Fred Sommerville reported in to Mace via the intercom from the antenna tech shop. "We have most of the array in place. I think we can try a few tests tomorrow if it looks OK from your end."
Mace was having a good day for a change. They hadn't had a packet for a good long while but the news from the ponics facility was looking brighter. They might eat better than they had in awhile. It looked like a good crop year.
Mace said, "I think I might like to take a look before we turn it on if you don't mind."
"Not at all. I would be delighted to show off the handiwork of our last decade of effort." Fred was joking. Mace had been in on the construction of this gigantic maze from the very beginning. The real question was, would it really work? More realistically, was there anyone really out there? They knew it would do what it was designed to do - search through millions of narrow bands of frequencies as it slowly scanned the nearby portions of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Mace pushed away from his desk in the control center and made his way through the hatches and tubes to the shop where Fred had put it all together. Fred showed him all the final results from test that had been run yesterday and said, "Why don't we go out and have a real look at what we have wrought?"
This seemed like a good idea, "Let's go."
They made their way to the lock and donned their EVA suits. The exercise had become so routine over the years that it required no thinking and yet if a single mistake was made or a single item missed in the check-off list before they exited the station they could die instantly. Fred pushed open the outer hatch after the lock had been evacuated and the two of them jetted rapidly toward the glittery silvery array that etched itself against the inky background of empty space. The enormous extent of this array defied the imagination. It was not possible to describe it. In a way it was Fred and Marilyn's child. They would maybe be parents to the voices of the universe. How about that for hubris? Well, it's excusable. Having and raising a family on SETI Station was not exactly easy. But what a child! They stayed over long. It was mesmerizing and a call from Ops reminded them they must come in. They hadn't prepared for a long EVA.
As they reentered the lock and took off their suits Mace said, "Let's go for it. We have waited a long time. We already have the water planet. Let's see if anyone's at home."
Fred laughed, "Sure, they'll answer right up."
Of course they did not answer right up. Nobody was home on Peg 51 Natasha. Too bad. Nobody had really expected that there would be.
The antenna was designed, however, to sweep continuously through a large solid angle zipping through millions of narrow band frequencies. It was not so simple as finding SOS or some similarly simple code. What might be detected could be very subtle. It could be, not a signal to Earth, but simply the splash of signals into space of routine communications, video transmissions, or even data links, all of which would be highly cryptic. Finding order in what nominally looked like noise was no easy task.
What actually had to happen was that enormous amounts of data must be recorded and then the automatic processing programs had to go to work on it all. If anything hopeful turned up - and that might be only one tenth of one percent hopeful - then Natasha and her crew would go to work on that fragment with more sophisticated and subtle tools.
Both instruments were working full time and data was piling up. Images from the interference telescopes revealed a large number of planets circling nearby stars - nearby being defined as less than one hundred or so light years. Water planets were detected around one third of these. The radio antenna array data had resulted in a flood of "possibles."
Being hip deep in exciting but completely inexplicable data Mace decided to call a meeting of all the principals. Alex, Marcy, Fred, Natasha and the others crowded into the command module.
Mace started the discussion. "What if any ideas have we got here? We seem to have bunch of data but nobody knows what it's all about."
Alex started off, "Let's get data to Earth. They've got resources. Let them untangle."
Immediately Natasha frowned and interjected, "No Alex! Nobody down there cares for us. We must do ourselves. I work on it for awhile. Let me have two weeks."
"Marcy, A lot depends on how comfortable we feel about a long leisurely data analysis period here with everything going to hell down below. What do you say?" said Mace.
Marcy smiled, "Mace, we have the ponics section in very good order - nothing that we can't sort out fairly easily. I say we relax and do what they really can't do down there."
Mace said, "Is everything OK in ponics?"
Well, Rodney wasn't in on this conference but he
would surely have agreed at this point. Maybe he wouldn't know if
Natasha and two of her assistants began the arduous task of trying to make some sense of the signals that had been received. First they had a mixture of signals at several frequencies and the angular resolution had not made it possible to untangle one from another. It was beginning to look like the galaxy, or at least the nearby part of it was as noisy as Times Square on Saturday night.
The two weeks passed and not much had been accomplished. The data had been sorted into bins where like took its place alongside like. Even that had not helped much. It was finally decided that the antenna array would be pointed at only the nearby stars that had exhibited water planets with a longer in depth look. It was a faint hope that one of these glorious objects might have sentient beings capable of sending signals deliberately or even inadvertently into space. The length of dwell time would increase the possibility of putting together a string of code that might yield to analysis. Even this was time consuming considering the fact that they had over 75 near neighbors to observe. Two more weeks passed.
Mace called a pow wow with Natasha, her crew, and the antenna people. The six of them crowded into Maces control center.
"Let's review what we've got. Natasha, give us a run down, on what you've got to date." Mace began.
"Fred and his guys do very good keeping us on target but nothing shows on near stuff."
"What about the earlier records." Mace asked.
"We are pretty much stuck. It so mixed up. I think maybe we have signals from very many sources in line of beam. It's like everywhere we look is more signals." Natasha looked disconsolate her Russian accent becoming more thick.
"Fred, is there anything we can do at this point to sharpen the beam or narrow the frequency bands?" Mace asked.
"I doubt it. We are suffering from a surfeit of riches," said Fred. "Who could have planned for a few million separate signals? Is that what we've got, Natasha?"
"Not million yet but will be soon."
