The Orthogonal Galaxy

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Chapter 12

“Hello, Reyd,” said Kath cheerfully as she leaped through the door of the common room.

Reyd Eastman gave a start. “Kath. Joram. Glad you could finally make it.” He frowned while looking at his watch. “Zimmer’s been asking for you guys for a while now.”

Joram’s eyes widened in concern. “What did he say, Reyd?”

“Something about finding some more reliable grad students to make history by studying one of the most bizarre astronomical phenomena to occur in the last century.” Reyd’s smirk gave away his practical joke.

Kath, who by now had approached to within arms distance, slugged Reyd in the shoulder. “You need to practice your poker face! By the way, why didn’t you ride down with us?”

“Oh, I have an aunt who lives in Lake Elsinore, so I stayed at her place last night. It breaks up the drive nicely.”

The trio turned towards the door as they heard it fly open. Professor Zimmer marched briskly into the room. “Ah, Joram. Kath… Glad you could finally make it. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to find some more reliable graduate students to make history by studying one of the most bizarre astronomical phenomena to occur in the last century.”

With jaws dropped, Kath and Joram turned quickly to Reyd, who could only shrug his shoulders with as much surprise as they. Did Zimmer overhear their conversation?

“Just kidding, you two,” smiled the professor.

“Professor, you seem rather chipper this evening,” Kath observed.

“Ah, that’s because I have just heard some great news, Kath!”

“What’s that?”

“I received a call from Dr. Gilroy at Johnson. An observatory has yielded an encouraging piece of evidence. It appears that our Martian astronauts are…” Zimmer paused for effect and then lowered his voice to a whisper, which was betrayed by the twinkle in his eye, “…alive!”

Kath let out a screech, Reyd sighed with much relief, and Joram applauded.

“How did they discover that, Professor?” asked Joram eagerly.

“Turns out that they left a message with some of the rubbish: S.O.S, it spells. They were able to trace two sets of footprints leading to the opening where they were able to lay out the letters with a series of beams to make the three block letters needed.”

“Professor, I saw the destruction,” pointed out Reyd. “There was nothing left standing. How could they survive that?”

“Apparently, the last communication that we had with the astronauts occurred while they were in the bunker—deep under ground. They were supposed to be on their way to a maintenance task, but they had forgotten a set of tools in the bunker.”

Kath breathed deeply. “What a stroke of luck… what a miracle!”

Changing conversation abruptly, Zimmer announced, “Now, I must inform you that I will not be able to assist your efforts in the observatory tonight. I must attend a meeting of some urgency. You three will have to proceed on your own. You have the information from our meeting on campus earlier this week, correct?”

The three nodded their heads as Zimmer eyed his three students for their affirmative response. “Good!” he said clapping his hands. “You may proceed to the observatory to begin your preparations for the evening.”

Zimmer left the room, closing the door behind him with a pace that was quicker than his entrance.

“I wonder what that was all about,” Kath mused with her hands on her hips.

“Dunno. But let’s go make history!” Joram directed with excitement. This was the team’s first trip back to Palomar, and he had been eager to continue exploring ever since they returned back to the university.

The trio of graduate students huddled around the main control panel of the observatory. For the first couple of hours, the team organized themselves as best as they could without their mentor. They poured over the data that had been collected from the resident astronomers, as well as that of other observatories around the globe.

First looking at optical data collected from their very own 26” telescope, they were able to conclude that the brightness of the yellow beam was growing steadily in intensity. In the past week, the apparent magnitude of the beam had gone from a barely visible 6.3 when it was first detected to its present 1.3, making it as bright as some of the brightest stars in the sky. They had been able to calculate that the beam was about 120 miles wide and passed by Mars at a minimum distance of 12,500 miles—a near miss in astronomical terms—and that the line was perfectly parallel to the plane of the Milky Way. This was a significant contribution, and allayed much of the tension and concern surrounding the beam.

