Area 51: Mission to Mars II (Book 9) by Vincent Pet

“I don’t know. I mean, why couldn’t Bobby come with us? What’s so important that he had to leave for New York when we had this day planned out for weeks?”

“I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
Area 51: Mission to Mars II (Book 9)
Area 51: Mission to Mars II (Book 9) by Vincent Pet
Brad listened to the two girls’ animated voices as they lay under the umbrella. His attention was focused elsewhere, a fair distance away from where he stood. Two Presidential security guards were calmly explaining to an imposing man that he couldn’t come to this side of the beach. The stranger didn’t seem to take it well and was becoming quite agitated. A child, a little younger than Sarah, stood at his side. “This time there’s no justification! In a few weeks the mission blasts off to Mars and as far as I’m concerned, he can stay there and… and find himself a Martian gal! Brad? You hear that? Don’t bring him back! Leave him behind!” Sarah crouched at Brad’s feet. She tightly clutched in her hand the pretty sea shell she’d just uncovered. She suddenly straightened up and slapped him on his thigh. She pointed to the group in the near distant. “Daddy, why is that man angry?” “Brad!” Brad turned his torso slightly towards the umbrella. “Hmm?” “Are you listening, Brad?” “Uhh…” “Your friend… Bobby, remember him? What’s he doing in New York? Who is it now? That model in that suntan commercial? He can’t stop talking about her!” “What do you mean – which girl in the suntan commercial?” Sarah was tugging his hand. “Daddy, let’s go see!” The beach volleyball that his sons were tossing around flew over the umbrellas. “Come on, Brad. Don’t play dumb on me!” “Hmm? Play dumb? Jess, I…” “Come on, daddy!” Sarah urged. Dora stepped in. “Does he have a new girl, Brad? That’s what Jessica wants to know!” Brad glanced at Dora. She seemed a little miffed at that moment as she took her best friend’s side. She lifted herself slightly up on her elbows and dropped her shades an inch. Her blue eyes were simply mesmerizing and his heart skipped a beat. “Why are you always protecting him, Brad?” “Dora, you too? I’m not protecting Bobby!” Brad turned around as Sarah let go of him and started dashing towards the group. Brad hesitated, about to follow Sarah, before glancing back at Jessica. “Trust me, Jess. He’ll be back by tonight. Isn’t he bringing you to that high end, fancy place where all those famous stars go to dine? He’s been planning this evening for weeks. I know how important tonight is for him. He’ll be back.” “I don’t want to go anymore! Not with him! Anyway, I just met someone last week who seems very intriguing. I’ll call him up and go out with him instead.” “Oh, you never told me this! Who is he?” interjected Dora, flashing her curiosity. “He’s a high level, finance executive. Wall Street gang. Can’t remember his last name, but it’s Allan something.” “Allan…” muttered Brad under his breath. “Never liked that name.” He sighed. What could he tell her? That Bobby had flown to New York to buy her an engagement ring? That Bobby was about to propose tonight? At the restaurant? Truth be said, Brad couldn’t believe it either. Bobby was finally tying the knot with Jessica. Whoever would have thought? The two girls continued to chat as Brad finally started to follow Sarah. “And you want to know what else? He’s always bringing up this Samantha Mikado when we’re together. He just can’t stop talking about her! If it’s not one, it’s the other! How can I trust him?” Jessica made a sharp comment which Brad missed as their giggles reached his ears. Dora tried to be reassuring, but it seemed more like a smug remark meant for him. In fact, his wife’s tone was one notch higher just so that he couldn’t miss hearing her words. “Brad will captain the mission to Mars. He’ll keep an eye on the two. I’ll write it in his daily checklist. If something happens, no more apple pies… anyways, he needs to lose a couple of pounds.” Their words were soon lost as they ebbed out between the sounds of the waves and the steady, salty wind blowing strong over his body. His wife’s voice faded away with every step he took. Sarah had already reached the group and was staring at the boy. Brad assumed the child was the man’s son. She held out her bright seashell and he inched forward, peering at it with intensity. His eyes widened in wonder and Sarah’s lips spread into a big, sunny smile. “That’s way cool!” the boy exclaimed. “Where did you find it?” Sarah pointed behind her. “There!” The Presidential bodyguards greeted Brad as he reached them. The stranger noticed Brad approaching and turned towards him. He was a burly man – hard set eyes with an unpleasant smirk on his face. He held a badge in his hand. He had been flaunting it at the two secret service agents. Brad recognized the FBI crest on the badge. “May I help you?” Brad asked, briefly flicking his eyes on Sarah who had instinctively grabbed the boy’s hand. The man rudely waved his credentials under Brad’s eyes. “FBI! Tell your men to let me through!” “Sir, as we explained, you have to go back and take the first trail leading up. After a few hundred yards, you’ll find a dirt road looping over…” The man sneered. “I know all that! I’ve been coming here for years! I don’t know why I have to walk fifteen more minutes to get to my car! This is public property and you have no right to block this beach! No right at all!” Brad was about to speak, but the guard continued to spar with the man. Brad’s attention turned to the two children who had wandered a few feet away. The boy was admiring the sea shell as Sarah held it up over his head. “I’ll ask my dad to take a picture,” Sarah told the boy. “Do you like sea shells?” The boy eagerly nodded. Brad turned his gaze back on the men standing next to him. “You do know that we’re protecting the President of the United States of America, right?” “Of course I know who these people are!” the stranger snarled back. By the tone of his voice, Brad deduced that the FBI agent was not a fan of his wife. “You voted for the other side, right?” Brad innocently asked, not meaning to incite, even if the stranger took it as a provocation. “Of course I did!” the man snapped back with an arrogant tone. “We have so many real problems in the world – people need jobs, want to feel safe when they walk in the streets – and your administration is burning money on going to Mars!” Brad turned to the guards. “Shall we detain him, sir?” one asked. The shocked man’s face turned livid and white at once. “In front of my son? But… but, I'm FBI!” Brad placed a hand on the man’s shoulders in a friendly gesture. He could tell that the individual was extremely proud to be part of the government and hadn’t intended to make his request sound as if he was asking for a privilege even if it could’ve been misinterpreted as such. “The agent’s right,” Brad acknowledged as he turned towards the two bodyguards. “Let him through. The beach is for everyone.” The sun is for everyone. The ocean is for everyone. The world is for everyone. The stranger was momentarily surprised, but relieved. He tersely nodded at Brad and cautiously extended his arm. “Walter Bonk is my name.” Brad firmly shook his hand, appreciating the gesture. At that moment, Sarah ran gleefully up to Brad with the boy devotedly following on her heels. “Daddy! Can Andrew come home with us? He’s never been on a helicopter!” Brad smiled. Walter took his son by the hand and started to walk ahead with one of the secret service agents accompanying him a step behind. Brad grabbed his daughter and wrapped her around his broad shoulders. She bounced on him, excited, as she held her sea shell towards the sky. Then she grabbed his hair with her free hand and hunched down over him. “Daddy, how did you meet mom?” Now where did that question pop from? “Ask mom.” There was another moment of silence. “I like Andrew. A lot, daddy.” “I’m glad you do, princess,” Brad answered as he lazily strolled back towards the oversized umbrellas. Brad reached the nearest umbrella and dropped Sarah down. She ran off to join her brothers. He found Dora reading a book while Jessica was taking a dip in the ocean. “What was that about?” Dora asked. Brad shrugged. “Nothing, really. Some guy who didn’t vote for you. That’s all.” She stopped reading. “That’s all? Did you ask him why?” Brad amusingly looked down at her. “Maybe we should invite him over and let him taste that famous apple pie of yours. That might change his mind. Sarah would sure like that too. She seems to have struck up quite a liking with his boy. Furthermore, didn’t you tell me I had to lose a few pounds? If you keep on baking them, someone has to eat them, right?” Dora sighed, slightly shook her head and turned her attention back to her novel. Then, out of nowhere, she suddenly shut her book hard. It made quite a whacking sound. Brad jumped. “What…!” Dora stared directly at her husband. Her tone suddenly became serious. “Brad… promise me something.” Brad was surprised at the warm hue of her tone as it soothed his mind. Her beautiful, piercing eyes momentarily made his knees go weak. They sparkled with the rare intensity of special moments. “Promise me…,” Dora whispered, her words barely audible as her voice slightly broke, “that you’ll be careful on Mars. I need you.” There was a fraught, desperate plea in them that brought sharp goose bumps over his skin. Brad hunched over and on one knee and gently reached out and caressed his wife’s cheek. “Going to Mars has always been my childhood’s dream,” he tenderly observed as he looked into her apprehensive eyes. “I know,” she replied, a gentle smile spreading on her lips. “And I’m so proud of you – I can’t even express how much joy I feel in my heart at this moment, Brad.” Brad nodded as he momentarily glanced away from his wife’s wonderful gaze to look at the children – there was something… something… He clasped his hands and looked back at his wife. “It’s why I became an astronaut in the first place,” he continued. “But…” Brad paused and hesitated as he searched for the exact words to relay his vague frame of mind. His quest was in vain as he simply found himself translating his nebulous feelings with whatever phrase came to mind. “But… I think this will be my last trip in space, Dora.” Dora was slightly taken aback and didn’t say a word. “It’s over,” Brad stiffly concluded as if disappointed with his own decision after a few seconds of awkward silence. He noticed Dora’s eyes grow wider and her face become pale. She was shocked, actually. She frowned and blinked, her mind frozen, as if he had unexpectedly and suddenly blindsided her. “Brad? This is a first. You’re not… excited? The opportunity of being the first man to land on another planet… your childhood dream, Brad! The dream that we shared together…” Her face become a little rigid and her passionate eyes tainted over with disbelief as Brad failed to reply. He glanced back out at the sea dropping his wrists over the inside of his thighs as he lay squatted beside her, listening to her. “Brad, I'm your wife, but I’m also the President of the United States of America. You know very well that I’ll strongly recommend having you removed from the mission if I have any doubts that you might put other people’s lives at risk. Bobby can captain the mission just as well as you can and there are five back-up astronauts who have trained and can replace a crew member in case of necessity.” “Brad?” she called out as he kept quiet and seemed to ignore her. He finally turned and eyed her with half melancholic eyes. “You are OK? Right Brad?” Brad’s lips broke into an easy, relaxed smile as he discerned a mounting angst and concern in Dora’s voice. Dora searched his face as she tried to alleviate her fear of Brad having second thoughts only weeks away from lift-off. “I know that you will recommend replacing me if it came down to that,” he replied, ignoring her questions about his wellbeing. “You always do the right thing and Bobby would make a fine commander – but you don’t have to worry about making that choice. I’m totally committed to the mission and perfectly aware of the historic moment and responsibility that I carry.” Dora arched her eyebrow, as if still somewhat skeptical, but Brad could tell that his wife was feeling a bit better than a few seconds ago. He elaborated his feelings further. “I am ecstatic, Dora. I really am. You’re right. It’s my childhood’s dream. