Unintended Consequences, part two

 

 

Unintended Consequences:

A Sequel to "Follow the Leader"

by Ruth L

 

 She prowled through the cave with mounting panic, searching in vain for an opening in the rock walls. The flashlight batteries were nearly dead, and the cave would soon be pitch black. The air was stuffy and close, and she imagined that the oxygen was nearly depleted. Suddenly, a black-clad masked figure loomed up in front of her, brandishing a sword with a coiled, electrified blade. She was momentarily blinded by the sparks flashing off the metal that singed her clothes and hair. A voice thundered, “I have destroyed armies! Do not try to pit your strength against me!” She felt the blade press against her throat…

 

Maureen Robinson woke in a cold sweat, her heart racing and all of her limbs jerking. Although she was breathing hard, she felt as though she were suffocating.  She sat up, trying to discern her whereabouts. A cave? A tomb? As the dim outlines of her surroundings slowly came into view, the nightmare dissolved into the reality of the sleeping cabin that she shared with John on the Jupiter 2.  Weak with relief, she lay back and waited for the terror to abate. Gradually, the pounding of her heart subsided, and she slowly inhaled air deep into her lungs. Fully awake, she heard John’s quiet even breathing next to her, and the soft humming sounds of the various life support systems on the Jupiter 2. Ordinarily, these background noises had a lulling effect on her, but she tossed and turned repeatedly as sleep continued to elude her.

About an hour before sunrise, Maureen gave up all attempts at further sleep, and rose and dressed quietly. She slipped noiselessly out of the cabin, and after washing, headed for the silent, gleaming galley. Working quietly, she completed some advance preparations for breakfast: brewing coffee, setting out plates and cutlery, mixing the dry ingredients for muffins, and measuring out wet ingredients to add right before baking.

By the time she had completed these tasks, dawn was breaking over the eastern highlands of Priplanus. The sun’s rays refracted through the hazy atmosphere, casting a yellowish glow over the rocky, shrubby terrain. Maureen ascended to the upper level, crossed the control room, and selected and shouldered a lightweight weapon. Opening the hatch, she exited the spaceship, pausing to close only the door to the outer hull.

Maureen strode purposefully past the hydroponics garden and the vegetable beds toward an outcropping of rock that she and John affectionately referred to as their stargazing perch. Out of the corner of her eye, she spied the new fuel-making device mounted on a worktable next to the spaceship. It was an engineering marvel, combining Earth technology with extraterrestrial raw materials to accomplish the nuclear equivalent of spinning straw into gold. But Maureen was indifferent to its gifts, and she hurried past the contraption with her eyes averted. Arriving at the stargazing rock, she settled down onto it to watch the sun rise in a brilliant palette of red and orange hues. A light breeze ruffled her carefully tousled red-gold hair. Despite her uneasiness this morning, and their inauspicious circumstances on Priplanus, she had learned to appreciate peaceful moments such as these.

The whirring and clicking noises of the robot could be heard as the machine performed its routine morning reconnaissance. As the robot came into view, it rolled toward her.

“Good morning Mrs. Robinson. How are you feeling today?”

“Better, Robot. It’s good to back at the Jupiter 2.”

The robot raised its Plexiglas bubble dome. “My sensors detect that you remain distressed over the events of the past few days. Do you wish to talk about it?"

“It’s true, Robot, I am still very troubled over what happened. I realize that John cannot be held responsible for what the alien made him do. But he nevertheless almost killed the Major and Judy and myself.” She never ceased to be amazed by the emotional intelligence that the robot was evolving during their sojourn on Priplanus.

“Do not worry, Mrs. Robinson. My sensors indicate that the alien presence has completely departed, and that the Professor is fully recovered. He would never deliberately harm you or any other member of the crew.”

“Yes, Robot, I do understand that.”

