May 14th and today, to my great surprise, is Astronomy Day. I did not see any greeting cards for this holiday in the stores and it came as a total surprise. Well, I’ll be sure to get my Astronomy Day cards out on time next year! As I’ve been trying to write daily and complete at least one vignette or short story per week I thought I would call May 15th the day when the clock was up and running. As such I’ve decided to post a story that has an astronomy theme as the first story in this one-year effort. It is called Flyby and I share authorship with my dear friend Clare.

***

 

“Flyby”

 They sent Nat Cooper to French Guiana for the rocket launch. A roster mix-up found him assigned as a member of the final check-out team. The pay was great so he opted to just go along with the extended trip. On launch night, after several long weeks of hard work, a group of the guys co-opted an old pickup truck and went out to the observation shack. Nat drove. Security kept the roadway empty and the speed he made getting to the bunker left a considerable rime of bugs plastered to the big Toyota’s windshield.

Climbing a low hill to a concrete block-house, Nat looked out across a shaggy landscape to the launch-pad. A slender rocket stood upon a flat plain of concrete that men had dared cut from the tumult and noise of a tropical rainforest. Aerodynamically lean but powerfully graceful, the rocket had waited for days next to a well-worn gantry that was known more for its strength than its aesthetics. Like a caring parent wishing its child upon a road toward better things, the gantry provided foundation, and strength, and fuel, and access to those who would aid the child in its ultimate success. Eventually the child grew restless, activity heightened, and it was time to leave the nest.

“…Deux, un, nul.”

Zero hour came near local midnight. Although stars seared the sky, lightning suddenly flashed within the rainforest and a thunderous roar briefly silenced the multitude of voices that had ruled the jungle for a million years. The Ariane X rose into the night, a child-god with one relentless purpose. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the thunder faded and the smoke cleared and the gantry stood alone in the dark. Slowly, Nat heard the night sounds return, and perhaps but a few of those creatures wondered or worried at the new star that was moving rapidly east.

Orbit was attained and new voices were heard on the bunker’s loudspeakers. Control switched across the ocean to a land where winter dwelled. Although the language was different the mission remained the same. Dawn came to Kiruna-Esrange. Those who guided the rocket and its cargo watched it coast along an elliptical trajectory. As the craft dropped toward perigee a decision was made and the final stage was fired.

Energies and vectors changed. The spacecraft attained an orbit unto itself, one more body wending its way about the Sun. Minutes passed and the launcher became inert. Bolts fired and separation occurred. The Marco Polo Fast Flyby Probe fell free. Telemetry was radioed via X-band and the controllers saw that all was well. Systems were set for cruise mode and the long slumber began.

Four decades later, Nat Cooper was the one to send the command that awoke the distant space probe. In a very real way that seemed appropriate. He had been a young engineer at the mission’s beginning. None of the old team was around anymore. In the intervening years he had opted to focus on lab work rather than pursue a career upward into the aether that was mission management. Thus it was that when the time came to nudge Marco Polo back to life those who remembered his prior involvement insisted he be present. Not a bad way to retire, he reckoned.

The command went out from the Advanced Planetary Labs to a radio dish at Goldstone and outward to the stars. Given that Marco Polo was almost 200 astronomical units from the Sun it would take over two days for the probe to receive data and reply in kind. Nat took a long weekend at home with his grandkids. When he headed in to work on Monday the APL parking monitors directed his car to the VIP lot. He walked into the main visitor’s atrium and realized how much things had changed since his day.

The first thing he noted was how big the donor icons and signs within the atrium all were. When governments had stopped funding science and research those organizations which had once relied on taxpayers had had to go begging to major international corporations for funding. The Lab’s official name was the Global Financial Systems Advanced Planetary Laboratories. Not simply APL as it had been known when he started. Within the atrium were various banners, plaques, and displays. One of the biggest showed Giant Energy’s Titan Exploration Rover, which unto itself loomed over Asia-Integrated’s Solar Flare Observer and the Barstruck’s Coffee Dark Matter Detector Satellite. Elsewhere lesser donors had staked out territory and missions.

Nat stood in the center of the lobby and something blurred the vision within his old, oyster-colored eyes. Yes indeed, he thought, we have sold our souls.

“Mr. Cooper?” a soft alto called.