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s just that I've been doing much thinking lately. We keep finding planets by the dozens. Every passing month it seems that we’ve discovered a bunch of new planets in a habitable zone of a star – but we still haven’t found a planet like Earth, have we?” Brad could tell that Dora was trying to follow him as she kept quiet and let him continue his train of thought. “No intelligent signal from the sky either. No evidence of intelligent life has reached us despite the universe having a thirteen billion head start on Earth. You’d figure that given that much time – and it took modern man less than two hundred thousand years of evolution – that a head start of thirteen billion years is sufficient time for any species to evolve and build a technological civilization capable of sending signals to the stars less alone travel to one. It’s starting to look like we’re alone in the universe – or maybe that there’s not as much life out there as we once hoped there was.” “I’m not following you, Brad,” Dora finally replied, trying to find a connection between his words and his desire to abandon space exploration. She couldn’t find it. She was trying to be sensitive to her husband’s opinion, but in many ways she was starting to feel irritated and wondered if Brad had something on his mind that he wasn't telling her. That could explain his sudden, stress like behavior. Perhaps, something had happened on the other side of the beach minutes ago? Then, like it or not, Brad had brought up a situation that needed to be dealt with. Dora knew that they were on a well-deserved weekend holiday and that she should disassociate her Presidential duties from her private life – especially since they were having a supposedly normal conversation between husband and wife – but the matter did involve national interest. The mission to Mars might well become one of the defining moments of the history of the United States, if not world civilization. Humanity was about to embark on the conquest of the solar system, which was the stepping stone to the stars. It might be ridiculous to think so today, pretentious even on a sunny beach under a wonderful, blue sky, but every reality had a beginning and this was the start of that journey. If the mission was unsuccessful, the reality where humans lived on other planets might never get off the ground – and that could be disastrous for the long term viability of the human race. “Brad...” He turned his gaze on her. “Some would say,” Dora said, “that when an athlete thinks of retiring, that athlete is already half retired. On the eve of one of the most important ambitions of my administration, you are thinking about existential questions – questions which are getting in the way of your mission, or at the very least, taking away from your concentration. Brad, you’re not making this easy on me. Do you understand what your words imply?” Dora sighed as her husband assumed that far away, meditative look in his eyes. He remained silent. “I can never understand you, love,” she uttered in a very thoughtful tone while his eyes wandered towards the horizon of the clear blue, endless sky above them. “You have quite an impressive curriculum. You are accomplished, witty, caring – a terrific husband, father, and yet, often times, you’re just… just so restless, Brad. It’s as if you’re constantly searching for something that doesn’t exist. Why? Why can’t you just settle with who you are and be fulfilled with what you have been blessed with? Why, Brad?” Brad heard Dora’s questioning ache in her tone of voice, took a deep breath and exhaled with force – as if trying to toss the weight of the world off his shoulders. He knew that his wife was right about searching for something that didn’t exist. As for the mission to Mars, she was equally justified in her observations – but he couldn’t disclose this to her. True, he was excited. He knew his place in history and what the extraordinary moment meant for humanity. He would never envision pulling out of the mission, especially after the efforts and sacrifices that went into preparing the three astronauts to land on Mars. However, there was a disconcerting voice inside his head that was troubling him and which he couldn’t ignore. It warned him of impending doom. This is not going to go the way everyone thinks. We can plan it a million times for the next one million years and it’s never going to go according to plan. “I don’t feel real at times,” he suddenly remarked as he broke his silence. He still didn’t quite understand where his thoughts were leading him to. “At times I feel as if, despite all that I know, I might very well know nothing. This frightens me. I’m not complaining, though. It’s perfectly fine to be ignorant and happy in our own little bubble. But this mission to Mars is making me think outside our world – about the big picture.” Dora was further confused. “Brad, it’s hard to follow you today.” She sighed, looking down at her book before turning her eyes back on her husband. “What big picture?” Brad grimaced. “About life. Alien life, I mean, and us. I just don’t want another species to tell us that we’re not worth much, not intelligent enough, that we’re just a little more aware of our surroundings than the animals we share our world with. As a human being, it would… it would break me inside to have an alien tell me that our civilization and all that we’ve achieved is just a footnote. I don’t want aliens to exist, but I’m afraid that they must – and that perhaps they’re hiding from us in a way that we can’t understand.” Brad seemed to gather enthusiasm as his words came gushing out. “Mars makes me think about these things – more so now that we’re about to land on the planet. You’ve seen the news. We’re in the twenty-first century and even if we know that no civilization exists on Mars, some still speculate that we’ll find relics from a past civilization that disappeared millions of years ago! It’s incredible. The power of suggestion that Mars has on men transcends the generations. For a long time, man even thought that there were canals on Mars. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli observed what he thought were canal like shapes and named them canali in 1877. The American astronomer, Lowell, thought that these were used for irrigation and built by intelligent life, and soon thereafter, this whole fantasy about aliens living on Mars took hold of our literary imagination.” It took Dora a few seconds to attempt to rationalize and synthesis Brad’s disjointed thoughts together. “Don’t tell me that you’re feeling disappointed because we can’t find aliens, but at the same time relieved that they don’t exist?” she asked, not understanding how the conversation had steered to this, and quite frankly, a little vexed at her husband at that moment. They were supposed to be relaxing as a family on a wonderful sunny day at the beach! “That’s just it, Dora. I'm starting to realize that it’s best for us if aliens don’t exist. I’ve always had my hopes high that I would live to see the day that man made contact with extra-terrestrial life, but I’m starting to feel that it will be a big disappointment if we do – a disappointment that we will regret. Perhaps, instead of looking for signs of life on other planets, we should start to concentrate at preserving what we have on this planet before Earth becomes as arid and inhospitable to life as the planets we’re discovering. Perhaps, we should forget about the stars, forget about the planets, and forget about alien civilizations. Something tells me that humanity would be much better off. Something tells me that we need to protect Earth more than we need to go out there, because there might be nothing at all to see but one disappointment after the other. We can’t lose what we have, Dora. We can’t lose Earth.” Dora stared at the serious expression on her husband’s face and tried her best to keep a neutral expression. Frankly, she did not quite know what to make of Brad’s opinions at that moment. She heard the children screaming and turned her head slightly the other way. “Careful!” she cried out to her younger son as Sarah was bumped down. She turned her attention back to Brad. “Well, if that’s all that’s bothering you, Brad… the thought of aliens.” She paused and took a deep breath. “You know what I think? I think that you miss talking to Bobby more than Jessica misses him! Let me put this in perspective. You want to retire and quit space exploration, because you’re afraid we’ll meet hostile aliens and we might as well just hide? Are you serious, Brad?” Brad turned his head towards the ocean, in Jessica’s direction. “Hmm! I never saw it like that.” He felt like a fool at that moment as he considered his wife’s words. Why was he even talking to her about these things? She was right. He missed Bobby – especially when he was feeling in a retrospective mood. Dora, well, she was very practical. Bobby was the only guy who’d listen to his theories on extra-terrestrial life. Poor Bobby – he even listened to his theories about time travel! Good thing he had never discussed those with Dora. Well, he did once – she had more or less the same reaction as she did with aliens. “It’s not that aliens are bothering me…” he tried to justify. “But…” “Brad,” Dora briskly interrupted, “…as interesting as this rambling conversation might be for you, I’m trying to relax. We’re having a terrific family day on an incredible, hot, sunny, summer day and this is definitely not the place to have such a pessimistic vision of life. You’re making me depressed, Brad! I’ve never seen you so serious about… about aliens!” Brad got the hint. Dora turned back to her book. He gazed out at sea. Jessica was coming out between the frothing, rolling waves. His eyes lingered on her appealing body as she started to walk slowly towards them. His heart warmed up. There was something so wholesome about her that… and he couldn’t explain that either. What he did know was that he was immensely pleased that Bobby was committing to Jessica. He should’ve done it years ago. Jessica had been unfortunate in love and Brad deeply cared that she found sentimental stability in her life. She was a warm and attractive woman – she was a woman that he found himself inexplicably very close to even if they never really seemed to say much to each other than the friendly exchanges when the four of them were together. Brad sighed once more as he let his eyes fully settle on Jessica. Dora glimpsed up at him, probably wondering what had led to his heavy sigh and continuing misplaced angst. Perhaps, she wanted to express a thought and was waiting for him to make eye contact, but he remained quiet and let the seconds slip by, admiring the sea spreading out in front of him as Jessica approached. What else could he say? He’d tried explaining his state of mind to Dora, but he didn’t blame her for not understanding what he meant. After all, he couldn’t quite grasp his own thoughts either. There was a bitter sweet, existential throbbing ache inside of him, and for the life of him, he couldn’t quite understand how it came about. It was as if he suddenly felt misplaced in the world – as if he had done his time and the future would be much better off without him. He felt as if something was missing… or maybe nothing was missing. He felt complete, satisfied – yet fragile. There was a contrast of moods playing out in his mind which baffled him. Yes, something lingered in his mind that he couldn’t fully grasp. Everything around him appeared serene, but he feared that it was just a facade. He felt as if he had just woken up from a heavy night’s slumber, opened wide the shutters of his window on a splendid sunny morning which was slowly starting to leave him with a creeping doubt of having slept through the most terrifying storm of the century. Brad cleared his throat. “You know, I’m thinking about writing a book on the trip to Mars. I’ve always wanted to write one. Never could find the time, though…” “That’s not a bad idea,” Dora agreed while absorbed in her book. “About what exactly?” “I'm not too sure, or better yet, I know what I would like to write, but I don’t quite know how to approach the subject. I don’t want it to be comical even if the risk is there… I want it to be a serious essay.” Brad probably expected Dora to say something at that moment, but Dora continued to read her novel. A few seconds slipped by before Brad continued with his thoughts. “I’m just wondering… what if aliens exist and they come? How do we communicate with them? How can we let them know that we will not harm them, or if need be, that we don’t want them on our planet? How can we communicate this peacefully? I mean, just because we contact aliens, doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to be allies, does it? We might find them completely impossible to get along with. Then what do we do?” Dora exaggeratedly exhaled as she dropped her book on her lap. She peered up at her husband. “Brad, can I ask you something?” Brad shrugged. “Sure.” “Don’t you have anything else better to do today? Rest and relaxation is definitely not on the agenda today, is it?” Brad’s lips spread into a rueful grin. “Guess not.” “What are you two smiling about?” Jessica asked as she reached them. She grabbed her towel and lazily patted herself dry. Jessica’s eyes acquired a provocative allure as her smoldering eyes leveled Brad. “Never seen me in a bikini before, Brad? You’ve been gawking at me from the moment I came out of the sea. It’s a good thing I didn’t decide to go topless!” Brad never blushed, but he must have turned a shade of lobster red as both girls laughed. He looked away, not bothering to justify himself. Anyway, Jessica was right. He had been caught like a young school boy gaping at the prom beauty queen. Dora might even whisper a word about it later that night – and he wouldn’t blame her if she did. His eyes wandered towards the sun as the girls continued their lazy chatter – that big ball of controlled, raging fire that kept Earth alive. He moved a few yards away from the two women and lay on his back under the full rays of the sun. He closed his eyes. In a few weeks he would be lifting off to Mars with his best friend, Bobby. Brad couldn’t wait to come back home to Earth. *** “So, who’s leading?” Bobby asked tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well that it wasn't him. Samantha glanced at her notepad. “Brad seven hundred and forty six, Bobby six hundred and ninety three.” She chuckled. “I guess you lost, Bobby. Brad’s stepping down first.” “Hey! It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” “There’s no fat lady around, Bobby,” quipped back Samantha. “Exactly!” Bobby replied. “So it isn’t over yet!” Brad listened to the light back and forth sparring of his two colleagues. The red planet lay directly below his eyes and he couldn’t help but be magnetized by its unique radiance and its completely alien characteristics. He had always thought that Earth and Mars were similar – at least that’s what the popular impression was back home, but now that the planer loomed before him, he couldn’t help but shiver at the apparent pure austerity that its stark surface portrayed from that close distance. He felt a pang in the pit of his stomach and it wasn't a pleasant sensation. Mars was very different from Earth. The planet was barren and lonely, like desolation beckoning for companionship – or a warning for travellers to stay away. Perhaps, Mars didn’t want life and if life dared defy it once again like it did millions of years before, when shallow river streams gurgled over its surface and vast oceans stretched majestically under its liveable atmosphere, it would once again take sadistic pleasure in stripping away its vitality. The planet smelled of death. It had betrayed its promise to the young and hopeful life that certainly once had attempted to lay its fruit on its surface. Brad turned to his fellow astronauts. Bobby was not giving up, even if protocol had made it clear that he would be the first one to plant his foot on Mars. “Shall we roll the dice one more time, old friend? Let’s say winner takes all this time?” Bobby ventured. Brad shook his head as Bobby stretched his arm before him, holding the plastic cube that contained the dice. He rattled it and thumped the cube on the magnetic pad. The die instantly got pulled down on the pad as it magnetized. Six. “Hah!” exclaimed Bobby. “Try to beat that!” “What?” Samantha shot back. “No way! Game’s over. I didn’t keep count all these months to have you negate my work and remind me how I wasted my R&R time contenting you in this childish game of yours. You lost Bobby! Brad’s stepping down first – as if there was ever