Glitch – novel by Kate Rauner – discovery in a futurist world

Glitch FINAL May 2014 SMALLER FILE (533x800)To celebrate the first anniversary of my science fiction ebook, Glitch, I’ve re-issued the book with a new cover. Available from Amazon for Kindle for 99¢; or download a FREE copy from Smashwords in any of the major electronic formats and at Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, Flipkart, Inktera, and Versent.

At Spaceport America in the desert southwest, Rob Shay is a mission controller for Xplore, the world’s premiere space exploration company. During routine calibrations on a client’s spacecraft, Rob and his mission crew make an incredible discovery: a glitch in space that opens an impossible path to a star and its planets.

Serendipity led to the discovery and serendipity may prevent its exploration. All Rob wants is to be part of exploring the Helios system, but problems keep getting in his way. The Board of Directors believes Rob found a glitch in the instruments rather than a glitch in space. The control crew must convince them the glitch is real. Only then will international spacecraft explore the Helios system.

Glitch Cover Final 5JUN13

Original retro-style cover

Support and opposition come from unexpected sources. Although the Helios mission is sustained by many subscribers to the universities’ missions, not everyone in the world wants to see humanity travel beyond Earth. Space exploration is a private industry, but governments try to claim control. Xplore is in the business of exploration and business concerns come first. Rob struggles in a world he can’t control, trying to stay with his mission while bigger problems rock the nation. At least Rob finds some sympathy from his once-girlfriend who runs a telescope-for-hire business in Australia.

Rob lives in near-future Spaceport America, a real place just beginning operations in New Mexico. With its distinctive, geeky futurism, Glitch presents a world where you might one day live.

Read an excerpt now:

Chapter 1 Spaceport America

“Welcome to Spaceport America Industrial Park”. A soft, reddish light was mounted above the sign and the words stood out clearly in the darkness.

Even after five years, Rob Shay still got a bit of a thrill riding past that sign. The Spaceport terminal’s distinctive curve against a clear sky was a familiar sight to residents and tourists alike in New Mexico, everyone wanted to see the Spaceport even if they couldn’t afford an expensive joyride to space. Tourists never came to the tidy, prosperous industrial park, but this was where to find the real business of space, where Rob had worked since he dropped out of the University of Arizona in favor of some hands-on space exploration.

Rob could see the main terminal in the distance, laid out like a huge butterfly half buried in the level sands that stretched between White Sands National Monument and the Elephant Butte Reservoir. The building’s rim was outlined in lights, tinted red to preserve views of the dark, starry sky. Dry, barren mountains rose against the horizon behind the Spaceport terminal, though they were hidden in the darkness.

The Smart Cab dropped Rob off in front of Xplore’s building. Xplore specialized in space missions. Design, assembly, and mission control functions were housed here, along with the business offices. It was near the center of the block where the most prosperous companies were housed. Behind them stretched the Spaceport’s launch facilities. A few gantries for vertical launches were visible, outlined in red lights.

Architects for the smaller buildings that lined the street had generally abandoned the southwest style, favoring sleek, uncluttered facades of glass, metal, and stone. Less impressive cinder block buildings, divided into small shops and offices, were found on streets to the south.

Xplore’s employees generally worked a standard business-week, but mission control was a round-the-clock task and Rob worked midnight to noon. The building was dark as he approached; its floor-to-ceiling lobby windows reflecting the subdued exterior lighting along the walkway. Rob walked briskly to the doors of the deserted lobby lugging a cooler. He rarely left the building during his shift, so he carried his dinner and snacks.

Rob shivered a bit. The September night was chilly and felt slightly damp from the last of the summer rains. At the entrance, Rob tapped the access pad and pushed open the door into the lobby. Lights came on automatically at their night-time setting so the ceiling and walls remained draped in shadows.

The lobby was two stories high, an extravagance meant to impress arriving clients. There were sofas and upholstered chairs arranged in comfortable discussion groups, and a row of study carrels along one wall where visitors could work with some privacy. The building was laid out in a big square and doors directly across from the entry, behind the empty welcome desk, led to a private courtyard with picnic tables and a desert garden.

The rest of the building was more practical. The wing to the right housed labs and shops, and stairs led to offices and conference rooms on the second floor. Rob turned left, however, through the double doors that opened to the mission control wing. The hall here was brightly lit and full of people preparing for shift change.

Through an archway on the left was a common room and, from there, the locker rooms. About a dozen people were already inside, chatting in small groups. Rob looked around and quickly spotted his crew mates Lee and Trisha.

“Hi guys,” Rob greeted them. It was the first day of their work week, so they took a few minutes to catch up.

