"You nervous?" Jericho asked.
"A bit," Callahan admitted. "After all, this is gonna be a long trip."
"Don't worry about it so much," Jericho said. "It's going to be a lonely, exhausting, and stressful job, but you'll be saving the world. Besides, it's only seven billion klicks. Practically next door."
"Yeah, well. I'll miss ya, buddy. Watch the fort."
The two PHYSICS Division operatives gave each other a high five which became a handshake which became a bro-hug which became a real hug, because no matter how big of a badass manly PHYSICS Division Strike Team operative you were, having one of your best friends leave for a ten year shift on the other side of the solar system was a bit of an emotional moment. No homo and all that, but Callahan admitted that he was going to miss this asshole. Even if he did steal all the beers out of the fridge.
"Operative Callahan?" the man in the white coat said. "I have your final mission briefing ready for you."
"Doc, I've been training for this mission for the past year. I think I know what's going to happen," Callahan said.
"Nonetheless, regulations are that I need to read you these briefings before you're allowed onto the apportation pad," Doctor Benjamin Flaherty (Ph.Th.D) said.
"All right, hit me," Callahan sighed.
"I'll make it fast," Doc Flaherty reassured the agent. "Here goes. In a few minutes, you will be transferred from this ship onto a barge located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That barge will then be apported by thaumatological working to Farpoint Forward Operating Base. The barge will carry supplies and replacement personnel for Farpoint Station. You recognize, by so volunteering for this mission, that apportation is a difficult, dangerous, and unpredictable process, and that your safe arrival at Farpoint is not guaranteed. You also recognize that the process of apportation carries with it the possibility that your mind may become affected by a cognitohazard or memetic entity. You finally recognize that Farpoint Station is located in a dangerous area, and that you may suffer death, dismemberment, or injury due to the hazardous nature of the duty. Finally, you recognize that this assignment is for no less than ten years, and that rescue or evacuation from Farpoint Station is next to impossible, even by apportation, due to the distances and lack of thaumatological personnel at the destination. Do you so acknowledge these statements as made to you?"
"I acknowledge," Callahan said.
"Please sign here."
Then there were another twelve statements to be made, another series of documents to sign, one last health checkup, and a final reckoning of all of his earthly assets, should he not return from where he was going. Finally, Doc Flaherty put all of the papers into a manila folder and passed Callahan a portable hard drive.
"What's this, Doc?"
"It's got every movie that came out in theatres this year on it, plus the full runs of a bunch of TV shows, and a bunch of porn," Doc said. "Those guys at Farpoint need some distractions."
"Sounds like I'm going to be the one needing this," Callahan laughed.
"You're more right than you know. Good luck, Cal."
Callahan gave the Doc one more handshake, then turned to walk down the ramp and onto the LCAC.
He stepped aside for a bit as a rather large cylinder was loaded onto the hovercraft by handtruck. The tech secured the cylinder to the cargo compartment wall, then took a seat in the chair opposite. A few minutes later, the hovercraft emerged from the cruiser's well deck into the morning light, heading towards the pair of barges that were floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
"Everything fitting well?" the technician asked, his voice sounding dull and tinny through the helmet faceplate.
Callahan nodded and gave the man a thumbs up. The technician nodded and gave Callahan a handshake, then closed the hatch of the capsule, leaving Callahan alone with his thoughts, the sound of the air slowly circulating inside his suit his only companion.
Through the capsule window, he could see the bright blue Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. Two small ships, (two of the seven that formed a circle around the barges) floated in the distance, the thaumatological resonators on their decks softly glowing in a dim bluish-purple light. Somewhere out there, a literal army of thaumatologists were shaping and working the flow of EVE through the resonators, forming a working circle around the floating barges.
"All right," he heard a voice say over his comms loop. "We're at T-Minus five minutes. I need a go/no go for launch. Node 1?"
"We're Go, sir."
"That's Go, sir."
"All's good. Go."
"Go," Callahan said into his mic.
"Go," said another voice over the loop.
"I have all stations reporting Go for Launch. Resuming the clock at T-Minus five minutes and counting."