Mace was exasperated. There didn't seem to be a crack in this mess that they could get a wedge in. They needed a Rosetta stone for digital code. "Can you make nothing of the data, any of it?"
Natasha bristled, "Please remember we not carrying on conversation with ET. None of this stuff is directed our way. There is no handle, no Pythagorean theorem, no number theory or algebra rules, just talk between people who don't know we are listening."
The conference ended with the decision to just keep logging the data in and to keep trying to untangle the mess. It was several weeks later that Natasha finally was able to report some progress. She now had separated the material into unique files, each corresponding to a single source, keeping in mind that the "single" source so identified was in actuality an entire world's electromagnetic noise. And so of course did not constitute a single coherent message stream of any kind.
Everyone on SETI Station was more or less stunned by the unexpected success of the project - images of water worlds and a flood of communications from other worlds. A sense of euphoria swept through the crew. Everyone forgot that Earth was a very troubled place and that few there would care much about what they had found. In fact, the messages relayed from the Moon and LEO were restrained and subdued in response to the very optimistic tone of the reports sent back. Few noticed this. One of the return messages was from the Moon. It seemed a non sequitur. One of the junior staff astronomers there wanted them to train their small general purpose telescope on a new object they had picked up years ago far out beyond the orbit of Neptune. Since it was passing into the inner solar system they wanted Jupiter Station to have a look. Somehow the message was lost in the pile of incoming and outgoing traffic. After all Helmut Weiss did not sign it out. Also nobody noticed that the food was not really up to past standards. Who could demand gourmet this far from home sweet home?
A month later Natasha reported to Mace that she had managed to finally separate something over one million separate signals from the particular quadrant of the galaxy that they had selected to survey. It was agreed that future data would be restricted to this particular set. The memory facilities of the computers were fast approaching overload and a decision had to be made whether to throw away doubtful data or try to download some of it to the MOM. Communications with Weiss had been difficult as he was deeply engrossed in his own projects but he grudgingly agreed to store some of the earliest data. Meanwhile Natasha had refined her analysis routines and was beginning to recognize unique features among the various sources.
Mace, Alex, and Fred were relaxing after dinner in the dining module and discussing the momentous events that had transpired aboard their fragile little shell.
Alex ruminated, "Is too bad. We can listen and we can talk but we cannot converse."
Mace said, "Hey, maybe not. How do we know that we won't shake hands with them one of these days?"
Fred said, "Yeah, I would definitely like to be on that first interstellar star ship."
Alex raised one heavy eyebrow and looked down his nose at the two of them, "Where you guys go to school. Hey, you not learn relativity in bookkeeping school, Mace? And you, Fred, what did you learn aside from how to solder dipoles?"
Mace was just a little miffed, "Come on Alex, you
know that my training was as a military officer. We had to take physics."
"Yes, but you not take enough physics. Or maybe you read too much science fiction where plot demands everyone go back and forth between stars. It won't happen. Not enough energy anywhere to get even one percent velocity of light."
This was a strange thought. Could it be that everywhere in the Universe people, intelligent, sophisticated, technological beings were all trapped inside their own little solar systems?
Fred had an even more sobering thought. "Maybe we can't shake hands but maybe there will be no conversation for another reason. What if social and political dynamics are not much different from ours on most of those worlds? Nobody will want to send a message and wait for an answer."
Mace looked down and thought about it for a minute. He had taken some biology courses in passing through Space Military Academy and graduate school. "It is very likely that as life evolves on these other worlds it's not much different than here around old Sol. If so, living creatures are born, live, grow old, and die. Evolution probably goes in that direction no matter where it happens. In the four or five billion years that it's been going on here there have certainly been drastically different conditions for life. Look at Pangea. It all still comes to much the same in the long run. Living things have to have relatively short life spans for anything like evolution to happen at all. I think looking at our planets past shows pretty conclusively that super annuated creatures are probably just not on. We will not be communicating with some other world's version of the Giant Redwood tree."
With this somber ending of their relaxation
time they decided it was time for sleep. Mace had decided that a
general town hall meeting might be in order to go over what they knew and
see if anyone had something to contribute. Meanwhile Rodney was just
finishing his chores in the ponics modules discarding more plant debris,
some in the red recycling bin at one end of the module he was working in
and some in the green at the other end.
CHAPTER 7 - Rogue
It had never occurred to Emily Jarret that her neglected pet asteroid from outer space would do anything but zoom through the solar system skimming inside the Earth's orbit and out the other side. It had taken almost six years for it to get into the inner system and although neglected by her and totally ignored by everyone else earthside or here she still had a somewhat proprietary feeling about it. She had discovered it and it was called "Jarret" for all the good that would do. Long before she would have departed this mortal coil the asteroid would have left the solar family far behind never to be seen again. Such was fleeting fame, she thought.
It was April 1 when she first noticed the deviation in the routine records that her small telescope logged into the computer. Somehow the position of her moonlet was wrong. It was in the asteroid belt. Something could have happened. It might have absorbed a few "rocks." It was pretty big. It shouldn't have affected the orbit this much. The chances were remote that there even had been a minor collision. The separation between objects was very large compared to their cross section. Collisions were very unlikely.
"Dr. Weiss," she called on the intercom, "I've got something that you should have a look at."
Weiss was not at his desk in the headquarters complex. One of the staff in the space answered up and asked, "What is it Emily, Weiss is not here? I think he has taken a shift off to go over some data in his private quarters. Something about a double lensing set of objects that he had on Big Boy. He's pretty excited."
