The Japanese Jupiter Mission, by Leigh Kimmel
Tyler had tried to warn the Japanese to stay away from Jupiter. When they persisted in sending their mission, he wondered whether they would’ve listened if he hadn’t been a gaijin. Were not Japanese astronauts a kind of bushi, metaphysical warriors confronting the dangers of a hostile environment? Perhaps they would’ve considered it obligatory to test themselves against the universe in this manner even if the messenger had been Japanese.
Now that the Moriryu had arrived in Jovian orbit to begin exploration, a deep foreboding had settled over Tyler. He hadn’t felt such profound dread since his own final flight through Jupiter’s cloud-seas, as he prepared the Marduk to return home. Yet how could he convince anyone of danger when he couldn’t provide a rational explanation of his own alarm, just the absolute certainty that they must not attempt to fly into the Jovian atmosphere lest they court disaster?
A quiet excitement filled the Moriryu. Their probe’s first flight had exceeded all expectations, and the mission commander had authorized a celebratory meal.
As pilot of the probe, Kazuya Suzuki wore his best expression of polite embarrassment at being the center of attention. However, Dr. Matsumoto could see the smirk of delight hiding behind good manners. The signs might be small – a little too much tension at the corners of the lips, the downcast eyes that made furtive glances to check his teammates’ reactions – but as the mission’s flight surgeon, Tomoko Matsumoto made it her business to know and recognize everyone’s reactions.
Like Suzuki’s odd approach to his food tonight, selecting each morsel from his dish as if his chopsticks were tweezers plucking screws from a tray. Of course Kenta Nakamura, their agronomist and cook, had prepared a special meal, so a little savoring was not unsurprising. Of more concern was the small pile accumulating in one corner of Suzuki’s dish.
At a closer look Dr. Matsumoto recognized the rejected food items as bits of shiitake mushroom. Odd, since shiitake had always been one of Suzuki’s favorites, and the difficulty of growing them in the spacecraft’s hydroponic farms made them a rare treat.
However, she didn’t judge it a serious enough matter to bring it to everyone’s attention, so she held her concern behind the polite mask of social harmony. Only when the gathering broke up and everyone headed in different directions for the evening’s work did she indicate her need to consult with him in private.
Colonel Suzuki was a difficult person to know. Dr. Matsumoto had a sense of a man born out of his time, who would’ve done better as a samurai of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or perhaps an aviator flying from a carrier in the early days of World War II, before the first successes evaporated and the sons of Yamato drank defeat to its bitter dregs. For certain he’d found modern Japan’s Self-Defense Force too limited a horizon, and had transferred to the space program in search of greater challenges.
Although he remained polite, she couldn’t miss the touch of irony in his demeanor. Dr. Matsumoto made no comment, but filed it away as one more datum about their probe pilot’s condition. “I noticed that you did not partake of tonight’s shiitake mushrooms, Kazuyu-san. Was there some difficulty with them?”
Suzuki’s jaw tensed, but his voice remained level. “I do not understand. Kenta-san’s meals are always to be appreciated, and the pickled shiitake mushrooms most of all.”
Before he could launch into a flowery pean to the evening’s repast, Dr. Matsumoto indicated his dish. The facade of politeness cracked, but only for a moment. If he thought to deny the evidence, he also realized the bounds of propriety.
Instead he chose to temporize. “Odd. I have no recollection of having removed them. Maybe the flight was harder than we realized, or some chemical leaked through the cockpit seals that affected taste perception.”
Dr. Matsumoto didn’t see any obvious signs of impairment, but they were pushing the boundaries of science and technology. She knew the American mission’s probe pilot had experienced physical and psychological trauma, but the questionable handling of that mission made it impossible to separate the trauma of the flight from the harm done to the man by the preparatory surgery. Not to mention the questions that still lingered about human cloning in general, let alone the issues with the Shepard geneset.
Without solid evidence, she couldn’t justify grounding Suzuki and disrupting the schedule of subsequent flights. The window for their transfer orbit back home placed a hard limit on schedule slippage. If they missed it, they would have to extend their mission to the next one. Although the Moriryu had a more sophisticated closed-cycle life-support system than the Americans’ Marduk, it did not have infinite capacity, nor could their machine shop replicate every vital part for which they lacked a spare.
