dazzling smile. “I’ll send you the details later tonight.”
As I walked to the door, I felt something niggling at the back of my mind. When we got outside, I turned to Diana. “So, why me? I mean, why me, in particular?” Even though my field was unconventional, I certainly wasn’t the only scientist in the world studying ftl travel.
She gave me a mirthful smile, her eyes sparkling. “I can assure you, my dear, it was not idle chance.” She entered a hovercar waiting for her at the curb, leaving me in front of the restaurant, watching her departure, utterly bewildered.