Emily took the time with Weiss off duty to go into the records in detail. What she found became increasingly disturbing. Recent frames from the telescope that was logging objects in that sector showed the asteroid making an apparent abrupt change in direction. She went over the new orbit parameters several times before it became evident that the new path for this object might bring it very close to the Earth indeed. She needed to know exactly before she contacted Weiss again. She put in a call to Bud Phillips, another of the astronomers, to ask for an immediate meeting and then headed out for his station in her Moon bug. It was a two-kilometer jaunt. Bud was waiting just inside the lock to his workstation as she hurried through the simple airlock routine.
"Bud, I can't raise Weiss. He's totally absorbed in this lensing thing and I think I may have some pretty bad news. It's so bad that I don't think it can be true. You've got to give me a check on it."
Bud raised his hand, "Whoa, slow down Emily. What can be so bad?"
Emily had not even got out of her p-suit and was standing just inside the lock with the helmet in her hand. Bud insisted that she stow her suit and get inside where he had a pot of fresh ersatz coffee brewing in anticipation of her arrival.
Emily had hardly attained the chair that Bud shoved toward her when she burst out, "How about the end of the world? My God, I feel like an Archangel or one of the four horsemen."
"You're not serious Emily. What in hell are you talking about?" Bud protested.
Emily was white as a sheet, "Hell, Bud, Hell." She put her face in her hands and her shoulders sagged. The last hour or so had been like a lifetime and she simply couldn't believe what she had found. Her only hope was for Bud to go over the data and find her error - or rather the computer's error.
Weiss had still not been told. Bud Phillips had gone back with Emily to the number three site and had sat at the computer for the last hour going over the data. Emily sat in the corner of the room drinking coffee, or what passed for coffee this far from home. It was some sort of chemical concoction that had been some chemist's idea of what coffee should taste like. There was still hope that they might someday grow coffee trees in the ponics facilities but it hadn't happened yet.
Bud turned, "Miss Jarret, we've had it."
Emily looked up, "What do you mean, 'we've had it'?"
Bud had a sort of stunned look on his face but he looked neither worried, angry nor frightened. "I mean, Emily, your god dammed asteroid is going to hit the Earth. Isn't this the time when the pilot says, 'Oh Shit!'."
These were probably the most portentous two words ever spoken in any language since the beginning of time. Bud had confirmed that the asteroid named Jarret had indeed collided with a smallish rock in the asteroid belt - large enough to give it's orbit a significant nudge but not large enough to break it up. A few pieces might be missing but as far as could be told from the photometric data it was mostly still there, all 400 kilometers of it.
Bud continued, "It's got about four months to go. I don't know what might be done. We better get the news to Weiss."
Well, Weiss did not take the news well. In fact he did not take it at all. He blew his top. "You idiots, what can you be thinking? What do you mean coming into my lab and telling me such a cock and bull story? I am not an idiot. I know it is April Fool's day. We do not play such jokes here. Get out!" He turned away and buried his face in the viewer that was displaying his lensed distant protogalaxies.
Neither Emily nor Bud budged. They stood white faced near the portal to Weiss's lab speechless. Eventually Weiss had to look up. He had not heard any sound of their leaving nor any murmur of apology. "You are, of course, joking?" When they made no response. "How could such a thing be possible?"
Hours later Weiss, Jarret, and Phillips had gone over all the data for the nth time and all agreed that the collision between Earth and a very large asteroid traveling at very high speed was inevitable. Even the point of impact could be easily predicted with the accuracy available with modern astronomical methods. With enormous irony the impact region had turned out to be near the Yucatan peninsula. And the date? At the end of summer vacation, Labor Day, September 3.
CHAPTER 8 - Bad News
Weiss had decided that the first notification should be SETI Station. Actually Helmut Weiss was panic stricken and he knew that neither LEO nor any of the bureaucratic types back on Earth would be of any help at this juncture. He initiated a simple voice link to John Macefield and settled in as best he could in his agitated state for the long minutes of delay while talking to Jupiter Station.
Mace got the call from the command center while he was in the rec center watching an old 20th century rerun of Star Trek, The Next Generation. He had the fond hope of somehow becoming a little more like Captain Jean Luke Pickard. He liked his style, and much like his own operation, nothing major really seemed to go wrong. At least it always turned out Ok.
The duty watch came in over the speaker, "Mace, there is an urgent tight beam coming from MOM. You had better take it up here. Weiss says it's strictly confidential."
Mace sighed and switched off the video, "OK, I'm on my way."
After he had settled into his station in the command center he hit the switch to connect the link. "OK, this is John Macefield. What have you got that competes with Jean Luke Pickard."
After the some 80 some odd seconds delay Helmut Weiss' harsh voice burst through, "Macefield there is terrible news. We have discovered an asteroid that is going to impact the Earth. In about four months. I don't know what to do. You must help me." Weiss sounded completely panicked.
Mace thought about this for a moment. He knew that Weiss would not expect his answer for a couple of minutes because of the transmission lag. Could the guy have gone off his rocker? What in hell was going on here? He thought of whom he might call in to help him out but nobody seemed to be on line at the moment. Maybe Marilyn could give him an assist. He put in a hurried call. She was off duty and was, in fact, asleep. The computer comm system would get her up and moving this way. He didn't have to stay on line for that. He punched the transmit button and said, "Weiss, I have received your last. I don't quite understand. I have assis-tance coming on line in a moment. What exactly have you found out and what is it you expect from us. We are not in a position to be of assistance in any material way. Please elaborate"
While Mace awaited the answer Marilyn entered the command center, "What's going on Mace?"