“I must continue my rounds now, Mrs. Robinson. Professor Robinson has been searching the area for you, and is now approaching.” With that, the machine lowered its bubble dome, retracted its accordion arms, and rolled away. 

 Maureen heard footsteps coming closer, and seconds later John appeared in front of her. They regarded each other warily, and in silence. At last Maureen attempted a smile, that died before reaching the corners of her mouth. She moved aside to make room for him, and John sat down on the stargazing rock next to her.  He reached over and took her hand in his. The two of them sat quietly, savoring the early morning sunlight and stillness.

“It looks like it’ll be a beautiful day, darling. I’m thinking that Don and I might be able to finish synthesizing our entire fuel supply today.”

“That’s nice, dear.” But inwardly Maureen cringed. The architecture for the fuel machine would never compensate the terror inflicted upon them by that alien intelligence.

John pressed on. “Don has some good ideas for reconfiguring the vacuum chamber more efficiently. It will really improve the performance and the isotope yield.”

Maureen remained silent.

 “It won’t be so hot today. The garden has wilted a bit, but with some watering, it should be recovered by tomorrow.”

“I hope so, dear.”

Gripping her hand harder, John ventured a direct probe. “Maureen, what about you? Is there anything you want help with today?”

Maureen pulled her hand away. “I had better return to the ship and finish those muffins.”

John decided to put an end to the small talk. Maureen was too good at it, and they were getting nowhere fast. He dropped her hand, turned to face her, and took her by the shoulders. “Maureen, darling, breakfast can wait. We need to talk.”   

Maureen gazed into his broad, handsome face. Although he looked more relaxed today than he had all week, there were still shadows under his eyes attesting to his own ordeal. “Yes,” she agreed. “I suppose we do.”

Taking a deep breath, John began. “Maureen, most of my memories of the past week were destroyed along with the alien. But I had a long talk last night with Don and the children after you went to sleep. I understand that not only did I behave very unpleasantly, but that I also placed you, Don, Judy and Will in life-threatening danger. For that I can only apologize, and plead the alien’s influence.“

“What do you mean, ‘placed Will in life-threatening danger?’ ” This was news to Maureen.

John inwardly winced. He was not yet ready to disclose the incident with Will on the ledge. Doing some fast thinking, he punted, “Earlier this week Will followed me, I mean the alien, to that cave one night. When I caught him spying on me, I was very harsh with him.”

Maureen lowered his hands from her shoulders, and stood to face him. “That’s not the same as threatening his life. John, you had better tell me exactly what you meant.”

John sighed, steeling himself to get through the ordeal. “All right. While you and Don and Judy were in the cave, I –I mean the alien- intended to pilot the Jupiter 2 to another planet where I told the children you and the others had been taken. Will got suspicious, so I –the alien- took him up to a ledge overlooking a steep ravine, with the intent of pushing him off.”

Maureen felt her heart lurch. She thought that John could not have done anything worse than seal Don and Judy and herself in a cave for nearly 48 hours. Evidently, there had been no striking bottom in his soul while he had been in the grip of that alien force. She stared at him, ashen-faced, then turned to walk –no, run - back to the Jupiter 2, away from John and the reminder of the evil that he had embodied. A wave of nausea overcame her, and she swayed unsteadily. John leaped up, caught her by the elbow, and steered her gently back onto the rock.

Gradually, her dizziness subsided. With uncharacteristic venom, she hissed, “So, you were about to throw Will over a cliff. What happened?”

John struggled to maintain his composure. These revelations were painful for him too, and Maureen was not helping. “Will insisted on seeing my face, unmasked, and then told me how much everyone in the family loved me. I threw the mask down the ravine, and in doing so, exorcised and destroyed the alien.” He looked intently into her large blue eyes. “It’s gone, Maureen-forever.”

Maureen sat quietly, trying to absorb everything she was being told. “Is there anything more?”

