The science fiction epic of our time has arrived.Part One
Three years ago, an object one hundred miles across was spotted on a trajectory for Earth's sun. Now, its journey is almost over. As it approaches, two competing manned vehicles race through almost half a million kilometers of space to reach it first. But when they both arrive on the entity, they learn that it has been sent toward Earth for a reason. An intelligent race is desperately attempting to communicate with our primitive species. And the message is: Help us.
"To Find the Sea"
Near-Earth Objects are comets or asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood.
What if it comes from farther away?
Blue planet Earth and its seven billion human beings lay 440,000 kilometers belowor, given the arbitrary terminology of orientation in space, off to one side. If the sheer magnitude of the distance failed to provide a mind-boggling thrill, Zack Stewart could, by looking out the window, cover his home planet with his thumb.
That small gesture got the point across: he and his three fellow astronauts were farther away from Earth than any human beings in history.
Farther than the Moon.
Yet… they were still dealing with its politics, dragged down as completely as if trailing a 440,000-kilometer-long chain complete with anchor.
It irritated him. Of course, the fact that he had now been without sleep for thirty hours meant that everything irritated him. He was forty-three, a compact, muscular man with considerable experience in spaceflight, including two tours aboard the International Space Station. And now he was commander of Destiny-7, responsible for four lives and a multibillion-dollar spacecraft on a mission unlike any ever attempted.
He knew he should be pacing himself. But the stress of preparing for today's unprecedented maneuvers440,000 kilometers from Earth!had robbed him of sleep. Mission control in Houston had been uploading scripts for burns that would adjust Destiny's flight path, but the computer code was too fresh from some Honeywell cubicle and kept crashing. NASA called these commands e-procedures. To Zack, the e stood for error.
The process reminded him of the time he had tried to load Windows onto a laptop in Antarctica… with dial-up. Then as now, the only choice was to grind slowly through it.
He pushed away from the forward right window of the Destiny spacecraft and turned toward the lower bay ten feet away, where Pogo Downey had his 20/15 eyes pressed against the lenses of the telescope. "See anything yet?"
Pogo, born Patrick but rechristened in flight school, was a big, red-haired Air Force test pilot wearing a ribbed white undergarment that made him look like a Himalayan snow ape. "Nothing."
"There should be something." Something, in this case, would be a faint point of light against a field of brighter lights… Brahma, a crewed spacecraft launched toward Keanu by the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition… Destiny's competitors. "We've got two tracking nets looking for the son of a bitch," he said, as much for his own morale as for Pogo Downey's edification. "It's not as though they can hide."
"Maybe Brahma's pulling the same stuntyour gravity whatever."
"Gravity gauge." Destiny was about to make an unscheduled and unannounced burn that put the American spacecraft closer to Keanu than its Coalition challenger. "The wind is at your back, your opponent is in front of you. For him to attack, he's got to tack against the wind." Pogo still seemed unconvinced. "Didn't you ever read Horatio Hornblower? Where they mention weather gauge?"
"I'm not a big nautical fan, in case you haven't noticed." Pogo was fond of referring to astronauts with Navy backgrounds as pukes.
"Okay, then… it's like getting on their six." That was a fighter pilot term for getting behindin the six o'clock positionan opponent.
Now Pogo smiled. "Does that mean we can take a shot at them?"
"Don't get any ideas," Zack said, not wishing to open that particular subject at this time. "Besides, they can't pull the same stunt. Brahma's too limited in propellant and they're too nervous about guidance." The Coalition craft relied on Indian and Russian space tracking systems that were far less capable than the NASA Deep Space Network available to Destiny. "Just keep looking," he told Pogo, then floated back up to the main control panel.
The Destiny cabin had twice the interior volume of the Apollo spacecraft, which still wasn't much, especially with the tangle of cables and the two bulky EVA suits.
"Gotcha!" Pogo used a touchpad to slide a cursor over the image, clicking to send the image to Zack's screen. Only then did the pilot turn his head and smile crookedly. "RCS plume. Dumb bastards." The Air Force astronaut's contempt for the competing vessel, its crew, and its politics was well known. It had almost cost him a seat on this mission.
"Everybody's got to tweak their traj," Zack said. He actually sympathized with Brahma commander Taj Radhakrishnan and his crew. An experienced flight control team would not need to fire reaction control jetsRCSat this stage. But the Coalition had flown only three piloted missions total, and this was the first beyond low Earth orbit. Its control team, based in Bangalore, was naturally cautious.