Tyler awoke to a shrill sound and spent several seconds searching the life-support telltales for the source of the alarm before he realized it was his own breath whistling through the fluid-breathing port in his throat. Sweat beaded on his skin, and in the Moon’s paltry gravity it clung and pooled in unpleasant places.
“Tyler, you’re safe. It’s all right. You’re having a nightmare.” Deena spoke aloud rather than through the quantum mindlink they shared, the better to break him free of the mental loop in which he’d become trapped.
From the alcove came a whimper of fear and out stumbled their daughter, rubbing her eyes. Deena pulled the girl into her arms.
“It’s all right, Gracie.”
Grace nodded with understanding.”Daddy’s having a nightmare, isn’t he?” At Deena’s nod, she reached over to put her arms around Tyler’s neck. “It’s OK, Daddy. I love you.”
Tyler’s cheeks flushed. Although he and Deena were both creche-raised, the products of the black-project human cloning and genetic modification laboratories the United States had established at a time when its very existence was threatened by enemies opposed to its fundamental principles, he knew that parents should comfort their children after nightmares, not the other way around.
Deena activated the mindlink for private conversation. ::How bad was it?::
::No worse than usual.:: Tyler stared across the tiny apartment, searching for the words to express the all-consuming fear, the urgency pressing upon him.
::I think it’s time to kick this higher up.::
Tyler hesitated. Reginald Waite was his clone-brother, and took the relationship seriously. However, as commandant of Shepardsport, Reggie was already struggling with a bad political situation that the Marduk mission had only exacerbated. Asking him to deal with something so vague as nightmares seemed a presumption upon their relationship.
::Tyler, you’re not a man to panic. If you won’t talk to him, I’ll do it myself.::
Tyler smiled at his wife. How could he gainsay a woman who’d crossed the lunar surface to get help when the Marduk was breaking down and their own flight controllers had given him false course correction information intended to send him on a solar orbit that wouldn’t intersect the Earth-Moon system for centuries?
Although Colonel Suzuki’s second probe flight had met every mission objective, it left Dr. Matsumoto uneasy. For the past two days she’d reviewed the biometric data and compared it to the records from the first flight. She found a few anomalies, but none sufficient to merit action.
That changed right before his third flight, when she overheard a mention of nightmares in the breakfast conversation. Judicious followup revealed that Suzuki had mentioned to two other crewmembers that he’d been dreaming of tentacled monstrosities ravishing him.
Any other time Dr. Matsumoto wouldn’t have thought much of it. The whole crew knew about Suzuki’s taste for hentai anime and manga, to the point he’d used a significant portion of his personal weight allowance on several multi-terabyte hard drives of them. Fill your mind with something and it will color your dreams.
After Suzuki’s behavior at the celebratory dinner, it confirmed Dr. Matsumoto’s concern about his physical and mental state. Why didn’t he notify me? Is he hiding things?
Although she couldn’t consider it a disciplinary matter, she could offer him a face-saving way to acknowledge it as a medical issue rather than a psychological one. A tricky proposition, since Suzuki had a hotshot fighter jock hidden behind the proper team player he presented to the world, and those flights gave him an acceptable outlet for showing off his abilities.
“Thank you for your concern, but I don’t want to let the team down over a few bad dreams.” Suzuki’s voice sounded strong, even lighthearted as he joked about frightened children and scary stories.
In the absence of clear medical contraindications, she had little choice but to proceed, placing the various sensors that would collect his biometric data, preparing the fluid-breathing system which enabled him to survive the crushing pressures and accelerations of the flight. The Americans had implanted a breathing port in their astronaut’s throat, but they’d been working in secret and cut ethical corners which cost them much face when the truth came out. To avoid such a permanent mutilation, Japan’s mission planners had settled upon having the flight surgeon intubate the pilot for each flight. Dr. Matsumoto didn’t like it, but the new technology made the process easier and safer than in her med school days.
She was filling Suzuki’s lungs with oxygen exchange fluid when she noticed a threadlike object floating in the pearlescent liquid. Before she could look closer, the fluid stream shifted and it vanished.
Did I see that, or was it just a trick of the light?