Nat turned and saw a stately, intelligent-eyed young woman approach in the crisp, business-formal livery that announced to the world she was a Major Manager for the MacDougall’s Fast Food Corporation. MacDougall’s was Marco Polo’s prime sponsor. When they picked up sponsorship of the project twenty years earlier, MacDougall’s, as it did with all things, viewed the mission to the farthest end of the solar system as a durable investment deserving of a long-term strategy. As the probe’s reawakening approached they had ramped up their involvement from silent partner to full blown boosterism. Hell, they had even named one of their fast food burgers the Marco Polo, complete with Astro Fries, all within a colorful package that American TeachCorp had proclaimed “highly educational.”

Well, Nat ruminated, one of my granddaughters seemed to know much more about Marco Polo than I did this weekend. Perhaps all this may help the next generation.

“Hello,” the woman said, offering her hand. “I’m Natalia MacDougall. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” They shook hands. Nat shyly scanned the nametag that resided on the crest of her carved bosom. To the left of the linked parabolas that were one of the world’s most easily recognizable trademarks stood the woman’s name in small, block print. All capitals, like the letters used in a police agency mug-shot. Like all serious corporate employees, Natalia had adopted the name of her employer.

“Likewise,” Nat said. Then, a bit awkwardly: “Big day.”

“You and I almost have the same name,” she said with a bright smile and warm chuckle. Nat suspected that she could wield both like a weapon but they went a long ways toward breaking the ice. Indeed, he suspected she could even warm the cold deeps through which Marco Polo now travelled.

“Well, yes, I guess so,” Nat said. “I’m Nathaniel Gordon LeRoy Cooper. I was born around the time of the first Mercury flights. My mother had something of a crush on one of the Mercury Seven. Dad never found out. But Dad’s name was Nat, too, so he probably wouldn’t have cared. Dad sold life insurance. That was back in the day when they still had that sort of thing. Mom and he eventually split up. Mom went back to nursing and we lived with my grandmother after that. I grew up in Pasadena. I’m an actual local, you could say.” It all tumbled out very awkwardly. Well, so be it. Nat had realized years ago that he had trouble relating to people outside of a laboratory.

Natalia blinked through Nat’s off-the-cuff life narrative before saying: “Well, then perhaps you were somewhat motivated, even inspired, to pursue the path that you did.”

Nat nodded. Everyone these days was always inspired to follow some passion to attain their highest goals. Actually, he just really liked to tinker with things and APL paid well. He might have been just as happy developing microwave ovens as working on spacecraft. He decided to hold that particular revelation in check.

Several seconds passed before he eventually said: “Certainly.”

Natalia’s smile amped up within her beautiful face and all was well with the world. “We’d like to offer you a small gift and thank you for your service.” As she said this, a tall thin man dressed in a suit not too different from Natalia’s ambled up with what was called a propagandacam. He was introduced as Thom MacDougall and he began to snap digipics and grab audivox samplings. Natalia smiled at Nat and handed the old engineer a sparkling disc in a plastic case. The MacDougall’s Dual Parabolas flickered in holographic glory while golden letters circled with the script: “Trillions and Trillions Served.”

While Thom recorded, Natalia informed him that the disc allowed Nat and Mrs. Cooper Lifetime Patron status and a dozen free meals at any participating MacDougall’s. Nat mumbled his gratitude and didn’t have the heart to announce to the world that his wife Linda had passed away five years previously. When the recording stopped he pocketed the disc and walked slowly toward the series of doors that led into the viewing gallery. APL’s SaniForm Industries’ Mission Control Center was a wide and dark cavern full of control consoles, busy personnel, and large screens that showed diagrams and glowing lines of data that detailed various aspects of Marco Polo’s status. Nat settled into a soft seat that had the well-known letter S within the tetrahedral Shield of Excellence on its back cushion. The young MacDougall’s reps stood in the back and whispered to one another.

Nat stared into the heart of APL’s Mission Control. If you got around the sponsorship banners and MacDougall’s logos the place had changed little in the years since he came onboard. Sure, all the computers were upgraded: the controllers were using holographic heads-up interfaces that looked like something from the sci-fi movies of his youth. And the tri-dee displays and holographic ensigns showed actual images of places that they had once only dreamed of committing an exploration probe. But the feel and intensity were the same. And, in a rush of excitement, Nat knew that this place was still the very final end and the utter first recipient of the diamond downlink from God’s Own Universe. Anything that the various probes encountered was first known here. People bitched about corporate involvement, certainly, but he had to admit that those folks expected results and no mission had ever failed in twenty-five years of multinational sponsorship. That was actually a better record than the old days when the government doled out the cash.