There were still many lay people who were swayed by the media to conclude that it had to be an alien spaceship, but the scientific community had concluded convincingly that this was very likely a galactic phenomenon, because of its orientation to the plane. Nevertheless, in the back of everyone’s mind was the fact that some radiation event began exactly in the direction of the beam, and that it was detectable from Earth, from the Sun, and on Mars around the same point in time—evidence, say the visionaries that it must have been a space craft emitting the radiation as it passed by at very high speeds—perhaps even nearing the speed of light—and that the trail left behind was simply the exhaust of the passing UFO.

Reyd was the first to broach the subject. “You know what the media is saying don’t you?”

Kath shivered at the allusion. “It’s easy for them to spew off irrelevant theories. It’s harder for me to scientifically study this phenomenon with the thought that just maybe I don’t want to discover what the source of it is.”

“Oh, Kath,” rebutted Reyd. “It would be a marvelous discovery to learn of extra-terrestrial intelligence. You know Zimmer has been eager in this subject for some time.”

“What, the parallel earth?”

“Sure, I mean, what comes with a parallel earth?” Reyd paused too short for either of his peers to craft an answer. “Parallel beings! That’s what comes from a parallel earth!”

“But if that was a spaceship, then we have no parallel. And if the conspiracy theorists are right, our solar system just got buzzed by some alien ship scouting out our neighborhood. And look at the damage which that one ship caused on Camp Mars. Now that the scout has buzzed us, the rest of the troops will move in and take over. It could be the end of us, Reyd. I don’t want to discover our Armageddon.”

“Kath, you worry too much.” Changing subjects Reyd asked her, “So what is your theory, then? What is that thing?” Reyd pointed to the screen where some of the latest images of the beam twinkled mysteriously.

“I… I don’t know.”

“Jor. What do you think?” Reyd turned to his other colleague.

“Wha? Huh?” Joram had completely missed the conversation as he scoured the data.

“Could this be a UFO, Joram?”

“UFO? C’mon, Reyd,” Joram snorted. “You need to pay more attention to the data, and less attention to the media.”

Quickly changing the subject back to their research, Joram announced, “There is no telling how long this thing is. I mean, it could be several light-years long.”

“What?” Reyd and Kath synchronized their stunned response.

“Why is that so surprising?” Joram turned away from the monitor to look at his colleagues. “Just because we’ve only seen measurable effects from our inner Solar System… don’t think that the thing is local to us. Where does the beam begin? And where does it end?”

After a pause, Reyd said, “Why don’t you tell us, Joram? You seem to be the authority on the subject.”

“No,” Joram tried to avoid a confrontation. “I’m just like you two… trying to learn what the heck this is.”

“Sorry, Joram,” Reyd reined in his aggressiveness. “So tell us. Why do you think it is so sizable?”

“Visual clues indicate that for at least 7000 Astronomical Units in both directions, the beam has at least the same absolute magnitude. Thus, I wonder how much farther the beam extends in both directions before it fades? But more importantly, what the heck is causing such a phenomenon? It is so strange.”

“It must be some jet of radiation, and if we can figure out which way it is coming from, we can go back and find the star that is giving it off,” suggested Reyd.

“Which way do we go? We don’t really know which way it originated? Nor do we really know its heading. We only know how far it is from Mars,” Joram responded.

“Well, we can figure out its heading if we get one or two more location points. Can we measure it against any other planets?” Kath asked. “If we can get some triangulated data, we should be able to calculate its distance to other planets via parallax.”

Parallax is exactly what astronomers used to calculate its distance from Mars. By collecting visual data from two different observatories, at extreme latitudes, they could see the relative difference in the two images. In an image shot from a North American observatory, the beam would appear to be just South of the Martian equator. The opposite would be the case for a South American observatory. Since Mars is relatively close enough to Earth to perform just such a calculation, scientists were able to observe that the beam passed by Mars at a distance of just 12,500 miles. This allowed astronomers to calculate that its distance from Earth was over 100 times as much at about 1.4 million miles.