By the time they finished helping Suzuki into the probe’s cockpit and sealed the hatch, Dr. Matsumoto’s misgivings had returned in force. She kept thinking of that one American engineer who’d found his work on the Marduk project disturbing, but had kept telling himself not to overreact on the basis of incomplete information and said nothing until the commandant of America’s Far Side base had rescued the pilot and exposed the story to the world.
The probe’s descent into the Jovian atmosphere took a subjective eternity as Dr. Matsumoto watched the flight clock count out objective time. Of course the probe had to travel at considerable speed in order to pass through the radiation belts below the orbit of Ganymede fast enough to avoid a dangerous dose, but intellectual knowledge helped little when doubts squirmed in the hindbrain.
At last the probe entered the Jovian atmosphere, a few thousand miles south of the Great Red Spot. While the physical scientists busied themselves with the data pouring in from the probe’s surface sensors and collection pods, she watched its pilot’s biometric data.
What she was looking for, she didn’t know. So far everything remained within the parameters for an athletic man performing a demanding task. She shifted from one group of sensors to another, secure in the knowledge that everything was being recorded.
Shifting between telemetry feeds, she hit the wrong button and switched to Suzuki’s helmet camera. Even as she corrected the error, she noticed a shadow in the clouds. By the time she switched back to the helmet-cam feed, the form had vanished.
It’ll be on the recording and you can examine it frame by frame after the flight. Right now, concentrate on your job.
There’d been a certain humor in Tyler’s meeting with the two technical specialists Reggie had called in from one of the nearby scientific outposts. Not just that he should call upon parapsychological researchers who’d come to Farside in hopes of isolating themselves from the quantum observer effects of Earth’s billions, but that their sponsoring Institute had been founded by Alan Shepard’s lunar module pilot, who’d performed experiments in telepathy on their Apollo flight.
There’d been little time for laughter over the personal connection. After a brief discussion of Tyler’s recurrent nightmares and their increasing severity, LeRoy and Barton had decided to attempt a hypnotic regression on the missing four hours of Tyler’s memory of his final flight through Jupiter’s clouds. After reviewing the video of that hypnosis session several times, they’d determined that someone or something had planted a message in Tyler’s mind, behind a block so strong neither had the skills to force it.
So here they were in Edo, Japan’s principal lunar settlement, hoping the block would come down once Tyler met the intended recipient. Which assumed that person was here, and would meet with this gaijin who used a speech synthesizer for a voice. Tyler doubted there’d be any triumphant “OK, everybody, we did it” for this mission.
Tyler fiddled with his phone, alternating between checking the Moriryu’s mission blog for updates and his e-mail for some indication that someone in authority had decided to listen to him. Steffi must’ve picked up on his nerves, since she came over to sit beside him.
“Don’t worry, Tyler. These things take time in Japanese culture.”
Tyler forced a smile for his sister-in-law, knowing she meant to comfort him. Although several other Shepardsport residents had greater familiarity with Japanese culture than Reginald Waite’s wife, Steffi’s status as a settlement commandant’s wife and the settlement’s IT chief made her more suitable to lead the delegation.
And being married to another Shepard clone gives her an insight into our mercurial temperament. The thought of what everyone knew but no one would acknowledge turned his forced smile genuine.
Even as Tyler wondered whether it merited retrieving his voice synthesizer and commenting, the door chime sounded. It was the young woman who’d brought them to these transit quarters when they’d arrived. Yes, the commandant would speak with them now.
If the Americans’ scramble to make themselves presentable amused Akane-san, she showed no sign, just waited with impeccable patience. Tyler couldn’t decide whether visible amusement would’ve relaxed or offended him.
At least the trip to the commandant’s office didn’t take long, even if the formalities of greeting took a subjective eternity. Tyler became painfully aware of their foreignness – himself so tall and long-faced with those big blue eyes, or LeRoy with his tightly-curled hair and skin several shades darker than anyone else. Even Steffi didn’t show much sign of having a Japanese grandmother, since the genetic lottery had left her taking after the Scottish side of her family, red-haired and freckled.
::Stop worrying,:: Deena told Tyler through the mindlink. ::We’re dealing with educated, cosmopolitan astronauts, not the Japanese equivalent of a town up north of the notches where the people think leaving to see the world means driving down to Boston.::
Tyler suppressed a smile. He’d been raised in NASA’s Houston creche, not Shepard’s native New Hampshire, so the image of an insular New England village didn’t have as much impact as the redneck jokes he’d seen all too many living examples of. But it was still absurd enough to ease his apprehension and let him focus upon making a good case that Japan’s Jupiter mission be recalled at once.