In the window beyond the viewing gallery a young scientist noticed Nat’s gaze and raised a mug of coffee in silent salute. Then he turned back to his sandwich. Even in the dim light Nat was able to see the Barstruck’s logo on the mug and the fluorescent parabolas on the back of the wrinkled vest that the man wore over his shirt and tie.  Nat watched the youngster finish his Marco Polo Breakfast Burger and thought about perhaps leaving. Then somebody tapped him on the shoulder.

The bearded visage that appeared was an older, smiling image of a researcher whom Nat had once helped mentor. As automatic as the gyroscopes on the distant spacecraft, Nat suddenly quipped: “I certainly oak to elm I don’t make an ash of me-self.”

Dr. Ashton Elmer Oakes smiled broadly behind his white beard and he shook hands with Nat. “My Gawd you haven’t changed,” the scientist chortled. Without a beat he turned to the young woman behind him and said: “Kalpana, watch out for this guy, he’s a walking pun machine. Dangerous and painful.”

The young woman stepped forward. The jeans, tee-shirt, and tattered sport jacket could not diminish her obvious elegance. Indeed, on her the clothes seemed more exotic than the bindi that marked her forehead. Something about her style reminded Nat of the old days and as they shook hands he decided then and there he liked her. “Dr. Kalpana Rai please meet Mr. Nat Cooper,” Oakes made the formal introduction with a flourish he had learned from Nat back in the old days. “A soon-to-be former denizen of this great establishment.”

“Congratulations on your retirement,” Dr. Rai said in a low, respectful tone wherein lay the lilting English of her homeland.

“Thank you,” Nat replied. “A long time coming. Are you an investigator?”

“A co-PI, yes, on one of the instruments you built, I believe.” She looked uncertainly toward Oakes. “Marco Polo’s main scanner.”

Nat caught the look on both their faces. A problem. Old instincts were quick to kick in. Nat said, “This isn’t a social call, is it Ash?”

Oakes shook his shaggy main: “I’m afraid not.” The scientist leaned closer to Nat and whispered: “We want to be sure the main scanner is functioning properly. Could you join us in the IPC?”

Dr. Rai nodded encouragingly and Nat rose from his seat. As the trio walked toward the door and the pair of MacDougall’s reps seemed to emerge from the shadows. Natalia MacDougall asked: “And just where are you taking our Guest of Honor?”

Nat smiled. “These old friends of mine are taking me to the Image Processing Center,” he said.

Thom looked quickly at Natalia and then back to Nat. “I’d like to capture that,” he said.  His voice had a neutrality of accent that suggested he could be a news anchor someday, if he ever dared leave MacDougall’s. Nat didn’t think they owned any tri-dee stations, at least not yet.

“Well,” Dr. Rai said evenly. “I am afraid we are only allowed to admit APL employees.”

Natalia was quick to rise to this polite but newfound challenge. “May I remind you that MacDougall’s is sponsoring Marco Polo? And that we have shared rights to any and all…what did you say…images…that the spacecraft downloads. And we really would like to capture Mr. Cooper’s activities today, as they are of some interest to our many, many customers.”

“We weren’t expecting journalists,” Oakes said off-handedly.

At that Thom MacDougall barked a laugh. “I’m no journalist, sir. I’m a corporate propagandist.” The pride was evident in that last word. Nat sighed while the two scientists looked at one another. Propaganda as well as its makers and distributors were a well regulated and highly respected cadre of working professionals. Eventually Oakes and Rai relented.

The Xerex-Kubayashi Office Products Image Processing Center at APL was like a miniature version of APL’s Mission Control Center. Its purpose was to give a select group of researchers called imaging scientists access to the data from Marco Polo’s main scanner. About a half dozen people occupied the room. Nat and his newfound entourage nearly doubled that population. Oakes and Dr. Rai exchanged a glance and Nat’s former protégé quickly peeled the two MacDougalls away on an impromptu tour. This gave Nat and the young scientist time to talk. Clearly, Dr. Rai was the expert on whatever was going on with the distant spacecraft’s main scanner.

