Beep! Beep! Beep!
The red light blinked rapidly as the ATS system sounded a warning in the auxiliary control room.
Dr. Carl Ranson looked at his comm, it was 12:13 a.m. and he had been studying the outer asteroid belt surrounding Epsilon Eridani. The system was so much like that of our own. The first exoplanet discovered in that system was Epsilon Eridani b in 2000, which orbited its star on the far side of this belt. Since then, astronomers have found two exoplanets that orbited between the inner and outer belts and one of those was within Epsilon’s habitable zone.
Carl was a twenty-five-year-old computer genius. In fact, he had earned his doctorate degree in computer science by the time he was twenty-two. After completing that degree, he decided to earn his master's in astrophysics and was now attending the University of Colorado Boulder.
This was to be his last year in school before he started his training for the USSF: Outpost Deep Space Mission that the USSF was planning to launch in a year. Carl was spending time at the Sommers-Bausch Observatory to complete his thesis paper on exoplanets and had been meticulously studying the Epsilon Eridani Star System when the Asteroid Trajectory System, commonly known as ATS, began screaming at him.
“What is it now?” Carl mumbled, rolling his eyes. Spinning his chair towards the irritating noise. Everyone who wanted to use the observatory first had to be trained in the procedures that had to be done every time that the ATS system went off. So, sighing with annoyance at the interruption, he dutifully began the standard evaluation.
Viewing the data changes from the past few weeks, he began documenting the current data that scrolled across the screen. As Carl cross-examined the data to add notations on the differences, his eyes began to widen.
This can’t be right, he thought, once again, running through the data. Nearing panic, he picked up his Holo-Comm and called his friend at the Meyer-Womble Observatory.
Carl’s hands shook as he waited for the Holo-comm to connect. When he saw that the comm had connected, he blurted out, “Lena, check ATS…”
“It’s nearly 2’oclock in the morning, Carl,” a groggy Lena groaned. “Some of us enjoy sleeping. Besides, that system goes off all the time. Can’t this wait…”
“Lena!” he roared, cutting off her complaints.
“Geez… What’s gotten into you? Fine, just give me a minute.”
The view on the comm shifted to look at the wall as Lena peeled herself out of her bunk. Carl could hear sounds of movement as she was getting dressed. As the view of the comm switched back to view the tangled mass of bright copper curls that was Lena, a similar sound could be heard from the speaker of his Holo-Comm. It was faint at first but got louder before it was cut off.
“This better be important, Car. This is the first time I’ve had a chance for sleep in two days,” she said, rolling her eye at him much as he had done to the ATS system alarm earlier.
Carl watched as Lena’s eyes flicked back and forth as she began reviewing the data on her screen. He heard the clacks as her finger stuck each key and watched her tired, blood-shot, emerald-green eyes grow wider by second until a barely audible gasp escaped her lips.
“My god, Carl. How did we miss this?” she whispered.
“I was hoping it was another fluke. We need to tell Professor McNeil,” Carl said.
Lena took a deep breath as she visibly regained her composure.
“It’s two in the morning and the projections show that the event won’t happen for +/-912 days,” Lena began calmly, though the stress remaining in her tone belied her anxiety. “I’m coming to you. We need to check the calculations before we go starting a mass panic. I’ll be there by five.”
The screen went blank as she disconnected.
Hands still shaking, Carl put his holo-comm down on the desk. Mimicking Lena, Carl calmed himself with deep breaths until his frantic heartbeat calmed and his hands ceased their shaking. Standing unsteadily, he made his way to the equatorial room and programmed the coffee pot to begin brewing in two and a half hours. He was exhausted and it was going to be a long day.
Deciding to take a quick nap as he waited for Lena to arrive, he laid down on the cot that was set up in the corner of the room. Though he was exhausted, his mind raced with the implications of the data from ATS until finally, blessedly, the exhaustion overcame him, and he fell into a dreamless sleep.
“Wake up lazy bones, we have some serious caffeine to consume,” Lena said, kicking the cot Carl sprawled in.
Sitting up in the cot, he spun his legs over the edge and rubbed furiously at his sleep-crusted eyes. When he could see again, she shoved a steaming cup of coffee into his hands
“I brought the data that was collected at Meyers,” Lena said holding up a flash drive that hung on a lanyard around her neck. “I thought we could compare notes.”
Carl climbed to his feet and followed as Lena strode to the Auxiliary control room. Taking sips of the hot beverage in his hand, he watched as Lena’s lean body swayed.
“Sounds great,” Carl mumbled distractedly as he admired the woman’s physique.