Today was Thursday and it was 11:00 pm, which was the start of Xplore’s Second Morning Shift. Mission control for craft in space was staffed twenty-four hours a day, every day. Each mission control crew worked three 13-hour days as week.

Rob didn’t mind the odd hours. He thought he had the best job in the world. Xplore was the leading private space exploration company in the world. Sure, there were competitors, but Xplore could handle anything from launching a client’s prefabricated satellite to the total design, assembly, and operation of missions to the farthest reaches of the solar system. At Xplore, Rob was part of major research projects like the one he was reporting to tonight. Even though the mission was currently in a long quiet period, coasting through the vast empty distances between planets, he was working with his two best friends on this shift, so he couldn’t ask for a better assignment. And tonight would be more interesting, with a series of calibrations to be performed.

“Who’s Thing One and Thing Two this week?” Rob asked. Every few weeks their mission had different personnel from the client’s post-doctoral program assigned to mission control. Talking to the post-docs was a good way to keep up with gossip from their universities. The post-docs, being part of the client’s staff, could work whatever days and hours they wanted and often started in the middle of one shift, crossing into the next.

“Deb Vowell and Carl Levi,” Lee answered, scanning his pocket pad.

“Oh, yeah,” Rob said with a nod. “I remember them. They’re modeling Europa’s oceans.”

“They’ve been here several times. They’re good guys, and you really should be more tactful,” Lee advised.

“Oh, Rob’s just joking,” Trisha said. “He wouldn’t call them ‘things’ to their faces.”

“I’ll be the epitome of tact in the control room,” Rob said, inclining his head and smiling. “But the post-docs come and go so quickly, it’s hard to keep all the names straight.” He understood why post-docs wanted to be on-location at Xplore. Even though they could monitor their missions from their university, it was a good experience to see Xplore’s labs and control rooms in action.

Such good experience,’ Rob thought to himself, ‘that some grad students decide to drop their studies and get a real job instead. Like me.’

Trisha was pushing hangers along the uniform rack, chuckling to herself at their banter. The rack held uniforms specifically chosen for the mission control crews. Xplore prided itself on providing full-service space missions, right down to uniforms. Someone, somewhere upstairs, did research on the best outfits to project whatever image the client wanted. For some missions they prescribed coveralls; for others, jackets and ties. Universities usually wanted a casual-but-competent look. Tonight only a shirt was specified.

Trisha found the right hangers, each with a name on the attached tag. She pulled off her own shirt and passed Rob’s to him. Lee reached around her and lifted his hanger carefully off the rack. Their uniform was a long sleeved, cardinal-red, button-down oxford shirt with the Xplore logo embroidered across the back yoke. On the front were two circles of Velcro. Rob pulled mission patches out of his jacket pocket. He slapped the Arizona Group logo above the left pocket, and the mission logo above the right.

“Meet you back here in a minute,” Trisha said as she headed for the women’s locker room.

Rob carried his shirt into the men’s locker room, and pulled it on over his tee-shirt, then appraised himself in the mirror. Rob was a tall, lanky man with a smooth complexion that made him look like he was still in his twenties. His light brown hair was so curly he had to keep it trimmed short or it would run wild. He tucked his shirt in and straighten the mission patches.

Oops,’ he thought, noticing a bump under the shirt.

He’d left his ComCore, a smooth oval about the size of his thumb, joint clipped to his tee shirt. His Command Core was. Most people wore their ComCores like jewelry and Rob’s looked like a stone of brown-veined turquoise. Tonight, Rob had his Core mounted on a pocket clip.

Rob had the ComCore set to interface with his personal pocket-sized smart pad and identify him to the various machines he used in daily life. Liking a sense of control more than most people, Rob usually left his ComCore set to require a touch against an interface pad rather than just a wave in its direction. Whether paying at a store or opening his apartment door, Rob tapped the interface circle on whatever pad he needed to access. Rob clipped the ComCore safely inside one of his oxford shirt pockets and slipped his personal smart pad into the other pocket.

He walked back to the common room and surveyed his crew, all neatly dressed in their crisp matching shirts. Lee was dark haired and round faced, with rounded shoulders, and a bit round in the middle too. Trisha was shorter than the average lady, with a perky nose and ready smile. She wore her long light brown hair pulled back into a pony tail. They were good crew mates and good friends.

The three turned down the hall and continued to Mission Control Room 3 for their command-change meeting.

Six mission control rooms ranged along the hall on the left; a wall of windows on the right looked out into the central courtyard with its picnic tables and xeriscaped garden. A large break room occupied the far corner, open to the halls. Along one wall of the break room was a row of pin-ball machines, replicas of antiques that actually worked, and there was a bucket of slugs to feed into their coin slots. Between the break room, locker rooms, and courtyard, you could spend days at Xplore without leaving the building and occasionally people did when there was a big push for some mission.