a doubt!” Bobby grinned and looked up at his best friend. “This is not the way it played out in the tree cabin!” Brad laughed. “We were much younger back then, Bobby. We kind of grew too big to step down together. Maybe you should have told the boys to design a hatch large enough for the two of us!” Bobby simply shook his head and had a good chuckle. Brad took a quick look at the telemetry. All was functioning perfectly. In fact, it had been a flawless, textbook flight from Earth. Not one glitch. Brad’s voice turned serious and professional. “Let’s catch our last few hours of sleep before engaging landing protocol, shall we?” he suggested. Samantha nodded and proceeded to signal back to Earth their flight status. For the first time since lift-off, Brad felt a fluttering case of the butterflies as he observed Bobby gleefully looking outside at the red planet. At that moment, they really were two kids in their old space ship – their beloved tree cabin. “Can’t believe we made it, Brad…” Bobby marveled. “It’s, it’s…. just the odds of us two being here together at this moment – it’s incredible!” Brad was too emotional to respond. He clasped his best friend’s shoulder. Bobby straightened up. “Well, we did this a thousand of times before when we were kids,” Bobby quipped. “We’ve got plenty of practice. One more time shouldn’t be that hard – just don’t tumble down the ladder like you’re prone to do, got that?” Brad chuckled at Bobby’s remark, and wrapped his arm around Bobby’s shoulders. He might never get another chance to do so again. *** Brad’s eyes sprang open. He was breathing with great difficulty. The clock above his head told him that he had been asleep for nearly two hours. For a long moment, he couldn’t quite remember who he was or where. Images flashed in his head. Strange images. Images of being confined inside a tight box, of people pushing and screaming around him. Panic. Yes, lots of panic. Wherever he was, it was a war zone. It was semi-dark, but he knew that the place should have been fully lighted. There were explosions, terrible sounds of metal twisting and debris splattering everywhere. They were being attacked. He also heard… heard strange, horrible sounds in the background. Sounds not of this world. Lights were flickering. There were men around him, protecting and escorting him forward. The people around him were extremely nervous, on the edge of losing their composure despite their rigid training. There was a man shouting – no not shouting, but talking rapidly above the hellish scenario that surrounded them. He was talking to him, preparing him for something that he had to do, something that… “It’s going to be tricky, Brad. You won’t have many memories left once you go back, but you should have enough to remember what you need to do.” Brad’s eyes focused on the clock in the low lighting of the Mar’s orbiter and in that moment his dream crystalized – it became so clear that he could smell the burning wires, the dust filling his lungs – and Ron, his dear friend Ron talking to him. Even if he knew he was physically orbiting Mars, his mind saw another world where everything made little sense at the moment. He was no longer orbiting Mars. He was in a place called Area 51 and he was about to die. “You’ll be going back to a time, Brad when…” The whole place vibrated under him and Brad was surprised. How could the walls shake like that if they were underground? It seemed almost as if Area 51 was being pulled out of the ground! Brad turned towards Ron. He couldn’t exactly remember what Ron had been saying and replied with the first thought that came to mind. “I know that, Ron, but it’s the only chance we have to avert this massacre, to prevent our race’s extinction…” There was an ugly, wide ripping explosion over their heads. It came from the surface. Brad heard more fearful voices as the lights nearly completely faded away. Someone shouted: “The aliens have made a breech! They’re in! Area 51 is compromised!” They reached their destination. The commands to the door weren’t working properly. The door and frame were mangled. The door budged a few inches and stopped, well short of the space needed to slip inside. The men accompanying them pulled and twisted it open with their bare hands. They were bleeding. Brad pressed through the narrow opening, cutting a deep gash across his chest. It didn’t matter. All their wounds were irrelevant. They would soon be dead. All of them. Ron followed right on his heels. Ron was still talking. Brad wasn't really listening anymore, but Ron’s voice was soothing and it reassured him. He saw the contraption in front of him and the two started to run towards it. They had so little time left. Brad tasted his own tears. He was crying. Dora was dead. In front of him lay his time machine – his cursed time machine which was the center of endless time wars at the expense of humanity. He had to stop himself from ever inventing it. There was no other solution. He needed to… he needed to… end it. Brad felt a searing white bolt of lacerating pain in his head and blanked out. *** “Gentlemen, I’m pleased to make your acquaintances.” The two men in uniform took a seat in front of her as she beckoned them in. President Dora proceeded to turn the pages of the slim file which had been handed to her moments before by a staff member. She withdrew the one page executive summary of the forty page document and briefly scanned it with her eyes before affixing her signature on it. She couldn’t help but find it amusing –, but she fought the urge to smile and struggled to keep a neutral face in front of the two quite serious individuals facing her. Dr. Ron Height, from the National Central Research Agency, and General Barker from the Pentagon, nodded appreciatively as Dora authorized the project. Brad’s theories about time travel had a scientific basis. Whoever would have thought that his playful hobby would one day be taken so seriously? Twenty million dollars were to be put aside to start up the research. It wasn't much, but it was a start. “We need a place,” General Barker said. “It has to be a secret area where access is extremely limited and where none outside of the few involved are aware of the type of research being conducted.” Dora hadn’t thought of it. Actually, she had so many pressing matters to attend to that she hadn’t given the file much consideration. She had relied on her staff to adjourn her. Perhaps, she hadn’t given it much time, because first, it was Brad’s little hobby which she thought was just theoretical fun and second, being not only his wife but the President as well, didn’t want to interfere with the process and make it seem as a conflict of interest. “A place like that is best secured when the point of entry is limited and controlled – therefore not to close to a populated area,” Dora meditated. “The desert?” The General approved of Dora’s rational. “It’s exactly what we were thinking. There’s a stretch of land in the Nevada desert that might be perfect. We’re thinking of giving it an inconspicuous, general name that will not attract too much curiosity or attention if it’s ever discovered by the general populace, other branches of government, or foreign entities. We like the sound of area something.” “Area 51, actually,” Dr. Height specified. “Area is a common enough term and is used to denote almost anything – like a docking space for trucks or a holding sector for goods. The word area is not necessarily associated to a government agency like the words file, code or project could be. The numeration of 51 would lead one to believe that there are many other locations involved, therefore nothing special or unique about it. Even if the name was ever to be inadvertently revealed by error, it would not necessarily raise suspicion.” Dora approved of their reasoning even if it seemed too excessive for what appeared a minor project on paper. “Gentlemen, it seems to me that you two have put a great deal of thought into this,” Dora noted as she couldn’t help but wonder why they insisted on complete secrecy. Ron Height had inferred that the file should be kept secret from other branches of government – why? The fact that the funds were requested directly from the high level security homeland budget where congressional approval was not required had been puzzling when she first heard of it the week before. A questioning doubt crept in her mind as she voiced her concerns. “I commend your attentiveness to details, but the security measures you are envisioning to apply will be costly and might well end up running over budget. I must make it very clear that there will be no more funds allocated to the project’s start-up other than those approved.” Dora frowned as she considered another aspect. The type of secrecy that the two men wished to impose on the project would eventually involve the CIA and FBI if not special secretive forces outside the mainstream. She looked directly at them, her sharp gaze concurring with her tone. “Considering that my husband plays a major role in this research, I don’t want this file to bite back or bring embarrassment to my administration. I don’t want to be accused of favoritism or misuse of public money. Some might see it as the President assuring her husband a pay check on a dubious research project. I hope that you both understand my position, so even if I just approved your project in its present form, I strongly suggest that you manage your resources well, and where need be, reconsider the security requirements.” The two men crossed glances and there was a short, awkward silence before the General took the lead. “Mrs. President, can you imagine the implications if this research delivers the end product?” “Being?” asked Dora without much thought, still feeling somewhat surprised that Brad’s pastime had reached her desk. To be candid at the moment she was much more concerned with a potential conflict of interest seeing that Brad was her husband than any practical implication the project, or better Area 51 as the two gentlemen wanted to name it, could produce. “Time travel, of course!” enthusiastically clarified Dr. Height as he jumped in. “It’s the ultimate goal, the Holy Grail, so to speak!” Dora blinked. What? She couldn’t help but suddenly recall the surreal conversation she had with Brad nearly six months back at the beach when he fantasized about aliens. Time travel was also on the border of the unreal. Had she just signed something that she would be ridiculed for by her Presidential successors? She might as well have given Brad a budget to search for aliens! For a few seconds, she couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. The urge to rip up the Area 51 file under her gaze was very present as she peered at it. Nevertheless, Dora did her utmost best to remain calm and serious as the two men spoke – and she succeeded. Although, it was a good thing that Brad was approaching Mars at that moment, because she didn’t know how she would’ve reacted if he was in that office with her. “It’s the ultimate weapon,” the General repeated as he continued Dr. Height’s thought. “Time travel leaves no trace behind. It erases everything, including time itself. It can even erase an enemy from ever existing. You kill it in its egg, even before it hatches – so to speak.” Dr. Height gave the General a troubled look, as if he either didn’t approve of the General’s choice of words or was troubled by the possibility. Dora’s mind vacillated for a few brief seconds as her ire suddenly ceased. A doubt crept into her mind as she attentively scrutinized the two faces in front of her. One was practical and resolute; the other was an academic and dreamer. Even if their approaches were different, they were both very serious. These were not men who were simply looking to immerse themselves into a government project for the next year, but men who were planning ahead to bring the research to fruition. It was clear that both were not only very conscious of the potential, but also of the high element of risk attached to Area 51. Brad would enjoy working with them – of this she was certain. Dora did something she rarely did and fidgeted. She was beginning to understand a little more their request for secrecy. Could it be true – time travel? Had she been too hasty in signing the document? Did Brad even consider that his hobby could reach this far? From what she understood on file, Brad had simply wished for a modest university type budget, nothing more, with minimal funds to start a small think lab. The money allotted was much more than he estimated. Certainly, Brad’s file had moved quickly along a certain pillar of the government and a committee must have studied the file to find it interesting enough to open a high level security dossier. Dora reopened the file under her and looked at the credentials of the two men presenting the project and realized, just by a glance, that they were both decorated in their established fields. These two were not men that one would associate with a low priority project that had little chance of success. They were able men who undoubtedly would build a very competitive team. Did Brad think that this would be just a harmless hobby to spend some time on once his space days were through and never envisioned the possibility of time travel ever becoming real? Did these men in front of her read too much into Brad’s theories? Or did Brad, a very modest man, know perfectly well what his theories implied and had simply downplayed the possibilities only to have some bright scientists and these two inadvertently fall on his notions? Then a smile came to her lips. It was pointless to get carried away at that moment. Like most high risk R&D projects, it would probably never receive a second grant. With all their good intentions, Dora didn’t expect the project to last more than a year – a year and a half at the most. There would be time to stop it if she had misgivings or thought that National Security was at risk. Furthermore, she was really excited for Brad – and proud of him. “Well then,” Dora concluded as she rose from her chair and extended her hand. “Get to work, gentlemen, and draw me your final plans, including the definite location of Area 51.” When they left, Dora took a few minutes for herself. She was thrilled for Brad. His mission to Mars was the crowning achievement of his career and he had made it clear that it would be his last trip in space. His biggest fear was that he would eventually become an old, stuffy university professor in a prestigious university recounting his glory days over and over again until he dropped dead. Now, he