"Weiss is calling from MOM. He says they have tracked an asteroid that is about to impact the Earth."
Marilyn was no fool, "Now wait a minute. Any object aimed at Earth would have been picked up years ago. What is really going on here?"
Mace shrugged, "I don't know. Maybe we had better find out what he's got. I don't think he has gone over the edge. The Moon may not be the shores of Waikiki but it's a hell of a lot better than most places downside. Weiss has been happy as a clam with his research. I am sure he is not gone psychotic on us."
At that moment Weiss' voice burst in, "Dr. Emily Jarret has been tracking a large asteroid crossing through the solar system for the last several years. Apparently it is a rogue object from interstellar space and is following a very shallow hyperbolic path at great velocity, twice what we would normally see for comets. It was clear that although it was an Earth crossing object it was no hazard. She estimated it would miss the Earth by no less than 5 million Kilometers. We had no particular interest in it from the very beginning. What has happened is a collision in the asteroid belt. As bad luck would have it is now on a course for a direct collision with Earth. I don't know what to do."
"How big is it? How much damage can it do?" Mace snapped immediately. He couldn't think of anything else to ask at the moment.
Almost two minutes later Weiss' subdued answer came back, "Well, it is about 400 Km in diameter - it was not broken up by the collision - and we estimate the velocity at impact to be in excess of 65 km per second."
This time both Mace and Marilyn were speechless with shock. They looked at each other. If this was true the damage would be horrendous. Neither could think of a response to poor Weiss.
"Helmut, you have to give the information to LEO and to Earth authorities. Maybe they can launch a diversionary operation. All we can do from here is to add to the observations that you are already better able to do than we."
Weiss had done his part in notifying higher authorities by calling SETI Station, let the chips fall where they may. For now, at least, MOM was out of the loop. Mace had decided to call a conference of all hands not on absolutely essential watch duties. Earth still had not been told.
After everyone had assembled, nearly one hundred strong, in the mess rec area he began his announcement, "Houston, we have a problem." There were several nervous chuckles. "What I really mean is that it's the other way around. Earth has a problem." There was general laughter. Who didn't know that Earth had a problem - millions of them. "This is pretty serious and we are going to have to deal with it as a family. I hope that you will all help me out with this. We really can't have a lot of hysterics." There were looks of puzzlement. "Earth is about to get clobbered by one humongous large asteroid that sort of popped up out of nowhere."
Most of the group had no real idea what this all meant. An asteroid impact might mean another neat crater in Arizona or at worst in the middle of Los Angeles. Some thought that might be an improvement. Mace and several of the others who had the background to understand what this might mean began to explain what might actually happen with such a large body moving at such a high velocity. It began to soak in a little when it was explained that such an impact could release as much as 800 billion megatons of energy. The number was so large that no one could really absorb it but it became a little more clear when it was explained that the presumed impact of an asteroid 265 million years ago was actually much smaller and had obliterated 95 percent of all living species of plants and animals and had poisoned the seas with acid rainfall down to a depth of twelve meters. As one of the more informed scientists writing on the subject in the 20th century had explained, "It was a close thing for life on our planet."
Rodney Bingham crouched in the back of the room listening intently, his eyes blazing. He was both more animated and more quiet than anyone had ever seen him before. However no one was looking at him. They never did. Rodney was as nearly invisible as any human can be. He muttered under his breath, audible, but no one was listening, "God's vengeance. Now is the hour. I am the strong arm, Oh Lord. Depend on me. I will not fail." All those things that his mother and father had tried to teach him came rushing back. He was a little child again sitting in the revival tent listening to the exhortations of the preacher. He knew that the time of Armageddon had arrived and that he would be saved by the rapture.
The rest of the crew that were present really didn't have much of a reaction. How could one absorb this kind of news?
Mace spoke again, "The only ones that have been apprised of this are we here at Jupiter Station and I presume the people at MOM. I am not even sure that Weiss has told all the personnel at MOM. He wants advice from us. I don't know how to give him any useful advice. I'm not even sure I know why he called us and not LEO or the authorities at UNSA."
Alex spoke up, "I think I know how Weiss is thinking. Russians always know how Germans think. That's why Germans never win and Russians never really lose."
Fred Sommerville snorted from the back of the room, "My god, Alex will you never give up? We're all a bunch of Jupiterians now."
Alex glared over his shoulder, "Da, and Weiss is a Loony. Is not correct?"
Mace put an end to a discussion which was beginning to get a little heated. This was no time to have dissension in the ranks. "Everyone return to duty or to your own quarters. We will meet again and please relieve those on duty and send them straight here. I need to see them. Please let me give them the story. There will be plenty of time for private discussions later."
Mace called Marcy to his command quarters and asked her to make the rounds of the living quarters to try to get some sense of how people were taking the news. Meanwhile he decided he had to give some kind of answer to Weiss. He put in a call to Weiss and soon had him on the tight beam. The tight beam was a laser comm system that automatically acquired and tracked the receiver and had, even at this distance a beam spread of only a few kilometers, too tight for in spill over for LEO or Earth to intercept. He and Weiss agreed that the damage to Earth might by of such magnitude that very few life forms would survive. In the last analysis it was decided that policy decisions could not be forthcoming from the likes of MOM or SETI Station. There was doubt, too, that LEO could handle the situation. After all LEO was no higher up the ladder than either MOM or Jupiter Station just because they had a larger complement than either or a more transient population. It was true, of course, that high officials from UNSA did occasionally find excuses to grab a ride up to low earth orbit, but none were permanently assigned there.