Rob and his friends worked on one of the largest missions Xplore was running at the time, “Mapping Europa”. The client, the Arizona Group, used a spacecraft design that had become popular for planetary missions, a “Groupo” which carried several telerobotic satellites around a single core craft. For Mapping Europa, Xplore had launched two spacecraft that were identical twins; Groupo One and Groupo Two; MEG1 and MEG2 for short.

Each of the twin craft carried six satellites bound for the Jupiter system, specifically for the moon Europa. The satellites create a network of instrumentation to image and analyze Europa’s ice-covered oceans and, with luck, the ocean floor below. Rob’s crew handled MEG1 in MC3; the crew handling MEG2 was next door in MC4.

While the military space-race had petered out, the competition among universities had heated up. An ambitious space mission was hard for a university to accomplish alone, so research missions were accomplished by consortia of universities and non-profits, with as many corporate sponsors and individual subscribers as they could attract.

The Europa mapping mission and its twin spacecraft belonged to the University Network of Outer Solar System Exploration. The consortium involved several American and European universities which provided imaging on wavelengths from radio frequencies through infrared to ultraviolet and gamma ray, with spectroscopy provided by UPMC in France. They shared the data to support hundreds of faculty and student research projects. The principal investigator for the consortium was at the University of Arizona, a long time Xplore client, so at Xplore they tended to think of MEG as Arizona’s mission.

Last April, Xplore had completed assembly of the mission’s instrumentation modules and launched the twins from Xplore’s pad on the east side of the Spaceport. Now Xplore managed the flight dynamics and the data storage, and fussed with course corrections. “Driving the bus”, they called it. Most of the instrumentation was operated directly by University of Arizona and UPMC scientists in their own control rooms on their distant campuses.

Planetary science was trending. Arizona sold subscriptions to the MEG mission to people all over the world. Standard subscribers could interact with the researchers, receive special programs about the mission, or just enjoy watching events unfold on Arizona’s Internet site. Premium subscribers could use mission data for their own research and businesses, and had access to unedited, real-time feeds. Rob waved to the Internet-cameras as he entered the MEG1 control room. Being a controller for an on-line, subscriber-based mission meant learning not to swear or scratch yourself in embarrassing places, since the front half of the control room was fully covered by net-cams.

The large launch crew was long-gone and the MEGs were controlled by three-person Bus-Driver crews. These crews tended the spacecraft as they coasted along towards the Jupiter system and would, in turn, relinquish them to orbital insertion crews later in the mission. Xplore’s excellent mission planning meant the flights had been satisfyingly routine.

Tonight’s schedule called for exercising various systems on MEG1. MEG2, which had launched about a month behind MEG1, would repeat the exercise in a few weeks. Although the Arizona and French controllers would be performing most of the work, Xplore’s crews would position MEG1 for them and check various attitude dynamics. The previous shift has started the work, and Rob was anxious to find out how things were going.

As he hung his jacket by the door, he paused to look around the room. MC3 was large and windowless. A small conference table was pushed against the front wall, below the large wall screens. Three long, curved benches faced the screens. The room could accommodate much larger crews, but only a half-dozen work stations were set up. Along the back wall of the room were some comfy chairs and small tables, and a coffee pot by a little sink.

Rob headed for the coffee and slid his cooler under a table. The back of the room was behind the net-cams and provided a bit of privacy to relax during the shift without leaving the control room. Two post-docs from the university were already there, pouring coffee and pulling smart pads from their backpacks. With a hurried nod to Rob, they walked back to the conference table in front of the room.

Xplore prided itself on its cyber security, and the features were discreetly unobtrusive. The room seemed to be papered in a muted beige grass cloth, but a network of fine metallic strands woven into the covering shielded them from outside attempts to scan or access the electronics. As an added protection, uploads could only be sent from the first row of control stations, which had security chips unique to the mission embedded in the hardware. The net-cams that streamed the mission to subscribers were physically isolated from all other electronics in the room. Telemetry arriving from MEG1 was also physically isolated. A lazy-Susan data-management unit about three feet across hung in the ceiling. While the telemetry was archived directly in Xplore’s proprietary system, memory units rotated every hundredth of a second to transfer data to the subscriber Internet site. The physical gap maintained between mission control and the Internet provided a comforting sense of protection to clients that no amount of cyber security could achieve.

Trisha, Lee, and the outgoing control crew gathered around the conference table below the wall screens. Their lead, Alyssa Sanchez, carried a lap-sized tablet clipped into a caddy, the configuration most people preferred for serious input work. Her shift report was displayed on the center wall screen.