“No,” replied John, relieved to be moving on to a more uplifting chapter. “Once the alien was gone, Will told me that you, Don and Judy were missing. I still remembered about the cave, so we took the Chariot over there and pulled the three of you out.”

She dimly recalled her final hours in the cave, inert, dehydrated and semiconscious, all hope fading. She had no stamina left to worry about Judy, and had only hoped that she and Don were drawing strength and hope from each other. When John had finally burst into the cave and carried her out in his arms, she had genuinely feared she was hallucinating.

John peered sideways at Maureen, trying to gauge her frame of mind, and the prospect of even a partial reconciliation. While he appreciated that she was struggling, he couldn’t help comparing her reaction to that of the children. When he had returned to the Jupiter 2, Will and Penny had clung to him ecstatically, embracing him as their “old” father, with no traces of fear or resentment. Even Judy, once she was safely out of the cave, had been wholeheartedly forgiving and affectionate with him. Clearly, Maureen’s recovery would be a lengthier and more complicated process.

John rose, and began to pace. Soon they would have return to the Jupiter 2, and their heavy workload precluded further discussion between him and Maureen today. He was by nature a decisive man, and had no desire to end this highly emotionally charged exchange on a question mark. He needed reassurance that he and Maureen were at the very least on a path to resolution, if not yet forgiveness.  But Maureen was regarding him dispassionately, with the faintest hint of disdain pulling down the corners of her mouth. It was a look she often wore when listening to Dr. Smith’s inanities, and being bracketed with the doctor this way was almost more than John could bear.  Frustrated, he ran his hands through his hair, rubbed his temples, and then came to stand by the rock again. He pulled Maureen to her feet, and seized her in a tight embrace. She allowed herself to be held, but her bearing remained stiff.

Holding her at arm’s length, John said earnestly, “Maureen, I know that I made you suffer,  and I will do everything I can to make it up to you. But for now, we have to pull together as a family if we are going to survive, get off this planet, and to Alpha Centauri. We need to move past this episode.”

Inwardly, Maureen squirmed. This was a familiar refrain. From her point of view, there had been too many dilemmas during their long marriage that had been resolved only when she had set aside her feelings for John’s lofty visions, and the greater good of the family. She recalled her decision right after college to defer her own academic goals in order to support John, Judy and herself with a lucrative aerospace job –a move that enabled John to pursue his Ph.D. Then, when Penny and Will were tiny children, it made sense for her to be the at-home parent, as those were the years when John was a rising star on the UCLA geophysics faculty. Eventually, she had completed her own doctorate, only to shelve her groundbreaking astrobiology research soon afterward, in favor of the long, intensive training for their space flight. While she had no regrets, it was hard to ignore the fact that her decisions had worked to John’s advantage. Now he was asking her to do the same for him…again.

As if reading her thoughts, John said, “I know that our past decisions and our hardships out here have taken their biggest toll on you. I couldn’t have asked for a more suitable partner, and I must be the luckiest man alive.” An idea formed in his head. “As soon as we regroup, get the fuel situation and the garden under control, why don’t we, just the two of us, take the Chariot to dismantle the weather stations in preparation for liftoff? It’ll almost be like a second honeymoon, and give us a chance to talk more. What do you say, darling?”

It was tempting. The routine on the Jupiter 2 gave them little time together, and even less privacy. She and John had covered a lot of emotional ground this morning, and she sensed that further resolution would not be forthcoming today, at least not verbally... Maureen relished the prospect of a break from the housekeeping chores, and the challenges of concocting appetizing meals from their meager selection of Earth foods and the few indigenous plants that she had managed to cultivate. 

Maureen suddenly felt exhausted. She relaxed against her husband’s chest, and allowed the tension to drain slowly out of her shoulders and neck. Feeling encouraged, John turned her face up to his. She smiled at him, and nodded her assent. His face shone with joy and enthusiasm. Deeply touched, she buried her face in his shoulder and blinked back tears.

Hand in hand, they turned to walk back together to the Jupiter 2.