The woman led Nat to a private work area and began to explain: “As you know Marco Polo was in slumber mode for nearly four decades. However, that mode does not leave the spacecraft quite as inert as the general public might otherwise assume.” Her eyes drifted over the wall of the work cubicle to where Oakes was guiding the two reps. Then, with slight embarrassment, she continued: “So the “wake up” command that you sent last week was highly…ceremonial.”

Nat grinned. “We used to use other words for APL public relations stunts…but I’ll accept ceremonial.”

Dr. Rai’s eyes softened and he saw a brief twinkle of amusement. “As one of the original builders of Marco Polo you are as aware as I that the slumber mode is merely shorthand for conservation of power. The radioisotope thermoelectric generators that provide electricity to the spacecraft basically run at a small percentage of their full capacity during most of the cruise outward. The spacecraft’s main brain and expert systems observe other hardware and software combinations that are running in a passive collection mode. Especially so the sensor suite.”

Nat nodded. The sensor suite was a collection of instruments that sampled temperature, solar wind, cosmic flux, light, background radiations, electrostatics, Doppler shift along the spacecraft’s radio link, and a host of other things that scintillated, reacted, or provided an electromagnetic tickle of one variety or another. All of this was recorded for daily download to Earth. However, Marco Polo’s signature instruments, like so many of its ancestors, were its cameras. These were turned on as the probe approached its target. In this case: the mysterious pair of joined worldlets called Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro that were passing through the outer marches of the solar system from somewhere beyond.

Dr. Rai said, “When we were within two astronomical units of HM-D we began to activate the scanners. The first pictures came in roughly ten months ago. These were released through various scientific outlets and publications. Good imagery, really, and proof that the scanners were working well. You guys did a superb job building this instrument.”

Nat smiled wryly. He remembered standing long ago in white garb at the center of a cleanroom with the camera array set up on an exquisitely balanced transport table. Cables and harnesses ran from other racks of equipment into the guts of the main scanner. Each cable used gold pins and they were only allowed to plug the things in twice, so test procedures had to be worked out in careful detail. A set of VIPs were just leaving. A new hire standing next to him watched the famous government officials depart and leaned toward Nat to ask: “How much does this scanner cost?”

“Four hundred and fifty million dollars,” Nat replied. Then, to the young man’s amazement he joked: “Yeah, APL’s really got to lower the cost of these cameras if we’re ever going to compete with those Eastman Kodak vacation disposables.”

Dr. Rai reached over to a wide, curved monitor and brought up the ten month old images from Marco Polo. “I present to you Harappa and its twin,” she announced.

Nat nodded politely. He had seen these images before and had even taped a snapshot of the two tiny circular worldlets up on the wall of his lab. Spectra suggested rocks amid mostly ice. Aside from some chemical differences Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t all that different from the many icy bodies that existed at the edge of the solar system. Still, the fact that they were essentially comets from another star raised a frisson at the back of his old neck.

He appreciated her introduction but his old instincts reminded him that she and Oakes hadn’t brought him in here for this. “Okay,” said Nat. “And then what happened?”

“Well,” she said, tapping her fingers across a keypad. “The latest image, with the main scanner in full telescopic mode, showed us this…”

Nat’s eyes widened at what came up on the screen. The two previous dime-sized planetoids had blossomed into fully realized worlds. Staring at the images it seemed as if the void of space had spontaneously etched a duo of landscapes. The nearest body was smaller and therefore Mohenjo-Daro. It was a wide spheroid, fifteen hundred kilometers across, its northern and southern poles a rugged jumble of pock-marked ice. The central region showed a march of rocky chasms that ran parallel to the bulging equator. Elsewhere stood nation-sized pans of ice: smooth, bright under the low illumination of surrounding stars, and as yet untouched by the fall of meteors. Harappa was more distant, the gap separating the two worlds equivalent to some twenty  thousand kilometers, but Harappa was larger than Mohenjo-Daro by a factor of two. Harappa’s face, always presented to the same side of Mohenjo-Daro, was a rugged contortion of dark ices and darker, uplifted rocks. Nat saw something there that almost looked like a mountain range. He also saw…

“What is that?” he asked. “Or better yet, what isn’t that?”

