From the author: The expected return of an artificial comet creates unexpected opportunities for scientists and SpaceForce.
WHAT GOES AROUND
by Stephen Dedman
Allen was staring at the sky and waiting for the Leonids when his wristphone rang. He jumped at the unexpected sound: he disliked telephones, and used his so rarely he’d never bothered getting it implanted. Wondering who would ring his unlisted number at this hour of the morning, he flipped the phone open without looking at the screen. The sky interested him more, and he had an old-fashioned fondness for watching it in real time, even though he knew that most of what he was seeing was centuries old. “Yes?” he said.
“Did I disturb you?” asked Leila. “I knew you’d be up.”
One day, he thought sourly, he’d have to reprogram the filter on his phone so that his ex-wife’s calls went straight to voice-mail. Or wife, strictly speaking; they’d been separated for nearly three years, but hadn’t bothered filing for divorce. “What is it?”
“Someone told me about your application to use Cyclops, and I was wondering if we could help in any way.”
‘We,’ Allen knew, meant Leila and her new girlfriend Jordan, who was also one of her colleagues at SpaceForce. “I didn’t realize that fell under your jurisdiction,” he said guardedly. The exact nature of Leila’s job was meant to be a secret; she could no more talk about her work with friends than she could talk about her friendships at work. Even the title of her doctoral thesis was classified. Allen, who had been her astrophysics tutor in her freshman year, suspected that there were some in the Pentagon who would have liked to excise parts of his memory: the fact that they hadn’t, indicated to him that this wasn’t possible with current technology, which sometimes struck him as unfortunate. He would cheerfully have given up that information in exchange for being able to forget some things, including the arguments he and Leila had had when she’d allowed herself to be recruited.
“It doesn’t. Someone recognized your name, and thought I’d be interested – but that was all they told me.”
Allen grimaced. “Have you heard of Orpheus – I mean, AC19?” SpaceForce frowned on non-Christian mythology; their historical revisionists had even re-named the Mercury and Apollo programs, and usually referred to Cyclops as the Brazilian Multi-Frequency Array.
“The artificial comet?”
“Yes. Launched on the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11. Gave us the best look we’ve ever had at Pluto, then out to the Oort Belt.”
“What –“ There was a microsecond pause as Leila did the math. “It’s due back?”
“Assuming it’s still vaguely intact, yes. No-one’s tried listening for it for nearly thirty years; the signal was fading, and the project’s budget was cut. But if it is on its way back and still transmitting, it should get close enough to Earth for Cyclops to pick up the signal. Better still, if it can receive, we should be able to reprogram its computer and get it to upload all the data it’s stored since ‘69. Of course, if they’d finished building that telescope at Congreve…”
“Are you sure you need Cyclops? There are smaller arrays…”
“And anything that’s likely to be sensitive enough is under SpaceForce control. If Orpheus was broadcasting at full power, someone would have detected it by now. Either the power source is failing, or the antenna is damaged or out of alignment, or it’s gone into standby… any number of things could have happened since we lost contact with it.”
“How close will it come?”
“If nothing in the Oort interfered with its trajectory, it should pass just inside a million klicks from Earth on its way towards the sun. Do you remember what that is in miles?” he said, and immediately regretted it.
“Yes,” she said, wearily. The U.S. was the only country on Earth not to use the metric system, which made things difficult for its remaining scientists. “Will it be visible?”
“If the solar panels open… then yes, in theory, at least from the southern hemisphere. I haven’t seen any sign of it yet – and believe me, I’ve been looking.”
“Hmm. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks,” he muttered. “Bye.” He stared at the buttons on the phone, trying to remember which was the off switch.
* * *
Major Robert Rand looked at the letter with deep suspicion. “I don’t see what this has to do with electronic defense,” he said carefully. He’d done a year of engineering before transferring to the MBA course, and while he’d retained a working grasp of the vocabulary and the mathematics, he often felt out of his depth when talking to the scientists nominally under his command. He also disapproved of women in the military, even in non-combat roles, and Leila in particular struck him as being little more than a civilian in midnight blue fetishwear.
“It’s a useful test of our tracking and signal recognition procedures,” Leila said, standing rigid in front of his realwood(TM) desk and looking past him towards the Washington Monument. “What if one of our rockets went astray? Would we be able to tell it from a piece of space junk – or a hostile?”