He wished he had a better handle on the Japanese commandant. It didn’t help that Hiroshi Yamada didn’t carry out the interview himself, instead letting his assistant, a man by the name of Kichida, ask the questions. But Steffi said it was typical for the actual decision-maker to listen while a subordinate conducted business. The inconclusive end of the meeting only made things worse.
“They haven’t said no,” Steffi reassured Tyler after they’d returned to their transit quarters. “Remember, Japanese culture emphasizes consensus in decision-making. Colonel Yamada will have to consult with people in Tokyo, and they’ll reach a conclusion together that will allow a face-saving withdrawal. Trying to rush things will only ensure it goes badly.”
Tyler nodded, wondering if he ought to answer with his voice synthesizer. So much easier to sit lotus-fashion on the tatami mat and rest his gaze upon the wall-scroll that depicted a grove of seaweed among which hid fish and a small octopus. At least it took his mind off the sense of pressure, of being watched from afar by stern, judging eyes.
When Dr. Matsumoto reviewed the helmet-camera feed from the third flight only to discover an eight-second gap centered on the time she’d noticed the shadow in the clouds, she found it alarming. But both the mission’s computer specialists had agreed that data loss could not be considered cause for alarm in and of itself. Suzuki had flown the probe far deeper than either previous time, and electrostatic buildup on its skin could interfere with telemetry transmission, similar to the loss of signal experienced by spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The shadow she’d seen could very well have been the first signs of the signal breaking up.
Although the explanation dissatisfied her, Dr. Matsumoto couldn’t disrupt the crew’s harmony by challenging Ohayashi or Shimizu in their own specialty. She gave them both her polite thanks and considered how else to find data that either confirmed or dispelled her concerns.
At least Suzuki’s mental state had improved, and he appeared relaxed. However, his vital signs showed increased tension, which further puzzled her. Could it just be a pilot’s equivalent to the runner’s high so many athletes talked about?
She was still mulling it over when the mission chemist approached her, wanting to know how much she knew about microbiology. She had to aver that her own training was almost entirely in infectious agents, but she had enough general knowledge to recognize basic types.
Megumi Chikafuji handed her three prepared slides. “If you could check these under the microscope, I’d appreciate it.”
Dr. Matsumoto put one after another of them under the medlab microscope. It was a fairly standard optical model for pathology work, but for the first time since she left Earth, she wished they could’ve included an electron microscope in the mission equipment. A scanning tunneling electron microscope would’ve enabled her to see the structure of those cells at a far better resolution, clarify whether the cell walls were made up of chitin or cellulose. Her only other option was to perform destructive chemical tests.
At length she asked Chikafuji where the samples had come from. She fully expected it to be from the hydroponics, perhaps an effort of Nakamura’s to double-check a conclusion of his own about a developing problem without biasing the respondent. She had asked colleagues to pose such questions on other physicians when she faced a strong possibility of two diagnoses being correct and didn’t want to signal her own expectations and prejudice the answer.
Instead, Chikafuji showed her an image of a mass of reddish-purple matter. “We found it in one of the probe’s sampling pods. Nobody’s seen anything like it, although Kenta-san says it reminds him of the mycelium of some of the saphrophytic mushrooms we use in the organic waste recycling systems. However, he says that the biochemistry of it is alien, with different chemicals in the bases for their DNA and RNA analogs, and the mitochondria equivalents are adapted for metabolizing a hydrogen-rich reducing atmosphere.”
Even as Dr. Matsumoto started to comment on the similarity to her own conclusions, a shout of fear captured her attention. It was Shimizu, eyes wide with terror.
“It’s Colonel Suzuki. He’s hallucinating. Keeps saying their tentacles are all over him.”
Tyler still had trouble getting used to Japanese sleeping arrangements. The futons were soft enough – in lunar gravity you floated on a surface as much as you rested on it – but the absence of the relaxation-inducing shifts of the hammock-style beds back home in Shepardsport meant he experienced only fitful sleep.