had an interest to pursue – an impossible dream, but nevertheless with an objective. At least, it should keep him occupied for a little while. She couldn’t see him in a lab coat for many years, though. He was a man that quickly lost interest. Then again, the man she married was continually surprising her. Determined, yet restless; controlled, yet unpredictable; satisfied, yet rebellious – as if, there was always something missing from his life. In fact, she recalled that she did tell him that, on that day at the beach, six months ago. She couldn’t remember his reply. Actually, she couldn’t even remember the book she read. All that she remembered was his monologue about aliens! Dora’s eyes darted to a smallish picture in the extreme, upper left corner of a large metal frame that she proudly exhibited on her desk. It contained a collage of pics depicting special moments with Brad and the children. The picture her eyes fell on was the oldest in the picture frame. It was her first photo with Brad. It had been taken just a few days after she’d run away from home following her dad’s death. She had ran into the arms of an older boy that she had fallen in love with through a simple, magical glance while she gloomily sat in her dad’s car during an awful vacation with her cheating step mother. If one could go back in time… Dora Keen frowned. Time travel. She didn’t actually believe it was possible, did she? Brad’s half scribbled formulas… they were just… physics and applied math that at best might lead to a theoretical discovery that would increase man’s knowledge of the universe but that most likely would never lead to any real application. Yes, that was it. Nothing more than knowledge. Dora stopped breathing. Her chest tightened. An irrational fear suddenly gripped her. She summoned for a staff member, her tone strained as she held her breath. What was happening? Was she getting a panic attack? She felt her hands tremble. “Mrs. President?” “Mars mission status?” she half-snapped, not even giving the aide time to come inside and shut the door behind him. “Final preparations are under way, Mrs. President.” “Call me fifteen minutes before the lander touches down.” “Yes,” the aide replied, a little perplexed. “It’s already noted in your day’s schedule. Mrs. President.” “Thank you,” Dora answered back, trying to recompose her irrational state of mind as she stared at her husband’s picture with longing eyes. She knew that she would be assisting the descent live, but she needed to reassure herself that the mission was continuing on schedule without any last minute glitches. Strangely enough, though, her aide’s words did little to alleviate her doubt. “Bring in the United Nations delegation on human rights,” she instructed as she shifted her eyes to the next file on her agenda. Her heart was still beating rapidly. Her emotional state continued to be uneven. It dawned on her that she was feeling an imminent sense of loss which had no reason to exist. None whatsoever. Dora wanted to cry and she certainly would have if she were at home. *** Brad opened his eyes on the first beep and instantly focused on the clock display less than a foot away from his eyes. The final day on Mars had arrived. Twelve hours. That was all the time that remained until the booster fired and sent the small capsule back to the orbiter where Samantha awaited. The two weeks mission on the red planet was practically over. “Well?” Brad cheerfully asked as he stared into his best friend’s glassy, morose eyes. “Is Scorpion ready?” Bobby didn’t answer. “Is Scorpion ready?” Brad asked anew as he saw Bobby’s glum face pierce him. Bobby’s eyes suddenly became fiery. “Brad,” Bobby growled as a tight knot formed in his throat. “You can’t do this. I won’t allow it.” Brad had a half poignant smile on his face. “You know why, Bobby. Did you get confirmation?” Bobby didn’t need to say anything. By the expression on his face, Brad knew he did. Brad closed his eyes. He wanted to cry out one long shriek at the top of his lungs to calm himself down, but he didn’t. It was unbelievable. It was hard to even fathom the effort it would take to construct a time machine, but everything that he had dreamed before the descent to Mars was actually true. It would one day happen if he didn’t act now. *** Dora was startled. Shocked. Dismayed. Everything was slipping away and she needed to get control back. “What’s – what’s the meaning of this?” she asked a little too harshly. General Barker, Doctor Height, and the Mars Mission Base Commander, Doctor Holland, had no answers to offer President Keen. Her face was white as she tore her eyes from the simple sheet of paper which had just been handed to her. “How did Brad know? Who told him about it?” Dora showed restraint, for the time being, but her heart was pounding desperately as she struggled to understand how it could ever be possible. General Barker remained immobile. His thin lips were hard pressed. “I don’t really understand what this is all about,” Doctor Holland said with a rather perplexed tone. “We received this message from Samantha asking us to confirm with either General Barker or Dr. Height that Area 51 was a GO and that President Keen approved the project in the presence of Dr. Height and General Barker at exactly 10:46 am on the day of the Mars landing.” Dora’s lips were trembling. She turned her accusing eyes at General Barker and Dr. Height. “Which one of you told him?” she lashed out. She knew she was jumping to conclusions and sounded stressed, but Height and Barker seemed no better off. She wanted quick answers and didn’t want to bother thinking much at that point. “No one,” General Barker briskly responded. “We did not reveal the information in this room to anyone. We are currently studying the feasibility of building the base at the location we discussed, but our drafts do not yet contain the name that might be linked to it – and purposefully so. We don’t want Area 51 known outside of those that will be directly implicated with the project. We haven’t picked anyone to be part of the personnel yet and are waiting for your husband to return back to Earth to kick start the hiring process.”` “So we were the only three that knew?” Dora asked as the impossibility of the situation slowly solidified in her mind. “About the name we wish to give to the project? Yes,” the General confirmed. “Only the three of us know the code name Area 51. There is a committee that is involved with the project, but even among this committee, only a restricted few are aware of what the final objective is and they definitely do not know any specific detail less alone the proposed name.” Dora glanced back at Dr. Holland, her mind frantically trying to piece the bits of information into a logical, plausible scenario that could satisfy her. “Did you respond to Samantha?” she asked him bluntly. “Yes I did, but not with a direct response,” Dr. Holland said as he took a quick glance at Height who seemed the most shaken up by the events. “I inadvertently told Dr. Holland to ask the astronauts how they knew of that top secret information,” a subdued Height said, fully realizing the error. Dr. Holland nodded to confirm. “But on a secure line,” he hastily added. “No possibility of the message being intercepted. I can assure you of that, Mrs. President.” Dora swallowed hard. “OK, I get it. You asked the astronauts how they knew about Area 51 and…,” she said as if in a daze. “…and your asking to know how they knew indirectly confirmed that it was true.” “It was a mistake on my part,” Height admitted. “I should have asked, what is Area 51 instead. Or, we don’t understand what you mean by Area 51. But I was so shocked that I wasn't thinking properly…” Ron was shaking – Dora didn’t know if from fear or awe. “If we consider the matter logically,” he continued, “there is only one way that the astronauts could’ve known about Area 51 and of the specifics that occurred in this room two weeks ago.” Dora glanced at the Mars Mission Base Commander. “Could you please leave us, Dr. Holland?” she requested. “This is very sensitive information. National security can be at risk.” Dr. Holland nodded, and even if he didn’t understand what was transpiring, he sensed the gravity of the situation. “I hope,” he added as he considered the mission, “that this situation can be solved and doesn’t put into peril our mission.” He had one more pressing question to ask the President. “Does the matter necessitate a delay in lift-off, Mrs. President? The lander is scheduled to rendez-vous with the orbiter this evening.” Dora shook her head. “Not for the moment, Dr. Holland. Continue as scheduled and not one word of this to anyone. I will convene an emergency meeting in one hour and instruct accordingly.” Dr. Holland nodded as he acknowledged the President’s directives and left the office. Dora turned her attention back to the two remaining men. This was unprecedented. They had a situation on their hands, but it was a situation that was not credible and would not only be extremely difficult to explain, but also difficult to predict the consequences of any action that she might take. Then, she couldn’t very well reveal the time travel project – to whom? Who could she trust? Further compounding the problem was that there was a whole mission control center that had heard the request from the Mars mission and was left puzzled and grasping for answers after the unusual communiqué. Soon there would be many top officials asking for clarification, including members of the house and senate. Dora glanced at Dr. Height. “So what is your conclusion? How could they have known?” she whispered with a slight tremor in her voice. She knew that she should have been more resolute, more Presidential in her manner and approach, but this involved Brad and she was utterly incapable of separating her heart from her mind. She looked hopefully at Dr. Height, hoping that he would offer an alternative conclusion to the one that had formed in her mind, but unfortunately he confirmed her fears. “The time travel project has succeeded,” Height answered, and as he did so, he couldn’t quite believe the words that came out of his mouth. “The only way any of those astronauts would know about Area 51 is if they had knowledge of what transpired in this office two weeks ago. That knowledge had to come from the future. In all probability, Robert and Samantha will never be associated with Area 51. The knowledge, therefore, must come through Brad even if Samantha is the messenger.” Dora’s hand was shaking as she clutched her pen. She took a deep breath as she steadied her nerves. There were too many loose ends, too many hypotheses to consider. So many questions to ask. They were stabbing in the dark. “Are any of the astronauts in danger? Admitting that one or all three are aware of Area 51, why now, at lift-off? Why ask for confirmation? What have they found on Mars? Has someone from the future gone back in time and left a message on Mars to relay to us? Is someone from the future there at the moment we speak? Have they found evidence of a future mission and were seeking confirmation? Why would anyone from the future leave such specific information that happened in this office two weeks ago? For what purpose? And now that we’ve confirmed that Area 51 is in fact real, what will the astronauts do with this information?” What was Brad hiding from her? Dora felt a stab in her heart and instantly regretted her assumption that he was working against her. If Brad was involved, he must have had a very good reason to use this historic mission for what seemed another purpose. If it was him, he was taking an enormous gamble to seek confirmation that he surely knew was time travel related. He was the captain of the mission to Mars, and somewhere in her mind, Dora was disappointed. Brad had failed history. Somehow, he had taken what should have been humanity’s crowning achievement and made it a crisis. Height was speaking, but Dora’s mind was no longer focused on him. *** “How do you know about Area 51 does not confirm anything. Mission Control didn’t say yes or no.” Brad removed an envelope from a compartment next to him. He took a deep breath and looked at his best friend. He extended his arm. “It’s been a great ride, Bobby.” Bobby’s face faltered with emotion. “Don’t say that Brad. We’re off to Jupiter next. You’d like that. I’ll show you a good time around Jupiter! Lots of cool moons to explore.” Brad shook his head and laughed – a deep warm laugh. “Our tree cabin missions always went to Mars,” he calmly noted as he held the precious envelope between his hands. “We’ve done it, Bobby. We’ve made our childhood dream come true. We’re on Mars.” Brad pushed the envelope further towards Bobby. “There’s a USB key inside. Read it in case I don’t come back & then tell the story to Dora. On your way back home, flush it out into space. In it I reveal all my justifications and the future I’m trying to prevent.” Bobby reluctantly took the envelope in his hands. Brad’s voice broke slightly as tried to remain in control of his thoughts. “You take good care of Dora and my family, Bobby.” “There must be another way,” Bobby lashed out with anger and pain as Brad started to prepare to leave the lander. “This is simply unreal. It just doesn’t seem true. It’s absurd!” Bobby was at loss for words. A few days after landing on Mars, Brad had started telling him things that made little sense. At first, he thought that Brad had experienced hallucinations or a cognitive breakdown due to some unknown medical condition that the long trip had induced. He suddenly had an idea. “You know I can relieve you of command it I need to, right? I know the code!” A big grin spread across Brad’s face as he shook his head. “So they told you the code? I thought only mission control knew that!” “I could say that you’ve gone crazy and that I'm taking over command of the mission!” Bobby said, hoping that Brad would hear his desperation and stop what he had in mind. “Yeah, you can always say I’ve gone crazy, but then, if I’m crazy I wouldn’t necessarily be listening to your orders, would I?” Bobby snorted. “I didn’t think of that!” The two remained silent, letting a few seconds slip by, as each in their way tried coming to grip with the absurd reality. Brad finally placed his hand on Bobby’s shoulder. He was ready to leave the Mars landing module. “Remember, if I'm not back in forty eight hours, you have to lift off without me.” “I just can’t leave you here, Brad…” Bobby said as his tone broke. “You have to think of Samantha, Bobby. You’ll be the captain. She has to get back home and will need your support. Even without me, the mission will be a success. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve collected that you have to bring back home.” Forty minutes later, Brad not only had the spare which he would need during the voyage, but also the second vehicular oxygen pack, the one belonging to Bobby, tightly packed on the Mars buggy, Scorpion. He didn’t want Bobby having second thoughts and attempting something crazy to try to reach him in case he wasn't coming back. True, without the six wheeler Scorpion, Bobby would never reach him in time, but Bobby always had a way out of a tight situation, a way of making the improbable come true. This time, Brad was not going to give his best friend an opportunity to pull a miracle out of the hat. The drive was going to be a long one. A sudden sandstorm during landing procedures had changed their plans and prevented them from touching down at their primary site. They had to set down much further away from their intended target, which had been a real letdown. Since childhood, they’d both been dreaming of a rendezvous with Curiosity. While Brad was destined to be the first man to set foot on Mars, Bobby had been picked to visit the site. Brad smiled as a poignant, bittersweet sensation overtook him. Come to think of it, Bobby had received the raw part of the deal. Brad would do the two things on Mars that Bobby had wanted – the first to step on the red planet and the first to greet Curiosity. There was one other thing that Brad would be the first – and hopefully the last human being – to do. Meet an alien. But the history books would never mention it. Hours and hours went by as Brad remained on course. He took a two hour nap and then restarted his journey. The terrain was breathtaking – and harsh. Lonely. Perhaps, Brad should have appreciated his surroundings more, but he missed Earth too much to feel any affinity for that alien landscape. He dearly wished that he’d be driving back in a few hours, but he knew that the probability that he was wrong was slim to none. *** “What do you mean, Brad took Scorpion and left while you were… sleeping?” “No, not sleeping,” Bobby replied in a sore but calm voice. “My head is killing me. He must have knocked me out while I was sleeping.” There was a silence between them that not even Bobby could define. “I can’t believe this…” Samantha said, grasping to keep her composure. “Where is he? Where did he go? Did he leave a note?” Bobby remained calm. He knew he needed to for Samantha’s sake. “Negative. I can tell you, though, that wherever he’s going to, it’s not within walking distance. Scorpion is no longer visible. His backpack, mine, and the surplus oxygen pack are gone. I can’t even go outside if I wanted to.” Again, there was an incredulous silence on the communication line. Samantha was at a loss of word. “But…. we have five hours left until lift-off!” “I know,” Bobby sympathized. Samantha was in shock and Bobby had to keep her composed. “That’s why we need to remain calm and in control, Samantha. We go about our tasks as planned until mission control instructs otherwise.” “As planned? Bobby, how can you be so calm at a moment like this?” Samantha shot back with a hint of panic in her tone. “Bobby, he’s your best friend! He’s the President’s husband! He’s the mission commander!” Bobby swallowed and set his chin firm. He felt like breaking apart inside even if he really didn’t know what tears were. He never cried. “I know, but remember our training. We knew that situations like these could have occurred on this type of mission. It’s possible, I would say highly probable, that Brad is hallucinating.” Which, he thought, despite what Brad told him could very well be the case. “Have you tried to get in contact with him?” “Yes,” affirmed Bobby. Brad told him to send out regular emergency signals as if he’d run off and disappeared to make the situation appear as realistically as possible. The astronauts would be debriefed once home and all the communications on Mars would be analyzed for years if not decades to come. Brad, of course, would not respond to Bobby’s calls – unless he came back to the lander. In that case, he would make it seem as if he had really lost his mind for forty eight hours. “Calculating position of Scorpion,” Samantha replied as she regained some of her spirits and took action. Bobby heard a nervous sigh. “Unable to locate. He has turned off the tracking system. I have to go visual, but calculating Scorpion’s top speed and the distance he might have traveled, I will only pass over the area in about nine hours. I…” Then she stopped as a thought came to mind. “Bobby, he had three oxygen pack units. That’s about fifty-five hours of air. He plans to take a long trip.” “Assuming he’s rational,” Bobby reminded her, playing the card that Brad had told him to. He detested telling falsities and keeping information from Samantha, but neither he nor Brad wanted to compromise her career if mission control ever became aware that he had schemed with Brad. “Let’s make the assumption that he still has some lucidity left and that he’s not driving randomly,” she replied. “The only possible target of interest is Curiosity. That’s about a twenty to twenty two hour drive from the lander.” “You’re right” Bobby conceded. “I didn’t consider that.” There was another pause. “So what do we do, Bobby? You’re in command now. What do we say to mission control?” “We can’t reveal much to mission control with the whole world listening in,” Bobby observed. “There is a risk even on the secure line that our message will be intercepted. As soon as we open contact with Mission Control, I will relay a code that will disclose that we have a command issue and that I have taken control of the mission.” Samantha was puzzled. “What code are you talking about?” “It’s a code that only a handful of us possess and that indirectly communicates back to Mission Control that Brad is no longer in command. Its purpose is to prevent the press and general public from knowing that the captain of the mission is no longer able of psychologically carrying forward his assigned tasks. I’m sure Brad had a code for each of us, if not a handful of other secret codes to communicate averse and sensitive situations.” Samantha pondered Bobby’s words for a few seconds. “It makes sense. Then what?” Bobby knew that whatever they did to justify a delay, there would be questions. If for whatever reason, he had to leave Mars without Brad… he didn’t even want to imagine what would happen back on Earth. “We have a list of back-up projects, right – those experiments that are not necessarily scheduled, but would be nice to complete if given the time?” Bobby could hear Samantha’s skeptical voice. “Don’t tell me that you want to justify a delay of this magnitude because you want to convince the press that you want to conduct high school research projects?” “It won’t be up to us to convince the media, but Mission Control’s prerogative to convince the general populace in order to buy us some time.” Samantha didn’t like it. “And what happens if Brad doesn’t return?” Bobby’s voice was tight. “Then we’ll have to say that Brad took Scorpion out for a ride and we lost contact. Mission control will then have to give the order to come back home and leave Brad behind. Only once we’re back on Earth can we reveal the details.” Or, thought Bobby, the truth that could be told. *** “This is Robert Ross calling Scorpion. Captain Walsh, do you hear me? You are encouraged to respond. Please provide status, including location and your vital signs. You are ordered to turn on tracking system and return to lander. Take-off has been rescheduled and you have twenty seven hours to return to the lander. Over.” It was good to hear Bobby’s voice in this bleak, red wilderness. “This is Bobby calling Scorpion. Brad, do you hear me? It’s Bobby. Please respond. Samantha wants to hear your voice too.” Brad had a strong urge to turn around at that instant, but kept his focus. He had just discarded his remaining oxygen pack onto the Martian soil and continued his trek across the hostile landscape. Curiosity should be appearing at any moment now and he shouldn’t have more than an hour and a half of breathable air left. If, after visiting Curiosity, he were to turn back, it would be enough to reach the oxygen pack he had just dumped and start the journey back to the lander where Bobby waited – and eventually home, his beloved Earth. He glanced up into the thin Martian atmosphere and saw the gleaming dot high over the far horizon. The orbiter was about to disappear from view. Samantha had surely been following him visually this last hour with the high power telescope, helpless to do anything but watch from above and wonder what was happening to him. Then Brad saw it. At first, a half shiny spec, then a clear and crisp outline even if he was still a fair distance away. He pointed at it and kept on the accelerator, looking for the specific details that would reveal alien intervention. He found it a few minutes later. Some pieces were missing and others were disassembled and lined up to the side of Curiosity. He stopped his vehicle right in front of the rover. This was the time node where all the timelines met and only one was without the time machine – the one that had never been taken. His mind had always been made up, probably since he was a child, unaware of what awaited him in the future. Perhaps, his restlessness derived from the simple fact that he had to fight his destiny and beat time to give humanity back their freedom. Who knows? As Ron used to say, time does not like to be tampered with. Déjà vu – ghost memories of the past, those of the future, slipping in and out of dreams and consciousness. Did anyone really know how many times aliens had tampered with time because of his invention? Not anymore. He wasn’t going back. Mars would be his final destination. The planet he had always dreamed about would become his tomb – at least for a little while. He hoped that one day a new mission would bring his body back to Earth. Brad hopped out of the Mars rover and sidled up to Curiosity. He glanced down at the open panel to the side. A few grains of sand had been swept inside and it had been tampered with, but the half of the circuit boards where still slotted in place. Brad removed one and dropped it inside his spacesuit’s hard front pouch before closing it again. He finally opened his communication line and quickly sent the message to confirm his finding to Bobby before going offline again. Bobby knew what future astronauts would find once his body was recovered – Brad had told him what he intended to do and in doing so confirmed to Bobby that he wasn't coming back. And once Bobby returned to Earth, Dora would know too. Brad was setting up a paradox. “In my central pocket.” Despite knowing that the end was near, Brad found himself incredibly at peace. He counted down the minutes. He expected one more visitor. Just a few more seconds… when it was almost a mathematical certainty that he wouldn’t be able to reach the lander in time, the stranded alien appeared before Brad. Brad smiled. What are you going to do now, he asked through his mind, revelling the moment. You can’t very well kill me, can you now? You need me alive to survive, don’t you? You will wait and wait and hope that someone back on Earth will develop the time machine in the future so that this moment never exists – but you know very well that without me the odds are nearly impossible. Brad Walsh was the alien’s only chance of leaving the planet. Brad didn’t know what would eventually happen to humanity in the far future, but the knowledge that he carried from his near future was enough to convince him that the aliens were desperate to keep the time node on Mars alive. Somehow, somewhere, humanity would find a way to defeat the time aliens. That was the motive why the alien hadn’t killed him. That was why the alien didn’t consider that the fact of never crashing on Mars in the first place would benefit his situation too. Without the time machine, Earth would not only be spared, humanity would not only thrive, but the domination of the time faring aliens would cease. I will give you everything you want if you return to Earth, the alien pleaded. I can show you things that you cannot even imagine. I already have everything I want, Brad said, struggling for breath as the oxygen started running out. I have Earth. And then he closed his eyes and imagined. He imagined Bobby at the controls next to him and knew that nothing could ever go wrong if they just stuck together. He looked at Bobby. Bobby looked at him. They were eight years old again. They were full of confidence. Death was just a meaningless word reserved for old people – nothing more than that. Where to? Bobby asked with his swaggering tone. Home, Bobby. Just bring me back home to Dora and my family. *** Some years later President Holloway extended his arm towards former President Dora Keen Walsh and invited her to sit down. The red, hollow eyes attested to the strong, stressful emotions that she had been living through these last few months, and especially during the last few days. “Thank you, Mr. President, for bringing my husband back home.” The President solemnly nodded. “I’ll always be at your disposal as will the people of this nation that you served with great merit.” A small smile flickered on Dora’s face. “Thank you. You’ve already done so much and the support I’ve had through the years has been heartwarming.” The President observed the frail, tired woman in front of him. She was very different from the person she had been years ago when in office. The last year of her Presidency had been very trying and although she had brought to term her mandate, it had not been an easy year. It was a not too well-kept secret that many decisions during her last year in office had been made by the Vice President. Dora smiled graciously as she accepted the offered chair. She knew that every moment of the Presidency was precious. The Oval Office was not a place to linger. She bit her inner lip as her eyes shifted left and right and beheld the desk in front of her. Nearly a couple of decades had gone by since the last time she was in that office on the opposite side of the desk, but the nightmare that she had lived through came vividly crashing back in that precise instant as she slightly vacillated on her seat. “Would you like some water,” the concerned President asked, noting her moment of weakness. Dora put up her hand. “No, that’s quite alright. Thank you for offering. That’s