Now the fuzzy image of Brahma appeared on Zack's screen, trajectory figures filling a window. "Houston, Destiny, through Channel B," Zack said, touching the send button on his headset. Without waiting for an acknowledgment, he added, "We have Brahma in the scope." Destiny's 440,000-kilometer distance caused a four-second lag for each end of a conversation. That was going to be increasingly annoying.
Sure enough, mission director Shane Weldon's reply was out of sync. "Go ahead, Destiny." It took several seconds to give Houston the information that Brahma had been spotted, and for Houston to confirm that the burn was still go.
Zack relinquished the left-hand pilot seat, then floated down to the telescope. To hell with Brahma… what he wanted to look at was Near-Earth Object Keanu.
Three years ago, a pair of amateur astronomersone in Australia, the other in South Africahad spotted a bright Near-Earth Object high in the southern sky… literally over the South Pole.
The NEO was designated X2016 K1an unknown ("X") body sighted in the first half of July 2016but, to the horror of professional astronomers, quickly became known by its more popular name, Keanu, after the actor who had played the iconic Neo in the Matrix movies.
Within days, as Keanu's size (more than a hundred kilometers in diameter) and trajectory (originating in the constellation Octans and heading sunward, passing close to Earth in October 2019) became clear, imaginative elements in the space community began to talk about a crewed mission to the NEO. A spacecraft already existedNASA's Destiny, designed for flights beyond earth orbit, to the Moon and Marsand to Near-Earth Objects.
But with budgets tight and benefits uncertainwhat would a crewed mission learn that a fleet of uncrewed probes couldn't discover for a tenth the cost?enthusiasm for the idea faded away as Keanu grew in brightness in the southern sky.
Until the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition announced that it was diverting its first planned lunar landing mission to Keanu. The first flag planted on its rocky, snowy surface would not be the Stars and Stripes.
That announcement triggered a frantic amount of replanning by NASA comparable to its fabled 1968 decision to send Apollo 8 around the Moon ahead of the Soviets. "It's going to be like NASCAR," Pogo Downey liked to say. "Only this time we might actually be swapping paint."
In search of an edge, NASA's great minds had cooked up several disinformation gambits. At this moment, the two other astronauts in Zack's crew, Tea Nowinski and Yvonne Hall, were talking on the open loop, visual and audio of their preparations from the Venture lander being fed through the NASA Deep Space Network. Meanwhile, Zack and Pogo did their dirty work on an encrypted loop transmitted via military satellites.
The last-minute gravity gauge prank had been forced on the Destiny crew when bad weather at the Cape allowed Brahma to launch a day ahead of them.
Much as he enjoyed the challenge of spoofing the Brahmans, it killed Zack to be looking for another spacecraft instead of the hundred-kilometer-wide bulk of Keanu, now less than two thousand kilometers away.
And invisible! Both Destiny and Brahma were approaching Keanu's dark side, just as several of the early Apollo missions had sneaked up on the Moonthe crew hadn't even seen the cratered surface until moments before making the burn that put them into lunar orbit.
If the gravity gauge maneuver echoed the age of sail, so did this night-side approach… it was like sailing toward a rocky coast on a moonless night in fog… undeniably dangerous.
And ten times as complicated. Zack was not a specialist in orbital dynamics, but he knew enough about the mind-boggling complexities of the intercept to make his head hurt.
Destiny and Brahma were falling toward Keanu a thousand kilometers and twenty-four important hours apart. Without this added burn, Destiny would arrive a day later.
Arrive where? Keanu was actually approaching Earth from below, almost at right angles to the plane of the ecliptic, where most planets of the solar system orbited. Both Destiny-Venture and Brahma had had to expend extra fuel to climb away from Earth's equator toward a point where Keanu would be in 4.5 days.
Complicating matters further, Destiny-Venture was now slowing down after having been flung out of Earth orbit by the powerful upper stage of its Saturn VII launcher.
And Keanu itself was speeding up as it fell toward its closest approach to Earth, passing just outside the orbit of the Moonthe brightest thing humans had ever seen in their night sky.
In order to sneak past Brahma, Destiny had to essentially hit the brakes… to fire Venture's engines directly into the path of flight. The burn would cause the vehicle to take up a lower orbit around Earth, where it would then be going much faster than Brahma.
The cost in fuel was immense, eating up six thousand of the vehicle's nine thousand kilograms of fuel. Destiny-Venture would have zero margin for errors in landing or eventual liftoff. But if it went as planned, twenty-four hours from now, Zack's crew would be on the surface of Keanu in time to welcome the crew of Brahma as they landed.
