YEAR 13, DAY 264. TRANS PACIFIC RESEARCH INSTITUTE, TANEGASHIMA.
It was late afternoon, and the autumn sunlight slanted through the grimy windows of a first floor office. It filtered onto an old wooden desk that was flooded by a mass of photographic plates and bundles of data sheets that threatened to cascade to the floor in a paper avalanche at any moment.
Behind the desk, a middle aged kerbelle with mousy hair shot with silver and wearing an expression of dreamy ecstasy pored over the plates, occasionally examining some minute detail with a magnifying glass or scribbling notes before passing on to the next slide.
The building in which the office was located was just part of a sprawling complex of ultra modern laboratories, administrative blocks and data libraries. The whole place, with its spotless alleys, electric shuttle system and well-trimmed shrubberies, reeked of the Resource Company's wealth and influence.
The occupant of the office, however, had managed to create her own secret garden of chaos and disorder within the sterile walls of the research centre. It looked more like the study of some eccentric old astrologer than an office, the walls lined by bookshelves overflowing with an unbelievable variety of grimoires, star charts and other essays, from the truly ancient to the most exclusive. Dust lay thick on the few surfaces that were available for it to settle on. Here and there amidst the clutter, the occasional half-empty teacup had been abandoned to a lonely fate.
At the heart of this intentional chaos, Theoretical Planetary and Astronomy Investigator Steledith suddenly looked up from her work and paused for a moment, staring off into space, focussed at some point beyond infinity, as if she could see right through the wall of the office that was opposite her.
Utter silence reigned, broken only by occasional muffled sounds from outside. A passing golf cart, the chatter of two junior technicians as they left the building... But Steledith was momentarily elsewhere, mulling over some immeasurably ancient mystery of the vast cosmos that had suddenly struck her in the process of her research, and had nothing to do whatsoever with the slides she was studying.
These magnificent distractions fell upon her often. Her assistant would sometimes walk in on her while they were underway. Most of the time he would close the door again and leave her to it, as they usually provided insight on an unexpected – although often unrelated – subject. Each time, he half expected to see the light reflected from some distant galaxy or quasar shining in her eyes as she gazed blindly into the void.
Half an hour passed...
...then Steledith blinked once, twice, looked back down at the slides in front of her and resumed her work as if nothing had happened.
She was looking for traces of asteroids, comets and other small bodies hidden within the massive amounts of pictures and data that were constantly beamed down from the Company's new space telescope.
To perform such a search, any ordinary astronomer would use a blink comparator to flick through successive images of the same patch of sky, looking for subtle changes from one image to the next, the wandering points of light that betrayed the existence of a planetesimal within the Sol system, moving against the fixed star field in the background.
But Steledith was no ordinary astronomer.
She would cycle through the plates, scanning them rapidly. Half of them had already fallen from the desk at some point, and were therefore hopelessly out of sequence, but this wasn't a problem for her. Steledith had a map of the sky etched into the back of her mind. All she needed to do in order to see the universe was to close her eyes. She reviewed the photographs in seemingly random order, occasionally scribbling coordinates into a small notebook, a long list of observations to be added to the telescope's schedule.
On the rare occasions when she was truly focussed, Steledith could keep this up for hours or even days. Her assistant would occasionally interrupt her, bringing tea and snacks. Most of the time, he would hang around in her office on some false pretext, just to make sure that the easily distracted kerbelle did not forget to eat.
After a while longer, Steledith looked up again and realised that the reason she'd been straining her eyes for some time was that the sun had set and it was growing dark inside her office. She clicked on her desk lamp and surveyed the mess of plates in front of her. Another long pause.
Why doing this, again?
Oh yes. Asteroids. Comets. Find Earth killers.
But what reason?
Ah. Martian Transmission.