“What would a hostile be doing beyond the Moon?”
“If people knew we weren’t looking there, it’d be the perfect place to hide something. And isn’t it still policy that the Mars program is on hold, not cancelled?”
Rand snorted; promises of a manned mission to Mars had been repeated so often that they were no longer funny. “What makes you think this thing is still functional?”
“The reactor was designed to power it for at least 150 years. It’s barely half that old.”
“What would happen if it crashed?”
Leila blinked. “There’s no reason to think it will…”
“This guy says he can’t be absolutely sure of its trajectory.”
“Not absolutely sure, but… isn’t that all the more reason to try to track it?”
“Point,” Rand conceded. “Okay, I’ll have these figures checked and get back to you. Dismissed.”
Leila saluted, and walked back to her lab. Jordan didn’t look up from her monitor as the door opened. “Any luck with Major Bland?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
“Seems to me you’re sticking your neck out a long way to do a favour for an ex. Particularly when you keep telling me he’s an asshole.”
“Only sometimes. And this isn’t just for Allen: it’d be good to do something just for pure science for once, without having to worry about the military applications.”
“If you keep talking like that you’ll end up like him, marooned on some godforsaken island and living off charity with nothing but a telescope for company.”
“I thought that was why you left him?”
“It was one reason. I said the telescope was too isolated, the accommodation too small, and it wasn’t a good place to bring up children. He said the logical answer to that was not to have children. I think we’d both like to take back a lot of the things we said after that.”
“Sorry. The department of revisionist history is across the river.” She looked at her watch. “Bland’s going to be leaving for his golf game in a few minutes. You want to get out of here?”
* * *
Rand smiled as Leila walked back into his office and stood at attention the regulation distance from his desk. It had been three weeks since he’d promised to look into the AC19 matter, and she’d wondered if he’d forgotten it. “Good news,” the major said. “We’ve found your piece of space junk – at least, we have a radar echo of something the right size on the right trajectory. Your husband’s calculations were spot-on; we should be able to keep track of it without any problems.”
Leila smiled as she saluted. “Thank you, sir.”
“Should be quite an interesting exercise. We may even manage to time it so that the detonation will be visible from here.”
Leila felt her stomach do a flip-flop. “Detonation?”
“We can’t run the risk of that much plutonium re-entering the atmosphere.”
“You’re going to destroy it?”
“Yes. As you said, it’s a good test of the system.”
“I meant the tracking system! The chances of it hitting Earth are negligible!”
“So are the chances of our hitting it,” said Bland, dryly, “but if we miss it, and it misses us, who’ll know? Or care?”
* * *
“Target practice?” Jordan repeated, removing her datashades to get a clearer look at her partner’s expression.
“I wish I’d kept my mouth shut,” said Leila, glumly.
“It’s usually the best policy, around here,” Jordan agreed. “Look, you know they’ll probably miss – why ruin more than a hundred years of missile defense tradition? And if Asshole’s calculations are right, it’ll be back in another seventy-eight years with even more data…”
“Maybe. And even if it does, it’ll have even less transmitting power, probably none. No, there’s got to be a way to do this. And don’t call him that.”
“What can you do? Replace the warheads with tiny astronauts?”
“I wish. I…” She blinked. “Actually… that’s…”
Jordan rolled her eyes. “I know that expression. That’s your ‘let’s have a baby’ expression.”
“I wasn’t –“
“You know the military’s rules about compulsory paternity testing. If the baby’s not your husband’s, you –“
Leila leaned across the desk and kissed her. “This is a different sort of baby. Did I ever tell you you’re a genius?”
“I’ll make it up to you. Do you have that list of the sensors on the AC-19?”
“Yes. It covers the spectrum from 200 nanometers to two meters. It’s quite a nifty package, considering the size of the antenna, the age of the computer, and the fact that the software hasn’t been updated since before we were born.”
Leila smiled. That spanned the range from near ultraviolet into television and FM radio. “Can you get dinner tonight? I have some work to do.”
* * *
“Lasers?” said Rand, looking at her proposal with his forehead handsomely furrowed. “But they have an even worse record than anti-missile missiles. Sure, they’re more accurate, but the power requirements, even in a vacuum…”
“Not a laser,” said Leila. “A maser. Microwave, not light: ten to a hundred millimeter wavelengths. And we can generate a strong enough beam using existing antennae, if we use enough of them. It’s a pity we never finished building the Congreve telescope on Farside, but Cyclops should be able to do the job if all the antennae put enough power on the one spot and send out a synchronized pulsed wave…”
Rand looked unconvinced. “You’re sure of these figures?”