Toss and turn, over and over. He opened his eyes, peered at the environmental control panel on the wall with its unfamiliar arrangement of life-support telltales, picked out the digital clock. Not quite midnight, although it was Tokyo time rather than the Central Time used by American lunar settlements used to keep in sync with Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Maybe he should take one of those sleeping pills Dr. Thuc had prescribed. Tyler fumbled through his bag until he found the right bottle, swallowed the tablet with a mouthful of cold tea.
It didn’t take long for Tyler to discover how bad a miscalculation he’d made. Instead of easing him into slumber, the drug had relaxed a barrier within his mind. In its absence an intrusive and unwelcome presence began forcing itself upon his consciousness.
He must’ve awakened Deena, because she was shouting for someone to help her. The next thing Tyler knew, LeRoy was kneeling beside him, talking in that California surfer-dude accent of his that took you by surprise. The words didn’t make any sense, yet their tone soothed Tyler, strengthening his ability to master his own mind.
And then they resolved themselves into sense. “We can get this done best by hypnosis. When you’re ready to be hypnotized, give me a thumbs-up to signal your consent.”
Tyler did so. He was halfway aware of Deena handing him his voice synthesizer, of Steffi training her phone camera on him as LeRoy induced the hypnotic trance and began the regression.
Under LeRoy’s guidance, Tyler relived his final flight into Jupiter’s atmosphere. It had begun like all the earlier ones, but as he flew deeper into the Jovian cloud-seas, the probe’s controls became unresponsive, and he realized he was not alone.
Even with LeRoy’s skilled questioning, Tyler couldn’t describe the Jovians, only the sense of a technology so alien in its fundamental principles that human science could not comprehend it. Its effectiveness he could not deny, for they were able to extract him from the cockpit of the probe without injuring him.
Dozens of tentacles probed him from head to foot as saucer-sized eyes gazed down upon him – he had a sense of conical organisms reminiscent of an Earthly squid or octopus, but adapted to a gaseous medium so compressed as to function more like a liquid. Yes, they were studying him, but not out of scientific curiosity – he perceived that humanity as represented by him lay under judgment. What sort of creatures had crossed the void of space to send its device hurtling through the cloud-seas, shock waves echoing across the abode of the People–Behind him Steffi said, “Oh my god – a sonic boom would be like a depth charge in those conditions.” She might be an electrical engineer, but she had a solid foundation in Newtonian mechanics and acoustics.
But there was more. The Jovians had placed a message within Tyler’s mind, that their world belonged to them and humanity was not to trespass again. To ensure he would not harm himself on the way back to Earth, they’d caused him to forget until he set foot on Earth.
“Which I never did, because I was brought here, to the Moon instead.”
Four is death. So powerful was the influence of that linguistic coincidence upon Japanese culture that buildings in Japan had no fourth floor. Similarly, the planned fourth probe flight was instead numbered 3A in all mission documents and checklists.
Given Suzuki’s deteriorating condition, Dr. Matsumoto had ordered that flight canceled, but the man had become obsessed. While the other astronauts slept, he had managed to suit up and get himself into the probe. At least mission planners had anticipated the possibility of an incapacitated pilot and included override procedures to recall the probe.
By the time they opened the cockpit, Suzuki was in a frenzy. Once before Tomoko Matsumoto had seen a human being so lost to rationality, in the teaching hospital of the university where she’d taken her medical degree. That patient had a progressive degenerative disease.
No such thing could be said of Kazuyu Suzuki, yet he was fairly tearing his spacesuit apart with hysterical strength in his efforts to strip it off. His whole face contorted as his lips and tongue struggled to form sounds no human voice ought to speak.
The swellings Dr. Matsumoto had noticed the previous day had grown until they stretched the skin to a waxy whiteness. Even as she watched, several burst open and reddish-purple tissue flowed out of them, expanding at a rate that set her to mind of a toadstool that had once appeared in the dampish wood of the wall behind her family’s toilet. In a matter of hours it had gone from a barely-visible pinhead of tissue to a cap the size of her palm, all a sickly yellowish color that had promised a nasty fate to anyone who tasted it.
Except these growths were not spreading at the ends to form mushroom caps. Instead they lengthened into ropy appendages that recalled the tentacles of a cephalopod mollusc. They writhed with a life of their own, groping toward anyone that moved into range, and from them came clouds of whitish particles.