Under Mace's gentle guidance the two of them cooked up a carefully worded statement to be sent to UNSA by Weiss who was, after all, responsible for the discovery and tracking of the monster. Neither could predict what the result would be.
Henry Bolton the UK rep happened to be at headquarters on the Sunday afternoon when Weiss's call arrived. It had been deliberate on Weiss's part. He figured, rightly, that the news needed to be filtered by at most one cool head earthside. When he found out that Bolton was on board for the afternoon taking care of some minor matters before Monday's executive session he decided that he would be the one to get the word.
Weiss explained the discovery and the calculations very carefully and slowly and as dispassionately as possible. He noted that he and the "experts" on SETI Station, as he referred to them, had been over the data with great care and were able to predict the collision with Earth very accurately. Bolton was not a physicist or an astronomer but he was a very intelligent man and he could readily appreciate that this was a very grave matter. Weiss had carefully avoided the conclusion that it would most probably obliterate most life from the surface of the planet.
After the call Bolton sat back and tried to think of how he should proceed. Obviously Weiss had picked his time for the call to allow for some diplomacy to be thought out before the entire council was presented with the news. He decided to call a friend at the NYU, a young geophysics researcher that his daughter had dated several years ago. He had hoped they might make a match but she had thought otherwise. He probably liked Charles Epcott a lot more than his daughter had. He picked up the phone and got the university switchboard. They got the number for Dr. Epcott and rang his lab. He was not in but they had his residence number as well. Bolton rang the apartment number and got an immediate answer from Epcott.
"Charles, this is Henry, Henry Bolton - yes, yes - it has been a long time. - I have something that has come up and I need your advice, rather desperately, as a matter of fact. Could you come over to the UNSA building this afternoon? I am very sorry to bother you.... about an hour? That would be fine. Very good. Thank you." Henry heaved a great sigh and decided that he needed just a small whisky to loosen him up for the daunting business of trying to get his mind in order for breaking the news, not only to the council, but to an outsider - Charles Epcott.
He turned his chair to the window and gazed out over the East River. It was a hazy day but at least the altitude of his office and haze conspired to give the scene a peaceful and serene quality disguising the horrifying constant poverty and troubles that crawled across the surface below the mist. In his mind's eye he tried to see how the mighty planetoid would launch earthquake and volcano over much of the continent. That much he knew. Would these venerable old skyscrapers, the twin Trade Center Towers, the Empire State Building, withstand the fury. They had withstood a lot in their hundred year plus lifetimes.
Charles Epcott had made something of name for himself at the University of Colorado where he had done his PhD work. Not only was his work in geophysics groundbreaking, he had developed a major new theory on magma currents and the magnetic fields they produced, but had made it into the 14er Club, climbing all 56 14,000 foot plus peaks in Colorado during the first summer he was there. He did a post doc at Southern Cal and extended his expertise to planetary geophysics, the study of the planets other than the Earth and their satellites.
Bolton finished his brief tale and had fallen silent. Epcott, sitting facing him across the desk, saw him as a shadowed profile against the bright window, "Sir Henry, you have told me a most horrid tale. I fervently hope it is not true." He knew it was. "I cannot allay any of your fears. In addition to that I believe you have not got the whole story from your informant at MOM."
Bolton leaned forward, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, that we shall all die. Everything on the face of this planet may die. If the size and velocity and point of impact are as you say we will be facing something as catastrophic - more catastrophic- than that asteroid impact of 265 million years ago." Charles Epcott seemed too calm to have spoken the words.
"Charles, are you sure? You don't act like it is really going to happen."
"Oh yes, Sir Henry, it's going to happen." Epcott gave a wry smile. "Maybe my attitude springs from my absolute certainty of the result and my conviction, which is really a no-brainer, that I can die only once - either sooner or later - it makes little difference. The only real difference, and no one will particularly notice, is that we are all going to go together."
Bolton blanched. "Tell me how this plays out; in detail if you don't mind. By God, I have to give this to the Council tomorrow. What in heaven's name will I say?"
Epcott leaned forward and pulled a pad of paper towards himself, "Look, here is the Earth. It has a thin mantle of atmosphere but believe it that few tens of kilometers of air will have a mighty heating effect on the asteroid as it comes through at some 65,000 meters per second. The pressure will be enormous and the shock wave spreading from the entry will be stupendous. The shock alone could do unbelievable damage if it had a chance. Then there is a chance that the object will break up. This won't help as all the pieces will be large and all the kinetic energy is still there - all 800 billion megatons worth. They will all impact in the same general area anyway. What happens next is even worse. The impact will no doubt shatter the crust of the earth to very great depths and literally vaporize and melt a large amount of material. This material will be thrown out as ejecta. A significant fraction will escape the earth's gravitational pull and will rain out through nearby space. Mars will get back what we got from her millions of years ago with compound interest, I expect. A large fraction will impact the Moon and a larger fraction will fall back to earth - everywhere. It will be like millions of intercontinental ballistic missiles raining down on no specific targets - just everywhere. That material will be white hot and as it returns to Earth; the atmosphere will heat up to a temperature sufficient to burn everything burnable. Volcanoes and earth quakes will be triggered where ever there is a potential for them. Smoke, dirt, dust and sulfurous fumes will darken the skies for decades or even centuries. Acid rain will eventually fall when water can finally condense from the superheated steam. When it is all over there may be living things in the ocean deeps; probably no place else." Epcott finished and leaned back.