 

 

                                     *****************************

 

Maureen and John arrived back at the Jupiter 2 to find the rest of the family, Major West, and Doctor Smith -wearing his chef’s hat- ready to sit down to breakfast outdoors. The sight of the children’s eager faces, the attractively appointed table, and most of all, the unexpected vacation from cooking warmed Maureen’s heart.

“What a pleasant surprise!” she greeted them, kissing the children. She and John sat down, and the family commenced their breakfast ritual. “Dr. Smith, John and I are very grateful to you for preparing breakfast this morning, and taking care of the children these past few days”, Maureen gushed. She knew how to flatter his ego.

“Dear lady, it was nothing, just these utterly pedestrian corn muffins. If only we had oranges and grenadine, I could prepare crepes Suzette! And, I have often told you how that I think of Will and Penny as my own children. But really, Madame, you must be more diligent about leaving perishable ingredients just sitting out in the galley like that! We could have all gotten food poisoning!”

“Now, Dr. Smith, you know there was never any possibility of that!” exclaimed Judy.  “Mom is much too careful, and besides, the Jupiter 2 galley temperature is maintained at 65F at all times.”

The good-natured banter continued throughout the meal. Although at times the banal chatter could irritate him, John reveled in it his morning, suggesting as it did a sense of normalcy restored. He watched the group closely for signs of tension or resentment directed at him, and perceived none.

When the meal was over, John set down his coffee mug, and stood. “We’ve gotten a bit off schedule in the last few days” he announced smoothly, not mentioning the reason. “We have a liftoff window starting 2 weeks from tomorrow. Today we will finish manufacturing the fuel supply, so that we have plenty of time to test it on the engines and the propulsion system. We also have to restore the garden yield, so that we can store and freeze-dry surplus for our space journey.”

Everyone’s eyes lit up at the prospect of being space borne again.

“As you all know, the fuel machine creates a radioactive form of the indigenous bedrock on this planet, that can power the Jupiter 2 engines. This means we are no longer dependent on mining deutronium. Will and Judy, I’ll need the two of you to quarry about 30 more kilograms of rock from that outcropping over to the south. Don, you and I have to fine-tune the vacuum chamber, in order to optimize the particle throughput. Smith, the main valve in the irrigation system has sprung a leak, and I need you to seal it. Penny, please tend to the garden this morning, and help your mother with the laundry. Are there any questions?”

“For shame, Professor, treating your own children like mere beasts of burden! And, you don’t really expect a man of my intellect to play at being a plumber," Smith protested weakly.

“You can take the robot with you,” John allowed.

“John, are you absolutely sure there is no danger of radioactive contamination from the fuel machine?” queried Maureen.

“Darling, I monitored the area with the Geiger counters.   The radiation levels tested within safe limits,” John assured her.

“Daddy, do I have to work in the garden today?” asked Penny. “I’d much rather hunt for rocks with Will."

Will rolled his eyes. “This isn’t rock hunting, Penny, it’s quarrying. It’s hard work for a girl”.

John settled the argument.  “Sweetheart, if Judy wants to switch with you, then you’re welcome to join Will. Alright everybody, let’s go”.

 

                ***********************************

 

Judy glanced surreptitiously at her mother as they cleaned up together after breakfast. She was a watchful and intuitive young woman, and she knew that behind her calm and composed demeanor, Mother was struggling valiantly to cope with the emotional havoc her father had wrought. Although her own entrapment in the cave had been terrifying, Judy had managed to put the incident entirely behind her almost as soon as Dad and Don had walked her safely out of the cave. She and her father adored each other absolutely and unconditionally: she had always been his princess, and he was her knight in shining armor. That an evil alien force had temporarily sidelined her father did not change the basic parameters of their relationship.