At which point, Zack fervently hoped, everyone's attention would turn to exploration of this unique body and the arguments would be over its nature and not issues as pointless as who got there first.
"Thirty minutes," Pogo announced, startling Zack out of a momentary reverieor nap. One more like that, and he would have to hit the medical kit for Dexedrine.
He blinked and took another look into the scope. The fuzzy white blob that was Brahma seemed to swell, then fade in brightness. The Coalition vehicle was cylindrical, so even if rotating it shouldn't be waxing and waning. "Pogo, do you see a hint of a halo around Brahma?"
"Sorry, got a different screen up at the moment"
"How's the prank coming?" Yvonne Hall emerged from the docking tunnel between Venture and Destiny in her heavy white EVA suit, minus the helmet.
"Careful!" Zack said. "We've got half a dozen different mikes going." He waggled both hands with index fingers extended. "You never know what's going to get fed where."
Yvonne's eyes went wide. An African American engineer who had worked with the Saturn launch team at the Cape, she was clearly not used to being corrected. It was another reminder to Zack that Yvonne, Patrick, and even Tea were not originally Zack's crew.
"Hey, sports fans." Tea joined them, a candy bar and a bag of trail mix in hand. Blond, athletic, the all-American girl, she was one of those types foundand, Zack suspected, deliberately selected by NASAin every astronaut group, the big sister who wants everyone to play nicely. "Do we need any snacks before the burn?
Yvonne took the trail mix and pulled herself toward Pogo's floating EVA suit. "Any time you're ready to don your armor, Colonel Downey…"
Meanwhile Tea launched a candy bar at Zack. "Here," she said. "Take a bite and get dressed."
Zack allowed Tea to literally tow him and his suit through the access tunnel. He tucked and tumbled, orienting himself properly inside Venture's cabin, a cylinder with a control panel and windows at the front end, and an airlock hatch on the back. "What's our comm situation?"
"You'll love this." Tea smiled and touched a button on the panel, allowing Zack to hear NASA's public affairs commentator. "Due to tracking constraints at the Australian site, direct communications with Destiny-7 will be unavailable for the next fifteen minutes. The crew is in no danger and will accomplish the burn as scheduled"
"Those guys are good," Zack said.
"We're all good, baby. And you'll be better if you get some rest." Tea knew he was operating without sleep.
"So now you're my nurse?"
"Just noticing that you're getting a little scope-locked." This was a term from Houston mission control, when some engineer would work a problem to death, ignoring food, sleep, and common sense.
But Tea knew better than to prolong the argument. She also had to concentrate on the tricky business of helping Zack into his EVA suit, a process that required gymnastic flexibility and brute strength and could rarely be accomplished in less than ten minutes. "And you're all buttoned up."
"T minus fifteen," Pogo called from the other side of the tunnel. "Are we gonna do this gauge thing or what?"
It was only when strapped to his couch in the second row next to Yvonne, behind the two occupied by Pogo, the actual pilot, and Tea, the flight engineer, that Zack allowed himself to relax.
Tea reached a hand back and took his, squeezing it. A simple gesture that triggered tears… partly from fatigue, from tension, but mostly from the memory of the strange events that had put him in this place, at this time. The events of two years past
Where was Rachel now? Was his daughter watching Destiny's flight from mission control? What was she thinking about her father? Zack could picture the look on her face, the unique mixture of love and exasperation. More of the latter than the former. He could almost hear her the way she would stretch the word Daddy across three syllables.
"Five minutes," Pogo said.
"How close are we?" Tea said. "I'm the navigator and I have a right to know."
"Fourteen hundred clicks from Keanu, give or take a few."
The four screens that dominated the Destiny cockpit were alive with spacecraft systems data, range and rate, timelines, numbers, images.
They would do this burn in the dark, without talking to Houston through either the open network or the encrypted one. Mission control wasn't worried about being overheard… but the Coalition had systems capable of detecting raw communications traffic, and even if the other side couldn't decrypt a message, just the heavy traffic load might give the game away.
"One minute," Pogo said.
The cockpit was now completely silent except for the hiss and thump of oxygen pumps.
The figures on the panel ran to zero.
Zack and the others heard a thump and felt themselves pressed forward into their straps, their only experience of gravity since launching from low Earth orbit.
"Thirty seconds," Pogo said. "Looking good."
Only now did Zack allow himself the luxury of looking ahead. Humans had been to the Moon eight times now, half a dozen during Apollo, two more since.
