5: Probes (part 1)

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5.1 Hope

LSA Control Centre, under Lussac Crater: 5 January 2110

The small chemical rocket carrying the probe, Hope III, lifted almost effortlessly out of the Moon's gravity well. Seconds later it executed the preprogrammed instructions that hurled it towards the blackened planet a quarter of a million miles away.

In the Lunar Space Agency's control room deep beneath Lussac crater, Flight Controller Janet Davidsen watched the holographic telemetry that hung in the air in front of her. She waved a hand through some floating digits, hesitating on one batch, which caused them to expand to show their derivation. The values were within the expected tolerances; the probe was on course.

"Vänligen. Let this one get through. Please let it get through," she muttered.

Close by, Bahira Naru, monitoring the status of the on-board computers glanced momentarily in Janet's direction. She wore a short-lived, forced grin as she turned back to her own instruments. Like Janet and the five others in the small control centre, she was also concerned about the outcome of this mission.

Janet pursed her lips. Another failure would almost certainly ensure cutbacks would fall upon their whole section – if it did, then the mystery might never be resolved. But none of them could blame the bureaucrats; resources were almost non-existent and far too many people living in cramped warrens saw this exercise as an extravagant waste of the LSA's money and resources.

She recalled the shock they had all experienced when both Hope I and II disintegrated just as they had come close to the Earth. The first break-up had been totally unexpected, but at least the second probe had sent back a trickle of useful data before it had become caught up in whatever destroyed the first. Hope III would build on that data to devise the safest height for its orbit – a compromise between the distance the on-board instruments required to do their scanning and the invisible, destructive layer that now enveloped the Earth.

With the readouts indicating the craft was fully functional and exactly on course, Janet nodded to the others and left her desk for her first break in many hours.

In the corridor outside, Keifer and Melissa were awaiting her. She hugged both and Keifer whispered, "All go okay, mitt hjärta?"

"Ja, älskling. It's on course. Nothing much for us to do for a couple of days."

"I'm hungry," Melissa announced so they headed down the plastic-coated tubes towards the nearest canteen. As they sat sipping synthetic coffee Keifer, silent and gently smiling, held Janet's hand. Melissa, now nearly five, drank her milk shake and chattered about nursery school and wanting a new doll.

Janet could feel Keifer's quiet strength and calm flowing into her.

She needed it.

Two days later the LSA control room was more packed. Nervously, Janet eyed those around her, their own eyes fixated on the main displays. Tariq Ghannam, ostensibly one of the guidance assistants though more often called on to work magic with the computer systems, was quietly explaining something to Miguel Romero, a science adviser not only on the board of the LSA but connected to several government-funded panels. She hoped Tariq was doing a good job; Romero would be reporting directly back to President Stephanopolous.

She watched the numbers. A voice, Bahira's, said, "Thirty seconds to burn," and the noise level in the room lowered.

"Burn nominal," Bahira said, a little later.

"Velocity nominal."

"No fluctuations detected. Orbit nominal."

Janet glanced back at her figures and confirmed the orbit.

There was a muted round of applause as Hope III entered orbit.

"Congratulations, Mrs Davidsen," said Romero.

Janet nodded. "To all of us. The probe is cruising in what is currently a stable orbit twenty miles above the shield. It will constantly monitor it for fluctuations and will negotiate a newer, higher orbit for itself should it sense any threat to its existence."

Miguel Romero came across and shook her hand.

"Yes, we can't afford any more casualties," he said. "When can we expect telemetry?"

"It's coming in as we speak," she said, indicating columns of values that flashed upwards. "We just need to figure out what it all means."

Romero nodded. "Let me know as soon as anything significant is detected."

"Yes, sir," Janet said.

After he left, the atmosphere relaxed and the celebrations became far less formal.

Hope III was equipped with multiple cameras, both still and video; the latter to provide pictures for public consumption.

They both told the same drab story: a blackened, blasted landscape where nothing moved and nothing grew. The seas had completely boiled away, though where the water had gone could only be guessed at for the atmosphere, if any such remained, was clear and untainted by clouds.

But this was not news – the view from Moon-based telescopes revealed nothing less. Originally, it had been assumed that the debris thrown up by the disaster would persist for years. But it had darkened and then settled in weeks revealing the extent of the destruction.

It was Hope III's other on-board instruments that, over the next few weeks, Janet hoped, would reveal the new data. She could see that the invisible shield positively hummed with radioactivity crossing all frequencies, with no detectable pattern in the distribution. The physical source of the shield remained a mystery.

Late one evening, more than a month later, Janet pored over the data alone in her office. Keifer was home for a change and in charge of looking after Melissa. On the wall behind Janet hung another mystery, a still from the sequence of video frames that had been captured on the day of the disaster.

It showed Argentina still intact. Janet had not been the only one to witness and record it – more than three hundred distinct sources had captured the event. Therefore, it must have happened.

No one had a shred of explanation.

But that wasn't all. Other cameras aimed at other parts of the Earth had captured something else: a picture clearly depicting the asteroid moving northwards away from Earth as if it had passed out the other side of the planet unscathed. Just one frame – those immediately before and after showed no such body – just one frame on which the asteroid, its distinct cratered markings clearly visible, hung above northern Russia as if it had every right to be there.

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