Earth-based parallax—using points on opposite sides of the Earth—worked very well for finding distances when the measurement was in the inner Solar System. But such calculations would be more difficult when trying to measure the distance of the beam from, say, Neptune, or Jupiter. Instead, the team would need to use a point farther away from Earth.

As the team had mentioned this point, Reyd suggested, “The Kepler3 telescope! A moon-orbiting telescope should enhance our parallax, don’t you think?”

“Um… we don’t exactly have access to Kepler3,” pointed out Kath.

“Actually, we sort of do!” said Reyd. This piqued Kath and Joram’s curiosity as they shot a quick glance at each other. “Zimmer has access to the Kepler3 through his Parallel Earth team. I actually know a couple of the team members. If I explain our situation, I think we can get some help from the team.”

“Well, giddyup!” Kath said as she slapped Reyd on the back.

With that, Reyd dialed his cell phone and engaged in a conversation with a fellow graduate student. Kath and Joram strained to follow at least half of the conversation. Within a couple of phone calls, and a few minutes of precious observatory time, Reyd hung up his phone and gave a thumbs up.

“Keelor Jefferies is gonna call me back in about 10 minutes. He’s briefing the current Kepler3 astronomers. What we need to find are planets in the vicinity of the beam.”

Reyd sat down at the main control terminal and dialed up the database on the Solar System. Within one minute he had a space map depicting the current locations of all of the planets.

“Boy, not too many are in good position. They’re either on the other side of the Sun, or they’re simply not close enough to the trajectory.”

“Yeah, we’re looking for a line like this,” Joram indicated as he drew an invisible line on the monitor with a pencil he found on the console.

“Could Uranus work?” Kath said. “A bit far, but maybe we can get an image with the beam and Uranus together. I’m thinking that Saturn is a better choice, but it would be nice to have a third point along the line, so we can convince ourselves that we have the line correctly calculated.”

“What about some dwarf planets, Reyd?” asked Joram.

“Good question. Let me dial those into this map.”

As a handful of the larger dwarf planets appeared on the map, Joram pointed to a promising candidate. “Eris! Right there!”

“Good call, Jor!” Reyd congratulated. “I like the fact that we can find a point farther out in the solar system, too, as that will give us two pretty distant points to more accurately project the line. Hey, wasn’t Eris discovered here as well?”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” said Kath. “That’s kind of cool... using Eris to help us with another important discovery right here at Palomar.”

“Let’s get this thing pointed at Eris,” Reyd said as he stood and proceeded towards the telescope platform. Joram and Kath followed, as both were eager to see and learn the controls of the telescope. Reyd was the only member of the team to have previously been trained by Zimmer on the telescope controls.

Within a few minutes, Reyd had the coordinates dialed into the telescope, and it whizzed to its new location.

“Joram, do you remember enough of the console to be able to feed back the quality of the image to me?”

“I think so.”

Joram descended from the telescope platform, and Kath followed behind as Reyd’s cell phone rang.

“Keelor! Thanks for calling back… yeah… point that thing at Eris, would you… be sure to grab the exact coordinates from Palomar-26. They’re currently dialed in exactly where we want, so you should be able to get them from the intranet… We’ll also need an image on Saturn… Just give us something with the beam, we can adjust the zoom of the image to overlay with ours later… Yeah, I’ll bring up Kepler live on the monitor in just a moment… Hey, thanks man… this is really going to help us move this effort forward… sure… I’ll give you a call tomorrow and let you know… Yeah, you too.”

When Reyd hung up, Joram announced, “Looks good, Reyd, but we can zoom in a little to get a better calculation from the image.”

“Sure thing… how’s that?” Reyd asked.

“Great. Come take a look.” Joram responded. “We got really lucky with Eris, because it has such an eccentric orbit.”

“How so?” asked Kath.

“It’s way out of the plane of the solar system, but it’s close to intercepting the plane right now, and the positioning couldn’t be better to measure a second point along the line.”