Dr. Rai moved a light pen to the spot that Nat had indicated. Against the curving edge of Harappa’s northwestern flank was a progression of nothingness that stood like a blank sickle against the night. Nat noted carefully that the image aberration hadn’t affected the starfield beyond the planetoid.

“That is what we would like to know,” the scientist said. “What kind of a camera fault could lead to this?”

Nat searched his mind. “This isn’t a glitch in the post-processing software, is it?”

“No,” Dr. Rai said. “And it seems consistent across several images.” She tapped the keypad. Another image came up, slightly closer than the first. The zone of darkness still covered Harappa’s limb. Another followed showing the same result. Nat peered over her shoulder. The fourth image showed little from which to draw any conclusion.

“How far apart were these taken?” he asked.

“Approximately one hour. But given Marco Polo’s distance, its download rate, and our computers it takes much longer to gather the signals before they are fit for processing and display. We’re still running captures as the spacecraft approaches HM-D. We hope to get more soon.”

Nat’s brows knitted. “Did someone put the main scanner in corona-graph mode?” The camera’s corona-graph had the ability to turn tiny micro-mirrors in the scanner’s beam splitter and block out certain portions of the field of view. This could save on memory or blot out excessively bright portions of an object.

Dr. Rai said: “We thought of that too, and had Camera Control run a full check. The main scanner is on wide field. The corona-graph is not active.”

“Any other anomalies reported?”

The scientist shook her head. “The probe’s magnetometer has been spiking. That’s got the geology team busy.”

“But the magnetometer’s relation to our camera is a bit like the relation of my arse to my elbow. On the same chassis but not too much overlap. Usually.”

Nat saw her redden slightly. Well, Oakes had warned her. They continued to discuss various technical maladies and considered the cause of the anomaly. Elsewhere, Oakes had sat his visitors down at a table full of displays and publications typically used for elementary school visitors. Nat idly wondered if Thom MacDougall, corporate propagandist, would recognize the materials for what they were. Well, it should keep the sponsors busy for a tad.

“Dr. Rai!” a young imaging scientist called. “Next shot just came down the pike.”

“Got it, Bill,” Dr. Rai replied. “Please feed it to my station.”

The screen before Nat adjusted slightly. A new image appeared. Nat whistled long and slow and mournfully. Dr. Rai said: “Oh, my!”

The glitch had gotten worse. The swatch of nothingness had expanded over a quarter of the planetoid. A ragged edge of image disruption was now making itself apparent on the starfield beyond. Nat stared closely at the image. He asked: “Can you do a digital blink comparator for this region, across several of these images?”

Dr. Rai nodded. “Of course,” she said. Her fingers moved across various pull-up displays. An algorithm called EMILY churned parameters and image data. Within a few minutes an icon blinked green.

“All set,” Dr. Rai said. She waved a hand like a sorceress and the screen blanked. Up came the first image of Harappa, then another. The umbric smear shifted and spread in the time-lapsed series of images. Closer details showed its edges like an ink blot expanding in water.

“How much can these details be magnified?” he asked.

“How close do you need it?”

“So close a planetologist can tap the mica and smell the schist.”

Dr. Rai winced and called over to Bill. When she explained what she needed she added: “And quickly, Bill.”

And Bill was quick. Some of Bill’s colleagues gravitated to his station. They were not idle long before the young imaging scientists passed the data on to Dr. Rai’s station. Up came the original first image. An insert screen could be slid around the picture. Details jumped up at them from Harappa’s surface.

“Plumes,” Dr. Rai whispered. Across the surface hundreds of geysers were spewing a hazy fluid outward. These migrated upward and formed vast clouds. Other images showed the clouds settling in at an altitude which a scale indicated as several kilometers above the surface.

Oakes appeared next to Nat. It was his turn to whisper the word “plumes” as if calling upon the sacred. The images updated and Dr. Rai leaned back. She stared carefully at the timestamp at the lower portion of the screen. Her fingers moved the image series ahead and backward in time. On the screen the clouds seemed to be differentiating into curved, highly elongated crescents. Several seemed to rise in altitude. At a certain height they recombined into a mass of amorphous clouds.

“Bill?” she called. “Are these time series correct?”

Bill disengaged himself from the cluster of scientists and walked over to the senior scientists. He placed his chin on the ledge of the cubicle wall and stared down at Dr. Rai’s screen. She ran the series for him and he confirmed it was the correct sequence: “All the spacecraft’s positions and the camera settings were pre-programmed in advance of close approach. Those snaps were grabbed approximately ten minutes apart…he looked at his watch…over twenty-eight hours ago, actually.”