“It’s been a pretty nominal day,” Sanchez began without preamble as Rob sat down. “MEG1 crossed Mars’ orbit before you walked in, and Arizona got this great image in visible light. She tapped her caddy’s controls and a wall screen filled with an orangey, egg-shaped image of Mars more than half-illuminated by the sun. “We’ve done the calibrations in the visible light frequencies on the A, B, and C satellites. Arizona had trouble getting the infrared operating. They may try it again on your shift, and you’ll need to adjust MEG1’s attitude for that.”

Sanchez brought up several telemetry tables. “Here are the data we’ve been concentrating on.”

Trisha and Lee talked with their counterparts, the post-docs chatted in a corner, and in short order Rob’s Second Morning Shift was ready to assume command.

“Morning shift takes command,” he said formally to Sanchez. This was a little ceremony for the net-cams.

“Have a good shift,” she responded.

“See you tomorrow,” Rob waved to the departing crew as he pulled on a headset.

***

The crew greeted their counterparts in Arizona and France as they set up their work stations. Each work station tablet was clipped into a caddy that projected a control board on the bench in front of the user. Since individuals could choose from a variety of sizes and configurations, it took a few minutes for the crew to arrange a work station to their own preferences. Lee carefully folded his shirt cuffs up inside his sleeves and was sitting forward in his chair. The slouched look he had outside the control rooms, like an over-grown puppy, was replaced with a sharp, crisp style as he settled into his work station.

“MEG1 must be right in the middle of the Trojans,” Lee said, looking up at the wall screen now displaying a computer animation of the craft’s position in the solar system.

“I thought the Trojan asteroids were in Jupiter’s orbit,” Trisha said.

“Jupiter’s Trojans are better known, but every planet has asteroids called Trojans in its orbit” Lee said. “Jupiter has over a million of them, if you count everything larger than a kilometer in size.

“I did my thesis on the chemical composition of the Martian Trojans,” he continued, tapping his controls to zoom in on the animation. “There are only three large Martian Trojans, but there must be at least ten times that many smaller ones, trapped in their positions relative to the planet, essentially forever.”

“Trapped?” Rob didn’t like the sound of that.

“Nothing to worry about,” Lee said. “MEG1 can’t become trapped in the Trojan node. She’s moving outward from the sun, across Mars’ orbit.

“I wonder if we’ll get an image of an uncataloged asteroid.” Lee turned back to his work station and overlaid the known Trojan asteroids on MEG1’s path.

“So that’s what you studied? These Trojan asteroids?”

“Actually, I did my thesis on the Trojans in the trailing node,” Lee said. “There are a total of five nodes for each planet, gravitational sweet spots between the planet and the sun. Their orbits are stable. MEG1 is passing through Mars’ leading node right now, the L4 node.”

“Why ‘L4’?” Rob asked. He was squinting at an image from one of MEG1’s satellites, trying to spot a Trojan asteroid.

“It happens to be numbered as the fourth node, and ‘L’ is for ‘Lagrange’, the French astronomer who first worked out the math in the 1700s. The first asteroids found were named after characters from the Trojan War; you know, the war with the Trojan Horse? So ‘Trojans’ is the conventional term.

“It’s like,” Lee swiveled in his chair, tented his fingers, and pushed his hands out towards Rob like a swimmer cutting through the water. “It’s like the L4 Trojan asteroids are riding a gravitational bow wave from Mars, but they never get pushed to the side, so they ride forever.”

“So where are nodes one, two, and three?”

“I’ll show you a diagram,” Lee said, “but it doesn’t affect MEG1. All that really matters to her is that there’s a lot of empty space between asteroids, even Trojan asteroids in the L4 node,” he said, turning again to his work station. “We aren’t likely to see any of them by chance.”

“Why depend on chance?” Trisha asked. “Let’s go searching for asteroids, shall we?” She pulled up her command menu.

“I need some targets to check MEG1’s radar system,” she said with a wink. “That’s part of navigation and that’s my job. Nothing out here to use but asteroids, anyway.”

Rob chuckled. Trisha was a sweetheart; she’d find an asteroid for Lee.

The calibration routines initiated by the previous shift went well. Arizona decided to delay their infrared diagnostics for a day, so Rob didn’t even have to deal with the one glitch that had turned up in MEG1’s instruments so far.

“We can perform the saturation calibration for spectroscopy next,” Trisha said. “I’ll adjust MEG1’s attitude to aim the first satellite’s imagers at the sun.”

Rob opened his mic to the shared channel and told the French controllers at UPMC that they were sending the command to MEG1 for their first saturation calibration.

“Ready when you are,” the French crew lead replied. “We’ll tag our command to initiate ze spectrum analyses after your attitude change iz complete.”

Rob tapped open his link to Arizona. “Leave your visible-light imager on, please. We’ll use it to confirm our attitude.”