“Quit staring at my ass and pay attention,” she snapped. “You’re the one who called me, remember.”
“I’m not staring at your…”
“Sure, you aren’t. Come on, we have a lot of work to do.”
Lena grabbed the only seat at the computers, forcing Carl to retrieve another from the office. Rolling it over, he reached past her and selected the data on the screen that they needed to see.
They spent several hours comparing and calculating before finally determining that they were reasonably sure there were no mistakes.
“One would be hard enough to combat. How could we even begin to contend with hundreds? And those are only the ones we can see. There could be thousands,” Lena said, clearly troubled.
“We can’t,” Carl replied, rubbing the bridge of his nose. The nap he had taken earlier had been far too short and exhaustion was beginning to cloud his mind again. “The calculations are sound. It’s time to make the comm.”
Agreeing, she grabbed her Holo-comm and entered Professor McNeil’s comm ID. Turning back to the computer, she forwarded a summary of their findings to the Professor’s inbox as she waited for the comm to connect.
Carl walked back to the coffee maker, making himself another cup, and sat back down in his chair. He must have dozed off because he felt the sudden shake of Lena’s hand on his arm as he heard her ending the communication.
“Alright, we’ll be ready,” she said, ending the comm. “Go grab a weekend bag and take a shower. You can nap on the plane. A Cruiser will be here for us in an hour.”
“Huh,” Carl mumbled.
“Come on Carl, you need to be quick.”
“How do you have so much energy?” Carl grumbled moodily as he got to his feet.
“Monster, Monster, coffee, and more Monster. I’ll probably crash too when we get in the air.”
Lena watched Carl leave to take a shower and grab his things. Now that she had some privacy, she headed to the viewing deck that was just outside of the observatory. She took her comm out again, this time calling her aunt who lived in Castle Rock. She entered Beverly’s comm ID and waited for her aunt to answer.
Lena held a Ph.D. in Robotic Engineering from WPI and had been offered positions at two prestigious engineering firms, Richland’s Robotics in San Jose, California, and Dynamic Technologies in Denver, Colorado. She had been planning on accepting the position with Richland’s Robotics, when Kim, a friend of hers who worked at the United States Space Force, had told her about a mission that the USSF was planning to make in five years.
Kim had explained to her that the spots were competitive and that Lena would need to have some education in the field of Astronomy to gain one of the limited positions. Taking the advice to heart, Lena had turned down the positions at both firms to pursue a degree in Astrophysics.
When Lena had been eight, her parents had died in a tragic accident when one of the ion engines malfunctioned in their StemSy ValiantS2 and sent them tumbling down the side of a mountain. She had then been sent to live with her closest living relatives, her mother’s sister Beverly. She had been raised alongside her younger cousins. Aunt Beverly had been great to her, treating her as if she were one of her own children.
Her parents had not left her bereft. Cynthia and John Fitzpatrick had both been corporate attorneys and since Lena was their only child, their entire estate had gone to her. Aunt Beverly had safeguarded that inheritance and had sued StemSy for negligence which had paid out handsomely, adding to her already substantial wealth.
When Lena told her aunt that she wanted to become a robotic engineer, her aunt had supported her ambitions and had paid for Lena to attend camps and private schools to get her closer to her goals. She owed so much to her aunt and had a remarkably close relationship with her and her family.
When the Holo-comm finally chimed, a woman with a severe bun of chestnut brown hair and a broad smile became visible on the screen.
“Hi honey, how are you doing?” Beverly answered.
“I am well. How are you and the family?”
“We are doing great! Jordan is nervous about his senior year and Jennifer is already working on her science fair project. She’s following after you, you know. Her project this year has something to do with medical robotics,” Beverly said.
“That’s wonderful,” Lena replied, genuinely happy for her younger cousin. “Do you have a moment to talk?”
“I’m on my lunch hour, what’s going on?”
Lena took a deep breath, “Listen, Aunt Beverly, I have some news…” Lena began and continued on to explain what she and Carl had discovered.
“Are you sure?” Beverly said, worriedly.
“Pretty sure. We have shown Professor McNeil our findings and now we are going to D.C.”
“Dear God,” Beverly whispered.
“I will give you a call when I am on my way back. Maybe they will come up with a plan. I love you, Aunt Beverly.”
“I love you too honey. Will you please come home when you leave D.C.?”
“You bet,” Lena promised as she ended the comm.
She hated hearing the worry in her aunt’s tone, but she would not let her only family find out by watching the news. Stuffing the Holo-comm back in her pocket, Lena headed back into the observatory as Carl came in, hair still dripping water in rivulets with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
“That was fast,” Lena said.