Which meant that all they were seeing from the camera scans had occurred yesterday. Indeed, Marco Polo was well beyond its closest approach to HM-D. The probes flyby was completed, but humans had to wait for light to travel some 200 astronomical units before being witness to that event. Another glance at his watch and Bill said: “The first real close encounter snaps should be hitting the dish at Goldstone right about now.”

“I would like the mission controllers notified, as well as Dr. Flint from the geomorphism team,” Dr. Rai ordered. And Bill was gone to do her bidding. “And Bill!” she called, “As soon as the next snaps are processed send them directly to me.”

Word spread quickly and a gaggle of controllers, geologists, and imaging scientists were soon crowding around Dr. Rai’s work area. Nat stepped back slightly to avoid getting jostled. Besides, he was just an observer and these people all had a job to do.

“What’s going on?” Natalia MacDougall asked at his shoulder. She and Thom had noticed the commotion and migrated over to the crowd of people. Thom’s palm camera was out and he was clearly recording. The dual parabolas on the recorder’s surface were actively blinking.

“They seem to have found plumes of some material on the surface of Harappa,” Nat explained.

“That’s important, obviously,” Natalia said. “On Harappa, right? Can we see the images?”

Nat pointed to the center’s main screen. Bill’s sequence of images was doggedly scrolling above all their heads. Natalia watched while Thom recorded, his palm toward the screen like a celebrant at church. The MacDougall’s propagandist had a hungry flicker in his eyes.

“It looks like bunch of upside-down chocolate shake dispensers in action,” Thom said. “What do you think, Natalia? Could we re-brand chocolate frappes as MacDougall Plume Shakes?”

“Why not harappes?” Nat asked. He winced when he saw how serious they took his suggestion.

“What is that stuff?” Natalia asked.

Nat shrugged. “Some sort of cryovolcanism, I’d guess. Those could be plumes of methane, ammonia, maybe even water or some combination of stuff.”

“But isn’t it too cold out there for anything on Harappa to be anything other than a frozen solid?” Natalia asked. Clearly she had read up on the mission.

Nat said, “The geologists have been speculating about that. They based their earliest conjectures on their first data after the initial discovery. All they really had at that time was HM-D’s path and the two bodies’ revolution about each other. Those bodies are small but dense. That could mean a rocky core. Radioactives within those rocks might heat material. Additional forces as the duo pass within reach of the sun could create some sort of sub-surface stress that led to what we are seeing.”

Nat noted the mix of belief, puzzlement and admiration that the two MacDougall’s reps offered him. “Or so I’ve read in the funny pages,” he added.

“First encounter downloads!” Bill called from across the room.

Standing behind the dozen people who now packed Dr. Rai’s cubicle Nat saw a flicker of light. Details shifted across the various faces as the big screens on her desk changed pictures. What came next was met with a sudden shout and cry from all those gathered. Across the room’s main screen wonder had been projected.

Harappa stood in the center of the screen. To the left was the smaller Mohenjo-Daro. Across the larger world’s surface the plumes had died down in the time since the first images were taken. The clouds had migrated upward until they formed a mass of tendrils churning and twirling and reaching from Harappa toward Mohenjo-Daro. The vast aggregate of formless particles blocked the stars in the far distance. They also blocked the path of the rapidly approaching Marco Polo.

Doom. That wasn’t a word that entered Nat’s mind too often but that was the thought that ran through his head  in that moment. Given the density of material that lay ahead there was no way the speeding Marco Polo could survive passage. The probe’s main brain had a limited ability to change course. And given the high speed at which it travelled Marco Polo’s small thrusters, used mostly to turn the spacecraft to allow better camera views, could offer only a puny effort that would not avoid the impending collision.

Marco Polo had become the fabled irresistible force encountering an immovable object.

The next image was grim. The cloud blocked out all the stars. On Mohenjo-Daro’s surface a series of winding tendrils spiraled downward from the main cloud body. Nat blinked. He said to no one in particular: “Those particles scooted across space at a speed much higher than either planetoid’s escape velocity. Why didn’t they fly off into space? How were they able to land?”