very gracious of you.” Dora focused on her present. She didn’t want to go into a meltdown at that very moment thinking of the incomprehensible things that Bobby had referred to her like time travel, aliens, conspiracies, cataclysms, end of the world, extinction of the human species and another species calling Earth home far in the future. A timeline from which Brad insisted that he came from, or better, that would have existed if he had not travelled back from the future to the exact moment he was about to land on Mars to change it. “I have one last request, if I may.” President Holloway gave her his full attention. “As I said, if there’s anything I can do…” “Did the astronauts take other pictures of Curiosity? I mean, outside the official ones that went public?” President Holloway frowned at the strange request. “Well, yes. I’m sure they did, but I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary or I would’ve known about it. Why?” “I want to see the pictures,” Dora stated. The President was a little taken aback and Dora read his baffled eyes. “Well, yes. They are classified, but I don’t think access would be denied to a former President.” Dora’s face flickered again with a quick, quirky smile. Holloway was beginning to realize that the subtle voices about her state of mind were not merely rumors. She basically shunned public life and for all practical purposes, lived as a recluse, far removed from the circle of acquaintances and friends that had so much adored her. He felt tremendous sadness for her at that moment. “Good. Can I see them now?” she asked in a blunt voice which was rather unexpected. “Now?” the President asked. “Here right now?” “Yes.” He glanced at his watch and then back at her. He felt tempted to tell her that he had a busy schedule lined up, but she deserved more than that. He called a staff member and voiced her request. There was an awkward silence between the two as they waited. Dora’s eyes were unfocused, looking away, as if she was reminiscing of another time. President Holloway looked down at his laptop, impatiently waiting for the information while trying to keep from appearing rude. He would have liked to offer a few more words of comfort, but what could one say to a wife who had waited nearly two decades to get the body of her husband back – a man who had, in many ways, embarrassed the space program and nullified the sacrifices and hard work of so many people? Thank God the other two astronauts returned safely home and were not affected by any rash decision her husband might have taken. He shuddered to think what could have happened on the orbiter during the long journey home, given the undiagnosed mental conditions of the commander. Brad Walsh could easily have sent the spacecraft off target while the other two astronauts slept, sending the whole crew off into the void of space – forever. “Here they are,” he said, relieved, that the photos had finally arrived. He clicked on the link. “There are quite a few of them. Hundreds.” His phone rang. He quickly responded. “Yes, I know, William. I’ll be there in exactly fifteen minutes.” He shut off the line and his eyes darted back to his guest. She needed to leave. He turned his laptop around, towards her, so that they could both see. “Is there any particular one that you are interested in? I can get one of my aides to assist you if you need more time.” Dora leaned forward, not paying the President more attention than was necessary as she clicked through the pictures on the screen. Her eyes were burning. “This one will do.” The President was momentarily confused as the woman in front of him changed demeanour. He observed her sharp, clear eyes as she focused on the picture. Her composed face suddenly became very Presidential. This was the look of the woman that he had seen when she brilliantly led the country. Her face sparkled, and even if she had aged, she was still a very beautiful woman. She was considered, after all, one of the most attractive and engaging woman of her generation – one with not only a remarkable intelligence, but a seductive personality as well. Holloway turned to observe the picture. For whatever reason, he thought that perhaps Dora wanted to consult a picture of her dead husband who had been found sitting on his vehicle, Scorpion, looking straight at Curiosity. Those pictures had not been released to the public. Instead, it was a side close-up of Curiosity. Dora held her gaze a moment longer on the still picture. Curiosity was intact. It was not disassembled. The side panel was solidly in place. None of the other pictures that had been published in the public domain had shown this particular detail. She looked up into the questioning eyes of President Holloway with strong smouldering eyes ablaze with indisputable confidence and in that gaze the President felt intimidated like he never had before and never would be again. It dawned on him that she had regained control of the office as if their roles were reversed. “Did we look into Brad’s central pocket?” As President, Holloway could never remember being so stunned or ill prepared to answer. “I – how do you know that? It is classified as an alpha priority one message. Your husband’s last communication was highly encrypted on a secure line directly to Bob Ross. No one should know that your husband’s message exists outside a few.” Dora kept her strong gaze directly on the President. “Consider me one of the few.” “Who told you – Bob Ross? I have to know. I have to open up an investigation. There could be criminal charges – you simply should not have known this,” Holloway repeated as if stuck on the subject and not knowing what else to say. “Never mind the investigation. You’ll simply have more people knowing about it and a greater risk that it leaks out to the press. What did we find in Brad’s pocket?” Holloway found himself at a tremendous disadvantage, but he was adamantly set against pursuing any of Dora’s requests further. “You are not authorized to have this knowledge. I cannot answer your questions on this matter. I’m very sorry. I know that this is a difficult moment for you. I know that you are grieving your husband once again – I can only imagine what it means having his body back here on Earth, but don’t let me be forced to escort you out of my office.” Dora’s eyes warmed over. “I think that your administration is doing a fine job for the country and I would act with you as you’re now doing in my presence. You are not confirming anything while being truthful. I appreciate the respect you show me.” Holloway was relieved and at the same time appreciative of her words, yet he knew that she would not desist as he quickly found out. “But before I leave,” Dora continued, “I want to bring your attention on one particular.” Dora leaned over towards the screen and pointed her finger at the side panel – the one that Brad had told Bobby would have been opened when he arrived at the site. “How was Brad able to get the cover off, cut the underlying metallic shaft obstructing the circuit board to reach inside and pull the card out of its placement?” Holloway was dumbstruck. If he tried to deny it, it would appear not only foolish to do so, but would greatly demean him not only in her eyes but his as well. “I cannot tell you more than this,” he emphasized once again. They both stared at the picture for a few seconds longer. Her finger remained pointed at Curiosity’s solidly closed panel and her lips started trembling as her love for Brad welled up in her heart and swept her mind. She could not break down and sob – not at that moment, not in that office. It simply wouldn’t be honouring Brad if she did. “We’ve won,” she finally whispered, with a tremor in her voice as she faced the fears and doubts that had haunted her through the years. “We’ve won,” she repeated with a stronger voice, her pride clearly shining through her bitter sweet, suffering eyes as her personal demons retreated from her mind. Brad was right. Bobby was right. They did the right thing – and she did the right thing when she ordered destroyed all files pertaining to Area 51. Brad didn’t go mad. He completed his mission – his one true mission in life. And he did it his way – her husband was the hero that no one would ever know about. Dora proudly rose and extended her arm. “Thank you, President Holloway,” she said as she reached out and firmly shook the uncertain hand he held at her. “In every decision you make, always remember the people, our country and our beautiful planet. Keep us safe, Mr. President.” President’s Holloway’s grin was rather shallow as he nodded. He stared at her back as she turned around and left the Oval Office. What did she mean? We’ve won. The phone rang. President Holloway sighed and closed his laptop. *** A few years after his retirement, President Holloway was reminiscing with his long-time friend William on some of their strangest moments in the White House. His thought went back to that brief encounter with the former President. “I just get the feeling,” he told his friend as they were sipping a glass of whiskey around a fireplace, “that something happened on Mars that we’ll never know but that President Keen was well aware of.” His friend concurred. “There was a lot of turmoil around that awful mission. Robert Ross retired and went back to his hometown to open a car shop – married his high school sweetheart, had two kids, and the last I heard was living a normal life far removed from the limelight that he once favored.” “Yes,” Holloway said, remembering. “He didn’t want to come back from Mars, did he?” “No… and for a moment there, they thought they had two stranded astronauts on Mars. Then, he kept them sweating through the whole six months back. There was a genuine worry that Robert Ross would do something foolish and end the mission by committing suicide. At one point, there was even concern that Walsh and Ross had picked up a virus on Mars and that it was best to quarantine the astronauts and send them to the international space station to assess the situation.” “The pressure must have been terrible on her – her husband was dead, his best friend was living through a personal crisis, while a shell shocked astronaut Mikado tried to keep alive through it all. Hmm! On top of that there was the press to deal with… six months like that. I can’t imagine what it would feel like.” “In fact,” replied William. “She was never the same after her husband died on Mars even if still she remains one of the greatest Presidents we ever had.” Holloway frowned. “We never did find out what that whole story about Area 51 was about, did we?” “Not really,” admitted William. “Everything, if there ever was anything, simply disappeared.” The two men remained silent, enjoying the crackling whip of flames consuming the logs. Holloway spoke: “The rumors, though… wasn't there that scientist… what’s his name?”` “I know who you mean. Can’t remember his name right now, but yes, he did become somewhat of an embarrassment. He was eventually let go and for a period started publishing some crazy ideas on the web about time travel before he was forced to cease his journalistic activities since he was starting to reveal government related classified files on different sensitive projects.” “Yes, now I remember! He almost got one hundred years of jail time, but he was deemed mentally unfit and was sent off for a few years at a mental institute. Height was his name…” “That’s right. The committee looking into the mission summarized that he and Brad Walsh had a sort of plan where Brad would ask about Area 51 from Mars making it seem as if he knew something that he wasn't supposed to know.” “Therefore making it sound as if the information came from the future,” concluded Holloway as he completed William’s thought. “That’s the part of the conspiracy theory I don’t really understand,” threw back William. “Well, it was said that they did that to make it sound legitimate in order to get as much money funneled into the Area 51 project as they could,” Holloway said. “Money which many believed would go elsewhere. In other words, Area 51 was just a front for other operations – illegal I imagine.” “Do you believe that?” Holloway shook his head. “No. The men rumored to be involved with Area 51 were much respected men. Even Height was considered a brilliant scientist. Furthermore, Brad Walsh was practically a hero. Why would he even consider something like that? And no proof ever came up that the two even knew each other.” There was another long moment of silence. “And then, the mystery that no one can talk about. The one that Dora shouldn’t have known about,” Holloway said without adding further detail as if there was a remote possibility of them being wiretapped. William noticed his friend’s unusual way to approach the subject too. “The years in office have made you too cautious, my friend. Dora knew about the electronic card because Robert told her. It’s as simple as that.” Holloway shook his head and William understood what his friend was thinking at that moment. “You still don’t believe that the Brad smuggled a replicate card onboard the mission, do you?” asked William. Holloway confirmed his friend’s hunch. “I never believed it, Will. It can’t be that simple.” “But there is no other explanation,” William reminded his friend. “At least, none that can be interpreted as being feasible.” “It just seems,” Holloway mused after taking a sip of his drink, “like such an elaborate, complicated plan to get extra funding for what on paper is a ludicrous project that likely would never have passed a second scrutiny. And even if the money was allotted and that it was meant to be transferred offshore into other endeavors or their own anonymous, personal accounts, why risk it? Why would a hero want to be remembered in history as one of the vilest characters of all time?” William didn’t have much to say to contradict his friend’s analysis. “I agree. I can’t explain it either. I don’t think anyone who’s able to think it out with a cold, rational mind is able to put together one satisfying response to fit all the inconsistencies.” William chuckled as he continued his line of thought. “Perhaps, Dora or Robert Ross can, but if they know they’ll never reveal it. In the end, it’s funny how we’re not supposed to talk about something so classified to people who know more than us! There’s a certain irony there, isn’t there?” Holloway stared deeply into the empty glass he held between his hands and wasn't entirely concentrating on his friend’s discourse. “We’ve won.” “Pardon?” asked William. “That’s what she said,” Holloway clarified as