The Kerbal face on the surface of Mars that had talked. Placed there to lure us outwards? Barty had cut off the transmission (she wondered idly where that old oaf might have got to as she hadn't seen him in a while...). On Earth, they missed out on the end of the message. “Should you fail to do so, we will have to consider your species as being a potential threat to our Creators. Our instructions would then oblige us to...” And that was all.
The Company might be too stupid to understand what the message implied, or perhaps they simply didn't care, but it had taken Steledith all of six seconds to deduce the missing part of the First Mate's declaration.
Even though she sometimes forgot to get up in the morning, the Planetary Investigator was not the sort of kerbal who could ignore a major threat to the celestial body she happened to be living on. She had immediately put in a request for an improved infrared space telescope. She hadn't even been asked to justify her demand: it happened to coincide perfectly with the Board's new asteroid prospection programme. The project was therefore accepted almost immediately and the telescope was launched the following spring.
Steledith and her team were now ploughing through the data. Steledith hadn't disclosed her fears, even to her own assistants, mainly because she didn't know exactly what they were looking for herself. Would they somehow stumble upon the Crew's ship? Judging from the images they had, it might be possible to see it if it was still in the inner system. And if it was still active in any way, it would certainly shine out like a beacon in infrared.
But they had found nothing of the sort, anywhere near the ecliptic at least.
Kerbals. Star faring civilisation. Consider – Earth – threat.
OK... but what sort of asteroid? And what sort of bombardment? A slight nudge to one of the Near Earth rocks that would cause it to cross paths with the Blue Planet during one of its future trips around the sun?
Could work. Possible to intercept if sufficient warning.
Or a swift kick in the pants of a Kuiper Belt Object. One that would send it spinning sunwards, trailing a plume of water vapour and dust as it drew closer to the star, in full view of the horrified Kerbals of Earth who would be powerless to stop such a celestial juggernaut incoming at tens of kilometres per second and at right angles to their home planet's orbit.
Robots:1, Earth: 0.
In an uncharacteristic display of emotion, Steledith shuddered. All she could do was make a full inventory of as many of the asteroids and comets in the system as possible. If the First Mate's deadline came and went, they would have to watch the sky with ceaseless vigilance for the first signs of movement, and the most minute deviations of any-
Wait. Someone was knocking briskly on her office door.
She gazed at the door thoughtfully. Had she forgotten yet another appointment? Where had young Raylan got to? Oh, was that the time..? He would have gone home hours ago...
The knocking took on a distinctly impatient tone. Whoever was hammering on the door had obviously been trying to get her attention for quite some time.
“Come in,” she called out at last.
Two kerbals wearing formal suits swept into the office. The first one was younger and seemed to bristle with a fierce, enthusiastic energy. He shrugged off the fact that his door-battering had been ignored for the past five minutes and glided across the room to Steledith's desk. He held out his hand, beaming.
Steledith ignored the proffered hand and stared up at him, blankly.
The kerb's smile wavered for a mere fraction of a second before recovering. He turned to his companion.
“May I introduce you to TPAI Steledith, one of the most brilliant researchers of our institute. Steledith, this is Special Investigator Samrod. He is our new correspondent to the Board.”
She turned to face Samrod, a tall, stony-faced kerbal who carried a black briefcase. His piercing gaze and cold demeanour might have been intimidating if Steledith had even understood the concept of intimidation. Instead, the Special Investigator was treated with the same blank stare.
“Hello, dear,” she said at last. “Would you like some tea?”
“No thank you, Steledith,” replied the first kerbal quickly, attempting to make up lost ground. “Look, sorry for interrupting you at such a late hour, we did try to call you before we came but...” His gaze fell upon the waste paper basket at the foot of her desk and the unmistakable shape of a telephone nestled amongst the crumpled scraps torn from her notebook and a large pile of used teabags, its cord bundled around it along with the socket that had been ripped from the wall at some point. “Anyway, we-”
“And you are..?” asked Steledith.