Dr. Rai and Oakes turned toward him. “Magnetic field lines, perhaps? Or does Mohenjo-Daro have a heavier gravity well than we earlier suspected?”

Nat shook his head. “As far as I know there have been no course corrections of consequence as Marco Polo approached HM-D.” A nod from a nearby controller confirmed this. Nat continued: “If Mohenjo-Daro was so dense that it was pulling that stuff down the way we see it then Marco Polo would have burned all its fuel to maintain course. It would have missed the encounter entirely or just crashed.”

“Speaking of crashes…” somebody called out.

The main screen had updated. A thick nebulous mass stretched across the image. Within they saw contorted clouds and closer, grainy particulates. A minute later the screen went dead. There was a collective groan within the room.

“Wait a minute!” called Bill. “I hit the wrong switch.”

Above curses, a tossed pen, and one thrown book the next image appeared. All of the engineers and scientists fell silent. Only an intern from CalTech screamed. And you really couldn’t blame her. On the screen the cloud had somehow yawned open. A perfectly circular tunnel had formed and projected its way through the clouds to the clear space beyond. As if by a miracle Marco Polo had a clear shot to safety.

“I don’t understand,” someone whispered.

“Is this some sort of magnetic fluctuation?” called another.

Someone, either absentmindedly or professionally, reported: “Um…forward particle collector just registered a hit.”

“Jesu, Jose, y Maria,” someone whispered.

Nearby there came a thunk as Thom MacDougall’s recorder slipped down from the surprised man’s hand and hit the floor. He yelped and cursed and bent over to retrieve his propagandacam.

“Nat,” asked Natalia MacDougall. “What are we seeing here?”

Nat shook his head. While others stared at the perfectly circular tunnel Nat looked down at the lower edge of the screen. A weird shape, blurred and elongated by some combination of camera focus and spacecraft speed, hung captured. Looking closely Nat saw a dark metallic and highly segmented body. The tube-like form was composed of identically sized obsidian-colored crystals. A dozen or so long, thin whiskers, as long as the main body, branched away radially from the central structure. The thing looked for all the world like an insect the moment before it impacted on the windshield of an automobile.

“Say again,” came the calm-cool-collected voice. “Another couple of hits on the forward particle detector. No imminent damage.”

“Bugs!” called Nat. “Could that be life?”

The stares he received were a mix of amazement, dismay, and bemusement. Dr. Rai turned and cocked her head. Her eyes were wide. She had seen the nearby “particle” as well.

Before anyone could speak Nat said: “Why not life? It’s always been theorized that life could exist in the coldest places. It might not be organic as we know it. Perhaps silicon or some other crystalline-based biology. Combine that with the presence of heat, even in small but concentrated quantities and areas, and a world like Harappa could develop a very robust if not extremely alien eco-system.”

“Funny papers, again?” Natalia asked.

“Life?” Dr. Rai shook her head. “I might agree with the silicon crystal theory. But these could just be very energetic particles tossed up by cryovolcanism and carried swiftly by magnetic field lines across space to Mohenjo-Daro. I can’t agree to life.”

With wide eyes Nat pointed toward the clear image of the tunnel in the sky. “Self-preservation is a sign of life. That swarm of bugs, living crystals, whatever…made an opening in order to avoid a very big intruder: Marco Polo.

Oakes shook his head. “Nat….,” he cautioned. Two or three in the crowd shook their heads negatively. A senior scientist scowled. Two or three mumbled to one another.

Nat shrugged. “I know it sounds crazy. I also know I’m no expert. But it might be plausible.”

“And what are these bugs up to, exactly?” Oakes sounded testy. He could switch into that mode even when Nat knew him as a young man.

Nat raised his hands, palms up. “Perhaps this is part of their life cycle. The sudden cryovolcanic activity is perhaps seasonal…even if the seasons come and go every few thousand years. It triggers them to swarm. Perhaps what we’re seeing is some sort of migration.”

Oakes just frowned. Yet moments later he seemed more amused than anything else. Yes, thought Nat, maybe I really do need to retire.

“Next image up!” Bill called. The scene over their heads switched. The room fell silent. At three points on the image were individual pictures of the segmented-whiskery things that Nat had first noticed. The combination of focus and velocity made these slightly clearer than the first.