He and his crew would be the first to land on another body entirely… one that hadn't even been discovered until three years ago. It would have lower gravity, but water in the form of ancient snow and ice
"Ninety seconds. Still good."
And what else? From years of studying Keanu, he knew that it was pockmarked with deep craters and vents that occasionally spurted geysers of steam. Their landing target would be next to one such feature known as Vesuvius Vent.
It would be the adventure of a lifetime, of several lifetimes… if the equipment worked.
And if politics didn't interfere.
"Shutdown!" Pogo called. "Right on time, three minutes, sixteen seconds!"
It was Zack's job to make the call. "Houston, commander through Channel B," Zack said. "Burn complete, on time."
It took five seconds to hear, "We copy that, Destiny," from Weldon in mission control. "You are good to go. We'll be sending you updated figures ASAP."
Laughing nervously, the crew began to unstrap.
Then Tea said, "Oh my gosh, look at that."
Even hardened Pogo Downey gasped. Outside Destiny's three forward windows, Keanu's daylight side rose, its snowy, rocky surface flowing past below them. Zack thought, It's like hang gliding over Iceland
"Zack," Pogo said, refocused on the controls. "Houston's giving us an update on Brahma."
Zack felt a surge of alarm. "Did they make a burn, too?"
"No. Pretty pictures."
Zack looked at the image on the control panel.
It showed the cylindrical Brahmathe height of a six-story buildinghalf in shadow.
And sporting what looked like a missile attached to one side. "What the fuck is that?" Yvonne said.
"More to the point," Tea said, "how come we didn't see it before now?"
"They might not have deployed it before leaving Earth orbit," Zack said.
"And God forbid we should actually be looking at them when they were close," Pogo snapped. He was convinced that America routinely underestimated its rivals.
As Zack tried to comprehend the startling but real possibility that he could be in a space war, he heard Weldon's voice in his earphones. "Shane for Zack, Channel B. Did you notice anything funny about your burn?"
The phrasing was highly unusual, especially for Weldon, who was the most precise communicator in space history. Funny was not a word he would normally use. Tea and Patrick exchanged worried glances.
"What you do mean by funny, Houston?" Zack said, looking at Yvonne for support.
She gestured to the displays, nodding vigorously. "It was on time, proper orientation. If we had champagne, we'd pop the cork."
There was a moment of relative silence… the carrier wave hissing. Finally, Weldon said, "DSN noted an anomaly."
Anomaly? What the hell would the big dishes in Goldstone or Australia see that Destiny herself wouldn't see?
"Don't keep us guessing, Houston."
"There was a major eruption on Keanu."
Hearing this, knowing his crew was listening, too, Zack said, "Keanu's been venting periodically since we started watching." He was proud of himself for not adding, That's why we wanted to land here, assholes.
"This was substantially larger. Note the time hack."
"What the fuck is he talking about, the time hack?" Pogo snapped, clearly rattled. Not that it took much to set him off.
Zack looked at the figure uploaded from Houston. "Keanu started venting at 74:15.28 MET." Feeling a bit like a doctor delivering bad news to a patient's loved ones, he waited for the reaction.
"That was our burn time," Tea said, her eyes as wide as a six-year-old's.
"So some volcano on Keanu farted at the same moment, so what?" Pogo said. "The universe is full of coincidences."
"The same second?" Yvonne said.
The burly Air Force pilot loomed over her. "What are you saying?"
"Something on Keanu reacted to our burn."
Pogo's face went red. "Like what? Some alien anti-aircraft system? What are you going to hit with steam?" He pushed himself as far away from Yvonne as he could get without actually leaving Destiny.
Yvonne turned to Zack and Tea. "This is significant, isn't it? I'm not crazy."
"You're not crazy," Zack said. If she was, then he was, too. He was resisting a connection between their burn and the venting on Keanu, but only in the sense that a cancer patient is reluctant to accept a fatal diagnosis: He had experienced a sickening chill the moment he heard the time of the event, as if his body and his unconscious mind were simply better informed than his intellect.
Now his cool, rational, scientific, astronomically astute intellect had had time to do the math:
Destiny was hours away from beating Brahma to the first landing on a Near-Earth Object.
And they had no idea what they were going to find there.
The prospect was as terrifying as it was exciting.
Far below the solar plane, at a distance of 1.4 million kilometers—closer than the orbit of the planet Saturn—Keanu now becomes visible to even the most low-powered Earth-based telescopes, first as a point of light, then, at higher power, as a resolvable disk. Which is to say, a definable body.
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