This really took the wind out of his sails, but after a moment of awkward silence he recovered once more. “I'm Principal Investigator Jedfal.”
“I'm your boss, Steledith.”
Sensing that this was going nowhere, Samrod cut in. “We have compiled the latest downloads from the Fontanes probes,” he said, pulling a heavy file from his briefcase and dropping it on the desk with a thump. “PI Jedfal assures me that you often spot details that other investigators overlook. We were hoping that you would give us your opinion on some of the data and images, ma'am.”
“I'd be... delighted,” said Steledith.
She opened the file and started browsing through the images that had winged their way across the void as packets of data from the three probes: the kerbal's most ambitious – and expensive – mission of robotic exploration of the system to date.
Some of them she recognised, as they had already been released to the scientific community. Majestic views of Saturn's rings as Fontanes One came streaking into orbital insertion from the high-energy transfer that Bartdon had requested more than three years earlier. The same probe swinging round the dark side of the giant planet, the sunlight scattered by the razor-thin plane of icy shards that made up its ring.
Back outwards once more, as far as Iapetus, a yin-yang mix of brilliant white and dark, reddish brown. Slightly flattened at the poles, the moon sported an equatorial bulge that stood out clearly from the limb as the probe swept low over its surface in a polar orbit.
Dark colour – carbonaceous material – contrast between leading and trailing hemispheres - dust from asteroid collision? Or captured retrograde moon? - lower albedo raising temperatures, sublimation of ice and depositing organic residue – fascinating – equatorial ridge: possible ancient ring system that accreted, or something else..? thought Steledith idly.
And then, much more detailed pictures of the moon's surface. These were new to her. A vertiginous plummet towards the icy surface. It was clear that Fontanes One had been sent skimming just above the darker side. A highly risky manoeuvre to perform with such a sophisticated piece of hardware orbiting a distant, poorly-understood target.
“We made a low pass,” said Samrod, in a matter-of-fact voice. “Radar spotted something. We wanted to take a closer look.”
Steledith did a double-take and stared intently at the next picture for several minutes. Down there on the frigid landscape more than a billion kilometres away was the unmistakable shape of a structure that she had already seen before. Or rather, a structure that Planetary Investigator Margaret had seen on the Moon. But she was dead now, her lifeless husk tumbling endlessly through the hard vacuum somewhere above Mars.
Suggests a system-wide network. Purpose: warning? communications? beacons? Equatorial position to broadcast across ecliptic plane..?
“Is this the same type of anomaly as the one discovered by the crew of Cirq Two in Schubert crater?” was all Samrod wanted to know.
“Yes...” Steledith breathed without looking at him. She continued browsing.
Pictures of the strange satellite Hyperion. It's shape was irregular, its surface a jagged chaos of deep, sharply defined craters, but its surface coloration was relatively uniform...
Too large for such irregular shape – not tidally locked. Massive collision? What happened in this system?
...followed by three more pale, icy moons – Rhea, Dione and Tethys – and the data that specified their orbital parameters. New calculations of their mass, their orbital periods and the resonances between them. Something didn't seem quite right to Steledith – judging from this information, it didn't look as it should if the gravity and tidal forces of Saturn had been at work for aeons, as should be expected if the moons had accreted at the same time as the planet itself. But even her overclocked intellect could not make out what was going on there without further calculations.
And finally, the smaller moon Enceladus, a pure white snowball drifting round the edge of the main ring system. Fontanes One had spiralled inwards and come in low over the satellite's South pole. Radar had detected cracks and rifts in the water ice crust. But the real revelation was what the probe's dust analyser had picked up during the low flyby, which was later confirmed by pictures taken above the pole.
A plume of fine ice crystals were escaping from the rifts: liquid water jetted into the cold vacuum of space.
Tidal heating – like Jovian moons – sub surface ocean. Thin ice crust near the pole.