“Sure looks like bugs, to me,” Mr. Calm-Cool-Collected eventually said. The APL Image Processing Center exploded into conversation. Nat smiled. It suddenly felt like the old days. He saw Dr. Rai shouting toward him.

“What?” he called.

Dr. Rai said something again. He edged past bodies to get through the press of people who surrounded her. “What?” he asked again.

The normally reserved woman began to bellow, projecting her voice his way above the din. “I guess,” she shouted. “You’ll expect us to call these alien bugs nats!”

The old engineer’s face broke into a grin. “I was hoping for fly-byes,” he shouted back.

“Touche!” she laughed.

It was bedlam after that. More images came down from Marco Polo in which several of the crystalline bugs were evident. Spectra, radio, IR, UV, and other measurements were gathered. HM-D was merely clipping the edge of the solar system. The alien worlds would be long gone before any other space probe could be sent. Therefore every bit of data was precious. Humanity would never get this chance again.

Activity became frenetic. In the rush someone tripped and hit their head on a table. Another complained of chest pains. Two unselfconscious members of the younger set began to make-out in celebration. APL EMTs…sponsored by Global Medical Consortium and wearing the caption Your Friends When You Least Expect Us emblazoned across the backs of their jumpers…waded into the fray to assist the fallen. Given the enormity of the situation a security lockdown was declared. Several uniformed and surprisingly well-armed guards appeared, clearly relieved to be given something to do besides parking lot duty.

Natalia and Thom MacDougall stayed close to Nat. Thom recorded everything. Natalia had many fervent and aggressive conversations with her comlink. Eventually she and Thom guided Nat Cooper into a quiet corner. Natalia and Thom were glowing. Nat could see it in their eyes: of all the space missions MacDougall’s could have selected to sponsor this was a coup!

“Nat,” Natalia said. “This thing is taking off like wildfire across radio, tri-dee, and the worldweb. Thom’s is the only recorder here. We’ve been asked by MacDougall’s corporate HQ to go live across all the outlets. Can we get an interview with the discoverer of the MacDougall, er, Harappan bugs?”

Nat groaned, thought of his grandkids, and relented. Who was he to decline history and all those billions of viewers?

“Great!” Natalia cried. “I guess I get to play news reporter.”

“Propagandist!” cried Thom behind his blinking recorder. “Welcome to the club, kid!” He turned his head against his earphone and then said: “You’re on in three…two…one…”

Natalia was a quick study, Nat saw. Smiling broadly she said into Thom’s recorder: “Hello and welcome to the Advanced Planetary Laboratory’s Image Processing Center! This is the nerve center for the MacDougall’s Fast Food Corporation’s Marco Polo mission. As you may have recently learned it was the MacDougall’s Marco Polo probe that earlier today discovered an extraterrestrial life form at the edge of the solar system. We are privileged at this moment to be able to chat with Dr. Nat Cooper, a Managing Engineer on the project and the actual discoverer of the Harappan bugs.”

Nat blinked in surprise at the news of his newfound academic credentials and promotion, after decades as a mere lab grunt, to senior management. Unable to utter a protest he opted to wave casually at Thom’s propagandacam.

“Thom,” Natalia said. “Please show the audience the image from the MacDougall’s space probe that led to Dr. Cooper’s amazing, ground-breaking discovery.”

Nat tried not to feel nettled. Natalia was laying it on a bit thick. It was a team that had gotten Marco Polo out to the Sun’s farthest neighborhood. He was little more than a lucky amateur to have been in the room when that image came down. Thom moved the camera toward one of the room’s main screens. Nat saw the propagandist focus in on the image of the vast swarm and that amazing tunnel wide open at its center.

“This,” said Natalia, with some drama. “Is the image that gave Dr. Cooper his immediate clue as to the nature of the creatures. The cloud you see is a cloud of very tiny bugs. Trillions, certainly. The opening is a tunnel the clever little things created as a means of avoiding the approaching spacecraft.”

Thom held the camera steadily on the screen and Nat saw him counting. Then the recorder turned back toward Nat. The old engineer felt his cheeks burn.

“Dr Cooper,” Natalia MacDougall asked earnestly. “What was your first thought when this picture first appeared before your eyes?”

Completely deadpan, Nat replied: “Trillions and trillions swerved.”

pluto

~fin~

*please note that images posted with this story were found at the http://www.nasa.gov site under the “Solar System & Beyond” link.

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