Take 20 words chosen at random. Put them in a bowl. Draw one, and write something about it.
Simple? Maybe not.
“What’s in the hold, Captain?”
I cringed inwardly. I was expecting the question, of course. I had hoped it would not be asked so soon after we had emerged from the stasis pods.
“That’s ‘need to know’ only,” I told my overly curious co-pilot, George.
I didn’t really care if the only other crew member aboard the SXS Elon Musk knew what we were carrying, but I had been sworn to secrecy before launch. Time had been too short for questions when we boarded and were hustled into the pods. The ground crew had stowed our cargo after putting us under. Even I had not gotten a look at it.
“Oh, come on,” George pleaded. “I’ve got the same top secret clearance as you, and I really have a need to know.”
“Not the same thing, as I’m sure you’re aware,” I said.
I smiled. George could be persistent. Good thing I liked him. Even more saving to the relationship was being in stasis for most of the four-year trip out to Enceladus.
Without the pods, I would like him a lot less. One of us would be dead, and I probably wouldn’t have cared who.
As it was, we were in for a long couple of weeks of keeping each other company. Nobody, especially us, trusted the ship instruments to take us the last million or so miles to our destination. Too many things could go wrong in this crowded solar system neighborhood for us to remain asleep on the job.
“Do you even know what we’re carrying?” George asked.
“I do, and you will too, eventually,” I answered.
“Well, if I correctly guess what’s in the hold, will you tell me if I’m right?”
I didn’t see any harm in that non-committal promise. I didn’t want George to get too squirrelly. I was confident that, with a little bit of misdirection, I could keep him guessing until delivery. The only condition I stipulated was that the questions could only be answered with “yes” or “no.” Besides, if George had even momentarily considered his childhood, he would have remembered that “we’ll see” means “no.”
So, he guessed — constantly — unless I called a timeout, or he hit his mandatory sleep period. Blessed relief!
I gave him quite a few hints along the way. Our mission was unique. Its more than $2 billion price tag had been internationally crowd-financed in record time. George never put the pieces together.
He was still guessing as we made our final approach to the designated landing site. All he had established about the contents of our hold was that it was “animal,” bigger than a breadbox and would not fit in his mouth. George was not a good guesser.
The landing was perfect. George was amazed, after I keyed the door open, when he saw what was in our hold.
“What the hell! A stasis pod!” he exclaimed.
“What did you expect?” I countered. “You guessed that it was a living thing. Did you expect to see a food trough and litter box that were good for four years?”
“Who’s in it?”
“Still can’t tell you.”
“Chris, you are a bastard!”
With a little elbow grease and no small amount of robotic help, we were able to move the pod through the main airlock and onto the frigid Enceladus surface. We encased the pod in a survival tent, which we stocked with 2 years of survival supplies.
After setting up a video camera far enough from the tent to take in the entire scene, we quickly retreated to the Musk. We wasted no time on niceties like a countdown before we lifted for the return trip to Earth. If we wanted to get back before we were nursing home fodder, our window of opportunity was critically small.
I watched the moon grow smaller until it was time to head for the stasis pods. En route, I found Curious George with his eyes glued to the video feed from the surface camera.
Just microseconds before the Enceladus rotation took the transmission offline, I took a look at the monitor. Our former passenger had emerged from the survival tent. Even distorted by the suit faceplate, the mug under the disheveled, badly-colored orange comb-over was unmistakable.
The man had finally gotten what he wanted. He was king of the world.