“Within the usual margin of error,” she said, innocently. “I should be able to get them peer reviewed in time. And since it won’t require much in the way of new equipment, it’ll be cheaper than a salvo of missiles.”
“I’ve already told the ABM teams to prepare the missiles,” said Rand. “They’re quite excited about it. You want me to tell them to cancel?”
Leila thought quickly. That would arouse suspicion among the anti-missile missile enthusiasts, and might lead them to check her figures. “That’s up to you, sir. Of course it makes sense to have a backup plan, and I don’t know enough about the budgetary considerations…”
As she’d expected, Rand blinked at the mention of money, and sat there for a moment weighing up the pros and cons. “I’ll talk to the accountants,” he said, “and let you know what th – we decide.”
* * *
Three weeks later, Leila was standing in Mission Control wondering whether she looked as nervous as she felt. The big board ahead showed eight missiles converging on the Orpheus, and she looked down at her monitor waiting for the antennae to start transmitting. If she’d miscalculated…
“I have detonation!” said one of the ABM team; then, before the cheering had entirely died down. “Premature! Da – uh, darn!”
Leila gripped the edge of her console as the other seven missiles exploded or went badly off-course. She’d had to call in a lot of favours to get the self-destruct codes for all the warheads, and she could only hope that no-one noticed them among the transmissions. “Are we still tracking the thing?” Rand asked, smoothly.
“Yes,” said one of the team. “It still seems to be on course… but it’s breaking up…”
“You mean we hit it?”
“I think… hold on… no… it’s a bigger signal, but it’s stable. Something may have come loose.”
Leila swallowed a sigh of relief. Orpheus had received the order to open the solar panels, and acted on it. Now, even if it didn’t get the transmission antenna aligned perfectly, it should soon start sending out a sufficiently powerful radio message that Cyclops – or some other SpaceForce array - would pick it up.
“Definitely stable,” the man said, puzzled.
“It’s not going to hit us?”
“Not on this trajectory. But we’ve started picking up a radio signal from the object.”
Rand turned to Leila. “When are you going to fire the masers?” he asked.
“We started transmitting high-power pulses three minutes ago,” said Leila. “But it doesn’t seem to be doing any damage.”
“I’m not sure. Either the beams aren’t converging on exactly the right spot, or they’re not synchronized perfectly, or the power isn’t sufficient… oh, blast!”
“It’s just a guess… but I think we may have made a mistake converting from metric.”
* * *
“I have good news and bad news,” Leila told Allen. “I managed to send out a powerful enough signal from Cyclops that we could reboot Orpheus’s computer and tell it to start transmitting again. We’ve downloaded all the data it sent us, and updated its software. None of the missiles damaged it.” She stuck her tongue into her cheek for a moment. “Something seems to have interfered with their guidance systems. It may even have been our transmissions.”
He grinned back at her. “And the bad news?”
“The data we downloaded… well, it’s officially a military secret.”
“The signal from Orpheus wasn’t powerful enough for the civilian telescopes to pick up. I’m lobbying to get it declassified,” she said, hastily, “but it has to go through a committee, and you know how long that can take.”
“Can’t you leak it?”
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Of…” Allen began, then shut his mouth. “Not one that big.”
“Exactly. If anyone found out I was the source of the leak, I’d be court-martialled. And if they suspect that I sabotaged the missiles, I could be shot.” She tried to smile. “But if all else fails, it should all be released in thirty years under freedom of information.”
“You’re an astronomer! Thirty years isn’t that long. You’ll only be seventy-three.”
“Seventy-two,” he corrected her, automatically.
“Well, our kids should be young enough to enjoy it.”
“We didn’t have any kids!”
“I know,” she said. “But Jordan and I were thinking of trying and… well, we need a donor. And you know the military’s position on paternity testing, don’t you? If the DNA doesn’t match yours, I could be dishonourably discharged as undesirable.”
Allen shook his head, but couldn’t hide a smile. “That would be totally unjust.”
“Thank you. So, do you have space there for a couple of visitors?”
This story originally appeared in Aurealis #38/39.
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