Reyd rolled up his sleeve, and looked at his watch. 10:49 PM. There was still plenty of time in the evening for making some observations and calculations. For a couple of hours the students pointed the telescope at Eris and Saturn respectively, collecting images, comparing them to Kepler3, situated nearly a quarter million miles from Earth. With scientific calculators, computers, and plain old pencil and paper, the students worked out the various calculations based on parallax between Palomar-26 and Kepler3.

“Ok, there’s our line!” said Reyd after looking at his watch. “2:12 AM! Where does the time go?”

He stood up and walked away from the console with both hands behind his neck, working out some tightness in his neck and shoulders. He looked back to see Joram huddled over the console, while Kath watched intently. She knew Joram Anderswellenough to know that he was concerned with something.

“I think we need to rework these numbers,” he announced.

“What do you mean?” asked Reyd. “We got three points, and they come darn near to as straight of a line as can be expected.”

“But it’s not perfectly straight,” Joram answered.

“Well, of course not… there will be some error in measurement, and perhaps some round-off error in our calculations.” Reyd returned to the console, agitated at his colleague’s perfectionism.

A look of deep intent and concern clouded Joram’s expression. He drew his lips into a tight line before blurting out, “Look, guys. Our so-called line bends in towards Saturn. Either we’ve calculated the distance to Saturn too close, or the distance to Eris too far.”

“Or,” Reyd suggested, “we don’t have a valid measurement for the distance to Mars.”

“I think Mars is our reference point.” Joram shook his head. “It should be the one we can get closest too. Besides, several different teams of professional astronomers all agree on the number. We’re just a trio of grad students. I’m guessing we’re more likely to be wrong. Let’s just rework the numbers.”

“Joram, that’ll take another hour!”

“It’ll be an hour well spent.”

Reyd disagreed, especially when he looked at his watch at 3:04 AM when a fresh stab at the calculations provided effectively the same exact results.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and grab fresh images. Perhaps we botched the time or coordinates of one of our shots.” Noticing that Reyd was displeased with this suggestion, he continued. “I’m sorry, Reyd. I just think that if we can’t nail this line exactly down, then when we trace it back to find its source, the margin of error is going to cause us to miss the source of the beam altogether.”

“Ok, we still have tomorrow night to start our trace,” Reyd agreed.

Kath jumped in. “I agree with Joram. Besides, this is our research project, gentlemen. We’re not just in this for the weekend, but for the long haul. Let’s not forget that it could take an appreciable amount of our graduate education to solve this puzzle. We just need to be patient and careful with our work.”

With a fresh set of images, and a clean slate for calculations, the team ended up with yet the same results.

“I can’t believe this,” said Reyd. “It’s 5:15, and we’re no farther than we were hours ago. Well, now we’re running out of nighttime to do anymore data collection for today.”

Joram didn’t hear Reyd’s tirade, but instead continued to focus on the data. Just as Reyd was about to storm out of the observatory, Joram called. “Reyd! Kath! I think I know what’s happening!”

“Whatcha got, Joram?” Kath was the first by his side.

“It looks very close to a line, because it is very close to a line, but it’s really an arc—an orbital arc.”

“An orbit!” exclaimed Reyd in disbelief. With a deprecating smile on his face, he asked skeptically. “What exactly would it be orbiting, Joram?”

Joram looked up at his colleagues. “It’s orbiting the Milky Way—in other words, it is orbiting our very own galactic core. It’s an orbital object, you guys!”

“Explain,” replied Reyd skeptically.

Joram retraced his calculations with his partners. “Our solar system is 26000 light years away from the galactic core, right? That’s a circumference greater than 1010 Astronomical Units. The distance from Mars to Eris is about 100 AUs, so we’re talking a ratio of 1 to 108. Now, on my calculator, if I divide 360 by 108, and then multiply by 60 arc minutes and follow that with 60 arc seconds and then by 1000 for milliarcseconds. We’re looking at a mere milliarcsecond. That small of an arc is always going to look like a line, but the deviation that I had pointed out matches perfectly with the arc that I just described.”

