Static cut their conversation short. Everyone turned as Chidlow leaned over the radio controls. “It’s on the Agency’s standard frequency!” she whooped.
“Who’s it from?” Anthea leaned in close. “Earth or the moon?”
“Quite obviously the moon,” Barzelay said.
“How’s that?” Khan asked.
“Because,” he spoke like a teacher trying to find patience for a lazy student, “we’ve crossed the intersection of the layers. That’s what all that ruckus was back there that nearly shook us apart.”
“So that empty Earth down there…” Khan began.
“Isn’t Earth,” Barzelay said. “It’s the planet the green moon orbits.”
The static filled the cockpit again, drowning out a voice. Someone was out there trying to communicate.
“I wonder if our antenna got damaged?” Fangen speculated.
“Don’t we have redundancies?” Anthea said. “The plans called for a retractable secondary antenna. Don’t tell me we left that out in our rush to get off the ground.”
“No, it’s there,” Fangen said, “but it has to be deployed manually from the cargo bay.”
“Then suit up and get moving, Gustavo,” Chidlow ordered. “We need to know what’s going on, pronto.”
“Give me fifteen minutes,” Fangen said.
“You’ve got ten,” Chidlow said.
Fangen turned and pushed away, floating out of the cockpit towards the back of the shuttle. He passed Bonell and his Marines on the way through.
“Need a hand?” the Major asked.
“No time,” Fangen said, “gotta fly.”
Chidlow spent the intervening time bringing the Marines up to speed. Bonell looked skeptical of the whole idea of other universes, but Hibbert seemed to grasp the concepts, having passed up a career in sciences to enlist in the service when the Hemispheric Wars broke out. He and Barzelay huddled together and started a winding conversation none of the others understood.
“Lunar Base to approaching shuttle,” a voice filled the cabin, “please respond.”
Anthea frowned. She didn’t recognize the voice. It wasn’t Jin.
“Lunar Base,” Chidlow answered, “this is Maggie Chidlow, commander of the Armstrong. What’s your status?”
“Thank God,” they answered, “a human voice. This is Mal Caygill. Please tell me you can explain what happened to the Earth.”
“I can’t,” Chidlow said, “but we’ve got someone here who says he can. All that can wait for now. How are things looking up there?”
“We’re fine except for the panic,” Caygill said. “One second we were in contact with Houston, the next we weren’t. It took us a bit to figure out the whole planet was messed up, not just our signal.”
“Our ETA is six hours, fourteen minutes,” Chidlow said. “We’ve got orders to lock Lunar Base down and bring you home.”
“Can we even get home?” Caygill asked. “From here it doesn’t look like there’s a home to return to.”
Chidlow muted the signal and looked at Barzelay. “He’s right. Can we get back where we belong?”
“Technically, we already are,” Barzelay said.
“Doc…” Chidlow’s face turned red.
“Theoretically, yes,” Barzelay said. “Provided the phenomenon doesn’t reverse itself as we’re making the crossing. Otherwise we should be fine.”
Chidlow clicked the channel back open. “Our resident scientist believes we should be able to make it home, Caygill.”
A series of joyous hoots could be heard in the background. “That’s the best news we’ve heard in days.”
“Mr. Caygill,” Anthea interrupted, “is Jin Ogawa there?”
Chidlow turned a frown at Anthea but held her tongue. Anthea thought to look apologetic but decided against it. She really didn’t care what the other woman thought.
“I’m here, Thea-chan,” Jin’s baritone voice leaped across the miles. “Don’t worry, we’ll be together soon.”
“Soon,” Anthea said.
Khan raised an eyebrow. “So that’s how it is? Good to know before we take off to Mars.”
Anthea blushed red-hot.
Chidlow ignored the drama and turned back to the radio. “Caygill, I suggest your people start evacuation procedures. We’ve got enough room on the Armstrong for your personnel and their effects, and we can shove any experiments you think need nursemaiding into the cargo bay. You’ll have to mothball everything else, and hope you make it back someday soon.”
“We’re pretty much shut down already,” Caygill said. “When your home planet suddenly turns barren you start rationing things like food, water, air, and power. We were starting to calculate how long we could survive without a resupply.”
“I can imagine,” Chidlow said.
“No, you can’t,” Caygill’s voice turned hard. “A few more days and we’d have started cracking. The signs were already showing. I’m not even a hundred percent sure this conversation isn’t a hallucination to tell the truth.”
“You’re not hallucinating, I assure you,” Chidlow said.
“Wouldn’t any hallucination say that?”