Starry and clear was the night, that last night, we were sharing in the garden sitting together on the grass hand in hand. Two hours before dawn a shiny star appeared at the eastern horizon.
- There it is, it is waiting for you.
Bit by bit, we had seen it grow for the last thirty years. It was now complete, glowing in the sky, looming some 2.700 km above us, the aster that would determine our destinies, the ISS Haniwa.
In the midst of recollections of the last thirty years, the day had finally arrived. Daphnia got up with her usual elegance. “It is the time”, she said, and she reached to me. Taking her hand, I reluctantly got onto my feet and hugged her, knowing there wouldn't be any more. I closed my eyes and concentrated intensely in absorbing all her essence: her fragrance, her heartbeat, her respiration, the touch of her skin... After a little while, she softly pulled away and kissed me.
- You need to go. Make your duty. We may meet again in the next round of reincarnations.
- Aren't you staying?
- No, I don't want to see your tears.
She made the Vulcan salute, a sign that had such a strong meaning and shared connotations for both of us, and she said “Live long and prosper.” I answered likewise and she left, dignified, trying to look strong, but with a sad step.
My means of transport would pick me up in an hour. I had packed everything the night before. While I rummaged among my things, choosing what to take and what to leave, I surprised myself looking melancholically at my Ph.D. title: “Università di Roma La Sapienza. Il Rettore conferisce a Eugenio Criato, nato a Napoli il 18 luglio 1992, il titolo di Dottore di Ricerca in Oceanografia. Roma addì 15 settembre 2017.” I thought "Just a piece of paper. I won't be needing this up there... Just stay there." And after a few hours of careful selection, my scarce luggage rested in the only trunk of 0,5 m3 that we were allowed to take with us. Some spare cloths, my glasses, my personal interface with all my photos and my whole library in electronic format. Of course, I do prefer real paper books, but given the impossibility to take them with me, better this than nothing. A Swiss army knife that has always been with me during the last forty years, in oceanographic missions and treks (it can always be useful, you never know what you will find up there in the space), the chessboard Daphnia gave me when we were engaged, and my mandolin, my most faithful friend in moments of sorrow and loneliness. And there was even some room left. That was good. Nobody, not even destiny, can rob you from what you don't have. And of course, I took with me all the memories of a life, the recollection of her last kiss still fresh on my lips.
The armoured Jeep arrived sharply on time. A loud screech announced its arrival. I looked behind me, all that remained of my earlier life, and closed the door. A security guard, dressed in black, descended from the car and asked “Professor Eugenio Criato?” I assented and he enquired the password. After lamely responding “Hopeless”, he proceeded with the identification. First, the electronic identification chip, implanted in my skin. Then, he extracted a drop of my blood to carry a genetic identity test (how had these tests increased in velocity and efficiency since when I was a student!) and to be surer still, he incurred into such archaic tests as scanning my fingerprints and even my eyes. When there wasn't the slightest space for doubt, he asked me to get into the car and we parted to the military airport of Reus in the north-east of Spain.
The trip was a long one, what with the state of the roads. It was quite a long time since I had last left our home. The countryside was hilly, the soil was very thin and the rocks were barely covered by vegetation. Such a desolate view... It is true that the Mediterranean landscape is dry in itself, but the consequences of the great fires of the 2040s had left this burnt barrenness behind.
From Reus, a plane took me to the RAF airfield in Odiham, Hampshire. And from there I still had to suffer another road trip to Plymouth. There I would board a ship to take me to the space transfer centre. The instructions attached to the acceptance letter, only explained this. No notion whatsoever of which the final destination was. Security reasons, it stated. Which wasn't my surprise when I found I would be embarking on the Sea Dragon II, the sailing research vessel I had travelled aboard so often. Fuel shortage had impulsed sailing, not only for research purposes, but also for cargo shipping. The ship was equipped with a navigation system using an Earth system model to predict winds and ocean currents, coupled to a Bayesian data assimilation system to calculate the best course. I had actually worked in the development of some of these models. How many good memories! I hadn't seen it since the inception date of the missions to the mouth of the Paraguay River ten years ago. Then, administrative charges at University linked to the post of Head of the Oceanography Department didn't allow me to take part any more. Till the University went bankrupt five years ago, of course... But it would be great to be out in the sea again.
My mobile, and my GPS with it, were confiscated just after getting onboard, but that didn't stop me from noticing that we were heading due south by looking at the elevation of the sun. Day by day the sun went up into the sky till, at one point, it was directly above our heads, and we started to leave it behind. We had passed the Equator. And that was actually rather strange. You would expect a launch base to be near the Equator, to take advantage of the rotational speed of the Earth. I had assumed we were going to the Guiana Space Centre, given the southerly route, but we had long past it. No need to say I got more and more curious every day.
After another week of navigation, we arrived at Buenos Aires. I recognised it from my campaigns in the region. After a two day stop, during which I was only permitted to walk on the shore, and that on the condition of being heavily guarded (as though I were a prisoner), we set off again, still due South. It is true that there aren't any permanent human establishments to the South of Buenos Aires any more. They had all been devastated during the Argentino-Chilean war for the natural resources of the Andes in the 2030s. So I couldn't understand where we were heading and the ship crew wouldn't tell a word. Surely we weren't going to Jiuquan Launch Centre all the way by sea? Something seemed really amiss. Anyway, there was nothing for me to do but to wait and to enjoy this unexpected pleasure of sailing navigation.