Bolton could think of nothing to say. For once in his life he had no control over events around him. He had always prided himself on being able to compromise, move people to decisions, take action when action was needed but this had him completely without any resources.
Finally he spoke, "Charles, will you stay with us on this. I've got to get this to the council - and no one else - and I will definitely need your help and expertise. Can we save anybody?"
"Sir Henry, I will be glad to help all I can. I know we can't save anyone on Earth. How would we get them off? Where would we take them?" He hesitated, "The people at SETI Station will survive, of course, provided they don't run out of technology and have their habitat finally conk out on them." He added, "Maybe a few from MOM on the Moon. But they don't at this time have completely independent survival systems, do they?" Charles didn't know the details of MOM.
"No they don't." said Bolton glumly.
The UNSA council sat in stunned silence as Bolton and Epcott finally finished their story. Finally Watson spoke, "This is preposterous, I don't for one minute accept what you say, Bolton. What is it that you are up to?"
Some of the members were standing in preparation for leaving. Bolton flared, "No one can leave this room. We must discuss this matter and make a plan of some sort. Word cannot get out. There would be panic. May I remind you that no one on Earth but the people in this room know of this business. We cannot even inform our governments until we have talked this out and come to some policy decisions." Bolton seemed to take charge. It was obvious that Watson was angry and in complete denial. His face was flushed and his hands gripped the table edge until they were white.
Yi finally spoke, "I believe that Sir Henry has done the best that could be done with the information that he has. I suggest that we find out for ourselves about this matter. There are a number of questions. First, are the orbital predictions accurate. Some one must confirm. Second, is it as large as stated - and third, are the energy and damage predictions reasonable - begging your pardon Dr. Epcott." Yi turned and bowed apologetically to Charles.
Maurice Greniose, the French delegate, sat through the whole scene leaning back in the large leather chair provided for the council members with his hands peaked in front of his mouth. He sat forward suddenly and said, "Let us be practical. We are not the political powers in our countries. We are only delegates here. We control very little. Look what has happened in the past five years. sixty percent of our recommendations - the urgent ones - have been ignored. Our approved budget is fifty percent of the minimum needed to maintain what we have on the Moon and at SETI Station. I suggest we request confirmation as soon as possible from the nearest observatory that has an opportunity to view the body. We must then prepare statements for our governments. In twenty four hours or less it will be too late for anything we can do. The word will get out. Even amateurs will have the data soon enough."
Maxim Chovskiyev, the Russian, looked grim, "Da, it will happen. Maybe some will live. Who know? Maybe we all die. If anyone lives maybe it be in Siberia - a long way from oceans, a long way from the impact site. We had our Tunguska before. It interrupted the fishing and hunting for awhile."
By this time Watson had recovered some of his equanimity but the Russian's conceit threatened to bring on the florid face again. "Maxim, let's get down to business."
When the council met on Tuesday the information had been obtained from Kitt Peak and with it a solemn vow from the personnel there to keep it under their hat for now. Everyone knew that this promise was only good for days or even hours.
Charles sat in the back corner of the chambers. He was literally a captive of the council at this point, not that it made a great deal of difference. There was one other person who had become privy to this terrible news, the council secretary, Jeanette Hopkins. She had not said a word, but who could know what was in her mind. She was forty one, had never been married and now knew that she never would be.
Jeanette had grown up in Cambridge. Her father had been a stockbroker with a large firm in Boston. He had always hoped that his daughter would attend Harvard, his alma mater. Even with his influence Jeanette did not possess the drive and the intellectual equipment to make it at Harvard. After much discussion, hand wringing and tears on the part of she and her mother she finally agreed to try for Tufts in Bedford. At least she would be near home.
She was not an especially pretty girl. She had regular but somewhat angular features, a little too soft perhaps, large but low breasts, not the fashion mag ideal, and dark straight auburn hair which she wore simply combed down on both sides. Her retiring nature did not enhance her attractiveness.
She had considered a number of majors at Tufts and after some aimless wandering through general education courses she settled on political science. One of the advantages to attaching herself to the Political Science Department was Tufts’ Washington Political Sciences unit in DC. She had some vague idea that an internship in the capitol might be exciting.
The brightest and also darkest episode in her college career was a brief love affair. She had given herself completely to a man majoring in psychology, three years older than she. It was not a one night stand but a relationship she felt she was committed. He did not and after three months he brutally informed her one day walking back from lunch at Monte’s, an off campus bistro, that he wanted more freedom and he guessed they wouldn't be seeing much of each other from that moment on. She suffered a severe depression and dropped out of school for a year. Her parents did what they could for her, medical doctors, counselors, the works. Finally she dragged herself into a state of semi-normality and put the whole business behind her and took up her studies exactly where she left off.
The course of study at the Washington Branch of Tufts led to an internship in the State department and finally a job as an executive secretary. When she turned thirty she resolved to make some changes. Her job was a dead end. She wanted to get out of Washington and she certainly didn't want to go back to the Boston area. A friend at State gave her a tip that the UN was hiring. She went to New York and managed to get on with the UNSA. She knew nothing about the space program of the UN but she was quiet and diligent and learned the job. She had the happy faculty of seeming competent to those who knew her and invisible to those who did not.
