Chapter 2:

The Impossible Encounter, Part I

Lysithea's Orphan

Four years before I had the privilege to frequent the Walled Garden, I was a 17-year old working at the Capstone Space Centre as a part of my national service. Aptly fitting for the nation whose coat of arms bears the motto “vivere militare est”, every citizen of Frescia was required to spend two years in military service and to maintain reserve status until they retire. For some Frescians, the military service was a traumatising event; the affluent families tend to go all out to avoid it, abusing exceptions meant to exempt those who were physically or mentally unable to perform military duties, and another provision that allow valuable individuals who have proven their worth to work for the civilian government instead. Usually, this came in the form of being in the national sports team or becoming a research in the National Academy of Science and Technology. But for me, Alex J. Este, it was the National Space Agency that wanted me. The reason was rather simple, it was simply that ---Bookmark here

“Hey, Director’s grandson. Are you done with checking the provisions for the next flight?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. The food is in the third box from the bottom over there, and the other consumables are in this box. I have checked against the inventory sheet and nothing appears to be missing. I have not checked the engineering equipment, but I don’t have the access to it.”Bookmark here

“Hah! Nicely done. I suppose you are really the Director’s grandson after all. Edward’s gonna be happy how you’ve turned out to be too.”Bookmark here

“Thanks, Mr. Smith, but that’s more praise than I deserved. I am still far from being able to fill in my father’s shoes ---”Bookmark here

Within an instant the smile on Mr. Smith's face turned into a serious stare. “Don’t try too hard Alex. Don’t be like that idiot. I know how he felt responsible for what happened to Jack, but if you work too hard like he did, you will end up just like your father. Edward --- your father is going to climb out of his tomb and beat the shit out of me if anything happens to you.”Bookmark here

“I understand, but ---”Bookmark here

“If you do then go take a rest! It’s almost dinner time isn’t it. I will check the rest of the stuff. You’ve got a cute girlfriend waiting for you right?”Bookmark here

“She’s not my girlfriend ---”Bookmark here

“Ah, what’s with youngsters these days! Are you embarrassed? Just go. Oh, one last thing,” Bookmark here

“What’s it?”Bookmark here

“Call me Joe. ‘Mr. Smith’ is too formal for a brute like me.”Bookmark here

“Then thank you for helping me, Joe. See you later.”Bookmark here

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From the founding of Frescia’s space program just after the Second Global War, the Este family had been deeply involved. The then-current Director of the National Space Agency, Dennis T. Este, was my grandfather. An accomplished astrophysicist, and aided by the discoveries of his friend Michael Terrania, grandpa was the person who grew the small laboratory to massive governmental organisation that, like the military, was the pride of Frescia. Under his watch, the NSA conducted missions to other planets of the solar system, beating the Empire’s and the Commune’s space programs each and every time. My dad, Edward Este, and my uncle, Jack Este, was likewise involved in the space program. Uncle Jack was an astronaut; and my dad was an engineer that supported him every time. They spent decades together, along with grandpa, at this Capstone Space Centre. The cafeteria I was in was probably one of their meeting spots as well. That’s why dad always showed that expression when he brought me here…Bookmark here

I stopped eating, cheese hanging off my fork. The lasagne was delicious; the cafeteria always served excellent food; I had frequented there since my childhood. It was simply that I lost my appetite, and couldn’t bring myself to finish the dish. Why did it have to end like that, dad…?Bookmark here

“If you waste food like that in the military, you’d probably get yelled at by the sergeant.” An energetic voice called me out. Bookmark here

“Henrietta. How are things goin’?”Bookmark here

“Harder than whatever you are doing. Man, it’s gotta feel good to be well-connected.”Bookmark here

“Kettle calling the pot black…”Bookmark here

In front of me was Henrietta in a desert tan pilot suit, holding a gigantic hamburger and a large bottle of water. Unlike me, she had chosen to do the military service against her family’s wishes. While for some the military service was nothing but trouble, for others it was an honour to be able to serve their country. Henrietta probably falls into the latter category, but that choice inherently carries risks. A young girl like her might get bullied in the military, and while I could imagine Henrietta serving as an infantrywoman, her father would probably go mad if that happened. Some conscripts would get assigned to overseas bases too, which separated them from their families and made them face additional danger. But fortunately, Henrietta was assigned to the air force, which was known to be more civil of the services; and fortunately, instead of overseas bases, she was assigned to this Capstone Space Centre, a place that might as well be her second home; and fortunately, instead of being assigned to do engineering work, she was allowed the privilege to become a flying ambulance pilot… No matter how you think about it, there were too many coincidences that went in her favour.Bookmark here

“Father must have pulled strings behind my assignment,” she sighed, “He must have thought that being a pilot is the closest thing to maintaining the ‘well-mannered heiress’ illusion. So he can marry me off more easily.”Bookmark here

“Then he could have sent you off doing nursing or secretarial work at the capital.”Bookmark here

“I insisted I want something that is more of a frontline role when I ‘persuaded’ him to let me do military service. Can I sit down here by the way?” Henrietta sat down on the chair opposite to me before I replied, seemingly knowing the answer. Bookmark here