“Copy. Visible-light command sent… now,” came back the reply. It would take 4 minutes, 20.94 seconds for the command to reach MEG1.

Trisha doubled checked MEG1’s current attitude telemetry and sent her commands.

“About five minutes for the transmission, then roughly twenty minutes for MEG1 to execute,” Trisha said, examining a bell-shaped curve of MEG response times from the designers’ simulation runs. The time it took for MEG1 to respond depended, in part, on where she was in her internal programs when the transmission arrived. The mission designers ran countless simulations to build a curve that included all possible response scenarios and their probabilities. “Then another five minutes to get back to us.” She relaxed back into her seat.

“I’m going to grab a cup of coffee,” Rob said.

Chapter 2 Glitch

As he sat with his coffee cradled in one hand, Rob tapped his virtual keyboard and displayed an animation of MEG1 on the center wall screen, built from telemetry being received. MEG1 rotated the satellite Trisha had selected towards the sun. With another tap, Rob sent the satellite’s visible-light image to the left wall screen. Mars slid slowly across the left screen as MEG1 rotated into position and the sun moved into view in its place.

For someone standing on Mars, the sun would look about half the size it does from Earth, and no brighter than the sun might appear on a cloudy Earth day. But floating in black space, with nothing for comparison, MEG1’s image of the sun was brilliant. The sun was so bright it swamped out the view of any background stars and dominated the screen. The sun sat right in the center of the screen once MEG1 completed her rotation, and Rob relaxed back into his chair. His work was done, barring trouble, and now he could watch the data stream in as the researchers at Arizona and UPMC exercised their instruments.

Light imagers, spectrometers, and a topography-measuring laser altimeter were among the gadgets MEG1’s satellites carried. Not all could be tested in open space. She needed an object below her to measure topography, for example. Arizona’s visible-light image was more easily evaluated. Arizona was fiddling with something and the image quality improved. Filters were being adjusted, Rob noted, glancing at his work station screen.

A blank spectroscopy chart popped up on the right-most wall screen, ready to display the French university’s data. Rob glanced at the storage status displayed at his work station. No problems.

The spectroscopists were located at UPMC in France, the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, at the university’s laboratory of planetary science.

Rob understood the lab was right along the Seine River. ‘Sounds like a nice place to work,’ he thought idly as the universities ran their calibrations.

MEG1’s telemetry indicated the spectroscopy instruments were warming up, the observation port was fully open, and a spectrum began to fill in the chart on the wall screen. Since the sun’s composition is thoroughly known, it made an excellent calibration standard. The sun is mostly hydrogen with some helium, a little oxygen, and traces of carbon, iron, sulfur, nitrogen, silicon, and neon. Colors and lines formed and brightened as the spectrum formed.

The French crew checked various functions; Rob had their chat appearing as text crawling across the bottom of his work station. He checked the crawl from time to time in case they discovered problems he should be solving. But generally, Rob watched the view of the sun on the wall screen. His mind began to drift as he stared at the bright disk.

‘The sun is rising right now outside,’ he thought, glancing at the local time. He could only tell by the clock, since the light levels in the windowless control room never varied.

Then something caught his eye. Abruptly, Rob sat up straight.

“What’s that?” he said out loud. “Is something changing?” Turning on the voice connection to Arizona, he spoke into his headset mic, “Arizona, are you losing your imager?”

“No. Everything is good here. Why?”

“Why is the sun getting squished?”

Sure enough, the sun was no longer a perfect bright disk. One side was slightly flattened.

“Hey, you’re right Xplore. We show the brightness down three percent. Stand by.”

Lee scowled at the wall screen. “The spectrum is showing less intensity, too, I think. Yes, UPMC confirms a three percent drop.” Lee tapped his controls. There was no doubt about the flattening now. It was definitely visible along one edge of the sun’s disk.

“Does that look like an eclipse starting to move across to the sun?” Lee asked.

Dammit, dammit, dammit’ Rob thought as he pulled up various charts. They all told him the same thing as the visible-light image on the wall screen.

“Are we behind an asteroid?” he asked out loud.

“That would be an incredible piece of bad luck,” Lee said. “We’re not near any of the large asteroids. For something to look that big against the sun, MEG1 would have to be right on top of it.”

“No, no, no!” Rob said through his teeth, hoping to banish the possibility. “If we steered MEG1 close to an asteroid, she could be thrown off-course.”

“Trisha! Ping that blob. How close is it? And how big?”

Trisha tapped at her controls, selected a packet from a command menu, and hit ‘send’. They’d have to wait for the transmission going out and coming back, plus however long it took for MEG1 to send a signal and receive its reflection back.