Charles glanced at Jeanette and saw the pallid terrified
look on her face. He suddenly knew that nothing mattered more than
simply being able to comfort this one person even just a little.
up quietly and went to where she was sitting at a small desk in the corner
where she had been taking notes. Her hands lay limply on her electronic
"Jeanette, Let's get out of here for a minute. Let's get a cup of coffee."
She looked up at him, a vacant stare in her eyes, "What?"
"Come on Jeanette, lets get out of here for a few minutes. They won't need us" he said.
They slipped out of the room into the ante-room where
a coffee mess was always kept going with fresh tea, coffee and rolls.
They really couldn't get any farther than this, but then where was there
to go. Charles felt an overwhelming sense of compassion for the woman
that sat before him, ten years his senior, but still, what did that matter?
He had no attachments; maybe she didn't either.
"Jeanette, what are we to do? Do you have family? Where will you go after today? The word will be out in hours."
She shook her head and put it in her hands, "I don't know. I have no one and I.." she shuddered and stopped. "I don't want to die alone. This is just awful. Is it really true?"
"Yes it is," he replied. "I am sorry, but I don't know what to do."
"Will anyone on Earth survive?" she asked.
"I believe not, with what I know at present."
She looked at him with brimming eyes, "Will any humans survive?"
He looked down at his hands, "Maybe, at least the people on SETI Station will. I don't know about the Moon."
She looked puzzled, "What do you mean? Why not those on the Moon? They're not here on Earth. Why would they be in danger?"
"Well," he began, "It may not be clear to the ordinary person but the debris that will be thrown up will be enormous and will travel far out into space. Some will even end up on Mars and Venus and certainly much will hit the Moon."
"But they are on the far side - over the limb."
"That doesn't matter. Gravity will provide a great deal of hits over the entire surface of the Moon. I'm not saying that the base there will be destroyed but they will be in great danger."
At that moment it came to Charles that there was that slimmest of chances for him and maybe for her. they had to get off Earth before the strike, even to LEO if possible. It occurred to him that his special knowledge and his current special position as "expert" for the council might get him a seat on the next shuttle to LEO. Charles set his course for the next few weeks on ingratiating himself with the council, making himself indispensable through his special knowledge and calling on Jeanette to assist him at every turn.
It turned out, of course, that the news spread very rapidly after that first day. It was simply impossible to keep such a horrifying secret for long. Was there panic? Well, not much. People seemed to be largely conditioned by their religious beliefs to accept this as the "end of the world." For those less religious it seemed to be just a welcome relief to the grinding poverty, the uncertainty of the current world. Many, of course, billions even, never even became aware of the news. Was there unbridled panic in the streets, destruction, massacres? No, there were not. Again it was like the airline pilot's last comment before the fatal crash, "Oh Shit!"
CHAPTER 9 - Jupiter Station
Mace had listened to the awful news from Earth, the Moon and LEO with deepening despair. There was still almost four months to go. They would not be destroyed in a stroke but what could they do to survive, either physically or psychologically. They had received few requests for information or advice. After all those in the inner solar system knew that SETI Station was on its own and if it survived at all it could only be for a short time, and any way, what could they do? All avenues had been explored. The huge asteroid was unerringly headed for Earth and nothing that anyone had suggested could possible change its course. The advocates of rockets carrying hydrogen bombs to divert it had been convinced that the object was too large and the possibility of it breaking up could even be more destructive.
Marcy had come to his quarters, "Mace, what is your strategy at this point? What do you want us to do?"
"Marcy, I Love you very much. That much I have to say first. I've not said it often enough. I thought we might put that part of our life ahead of us for our life on Earth."
She drifted into his arms and they embraced fiercely, tears streaming from their eyes. "But," he said, "It looks like this is it. Whatever we can make of this place is all that there is. Maybe all that here is for humans. Who knows? first we have to have a strategy. I believe that the best thing we could possibly do is to keep working. It's all we have at the moment and besides we now know that at least we are not alone in the universe. I know that sounds trite, but it's true."
Mace and Marcy made their way to the rec area. A general call had been issued for all personnel not engaged in critical functions to gather there. When it appeared that all but about 20 had entered the module Mace began immediately.
"You all know the situation is catastrophic for Earth. I know that all of you have friends and loved ones there. There is nothing that you can do. We can do nothing for them." He watched to see what the reaction would be. No one stirred. Their eyes wide they all watched him. "We could abandon the projects and sit on our butts and go nuts. I propose we not do that. Many of us have had ten years here and what we have been doing is important to us even if Earth has forgotten what we are here for. It won't matter now what they think because in about four months none of them will be alive." He glared and darted his eyes around the module. "Do you all understand that." he hissed.
Only Rodney in the back with a black twisted look seemed able to respond, "It's the Lord's vengeance. These are the last days. God has told us in First Corinthians of this day. If you have not been a true believer you will not live in eternity."
Harry next to him sneered, "Shut up, Rodney, you just rattle us. We don't need your kind of religion. You're a nut." He turned away. Several nearby nodded their agreement. Rodney's face became livid. He did not say a word. He just slipped out of the module. No one noticed his going.