“Sure.”Bookmark here

“Enough about me. How’s your work here? I’d imagine the staff would cut you some slack because they don’t want to make your grandpa mad.”Bookmark here

“I’ve been doing fine. I am here by my own volition anyways, so I have to work hard to prove my worth. Being familiar with how this place is run really helps, but there are times I don’t know what to do and the other team members will gladly help me out. They do that too often, even.”Bookmark here

“That’s understandable considering your father died of overwork.”Bookmark here

“I still wish them trusted me more. I really want to work on the lunar exploration project, and I am so familiar with it. It is my dream to work on it. The lunar exploration project was my dad’s pride. It was what Uncle Jack died for. But they just put me in the warehouse all day instead. Even grandpa took their side!”Bookmark here

“And that unhealthy obsession with lunar exploration is why they won’t let you,” Henrietta took her turn to sigh, and continued, “they don’t want to name another building after a dead Mr. Este again, Alex. This ‘Este and Terrania cafeteria’ should have been the first and last one of those, but then your father died of guilt-induced overworking and got his name on the office building. Are you really that desperate for fame?”Bookmark here

Henrietta’s usual dry humour left a bitter taste in my mouth and an awkward silence was imposed on us for a few minutes. We nibbled away our food, trying to find something to talk, but we both failed to find a joyful topic to break the silence. A blue light suddenly shone through the window; the clouds had broken and the moon, Lysithea, graced us with her immaculate presence in the sky. That presence, however, elicited a complicated look in the cafeteria. Sadness. Excitement. Regret. Nostalgia. Powerful emotions flooded the room, and for the rest of our time there we remained silent.Bookmark here

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In silence, we walked out of the cafeteria towards the lawn. Outside of the cafeteria building, there was a memorial that commemorated people who had sacrificed their lives for Project Zeus --- Frescia’s first lunar exploration project that ended in catastrophic failure. Shaped like a radar disk, the memorial was in fact a small radio telescope that tracked the moon in the sky, hoping for any communication from the failed mission. But for the last 35 years, the answer had been nothing; the Project Zeus spaceship, the Atlantis, simply disappeared into Lysithea’s azure embrace and was never heard of again. Her crew, Fey Terrania and Jack Este, were presumed dead, and the obsolete radio telescope was eventually turned into a memorial. Bookmark here

“It had been 35 years…” I whispered as we approached the memorial. “If they were still alive, then I probably would have a cousin or two. Wouldn’t be stuck with you like this.”Bookmark here

“I never knew that Fey Terrania and Uncle Jack were a couple?” Henrietta ignored my banter and immediately thought of the two in romantic ways: she always had a particular interest in love stories.Bookmark here

“It was complicated. Dad said they were, but grandpa said they weren’t. Apparently Fey and Uncle Jack grew up together and grandpa raised them both; her father died early, and grandpa was indebted to him. The two were like brother and sister. Uncle Jack apparently liked Fey, but grandpa insisted they were not in that kind of relationship.”Bookmark here

“So was it unrequited love?”Bookmark here

“Who knows. Fey was known to be rather aloof and it was possible that she wasn’t showing her love. At least that was what dad believed.”Bookmark here

“I see… I wonder which way it was, then.”Bookmark here

“I guess you will have to ask her yourself.” I pointed at the radio telescope. Bookmark here

“No thanks. Asking about love three and a half decades later is kinda rude.”Bookmark here

We chuckled, then we were enveloped by silence again. Not an awkward one, but a pleasant one. Lying down on the grass, we gazed upon the clear sky, enjoying a moment of tranquillity that was so often missing from our daily routines. The only audible noise was the wind, bringing towards us the saltiness of the sea. The radio telescope, meanwhile, remained dormant, like it had been for the last 35 years; it stood tall above us, like a giant that had pledge to protect us children below. I closed my eyes. I fell asleep.Bookmark here

A raging voice yelled at me out of nowhere, and I jumped out of surprise. “Second Lieutenant Marshall,” the voice yelled, “Where the hell are you?” Bookmark here

It was Henrietta’s walkie-talkie. Still only half-awake, she answered: “At the Lunar Memorial. I just finished dinner and came here with Alex.” Bookmark here

“Alex? Alex Este? That’s perfect. Get your asses over to the helipad. Both of you.”Bookmark here

“Uh, sir, did Henrietta do something wrong?” I asked.Bookmark here

“No Mr. Este,” the man seemed to realise he shouldn’t be rude to the Director’s grandchild, and spoke in a more polite way, “on the contrary. We have an emergency and we need your help --- both of you.”Bookmark here

“Major Miller, what’s the situation?” Henrietta asked in confusion.Bookmark here

“Fey Terrania has returned from hell. The Atlantis is hailing us.”Bookmark here

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Author's note:Bookmark here

This is a rather long (and delayed!) chapter, and I apologise for the delay. In the next chapter, Henrietta and Alex will finally get to meet the professor.Bookmark here

Tuflyel [2VL]
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