Her mother, she knew, was toting more emotional baggage. Of the three Robinson siblings, only Judy understood her parents’ loving but complicated relationship, and their debt of gratitude to each other. By the time Will and Penny had come along, the Robinsons resembled a conventional breadwinner father-homemaker mother family unit. It had not, however, always been this way, and Judy had been at the nexus of her parents’ career-family balancing act from the very start. She was born to her parents while they were young undergraduates at Caltech. When Maureen became the family’s primary breadwinner after graduation, John’s flexible schedule as a graduate student enabled him to take on many of the responsibilities involving Judy: readying her for school in the mornings, interacting with her preschool and kindergarten teachers, attending school events. Judy had forged an intensely loving bond with her father during those precious years that endured despite the radical changes the family underwent during her 8th year. By then, John was a university professor, and Maureen had given birth to Penny and become a full-time mother. The transition was initially jarring for Judy, but she and Maureen were quickly drawn together by their mutual delight in caring for baby Penny, and soon after, Will.

Judy picked up a trowel and a watering can, and headed for the garden. The fuel machine perched on a worktable table a slight distance away from the hydroponics arrays. She could hear her father and Don measuring and soldering. As she weeded the lettuce, Judy’s thoughts returned to her family’s years in California. Her father’s academic career had skyrocketed in parallel with NASA’s Pioneer, Viking and Mariner missions. These spacecraft had explored the surface of Mars, and the atmospheres of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Their spectacular successes had fueled public enthusiasm for space exploration and colonization. Dad had been perfectly positioned to lead the $500M Deep Thrust mission to probe the Alpha Centauri system, a development that resulted in the family’s relocation to the headquarters of the space colonization program in Houston.

In Houston, Maureen jump-started her own career by returning to graduate school, eventually earning a doctorate in biochemistry.  Those years were deeply satisfying, as she combined her two greatest talents: mothering and science. By the time she had become Dr. Maureen Robinson, she was investigating the metabolism of primitive life forms in extreme habitats that resembled conditions found on Mars. Her work lay at the very forefront of efforts to understand the origins of life on Earth, and the conditions for extraterrestrial life. 

This idyllic phase of Maureen’s life imploded when the Robinsons were selected to be the first family in space. Her attempts to juggle her  own career with the rigors of astronaut training collapsed under the added weight of the family’s newfound celebrity. The Robinsons had become an overnight media sensation: The handsome, imposing mission commander, his brilliant and beautiful wife, and their three attractive and intelligent children were now symbols of America’s best and brightest.  Under the harsh glare of public scrutiny, Maureen and John struggled to provide their children with a semblance of a normal upbringing. Inevitably, media attention increasingly focused on the lovely eldest Robinson daughter. When Major Don West began pursuing Judy romantically, Maureen felt as if her life had become an unending battle with tabloids, paparazzi…and with Judy.  Neither she nor John was comfortable with the budding romance between the dashing, worldly aviator and their naďve teenaged daughter.      

Judy straightened up and moved on to the water the carrots.

 

              **********************************

 

Penny and Will rolled a makeshift wheelbarrow to the quarrying area, accompanied by Debbie the bloop. They reached the outcropping, and hunted for fist-sized stones that could be easily processed by the fuel machine. While they filled the wheelbarrow, Debbie hopped among the rocks, chattering to herself.

“Will?” Penny spoke quietly. “Can I ask you something?

“For Pete’s sake, we’ve got work to do. What is it?” asked Will irritably. That bloop always got on his nerves, but he had refrained from arguing when Penny insisted they bring her along. Will knew that his sister had a tedious, housebound routine on this planet, with few diversions or amusements.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you about last night. How did you manage to get Dad back to us?”  

Will shrugged, and looked away from her. “I told that alien warrior that we all loved Dad and wanted him back.”

“And it let him go, just like that?”

 “Yeah, pretty much”, muttered Will, wishing she would drop the subject. He didn’t like thinking about it. “C’mon, this load is full, let’s wheel it over to Dad and Don”.