"Node One, Energizing."
"Node Two, Energizing…"
The next few minutes were a flurry of activity as the thaumatologists did their thing. Technical jargon and status reports flowed back and forth in a smooth exchange of information. Complications arose and were swiftly dealt with. And throughout all of it, the steady, periodic calls of, "T-Minus four minutes…" '"T-Minus three minutes…"
And then it was "T minus ten… nine… eight…"
The window of the canopy suddenly darkened as white-hot arcs of energy erupted from the resonator's thirty-foot tall antennae, forming a giant, glowing star of energy in the middle of the ocean (with the barges and Callahan in the center). Callahan felt his hair stand on end, saw EVE sparking off of the glass and metal of the capsule walls…
"Seven… six… nodes at one hundred percent…"
… the air around him roared and screamed as tremendous amounts of magical energy were channeled into the structure of the working…
"… three… two… one, cast—"
The announcer's voice was suddenly cut off, just as the world went black, and Callahan suddenly found himself 6.7 light-hours away from the rest of his comms loop.
It was as if someone had turned off the lights on the world. The sunny, bright, Pacific Ocean had vanished, leaving Callahan in utter darkness, just before a sudden loud thunderclap rocked the capsule. Back on Earth, there was a loud, crashing thunderclap as the air rushed in to fill the void left by the disappearing barges. All seven ships rocked violently as the powerful waves pushed them back and forth. The thaumatological backlash was almost worse: a good portion of the ocean water turned into blood, staining the ocean deep red. Halfway around the world, a volcano that had not existed until then suddenly erupted for the ninth time in one hundred years, and just as quickly vanished from reality.
And somewhere on Pluto, two barges appeared in the center of a carefully drawn apportation circle, covered in the frost and snow that had once been a few hundred cubic meters of air and seawater that surrounded the two vessels.
And then, as Callahan's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw the most beautiful stars he'd ever seen in his life.
"… and transfer complete," Davis said. "We've got our reinforcements."
"What does VERITAS say?" Ricci asked.
"… scanning now. I've got parathreat signatures in the prisoner bay… expected. Looks like it held."
"And our newcomer?" the base commander asked.
"He checks out clean. Stressed and terrified as hell, but no hitch-hikers."
"All right. Send out Richards and Carter," Ricci said. "And let's see what Santa and his elves sent us this year."
The rapping on the windowpane startled Callahan out of his awed inspection of the gorgeous night sky. He turned his head to see a man in a spacesuit (gold-tinted visor raised to reveal his face), waving cheerfully at him. Callahan waved back, and the space-suited man moved on, continuing his inspection of the two barges for unexpected complications.
It was a half hour later when the man returned, with a second agent in tow. One of them fiddled with a control panel, and then Callahan heard a voice coming in on his helmet comm. "Test, test, test, test," the voice said. "This is Richards, to capsule passenger. How do you read?"
"Loud and clear, Richards," Callahan replied. "I'm Callahan."
"Cool. Nice to meet ya, dude," the man said. "Just hang tight for another moment. We'll get you out of there."
Callahan felt a couple of thuds as something was attached to his capsule, then the world tilted upward slightly, and he felt himself move. Glancing out the side window, he could see that some sort of forklift, with its entire structure covered in insulating panels, had lifted up his capsule and was carrying it across the surface of the ice-covered rock. The man inside the vehicle (a broad-faced man with a big orange beard), waved cheerfully to him, then went back to the delicate procedure of moving the crew capsule to its destination.
A few moments later, Callahan saw his new home come into view: a low series of structures, most of them in the shape of cylinders resting on their sides, illuminated with pale, bluish lighting. The logo of the Global Occult Coalition was inscribed on the side of each one. To one side, a bunch of open-topped crates held what appeared to be garbage bags or some other refuse.
Some wag, he saw, had put up a sign outside the biggest building.
"Welcome to Farpoint Station," it read. "Population 12."
There was a figure in a space suit standing next to it. As Callahan passed by, he took down the plate that read "2" and put up one that read "3" in its place.