“I’ve sent commands to emit a radar pulse and record the bounce-back. If that blob is close, we’ll have an answer inside…” Trisha looked at her work station screen, “fifteen minutes.”

Rob pulled out his personal pocket pad and dropped it into his lap, out of sight of the net-cams. He opened his message center, and tapped out a line.

‘r u ther?’

Rachel Davis was an old friend; an old girl friend. They had been graduate students together at Arizona. Rob had figured out he really liked the nuts and bolts of space flight, rather than the big questions of the PhD program. He’d left with a Masters degree, which was viewed as a booby prize by the rest of the grad students, to work at Xplore, but Rachel had finished her PhD. Now she and two business partners owned “Southern Skies”, a telescopes-for-hire company. They had some awesome instruments set up in the Red Center of Australia. Where it was night, right now. Where MEG1 was visible, in the constellation of Taurus. Where, maybe, a rogue asteroid could be spotted.

‘Hi Rob.’ Her answer came back right away. For privacy, Rob kept his personal pocket pad set to text-only at work.

‘crisis here image 4 me?’

Rob pulled up some navigation tables on his work station and carefully tapped in MEG1’s right ascension and declination.

‘RA 21 40 41 Dec -23 11 01’

Rachel came back.

‘This is a business you know. I’m imaging for a paying customer now.’ She must have her messages set to complete sentences, or maybe she was talking into a headset.

‘crashing N2 asteroid. Plz,‘ Rob sent. He was in no mood for banter.

‘I already entered the coordinates. You realize I can’t see your piddling little space craft?’

‘look 4 asteroid.’

‘Okay. The scope is moving now. It’ll take some time to collect enough light for a decent image. I’ll call when it’s done.’

‘thx gotta go’

‘I really should leave this thing on auto-complete,’ he thought, changing the option on the pad. ‘My messages look stupid otherwise.’

Rob slid his pad back into his shirt pocket and looked up at the wall screens. There was now a clear, flat edge of black along one side of the sun’s disk.

‘I can count on Rachel,’ Rob thought, trying to calm his trembling fingers with a deep breath, but he had no more time to think about her. Chatter from Arizona and France was crawling across the bottom of his screen. Everything was functioning perfectly, but the sun was slipping away on the screen.

“Trisha! Do you have your ping-back? Ping anything around MEG1 in any direction. I want to know exactly where she is. Are any gravity sources pulling on us? Has our trajectory changed?”

“Lee!” he called. “Turn on the topography laser. Can we detect anything solid?”

“Already on it.” Lee had a menu of commands on his work station.

“There. Sent.” Lee leaned back in his chair. “MEG1 will look for a surface. Now we have to wait.”

The time lag had never seemed longer. But MEG1 was half way to her destination around Jupiter, and even light took an annoying amount of time to travel that far. Rob used the time to send alerts.

‘We have encountered an anomaly,’ he sent to Terri Yuan, Xplore’s project manager for MEG; Dr. Gary Rivera, MEG’s principal investigator at Arizona; and the rest of a short list of key personnel. ‘See this link.’

They would all be able to view the same frames the crew had on the control room wall screens. It was still early in the morning, but Rob flagged the message as urgent; most people would have their ComCores set to wake them for urgent messages. Questions would start flooding in shortly. The Internet site would be lighting up, too, since somewhere in the world, subscribers were watching while MEG’s principal investigator slept.

Rob looked up at the wall screens. A significant section of the sun was sliced off now, and the blackness had a slight convex curve.

“I’m getting zilch from topography,” Lee said. “There’s nothing there.”

“And so far, zero trajectory deviation,” Trisha reported.

Rob ran a hand across his tight, short curls, and then leaned forward with his elbows on the bench and his chin propped on folded knuckles.

“Then what the devil…” he whispered, mostly to himself, “are we looking at?”

Chapter 3 Helios

Trisha leaned forward in her chair, concentrating; elbows on the desk with her jaw resting in the splayed-out fingers of one hand. “I’ve been sending a series of pings in all directions, and I’m getting pings back,” she said.

“I’ve got one ping counterclockwise of MEG1, relative to Mars’ orbit. That’ll be an asteroid preceding MEG1, but still in the L4 node. Wait. Two. I’ve got two pings; two small asteroids.” She paused, staring intently at the screen.

Everyone sat quietly, barely breathing, waiting for more data.

“Here’s a third ping, clockwise from MEG1 now. An asteroid trailing our position.” Another pause.

“MEG1 should have received a ping back from the blob in front of the sun by now. Even if it’s too far for topography. We have all the large Trojans plotted, and our…” Lee waved towards the wall screen. “Our blob is none of them. It’s got to be small, so it’s got to be close.”

“But there’s nothing there,” he said with finality. Trisha nodded her agreement.