Penny knew perfectly well that she wasn’t being told the whole story. She was a sensitive and intelligent girl, who when not occupied with her chores preferred solitary activities: reading, listening to music in her cabin, and taking long walks with Debbie. As a result, she sometimes felt --and in fact often was-- invisible to the adults on the Jupiter 2. She had overheard last night the anguished tones in her father’s voice as he and Don and Judy conversed quietly on the upper deck, thinking she and Will asleep. Then this morning, while picking flowers for the breakfast table, she had inadvertently rounded a clump of foliage within earshot of her parents’ tense conversation. It was clear to her that her father’s return had been precipitated by some cataclysmic event.

She and Will unloaded the wheelbarrow, piling the contents next to the fuel machine worktable. As they started back to the quarry, Penny turned to her brother. “You can tell me the truth, Will. I overheard the others talking, and I know that something terrible happened between you and Dad.”

Will dropped a small boulder into the wheelbarrow, and then slumped down onto a piece of outcropping. He sat quietly for several minutes, resting his chin on his hands, for once unable to think of anything cynical or jeering to say to his sister.

Finally he spoke softly. “Penny, the truth is, he tried to kill me.” He proceeded to relate to her the incident on the ledge. 

Penny was surprised by how calm she felt. She supposed it helped to know that the outcome had been a happy one.  “Are you mad at him?”

“No. That wasn’t Dad doing those bad things, it was the alien.“

“Were you scared?”

“For crying out loud, what do you think?” Will saw the injured look on Penny’s face. “Yeah, I was scared. But Penny, I figured I was better off dead than being taken prisoner by that alien, especially if Dad were really lost to us.  It was like I had nothing to lose, you know?”

“I guess so.” The two siblings sat quietly, each pondering yesterday’s turn of events.

“C’mon Penny. Only one more load after this one, and then we can watch Dad and Don smash the atoms.”

“Will, how does that fuel-making device work? Can you explain it to me?”

Will furrowed his brow. “Well, it operates like a thing called a cyclotron on Earth. It accelerates particles along circular pathways to very high speeds, so that they can bombard the neutrons of the rock atoms and turn them into isotopes.”

“What’s an isotope?”

“It’s an atom that doesn’t have the same number of neutrons as protons. The imbalance makes the nucleus unstable, which makes the atoms radioactive, meaning they emit radiation.”

“But Will, why do we need to make things radioactive? What are isotopes used for?”

“They’re useful in medicine, for imaging and cancer treatment. They’re also good for powering nuclear reactors…and bombs. Radioisotopes are used in controlled sequences of explosions –chain reactions-- that end up splitting the atom. That’s called fission, and it’s a process that releases a lot of energy – enough to power the Jupiter’s atomic motors. Our engines are basically mini fission reactors.”

“Why didn’t we just bring an isotope machine with us, if it’s so useful?”

“Well, you need really huge magnets to construct a cyclotron on Earth. The device would’ve been too big to carry on the Jupiter 2. Also, the isotopes made by Earth cyclotrons are for medical applications, not power generation. But this planet has natural magnets that are stronger than Earth magnets, so we could make a smaller and more powerful accelerator. And the isotope yield of these rocks is higher. Dad got all that information from the alien’s mind.”

“Gosh, Will, you know so much more about this stuff that I do.”

“Well, you could have learned it too. After all, you were two years ahead of me in school”.

“I know, but I just didn’t take those classes. I was more interested in biology. And now that we’re in space, you get to hang around Dad and Don a lot so you can keep on learning. But I have to work in the garden, and in the spaceship. You’re really lucky, Will.”

Will knew that. He worshipped his father, and the happiest moments in his life were the ones spent working with Dad and learning from him. Will’s father stood for everything in his world that was intelligent, just, courageous and secure... until yesterday. But that wasn’t Dad….it was the alien, Will reminded himself.

 

 

 

Unintended Consequences, part 2
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