5: Probes (part 4)

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5.4 Gaia II

Conradville, Lussac Crater: January 2117

On the day the Gaia II probe entered orbit around the Earth, Janet Davidsen was calculating trajectories. The Hope III probe was now nothing more than a memory – it had disintegrated on the shield several years before when a solar panel failure disabled its ability to correct for orbit decay. Long before that Janet's own career at the LSA had stalled due to cutbacks and she'd joined Core Zero, one of the organisations processing water supplies to the Moon either by extracting it from Moon rock or from other sources out in the solar system. Janet's job was to improve the already efficient paths of icy bodies diverted from the asteroid belt or Saturnian rings towards the Moon. While it paid far better than her previous post, it was less than satisfying, if not downright boring.

She logged off the Core Zero program and switched one channel on her screen to the private data feed of information coming continuously out of the Gaia project – her access to LSA's systems may have been demoted but they hadn't been completely revoked. A second channel was set to the associated news channel, while a third was almost permanently hooked up to a live satellite view of the Earth.

Gaia II, launched just under three days ago, was about to drop four new landers. She noted the change to the data stream that showed the first lander had been ejected. One column of figures displayed the telemetry streaming from it, while a second attempted to decode its meaning in real time. The Gaia team, now headed up by Bahira Naru, were hoping for drops onto both Paradise and Robot World, though any success at getting a lander onto anything other than Black Earth would be a result.

The previous July the Gaia I probe had dropped three robotic landers. Each lander had been shielded in separate ways against the still-misunderstood barrier. Two of them – one encased in lead alloy, the other surrounded by a super-dense mixture of plastic and iron – both vaporised upon contact with the shield. The third – entombed in a triple-walled container with liquid nitrogen in between each layer – managed to hit the barrier just as one of the haphazardly occurring change waves passed under it. Instead of descending into Paradise, as had been intended, it flopped down onto Black Earth where it sent back high radiation readings for just two minutes before failing. But at least it had got through.

Janet eyed the telemetry as the first Gaia II lander dropped towards the shield. Five minutes, seven minutes, nine and then eleven. It was almost at the shield. The live satellite feed showed a wave flashing across and what was probably Green Earth stabilised in the view. Janet held her breath as the count reached twelve minutes.

"Shit," she cursed as the telemetry stream stalled and didn't resume. Well, one down but there were three more. Although she ached to be as involved in the Gaia project as she had been with Hope, she didn't relish the thought of being the one who had to report yet another failure – she feared for Bahira's future career if none of the landers succeeded. Almost on cue, a solemn face appeared on the news channel to report that the first probe had failed to penetrate the shield. Janet logged back into Core Zero and continued working to take her mind off the LSA's problems.

An hour later the second lander was dispatched. Janet closed down her trajectory calculating programs once again, unable to concentrate on them. With the local time at nearly four, Melissa would be home from school soon.

The telemetry feed hit twelve minutes and kept going. Had it got through? The data stream became more dense. It seemed to indicate that it was picking up local signals. On the satellite view the version of the Earth on display was Robot World. Were the signals from the robotic systems from that version of the Earth? Then a wave passed across the view and Black Earth appeared. The telemetry stream halted for a couple of seconds but then, very slowly, more data trickled in. She could hardly believe it – it was looking like they were receiving data from beyond the shield while the visual systems could only view Black Earth. When, a few minutes later, Robot World reappeared, the telemetry stream kicked back into high speed and Janet probed it for evidence that the lander had successfully touched down.

And, there it was, a single line in decoded column containing 'ELEVATION: 0 – SYSTEMS NOMINAL'. They'd done it.

"Yes!" Janet shouted. She did a little jig around her office and then increased the volume on the news channel. She had to wait fifteen minutes before the news become official. The expression on the reporter's face showed a completely different story this time. She confirmed that the lander had penetrated the shield and had successfully made landfall somewhere close to Tangier in Morocco. At this stage the reporter didn't give any hint that the lander had detected the local electronic chatter. Janet suspected that they wouldn't be releasing that information until it had been fully analysed.

Melissa's return from school broke into Janet's obsession.

"What's happening?" she asked.

"It's fantastic. One of the Gaia landers got through to Robot World," Janet enthused.

"Oh, okay. What's for tea?" she called out.

"It's your turn to make tea, as agreed this morning. Some of us have to work, you know."

Melissa tutted and strode off to dump her school things in her room.

Forty-five minutes and a meal later, Janet managed to catch up on the news. The third lander had also penetrated the shield and dropped down onto Paradise. It had successfully made planetfall on the coast of California and had immediately sent back a short stream of data that included a few photos along with a snatch of video.

Janet was stunned, and even Melissa, looking over her shoulder said, "Wow!"

The video depicted nature running wild; stunning butterflies amongst huge, exquisitely colourful blooms, and the sounds of abundant bird life filling the jungle-like area into which it had descended.

However, the news wasn't all good. Apparently, that had been all the data received. Immediately afterwards the data stream had cut out to be replaced by a series of error reports, indicating that the lander was experiencing an increasing number of internal memory errors and other malfunctions. Then, barely ten minutes after landing, it fell permanently silent.

The fourth lander didn't manage to penetrate the shield.

Later that evening Janet called Keifer. He had been temporarily seconded to one of the other colonies nearer the north lunar pole. Their last old-style regolith converter had malfunctioned and there were no longer any spares available for that particular model. It was hoped he could come up with an alternative fix for the problem, which, he confided to her, was probably not on the cards given the lethal state of the machine. The city, located in the Challis crater and primarily occupied by those of South American or Russian descent, was somewhat lacking in facilities. In between the usual family news she told him about the Gaia probe.

"Helvete! Only one got through?"

"Well, two for a while. See if you can find that video from Paradise. It's amazing what's happened there. Must've been duff as it broke down within minutes of landing. There's probably going to be some stick about that. Anyway, despite the losses, it's rather better than last time. I think they're holding back on news about the one on Robot World."

"Nyheter? What sort of news?"

"Local traffic data. I'm sure it had latched onto something."

"Nice day we're having," Keifer said.

"Oh, jäkla! Yes, so it is," Janet said, remembering their code. She realised she shouldn't have been talking on the public network about something that wasn't yet official. Even though the communications were supposed to be encrypted, you could never be one hundred percent certain.

A few days later Janet read that the Robot World lander had lasted three days.

Two days after it had landed the news was released that it had picked up electronic chatter that was similar to Earth's old AI units. Gaia II had relayed the data back to the LSA where the Moon's own AI units analysed it. They found the traffic had mutated to such an extent that much of it was meaningless. The lander picked up nothing that seemed to have originated from a purely human source. If humans still existed there, then they were, it was concluded, electronically mute.

After three days the lander suddenly stopped transmitting. The Gaia II probe circling overhead photographed a large machine at the landing area, which may have accounted for the loss.

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