Jupiter Station was back more or less on schedule trying to put their worst thoughts aside through hard work. New data had been flooding in from the antenna array. Something over one million signals had been isolated and logged. Because of the uncertainty of data storage on the Moon it was decided to rework the computer facilities to keep most of the data on hand in the station. Analysis had shown what would have been deduced from Earth signals seen from afar; a few major transmitters on a world would actually reach across the light years and they would fluctuate with periods corresponding to the rotational periods of the their home planets. These periodic spikes allowed a rough cut in separating the signals from each other. They now had not only the spatial coordinates of the systems having advanced life forms and civilizations but a finely honed tool for separating one from another whose coordinates were very nearly the same. It was with considerable excitement that they found several hundred systems where it was apparent that several planets orbiting a given star had strong transmissions - true interplanetary civilizations. Fred and three of his technicians were in the main lounge discussing the latest discoveries.
One of the techs asked, "Why can't we get help from one of these places. It's obvious that they are far ahead of us in many ways."
Fred tried to be patient. Not all of the personnel aboard had studied enough physics or astronomy to truly appreciate the simple laws of physics. "Bill, It's hard to see, I know, but the distances even to the nearest stars - only a few light years - are far to great for ordinary living creatures to manage. sure you can see those suns but it's a kind of miracle of the human eye that lets us see so much farther than our reach. You say, hey, I can see that point of light very clearly, it can't be very far away.' but it is. Think of this. If our sun was a grain of sand and our station here revolved at a distance of an inch the nearest star would still be two hundred clicks away. there aren't enough lifetimes for anyone to want to make the uncertain journey."
Bill shook his head, still unconvinced, but he had no rejoinder.
Natasha Krakovsky entered the lounge area. "I must see Mace immediately. Does anyone know where he is?"
Fred answered, "I think he is in the shop with Medina. What's the matter?"
Natasha looked puzzled, "I don't know. Something is wrong. One of our strongest sources just quit."
Fred didn't quite get it, "Just Quit. What do you mean just quit? What's that mean?"
Natasha glared at him as she pushed off rapidly toward the tunnel, "A whole planet does not just quit broadcasting."
CHAPTER 10 - SETI Null
Mace had asked Fred, Natasha, and Medina to meet with him in Medina's shop, mainly to allay any rumors that might begin to sweep through the crew. He didn't need any panic on top of what had already happened. There was a lot of tension in the air. Neither Fred nor Medina had any idea why this peculiar meeting had even been convened, here in the machine shop of all places.
Mace broke the ice, "I had to get a few of us together with as little ceremony as possible until we can figure out this latest thing. Natasha, how about you starting off. Give us a run down."
"Something very strange has happened." she spoke with a grim look. "One of our signals has gone silent."
Medina looked puzzled, "So? Something wrong with the system you think?"
Natasha gave him a quick annoyed glance, "No, Nothing wrong with equipment. One of our signals has gone silent."
Fred began to see what she was getting out, "I see. You think they may have stopped transmitting for some reason?"
"Fred," Natasha was angry, "you do not understand. A whole planet does not stop transmitting for any reason - not even a global war. I can not conceive of any reason why a whole planet would go silent."
Mace had kept his peace. "Natasha, before we get your theories let's hear what Fred and Jesus have to say. I think we need a little outside opinion on this before we jump to conclusion. OK?"
"My first reaction would be to go over the equipment before we assign this fault to something external." said Fred.
"I agree." responded Medina. "Maybe the module that handles that angle has a flaw. We can check that out pretty quick." He smiled trying to project a little calm into Natasha who was obviously very disturbed.
Fred chimed in, "I agree. Let's give the system a complete ring out then give this another shot."
Natasha had to agree. It only made sense. Medina, Fred and their crews turned to shut down the whole system and began the long and laborious debugging process needed to assure that everything was performing up to spec. The process took two days; not easy for Natasha whose instincts told her that the equipment was fine but something was drastically wrong with this one in a million signal. It seems hard to understand that the drop out of one signal from among a million companions out there could make an impact on a single human being living with a hundred others in a metal shell on the perimeter of a minor star system. It did, however. To Natasha it was an entire world that she had lost. It made no difference how many worlds there were. That world was real to her and was home to millions or even billions of fellow beings, beings sentient enough to be broadcasting to the universe. Long before the results of the system checks were available Natasha had wept tears alone in her compartment knowing what the answer would be. Ten billion civilized, caring, loving, ambitious people were gone. Who knows what they looked like or what their society was like. She knew of nothing that could separate them from the human race. They were able to broadcast their hopes and plans and joy to the universe so copiously they could not be totally alien to the human spirit.
Mace reconvened the original four on the third day. "It seems that the equipment was performing up to spec." He began the conversation hesitantly looking at Natasha.
"I know," she said, "I knew from the start. An entire planet has disappeared. What could have caused it? It happened in a very short time."
Medina spoke up, "Hey, Haven't we got the same problem?"
Fred somberly added, "Sure, after all, out of all millions of signals that we are monitoring someone else is bound to get clobbered too." He gave a brief humorously bark.
"I say we convene a meeting of all the principals and discuss what we know." Said Mace.
Twenty of the senior personnel met in the dining unit and dove into the discussion. There were a lot of opinions including the many variations of "the equipment has failed us!" In the end it was a draw. There was the possibility that interstellar events could be masking the signals, or subtle flaws in their own system could be at fault. In addition, with out the slightest hint or shred of evidence about nature of the civilization giving rise to the signals, no conclusions could be made concerning their secession. Anything was possible. These "people" were maybe not people but a hive society or a single entity of some kind. Nothing could be said with assurance. The meeting broke up with no conclusion except that that particular direction and frequency band would continue to be monitored. Nothing further was heard from that direction or on that band.
continue Chpts 11-15