“You proved what you set out to prove.”
She shuddered. “Yes, but at what cost? Was it worth the lives that were lost to prove some ancient, pedantic academic wrong?”
“That was a bad break.”
Her expression was bleak, full of anguish. “A bad break? People died. They left families behind—people who needed them, relied on them. I couldn’t prevent it. I couldn’t protect them. I couldn’t save them.”
He frowned. “They were adults. They knew the risks when they signed up—just like you did.”
She shook her head slowly, her lips pursed together in a thin, white line. “Look, I’m not some wild adventurer. I’m not who you think I am.”
“Your childhood would suggest otherwise,” he said sardonically.
“That was my parents. That wasn’t me.” She resumed a crisp stride back to her car.
He trailed behind her, bewildered. He was going to catch hell when he got back. They were going to assume he’d made some kind of off-color remark that put her off. They were going to think he’d fucked up a sure thing. He’d failed their test.
When he came out of the park, she was in the car and the motor was running. He got in and she took off, her driving no longer measured and controlled. She was going a little faster, taking a few more risks.
“Is it fear?” he asked quietly. “Because we all…I mean, it’s normal….”
It was a forceful answer. She didn’t say anything more. He had to take that at face value. She parked on campus and sat there, staring straight ahead.
“They’re going to ask me why. What should I tell them?”
“When people take risks, they do it for selfish reasons, for their own personal indulgence. They don’t consider how their actions will affect others.”
“Who will you affect, Doc? We’ve done our research. There isn’t a thing about you we haven’t considered. You tick off every box. You’re divorced, have no children. Your one surviving parent appears to be off the grid and the grandparents you spent your teens with are both deceased.”
She looked down at her lap.
He fished in his wallet for a business card. She took it silently and he got out. The car was already getting hot in the sun and he didn’t know what else to say to her. He was just about to slam the door when he thought of one last thing, “Are you going to be like this girl, this student of yours, with regrets? Or are you going to fulfill your potential and do something absolutely amazing that will benefit the human race?”
She didn’t reply, only closed her eyes.
He retrieved his ID card from inside the building and remembered he needed her to sign the confidentiality agreement. As he headed for his own car, he noted that hers was gone. So, he’d screwed that up, too, dammit.
* * *
Partway back to Pasadena, his cell rang. It was Holloway.
Her voice sounded cold, formal, rehearsed. “Dr. Bergen? This is Dr. Holloway.”
He checked his mirrors and decided not to change lanes just yet. “Yeah, this is Berg.”
She cleared her throat. “Have your people contact me about the arrangements.”
He sat up in his seat a little straighter. “Oh, you changed your mind?”
“I’ll go to Houston. That’s all I’ll agree to, for now. And that’s just to satisfy my curiosity.”
“Sorry, Doctor Holloway—but it looks like you’re out of a job,” Walsh said flatly.
Jane let out the breath she’d been holding. She told herself she should be relieved. “Don’t be too quick to make assumptions,” she found herself musing aloud. “This could be a social custom that we don’t understand. Visitors may be expected to follow the lights to a designated location. It could be a welcoming gesture.”
“Like walking the red carpet, or something,” Gibbs suggested.
“Think there’s any paparazzi?” Bergen said.
Walsh shook his head. “The docking lights, the airlock opening, the interior lights—are probably automated, triggered by proximity. I think we’re looking at the ‘vacant’ scenario here.”
A gut feeling insisted he was wrong. There was someone in there. Jane eased forward, reaching to pull herself through the opening.
Bergen was grimacing. “So, where does that put us on the flow chart of doom?”
Walsh grabbed Jane from behind before she could go further. “Wait. Compton—getting any response to the radio transmission?”
“Negative, Commander. No joy,” Compton said evenly from the cockpit.
Jane spoke up, “They’ve welcomed us. They know we’re here. I think, maybe, they expect us to—”