The first impression that Callahan got when the airlock doors opened was one of claustrophobia. Everything was cramped and tight-looking, and every single wall, floor, and ceiling surface was covered in instrumentation, equipment, supplies, or lockers.
The second impression that he got was the smiling woman standing in the middle of the room, wearing a loosely fitting set of grey trousers, jacket, gloves, as well as a full coverage face mask.
"WELCOME TO FARPOINT!" she shouted, her voice muffled and tinny through the suit helmet. "I'M A.D. RICCI. HANG TIGHT, GONNA CHECK THE INSIDE OF THE CAPSULE FIRST."
Callahan nodded, then waited for a few minutes as the woman pulled herself into the capsule in a slow, languid motion, like she was underwater. It took her a few minutes to run the scanner all along the walls, floor, and ceiling of the capsule, checking for dust or hazardous chemicals. She then raised a bulky, older-model VERITAS unit up and did a scan of his EVE signature, checking for any parathreat hitchhikers. Finally satisfied, she then put the scanner away on a holster at her hip and leaned her head in close to Callahan's helmet.
"YOU CAN OPEN UP YOUR SUIT NOW!" she shouted.
Callahan nodded and reached up to undo the collar of his helmet. The air hissed slightly, and he breathed in his first breath of air in his new home.
It smelled kinda like armpits.
Ricci laughed as Callahan's nose wrinkled. "Yeah," she admitted. "It doesn't smell so great in here… but we've got a dozen… a baker's dozen now… anyway, we've got thirteen guys living in an enclosed environment, breathing in each other's body odor. You get used to it after a bit."
"That explains the crate of air fresheners?" he asked, gesturing to a small, sealed box in the corner.
"Yeah," Ricci admitted. "They don't last, and after a while you get sick of the pine tree smell, but… it helps." She helped Callahan to undo the harness of his capsule, then pulled him to his feet. In the low gravity of Pluto, they rose up nearly all the way to the ceiling before coming back down to ground.
"Wow," Callahan breathed.
"Yeah," Ricci laughed. "That's another thing you'll take a while to get used to. Anyway, welcome to Icetown… the GOC's most 'forward' Forward Operating Base."
"Your job is mostly going to be blue-collar," Ricci explained. "Expanding the base, now that you've brought the new module. Maintaining the systems. Watching over the Depot. And, of course, taking readings and doing analysis of the Deep Space Warning System."
"Do the probes ever pick up anything?" Callahan asked.
"Sometimes. Most of the time, it's just Pisser cussing at us."
"PSR B0531+21," Ricci explained, running a hand through her closely cropped brown hair. "It's this star in the Crab Nebula that's… kinda alive. And it hates our guts and is coming to kill us."
"That's… alarming," Callahan said, as he followed her through the cramped hallways.
"Well, it won't arrive for another five millenia. So hopefully we'll have a plan to deal with a pissed off stellar body by then." She looped her arm into a handle next to a low doorway and slid it open. "So this is your room for now," she said, gesturing to the interior of a storage cabinet filled with insulated bags of water. "We'll put down a sleeping bag for you. It'll only be until we finish installing the new habitation modules you brought up. Then we're all moving in to our nice, new quarters."
"What will you do with the old ones?"
"We didn't have any," Ricci admitted. "We've just been sleeping wherever we can find space. I usually do it in the commander's chair up in C and C."
"That… sounds rough."
"You've got no idea," Ricci sighed. "At least I wasn't here when they were doing initial installation. Those guys had to live in their suits for a solid week before they could get the core modules set up. Not a fun time."
"I met one of them, during training," Callahan admitted. "Agent Xiphos."
"Oh? Swordy? How is that old fart? Haven't seen him since he shunted home."
"He twitches a lot. And still walks with a cane."
"Course he does. Tough bastard like that wouldn't stay in a wheelchair for long." Ricci grimaced and shook her head. "Gravity's a bitch. Anyway, leave your stuff here. I'll show you the bathroom and galley."
"… and here we are," Richards said, grinning broadly "The Depot. The Coalition's solution for things they can't kill or negotiate with."