Having left Plymouth on the 20th April 2053, we arrived at Tierra del Fuego on the end of May. On the 1st of June the navigation system detected the presence of a ship to the East, most probably pirates, according to the cook. Out of precaution, the captain decided to get into the maze formed by the innumerable islands of the Tierra del Fuego so that we could lose them if they followed us. But dawn brought us new troubles. As I was sleeping in my bunk, rocked by the ship's movements, I was awoken suddenly by a sound like a loud knock on the door. After a few minutes, someone set the alarm: water was invading the hull. The first harassing minutes were devoted to preparing the life-raft in case it was necessary to abandon the ship, setting the pump and radioing our position. Then, we literally started to pull the ship apart to find the leak. Fortunately, the hole wasn't too big and the crew was able to mend it as an emergency, allowing us to continue our trip. However, the hole was big enough to hindrance our navigation and force us to reduce speed, so that we advanced slowly in the following days.
In the afternoon of the fourth day following the incident I was on the deck, speaking with the cook. He was telling me in confidence that we had ascended about 180 nautical miles to the North of Cape Horn, when a hydroplane passed above our heads and alighted nearby. “Oh, here is your transport, you've almost arrived to your destiny”, he said. He put off his cigarette and went back to work.
I can't say I welcomed the arrival of the hydroplane. I had got used to sea life so it was with great reluctance that I faced the last part of the voyage. After about an hour of flight, I easily recognised the Antarctic Peninsula. The pilot announced that we were heading to the Island of Anvers, where there was a flag, and rested 4 km to the South-South-East. When we finally got there, a familiar-looking tall, slim, dark-haired man and a blond young woman, were waiting at the dock.
- Marco Marcovaldo! I said. What the hell!?
- Benvenuto Proffessore! Welcome to Palmer's International Antarctic Base, the headquarters of project Haniwa.
- So, this is the project headquarters... So far from everything!
- Yes, far enough from everything to be able to work in peace without worrying for riots or raids. Underneath this mountain over there, are an underground city and a secret research centre, holding a population of thousands of researchers and technicians, working on this gigantic project, protected from the crazy world out there by the isolation and the harsh environment of this beautiful place.
- Wow! And how come you are here?
- Well, after I was forced to quit your laboratory because of that terrible lack of funding, I joined the Haniwa project. It was almost the only scientific project dedicated to peaceful research with enough resources to pay me. It was an oasis in the desert.
- How happy I am to meet you again. And who is this young lady?
- Professor, let me present you Iekaterina Denisova, navigation officer on the ISS Haniwa. You will be working together on board the starship.
- Please, do call me Katia. But let's go inside, she said while motioning me towards a nearby car with a smile.
In the car, driven by the blue-eyed officer, Marco handed me a thick envelope:
- Here are your orders. I can tell you you have been designated as head of the Space Weather Prediction and Space Hydrodynamics Unit.
- No need to say how important this is for the mission, Iekaterina said. We'll have to predict solar flares, magnetic field instabilities, have a lookout for debris regions and drifting meteors...
- Not to forget monitoring distortions of the space-time continuum, Marco added. We wouldn't want to inadvertently end up in a microscopic black hole.
- Of course, I said. “Do not let my friends the Argonauts be so unweary as to fall into Kharybdis, or at one gulp she will swallow them up.” And... “Pray not be caught there when she swallows down; Poseidon himself would not save you from destruction then.”
- What are you talking about? Not your ancient literature recitations again? I had forgotten about this knack of yours...
- Well, as they say, o lupo cagna 'o pelo, ma no cagna 'o vizio1. But why have I been selected for this post?
- Because, of all candidates, you were the best match, of course. You have management experience, you're a respected researcher with a wide knowledge of hydrodynamics and digital modelling... Of course, you may need some training in astrophysics and celestial mechanics. But you will have time for that and officer Denisova will be your second-in-command. She has a Ph.D. in Mathematics and is a specialist in digital resolution of relativistic fluid flow equations. You will meet the rest of the team later on.
- Well, that seems good enough. But was it necessary to bring me all the way round at the end of the world?
- Actually, not everyone is departing from the same place. Ten thousand people is a huge amount to manage. That would saturate the transport system and would be too slow. Space-buses have been set to start from different points of the world: Florida, French Guiana, China, India... Most of the crew is already there, many took part in the construction of the ship. No one will know her better and they're the best qualified to repair and maintain her when time comes. But senior officers and scientific staff have been directed here. Plus, there was this scheduled travel of the Sea Dragon II to provide us with some valuable equipment and I thought you would enjoy the trip, he said, adding a wink.
- There you're right. You know me well. I had missed the sea so much... Tell me, how are you going to send us up there? This is not the best of launching sites...
- Ah, you'll have to wait to have that answer. It is a surprise; he winked again and I could say he was enjoying himself. It would be long to explain and we have arrived to your lodgings. Please make yourself comfortable. I suggest you take a good rest, surely you'll need it after such a long journey. The next two weeks will be really intensive, what with spaceflight training, meeting your team and getting to know the spaceship's systems. You'll need all your energy._______________________________________________________________________
1The wolf changes its hair, but not its vice.