Rob looked over at Lee. He lifted the mic away from his mouth and spread his hands out, empty, for emphasis.

“What?” Rob said, pointing to the screen. “We see it. There’s got to be something there.”

“Nope. Nothing. At least, nothing solid.”

“Even a dust cloud would give some kind of echo,” Trisha said, looking over her shoulder at them.

Rob was about to ask the Arizona crew, yet again, if their imagers were operating properly, when something else changed.

“Our problem is getting worse,” Lee said as he turned back towards the front of the room. “Look at the visible-light image.”

Rob jerked his eyes up to the left wall screen. Half the sun’s disk was now scooped away. But Lee was right that something was changing. At the left side of the screen, opposite the remains of the sun, a bright point of light had appeared. Rob quickly pulled the image to his work station and replayed the last few seconds. A tiny point of light appeared and began to grow. He looked back up at the wall screen. The point of light was a bit brighter. The spectrum display on the right-hand screen was changing too. The intensity had been dropping as the sun was blotted out by whatever was happening. Now the intensity was slowly increasing.

Rob turned his mic on.

“Hey UPMC,” he said. “What does your spectroscopy show?”

“We must be getting internal reflections. Zat must be sunlight. But de intensity ratios are off,” the French lead’s voice responded in Rob’s headset.

‘No, it’s not reflections, Rob thought to himself. The tightness in his chest began to shift to a tingling in his stomach. His peripheral vision was blacking out as he stared at the wall screen. Rob took a deep, calming breath and exhaled slowly.

“UPMC! Can you subtract your previous spectrum of the sun from what’s on the screen now?”

“Stand by… Iz here now.” On the screen, a second chart sprung up out of the original.

“Zah sun on the bottom, zah new spectrum on top.”

Rob stared at the new spectrum. Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon. But with more helium and carbon than there should be. He glanced back and forth between the charts, comparing them by eye. The ratios of the trace elements looked different, too.

“This is real,” he said out loud, to no one in particular.

“It’s a reflection of some kind,” one of the post-docs in the back of the room piped up. Rob had forgotten he was there. Levi was staring at the wall screen as he spoke, walking forward along the room’s wall as if to get a better view. “It’s got to be. Or you’ve let MEG1 over-rotate, and that,” he pointed at the screen, “is some other star.”

“MEG1 is moving through the Trojans precisely on the trajectory planned,” Trisha said, shaking her head at the suggestion. “I set MEG1 to send out pings every fifteen minutes. I can plot her course against the asteroids we’ve identified.”

“As for rotating…” Trisha looked down at her work station, tapping through a series of telemetry tables. “The attitude dynamics are spot-on. I see no indication of over-rotation. MEG1 is turning to keep the satellite aimed straight at the sun, exactly as she should on her current trajectory. There is something between her and the sun. There has to be.”

“It makes sense to look for malfunctions, though,” Rob said thoughtfully. Having something useful to do would help him stay calm. “UPMC, see if your data files are superimposed somehow, maybe overwriting in places….” He paused. “Trisha…”

“Already double-checking the attitude dynamics.”

Rob muted his headset. Automatically, all the chatter changed to text. He watched the messages crawl across the bottom of the screen, faster now than he could follow. From time to time he slowed the crawl to catch some words.

“Power systems are all operating within specs,” Lee said, verifying his parameters. “I checked the core craft and the six satellites she carries. Propulsion systems also stable. No sign of any fuel leaks or anything else that might affect attitude or interfere with the signal.”

“MEG1’s attitude is stable,” Trisha confirmed again with an emphatic nod. “She’s aimed exactly at the sun.”

This was real. MEG1 was pointed straight into the center of the solar system, straight at the sun. Rob’s tingling gut told him she was moving behind something real that was between her and the sun. It wasn’t an asteroid. If you couldn’t believe the pings, you could certainly believe there are no points of light on the night-sides of asteroids.

The point of light continued to grow slowly, expanding to a streak. The intensity in the new spectrum chart was also growing, just like the size and brightness of the visible-light image. This new light was growing as bright as the sun, a segment of a somewhat orangey disk rather than a pin-point. Rob had no idea how that could be so.

He felt a grin tickling the corners of his mouth. His stomach was tingling more than ever and his hands felt cold. This was a discovery. A bizarre discovery. They had to eliminate every possible malfunction, investigate every known object this could conceivably be. That was the only way everyone would know what his stomach was telling him. This was real.

***

Responses to Rob’s message to key mission personnel began to come in. He spent the next hour sending ‘we don’t know’ and ‘we tried that’ answers to a slew of questions. The Arizona and French research teams reiterated over and over that all their instruments were functioning properly, as they checked one possible malfunction after another.