“So you think this thing is orbiting the galaxy?” Reyd wrinkled his brow as he let the concept settle.

“Yes.” Joram affirmed. “Definitely!”

Both heard a suppressed sob from behind them and turned to see a horrified Kath staggering backwards and growing very pale. Joram jumped out of his seat and raced to her and braced her by wrapping his arm around her waist.

“Kath, you’re not feeling well. What’s wrong?” Joram asked as Reyd arrived with a chair.

“Sit down, Kath,” instructed Reyd.

Her gaze was fixed towards the console, but the blankness of her expression was clear that she was focusing on some point much farther away… perhaps on the yellow beam itself.

Shaking her head vigorously, she came back to her senses. “Guys, listen… this thing is growing brighter, isn’t it?”

“Well… yes… we do know that,” Reyd answered.

“Don’t you see? Maybe it’s not actually orbiting the galaxy. Maybe it’s emanating away from the galactic core. It’s… it’s like a ripple. Throw a pebble in a pond, and the ripple continues outward, right?”

“Great point, Kath!” Joram said. “All this time, we were assuming that it was a trail of some sort, but maybe it is some light coming from the center of the galaxy.”

“Not just light, Joram! It’s carrying some sort of annihilating radiation with it. Something powerful enough to obliterate Camp Mars.”

“Not so, Kath.” Joram argued. “The beam is on the inside of Mars with respect to the galactic core.”

“Joram… that’s just the visible ripple. There must be another invisible ripple ahead of it which is carrying the destructive force.” She looked up at the two men, each more concerned about her well-being than a beam of emanating radiation. She propelled herself out of the chair and raced to the monitors where a smattering of the evening’s images were still available, each showing the glow of a yellow streak.

“Guys, listen to me! You don’t get it, do you? That thing is heading… towards… Earth!”

Now it was the men’s turn to grow pale.

“Kath, are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” The dawn of realization was setting in for Joram Anders.

“The thing is going to destroy half of the Earth, leveling every building it hits, and crushing every living thing. They’ll be the lucky ones, because they’ll not even know what hit them. The inhabitants on the other side, however, will not be so lucky. On land, we’ll see a dust storm just like we saw on Mars. It will block out the Sun’s rays for weeks, plummeting temperatures to inhospitable levels and freezing crops worldwide. On sea, it will wretch sea water miles into the air. Gravity will force trillions of tons of moisture back into the oceans, creating global tsunamis that will wash every coastal area on the planet into the depths of the oceans.”

Kath’s voice trailed off into sobs. Joram and Reyd stood rooted to the spot in horror of Kath’s scenario.

“The astronauts,” Joram pointed out. “They lived by going underground.”

“Sure, you can come back out of your hole in a few weeks, but what are you going to eat. How will you keep from freezing in the severely global winter. There will be no survival.” Kath was devastated.

“Scientists for a long time have known there are cycles of mass extinction.” Reyd pointed out. “Could this be some cyclic radiation event coming from the black hole that forms the center of our galaxy? Perhaps so much energy gets sucked into it that the black hole must eventually belch out a burst of violent energy… kind of like a geyser bursts out water to relieve it of the pressure build-up of super-heated water and gasses.”

Trembling violently, Kath pulled a cell phone out of her purse and began to dial.

“Who you calling?” Reyd asked as color continued to flush from his face.


“You have Zimmer’s cell phone number?” Reyd was impressed.

“It’s on caller ID from when he called us that first evening, remember?”

“But didn’t he say he had something more urgent to attend to.”

Kath’s jaw dropped as she threw up her hands in despair and shot an irritating and disgusting glare at her peer. “Urgent?! More urgent?! You id—

“Professor Zimmer. This is Kath Mirabelle.”

Carlton Zimmer was escorted into a conference room by Dr. Vurim Gilroy at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Gilroy had convened an investigative task force for the emergency mission that would be required to rescue the astronauts whose life support system was being quickly depleted.