he poured himself a second glass of whiskey. “We’ve won. And she was very serious too. She meant it. These weren’t words simply taken out of the air. We’ve won.” William shrugged his shoulders once again. “I think that you’re trying to read too much into it.” “I still have the picture, you know. The one that she was staring at the morning she said those words. The hatch is perfectly closed. Out of all the pictures she wanted to look at, that was the one. And that’s where that card was found when Astronaut Benet opened and got to it.” William didn’t see the point. “We had to make sure that Brad hadn’t opened the panel and removed the circuit board.” “Which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it,” reflected Holloway. “It took Benet nearly a half hour of work and special tools that Brad didn’t have.” “And what’s your point?” “You read the final investigation report on the card that Brad had in his possession. It was etched with marks consistent with years of exposure to Martian weather as if the panel had truly been open for years. The chemical analysis don’t lie, Will.” “No they don’t,” agreed William. “Here again, though, everything could have been reproduced here on Earth with special equipment and treatment. Remember that Brad was a scientist and very few people knew more about Mars atmospheric conditions than Brad did.” It was Holloway’s turn to shrug. “A scientist yes, but he didn’t have access to those kinds of labs, did he? If he was able to perfectly replicate on Earth an aging card from Mars, I’d like to know how he did it.” Then Holloway suddenly came to the point of his reflection. “Will, imagine if you did invent a time machine and it worked, how would you know? Why did Dora have everything concerning Area 51 destroyed?” William was caught off guard, but only for a brief second. “Your second question is much easier to answer. Embarrassment?” “Or…” ventured Holloway as a slight smile formed on his lips, “President Dora Keen destroyed the Area 51 project because she didn’t want to see it succeed. She completed a mission and we will never know because it involved a change in time – or in this case, she prevented a change in time. We’ve won.” William’s eyes widened as the possibility hit him like a truck. “I see….” “There is something in that picture, I'm sure,” continued Holloway, “that should or shouldn’t be there and it has to do with Curiosity. I have a hard time believing as the committee concluded that the card was replicated in so very fine detail on Earth, down to the grains of sand embedded and fused with the circuits and then smuggled on board the Mars mission for God knows what reason. But I have a hard time believing too that Brad found the panel open and pulled the card from its socket notwithstanding the card never being removed in the first place since the panel was shut. Brad only broke his radio silence once – to indirectly communicate to someone that he had something in his possession which turned out to be the card we found. That message had to be for Robert to bring back to Dora. That’s why she came to see me when she did. She waited for her husband’s body to be brought back from Mars in order to understand if the card was present. Why, unfortunately, we’ll never know because it happened and didn’t happen at the same time. That’s why there are two cards.” William’s eyes roamed to his friend’s fireplace. He recognized the plate that once had been hanging in the Oval Office. In every decision you make, always remember the people, our country and our beautiful planet. Keep us safe, Mr. President. “She told you those words on that same day you showed her Curiosity’s picture, didn’t she?” Holloway nodded. “Yes. Through the years, I figured that there had to be a good reason why she uttered them at that precise moment. She made a decision to obliterate every single file pertaining to Area 51, Will, and maybe, just maybe, the nutty Dr. Height would have succeeded and Brad Walsh knew the consequences and came back to save the world by performing the ultimate sacrifice on Mars. Perhaps, Brad Walsh is a hero and Dora Keen made the decision to keep the world safe.” Holloway sighed and lifted his glass at his inseparable friend. “We’ve won, William. We’ve won.” *** The doorbell rang. An old, haggard and nervous man greeted Andrew’s eyes. He carried a heavy file under his arm and the papers inside were about to be blown away. Andrew didn’t know the man, but he had compassion at that moment as the heavy wind was about to scatter all the man’s belongings. “Step inside. Please!” The man was only too glad to accept his gracious host’s offer as he crossed the threshold into the warm, cozy entrance of the cottage. “Do I know you?” the owner of the house asked as the man shuffled the loose, hanging papers under his arm to gather them back together into a manageable pile. “Honey, who is it?” A rather striking and handsome woman strolled up beside the man and faced the stranger. “Sarah Walsh?” “Yes,” she replied. “May I help you? You seemed to have travelled a long way. And in this weather too!” The stranger was obviously stressed as he struggled to make his point. “Well, yes. There is not much time left – ha – time. Yes, time. Uhhh…” Sarah glanced at her husband who in turn addressed the stranger. “Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? My name is Andrew Bonk. And yours is?” “Ron. Ron Height,” “And what can we do for you, Mr. Height?” Sarah asked. “Well… I have here, if you’d like to look and I hope you want to look – it’s so very fascinating – the theories of your father, or the theories that I best remember about your dad’s file since your mom had most of the originals destroyed. A great pity she did. Or rather she thought she had all of them destroyed. Some great luck she didn’t.” Sarah exchanged glances with her husband. Her eyes hardened at the mention of her father. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said, “and frankly, I do not want to seem insensitive, but I would appreciate if you leave.” “But this will only take a moment – I mean it might take years, but only a moment for now.” The man hastily started to leaf through the creased, and Sarah noted, hand crossed, stained, scribbled notes crammed into a thin folder. The pages were of different colors, different sizes – it was a mess. Sarah glanced at her husband once again and raised an eyebrow. Andrew took a gentle step forward and reached out at the old man. “Please. My wife isn’t interested.” “But she is a famous mathematician. She needs to take a look at this. It’s her dad’s work – she will understand the equations. “You knew my father?” Sarah asked, suddenly feeling miserable as a bitter sweet memory of being carried on her dad’s shoulders on a sunny day at the beach popped into her mind. It was the day she met Andrew. It was the day she loved her daddy more than anything else in the world. A few months later, he would break her heart – forever. “No – no I didn’t. I never met him, of course – I mean he died on Mars and all. But we should have worked together. I mean we did, but of course that never happened because he never came back. From Mars, I mean. He did come back from the future or someone did. Hard to say who did, but he knew things that no one knew unless you had already seen the future. I’m pretty sure something happened – aliens killed him. Conspiracy. Government cover up. Ah… do I make sense? I mean… I don’t know for certain, but something happened and they are trying to kill this file, but I won’t allow them. Your dad died for this. Brilliant mind. Underestimated, but brilliant mind…” “Now don’t lose your files. Keep them tight now, you hear?” Andrew said as he gently nudged the stranger outside their home. The man was still babbling as Andrew shut the door closed, but then suddenly went mute. The stranger lingered on the other side of the door for about a minute more in complete silence before dashing up the street with the wind clipping at his heels. Andrew turned his attention back towards his wife who had tears in her eyes. She wiped them off with the back of her hand. He went up to her and she cuddled up to him. “That was mean,” she whispered. “Don’t think about it,” he said. “You will always find them lurking – those crazy ones that want to make a quick profit off your family’s name by peddling all sorts of ideas.” “I know,” she replied. “Just that, it had been some time since someone showed up. And this one – he’s Ron Height. The real one – not those pretending to be him. I recognized his face at the end.” Andrew was surprised. “Oh! So that was him? Don’t think about it anymore. Chances are those papers have been blown half way across the neighborhood.” Andrew tried to be somewhat funny, but Sarah didn’t smile. Her memories were still clinging to that magic day at the beach. It was the last holiday that they ever had as a family. Later that night, she took her special seashell in her hand and held it for a few minutes. How she missed her dad. Why didn’t he come back for them? Why did he abandon his Princess? *** A few days later Andrew looked up at his stunned wife. She carried three big yellow envelopes. “Who was that?” he asked, noting the strange expression on his wife’s face that he couldn’t fully qualify. “It… it was special delivery from the notary’s office.” She glanced down at the envelopes. “I accepted these.” Sarah looked across the kitchen island to where her husband sat on the other side. “Ron Height is dead. He poisoned himself the day after we saw him. Under an oak tree, I’m told. He drew up a will and left me these.” Sarah looked grief stricken into her husband’s eyes. “If I hadn’t been so rude, maybe…” “No, don’t think that, Sarah. You saw him. There’s nothing you could have said or done that would have changed his fate. The guy had serious issues.” Andrew glanced back at the fat envelopes that his wife still held in her arms. “What are you going to do with those?” “I honestly don’t know,” Sarah stated as she wondered about them. “I’ll dump them off in the guest closet. The least I can do for the poor man is to take a look at them when I have some time.” Andrew went up to his wife and took the envelopes from her hands. He momentarily deposited them on a high chair next to them. He took his wife’s face between his hands and kissed her softly. He still couldn’t believe he married the woman of his dreams. “Now don’t go feeling guilty. You don’t owe that stranger anything. Actually, he’s put a burden on you by dumping on you his files which he says have to do with your dad. But it’s only his word.” Sarah nodded, but didn’t reply. She took the envelopes and made her way to the second floor and the guest room. She opened the closet door and neatly stacked the envelopes on a barren shelf where guests usually placed their shoes. She let her eyes linger on the pile before softly shutting the door. Later that night, after their best friends had left and Andrew finished piling the dishes in the dishwasher, Sarah reminisced about her young days at the White House. “I don’t remember much, but there are certain days that are forever etched in my mind,” she said as she lay nestled next to her husband on the sofa while the images played across the TV screen. “Like the day we met. I can still smell the salt of the sea, feel the hot sun on my skin with my legs dangling over my dad’s shoulders and this boy’s jaw drop when I showed him my special sea shell…” It was a unique opportunity for Andrew to get a glimpse from a part of her life that she rarely discussed about. They had met on a beach on a sunny day and their memory of that day had been the catalyst that made them come together when fate made them cross paths later in life. “Those years at the White House must have been really special moments,” Andrew surmised, holding his wife tighter against him. “Yes they were. They were wonderful moments. I don’t remember most of the details, but I had this sense of being loved and I was convinced that our family was perfect and that it would always be like that. There was not a doubt in my mind. I guess children are like that – especially happy children. We forget that feeling as we grow. We forget that innocence every one of us once had.” Andrew sighed. They never discussed much about her father and every time that they did he made sure to avoid soliciting an emotional reaction, but the moment seemed opportune. “You loved your father very much, didn’t you?” He felt Sarah’s head nudge his chest. “I adored him. He was my everything. He was my sun.” A heavily charged minute of silence went by where neither spoke. “Do you want to know why I didn’t shred those files?” she asked. “The thought did cross my mind,” he acknowledged. Sarah tried to remain level headed, but it was very difficult to do so. “I grew up watching my mother suffer. I basically lost mom when dad didn’t come back from Mars. I was too young to understand what really happened and my little heart started hating mom when I started hearing bad things about my dad while mom did nothing to protect him. When we left the White House, I thought that it was mom’s fault. We lost most of our friends, we didn’t socialize anymore, we never went on holidays anymore – I just couldn’t understand why dad wasn't with us and I blamed it on mom.” Sarah took a deep breath. Although, Andrew knew all of this, she had never really opened up about it in one conversation, preferring to drop a hint here and there and leave it at that if the subject ever came up, which it rarely did. “I was bullied at school – and let’s just say that I slowly came to realize the truth and my anger turned to deep grief and shame. I cried my eyes out and even if mom was there to comfort me, it wasn't the same. Mom was absent most of the time with her own memories. Every time I looked into her eyes I saw the hurt that she carried for dad. It was always present. Always. I preferred seeing her sleeping, in peace, with her eyes closed and maybe dreaming about dad.” She paused and frowned as her train of thought was suddenly interrupted by a memory before continuing. “My brothers and I did hear certain things about dad when mom suffered bouts of depression and I later came to know that at one point she had attempted suicide, but most of what she said at the time was disjointed and made little sense.” “What did she say?” asked Andrew trying to understand a little bit more of the anguish that Sarah had suffered through. “Nothing terribly revealing – just things like I should have ripped it up when I signed it – things that could have meant anything. The only time