Rob watched the crawl of messages. Most of the questions were directed to the university controllers, and before long there were very few questions for him to answer. Arizona and France were checking ever more unlikely suggestions for malfunctions. Terri Yuan, Xplore’s project manager for the MEG mission, was setting up an on-line meeting with Dr. Rivera in Arizona and the UPMC researchers in France. They were still focused on malfunctions, telling everyone not to worry; MEG1 was only halfway to Europa and there was plenty of time to sort out these strange images.

Arizona was also dealing with one of the disadvantages of subscriber financing. Or maybe it was an advantage, even if it was distracting. Everything Rob was seeing was out there on the Internet subscriber site, available in real-time. Comments were pouring in.

The Arizona Group had to ensure their primacy of discovery quickly, even before they were sure what they’d discovered. Once malfunctions were eliminated, they’d hurry to post an announcement on the Public Library of Science’s Public Registry. The mission managers were in the middle of preparing that PLoS posting by now, Rob thought, and he didn’t mind letting them handle the task. He’d rather be in mission control.

On the wall screen, the last sliver of the sun had disappeared and the new star had grown to a complete disk, its apparent size every bit as large as the sun’s had been. Maybe a little larger. He was looking at something that no one had ever seen before, that no one had ever guessed might exist.

But there was no time to ponder the screens. Rob had a job to do and a command-change report to prepare for the next shift.

“Hey guys,” he called to Lee and Trisha. “I’m writing the shift report. What are we going to call this blob thing?”

“We don’t even know what sort of ‘thing’ it is,” Trisha reminded him. “What we’re seeing can’t be so. It must be a glitch in the equipment.”

“Or a glitch in space,” Lee said. “That’s precisely what it is.”

“Perfect!” Rob said, typing on the work station key board. “Whatever it is, it’s a glitch. Now, what about this star thing?”

“Helios,” Lee said, with conviction.

“Helios?” Rob asked.

“Sure. It’s a star, we can all see that. Its spectrum is like the sun’s spectrum. Our sun is ‘Sol’, from the ancient Romans. So this is ‘Helios’ which is the ancient Greek version of ‘Sol’.”

“How do you know about ancient Greeks?” Trisha asked.

“Chris and I went on a vacation with his archeological society once. We got to work on an archeological dig. There were lectures every night. I learned a lot about classical Greece.”

“You take the best vacations,” Trisha said with a sigh.

“All right,” Rob said, tapping at the keys projected in front of him. “Helios it is.”

“The International Astronomical Union isn’t going to like you usurping their naming standards,” Trisha teased.

“Tough. We’ve got to call it something for now,” Rob teased back.

The control room door swung open; the next control crew was arriving much earlier than usual. They sat at empty work stations instead of lounging around the conference table. Rob hurriedly sent his report images to the center wall screen.

“I’ll get the coffee pot,” Lee whispered as he walked past Rob towards the back of the room. It was the outgoing shift’s job to start a new pot. This was the strangest combination of routine and unique events that Rob had ever encountered. His stomach was still tingling, but his confidence in the images wavered as he thought about briefing the next crew. What if he had made some stupid mistake that the next crew would spot in an instant?

Quickly and thoroughly, Rob and his crew ran through their discovery, their reactions, and the results. The new crew set to work immediately. They talked about rotating MEG1 to keep Helios centered in view for as long as possible while she continued on her trajectory to Europa. There was nothing left for Rob’s crew to do but walk out into the hall and head for home.

Rob was halfway to the lobby when the smart pad in his shirt pocket buzzed with a personal message. He stopped in the middle of the hall and pulled out his pad.

“Something special?” Trisha asked, noticing the anticipation on his face as he opened the message.

“Rachel, from Australia,” Rob said.

Falling behind Lee and Trisha as they walked up the hall, Rob turned on the visual display.

“I dumped a paying client for this image, you know,” Rachel said. Her tone was mock-serious, but she was smiling when her face appeared on the pad’s screen. Her dark hair was tied back, but escaped locks hung around her wide face and tumbled into her shining eyes. She was sitting in a dimly lit room with the light from her screen glinting off earrings half-hidden among her curls.

“Send me the bill,” Rob replied returning her smile. “I think I can even get you paid.”

“Good. We need the business. Maybe Xplore will want to give us a retainer? Anyway, I’m sending a link to your image. I gave it two good hours, but you’ll have to look close. You’ll see two short streaks in the image.”

Those streaks would be two of Lee’s Trojan asteroids, Rob knew. He also knew exactly what Rachel would say next.

“But the coordinates you gave me, they are dead center in this image. There’s nothing there. Nothing I can image in a couple hours anyway. Still going to pay the bill?”

“Rachel dear, I could kiss you. That empty image is worth every penny.” Rob hurried up the hall to tell the others.

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