“Carlton, thanks so much forcoming back so quickly.”

“Well, I’m glad to assist in any way I can, Vurim.”

Dispensing with pleasantries, the NASA program manager got right to business. “Since we’ve already lost one astronaut this week due to the bizarre phenomenon, we’d highly value your input as to what we’re up against. I know that you’ve told us that you really haven’t yet figured out what we’re dealing with, but you are still the most knowledgeable, and your opinions will be highly respected among the entire team I’m sure.

“Carlton, we don’t want to lose Boronov and O’Ryan, but we’ll be in even hotter water if we lose the rescue crew. They’ll be completely vulnerable up there in the unprotected expanses of space.”

Zimmer paused for a moment. “Vurim, you’re not suggesting that we might leave those astronauts up there are you?”

“No—at least not at the moment—but we need to consider all of the risks.”

“If you go to the American public and tell them that you do not intend to at least attempt to save the astronauts, there will be outrage.”

“The rest of the team will be here in 15 minutes Carlton. Let’s lay everything on the table then. You’ll recognize most of the members of the team from our last meeting. However, the director of NASA will also be in attendance. This thing is out of my hands, Carlton. The ultimate decision will come from Washington.

“Can I get you anything to drink?”

“A bottle of water will be fine, thank you.”

Gilroy left Zimmer in the quiet conference room to gather his thoughts while he went to collect a bottle of water for his guest, but within a couple of minutes, others began to convene in the conference room. Zimmer remembered everyone from the last time he was at Johnson, although he did not recall most of their names. The atmosphere was slightly more relaxed this time, considering that the team at least knew that two of the astronauts were still alive.

As Gilroy returned to the room, he not only had a bottle of water with him but also a man Zimmer immediately recognized as the director of NASA. He was attired in a dark suit, blue tie, and black wingtip shoes. He was the very appearance of diplomacy and policy making, and Zimmer was sure to not appreciate his presence at the meeting, simply because these were the types of people so far removed from scientific discovery and understanding, yet they were also very crucial in its funding.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce all of you to Dr. Marrak Henley, the director of NASA.” He then went around the table introducing each team member to the director.

The meeting began at 1:35 AM. There was a general briefing on the situation, and all known data points were provided. After a 40-minute overview, Gilroy led the team in a frank discussion about a rescue mission. Launch windows were mentioned and astronaut availability determined. It was generally agreed by all that rescuing the astronauts was extremely feasible, and that well-studied emergency plans were already in place for just such a rescue. Through the ninety minutes, Zimmer had been quiet, yet attentive to the discussion that he thought may be wrapping up, when Henley turned towards the astrophysicist.

“Dr. Zimmer, we’ve been hearing much from the media, from the scientific community about this yellow beam. We’ve heard enough to believe that it is directly linked to the Camp Mars disaster as well as to the loss of Ayman Hardy. When our rescuers get up into the completely unsheltered expanse of space between Earth and Mars, how can we be certain that another event does not cause the loss of more astronauts and resources?”

“Well that is the question of the day, right?” Zimmer stood from his seat to create a position of strength. He began walking slowly along the length of the table. “I mean, if we can answer that question, it will help us determine conclusively whether the benefit of the mission is worth the potential risks. We do not know what the yellow beam is, and we have not proved that it is related to the destruction of Camp Mars. However, it is highly reasonable to assume that it is. I can’t give you my word that this thing will not again attack our inner Solar System, but here are my thoughts about making the decision to save the astronauts. First, America will expect—perhaps demand—an effort. If it fails, will they blame you? Certainly. If you don’t make the effort, will they blame you? Definitely. There are always risks involved in manned space exploration, but you have devoted astronauts who are determined in this effort in spite of those risks.

“My guess is that you already have enough astronauts willing to make the effort that you could fill three or four teams of rescuers. They will gladly risk their lives to make the attempt. If you don’t give them the chance, they will always live with the decision to allow Camp Mars to become Graveyard Mars. They won’t be able to sleep at night, and I’m hoping that you wouldn’t be able to sleep either if you make the decision to not go.”

