“Where did this one come from?” Joe asked his daughter.
Sophie threw back a red pigtail with a flourish and put the shell to her ear, feigning concentration. She had amassed an impressive collection for a twelve-year-old and knew all there was to know about each specimen. “The north Pacific,” she said. Brand new braces sparkled in the late August sunlight of the Jersey shore but Sophie wasn’t the least bit self-conscious.
“Are you sure?” said her dad.
“Definitely. How about this one?” She handed Joe a tiger cowrie.
“Hmm…,” said Joe. The game of listening to shells to identify their origins was his idea. “Sargasso Sea.”
“Daddy! That’s a region of the Atlantic. It’s not even a real sea!”
“Oh. Maybe I heard it wrong.” He turned the shell around. “That’s better. It’s from the Baltic,” he bluffed. “Definitely the Baltic.”
Sophie looked doubtful. Joe had no idea if cowries grew in the Baltic but she might. Alice had worked hard at raising her to be a super-genius scientist before she ran out of patience with the smothering grind of motherhood and took off for whatever grass lay on the other side of the fence.
He picked up another shell before she could deliver an in depth analysis of his flimflam. It was a large cone shape, deep, shimmery indigo with tiny white spots like stars. He’d never seen anything like it.
Sophie put the shell to her ear. “The Sea of Tranquility,” she said.
“The one on the moon?”
“That’s the only one there is.”
Joe smiled. At least Alice hadn’t destroyed the kid’s imagination.
“I’d better check your accuracy on this one,” he said, putting the shell to his ear.
It was absolutely silent.
The breakers rolled and crashed as urban escapees soaked up sun and salt, pretending that Labor Day was not right around the corner. Sophie put all the shells back in the mesh bag she carried them in and yanked the string to cinch it closed. “That’s enough science,” she said cheerfully. The shore at Ocean City was her absolute favorite place and the requisite thirty minutes since lunch had now elapsed. Off she went, thin and pale but with all the energy of a wound-up watch spring. She was in the water before Joe even thought to remind her to be careful.
Because, of course, if he didn’t tell her to be careful there would be no protective spell to guard her against sharks or undertows or jellyfish or, God help him, boys.
The indigo cone with the starry white spots lay atop the pile of shells squashed together in the mesh bag. Joe had a chuckle over Sophie’s imagination, but just a short one. Maybe her little fantasy wasn’t so imaginative after all? Sophie had always been fascinated by her mother’s work for NASA. Alice was currently working with a team surveying lunar plains in preparation for the establishment of a manned outpost. The Sea of Tranquility was a top contender for the site.
He felt stupid for not picking up on it immediately. Then he felt sad as he watched his pale, beautiful jewel of a daughter splashing around in the waves, missing her mother as only a twelve-year-old girl could. Sad enough to cry a little, which he did. Then he felt furious with Alice for abandoning such a child. Then he felt exhausted.
He was sound asleep when Sophie emerged from the sea, goose-pimpled and shivering, her dripping hair limp and salty. She wrapped up in a brightly patterned beach towel and sat beside him, considering what sort of mischief she might perpetrate upon him while he was thus unaware. Her arsenal of pranks was considerable.
Instead, she took the indigo shell from the bag and listened as she gazed out over the glittering Atlantic.
Sea of Tranquility, definitely.
“Howard, come here and look at this.”
Alice Hanson didn’t take her eyes from her screen as her supervisor sighed and grabbed his coffee. It would be nice if Dr. Hanson would ask now and then, just to keep people off guard.
“Wow,” he marveled, looking over her shoulder. “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you think it’s Tranquility Base, then yes,” answered Alice. It was her turn to work the midnight shift operating the surveillance rover examining the terrain and searching for materials to hopefully be used in the eventual expansion of a manned base.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to get close enough to see it,” said Howard. In his opinion, it was a mistake to let an astro-geologist drive but the robotics techs had designed themselves out of a job when they made the latest lunar rovers as easy to operate as RC cars and planes.
“We weren’t,” said Alice. “But I got some interesting echoes on a vein beneath the regolith and followed the trail. One thing led to another.”
Which meant the carefully planned search patterns were out the window. Alice was a first rate researcher with an impressive record of innovative hypotheses and discoveries but her obsessive self-direction was pushing her into the not-worth-the-trouble column.
Still, a look at the lunar module was not an everyday occurrence.
“And now we’re trespassing in a national park and risking sensational news coverage. Protocols, Alice. We have them for a reason.” The speech was obligatory. Howard had not blinked as he gazed at the landing stage of the Eagle sitting in the distance, a lump growing in his throat.
Not that the transgression mattered. Everyone on the team knew it was just another start and stop effort, with legislation to pull the plug pending. There would be no base, just more data gathered and stored along with countless other proposals, studies and half-completed projects. Science and politics made terrible bedfellows.
“We also have independence and risk taking for a reason,” said Alice. “This section is exactly what we’re looking for. And, as long as we’re here…”
The image of the lander began to grow.
“What are you doing?” asked Howard, who knew perfectly well what she was doing.
“Being a tourist,” she answered. “What does it look like? I just want to… What was that?” The image had jumped. “Did it hit something?”
Alice stopped the vehicle and made a quick check then slowly backed it up, pointing the camera at the ground. A dark colored object was visible where the left front wheel had disturbed the regolith.
She maneuvered the rover to give the sample collection scoop access to the object. Using the scoop as a shovel she carefully probed and excavated.
When she was finished the camera showed something small and cone-shaped, deep indigo in color with small white spots.
“Um…” she said.
“Um…” agreed Howard.
“What’s the protocol for this, Howard?”
“Protocol? It’s… It’s… It’s don’t touch anything!”