The structure was massive: about the size of an aircraft hangar. All throughout the structure were cages, crates, and other containers, all of them open to the vacuum and freezing cold of deep space, each one labeled and numbered and marked with the seal of the Global Occult Coalition.
"Where do you want this one, Richie?" Carter asked, as he maneuvered the small forklift into the building.
"Let's see… Section Three," Richards said, consulting his ruggedized tablet computer. "Next to the Heat-Eater."
Carter deftly maneuvered the device into the back of the building and laid the cylinder down next to a big crate with a temperature gauge that hovered somewhere around absolute zero.
"So, Callahan," Richards asked. "What's in that thing, anyway?"
"The container?" Callahan asked. "Type Red. Expanding Regenerator. Fire didn't work, so they tried ice. That worked, but when it thawed out, it kept coming back to life. So they kept it suspended in liquid nitrogen until it could come out here."
"Makes sense," Richards said. "Hey, want to see our UFO?"
"You mean the Zetas?" Callahan asked.
"Yup," Richards said, grinning. "And if you're real nice, I'll even let you sit in the pilot's seat."
"Sounds like a deal."
"You have no idea how good it is to taste actual chocolate again," Ricci crooned, as she took a bite of the Milky Way bar. "Oh God, it's like tasting heaven."
"Hey, boss," Vandenberg said, grinning, "You give me your orange and I'll give you my candy bar."
"Screw that, Van," Ricci laughed. "I'm going to savor every bite of this orange. It's the first time I've had one in a year."
"I thought you guys had an aeroponics garden?" Callahan asked.
"It doesn't have oranges," Ricci pointed out. "Kinda hard to grow an orange tree aeroponically. It does okay for tomatoes and onions, though."
"Ding ding ding!" Carter shouted. He tossed a silvery drinks bag to Callahan, who caught it. "All right, guys. A toast to our new crew member. To Callahan! And may he find his place with us among the ice and the dark!"
"I'll drink to that."
Callahan nodded gratefully to Carter, then took a big swig of his drink, only to gag and gasp when, instead of the expected water, something closer to pure ethanol hit the back of his throat.
Everyone laughed and cheered and clapped him on the back.
"Jesus Christ!" Callahan groaned. "Where the hell did you find this stuff?"
"We distill some of the leftover carbs into alcohol," Carter grinned. "I've got a still."
"And High Command allows this?" he gasped incredulously.
"High Command," Ricci said, taking a swig of her own drink, "Knows that we're out here for the long haul, our bones slowly turning into mush, surrounded by helium lakes and hydrogen snow, watching and waiting over the biggest depository of frozen parathreats in the solar system short of the Foundation's own stockpiles, and looking out for alien invaders. We do our job… they forgive us our indulgences."
"Then in that case," Callahan sighed, "I'm glad that part of what I brought along were a bunch of crates of orange juice powder. Screwdriver, anyone?"
"… and contact," Carter said, as the two structures met up.
"Hard dock," Vandenberg announced, as the locking latches hooked into place.
"Expanding the structure now."
In the monitor, Callahan could see the first of the four new habitation modules for the base slowly accordioning open, sliding and locking into place like the world's most complicated and high-tech pop-up book. On another monitor, he could see Carter slowly backing his forklift out of the cylindrical micrometeorite shield that the operatives had constructed from flat-pack parts over the course of the past week. When it had finished deploying, the habitation module would be separated from the hard outer shell by a gap of about three inches of vacuum.
"… and that's deployment complete," Carter said. "Let's put the end cap on, and check out our new digs."
"Base Commander gets first dibs!" Ricci declared.
"Sorry, Boss," Carter laughed. "We agreed to draw straws, right?"
"This seems remarkably unfair," Ricci complained.
"You're the one who suggested it, Boss," Carter pointed out. "You can't complain if you lose at your own game."
"Whatever. You're all a bunch of assholes," Ricci pouted.
Callahan yawned as he bounced slowly down the corridor towards the galley, It was "night" shift, around the time when most of the station's inhabitants chose to take their sleep cycle, and he needed a warm drink.