“Fair enough,” said Henley without emotion. “I appreciate your candor and your opinion, Professor. I was already mostly off the fence in favor of the mission. Your insight helps convince me that we will go. Dr. Gilroy, I will expect daily reports between now and launch next Thursday as to the status of the preparation of the vehicle and its crew.”

“Absolutely. I will have those daily reports to you by 5:00 PM central time.”

“Well, gentlemen. If that’s all…”

Zimmer was surprised at how easily Henley was convinced to run the mission. Emboldened, he added, “Vurim, if I may add just one more thing before we conclude, I know that our highest priority is the rescue of the astronauts, but I think you do yourself and NASA a disservice without looking ahead.”

“Looking ahead, Professor?” Gilroy’s eyes narrowed in curiosity.

“If we cannot determine what this beam consists of, we may never know what exactly it did to destroy the camp. The future of manned space exploration may be in jeopardy if we cannot comfortably comprehend the forces that can alter our exploratory efforts.”

“What do you propose, professor?”

“Since we are sending a crew millions of miles away to rescue the astronauts, why not spend an extra day or two on a side trip to study this phenomenon.”

“I do not feel comfortable with that idea, Professor,” announced Henley, as the team members once again took their seats in realization of a drawn-out discussion. “You’re asking us to fly one of our ships into the beam that could bear highly destructive forces. This needs to remain focused as a mission of rescue, not discovery.”

“I understand that Dr. Henley. I’m not suggesting that we fly into it, but I believe we have some ruggedized probes that could be easily deployed from a distance in order to study the beam close up. Of course, the craft would keep a safe distance, and I realize that it would come after the rescue. And… if either Boronov or O’Ryan are in physical or medical peril, we would scrap the experiments, and rush them back home.”

“Define safe distance, Professor.” Henley continued to press. “Who would be able to determine with any confidence how close we can get?”

“The ship would have to come no closer than it already is approaching. We’ll already be within 10000 miles of the beam according to our calculations. This is already a distance which is certainly closer than desired, but the probes can be launched from the ship and traverse the remainder of the distance themselves.”

“Really, Professor,” dismissed the NASA director. “We simply cannot worry about experiments when the lives of astronauts are at stake.”

“I understand your position, Dr. Henley, but I think it would be prudent to consider the future. If we can’t identify the beam—if we can’t understand the physical phenomenon that leveled Camp Mars, then we can no longer feel comfortable with space exploration in general. We’ll always be too frightened of the unknown. For the future of NASA and scientific space exploration in general, we simply must figure out what this thing is, and to do that, we’re going to have to visit it. It can’t hurt to add the probes to the payload and spend an extra day in the orbit of Mars to get them dispensed.”

Dr. Henley weighed Zimmer’s arguments. If Zimmer was right, then public opinion could sour on the mission of NASA, and that would put his own job in jeopardy.

Henley turned towards Gilroy. “Vurim, we have less than a week to organize the rescue effort. Would we have time to consider these experiments as well?”

“I would need more people, Joe. My team will be tasked 24/7 with the task of getting the rescue effort put together before then. But, if there was another team available who could also work full throttle on the experimental payload, we might be able to pull it off. Of course, we’d need your help, Carlton.”

“You would have my full attention over the next week on any issues that come up. I need to return to my research team in California to collect the data and observations that they have made over the weekend, and with that data, we will comprise a set of experiments which should help us figure out what we’re dealing with here.”

After a brief pause, Gilroy dismissed the meeting, and on the way out of the room, Zimmer felt a vibration in his coat pocket. He pulled out his cell phone, looked at the number, but did not instantly recognize it. “It’s 5:30 AM in California… who would be calling me at this hour.”

“Hello, this is Carlton Zimmer.”

Zimmer answered to hear a quavering, distraught voice on the other end. “Professor Zimmer. This is Kath Mirabelle.”

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