I saw her become lucid and laugh a little during those years was when Jessica came to visit, but those visits became rarer as the years passed by. And not because of Jessica – mom preferred to remain alone.” Andrew gently hugged his wife’s shoulder. “This was mom up until the last year of her life,” Sarah recalled. Andrew agreed. “Yes. She chose to be a lonely woman.” “And then came the last year of her life…” Sarah stressed as if something was amiss. “The last year of your mom’s life was simply amazing,” Andrew remembered. “Your mom returned to who she’d been before and did some wonderful work for the country and the United Nations.” “So what changed?” Sarah asked. “The corpse of your dad came back from Mars,” Andrew concluded. “She had closure.” “No,” Sarah replied as she sought a deeper meaning. “When she buried dad, her mood remained the same. It abruptly changed the day she visited President Holloway. That’s when. My brothers and I all received the same type of call on that day. The tone of voice of my mom was the same tone that I hadn’t heard since the day at the beach when you and I first met. All of a sudden, my dad’s name went from being barely spoken to being ever present on her lips. She started visiting Jessica again and returned back to the public spotlight. Something changed on the day she saw President Holloway and although I asked her about it, she never did say what happened on that day.” “It’s a pity that she died so suddenly,” Andrew remarked after a few seconds of reflection. Sarah concurred. “I know, but I don’t think she’d make a fuss over it had she known she would have died sooner than any of us expected. She died happily and I truly believe that was all that mom really wanted in the end – to die content. She found her reason to live again and it had to do with dad. She rediscovered the man she knew.” “And now you want to find out why and you think the answer might lie in those files upstairs?” Andrew deduced. Sarah confirmed his intuition. “Yes, but it’s more personal than that.” She took a deep breath. Andrew didn’t see the tear that rolled down her cheek. “Mom found the man she loved again. I want to find the dad I loved again too.” Andrew opened his mouth, choosing his words carefully. “Some of those files might be originals from your dad, but many are certainly the work of Ron Height. And he didn’t seem too stable when we met him. You can spend a very long time searching with a lot of frustration if nothing shows up.” Sarah shifted her position and looked up at him. “I know.” Andrew cleared his throat. “I’m just saying this because I don’t want you to lose yourself in this quest. We have a family to nurture. The fact that we’re finally talking about your dad and mom after all these years means that it hasn’t been easy for you in your heart and mind. I don’t want any harm to come to you, to us. I don’t want old wounds opening up.” Sarah shut her lips tightly and nodded. “I know,” she said. “I know the risks.” Andrew wasn't convinced of his wife’s response. For some reason, he didn’t feel reassured. “OK,” he said, half-heartedly. “So you’re going to take those files with you to the university and… and do what? You’re going to show them to someone? You know what they’ll think of you if you do, don’t you?” Sarah shook her head, but it was a weak gesture that only ended up revealing her indecisiveness. “I’m not sure what I’ll do,” she said as she thought out Andrew’s scenario. He was right. She couldn’t possibly show them to anyone at her place of work. As she reflected, she turned her wondrous eyes on him. He gulped. She was more than simply beautiful. “I think… I think,” she said as she thought the matter through, “that I’m going to pay Bobby and Jessica a visit in dad’s old town this summer. I’ll start with them. I've never really spoken to them about the past and I have to understand the past to get a better idea of who my dad was and what he was involved in at the time.” She paused before continuing. “They were four inseparable friends and no one knew my dad better than Bobby. I’m sure that there are things he knows that probably my mom wasn't even aware of.” Andrew’s face was rather taut and Sarah noticed. “You’re OK, Andrew? You don’t seem too convinced.” “Honestly, I’m not sure of your plan. When’s the last time you spoke to Bobby or Jessica?” “Must be years. I must have been a teen.” “Exactly. Years. You are searching for answers about your dad from a period that’s even older implicating the first catastrophic mission to Mars that no one has been fully able to comprehend despite a zillion investigations, documentaries, and films,” Andrew said, pleading his cause. “Does it really matter today? Can’t you just let it go, Sarah? Let the past stay where it is!” Sarah’s eyes denoted some disappointment. “If it’s my father’s work, I owe it to him to take a look at it. And if by doing so it helps solve some mysteries about that period, better yet.” She choked up as her eyes became glossy. “My mom found her husband and I just told you, Andrew, that I want to find my dad again. The day I die, I want that day to be exactly like mom. I want to die happy in my heart – happy like that day on his shoulders under a deep, blue, sunny sky.” Andrew had no argument to counter. He had set his heart in renting a boat to spend some family time together during summer. His work at the Department meant that he was away for long stretches of time and he really missed his family in those occasions. That Sarah didn’t see it like him made him feel disappointed as well. When Sarah left for work next morning, Andrew went to the guest’s closet and glanced at the envelopes neatly tucked against the wall on a bottom shelf. He squatted down and removed the first envelope. It wasn't closed. He frowned. Did Sarah already take a look at the files? Perhaps, they hadn’t been closed in the first place. He gently pulled the stack outside the covering in order to take a look at the top page. He wasn't about to pull it all out since it would have been nearly impossible to push the papers back in without ripping the envelope. He read the first two words that he saw. Area 51. Andrew scratched his head. The title didn’t tell him anything. After pushing the contents back inside the envelope, Andrew went to his computer. He typed in a general web search of Area 51. Nothing. Andrew thought long and hard. Brad was an astronaut, but was also enlisted as a scientist working for the government. He called up his dad. “Hi dad. Yes, I know. I’ve been neglectful. I know Sarah calls you all the time. OK, OK… but later. I got something to ask you. You were aware of a lot of sensitive projects when in the service, right? We can’t discuss this on the phone? Come where? But it’s a six hour drive! OK, OK. I’ll come. Give me the address. What’s this place exactly? Makes good ribs? OK, I’ll bring the beer.” The day ended up going by very fast and Andrew came to know many things that he didn’t know about his dad’s time at the FBI. Andrew finally arrived back home well past midnight. Sarah had been awake in bed and shifted to his side as her husband joined her. They had been a little cool towards the other since the other night. “I’m really glad you decided to go see your dad today,” Sarah said as she wrapped her arm over his burly chest. “You should do it more often when you have a day off. He misses you, you know?” “Yes, you’re right,” he said softly, stroking her bare arm and wrapping his fingers over hers. He had nothing to worry about. His dad assured him that there was no such thing as Area 51 and that Sarah’s father was more of an academic scientist. He didn’t even have access to the institutes and labs outside of NASA – and even here, his clearance was strictly limited to his duties as an astronaut. “He’s never ever published a scientific article in a reputable or even popular scientific magazine. I can bet you that those files are false.” “Andrew?” “Sarah?” “Seeing that you were away, I spent some time reviewing some of the papers this evening.” Andrew felt his chest rise and fall. His wife’s arm around his torso made him feel secure alive. He was happy. He truly was. He never expected life to be this good to him. “And?” he asked, knowing that nothing in the world would change his mood that night. He slipped his hand under Sarah’s armpit. “Hey!” She cuddled up closer to him. “It’s late,” she emphasized as her lips reached out to his neck. “It was never late when we were younger,” he justly pointed out. Sarah breathed in her husband’s scent – the subtle smell of vanilla on his skin was delightful. “So what is it that you want to tell me?” he asked. Sarah ran a finger along her husband’s chest. “That you are a very naughty boy. So that’s why you took so long in the shower! You opened up my gift. Does that mean that you have plans for tonight, Mr. Bonk?” “My agenda is clear until six in the morning.” “If that’s the case, then I’ll book it for you...” Sarah had a hard time falling asleep later as her husband soundly slept. It was two thirty in the morning when she slipped on her slippers and walked delicately passed the children’s bedrooms. She walked in her home office that also doubled as the library. She grabbed the white binder which she had placed on her desk and opened it. Inside were the forty or so pages that she had printed the previous evening. She shivered. It had been a long day at work – one where she spent most of the afternoon considering if she should call Bobby or not. After some deliberation, she finally decided to call him late in the day, but he wasn't at home. Jessica answered instead. At first, Jessica wasn't able to offer much help. Bobby, she told her, did not talk much if at all about that part of his life. “He’s so very different from the man that your father knew. Or that we all knew. He’s always carrying a little bitterness inside of him.” Sarah sensed a hint of sadness in Jessica’s voice. “Truth be said, at times I think he died on Mars with Brad. Perhaps – and I know it’s cruel of me to say so – he should have remained there. You are welcome to come anytime, Sarah, but if you are looking for information regarding your father’s years in the space program, he won’t offer you anything. He’ll simply talk to you about the good times that he and Brad shared when they were kids and of the pranks they pulled together – or better put, that he dragged your dad into.” After a few more minutes of conversation that centered on Dora, Jessica finally remembered a particular. “Now that I think about it, I do have something of your dad – but I don’t know what it means or how it can help you.” Sarah quickly wanted to know what it was. She was very surprised when she heard how her dad occupied his time on his way to Mars. “He wrote a book! Bobby once left his computer unattended as he was distracted by two cars that crashed just outside our home. He rushed out to find out what happened and left his computer unlocked right in front of me. I feel bad just thinking about it, but his silence about Mars was causing us much friction at the time. I didn’t rush out of the home to assist, but instead rushed to my briefcase to take out a USB key and copy as many files as I could in that minute and a half he was away for he suddenly remembered and ran back inside. I just had the time to drop the key inside my bra of all places!” Sarah asked Jessica if she still had the electronic copy and if it was possible to send her the file and Jessica quickly accommodated her. Sarah quickly started reading it on her phone and the esteem she had for her father grew. “Communicating with Aliens: A Handbook of Possible Obstacles and Their Proposed Solutions” When she arrived home from the university that evening, she printed the book and placed a copy of it in the binder she held. Her curiosity aroused, Sarah had started sifting through the first of the three envelopes. It started off with a proposed site for a top secret project. Her skin bristled over when she saw the signature of her mom approving the dossier. It was to be called Area 51. Jessica uttered a few gasps and her face contorted into a thousand expressions as she went through the documents. There was nothing casual about the information that the file contained. The concepts were revolutionary and far reaching. She found entries written in her father’s hand and broke down and cried her grown heart out. They were so wonderful in their complexity and simple in their explanations. She thought that she was an accomplished mathematician, but she could not even walk along the same path that her father showed her through those scribbles and notes. There was just too much to understand, too much to conceptualize and what Ron added to her dad’s notes was even more mind boggling. She saw all the pain and moral dilemmas that Ron faced in the year following her dad’s death. I have set up a couple of blogs to share some ideas, but I must be very careful of what I say and how. I am not even certain if this is the wise thing to do. If this information is used by the wrong hands, all the weapons we have in this world would be a wet match to the harm that this potential theory can do to humanity. I also need to be very careful. The originals of most of these documents have been destroyed and no one knows that I have these copies. No one. I can be killed for this. I cannot let this knowledge die, but I cannot publish this knowledge without grave consequences to us all. What am I supposed to do? Who can I trust? Who will believe me? This is maddening – it really is. Sarah shut the binder and placed it once more at the corner of her desk. She walked over to the window overlooking the back yard and gazed outside. It was a moonless sky and the stars were scattered like dust. She trembled inside and at that moment felt so insecure. She so much desperately needed her daddy’s strong arms around her – that feeling of invincibility when she was on his broad shoulders. My princess. Oh daddy… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. Sarah turned around. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but they felt so good. She had found her father again. She quietly walked back to her bedroom and slipped under the covers beside her husband. She closed her eyes. I’ll make you proud. I will. At that instant, she recalled the other name written on the document that her mother signed. General Barker. That was the person that Sarah needed to find to continue her father’s work. That was the person that would be able to tell her more about Area 51.


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