She nodded slowly, like she was digesting that information, and took a long pull from her coffee.
He rubbed his hands together. “There aren’t too many people who know about it, but I’m sure you can imagine—everybody that does has got a theory about the ship and why it’s there. Some think it’s a relay station for some kind of communication network. Others think it’s watching Earth from a safe distance—that kind of speculation kicks everyone’s paranoia into high gear. Quite a few, myself included, think it’s abandoned. Here’s what we do know: in over 60 years of near-constant observation, the Target has never moved under its own power. It has maintained a stable orbit with no apparent outside interference. We haven’t observed a single resupply.”
She seemed expectant, curious, so he kept talking. He was pretty sure he was giving up more information than he should. “There’ve been long-term plans to send a mission to the Target for decades. They couldn’t send anyone in 1964. We hadn’t even walked on the moon yet—but let me tell you, that jumpstarted things. Forget the Cold War and the Russians. This has always been about the Target.
“They set small goals, in order to develop and master the technology that’d be needed. Each disaster was a huge setback—Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia. The Target wasn’t going anywhere, so they kept pushing things back. Just to explain the scale we’re talking about here, Dr. Holloway—Mars is anywhere from 30 to 50 million miles away depending on how the orbits line up. On a good day, the Target is 185 million miles away, minimum.”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah. So, while any kind of mission into space is inherently dangerous, they didn’t want this to be a guaranteed one-way trip. So, they waited. But we can’t put it off anymore. We have to go now.”
He sighed and sat down on the step next to her. “A NASA astronomer recently discovered there’s an asteroid on a collision course with the ship. The asteroid’s got an unusual orbit, thrown off by Jupiter’s gravitational pull. Earth’s orbit and the Target’s orbit only line up every 28 months, so we’ve got two shots, just two launch windows, before it’s obliterated. NASA wants you for the first mission, the Alpha Mission, to assess what’s there. If necessary, they’ll send a second mission to tow the Target into one of the Lagrangian points for further study.”
“Why not just let the asteroid call their bluff, if someone’s there? Doesn’t that eliminate the threat?”
“The threat’s only a small part of this. It’s the fucking holy grail of technology and knowledge about what else is out there in the universe. We need to bring this thing home and spend lifetimes studying it, reverse-engineering it.” He shrugged. His enthusiasm was showing.
She smiled a half smile and scrutinized him with an inquisitive look, “Well, that is some incredible story. Tell me what this means to me, exactly. Why is NASA looking for linguists? Why me?”
“I would think the need for a linguist is obvious. We need someone who can attempt to communicate with whoever or whatever is there, if there is someone there. And if there isn’t…well, there’s still going to be the need to decipher and document a new language. The focus has been on finding a linguist who has actual field experience learning languages from scratch.”
“It’s called a monolingual field situation, a scenario where there’s no common language to build from. It’s pretty rare. On Earth, anyway,” she shook her head and blinked, for the first time showing disbelief.
“You’re one of the very few who’s done this kind of thing before. Under some pretty difficult circumstances.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Yes. I have.” She rose and started walking again.
He followed. Something had changed. Her mood was different. The curious, teasing air had evaporated. Now she seemed serious, almost melancholy. She paused in front of a creepy, marble monument surrounded by rusted wrought iron and a sea of broken black and white tiles. It towered over the two of them. Probably seven feet tall, it depicted an angel, kneeling upon a funeral altar, shrouded by its wings, head buried in its arms, weeping. It made something prickle in the back of his brainpan, and he didn’t want to turn his back on it when Holloway moved on.
“So, when should I tell them to arrange the flight for you?” he called after her.
She stopped and turned, an incredulous look on her face. “What?”
“To Houston—the Johnson Space Center—for the interviews. You’re the top candidate. There won’t be much competition. It sounds like it’s yours, really.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. He shouldn’t have said that—but it was true—so, what the hell.