There was nothing to do but sedate Suzuki and get him into the biohazard isolation chamber. At this point the latter might be too little, too late, but Dr. Matsumoto didn’t want to risk further contamination if the man’s ongoing transformation produced additional infective agents.
Biopsies of the growths taking over Suzuki’s body revealed a mycelium reminiscent of the material they’d found in the sampling pod after the third flight. Could it have breached the cockpit seals and gotten into Suzuki’s life-support systems?
Except she had been handling Chikafuji’s samples without any biohazard precautions, and so had Chikafuji and Nakamura. None of them had shown any kind of infection – or had they?
Alarmed, she drew a sample of her own blood, was relieved to see no sign of foreign substances. That relief lasted only until she heard one of the other crewmembers suppress a cough, realized her error of logic.
Nasal swabs showed three other crew members had signs of the alien mycelium in their bodies. Meanwhile, Suzuki’s condition had worsened. In spite of the strongest sedative she dared administer, he continued to gabble in that inhuman language, as if being manipulated by some outside agency.
“Or something’s using him to communicate something to us,” offered a terrified Tsubasa Oyahashi. He’d been searching their computers for anything that might offer information on their pilot’s condition, even sending queries to Earth and to Martian and lunar webservers.
One of his search-query windows jumped to the front – a lunar search engine spider had just indexed a newly-posted video. Dr. Matsumoto’s English wasn’t strong enough to follow everything the first time, and the subject’s use of a voice synthesizer didn’t help, but after several rewatchings, she had a good idea of the American pilot’s account.
“I know some people consider hypnotic regression a suspect method, but I think it’s time we speak to the mission commander.”
While Tyler was still waiting for the appropriate people to take note of his breakthrough, the bad news came in from Jovian space. He was up in Edo’s observatory, since Steffi had suggested it as a way to take everybody’s minds off the situation. Although the rest of the Shepardsport delegation busied themselves admiring the gibbous Earth, a rare sight for people accustomed to Farside’s sky, Tyler’s attention went to the patterns of stars. Hadn’t he read somewhere that the Japanese used a different system of constellations from the familiar Western one he’d learned in training for Marduk? An astronomy derived from Chinese rather than Babylonian and Greek antecedents?
Even as he pondered whether to get his phone out and check the Internet, a flash of light caught his eye. When he identified its source as Jupiter, a cold lump of dread knotted his guts. Out came his phone and he confirmed what his heart knew.
Only when Deena jumped to his side did he realize he’d cried out his anguish over their quantum mindlink. Forgetting multicultural propriety, she flung her arms around him and pulled him close. ::Tyler, what’s wrong?::
He tilted the phone so she could read the final installment on the Moriryu’s mission blog, which had come to the lunar blogserver just ahead of the light from the spacecraft’s destruction. Even in computer-translated English, it hit hard. “Oh my god.”
:: And I failed them.:: Tyler hung his head in despair.
The rest of the delegation, realizing something had happened, came over to see. Steffi took one look at that final blog entry and put her arm around his shoulder. “No, Tyler, you mustn’t blame yourself. You did everything you could. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the Administration that kept you from returning to Earth because they considered you an embarrassment.”
In the hours that followed, as they waited for their ride home, Tyler read and re-read that final blog post. Although Steffi’s translation, based upon the Japanese she’d learned as a child from her grandmother, couldn’t capture all the nuances of the mission commander’s death-poem, there could be no denying the power of the images of a moonlit forest full of mushroom-encrusted logs.
Reading it made Tyler wish seppuku were an option open to him, but he belonged to another tradition. One of the early Apollo command module pilots – Mike Collins? Dick Gordon? Ken Mattingly? – had been asked afterward what he would’ve done if the lunar module ascent engine had failed and stranded his crewmates to die on the lunar surface. He’d answered that no, he wouldn’t vent the cockpit to space and end his life, but he’d return to Earth a marked man.
And likewise shall be my fate, to go home a marked man, although for me home is a city on the far side of the Moon.
Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist, and historian. She has been active in science fiction and fantasy fandom for a number of years. Find more of her work at LeighKimmel.com, and follow her on Twitter @LeighKimmel
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