“This is where our probe lies now. We will continue to observe this body before we push inwards towards the rings. What I need to know, ma'am, is if this means that Enceladus could be a habitable environment in any way for an alien life form, or even for Kerbalkind.” said Samrod.
“Why, yes,” Steledith responded immediately, “as long as you grow gills, of course.”
The next pictures were from Fontanes Three, the sister probe that had arrived at Jupiter the previous year. Stunning images of Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io.
“We got confirmation of at least two similar arch structures on the surface of Ganymede, as well as a magnetic anomaly that could be a datacore. We also have some inconclusive hits on Europa. We would like your opinion on those. I've been authorised to give you the radar images and the multispectral scan to work from, ma'am.”
“You're too kind, dear. Where is Three now?”
“We don't know.”
Steledith looked up at Samrod and tutted disapprovingly, as if she were scolding the Special Investigator for getting dirt all over his new suit while playing in the back yard. “You lost a probe that cost nearly a million funds? How careless of you.”
“We took it in within the orbit of Io. We believe that the high levels of radiation close to Jupiter finally caused a major failure in one of the sub systems that control the high gain antenna. That, or it collided with some debris in Jupiter's ring. The probe might still be operational, but we are unable to make contact with it. We did, however, get much closer to the planet than we originally expected to.”
“How close?” Steledith was interested, now.
“Well, after a complete scan of Io we attempted to reach the inner moons. Amalthea, Metis...”
Steledith stiffened and sat up straight, her usual dreamy expression replaced by an accusing glare. “Why bother? If I understand correctly, you're only looking for datacores that could be accessible to a potential crewed mission. Special Investigator, you do realise that even on Europa, an unshielded kerbonaut would receive a potentially fatal dose of radiation in just hours, perhaps even minutes?”
“Yes I do, ma'am,” said Samrod.
For a long moment, her profound, sparkling eyes met the glacial, unflinching scrutiny of the Special Investigator. It was only then that Steledith realised that he had been sent by the Board to request her benediction for a mission. One that would doubtlessly condemn a crew of her fellow kerbonauts to a painful, unpleasant death.
In a sudden flurry of violence, she gave a shriek of anger and swept the whole pile of documents from her desk onto the floor. She advanced towards the two kerbals standing in front of her desk. Even Samrod was caught off guard and took a step backwards. She made a swift, stabbing gesture at the door of her office that made Jedfal flinch.
“Get. Out. Now.”
It was the Principal Investigator who knelt in an undignified scramble to collect the scattered pages and stuff them back into the briefcase. Samrod said nothing but continued to stare coolly at Steledith, the faintest hint of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. When his companion was done, he turned and left the room without saying a word. Jedfal hurried out behind him.
Steledith waited until the sound of their footsteps had receded down the corridor, and then bent over to retrieve the images that she had kicked under her desk when she had stepped towards the two investigators. She had tried to aim for the bottom of the pile, and indeed it looked like she had ended up with some of the last pictures transmitted by Fontanes Three's camera, as well as what looked like the radar data from a low flyby of a tiny moon.
She held up the image to the light of her desk lamp that had been knocked askew by her outburst, her hand still trembling from the false display of emotion that was so unbecoming of her.
The scene that had been captured by the probe was something that she had never expected to see in her lifetime. The yawning gulf of a massive impact crater gouged into the pole of an ash grey moon, against the stunning backdrop of Jupiter's cloud tops. Fontanes Three had grazed the crater rim by mere hundreds of metres at a relative velocity that must have been scorching, that far down the great planet's gravity well. Closest approach had been so tight that the probe's sensitive instruments had detected backscatter from its own service lights, reflecting off the icy surface of the crater floor.
Why take such risk? What's down there?
Steledith forced herself to tear her gaze away and move. She pulled a tattered old carpet bag from her bottom draw and began stuffing the papers into it.
Maybe if she hurried, she could catch the last flight out of Tanegashima, she thought. And in the present state of affairs, it didn't really matter where the flight was heading for.