“Up there or down here?”
“Anywhere!” Howard felt faint. “I should call somebody. I’ll call the Director.” He pulled out his phone and flung it across the room.
“Don’t touch anything!” he reiterated as he scrambled through the empty, densely packed work stations in search of the phone.
Alice did maintain the presence of mind to touch one thing. She entered a detailed account of the discovery in her log. Time, date, descriptions, personal observations; nothing was left out.
“All right, Sophie,” said Joe. The two of them were back at the shore for a week, this time in the middle of the season, with the sand and water warming up instead of cooling off. “The suspense is killing me. Where did you get the shell and how did you know it came from the moon?”
It took the government six months to decide what to do with NASA’s discovery. Another four months was spent prepping the public for the release of the big news. Now you couldn’t go online or walk down a street without seeing images of the little indigo shell or its discoverer.
Hanson Base was fully funded.
“I got it from a store on the boardwalk,” she answered. “Honest. It looked different from the rest and I just liked it.”
Joe had made repeated attempts to get in touch with Alice to simply congratulate her. The one time he got through he was treated to another repetition of the list of his shortcomings as a husband and the demand that he not call again. She made no mention of Sophie and didn’t come up for air long enough to give Joe the opportunity.
She had exhausted his reserves of fury. When he felt anything toward her at all it was sadness.
“Okay,” said Joe, turning his gaze from the breakers. “You found it in a shop.”
Sophie looked sheepish. It was a childish look, not quite at home on her intelligent face framed by her stylishly trimmed hair and a body beginning to fill out on its way to womanhood. Encyclopedias could be filled with the things Joe didn’t know about raising a young woman but he was doing his best.
“Well,” she began tentatively. “Sometimes I just know things.”
Joe gave her the I’m waiting look.
“I mean… like, remember when Mom predicted that asteroid would break up and she couldn’t get that paper published because it was such a crazy idea?”
“And then it broke up, just like she predicted?” said Joe. “What about it?”
“Well, we were talking about it one night, when she was just reviewing data from the observatory and I kinda told her it would happen.”
“You told Mom the asteroid would break up?”
“Yeah, but she did all the work, just like her paper said. It’s just that nobody looked at the data the way she did.”
“After you told her what would happen?”
Joe believed her. He knew her. She wouldn’t make it up.
“Honey,” he said, trying to ignore the chill that came over him, “did you tell Mom other things like that?”
“A few,” answered Sophie. “She usually worked on stuff I didn’t understand so the impressions I got didn’t make much sense.”
“And you don’t know how you know these things?”
“No,” answered Sophie. “They’re just ideas and feelings I get.”
Joe sighed and returned his gaze to the rolling waves. It was a completely different world from the one they lived in last summer. A number of the shells had been found in the vicinity of Tranquility Base. The discovery of extinct extraterrestrial life on the moon invalidated every theory of origins and evolution ever proposed. New ideas were beginning to trickle forth from the scientific community but with no real data to work with they were light years from coherence.
“Do you still have that shell?” asked Joe.
“I wonder how it got here.”
“I don’t know,” answered Sophie. “Maybe on a meteorite. Maybe inside a lunar tektite.”
“It would have to be a mighty big tektite,” mused Joe. “And the shell would be melted. Besides, not many scientists believe tektites could originate on the moon…”
Joe laughed. Not many scientists believed seashells could originate on the moon, either.
“So wait,” said Joe. “You knew where the shell came from before your mom found one on the moon.”
“I guess,” she answered. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Well, doesn’t that make it your discovery?”
“I guess so. I guess it does.”
“Sophie!” said Joe. “You discovered extraterrestrial life. It’s your discovery!”
“Okay. Okay.” She clasped her hands together and drew them up against her chest, as if trying to shrink herself. She was overwhelmed and a little afraid.
“Okay,” she repeated. “What should I do?”
“Um, well, you should present the shell to… somebody. We can figure out who later on. You should… you should write down everything you know, dates, times, where you got it, when you knew what it was and how, you know, all that.”
Sophie’s eyes moved back and forth as if she was tallying columns of figures, working her way through some complex equation. She licked her lips, sucked them in and blew them out as multiple emotions crossed her face.
Joe took a deep breath and tried to project calm. Maybe he shouldn’t have hit her over the head with it like that. She was sensitive and she was just a kid. How could she possibly know…
“No,” she said. She had arrived at some place of peace. “I want to keep the shell and not tell anybody about it.”
“Okay,” said Joe. His head was spinning but he knew his daughter would have a reason. She always had a reason. “Why, sweetheart?”
“I don’t want to take it away from Mom,” she said.
“Dad,” she said, “listen. It’s important to Mom. It’s not that important to me. And… and I love Mom but I don’t want to be like her.”
Joe would have to give that some thought. He was sure she was making the wrong decision for the wrong reason but he couldn’t help admiring the obvious strength of her conviction.
He was proud of her.
“In that case, I propose a new game,” he said. “Why don’t you get your shells?”
She soon returned with two bags. She had done a lot of work on her collection.
“Dump them out,” he said.
“Okay. I’ll name the place; you find a shell from there. Then you name a place.”
“Sure,” she said with a smile. She liked the idea.
Sophie sorted through the shells until she found a crown cone. “There you go,” she said. “Now it’s your turn. Pacific.”
Joe rooted around until he came up with a cream vase shell. “A common reef species,” he announced with pride.
“Wow,” she said. “You’ve been studying. What next?”
Joe thought hard. He rubbed his chin. “Let’s see. How about… Chryse Planitia?”
Sophie was delighted. “No, Daddy,” she said. “There’s nothing here from Chryse Planitia. But you’re warm. Very warm. Try again!”