He filled up a hot chocolate pouch with hot water from the galley, logged the requisition on the galley computer, and started to head back to the storage closet that was still his quarters until the second hab module finished construction. As he did so, he noticed a low, soft light coming from CIC.
He lifted his way up the ladder and into the base command center, which was located on an elevated module overlooking the rest of the base. The entire upper half of CIC was a giant observation dome made up of thirteen windows in three concentric circles, and it had some of the best views of the entire base.
Ricci was there, sitting in the commander's chair. She had a blanket wrapped around her, and she was staring intently into the night sky, at the endless expanse of untwinkling stars. She turned to look at Callahan, then smiled at him as she snuggled up in the blanket and stared out into the universe.
"Ever think about why we're out here?" she asked softly.
"… to protect humanity?" Callahan replied. It was the Strike Team answer to that question. "To watch for extraterrestrial threats. To guard the Depot…"
"No," Ricci said, shaking her head. "We could have put the Depot on Antarctica. Or the Moon, for that matter. And we could watch for extraterrestrial threats just as well using ground-based radar installations."
Oh. "Then why?" Callahan wondered. "Why go through all this trouble to build a base out here on Pluto?"
"… if you can answer that question," Ricci said, smiling wistfully, "You'd make thirteen people very happy… but I think I have an answer." She turned in her couch to face him, resting her head on the crook of her elbow. "Why did you volunteer for this assignment?" she asked.
Callahan grimaced. He knew this was going to come up sooner or later. "I was in Strike," he said softly. "… I killed a lot of things… a lot of people. And then I couldn't keep killing. I was done shooting things." He took the seat next to her at the operations center, and played idly with a frayed bit of upholstery on the left armrest. "And when I heard about this assignment… I figured it would be a good chance to do something else. To help the GOC in a way that didn't involve killing people any more."
"… for me, it was Assessment," Ricci said softly. "There was a school in Newark. A Katie took out an entire third grade classroom. I had to watch and monitor it happening. We didn't have the assets to take it down. By the time Strike arrived…" She shuddered inwardly at the memory.
"… so that's why you think Farpoint exists?" Callahan asked, bitterly. "So the GOC can stash away its broken agents somewhere?"
"… I don't think that's it either," Ricci said. She sat up and took a moment to wrap the blanket around her shoulders. "I think it's simpler than that. I think… we might be an emergency backup supply for humans, in case Earth gets destroyed. Or maybe we're meant to be a bunch of canaries to be taken out of the aliens come. Or maybe we're just here to prove that humanity could do this… even if we had to do it in secret from the rest of the world. Maybe we're here so that when humanity finally reaches this far… they'll be able to see that we've already been here all along… and we're waiting to help them reach even further."
She got up from her chair and let the blanket fall. She was wearing a tank top and shorts, Callahan saw, and he felt his heart race as the low gravity did charming things to her bustline…
"… maybe we're out here just to be humans," she whispered, as she slid into the chair next to him and kissed him.
Afterwards, he laughed at the absurdity of it all, as they cuddled together under the blanket under the starlight.
"I have to admit, this is a new one for me," Callahan chuckled.
"There's a first time for everything," Ricci giggled. "Just think, though… if only we could tell the world. We could answer so many questions for them about sex in space…"
"I'm ready to keep experimenting if you are." Callahan grinned.
"We've got another hour until night shift ends," Ricci pointed out.
"Plenty of time."
Up above them, the stars slowly turned in their unending dance.
"Hm?" Site Director Adams looked up from her reading and put her feet down from her desk. "What is it?"
"Ma'am, I'm reading a new transmission from SCP-1548," the young agent said.
"That was expected. This is a season for solar flare activity, after all. What does it say?"
"I'm decrypting it now… message follows. 'You Apes Are Fucking Perverts.'"
"… 'Fucking Perverts?'" Adams wondered, scratching her head. "That's a new one. What does that mean?"
"I have no idea," the engineer said, equally perplexed. "No reason I can imagine why the skip would use that particular insult."
"Looks like one of those weird-ass mysteries we'll never get answered." Adams shrugged. "Carry on, Agent."